During the 1960s and 1970s, a new type of game began to appear in increasing numbers on American tabletops: the experiential game. These differed from the purely abstract board and card games of yore in that they purported to simulate a virtual world of sorts which lived behind their surface systems. The paradigm shift this entailed was such that for many players these games ceased to be games at all in the zero-sum sense. When a group came together to play Squad Leader or Dungeons & Dragons, there hung over the plebeian kitchen or basement in which they played a shared vision of the beaches of Normandy or the dungeons of Greyhawk. The games became vehicles for exploring the vagaries of history or the limits of the imagination — vehicles, in other words, for living out shared stories.
In retrospect, it was perhaps inevitable that some of the stories generated in this way would make their way out of the gaming sessions which had spawned them and find a home in more traditional, linear forms of media. And, indeed, just such things were happening by the 1980s, as the first novels born from games arrived.
Needless to say, basing your book on a game you’ve played isn’t much of a path to literary respectability. But for a certain kind of plot-focused genre novel — the kind focusing strictly on what people do rather than why they do it — prototyping the whole thing as a game makes a degree of sense. It can keep you honest by forcing your story to conform to a simulated reality that transcends the mere expediency of what might be cool and exciting to write into the next scene. By pushing against authorial fiat and the deus ex machina, it can give the whole work an internal coherency — an honesty, one might even say — that’s too often missing from novels of this stripe.
The most widely publicized early example of the phenomenon was undoubtedly the one which involved a humble insurance salesman named Tom Clancy, who came out of nowhere with a techno-thriller novel called The Hunt for Red October in 1984. The perfect book for a time of resurgent patriotism and military pride in the United States, it found a fan in no less elevated a personage than President Ronald Reagan, who declared it “my kind of yarn.” As the book topped the bestseller charts and the press rushed to draft their human-interest stories on the man who had written it, they learned that Clancy had gamed out its entire scenario, involving a rogue Soviet submarine captain who wishes to defect along with his vessel to the United States, with a friend of his named Larry Bond, using Harpoon, a tabletop wargame of modern naval combat designed by the latter. Clancy’s follow-up novel, a story of open warfare between East and West called Red Storm Rising, was a product of the same gestation process. To the literary establishment, it all seemed extremely strange and vaguely unsettling; to many a wargamer, it seemed perfectly natural.
Another line of ludic adaptations from the same period didn’t attract as much attention from the New York Times Book Review, much less the president, but nevertheless became almost as successful on its own terms. In 1983, TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, decided to make a new series of adventure modules for the game, each of which would feature a different kind of dragon — because, as some of their customers were writing in their letters, the existing Dungeons & Dragons modules “had plenty of dungeons, but not many dragons.” The marketing exercise soon grew into Dragonlance, an elaborately plotted Tolkienesque epic set in a brand new fantasy world — one which, yes, featured plenty of dragons. TSR asked employees Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman to write a trilogy of novels based on the fourteen Dragonlance adventure modules and source books they planned to publish. Thus Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first volume of The Dragonlance Chronicles, was published in the same year as The Hunt for Red October. It promptly became a nerdy sensation, the biggest fantasy novel of the year, spawning a whole new business for TSR as a publisher of paperback novels. In time, said novels would become as big a part of their business as the games on which they were based.
A third, only slightly less heralded example of the games-into-books trend actually predates the two I’ve just mentioned by a couple of years. In the late 1970s, a group of students at the University of California San Diego took up the recently published Dungeons & Dragons. Growing dissatisfied with TSR’s rules, they scrapped them one by one, replacing them with their own home-grown versions. Meanwhile they evolved a world in which to play called Midkemia, complete with its own detailed history, bestiary, sociology, and geography. Forming a little company of their own, as so many Dungeons & Dragons fanatics were doing at the time, they published some of their innovations to modest sales.
But one of their number named Raymond E. Feist had bigger ambitions. He wrote a novel based on some of the group’s exploits in Midkemia. Calling it simply Magician, he got it published through Doubleday in 1982 as the first volume of The Riftwar Saga. It sold very well, and he’s been writing Midkemia novels ever since.
Unlike the later cases of Tom Clancy and Dragonlance, Magician wasn’t widely publicized or advertised as being the product of a game. It was seen instead as merely the latest entry in an exploding branch of genre fiction: lengthy high-fantasy series inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, often to the point of one-to-one correspondences between characters and plot events, but written in a manner more immediately accessible to the average Middle American reader, with more action, more narrative thrust, less elevated diction, and markedly less digressive songs and poetry. Dragonlance, of course, is an example of the same breed.
I must admit that I’ve personally read only the first book of Feist’s series, and not even to completion at that. This sort of derivative high fantasy doesn’t do much for me as a rule, so I’m not the best person to judge Feist’s output under any circumstances. Anything positive I do say about it runs the risk of damning with faint praise.
To wit: my wife and I used the book as our light bedtime reading, and we made it about two-thirds of the way through before terminal ennui set in and we decided we’d had enough. If that seems like less than a ringing endorsement, know that it’s farther than I generally get with most fantasy novels, including ones with considerably more literary credibility. I thus feel comfortable in saying that at least the early Raymond E. Feist novels are well-crafted examples of their breed, if you happen to like that sort of thing. (I do understand from others that the quality of his work, and particularly of his plotting, began to decline after his first handful of Midkemia novels. Perhaps because he was no longer basing them on his gaming experiences?)
The world of Midkemia is most interesting for our purposes, however, for the computer game it spawned. Yes, a series of novels based on a game got turned back into a very different sort of game. And then, just for good measure, that game got turned into another novel. It’s a crazy old transmedia world.
The more direct origin of Betrayal at Krondor, the game in question, can be traced back to June of 1991 and a chance meeting between John Cutter and Jeff Tunnell at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show. Both names may be familiar to regular readers of these histories.
Cutter had spent several years with Cinemaware, helping to craft many of their most innovative creations, which blended strong narrative elements with play styles that were unorthodox in story-heavy computer games at the time. In late 1990, with Cinemaware in the process of collapsing, he and several colleagues had jumped ship to New World Computing, best known for their Might & Magic series of CRPGs. But he was trapped in a purely administrative role there, without the freedom to create which he had enjoyed at Cinemaware, and was already feeling dissatisfied by the time he met Tunnell at that Summer CES.
Tunnell, for his part, was the founder of the studio known as Dynamix, now a subsidiary of Sierra Online. They were best known for their 3D graphics technology and the line of vehicular simulators it enabled, but they had fingers in several other pies as well, from adventure games to a burgeoning interest in casual puzzle games.
Recognizing talent when he saw it, Tunnell asked Cutter to leave Southern California, the home of the erstwhile Cinemaware and the current New World, and come to Eugene, Oregon, the home of Dynamix. Not only would he be able to have a creative role there once again, Tunnell promised, but he would be allowed to make whatever game he wanted to. Cutter jumped at the chance.
Once in Eugene, however, he struggled to identify just the right project. His first instinct was to make a point-and-click adventure game in the Sierra mold, but Tunnell, having made three of them in the last couple of years to less than satisfying effect, was feeling burned out on the genre and its limitations, and gently steered him away from it. (Absolute creative freedom, Cutter was learning, is seldom really absolute.)
At last, Tunnell came to Cutter with an idea of his own. He’d been reading a very popular series of fantasy novels by this fellow named Raymond E. Feist, and he thought they’d make a fine CRPG. Dynamix had never dabbled in the genre before, but when had that ever stopped them from trying something new? He suggested that Cutter give the first few of the books a read. If it turned out that he liked them as well and agreed that they’d make a good game, well, perhaps he should ring Feist up and have a chat about just that possibility.
Glad to finally have a clear sense of direction, Cutter did the one thing and then did the other. Feist was very busy, but was himself a long-time computer gamer, having sat down in front of his first Apple II some twelve or thirteen years before. He liked the idea of seeing Midkemia come to life on a computer screen. Although he didn’t have much time for working personally on such a project, he told his agent to make the deal happen if at all possible. So, a contract was signed that gave Dynamix the right to make Midkemia games until January 1, 1995, with Feist given the right of final approval or rejection of each title prior to its release. By one account at least, it was the most expensive literary license yet granted to a game developer, a sign of Feist’s ongoing popularity among readers of fantasy literature.
