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A Fool and his Money:

Cliff Johnson’s Long Journey to Develop a Sequel to a 25-Year-Old Game

by Richard Moss

Cliff Johnson spent ten years developing a sequel to what is now a 25-year-old game, The Fool’s Errand. “I released it nine years late and one day early,” he tells me over the phone a week after finally pushing The Fool and his Money out to the world.

It’s an appropriate title, given the journey. Johnson originally thought the game would take him just one year to make — that he’d have it out before Christmas 2003. “The first game, The Fool’s Errand — which included learning to program — took two years,” he explains. “3 in Three took about three years, so I thought, ‘I know what I’m doing — it’ll only take me one year.’ HA HA HA HA — yeah!”

He took pre-orders on his website, paid through PayPal, and then proceeded to burn through both these and his savings as delays beget more delays and the project ballooned out of control. It became a running gag; he had a “Compendium of True Believers” for people who stood by their pre-order and waited patiently for an eventual release. One of them offered the perfect summation: “Take your time, but hurry up.”

“I am so delighted that I can say the game is finished,” Johnson chuckles. The Fool and his Money was a labor of love — a sequel to the award-winning cult-favorite 1987 Macintosh “meta-puzzle” The Fool’s Errand, which was later ported to Amiga, DOS, and Atari ST. “I’m glad [that] at the beginning I did not know the game would take me ten years,” Johnson confesses. “In some ways thinking it would be out every six months was my psychological way of dealing with oh my god oh my god oh my god.”

“The best delusion is self-delusion,” he concludes. Foolish self-delusion is a recurring theme for Johnson, who made his first game without a clue as to its audience or appeal.

A Fool’s Errand

Cliff Johnson originally authored The Fool’s Errand as a book in 1981. Inspired by Masquerade, a treasure hunt book by Kit Williams, and the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, he wrote a 21-page story and drew up an 81-piece map that was distributed randomly across 14 pages. Readers had to assemble the map and find the 13 treasures from clues in the story.

He hoped it would be solvable in a single afternoon, but only three of the dozens who were gifted this (unpublished) book managed to decipher it (spelling out “Merry Christmas” in the process). The idea was shelved.

The Sun's Map illustrated by David Wood, which was included with The Fool's Errand book.

In 1983, Johnson collaborated with his friend Allen Pinero — a programmer! — on an Apple II text adventure called Labyrinth of Crete that was published by the legendary Scott Adams. “Though being a visual kind of guy, working on a text adventure was not as satisfying as I’d hoped,” he admitted.

Johnson bought a “fat” Mac — the second-generation Macintosh model — in late 1984. “Some idiot bought me a copy of Microsoft BASIC,” he recalls. Taken by the sight of numbers scrolling down the screen after he input a single line of code, Johnson soon decided to make a game of his own. He dusted off The Fool’s Errand and set about adapting the puzzle book into a game.

“The only games I’d played at that point were for the Atari 2600, which is really not the same thing at all,” he says. “I did a lot of familiar paper and pencil puzzles, but also I got really fascinated with programming — so I made a couple of [interactive] puzzles. I started realizing that you could make a puzzle on a computer that you really couldn’t play with paper and pencil.”

He experimented with puzzle designs that would be tedious with paper and pencil, adapting familiar puzzle types and creating new ones. “It was a grand experiment. I didn’t really know — it was like a crazy hobby [where] I just did whatever I felt looked like fun. And it turns out it all worked out somehow.”

The Fool’s Errand took two years and $50,000 in credit card debt (that’s around $100,000 in 2012 terms) to complete. The protracted development included converting a multitude of individual Microsoft BASIC files into a single ZBasic application that could be sold — a task made even more painful for his limited coding skills. He spent the rest of the time creating puzzles and finding ways to squeeze as much as possible into a 400K floppy disk.

Johnson used clever tricks to establish a unique visual style. He grabbed silhouettes for characters, drawing on an inspiration from his days at USC Cinema where he viewed the 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and then made backgrounds by digitizing images of crumpled cloth. To keep space down, he made transitions between puzzles and story out of incremental patterns animations — these could be done on the fly, without wasting any disk space.

People fell in love with the style, and obsessed over the puzzles. The following year, attendees at Macworld Expo walked up to Johnson and shouted, “I hate you!” This love-hate relationship with his fans continues to this day, where it’s a badge of honor for him to hear those words. It means that somebody has lost hours to the puzzles, failing exams or depriving themselves of sleep, and then finally figured out the trick behind their design. They’ve won, and now that they see through the tricks, they hate him for so effectively deceiving them.

