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Generation Nintendo

Nintendo

In the final months of World War II, when the United States was trying to burn out the will of a starving Japan via the most sustained campaign of aerial incendiary bombardment in history, a handful of obvious targets remained strangely untouched. Among those targets was Kyoto: population 1 million plus, founded in the year 793, capital of the nation and home of the Emperor for most of the intervening centuries, home to more national shrines and other historic sites than any other city in Japan, world famous for its silk and cloisonné. If a single city can be said to embody the very soul of the Japanese people, it must be this one.

If the citizens of Kyoto believed that their city was being left untouched by the bombs raining down on the rest of the country out of respect for the special place it occupied in the Japanese psyche, they were partially correct. Yet the motivation behind their seeming good fortune was cold-blooded rather than humanitarian. American Air Force planners were indeed aware of Kyoto’s symbolic importance, but they hardly saw that importance as grounds for sparing the city. Far from it. Kyoto was being reserved as a target for a special new weapon, one which was referred to only obliquely in Air Force internal memoranda as “the gadget.” Today we know the gadget as the atomic bomb. Entirely destroying Kyoto with one bomb would deliver a shock to the rest of Japan unequaled by the destruction of any other possible target: “From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.” Kyoto must be left untouched while the gadget was made ready for service so that mission planners and scientists could properly evaluate the bomb’s effect on an undamaged clean slate of a target.

Hundreds of thousands of Kyoto residents would wind up owing their lives to Henry L. Stimson, a humane man tortured daily by the orders he had to issue as the American Secretary of War; never was there a Secretary of War who hated war more. In response to Stimson’s demand after the successful first test of the gadget in New Mexico, General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, reluctantly presented the Air Force’s list of planned targets to him, with Kyoto at the top. Stimson was horrified. Citing the proposed destruction of Kyoto as an unforgivable act from which Japan would never recover, Stimson, 77 years old and in poor health, faced down virtually the entire entrenched bureaucracy of the American military to demand that the first atomic bomb to be used in anger be dropped somewhere, anywhere else: “This is one time I’m going to be the final deciding authority. Nobody’s going to tell me what to do on this.” His stubborn stance resulted at last in Kyoto being stricken from the list by grumbling generals who would have been perfectly happy if its destruction really had been a death blow to the culture it symbolized, thank you very much. Of course, in saving hundreds of thousands of Kyoto residents Stimson was also consigning to death hundreds of thousands of others in Hiroshima. Such are the wages of war.

The decision to spare Kyoto had another unintended consequence, one which may seem trivial — even disrespectful — to mention in parallel with such immense tolls in human lives saved and lost, but one which in its own way illustrates the interconnectness of all things. Hidden away within Kyoto’s blissfully undamaged warren of ancient streets was a little family-owned company called Nintendo, maker of ornate playing cards and other games and collectibles. Absolutely dedicated to the war effort, as all good Japanese were expected to be at the time, they had lately taken to giving their products jingoist themes, such as a backgammon board illustrated by cartoon animals dressed up as soldiers, with Japanese flags flying proudly above them and British and American flags lying crumpled in the dust at their feet.

More than four decades later, Stimson’s determination to spare Kyoto and with it Nintendo boomeranged back on his country in a way that no one could have seen coming. Many contemporary commentators, conditioned by the Reagan Revolution to cast all things in terms of nationalism and patriotism, saw in the arrival of Nintendo on American shores the opening of the latest front in a new war, economic rather than military this time, between the United States and Japan. And this time it seemed that Japan was winning the war handily. They had come for our steel, and we had done nothing. They had come for our auto industry, and we had done nothing. They had come for our televisions and stereos, and we had done nothing. Now they were coming for our videogame consoles. How long would it be until the PC industry, arguably the biggest economic success story of the 1980s, was threatened as well?

Given the subject of this article, I should take a moment to clarify right now that this blog has not been and will never become a history of console-based videogames. This blog is rather a history of computer games, a culture possessed of plenty of interconnections and collisions with the larger, more mainstream culture of the consoles, but one which has nevertheless remained largely its own thing ever since the first popular videogame console and the first three pre-assembled PCs were all launched during the single fecund year of 1977. In addition to reasons of pure personal preference, I justify this focus by noting that a fair number of people are doing great, rigorous history in the realm of videogames, while the realm of computer games has been comparatively neglected.

Still, we can’t really understand the history of computer games without reckoning with those aforementioned interconnections and collisions with the world of the consoles. And one of the biggest and most obvious collisions of all was that crazy time at the tail end of the 1980s when Nintendo arrived to sweep the rug out from under a computer-game industry which had spent the last few years convinced that it was destined to become the next great movement in mainstream American entertainment — i.e., destined to hold exactly the position that this Japanese upstart had just swept in and taken over with breathtaking speed. Small wonder that coded allusions to the dark days of World War II, accompanied by thinly veiled (or blatantly unveiled) racism, became the order of the day in many sectors of American culture, industry, and government alike. Meanwhile the bewildered computer-game executives were trying to figure out what the hell had just hit them and what they should do about it. Let’s join them now in asking the first of those questions.

Hiroshi Yamauchi

Hiroshi Yamauchi

The history of the company known as Nintendo — the name can be very roughly translated as an admonition to work hard but also to accept that one’s ultimate success is in the hands of greater powers — dates all the way back to 1889, when it was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi as a maker of intricately painted playing cards, known as “hanafuda” in Japanese. Nintendo managed to survive and grow modestly amid many changes in Japanese life over the course of the next half-century and beyond. The company’s modern history, however, begins in 1949, when Hiroshi Yamauchi, latest scion of the family-owned business, took over as president. Far more ambitious than his forebears, this latest Yamauchi was inspired by the entrepreneurial ferment of the rebuilding postwar Japan to expand Nintendo beyond playing cards and collectibles. The results of his efforts were decidedly mixed in the early years. Among his less successful initiatives were a line of instant-rice meals — a sort of ricey Ramen Noodles before Ramen Noodles were cool — and a chain of “love motels” offering busy executives the convenience of paying for their trysts by the hour. (Ironic as they might seem in light of Nintendo’s later rigorously enforced family-friendly image, at the time the love motels seemed to everyone around him a natural innovation for Yamauchi to have dreamed up; he was a notorious philanderer.) More successful, for a while, was a Nintendo taxi service. Yet even it was hardly a world-beater. Throughout the first two decades of Yamauchi’s lengthy reign he continued to cast restlessly about for the Big One, the idea that would finally take Nintendo to the next level.

In 1969, he made a big step in the direction of finding his company’s life’s purpose when he founded a new division called simply “Toys.” Employing a number of young gadget freaks as inventors, Toys began to churn out a series of strange contraptions straight out of Rube Goldberg, such as the Ultra Hand, a scissor-like reach extender that was more whimsical than practical; the Ultra Machine, an indoor mechanical baseball pitcher; and the Ultra Scope, a periscope for peeking around corners and over fences. (Parents were not terribly fond of this last one in particular.) All were quite successful, opening at last the sustainable new business front for Nintendo that Yamauchi had been dreaming of for so long.

With electronic components getting smaller and cheaper by the year, Nintendo’s innovative toys inevitably began to take on more and more of an electronic character as time wore on. The first big success in the realm of electronic gadgets was something called the Nintendo Beam Gun, which combined a light gun with a set of targets equipped with the appropriate photoelectric sensors; more than 1 million of them were sold. Nintendo built on the Beam Gun’s success with a chain of Laser Clay Ranges — think “clay pigeons” — that spread across Japan during the mid-1970s, re-purposed bowling alleys where patrons could engage in gunfights with cowboys and “homicidal maniacs” projected onto the far wall.

With Atari now going strong in the United States, videogames were a natural next step for Nintendo. They first made a series of Color TV Games, each a home videogame capable of playing a few variants of a single simple game when hooked up to the family television set; they sold at least 2.5 million of them in the late 1970s. The Nintendo Game & Watch, a whole line of handheld gadgets capable of playing a single game each, did even better; Nintendo is estimated to have sold over 40 million of them during the 1980s. Meanwhile they were also moving into the standup arcade; Donkey Kong, released in 1981, became a worldwide smash, introducing the Nintendo name to many in the United States for the first time. The designer of that cute, colorful, relatively non-violent game, a virtual blueprint for the eventual Nintendo aesthetic as a whole, was one Shigeru Miyamoto. He would become not only Nintendo’s own most famous designer and public figure, but the most famous Japanese videogame designer of all time, full stop. The protagonist of Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong, a little leaping Italian plumber named Mario, was also destined for greatness as one of if not the most famous videogame characters of all time (his only serious rival is likely Pac-Man, another contemporaneous Japanese creation).

All of this success, however, was only laying the groundwork for Nintendo’s masterstroke. Moving on from the single-game units that had so far been Nintendo’s sole output, Yamauchi tasked his engineers with creating a proper videogame console capable of playing many games that could be sold separately in the form of cartridges, just like the Atari VCS. The device they came up with was hardly state of the art even at the time of its debut. It was built around a clone of the venerable old 8-bit MOS 6502, the same chip found in the Atari VCS as well as American home computers like the Apple II and Commodore 64, with those circuits that were protected by patents excised. It offered graphics a little better than the likes of the 64, sound a little worse. The new machine was being readied at seemingly the worst possible time: just as the Great Videogame Crash was underway in the United States, and just as the worldwide conventional wisdom was saying that home computers were the future, videogame consoles a brief-lived fad of the past. Yet Nintendo freely, even gleefully defied the conventional wisdom. The Nintendo Family Computer (“Famicom”) was deliberately designed to be as non-computer-like as possible. Instead it was patterned after Nintendo’s successful toys and gadgets — all bright, garish plastic, with as few switches and plugs as possible, certainly with nothing as complicated as a keyboard or disk drive. It looked like a toy because Nintendo designed it to look like a toy.

The Nintendo Famicom

The Nintendo Famicom

Yamauchi realized that a successful videogame console was at least as much a question of perception — i.e., of marketing — as it was of technology. In the imploding Atari, he had the one great counterexample he needed, a perfect model of what not to do. Atari’s biggest sin in Yamauchi’s eyes had been to fail to properly lock down the VCS. It had never occurred to them that third parties could start making games for “their” machine, until Activision started doing just that in 1980, to be followed by hundreds more. Not only had all of those third-party cartridges cost Atari hundreds of millions in the games of their own that they didn’t sell and the potential licensing fees that they didn’t collect, they had also gravely damaged the image of their platform: many or most Atari VCS games were just plain bad, and some were in devastatingly terrible taste to boot. The public at large, Yamauchi realized, didn’t parse fine distinctions between a game console and the games it played. He was determined not to lose control of his brand as Atari had done theirs.

For better and for worse, that determination led to Nintendo becoming the first of the great walled gardens in consumer software. The “better” from the standpoint of consumers was a measure of quality control, an assurance that any game they bought for their console would be a pretty good, polished, playable game. And from the standpoint of Yamauchi the “better” was of course that Nintendo got a cut of every single one of those games’ earnings, enough to let him think of the console itself as little more than a loss leader for the real business of making and licensing cartridges: “Forgo the big profits on the hardware because it is really just a tool to sell software. That is where we shall make our money.” The “worse” was far less diversity in theme, content, and mechanics, and a complete void of games willing to actually say almost anything at all about the world, lest they say something that some potential customer somewhere might possibly construe as offensive. The result would be an infantilization of the nascent medium in the eyes of mainstream consumers, an infantilization from which it has arguably never entirely escaped.

Whatever the reservations of curmudgeons like me, however, the walled-garden model of software distribution proved successful even beyond Yamauchi’s wildest dreams. After releasing their new console to Japanese consumers on July 15, 1983, Nintendo sold more than 2.5 million of them in the first eighteen months alone. Sales only increased as the years went by, even as the hardware continued to grow more and more technically obsolete. Consumers didn’t care about that. They cared about all those cute, colorful, addictive games, some produced by an ever-widening circle of outside licensees, others — including many or most of the best and best-remembered — by Nintendo’s own crack in-house development team, with that indefatigable fount of creativity named Shigeru Miyamoto leading the way. Just as Yamauchi had predicted, the real money in the Famicom was in the software that was sold for it.

Minoru Arakawa

Minoru Arakawa

With the Famicom a huge success in Japan, there now beckoned that ultimate market for any ambitious up-and-comer: the United States. Yamauchi had already set up a subsidiary there called Nintendo of America back in 1980, under the stewardship of his son-in-law Minoru Arakawa. Concerns about nepotism aside — no matter how big it got, Nintendo would always remain the Yamauchi family business — Arakawa was ideal for the job: an MIT-educated fluent English-speaker who had traveled extensively around the country and grown to understand and love its people and their way of life. Under his stewardship, Nintendo of America did very well in the early years on the back of Donkey Kong and other standup-arcade games.

Yet Nintendo as a whole hesitated for quite some time at the prospect of introducing the Famicom to North America. When Arakawa canvased toy stores, the hostility he encountered to the very idea of another videogame console was palpable. Atari had damaged or destroyed many a business and many a life on the way down, and few drew much of a distinction between Atari and the videogame market as a whole. According to one executive, “it would be easier to sell Popsicles in the Arctic” than to convince the toy stores to take a flyer on another console.

But Arakawa, working in tandem with two American executive recruits who would become known as “the two Howards” — Howard Lincoln and Howard Philips — wouldn’t let go of the idea. Responding to focus-group surveys that said the Japanese Famicom was too toy-like and too, well, foreign-looking to succeed in the United States, he got Nintendo’s engineers to redesign the externals to be less bulbous, less garish, and less shiny. He also gave the Famicom a new, less cutsy name: the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. The only significant technical update Nintendo made for North America was a new state-of-the-art handshaking system for making sure that every cartridge was a legitimate, licensed Nintendo game; black-market cartridges duplicated by tiny companies who hoped to fly under the radar of Nintendo’s stringent licensing regime had become a real problem on the Famicom. Tellingly, the lockout system was by far the most technically advanced aspect of the NES.

The Nintendo Entertainment System

The Nintendo Entertainment System

The new NES made its public debut at last at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1985. Few in the home-computer trade press — the videogame trade press didn’t really exist anymore — paid it any real attention. The big news of the show was rather the new Jack Tramiel-led Atari’s 16-bit ST computer. Computer Gaming World was typical, mentioning the NES only as a passing bit of trivia at the end of a long CES feature article: “Nintendo even offered an entirely new game system.” Clearly Arakawa and company had an uphill climb before them.

They deliberately started small. They would sell the NES first in New York City only — chosen because Arakawa considered it the most cynical and challenging place to market a new gadget in the country, and, as the old song says, “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” Starting with a warehouse full of the first 100,000 NESs to arrive from Japan and a $50 million war chest, Arakawa and the two Howards personally visited virtually every toy and electronics store in the five boroughs to press flesh and demonstrate the NES to skeptical managers and proprietors — and (hopefully) to take orders when they were finished. Meanwhile Nintendo blitzed the airwaves with advertising. They managed to sell 50,000 NESs in New York alone that Christmas season — not bad for an unknown gadget in a field that everyone, from the most rarefied pundit to the most ordinary Joe or Jane on the street, considered to be yesterday’s fad.

From that promising start they steadily expanded: first to that other taste-maker capital Los Angeles, then to Chicago, to San Francisco, to Dallas and Houston, and finally nationwide. Sales hit the magic 1 million mark well before the end of 1986. Cheap and cheerful and effortless in its lack of fiddly disk drives and keyboards, the NES was selling by that point as well as the Commodore 64, and far better than any other home computer. In the NES’s second year on the market it eclipsed them all to such an extent as to make continued comparison almost pointless: 3 million NESs were sold during those twelve months alone. And, astonishingly, it was still just getting started. During 1988, 7 million NESs were sold, to go with 33 million cartridges, each of which represented yet more profit for Nintendo. Lifetime NES sales topped 30 million in 1990, by which time one out of every three American homes could boast one of these unassuming gray boxes perched underneath the television. Total NES and Famicom lifetime sales reached a staggering 75 million in 1992; as many Nintendos were by then in the world as all PCs, whether found in homes or businesses or schools, combined. Even the Atari VCS in the heyday of the first videogame fad had never been able to boast of numbers like this.

Because Nintendo had come into the console market when it was universally considered dead, they had been able to reinvent it entirely in their own image. Just as “Atari” had once been a synonym for videogames in general, now “Nintendo” threatened to become the same for a new generation of players. Savvy about branding and marketing in a way that Atari had never quite managed to be, Nintendo felt compelled to actively push against this trend by aggressively protecting and limiting the use of their trademarks; they didn’t want people buying a new “Nintendo” that happened to have the name of Sega, Sony, or 3DO stamped on its case.

Nintendo’s penetration of the North American market could (and doubtless has) serve as the basis of an MBA course in marketing and brand-building. Starting from the less than nothing of a dead industry replete with consumer ill-will, coming from a foreign nation that was viewed with fear and mistrust by many Americans, Nintendo of America built one of the largest and most insanely loyal customer bases the American economy has ever known. They did it by tying their own brand to brands their target demographic was known to already love, like Pepsi and McDonald’s. They did it by building Nintendo stores within stores in major chains from Macy’s to Toys “R” Us, where kids could browse and play under the benevolent gaze of Mario while their parents shopped. (By 1991, Nintendo alone represented 20 percent of Toys “R” Us’s total revenues, and seven of their ten best-selling single products.) They did it by building a massive mailing list from the warranty cards that their young customers sent in, then using contests and giveaways to make every single one of them feel like a valued member of the new Generation Nintendo. They did it by publishing a glossy magazine, Nintendo Power, full of hints and tips on the latest games and all the latest news on what was coming next from Nintendo (and nothing on what was coming from their competitors). They did it by setting up a hotline of “Nintendo Game Counselors,” hundreds of them working at any one time to answer youngsters’ questions about how to get through this tricky level or kill that monster. They did it by relentlessly data-mining to find out what their customers liked about their games and what they didn’t, and crafting new releases to hit as many players as possible precisely in their sweet spots. They did it by spending up to $5 million on a single 30-second television commercial, four or five times the typical going rate, making the new commercials for a new Nintendo game an event in themselves. They did it by making sure that Mario and Zelda and their other iconic characters were everywhere, from televisions shows to records, from lunch boxes to bed sheets. And they did it by never worrying their customers with the sorts of metrics that the home-computer makers loved: kilobytes and megabytes and colors and resolutions and clock speeds and bit counts. The NES was so thoroughly locked down that it was years before there was any published information available at all on what was really contained within those ubiquitous gray plastic shells.

If it can all sound a little soulless when laid out like that, well, few in business would argue with the end results. Nintendo seemed to be becoming more American than most Americana. “A boy between 8 and 15 without a Nintendo is like a boy without a baseball glove,” wrote Hobby World magazine in 1988. In 1990 a survey found Mario to be more recognizable to American children than that most American of all cartoon icons — Mickey Mouse.