Another, slightly less welcome sign of same followed immediately after: upon being asked whether he was interested in authoring the game himself, Feist said that his time was money, so he’d need to be paid something beyond the terms of the licensing agreement itself — and, he noted flatly, “you couldn’t afford me.” This posed a dilemma. Cutter believed himself to be a better designer of game systems than a writer, and thus certainly wasn’t going to take on the job personally. Casting about for a likely candidate, his thoughts turned to one Neal Hallford, an enthusiastic young fellow with a way with words whom he’d befriended back at New World Computing.
A fresh-out-of-university Hallford had joined New World in the role of writer some months before Cutter himself had arrived. His first assignment there had been to make sense of the poorly translated English text of Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan, a project New World had chosen to outsource to a Japanese developer, with underwhelming results all the way around. After that truly thankless task, he’d worked for a while on Might and Magic III before playing a pivotal role on Planet’s Edge, an ambitious science-fiction CRPG that had tried to do just a little bit too much for its own good. He was just finishing that project when his old friend John Cutter called.
Like Cutter before him, Hallford found Dynamix’s offer difficult to refuse. Eugene struck him as idyllic by contrast with the crowded, smoggy streets of Los Angeles; meanwhile Dynamix’s offices enjoyed the well-deserved reputation of being just about the most stylish and comfortable in the entire industry, vastly outdistancing even the parent company of Sierra in that respect. Certainly they compared favorably with the chaotic jumble of tightly packed cubicles that was the domain of New World. Thus on Halloween Day, 1991, Hallford shook hands with his old colleagues there for the last time and hopped into his Geo Metro for the drive north.
Upon Hallford’s arrival in Eugene, Cutter pulled him into his office and kept him there for a week, while the two hashed out exactly what game they wanted to make and wrote the outline of a script. Hallford still remembers that week of frenzied creativity as “one of the best weeks of my life.” These two friends, different in talents and personality but unified in their vision for the game, would do the vast majority of the creative heavy lifting that would go into it. Broadly stated, Cutter would be the systems guy while Hallford would be the story guy, yet their visions would prove so simpatico that they’d seldom disagree on much of anything at all.
Jeff Tunnell had initially fallen in love with a Midkemia novel called Silverthorn, and the original plan he’d pitched to Cutter had been to make the game a fairly straightforward adaptation of that book’s plot. But such a thing is inherently problematic, for reasons I’ve had ample cause to discuss in earlier articles. Players who buy the game because they read and liked the novel — who are, after all, the whole reason for making a licensed game at all from a business perspective — won’t be excited about stepping through a plot they already know. At the same time, it’s all too easy from the design side to make a game where victory hinges on taking all of the same idiosyncratic, possibly irrational actions as the protagonists of the novel. And so you end up with a game that bores one group of players to tears, even as it frustrates another group who don’t happen to know what Character A needs to do in Situation B in order to replicate the novel’s story.
The biggest appeal of the Midkemia novels, Hallford believed, was indeed the world itself, with its detailed culture and geography and its cast of dozens of well-established characters. It would be better, he thought, to set a brand new story there, one that would let Feist’s many fans meet up with old friends in familiar locales, but that wouldn’t force them to step by rote through a plot they already knew. During the crash course on Midkemia which he’d given himself in the few weeks before starting at Dynamix — like Cutter, he’d come to Feist fandom cold — Hallford had identified a twenty-year “hole” in the chronology where he and Cutter could set a new story: just after A Darkness at Sethanon, the concluding volume in the original Riftwar Cycle that had started the ball rolling. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, Feist was willing to entrust this young, unproven writer with creating something really new in his world. Betrayal at Krondor was off and running.
Hallford may have come to Midkemia late, but his dogged determination to capture the world exactly as it existed in the novels would come to a large degree to define the project. He calls himself a “born fanboy” by nature. Thus, even though he wasn’t quite of Feist’s hardcore fandom, he had enormous empathy for them. He points back to an experience from his youth: when, as a dedicated Star Trek fan, he started to read the paperback novels based on the television series which Pocket Books published in the 1980s. I read them as well, and can remember that some of them were surprisingly good as novels, at least according to my adolescent sensibilities, while also managing to capture the spirit of the series I saw on television. Others, however… not so much. Hallford points to one disillusioning book in particular, which constantly referred to phasers as “ray guns.” It inculcated in him a sense that any writer who works in a beloved universe owes it to the fans of said universe — even if he’s not really one of them — to be as true to it as is humanly possible.
So, Hallford wrote Betrayal at Krondor with Feist’s fans constantly in mind. He immersed himself in Feist’s works to the point of that he was almost able to become the novelist. The prose he crafted, vivid and effective within its domain, really is virtually indistinguishable from that of its inspiration, whose own involvement was limited to an early in-person meeting and regular phone conversations thereafter. Yet the latter became more rather than less frequent as the project wore on; Feist found his enthusiasm for the game increasing in tandem with his surprise at how earnestly Hallford tried to capture his novels and the extent to which he was managing to succeed with only the most limited coaching. The fan verdict would prove even more telling. To this day, many of them believe that it was Feist himself who scripted Betrayal at Krondor.
But Betrayal of Krondor is notable for more than Neal Hallford’s dedicated fan service. It’s filled to bursting with genuinely original ideas, many of which flew in the face of contemporary fashions in games. Not all of the ideas work — some of them rather pull against one another — but the game’s boldness makes it a bracing study in design.
Following the lead of GUI advocates working with other sorts of software, game designers in the early 1990s were increasingly embracing the gospel of the “mode-less” interface: a single master screen on which everything takes place, as opposed to different displays and interfaces for different play states. (For an excellent example of how a mode-less interface could be implemented in the context of a CRPG, see Origin Systems’s Ultima VII.) Cutter and Hallford, however, pitched this gospel straight into the trash can without a second thought. Betrayal at Krondor has a separate mode for everything.
The closest thing it has to a “home” screen must be the first-person exploration view, which uses 3D graphics technology poached from Dynamix’s flight simulators. But then, you can and probably often will move around from an overhead map view as well. When interesting encounters happen, the screen is given over to text with clickable menus, or to storybook-style illustrated dialog scenes. When you get in a fight, that’s also displayed on a screen of its own; combat is a turn-based affair played on a grid that ends up vaguely resembling the Battle Chess games by Interplay. (Thankfully, it’s also tactically interesting and satisfying.) And then when you come upon a locked chest, you’re dumped into yet another new mode, where you have to work out a word puzzle in order to open it, because why not? All of these modes are accompanied by different styles of graphics: 3D graphics on the main exploration screen, a no-frills Rogue-like display for the overhead movement view, pixel art with the story scenes, digitized real-world actors with the dialog scenes, the sprite-based isometric view that accompanies combat, etc.
This mishmash of approaches can make the game feel like a throwback to the 1980s, when genres and their established sets of best practices were not yet set in stone, and when many games that may strike us as rather odd mashups today were being produced. We can certainly see John Cutter’s roots in Cinemaware here; that company made a career out of ignoring the rules of ludic genre in favor of whatever systems best conveyed the fictional genre they were attempting to capture. By all rights, Betrayal at Krondor ought not to work, as so many of Cinemaware’s games tended not quite to work. All of these different modes and play styles — the puzzle chests in particular seem beamed in from a different game entirely — ought to add up to a hopelessly confusing muddle. Somehow, though, it does work; Betrayal at Krondor actually isn’t terribly hard to come to grips with initially, and navigating its many modes soon becomes second nature.
One reason for this is doubtless also the reason for much else that’s good about the game: its unusually extended testing period. When development was reaching what everyone thought to be its final stages, Dynamix sent the game to outside testers for what was expected to be a three-month evaluation period. Even this much usability testing would have been more than most studios were doing at this time. But the project, as so many game-development projects tend to do, ran way longer than expected, and three months turned into nine months of constant player feedback. While our universe isn’t entirely bereft of games that seem to have sprung into being fully-formed, by far the most good games attain that status only gradually, through repeated iterations of testing and feedback. Betrayal at Krondor came by its goodness in exactly this hard, honest way. Unlike a dismaying number of games from its time, this game feels like one that’s actually been played — played extensively — before it got released. The niggling problems that dog even many good games from the early 1990s (such as the infuriating inventory management and rudderless combat of Ultima VII) are almost completely absent here. Instead the game is full of thoughtful little touches to head off annoyance, the sort of touches that can only come from real player feedback.