The Fool’s Errand was the first of its kind — a “meta-puzzle” game. (Scott Kim coined this term from his analysis of the game.) “People who wrote reviews told me what I’d invented,” he says. “I didn’t realize exactly why The Fool’s Errand worked until I read about it.”

It combined story with puzzles in such a way that each piece contributed to a larger problem. You used hints from the story to help complete puzzles, which themselves formed the pieces to the meta-puzzle — which then concluded the story. Every part relied on every other part to make sense. There was no divide between the story and gameplay — they fed off each other.

After sluggish initial sales, The Fool’s Errand met a strong and devoted audience thanks to critical acclaim in MacUser, Macworld, and GAMES Magazine. When Electronic Arts took over distribution, the game reached best-seller status. However, the fact that the hint book sold better than the actual game smacked of software piracy. Nevertheless, Johnson’s debut effort was a hit.

The In-Between Years

Johnson chose not to dive right in to a sequel. He agreed to develop The Puzzle Gallery, a series of themed puzzles, for Miles Computing. Only the first of these, At The Carnival, made it out before Miles Computing went bankrupt. This 1988 release was a departure from The Fool’s Errand in that it had no overarching story — just 180 puzzles connected to a frighteningly dysfunctional amusement park called Hazard Park.

The game was loosely based on Johnson’s experience working as a monster designer for several parks during the 1970s. “Monsters were fun,” he recalls. “Fun to make and a fine way to make some money. Not really a living, however, especially with the decline of the small amusement park.” (His money from building monsters paid for his tuition at USC Film School.)

This background in film soon collided with Johnson’s new career as a game designer. After releasing 3 in Three (1990), a fantastic meta-puzzle about a number 3 lost in a computer and trying to get home, he delved deeper into the world of animation.

Johnson made Disney’s Cartoon Arcade in 1992, an interactive gameshow wherein you solve puzzles to earn Disney clips. Because of that product, Philips hired him in 1993 as a Senior Producer on the CD-I console. Over four years he produced three games for Philips, leading a team called *FunHouse* to develop Hanna Barbera’s Cartoon Carnival and meta-puzzles Merlin’s Apprentice and Labyrinth of Crete.

In the mid-90s, the CD-I platform collapsed. Johnson admitted that it hit him hard: “Our products were immediately extinct.”

Over several years from 1996 onward, Johnson flitted around the entertainment industry working as a puzzle designer and producer. He thought up treasure hunts and contests for the likes of Disney, Warner Bros., Mattel, and Interplay. In 2002 he collaborated with magician David Blaine on the $100,000 Challenge, a 41-clue visual puzzle that formed a 21-word riddle that pointed to the location of a golden orb. Sixteen months later a retired school teacher solved the challenge and claimed the prize.

Reflecting on his years of working with other companies, he tells me “they’ve all been fun projects, yet you’re working with precious properties of their company, and they have opinions about mostly everything, ‘Is it age appropriate? Oh, that’s too hard. Oh, that’s too easy.’ And my favorite, ‘You cannot design new space vehicles for The Jetsons without our express permission’” Johnson wanted to make something for and from himself again, and thanks to a vocal fan-base he knew just what it would be.

“When I put up my website at the turn of the century,” he says, “what surprised me was the outpouring of letters I got from people who were still playing The Fool’s Errand and 3 in Three on emulators. They kept asking me, ‘No one else makes games quite the way you do. When are you going to make another one?’” Eventually enough people had asked this question that he thought it might be a viable option.

Johnson needed a program that allowed him to make an identical product for Mac and Windows, with limited programming knowledge, and a means by which he could sell it himself. Macromedia Flash and Director (now both owned by Adobe) filled the first need to create standalone applications, and the growing legitimacy of the Internet combined with the emergence of PayPal catered to the second. Fifteen years after The Fool’s Errand, he could finally make a sequel — a new, self-authored meta-puzzle about the Fool.

A Story Told by a Treasure Hunt

Cliff Johnson doesn’t make video games — not according to any popular definitions. He doesn’t play them, either, and hasn’t since the Atari 2600 days. “I enjoyed the hell out of the Atari 2600 games,” he recalls, “but I kind of burned out on them. Once I realized I’d spent three days solid trying to conquer Space Invaders, that was that. You could say I’d rather create a game than play a game.”

