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The View from the Trenches (or, Some Deadly Sins of CRPG Design)

From the beginning of this project, I’ve worked to remove the nostalgia factor from my writing about old games, to evaluate each game strictly on its own merits and demerits. I like to think that this approach has made my blog a uniquely enlightening window into gaming history. Still, one thing my years as a digital antiquarian have taught me is that you tread on people’s nostalgia at your peril. Some of what I’ve written here over the years has certainly generated its share of heat as well as light, not so much among those of you who are regular readers and commenters — you remain the most polite, thoughtful, insightful, and just plain nice readers any writer could hope to have — as among the ones who fire off nasty emails from anonymous addresses, who post screeds on less polite sites to which I’m occasionally pointed, or who offer up their drive-by comments right here every once in a while.

A common theme of these responses is that I’m not worthy of writing about this stuff, whether because I wasn’t there at the time — actually, I was, but whatever — or because I’m just not man enough to take my lumps and power through the really evil, unfair games. This rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion is all too symptomatic of the uglier sides of gaming culture. Just why so many angry, intolerant personalities are so attracted to computer games is a fascinating question, but must remain a question for another day. For today I will just say that, even aside from their ugliness, I find such sentiments strange. As far as I know, there’s zero street cred to be gained in the wider culture from being good at playing weird old videogames — or for that matter from being good at playing videogames of any stripe. What an odd thing to construct a public persona around. I’ve made a job out of analyzing old games, and even I sometimes want to say, “Dude, they’re just old games! Really, truly, they’re not worth getting so worked up over.”

That said, there do remain some rays of light amidst all this heat. It’s true that my experience of these games today — of playing them in a window on this giant monitor screen of mine, or playing them on the go on a laptop — must be in some fairly fundamental ways different from the way the same games were experienced all those years ago. One thing that gets obviously lost is the tactile, analog side of the vintage experience: handling the physical maps and manuals and packages (I now reference that stuff as PDF files, which isn’t quite the same); drawing maps and taking notes using real pen and paper (I now keep programs open in separate windows on that aforementioned giant monitor for those purposes); listening to the chuck-a-chunk of disk drives loading in the next bit of text or scenery (replacing the joy of anticipation is the instant response of my modern supercomputer). When I allow myself to put on my own nostalgia hat, just for a little while, I recognize that all these things are intimately bound up with my own memories of playing games back in the day.

And I also recognize that the discrepancies between the way I play now and the way I played back then go even further. Some of the most treasured of vintage games weren’t so much single works to be played and completed as veritable lifestyle choices. Ultima IV, to name a classic example, was huge enough and complicated enough that a kid who got it for Christmas in 1985 might very well still be playing it by the time Ultima V arrived in 1988; rinse and repeat for the next few entries in the series. From my jaded perspective, I wouldn’t brand any of these massive CRPGs as overly well-designed in the sense of being a reasonably soluble game to be completed in a reasonable amount of time, but then that wasn’t quite what most of the people who played them way back when were looking for in them. Actually solving the games became almost irrelevant for a kid who wanted to live in the world of Britannia.

I get that. I really do. No matter how deep a traveler in virtual time delves into the details of any era of history, there are some things he can never truly recapture. Were I to try, I would have to go away to spend a year or two disconnected from the Web and playing no other game — or at least no other CRPG — than the Ultima I planned to write about next. That, as I hope you can all appreciate, wouldn’t be a very good model for a blog like this one.

When I think in the abstract about this journey through gaming history I’ve been on for so long now, I realize that I’ve been trying to tell at least three intertwining stories.

One story is a critical design history of games. When I come to a game I judge worthy of taking the time to write about in depth — a judgment call that only becomes harder with every passing year, let me tell you — I play it and offer you my thoughts on it, trying to judge it not only in the context of our times but also in the context of its own times, and in the context of its peers.

A second story is that of the people who made these games, and how they went about doing so — the inevitable postmortems, as it were.

Doing these first two things is relatively easy. What’s harder is the third leg of the stool: what was it like to be a player of computer games all those years ago? Sometimes I stumble upon great anecdotes in this area. For instance, did you know about Clancy Shaffer?

In impersonal terms, Shaffer was one of the slightly dimmer stars among the constellation of adventure-game superfans — think Roe Adams III, Shay Addams, Computer Gaming World‘s indomitable Scorpia — who parlayed their love of the genre and their talent for solving games quickly into profitable sidelines if not full-on careers as columnists, commentators, play-testers, occasionally even design consultants; for his part, Shaffer contributed his long experience as a player to the much-loved Sir-Tech title Jagged Alliance.

Most of the many people who talked with Shaffer via post, via email, or via telephone assumed he was pretty much like them, an enthusiastic gamer and technology geek in his twenties or thirties. One of these folks, Rich Heimlich, has told of a time when a phone conversation turned to the future of computer technology in the longer view. “Frankly,” said Shaffer, “I’m not sure I’ll even be here to see it.” He was, he explained to his stunned interlocutor, 84 years old. He credited his hobby for the mental dexterity that caused so many to assume he was in his thirties at the oldest. Shaffer believed he had remained mentally sharp through puzzling his way through so many games, while he needed only look at the schedule of upcoming releases in a magazine to have something to which to look forward in life.  Many of his friends who, like him, had retired twenty years ago were dead or senile, a situation Shaffer blamed on their having failed to find anything to do with themselves after leaving the working world behind.

Shaffer died in 2010 at age 99. Only after his passing, after reading his obituary, did Heimlich and other old computer-game buddies realize what an extraordinary life Shaffer had actually led, encompassing an education from Harvard University, a long career in construction and building management, 18 patents in construction engineering, an active leadership role in the Republican party, a Golden Glove championship in heavyweight boxing, and a long and successful run as a yacht racer and sailor of the world’s oceans. And yes, he had also loved to play computer games, parlaying that passion into more than 500 published articles.

But great anecdotes like this one from the consumption side of the gaming equation are the exception rather than the rule, not because they aren’t out there in spades in theory — I’m sure there have been plenty of other fascinating characters like Clancy Shaffer who have also made a passion for games a part of their lives — but because they rarely get publicized. The story of the players of vintage computer games is that of a huge, diffuse mass of millions of people whose individual stories almost never stretch beyond their immediate families and friends.

The situation becomes especially fraught when we try to zero in on the nitty-gritty details of how games were played and judged in their day. Am I as completely out of line as some have accused me of being in harping so relentlessly on the real or alleged design problems of so many games that others consider to be classics? Or did people back in the day, at least some of them, also get frustrated and downright angry at betrayals of their trust in the form of illogical puzzles and boring busywork? I know that I certainly did, but I’m only one data point.

One would think that the magazines, that primary link between the people who made games and those who played them, would be the best way of finding out what players were really thinking. In truth, though, the magazines rarely provided skeptical coverage of the games industry. The companies whose games they were reviewing were of course the very same companies that were helping to pay their bills by buying advertising — an obvious conflict of interest if ever there was one. More abstractly but no less significantly, there was a sense among those who worked for the magazines and those who worked for the game publishers that they were all in this together, living as they all were off the same hobby. Criticizing individual games too harshly, much less entire genres, could damage that hobby, ultimately damaging the magazines as much as the publishers. Thus when the latest heavily hyped King’s Quest came down the pipe, littered with that series’s usual design flaws, there was little incentive for the magazines to note that this monarch had no clothes.

So, we must look elsewhere to find out what average players were really thinking. But where? Most of the day-to-day discussions among gamers back in the day took place over the telephone, on school playgrounds, on computer bulletin boards, or on the early commercial online services that preceded the World Wide Web. While Jason Scott has done great work snarfing up a tiny piece of the online world of the 1980s and early 1990s, most of it is lost, presumably forever. (In this sense at least, historians of later eras of gaming history will have an easier time of it, thanks to archive.org and the relative permanence of the Internet.) The problem of capturing gaming as gamers knew it thus remains one without a comprehensive solution. I must confess that this is one reason I’m always happy when you, my readers, share your experiences with this or that game in the comments section — even, or perhaps especially, when you disagree with my own judgments on a game.