And where did all of this leave the established American computer-game industry? That was a question that plenty in said industry itself were asking with ever-increasing frustration and even desperation. Total sales of computer games published on all platforms in 1989 totaled about $300 million; total sales for Nintendo cartridges, $1 billion. It wasn’t supposed to have gone like this. No one in computer games had seen anything like Nintendo coming. They, the computer-game industry, were supposed to have been the next big wave in American home entertainment — a chicken in every pot and a home computer in every living room. Instead this Japanese upstart had stolen their thunder to such an extent as to render their entire industry an afterthought, a veritable non-entity in the eyes of most financial analysts and venture capitalists. Just to add insult to the injury, they were being smothered by thoroughly obsolete 8-bit technology when they could offer consumers audiovisual feasts played on Amigas and Atari STs and IBM PS/2s with VGA graphics. A computer-game designer with Electronic Arts saw unnerving parallels between his own industry and another American industry that had been devastated by Japan in the previous decade:

The best companies and the best programmers were making computer games. But the Nintendo player didn’t care about the sophisticated leaps we were making on computers — the frame rate of the images or incredible sound. They just wanted fun. It was like we were making gas guzzlers and the Japanese were making subcompacts.

At street level the situation didn’t look much better. Fred D’Ignazio, a columnist for Compute!’s Gazette, shares a typical story:

My kids and I used to play games on our home computer — games like Epyx’s The Legend of Blacksilver, SSI’s Questron II, EA’s Jordan vs. Bird: One-on-One, Gamestar’s Take Down, Arcadia’s Aaargh!, and, of course gobs and gobs of good educational games.

Then the Nintendo landed, and things haven’t been the same since. The Nintendo runs day and night. (We’re not even allowed to shut off the machine when we go to bed because there’s always a game in progress — and there’s no disk drive to back it up.) Meanwhile, I don’t think our little home computer has been fired up in weeks.

The computer that was most damaged by Nintendo’s invasion of North America was undoubtedly the Commodore 64. It was very cheap in computer terms, but once you added in the cost of the essential disk drive it was nowhere near as cheap as the NES. And it was still a computer, even if a computer that had long been used primarily for playing games. You had to type in arcane commands to get a game started, had to wait for the game to load, often had to shuffle disks in and out of the drive and do a lot more waiting as you actually played. A Compute!’s Gazette reader shares the story of her attempt to introduce her Nintendo-loving eight-year-old nephew to the joys of Commodore 64 gaming:

As he looked through my 64 software to pick out a game, I started to give directions on how to handle the software and disk drive. Before I could finish he said, “I just want to use a cartridge and start playing.” After about fifteen minutes into a game he said, “This is great, but how come it takes so long to start the game again and why do I have to keep turning the disk over and over all the time?” Shortly after, he started complaining that his hand was too small for the joystick. He tried three other joysticks, but he either had the same problem or the joystick didn’t have the dexterity needed to play the game. He then said, “I wish I could use my Nintendo controls on your Commodore.” Soon after, he quit and went right to his Nintendo.

The Commodore 64 was in a very difficult position, squeezed from below by Nintendo and squeezed from above by the Amiga and Atari ST and, most of all, by ever more consumer-friendly MS-DOS-based machines from companies like Tandy, which were beginning to sport hard disks, crisp VGA graphics, sound cards, and mice. There wasn’t much that Commodore’s aged little breadbox could offer in response to a feature set like that. In the battle versus Nintendo for the low end, meanwhile, all of the immense force of playground public opinion was arrayed against the Commodore 64. The 64 was clunky and slow and ugly. It was the machine your big brother used to play games on, the one your parents kept pushing you toward to learn programming or to play educational (blech!) games. The Nintendo was the machine that all your friends played on — the same friends who would look on you as a freak if you tried to get them to play a computer game with you.

If you think that hardcore Commodore 64 users accepted this changing world order peacefully, you don’t have much experience with the fanatic platform loyalties of the 1980s. Their heated opinions on the 64’s Nintendo crisis spilled much ink on the pages of the remaining 64-centric magazines, moving through spasms of denial (“If Nintendo has the ability to keep its users captured, why do my two nephews keep pestering me to let them play the games that I have for my 64?”), advice (“Commodore could bring out some new peripherals like a light gun to play shooting games or a keyboard to make use of the superior sound of the 64”), and justification (“This letter was typed on a 64. Let’s see any Nintendo do that!”). When all else failed, there was always good-old-fashioned name-calling: “The word-processing capability of the 64 is a pointless feature to most Ninnies, since the majority of them don’t seem to be able to read and write anyway. Most of the Ninny chic was built on the fact that a baboon could operate it.”

None of this raging against the dying of the light could make any difference. The Commodore 64 went into an undeniable decline in 1988. That decline became a free fall in 1989, and in 1990 the 64 was effectively declared dead by the American software industry, with virtually every publisher terminating support. The other great 8-bit survivor, the Apple II, hung on a little longer thanks to an entrenched user base in schools and small businesses, but when Apple finally discontinued all production of the line in 1993 the news was greeted by most publishers with a shrug: “I didn’t know those old things were still being made!”

The computer-game publishers’ reactions to Nintendo were complicated, ofttimes uncertain, occasionally downright contradictory. With Nintendo rapidly taking over what used to be the low end of the computer-game market, many publishers felt emboldened to refocus their energies on the still slowly growing higher end, particularly on all those new consumer-oriented clones from Tandy and others. Plenty of publishers, it must be said, weren’t really all that sad to the 64 go. The platform had always been tricky to develop for, and its parent company was still widely loathed for heaps of very good reasons; everyone in the industry seemed to have at least one Commodore horror story to tell. Many had come to see the 64 during its years of dominance as an albatross holding back ambitions that would have been realizable on the bigger, more powerful platforms. Now they were at last free to pursue those grander schemes.

At the same time, though, the Commodore 64 had been their cash cow for years, and there remained the question of whether and how soon all those bigger machines would make up for its loss. Certainly they failed resoundingly to take up the slack in 1989, a bad year for the computer-game industry and a great one for Nintendo. Electronic Arts, the closest thing the industry as a whole had to a bellwether, had their worst year ever that year, leaving some investors openly calling for the resignation of founder Trip Hawkins.

As unhappy as the majority of industry old-timers remained with the Nintendo-dominated state of affairs in digital games in general, that $1 billion in annual cartridge revenue and massive mainstream penetration was awfully tempting. As early as 1988, it seemed that just about everyone was discussing adapting their computer games to the NES, and a fair number were swallowing their pride to approach Nintendo with hat in hand, asking for a coveted license to make NES games. In addition to the sheer size of the Nintendo market, it also had the advantage that piracy, which many in the computer-game industry continued to believe was costing them at least half of the revenues they would otherwise be enjoying, was nonexistent there thanks to those uncopyable cartridges and the NES’s elaborate lockout system.

Activision,1 who had enjoyed their greatest success by far in the old glory days of the Atari VCS, jumped onto the Nintendo bandwagon with perhaps the most enthusiasm of all. Activision’s head, the supremely unsentimental Bruce Davis, often sounded as if he would be perfectly happy to abandon computers altogether, to make Activision exclusively a publisher of videogame cartridges again: “If hardware companies are designing a machine for one purpose, they will do a better job than on a multi-function machine.”

But it’s the more unlikely NES converts that provide the best evidence of just how far Nintendo had come and just how much pressure the traditional computer-game industry was feeling. The NES began to get quite a number of ports of computer-game fare that no one would ever have imagined trying to put on a machine like this just a year or two earlier. Origin, for instance, put out NES versions of Ultima III and Ultima IV, and Lucasfilm Games ported Maniac Mansion. (See Douglas Crockford’s “The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for a description of the hoops publishers like Lucasfilm had to jump through to meet Nintendo’s stringent content restrictions.) Even SSI, whose traditional stock-in-trade of turn-based, cerebral, complicated strategy games was about as far from the whimsy of Mario and Zelda as you could get, moved Pool of Radiance over to the NES. Computer Gaming World, the journal of choice for those same cerebral strategy gamers, tried to rope in Mario fans with a new magazine-within-a-magazine they dubbed “Video Gaming World.”

Few of these initiatives bore all that much fruit. The publishers may have found a way to get their games onto the NES, but said games remained far from the sort of fare most Nintendo players were interested in; suffice to say that Nintendo never had to worry about any of these titles eclipsing Mario. Still, the fact that so many computer-game publishers were making such an effort shows how scary and uncertain Nintendo was making their world. Perhaps the most telling moment of all came in August of 1990, when an embattled Trip Hawkins announced that Electronic Arts would be jumping into the console space as well. This was the same Trip Hawkins who had written a commitment to “stay with floppy-disk-based computers only” into Electronic Arts’s first business plan, who had preached the gospel of home computers as successors to videogame consoles as loudly and proudly as anyone in his industry. Now he and his company were singing a very different tune. Bing Gordon, Hawkin’s right-hand man at Electronic Arts, compared home computers to of all unflattering things steam engines. James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, had imagined one in every home, with a bunch of assorted pulleys and gears to make it do different things. Instead modern homes had a bunch of more specialized machines: washing machines, food processors… and now Nintendos. Soon Hawkins would leave Electronic Arts to found 3DO, a company to make… you guessed it, a new videogame console.

Some, however, chose a more belligerent path than these can’t-beat’em joiners. Nintendo’s rigorous control of the NES’s walled garden rankled everyone in the older software industry; this just wasn’t how their business was done. They believed that Nintendo was guilty of restraint of trade, antitrust violations, you name it. Particularly enraging was Nintendo’s complete control of the manufacturing pipeline for NES cartridges. Leveraging those data-mining systems of theirs, more sophisticated than anyone had heretofore ever dreamed of, Nintendo made sure that the supply of new games was always slightly less than the demand for them, thereby creating a hype for each new title as a hot, desirable status symbol among the Nintendo Generation and, most of all, avoiding the glut of games piled up in warehouses — and, eventually, landfills — that had marked the Great Videogame Crash of 1983. But when American publishers saw their games produced in insufficient quantities to become the hits they believed they might otherwise have been, they cried foul. The Software Publishers Association served as the disgruntled voice of the American software industry as a whole in what became a full-scale public-relations war against Nintendo.

The SPA believes that Nintendo has, through its complete control and single-sourcing of cartridge manufacturing, engineered a shortage of Nintendo-compatible cartridges. Retailers, consumers, and independent software vendors have become frustrated by the unavailability of many titles during the holiday season, and believe that these shortages could be prevented by permitting software vendors to produce their own cartridges.

American publishers felt certain that Nintendo was playing favorites, favoring their own games and those of their favorite third-party publishers — generally the ones from Japan — by manipulating production numbers and manipulating the sentiments of Generation Nintendo through the coverage they gave (or didn’t give) each game in Nintendo Power. “If I pissed Nintendo off,” runs a typical complaint, “I would get less product. My games would get hit in Nintendo Power and they’d get low ratings.” And the most surefire way to piss Nintendo off, at least according to this complainer, was to release a game for the NES’s first serious competitor, the Sega Genesis console that entered the United States in 1989.

There was plenty of tinder already lying about the public sphere, just waiting to be ignited by such rhetoric. All of the concerns about videogames that had been voiced by parents, educators, and politicians during the heyday of Generation Atari were now being dusted off and applied to Generation Nintendo. Now, however, they were given additional force by Nintendo’s very foreignness. Plenty of Americans, many of whom had still not completely forgiven Japan for Pearl Harbor, saw a nefarious agenda behind it all, a fifth column of Mario-obsessed youngsters who might come to undermine the very nation. “Notice the way Super Mario is drawn,” wrote one in a letter to a magazine. “He has the eyes of someone who has been brainwashed.” Lurking just below the surface of such complaints, unstated but by no means unconveyed, were old attitudes toward the Japanese as shifty characters who could never be trusted to follow the rules, whether in war or business. It all came down to “cultural” differences, they muttered disingenuously: “There’s more of a sharing of the pie by American companies. In Japan, it’s different: winners win big and losers lose.”

Hoping to capitalize on the burgeoning anti-Nintendo sentiment, in December of 1988 Tengen Games, a spinoff of Atari Games (which was itself the successor to the standup-arcade portion of the original Atari’s business), sued Nintendo in federal court for antitrust violations and monopolistic practices: “The sole purpose of the lockout system is to lock out competition.” Having found a way to defeat the much-vaunted lockout system through a combination of industrial espionage, reverse engineering, and good old social engineering — this is one of the few occasions in Nintendo’s history where one might accuse them of having been naive — Tengen simultaneously launched a few of their own unauthorized games for the NES.

Nintendo’s counterattack against Tengen was massive and comprehensive. Not only did they launch the expected blizzard of legal actions, but they made it clear to all of the stores that handled their products that there would be grave consequences if they chose to sell the Tengen games as well. Such threats ironically represented a far more clear-cut antitrust violation than anything found in Tengen’s original suit. When Tengen got the court to order Nintendo to cease and desist from such behavior, Nintendo allegedly only became more subtle. “You know, we really like to support those who support Nintendo, and we’re not real happy that you’re carrying a Tengen product,” a rep might say. “By the way, why don’t we sit down and talk about product allocations for next quarter? How many Super Marios did you say you wanted?” “Since it was illegal, there were always excuses,” remembers one retailer. “The truck got lost, or the ship from Japan never arrived.”

Tengen was determined to try their case against Nintendo first and foremost in the court of American public opinion. “Who gave Nintendo the power to decide what software the American public can buy?” they asked. The New York Times, for one, agreed with them: “A verdict in favor of Nintendo would probably have a spillover effect into the personal-computer industry, where it could have a chilling effect on the free flow of ideas and innovations that have characterized that market since its inception.” An opportunistic Congressman named Dennis Eckart launched a high-profile crusade against Nintendo that led to lots of heated rhetoric amid Congressional hearings and the involvement of several state Attorneys General and the Federal Trade Commission. Jack Tramiel of the other Atari (the one currently making the Atari ST computer), who had always viewed lawsuits as healthy business competition by other means, piled on with a suit of his own, claiming that by monopolizing the market Nintendo was keeping his own company from getting good software for its machines. “Nintendo has demonstrated its disregard for free and fair competition in America,” said Jack’s son and anointed successor Sam Tramiel.

Yet the anti-Nintendo sentiment in the country didn’t ultimately do much to help either of the two Ataris’ legal cases; the courts proved willing to buck that rising tide. In a landmark ruling against Tengen in March of 1991, Judge Fern Smith stated that Nintendo had the right to “exclude others” from the NES if they so chose, thus providing the legal soil on which many more walled gardens would be tilled in the years to come. Similarly, the Tramiels’ suit against Nintendo was definitively rejected in 1992, after having cost their company a great deal of time, energy, and most of all money it could ill afford. The other various and multifarious investigations into Nintendo’s business, of which there were far too many to summarize here, resulted in a mixed bag of vindications and modest slaps on the wrist that did nothing to alter Nintendo’s overall trajectory. Perhaps the best argument against Nintendo as a monopoly was the arrival of the company’s first competitors in the console space, beginning with Sega, who proved that it actually was still possible to carve out a non-Nintendo place of one’s own in the game-console industry that Nintendo had so recently resurrected.

Nintendo, then, was here to stay, as were Sega and other competitors still to come. The computer-game industry would just have to accept that and reckon with it as best they could. In the end, the threat from Japan proved not quite as apocalyptic as it had seemed during the darkest days of 1989. In 1990 computers could start to boast of a modest new buzz of their own, thanks to the new so-called “multimedia PCs” and a bunch of new games that took advantage of their capabilities. Having ceded the low ground to the consoles, computers had retained the high ground, a loyal constituency of slightly older, more affluent gamers who still had plenty of room in their hearts for the sort of big, high-concept strategy, adventure, and CRPG games that weren’t all that realizable on the more limited consoles. The computer-game industry grew again already in 1990, and by a double-digit percentage at that. The vibrant jungle of PC gaming would continue to bloom in a thousand ways at once, some of them productive, some of them dead ends, some of them inspiring, some of them kind of repugnant. And through it all, the jungle of PC gaming would remain interesting in ways that, at least for this humble writer, the fussily manicured walled garden of Nintendo has never quite managed to be. But whichever mode of distribution you personally favored, one thing became clear as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s: neither Generation Nintendo nor the emerging Generation Wintel would be going anywhere anytime soon.

(Sources: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes; Game Over by David Sheff; Compute!’s Gazette of May 1988, March 1989, August 1989, September 1989, October 1989; Computer Gaming World of September/October 1985 and June 1988; Amazing Computing of January 1989; materials in the SSI and Brøderbund collections at the Strong Museum of Play.)


  1. Activision changed their name to Mediagenic midstream in these events. Because I haven’t told the story behind that change yet, and in order to just generally avoid confusion, I simply refer to the company as “Activision” in this article. 

 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 1: Joel Billings and SSI

SSI

I’m a game player, mostly, that’s about it. I’m pretty dull, actually.

— Joel Billings

Joel Billings is about as close to a literal lifelong gamer as it’s possible to be. His father taught him to play the old Avalon Hill wargame classic Tactics II in 1965, when he was just 7 years old. Robert Billings, who regarded gaming only as an occasional pleasant diversion, soon had cause to wonder whether that introduction has been a wise move; young Joel got obsessed right from the first. Instead of playing with cars or model trains, Joel re-fought the major battles of World War II and the American Civil War on his bedroom floor, having simultaneous and almost equally pitched real-world battles with the family dog, who wanted to play too. While other boys played sports, or merely watched them, Joel was determined to simulate them. He tried to recreate every single game of the 1969 football season for every single team — hundreds of individual matches — using Strat-O-Matic Football, finally stopping out of sheer exhaustion with just twenty or so matches left to play. Encouraged to find a more social outlet for his “hobby,” he raided his high school’s chess club to form a wargaming club with himself as founder, president, and, it seems safe to say, most passionate member by a country mile. The same could be said of the company he would later found.

But it was awfully hard in those early days for Joel or anyone in his family to imagine how he could turn his passion into a living wage, especially given that he wasn’t and would never be so much a start-from-scratch designer as an avid, gifted player. After doing well at his suburban Los Angeles high school despite the lure of wargames — he graduated 19th in a class of 572 — he proceeded to Claremont Men’s College in 1975 to pursue a degree in Economics. There he continued with his beloved wargames, betwixt and between and every chance he got. He would sometimes enter three divisions of a wargaming tournament simultaneously, an obligation later described by Al Tommervik of Softalk magazine as “roughly akin to playing a couple of dozen simultaneous chess matches against near masters.”

The late 1970s were a good time to be a wargamer. In terms of dollars and cents, this period was the tabletop-wargame industry’s golden age. Annual sales grew at a rate of 40 percent or more for the better part of the decade, peaking in 1979 at $15.5 million. Those may sound like small numbers in comparison with many another entertainment industry, but for wargaming, always the very definition of a niche hobby, they were very good ones indeed in comparison to what had come before and, less happily, what would soon follow. Surveys reckoned over a quarter of a million Americans were active wargamers, with an average age of just 22 years. (In the years to follow, one of those numbers would plummet while the other rose precipitously.) Joel Billings — smart, from comfortable circumstances, and 21 years old in 1979 — was practically the prototypical specimen of the breed.

In those days wargaming was absolutely dominated by a Coke and a Pepsi, whose combined sales accounted for 80 percent of the industry as a whole. Wargaming’s Coke was Avalon Hill, the big, traditionalist institution whose Tactics, generally regarded as the urtext of the modern wargame, had birthed the industry back in 1954. Its Pepsi was the younger, slightly smaller, slightly hungrier, arguably more innovative Simulations Publications, Incorporated, universally known as SPI. The two companies were each regarded with great love and loyalty by their respective fans, who felt they could discern a distinct personality not only in the marketing and packaging of each company’s games but in the games’ rules as well. Plenty of wargamers were stalwart loyalists to one camp or the other, refusing to buy or play a game by the rival company. Joel wasn’t quite that extreme, but was always an Avalon Hill man when push came to shove.

