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Author Archives: Jimmy Maher

Project: Space Station, Part 1: The Reality

Space Shuttle

It was hard for a space-obsessed kid growing up in the 1980s not to feel just a little bit envious of the previous generation. The late 1960s had marked the climax of one of the most glorious adventures in human history, and the first one that, thanks to the miracle of mass media, everyone could share in in real time. Even the most non-technical and non-scientific among us could understand the clear progression that climaxed in that “giant leap for mankind”: Apollo 7 tested the Apollo capsule in Earth orbit; Apollo 8 voyaged to the Moon and circled it; Apollo 9 tested the lunar lander in Earth orbit; Apollo 10 was the dress rehearsal; Apollo 11 was the big one, July 20, 1969, the day that changed everything forever for humanity. Or so it must have seemed at the time. By the early 1980s it could feel hard to believe the Moon landing had actually happened. In place of Apollo we got the space shuttle, NASA’s glorified space truck. In place of the clear milestones of Apollo we got a space program whose strategy seemed akin to the missions of the shuttles themselves: go up, circle around for a while doing some things people weren’t really too clear about, then come back down. Oh, we dutifully put together our shuttle model kits and dreamed of seeing an actual launch, but something was missing.

The program to make a reusable space plane was first conceived even before that first Moon landing, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was in cinemas showing a vision of the near future in which a flight into Earth orbit was as routine as a flight for the opposite coast. To achieve such a vision, clearly something would have to change. An Apollo moon rocket weighed slightly over 450,000 pounds without fuel, of which 12,250 pounds — less than 3 percent of the total — would make its way back to Earth at the end of a mission in the form of the non-reusable command module. The rest was cast away at various stages of the mission, making Apollo 11′s trip to the Moon, if one of — perhaps the — most inspiring voyages in human history, also one uniquely wasteful and completely unsustainable as a model for a future of routine space flight. After all, while NASA had been enjoying effectively blank checks from Congress through the Space Race, it didn’t take a Nostradamus to realize that that was likely to change in a hurry as soon as the Moon was achieved and American pride satisfied.

The budget cuts, when they came, were even more draconian than anticipated, costing NASA three of their planned ten Moon landings — another, Apollo 13, never made it there for other reasons — and forcing them to similarly scale back Skylab, the United States’s first (and to date, outside of the International Space Station, only) space station. The space shuttle survived only by making a series of painful compromises and an unholy alliance with the Air Force that would see it used for classified military missions — basically, to launch a new generation of bigger and heavier spy satellites — about 30 percent of the time. It was a partnership that neither NASA nor the Air Force really wanted. Robert Seamans, a former NASA administrator who had become Secretary of the Air Force by the time the deal was made, thought it was “asinine” to try to coordinate with a civilian agency and put astronauts lives at risk instead of just building a cheaper, simpler unmanned rocket for the purpose. But his and other practical voices were overwhelmed by those of the bureaucrats and the politicians.

An early space-shuttle concept which used short, straight wings and a different reentry profile to reduce heat buildup.

An early space-shuttle concept which used short, straight wings and a different reentry profile to reduce heat buildup.

The Air Force partnership had tragic consequences for the shuttle. In order to carry the big spy satellites the Air Force anticipated launching, the shuttle’s cargo bay had to be bigger and wider than it might otherwise have been, giving the shuttle its distinctively chunky, less than aerodynamically ideal shape. While occasionally useful, much of that space went empty much of the time. In case the Cold War should ever turn hot, the Air Force also demanded that it be possible to launch the shuttle from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, deploy a satellite, and land again back in California within one orbit without ever flying over Soviet territory, thus minimizing its exposure to space-borne or terrestrial weaponry. In aeronautics jargon, this necessitated that the shuttle have a considerable “downrange” or “crossrange” capability to glide off its normal orbital path, which in turn necessitated the shuttle’s delta-shaped wings that made it less than a pilot’s delight. John Young, the first man to pilot a shuttle to Earth from space, compared it to trying to fly a brick. Other pilots would call landing the shuttle a “controlled plummet,” while passengers compared it to a “dive-bomber run.” Worse, the final design generated far more heat on reentry than would have NASA’s earlier concepts, heat which engineers could combat only through the use of heavy, cludgy thermal-protection tiles that were a constant worry and labor sink throughout the program’s history. Each of the 35,000 tiles on the shuttle was a one-off piece that had to be custom manufactured, and every single one of them had to be carefully inspected by hand after every single launch in the hopes of averting disaster on the next mission. In spite of NASA’s best efforts, the disaster that was perhaps inevitable finally came on February 1, 2003, when the Columbia burned up on reentry. A more elegant shuttle could have minimized or even eliminated the tiles altogether, and saved the lives of seven astronauts.

Well before the Columbia and even the Challenger disasters, a feeling dogged engineers and astronauts alike that the shuttle just wasn’t as safe as it should be in still other ways. This was largely down to yet more concessions and compromises to budgetary realities. In place of a reusable booster section which would have blasted the shuttle into space and then glided — possibly with the aid of a human pilot — back down to a soft runway landing, the shuttle got a massive external fuel tank that would just be cast away, Apollo-style, and a pair of solid-fuel booster rockets that floated back via parachute to drop into the ocean. Essentially little more than hollow metal cylinders filled with propellant, the boosters could be reused, but were problematic in other ways. The shuttle was the first manned space vehicle ever to use solid rockets as a primary means of propulsion; solid rockets were heretofore considered too dangerous because they can neither be throttled nor shut down entirely if something should go wrong during a burn. And, unlike earlier spacecraft, the shuttle was equipped with no emergency escape mechanism whatsoever for launches. Just as the heat tiles’ failings cost the last crew of the Columbia their lives, this lack may have cost the last crew of the Challenger, who appear to have been alive and conscious for at least some portion of their fatal fall back to earth.

I don’t mean to say that the space shuttle wasn’t a crazily magnificent feat, nor to cast aspersions on the engineers who made it (usually) work in the face of all the cutbacks and compromises, nor to say that I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to fly in it, safety questions and all. The shuttle certainly made for a cool sort of spacecraft, and an almost unbelievably comfortable one. If hardly the lap of luxury by earthbound standards, it was ridiculously roomy by comparison with the American spacecraft that preceded it and those (if any) that appear likely to follow it. Certainly the earliest astronauts in their “Spam in a can” capsules, who had to fight just to get a window, would have loved this craft that an astronaut got to actually fly.

Yet it’s hard for even the most generous observer to avoid noting just how massively the space-shuttle program overpromised and underdelivered. Originally projected as capable of launching again just one week after returning to Earth, the timetable was revised by the time of the Columbia‘s maiden flight in 1981 to one month. No shuttle ever came close to meeting even this timeframe. What with all of the repairs and inspections that were needed — not least to those pesky tiles — a shuttle that launched three times in a year was doing very well for itself. Nor did the huge savings supposedly enabled by this reusable spacecraft ever really materialize. The cost of each launch averaged over the the life of the program ends up in the $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion range, at least ten times what it costs the Russians to put a three-man crew into space via their trusty old Soyuz space capsule and a conventional expendable rocket — and, while fourteen people died aboard the Challenger and Columbia, the Russians haven’t lost a cosmonaut since 1971. The shuttle lacked the romance of the Apollo program, but that was rather implicit in its purpose all along. More damningly, it failed in its goal of making spaceflight a safe matter of (relatively) inexpensive routine.

For much of the shuttle’s lifetime, NASA had trouble answering a fairly fundamental question: just what was it really good for? In the optimistic early days of the program they floated the idea that the shuttle might be a viable commercial proposition, an actual moneymaker for the agency. Other countries as well as private companies would pay NASA to truck their satellites into space. But this never materialized in any significant way; the shuttle was far, far too expensive to launch, not to mention too prone to unexpected delays and other problems, to compete with cheap, reliable unmanned rockets for commercial satellite launches. Twice West Germany paid NASA to launch the shuttle and give them free use of a Spacelab laboratory module installed in the cargo bay, but that was about as good as it would ever get for the shuttle as a commercial entity.

The shuttle also failed to live up to expectations as a tool for the military. Work on the planned alternative launch site for military missions at Vandenberg fell far behind schedule, and was finally abandoned in the wake of the Challenger disaster after over $4 billion had been spent. Of 27 military personnel recruited and trained to serve as astronauts on the shuttle, only 2 ever made it into space due to disorganization, turf wars, and poor inter-agency communication. Instead the military had to content itself with essentially sub-contracting its payloads out to NASA; the missions launched from the Kennedy Space Center and featured the usual rotating crew of civilian astronauts. These so-called “Department of Defense” missions, which numbered nine between 1985 and 1992, always felt a bit farcical. Their satellite payloads, despite usually being officially considered “classified,” were an open secret at best around the Kennedy Space Center; during the run-up to the second of these launches, to put a Defense Satellite Communications System into orbit in October of 1985, even reporters were walking around in “DSCS” tee-shirts. Never happy about being bound to the shuttle in the first place, the military started working in earnest to find an alternative following the Challenger disaster and the subsequent thirty-month hiatus in launches. That alternative turned out to be, inevitably, a cheaper and simpler unmanned rocket in the form of the Titan IV, latest in a venerable line of military and civilian workhorse launchers.

Lots of good science was done aboard the shuttle betwixt and between all these dashed expectations. Yet it was hard for even a space-loving kid, much less the general public, to get all that excited about experiments in applied plasma physics or materials science. After the novelty of the first few flights which proved the crazy contraption actually worked, it was just hard to get excited about the space shuttle in general. Only one tantalizing prospect seemed like it had a chance of changing all that: a permanent station in space, to be built, supplied, and maintained by the shuttle.

Artist's conception of the shuttle servicing an American space station.

Artist’s conception of the shuttle servicing an American space station.

This idea of a space station had been bound up with that of the shuttle itself right from the beginning. After all, that inspiring 2001 future had featured both, hadn’t it? Without a space station, where was the space shuttle to actually go? (“Nowhere,” some would soon be saying.) In this, NASA’s original vision for the post-Apollo future, the space shuttle was to be just that, the shuttle bus ferrying people, materials, and equipments up to where the real action was happening. The shuttle wasn’t supposed to be exciting in itself. The real excitement would be happening up there, as a permanent settlement in space grew and developed and just maybe started thinking about building its own spacecraft right there in orbit to visit the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, perhaps Haley’s Comet (which was conveniently due for a visit in 1986). NASA anticipated building both parts of the program — the station and the ancillary shuttle to service it — in tandem. It was only when the budget cuts started to bite that they had to make the hard decision to go ahead with the space shuttle alone as a necessary precursor to the station. If the shuttle without the space station felt like a spacecraft without a purpose, that’s because it largely was.

And so NASA continually tried to find a way to get the space-station project out of stasis. During the mid-1970s some planners floated the intriguing idea that it might be possible to reuse the recently abandoned Skylab as the core of a more permanent station. Plans were mooted to send an early shuttle mission to Skylab with a rocket pack that could be used to push it out of its decaying orbit. Later missions would then have refurbished, repaired, and reactivated the station for habitation. Such plans were doomed, however, by delays in the shuttle program and by heavy sunspot activity that caused Skylab’s orbit to decay more quickly than anticipated. On July 11, 1979, Skylab crashed to earth, raining debris down on Western Australia and causing NASA considerable embarrassment almost two more years before the eventual maiden flight of the Columbia.

The space-station project remained alive after that as a theoretically real thing, but generated little more than sketches and plans for which NASA could never seem to amass more than a fraction of the necessary funding. In his January 1984 State of the Union Address, President Reagan gave the project a badly needed shot in the arm via a would-be Kennedy-esque pronouncement.

Our next frontier [is] space. Nowhere do we so effectively demonstrate our technological leadership and ability to make life better on Earth. The Space Age is barely a quarter of a century old. But already we’ve pushed civilization forward with our advances in science and technology. Opportunities and jobs will multiply as we cross new thresholds of knowledge and reach deeper into the unknown.