Still, relying exclusively on first-hand accounts from decades later to capture what it was like to be a gamer in the old days can be problematic in the same way that it can be problematic to rely exclusively on interviews with game developers to capture how and why games were made all those years ago: memories can fade, personal agendas can intrude, and those rose-colored glasses of nostalgia can be hard to take off. Pretty soon we’re calling every game from our adolescence a masterpiece and dumping on the brain-dead games played by all those stupid kids today — and get off my lawn while you’re at it. The golden age of gaming, like the golden age of science fiction, will always be twelve or somewhere thereabouts. All that’s fine for hoisting a beer with the other old-timers, but it can be worse than useless for doing serious history.

Thankfully, every once in a while I stumble upon another sort of cracked window into this aspect of gaming’s past. As many of you know, I’ve spent a couple of weeks over the last couple of years trolling through the voluminous (and growing) game-history archives of the Strong Museum of Play. Most of this material, hugely valuable to me though it’s been and will doubtless continue to be, focuses on the game-making side of the equation. Some of the archives, though, contain letters from actual players, giving that unvarnished glimpse into their world that I so crave. Indeed, these letters are among my favorite things in the archives. They are, first of all, great fun. The ones from the youngsters are often absurdly cute; it’s amazing how many liked to draw pictures to accompany their missives.

But it’s when I turn to the letters from older writers that I’m gratified and, yes, made to feel a little validated when I read that people were in fact noticing that games weren’t always playing fair with them. I’d like to share a couple of the more interesting letters of this type with you today.

We’ll begin with a letter from one Wes Irby of Plano, Texas, describing what he does and especially what he doesn’t enjoy in CRPGs. At the time he sent it to the Questbusters adventure-game newsletter in October of 1988, Irby was a self-described “grizzled computer adventurer” of age 43. Shay Addams, Questbusters’s editor, found the letter worthy enough to spread around among publishers of CRPGs. (Perhaps tellingly, he didn’t choose to publish it in his newsletter.)

Irby titles his missive “Things I Hate in a Fantasy-Role-Playing Game.” Taken on its own, it serves very well as a companion piece to a similar article I once wrote about graphic adventures. But because I just can’t shut up, and because I can’t resist taking the opportunity to point out places where Irby is unusually prescient or insightful, I’ve inserted my own comments into the piece; they appear in italics in the text that follows. Otherwise, I’ve only cleaned up the punctuation and spelling a bit here and there. The rest is Irby’s original letter from 1988.


I hate rat killing!!! In Shard of Spring, I had to kill dozens of rats, snakes, kobolds, and bats before I could get back to the tower after a Wind Walk to safety. In Wizardry, the rats were Murphy’s ghosts, which I pummeled for hours when developing a new character. Ultima IV was perhaps the ultimate rat-killing game of all time; hour upon hour was spent in tedious little battles that I could not possibly lose and that offered little reward for victory. Give me a good battle to test my mettle, but don’t sentence me to rat killing!

Amen. The CRPG genre became the victim of an expectation which took hold early on that the games needed to be really, really long, needed to consume dozens if not hundreds of hours, in order for players to get their money’s worth. With disk space precious and memory space even more so on the computers of the era, developers had to pad out their games with a constant stream of cheap low-stakes random encounters to reach that goal. Amidst the other Interplay materials hosted at the Strong archive are several mentions of a version of Wasteland, prepared specially for testers in a hurry, in which the random encounters were left out entirely. That’s the version of Wasteland I’d like to play.

I hate being stuck!!! I enjoy the puzzles, riddles, and quests as a way to give some story line to the real heart of the game, which is killing bad guys. Just don’t give me any puzzles I can’t solve in a couple of hours. I solved Rubik’s Cube in about thirty hours, and that was nothing compared to some of the puzzles in The Destiny Knight. The last riddle in Knight of Diamonds delayed my completion (and purchase of the sequel) for nearly six months, until I made a call to Sir-Tech.

I haven’t discussed the issue of bad puzzle design in CRPGs to the same extent as I have the same issue in adventure games, but suffice to say that just about everything I’ve written in the one context applies equally in the other. Certainly riddles remain among the laziest — they require almost no programming effort to implement — and most problematic — they rely by definition on intuition and external cultural knowledge — forms of puzzle in either genre. Riddles aren’t puzzles at all really; the answer either pops into your head right away or it doesn’t, meaning the riddle turns into either a triviality or a brick wall. A good puzzle, by contrast, is one you can experiment with on your way to the correct solution. And as for the puzzles in The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight… much more on them a little later.

Perhaps the worst aspect of being stuck is the clue-book dilemma. Buying a clue book is demeaning. In addition, buying clue books could encourage impossible puzzles to boost the aftermarket for clue books. I am a reformed game pirate (that is how I got hooked), and I feel it is just as unfair for a company to charge me to finish the game I bought as it was for me to play the games (years ago) without paying for them. Multiple solutions, a la Might and Magic, are very nice. That game also had the desirable feature of allowing you to work on several things simultaneously so that being stuck on one didn’t bring the whole game to a standstill.

Here Irby brings up an idea I’ve also touched on once or twice: that the very worst examples of bad design can be read as not just good-faith disappointments but actual ethical lapses on the part of developers and publishers. Does selling consumers a game with puzzles that are insoluble except through hacking or the most tedious sort of brute-force approaches equate to breaching good faith by knowingly selling them a defective product? I tend to feel that it does.

As part of the same debate, the omnipresent clue books became a locus of much dark speculation and conspiracy theorizing back in the day. Did publishers, as Irby suggests, intentionally release games that couldn’t be solved without buying the clue book, thereby to pick up additional sales? The profit margins on clue books, not incidentally, tended to be much higher than that enjoyed by the games themselves. Still, the answer is more complicated than the question may first appear. Based on my research into the industry of the time, I don’t believe that any publishers or developers made insoluble games with the articulated motive of driving clue-book sales. To the extent that there was an ulterior motive surrounding the subject of clue books, it was that the clue books would allow them to make money off some of the people who pirated their games. (Rumors — almost certainly false, but telling by their very presence — occasionally swirled around the industry about this or that popular title whose clue-book sales had allegedly outstripped the number of copies of the actual game which had been sold.) Yet the fact does remain that even the hope of using clue books as a way of getting money out of pirates required games that would be difficult enough to cause many pirates to go out and buy the book. The human mind is a funny place, and the clue-book business likely did create certain almost unconscious pressures on game designers to design less soluble games.

I hate no-fault life insurance! If there is no penalty, there is no risk, there is no fear — translate that to no excitement. The adrenaline actually surged a few times during play of the Wizardry series when I encountered a group of monsters that might defeat me. In Bard’s Tale II, death was so painless that I committed suicide several times because it was the most expedient way to return to the Adventurer’s Guild.

When you take the risk of loss out of the game, it might as well be a crossword puzzle. The loss of possessions in Ultima IV and the loss of constitution in Might and Magic were tolerable compromises. The undead status in Phantasie was very nice. Your character was unharmed except for the fact that no further advancement was possible. Penalties can be too severe, of course. In Shard of Spring, loss of one battle means all characters are permanently lost. Too tough.

Here Irby hits on one of the most fraught debates in CRPG design, stretching from the days of the original Wizardry to today: what should be the penalty for failure? There’s no question that the fact that you couldn’t save in the dungeon was one of the defining aspects of Wizardry, the game that did more than any other to popularize the budding genre in the very early 1980s. Exultant stories of escaping the dreaded Total Party Loss by the skin of one’s teeth come up again and again when you read about the game. Andrew Greenberg and Bob Woodhead, the designers of Wizardry, took a hard-line stance on the issue, insisting that the lack of an in-dungeon save function was fundamental to an experience they had carefully crafted. They went so far as to issue legal threats against third-party utilities designed to mitigate the danger.

