The week of November 8, 2015

How Space Cadet pinball won the Windows desktop

By Kate Davis Jones

The pinball table is a bright spectacle: pulsing lights in rich purple and blue, the back glass covered with an amiable-looking cartoon spaceman in a futuristic flying car oddly reminiscent of a Volkswagen Beetle, a cacophony of futuristic pings, bleeps, and zaps. There’s the satisfying thunk of the flippers. The future-synth soundtrack. The laser blips whenever the steel ball rebounds off the bumpers. There’s even a “tilt” sensor for catching cheaters who’d try to bump the table to their own advantage.

It sounds like almost any pinball table, of the type you’d see sitting forlornly neglected at your neighborhood bar. But there was something different about Space Cadet. It wasn’t a real pinball game, after all; it’s right there in its full and clunkily corporate name: 3D Pinball for Windows–Space Cadet. It was a virtual table designed from scratch by a small, plucky development company to show off the power and accessibility of Microsoft’s most ambitious operating system yet: Windows 95. It was a rush job, and then a success, and then it disappeared with little fanfare, remembered in remixed music and a Linux port, and after a prodding, with lit-up eyes and the grin of a childhood memory shaken loose—“Oh yeah! I loved that game!”  

Twenty years ago, in the age before smartphones, Space Cadet was an excellent casual game. It was a compelling little time-waster for slacking off at work on your brand new Windows 95 computer, and the game kids played when their parents kicked them off the dial-up to use the phone. The controls were familiar—who can’t learn pinball?—but the gameplay challenging enough to invite repeated plays. (The fanmade “walkthrough” explaining the nuances of the rules is shockingly long.) And for more than a decade it was a familiar part of the Windows experience, included with the millions of computers running Microsoft’s operating system, a go-to distraction that could always be counted on. Then, abruptly, in Windows Vista, it was gone.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

• • •

By early 1994, the hype surrounding Microsoft’s newest operating system had become inescapable. It would usher in a new era of ease and simplicity, while also being robust and powerful. Bill Gates promised that, after years in development, it would “unlock the potential of personal computing.” Even non-techies knew that Something Big was coming, a testament to Microsoft’s ability to transform a piece of software into a celebrity event, and its willingness to pay big money to do so. (The Windows 95 campaign reportedly cost $200 million, including $3 million for the use of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.”)

It was around this time that game developer David Stafford saw an opportunity. While other applications were being built for Windows in preparation for its release, for various arcane technical reasons, games were still mostly being built for the clunky, inaccessible MS-DOS. He recruited two colleagues and founded Cinematronics LLC, in Santa Cruz, California. “We were, to the best of my knowledge, the first dedicated Windows developer studio,” Stafford tells me over the phone.

“Hey, the customer wants 3D? We’ll make 3D. We’ll make Doom for Windows.”

He met co-founder Mike Sandige at a conference the year before, where they’d both evangelized for Windows as a gaming platform, only to be met with skepticism. Sandige recruited the third co-founder, Kevin Gliner, who Sandige knew had built impressive 3D demos. Cinematronics was a classic startup: long hours, small staff (three founders and, eventually, two to three hired employees), no money, and big dreams. Stafford became the business manager, in charge of bringing in deals and managing client relationships. Gliner was the graphics guy, and Sandige wrote the actual code. “Between us there were really no gaps,” Stafford says. “With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we were an ideal founding team.”

For the first project, the team rebuilt Firestorm, a 2D platform shooter game, for Windows. The finished the game only to realize no publishers wanted it. Everyone wanted 3D games. Specifically, they wanted Doom, the first-person shooter that revolutionized PC gaming. “That didn’t kill us,” Stafford says. “We decided, ‘Hey, the customer wants 3D? We’ll make 3D. We’ll make Doom for Windows.’”

By the summer of 1994, Cinematronics was building its Doom clone, and Microsoft was developing Windows 95 to launch the next year. Microsoft wanted to package games with it; earlier versions included the likes of Reversi (commonly known as Othello) and Solitaire.