The final verdict on its mishmash of graphical approaches, on the other hand, must be less positive. Betrayal at Krondor wasn’t a notably attractive game even by the standards of its day, and time has done it no favors; the project desperately needed a strong art director able to impose a unified aesthetic vision. The parts of it that have aged the worst by far are those employing digitized actors, who look almost unbelievably ludicrous, cutting violently against any sense of Tolkienesque grandeur Hallford’s prose might be straining to evoke. Most store-bought Halloween costumes look higher rent than this bunch of survivors of an explosion at the Loony Tunes prop department. John Cutter acknowledges the problems:
We digitized a lot of the actors, and we assumed they were going to be so pixelated that the makeup and costumes didn’t have to look that great. They just kind of had to be… close. But by the time we launched the game the technology had improved… yeah. You could see the elastic bands on the fake beards. It was pretty bad. I wasn’t crazy about a lot of the graphics in the game.
Tellingly, the use of digitized actors was the one place where Betrayal at Krondor didn’t blaze its own trail, bowing instead to contemporary trends.
For all of Betrayal at Krondor‘s welcome willingness just to try lots of stuff, its approach to story remains its most memorable and interesting quality of all. This aspect of the game was so front and center in the mind of John Cutter that, when he wrote a brief few paragraphs of “Designer Notes” for the manual, it came to occupy more than half the space:
We decided the game should be an interactive story. Characters would be multidimensional and capable of stirring the player’s emotions. The story would be carefully plotted with lots of surprises, a good mix of humor and pathos, and abundant amounts of mystery and foreshadowing to keep the player intrigued.
Balancing play against plot is the most confounding job any game designer can face on a fantasy role-playing game. In Betrayal at Krondor, we have integrated our plot so that it provides ample gaming opportunities, while also giving the player a sense of time, place, and purpose. This is achieved by making an onscreen map available to the player at all times, and by creating short-term goals — the nine chapters in the game — which give us a unique opportunity to tell a progressive story that still gives the player plenty of freedom to explore and adventure without being confined to a scripted plot.
In thus “balancing play against plot,” Cutter and Hallford were attempting to square a circle that had been bedeviling game designers for a long time. All of the things that mark a rich story — characters with agendas of their own; big reveals and shocking turns; the classic narrative structure of rising action, climax, and denouement; dramatic confrontations with expressive dialog — cut against the player’s freedom to go wherever and do whatever she wants. As a designer, says the conventional wisdom, you can’t have it all: you must rather stake out your spot on a continuum where at one end the player does little more than click her way through a railroaded plot line, and at the other she does absolutely anything she wants, but does it in a world bereft of any larger meaning or purpose. Adventure games tend to lean toward the set-piece-storytelling end of the continuum, CRPGs toward open-ended interactivity.
Even CRPGs from around the time of Betrayal at Krondor which are written expansively and well, such as Ultima VII, generally send you wandering through other people’s stories rather than your own. Each city you explore in that game is full of little story stubs revolving around the inhabitants thereof rather than yourself; your role is merely to nudge these dramas of others along to some sort of resolution before you disappear again. Your larger agenda, meanwhile, boils down to the usual real or metaphorical collecting of pieces to assemble the big whatsit at the end — a series of actions which can be done in any order precisely because they’re so simplistic in terms of plot. You’re in the world, but never really feel yourself to be of it.
Cutter and Hallford, however, refused to accept the conventional wisdom embodied by even so markedly innovative a CRPG as Ultima VII. They were determined to deliver the best of both worlds — an adventure-game-like plot and CRPG-like freedom — in the same game. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t quite work as a whole. Nevertheless, the attempt is well worth discussing.
Betrayal at Krondor positively trumpets its intentions via the metaphors which its user interface employs. Once again ignoring all of the fashions of its time, which emphasized the definitively non-textual aesthetic of the interactive movie, this game presents itself as an interactive book with an enthusiasm worthy of the 1980s heyday of bookware. The overriding look of the game, to the extent it has one amidst all its clashing graphical styles, is of an illuminated manuscript, ink on yellowing parchment. The story is told in a literary past tense, save points become “bookmarks,” and, as Cutter himself noted in the extract above, the whole experience is divided into nine neat “chapters.”
The game is relentless about describing every single event using full sentences worthy of one of Feist’s novels. Sometimes the end result can verge on the ridiculous. For example, every single time you search the body of an opponent you’ve just killed — something you’ll be doing an awful lot of, what with this being a CRPG and all — you’re greeted with a verbose missive:
Owyn looked for supplies. Feeling like a vulture, he turned the body this way and that as he searched for anything that might be of value to them on their journey. All in all, he supposed that if he were the dead man, it wouldn’t matter to him any longer what happened to his belongings.
Of course, you can and quickly will learn to click right through this message and its one or two random variations each time you search a corpse. But it remains an amusing sign of just how committed Cutter and Halford were to their “interactive storybook” concept in even the most repetitive, mechanical areas of their creation. (Imagine what Pac-Man would be like if the title character stopped to muse about his actions every time he swallowed a power pill and killed another ghost…)
All of this past-tense verbosity has an oddly distancing effect. You don’t feel like you’re having an adventure so much as reading one — or possibly writing one. You’re held at a remove even from the characters in your party, normally the primary locus of player identification in a game like this one. You don’t get to make your own characters; instead you’re assigned three of them who fulfill the needs of the plot. And, while you can guide their development by earning experience points, improving their skills, and buying them new spells and equipment, you don’t even get to hang onto the same bunch through the whole game. Characters are moved in and out of your party from chapter to chapter — again, as the needs of each chapter’s plot requires. The final effect almost smacks of a literary hypertext, as you explore the possibility space of a story rather than actually feeling yourself to be embodying a role or roles in that story. This is certainly unique, and not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just… a little strange in relation to what we tend to think of CRPGs as being. These are, after all, role-playing games.
As I’ve described it so far, Betrayal at Krondor sounds more akin to the typical Japanese than the Western CRPG. The former tend to lie much closer to the set-piece-story end of our continuum of design; they provide a set, fairly linear plot to walk through, generally complete with predefined characters, rather than the degree of world simulation and open-ended exploration that marks the Western tradition. (A Japanese CRPG is, many a critic has scoffed, just a linear story in which you have to fight a battle to see each successive scene.) Yet Betrayal at Krondor actually doesn’t fit comfortably with that bunch either. For, as Cutter also notes above, he and his design partner were determined to “give the player plenty of freedom to explore and adventure without being bound to a scripted plot.”
Their means of accomplishing that relies once again on the chapter system. Each chapter begins and ends with a big helping of set-piece plot and exposition. In between, though, you’re free to go your own way and take your time in satisfying the conditions that will lead to the end of the chapter. In the first chapter, for example, your assignment is to escort a prisoner across much of the map to the capital city of Krondor. How and when you do so is up to you. The map is filled with encounters and quests, most of which have nothing to do with your central mission. And when you eventually do finish the chapter and continue on with the next, the same map gets repopulated with new things to do. This is the origin of a claim from Dynamix’s marketing department that Betrayal at Krondor is really nine CRPGs in one. In truth, it doesn’t quite live up to that billing. Only a subsection of the map is actually available to you in most chapters, much of it being walled off by impenetrable obstacles or monsters you can’t possibly kill. Even the repopulation that happens between chapters is far from comprehensive. Still, it’s an impressively earnest attempt to combine the pleasures of set-piece plotting with those of an emergent, persistent virtual world.
And yet the combination between set-piece storytelling and emergent exploration always feels like just that: a combination rather than a seamless whole. Cutter and Hallford didn’t, in other words, truly square this particular circle. There’s one massive block of cognitive dissonance standing at the center of it all.
Consider: you’re told at the beginning of the first chapter that your mission of escorting your prisoner to the capital is urgent. Political crisis is in the air, war clouds on the horizon. The situation demands that you hurry to Krondor by the shortest, most direct path. And yet what do you do, if you want to get the most out of the game? You head off in the opposite direction at a relaxed doddle, poking your nose into every cranny you come across. There’s a tacit agreement between game and player that the “urgent” sense of crisis in the air won’t actually evolve into anything until you decide to make it do so by hitting the next plot trigger. Thus the fundamental artificiality of the story is recognized at some level by both game and player, in a way that cuts against everything Betrayal at Krondor claims to want to be. This isn’t really an interactive storybook; it’s still at bottom a collection of gameplay elements wired together with chunks of story that don’t really need to be taken all that seriously at the end of the day.