Our progress in space — taking giant steps for all mankind — is a tribute to American teamwork and excellence. Our finest minds in government, industry, and academia have all pulled together. And we can be proud to say: We are first; we are the best; and we are so because we’re free.

America has always been greatest when we dared to be great. We can reach for greatness again. We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain. Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade.

A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, in communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space. We want our friends to help us meet these challenges and share in their benefits. NASA will invite other countries to participate so we can strengthen peace, build prosperity, and expand freedom for all who share our goals.

Couched in empty political tautologies as it is (“America has always been greatest when we dared to be great?”), that declaration did lead to some action: an official Space Station Program Office was established at the Johnson Space Center, strategic plans and blueprints were created with more enthusiasm. Any momentum was stopped dead, however, by the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986, an event which stopped American manned spaceflight in its tracks for two and half years of investigating and soul-searching. The shuttle program would never quite be the same again, while hopes for the space station were all but dashed. Reagan’s successor George Bush gave NASA another apparent boost in a major speech on July 20, 1989, refloating the old idea of the station, now to be named Freedom, as a base for launching future missions to the Moon and Mars. But that speech was just another in an emerging tradition of Presidents making grand pronouncements about space exploration that come to nothing. Just as had happened with the space shuttle, project Freedom was steadily scaled back and compromised in the face of dwindling budgets. In 1993, NASA’s independent Freedom was finally folded into the International Space Station, itself only a shadow of what NASA had originally planned for the station to be.

Even at that, though, the ISS finally provided the space shuttle with a purpose for which it seemed eminently suited. Beginning with the first ISS building block which the Endeavor carried into orbit in 1998, the aging shuttle fleet got from the station a new lease on life and a new sense of purpose; this was what the shuttle had been designed to do all those years ago. But then came the Columbia disaster of 2003, and all the old doubts resurfaced. It was almost with a sense of relief that NASA retired the shuttle at last in 2011, before any more lives were lost, even if doing so left them with no way to get people into space at all again for what looks to be, at best, some years to come. It was hard to escape the feeling as the shuttle fleet was parceled out to museums that something had gone horribly wrong in the aftermath of Apollo, that a brilliant beginning had been squandered.

(A very good short summary of the shuttle program and its discontents is found in The Final Countdown by Pat Duggins. For more on the shuttle as a military vehicle, see this article at Smithsonian Air and Space. For more on the drawbacks of the shuttle’s design and the alternative once proposed by Max Faget, see this article at The Space Review.)

 
 

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Human Engineered Software (or, The Software Icarus)

Jay Balakrishnan

Jay Balakrishnan

Narayana Pillai Balakrishnan was a native of Cherthala, India, who, after traveling the world for years as a player of traditional Indian music, came to Hollywood in the early 1950s to teach the trendy new practice of Hatha Yoga to the stars. The software company founded by Jay — an Americanized shortening of “Sanjay” — Balakrishnan, the son he and his American wife raised there, would evince through its short, chaotic life a similar blending of idealism with commercialism.

Like many American children of Indian parents, Jay Balakrishnan kept one foot planted in each culture, spending much of his childhood and adolescence in schools in India’s Kerala region. During a summer break from the University of Southern Florida, he discovered computers while working at the Naval Electronics System Command in Charleston; he describes the discovery as a “religious experience.” When he went back to university, he “loaded up on computer-science courses.” After graduation, he worked as a programmer for GTE and later Hughes Helicopter. Meanwhile, in 1978 he bought his first Commodore PET, intending to use it only to do calculations for a course in piloting. But he soon found the PET every bit as entrancing as the big machines he worked with on his day job. He wrote an assembler, initially planning to submit to a magazine as a type-in-listing. However, his friends told him it was good enough to sell commercially, and so Balakrishnan founded Human Engineered Software (HES, or HESWare), out of his apartment on his 25th birthday in June of 1980.

Unlike the other early software companies I’ve profiled on this blog, HES got its start on the relatively unpopular — in North America, that is — Commodore PET. Otherwise, though, this story begins similarly. Balakrishnan wrote all of the early software himself, packaged it himself, shipped it himself when orders came in from the tiny advertisements he took out in magazines and newsletters like Kilobaud, Compute!, and The Midnite Software Gazette. Running on a PET with as little as 8 K of memory, those early products were, like the assembler that got the ball rolling — literally; he named it HESBal — mostly programming tools: a file editor called HESEdit, a BASIC program lister called HESLister.

HES was soon doing well enough for Balakrishnan to quit his job at Hughes. Still, running a one-man software company got exhausting quickly. He had elected to offer the ultimate in customer support in the form of a 24-hour help line; this kept him captive in his apartment waiting for the next ring, his sleep interrupted constantly. Thus when a manufacturer of monitors and other hardware called Universal Supply came to him with an offer to buy the company but let him continue to manage it, he was receptive. Balakrishnan and HESWare moved north to Brisbane, California, where he found a partner in running the operation in the form of an ex-Xerox manager named Ted Morgan. He also now had the funding to reach out to other platforms and other authors. Seeing Britain as a potential untapped source of software for the briefly but hugely popular Commodore VIC-20, he traveled to London to attend a computer show and do some networking in June of 1982. It was here that he met the man whose games would dramatically raise HES’s profile and enrich its bank account: Jeff Minter.

I could easily write several feature articles on Minter and the surrealistic action games which he continues to write to this very day; his distinctive style and psychedelic flair make him both one of gaming’s first auteurs and its most long-lived. But, at least for today, we’ll confine ourselves to his connection with HES. When Balakrishnan met him, he had just founded his long-lived British software house, Llamasoft, on the strength of a Defender clone called Andes Attack. It lacked the skewed originality of Minter’s later games, but Balakrishnan was nevertheless impressed with the fast graphics. He worked out a licensing deal, renamed it Aggressor, and moved it from cassette to a VIC-20 cartridge for the American market. Later that year came the much more original Gridrunner, Minter’s — and HES’s — first big hit. More lovably bizarre VIC-20 and Commodore 64 hits poured out of Minter at the rate of a new game every few months, many showing an odd fixation on ruminants: Attack of the Mutant Camels (probably his best-remembered game), Revenge of the Mutant Camels, Advance of the Megacamel, Metagalactic Llamas: Battle at the Edge of Time. HES’s sales jumped from $1.4 million to $13 million between 1982 and 1983, largely on the strength of cheap and cheerful VIC-20 and 64 cartridges — although Balakrishnan did try to keep his hand in other fields as well, releasing hardware expansions for the VIC-20 and a word processor called, inevitably, HESWriter for the 64.

That year the HES story took another unexpected twist. Parent company Universal Supply had been building equipment largely for Atari and Mattel. That suddenly became a very bad business to be in as the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 became a reality. Balakrishnan and Morgan managed to extricate HES from the collapsing Universal Supply, reincorporating it as an independent entity once again. With stars in their eyes, with everyone telling them their industry represented the next big wave in home entertainment, they now embarked on one of the most spectacular boom-and-busts of the home-computer era.

The first step in any good software flameout is to collect lots and lots of investment capital from folks as entranced as you are by the hype about your industry, but who are nevertheless guaranteed to want their money back when the hype doesn’t pan out. HES accepted huge cash injections from the major Silicon Valley venture-capitalist Tech Venture and from a company called Action Industries, a manufacturer of household knickknacks (!) based in Pennsylvania. Most interestingly, Microsoft also came on board. Their participation led to HES releasing a Commodore 64 version of Multiplan, Microsoft’s first attempt at a spreadsheet program in those years before the Office hegemony. Multiplan represents the only piece of software Microsoft would ever develop for the 64.

The next step is to overextend your distribution network. HES aggressively pushed their software into mass merchandisers like K-Mart and Toys “R” Us, opening the way for other publishers to do the same but paying dearly for the privilege of being first. By 1984 Balakrishan estimated that HES’s games were available through 8000 different outlets, while most competitors were only in 3000. This was good in its way, perhaps, but also meant that HES had to make a lot of copies right from the launch of each new title to have it available in so many places. And that in turn meant that when a new title turned out to be a flop — as did for example HESGames, an Olympic-themed effort that was roundly pummeled in the marketplace by Epyx’s Summer Games — they were left stuck with huge amounts of unsold inventory.

Jay Balakrishnan with Leonard Nimoy

Jay Balakrishnan with Leonard Nimoy

Finally, you have to spend hugely on advertising and promotion in comparison to the amount you spend on actually, you know, writing software. The remade HES made their first big promotional splash at Steve Wozniak’s second (and final) US Festival on Memorial Day Weekend 1983, where they had a big spread inside the tech expo. (At a press conference there HES’s spokesman inexplicably spilled the beans at considerable length about IBM’s still-secret PCjr project, to which HES, like a number of software companies, was privy. IBM was, needless to say, livid. An insider with whom I’m in occasional contact who was there claims the spokesman “might have been stoned — there were lots of drugs at that concert.”) They then rented a sort of permanent floating software exhibition on the retired aircraft carrier and newly minted museum ship Intrepid on Manhattan’s West Side. In early 1984 they made their biggest splash when they acquired the services of Leonard Nimoy as spokesman; if Commodore had used Captain Kirk to make the VIC-20 a raging success, they would use Mr. Spock to do the same for HES. Unfortunately, Nimoy seemed to know even less about computers than William Shatner; when asked what kind of computer he had at home, he said he didn’t know. (Nimoy was making a lot of strange career choices at this time, including driving a car for the Bangles in an incomprehensible music video for an admittedly pretty great song and plugging “erasable programmable logic devices” — Mr. Spock! get it? — something he presumably knew even less about than home computers, for Altera Corporation. InfoWorld magazine shruggingly concluded that he was maybe just “hard up for cash.”)

The somewhat, well, intellectual thrust of these promotional efforts, of using Mr. Spock as spokesman and hawking wares inside a museum, points to an interesting dichotomy about HES. They may have been rushing to hit the center of the mass market, but at the same time they weren’t dumbing down their products to do it. Far from it. HES was pushing hard to define themselves as a maker primarily of “edutainment” products. In a 1984 interview with InfoWorld, Balakrishnan describes an intriguing mix of upcoming high-concept titles, most of which would never see the light of day.

We’ve got a game called Cell Defense, in which you are in charge of your body’s immunological system, and viruses attack you. There are various levels. These affect how fast your cells reproduce and whether you are a sick or healthy organism. You are learning a lot about the body as you play the game.

Then we have another game called Reflections, that’s based on physics, with all kinds of lights and bouncing reflections. Then there’s Life Force, in which you essentially learn about genes and genetics. It has eight levels. In the first one, you create an amoeba, then you get into multi-celled organisms. Man is the seventh level. The eighth is the mystery one in which you create an unknown organism by taking ribosomes and nuclei and putting them together.

Our fourth game is called Ocean Quest, in which you go and look for sunken treasure. As you do that, you learn about undersea life. There are different scenarios that affect the game, such as whether you are in the Pacific or the Atlantic. Of course, undersea life and fish differ according to the region.

Following the videogame crash and burn, conventional wisdom held that the simple action games which had defined digital entertainment for the masses prior to that point were now passé — dangerously so, in fact. Tellingly, in that same InfoWorld interview Balakrishnan manages to never mention Jeff Minter or his games in describing HES’s rise to prominence. HES’s 1984 portfolio, like the bookware phenomenon, can be read as a sign of a home-computer software industry wanting to differentiate itself from videogames for very practical commercial reasons. Yet, just as most of the people producing bookware really, deeply believed in it as a potential revolution in reading, HES had plenty of idealism to accompany their excess. If they oversold how much the computers for which they produced software could actually do, well, that was down at least as much to their own dreamy technological utopianism as a simple need to move product. It was a strange, heady time in computer games.