Joel Billings, the man destined to bring the culture of chits and dice into collision with that of bits and bytes, had his first run-in with computers early in his time at Claremont College. He wound up, more by happenstance than desire, in a BASIC programming class conducted with the mediation of a big DEC PDP-10. This first encounter didn’t rock his world the way it did that of so many characters we’ve met on this blog — Joel had already found his lifelong passion when he had first played Tactics II all those years ago — but he did find the experience interesting, and found he had a certain aptitude for it as well. It started him to musing about the changes computers might wreak on his own favored hobby. For his final project in the class, he wrote a simple little two-player tank game. It was a wargame in only the most generous definition of the term, but it was a start. In the meantime, he parlayed that class into a six-month internship at Amdahl Corporation, a maker of mainframe computers located in Silicon Valley, during his senior year at university.

After graduating from Claremont College in May of 1979, Joel traveled up the coast again to take a summer job with Amdahl before he went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago. As he had before, he stayed in a spare apartment above the house of David Rubinfien, an uncle. Immersed in the world of big mainframe iron as he was, Joel had only recently become aware of the nascent PC revolution. But as soon as he’d seen his first TRS-80 he’d begun wondering what these new microcomputers might be able to do for his hobby. Rubinfien, as always supportive of and helpful to his nephew and possessed of some connections in the Valley to boot, encouraged him to find out.

Joel first talked to some programmers who worked for IBM, but they told him flat-out that his idea of creating a wargame reminiscent of the tabletop games he loved on the microcomputers of the day was absurd. Undaunted, Joel hung flyers in several of the local computer shops. With the moment of decision looming ever closer — did he stay here and try to make a computerized wargame or did he go off to graduate school? — he was contacted in early August by one John Lyon. Eighteen years Joel’s senior, Lyon was an experienced programmer currently working for Control Data who loved wargames almost as much as Joel. He had never programmed a microcomputer before, but he didn’t let that stop him. “This is what opportunity looks like when it knocks,” Lyon had told the sales clerk standing by the store’s bulletin board. “And I’m going to answer it.”

Pressed for time as they were, Joel and John settled on a rather blatant computerized clone of an old Avalon Hill classic called Bismarck, a simulation of the legendary German battleship‘s ill-fated attempt to break out into the Atlantic shipping lanes in 1941. In addition to offering a completed design to start from, Bismarck seemed ideal in a number of other ways. For one thing, its was a popular subject known even to many non-military-history buffs thanks to the classic war flick Sink the Bismarck!  But there were also other, less obvious considerations. Joel had long since realized that the computer had the potential to bring two hugely salable advancements to the traditional tabletop wargame, and a Bismarck game would be well-nigh ideal for demonstrating both of them.

One advancement would be true hidden movement. Implementing a proper “fog of war” presented an obvious problem for a tabletop wargame where each player was tracking moves on the same game board and needed to be able to make sure the other wasn’t cheating. The problem of fog of war was so vexing yet so essential to any realistic simulation of military conflict that some of the most elaborate wargames had taken to requiring a third participant, a referee who could serve as a neutral arbiter and keep track of each player’s units in relation to the others; you can imagine how popular that thankless role was. A computerized version of Bismarck could demonstrate to fine effect the computer’s ability to simulate the fog of war. Indeed, one might say that this entire scenario revolved around the fog of war: the really difficult part for the British side was simply finding the Bismarck. The British forces were so overwhelming in comparison to the German that, as Joel puts it, “if you find the Bismarck you’re likely to kill it.”

The other advantage computers brought to the (non-)table was of course to eliminate not only the need for a referee but also the need for another player, to provide an artificially intelligent opponent who was up for a game any time you were. Artificial intelligence was, however, a hard task to shoehorn into a microcomputer of 1979 vintage. It was here that the second big advantage of Joel and John’s choice of games came in: with a Bismarck game, they really didn’t need much of an artificial intelligence at all. The order of battle for the German side of things consisted of only the Bismarck itself and a single escorting cruiser; the tiny flotilla’s strategic and tactical options were pretty much limited to “sail as quickly as possible and hope the British forces don’t find them.” Surely the computer could manage that much. All John Lyon needed do was restrict the human player to only playing the British side.

Computer Bismark was programmed in Joel's apartment at the top of this rather hair-raising staircase. Thanks to childhood bout with polio, John Lyons had to climb it on crutches every evening.

Computer Bismarck was programmed in Joel’s apartment at the top of this rather hair-raising staircase. Thanks to an adolescent bout with polio, John Lyon had to climb it on crutches every evening.

Lyon set to work programming the game, using only text because that’s all the borrowed North Star CP/M machine he and Joel had scrounged could manage; neither of these two would-be microcomputer-software impresarios yet owned an actual microcomputer. Meanwhile his uncle set up several meetings with venture capitalists, which didn’t yield any immediately tangible results. But then the Silicon Valley grapevine reached Trip Hawkins, a young man only a few older than Joel who worked for a company Joel had barely heard of to this point: Apple Computer. A venture capitalist called Hawkins to tell him about this interesting proposal that was coming from an inexperienced youngster with questionable credentials to pull it off. If Hawkins would quit his job at Apple and become president of the new company, the venture capitalist said, he could guarantee him ample financing. Hawkins wasn’t ready to do any such thing, but he was intrigued enough by the venture capitalist’s description to meet with Joel.

The two were polar opposites in temperament, Hawkins charismatic, nakedly ambitious, and dynamic while Joel was quiet, staid, and thoughtful. Both, however, had grown up similarly steeped in the games culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Eager to foster the games industry that he hoped to enter in his own right someday soon, Hawkins offered to join the board of any prospective company, provided that Joel was willing to develop his game on the Apple II. The Apple II had been overshadowed by the likes of the TRS-80 and all those CP/M machines to date, Hawkins admitted, but it was having a very good 1979 and was poised to come on strong in the new decade — poised to be “the computer of the future.” He was, to give credit where it’s due, largely right in this. The Apple II would indeed become the premier gaming computer of the next several years, thanks not least to a standout feature that Hawkins didn’t hesitate to point out to Joel: its color bitmap graphics. If they made their Bismarck game for the Apple II, Joel and John could substitute a color picture of the North Atlantic for textual descriptions of the situation.

Hawkins’s participation should play well with the many Silicon Valley venture capitalists who already knew him as a bright young spark, and he could even get Joel access to Apple’s own distribution network and customer rolls. And, far from being a sacrifice, going with the burgeoning Apple II as the new company’s platform of choice seemed a logical course. Hawkins promised to join the board, and Apple II it was from then on.

Still, Joel remained cautious by nature. All too aware of his own lack of experience, he cast about for a bigger partner to shoulder some of the risk and some of the responsibility. He screwed up his courage to call the home of his self-described “heroes” at the wargaming Mecca of Avalon Hill, and managed to get Thomas N. Shaw — game designer, founding editor of Avalon Hill’s in-house magazine The General, and the most long-serving employee of the company — on the other end of the line. Shaw, in Joel’s words, “blew him off,” said Avalon Hill was already investigating the field of computer gaming for themselves and didn’t particularly need the help of a 21-year-old with no relevant experience, thank you very much. Joel’s next call was to Automated Simulations, a computer-games publisher founded by two veteran tabletop wargamers that struck him as the only publisher remotely close in background and spirit to what he was trying to do. But, flying high on the sales of their proto-CRPG Temple of Apshai, Automated Simulatons was more interested in adding to that line than branching out into computer wargames. And, once again, they remained distinctly unimpressed by young Joel himself. If Joel wanted to do this thing, he would have to do it alone.

He had definitively decided at last that he did want to do this thing. At the last possible instant, he obtained a one-year deferral on graduate school and an extension of his summer job at Amdahl to pay the bills while he tried to get his company off the ground. Being a methodical sort who did anything he decided to do thoroughly and conscientiously, Joel, with the assistance of a sympathetic older colleague from Amdahl named David Bowen, prepared an evolving series of business plans over the last five months of 1979, using data drawn from trade journals and a survey he passed out at a local tabletop-gaming convention. They make for fascinating reading today. For instance, one data point had ominous implications for the wargames industry, still sanguine in their expectations of double-digit annual growth in the decade to come, if only anyone there had happened to see it: Joel found from his survey that wargamers who purchased computers immediately saw their expenditures on tabletop games drop by an average of 41 percent.

In one of these documents, Joel shows a remarkable understanding of the nature of experiential gaming and what makes it different and important.

It is believed that users of these games are attempting to create a fantasy world in which they can obtain role identification with heroic figures. This is similar to reading a good book or watching TV, except that in a game it is more interactive, lively, or “hot.” Wargames provide historical realism and heroes with the basic requirements of a good game: elements of skill, strategy, and chance. Typical wargames allow role identification with heroes like General Patton, various admirals, Napoleon, and so on.

The business plans paint a picture of a busy little factory, with a large staff of programmers under Lyon beavering away to turn out games at a rapid clip. For all the plans’ diligence, they don’t evince much understanding of the nature of intellectual property. Under the heading of “Overall Product Strategy,” the final plan unabashedly states that “computerized versions of existing [tabletop] games” will be the company’s early priority, with “computerized wargames designed by a top-flight game designer with a computer in mind from the beginning” coming only later as resources permit. Ah, well… Joel’s company would hardly be the only respected publisher to have a dodgy understanding of intellectual property in the wild and woolly early days of the software industry.

The name of Joel’s venture changed several times. What started out as the placeholder “Company A” became “Computer Simulations,” and only then “Strategic Simulations.” Joel first took to abbreviating the name to “SS,” but the historical connotations of those two letters — especially to wargamers, who tended to be all too steeped in the very era of history in question — were too ugly to let them stand alone. So he settled at last on SSI, for “Strategic Simulations, Incorporated,” an abbreviation with the added bonus of harking back to the tabletop-wargaming institution of SPI. The incorporation in question occurred on December 27, 1979.

Even with Trip Hawkins’s backing, Joel still hadn’t found any venture capitalists willing to take a chance on computerized wargaming by that date. So Joel’s family finally came through to fund his dream, raising some $40,000 in seed capital among themselves. Joel’s big sister Susan quit her job as admitting-and-registration manager at a hospital to run the accounting side of the venture, to serve as office manager, and, just possibly, to keep an eye on her little brother on behalf of the family that had just entrusted him with so much of their money and faith. Susan, who had no particular interest in games or computers, took the job on as a favor and a family obligation. “For the first couple of years, I said I’d stay six months and then leave,” she remembers. “I thought it was a temporary thing.” Instead she would remain throughout SSI’s long run, becoming in her way as integral to the company as Joel himself. This even though she never did much warm to games or computers: “I never felt an affinity for the products. My feelings were for the operation and the people.”

Computer Bismark in action.

Computer Bismarck in action.

John Lyon finished SSI’s first game in late January of 1980. Still not the slightest bit interested in disguising its origins in the Avalon Hill Bismarck, Joel titled it simply Computer Bismarck. No matter. Computer Bismarck, generally regarded today as the first serious wargame to appear on a microcomputer, made for a very impressive product for those in SSI’s target demographic. Recognizing the need to present a professional appearance — especially in light of Computer Bismarck‘s $60 price tag, four or five times the price of the typical computer game at the time — Joel had taken the unusual step of hiring an artist and packaging designer for SSI right out of the gate. In an industry still dominated by Ziploc baggies stuffed with hand-scrawled photocopied title cards, Computer Bismarck shipped in an actual box sporting Louis Saekow’s ominous head-on graphic of the Bismarck itself. Inside was not only a real, professionally typeset manual but also a generous collection of player aids, including a map and counters for keeping track of those aspects of the strategic situation that the program, even with the aid of the Apple II’s bitmap graphics, couldn’t always show.

Computer Bismark

Through the auspices of the well-connected Trip Hawkins, Joel made his first significant sale in early February, 50 copies of the game to the Los Altos Computerland. A week later SSI moved out of Joel’s apartment, where by the end there he had been forced to wind his way through a hedge maze built from the first 1000 copies of Computer Bismarck just to reach his bed. After the move, the first of six to ever larger digs that SSI would make over the next decade, Joel hung a map of the United States on the wall. Every time an SSI game sold in a new city, he’d put a pin in the map. Within six weeks, the map was positively bristling with them. Its purpose served, Joel pulled the map off the wall.

They were on their way, but budgets were decidedly tight. That first office space was nothing but a big empty room. Unable to afford cubicles, they made “offices” out of walls of boxes. “When someone grumbled later about not having an office,” Susan remembers, “we’d say the president had a wall of boxes for an office, so you’re in good company.” Despite working for an alleged computer company, Susan managed all of the accounts on paper, with the aid of only “one of those out-of-the-movies adding machines that only does addition and subtraction.” At $15 at the local surplus store, the price had been right.

Computer Bismark

SSI spent all the money they weren’t spending inside their offices trying to make a good impression outside of them. Determined to advertise Computer Bismarck as something genuinely new under the sun, they came up with a catchy slogan: “The $2160 Wargame!” (The extra $2100, of course, referred to the approximate cost of the Apple II system needed to run it.) Just as Joel had hoped, Computer Bismarck attracted significant attention in traditional wargaming circles, getting big writeups in hardcore magazines like Fire and Movement. Computerized wargames were “here at last,” wrote Joel in his “Designer’s Notes” addendum to that article, “and I suggest you run out and buy a home computer as soon as you can justify it to your wife, girlfriend, or mother.” And at least to some extent his readers apparently did. SSI wound up selling almost 8000 copies of Computer Bismarck. That number may not sound spectacular today, but it wasn’t bad for a niche product in what remained a niche industry. By year’s end Lyon and his team had churned out a few more, slightly less blatantly cloned wargames. SSI’s year-end balance sheet showed a loss of $60,000, but that was hardly unexpected for the first-year startup. They believed they were well on the road to profitability. At the same time, though, Joel was well on the road to overhauling the way that SSI did business.

Joel with a single computer and a homemade sign at the June 1980 Origins gaming convention.

Joel with a single computer and a homemade sign at the June 1980 Origins gaming convention.

What caused him to rethink himself was an unsolicited and thoroughly unexpected package that arrived within months of the release of Computer Bismarck. In the package was a game from an Arkansan named Dan Bunten,1 a football simulation that used the Apple II’s optional paddle controllers to brilliant effect. Bunten wanted to know if SSI would be interested in publishing it. Hard as it may be to believe, this was a business model that had never occurred to Joel. Instead of killing themselves to design and program all these games in-house, SSI could curate games from outside developers — handle the packaging and marketing while leaving the tough, unpredictable creative effort to others. If Joel needed any further convincing, the fact that Bunten’s slick football game made SSI’s in-house games look rather workmanlike provided plenty. SSI published Computer Quarterback in September of 1980 as their first non-in-house-developed game. It promptly became by far the fastest seller in their catalog, just in case Joel needed yet further convincing.

SSI’s year-end 1980 “business plan,” really a state-of-the-business report, incorporates an important change from the original plan: “SSI is now relying on outside designers to provide roughly half of all new products.” That percentage would only increase in the years to come. Joel’s original vision of SSI as a sort of wargames factory, with a small army of programmers beavering away to churn out games, would never materialize. No big loss. This new way worked so much better.

As the existence of Computer Quarterback will attest, SSI’s games almost immediately began to depart from the most literal definition of a wargame. Within a few years they would add to their growing military-history library not only more sports games, but also economic simulations, political challenges, and science-fictional scenarios. Somewhat to the chagrin of Joel, a hardcore military wargamer first and last, the average non-military game actually sold much better than the average military; the biggest sellers of all in SSI’s first few years were Computer Quarterback and Computer Baseball.

Yet, like the games of most publishers carving out an identity in the young industry, SSI’s games did all tend to share a personality. In an earlier article, I described that personality as “almost aggressively off-putting.” While not the kindest description I’ve ever written, I think it holds true to the way the average non-wargamer perceived them. It’s right there in the name of the company that made them. These games were very eager to brand themselves as thinking people’s strategic simulations rather than mere games. Rather than minimizing complexities, they reveled in them — that’s to say, they reveled in as many complexities as it was actually possible to generate on a 48 K Apple II. Like the tabletop wargames that inspired them, mechanical elegance, interface, and aesthetics all took a back seat to the idea of recreating history. It may sound like stereotyping to say that most of SSI’s games were written by serious-minded bearded men in home offices whose walls were lined with military-history books… but, well, most of SSI’s games were written by serious-minded bearded men in home offices whose walls were lined with military-history books. Long after the rest of the industry had sworn off BASIC for high-performance machine language, SSI continued to happily accept and publish games written in pure BASIC, hundreds of lines of amateurish spaghetti code. For the SSI hardcore, who like tabletop wargamers loved to explore and tinker with rules in the name of historical accuracy or what-if scenarios, the use of easily listable and modifiable BASIC was as much plus as minus. The great Sid Meier gave us the maxim that “fun trumps realism” in game design. One might say that SSI’s games took the opposite position. But, almost paradoxically, for the niche of people on their wavelength the realism — or the abstract idea of realism, whatever the actual reality of simulation on a 48 K Apple II — was the fun.

For everyone else, the appeal of these baroque, balky, bulky creations remained a mystery. The shops often didn’t know quite what to do with them. Here’s Ed Thomas, a former manager of Software Etc.’s showcase store in Manhattan:

The boxes were half again as big as any other box on the shelf, and they were these intricate wargames with names like Beachhead: Moscow, 1944. I hated those boxes. The only way to display them was to put them on the top shelf, which messed up the order I was trying to establish. In addition, the covers weren’t very attractive, and I never had enough of any one title to face-out the boxes. These damned over-sized, ugly boxes were not at all worth the trouble they caused. I took an immediate dislike to the company that was giving me such a hard time.

That was my first encounter with Strategic Simulations, Inc., a company filled, I was sure, with people who, when not writing intricate computer code, were in a military-style war room recreating D-Day.

SSI proved uniquely impervious to the depredations of the software pirates who were causing so much outrage elsewhere in the industry. Their fool-proof method of copy protection didn’t involve mismatched sector numbers or manual-lookup schemes. It was rather the simple fact that few of the people who copied and traded games could care less about those of SSI. The piracy scene just couldn’t be bothered, unless it was to have an occasional game to mock for its ugly graphics, its slowness, and its sheer BASICness.

Joel poses in 1982 with Pursuit of the Graf Spee, the only SSI game he designed and programmed himself -- albeit by cribbing liberally from Computer Bismark. Selling just 2082, it wasn't a big success.

Joel poses in 1982 with Pursuit of the Graf Spee, the only SSI game he designed and programmed himself — albeit only by cribbing liberally from Computer Bismarck. It sold just 2082 units.