The same sense of separation shows itself in those lengthy chapter-beginning and -ending expository scenes. A lot of stuff happens in these, including fights involving the characters ostensibly under your control, that you have no control over whatsoever — that are external to the world simulation. And then the demands of plot are satisfied for a while, and the simulation engine kicks back in. This is no better or worse than the vast majority of games with stories, but it certainly isn’t the revolution some of the designers’ claims might seem to imply.
Of course, one might say that all of these observations are rather more philosophical than practical, of more interest to game designers and scholars than the average player; you can suspend your disbelief easily enough and enjoy the game just as it is. There are places in Betrayal at Krondor, however, where some of the knock-on effects of the designers’ priorities really do impact your enjoyment in more tangible ways. For this is a game which can leave you marooned halfway through, unable to move forward and unable to go back.
Dead ends where the only option is to restore are normally less associated with CRPGs than adventure games; they played a big role in all but killing that genre as a commercial proposition by the end of the 1990s. CRPGs are usually more forgiving thanks to their more simulation-oriented nature — but, sadly, Betrayal at Krondor is an exception, due to a confluence of design decisions that all seem perfectly reasonable and were all made with the best of intentions. It thus provides a lesson in unexpected, unintended consequences — a lesson which any game designer would be wise to study.
The blogger Chet Bolingbroke, better known as The CRPG Addict, made these comments recently in the context of another game:
One of the notable features of CRPGs in contrast to some other genres is that they almost always support a Plan B. When one way of playing doesn’t work out, you can almost always resort to a more boring, more banal, grindier method of getting something done. I tend to mentally preface these fallback plans with “I can always…” Having a tough time with the final battle? “I can always reload again and again until the initiative rolls go my way.” Can’t overcome the evil wizard at your current level? “I can always grind.” Running out of resources? “I can always retreat from the dungeon, head back to town and buy a ton of healing potions.”
The most frustrating moments in CRPGs are when you suddenly find yourself with no way to finish “I can always” — when there is no Plan B, when luck alone will never save you, when there isn’t even a long way around.
This is precisely the problem which the player of Betrayal at Krondor can all too easily run into. Not only does the game allow you to ignore the urgent call of its plot, but it actually forces you to do so in order to be successful. If you take the impetus of the story seriously and rush to fulfill your tasks in the early chapters, you won’t build up your characters sufficiently to survive the later ones. Even if you do take your time and explore, trying to accrue experience, focusing on the wrong skills and spells can leave you in the same boat. By the time you realize your predicament, your “Plan B” is nonexistent. You can’t get back to those encounters you skipped in the earlier, easier chapters, and thus can’t grind your characters out of their difficulties. There actually are no random encounters whatsoever in the game, only the fixed ones placed on the map at the beginning of each chapter. I’m no fan of grinding, so I’d normally be all in favor of such a choice, which Cutter and Hallford doubtless made in order to make the game less tedious and increase its sense of narrative verisimilitude. In practice, though, it means that the pool of available money and experience is finite, meaning you need not only to forget the plot and explore everywhere in the earlier chapters but make the right choices in terms of character development there if you hope to succeed in the later ones.
On the whole, then, Betrayal at Krondor acquits itself better in its earlier chapters than in its later ones. It can be a very immersive experience indeed when you first start out with a huge map to roam, full of monsters to battle and quests to discover. By the time said map has been repopulated three or four times, however, roaming across its familiar landmarks yet again, looking for whatever might be new, has begun to lose some of its appeal.
And then, as Neal Hallford would be the first to admit, Betrayal at Krondor is written above all for Raymond E. Feist fans, which can be a bit problematic if you don’t happen to be among them. This was my experience, at any rate. As an outsider to Feist’s universe, watching characters I didn’t know talk about things I’d never heard of eventually got old. When an “iconic” character like Jimmy the Hand shows up, I’m supposed to be all aflutter with excitement, but instead I’m just wondering who this latest jerk in a terrible costume is and why I should care. In my view, the game peaks in Chapter 3, which takes the form of a surprisingly complex self-contained murder mystery; this is a place where the game does succeed in integrating its set-piece and emergent sides to a greater extent than elsewhere. If you elect to stop playing after that chapter, you really won’t miss that much.
As I noted already, Betrayal at Krondor ran dramatically over time and over budget. To their credit, Dynamix’s management didn’t push it out the door in an unfinished state, as was happening with so many other games during this period of transition to larger and more complex productions. Yet everyone, especially poor Neal Hallford, felt the pressure of getting it done. Not only did he write almost every word of the considerable amount of text in the game, but he also wrote much of the manual, and somehow even wound up on the hook for the puff pieces about it in Sierra’s customer newsletter. After weeks of virtually living at the office, he collapsed there one day, clutching at his chest. His colleagues rushed him to the hospital, believing he must be having a heart attack even though he was still in his twenties. It turned out that he wasn’t, but the doctor’s orders were clear: “You’re not going back to work for a week. Get some rest and eat something proper. No pizza. No soft drinks. It’s either this or next time you leave work it’ll be in a hearse.” Such are the perils of commercial game development.
Betrayal at Krondor finally shipped on June 15, 1993, an inauspicious time in the history of CRPGs. Origin Systems was about to take the Ultima series in a radically different direction after a less than overwhelming response to Ultima VII; Sir-Tech was about to put their equally long-running Wizardry series on ice for similar reasons; SSI was facing dwindling sales of their Dungeons & Dragons games and was on the verge of losing the once-coveted license; other publishers were quietly dropping less prominent franchises and would-be franchises. The several years to come would be remembered by CRPG fans as the Dark Age of their favored genre; relatively few of games of this stripe would be released at all, and those that were would be greeted by the marketplace with little enthusiasm.
Initially, Dynamix’s first CRPG performed about as well as you might expect in this environment. Despite some strong reviews, and despite whatever commercial advantages the Feist license brought with it, sales were slow. Cutter and Hallford had gone into Betrayal at Krondor imagining it to be only the first entry in a new series, but it soon appeared unlikely that a sequel would come to pass. Sierra, Dynamix’s parent company, was having an ugly year financially and wasn’t in the mood to make another expensive game in a passé genre, while Jeff Tunnell, the man who had had the original idea for Betrayal at Krondor, had stepped down from day-to-day management at Dynamix in favor of running a smaller subsidiary studio. Cutter and Hallford begged their new bosses to give the game time before making any final decisions, noting that good reviews and positive word of mouth among fans of the novels could yet pay dividends. The leadership team responded by laying Cutter off.
But over time, Betrayal at Krondor continued to sell steadily if not spectacularly. Then a genuine surge in sales came in early 1994, when a CD-ROM-based version featuring a lovely soundtrack and enhanced if still less than lovely graphics was released, just as the influential magazine Computer Gaming World was crowning the game the best CRPG of the previous year. Dynamix now made a belated attempt to start work on a sequel, asking Neal Hallford to helm it. But he considered the budget they were proposing to be inadequate, the time frame for development far too compressed. He turned it down, and left the company shortly thereafter. Dynamix would never make a second CRPG, whether set in Midkemia or anywhere else.
Nevertheless, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Feist had been profoundly impressed by Betrayal at Krondor, and now took the ludic possibilities of his series of novels much more seriously than he had before seeing it. As soon as the Dynamix license expired at the beginning of 1995, he began to shop the property around once again. Initially, however, he found no one willing to pay his price, what with the current state of the CRPG market. While interactive Midkemia was thus in limbo, Sierra came up with another, cheaper idea for capitalizing on the first game’s slow-burning success. Lacking the Midkemia license, they decided to leverage the first half of the Betrayal at Krondor name instead, releasing the in-house-developed Betrayal in Antara in 1997. It copied some of the interface elements and gameplay approaches of its predecessor, but moved the action to a generic fantasy world, to less satisfying effect.
And yet the story still wasn’t over. Feist had finally found a buyer for the Midkemia rights in 1996 in the form of a publisher known as 7th Level, who signed a studio known as PyroTechnix to make a direct sequel to Betrayal at Krondor at last. But when 7th Level ran into financial difficulties, Sierra of all publishers bought back the rights, along with PyroTechnix’s development contract. The latter completed the game and saw it released under the Sierra imprint in 1998. Feist played a much more active role on Return to Krondor, the game in question, than he had on Betrayal at Krondor, yet the result once again pales in comparison to the first Midkemia game, perhaps because Cutter and Hallford once again played no role. Its mixed reception marks the last official implementation of Midkemia on a computer to date, excepting only a brief-lived MMORPG.