Of course, it also couldn’t last, and for the overextended, over-expanded HES least of all. As these things so often do, the downfall came amazingly quickly. Leonard Nimoy debuted as HES’s spokesman in March of 1984. InfoWorld published the aforequoted ebullient profile of HES and Balakrishnan in their September 3, 1984, issue. Six weeks later the same magazine announced that “HES nears bankruptcy,” that they were casting about desperately for a buyer from amidst their erstwhile competitors while the investors bayed in outrage and flatly refused to throw good money after bad and the axe fell on two-thirds of their 90-person workforce. Days later they filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. When asked what had happened, Morgan didn’t have a whole of insight to offer: “People stopped buying products.”

The remnants of HES were eventually acquired by Avant-Garde Publishing of Eugene, Oregon, a company which dated from the same year as HES and had its own fleet of eager venture capitalists behind it. Avant-Garde kept the HES name alive for a while; the original plan for the merger had the HES name being used for lower-end, mass-market software, the Avant-Garde name for higher-end IBM and Apple software to be sold through dealers. But, while Avant-Garde did keep a number of older HES titles in circulation for a time, they released just one new one under the label. Within a couple of years Avant-Garde too would be gone, justifiably so in light of cheesy efforts like Joe Theismann’s Pro Football, Dave Winfield’s Batter Up!, and Slugfest: Chris Evert-Lloyd Tennis, which purported to teach you or your kids how to play their respective sports with the help of their respective athlete endorsers.

Jay Balakrishnan continued undeterred as a serial entrepreneur. By the January 1985 Consumer Electronics Show he had already started a new outfit called Solid State Software to develop a new line of productivity software for the trusty old Commodore 64. The circumstance were, mind you, quite a bit different from the glory days of HES. At the January 1984 CES you couldn’t get behind the facade of HES’s grandiose exhibit to see him unless you were a VIP. In January 1985 Info magazine found him sitting behind “a card table in an 8′ X 8′ booth with a stack of 2-color brochures. How times change.”

(Print sources include: the January 1985 Creative Computing; the May 19 1983 Popular Computing Weekly; the September 3 1984, October 15 1984, October 29 1984, and November 19 1984 InfoWorld; Info #6; the October 11 1985 MicroTimes; the February 1981 and April 1986 Compute!. Online sources include articles in The New Indian Express and Rick Melick’s site. The photographs come from InfoWorld. And my anonymous source for the US Festival anecdote shall remain anonymous…)

 
 

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Ultima IV

There’s lots of somethings to be said for sheer audacity in art, for a willingness to stick your neck out and give your audience something they never, ever expected from you. I think sometimes about how the first folks who listened to Revolver must have felt when the erstwhile cuddly Fab Four unleashed the otherworldly chaos of “Tomorrow Never Knows”; how the first buyers of Achtung, Baby must have felt when they hit the play button and heard not the expected soaring anthem but the grinding industrial murk of “Zoo Station”; how, to choose something I’ve already written a bit about here on this blog, viewers who tuned into The Prisoner‘s “Living in Harmony” episode must have felt when instead of a spy drama they got a Western that refused to reveal itself as a dream sequence but instead just kept going and going right through the show’s running time. Lots and lots of people run screaming from these sorts of switcheroos. As for me, though… they always send a thrill up my spine. A willingness to rip it up and start again is pretty high on the list of things likely to draw me to a creator.

Ultima IV

I get some of that thrill when I think about those first people who booted up Ultima IV expecting to create a party via the usual min/maxing routine, only to be greeted with a simple story with the gravitas of a parable — a parable about, well, you.

The day is warm, yet there is a cooling breeze. The latest in a series of personal crises seems insurmountable. You are being pulled apart in all directions.

Yet this afternoon walk in the countryside slowly brings relaxation to your harried mind. The soil and stain of modern high-tech living begins to wash off in layers. That willow tree near the stream looks comfortable and inviting.

The buzz of dragonflies and the whisper of the willow’s swaying branches bring a deep peace. Searching inward for tranquility and happiness, you close your eyes.

A high-pitched cascading sound like crystal wind chimes impinges on your floating awareness. As you open your eyes, you see a shimmering blueness rise from the ground. The sound seems to be emanating from this glowing portal.

There’s the echo of another spiritual journey’s beginning, that undertaken by the narrator of Dante’s Inferno: “In this the midway of our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray, gone from the path direct.”

Ultima IV‘s opening parable culminates in a mysterious gypsy fortune teller who poses a series of ethical dilemmas designed to determine not what class or race you’d like to play but what kind of person you are. Of the eight noble virtues of Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Valor, which ones matter most to you?

Ultima IV

Ultima IV

Ultima IV

By 1985 gaming had already seen its fair share of debates about who the player’s character in a role-playing game or interactive fiction really was. The very term “role-playing” would seem to imply that the player was not just playing herself thrust into another world, that she was playing a role there, performing as one of Gary Gygax’s idealized Shakespearian thespians. Infocom also had tried to sell their players, to decidedly mixed success and occasional howls of outrage, on seeing interactive fiction through the eyes of people who weren’t necessarily the same as them. For the grand experiment of Ultima IV to succeed it was critical that the opposite point of view prevail, that the player feel it to really be her in the game. Richard Garriott: “Since this is a game about the player’s personal virtues, it is very important that one always identifies with the character and feels responsible for the character’s deeds.”

In a computer game if you roll random dice, you’re just going to sit there and go roll, roll, roll. You get all maxed-out numbers and it’s, “Okay, I’ll take that one.” If you don’t let them roll out and you let them choose numbers, well, it’s kind of a fixed equation. Once they know the map and the game, they can make the perfect decision as to exactly what their stats should be if they are aware that the equations are internal. So I don’t want to give you either of those.

Ultima IV I wanted to be a very personal experience. The reason is because in most of these games you are the puppeteer running this puppet around the world. If this puppet is doing bad things it’s not you, it’s the puppet. You can detach. And I wanted this game to be about personal and social responsibility. It is very important that this be you in the world of Britannia, not something you’ve rolled up. If I’m the computer nerd at home wanting to be a big barbarian going around crushing things, I still want to be a computer nerd down there, in nice clothing. The essence of that character is really the essence of you as an individual.

The gypsy’s questions were designed to tease out the player’s real beliefs and place her in the role in the game that best suited her own personality — to whatever extent seven questions determining the most important to her of eight abstract virtues could manage such a feat, of course. Richard again:

We worked on the phrasing of those questions. Unfortunately, there’s no really perfect way to ask those questions that we’ve yet discovered. Here’s something else that’s interesting. When we were working on this system, I said, “Here’s what I want to do for character development.” I went around to everyone in the office, saying, “Here’s these eight virtues along with a short description as to what I mean by them. Give me your ranking, one to eight, as to how important you think they are.” And then about a week later, after we generated those questions, we went back to the same people and said, “Answer these questions.” Although our company was only about twenty people large, everybody except two people had the exact same outcome to the questions as they did to the judgment. And those two who were wrong only had two transposed in the list. And so it turns out you get the exact same responses as you do to an intellectual discussion of it.

For the record, every time I answer the questions Compassion trumps everything else, and thus I end up a bard starting just outside Lord British’s castle. I don’t know whether this necessarily represents the person I always am, but it’s certainly a good approximation of the person I’d most like to be. So, at least for me, the system does indeed seem to work pretty well.

After that radical opening, the screen which greets the player after the gypsy has passed her final judgment must have struck many as comforting in its familiarity.

Ultima IV

Yes, we’re back to our familiar view with our familiar alphabet soup of single-letter commands to explore the world. That world is now named Britannia rather than Sosaria; it was so renamed after Lord British united the land under his rule following the passing of the Three Ages of Darkness represented by Ultima I, II, and III. The fact that the geography is completely different from that of the previous game is similarly handwaved away, attributed to a great upheaval — must have been one hell of an upheaval — following the destruction of Exodus in Ultima III. The fact that Ultima II inexplicably took place on our Earth is, as per developing Ultima tradition, completely ignored; there are limits to what even the most dedicated ret-conner can accomplish. Also simply ignored is the last of the stupid attempts at anachronistic cleverness that dogged the early Ultimas, the big reveal at the end of Ultima III that Exodus was really a giant computer; in the Ultima IV manual’s version he was just your everyday world-domination-bent evil wizard.

Importantly, this new world of Britannia that you enter is not under attack from yet another evil wizard, or an evil anything else for that matter. This is one of the few CRPGs ever made, and almost certainly the first, to neither have an evil wizard nor to take place in some melodramatic Age of Darkness. Richard has drawn parallels between the Britannia of Ultima IV and Renaissance Italy — or, even better, King’s Arthur’s Britain at the height of the golden age of Camelot; between the player’s quest to become an Avatar of Virtue and the similarly spiritual quest for the Holy Grail. This quest is necessary not despite the land being peaceful and prosperous but because of it, because times of peace and prosperity are the only ones that allow the luxury of pondering a philosophy for living.

That said, becoming an Avatar of Virtue actually represents only the first step of the two-step process of solving Ultima IV. The second step requires you to descend into the Stygian Abyss, a remnant of the Dante-inspired Hell that was the centerpiece of Richard’s first conception for the game, and recover something called the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. The final dungeon serves to hammer home the game’s rhetorical message via a series of puzzles which require you to apply what you’ve learned about the system of virtues, but everything that happens after you become an Avatar is otherwise much less interesting than what happens before. Just as what the Holy Grail represents to Lancelot is far more important to the legend than Galahad’s eventual drinking from it, the recovery of the physical Codex comes as something of an anticlimax to your achievement of Avatarhood. Richard Garriott himself said as much in later interviews, calling the Codex “largely irrelevant” to the real message of Ultima IV, even admitting that he had trouble remembering where or what the Codex actually was. Mostly it just allows Ultima IV a bit more of a traditional CRPG structure, serving as a stand-in for the usual evil wizard’s Whatchamacallit of Infinite Power that can be recovered only by defeating him at the bottom of the last and cruelest dungeon.

Let’s talk, then, about that first, more interesting stage of the game. Becoming an Avatar of Virtue requires that you demonstrate your dedication to each of the eight virtues through your deeds over many hours of adventuring in Britannia. When you have proved yourself worthy of “ascension” in a particular virtue, and have collected a necessary entry rune and a mantra, you can visit a shrine to that virtue and meditate to achieve one-eighth of your eventual Avatarhood. Ultima IV boldly applies these sorts of mystical trappings to an ethical philosophy which carefully avoids the subject of God in favor of simple practicality. Richard Garriott: “If I beat you up, you are going to be angry at me and will be on my back. If I’m nice to you, you are likely to be nice back. It makes good rational sense.” This has been expressed more rigorously by philosophers for millennia now as the idea of enlightened self-interest: you do best for yourself by doing well by others. Parsing a distinction which admittedly really exists only in his mind, Richard claims to ignore morals, which to him represent decisions about right and wrong based on feelings or spiritual beliefs, in favor of ethics, which are grounded in simple, rational common sense. A similar determination to remove the supernatural from the fantastic is everywhere in Ultima, perhaps as a byproduct of Richard being the son of a scientist who would probably have become one himself had Dungeons and Dragons and computers not stepped in. Richard saw Ultima IV‘s magic system, for instance, not as something mystical and mysterious but as merely the natural science of a world that just happens to have different natural laws than our own.

