Series Info...#11: A Brief History of Game, Part Four: Skotos Tech

by Shannon Appelcline

November 30, 2000 - More than one writing instructor has said, "Write about what interests you first." It's pretty good advice. There's been many a time that I've let a short story I was working on gather dust and debris because the next scene just didn't interest me... even if the one afterward sounded terrific.

So today I'm going to pretend that I learned something in those creative writing classes I've taken and I'm going to skip ahead to what interests me. Even if it does feel like I'm seeing who the murderer is before I even read the mystery.

I want to offer a little perspective, to describe where Skotos is coming from and to take a look at the larger picture that we're part of. I've laid out a few articles to do this: one on the original interactive fiction games; one on the MUD-style online game; and one on the related things, like chats, MMORPGs, and other multiplayer games. That's part one through three, and I'll get back to them sometime (and I'll even try and offer them up in order).

Today, though, I'd like to share with you a little bit about the history of Skotos. Along the way I'm going to try and offer a few lessons for StoryBuilders, to fulfill the mandate of this column.

A Macintosh in Every Pot

I started writing this column last night, on my Twentieth Anniversary Mac. It's the main computer that I use at home and, sad to say, Castle Marrach doesn't work well on it. Anyone with a Macintosh can relate: Mac Java just isn't up to snuff and our client happens to be one that works poorly with it. There's some irony here, because of where Skotos got started.

The time was January 6, 1999. The place was MacWorld Expo.

There wasn't a Skotos yet. Christopher Allen, the President, CEO, and Visionary of Skotos, was still working as CTO of Certicom, the security company that had merged with Consensus Development, his former startup. But, he was already talking to Certicom management about moving on, and he was thinking that it might be really cool to see if a prose game company was viable.

That evening, after an exhausting day of MacWorlding, we met in a small hotel room, a dozen or more floors above the streets of San Francisco. There were about a half-dozen of us, including Chris, Zell, myself, and a few others interested in the medium. I had a throbbing headache that evening, no doubt the result of too much stimulation at the conference. I did my best to offer intelligent and articulate opinions, nonetheless, and tried to make sure that my head didn't explode in a gooey mess all over the room.

The window in the room looked west, across the building tops of San Francisco, out to the Pacific, far into the distance. We talked till late into the night about the possibilities of the textual medium, about a company that we could all truly believe in. It was one o'clock or so by the time Chris dropped me off at my apartment building. I fell asleep that night remembering the talk of a prose game company and remembering the view to the west – the direction of the setting sun, the direction of the boundless ocean. The direction of the unknown.

Returning to work the next day, a Thursday, it seemed a bit like a dream. I thought back to "ProjectX" the next-generation MUD that friends and I had begun to design back in 1991 and smiled. Cryptography projects awaited me. Smart Cards and private keys. No stories. No communities. No games.

The Secret History of Skotos

The amazing thing is that Chris started making stuff happen. I probably wouldn't have been amazed if I'd seen him found Consensus Development, if I'd seen him build it into a successful security company. But, I was a latecomer to Consensus. When he was founding Consensus, I was probably sitting in an underground computer lab, beneath the Berkeley campus... playing MUDs.

Within the week, Christopher was working on licensing DGD, one of the top Internet servers. We licensed it on February 5. Within the week, Christopher was talking to Zell about putting a few months of work into DGD, just to see if there might be something there. He started work on February 15.

The hardest thing was probably naming the company. In olden days you did a trademark search and made sure no one with a similar name was in the same competitive space as you... or you just closed your eyes and hoped it wouldn't matter. In the world of the late twentieth century, where something like 70% of domains end in .com, you need to lock down your virtual real estate, especially if you're going to be an online company. We began looking. Nabbed in June 1998. Taken in July 1996. Grabbed in May 1995. Domain hoarders have run through entire dictionaries, collecting every single word that Mr. Webster knew of. We moved away from English into Latin. Unavailable since October 1996. No better.