Over time, though, the mainstream CRPG industry moved toward the save-often, save-anywhere model, leaving Wizardry’s approach only to a hardcore sub-genre known as roguelikes. It seems clear that the change had some negative effects on encounter design; designers, assuming that players were indeed saving often and saving everywhere, felt they could afford to worry less about hitting players with impossible fights. Yet it also seems clear that many or most players, given the choice, would prefer to avoid the exhilaration of escaping near-disasters in Wizardry in favor of avoiding the consequences of unescaped disasters. The best solution, it seems to me, is to make limited or unlimited saving a player-selectable option. Failing that, it strikes me as better to err on the side of generosity; after all, hardcore players can still capture the exhilaration and anguish of an iron-man mode by simply imposing their own rules for when they allow themselves to save. All that said, the debate will doubtless continue to rage.

I hate being victimized. Loss of life, liberty, etc., in a situation I could have avoided through skillful play is quite different from a capricious, unavoidable loss. The Amulet of Skill in Knight of Diamonds was one such situation. It was not reasonable to expect me to fail to try the artifacts I found — a fact I soon remedied with my backup disk!!! The surprise attacks of the mages in Wizardry was another such example. Each of the Wizardry series seems to have one of these, but the worst was the teleportation trap on the top level of Wizardry III, which permanently encased my best party in stone.

Beyond rather putting the lie to some of Greenberg and Woodhead’s claims of having exhaustively balanced the Wizardry games, these criticisms again echo those I’ve made in the context of adventure games. Irby’s examples are the CRPG equivalents of the dreaded adventure-game Room of Sudden Death — except that in CRPGs like Wizardry with perma-death, their consequences are much more dire than just having to go back to your last save.

I hate extraordinary characters! If everyone is extraordinary then extraordinary becomes extra (extremely) ordinary and uninteresting. The characters in Ultima III and IV and Bard’s Tale I and II all had the maximum ratings for all stats before the end of the game. They lose their personalities that way.

This is one of Irby’s subtler complaints, but also I think one of his most insightful. Characters in CRPGs are made interesting, as he points out, through a combination of strengths and weaknesses. I spent considerable time in a recent article describing how the design standards of SSI’s “Gold Box” series of licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs declined over time, but couldn’t find a place for the example of Pools of Darkness, the fourth and last game in the series that began with Pool of Radiance. Most of the fights in Pools of Darkness are effectively unwinnable if you don’t have “extraordinary” characters, in that they come down to quick-draw contests to find out whether your party or the monsters can fire off devastating area-effect magic first. Your entire party needs to have a maxed-out dexterity score of 18 to hope to consistently survive these battles. Pools of Darkness thus rewards cheaters and punishes honest players; it represents a cruel betrayal of players who had played through the entire series honestly to that point, without availing themselves of character editors or the like. CRPGs should strive not to make the extraordinary ordinary, and they should certainly not demand extraordinary characters that the player can only come by through cheating.

There are several more features which I find undesirable, but are not sufficiently irritating to put them in the “I hate” category. One such feature is the inability to save the game in certain places or situations. It is miserable to find yourself in a spot you can’t get out of (or don’t want to leave because of the difficulty in returning) at midnight (real time). I have continued through the wee hours on occasion, much to my regret the next day. At other times it has gotten so bad I have dozed off at the keyboard. The trek from the surface to the final set of riddles in Ultima IV takes nearly four hours. Without the ability to save along the way, this doesn’t make for good after-dinner entertainment. Some of the forays in the Phantasie series are also long and difficult, with no provision to save. This problem is compounded when you have an old machine like mine that locks up periodically. Depending on the weather and the phase of the moon, sometimes I can’t rely on sessions that average over half an hour.

There’s an interesting conflict here, which I sense that the usually insightful Irby may not have fully grasped, between his demand that death have consequences in CRPGs and his belief that he should be able to save anywhere. At the same time, though, it’s not an irreconcilable conflict. Roguelikes have traditionally made it possible to save anywhere by quitting the game, but immediately delete the save when you start to play again, thus making it impossible to use later on as a fallback position.

Still, it should always raise a red flag when a given game’s designers claim something which just happens to have been the easier choice from a technical perspective to have been a considered design choice. This skepticism should definitely be applied to Wizardry. Were the no-save dungeons that were such an integral part of the Wizardry experience really a considered design choice or a (happy?) accident arising from technical affordances? It’s very difficult to say this many years on. What is clear is that saving state in any sort of comprehensive way was a daunting challenge for 8-bit CRPGs spread over multiple disk sides. Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale didn’t really even bother to try; literally the only persistent data in these games and many others like them is the state of your characters, meaning not only that the dungeons are completely reset every time you enter them but that it’s possible to “win” them over and over again by killing the miraculously resurrected big baddie again and again. The 8-bit Ultima games did a little better, saving the state of the world map but not that of the cities or the dungeons. (I’ve nitpicked the extreme cruelty of Ultima IV’s ending, which Irby also references, enough on earlier occasions that I won’t belabor it any more here.) Only quite late in the day for the 8-bit CRPG did games like Wasteland work out ways to create truly, comprehensively persistent environments — in the case of Wasteland, by rewriting all of the data on each disk side on the fly as the player travels around the world (a very slow process, particularly in the case of the Commodore 64 and its legendarily slow disk drive).

Tedium is a killer. In Bard’s Tale there was one battle with 297 bersekers that always took fifteen or twenty minutes with the same results (this wasn’t rat-killing because the reward was significant and I could lose, maybe). The process of healing the party in the dungeon in Wizardry and the process of identifying discovered items in Shard of Spring are laborious. How boring it was in Ultima IV to stand around waiting for a pirate ship to happen along so I could capture it. The same can be said of sitting there holding down a key in Wasteland or Wrath of Denethenor while waiting for healing to occur. At least give me a wait command so I can read a book until something interesting happens.

I’m sort of ambivalent toward most aspects of mapping. A good map is satisfying and a good way to be sure nothing has been missed. Sometimes my son will use my maps (he hates mapping) in a game and find he is ready to go to the next level before his characters are. Mapping is a useful way to pace the game. The one irritating aspect of mapping is running off the edge of the paper. In Realms of Darkness mapping was very difficult because there was no “locater” or “direction” spell. More bothersome to me, though, was the fact that I never knew where to start on my paper. I had the same problem with Shard of Spring, but in retrospect that game didn’t require mapping.

Mapping is another area where the technical affordances of the earliest games had a major effect on their designs. The dungeon levels in most 8-bit CRPGs were laid out on grids of a consistent number of squares across and down; such a template minimized memory usage and simplified the programmer’s task enormously. Unrealistic though it was, it was also a blessing for mappers. Wizardry, a game that was oddly adept at turning its technical limitations into player positives, even included sheets of graph paper of exactly the right size in the box. Later games like Dungeon Master, whose levels sprawl everywhere, run badly afoul of the problem Irby describes above — that of maps “running off the edge of the paper.” In the case of Dungeon Master, it’s the one glaring flaw in what could otherwise serve as a masterclass in designing a challenging yet playable dungeon crawl.

I don’t like it when a program doesn’t take advantage of my second disk drive, and I would feel that way about my printer if I had one. I don’t like junk magic (spells you never use), and I don’t like being stuck forever with the names I pick on the spur of the moment. A name that struck my fancy one day may not on another.

Another problem similar to “junk magic” that only really began to surface around the time that Irby was writing this letter is junk skills. Wasteland is loaded with skills that are rarely or never useful, along with others that are essential, and there’s no way for the new player to identify which are which. It’s a more significant problem than junk magic usually is because you invest precious points into learning and advancing your skills; there’s a well-nigh irreversible opportunity cost to your choices. All of what we might call the second generation of Interplay CRPGs, which began with Wasteland, suffer at least somewhat from this syndrome. Like the sprawling dungeon levels in Dungeon Master, it’s an example of the higher ambitions and more sophisticated programming of later games impacting the end result in ways that are, at best, mixed in terms of playability.

I suppose you are wondering why I play these stupid games if there is so much about them I don’t like. Actually, there are more things I do like, particularly when compared to watching Gilligan’s Island or whatever the current TV fare is. I suppose it would be appropriate to mention a few of the things I do like.