The niche audience for SSI’s games — niche even by the standards of the still tiny software industry in general — sharply limited the potential sales of each of them. As Joel himself put it in 1982, “I’m just a niche in a subset.” And then there were so many sub-niches within SSI’s niche: a dedicated sports gamer raised on Strat-O-Matic Football might not care about military titles at all, a World War II buff might not have any interest in American Civil War games. Relying on the fact that many of the dedicated hardcore would buy lots of games within the sub-niche that did appeal to them, SSI made it up in the sheer volume of titles they published. They really were astoundingly prolific. Already in that 1980 business plan they are planning to leverage all those outside designers to release a new game for every month of 1981. Shockingly, they pulled it off, and kept right on flooding the market with titles thereafter.

In the first four years of SSI’s existence, they released no fewer than 43 separate games, not counting ports and enhanced editions. Most of these never came close to cracking five digits in total unit sales. Some barely sold 2000 copies. Precisely three of them cracked 20,000 units, with the most successful of them all, Computer Baseball, a real outlier at over 45,000 copies sold. Titles like that presumably broke through to some extent beyond the SSI hardcore. But mostly SSI relied on the fanatically loyal customers who bought lots of their games and quite possibly no games at all from anyone else. With virtually none of their games selling in enough quantities to meet even the most generous definition of a hit, their ever expanding back catalog was everything. Each SSI game, even those that initially struggled to sell 1000 units, remained available for years. It would, for instance, still be possible to buy a brand new copy of good old Computer Bismarck in 1986 — and still for a full $60 at that.

It was a comfortable niche as niches go, but there was only room for one company there. About six months after Computer Bismarck, Avalon Hill, as Tom Shaw had once told Joel they would, started their own line of computerized wargames. That, combined with the existence of Computer Bismarck, was a recipe for trouble. Sure enough, Avalon Hill was soon marketing computerized versions of some of their other tabletop classics using the same prefix: Computer Diplomacy, Computer Football Strategy, Computer Circus Maximus. Just to aggravate the confusion, Avalon Hill coincidentally released a second edition of the tabletop Bismarck, which had been out of print for a number of years, the very same year as Computer Bismarck. With the two companies in direct competition, a call from the lawyers was inevitable. SSI got off relatively easy: sued for trademark and copyright infringement in 1984, they settled by agreeing to pay Avalon Hill a lump sum of $30,000 and a 5 percent royalty on future sales — which, given that Computer Bismarck was by then almost five years old and creakily archaic, were likely to be modest at best even for the back-catalog-driven SSI.

All told, Avalon Hill plugged away at the computer thing for a good five years, but despite the drawing power of their name among tabletop veterans could never quite catch up to SSI in either sales or wargamer respect, could never quite get their computer division to turn a real profit. Part of the problem was doubtless that their games, being programmed by a rather unimaginative in-house team, were “really simple,” as Joel puts it, in comparison to SSI’s — not a good thing to players that craved the validation of complexity. And part of their problem was doubtless just the disadvantages of being second. SSI already owned this market. Stymieing the giant that had once blown him off had to bring a smile of vindication even to the mild-mannered face of Joel Billings.

Less happily for SSI, other markets had owners as well. When SSI tried to branch out from their slow, cerebral signature games it just didn’t work for them. In 1982, they launched a line they called RapidFire, consisting of faster-paced, more graphically impressive games, generally programmed and released first on the more audiovisually capable Atari 8-bit line rather than the Apple II. Among the RapidFire games was Dan Bunten’s pioneering proto-real-time-strategy game Cytron Masters. But sales weren’t notably better than their typical wargame: Cytron Masters sold just 4702 units. And as competition heated up it became difficult for little SSI to retain developers who didn’t work firmly in the company’s own niche. Dan Bunten, for instance, was lured away by Trip Hawkins’s new Electronic Arts shortly after finishing Cytron Masters. SSI soon returned to focusing exclusively on the types of games with which Joel was most comfortable

They did have one valuable ally in their corner in the increasingly competitive industry. In 1981, a Baptist minister and veteran tabletop gamer named Russell Sipe contacted Joel to ask his opinion on a potential magazine that would exclusively cover computer games, focusing on those of an intellectual, wargamey bent. Recognizing a kindred spirit immediately, Joel was very supportive, even committing his own still fragile venture to buying extensive advertising in the new publication. Computer Gaming World became so associated with SSI in its early years that one might be excused if one took it for SSI’s own publication. The slim first issue, for example, includes an extended feature-length review of SSI’s new Torpedo Fire; a review of, playing tips for, and an after-action report from SSI’s President Elect; and a “greatest baseball team of all time” tournament conducted using SSI’s Computer Baseball. This de facto partnership, born like most things involving SSI of shared interests and genuine affection rather than guile, served SSI well for many years, helping to get their niche games in front of just the right niche of potential buyers. SSI grew cautiously but healthily year by year, from sales of $317,000 in 1980 to over $3 million in 1984. The employee rolls grew to match, from 11 at the end of 1980 to 32 at the end of 1984.

While the vast majority of the games were provided by outside developers (the aforementioned serious-minded bearded men), just packaging and coming up with manuals and other supporting materials for a new game every single month was a herculean task, especially given that SSI generally did a very good job with such things; these were expensive games, and they needed to look it. In lieu of the army of programmers — SSI’s in-house development group, while never entirely eliminated, remained much smaller than originally planned — an army (or at any rate a small brigade) of other personnel came on board to design the packaging, write the manuals, ship the games, and deal with all the other logistics of running a growing business. Some of these folks were, like Joel, hardcore gamers delighted to be spending their days in what Joel’s eventual wife came to call “a treehouse for wargamers.” For the rest, the folks like Susan Billings, it was just a job, but a pretty great job all the same. Joel, apart from his one eccentric habit of wearing a three-piece suit to work every day, was as easygoing, down-to-earth, and reasonable a boss as anyone could ever wish for. But it was at least as much Susan who set the tone of the workplace while Joel was hopelessly lost inside his wargames: “It was the opportunity to try to create the perfect work environment so people would want to come to work. It was the chance of a lifetime to develop a company using your style, based on your style, and doing it with someone from your family.” So, yes, SSI was a very happy place — as happy in its way as the legendarily happy Infocom, and for a much longer stretch of time.

SSI employees Tena Lawry and Connie Barron boogie down as the "Simulated Bunnies" because... well, just because.

SSI employees Tena Lawry and Connie Barron boogie down as the “Simulated Bunnies” because… well, just because.

Tena Lawry, who would later become SSI’s senior purchaser, joined in 1981 as a temporary disk copier, responsible for shoving disks into drives and then dropping them into boxes all day long. (If you could put toast in a toaster, you were qualified, says Tena wryly.) Tena:

We broke for lunch and Joel walked in with five pizzas. We all sat on the floor munching away and an announcement was made that we were going to have a rousing game of Nuclear War [a Flying Buffalo game]. Now I’m nervous. I figured we were going to play some intense videogame. I hadn’t even mastered Pac-Man yet, so this would be interesting.

Nuclear War turned out to be a card game in which you amass missiles and such and then trump your opponent in an attempt to annihilate his population. At one point, I dropped a major nuclear payload on Joel. I thought at this point that this may not have been the politically correct thing to do. After all, Joel was the president of SSI and I had just wiped out his entire population. But I soon found out that Joel always appreciates a good game strategist even if it means a pile of dead-body cards.

That night at dinner my family asked me what I had done on my first day at SSI. I said I copied disks, assembled games, and obliterated an entire population while eating pizza. Silence fell over the table. “Just kidding,” I said.

It fell to Susan Billings to address a delicate problem when SSI’s technical staff — hackers being hackers — started to spend much too long in front of their computers between hygiene breaks. She handled the situation with humor, grace, and aplomb, as she did most situations at SSI. Old timers laugh about the infamous “B.O. Memo” to this day.

SSI

At the time that Susan was writing that memo, SSI was tentatively trying to branch out again into a new genre. Thankfully, this expansion would be more successful than the RapidFire line had been. Indeed, in the fullness of time it would lead to a transformative deal with the titan of the other side of the tabletop industry, the yin to Avalon Hill’s yang. We’ll step back next time to look at what set that titan on a collision course with Joel Billing’s modest little treehouse for wargamers.

(Sources: This article is largely drawn from the collection of documents that Joel Billings donated to the Strong Museum of Play, which includes lots of internal SSI documents and some press clippings. Also, Matt Barton’s YouTube interviews with Billings.)


  1. Dan Bunten later became Danielle Bunten Berry, and lived until her death in 1998 under that name. 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. 

 

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Wasteland

Wasteland

We can mark the formal beginning of the Wasteland project to the day in December of 1985 when Brian Fargo, head of Interplay, flew out to Arizona with his employee Alan Pavlish to meet with Michael Stackpole. If all went well at the meeting, Pavlish was to join Stackpole and Ken St. Andre as the third member of the core trio who would guide the game to release. His role, however, would be very different from that of his two colleagues.

A hotshot programmer’s programmer, Pavlish, though barely twenty years old, had been kicking around the industry for several years already. Before Interplay existed, he’d done freelance work on Commodore VIC-20 games for their earlier incarnation as Boone Corporation, and done ports of games like Murder on the Zinderneuf to the Apple II and Commodore 64 for another little company called Designer Software. When Pavlish came to work for Interplay full-time, Fargo had first assigned him to similar work: he had ported the non-Interplay game Hacker to the Apple II for Activision. (In those pre-Bard’s Tale days, Fargo was still forced to accept such unglamourous work to make ends meet.) But Fargo had huge respect for Pavlish’s abilities. When the Wasteland idea started to take off while his usual go-to programming ace Bill Heineman1 was still swamped with the Bard’s Tale games and Interplay’s line of illustrated text adventures, Fargo didn’t hesitate to throw Pavlish in at the deep end: he planned to make him responsible for bringing the huge idea that was Wasteland to life on the little 64 K 8-bit Apple II and Commodore 64.

However, when Fargo and Pavlish got out of their airplane that day it was far from certain that there would be a Wasteland project for Pavlish to work on at all. In contrast to St. Andre, Stackpole was decidedly skeptical, and for very understandable reasons. His experiences with computer-game development to date hadn’t been happy ones. Over the past several years, he’d been recruited to three different projects and put considerable work into each, only to see each come to naught in one way or another. Thanks largely to the influence of Paul Jaquays,2 another tabletop veteran who headed Coleco’s videogame-design group during the first half of the 1980s, he’d worked on two games for the Coleco Adam, a would-be challenger in the home-computer wars. The more intriguing of the two, a Tunnels & Trolls adaptation, got cancelled before release. The other, an adaptation of the film 2010: Odyssey Two, was released only after the Adam had flopped miserably and been written off by Coleco; you can imagine how well that game sold. He’d then accepted a commission from science-fiction author cum game developer Fred Saberhagen to design a computer game that took place in the world of the latter’s Book of Swords trilogy. (Stackpole had already worked with Flying Buffalo on a board game set in the world of Saberhagen’s Berserker series.) The computerized Book of Swords had gone into stasis when it became clear that Berserker Works, the development company Saberhagen had founded, just didn’t have the resources to finish it.

So, yes, Stackpole needed some convincing to jump into the breach again with tiny Interplay, a company he’d never heard of.3 Luckily for Interplay, he, Fargo, and Pavlish all got along like a house on fire on that December day. Fargo and Pavlish persuaded Stackpole that they shared — or at least were willing to accommodate — his own emerging vision for Wasteland, for a computer game that would be a game and a world first, a program second. Stackpole:

Programmers design beautiful programs, programs that work easily and simply; game designers design games that are fun to play. If a programmer has to make a choice between an elegant program and a fun game element, you’ll have an elegant program. You need a game designer there to say, “Forget how elegant the program is — we want this to make sense, we want it to be fun.”

I was at a symposium where there were about a dozen people. When asked to tell what we were doing, what I kept hearing over and over from programmer/game designers was something like “I’ve got this neat routine for packing graphics, so I’m going to do a fantasy role-playing game where I can use this routine.” Or a routine for something else, or “I’ve got a neat disk sort,” or this or that. And all of them were putting these into fantasy role-playing games. Not to denigrate their skills as programmers — but that’s sort of like saying, “Gee, I know something about petrochemicals, therefore I’m going to design a car that will run my gasoline.” Well, if you’re not a mechanical engineer, you don’t design cars. You can be the greatest chemist in the world, but you’ve got no business designing a car. I’d like to hope that Wasteland establishes that if you want a game, get game designers to work with programmers.

This vision, cutting as it does so much against the way that games were commonly made in the mid-1980s, would have much to do with both where the eventual finished Wasteland succeeds and where it falls down.

Ditto the game’s tabletop heritage. As had been Fargo’s plan from the beginning, Wasteland‘s rules would be a fairly faithful translation of Stackpole’s Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes tabletop RPG, which was in turn built on the foundation of Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls. A clear evolutionary line thus stretched from the work that St. Andre did back in 1975 to Wasteland more than a decade later. No CRPG to date had tried quite as earnestly as Wasteland would to bring the full tabletop experience to the computer.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective rather than the first-person view of The Bard's Tale. This screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective instead of the first-person view of The Bard’s Tale. Note that this screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later (and vastly more pleasant to play) MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

Early in the new year, Stackpole and St. Andre visited Interplay’s California offices for a week to get the process of making Wasteland rolling. St. Andre arrived with a plot already dreamed up. Drawing heavily from the recent ultra-violent action flick Red Dawn, it posited a world where mutually-assured destruction hadn’t proved so mutual after all: the Soviet Union had won the war, and was now occupying the United States. The player would control a group of American freedom fighters skulking around the farmlands of Iowa, trying to build a resistance network. St. Andre and Stackpole spent a month or more after their visit to California drawing maps of cornfields and trying to find ways to make an awful lot of farmers seem different from one another. (Some of this work can be seen in the Agricultural Center in the finished Wasteland.) But finally the pair had to accept the painful truth: the game they were designing was boring. “I said it will be the dullest game you ever saw,” remembers St. Andre, “because the Russians would be there in strength, and your characters start weak and can’t do anything but skulk and hide and slowly, slowly build up.”

St. Andre suggested moving the setting to the desert of the American Southwest, an area with which he, being born and raised in Arizona, was all too familiar. The region also had a certain thematic resonance, being intimately connected with the history of the atomic bomb. The player’s party might even visit Las Vegas, where folks had once sat on their balconies and watched the mushroom clouds bloom. St. Andre suggested nixing the Soviets as well, replacing them with “ravening monsters stalking through a radioactive wasteland, a few tattered humans struggling to survive against an overwhelming threat.” It meant chucking a fair amount of work, but Fargo agreed that it sounded too good to pass up. They might as well all get used to these sorts of false starts. Little would go smoothly or according to plan on this project.

After that first week at Interplay, St. Andre and Stackpole worked from home strictly in a design role, coming up with the plans for the game that were then left to Pavlish in California to implement in code — still an unusual way of working in the mid-1980s, when even many of the great designers, like Dan Bunten4 and Sid Meier, tended to also be great programmers. But St. Andre and Stackpole used their computers — a Commodore 64 in the case of the former, a battered old Osborne luggable in that of the latter — to do nothing more complex than run a word processor. Bundle after bundle of paper was shipped from Arizona to California, in the form of both computer printouts and reams of hand-drawn maps. St. Andre and Stackpole worked, in other words, largely the same way they would have had Wasteland been planned as a new tabletop adventure module.

Wasteland must be, however, one hell of a big adventure module. It soon became clear that the map-design process, entailing as it did the plotting of every single square with detailed descriptions of what it contained and what the party should be able to do there, was overwhelming the two. St. Andre:

I hadn’t thought a great deal about what was going to be in any of these places. I just had this nebulous story in my mind: our heroes will start in A, they’ll visit every worthwhile place on the map and eventually wind up in Z — and if they’re good enough, they’ll win the game. Certain things will be happening in different locations — monsters of different types, people who are hard to get along with, lots of comic references to life before the war. I figured that when the time came for me to design an area, the Indian Village, for example, I would sit down and figure out what would be in it and that would be it. Except that it started taking a long time. Every map had 1024 squares on it, and each one could do something. Even if I just drew all the buildings, I had to go back and say, “These are all square nine: wall, wall, wall, wall, wall. And if you bump into a wall you’ll get this message: ‘The Indians are laughing at you for walking into a wall.'” Whatever — a map that I thought I could toss off in one or two days was taking two weeks, and the project was falling further and further behind.

Fargo agreed to let St. Andre and Stackpole bring in their old Flying Buffalo buddies Liz Danforth and Dan Carver to do maps as well, and the design team just continued to grow from there. “The guys who were helping code the maps, correcting what we sent in, wanted to do some maps,” remembers Stackpole. “Everyone wanted to have his own map, his own thumbprint on the game.”

Even Fargo himself, who could never quite resist the urge to get his own hands dirty with the creations of this company he was supposed to be running from on high, begged for a map. “I want to do a map. Let me have Needles,” St. Andre remembers him saying. “So I said, ‘You’re the boss, Brian, you’ve got Needles.'” But eventually Fargo had to accept that he simply didn’t have the time to design a game and run a company, and the city of Needles fell to another Interplay employee named Bruce Balfour. In all, the Wasteland manual credits no fewer than eight people other than St. Andre and Stackpole with “scenario design.” Even Pavlish, in between trying to turn this deluge of paper into code, managed to make a map or two of his own.

Wasteland is one of the few computer games in history in which those who worked on the softer arts of writing and design outnumbered those who wrote the code and drew the pictures. The ratio isn’t even close: the Wasteland team included exactly one programmer (Pavlish) and one artist (Todd J. Camasta) to go with ten people who only contributed to the writing and design. One overlooked figure in the design process, who goes wholly uncredited in the game’s manual, was Joe Ybarra, Interplay’s liaison with their publisher Electronic Arts. As he did with so many other classic games, Ybarra offered tactful advice and generally did his gentle best to keep the game on course, even going so far as to fly out to Arizona to meet personally with St. Andre and Stackpole.

Those two found themselves spending as much time coordinating their small army of map designers as they did doing maps of their own. Stackpole:

Work fell into a normal pattern. Alan and I would work details out, I’d pass it down the line to the folks designing maps. If they had problems, they’d tell me, Alan and I would discuss things, and they’d get an answer. In this way the practical problems of scenario design directly influenced the game system and vice versa. Map designers even talked amongst themselves, sharing strategies and some of these became standard routines we all later used.

Stackpole wound up taking personal responsibility for the last third or so of the maps, where the open world begins funneling down toward the climax. St. Andre:

I’m fairly strong at making up stories, but not at inventing intricate puzzles. In the last analysis, I’m a hack-and-slash gamer with only a little thought and strategy thrown in. Interplay and Electronic Arts wanted lots of puzzles in the game. Mike, on the other hand, is much more devious, so I gave him the maps with difficult puzzles and I did the ones that involved walking around, talking to people, and shooting things.

The relationship between these two veteran tabletop designers and Pavlish, the man responsible for actually implementing all of their schemes, wasn’t always smooth. “We’d write up a map with all the things on it and then Alan would say, ‘I can’t do that,'” says St. Andre. There would then follow some fraught discussions, doubtless made still more fraught by amateur programmer St. Andre’s habit of declaring that he could easily implement what was being asked in BASIC on his Commodore 64. (Stackpole: “It’s like a duffer coming up to Arnold Palmer at an average golf course and saying, ‘What do you mean you can’t make that 20-foot putt? I can make a 20-foot putt on a miniature golf course.'”) One extended battle was over the question of grenades and other “area-effect” weapons: St. Andre and Stackpole wanted them, Pavlish said they were just too difficult to code and unnecessary anyway. Unsung hero Joe Ybarra solved that one by quietly lobbying Fargo to make sure they went in.