But Windows 95 was a new kind of operating system. It had better graphics, intuitive design, better multitasking, and a massive consumer-oriented ad campaign to go with it. It could support newer, flashier, more exciting games, and Microsoft wanted to show that off. But the biggest, flashiest games were also the most violent. Microsoft was embroiled in an extensive antitrust lawsuit. With the specters of the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice hanging over them, Microsoft may not have been too keen to invite more bad press by including a bloody game—even though those were the most popular at the time.

Cinematronics wanted to sell their Doom clone to Microsoft; Microsoft was gun-shy about bundling a violent game with an operating system that would be installed on—fingers crossed—millions of computers. It seemed like an impasse.

“This sounds dumb, because it is really dumb,” Stafford says. “We changed it from shooting bullets to shooting glue. It was this really ungodly stupid game. We called it Gluem.” (Gluem, a portmanteau of “glue them,” conveniently rhymes with Doom.)

Stafford called up a friend, Alex St. John, Microsoft’s first game technology evangelist and co-creator of DirectX, Microsoft’s multimedia and gaming API. His role was to ensure that DOS games were compatible with Windows 95, so he worked with developers to test their old games and hunted down new games to show off the new OS’s capabilities as well. Stafford pitched Gluem to St. John, who then pitched it to his boss, David Cole, head of the Windows 95 production team. “Cole was also not impressed with this proposal,” St. John writes via email. “[He] grumbled… ‘Can’t we just get a game of pinball or something like that?’”

St. John immediately called Stafford back.

“I was sitting there typing as I was talking to him,” Stafford recalls. He drafted a one-page description of a theoretical 3D pinball game called Pinball Wizard. The game didn’t exist, but he may have left that fact hazy. He didn’t consult with the rest of his team; he just made the call. Microsoft—software behemoth Microsoft, kingmaker Microsoft—had turned its attention on a little gaming company from Santa Cruz. And Stafford was determined to keep that attention as long as possible.

He sent the one-pager to Microsoft. They wanted to see the game.

To start mocking up the design, Stafford and an artist working for Cinematronics sacrificed days off to put the pictures together in a graphics editing tool, combining the different components into a Frankensteinian pinball design. “I called it the Ransom Note Table,” he says. “It just looked awful.” It turned out so ugly Stafford didn’t want to use it at all.

But Microsoft kept prodding, asking when the game would be playable. Stafford demurred, saying the game wasn’t ready. Microsoft, empathetic to the plight of the harried, overworked programmer, told him to go ahead and send over the buggy demo.

“I sat there on the edge of my seat and they came back and said: We love it. We wanna play it.”

Stafford knew he had to send something. He promised a “screenshot,” then printed his Ransom Note Table on a dot-matrix printer. Then he sent it to Microsoft through the thermal fax machine, crossing his fingers that through two layers of distortion, it might look like a real game design. “I sat there on the edge of my seat and they came back and said: We love it. We wanna play it.”

It was late summer 1994. With Microsoft on the hook, Stafford decided to devote Cinematronics to the pinball game, to be completed in time for the launch of Windows 95—now pushed to April 1995. Time was short and the stakes high. They had nine months.

• • •

3D Pinball for Windows — Space Cadet (Photo via Wikipedia)

Time wasn’t the only obstacle working against them.

“We were building a game that was challenging, technically,” Sandige recalls. “It doesn’t seem it by today’s standards, but at the time, it was a relatively sophisticated game that had to run on pretty weak hardware, on an operating system that hadn’t even shipped yet.” The team had early builds of Windows 95, but since it wasn’t yet finalized, they were building code on Microsoft’s assurance that 95 would be backward compatible.

Kevin Gliner, Cinematronics’ product manager, had studied game design but had never published his own design before. This wasn’t going to be a simple top-down 2D pinball game. It was going to replicate a real table in 3D. Like Windows 95 itself, it was accessible and intuitive, yet groundbreaking.