In discussing the unavoidably anachronistic experience we have of old games today, we often note how many other games are at our fingertips — a luxury a kid who might hope to get one new game every birthday and Christmas most definitely didn’t enjoy. What we perhaps don’t address as much as we should is how much the entertainment landscape in general has changed. It can be a little tough even for those of us who lived through the 1980s to remember what a desert television was back then. I remember a television commercial — and from the following decade at that — in which a man checked into a hotel of the future, and was told that every movie ever made was available for viewing at the click of a remote control. Back then, this was outlandish science fiction. Today, it’s reality.

I like variety and surprises. Give me a cast of thousands over a fixed party anytime. Of course, the game designer has to force the need for multiple parties on me, or I will stick with the same group throughout because that is the best way to “win” the game. The Minotaur Temple in Phantasie I and the problems men had in Portsmouth in Might and Magic and the evil and good areas of Wizardry III were nice. More attractive are party changes for strategic reasons. What good are magic users in no-magic areas or a bard in a silent room? A rescue mission doesn’t need a thief and repetitive battles with many small opponents don’t require a fighter that deals heavy damage to one bad guy.

I like variety and surprises in the items found, the map, the specials encountered, in short in every aspect of the game. I like figuring out what things are and how they work. What a delight the thief’s dagger in Wizardry was! The maps in Wasteland are wonderful because any map may contain a map. The countryside contains towns and villages, the towns contain buildings, some buildings contain floors or secret passages. What fun!!!

I like missions and quests to pursue as I proceed. Some of these games are so large that intermediate goals are necessary to keep you on track. Might and Magic, Phantasie, and Bard’s Tale do a good job of creating a path with the “missions.” I like self-contained clues about the puzzles. In The Return of Heracles the sage was always there to provide an assist (for money, of course)  if you got stuck. The multiple solutions or sources of vital information in Might and Magic greatly enhanced the probability of completing the missions and kept the game moving.

I like the idea of recruiting new characters, as opposed to starting over from scratch. In Galactic Adventurers your crew could be augmented by recruiting survivors of a battle, provided they were less experienced than your leader. Charisma (little used in most games) could impact recruiting. Wasteland provides for recruiting of certain predetermined characters you encounter. These NPCs can be controlled almost like your characters and will advance with experience. Destiny Knight allows you to recruit (with a magic spell) any of the monsters you encounter, and requires that some specific characters be recruited to solve some of the puzzles, but these NPCs can’t be controlled and will not advance in level, so they are temporary members. They will occasionally turn on you, an interesting twist!!!

I like various skills, improved by practice or training for various characters. This makes the characters unique individuals, adding to the variety. This was implemented nicely in both Galactic Adventurers and Wasteland.

Eternal growth for my characters makes every session a little different and intriguing. If the characters “top out” too soon that aspect of the game loses its fascination. Wizardry was the best at providing continual growth opportunities because of the opportunity to change class and retain some of the abilities of the previous class. The Phantasie series seemed nicely balanced, with the end of the quest coming just before/as my characters topped out.

Speaking of eternal, I have never in all of my various adventures had a character retire because of age. Wizardry tried, but it never came into play because it was cheaper to heal at the foot of the stairs while identifying loot (same trip or short run to the dungeon for that purpose). Phantasie kept up with age, but it never affected play. I thought Might and Magic might, but I found the Fountain of Youth. The only FRPG I have played where you had to beat the clock is Tunnels of Doom, a simple hack-and-slash on my TI 99/4A that takes about ten hours for a game. Of course, it is quite different to spend ten hours and fail because the king died than it is to spend three months and fail by a few minutes. I like for time to be a factor to prevent me from being too conservative.

This matter of time affecting play really doesn’t fit into the “like” or the “don’t like” because I’ve never seen it effectively implemented. There are a couple of other items like that on my wish list. For example, training of new characters by older characters should take the place of slugging it out with Murphy’s ghost while the newcomers watch from the safety of the back row.

The placing of time limits on a game sounds to me like a very dangerous proposal. It was tried in 1989, the year after Irby wrote this letter, by The Magic Candle, a game that I haven’t played but that is quite well-regarded by the CRPG cognoscenti. That game was, however, kind enough to offer three difficulty levels, each with its own time limit, and the easiest level was generous enough that most players report that time never became a major factor. I don’t know of any game, even from this much crueler era of game design in general, that was cruel enough to let you play 100 hours or more and then tell you you’d lost because the evil wizard had finished conquering the world, thank you very much. Such an approach might have been more realistic than the alternative, where the evil wizard cackles and threatens occasionally but doesn’t seem to actually do much, but, as Sid Meier puts it, fun ought to trump realism every time in game design.

A very useful feature would be the ability to create my own macro consisting of a dozen or so keystrokes. Set up Control-1 through Control-9 and give me a simple way to specify the keystrokes to be executed when one is pressed.

Interestingly, this exact feature showed up in Interplay’s CRPGs very shortly after Irby wrote this letter, beginning with the MS-DOS version of Wasteland in March of 1989. And we do know that Interplay was one of the companies to which Shay Addams sent the letter. Is this a case of a single gamer’s correspondence being responsible for a significant feature in later games? The answer is likely lost forever to the vagaries of time and the inexactitude of memory.

A record of sorts of what has happened during the game would be nice. The chevron in Wizardry and the origin in Phantasie is the most I’ve ever seen done with this. How about a screen that told me I had 93 sessions, 4 divine interventions (restore backup), completed 12 quests, raised characters from the dead 47 times, and killed 23,472 monsters? Cute, huh?

Another crazily prescient proposal. These sorts of meta-textual status screens would become commonplace in CRPGs in later years. In this case, though, “later years” means much later. Thus, rather than speculating on whether he actively drove the genre’s future innovations, we can credit Irby this time merely with predicting them.

One last suggestion for the manufacturers: if you want that little card you put in each box back, offer me something I want. For example, give me a list of all the other nuts in my area code who have purchased this game and returned their little cards.

Enough of this, Wasteland is waiting.


With some exceptions — the last suggestion, for instance, would be a privacy violation that would make even the NSA raise an eyebrow — I agree with most of Irby’s positive suggestions, just as I do his complaints. It strikes me as I read through his letter that my own personal favorite among 8-bit CRPGs, Pool of Radiance, manages to avoid most of Irby’s pitfalls while implementing much from his list of desirable features — further confirmation of just what a remarkable piece of work that game, and to an only slightly lesser extent its sequel Curse of the Azure Bonds, really were. I hope Wes Irby got a chance to play them.

I have less to say about the second letter I’d like to share with you, and will thus present it without in-line commentary. This undated letter was sent directly to Interplay by its writer: Thomas G. Gutheil, an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry, on whose letterhead it’s written. Its topic is The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, a game I’ve written about only in passing but one with some serious design problems in the form of well-nigh insoluble puzzles. Self-serving though it may be, I present Gutheil’s letter to you today as one more proof that players did notice the things that were wrong with games back in the day — and that my perspective on them today therefore isn’t an entirely anachronistic one. More importantly, Gutheil’s speculations are still some of the most cogent I’ve ever seen on how bad puzzles make their way into games in the first place. For this reason alone, it’s eminently worthy of being preserved for posterity.


I am writing you a combination fan letter and critique in regard to the two volumes of The Bard’s Tale, of which I am a regular and fanatic user.

First, the good news: this is a TERRIFIC game, and I play it with addictive intensity, approximately an hour almost every day. The richness of the graphics, the cute depictions of the various characters, monsters, etc., and rich complexity and color of the mazes, tasks, issues, as well as the dry wit that pervades the program, make it a superb piece and probably the best maze-type adventure product on the market today. I congratulate you on this achievement.

Now, the bad news: the one thing I feel represents a defect in your program (and I only take your time to comment on it because it is so central) and one which is perhaps the only area where the Wizardry series (of which I am also an avid player and expert) is superior, is the notion of the so-called puzzles, a problem which becomes particularly noticeable in the “snares of death” in the second scenario. In all candor, speaking as an old puzzle taker and as a four-time grand master of the Boston Phoenix Puzzle Contest, I must say that these puzzles are simply too personal and idiosyncratic to be fair to the player. I would imagine you are doing a booming business in clue books since many of the puzzles are simply not accomplishable otherwise without hours of frustrating work, most of it highly speculative.