Two of Feist’s later books, 1998’s Krondor: The Betrayal and 2000’s Krondor: Tear of the Gods, were based upon the first and second Midkemia computer game respectively. Thus Midkemia completed its long, strange transmedia journey from game to book to game to book again. Feist continues to churn out books apace today, but they don’t sell in the same quantities anymore, bearing as they do the stale odor of a series long past its sell-by date.
For many of us, Betrayal at Krondor will always remain the most memorable entry in the exercise in competent derivation that is Midkemia as a whole; the game is ironically much more innovative in its medium than the novels which spawned it are in theirs. Indeed, it’s thoroughly unique, a welcome breath of bold originality in a genre usually content to rely on the tried and true, a game which doesn’t work perfectly but perhaps works better than it has any right to. As a writer, I can only applaud a game which takes its writing this seriously. If it’s not quite the revolutionary amalgamation of narrative and interactivity that its creators wanted it to be, it’s still a heck of a lot more interesting than your average dungeon crawl.
(Sources: the book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Winter 1992 and June 1993; Compute! of December 1993; Computer Gaming World of February 1993, April 1994, June 1994, August 1996, and October 1998; Electronic Games of October 1992 and June 1993; Questbusters of November 1991, August 1992, April 1993, and August 1993; Retro Gamer 84; Dragon of January 2004; the CD-ROM Today bundled CD-ROM of August/September 1994. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interviews with Neal Hallford, Jeff Tunnell, and John Cutter in Matt Chat episodes 191, 192, 201, 291, 292, and 293; Neal Hallford’s blog series Krondor Confidential; the “History of Midkemia Press” on the same publisher’s website.
Betrayal at Krondor and Betrayal in Antara are available as a package purchase at GOG.com.)
Two individually unhappy spouses aren’t the recipe for a happy marriage. By 1992, the computer-game publisher SSI and the tabletop-game publisher TSR, whose announcement of a partnership had so shocked both of their industries back in 1987, were learning this reality the hard way. Dungeons & Dragons, both on the computer and on the tabletop, was in trouble, and the marketing synergy which the two companies had so successfully created just a few years before had now turned into a deadly embrace that threatened to pull them both under.
In many ways, SSI’s problems were typical of any small publisher in their changing industry. Players’ audiovisual expectations of the games they purchased were growing rapidly, and it just wasn’t clear where the money to meet them was to come from. SSI had ridden their Gold Box engine for Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs way too hard, churning out nine games using it — eleven if you count two reskinned science-fictional Buck Rogers games — in a span of less than four years. The engine had received some modest improvements over the course of that time, in the form of rudimentary mouse support and VGA- rather than EGA-standard graphics, but at bottom it still played like what it was: an artifact from an entirely different epoch of gaming, designed around the affordances of the 8-bit Commodore 64 rather than the latest 32-bit Intel wonders. It was so outdated as to seem almost laughable beside a boundary-pushing wunderkind like Origin Systems’s Ultima VII.
Just as distressingly, SSI hardly seemed to be trying anymore even when it came to their Gold Box designs. No later Gold Box game had possessed anything like the creative flair of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, the first two games of the line and by far the best.
And so, as the technology had aged and design standards had fallen, gamers had reacted appropriately: sales had dropped almost linearly from title to title. Pool of Radiance had sold 264,536 copies upon its release in August of 1988; Dark Queen of Krynn, the anticlimactic end of the Gold Box line, sold 40,640 copies after its release in May of 1992. SSI was still profitable that year, but only by a whisker: during the fiscal year which ended on September 30, 1992, profits amounted to just $168,000 on sales of a little under $13 million, the latter of which fell short of expectations by $1 million. What would the next year bring?
TSR was a larger and more diversified company, but they were facing the same essential problem: sales of their own Dungeons & Dragons line for the tabletop had been going in the wrong direction as well for the past couple of years, and it wasn’t immediately clear how to reverse that trend. A flood of new rules supplements and settings — by 1993, TSR would offer an extraordinary eight separate boxed “worlds” in which to play the game, ranging from traditional high fantasy to the Arabian Nights to the depths of outer space — certainly wasn’t doing the trick. In fact, by making Dungeons & Dragons ever more impenetrable to newcomers, the torrent of product was arguably hurting TSR more than it was helping them.
Thanks to these trends, Dungeons & Dragons was in danger of seeing its position as the commercial ne plus ultra of tabletop RPGs usurped for the first and only time in the history of the hobby. The biggest threat to its status came from a new RPG called Vampire: The Masquerade, whose rules-lite, storytelling-oriented approach was the antithesis of the baggy monstrosity which Dungeons & Dragons had become. By catching a wave of “goth” inspiration that was sweeping pop culture more generally, Vampire had even accrued a degree of street cred the likes of which TSR’s nerdier, more pedantic offerings couldn’t have hoped to match even in their early 1980s heyday. TSR’s entire Dungeons & Dragons gaming line was in danger of becoming the world’s most elaborate loss leader, fueling sales of the one part of their empire that was still consistently earning money: their vast and ever-growing lineup of fantasy novels based on their gaming properties.
Human nature being what it is, it was perhaps inevitable that SSI and TSR, these two partners with good reason to be profoundly worried about their futures, would each come to blame the other for at least some of their difficulties. SSI noted pointedly that the Gold Box line was supposed to have been a creative as well as financial partnership between the two companies, with TSR’s staff contributing much of the content for the computer games and TSR themselves publishing tie-in products for the tabletop. All of those synergies, however, had dried up after Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. (The status of these two very first games as the very best of their line begins to seem like less of a puzzle in light of TSR’s active involvement with them.) SSI had been left to their own devices from 1990 on, albeit still subject to the frequently exercised veto power which TSR enjoyed over their ideas.
Meanwhile, even as SSI complained about their creative abandonment, it was hardly lost on TSR that the Gold Box engine had fallen badly behind the state of the art. As they judged it, its antiquity had become extreme enough to actively hurt their brand, not only on the computer but on the tabletop as well; when struggling against their tabletop game’s popular image as a kitschy relic of the 1980s, TSR’s marketers weren’t excited to be confronted with computers games that themselves looked like products of the previous decade. TSR was also unhappy with SSI’s failure to port the Gold Box games from computers to consoles; out of all of them, only Pool of Radiance had been ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System, by a Japanese developer rather than SSI themselves. SSI tried to point out that this port, which played badly and sold worse, only served to illustrate all the ways in which this style of game just wasn’t suitable for consoles, but TSR was having none of it. In their view, the porting issue was a problem for SSI to solve rather than to explain away.
Behind all the bickering loomed a daunting reality: SSI’s exclusive license to Dungeons & Dragons was due to expire on January 1, 1993. One of the partners had far more cause for concern about this fact than the other. For those in the boardroom at TSR, the question of the contract’s renewal was just another business debate to be hashed out, but for SSI it was quite possibly of existential importance. After signing his first contract with TSR, Joel Billings, SSI’s founder and president, had rejiggered the public and private face of his company, from that of a maker of hardcore wargames inspired by the tabletop grognard tradition of Avalon Hill and SPI into the Computerized Home of Dungeons & Dragons. While SSI still published some wargames in the early 1990s, they generally sold even worse than the final stragglers from the Gold Box line, and were made strictly by outside developers; almost the entirety of SSI’s internal development efforts had been devoted to Dungeons & Dragons for the past five years. SSI’s identity had become so bound up with TSR’s flagship property that it wasn’t clear what they could or should be without the Dungeons & Dragons license.
The uncertainty surrounding the future of the contract left SSI paralyzed. It was obvious that they needed a better, more modern engine if they were to continue to make Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs, but it would be foolhardy to embark on that expensive project before they were sure of retaining the license that would let them use it for its intended purpose.
Thus Billings must have breathed a sigh of relief in early 1992, when TSR, despite all their recent misgivings about SSI’s handling of the license, agreed to an eighteen-month contract extension. It would take the license out to July 1, 1994, giving SSI enough time to make a new engine and at least one new game with it. Still, the short length of extension served notice that they were on probation; if the marriage was to continue, SSI would have to deliver a hit of Pool of Radiance proportions.
