• Dr. Evil Laboratories

  • by kentsu

This blog recounts the history of Dr. Evil Laboratories, the creator, manufacturer, and retail sales of peripherals and software for the Commodore 64, including the Imagery! adventure game system, the SID Symphony Stereo cartridge, and the Swiftlink-232 cartridge.


Imagery! A Computerized Role-Playing Adventure System, Part 1

Read all about the best adventure game system that too few people have ever heard about or played--a true diamond in the rough.

Read all about the best adventure game system that too few people have ever heard about or played--a true diamond in the rough.

The genesis of Imagery! was several years before Dr. Evil Labs existed and before I met Roy. The first microcomputer that I sank my teeth into was a Sinclair ZX-81 that my brother Pat gave me, sometime in 1981 or 1982, during my freshman year of high school. (The project I undertook to add a real keyboard and a secure mounting for the 16k RAM memory expansion, all in an aluminum case, is a story for another day.) I discovered that I loved computers and programming in BASIC.

In time for the start of my junior year (fall of 1983), my high school (North Decatur, near Greensburg, Indiana) got its first microcomputers, a handful of Apple IIe machines. About that same time the Commodore 64 hit the market. My memory is surprisingly poor on the sequence of events, but I am pretty sure my family couldn't afford to buy me one at the initial $595 price, so I recall that I had at least a year with the Apple IIe before I got a Commodore at home, once the price had dropped to $200. During that time, I created a stats tracking program for the basketball team in AppleSoft BASIC. That project gave me a real goal to achieve, which I also find helpful when learning a new language. And, I had plenty of incentive since I was the team statistician!

The NDHS computer lab was overseen by Ed Parker, one of the math department's teachers. He did a nice job of taking care of the machines while letting those of us with lots of enthusiasm have extra access after class. And, significantly, he had a personal subscription to Creative Computing magazine and he brought in back issues to school. I thought it was a great magazine and was truly sorry to see it go out of business. The diversity of microcomputers at that time was near its zenith so there were always exciting new developments to read about, and I was able to get an idea of the pros and cons of the various 8-bit offerings. And I really enjoyed the articles that solved an interesting problem in a way that could be implemented on a variety of platforms.

The January, 1983 issue of Creative Computing had a seminal review of the nearly-new Commodore 64, which I’m sure caught my attention. Another dose of serendipity enters the picture at this point, because lurking on page 94 was the article that started it all (as far as Imagery! is concerned): “Eamon: An Adventure Game for the Apple II With (Almost) Everything” written by Robert Plamondon. Robert did a great job of describing Eamon and it set my imagination on fire. I loved that anyone could write their own adventures using the dungeon designer, that customizations could be made relatively easy by modifying the BASIC engine, and that the adventures were distributed for nearly free. The article listed a few sources for obtaining Eamon adventures and, reading between the lines, I thought John Nelson in Iowa was the best bet. I made a pretty good bet, because John, along with Bob Davis, soon after created the National Eamon User’s Club and began publishing the Eamon Adventurer’s Log in March, 1984, during my junior year. I pored over each issue of the EAL as soon as it arrived, greatly enjoying the adventure reviews and dungeon design tips. The community that formed around Eamon was heady stuff for a junior attending a high school somewhere in rural Indiana! (All of the EALs are published here, under the first category (NEUC).

Sometime during my senior year I received my beloved Commodore 64, 1541 disk drive, and 1701 monitor. I am pretty sure my Dad footed the bill for a sizable chunk of the system, and I also had some money saved from a paper route, working after school in a drugstore, and working part-time for an auctioneer. I got busy fairly quickly with trying to do a port of Eamon to the C-64, as documented in copies of two letters I sent to the Bob Davis in January, 1985 and John Nelson in February, 1985. The March, 1985 issue of the EAL also mentioned that I had shared my unfinished efforts with John. Progress slowed, then stopped, as I reached the limit of my knowledge of the inner workings of Eamon and the intricacies of two different BASIC language implementations, as documented in a third letter that I sent to Bob in June, 1985. Bob intended to pick up where I left off but that effort did not materialize.

As the summer drew to a close and it neared time for me to start at Purdue, I turned my attention to the exciting world online, after I proudly plunked down my dough for a CBM 1660 300 bps modem. I signed up for the QuantumLink network shortly thereafter, perhaps due to some sort of promotion that came with the modem.

As mentioned in the first blog post, Ray and I met before our freshman year started. We met again at the beginning of classes and shortly thereafter I met Roy. I brought up the topic of Eamon and my stalled work on the C-64 port about the time we departed for the 1985 Christmas holiday. Roy loved adventure games and he agreed to take a look at the project. And look he did—he jumped in with both feet. Code began to materialize quickly and I got very excited about the potential of the result.

Neither of us can remember exactly why, but the decision was made fairly early on to abandon the line-by-line port and instead create something that was a close cousin. Disk access and file manipulation on the C-64 is pretty different from the Apple II method, so that might have been the main reason. (Ultimately, we licensed Super DOS 2, a fast load utility, from Prism Software, which is a key reason for the different name, since we couldn’t encumber the Eamon folks with the agreement we signed.)

Work progressed throughout the rest of the school year and over the summer. Meanwhile, I took the first steps to form the company. The earliest record I have is of renting P.O. Box 190 in my hometown of St. Paul, Indiana, on June 18, 1986. Also, as mentioned in the first blog post, the company did not officially open for business until January, 1987. If I recall correctly, I started the ball rolling while I was at home on summer vacation and able to consult with local attorney and huge friend to Dr. Evil Labs, Jeff Linder.