One aspect of Wasteland that really demonstrates St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to divorce the design from the technology is the general absence of the usual numbers that programmers favor — i.e., the powers of two that fit so neatly into the limited memories of the Apple II and Commodore 64. Pavlish instinctively wanted to make the two types of pistols capable of holding 16 or 32 bullets. But St. Andre and Stackpole insisted that they hold 7 or 18, just like their real-world inspirations. As demonstrated by the 1024-square maps, the two did occasionally let Pavlish get away with the numbers he favored, but they mostly stuck to their guns (ha!). “It’s going to be inelegant in terms of space,” admits Stackpole, “but that’s reality.”

Logic like this drove Pavlish crazy, striving as he was to stuff an unprecedentedly complex world into an absurdly tiny space. Small wonder that there were occasional blowups. Slowly he learned to give every idea that came from the designers his very best try, and the designers learned to accept that not everything was possible. With that tacit agreement in place, the relationship improved. In the latter stages of the project, St. Andre and Stackpole came to understand the technology well enough to start providing their design specifications in code rather than text. “Then we could put in the multiple saving throws, the skill and attribute checks,” says St. Andre. “Everything we do in a [Tunnels & Trolls] solitaire dungeon suddenly pops up in the last few maps we did for Wasteland because Mike and I were doing the actual coding.”

When not working on the maps, St. Andre and Stackpole — especially the latter, who came more and more to the fore as time went on — were working on the paragraph book that would contain much of Wasteland‘s story and flavor text. The paragraph book wasn’t so much a new idea as a revival of a very old one. Back in 1979, Jon Freeman’s Temple of Apshai, one of the first CRPGs to arrive on microcomputers, had included a booklet of “room descriptions” laid out much like a Dungeons & Dragons adventure module. This approach was necessitated by the almost unbelievably constrained system for which Temple of Apshai was written: a Radio Shack TRS-80 with just 16 K of memory and cassette-based storage. Moving into the late 1980s, the twilight years of the 8-bit CRPG, designers were finding the likes of the Apple II and Commodore 64 as restrictive as Freeman had the TRS-80 for the simple reason that, while the former platforms may have had four times as much memory as the latter, CRPG design ambitions had grown by at least the same multiple. Moving text, a hugely expensive commodity in terms of 8-bit storage, back into an accompanying booklet was a natural remedy. Think of it as one final measure to wring just a little bit more out of the Apple II and Commodore 64, those two stalwart old warhorses that had already survived far longer than anyone had ever expected. And it didn’t hurt, of course, that a paragraph book made for great copy protection.

While the existence of a Wasteland paragraph book in itself doesn’t make the game unique, St. Andre and Stackpole were almost uniquely prepared to use theirs well, for both had lots of experience crafting Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures. They knew how to construct an interactive story out of little snippets of static text as well as just about anyone, and how to scramble it in such a way as to stymie the cheater who just starts reading straight through. Stackpole, following a tradition that began at Flying Buffalo, constructed for the booklet one of the more elaborate red herrings in gaming history, a whole alternate plot easily as convoluted as that in the game proper involving, of all things, a Martian invasion. All told, the Wasteland paragraph book would appear to have easily as many fake entries as real ones.

You fight some strange foes in Wasteland. Combat shifts back to something very reminiescent of The Bard's Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone's location that you can access by tapping the space bar.

For combat, the display shifts back to something very reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone’s location that you can access by tapping the space bar. And yes, you fight some strange foes in Wasteland

Wasteland‘s screen layout often resembles that of The Bard’s Tale, and one suspects that there has to be at least a little of the same code hidden under its hood. In the end, though, the resemblance is largely superficial. There’s just no comparison in terms of sophistication. While it’s not quite a game I can love — I’ll try to explain why momentarily — Wasteland does unquestionably represent the bleeding edge of CRPG design as of its 1988 release date. CRPGs on the Apple II and Commodore 64 in particular wouldn’t ever get more sophisticated than this. Given the constraints of those platforms, it’s honestly hard to imagine how they could.

Key to Wasteland‘s unprecedented sophistication is its menu of skills. Just like in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, you can tailor each of the up to four characters in your party as you will, free from the restrictive class archetypes of Dungeons & Dragons (or for that matter Tunnels & Trolls). Skills range from the obviously useful (Clip Pistol, Pick Lock, Medic) to the downright esoteric (Metallurgy, Bureaucracy, Sleight of Hand). And of course career librarian St. Andre made sure that a Librarian skill was included, and of course made it vital to winning the game.

Also as in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, a character’s chance of succeeding at just about anything is determined by adding her level in a relevant skill, if any, to a relevant core attribute. For example, to determine a character’s chance of climbing something using her Climb skill the game will also look to her Agility. The system allows a range of solutions to most of the problems you encounter. Say you come to a locked door. You might have a character with the Pick Lock skill try getting in that way. Failing that, a character with the Demolition skill and a little handy plastic explosives could try blasting her way in. Or a strong character might dispense with skills altogether and just try to bash the door down using her Strength attribute. Although a leveling mechanism does exist that lets you assign points to characters’ skills and attributes, skills also improve naturally with use, a mechanism not seen in any previous CRPG other than Dungeon Master (a game that’s otherwise about as different from Wasteland as a game can be and still be called a CRPG).

The skills system makes Wasteland a very different gameplay experience from Ultima V, its only real rival in terms of 8-bit CRPG sophistication at the time of its release. For all its impressive world-building, Ultima V remains bound to Richard Garriott’s standard breadcrumb-trail philosophy of design; beating it depends on ferreting out a long string of clues telling you exactly where to go and exactly what to do. Wasteland, by contrast, can be beaten many ways. If you can’t find the password the guard wants to let you past that locked gate, you can try an entirely different approach: shoot your way in, blow the gate open, pick the lock on the back door and sneak in. It’s perhaps the first CRPG ever that’s really willing to let you develop your own playing personality. You can approach it as essentially a post-apocalyptic Bard’s Tale, making a frontal assault on every map and trying to blow away every living creature you find there, without concerning yourself overmuch about whether it be good or evil, friend or foe. Or you can play it — relatively speaking — cerebrally, trying to use negotiations, stealth, and perhaps a little swindling to get what you need. Or you can be like most players and do a bit of both, as the mood and opportunity strikes you. It’s very difficult if not impossible to get yourself irretrievably stuck in Wasteland. There are always options, always possibilities. While it’s far less thematically ambitious than Ultima V —  unlike the Ultima games, Wasteland was never intended to be anything more or less than pure escapist entertainment — Wasteland‘s more flexible, player-friendly design pointed the way forward while Ultima V was still glancing back.

Indeed, a big part of the enduring appeal of Wasteland to those who love it is the sheer number of different ways to play it. Interplay picked up on this early, and built an unusual feature into the game: it’s possible to reset the entire world to its beginning state while keeping the same group of lovingly developed characters. Characters can advance to ridiculous heights if you do this enough, taking on some equally ridiculous “ranks”: “1st Class Fargo,” “Photon Stud,” etc., culminating in the ultimate achievement of the level 183 “Supreme Jerk.” This feature lets veteran players challenge themselves by, say, trying to complete the game with just one character, and gives an out to anyone who screws up her initial character creation too badly and finds herself overmatched; she can just start over again and replay the easy bits with the same party to hopefully gain enough experience to correct their failings. It takes some of the edge off one of the game’s most obvious design flaws: it’s all but impossible to know which skills are actually useful until you’ve made your way fairly deep into the game.

The very fact that re-playing Wasteland requires you to reset its world at all points to what a huge advance it represents over the likes of The Bard’s Tale. The first CRPG I know of that has a truly, comprehensively persistent world, one in which the state of absolutely everything is saved, is 1986’s Starflight (a game that admittedly is arguably not even a CRPG at all). But that game runs on a “big” machine in 1980s terms, an IBM PC or clone with at least 256 K of memory. Wasteland does it in 64 K, rewriting every single map on the fly as you play to reflect what you’ve done there. Level half of the town of Needles with explosives early in the game, and it will still be leveled when you return many days later. Contrast with The Bard’s Tale, which remembers nothing but the state of your characters when you exit one of its dungeon levels, which lets you fight the same big boss battles over and over and over again if you like. The persistence allows you the player to really affect the world of Wasteland in big-picture ways that were well-nigh unheard-of at the time of its release, as Brian Fargo notes:

Wasteland let you do anything you wanted in any order you wanted, and you could get ripple effects that might happen one minute later or thirty minutes later, a lot like [the much later] Grand Theft Auto series. The Ultima games were open, but things tended to be very compartmentalized, they didn’t ripple out like in Wasteland.

Wasteland is a stunning piece of programming, a resounding justification for all of the faith Fargo placed in the young Alan Pavlish. Immersed in the design rather than the technical end of things as they were — which is itself a tribute to Pavlish, whose own work allowed them to be — St. Andre and Stackpole may still not fully appreciate how amazing it is that Wasteland does what it does on the hardware it does it on.

All of which rather raises the question of why I don’t enjoy actually playing Wasteland a little more then I do. I do want to be careful here in trying to separate what feel like more objective faults from my personal issues with the game. In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, let me put the latter right out there first.

Put simply, the writing of Wasteland just isn’t to my taste. I get the tone that St. Andre and Stackpole are trying to achieve: one of over-the-top comic ultra-violence, like such contemporary teenage-boy cinematic favorites as the Evil Dead films. And they do a pretty good job of hitting that mark. Your characters don’t just hit their enemies in Wasteland, they “brutalize” them. When they die, enemies “explode like a blood sausage,” are “reduced to a thin red paste,” are “spun into a dance of death,” or are “reduced to ground round.” And then there’s some of the imagery, like the blood-splattered doctor in the infirmary.

Wasteland

The personal appeal you find in those quotes and that image, some of the most beloved among Wasteland‘s loyal fandom, says much about whether you’ll enjoy Wasteland as a whole. In his video review of the game, Matt Barton says that “you will be disgusted or find it hilarious.” Well, I must say that my own feelings rather contradict that dichotomy. I can’t quite manage to feel disgusted or outraged at this kind of stuff, especially since, in blessed contrast to so many later games, it’s almost all described rather than illustrated. I do, however, find the entire aesthetic unfunny and boring, whether it’s found in Wasteland or Duke Nukem. In general, I just don’t find humor that’s based on transgression rather than wit to be all that humorous.

I am me, you are you, and mileages certainly vary. Still, even if we take it on its own terms it seems to me that there are other problems with the writing. As CRPG Addict Chester Bolingbroke has noted, Wasteland can’t be much bothered with consistency or coherency. The nuclear apocalypse that led to the situation your characters find themselves in is described as having taken place in 1998, only ten years on from the date of Wasteland‘s release. Yet when the writers find it convenient they litter the game with absurdly advanced technology, from human clones to telepathic mind links. And the tone of the writing veers about as well, perhaps as a result of the sheer number of designers who contributed to the game. Most of the time Wasteland is content with the comic ultra-violence of The Evil Dead, but occasionally it suddenly reaches toward a jarring epic profundity it hasn’t earned. The main storyline, which doesn’t kick in in earnest until about halfway through the game, is so silly and nonsensical that few of even the most hardcore Wasteland fans remember much about it, no matter how many times they’ve played through it.

Wasteland‘s ropey plotting may be ironic in light of Stackpole’s later career as a novelist, but it isn’t a fatal flaw in itself. Games are not the sum of their stories; many a great game has a poor or nonexistent story to tell. To whatever extent it’s a triumph, Wasteland must be a triumph of game design rather than writing, one last hurrah for Michael Stackpole the designer before Michael Stackpole the novelist took over. The story, like the stories in many or most allegedly story-driven games, is just an excuse to explore Wasteland‘s possibility space.

And that possibility space is a very impressive one, for reasons I’ve tried to explain already. Yet it’s also undone, at least a bit, by some practical implementation issues. St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to make an elegant game design rather than an elegant program comes back to bite them here. The things going on behind the scenes in Wasteland are often kind of miraculous in the context of their time, but those things are hidden behind a clunky and inelegant interface. In my book, a truly great game should feel almost effortless to control, but Wasteland feels anything but. Virtually every task requires multiple keystrokes and the navigation of a labyrinth of menus. It’s a far cry from even the old-school simplicity of Ultima‘s alphabet soup of single-keystroke commands, much less the intuitive ease of Dungeon Master‘s mouse-driven interface.

Some of Wasteland‘s more pernicious playability issues feel like they stem from an overly literal translation of the tabletop experience to the computer.  The magnificent simplicity of the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system feels much more clunky and frustrating on the computer. As you explore the maps, you’re expected to guess where a skill and/or attribute might be of use, then to try manually invoking it. If you’re not constantly thinking on this level, and always aware of just what skills every member of your party has that might apply, it’s very easy to miss things. For example, the very first map you’re likely to visit contains a mysterious machine. You’re expected to not just dismiss that as scenery, or to assume it’s something you’ll learn more about later, but rather to use someone’s Intelligence to learn that it’s a water purifier you might be able to fix. Meanwhile other squares on other maps contain similar descriptions that are just scenery. In a tabletop game, where there is a constant active repartee between referee and players, where everything in the world can be fully “implemented” thanks to the referee’s imagination, and where every player controls just one character whom she knows intimately instead of a whole party of four, the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system works a treat. In Wasteland, it can feel like a tedious, mechanistic process of trial and error.

Other parts of Wasteland feel like equally heroic but perhaps misguided attempts to translate things that are simple and intuitive on the tabletop but extremely difficult on the computer to the digital realm at all costs, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. There is, for instance, a convoluted and confusing process for splitting your party into separate groups that can be on entirely separate maps at the same time. It’s impressive in its way, and gives Wasteland claim to yet another first in CRPG history to boot, but one has to question whether the time and effort put into it might have been better spent making a cleaner, more playable computer game. Ditto the parser-based conversation engine that occasionally pops up. An obvious attempt to bring the sort of free-form conversations that are possible with a human referee to the computer, in practice it’s just a tedious game of guess-the-word that makes it far too easy to miss stuff. While I applaud the effort St. Andre and Stackpole and their colleagues at Interplay made to bring more complexity to the CRPG, the fact remains that computer games are not tabletop games, and vice versa.

And then there’s the combat. The Bard’s Tale is still lurking down at the foundation of Wasteland‘s combat engine, but Interplay did take some steps to make it more interesting. Unlike in The Bard’s Tale, the position of your party and their enemies are tracked on a graphical map during combat. In addition to the old Bard’s Tale menu of actions — “attack,” “defend,” etc. — you can move around to find cover, or for that matter charge up to some baddies and stave their heads in with your crowbars in lieu of guns.

Yet somehow combat still isn’t much fun. This groundbreaking and much beloved post-apocalyptic CRPG also serves as an ironic argument for why the vast majority of CRPG designers and players still favor fantasy settings. Something that feels important, maybe even essential, feels lost without the ability to cast spells. Not only do you lose the thrill of seeing a magic-using character level up and trying out a new slate of spells, but you also lose the strategic dimension of managing your mana reserves, a huge part of the challenge of the likes of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. In theory, the acquiring of ever more powerful guns and the need to manage your ammunition stores in Wasteland ought to take the place of spells and the mana reserves needed to cast them, but in practice it doesn’t quite work out like that. New guns just aren’t as interesting as new spells, especially considering that there really aren’t all that many of the former to be found in Wasteland. And you’re never very far from a store selling bullets, and you can carry so many with you anyway that it’s almost a moot point.

Most of all, there’s just too much fighting. One place where St. Andre and Stackpole regrettably didn’t depart from CRPG tradition was in their fondness for the wandering monster. Much of Wasteland is a dull slog through endless low-stakes battles with “leather jerks” and “ozoners,” an experience sadly divorced from the game’s more interesting and innovative aspects but one that ends up being at least as time-consuming.

For all these reasons, then, I’m a bit less high on Wasteland than many others. It strikes me as more historically important than a timeless classic, more interesting than playable. There’s of course no shame in that. We need games that push the envelope, and that’s something that Wasteland most assuredly did. The immense nostalgic regard in which it’s still held today says much about how amazing its innovations really were back in 1988.

As the gap between that year of Wasteland‘s release and Fargo, Pavlish, and Stackpole’s December 1985 meeting will attest, this was a game that was in development an insanely long time by the standards of the 1980s. And as you have probably guessed, it was never intended to take anything like this long. Interplay first talked publicly about the Wasteland project as early as the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1986, giving the impression it might be available as early as that Christmas. Instead it took fully two more years.

Thanks to Wasteland‘s long gestation, 1987 proved a very quiet year for the usually prolific Interplay. While ports of older titles continued to appear, the company released not a single original new game that year. The Bard’s Tale III, turned over to Bill Heineman following Michael Cranford’s decision to return to university, went into development early in 1987, but like Wasteland its gestation would stretch well into 1988. (Stackpole, who was apparently starting to like this computer-game development stuff, wrote the storyline and the text for The Bard’s Tale III to accompany Heineman’s design.) Thankfully, the first two Bard’s Tale games were continuing to sell very well, making Interplay’s momentary lack of productivity less of a problem than it might otherwise have been.

Shortly before Wasteland‘s belated release, St. Andre, Stackpole, and Pavlish, along with a grab bag of the others who had worked with them, headed out to the Sonoran Desert for a photo shoot. Everyone scoured the oddities in the backs of their closets and the local leather shops for their costumes, and a professional makeup team was recruited to help turn them all into warriors straight out of Mad Max. Bill Heineman, an avid gun collector, provided much of the weaponry they carried. The final picture, featured on the inside cover of Wasteland‘s package, has since become far more iconic than the art that appeared on its front, a fitting tribute to this unique team and their unique vision.

Some of the Wasteland team. Ken St. Andre, Michael A. Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Some of the Wasteland team. From left: Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Both Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III were finished almost simultaneously after many months of separate labor. When Fargo informed Electronic Arts of the good news, they insisted on shipping the two overdue games within two months of each other — May of 1988 in the case of Wasteland, July in that of The Bard’s Tale III — over his strident objections. He had good grounds for concern: these two big new CRPGs were bound to appeal largely to the same group of players, and could hardly help but cannibalize one another’s sales. To Interplay, this small company that had gone so long without any new product at all, the decision felt not just unwise but downright dangerous to their future.

Fargo had been growing increasingly unhappy with Electronic Arts, feeling Interplay just wasn’t earning enough from their development contracts for the hit games they had made for their publisher. Now this move was the last straw. Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III would be the last games Interplay would publish through Electronic Arts, as Fargo decided to carry out an idea he’d been mulling over for some time: to turn Interplay into a full-fledged publisher as well as developer, with their own name — and only their own name — on their game boxes.

Following a pattern that was already all too typical, The Bard’s Tale III — the more traditional game, the less innovative, and the sequel — became by far the better selling of the pairing. Wasteland didn’t flop, but it didn’t become an out-and-out hit either. Doubtless for this reason, neither Interplay nor Electronic Arts were willing to invest in the extensive porting to other platforms that marked the Bard’s Tale games. After the original Apple II and Commodore 64 releases, the only Wasteland port was an MS-DOS version that appeared nine months later, in March of 1989. Programmed by Interplay’s Michael Quarles, it sports modestly improved graphics and an interface that makes halfhearted use of a mouse. While most original players of Wasteland knew it in its 8-bit incarnations, it’s this version that almost everyone who has played it in the years since knows, and for good reason: it’s a far less painful experience than the vintage 8-bit one of juggling disks and waiting, waiting, waiting for all of those painstakingly detailed maps to load and save.