In developing Ultima IV‘s system of ethics, Richard began with a long jumble of possible virtues. Among them were three rather extreme abstractions on this list of abstractions: Truth, Love, and Courage. Watching The Wizard of Oz one day, it struck him that L. Frank Baum may have started with a similar list: “I thought of the Scarecrow looking for a brain, which was Truth; the Tin Man looking for a heart, Love; and the Cowardly Lion, looking for Courage.” It then occurred to his scientist’s mind that these three could be seen as core principles which could be combined to form most of the other items on his list. Honesty is Truth alone; Compassion is Love alone; Valor is Courage alone; Truth tempered by Love is Justice; Love and Courage are Sacrifice; Courage and Truth are Honor; Truth and Love and Courage all together become Spirituality; the absence of all three is Humility. Richard, who loved his symbols, devised a cool-looking diagram to represent the relationships, which ended up inadvertently — or at least subconsciously — resembling Judaism’s Star of David.

The symbol of Ultima IV's system of virtues. The three traditional primary colors represent the core principles: blue is Truth, red Courage, yellow Compassion. They combine to form the eight virtues (including Humility, which contains none of the three and is thus the black border).

The symbol of Ultima IV’s system of virtues. The three traditional primary colors represent the core principles: blue is Truth, red Courage, yellow Compassion. They combine to form the eight virtues (including Humility, which contains none of the three and is thus the black border).

A more readable if less ornate diagram of the virtues

A more readable if less ornate diagram of the virtues.

As a system of belief, it’s perhaps not exactly compelling for an adult (although, hey, cults have been founded on less). As an ethical philosophy… well, let’s just say that Richard Garriott is unlikely to ever rival Kant in university philosophy curricula. There are plenty of points to quibble about: Honesty, Compassion, and Valor are, at least in this formulation, really just synonyms for the core principles that supposedly compose them; the idea that Spirituality is made up of all the virtues lumped together seems kind of strange, as does its presence at all given Richard’s determinedly materialist worldview; the idea of Humility as literally an ethical vacuum seems truly bizarre. (Richard later clarified in interviews that he would have preferred this latter to be Pride, but, “Pride not being a virtue, we have to use Humility”; make of that what you will.) And of course the names of the virtues themselves are rather painfully redolent of the life of a Dungeons and Dragons-obsessed teenager. But poking holes in the system is really missing the point. Ultima IV gave its audience permission to think about these things, laid out in a cool if only superficially logical way. The fact that these ethics still speak the language of Dungeons and Dragons was a good thing, because that’s the language most of Ultima IV‘s audience spoke. Richard himself didn’t claim any mystical truth for the system, freely admitting in interviews that it was essentially arbitrary, that dozens of other formulations could have served his purposes just as well. The one real overriding concern I have with the system is that it can lead to a possibly dangerous ethical absolutism; the only place where Ultima IV does even lip service to the idea that there can be conflicts between its virtues, debate about their merits, is in those questions that open the game. (To his credit, Richard Garriott also spotted the danger, and, indeed, dedicated Ultima V, in many ways an even more thoughtful work than its more heralded predecessor, to exploring the danger of ethical absolutism. Richard characterized that game as, “Now that you’ve shown everybody Avatarhood, let’s show everybody why it’s bad.”)

The way that you build (or lose) mastery of the various virtues is by far the most interesting mechanic in the game, the core thing that makes Ultima IV Ultima IV and the core reason for the game’s stellar reputation today. As you go about your business in its world, Ultima IV is quietly monitoring your actions. If you cheat the blind magic-store proprietor by sneakily paying her less than you should, you lose Honesty; if you’re square with her, you gain it. Running away from enemies costs you Valor; standing and fighting gains it. Giving blood to the healer gains you Sacrifice; refusing costs it. Giving money to beggars gains you Compassion; refusing them… well, you get the picture. Unsurprisingly, the idea has its roots in an admittedly not-widely-used rule in Dungeons and Dragons, which recommends that Dungeon Masters monitor and chart the actions of their players in relation to their professed alignment — “lawful evil,” “chaotic good,” etc. Drift enough and the Dungeon Master could actually impose a new alignment on you, possibly with drastic consequences if, say, your god demanded a certain alignment. In Ultima IV, your progress in the virtues is, inevitably, nothing more than a system of numerical attributes not fundamentally unlike other character attributes — Strength, Experience, Gold, etc. Still, just as Ultima IV tries to make character creation more than a series of dice rolls, it strains mightily to make the virtues an honest reflection of your attitudes and behaviors rather than just a system to be optimized. It hides all of the numbers from you. The only way to learn of your progress in the virtues is to visit the Seer Hawkwind in Lord British’s castle, and even then he just describes your progress in vague generalities. Especially in this day and age, when all of the virtue system’s mechanics have been meticulously documented, we understand all too well that it’s possible to, say, raise Compassion to Avatar level just by giving over and over to the same beggar in the same town. But back in the day particularly, when the system’s underpinnings were not so well understood, it really did feel organic.

The other mechanics of solving Ultima IV — the minutiae of classes and equipment and monsters and leveling up, the puzzles and quests and how to solve them, the locations of towns and dungeons and shrines and artifacts, the seven companions (each representing one of the seven virtues you didn’t choose as most important to you at the beginning of the game) you must eventually round up to complete your adventuring party, etc., etc. — have likewise already been documented as extensively as those of any videogame ever produced. In addition to the countless FAQs, blogs, and web sites generated by the franchise’s many still-rabid fans, at least half a dozen entire books have been published with detailed descriptions of exactly how to best play and solve the game. Most of the nuts and bolts of Ultima IV‘s engine merely extend the technology that Richard had already built through Ultima III in fairly commonsense ways; Richard has often stated that Akalabeth through Ultima III were mostly about improving his technology, Ultima IV about applying his technology at long last to a really worthwhile design. So, I’m not going to talk about most of that in a great deal of depth here; there’s little or nothing I could add to the mountain of practical data at every web surfer’s fingertips, and few fundamental changes to note in the mechanics I described in earlier articles about the franchise. You’ve got a (larger) world map to traverse along with cities, towns, castles, and dungeons; you’ve got horses, ships, and other vehicles to acquire; you’ve got food and equipment to manage (along with, this time, spell reagents, and for a party that will eventually number eight rather than the four of Ultima III); you’ve got lots of people to talk to (this time with a keyword-based pseudo-parser to deepen the interactive possibilities); and of course you’ve got monsters to fight. By now you know the drill.

At this point I probably should confess something: I’m far from sold on Ultima IV as a holistic, playable game. Oh, the concept of the virtues that overlays and underlies the whole is as brilliant and inspiring as I and so many others have already said it is. But you don’t spent all that large a percentage of your time in Ultima IV directly engaging with that concept. You rather spend a whole lot of time, easily hundreds of hours worth if you play the game “straight,” without walkthroughs or spoilers, on lots of things that are often less than compelling at best, dull at average, horrifically, unfairly cruel at worst. Take (please!) the much-vaunted new magic system, in which you have to prepare every single spell you cast by buying its reagents and mixing them together one at a time, a process absolutely devoid of interest after you figure out a given spell’s recipe, one that entails about half a dozen key presses for every single spell you prepare; you can easily spend ten minutes just getting the spells ready for a major dungeon expedition. Combat, never a strong point for Ultima, is more infuriating here than ever; you now have to micromanage up to eight characters through the busywork of taking out the endless hordes of uninteresting monsters that constantly attack when you just want to, you know, walk to the next damn town already. (The number of monsters in each attacking group is actually keyed to the number of characters in your party. In an interesting example of unintended consequences, this means that just about all guides to the game recommend keeping to a party of one as long as possible to try to stave off some of the soul-killing boredom of combat for as long as possible.)

Ultima IV itself doesn’t do a very good job of evincing virtues like Compassion, Justice, even Honor. This is a staggeringly difficult game, a fact that gets rather obscured by the fact that most people playing the game and/or writing about it today are mostly replaying it, and usually with the benefit of that aforementioned copius store of FAQs and walkthroughs. Taken without all that, the way a kid who found it under the tree at Christmas 1985 would have had to approach it, it’s honestly hard to imagine anyone solving it unaided. The design is a spiderweb of all but invisible strands; fail to trace any one of them and you won’t win. Most of the cities in the game are marked on the cloth map that came in the package, but just enough are left unmarked that you’ll need to to scour the whole map square by tedious square to find everything. One village sits at the center of a huge inland lake, its existence impossible to detect unless you happen to meet a pirate ship on the lake — a vanishingly unusual occurrence — fight it, steal it, and take it for a sail. Or you can find the village if you manifest an apparent death wish and sail a ship on the open ocean directly into a whirlpool. Many of the towns and castles contain critical secret doors that are distinguished by the presence of one extra pixel amidst the grainy graphics.

See that single white dot above the character that looks kind of like a graphics artifact of some sort? That's a game-critical secret door.

See that single white dot above the character that looks kind of like a graphics artifact of some sort? That’s a game-critical secret door.

Conversations can be another nightmare. Every character in the game responds to three keywords given in the manual: “Name,” “Job,” and “Health” (no, I don’t know how Richard settled on that particular inexplicable trio). You’re expected to find other keywords by asking about things the character mentions in those three generic openers, in addition to following up on clues gained in other places of the “Ask XX about YY” variety. But, inevitably, the vast majority of promising-looking words any character mentions are actually not keywords at all. Conversations quickly devolve into a rote entering of every noun or active verb a character uses, with 90 percent of them resulting in “That, I cannot help thee with.” Miss one critical word in a conversation out of sloth or negligence, and that’s a clue overlooked, a thread untraced, and your chance for victory forsworn. Each town or castle, which number sixteen in total, is populated with dozens of individuals. Miss that critical fellow hiding out in a visually impenetrable glade at the extreme edge of the map, and you’re screwed. Miss the single pixel representing a secret door, and you’re screwed. When you finally get to very bottom of the Stygian Abyss and stand before the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, if you fail to answer correctly an out-of-left-field question whose answer requires the ability to read Richard Garriott’s mind, you’re screwed — teleported back to the surface to battle your way down through eight levels of the fiercest creatures in the game and try again. If you were playing in 1985, without the benefit of emulator save states, you would get to do this again and again until you gave up or, as many people finally did, called Origin’s hint line for the answer. If none of what I’ve just described sounds like all that much fun, that’s because for all but the most dogged of players of today it’s really not. Like so many old-school adventure designs, it rewards not cleverness but sheer persistence, a willingness to lawnmower through map after conversation after battle no matter how boring it is.

That, then, is the flip side to Ultima IV the transcendent masterwork: Ultima IV the fiddly, borderline unplayable, tedious mishmash. It’s absurdly easy to make any adventure game impossible, which is one of the many reasons that a designer needs playtesters, and lots of them. Richard Garriott, however, had basically no feedback on many parts of his design. In an interview for Computer Gaming World published shortly after the game, he let drop the bombshell that he was the only person who had managed to complete the game when Origin put it in a box and unleashed it on the world.

A few years ago Michael Abbott, academic and “Brainy Gamer,” sparked quite some conversation with a blog post telling how his students had rejected Ultima IV as “boring.” Predictable outrage toward those kids today followed in the comments and the heaps of reaction posts from other bloggers. Yet my own reaction is to side with Dr. Abbot’s students; Ultima IV is, most of the time, pretty boring. Good on them for recognizing this, I say, for refusing to get sucked into doing boring things for the sake of it. I think kids today are at a minimum every bit as smart as those of my generation were when Ultima IV first hit store shelves, thoroughly capable of deciding that a game is mostly just wasting their time. We shouldn’t begrudge them that freedom if more refined entertainments make their verdict an uncomfortable one for us. Ultima IV stands for me as a hugely important work in the history of its medium, but also one that hasn’t stood the test of time all that well. I love to think about it, love the fact that it exists, that Richard Garriott had the courage to make it — but just thinking about playing it makes me tired. Like a work of conceptual art, to some extent the real power of Ultima IV today is just the fact of its existence.

