One of the most controversial computer programs of the 1980s was a video game called Softporn Adventure (1981). The text-adventure game polarized the public, made tons of money, and pioneered the sex software business. Love it or hate it, the game certainly has an odd place in computer history. Here’s everything that you need to know about Softporn Adventure, the world’s first erotic computer game.
Softporn Adventure Was Never Intended To Be Commercially Released
Softporn Adventure was initially just a weekend hobby project. Charles Benton, the game’s creator, never intended to release the game commercially. Benton created the game as an excuse to teach himself computer programming on his Apple II computer. But after sharing it with some friends, he was strongly encouraged to independently publish the game.
Several Scenes In Softporn Are Based On Real-Life Events
In a 2012 interview, Benton revealed that more than a few of the scenes in the game were recreations of events that actually happened to him in the 1970s. That might help explain why the game is based in a weird 1970s urban setting that mainly consists of a casino, bar, and of course, a disco.
The goal of the game is simple: You have to “seduce three women, while avoiding hazards, such as getting killed by a bouncer in a disco.”
The Game Was Almost Impossible To Promote
Benton tried to sell and market the game on his own but kept encountering major roadblocks. Softporn was the world’s first pornographic computer game. There wasn’t proven consumer demand for erotic games, yet, or even a marketplace to sell and distribute adult software. As a result, computer magazines denied his ads.
Distribution Rights For Softporn Adventure Was Acquired After A Chance Encounter At A Trade Show
Benton’s only consistent distribution outlet was selling individual copies of his adult video game while exhibiting at computer fairs and trade shows. But it was at one of these shows that Benton eventually got his big break.
Ken Williams, president of On-Line Systems (later rebranded to Sierra On-Line and then to Sierra Entertainment), picked up a copy of Softporn Adventure at a computer trade show. Williams liked the game so much that he decided to license and release it as part of his company’s software catalog. Williams even gave Benton a job.
The Cover Photo For Softporn Adventure Features On-Line Systems’ Female Employees
At this point, Ken Williams had only been in the computer software business for a few years (1979-1981), but he already had great instincts on what made computer games sell.
Benton had a good product, but the way he was packaging and promoting the game wasn’t working. Willimas had an idea on how to solve that problem. He enlisted the help of several female employees at On-Line Systems, including his wife and co-founder, Roberta Williams, and organized a sexy low-budget photo shoot in his backyard.
The end result is a legendary photo that is probably more remembered today than the game itself. The image captures a strange scene where three topless women are being served champagne in a hot tub by a fully clothed waiter. Their breasts are all strategically placed at the edge of the waterline barely obscuring their nipples. And in the background, are two hot tub covers hastily propped up as backdrops with a computer placed in front of them.
From left to right in the hot tub are Diane Siegel (production manager), Susan Davis (bookkeeper), Rick Chipman (a waiter from a local restaurant called The Broken Bit), and Roberta Williams (co-founder of On-Line Systems).
To help remind you what you were looking at, the tagline on the box says, “A funny, provocative, challenging adventure game for adults only!” Just imagine looking at a shelf of computer software in a store and seeing this photo on a game box. As you might imagine, it got a lot of attention. People were instantly transfixed by the photo. Who were these women? Was this the luckest waiter alive?
Time Magazine Helped Make Softporn Adventure A Huge Hit By Publishing The Infamous Hot Tub Photo
After Softporn Adventure was released by On-Line Systems, there was a definite buzz around the game. Everyone in the software industry knew about the game and was talking about it.
But it wasn’t until a Time magazine article titled “Software For The Masses” was published that sales for Softporn Adventure really took off. The October 1981 article discussed how both computers and computer software were becoming more mainstream. In the 1970s, personal computers were still very geeky and something a hobbyist might build in their garage. But that was starting to change and software was now being created for everyday people, including, apparently, horny guys.
So why are we discussing a magazine article that was published decades ago? “Software For The Masses” included the infamous hot tub photo along with this fantastic mention: “Players seek to seduce three women, while avoiding hazards, such as getting killed by a bouncer in a disco” in a “California-style adult fantasy game.”