Wasteland‘s place in history, and in the mind of Brian Fargo, would always loom larger than its sales figures might suggest. Unfortunately, his ability to build on its legacy was immediately hampered by the split with Electronic Arts: the terms of the two companies’ contract signed all rights to the  Wasteland name as well as The Bard’s Tale over to Interplay’s publisher. Thus both series, one potential and one very much ongoing, were abruptly stopped in their tracks. Electronic Arts toyed with making a Bard’s Tale IV on their own from time to time without ever seeing the idea all the way through. Oddly given the relative sales numbers, Electronic Arts did bring a sequel of sorts to Wasteland to fruition, although they didn’t go so far as to dare to put the Wasteland name on the box. Given the contents of said box, it’s not hard to guess why. Fountain of Dreams (1990) uses Michael Quarles’s MS-DOS Wasteland engine, but it’s a far less audacious affair. Slipped out with little fanfare — Electronic Arts could spot a turkey as well as anyone — it garnered poor reviews, sold poorly, and is unloved and largely forgotten today.

In the absence of rights to the Wasteland name, Fargo initially planned to leverage his development team and the tools and game engine they had spent so long creating to make more games in other settings that would play much like Wasteland but wouldn’t be actual sequels. The first of these was to have been called Meantime, and was to have been written and designed by Stackpole with the help of many of the usual Wasteland suspects. Its premise was at least as intriguing as Wasteland‘s: a game of time travel in which you’d get to meet (and sometimes battle) historical figures from Cyrano de Bergerac to P.T. Barnum, Albert Einstein to Amelia Earhart. At the Winter CES in January of 1989, Fargo said that Meantime would be out that summer: “I am personally testing the maps right now.” But it never appeared, thanks to a lot of design questions that were never quite solved and, most of all, thanks to the relentless march of technology. All of the Wasteland development tools ran on the Apple II and Commodore 64, platforms whose sales finally collapsed in 1989. Interplay tinkered with trying to move the tool chain to MS-DOS for several years, but the project finally expired from neglect. There just always seemed to be something more pressing to do.

Somewhat surprisingly given the enthusiasm with which they’d worked on Wasteland, neither St. Andre nor Stackpole remained for very long in the field of computer-game design. St. Andre returned to his librarian gig and his occasional sideline as a tabletop-RPG designer, not working on another computer game until recruited for Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2 project many years later. Stackpole continued to take work from Interplay for the next few years, on Meantime and other projects, often working with his old Flying Buffalo and Wasteland colleague Liz Danforth. But his name too gradually disappeared from game credits in direct proportion to its appearance on the covers of more and more franchise novels. (His first such book, set in the universe of FASA’s BattleTech game, was published almost simultaneously with Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III.)

Fargo himself never forgot the game that had always been first foremost his own passion project. He would eventually revive it, first via the “spiritual sequels” Fallout (1997) and Fallout 2 (1998), then with the belated Kickstarter-funded sequel-in-name-as-well-as-spirit Wasteland 2 (2014).

But those are stories for much later times. Wasteland was destined to stand alone for many years. And yet it wouldn’t be the only lesson 1988 brought in the perils and possibilities of bringing tabletop rules to the computer. Another, much higher profile tabletop adaptation, the result of a blockbuster licensing deal given to the most unexpected of developers, was still to come before the year was out. Next time we’ll begin to trace the story behind this third and final landmark CRPG of 1988, the biggest selling of the whole lot.

(Sources: PC Player of August 1989; Questbusters of Juy 1986, March 1988, April 1988, May 1988, July 1988, August 1988, October 1988, November 1988, January 1989, March 1989. On YouTube, Rebecca Heineman and Jennell Jaquays at the 2013 Portland Retro Gaming Expo; Matt Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo; Brian Fargo at Unity 2012. Other online sources include a Michael Stackpole article on RockPaperShotgun; Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman on Gamasutra; GTW64’s page on Meantime.

Wasteland is available for purchase from GOG.com.)


  1. Bill Heineman 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. 

  2. Paul Jaquays now lives as Jennell Jaquays. 

  3. Interestingly, Stackpole did have one connection to Interplay, through Bard’s Tale designer Michael Cranford. Cranford sent Flying Buffalo a Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure of his own devising around 1983. Stackpole thought it showed promise, but that it wasn’t quite there yet, so he sent it back with some suggestions for improvement and a promise to look at it again if Cranford followed through on them. But he never heard another word from him; presumably it was right about this time that Cranford got busy making The Bard’s Tale

  4. In what must be a record for footnotes of this type, I have to also note that Dan Bunten later became Danielle Bunten Berry, and lived until her death in 1998 under that name. 

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Ultima V

Ultima V

Ultima V is a story about freedom of choice. You can’t put these [the eight Virtues] down as laws. It does not work to put these down as laws. They’re fine as a point of discussion, but it’s a completely personal issue. I would never try to build a pseudo-science of truth. This is never meant to be THE TRUTH. This is really meant to be, “Hey, by the way, if you just happen to live by these standards, it works pretty well.” It was never meant to be the one great truth of the universe that you must abide by.

— Richard Garriott

An awful lot of people get awfully exercised over the lore and legends of Britannia and the many failings of Richard Garriott’s stewardship thereof. Some of them spend their time in tortured ret-conning, trying to explain why the geography of the place kept changing from game to game, why its name was changed overnight from Sosaria to Britannia, or, even more inexplicably, why it suddenly turned into our own Earth for a little while there during the time of Ultima II. Others prefer to just complain about it, which is fair enough.

I have to say, though, that it’s hard for me to really care. For me, the Ultima series isn’t most interesting as the saga of Britannia, but rather as something more intimate. It’s the CRPG equivalent of the film Boyhood. As we play through the games we see its creator grow up, from the giddy kid who stuck supercomputers, space shuttles, and Star Wars in his fantasy games — because, hey, those things are all just as cool as Dungeons and Dragons to a nerdy teenager — to the more serious young man who used Ultima IV and, now, Ultima V to try to work out a philosophy for living. Taken as a whole, the series can be seen as a coming-of-age tale as well as a fantasy epic. Having reached a stage in my life where the former is more interesting than the latter, that’s how I prefer to see it anyway. Rather than talk about the Ages of Britannia, I prefer to talk about the ages of Richard Garriott.

What makes the process so gratifying is that the changes that Richard Garriott undergoes are, one senses, the changes that a good-hearted, thoughtful young man ought to undergo. Which is not to say that Garriott is perfect. Lord knows it’s easy enough to mock the sheer one-percenter excess of paying Russia a reputed $30 million to haul him into space for twelve days, and some of his public comments do rather suggest he may be lacking in the Virtue of Humility. But then, given how much his (alter) ego has been stroked over the years,1 it’s not surprising to find that Garriott regards himself as a bit of a special snowflake. Ironically, it wasn’t so much his real or imagined exceptionalism as it was the fact that he was so similar to most of his fans that allowed him to speak to them about ideas that would have caused their eyes to glaze over if they’d encountered them in a school textbook. Likewise, the story of the Richard Garriott whom we glimpse through his games is interesting because of its universality rather than its exceptionalism; it fascinates precisely because so many others have and continue to go through the same stages.

In Ultima IV, we saw his awakening to the idea that there are causes greater than himself, things out there worth believing in, and we saw his eagerness to shout his discoveries from every possible rooftop. This is the age of ideology — of sit-ins and marches, of Occupy Wall Street, of the Peace Corps and the Mormon missionary years. Teenagers and those in their immediate post-teenage years are natural zealots in everything from world politics to the kind of music they listen to (the latter, it must be said, having at least equal importance to the former to many of them).

Yet we must acknowledge that zealotry has a dark side; this is also the age of the Hitler Youth and the Jihad. Some never outgrow the age of ideology and zealotry, a situation with major consequences for the world we live in today. Thankfully, Richard Garriott isn’t one of these. Ultima V is the story of his coming to realize that society must be a negotiation, not a proclamation. “I kind of think of it as my statement against TV evangelists,” he says, “or any other group which would push their personal philosophical beliefs on anybody else.” The world of Ultima V is messier than Ultima IV‘s neat system of ethics can possibly begin to address, full of infinite shades of gray rather than clear blacks and whites. But the message of Ultima V is one we need perhaps even more now than we did in 1988. If only the worst we had to deal with today was television evangelists…

Garriott often refers to Ultima IV as the first Ultima with a plot, but that strikes me as an odd contention. If anything, there is less real story to it than the Ultimas that preceded it: be good, get stronger, and go find a McGuffin called the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom pretty much sums it up. (It’s of course entirely down to the first of these that Ultima IV is such a revolutionary game.) I sense a false conflation here of games with a plot with games that are somehow more worthwhile or socially relevant. “I’m writing stories,” he said during the late 1980s, “stories with some socially significant meaning, or at least some emotional interest.” But if we strip away the value judgments that seem to be confusing the issue, we’re actually left with Ultima V, the first Ultima whose premise can’t be summed up in a single sentence, as the real first Ultima with a plot. In fact, I think we might just need a few paragraphs to do the job.

Thanks to Denis Loubet, Origin's newly installed artist, Ultima V looks much better than the previous games in the series even on a graphically limited platform like the Apple II.

Thanks to Denis Loubet, Origin’s newly installed artist, Ultima V looks better than the previous games in the series even on a graphically limited platform like the Apple II.

So, after you became an Avatar of Virtue through the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom at the bottom of Ultima IV‘s final dungeon, you were rewarded for your efforts by being sent back to boring old twentieth-century Earth to, as the ending text so famously put it, “live there as an example to thy people.” In Britannia, the Council of Wizards raised the Codex to the surface by essentially turning the volcano that housed it inside-out, creating a mountain with a shrine to the Codex on its top. But this process created a huge underground void, an Underworld as big as Britannia’s surface that among other things allows Ultima V to make the claim that it’s fully twice as big as its predecessor. (No, the proportions of one volcano, now matter how immense, don’t quite add up to the whole of Britannia, but just roll with it, okay?)

Everything was still going pretty well in Britannia, so Lord British decided he’d like to embark on an adventure of his own instead of always sending others off to face danger. He got a party together, and they entered the new Underworld on a mission of exploration. Bad idea. He and his party were all killed or captured, only one scribe escaping back to the surface with a tale of horrors in the depths. “And this,” I can just hear Lord British saying, “is why I should have continued to let others do the adventuring for me…”

It happens that Lord British left one Lord Blackthorn as his regent. Now, with Lord British presumed dead, it looks like the post will become permanent. That’s bad news because Blackthorn, concerned that not enough people in Britannia are “striving to uphold the virtues,” has instituted a Code of Virtue to force them to do so.

  1. Thou shalt not lie, or thou shalt lose thy tongue.
  2. Thou shalt help those in need, or thou shalt suffer the same need.
  3. Thou shalt fight to the death if challenged, or thou shalt be banished as a coward.
  4. Thou shalt confess to thy crime and suffer its just punishment, or thou shalt be put to death.
  5. Thou shalt donate half of thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income.
  6. If thou dost lose thine own honor, thou shalt take thine own life.
  7. Thou shalt enforce the laws of virtue, or thou shalt die as a heretic.
  8. Thou shalt humble thyself to thy superiors, or thou shalt suffer their wrath.

A number of your old companions from Ultima IV, opposing this Britannic version of the Spanish Inquisition, have become outlaws against the crown. They arrange to transport you back to Britannia from Earth to hopefully save the day. Garriott:

So, where Ultima IV was fairly black-and-white — I mean good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys — Ultima V unfolds in a gray area. Lots of characters try convincing you that Blackthorn is doing things just right, some say he’s an evil force, and others realize he’s wrong but are taking advantage of the situation for personal profit and are willing to fight anyone who opposes Blackthorn. You now have to operate more or less like a Robin Hood-style outlaw, working against the system but from within the system, which you must bring down philosophically as well by convincing key people in the government that they are wrong about Blackthorn.

Now we can better understand where the plot is really going. Crazily elaborate by previous Ultima standards though it is, the part of the backstory involving Lord British’s trip to the Underworld is mainly there to get him out of the picture for a while so Garriott can tell the story he wants to tell. “Rescuing Lord British in Ultima V is not really the focus of the game,” Garriott admits. “It’s just the final physical activity you have to do, like recovering the Codex in Ultima IV. It is how you do it that’s important.” Garriott wants to turn Britannia, all sweetness and light in Ultima IV (albeit with something of a monster-infestation problem), into a place every bit as horrifying in its own way as the Underworld. And, more accepting of shades of gray though he may have become, he isn’t quite willing to make Lord British — i.e., himself — responsible for that.

If all this isn’t enough plot for you, there’s also the story of one Captain John, whose ship got sucked into the Underworld by a massive whirlpool. There he and his crew stumbled upon one of those Things of Which Man Was Not Meant to Know, which drove him insane and caused him to murder his entire crew, then unleashed the three Shadowlords upon Britannia: personifications of the anti-Virtues of Falsehood, Hatred, and Cowardice. It does seem that you, noble Avatar, have your work cut out for you.

It’s a much clunkier setup in many ways than that of Ultima IV. A big part of that game’s genius is to equate as closely as possible the you sitting in front of the monitor screen with the you who roams the byways of Britannia behind it. Opening with a personality test to assess what kind of a character you are, Ultima IV closes with that aforementioned exhortation to “live as an example to thy people” — an exhortation toward personal self-improvement that hundreds of thousands of impressionable players took with considerable seriousness.

All that formal elegance gets swept away in Ultima V. The newer game does open with a personality test almost identical to the one in Ultima IV, but it’s here this time not to serve any larger thematic goal so much as because, hey, this is an Ultima, and Ultimas are now expected to open with a personality test. Instead of a very personal journey of self-improvement, this time around you’re embarking on just another Epic Fantasy Saga™, of which games, not to mention novels and movies, certainly have no shortage. Garriott’s insistence that it must always be the same person who stars in each successive Ultima is a little strange. It seems that, just as every successive Ultima had to have a personality test, he reckoned that fan service demanded each game star the selfsame Avatar from the previous.

The gypsy and her personality test are back, but the sequence has a darker tone now, suiting the darker tone of the game as a whole.

The gypsy and her personality test are back, but the sequence has a darker tone now, as suits the shift in mood of the game as a whole.

But whatever its disadvantages, Ultima V‘s new emphasis on novelistic plotting allows Garriott to explore his shades of gray in ways that the stark simplicity of Ultima IV‘s premise did not. The world is complicated and messy, he seems to be saying, and to reflect that complication and messiness Ultima has to go that way too. Nowhere is his dawning maturity more marked than in the character of Blackthorn, the villain of the piece.

CRPG villains had heretofore been an homogeneous rogue’s gallery of cackling witches and warlocks, doing evil because… well, because they were evil. In tabletop Dungeons and Dragons, the genre’s primary inspiration, every character chooses an alignment — Good, Neutral, or Evil — to almost literally wear on her sleeve. It’s convenient, allowing as it does good to always be clearly good and those hordes of monsters the good are killing clearly evil and thus deserving of their fate. Yet one hardly knows where to begin to describe what an artificial take on the world it is. How many people who do evil — even the real human monsters — actually believe that they are evil? The real world is not a battleground of absolute Good versus absolute Evil, but a mishmash of often competing ideas and values, each honestly certain of its own claim to the mantle of Good. Our more sophisticated fictions — I’m tempted here to say adult fictions — recognize this truth and use it, both to drive their drama and, hopefully, to make us think. Ultima V became the first CRPG to do the same, thanks largely to the character of Blackthorn.

Blackthorn is not your typical cackling villain. As Garriott emphasizes, “his intentions are really very good.” Setting aside for a moment the message-making that became so important to Garriott beginning with Ultima IV, Ultima V‘s more nuanced approach to villainous psychology makes it a more compelling drama on its own terms. The fact that Blackthorn is earnestly trying to do good, according to his own definition of same, makes him a far more interesting character than any of the cacklers. Speaking from the perspective of a storyteller on the lookout for interesting stories, Garriott notes that a similar certainty of their own goodness was the “best part” about the Moral Majority who were dominating so much of the political discourse in the United States at the time that he was writing Ultima V.

And yet, Garriott acknowledges, legislating morality is according to his own system of values “just the wrong thing to do.” He has held fast to this belief in the years since Ultima V, proving more than willing to put his money where his mouth is. The version of Richard Garriott known to the modern political establishment is very different from the Richard Garriott who’s so well known to nerd culture. When not playing at being a Medieval monarch or an astronaut, he’s a significant donor and fundraiser for the Democratic party as well as for organizations like Planned Parenthood, a persistent thorn in the side of those people, of which there are many in his beloved Texas, who would turn their personal morality into law.

As for Blackthorn, his evil — if, duly remembering that we’re now in a world of shades of gray, evil you consider it to be — is far more insidious and dangerous than the cackling stripe because it presents itself in the guise of simple good sense and practicality. A long-acknowledged truth in politics is that the people you really need to win over to take control of a country are the great middle, the proverbial insurance underwriters and shop owners — one well-known ideologue liked to call them the bourgeois — who form the economic bedrock of any developed nation. If you can present your message in the right guise, such people will often make shocking ethical concessions in the name of safety and economic stability. As the old parable goes, Mussolini may have been a monster, but he was a monster who made the trains run on time — and that counts for a hell of a lot with people. More recently, my fellow Americans have been largely willing to overlook systematic violations of the allegedly fundamental right of habeas corpus, not to mention unprecedented warrantless government spying, in the same spirit. The citizens of Britannia are no different. “In a society that is very repressive like this,” Garriott notes, “many good things can happen. Crime is going down. Certain kinds of businesses [military-industrial complex? surveillance-industrial complex?] are going to flourish.”

The ethics of Ultima IV are easy. Really, how hard is it to decide whether it’s ethical to cheat a blind old shopkeeper of the money she’s due? This time around, Garriott doesn’t let us off so easy. He puts us through the ethical wringer every chance he gets, showing us that sometimes there is no clear-cut ethical choice, only… yes, you guessed it, infinite shades of gray. Just like antagonists, ethical dilemmas become more interesting when they pick up a little nuance. Maybe they become a little too interesting; Garriott proves willing to go to some uncomfortable places in Ultima V, places few big commercial CRPGs of today would dare to tread.

At one point, Blackthorn captures Iolo, one of your boon companions in Virtue from Ultima IV who summoned you back to Britannia. He binds him to a table beneath a razor-sharp pendulum lifted out of Edgar Allan Poe. Betray the plans of your burgeoning resistance movement, Blackthorn tells you, and he will free Iolo. Refuse and… well, let’s just say that soon there will be two Iolos. Scenes like this are familiar fare in movies and television, culminating always in a last-second rescue just before blade bites flesh. In this case, however, there will be no rescue. Do you watch your dear friend die or do you betray everything he stands for? If you let him die, Ultima V erases Iolo entirely from the disk, to deny you the hope of resurrecting him and remind you that some choices really are final.