Permit me to try to clarify this point, since I am aware of the sensitive nature of these comments, given that I would imagine you regard the puzzles as being the “high art” of the game design. There should be an organic connection between the clues and the puzzles. For example, in Wizardry (sorry to plug the competition), there is a symbolic connection between the clue and its function. As one simplistic example, at the simplest level a bear statuette get you through a gate guarded by a bear, a key opens a particular door, and a ship-in-a-bottle item gets you across an open expanse of water.

Let me try to contrast this with some of the situations in your scenarios. You may recall that in one of the scenarios the presence of a “winged one” in the party was necessary to get across a particular chasm. The Winged One introduces himself to the party as one of almost a thousand individual wandering creatures that come and offer to join the party, to be attacked, or to be left in peace. This level of dilution and the failure to separate out the Winged One in some way makes it practically unrecallable much later on when you need it, particularly since there are several levels of dungeon (and in real life perhaps many interposing days and weeks) between the time you meet the Winged One (who does not stand out among the other wandering characters in any particular way) and the time you actually need him. Even if (as I do) you keep notes, there would be no particular reason to record this creature out of all. Moreover, to have this added character stuck in your party for long periods of time, when you could instead have the many-times more effective demons, Kringles, and salamanders, etc., would seem strategically self-defeating and therefore counter-intuitive for the normal strategy of game play AS IT IS ACTUALLY PLAYED.

This is my point: in many ways your puzzles in the scenarios seem to have been designed by someone who is not playing the in the usual sequence, but designed as it were from the viewpoint of the programmer, who looks at the scenario “from above” — that is, from omniscient knowledge. In many situations the maze fails to take into account the fact that parties will not necessarily explore the maze in the predictable direct sequence you have imagined. The flow of doors and corridors do not appropriately guide a player so that they will take the puzzles in a meaningful sequence. Thus, when one gets a second clue before a first clue, only confusion results, and it is rarely resolved as the play advances.

Every once in a while you do catch on, and that is when something like the rock-scissors-paper game is invoked in your second scenario. That’s generally playing fair, although not everyone has played that game or would recognize it in the somewhat cryptic form in which it is presented. Thus the player does not gain the satisfaction of use of intellect in problem solving; instead, it’s the frustration of playing “guess what I’m thinking” with the author.

Despite all of the above criticism, the excitement and the challenge of playing the game still make it uniquely attractive; as you have no doubt caught on, I write because I care. I have had to actively fight the temptation to simply hack my way through the “snares of death” by direct cribbing from the clue books, so that I could get on to the real interest of the game, which is working one’s way through the dungeons and encountering the different items, monsters, and challenges. I believe that this impatience with the idiosyncratic (thus fundamentally unfair) design of these puzzles represents an impediment, and I would be interested to know if others have commented on this. Note that it doesn’t take any more work for the programmer, but merely a shift of viewpoint to make the puzzles relevant and fair to the reader and also proof against being taken “out of order,” which largely confuses the meaning. A puzzle that is challenging and tricky is fair; a puzzle that is idiosyncratically cryptic may not be.

Thank you for your attention to this somewhat long-winded letter; it was important to me to write. Given how much I care for this game and how devoted I am to playing it and to awaiting future scenarios, I wanted to call your attention to this issue. You need not respond personally, but I would of course be interested in any of your thoughts on this.


I conclude this article as a whole by echoing Gutheil’s closing sentiments; your feedback is the best part of writing this blog. I hope you didn’t find my musings on the process of doing history too digressive, and most of all I hope you found Wes Irby and Thomas Gutheil’s all too rare views from the trenches as fascinating as I did.

 

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Brian Fargo and Interplay

Interplay

I touched on the history of Brian Fargo and his company Interplay some time ago, when I looked at the impact of The Bard’s Tale, their breakout CRPG hit that briefly replaced the Wizardry series as the go-to yin to Ultima‘s yang and in the process transformed Interplay almost overnight from a minor developer to one of the leading lights of the industry. They deserve more than such cursory treatment, however, for The Bard’s Tale would prove to be only the beginning of Interplay’s legacy. Let’s lay the groundwork for that future today by looking at how it all got started.

Born into suburban comfort in Orange County, California, in 1962, Brian Fargo manifested from an early age a peculiar genius for crossing boundaries that has served him well throughout his life. In high school he devoured fantasy and science-fiction novels and comics, spent endless hours locked in his room hacking on his Apple II, and played Dungeons and Dragons religiously in cellars and school cafeterias. At the same time, though, he was also a standout athlete at his school, a star of the football team and so good a sprinter that he and his coaches harbored ambitions for a while of making the United States Olympic Team. The Berlin Wall that divides the jocks from the nerds in high school crumbled before Fargo. So it would be throughout his life. In years to come he would be able to spend a day at the office discussing the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons, then head out for an A-list cocktail party amongst the Hollywood jet set with his good friend Timothy Leary. By the time Interplay peaked in the late 1990s, he would be a noted desirable bachelor amongst the Orange County upper crust (“When he’s not at a terminal he can usually be found rowing, surfing, or fishing”), making the society pages for opening a luxury shoe and accessory boutique, for hosting lavish parties, for planning his wedding at the Ritz-Carlton. All whilst continuing to make and — perhaps more importantly — continuing to openly love nerdy games about killing fantasy monsters. Somehow Brian Fargo made it all look so easy.

But before all that he was just a suburban kid who loved games, whether played on the tabletop, in the arcade, on the Atari VCS, or on his beloved Apple II. Softline magazine, the game-centric spinoff of the voice-of-the-Apple-II-community Softalk, gives us a glimpse of young Fargo the rabid gamer. He’s a regular fixture of the high-score tables the magazine published, excelling at California Pacific’s Apple II knock-off of the arcade game Head-On as well as the swordfighting game Swashbuckler. Already a smooth diplomat, he steps in to soothe a budding controversy when someone claims to have run up a score in Swashbuckler of 1501, a feat that others claim is impossible because the score rolls over to 0 after 255. It seems, Fargo patiently explains, that there are two versions of the game, one of which rolls over and one of which doesn’t, so everyone is right. But the most tangible clue to his future is provided by the question he managed to get published in the January 1982 issue: “How does one get so many pictures onto one disk, such as in The Wizard and the Princess, where On-Line has more than 200 pictures, with a program for the adventure on top of that?” Yes, Brian Fargo the track star had decided to give up his Olympic dream and become a game developer.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur, 1982.

By that time Fargo was 19, and a somewhat reluctant student at the University of California, Irvine as well as a repair technician at ComputerLand. No more than an adequate BASIC programmer — he would allow even that ability to atrophy as soon as he could find a way to get someone else to do his coding for him — Fargo knew that he hadn’t a prayer of creating one of the action games that littered Softline‘s high-score rankings, nor anything as complex as Ultima or Wizardry, the two CRPGs currently taking the Apple II world by storm. He did, however, think he might just be up to doing an illustrated adventure game in the style of The Wizard and the Princess. He recruited one Michael Cranford, a Dungeons and Dragons buddy and fellow hacker from high school, to draw the pictures he’d need on paper; he then traced them and colored them on his Apple II. He convinced another friend to write him a few machine-language routines for displaying the graphics. And to make use of it all he wrote a simple BASIC adventure game: you must escape the Demon’s Forge, “an ancient test of wisdom and battle skill.” Desperate for some snazzy cover art, he licensed a cheesecake fantasy print in the style of Boris Vallejo, featuring a shapely woman tied to a pole being menaced by two knights mounted on some sort of flying snakes — this despite a notable lack of snakes (flying or otherwise), scantily-clad females, or for that matter poles in the game proper. (The full Freudian implications of this box art, not to mention the sentence I’ve just written about it, would doubtless take a lifetime of psychotherapy to unravel.)

The Demon's Forge box art, which won Softline magazine's Relevance in Packaging Award, with Flying-Snakes-and-Ladies-in-Bondage clusters.

The Demon’s Forge box art, which won Softline magazine’s sarcastic Relevance in Packaging Award, with Flying-Snakes-and-Ladies-in-Bondage clusters.