Of course I’m well aware as a digital historian that my modern take on Ultima IV is a fundamentally anachronistic one. In 1985, the game represented an all but unrivaled gateway to imagination. Solving an Ultima wasn’t really the point; these were worlds to explore, to revisit over a period of months or years until the next Ultima came out (Ultima V would be almost three years in arriving). Everything about Ultima IV — packaged in its big, grandiose box with two big, ornate manuals, with its die-cast ankh that countless boys stuck on a chain and wore to school around their necks, with its big cloth map — marked it as something special, something to be cherished and savored.

The ankh would join the Silver Serpent as one of the enduring symbols of Ultima, a supposed visual representation of the Way of the Avatar to stand alongside the diagram of the virtues. It was yet another bit of pop-culture detritus that made its way into Ultima: Richard first saw it in the movie Logan’s Run, where it served as the symbol of an underground resistance movement, thought it looked cool and “positive,” and stuck it in the game. When he learned that it meant “life and rebirth” to ancient Egyptians, that just made it that much cooler.

The ankh would join the Silver Serpent as one of the enduring symbols of Ultima, a supposed visual representation of the Way of the Avatar to stand alongside the diagram of the virtues. It was yet another bit of pop-culture detritus that made its way into Ultima: Richard first saw it in the movie Logan’s Run, where it served as the symbol of an underground resistance movement, thought it looked cool and “positive,” and stuck it in the game. When he learned that it meant “life and rebirth” to ancient Egyptians, that just made it that much cooler.

When you discovered a new village tucked away in some corner of the map you didn’t complain about the unfairness of it all, you rejoiced at having uncovered another corner of this fantastic world. Actually solving the game was something that few managed, but it didn’t really matter that much anyway. The point was the journey. Even the price contributed: showing an instinct for manipulating perception through pricing that would have done Apple proud, Origin’s suggested list price gave the game a street price of $50 to $55, about $20 more than the typical title. Far from cutting into its sales, the high price just made the game all the more desirable, all the more special. This experience of Ultima IV was absolutely specific to its time and place, not something we can recapture today no matter how much we blog or commentate or notate. Yes, the magic of Ultima IV was ephemeral, but in its day it was very, very powerful.

By way of illustration, let me tell you about Brian. Brian was one of my best friends in middle and high school, his attitudes fairly typical of the cracking and pirating underground in which he was quite thoroughly immersed. Like most of his friends in the scene, Brian didn’t so much play games as collect them. He had hundreds, maybe thousands of Commodore 64 floppies containing virtually every remotely notable game released for the platform in North America or Europe. Most got booted once or twice, to see what the graphics were like; a few action games would grab his attention in a bigger way for a while, but were soon set aside in favor of haunting the pirate BBS network and enjoying the social dramas of the cracking scene (let me tell you, teenage girls had nothing on this crew). Ultima IV, though, was different. It’s the only game I can ever remember Brian actually buying, the only one more complicated than Boulderdash for which he read the manual, into which he put a real effort. Like a hundred thousand other kids, he hung the map on his bedroom wall, wore the ankh to school. Oh, I’m pretty sure he never came close to finishing it. He probably played it much less, all told, than most similar kids who didn’t have the same embarrassment of gaming riches from which to choose. But the fact that his teenage heavy-metal nihilism went away when he talked about the virtues, that it awoke some other — better? — part of him that was impervious to every other game… I’ve always remembered that. Ultima, and Ultima IV in particular, was just like that.

Chester Bolingbroke, better known as the CRPG Addict, was another Brian.

I wrote each [virtue] with its definition on an index card and every morning I shuffled the cards and chose one at random. That one, I did my best to practice for the day. If honesty came up, I was careful to tell no lies throughout the day. If it was sacrifice, I looked for ways to do something charitable.

Not many, I suspect, would admit to deriving what amounts to their religion from a computer game. But I had rejected conventional religion even as a pre-teen. I balked at Judeo-Christian doctrines that seemed both haphazard and arbitrary: meticulous rules about food and dress, but none about the need to actively seek out and destroy evil (my interpretation of “valor”); commandments against adultery and sabbath-breaking, but none against assault and slavery. Ultima IV, on the other hand, offered a comprehensive and completely nondenominational — secular, even — system of virtue. It fit me like a glove.

There were hundreds of thousands of kids just like Brian and Chester. Ultima IV caused its players to set aside their angst and their irony and try to improve themselves in school lunch rooms and family dinner tables across the land. It was far from the first game with artistic aspirations, far from the first to want to be about something more than escapism; 1985 alone also brought Mindwheel, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and Balance of Power. But those admittedly more philosophically sophisticated efforts appealed mostly to a different, older audience; the average age of the average Infocom buyer was north of thirty, while very few kids indeed had the wherewithal to corner a Macintosh long enough to play Balance of Power even had they been interested in the vagaries of geopolitics. Part of the magic of Ultima IV was that it had been created by a kid just like the ones who mostly played it, raised on Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars, more comfortable with a movie than a novel. Richard Garriott spoke their language, came from the same place they were coming from. Ultima IV, the last of the one-man-band Ultimas, still stands as the most personal expression he would ever create. When he said that ethics matter, that we have the power to choose our values and to live according to them, it resonated because it reflected, as art should, his own lived experience. Yes, many of its players would outgrow Ultima IV‘s simplistic take on ethics, just as many would outgrow the game itself. But hopefully few of that small minority who completed it ever forgot its closing exhortation, delivered as it was in Richard Garriott’s best teenage-Dungeon-Master diction:

Thou must know that the quest to become an Avatar is the endless quest of a lifetime. Avatarhood is a living gift. It must always and forever be nurtured to flourish. For if thou dost stray from the paths of virtue, thy way may be lost forever. Return now unto thine own world. Live there as an example to thy people, as our memory of thy gallant deeds serves us.

(You can download Ultima IV for free from GOG.com. Sources for this article are the same as for the last. I borrowed the diagram of the virtues from Eliott Wall.)

 

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The Road to IV

Ultima IV

Late in the fall of 1983, when it was clear that Ultima III was turning into a huge success and thus that their new company Origin Systems was going to be a viable operation, Robert Garriott came to his little brother Richard with a forlorn plea. Robert, you may remember, had for months been commuting via his private Cessna between the Garriotts’ family home in Houston, whose garage served as Origin’s development studio and assembly line, and North Andover, Massachusetts, where his wife Marcy worked for Bell Labs. It wasn’t, to say the least, an ideal way to run a marriage. Would Richard and the rest of the fledgling company agree to move to North Andover for three years? After that Marcy expected a promotion that should make it much easier for she and Robert to move, and, assuming the company was still alive, they’d then move wherever Richard and the rest liked. Young, unattached, and ready for adventure as they were, just about everyone agreed. They packed their cars with their personal possessions and rented two trucks to fill with supplies, computers, and other equipment — most notably the precious shrink-wrap machine — and headed northeast just weeks later.

That winter was a bad one, with some of the worst storms of the decade. They hit major snow before they got out of Arkansas. Anyone who’s ever seen a Texan trying to drive on snow and ice can perhaps attest to what a miracle it was that they got to North Andover at all. Once there, the snow and bitter cold just continued for months. That first winter wasn’t the best introduction to the place that Richard still calls “the frozen wastes of New England.” He totaled his car on the icy streets within days; his house right next door to his brother Robert’s, which he rented with Chuck Bueche and Mary Fenton, was burglarized not once but twice, resulting in the loss of thousands of dollars worth of computers and home electronics; he and his buddies couldn’t seem to connect with any of the locals, who viewed their Texas accents and strange business of making computer games with suspicion. Things wouldn’t get much better; Richard in particular remained a hopeless fish out of water throughout his time in New England.

The only thing to do was to throw himself into life inside the Origin bubble. He made his own fun, instituting a daily five o’clock ritual called “Rubbaser war,” using $75 graphite-and-steel guns that could shoot rubber bands at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour; they hit with such force that the combatants had to wear helmets. He also continued to celebrate his favorite holiday with elaborate Halloween parties, even if the number of people around him eager to attend them had rather dwindled since the move. The moment when the locals decided once and for all that they wanted nothing to do with him may well have been the first of these: Richard, who was great at preparing for such big events but not so great at cleaning up after himself, left unnervingly realistic-looking bloody body parts strewn across his lawn through much of the following winter.

With Chuck Bueche’s action game Caverns of Callisto having failed to set the industry on fire, Origin now concentrated on, as their tagline would eventually have it, “creating worlds” in the form of big, ambitious games. Soon after the move to New England, they hired Dave Albert away from Penguin Software. Albert, who had majored in journalism at university and served as editor and writer for SoftSide magazine before coming to Penguin, would help Robert Garriott to put a professional face to this collection of young hackers. Albert also brought with him Greg Malone and his game in progress, the very original if polarizing oriental CRPG Moebius. Before releasing their next slate of games after Ultima III and Caverns of Callisto, Origin signed a distribution deal with Electronic Arts, becoming one of the first of what would eventually be quite a number of EA “Affiliated Labels.” This gave the still tiny Origin a badly needed presence in mass-market chains like Toys “R” Us and Sears.

Origin stretched out its tendrils in many intriguing directions during these early days. They entered into a contract with Steve Jackson Games — Steve Jackson was a friend of Richard’s from his Austin SCA troupe — to adapt that company’s popular board game Car Wars for the computer. They also agreed to make a computer game to accompany a planned film version of Morgan Llywelyn’s novel Lion of Ireland; Richard would get to spend two weeks on the set in southern Ireland soaking up the ambiance in the name of research. Richard also made tentative plans with none other than Andrew Greenberg of Wizardry fame to collaborate on “the ultimate fantasy role-playing game.” Most of this came to naught: the movie’s financing fell through and it never got made; the ultimate collaboration remained nothing more than talk. Only the Car Wars project survived, and only after a fashion: Chuck Bueche turned the turn-based board game into the real-time CRPG Autoduel over the considerable misgivings of Steve Jackson.

Meanwhile and preeminently, there was Ultima IV, the game that would change everything for Ultima and for Origin. As was his routine by now, Richard started working on it almost from the moment that Ultima III shipped, starting once again from the previous game’s code base and once again designing and coding virtually everything himself on his trusty Apple II. But, like the fourth Wizardry game that was its obvious competitor, it took much longer to complete than anyone had anticipated. Originally slated for Christmas 1984, it took a final desperate dash just to get it out in time for Christmas 1985.

Anticipation grew all the while. For a game to remain in active, continuous development for two years at that time was virtually unprecedented. Truly Richard Garriott must be doing something amazing. The hints and tidbits that he let drop during interviews certainly sounded good: Ultima IV‘s world map would consist of 256 X 256 tiles, 16 times the size of Ultima III‘s 64 X 64-tile world; there would be a full parser-based conversation engine for talking with others; spells would now require reagents to cast, with the finding of their recipes and ingredients a mini-game within the game; dungeons would now contain “rooms” that opened into a tactical map. Yet the thing that Richard kept bringing up most was none of these incremental improvements, but something he insisted marked a change in the very nature of the game. There would be, he said, no evil character to defeat. Instead the player must become a better person, an “Avatar of Virtue.” What was that all about?

Richard Garriott has told many times the story of how Ultima IV came to be. Akalabeth, Ultima I, and Ultima II had, he says, existed for him in a vacuum — or, maybe better said, an echo chamber. Any fan mail or other feedback from players of those games had never reached him because neither California Pacific nor Sierra had bothered to forward it to him. Once Ultima III came out under his own company’s aegis, however, he started getting a flood of letters telling him how fans really played his games. This generally entailed lots of murdering, stealing, and all-around reprehensible behavior. Now, it’s perhaps a bit surprising that this should come as such a shock to Richard, since those early games essentially forced this behavior on the player if she wished to succeed. Still, the letters set it out all out in unmistakeable black and white, as it were. And then there were the truly crazy letters from religious fundamentalists and anti-Dungeons and Dragons activists, which included such lovely epithets as “Satanic perverter of America’s youth.”