Tenebrae, as it happens, is a Latin word for shadow, and Chris liked that imagery. When he used up Latin, he began to work through a Greek dictionary, looking for similar words that might be available. Finally, he found one. It was the Greek word for the shadows that are seen just before the dawn. Skotos. On January 16, 1999, Chris sent around a piece of email discussing this name. It was titled: "Temporary Name – Skotos Tech?"

First lesson for StoryBuilders this week:

  • Nothing temporary ever is. Build for posterity from day one.
We nabbed,, and January 21, 1999.

A Slow Beginning

Skotos Tech really wasn't that big of a deal at first. Zell started looking at DGD on February 15, 1999 and started building a new game library – a fresh library that took full advantage of 1999+ technology. Chris and I were still working at Certicom, though we'd each made sounds about moving on.

In the middle of March, Chris did. He started working hard on a Venture Capital company that he was in the process of creating: Alacrity Ventures. Skotos was to be just one of Alacrity's investments. I made my own escape on April 1, 1999. I've always believed in starting new jobs on appropriate days.

It didn't take too long for us to announce Skotos to the world. First thing in April, our web designer began work on the first-generation Skotos web site. When it went live on April 15, 1999 it featured the logo of a rising sun along with the phrase, "It's always the darkest before the dawn." We promised that our games would be "Coming September 2000". Not a bad prediction. On April 30, 1999, we had our first party for Alacrity Ventures & Skotos Tech. Our invites talked about our "internet network games" that would center around "storytelling and community". At that point, we still hadn't decided how textual our games would be, but we had decided on the core ideas that define Skotos to this day. Another good prediction. The timing of our first two events proved that Chris believes in appropriate days for doing things too. Our web site had gone live on Tax Day; our party was on Beltaine.

By then, Skotos was starting to suck up more of our attention – a gradually increasing time drain that's been ramping up for almost two years now. We hired more people to help out. On May 17, 1999, Michael Blum joined us to create a fantasy game called Nyranim. ("How do you spell that?" I asked, while preparing this article. "With difficulty," one of my co-workers replied. "That's why we changed it.") Meldun was the second name, but that sounded a bit too much like something you'd buy in a pharmacy. Alvatia was the name we settled on. Lisa Eichler joined us on June 25, 1999 to create Golden Gate: 1849. No name changes required.

Second lesson for StoryBuilders this week:

  • Names matter. Really.
We really made things official on July 21, 1999, when we incorporated Skotos Tech. We'd already incorporated Alacrity Ventures long before, on April 12, 1999. Our priorities were gradually shifting.

We were ambitious in those days. Zell was going to write the whole server. Lisa was going to write Golden Gate: 1849. Mike was going to write Nyranimmeldunalvatia. We were going to have a complete developer interface for other people to use. It was all going to be ready to go in September 2000. We were crazy.

Third lesson for StoryBuilders this week:

  • Think small. Build from a constrained base rather than trying to create the whole world at once.
We were still a little unsure about the viability of the company and Chris had set a date of October 1999 to decide whether to go forward with Skotos or not. We needed to determine if people would pay for text games or not. (Funny, I can't imagine that publishers ask if people will pay for text books, but the game market has evolved in weird ways.) We needed some type of sign.

We got it. We found a company called Simutronics that was using 1980s technology to produce competitive games where you ran around, killed things, and gained levels. It was a commercial MUD. Lots of fun, but no roleplaying or storytelling required. And, we discovered that they were listed as one of Inc Magazine's top 500 fastest growing companies in 1999. They even got a feature. Wow. A prose game company featured in Inc. Magazine.

Based on this, and the progress that Zell, Lisa, and Mike were making, Chris gave the go ahead for Skotos to move past that October 1999 deadline. We were on our way.

In the meantime, Lisa and Mike had been working on a little project on the side – when Mike wasn't laying out fifteen-part algorithms to generate villages in Meldun, and when Lisa wasn't researching the day-to-day details of life in 1849 San Francisco. We wanted to include a demo with our developer kit when we made it available to the public, a little something to show what you could do.

It was called Castle Hightower, the Castle of Romance.

I'll pick up there next week, and tell you how Castle Marrach came to be.

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