Billings put his people to work on an engine that would build upon the best ideas of SSI’s competitors, not least Origin’s much-admired Ultima VII engine. Like that one, this one would be designed with a mouse in mind from the start; would offer free-scrolling real-time movement over a large world; would go almost entirely mode-less in terms of interface, integrating combat into the same view where conversation and exploration took place. Gone would be the fussy paragraph books, graph-paper maps, and code wheels of the Gold Box games, which could make the experience of playing them feel almost like a hybrid between a computer and tabletop game. SSI had a very different experience in mind this time out. They planned make the engine effortless enough for the player that it could be ported to the Super Nintendo for play on living-room couches. And if that version did well, other console ports would follow.
TSR, eager to give a boost to one of their sales-challenged alternate settings, convinced SSI to set the first game made with the new engine in the land of Dark Sun, a desert world with a vaguely post-apocalyptic feel. Billings, aware that he was on shaky ground with TSR, also initiated development of an original science-fiction game that was to use the engine as well, just in case the Dungeons & Dragons license went away.
Creating such a complex engine alongside the first two games to use it was a truly enormous task — by far the biggest thing SSI had ever attempted, dwarfing even the initial software engineering that had gone into the Gold Box engine. Development dragged on and on after the Gold Box line had petered out with Dark Queen of Krynn. SSI attempted to plug the Gold Box-sized gap in their product line with such second-string releases as Prophecy of the Shadow, an internally developed, non-licensed CRPG-lite (25,875 copies sold); Pirates of Realmspace, a buggy computerized take on TSR’s Spelljammer setting from an outside developer known as Cybertech (23,280 copies sold); The Summoning, a simple action-RPG from Event Horizon Software (25,273 copies sold); Veil of Darkness, a game of a similar stripe to the previous from the same developer (9866 copies sold); Legends of Valor, a poor man’s Ultima Underworld from Synthetic Dimensions (12,588 copies sold); and Unlimited Adventures, a final hurrah for the Gold Box in the form of a public release of many of SSI’s internal development tools, thereby to let the diehards make more games of their own of the old type (32,362 copies sold).
As the sales figures above attest, none of these games set the world on fire. Indeed, their sales managed to make even the latter days of the Gold Box line look pretty good by comparison. In all, SSI released just three games between the summers of 1992 and 1993 that managed to top 40,000 units: Great Naval Battles in September (43,774 copies sold), Tony La Russa Baseball II in March (70,902 copies sold), and Eye of the Beholder III in May (50,664 copies sold). Of this trio, only the last was a Dungeons & Dragons title, and only the last was developed internally. Needless to say, the bottom line suffered. During the fiscal year which ended on September 30, 1993, revenues fell to $10.5 million, and the company lost $500,000 — the first annual loss SSI had posted in more than a decade.
Joel Billings wrote in that year’s annual report that it had been “the most difficult year in SSI’s 14-year history.” He spoke his personal truth not least. Throughout this period, over the course of which development of the Dark Sun game and its engine kept dragging on far longer than expected, Billings was scrambling madly to stem the bleeding. He put an organization that had always had the atmosphere of a family company through the trauma of its first-ever layoff, slashing the employee rolls from 115 to 75 employees; the memory of doing so still haunts Billings, a gentle soul at heart, to this day. Having been forced to cut the staff needed to create the science-fiction game earmarked for the new engine, he cut that as well, putting all his eggs into the single basket that was the Dark Sun game. Even the Super Nintendo version of that game, which his programmers had been struggling mightily to realize, would have to be set aside as well, at least for now. Much to TSR’s chagrin, this latest Dungeons & Dragons game too would have to live or die on computers.
Yet all of Billings’s scrambling constituted no more than financial triage. The existential obstacle which SSI faced was that of being a small, boutique publisher in an industry whose economies of scale were making it harder and harder for such an entity to survive. It was getting ever harder to win shelf space at retail, harder to pay for advertising in the glossy magazines — and, most of all, harder to foot the ever-increasing bill of developing modern games that met all of the expectations of the 1990s. Billings reluctantly concluded that he had but one choice: he had to sell out, had to find a buyer for the family business he had spent almost a decade and a half building from the ground up.
Accordingly, he spent much of his time in 1993 beating the bushes for just such a buyer. Yet here he was stymied once again by the realities of the marketplace. SSI was far from the only small publisher looking for a port in the storm, and many of the others had — or at least were judged to have — more attractive portfolios of extant and forthcoming games. Thus Billings faced a dispiriting, borderline-humiliating series of near misses, of seeing SSI cast aside in favor of alternative acquisitions in the fast-consolidating industry.
At the beginning of June, he thought he had made a deal with Spectrum HoloByte, an oddly bifurcated publisher that was almost entirely dependent on two wildly divergent games: the ultra-hardcore flight simulator Falcon, whose manual was roughly the size of a Tom Clancy novel, and the casual phenomenon Tetris, a game so brilliantly simple that it took only about 30 seconds of experimentation at the keyboard to spawn a lifetime’s addiction. Both of these games, radically different though they were in personality, were equally successful with their own demographics. Just as importantly, Spectrum HoloByte was absurdly well-connected with the movers and shakers of international finance, and was awash in venture capital as a result.
Due diligence between SSI and Spectrum HoloByte was completed, and a plan was made to meet again and sign a letter of intent as soon as that year’s Summer Consumer Electronics Show was behind both of them. At that show, however, Spectrum HoloByte met with Microprose, whose financial circumstances were even more desperate than those of SSI but who had a much more impressive array of upcoming titles to show to potential suitors. To make a long story short, Spectrum HoloByte bought MicroProse instead, leaving SSI stranded at the altar.
A few months later, the same scenario repeated itself. This time the would-be acquirer was Electronic Arts, a company with which SSI already had a longstanding relationship: Trip Hawkins had been a member of SSI’s board since before he founded EA, SSI had been piggybacking on EA’s distribution network as an “affiliated label” since 1987, and EA in fact already owned 20 percent of SSI thanks to an investment made in 1987, when the smaller company was first scaling up to take on Dungeons & Dragons. For all these reasons, the deal at first seemed a natural one. But Hawkins, the biggest proponent of the acquisition on EA’s side, was busy with a new semi-subsidiary known as 3DO and no longer had the day-to-day involvement necessary with the parent company to push it through. After kicking the tires a bit, the rest of EA’s management decided that SSI just wasn’t worth the asking price — especially given that EA already owned Origin Systems, one of SSI’s biggest rivals in CRPGs. Contrary to Joel Billings’s best intentions, SSI would thus be forced to exit 1993 as they had entered it: still an independent company, facing a future that looked more perilous than ever.
SSI’s struggle to find a buyer was a sign not only of their own weakness but of the diminished commercial profile of Dungeons & Dragons. Five years earlier, three quarters of the industry would have rushed to scoop up SSI, if only to acquire the enviable licensing deal they had recently signed. Now, though, the tabletop game was at a low ebb of its own, even as it seemed hopelessly antithetical to all of the winds of change in digital gaming. Where did this nerdy game played in parents’ basements, all tables and charts and numbers, fit in an industry rushing to make slick, kinetic interactive movies featuring real Hollywood actors? Dungeons & Dragons just wasn’t cool. It had never really been cool, of course, but that hadn’t been a problem when the computer-game industry as well was thoroughly uncool. But now, as computer-game moguls were busily penning paeans to themselves as the next wave in mainstream entertainment, its uncoolness was extremely problematic.
Amidst all of this — in September of 1993, to be specific — Dark Sun: Shattered Lands finally got completed and released. It was the most important game SSI had published since Pool of Radiance; the future of the TSR partnership, and thus their own future as a company, rode on its success or lack thereof.
When viewed separately from all of these external pressures, as just a game to be played and hopefully enjoyed, it revealed itself to be a nobly earnest attempt to improve on SSI’s most recent efforts in the realm of CRPGs, even if it wasn’t an entirely unblemished one. On the technological side, SSI’s next-generation engine largely delivered where it needed to: it was indeed vastly slicker, prettier, easier, and more modern than the Gold Box engine, feeling like a true product of the 1990s rather than a holdover from the last decade. It was an engine that could even stand next to the likes of an Ultima VII without undue embarrassment. Indeed, SSI seemed to have learned from their rival’s mistakes and done Origin one better in some places. For example, in place of the real-time, well-nigh uncontrollable frenzy that was combat in Ultima VII, SSI’s engine lapsed seamlessly into a turn-based mode as soon as a fight began; this allowed combat in Shattered Lands to retain most of the tactical complexity and interest that had marked its implementation in the Gold Box games, with the additional advantages of increased audiovisual interest and a less cryptic interface.