To create the design, Gliner went to a penny arcade on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. He took pictures of tables, examining their designs, learning how the components worked together, from bumpers to plungers to flippers. “[Space Cadet] is a little rough around the edges,” he says. He designed the extensive rules, the scoring, and the layout of table, and then a hired artist created the digital assets to match. Without using any of the then-expensive 3D rendering technology, the game was built with cryptic, uncommented code. The art files and Gliner’s configuration files were imported, then interpreted by the code to make the game playable.

“I really wanted to do it in 3D,” says Mike Sandige, the coder. According to Sandige, Stafford thought it’d be simpler to build the game engine as a 2D top-down game, and mimic the look of 3D with the graphics.

If the game were built as a 2D top-down, it would’ve removed one of the biggest hurdles: foreshortening. Regardless of where the ball was on the table, it’d be the same size. But as a 3D game, the ball would be larger at the front, and smaller in the back. It’s easier to not have to worry about that change in size. It’s a minor detail, but Sandige is all about the details.

With the complexity of the game and the bureaucratic complications, Sandige didn’t believe they’d finish on time for Microsoft’s scheduled launch. Stafford did. They kept pushing.

“We were always panicked. I was always in a panic,”

“We did builds for them periodically,” Sandige explains. “We used Word documents and spreadsheets to track issues. Mostly, they didn’t find issues.” Cinematronics found its own bugs and squashed them, without much guidance from Microsoft. “There was one time I shouldn’t have said anything,” he says, “but I did, and it caused an uproar.” A timing bug would appear after about two hours of play, causing the game to turn glitchy and jumpy. “I had to explain that to one of the execs,” Sandige says forlornly. “I think he thought I did it all wrong.” He ended up adding a tool that reset the clock periodically to avoid it.

“We were always panicked. I was always in a panic,” Sandige recalls. He pulled 18-20 hour days, coding into the early hours of the morning. When it was light outside, he’d crash in a broom closet instead of going home. “I quit doing it when someone walked in and knocked over a bunch of stuff on me.”

Then, in December, a reprieve: Microsoft, struggling to make the OS backward compatible, delayed the launch until next August. “We might’ve thrown something together if we hadn’t had that extra time,” Sandige says. “We ended up using it for polish. To make it better.”

On Aug. 24, 1995, Windows 95 launched, with release “galas” in 43 cities across the United States. The Empire State Building was lit in Windows colors: red, green, blue, and yellow. Customers lined up outside stores to wait for their copies of the new operating system. It went on to sell a record-breaking 40 million copies in its first year.

Space Cadet launched as part of the Microsoft Windows 95 Plus! Pack, a separate product often included on machines with the OS preinstalled, and the game makes an appearance in the delightfully ’90s instructional video featuring Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston, and a Rollerblading tween called “Joystick Johnny.”

Space Cadet remained a fixture of the Windows OS until 2007, with the release of Windows Vista. According to Raymond Chen, a Microsoft software developer, when Space Cadet was ported from 32-bit to 64-bit, a nasty bug appeared. Given “that nobody at Microsoft ever understood how the code worked (much less still understood it),” he wrote in a blog post, “and that most of the code was completely uncommented,” he couldn’t justify spending time hunting down the bug. Instead, Space Cadet was dropped entirely.

“Who cares about the branding of Windows 95, a few years later? But people cared about 3D Pinball.”

By then, Cinematronics had been acquired by Maxis, which had since been acquired by Electronic Arts, and the employees scattered. The original development team was never contacted. “We would’ve been happy to have done whatever what needed to be done,” Stafford says.

Fans grieved and promptly figured out how to port it to their new Windows machines. They cared about the game and wanted to take it with them even as Microsoft moved relentlessly forward.

Standige remembers Microsoft trying to create its own Windows 95 table based on Cinematronics’ art files. The result was terrible, and Microsoft dropped the idea. “Who cares about the branding of Windows 95, a few years later?” Sandige says. “But people cared about 3D Pinball.” And even today, 20 years later, they still do.

Illustration by J. Longo