In a similar fashion, Johnson isn’t interested in making more conventional video games. People write to him and ask, “Why does no one make games like you?” He explains that he is a programmer, not out of love, but out of necessity. That is, his games are not technology-driven. “My particular obsession lies in creating a new mythology and then designing a meta-puzzle to reveal that mythology in the form of storytelling and art direction. I'm just eccentric, I guess.” Johnson goes on to say “I never would have invented Pac-Man, for instance. I like Pac-Man, sure, but for me, it’s just one standalone puzzle. If I’m going to spend my time pounding away at the keyboard, I need lots and lots of variety to inspire me.”

For years the label “puzzle game” stuck through convenience and a lack of a better term. “I used to call them puzzle adventures,” Johnson says, “but adventure games are a specific category. It's not the same thing at all. And then only a few months ago I realized — a story told by a treasure hunt. Well, that’s simple.” After 25 years, Cliff Johnson finally has a name for what he makes.

It’s a name rooted in his past. In high school, Johnson’s best buddy subscribed to GAMES Magazine — a paper and pencil games magazine. Every month he would fill it from cover to cover, then give it to Johnson. Johnson wasn’t a puzzle solver like his friend. “I never played the puzzles; I enjoyed looking at the answers,” he says. “I thought they were interesting. [Specifically] the presentation of them — I think it kind of stuck in my head.”

In 1973, he saw the film The Last of Sheila. It’s about a murder-mystery scavenger-hunt party game that turns into a real murder plot, written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim — who would put on such parties for fun. “I said, ‘What a delight!’ It was audiovisual, [and] had clues,” Johnson says. “So in the subsequent years I decided to put on my own treasure hunt/mystery games.”

“My method of doing it was to say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna use still photographs, movies, tape recordings, pieces of “evidence,” and I’m gonna use paper and pencil puzzles to deliver hard facts.’ I wanted a party where people get the introduction to the story, they get to play the game, and the clues gave them solid facts. So if they simply played the game they would solve the mystery, and I wanted it done in two hours so people could have fun at the party afterwards talking about it.”

Johnson staged twelve such treasure hunt/mystery games in the late 70s and early 80s, first for his friends, then on repeat for their friends. This became the backbone for The Fool’s Errand. “I was telling a story and using paper and pencil puzzles to put forward the clues,” he says. “I never really had any ‘deductions’ — a la Sherlock Holmes. I gave the clues in such a way that if you solved the puzzles you got an absolute fact. So that made people feel good about it, because nobody — myself included — is a Sherlock Holmes, and I just wanted them to have fun.”

The unpublished book, and then the game based on it, emerged from this practice. The Fool and his Money uses the same tricks, only adapted to interactive digital form — just like The Fool’s Errand and 3 in Three before it.

The Fool Had Hoped to Do Less Work

The Fool and his Money was almost a very different game. “Initially I thought, ‘Okay, the Fool has defeated the High Priestess. But he’s still penniless’ — he’s still a wandering Vagabond,” Johnson explains. “The game’s title was based on the idiom ‘a fool and his money are soon parted’ and that conjured up a (not unreasonable) game design where the Fool would be seeking employment in the Land.”

“I planned a five-level game. The first level would be a series of challenges where the Fool goes from being a Vagabond to a Street Peddler. In the next level, he becomes a Shopkeeper. Then a Shipping Merchant. And in the last level, he becomes a Land Baron. And in The Finale, he becomes Emperor of the Land, and thus, setting the stage for The Fool’s Paradise.”

But it started to play more like a simulation game than a puzzle game. “Boy was I wrong,” he says. “Terrible idea — absolutely terrible idea.” Johnson rewrote the game from scratch, rethinking the plot as a continuation of The Fool’s Errand.

“In The Finale of The Fool’s Errand, the Fool has retrieved the fourteen treasures, and in one last confrontation with the High Priestess, he transforms her into a Tarot card. The End. How does the new game start? Well, he’s walking down that same mountain carrying all fourteen treasures with the High Priestess card stuffed in his back pocket. Once I made that decision, I was off and running. Again.”

He still had to design all-new puzzles, draw the artwork, create the audio, tie it all together, polish, and crush bugs. It didn’t help that his tools — mostly HyperCard stacks — couldn’t be used anymore, or that the strict constraints of floppy disk storage were no longer an issue. Without a hard limit on what could go into the game, Johnson fell into the classic trap of feature creep. He overhauled the graphics multiple times, and spent a huge amount of time tweaking everything.

