When the Treasure is Real
  • When the Treasure is Real


    Ernest Cline's Ready Player One book and movie created a virtual world where winning a game could result in personal riches. There's precedent for a video game awarding real-life riches going all the way back to the 1980s with the Atari 2600, and it begins with a game called Swordquest.


    The Beginning of the Adventure

    Fans of Ready Player One know that the Atari 2600 video game, Adventure, is a major part of the book and movie, and for good reason. In addition to featuring the first "easter egg," Adventure was the graphical successor of the text-based interactive fiction game, Colossal Cave Adventure.

    Colossal Cave Adventure combined programmer Will Crowther's love of caving with his love of Dungeons & Dragons, numbering among his gaming group Dave Lebling, future founder of Infocom. Crowther built the game to connect with his daughters, but it went on to connect with many more people -- including Don Woods, who added more high-fantasy elements to the game. Colossal Cave Adventure introduced a wide variety of computer role-playing game staples that mimic sandbox style tabletop play, including the creation of an explorable virtual world populated with monsters to fight. Its descendants include Rogue, Zork (by Lebling's Infocom), MUDs and MMORPGs...and Adventure.

    Developer Warren Robinnett's Adventure featured a dot roaming an open-ended environment populated with dragons and bats. It is considered the first action-adventure and console fantasy game, and sold over 1 million cartridges. It also popularized the "easter egg" concept of hiding content within a game for explorers to find -- content unrelated to the main gameplay. Adventure followed in the footsteps of Colossal Cave Adventure, which had a secret command ("xyzzy") that enabled the player to move between two points in the game world. Adventure even featured the ability to continue playing after being eaten by a dragon (dropping all objects), the first example of a "continue game" function in video games.

    It was this legacy of hidden clues that Swordquest sought to build upon.

    Four Worlds, One Treasure Hunt

    Inspired by both the hidden message in Adventure and its fantasy-exploration, developer Atari envisioned an ambitious series of video games, each building on the last, to create an integrated puzzle with total prizes valued at $150,000:

    In 1982, Atari was owned by Warner Communications, which happened to own a pair of other companies, DC Comics, and the Franklin Mint. As development on the Adventure sequel continued that year, the project began to expand, becoming a full-fledged crossover incorporating comic books from DC and bejeweled prizes from the Franklin Mint. With the help of game designer Tod Frye, who says he was, “pretty much the sole initiator and creative spirit behind the whole Swordquest thing,” the Swordquest mythos was born, incorporating elements of fantasy gaming, astrology, and the kabbalah, into a multimedia contest that was equal parts Willy Wonka and The Last Starfighter.

    The Swordquest series was based on the four elements (earth, fire, water, air), with players participating in logic puzzle and arcade-style action in each game. Finding the correct items provided a clue, which in turn reference a panel in an accompanying comic book. Players who found all five clues could send the complete sentence to Atari for a chance to compete in the finals and win a prize. The finalists then competed against each other by playing modified versions of the games. Whoever found the most clues within 90 minutes would be crowned the winner.

    Each of the four prizes were worth $25,000 in 1980 U.S. dollars. Earthworld awarded the Talisman of Penultimate Truth, made of 18K solid gold, with 12 diamonds and 12 zodiac birthstones embedded in it along with a sword made of white gold. Fireworld awarded the Chalice of Light, crafted from gold and platinum and adorned with gemstones. Waterworld awarded a gem-encrusted Crown of Life. And Airworld would award the Philosopher's Stone, a large piece of white jade inside a gem-encrusted, 18 karat gold box. The finalists of all four games would compete head to head for a sword valued at $50,00.

    They never got the chance.

    Losing the Treasure

    Just eight people found all the clues in the first Earthworld game. Of those, Steven Bell won the Talisman of Penultimate Truth. Bell melted the Talisman down to pay taxes, kept the gems, and lost the sword to theft. Michael Rideout won Fireworld's Chalice of Light, which he still has today. There are rumors that the Crown of Life was awarded, but nobody has come forward to confirm they received it. Airworld's Philosopher's Stone, and the final prize, the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery, were never awarded:

    The contest’s cancellation was a result of Atari being purchased by controversial gaming CEO Jack Tramiel, and his new company Tramel Technology. The video game industry had been in a swift decline since 1983, and Atari had finally bottomed out by mid-1984, allowing Tramiel to purchase Atari Inc. and its intellectual property for a song. During this time, Atari’s various divisions were sold and reassigned. Somewhere in that tornado of business, the remaining treasures of Swordquest were seemingly lost.

    So what happened to the prizes?

    “Once Atari was sold, those prizes languished at Franklin Mint,” he says. “At some point Franklin Mint disposed of them. They were not retained, because why would they retain the prizes? It’s a lot easier just to smelt it back down and turn them into gold coins or other things they could sell.”

    Dynamite even released a comic in 2017 about the cancelled contest:

    Peter Case was a boy on a quest... the quest to win the prizes from Atari's Swordquest challenge! He was counting down the days to the release of the final game, AirWorld, only to be shattered when the news surfaced that it would never be released. Now Peter is an adult... and things aren't going well. The bad news is he has to move back in with his mother. The good news is she still has all of his old Atari stuff. With nothing else to look forward to, his obsession with Swordquest is reignited, in a more daring -- and fantastic -- way!

    In the end, Cline's utopian vision of the quest-to-end-all quests has proven infeasible -- not due to a lack of player mettle, but because the company who created the contest didn't last long enough to follow through on its commitment.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      The Angry Video Game Nerd also had a nice episode on the subject:

    1. Valmarius's Avatar
      Valmarius -
      Wait til you guys hear about Masquerade!
      I had this book as a child and was completely enthralled by the idea of real-life treasure hunting. Of course, it had already been found by the time I was reading it.
    1. Eis's Avatar
      Eis -
      not quite the same but Forest Fenn has hidden a two million dollar treasure and given clues for it http://www.ladbible.com/community/in...th-2m-20180420
    1. Advilaar's Avatar
      Advilaar -
      Problem was, the Earth/Fire/Water quest series had horrible game play even to Atari 2600 standards.

      It involved:

      - going from room to room with no game play in them.
      - completing horrible mini games with horrible graphics (even for the 2600) dodging strange lines and sub 8 bit pixel puke with dodgy collision detection.
      - then dropping off items that have no in game function in certain orders to reveal a code in a cheesy DC comic book.

      No wonder Atari went belly up. Even with expensive prizes.

      Still that sword would be nice....
    1. Tallifer's Avatar
      Tallifer -
      If I did not run my campaign on-line over several continents ...

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