At another point, you meet a character who holds a vital piece of information, but he’ll part with it only if you exorcise his personal grudge by turning in one of your own friends to Blackthorn’s Inquisition. Personal loyalty or the greater good? Think fast, now! Which will it be? Garriott:

There is no other solution. I agree it was a dirty trick, having to turn in one of the good guys to get information. Now, admittedly, the game never really goes and lynches the guy, but you must presume that is the ramification of what you have done. That is a tough personal thing that I put in there, not because I knew the answer myself, but because I knew it would be a tough decision.

The most notoriously memorable of all Ultima V‘s ethical quandaries, still as shocking when you first encounter it today as it was back in 1988, is the room of the children. Like so much in game design, it arose from the technical affordances (or lack thereof) of the Ultima V engine. Unlike the surface of Britannia, dungeons can contain only monsters, not characters capable of talking to you. Looking for something interesting to put in one of the many dungeons, Garriott stumbled across the tiles used to represent children in Britannia’s towns and castles.

When you walk into the room of the children, they’re trapped in jail cells. Free them by means of a button on the wall, and they prove to be brainwashed; they start to attack your party. You need to get through the room — i.e., through the children — in order to set matters right in Britannia. Once again it’s a horrid question of the greater good — or smaller evil? Garriott:

Well, I thought, that is an interesting little problem, isn’t it? Because I knew darn well that the game doesn’t care whether you kill them or whether you walk away. It didn’t matter, but I knew it would bring up a psychological image in your mind, an image that was in my mind — and any conflict you bring up in anybody’s mind is beneficial. It means a person has to think about it.

In this situation, Garriott — or, perhaps better said, the game engine — thankfully did allow some alternatives to the stark dichotomy of killing children or letting Britannia go to ruin. The clever player might magically charm the children and order them out of the room, or put them to sleep (no, not in that sense!) and just walk past them.

The room nevertheless caused considerable discord within Origin. Alerted by a play-tester whom Richard Garriott calls “a religious fundamentalist,” Robert Garriott, doubtless thinking of Origin’s previous run-ins with the anti-Dungeons and Dragons contingent, demanded in no uncertain terms that his little brother remove the room. When Richard refused, Robert enlisted their parents to the cause; they also asked why he couldn’t be reasonable and just remove this “little room.” “Why,” they asked, “are you bothering to fight for this so much?”

And I said, “Because you guys are missing the point. You are now trying to tell me what I can do artistically — about something that is, in my opinion, not the issue you think it is. If it was something explicitly racist or sexist or promoting child abuse, I could stand being censored. But if it is something that provoked an emotional response from one individual, I say I have proven the success of the room. The fact that you guys are fighting me over this makes me even more sure I should not remove that room from the game.”

And so it remained. Much to Robert’s relief, the room of the children attracted little attention in the trade press, and none at all from the sort of quarters he had feared. Buried as it is without comment deep within an absolutely massive game, those who might be inclined toward outrage were presumably just never aware of its existence.

Ultima V looks superficially all but identical to its predecessor, but a second glance reveals a new depth to the interaction. Note that I'm sitting in a chair here. In addition to the chair, the bed, the torches, the barrel, and the stone are implemented as objects with which I can interact.

Ultima V‘s screen layout and interface appear superficially all but identical to its predecessor, but a second glance reveals a new depth to the interaction. Note that I’m sitting in a chair here. In addition to the chair, the bed, the torches, the barrel, and the stone are all implemented as objects with which I can interact.

Having now spent almost 4000 words discussing the greater themes of Ultima V, I have to acknowledge that, just as with its predecessor, you spend a relatively small proportion of your time directly engaging with those themes when actually playing. Whatever else it is, this is still a conventional CRPG with all the expected mechanics of leveling-up and monster-killing. As usual for the series, its code is built on the base of its predecessor’s, its screen layout and its alphabet soup of single-letter commands largely the same. Ditto its three scales of interaction, with the abstract wilderness map blowing up into more detailed towns and still more detailed, first-person dungeons. The graphics have been noticeably improved even on the graphically limited 8-bit machines, thanks not least to Denis Loubet’s involvement as Origin’s first full-time artist, and the sound has been upgraded on suitably equipped machines to depict the splashing of water in fountains and the chiming of clocks on walls. Still, this is very much an Ultima in the tradition stretching all the way back to Akalabeth; anyone who’s played an earlier game in the series will feel immediately comfortable with this one.

That means that all the other things that Ultima fans had long since come to expect are still here, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The hilariously awful faux-Elizabethan diction, for instance, is still present and accounted for. (One of my favorite examples this time out is a father telling his son he needs an attitude adjustment, a slang phrase very en vogue at the time of Ultima V‘s release courtesy of countless harried sitcom parents: “Thou shalt take a year off from magic, Mondain, to improve thy attitudes.”) And there’s still the sense of an earnest but not yet hugely well-traveled young man — physically or intellectually — punching a bit above his weight in trying to create a new world out of whole cloth. For instance, with Garriott apparently starting to feel uncomfortable with the whole divine-rule-of-kings thing, Britannia has now become a republic with an an uncanny resemblance to the only republic with which Garriott is at all familiar, that of the United States; Lord British, naturally, sits in for the President. Even the story of the government’s founding mirrors that of the American Constitutional Convention. Tolkienesque world-building, needless to say, this is not.

For all its additional complexities of theme and plot, Ultima V actually exhibits more continuity with its predecessor than any earlier Ultima. For the first time in an Ultima, it’s possible to import your character from the previous game, an innovation dating back to the second Wizardry game that most other CRPG series had long embraced. And the overland map of Britannia in Ultima V is, apart from that new volcano that popped up where a dungeon used to be, almost exactly the same as that of Ultima IV.

At the same time, however, Ultima V is a vastly bigger and even more ambitious game than its predecessor. Positioned in the same places on the overland map though they are, all of the towns, castles, and dungeons have been extensively remodeled and expanded during the (Britannic) years that have passed between the two games. And if that’s not enough space for adventure, there’s of course also the huge Underworld that’s been added. The magic system has been revamped and better systemized, now sporting almost twice as many spells — almost fifty in total — that are divided into eight “circles” of power. The parser-based conversation system, while superficially unchanged from that of Ultima IV, now understands much, much more, and delivers more text back in response to every query.

But the heart of Ultima V‘s ambition is not in the sprawl but in the details. Ultima V‘s Britannia must still stand as one of the more impressive virtual worlds ever made. Many of its complexities are seldom seen even in games of today. To see them in a game that runs in 64 K of memory feels nothing short of miraculous. Every object in every room is now an object of its own in the programmatic as well as visual sense, one that can be realistically manipulated: torches can be taken off walls, chairs can be sat in, harpsichords can be played. Just as impressive is the game’s implementation of time. As you play, not only does day cycle to night and back again, but the seasons change, the fields filling with crops over the course of the growing season and then appearing bare and forlorn again when winter comes. Unbeknownst to many players, even the cycles of the heavens are scrupulously modeled, two moons and eight other planets moving across the sky, each according to its own orbit. Every five and a half years comes a full planetary alignment, which you can witness if you happen to look through a telescope at just the right instant. This Britannia is a land bursting with secrets and wonders, truly an unprecedented achievement in its day in virtual world-building.

In keeping with the new focus on temporal change, characters now follow daily schedules instead of standing endlessly in one spot. Consider Jeremy, who lives and works in the inn in the city of Yew. He gets up from his back-room lodgings at 9:00 each morning to go to the prison to visit his brother, who’s been incarcerated there under Blackthorn’s heresy laws. He gets back to the inn in time for the lunch rush, and spends the whole day working in the kitchen. After closing time, he visits his brother once more, then returns to his room to sleep. Meanwhile the entire town is following similar patterns; virtually everyone stops at Jeremy’s inn for a bite to eat and a bit of gossip at some point during the day. Guard shifts change; drawbridges and portcullises go up and down; shops open and close. Coupled with the richer conversations, it’s enough make the inhabitants of the town feel like real people living real lives rather than conversation vending machines waiting for the Avatar to step up and trigger a clue, a joke, or a non sequitur.

Indeed, this version of Britannia as a whole is a less artificial place than Ultima IV‘s. While all of the towns from that game remain, each still corresponding to a Virtue, the correspondence is less neat. Garriott:

When you walk into a town it should look like a bustling Medieval village, with all the normal kinds of things you’d expect to find in a town, but there are only six characters that you have a chance to meet and talk to. These six characters don’t tell you straight out that “Moonglow is the city of Honesty,” for example. It’s not like honesty awards are plastered everywhere. It’s more that because of the nature of commerce in this town, because of what is important to these people, honesty is a consistent trait. You might hear, “By the way, everyone around here is pretty honest. It’s one of the things that we pride ourselves on around here.” Like “everything is bigger in Texas,” that kind of thing.

There are welcome signs that Garriott and his development team have themselves taken note of many of the things I complained about in my article on Ultima IV — those things that, at least in my contrarian opinion, made that game a fascinating one to talk about but not always a terribly compelling to play. Major steps have been taken to reduce the tedium factor. As Garriott attests above, the non-player characters in the towns and castles are among a few things in Ultima V that have wisely been reduced in number in comparison to its predecessor. Instead of having to lawnmower through dozens of pointless conversations in every town, you’re left with a smaller number of personalities who fit with the world and who are actually interesting to speak to — in other words, no more Paul and Linda McCartney wandering around quoting lyrics from their latest album. The pain of the endless combat in Ultima IV is similarly reduced, and for similar reasons. There are far fewer monsters roaming the Britannic countryside this time around (another result of Blackthorn’s law-and-order policies?), and when you do have to fight you’ll find yourself dropped into a more complex combat engine with more tactical dimensions. The dungeons, meanwhile, are stuffed with interesting scripted encounters — perhaps too interesting at times, like that room of the children — rather than endless wandering monsters. Mixing reagents for spells is still incredibly tedious, and Garriott has devised one entirely new recipe for aggravation, a runic alphabet used by most of the printed materials you find in the game that must be laboriously decoded, letter by letter, from a chart in the manual. Nevertheless, on balance he has given us a much more varied, much less repetitive experience.

Ah, runes, how I do hate thee...

Ah, runes, how I do hate thee…

But alas, many of Ultima IV‘s more intractable design problems do remain. Solving Ultima V is still a matter of running down long chains of clues, most of them to be found in only one place in this vast world, and often deliberately squirreled away in its most obscure corners at that. Even if you can muster the doggedness required to see it through, you’re all but guaranteed to be completely stymied at at least one point in your journeys, missing a clue and utterly unsure where to find it in the whole of Britannia. The cycles of time only add to the difficulty; now you must often not only find the right character to get each clue, but also find the right character at the right time. Ultima V is in the opinion of many the most difficult Ultima ever made, a game that’s willing to place staggering demands on its player even by the standards of its own day, much less our own. This is a game that plops you down at its beginning, weak and poorly equipped, in a little cottage somewhere on Britannia — you have no idea where. Your guidance consists of a simple, “Okay, go save the world!” The Ultima series has never been known for coddling its players, but this is approaching the ridiculous.

I think we can find some clues as to why Ultima V is the way it is in Garriott’s development methodology. He has always built his games from the bottom up, starting with the technical underpinnings (the tile-graphics engine, etc.), then creating a world simulated in whatever depth that technology allows. Only at the end does he add the stuff that makes his world into a proper game. Ironically given that Ultima became the CRPG series famed for its plots, themes, and ideas, said plots, themes, and ideas came in only “very, very late in the development” of each game. The structure of play arises directly from the affordances of the simulated world. A classic example, often cited by Garriott, is that of the harpsichord in Ultima V. After adding it on a lark during the world-building phase, it was natural during the final design phase to give it some relevance to the player’s larger goals. So, he made playing it open up a secret panel; therein lies an item vital to winning the game. Garriott:

[This approach] makes a great deal of sense to me. The worst example of this is exactly the wrong way to design your game. If I say, “Here’s a story, pick any book at random, make me a game that does that,” it won’t work. The reason why is because that story is not written with “Is the technology feasible?” in mind. By definition it will not be as competitive as my game is because I have chosen specific story elements that the technology shows off particularly well. It required little, if any, extra work, and it works well with all the other elements that can exist. It is designed to adhere to the reality that you can pull off technologically. By definition, it fits within the reality of Britannia.

And every time a new management person comes in and says, “Richard, you’re doing it all wrong,” I make my case, and eventually they either give up on me or become a convert.

It’s interesting to note that Garriott’s process is the exact opposite of that employed by a designer like, say, Sid Meier, who always comes up with the fictional premise first and only then figures out the layers of technology, simulation, and gameplay that would best enable it. While I’m sure that Garriott is correct in noting how his own approach keeps a design within the bounds of technical feasibility, the obvious danger it brings is that of making the actual game almost a footnote to the technology and, in the case of the Ultima games in particular, to the elaborate word-building. A couple of other landmark CRPGs were released during 1988 (fodder for future articles) whose designers placed more and earlier emphasis on the paths their players would take through their worlds. In contrast to the fragile string of pearls that is Ultima V, these games offer a tapestry of possibilities. Later CRPGs, at least the well-designed ones, followed their lead, bringing to an end that needle-in-a-haystack feeling every 1980s Ultima player knows so well. Among those later CRPGs would be the later Ultimas, thanks not least to some new voices at Origin who would begin to work with Garriott on the designs as well as the technology of his creations. If you’re dismayed by my contrarian take on the series thus far, know that we’re getting ever closer to an Ultima that even a solubility-focused old curmudgeon like me can enjoy as much as he admires. For now, suffice to say that there’s enough to admire in Ultima V as a world not to belabor any more its failings as a game design.

That said, there are other entirely defensible reasons that Ultima V doesn’t hold quite the same status in gaming lore as its illustrious predecessor. Ultima IV was the great leap, a revolutionary experiment for its creator and for its genre. Ultima V, on the other hand, is evolution in action. That evolution brings with it hugely welcome new depth and nuance, but the fact remains that it could never shock and delight like its predecessors; people had now come to expect this sort of thing from an Ultima. Certainly you don’t find for Ultima V anything like the rich, oft-quoted creation story of Ultima IV, the story of how Garriott first came to think about the messages he was putting into the world. And that’s fine because his eyes were already open when he turned to Ultima V. What more is there to say?

Nor did Ultima V have quite the same immediate impact on its fans’ hearts and minds as did its predecessor. Ultima V‘s message is so much messier, and, Garriott himself now being a little older, is less tuned to the sensibilities of the many teenagers, as craving of moral absolutism as ever, who played it when it first appeared. Far better for them the straightforward Virtues of the Avatar. One can only hope that the message of this game, subtler and deeper and wiser, had its effect over time.

Whatever you do, don’t let my contrariness about some of its aspects distract from Ultima V‘s bravest quality, its willingness to engage with shades of gray in a genre founded on black and white. The game never, ever veers from its mission of demonstrating that sometimes Virtue really must be its own reward, not even when it comes to the traditional moment of CRPG triumph. When you finally rescue Lord British and save Britannia at the end of Ultima V, you’re ignominiously returned to Earth. In the anticlimax, you return to your apartment to find it broken into, your things stolen. Sigh. Hope you had insurance. It’s a messy old world out there, on Earth as on Britannia.

(Sources are listed in the preceding article. Ultima V is available from GOG.com in a collection with its predecessor and sequel.)


  1. The classic hagiography of Garriott still has to be Shay Addams’s 1990 Official Book of Ultima. Here’s Garriott the teenage Lothario, deigning to allow some of his many girlfriends to sit with him while he programs his fantastic creations:

    “My girlfriends, who understood what was going on in those days and were a big part of my life, and who always showed up in the games, would sit right behind me in the same chair at my desk.” Resting her head on Garriott’s shoulder, she would “just sit there watching me program a few lines and test it, and watch the creation unfold.”

    And here’s Garriott the scholar, plumbing musty old tomes to come up with a magic system:

    A full moon hovered over the skyline, casting a pale gold glow on the crinkled pages of the leather-bound tome as Garriott slowly thumbed through it at his desk. Magic was in the making, for his task was nothing less than to coin the language of magic that would be spoken by the mages and wizards of Ultima V. Planning to quickly ferret out a suitable synonym for poison and call it a night, he’d hauled the massive 11-language dictionary from the shelf hours ago. But so engrossed did he become with the subtle nuances and shades of meaning, so captivated by the alluring assortment of nouns and adjectives and verbs, that he sat over its faded pages long after choosing the Latin “noxius,” from “noxa,” to harm, and abbreviating it to “nox.”

     

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Road to V

Ultima V

It’s not easy having a software superstar for a little brother. That’s something that Robert Garriott, president of Origin Systems, had more and more cause to realize as the 1980s wore on. Whilst Richard Garriott quite literally lived out his fantasies, it was Robert who was left to deal with all the mundanities of running a small game developer in an industry that was ever becoming a more precarious place. Whilst Richard wrote the games and gave all the interviews and reveled in his Lord British persona, it was Robert who dealt with the sort of people who might not be terribly impressed by a wispy 25-year-old that liked to affect the personality and the dress code of a Medieval monarch. It was Robert who negotiated the business deals, Robert who represented Origin’s interests with the Software Publishers Association, Robert who put a sober, businesslike face on a company that to a lot of outsiders looked like little more than a bunch of nerds with too much time on their hands. And sometimes it was Robert who found himself trapped between the practicalities of running a business and the desires of a famous younger brother who was just slightly full of himself — what young man wouldn’t be slightly full of himself in his situation? — and was used to having things his own way.

Honestly, now... would you feel comfortable investing in a company run by this guy?

Honestly, now… would you feel comfortable investing in a company run by this guy?

The most dangerous of these conflicts was the great sibling squabble over just where Origin Systems should be located. Back at the end of 1983, you may remember, Robert had been able to convince Richard to move the company from their parents’ garage in Houston, Texas, up to New Hampshire, where his wife Marcy had found a fine position of her own working for Bell Labs. The deal was that they would remain there for at least three years. Robert, who had spent the months before the move commuting cross-country in his private plane, hoped that during the three years something might change: Marcy might get a transfer, or Richard might decide he actually liked New England and wanted to stay there. Well, at the end of 1986 the three years were up, and neither of those things had happened. Richard, who persists to this day in describing his exile in the “frozen wasteland” of New Hampshire in terms lifted straight out of Ethan Frome, figured he had fulfilled his side of the deal, had done his three years as he’d said he would. Now he wanted to move. And he knew exactly where he wanted to move to: back to warm, sunny Austin, the city that had felt like the only place he wanted to make his home almost from the day he arrived to attend university there back in 1979.

A deal being a deal notwithstanding, Robert tried to nix the move, at least for the time being. In addition to his own marriage — he and Marcy certainly didn’t relish going back to commuting cross-country — there were the other Origin employees to think about. Sure, most of the technical staff remained the same group of youngsters that had trooped up north with the Garriotts three years before; they were almost one and all in agreement with Richard that it was time to be southbound again. But there were also the support personnel to think of, New Englanders hired in New England who had been doing good work for the company for quite some time. Robert proposed that they put Origin’s future location to a simple company-wide vote.