“I never had a chance to do any real sort of sound until this game,” Johnson says, “and that’s one of the things that was both delightful and time-consuming. I suddenly realized that I could put as much sound into the project as I wanted to.” He bought Sony Sound Forge — after seeing someone at Disney Online use it — and around $4,000 worth of stock sound effects and music.

“Once I got started I realized I had an opportunity to create as much sound as I wanted. That was much more work. There’s a line in The Fool’s Errand were he’s talking to the Magician, and the Magician’s talking about all the things he has to do, and the story reveals: ‘The Fool had hoped to do less work.’ Prophetic, eh?”

Johnson tells me about his workflow, which mostly consists of repeated clicking and pointing followed by more pointing and clicking. It takes a long time to do anything, it seems, even with help from QuicKeys keyboard macros. The biggest pains came from exporting to Director, which Photoshop had trouble with. His entire process sounds incredibly complex, long-winded, and inescapably inefficient. You get a real sense for why the game took so long.

“When I did the early games back in the dark ages, there was a certain amount of [tedious clicking], but it seemed more straight to the point than it is now,” he says. Johnson loves Photoshop, however, for its depth and power. It was daunting — “I felt like I graduated from doing Super 8 films to Lawrence of Arabia. The sheer complexity and the potential possibilities. What have I gotten myself into?” — but Johnson managed to create graphics in his storybook tableau aesthetic style that blow the original’s simple-yet-attractive visuals out of the water.

This style is in fact the only thing that kept the project from taking even longer — without two-position movement on the animations and the same basic silhouette presentation it could have been “a 20-year project,” Johnson says. For the first time, he was bedazzled by the boundless possibilities, rather than the technology itself. “It’s the difference between having a fence surrounding your backyard and having a fence surrounding Yellowstone Park,” he explains. “They both have their limitations, but the latter has a lot more leeway for getting lost.”

What if he could do it all over again? Would he change things? “If I could go back in time and say, ‘This is going to take ten years, how can I cut it back to seven years?’ I think I would have had a heart attack,” Johnson says. He wasn’t prepared for it to take such a long time, but by the same token he likes what he’s produced — “I’m not sure what limitations I’d put on the game in hindsight. I like the fact that The Fool and his Money has a lot more puzzles and artwork and storytelling. I like the extravagances of The Fool and his Money; they’re appropriate for the sequel to The Fool’s Errand.”

The Future?

Cliff Johnson spent ten years making a game that he thought would take just one year. Another game could easily take just as long; he’s not ready to commit to another decade of developing a single project. The experience drained his enthusiasm for a third Fool game, a second 3 in Three, and any new game projects. The market has changed a lot in ten years. Tablets and smartphones are everywhere now; people play mobile games and browser games more than they do big and deep PC or console titles.

“I like my computers heavy and my screens huge,” Johnson says. “I like big; I don’t like small. The game industry is changing, and I don’t know what it’s changing into. The current thinking now is small games for a dollar, and there’s two things wrong with that: I’d rather watch a full-length movie than watch ten short films; a full-length film engages you in a way a short film cannot. A short film can be great, but when all is said and done, it’s only a ten-minute film. Secondly, a dollar per customer? And then the distributing website takes 30% of it — this isn’t working. If that’s the way things are going, I don’t know.”

Cliff Johnson has never owned a smartphone or a tablet. He doesn’t want these things, and he isn’t interested in designing for a type of device he doesn’t own. He also doesn’t want to make short games. He has to wait and see whether there’s a market for longer, more cerebral games like the ones he’s famous for. The Fool and his Money may be his last game, his final story told by a treasure hunt. We’ll have to wait and see.

Right now, he’s just worried about keeping the wheels turning. “I don’t know exactly when I can officially say, ‘I don’t need to turn on a computer today.’ That day is still a ways off,” Johnson says. He manually confirms every order, and reads through and responds to a mountain of emails every day. And his website needs fixing [or it did until recently].

An American soldier in Afghanistan plays The Fool and his Money every night on a laptop. He has a tattoo on his chest of the Eye of Thoth — a principle element in the two Fool games. With fans like these, who knows whether Johnson might be tempted to make another of his famed meta-puzzle games.

“This is what I’ve been waiting for,” he says. “To experience other people’s experiences of what I’ve done.” It may be too hard to resist that lure. Those who love to create and to share often find it hard to stop doing both. Anyone who got hooked on a Cliff Johnson game past or present surely hopes that he’s no exception.