Fargo employed a guerrilla-marketing technique that would have made Wild Bill Stealey proud to sell The Demon’s Forge under his new imprint of Saber Software. He took out a single advertisement in Softalk for $2500. Then he started calling stores around the country to ask about his game, claiming to be a potential customer who had seen the advertisement: “A few minutes later my other line would ring and the retailer would place an order.” It didn’t make him big money, but he made a little. Then along came Michael Boone.

Boone was another old high-school friend, a scion of petroleum wealth who had dutifully gone off to Stanford to study petroleum engineering, only to be distracted by the lure of entrepreneurship. For some time he vacillated between starting a software company and an ice-cream chain, deciding on the former when his family’s connections came through with an injection of venture capital. His long-term plan was to make a golf simulation for the new IBM PC: “IBM seemed like the computer that business people and the affluent were buying. So, I should write a golf game for the IBM computer.” Knowing little about programming and needing product to get him started, he offered to buy out Fargo’s The Demon’s Forge and his Saber Software for a modest $5000, and have Fargo come work for him. Fargo dropped out of university to do so in late 1982. He assembled a talented little development team consisting of programmers “Burger” Bill Heineman and Troy Worrell along with himself, right there in his and Boone’s hometown of Newport Beach.1

Boone Corporation. Michael Boone is first from left, Bill Heineman second, Troy Worrell fourth, Brian Fargo fifth. Jay Patel isn't present in this photo.

Boone Corporation, 1983. Michael Boone is first from left, Bill Heineman second, Troy Worrell fourth, Brian Fargo fifth. They’re toasting with Hires Root Beer. “Hires Root Beer,” “Hi-Res graphics.” Get it?

After porting The Demon’s Forge to the IBM PC, Fargo’s little team occupied themselves writing quick-and-dirty cartridge games like Chuck Norris Superkicks and Robin Hood for the Atari VCS, ColecoVision, and the Commodore VIC-20 and 64. These were published without attribution by Xonox, a spinoff of K-tel Records, one of many dodgy players flooding the market with substandard product during the lead-up to the Great Videogame Crash. Michael Boone agreed to publish under his own imprint a couple of VIC-20 action games — Crater Raider and Cyclon — written by a talented programmer named Alan Pavlish whom Fargo knew well. Meanwhile work proceeded slowly on Boone’s golf simulation for the rich, which was now to be a “tree-for-tree, inch-for-inch recreation of the course at Pebble Beach.” When some Demon’s Forge players called to ask for a hint, Fargo learned that they were part of a company trying to get traction for the Moodies, a bunch of pixeish would-be cartoon characters derivative of the Smurfs; soon they came in to sign a contract for a game to be called Moodies in Iceland.

But then came the Crash. One day shortly thereafter Boone walked into the office and announced that he was taking the company in another direction: to make dry-erase boards instead of computer games. Since Fargo and his team had no particular competency in that field, they were all out of a job. Boone’s new venture would prove to be hugely successful, giving us the whiteboards now ubiquitous to seemingly every office or cubicle in the world and making Boone himself very, very rich. But even had they been able to predict his future that wouldn’t have been much consolation for Fargo and his suddenly forlorn little pair of programmers.

Fargo decided that it really shouldn’t be that hard for him to do what Michael Boone had been doing in addition to managing the development team. In fact, he had already been working on a side venture, a potential $60,000 contract with World Book Encyclopedia to make some rote educational titles of the drill-and-practice stripe. After signing that contract, he founded Interplay Productions to see it through. It wasn’t a glamorous beginning, but it represented programs that could be knocked out quickly to start bringing in money. Heineman and Worrell agreed to stay with Fargo and try to make it work. Fargo added another programmer named Jay Patel to complete this initial incarnation of Interplay. The next six to nine months consisted of Fargo hustling up whatever work he could find, game or non-game, and his team hammering it out: “We did work for the military, stuff for McGraw Hill — we did anything we could do. We didn’t have the luxury of creating our own software. We had to do other people’s work and just kept our ideas in the back of our minds.”

The big break they’d been hoping for came midway through 1984. Interplay “hit Activision’s radar,” and Activision decided to let Fargo and company make some adventure games for them. Activision at the time was reeling from the Great Videogame Crash, which had destroyed their immensely profitable cartridge business almost overnight. CEO Jim Levy had decided that the future of the company, if it was to have one, must lie with software for home computers. With little expertise in this area, he was happy to sign up even an unproven outside developer like the nascent Interplay. Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction, the first two games Interplay was actually willing to put their name on, were the results.

Fargo’s team had found time to dissect Infocom games and tinker with parsers and adventure-game engines even back during their days as Boone Corporation. Mindshadow and Tracer Sanction were logical extensions of that experimentation and, going back even further, of Fargo’s first game The Demon’s Forge. Fargo found a young artist named Dave Lowery, who would go on to quite an impressive career in film, to draw the pictures for Mindshadow; they came out looking a cut above most of the competition in the crowded field of illustrated adventure games. Mindshadow‘s Bourne Identity-inspired plot has you waking up with amnesia on a deserted island. Once you escape the island, you embark on a globe-trotting quest to recover your memories. There’s an interesting metaphysical angle to a game that’s otherwise fairly typical of its period and genre. As you encounter new people, places, and things that you should know from your earlier life, you can use the verb “remember” to fit them into place and slowly rebuild your shattered identity.

Mindshadow did relatively well for Interplay and Activision, not a blockbuster but a solid seller that seemed to bode well for future collaborations. Less successful both aesthetically and commercially was Tracer Sanction, a science-fiction adventure that isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be serious or humorous and lacks a conceptual hook like Mindshadow‘s “remember” gimmick. But by the time it appeared Fargo had already shifted much of his team’s energy away from adventure games and into the CRPG project that would become The Bard’s Tale.

Fargo and his old high-school buddy Michael Cranford had been dreaming of doing a CRPG since about five minutes after they had first seen Wizardry back in 1981. Cranford had even made a stripped-down CRPG on his own, published on a Commodore 64 cartridge by Human Engineered Software under the title Maze Master in 1983 to paltry sales. Now Fargo convinced him to help his little team at Interplay create a Wizardry killer. It seemed high time for such an undertaking, what with the Wizardry series still using ugly monochrome wire frames to depict its dungeons and monsters and available only on the Apple II, Macintosh, and IBM PC — a list which notably didn’t include the biggest platform in the industry, the Commodore 64. Indeed, CRPGs of any sort were quite thin on the ground for the Commodore 64, decent ones even more so. Fargo:

At the time, the gold standard was Wizardry for that type of game. There was Ultima, but that was a different experience, a top-down view, and not really as party-based. Sir-Tech was kind of saying, “Who needs color? Who needs music? Who needs sound effects?” But my attitude was, “We want to find a way to use all those things. What better than to have a main character who uses music as part of who he is?”

Soon the game was far enough along for Fargo to start shopping it to publishers. His first stop was naturally Activision. One of Jim Levy’s major blind spots, however, was the whole CRPG genre. He simply couldn’t understand the appeal of killing monsters, mapping dungeons, and building characters, reportedly pronouncing Interplay’s project “nicheware for nerds.” And so Fargo ended up across town at Electronics Arts, who, recognizing that Trip Hawkins’s original conception of “simple, hot, and deep” wasn’t quite the be-all end-all in a world where all entertainment software was effectively “nicheware for nerds,” were eager to diversify into more hardcore genres like the CRPG. EA’s marketing director Bing Gordon zeroed in on the appeal of one of Cranford’s relatively few expansions on Wizardry, the character of the bard. He went so far as to change the game’s name from Shadow Snare to The Bard’s Tale to highlight him, creating a lovable rogue to serve as the star of advertisements and box copy who barely exists in the game proper: “When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking.” Beyond that, promoting The Bard’s Tale was just a matter of trumpeting the game’s audiovisual appeal in contrast to the likes of Wizardry. Released in plenty of time for Christmas 1985, with all of EA’s considerable promotional savvy and financial muscle behind it, The Bard’s Tale shocked even its creators and its publisher by outselling the long-awaited Ultima IV that appeared just a few weeks later. Interplay had come into the big time; Fargo’s days of scrabbling after any work he could find looked to be over for a long, long time to come. In the end, The Bard’s Tale would sell more than 400,000 copies, becoming the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s.