The first few of those letters that I got at the age of 22 really bothered me. You sit back and go, “Gosh, I know I’m not a wicked individual, I know I’m not teaching Satan worship, I know I’m not doing any of these things.” But the fact that someone would think so bothered me. It made me want to call the person up and say, “Look, you’re wrong, you just misinterpreted it.” But of course it would do no good to do so.

“People,” Richard said in another interview, “read things into my games that were simply statistical anomalies in the programming. They thought I was putting messages into the game.” To his mind, those first four games were all simply “here’s some money, here’s some weapons, here’s some monsters, go kill them and you win.” Like the Beatles a generation earlier, he now decided to give those who wanted hidden messages something that actually, you know, existed to think about it. Less facetiously, all of this feedback did make him begin to think seriously for the first time about the sorts of messages his games were delivering, to begin to understand they were not “just games,” that they could and did say something about the world. He began to understand that every creative work says something, whether its creator intends it to do so or not. It says something about the person who created it, the culture he came from, the audience to which it’s expected to appeal. Richard wasn’t sure he liked what his games were saying — albeit all but unbeknownst to their creator — so he decided to take conscious control of his message with Ultima IV.

It makes for kind of a beautiful story about a young man discovering himself as an artist, discovering that the work he puts into the world really does matter. And there’s no reason to believe it isn’t true in the large strokes. That said, there are indications that the full story may be at least a bit more complicated than the glib summary that Richard has given in almost thirty years worth of interviews.

In the November 1983 issue of Softline magazine is an interview with Richard in which he describes his plans for the nascent Ultima IV. Already at this stage the player’s goal was to be to become an enlightened avatar by acquiring sixteen attributes — twice as many as in the finished game.

Fifteen attributes represent powers over forces of nature and life, and the final attribute is clairvoyance. The first fifteen attributes may be obtained through certain great deeds in the physical world: areas like those portrayed by all the previous Ultima games. For the final attribute, the adventurer must make a quest into the ninth plane of Hell (presumably through all the lesser planes as well).

The article goes on to state that the resolutely non-bookish Richard had read Dante’s Inferno by way of preparation, “so we can expect the depictions of the planes to be vivid and graphic.”

This is fascinating stuff on a couple of levels. It’s of course always interesting to see how a major work like Ultima IV evolved (if you didn’t find it so, I assume you wouldn’t be reading this blog). It’s interesting that sixteen “attributes” — a word that positively reeks of Dungeons and Dragons — became a more manageable eight virtues. It’s interesting to note how Dante’s Hell turned into the more abstract Stygian Abyss of the final game, doubtless a very wise decision in light of the easily outraged folks already convinced that fantasy role-playing in general and Ultima in particular were the work of Satan. It’s interesting just to note the influence Dante had on Ultima IV, an influence which, for all the words that have been spilled about the game since its release, appears to have gone completely unremarked in all of them.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the timeline of all this. Given magazine lead times, the interview that led to this article must have been done bare weeks or days after Ultima III‘s release — hardly enough time to let Richard receive lots of fan mail and other feedback on the game, internalize it all, and proceed so far down the road to a response in the form of Ultima IV. If we take that as a given, it leaves open just two alternative possibilities: that Sierra at least had in fact been forwarding to Richard his fan mail (this wouldn’t hugely surprise me; demonizing those first two publishers who did so much to give him his start has unfortunately become one of Richard’s less noble hobbies in recent years), or that this feedback, when it arrived, would be a contributory factor to Ultima IV but not quite the prime motivator it’s become in Richard’s telling. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the other factors that may have been at play here.

It seems likely that the real point of genesis of Ultima IV was not a fan letter but rather a television documentary about the Dead Sea Scrolls. This program, mentioned by Richard in interviews but which I unfortunately haven’t been able to identify more specifically, apparently mentioned in passing the belief held by some Christians and Hindus that Jesus Christ visited India during the so-called “unknown years” of his life, that period between about age twelve and thirty which is not described in the New Testament or any other accepted record. Some such folks believe that Jesus was a Hindu “avatar,” a god descended to earth in human form. Richard was captivated by the concept. He wasn’t the first bright young person to seek in the religions of the East a spiritual alternative to the dogmatic rigidity of the Christianity that he saw around him in his daily life. His august company includes the likes of Roger Zelazny, Steve Jobs, and of course a certain four lads from Liverpool. “I am not a religious individual,” he once said, “but I do have difficulty with the scare tactics that religions use to teach ethics, saying you must be good or something bad will happen to you.”

But what was the religious history of the “not religious” Richard? He described it at greatest length to Shay Addams for The Official Book of Ultima:

My family did go to church when I was very young, but by the time I was in my teens we really didn’t. So I went to Sunday school at an interdenominational church, which was a very interesting upbringing because it was extremely interdenominational. I mean, all sorts of different sects of Christianity as well as Judaism and who knows what else — I was too young to know what else might have been there. But it was very interesting the way Sunday school was taught in this church, which I really believe was an amazingly responsible thing to do: they would read a Biblical story that had a moral to it, and they would tell you why this means achieved this end, and then say, “This is a story put in the Bible to teach this lesson.” Christians believe it because it was recorded in this way, and so on, and they would explain it to you not as “this is fact” but as “this is a story that exists for this purpose.”

Although I was a child, I accepted it as fact, literally, but they didn’t tell me this was fact — that you must believe or you are going to Hell. As an adult, I could reflect upon it and say, “I don’t have to believe that. I understand why it was told, and why it was recorded. But it is my choice as to whether I believe it or not.” My eldest brother is religious; myself and Robert are not. We had a choice, though, which is the point. That is why I find it amazingly responsible, the way they brought us up. My father, for instance, was not religious and my mother only somewhat religious, but they believed it was important that their children have that upbringing as a knowledge base, and they found a place where they could get it. So, we all got to make those choices as adults. I thought that was very responsible on my parents’ part and pretty rare.

The factors that made the notion of an interdenominational church so appealing to the pragmatic Richard were likely the same that drew him to the story of Jesus as Hindu avatar: an emphasis on shared spirituality and shared ethics over the niceties of religious dogma. He became fascinated with Hinduism and in particular with Hindu Yoga. Their influence would be all over that first conception of Ultima IV he outlined for Softline, and internalized somewhat more subtly into the finished game.

They have a belief that there are sixteen ways you could purify yourself. In one of these sixteen ways you would get some sort of power, spiritual power, based on that. Some Yogis can kind of like stop their heart and other bodily functions and things of this nature, and I believe these people can literally do those physical things. I’m not saying why they can do them, but apparently the biggest, most powerful Yogis can even do things like teleport themselves to other places on the planet, which I have never seen personally and am somewhat skeptical of, but you never know. But it’s a very interesting thing that the Hindus believe Christ was a very powerful Yogi who, when he studied with them, attained the most powerful level, the avatar. The culmination of Yogis is to become an avatar, and the definition of an avatar is someone who has purified themselves in all sixteen of these ways.

There are five ways of purifying your physical body, for example, and five ways of purifying your spirit, and so on, and the last one, the sixteenth way, was to become one with God Himself. Interestingly enough, to this day Hindus say there have been two avatars in existence throughout history: one was a woman who predates written history, and the second one was Christ.

Garriott’s conception of Hinduism and Yoga is, shall we say, a somewhat idiosyncratic and confused one, steeped at least as much in Dungeons and Dragons and his work-hard-and-achieve upbringing as Hindu or Biblical scripture; this was after all still the kid who had named the villain in Ultima III “Exodus” just because it sounded cool. Thus we have Christ “leveling up” until he becomes an avatar — a word which itself means something different in Hinduism from what Richard seems to think it means — at level 16. Still, what Richard learned or thought he learned about Hinduism and Yoga would remain a critical piece of Ultima IV.

If we postulate a new concern with the messages that his games were sending and a renewed interest in religion — particularly Hinduism — as two legs of the three-legged stool on which rests Ultima IV, the last must be something even more universal: the simple life experience of growing up. Richard had, truth be told, lived a pretty sheltered existence to this point in the bosom of his family and NASA and his Dungeons and Dragons buddies and later of the University of Texas and his SCA troupe. Escapism, whether into fantasy or just the well-scrubbed safety of high-school science fairs, is an obvious running theme. By Richard’s own admission, he was if anything quite immature for his age when Origin decamped for New England. But now he was suddenly living in a house he and his friends were renting for themselves, far from home in the “frozen wastes” of Massachusetts. He was becoming an adult at last, with adult responsibilities.

Lord British in leather

Lord British in leather

Richard started to feel his oats a bit during this period. He found his rather mild rebellious streak later than do many of us, but this did give him the luxury of something teenage rebels mostly lack: money. And so he replaced the practical car he had totaled in the snow with a new Mitsubishi Starion painted a striking jet black. He took to dressing in black leather pants and jacket, with studded bracelets around his wrists. He grew a single strand of hair into a long, braided pony tail that stretched beyond his shoulder blades. His relationship with his “extraordinarily conservative” brother and next-door neighbor Robert became decidedly strained; it seems Robert was usually more inclined to agree with his other neighbors than Richard regarding the latter’s parties and other antics. Warren Spector, a game designer who would become an important contributor to later Ultimas, was working as an assistant editor at Steve Jackson Games in Austin at this time. He describes the version of Richard that he glimpsed for the first time during one of the latter’s occasional return visits to Austin thus: “In drove this rock star in his Mitsubishi, all black. Got out, all black, bling everywhere. I was thinking, okay, I’m in the wrong line of work, I’ve got to find a way to work with this guy!”

The changes were not just external. Richard went through something of a minor existential crisis: “I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing anymore. I tried to figure out who I was and what I was going to do next.” Trivial as it may sound, when Robert Garriott shook his head in embarrassment and the neighbors scowled at the body parts strewn across his lawn after Halloween or the empty trash cans that remained unretrieved at roadside for days on end, he was learning that actions — or, as the case may be, inaction — has consequences. All of these factors led Richard, like so many idealistically-inclined young men before him, to try to develop a philosophy of life that made sense to him. Richard was unique, however, in that he planned to put it all into a computer game — indeed, he saw doing so almost as a duty. He was well aware that the audience for his games was a pretty young and impressionable one, the most common demographic category being an adolescent boy.

If someone spends 100 hours playing my game, I have 100 hours of the input that makes that person what they are. With that comes, in my mind, a sense of responsibility regarding the content of what I’m going to pipeline into that individual for 100 hours. That was really the kernel thought that started what has now really changed Ultima henceforth and probably forever.

He set himself no less a task than the development of a complete code of ethics, a set of rules for living. As interesting as he found Hinduism and other religious traditions, it was very important to him that his rules for living must be explicitly divorced from any sort of supernatural agency. Some of the most brilliant thinkers in history, a list including Plato, Kant, and Nietzsche just for starters, devoted their lives to wrestling with the same task. Now the 22-year-old college drop-out Richard Garriott hung up a whiteboard, bought a stack of books, and prepared to do the same. The biggest issues he’d wrestled with for previous Ultimas were how many hit points this or that monster should have or how many experience points it should take to raise a character’s level. Now he was trying to devise a complete, internally consistent system of moral philosophy. It was a heady change indeed. Rather typically, Richard found the basic building blocks of the system of ethics he would finally include in Ultima IV not in any of the aforementioned highbrow philosophers but in The Wizard of Oz.

And that makes a pretty good place to stop for today. Next time we’ll look more closely at the ethical system he devised, along with much else in the finished game. Before I let you go, though, I do want to ask you to think about just what a remarkable conceptual leap Richard Garriott was making here, a leap made all the more remarkable by the fact that he did it all on its own, in a vacuum that still contained barely a whiff of our contemporary notions of serious games or ludic rhetoric, and in the genre of the CRPG that had heretofore been about little more than killing monsters and taking their stuff, with none of the higher-toned literary aspirations that Infocom and their competitors had brought to the text adventure.