During that summer, I attempted to nail down the details of the intro “splash screen” for the introductory sequence in Imagery! Although Imagery! is a text adventure system, we wanted to added a little pizzazz at the beginning. Dr. Evil’s “artist in residence” Vince Martin created an evocative hi-res screen that demonstrated the broad range of scenarios that could be captured by the Imagery! system (medieval, modern, futuristic, etc.). Roy recalls that Vince created the image in black and white and that Roy spent a long while colorizing and hand anti-aliasing the edges pixel by pixel.

To accompany that image, I transcribed a stately piece of classical music using my favorite SID music editor, Sidplayer, from All About the Commodore 64, Vol. II. Music identification quiz: Can you name the tune? The answer is in Part 2.

I contacted COMPUTE! Publications, the publisher of Sidplayer, and described in a fair amount of detail what Imagery! was and the fact that it was shareware. We were more than a little taken aback by Senior Editor Richard Mansfield’s “magnanimous” response. In fact, I was so irritated by the high price he quoted (message received: “get lost”) that I tracked down Craig Chamberlain, author of Sidplayer, to complain, and so began a friendship that we still have today. And it also led to the eventual creation of the SID Symphony Stereo Cartridge. More about that giant episode of serendipity another time!

Roy finished the Imagery! main adventure program shortly after the 1986 school year began. Ray jumped into the act as well by writing a few assembly-language routines to help make the BASIC program performant and robust, plus code to play the intro sequence music, after it was converted to no longer be in Sidplayer format. I took my first plunge into tech writing (my chosen course of study at Purdue) by creating the player’s manual, using the Fontmaster II word processor for the C-64. The manual was finished on October 13 and I applied to the U.S. Copyright Office for copyright protection on October 20, and it was approved a quick week later, on October 27.

Since we applied for a copyright, you could understandably assume that we were going to sell Imagery! at a typical retail price and (gasp!) perhaps even copy-protect it. That was not the case. We very much liked the freeware spirit of Eamon. However, some unfortunate fragmentation occurred in the Eamon community, in terms of multiple, often incompatible, versions of the main adventure program and the dungeon designer, and we were eager to avoid that situation with Imagery!

We instead chose the shareware route as a middle ground between freeware and commercial software, since shareware reserves certain rights for the authors. We copyrighted Imagery! with the hope of controlling any potential fragmentation, and documented the plan in a letter distributed to all interested parties. As you can see from the letter, we formed a club called Imagination to help create and maintain a community for Imagery! I’ll talk more about that in the next blog post. We also distributed a one-page policy explaining our goals with using the shareware approach.

My memory is a bit fuzzy about why we didn’t start distributing Imagery! right away, but I bet it had something to do with final exams and the holidays. It may also be that Roy needed time to finish the first adventure, Beneath Mount Imagery. I don’t recall at this late date whether he created all of the data files for that first adventure by hand or whether he was feverishly getting the adventure designer up and running enough to assist with that task.

Over the Christmas holiday in December, 1986, final preparations were made and Dr. Evil Labs officially opened for business on January 1. As Ray mentioned in the Kermit post, the first two “paying customers” for Dr. Evil Labs were Imagery! sales: my friend Patrick Canganelli on January 2 and Chris Haldiman of the Commodore User Group of Springfield, Missouri (CUGOS) on January 5. Patrick was a C-64 enthusiast and worked in the IT department for the Purdue library system. I no longer remember how Chris found out about Imagery! from far-away Missouri, unless perhaps he was a Purdue student at the time. It seems likely that I had funds from them in my pocket when I went home for break from Purdue, because these entries in the Dr. Evil Labs ledger are in my handwriting. The next entries, beginning on January 23, are all in my mom’s handwriting and are after school was back in session.

Looking at the Dr. Evil Labs ledger and seeing my mom’s handwriting on page after page brought back a flood of fond memories. Jean Sullivan willingly aided and abetted Dr. Evil by visiting the post office box regularly, dutifully recording each sale, making bank deposits, and forwarding orders and other correspondence to me at Purdue. We didn’t pay her a dime, of course, but she never complained. My mom was well into her second career as an accounting clerk after an abrupt exit from teaching due to school system consolidations, and Dr. Evil could not have been in better hands. Jean kept her devotion to the Labs right up until I graduated from Purdue and moved to Washington; the final entry in the ledger from her being on May 16, 1989.

After Imagery! “shipped” you could have more or less heard a pin drop, as far sales were concerned. The third paying customer (Marshall Kragen) didn’t arrive until May 8 and then four more came in the week after. Even though Imagery!’s availability was promoted by John Nelson in the January, 1987 Eamon Adventurer’s Log, and I’m pretty sure I advertised it a few other places too, like the QuantumLink online service for Commodore owners, people did not exactly rush to get copies. We even created a discount program for bulk purchases, aimed at user groups.

I knew practically nothing about market research in those days and I don’t recall making contact with any potential customers to investigate the situation. What I do remember is that the three of us felt that it was OK for things to fly mostly under the radar until the adventure designer was complete, on which Roy was hard at work.

The second part of this post will cover the adventure designer, Imagination, The Image, and other topics. Stay tuned! In the meantime, please download the main adventure program, the first adventure, the player’s manual, and have fun!

Note: Thanks to Craig Barnhart for working out the settings for VICE for Imagery! These tweaks are needed to support Super DOS 2:

  • Options, Refresh rate: 1/1
  • Options, True Drive Emulation
  • Settings, Drive Settings, Drive 8, Idle method: None

Kent Sullivan

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core 10/25/2012

Fun story. Thanks for posting! I tried to run imagery before reading the important VICE settings... oops.

But now I am... "standing outside of the city's gates" and "see two large burly guards" :)

kentsu 10/25/2012

Thanks for giving it a try! I hope you have fun.