The inevitable Bard’s Tale sequel was completed and shipped barely a year later. Another solid hit at the time on the strength of its burgeoning franchise’s name, it’s generally less fondly remembered today by fans. It seems that Michael Cranford and Fargo had had a last-minute falling-out over royalties just as the first Bard’s Tale was being completed, which led to Cranford literally holding the final version of the game for ransom until a new agreement was reached. A new deal was brokered in the nick of time, but the relationship between Cranford and Interplay was irretrievably soured. Cranford was allowed to make The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, but he did so almost entirely on his own, using much of the tools and code he and Interplay’s core team had developed together for the first game. The lack of oversight and testing led to a game that was insanely punishing even by the standards of the era, one that often felt sadistic just for the sake of it. Afterward Cranford parted company with Interplay forever to study theology and philosophy at university.

Despite having rejected The Bard’s Tale themselves, Activision was less than thrilled with Interplay’s decision to publish the games through EA, especially after they turned into exactly the sorts of raging hits that they desperately needed for themselves. Fargo notes that Activision and EA “just hated each other,” far more so even than was the norm in an increasingly competitive industry. Perhaps they were just too much alike. Jim Levy and Trip Hawkins both liked to think of themselves as hip, with-it guys selling the future of art and entertainment to equally hip, with-it buyers. Both were fond of terms like “software artist,” and both drew much of their marketing and management approaches from the world of rock and roll. Little Interplay had a tough task tiptoeing between these two bellicose elephants. Fargo:

We were maybe the only developer doing work for both companies at the same time, and they just grilled me whenever they had the chance. Whenever there was any kind of leak, they’d say, “Did you say anything?” I was right in the middle there. I always made sure to keep my mouth shut about everything.

Still, Fargo managed for a while to continuing doing adventure games for Activision alongside CRPGs for EA. Interplay’s Activision adventure for 1985, Borrowed Time, might just be their best. It was created at that interesting moment when developers were beginning to realize that traditional parser-based adventure games, even of the illustrated variety, might not cut it commercially much longer, but when they weren’t yet quite sure how to evolve the genre to make it more accessible and not seem like a hopeless anachronism on slick new machines like the Atari ST and Amiga. Borrowed Time is built on the same engine that had already powered Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction, but it sports an attempt at providing an alternative to the keyboard via a list of verbs and nouns and a clickable graphic inventory. It’s all pretty half-baked, however, in that the list of nouns are suitable to the office where you start the game but bizarrely never change thereafter, while there are no hotspots on the pictures proper. Nor does the verb list contain all the verbs you actually need to finish the game. Thus even the most enthusiastic point-and-clicker can only expect to switch back and forth constantly between mouse or joystick and keyboard, a process that strikes me as much more annoying than just typing everything.

The clickable word list is great -- until you leave your office.

Borrowed Time on the Amiga. The clickable word list is great — until you leave your office.

Thankfully, the game has been thought through more than its interface. Realizing that neither he nor anyone else amongst the standard Interplay crew were all that good at writing prose, Fargo contacted Bill Kunkel, otherwise known as “The Game Doctor,” who had made a name for himself as a sort of Hunter S. Thompson of videogame journalism via his column in Electronic Games magazine. Fargo’s pitch was simple: “Okay, you guys have a lot of opinions about games, how would you like to do one?” Kunkel, along with some old friends and colleagues named Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley, decided that they would like that very much, forming a little company called Subway Software to represent their partnership. Subway proceeded to write all of the text and do much of the design for Borrowed Time. Fargo gave them a “Script by” credit for their contributions, the first of many such design credits Subway would receive over the years to come (a list that includes Star Trek: First Contact for Simon & Schuster).

Like Déjà Vu, ICOM Simulations’s breakthrough point-and-click graphic adventure of the same year, Borrowed Time plays in the hard-boiled 1930s milieu of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. The tones and styles of the two games are very  similar. Both love to make sardonic fun of the hapless, down-on-his-luck PI who serves as protagonist almost as much as they love to kill him, and both mix opportunities for free exploration with breakneck chases and other linear bits of derring-do in service of some unusually complicated plots. And I like both games on the whole, despite some unforgiving old-school design decisions. While necessarily minimalist given the limitations of Interplay’s engine, the text of Borrowed Time in particular is pretty good at evoking its era and genre inspirations.

Collaborations like the one that led to Borrowed Time highlight one of the most interesting aspects of Fargo’s approach to game development. In progress as well in many other companies by the mid-1980s, it represented a quiet revolution in the way games got made that was changing the industry.

With Interplay, I wanted to take [development] beyond one- or two-man teams. That sounds like an obvious idea now, but to hire an artist to do the art, a musician to do the music, a writer to do the writing, all opposed to just the one-man show doing everything, was novel. Even with Demon’s Forge, I had my buddy Michael do all the art, but I had to trace it all and put it in the computer, and that lost a certain something. And because I didn’t know a musician or a sound guy, it had no music or sound. I did the writing, but I don’t think that’s my strong point. So, really, [Interplay was] set up to say, “Let’s take a team approach and bring in specialists.”

One of the specialists Fargo brought in for Interplay’s fourth and final adventure game for Activision, 1986’s Tass Times in Tonetown, we already know very well.

Tass Times in Tonetown

After leaving Infocom in early 1985, just in time to avoid the chaos and pain brought on by Cornerstone’s failure, Mike Berlyn along with his wife Muffy had hung out their shingle as Brainwave Creations. The idea was to work as consultants, doing game design only rather than implementation — yet another sign of the rapidly encroaching era of the specialist. Brainwave entered talks with several companies, including Brøderbund, Origin, and even Infocom. However, with the industry in general and the adventure game in particular in a state of uncertain flux, it wasn’t until Interplay came calling that anything came to fruition. Brian Fargo gave Mike and Muffy carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, as long as it was an adventure game. What they came up with was a bizarre day-glo riff on New Wave music culture, with some of the looks and sensibilities of The Jetsons. The adjective “tass,” the game’s universal designation for anything cool, fun, good, or desirable, hails from the Latin “veritas” — truth. The Berlyns took to pronouncing it as “very tass,” and soon “tass” was born. In the extra-dimensional city of Tonetown guitar picks stand in for money, a talking dog is a star reporter, and a “combination of pig, raccoon, and crocodile” named Franklin Snarl is trying to buy up all of the land, build tract houses, and transform the place into a boring echo of Middle American suburbia. Oh, and he’s also kidnapped your dimension-hopping grandfather. That’s where you come in.

I’ve heard Tass Times in Tonetown described from time to time as a “cult classic,” and who am I to argue? It’s certainly appealing at first blush, when you peruse the charmingly cracked Tonetown Times newspaper included in its package. The newspaper gives ample space to Ennio, the aforementioned dog reporter who owes more than a little something to the similarly anthropomorphic and similarly cute dogs of Berlyn’s last game for Infocom, the computerized board game Fooblitzky. It seems old Ennio — whom Berlyn named after film composer Ennio Morricone of spaghetti western fame — has been investigating the mundane dimension from which you hail under deep cover as your gramps’s dog Spot. Interplay’s adventure engine, while still clearly derivative of the earlier games, has been vastly improved, with icons now taking the place of lists of words and the graphics themselves filled — finally — with clickable hotspots. The bright, cartoon-surrealistic graphics still look great today, particularly in the Amiga version.

Tass Times in Tonetown on the Amiga. Ennio is on the case.

Tass Times in Tonetown on the Amiga. Ennio is on the case.