Above all, it was — and I think this is a very important point with which to close — a tremendously brave choice. Richard was desperately worried about how it would be received by a public who expected just a bigger version of Ultima III. Should enough of those players accustomed to “kill, kill, kill” reject the game, it could bring down his company and put most of his closest friends out of work. The stress actually caused him to suffer the occasional panic attack while he programmed; his stomach would suddenly cramp up and he would have to lie down, willing himself to just breathe. “To succeed in this game,” he notes, “you had to radically change the way you’d ever played a game before.” This was the leap that the creators of Wizardry were unable to make, the one that transformed Ultima forevermore into something just a little bit nobler, a little bit more important, a little bit better than competing franchises. The fact that Richard was willing to make that leap, and that — yes, I’m sparing you the suspense — his public responded to it in huge numbers, makes it in its way as inspiring a story as any you’ll find in gaming history. Robert Gregg’s comments in Dungeons and Dreamers, describing the revelation that Ultima IV was to him when he first encountered it, offer the perfect closing thoughts: “The game was commenting on society, and on the observer himself, just like other forms of art. That was the most exciting part to me — watching the emergence of a new form of art, coming right off the computer.” You and me both, Robert.

(Sources for this article and the next include the books The Official Book of Ultima by Shay Addams, Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland, and Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; the Computer Gaming World issues of September/October 1984, November/December 1985, and March 1986; the Questbusters of August 1985; the Softline of November/December 1983; and the Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985. Also useful were Warren Spector’s video interview with Richard Garriott, and Matt Barton’s with Richard Garriott and with Chuck Bueche.)

 

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Of Wizards and Bards

After debuting within a few months of one another in 1981, the Ultima and Wizardry franchises proceeded to dominate the CRPG genre for the next several years to such an extent that there seemed to be very little oxygen for anyone else; their serious competition during this period was largely limited to one another. Otherwise there were only experiments that usually didn’t work all that well, like the Wizardry-meets-Zork hybrid Shadowkeep, along with workmanlike derivatives that all but advertised themselves as “games to play while you wait for the next Ultima or Wizardry.” One of these latter, SSI’s first CRPG Questron, so blatantly cloned the Ultima approach that it prompted outraged protest and an implied threat of legal action from Origin Systems. SSI President Joel Billings ended up giving Origin a percentage of the game’s royalties and some fine print on the back of the box: “Game structure and style used under license of Richard Garriott.” It’s highly debatable whether Origin really had a legal leg to stand on here, but these were days when Atari in particular was aggressively threatening publishers with similar “look and feel” lawsuits, sending lots of them running scared. Faced with the choice between a protracted legal battle and lots of industry bad will, neither of which his small company could well afford, or just throwing Origin some cash, Billings opted, probably wisely, for the latter.

In the competition between the two 800-pound gorillas of the industry, Wizardry won the first round with both the critics and the public. Compared to Ultima I, Wizardry I garnered more attention and more superlative reviews, and engendered a more dedicated cult of players — and outsold its rival by at least a two to one margin. Wizardry‘s victory wasn’t undeserved; with its attention to balance and polish, its sophisticated technical underpinnings, and its extensive testing, Wizardry felt like a game created by and for grown-ups, in contrast to the admittedly charming-in-its-own-way Ultima, which felt like the improvised ramblings of a teenager. (A very bright teenager and one hell of a rambler, mind you, but still…) The commercial rewards were immense. The first Wizardry sold over 200,000 copies in its first three years, an achievement made even more remarkable when we consider that almost all of those were sold for a single platform, the Apple II, along with a smattering of IBM PC sales. While Infocom’s Zork may have managed similar numbers, it had the luxury of running on virtually every computer in the industry.

As early as 1982, however, the tables were beginning to turn. Richard Garriott continued to push Ultima forward, making games that were not just bigger but richer, prettier, and gradually more accessible, reaping critical and commercial rewards. As for Wizardry… well, therein lies a tale of misplaced priorities and missed opportunities and plain old mismanagement sufficient to make an MBA weep. While Ultima turned outward to welcome ever more new players to its ranks, Wizardry turned inward to the players who had bought its first iteration, sticking obstinately to its roots and offering bigger and ever more difficult games, but otherwise hardly changing at all through its first four sequels. You can probably guess which approach ended up being the more artistically and commercially satisfying. One could say that Ultima did not so much win this competition as Wizardry forfeited somewhere around the third round. Robert Woodhead, Andrew Greenberg, and Sir-Tech did just about everything right through the release of the first two games; after that they did everything just as thoroughly wrong.

As I wrote earlier, the second Wizardry, Knight of Diamonds, was an acceptable effort, if little more than a modest expansion pack to the original. It let players advance their characters to just about the point where they were too powerful to really be fun to play anymore, while giving them six more devious dungeon levels to explore, complete with new monsters and new tactical challenges. However, when the next game in the series, 1983′s Legacy of Llylgamyn, again felt like a not terribly inspired expansion pack, the franchise really began to go off the rails. Greenberg and Woodhead hadn’t even bothered to design this one themselves, outsourcing it instead to the Wizardry Adventurers Research Group, apparently code for “some of Greenberg’s college buddies.” Llylgamyn had the player starting over again with level 1 characters. Yet, incredibly, it still required that she purchase the first game to create characters; they could then be transferred into the third game as the “descendents” of her Wizardry I party. It’s hard to even account for this as anything other than a suicidal impulse, or (only slightly more charitably) a congenital inability to get beyond the Dungeons and Dragons model of buying a base set and then additional adventure modules to play with it. As Richard Garriott has occasionally pointed out over the years, in hewing to these policies Sir-Tech was effectively guaranteeing that each game in their series would sell fewer copies than the previous, would be played only by a subset of those who had played the one before. We see here all too clearly an unpleasant pedantry that was always Wizardry‘s worst personality trait: “You will start at the beginning and play properly!” It must have been about this time that the first masses of players began to just sigh and go elsewhere.

Speaking of pedantry: as I also described in an earlier article, a variety of player aids and character editors began to appear within months of the first Wizardry itself. Woodhead and Greenberg stridently denounced these products, pronouncing them “sleazy” in interviews and inserting a condescending letter to players in their game boxes stating their use would “interfere with the subtle balance” of the game and “substantially reduce their playing pleasure.” This is made particularly rich because, while Woodhead and Greenberg deserve credit for attempting to balance the game at all, the “subtle balance” of their first Wizardry was, in some pretty fundamental ways, broken; thus the tweaks they instituted for Knight of Diamonds. Did they really think players should ignore these issues and agree to spend dozens or hundreds of hours laboriously rebuilding countless lost parties, all because they told them to? Would players with so little capability for independent thought be able to complete the game in the first place? All the scolding did was put a sour face on the Wizardry franchise, giving it a No Fun Allowed personality in contrast to the more welcoming Ultima and, soon, plenty of other games. Players are perfectly capable of deciding what way of playing is most fun for them, as shown by the increasing numbers who began to decide that they could have more fun playing some other CRPG.

Meanwhile the Apple II’s importance as a gaming platform was steadily fading in the face of the cheaper and more audiovisually capable Commodore 64 in particular. Yet Sir-Tech made no effort for literally years to port Wizardry beyond the Apple II and the even less gaming-centric IBM PC. Their disinterest is particularly flabbergasting when we remember that the game ran under the UCSD Pascal P-Machine, whose whole purpose was to facilitate running the same code on multiple platforms. When asked about the subject, Woodhead stated that ports to the Commodore and Atari machines were “not technically possible” because neither ran any version of the UCSD Pascal language and because their disk systems were inadequate — too small in the case of the Atari and too slow in the case of the Commodore. Countless other companies would have and, indeed, did solve such problems by writing their own UCSD Pascal run-times — the system’s specifications were open and well-understood — and finding ways around the disk problems by using data compression and fast-load drivers. Sir-Tech was content to sit on their hands and wait for someone else to provide them with the tools they claimed they needed.

And then came the fiasco of Wizardry IV, a game which embodies all of the worst tendencies of the Wizardry series and old-school adventure gaming in general. This time Greenberg and Woodhead turned the design over to Roe R. Adams, III, a fount of adventure-game enthusiasm who broke into the industry as a reviewer for Softalk magazine, made his reputation as the alleged first person in the world to solve Sierra’s heartless Time Zone, and thereafter seemed to be everywhere: amassing “27 national gaming titles,” writing columns and reviews for seemingly every magazine on the newsstand, testing for every publisher who would have him, writing manuals for Ultima games, and, yes, designing Wizardry IV. Subtitled The Return of Werdna, Wizardry IV casts you as the arch-villain of the first Wizardry. To complete the inversion, you start at the bottom of a dungeon and must make your way up and out to reclaim the Amulet that was stolen from you by those pesky adventurers of the first game.

Wizardry IV doesn’t require you to import characters from the earlier games, but that’s its only saving grace. Adams wanted to write a Wizardry for people just as hardcore as he was. Robert Sirotek, one of the few people at Sir-Tech who seemed aware of just how wrong-headed the whole project was, had this to say about it in a recent interview with Matt Barton:

It was insanely difficult to win that game. I had such issues with that. I felt that it went way beyond what was necessary in terms of complexity, but the people that developed it felt strongly to leave a mark in the industry that they had the hardest game to play — period, bar none. That’s fine if you’re not worried about catering to a customer and making sales.

Return of Werdna was the worst-selling product we ever launched. People would buy it, and it was unplayable. So they’d put it down, and word spread around. There were other hard-core players in the market that loved it. They said, “Ah, why doesn’t everybody do this?” Well, we don’t because you guys are a minority. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you’re going to have to get your pleasure somewhere else because nobody can survive catering to such a small number of people.

So, it was controversial in that way. In the end, I think I was proven correct that making crazy impossible products in terms of difficulty was not the way forward.

But insane difficulty is only part of the tale of Wizardry IV. It has another dubious honor, that of being one of the first notable specimens of a species that gamers would get all too familiar with in the years to come: that hot game of the perpetually “just around the corner!” variety. Sir-Tech originally planned to release Wizardry IV for the 1984 holiday season, just about a year after Legacy of Llylgamyn and thus right on schedule by the standard of the time. They felt so confident of this that, what with the lengthy lead times of print journalism, they told inCider magazine to just announce the title as already available in their November 1984 issue. It didn’t make it. In fact it took a staggering three more years, until late 1987, for Wizardry IV to finally appear, at which time inCider dutifully reported that Sir-Tech had spent all that time “polishing” the game. Those expecting a mirror shine must have been disappointed to see the same old engine with the same old wire-frame graphics. In addition to being unspeakably difficult, it was also ugly, an anachronism from a different era. Any remaining claim that the Wizardry franchise might have had to standing shoulder to shoulder with Ultima either commercially or artistically was killed dead by The Return of Werdna. Beginning with Wizardry V and especially VI, Sir-Tech would repair some of the damage with the help of a new designer, D.W. Bradley, but the franchise would never again be as preeminent in North America as it had in those salad days of 1981 and 1982.

Wizardry I, 1981

Wizardry I, 1981

Wizardry IV, 1987. Not much has changed...

Wizardry IV, 1987. Not much has changed…

Those remaining fans who were underwhelmed by Wizardry IV were left asking just what Sir-Tech had been up to for all those years during the middle of the decade. Robert Woodhead at least hadn’t been completely idle. With Wizardry III Sir-Tech debuted a new interface they called “Window Wizardry,” which joined the likes of Pinball Construction Set in being among the first games to bring some of the lessons of Xerox PARC home to Apple II users even before the Macintosh’s debut; both earlier Wizardry games were also retrofitted to use the new system. In 1984 Woodhead improved the engine yet again, to take advantage of the new Apple II mouse should the player be lucky enough to have one. And a few months after that his port to the Macintosh arrived.

A Japanese edition of the first two Wizardry games, published by ASCII Corporation.

