Ultima collectors are a hardy and dedicated lot, not only authoring web sites but even huge books on their passion. An oddity called Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash has for years been rivaled only by the original hand-assembled Akalabeth as the Holy Grail for these folks. Drash, a game for of all platforms the lowly Commodore VIC-20, trickled out of Sierra in the spring of 1983, achieved miniscule distribution and miniscule sales, then vanished from history. For some years there was reason to wonder whether it had actually been released at all, rather than only being something that came and went from a single advertisement (as shown above, from the July 1983 Compute!) and a few product catalogs. Only in 2000 was a working copy of the game finally found, “at the bottom of a cliff in British Columbia” amidst a pile of other old, unsold software apparently dumped long before by a retailer or distributor.
As befits a Holy Grail, a legend sprung up around Drash that consisted of a few known facts woven together within a tapestry of conjecture. Drash, the story went, was an attempt by Sierra to make a quick buck off the Ultima name by releasing a slapdash game to the VIC-20 market, terra incognita to Richard Garriott, without his knowledge or consent. The implication is that someone at Sierra eventually got nervous about this dubious scheme and buried the game — in some versions of the story literally, by dumping remaining copies into a landfill in a tale that echoes the (itself likely exaggerated) tale of Atari’s dumping of millions of E.T. cartridges into a New Mexico landfill that same year. It’s a glib story which seems to explain much about the game’s obscurity while also investing it with a nice dollop of the nefarious, a plus for collectors of an industry that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly rife with the sort of dark secrets and forbidden fruits that their pals who collect, say, vintage records get to enjoy. Yet it’s also a story that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, to an extent that it’s hard to understand how so many bright people could buy into it. There are two serious objections, either of which would make it highly improbable. Together they make it impossible to believe.
We should first of all take note of the author of Drash: Keith Zabalaoui. Zabalaoui was a member of what I somewhat facetiously called Garriot’s “entourage” in my previous post, one of his old high-school running buddies who hung around with him in Houston and helped from time to time with his various projects. It could only have been through Garriott that Zabalaoui came into contact with Sierra in the first place. So, the legend requires us to believe that Zabalaoui met the folks at Sierra through Garriott and sold them a game, then agreed with them to secretly release it as an illegitimate knockoff of his friend’s work. Finally, after publishing the game and receiving at least some sort of royalties he continued to keep the whole affair a secret from his buddy. That’s behavior that borders on the sociopathic. There are also some serious plotting problems to this little narrative; didn’t Richard ever say, “Hey, Keith, whatever happened to that game you were working on for Sierra?”
And then let’s look at this from the other side, from the viewpoint of Sierra. Yes, the company may have started with advertising pasted together from newspaper clippings around Ken and Roberta Williams’s kitchen table, but those days were already long gone by early 1983. Sierra was by then negotiating licensing deals with Big Media players like The Jim Henson Company and accepting millions from venture capitalists who saw them as major players in a major emerging industry. Can we really believe that such a company, which by now employed a substantial legal team, would risk their reputation by sticking someone else’s trademarked name on a game in the hopes of making a quick few (tens of?) thousands of dollars and maybe sticking it somehow to Garriott, the man who had recently jilted them? As John Williams says, “Sierra On-Line management was young but not stupid.” Ken Williams had been closely involved in the complications of securing for Garriott and Sierra legal right to the Ultima name from the now defunct California Pacific after Garriott had first agreed to sign with Sierra. To imagine that he would then just blatantly steal the trademark is… well, absurd is perhaps being kind. To imagine that the legal team the venture capitalists insisted be in place would even allow him to do so is to fail to understand how such relationships work.