At the same time that they endeavored to keep combat interesting, however, SSI’s design team had clearly made a concerted effort to move beyond the exercises in incessant combat and very little else which the Gold Box games had become by the end. Shattered Lands offered much better-developed characters to talk to, along with heaps of real choices to make and alternative pathways to discover. The new approach was enough to impress even so committed an SSI skeptic as Scorpia, Computer Gaming World magazine’s longtime adventure columnist, who had been roundly criticizing the Gold Box games in print for their “incessant, fight-after-fight” nature for half a decade by this point. Now, she could write that “SSI is taking their role-playing line in a new direction, which is good to see”: “the solution to every problem is not kill, kill, kill.” Shay Addams, another prominent adventure pundit, had a similar take: “It’s no secret that I never liked the Gold Box games. Dark Sun, however, kept me coming back to the dungeon for more: more combat, more exploring, more story.”
Still, the game had its fair share of niggles — more than enough of them, in fact, to prevent its achieving a classic status to rival Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. While SSI was to be commended for attempting to give the setting and plot more nuance and texture, that just wasn’t the sort of thing they did best, and they were still receiving little to no help from TSR on that front. The writing and plotting were derivative in several different directions at once, hackneyed even by the usual standards of the genre. Mind you, the writing wasn’t actually worse than most of that which had accompanied the Gold Box games — but here, moved as it was from a paragraph book onto the screen and expected as it was to do a lot more heavy lifting, its weaknesses were magnified.
Shattered Lands was also damaged as a computer game by its need to conform to TSR’s tabletop rules. The boxed set which presented the Dark Sun setting for the tabletop included a whole range of new rules complications and variations to distinguish it from the already convoluted Dungeon & Dragons base game, and most of these SSI was expected to implement faithfully as part of their licensing agreement. And so Shattered Lands came complete with a bunch of races and classes unfamiliar even to most Gold Box and tabletop Dungeons & Dragons veterans, along with a veritable baseline expectation that every character would be double- or triple-classed. Clerics suddenly had to choose an “element” to worship, which limited their selection of spells — and now everyone had access to a whole parallel sphere of magic known as psionics, and had to choose a specialty there as well. No game designer starting a CRPG from scratch would ever have inserted so much cruft of such marginal utility to the ultimate goal of fun; it was the sort of thing that could only arise from a company like TSR throwing rule after rule at the wall over the course of years in order to sell more supplements. Certainly none of it made much sense in a game explicitly envisioned as a new beginning for Dungeons & Dragons on computers, a place for fresh players to jump aboard. Nor, for that matter, did the choice of the oddball world of Dark Sun as a setting; for all that critics like me have long railed against the tendency, gamers for time immemorial have been demonstrating their preference for CRPGs set in generic high-fantasy worlds — such as that of TSR’s own Forgotten Realms, home of the most commercially successful of the Gold Box games — over more unique settings like this one.
But whatever its intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, Shattered Lands suffered most of all from one undeniable external failing: it was deeply, thoroughly unfashionable in the context of 1993. At a time when the whole industry was moving toward multimedia “talkies,” its many conversations and descriptions were still implemented via screenful after screenful of boring old text. And in addition to the old-fashioned implementation, there also remained the fact that the Dungeons & Dragons name just wasn’t the force it once had been. A measure of the industry’s attitude toward the game and its commercial prospects can be gleaned from its placement in the magazines. Even as they were giving it reasonably positive reviews, Computer Gaming World buried it on page 124 of 276, Shay Addams’s Questbusters newsletter on page 8 of 16. (The lead review of that issue, evidently judged to be more immediately interesting to the newsletter’s readers than a review of Shattered Lands, was of Legend Entertainment’s Gateway 2, a fine game in its own right but one which still had a parser, for God’s sake.)
So, you’ve probably guessed where this is going: Dark Sun: Shattered Lands proved a devastating disappointment to TSR and especially to SSI. After costing more than $1 million and eighteen months to make, with the additional opportunity cost of preventing SSI’s internal developers from doing much of anything else over the course of that period, it sold just 45,917 copies. To put this figure into perspective, consider that it’s barely 5000 more copies than the last tired release of the old Gold Box line, or that it’s about one-sixth of the sales of Pool of Radiance — this in spite of an expanded marketplace in which the number of copies which a hit game could hope to sell was actually far greater than it had been five years before.
When SSI and TSR met again early in 1994, after it had become all too clear that Shattered Lands wasn’t to be the next Pool of Radiance, TSR stated matter-of-factly that they no longer wished to remain in the marriage. Some tense negotiation followed, during which TSR did make some concessions to a frantic SSI, who were facing down the apocalyptic prospect of a license due to expire in less than six months while they still had a lot more Dungeons & Dragons product from third-party developers in the pipeline. TSR agreed to extend the exclusive license for six more months, to January 1, 1995, and to allow SSI to continue to release new games under a non-exclusive license until July 1, 1995. After that, though, the marriage was through. TSR emphasized that there would be no further settlement agreements.
Thus SSI’s final string of Dungeons & Dragons releases, of which there would still be a considerable number, would have something of the feel of a lame-duck session of government. DreamForge Intertainment provided two real-time CRPGs set in TSR’s Gothic world of Ravenloft and a third set in the Forgotten Realms; Cyberlore Studios provided a similar game set in the Arabian Nights World of Al-Qadim; Lion Entertainment provided a Doom-influenced hack-and-slasher set nowhere in particular. An overoptimistic SSI had launched into Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager, a sequel to Shattered Lands, before the commercial verdict on the first game and TSR’s final judgment on the whole partnership that had led to it had come in. They finished that game up too, after a fashion anyway, and released it, still full of bugs, unimplemented features, and placeholder writing. It became their final in-house-developed Dungeons & Dragons title. It made for a slightly pathetic way to bow out, but at this point they just couldn’t be bothered to do better; they were now a long way indeed from those enthusiastic early days of Pool of Radiance. None of these games sold more than a few tens of thousands of copies. But then, no one, least of all SSI, had much expected them to.
The news that TSR and SSI were parting ways reached the magazines almost immediately. The two newly minted divorcees couldn’t resist a bit of veiled sniping in the press. SSI, for instance, told Computer Gaming World that they were “unhappy with the rules and restrictions imposed with the license that limited their creativity,” and said they could be perfectly happy and very successful making original CRPGs instead. TSR, for their part, said they’d learned a lesson about binding themselves too inextricably to others, and thus wouldn’t be entering into any more exclusive arrangements at all. Instead they’d play the field, signing deals with publishers on a title-by-title basis, and might just learn how to make computer games of their own.
Yet behind all these brave words lurked a difficult reality for both companies; it was by no means clear that either or both of them would really be better off apart than they’d been together. As if it hadn’t had problems enough already, tabletop Dungeons & Dragons was now getting pummeled by a new arrival with huge appeal to the same demographic: Magic: The Gathering, a fast-playing, accessible “collectible card game” of fantasy combat psychologically engineered to sell an endless amount of content to gamers looking for that one perfect card which could give them an edge over their chums. Magic decks were soon eating up much of the shelf space in hobby stores that had once gone to Dungeons & Dragons, and pushing it out of their display windows entirely. TSR’s only solution was the same as it had always been: to churn out yet more source books. And so the spiral of diminishing returns continued.
The contrast between TSR and Wizards of the Coast, the upstart makers of Magic, was a telling one. The latter engaged with their customers directly at every opportunity, skillfully goosing the grass-roots excitement around their products to yet further extremes. But TSR, still led by the widely disliked non-gamer Lorraine Williams, seemed out of touch, utterly disinterested in their fans and their opinions. Ryan Dancey, who has done a lot of research into TSR’s history, sums up the company’s attitude in damning fashion:
In all my research into TSR’s business, across all the ledgers, notebooks, computer files, and other sources of data, there was one thing I never found — one gaping hole in the mass of data we had available. No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No “voice of the customer.” TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive.