A Japanese edition of the first two Wizardry games, published by ASCII Corporation.

But Woodhead’s biggest distraction — and soon his greatest passion, one that would change his life forever — was Japan. After first marketing Wizardry in Japan through Starcraft, a Japanese company that specialized in localizing American software for the Japanese market and vice versa, Sir-Tech signed a blockbuster of a deal with another pioneering company, ASCII Corporation, publishers of the magazine Monthly ASCII that can be justifiably called the Japanese Byte and Creative Computing all rolled into one. Increasingly as the 1980s wore on, ASCII also became a very important software publisher. With Woodhead’s close support, ASCII turned Wizardry into a veritable phenomenon in Japan, huge even in comparison to the height of its popularity Stateside. By the latter half of the decade there were entire conventions in Japan dedicated to the franchise; when Woodhead visited them he was mobbed like a rock star. In the face of such profits and fame, he began to spend more and more of his time in Japan. After leaving Sir-Tech in 1988 he lived there full-time for a number of years, married a Japanese woman, and eventually founded a company with his old buddy Roe Adams which is dedicated to translating Japanese anime and other cinema into English and importing it to the West; it’s still going strong today. The Japanese Wizardry line also eventually spun off completely from Sir-Tech to go its own way; games are still being made today, and now far outnumber the eight Sir-Tech Wizardry games.

That explains what Woodhead was doing, but it doesn’t do much to otherwise explain Sir-Tech’s Stateside sloth until we consider this: incomprehensibly, Sir-Tech clung to Woodhead as their only technical architect, placing their entire future in the hands of this one idiosyncratic, mercurial hacker. (Greenberg filled mostly a designer’s as opposed to programmer’s role, and never worked full-time on Wizardry; after the second game his role was largely limited to that of an occasional consultant.) So, Woodhead was fascinated by the potential of the GUI and thought the Macintosh pretty neat; thus those projects got done. But he was dismissive of the cheap machines from Commodore and Atari, so those markets, many times the size of the Mac’s when it came to entertainment software, were roundly ignored. Only in 1987, with Woodhead all but emigrated to Japan, did Sir-Tech finally begin to look beyond him, funding a Commodore 64 port at last. But by then it was far too late.

Wizardry comes to the Commodore 64 at last. Predictably, not much has changed.

Wizardry comes to the Commodore 64 at last. Predictably, not much has changed.

For the reason why, we have to rewind to 1984, and move our wandering eyes from Sir-Tech’s Ogdensburg, New York, offices to a struggling little development company in the heart of Silicon Valley who called themselves Interplay. Interplay already had a couple of modestly successful illustrated adventure games to their credit when a friend of founder Brian Fargo named Michael Cranford suggested that he’d like to make a sort of next-generation Wizardry game in cooperation with them. They were all big fans of Wizardry and Dungeons and Dragons — Cranford had been Dungeon Master for Fargo’s D&D group back in high school — so everyone jumped aboard with enthusiasm. There’s been some controversy over the years as to exactly who did what on the game that would eventually become known as The Bard’s Tale, but it seems pretty clear that Cranford, who had already authored a proto-CRPG called Maze Master that was restricted in scope by its need to fit onto a 16 K cartridge, was the main driver. The most important other contributor was Bill “Burger” Heineman, who helped Cranford with some of the programming and did much of the work involved in porting the game to systems beyond its initial home on the Apple II. (Bill Heineman later had a sex change, and now lives as Rebecca Heineman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times.) After Cranford parted ways with Interplay following The Bard’s Tale II, Heineman would take over his role of main programmer and designer for The Bard’s Tale III.

The Bard's Tale on the Commodore 64. Note that this predates the screenshot immediately above by two full years.

The Bard’s Tale on the Commodore 64. Note that this predates the screenshot immediately above by two full years.

In retrospect, the most surprising thing about the first Bard’s Tale, which was published through Electronic Arts in late 1985, is that nobody did it sooner. It was certainly no paragon of original design. If anything, it was even more derivative of Wizardry than Questron had been of Ultima, evincing not just the Wizardry template of play but almost the exact same screen layout and even most of the same command keys, right down to a bunch of spells that were cast by entering their four-letter codes found only in the manual (a useful form of copy protection). But Wizardry, thanks to Sir-Tech’s neglect, was vulnerable in ways that Ultima was not. Interplay did the commonsense upgrades to the Wizardry formula that Sir-Tech should have been doing, filling the game with colorful graphics, occasional dashes of spot animation, a bigger variety of monsters to fight, more equipment and spells and classes to experiment with. And, most importantly of all to its commercial success, they made sure a Commodore 64 version came out simultaneously with the Apple II. In the years that followed they funded loving ports to an almost Infocom-like variety of platforms, giving it further graphical facelifts for next-generation machines that the early Wizardry games would never reach, like the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple IIGS.

The Bard's Tale

The Bard’s Tale‘s original touches, while by no means entirely absent, tinker with the Wizardry formula more than revamp it. Instead of doing everything outside of the dungeons via a simple textual menu system, you now have an entire town with a serious monster infestation of its own to explore. In the town of Skara Brae you can find not only equipment shops and temples and all the other stops typical of the errand-running adventurer but also the entrances to the dungeons themselves — five of them, with a total of 16 levels between them, as opposed to the original Wizardry‘s single dungeon of 10 slightly smaller and generally simpler levels. But the most obvious way that The Bard’s Tale asserts its individuality is in the whimsical character class of the bard himself, who can perform magic by playing songs; you actually hear his songs playing on your computer, another flourish The Bard’s Tale has over its inspiration. More importantly, he lends the game some of his lovably roguish personality: “When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking,” ran the headline of EA’s advertisements. The official name of the game is actually Tales of the Unknown, Volume 1: The Bard’s Tale; the rather white-bread Tales of the Unknown, in other words, was originally intended as the franchise’s name, The Bard’s Tale as the mere subtitle of this installment. Interplay originally planned to call the next game The Archmage’s Tale, next stop in a presumed cycling through many fantasy character archetypes. The bard proved so popular, however, such an indelible part of the game’s personality and public image, that those plans were quickly set aside. The next game was released as The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, the Tales of the Unknown moniker quietly retired.

Commodore 64 owners especially, starved as they had been of the Wizardry experience for years, set upon The Bard’s Tale like a horde of the mad dogs who are some of the first monsters you encounter in its labyrinths. Combined with EA’s usual slick marketing, their pent-up desire was more than enough to make it a massive, massive success, the first CRPG not named Wizardry to be able to challenge the Ultima franchise head to head in terms of sales, if not quite critical respect (it was hard for even the forgiving gaming press of the 1980s to completely overlook just how derivative a game it was). The Bard’s Tale is the game that made Interplay a force to be reckoned with. They would remain one of the major creative forces in gaming for the next decade and a half; we’ll have occasion to visit their story again and in more detail in future articles.

There is, however, a certain whiff of poetic justice to the way that Interplay allowed this particular franchise to go stale in much the same way that Sir-Tech had Wizardry. The Bard’s Tale II (1986) and III (1988) were each successful enough on their own terms, but a story all too familiar to Sir-Tech played out as each installment sold worse than the one before. The series then faded away quietly after The Bard’s Tale Construction Set (1991), for which Interplay polished up some of their internal authoring tools for public consumption. By then The Bard’s Tale was already long past its heyday, its position of yin to Ultima‘s yang taken up by yet another franchise, the officially licensed Advanced Dungeons and Dragons games from SSI. (At least two attempts at a Bard’s Tale IV never came to fruition, doomed by the IP Hell that resulted from Interplay parting company with EA; EA owned the name of the franchise, Interplay most of the content. Interplay’s attempt at a Bard’s Tale IV did eventually come to market as Dragon Wars, actually a far more ambitious game than any of its predecessors but one that was markedly unsuccessful commercially.)

The sequels did add some wrinkles to the formula. The Bard’s Tale II deployed a strangely grid-oriented wilderness to explore in addition to towns — six of them this time — and dungeons, and added range as a consideration to the combat engine. The Bard’s Tale III: The Thief of Fate offered more welcome improvements to the core engine, including a simple auto-mapping feature and, at long last, the ability to save the game even inside a dungeon. But mostly the sequels fell into a trap all too typical of CRPGs, of offering not so much new things to do as just ever larger amounts of the same interchangeably generic content to slog through and laboriously map; over the course of the trilogy we go from 16 to 25 to an absurd 84 dungeon levels. This despite the fact that there just aren’t that many permutations allowed by this simple dungeon-delving engine and its spinners, magical darknesses, teleporters, and traps. Long before the end of the first Bard’s Tale it’s starting to get a bit tedious; by the time you get to the sequels it’s just exhausting. It’s not hard to understand Interplay’s motivation for making the games ever huger. Gamers have always loved the idea of big games that give them more for their money, and by the third game Interplay’s in-house tools were sophisticated enough to allow them to slap together a gnarly dungeon level in probably much less time than it would take the average player to struggle through it. Still, the early Wizardry games stand up better as holistic designs today. The first Wizardry‘s ten modest dungeon levels were enough to consume quite some hours, but not too many; the game is over right about the time it threatens to get boring, a mark the latter Bard’s Tales in particular quite resoundingly overshoot.

So, I’m quite ambivalent about The Bard’s Tale franchise as a whole, as I admittedly am about many old-school CRPGs. To my mind, there are some time-consuming games, like Civilization or Master of Orion, that appeal to our better, more creative natures by offering endless possibilities to explore, endless interesting choices to make. They genuinely fascinate, tempting us to immerse ourselves in their mysteries for all the right reasons. And then there are some, like The Bard’s Tale or for that matter FarmVille, that somehow manage to worm their ways into our psyches and activate some perversely compulsive sense of puritanical duty. Does anyone really enjoy mapping her twentieth — not to mention eightieth! — dungeon inside a Bard’s Tale, wrestling all the while with spinners and teleporters and darkness squares that have long since gone from being intellectually challenging to just incredibly, endlessly annoying? The evidence of The Bard’s Tale‘s lingering fandom would seem to suggest that people do, but it’s a bit hard for me to understand why. Oh, I suppose one can enjoy the result, of having ultra-powerful characters or seeing chaos held at bay for another day via another page of graph paper neatly filled in, but is the process really that entertaining? And if not, why do so many of us feel so compelled to continue with it? Is there ultimately much point to a game that rewards not so much good play as just a willingness to put in lots and lots of time? I want to say yes, if the game has something to say to me or even just an interesting narrative to convey, but The Bard’s Tale, alas, has nothing of the sort. Ah, well… maybe it’s just down to my distaste for level grinding as an end in itself as opposed to as a byproduct of the interesting adventures you’re otherwise having — a distaste everyone obviously doesn’t share.

It can be oddly difficult to find a “clean” copy of this hugely popular game in its most popular incarnation, the Commodore 64 version. Most versions floating around on the Internet are played on, hacked, and/or, all too often, corrupted. If you want to experience The Bard’s Tale, a commercial and historical landmark of its genre despite any misgivings I may have about it, you may therefore want to download a virgin copy from this site. Next time we’ll turn to a CRPG that does have something important to say, arguably the first of all too few examples of same in the history of the genre.

(Matt Barton has posted interviews with some of the folks I write about in this article on his YouTube channel: Rebecca Heineman, Brian Fargo, and Robert Sirotek. Interviews with Michael Cranford can be found on Lemon 64 and the RPG Codex. The Bard’s Tale Compendium has some background on the games and the people who made them. Now Gamer’s history of SSI includes details of the Questron tension with Origin Systems. The inCider magazine articles referenced above are in the November 1984 and November 1987 issues. See the August 1988 Computer Play for more on the Wizardry phenomenon in Japan, and the October 1983 Family Computing for Greenberg at his hectoring worst on the subject of third-party player aids and the necessity of playing Wizardry the “right” way.)

 

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