So, the true story is, as these things so often go, more prosaic than the legend. Zabalaoui did visit Sierra in Garriott’s company, where he was inspired to start work on a simple maze-running action game. When he eventually showed the finished product to them, they were doubtful. It wasn’t a terrible game, but it wasn’t a great one either. And by early 1983 the huge but breathtakingly short-lived VIC-20 software market had already passed its peak and started on a downward slope that would soon turn into a veritable cliff as the ever-plunging price of the vastly more capable Commodore 64 made the older machine more and more irrelevant. And Zabalaoui’s game required more than just a VIC-20: one also needed to have the 8 K memory expansion (to boost the machine’s RAM from just 5 K to 13 K) and a cassette drive, since it was too large to be installed onto a cartridge. Most of the kids who owned VIC-20s as learning toys or game machines didn’t equip them with such luxuries. Sierra hemmed and hawed, and then made a suggestion: if they could maybe market it as an Ultima that might help… Garriott was perhaps not thrilled with Sierra at this point in time, but he was always good to his friends. When Zabalaoui came to him with Sierra’s request, Garriott agreed, likely more as a personal favor to someone who had helped him out with his own projects quite a bit in the past than anything else. Today, of course, when the industry is so much more mature and so much more sensitive to the power of branding, one in Garriott’s position would never risk tarnishing his trademark in such a way. But in 1983 both Garriott and his industry were still very young.
Even with the Ultima name, Sierra was obviously skeptical about the game’s chances, particularly as the VIC-20 software market continued to decline even as packaging was prepared and the game was sent off for duplication. They manufactured the minimum quantity required by their contract with Zabalaoui, on the order of a few thousand units, placed that one halfhearted advertisement, and watched with disinterest as the game foundered commercially. The vast majority of the production run was likely, like that first copy that was rediscovered in 2000, written off and trashed, whether by Sierra themselves or their various distributors. It’s an example of a phenomenon you see from time to time in business, where a project about which no one (with the possible exception in this case of Zabalaoui) feels terribly enthusiastic just sort of drifts to completion through inertia and the lack of anyone stepping up to kill it with a definitive “no.” In this case that led to Escape from Mt. Drash passing into history as the first of the spin-off Ultimas, games that are not part of the main sequence but nevertheless use the name. Future entries in that category would actually be some of the most impressive to bear the Ultima name; Mt. Drash, however, should most definitely not be included in that group.
I’m not the first one to reveal the true story of Escape from Mt. Drash. John Williams has occasionally tried to correct the record in the past via comments to other blog posts and the like that repeated the legend. Recently it has begun to seem that word is finally getting out. Blogger Pix had the opportunity to interact with Garriott personally last year, and asked him directly about the Mt. Drash legend. Garriott at last confirmed to him that he had known about the game and duly authorized its release.
So why should I take up the cause now? Well, there are still plenty of online sources that repeat the legend. I’d thus like to add this blog’s weight — to whatever extent it has weight — to the true story. This I partly do as a favor to John Williams, who has gifted me (and you) with so many memories and insights on the early days of Sierra and the industry as a whole. John is, understandably enough, annoyed at the persistence of this falsehood, as it directly impinges the honor of Sierra and by extension himself.
More generally — and yes, I know I rant about this more than I should — this can serve as a lesson to people who consider themselves historians in this field to be a bit more rigorous, and not to substitute easy assumptions for research. I won’t get into the original source of the false legend here, only say that I’m disappointed that it was repeated for so long without ever being seriously questioned. When you are thinking of saying something that directly accuses people of unethical dealings you really need to be sure of your facts and careful with your words. Frankly, that’s a lesson that Richard Garriott himself could learn; despite my admiration for his vision and persistence as a gaming pioneer, I find his glib dismissal of the folks at California Pacific and Sierra who launched his career as dishonest, “stupid bozoos,” and “heavy drug users” to be unconscionable. It’s a lesson his fans should also take to heart.
If you do have one of those websites that repeats the legend of Escape from Mt. Drash… hey, it happens. I’ve made a hash of things myself once or twice in public. But maybe think about taking a moment to make a correction? I’m sure that at the very least John Williams and the others who built Sierra would appreciate it.