Earlier that year, Benton had struggled to get small computer magazines to let him pay to advertise his game. But a few months later, Ken Williams got one of the biggest magazines in the world to mention Softporn Adventure game, for free!
Before the Time magazine article was published, Softporn had only sold 4,000 copies, mostly to people in the computer and software industry. However, the article introduced the game to the masses and sales quickly exploded.
Softporn Adventure Was Polarizing… And Profitable
People either loved or hated Softporn Adventure. On-Line Systems received a wave of hate mail, critical reviews, and negative publicity. But the game also resulted in record sales and profits for the company.
In total, about 50,000 copies of Softporn Adventure were sold. By today’s standards that might seem small, but at the time, Apple had only sold ~200,000 Apple II computers. That’s right, 25% of all Apple II owners probably owned a copy of this game. Buying Softporn Adventure was like being part of history. It meant that you now officially owned the first pornographic computer game ever commercially-released.
A 5.25-inch floppy disk copy of the game sold for $29.95 direct from On-Line Systems. If 50,000 copies of the game were sold at full price, then the company probably made a gross profit of somewhere around $1.4M. Even with wholesale and retailer discounts, On-Line Systems probably made around $1M. Adjusted for inflation, that’s pretty close to $3M in today’s dollars.
The success of Softporn also had a halo effect for On-Line Systems’ other games. Many retailers didn’t want an invoice that only listed “Softporn Adventure,” so they ordered several other On-Line Systems games at the same time.
Ken Williams estimated that Softporn helped double On-Line Systems’ total sales.
Softporn Adventure Was The Inspiration For The Leisure Suit Larry Games
By the late 1980s, On-Line Systems had rebranded itself as Sierra On-Line. One of Sierra’s most popular game developers, Al Lowe, convinced the president of Sierra, Ken Williams, to let him make a visual version of Softporn Adventure. Lowe used Softporn’s storyline and added jokes, dialogue, more puzzles, 2D graphics, and a protagonist, Larry Laffer. The updated version of Softporn Adventure was the mega-hit, Leisure Suit Larry in The Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987).
The creator of Softporn Adventure, Chuck Benton, also has a credit in Leisure Suit Larry because most of the game, including the layout and many of the puzzles, were pulled directly from Softporn Adventure.
You Can Still Play It! Here’s How To Play Softporn Adventure Today
If you want to play Softporn Adventure today, then you are in luck. There are several websites that have created emulated versions of the game that you can play in your web browser… for free.
But if you are more of a collector, and want a physical copy, then try searching online auction sites. Original copies of Softporn Adventure sell on eBay for anywhere between $200-$4,000 depending on their condition.
Playing Text-Based Games
The goal of Softporn Adventure is to try to have sex with three women in one night by collecting items that will help you win them over. But there are no graphics and you don’t use a mouse to play, just your keyboard.
Similar to Zork (1982) and other text-based games of the time, gamers use simple text commands to play Softporn Adventure. Just type a verb and a noun to perform actions. For example, the command “buy whiskey” will buy a glass of whiskey from the bartender in the game. To move between locations, you have to type “go north” or go west.”
How The Softporn Adventure Game Changed Gaming Forever
Neither Softporn Adventure nor the Leisure Suit Larry games aged very well. They were huge sellers of their time, but today, both games are easily labeled as sexist and chauvinistic. One of the biggest issues in both games is the missing female point of view. Being able to play these games as either a male or a female would have widened their appeal. Even the ability to pay the hooker, or at least give her a name, would have helped a lot.
While Sierra Entertainment did publish several “adult” games marketed towards men, their product catalog was diverse and very inclusive of women and children. In fact, Roberta Williams, one of the women in the photo shoot for Softporn Adventure, is one of the first female game designers in history and invented the graphic adventure game genre.
There’s no doubt that Softporn Adventure has a strange and colorful part in the history of video games. Have you ever played the Softporn Adventure game before? What about Leisure Suit Larry? Please tell us about it in the comments.