Settle in to really, seriously play, though, and problems quickly start to surface. It’s hard to believe that this game was co-authored by someone who had matriculated for almost three years at Infocom because it’s absolutely riddled with exactly the sort of frustrations that Infocom relentlessly purged from their own games. To play Tass Times in Tonetown is to die over and over and over again, usually with no warning. Walk through gramps’s dimensional gate and start to explore — bam, you’re dead because you haven’t outfitted yourself in the proper bizarre Tonetown attire. Ring the bell at an innocent-looking gate — bam, you’re dead because this gate turns out to be the front gate of the villain’s mansion. Descend a well and go west — bam, a monster kills you. Try to explore the swamp outside of town — bam, another monster kills you. The puzzles all require fairly simple actions to solve, but exactly which actions they are can only be divined through trial and error. Coupled with the absurd lethality of the game, that leads to a numbing cycle of saving, trying something, dying, and then repeating again and again until you stumble on the right move. The length of this very short game is also artificially extended via a harsh inventory limit and one or two nasty opportunities to miss your one and only chance to do something vital, which can leave you a dead adventurer walking through most of the game. As is depressingly typical of Mike Berlyn, the writing is clear and grammatically correct but a bit perfunctory, with most of the real wit offloaded to the graphics and the accompanying newspaper. And even the slick interface isn’t quite all that it first seems to be. The “Hit” icon is of absolutely no use anywhere in the game. Even more strange is the “Tell Me About” icon, which is not only useless but not even understood by the parser. Meanwhile other vital verbs still go unrepresented graphically; thus you still don’t totally escape the tyranny of the keyboard. Borrowed Time isn’t as pretty or as strikingly original as Tass Times in Tonetown, and it’s only slightly more shy about killing you, but on the whole it’s a better game, the one that gets my vote for the first one to play for those curious about Interplay’s take on the illustrated text adventure.

Thanks to the magic of pre-release hardware, Interplay got their adventures with shocking speed onto the next generation of home computers represented by the Atari ST, the Amiga, and eventually the Apple IIGS. Well before Tass Times in Tonetown, new versions of Mindshadow and Borrowed Time, updated with new graphics and, in the case of the former, the somewhat ineffectual point-and-click word lists of the latter, became two of the first three games a proud new Amiga owner could actually buy. Similarly, the IIGS version of Tass Times in Tonetown was released on the same day in September of 1986 as the IIGS itself. While the graphics weren’t quite up to the Amiga version’s standard, the game’s musical theme sounded even better played through the IIGS’s magnificent 16-voice Ensoniq synthesizer chip. Equally well-done ports of The Bard’s Tale games to all of these platforms would soon follow, part and parcel of one of Fargo’s core philosophies: “Whenever we do an adaptation of a product to a different machine, we always take full advantage of all of the machine’s new features. There’s nothing worse than looking at graphics that look like [8-bit] Apple graphics on a more sophisticated machine.”

And, lo and behold, Interplay finally finished their IBM PC-based recreation of Pebble Beach in 1986, last legacy of their days as Boone Corporation. It was published by Activision’s Gamestar sports imprint under the ridiculously long-winded title of Championship Golf: The Great Courses of the World — Volume One: Pebble Beach. It was soon ported to the Amiga, but sales in a suddenly very crowded golf-simulation field weren’t enough to justify a Volume Two. Despite their sporty founder, Interplay would leave the sports games to others henceforth. They would also abandon the adventure games that were by now becoming a case of slowly diminishing returns to focus on building on the CRPG credibility they enjoyed in spades thanks to The Bard’s Tale.

Interplay as of 1987. Even then, four years after the company's founding, all of the employees were still well shy of thirty.

Interplay as of 1987. Even then, four years after the company’s founding, all of the employees were still well shy of thirty.

By 1987, then, Brian Fargo had established his company as a proven industry player. Over many years still to come with Fargo at the helm, Interplay would amass a track record of hits and cult touchstones that can be equaled by no more than a handful of others in gaming’s history. They would largely deliver games rooted in the traditional fantasy and science-fiction tropes that gamers can never seem to get enough of, executed using mostly proven, traditional mechanics. But as often as not they then would garnish this comfort food with just enough innovation, just enough creative spice to keep things fresh, to keep them feeling a cut above their peers. The Bard’s Tale would become something of a template: execute the established Wizardry formula very well, add lots of colorful graphics and sound, and innovate modestly, but not enough to threaten delicate sensibilities. Result: blockbuster. The balance between commercial appeal and innovation is a delicate one in any creative field, games perhaps more than most. For many years few were better at walking that tightrope than Interplay, making them a necessary perennial in any history of games as a commercial or an artistic proposition. The fact that this blog strives to be both just means they’re likely to show up all that much more in the years to come.

(Sources: The book Stay Awhile and Listen by David L. Craddock; Commodore Magazine of December 1987; Softline of January 1982, March 1982, May 1982, September 1982, January 1983, September/October 1983, and November/December 1983; Amazing Computing of April 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of September 1983; Microtimes of March 1987; Orange Coast of July 2000, August 2000, September 2000, and May 2001; Questbusters of March 1991. Online sources include: Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman, parts 1 and 3; Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo, part 1; Digital Press’s interview with Heineman; Gamestar’s interview with Fargo; interviews with Bill Kunkel at Gamasutra, Good Deal Games, and 8-bit Rocket; “trivia” in the MobyGames page on Tass Times in Tonetown; and a VentureBeat article on Interplay. Also Jason Scott’s interview with Mike Berlyn for Get Lamp that he was kind enough to share with me. And thanks to Alex Smith for sharing the “nichware for nerds” anecdote about Jim Levy in a comment on this blog. Feel free to download the Amiga versions of Borrowed Time and Tass Times in Tonetown from right here if you like.

I’ve finally rolled out a new minimalist version of this site for phone browsers. If you notice that anything seems to have gone sideways somewhere with it, let me know.

The Digital Antiquarian will be taking a holiday next week. Dorte and I are heading to Rome for a little getaway. But it’ll be back to business the week after, when we’ll cross the pond again at last to look at some developments in Britain and Europe.)


  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. 

 

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Of Wizards and Bards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wizardry I, 1981

Wizardry I, 1981

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

Wizardry IV, 1987. Not much has changed…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bard's Tale

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

Commodore 64 owners especially, starved as they had been of the Wizardry experience for years, set upon The Bard’s Tale like a horde of the mad dogs who are some of the first monsters you encounter in its labyrinths. Combined with EA’s usual slick marketing, their pent-up desire was more than enough to make it a massive, massive success, the first CRPG not named Wizardry to be able to challenge the Ultima franchise head to head in terms of sales, if not quite critical respect (it was hard for even the forgiving gaming press of the 1980s to completely overlook just how derivative a game it was). The Bard’s Tale would wind up selling 407,000 copies by the end of 1990, becoming the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s and single-handedly making Interplay a force to be reckoned with in the games industry. They would remain one of the major creative forces in gaming for the next decade and a half; we’ll have occasion to visit their story again and in more detail in future articles.

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

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

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

It can be oddly difficult to find a “clean” copy of this hugely popular game in its most popular incarnation, the Commodore 64 version. Most versions floating around on the Internet are played on, hacked, and/or, all too often, corrupted. If you want to experience The Bard’s Tale, a commercial and historical landmark of its genre despite any misgivings I may have about it, you may therefore want to download a virgin copy from this site. Alternately, all three games are included as a free bonus with a 2004 game of the same name that otherwise has very little to do with its predecessors. That’s available for various platforms from GOG.com, Steam, Google Play, and iTunes. Next time we’ll turn to a CRPG that does have something important to say, arguably the first of all too few examples of same in the history of the genre.

(Matt Barton has posted interviews with some of the folks I write about in this article on his YouTube channel: Rebecca Heineman, Brian Fargo, and Robert Sirotek. Interviews with Michael Cranford can be found on Lemon 64 and the RPG Codex. The Bard’s Tale Compendium has some background on the games and the people who made them. Now Gamer’s history of SSI includes details of the Questron tension with Origin Systems. The inCider magazine articles referenced above are in the November 1984 and November 1987 issues. See the August 1988 Computer Play for more on the Wizardry phenomenon in Japan, and the October 1983 Family Computing for Greenberg at his hectoring worst on the subject of third-party player aids and the necessity of playing Wizardry the “right” way. Finally, I located the Bard’s Tale sales figures in the March 1991 issue of Questbusters.)

 

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