That proposal really pissed Richard off. New Englanders now well outnumbered Texas transplants, meaning the outcome of any vote must be a foreordained conclusion — which was, Richard believed, exactly why Robert was asking for one. The two had screaming rows that spilled out of their offices into the hallways of a suddenly very tense suite of offices, while the occupants of those offices, northerners and southerners crammed together under one roof for years, now felt free to let loose on each other with all of the frustrations they’d been keeping under wraps for so long. It was civil war — the staid New Englanders who were loyal to Robert against Lord British’s merry band of anarchists. In a fit of pique and homesickness, Richard’s right-hand man Chuck Bueche, music composer and programmer for the Ultima games, porting expert, and designer of games in his own right, announced he’d had enough and headed for Texas on his own. Richard and Robert each threatened to break with the other, to do his own thing with his own splinter of the company.

Such threats were ridiculous. Richard and his crew were no more capable of taking full responsibility for a company than Robert and his were of writing the next Ultima. These two needed each other for more reasons than just the ties of blood. It was finally left to older and cooler heads, in the form of the brothers’ parents, to broker a compromise. Richard would move back to Austin with most of the technical team, to set up a small studio there that would make the games; Robert would remain in New Hampshire with Marcy, a couple of programmers working on ports and ancillary projects, and the larger support staff that was responsible for packaging and marketing the games and running the business as a whole.

Thus Richard and company, reunited again with Bueche, found themselves a minimalist office in Austin in early 1987, fifteen desks ranged along a single long hallway. And Richard himself, now becoming a very wealthy young man indeed thanks to the huge success of Ultima III and IV, started work on Britannia Manor, a custom-built house-cum-castle worthy of Lord British; it came complete with secret passageways, a cave, a wine cellar, and a stellar observatory. It was pretty clear he wasn’t planning to go anywhere else anytime soon.

Carried out though it was for very personal reasons, Richard’s return to Austin would prove the single best business move Origin ever made. Eastern Texas may not have had as sexy a reputation as Silicon Valley, but there was plenty of high technology in the environs of Dallas, Houston, and Austin, along with a booming economy and low taxes to boot. Austin itself, in addition to being home to a prestigious university boasting almost 50,000 students of diverse talents, was something of the cultural as well as government capital of the state. Along with a lively music scene and tattoo parlors and all the other attributes of a thriving college town, Weird Austin boasted a diverse tapestry of nerdier culture, including Richard’s beloved SCA chapter and the hugely influential tabletop-game publisher Steve Jackson Games. What Austin, and Texas in general for that matter, rather oddly lacked was any notable presence in the computer-games industry. Richard himself was shocked at the hungry talent that washed up unbidden at Origin’s doorstep almost as soon as they hung their shingle, all eager to work for the house that Ultima had built. “Austin as a location was fundamental to the success of Origin,” remembers Richard, “because there was so much talent here in this town.” The atmosphere inside Origin’s new Austin office was soon so exciting, so positively bursting with possibility, that Robert had to admit defeat. More and more of Origin’s operations steadily moved south. Within a couple of years, Robert would convince Marcy to make the move with him, and Origin’s operations in New Hampshire would come to an end.

But hardly was the great Texas/New Hampshire crisis resolved than another raised its head. This time the dispute wasn’t intra-family or even intra-company. It rather involved Electronic Arts, a much bigger publisher with which little Origin would have quite the love-hate relationship over the years.

The origin of Origin’s EA problem dated back to August of 1985, about a month before the release of Ultima IV. By this point distribution was starting to become a real issue for a little publisher like Origin, as the few really big publishers, small enough in number to count on one hand, were taking advantage of their size and clout to squeeze the little guys off of store shelves. Knowing he had a hugely anticipated game on his hands with Ultima IV, one that with the proper care and handling should easily exceed the considerable-in-its-own-right success of Ultima III, Robert also knew he needed excellent distribution to realize its potential. He therefore turned to EA, one of the biggest of the big boys of the industry.

The agreement that resulted was quite the coup for EA as well as Origin. Thanks to it, they would enjoy a big share of the profits not just from The Bard’s Tale, the hit CRPG they had just released under their own imprint, but also from Origin’s Ultima IV. Together these two games came to dominate the CRPG field of the mid-1980s, each selling well over 200,000 copies. For a company that had never had much of anything to do with this genre of games before, it made for one hell of a double whammy to start things off.

While it’s been vaguely understood for years that the Origin and EA had a mid-1980s distribution agreement that broke down in discord, the details have never been aired. I’m happy to say that I can shed a lot more light on just what happened thanks to documents housed in the Strong Museum of Play‘s collection of Brøderbund papers. (The reason I was able to find them in a Brøderbund archive will become clear shortly.) I unfortunately can’t make these documents publicly available, but I can summarize and quote extracts from them. I do want to look at the contract that EA and Origin signed and the dispute that would eventually result from it in some detail, both because it’s so very illustrative of how the industry was changing as it entered the second half of the 1980s and because it provides a great example of one of the most dangerous of the potential traps that awaited the small fry who still tried to survive as independents. Origin would escape the trap, but many another small publisher/developer would not.

At first glance the distribution contract might seem more generous to Origin than to EA. Origin is obligated to remain the distributee only as long as EA has bought product from them totaling a stipulated amount over the course of a rolling calendar. By the end of the contract’s first year, which comes on September 1, 1986, EA must have bought $3.3 million worth of Origin games. The goal for the second year of the contract doubles; EA must have bought games worth $9.3 million in total from Origin by September 1, 1987, in order for the latter company to be obligated to honor the third and final year of their distribution contract. That’s a very ambitious sales goal for a little company like Origin whose entire reason for existence was a single series of games with a sporadic release schedule. (Origin had already released some non-Ultima titles and would continue to do so, but it would be years yet before any of them would make an impact on their bottom line to even begin to rival that of Ultima.)

All went well between Origin and EA for the first eighteen months. The trouble started shortly after Richard’s move back to Austin, when he got word of EA’s plans to release a rather undistinguished CRPG called Deathlord that was even more derivative of Ultima than was the norm. As Strategic Simulations, Incorporated, had learned to their chagrin a few years earlier in the case of their own Ultima clone Questron, Richard didn’t take kindly to games that copied his own work too blatantly. When EA refused to nix their game, and also proved uninterested in negotiating to license the “game structure and style” as SSI had done, Richard was incensed enough to blow up the whole distribution deal.

Richard and Robert believed that Origin would be on firm legal ground in withdrawing from the distribution agreement at the onset of the third year because EA was projected to have purchased just $6.6 million worth of product from Origin by September 1, 1987, way short of the goal of $9.3 million. Origin informed EA of their intentions and commenced negotiating a new distribution agreement with another of the big boys, Brøderbund, currently riding even higher than EA on the strength of The Print Shop and Carmen Sandiego.

The notice was greeted with shock and outrage by EA, who felt, and by no means entirely without reason, that it was hardly their fault that they were so far from the goal. That goal had been predicated on not just one but two or three or possibly even four new Ultima games being released during those first two years. Foreshadowing the way that Origin would handle Ultima VII years later, Richard’s plan at the time the contract was signed had been to release an Ultima IV Part 2 that would reuse the same engine in relatively short order, and only then to turn to Ultima V. But those plans had fallen by the wayside, undone by Richard’s idealistic need to make each Ultima clearly, comprehensively better than its predecessor. And now Ultima V was taking even longer than had Ultima IV. Having long since missed the original target of Christmas 1986, it now looked almost certain to miss Christmas 1987 as well; it still looked to be a good six months away from release as of mid-1987.

Yet it was the Ultima I situation that most ruffled EA’s feathers. When the rights to the first game of the series, having passed through the hands of the long-defunct California Pacific and then Sierra, reverted back to Richard in 1986, Origin assigned several programmers to rewrite it from scratch in assembly language rather than BASIC, adding graphical upgrades and interface enhancements along the way to bring it at least nominally up to date. Already a semi-legendary game, long out of print on the Apple II and never before available at all on the Commodore 64 or MS-DOS, the new and improved Ultima I carried with it reasonably high commercial hopes. While not the new Ultima, it was a new Ultima for the vast majority of Lord British fans, and should ease some of the disappointment of not being able to get Ultima V out that year. But in the wake of the Deathlord dust-up it became clear to EA that Origin was deliberately holding Ultima I back, wanting to tempt their prospective next distributor with it rather than give EA their fair share of its earnings. This… well, this pissed EA right the hell off. And, then as now, pissing off EA wasn’t usually a very good idea.

EA’s lawyers went through the contract carefully, looking for anywhere where they might knock a few dollars off the requirement of $9.3 million in orders inside two years.

The original goal for 9/1/87 was stated in Exhibit A as $9,300,000. This amount “is reduced by $40,000 for every month in which any of the software products listed in Exhibit B are not available according to the schedules set forth in Exhibit B.” Moebius/Apple was listed as being available in September 1985, and was not available until November 1985, a slip of two months. Ogre/Apple was listed as being available in November 1985 and was not available until June 1986, a slip of seven months. Moebius/C64 was listed as being available in November 1985 and was not available until October 1986, a slip of eleven months. Taking into account only those titles listed in Exhibit B, a total of 22 months are applicable to the $40,000 provision, equaling a deduction of $880,000 from the $9,300,000 goal mentioned earlier, leaving a net goal of $8,420,000 for 9/1/87.

The adjusted goal of $8.4 million still left EA $1.8 million short. No problem. They attached to the same letter a purchase order for a random hodgepodge of Origin products totaling the full $1.8 million. EA didn’t really care what Origin shipped them, as long as they billed them $1.8 million for it: “If Origin is unable to ship any of the products in the quantities stated on the purchase orders, please consider this an order for a similar dollar volume of any of your products that can be shipped in sufficient quantities to meet our 9/1/87 objectives.”

You’re probably wondering what on earth EA is thinking in throwing away almost $2 million on any old anything at all just to retain Origin as a distributee. Far from cutting off their nose to spite their face, they’re playing hardball here; what they’ve just done is far more dangerous for Origin than it is for them. To understand why requires an understanding of “overstock adjustments,” better known as returns. It’s right there in the original contract: “Vendor [Origin] agrees to issue credit to EA based on the original purchase price for the return of resalable overstock made any time beyond 90 days of original receipt.” This provision gives EA the ability to crush Origin, accidentally or on purpose, by over-ordering. Origin can honor the order, only to have it all come back to them along with a bill big enough to bury them when EA doesn’t sell it on. Or Origin can refuse to honor the order and get buried under a nasty breach-of-contract lawsuit. Or they can come back to EA hat in hand and ask nicely if both parties can just forget the whole thing ever happened and continue that third year of their agreement as was once planned.

Many small publishers like Origin were becoming more and more angry and/or terrified by the logistics of distribution by the latter half of the 1980s. This is why. Nevertheless, with the big publishers squeezing out any other means of getting their games onto store shelves, most of the small companies were forced to get in bed with one of the big boys against their better judgment. Although several other big publishers had affiliate distribution programs, Activision and EA became the most aggressive of the bunch, both in recruiting and, if things didn’t work out, destroying affiliated labels by returning hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars worth of product along with a bill for same. The battlefield of the industry’s history is fairly littered with the corpses of companies who signed distribution deals much like Origin’s with EA.

Origin, however, was lucky. In rushing to become a distributee of Brøderbund, they’d found shelter with a company with the resources to go toe-to-toe with EA; Doug Carlston, founder and president of Brøderbund, was himself a lawyer. Brøderbund took Origin’s cause as their own, and a settlement agreement presumably entailing the payment of some sort of penalty from Origin and/or Brøderbund to EA was reached in fairly short order. (The actual settlement agreement is unfortunately not included in the Strong’s collection.) Origin signed a two-year distribution contract with Brøderbund, and all of EA’s worst suspicions were confirmed when the revamped Ultima I shipped on the very first day of the new agreement. And that wasn’t even Origin’s last laugh: Deathlord, the match that had lit the whole powder keg, got mediocre reviews and flopped. True to his tradition of adding references to his contemporary personal life into each Ultima, Richard added the words “Electronic Arts” to the in-progress Ultima V’s list of forbidden swear words (“With language like that, how didst thou become an Avatar?”). Just for good measure, he also built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” on the grounds of Britannia Manor. Like most monarchs, Lord British apparently didn’t forget a slight quickly.

The Garriotts were still living charmed lives. Much as so many love to romanticize Trip Hawkins’s “electronic artists” of the 1980s, complete with crying computers and all the rest, EA has always been a rough customer when it gets down to the brass tacks (knuckles?) of doing business. Few others have tangled with them like Origin did and lived to tell the tale.

Behind all this drama there lurked always the real point of the whole endeavor that was Origin Systems: Ultima, specifically Ultima V. Just like all the other games in the series, it was well on the way to dwarfing its predecessor in terms of scale and technical ambition, with all the birthing pains that must imply.

Beginnings and endings can be tricky things for an historian to come to grips with. Certainly the middle period of the eventual nine-game Ultima series is full of them. There’s the beginning marked by the great conceptual leap that is Ultima IV, when the series became about more than killing monsters, collecting loot, and leveling up — a leap that changed the series’s character to such an extent that plenty of fans will tell you that you needn’t even bother with anything that came before, that the real Ultima starts right here. And there’s the ending that is Ultima VI, the first Ultima not built on the code base of its predecessor, the first not developed and released first and foremost for the Apple II, the first for which Richard did none of the programming.

In between the two lies Ultima V, a crossroads game if ever there was one. It marks the end of the line for the 8-bit Ultimas, the basic structure that began with Akalabeth pushed to a complex extreme that would have been unthinkable back in 1980. How extraordinary to think that this game runs on essentially the same computer as Akalabeth, plus only 16 K of memory here or an extra disk drive there. The series’s glorious last hurrah on the Apple II, it also marks the beginning of a radically different development methodology that would carry forward into the era of the MS-DOS-developed Ultimas. Starting with Ultima V, new Ultimas would no longer be the end result of Richard Garriott toiling alone in front of a single Apple II for months or years until he emerged with bleary eyes and disk in hand. From now on, Richard would direct, design, and supervise, while other people did most of the grunt work.

It was an obviously necessary step from the perspective of even the most minimally informed outsider. Ultima IV had taken him two years, twice as long as originally planned, and had nearly killed him in the process. If the series was to continue to grow in scale and ambition, as he himself always demanded it should, something had to give. Yet Richard resisted the obvious for quite some time. He struggled alone, first with the abortive Ultima IV Part 2 and then with Ultima V, for almost a year while while everyone fretted at the lack of progress. He genuinely loved programming, took pride in knowing each new Ultima was truly his personal expression, top to bottom. But at last he accepted that he needed help — an acceptance that would change everything about the way that Ultimas got made forevermore.

The process started with two new programmers, Steve Meuse and John Miles. The former started writing tools to make it easier to create the world, to put a friendly interface on all of the tasks that Richard normally managed by hand using nothing more than a hex editor. Meuse’s “Ultima Creation Package” would grow into something that, according to Richard, “almost anyone could use.” Meanwhile Miles took over most of the actual game-programming tasks from Richard; more than half of the code that shipped in the finished game would be his. “The transition of doing it all yourself to doing it as a team was very painful,” Richard says of this landmark change of late 1986 that marked the abrupt end of his days as a working programmer. “However, once you had a team in place, and especially once you were no longer sharing the duties of both doing it and managing it, the pain went away.”

Richard’s team only continued to expand after the move to Austin, as all of that pent-up Texas talent began arriving on Origin’s doorstep. The finished game credits no fewer than six programmers in addition to Richard himself. With so many more people involved, this Ultima needed a project manager — the role also commonly referred to as “producer” — for the first time as well. That role went to Dallas Snell, late of Penguin Software, who, nobody being too specialized yet at this stage, did some of the programming as well. Snell lobbied for months for the hiring of a full-time artist, but Richard remained skeptical of the need for one until quite some time after the move to Austin. But at last Denis Loubet, an Austin artist who had been doing cover art for Richard’s games since the days of Akalabeth, joined the Origin staff to do all of the art for Ultima V, whether the media be paper or cardboard or pixels. Loubet’s work, blessedly free of the chainmail bikinis and other cheesecake tendencies that make most vintage CRPG art so cringe-worthy, would now become even more integral to the series, helping to maintain its aura of having just a little more class than the standard CRPG fare. Finally, and also largely thanks to Snell’s determination to professionalize the process of making Ultimas, there are fourteen people — fourteen! — credited solely for play-testing Ultima V, more than enough to ensure that there wouldn’t be any more blatant screw-ups like the vital clue that was left out of Ultima IV.

Denis Loubet on the job at Origin.

Denis Loubet on the job at Origin.

Freed from the pressure of programming, Richard could make Ultima V a much more consciously designed game than its predecessors. From an interview conducted almost a year before the game was published:

In previous Ultimas the combat systems were not designed out on paper ahead of time. I kind of ranked weapons in order of strength… the higher up the list of weapons you got, the better the weapon. Now I’ve actually designed an entire gaming system, including magic and combat, that is just as good to play on paper as on the computer. It’s extremely well-balanced, both [sic.] the weapons, armor, and magic, and we’ve been balancing the costs and uses of those things for six months — essentially by playing Ultima on paper.

Origin was so proud of this system of rules that they planned for some time to make an Ultima tabletop RPG out of them. That project fell by the wayside, but just the fact that Richard was thinking this way represented a huge step forward for a series whose mechanics had always felt ad hoc in comparison to those of its original rival, Wizardry. “I can tell you in numbers the probabilities of your being able to do something,” said Richard, “whereas in previous Ultimas I probably wouldn’t be able to do so. I just kind of did it until it looked right.”

While all of the extra care and thought that was going into this Ultima was welcome, it was also time-consuming. A series of release dates spouted by an overoptimistic Richard in interview after interview fell by the wayside, as subscribers to adventurer-catering magazines like Questbusters read for a year and a half of a game that was perpetually just a few months away. Still, the game they kept reading about sounded better with every mention: it would fill no less than eight Apple II disk sides; it would offer twice as much territory as Ultima IV to explore; each non-player character would have three times as much to say; non-player characters would have realistic day-and-night schedules that they followed; just about every single thing in the world, from table and chairs to torches and even a harpsichord, would be a discrete, manipulable object.

An early public preview of Ultima V at Dragon Con, October 1987.

An early public preview of Ultima V at Dragon Con, October 1987.

More philosophically-minded fans wondered about a subject on which there was less concrete information available: what would the new Ultima be about? After the great conceptual leap that had been Ultima IV, would Lord British be content to return to monster-killing and evil-wizard-bashing, or would there be another — or perhaps the same? — message on offer this time out?

All of their questions were answered on March 18, 1988, when Origin released Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny for the Apple II; versions for MS-DOS and the Commodore 64 followed in July and October respectively, with ports to a handful of other platforms trickling out over the following year or so. We’ll dive into the virtual world that awaited Ultima V‘s army of 200,000-plus eager buyers next time.

(Sources for this article and the next: Questbusters of June 1987, July 1987, August 1987, March 1988, July 1988; Game Developer of September 1994; Computer Gaming World of March 1986, December 1987, July 1988, January 1989, November 1991, November 1992. The books The Official Book of Ultima by Shay Addams; Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland; Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector. See also Richard Garriott’s extended interview with Warren Spector. And of course the Strong’s collection; my thanks to Jon-Paul Dyson and his colleagues for hosting me there for a very productive week!

Ultima V is available from GOG.com in a collection with its predecessor and sequel.)

 
 

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