The brainy kids who used to fall into the Dungeons & Dragons rabbit hole around the time they entered junior high were now getting their first Magic decks at that age instead. With the red ink beginning to pile up to a truly alarming extent — even the novels were no longer selling like they used to — TSR looked to be headed for an ugly reckoning.
And yet, if TSR was in dire straits, SSI’s position was if anything even worse. Without Dungeons & Dragons, they had almost literally nothing; the strongest remaining item in their portfolio was the Tony La Russa Baseball franchise developed by Stormfront Studios. But a baseball simulation alone wouldn’t be enough to sustain the company, and the sales picture of their other recent products wasn’t pretty. They were still in desperate need of a savior, but now lacked even the TSR connection to offer to potential buyers. Who in the age of multimedia would want to buy a failing publisher of stats-heavy wargames and traditionalist CRPGs? Joel Billings didn’t know, but he had no choice but to keep looking for someone crazy enough to take the plunge.
(Sources: As with all of my SSI articles, much of this one is drawn from the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Other sources include the book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of September 1993, December 1993, April 1994, and December 1994; Questbusters of October 1993. Online sources include Matt Barton’s video interviews with Joel Billings and David Shelley and Laura Bowen.
The two Dark Sun games are available as digital purchases at GOG.com.)
One day in early June of 1992, a group of executives from Electronic Arts visited Origin Systems’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. If they had come from any other company, the rank and file at Origin might not have paid them much attention. As it was, though, the visit felt a bit like Saddam Hussein dropping in at George Bush’s White House for a fireside chat. For Origin and EA, you see, had a history.
Back in August of 1985, just prior to the release of Ultima IV, the much smaller Origin had signed a contract to piggyback on EA’s distribution network as an affiliated label. Eighteen months later, when EA released an otherwise unmemorable CRPG called Deathlord whose interface hewed a little too closely to that of an Ultima, a livid Richard Garriott attempted to pull Origin out of the agreement early. EA at first seemed prepared to crush Origin utterly in retribution by pulling at the legal seams in the two companies’ contract. Origin, however, found themselves a protector: Brøderbund Software, whose size and clout at the time were comparable to that of EA. At last, EA agreed to allow Origin to go their own way, albeit probably only after the smaller company paid them a modest settlement for breaking the contract. Origin quickly signed a new distribution contract with Brøderbund, which lasted until 1989, by which point they had become big enough in their own right to take over their own distribution.
But Richard Garriott wasn’t one to forgive even a small personal slight easily, much less a full-blown threat to destroy his company. From 1987 on, EA was Public Enemy #1 at Origin, a status which Garriott marked in ways that only seemed to grow pettier as time went on. Garriott built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” — the name of Trip Hawkins, EA’s founder and chief executive, spelled backward — at his Austin mansion of Britannia Manor. Ultima V‘s parser treated the phrase “Electronic Arts” like a curse word; Ultima VI included a gang of evil pirates named after some of the more prominent members of EA’s executive staff. Time really did seem to make Garriott more rather than less bitter. Among his relatively few detail-oriented contributions to Ultima VII were a set of infernal inter-dimensional generators whose shapes together formed the EA logo. He also demanded that the two villains who went on a murder spree across Britannia in that game be named Elizabeth and Abraham. Just to drive the point home, the pair worked for a “Destroyer of Worlds” — an inversion of Origin’s longstanding tagline of “We Create Worlds.”
And yet here the destroyers were, just two months after the release of Ultima VII, chatting amiably with their hosts while they gazed upon their surroundings with what seemed to some of Origin’s employees an ominously proprietorial air. Urgent speculation ran up and down the corridors: what the hell was going on? In response to the concerned inquiries of their employees, Origin’s management rushed to say that the two companies were merely discussing “some joint ventures in Sega Genesis development,” even though “they haven’t done a lot of cooperative projects in the past.” That was certainly putting a brave face on half a decade of character assassination!
What was really going on was, as the more astute employees at Origin could all too plainly sense, something far bigger than any mere “joint venture.” The fact was, Origin was in a serious financial bind — not a unique one in their evolving industry, but one which their unique circumstances had made more severe for them than for most others. Everyone in the industry, Origin included, was looking ahead to a very near future when the enormous storage capacity of CD-ROM, combined with improving graphics and sound and exploding numbers of computers in homes, would allow computer games to join television, movies, and music as a staple of mainstream entertainment rather than a niche hobby. Products suitable for this new world order needed to go into development now in order to be on store shelves to greet it when it arrived. These next-generation products with their vastly higher audiovisual standards couldn’t be funded entirely out of the proceeds from current games. They required alternative forms of financing.
For Origin, this issue, which really was well-nigh universal among their peers, was further complicated by the realities of being a relatively small company without a lot of product diversification. A few underwhelming attempts to bring older Ultima games to the Nintendo Entertainment System aside, they had no real presence on videogame consoles, a market which dwarfed that of computer games, and had just two viable product lines even on computers: Ultima and Wing Commander. This lack of diversification left them in a decidedly risky position, where the failure of a single major release in either of those franchises could conceivably bring down the whole company.
The previous year of 1991 had been a year of Wing Commander, when the second mainline title in that franchise, combined with ongoing strong sales of the first game and a series of expansion packs for both of them, had accounted for fully 90 percent of the black ink in Origin’s books. In this year of 1992, it was supposed to have been the other franchise’s turn to carry the company while Wing Commander retooled its technology for the future. But Ultima VII: The Black Gate, while it had been far from an outright commercial failure, had garnered a more muted response than Origin had hoped and planned for, plagued as its launch had been by bugs, high system requirements, and the sheer difficulty of configuring it to run properly under the inscrutable stewardship of MS-DOS.
Even more worrisome than all of the specific issues that dogged this latest Ultima was a more diffuse sort of ennui directed toward it by gamers — a sense that the traditional approach of Ultima in general, with its hundred-hour play time, its huge amounts of text, and its emphasis on scope and player freedom rather than multimedia set-pieces, was falling out of step with the times. Richard Garriott liked to joke that he had spent his whole career making the same game over and over — just making it better and bigger and more sophisticated each time out. It was beginning to seem to some at Origin that that progression might have reached its natural end point. Before EA ever entered the picture, a sense was dawning that Ultima VIII needed to go in another direction entirely — needed to be tighter, flashier, more focused, more in step with the new types of customers who were now beginning to buy computer games. Ultima Underworld, a real-time first-person spinoff of the core series developed by the Boston studio Blue Sky Productions rather than Origin themselves, had already gone a considerable distance in that direction, and upon its near-simultaneous release with Ultima VII had threatened to overshadow its more cerebral big brother completely, garnering more enthusiastic reviews and, eventually, higher sales. Needless to say, had Ultima Underworld not turned into such a success, Origin’s financial position would have been still more critical than it already was. It seemed pretty clear that this was the direction that all of Ultima needed to go.
But making a flashier next-generation Ultima VIII — not to mention the next-generation Wing Commander — would require more money than even Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld together were currently bringing in. And yet, frustratingly, Origin couldn’t seem to drum up much in the way of financing. Their home state of Texas was in the midst of an ugly series of savings-and-loan scandals that had made all of the local banks gun-shy; the country as a whole was going through a mild recession that wasn’t helping; would-be private investors could see all too clearly the risks associated with Origin’s non-diversified business model. As the vaguely disappointing reception for Ultima VII continued to make itself felt, the crisis began to feel increasingly existential. Origin had lots of technical and creative talent and two valuable properties — Wing Commander in particular was arguably still the hottest single name in computer gaming — but had too little capital and a nonexistent credit line. They were, in other words, classic candidates for acquisition.
It seems that the rapprochement between EA and Origin began at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago at the very beginning of June of 1992, and, as evidenced by EA’s personal visit to Origin just a week or so later, proceeded rapidly from there. It would be interesting and perhaps a little amusing to learn how the rest of Origin’s management team coaxed Richard Garriott around to the idea of selling out to the company he had spent the last half-decade vilifying. But whatever tack they took, they obviously succeeded. At least a little bit of sugar was added to the bitter pill by the fact that Trip Hawkins, whom Garriott rightly or wrongly regarded as the worst of all the fiends at EA, had recently stepped down from his role in the company’s management to helm a new semi-subsidiary outfit known as 3DO. (“Had Trip still been there, there’s no way we would have gone with EA,” argues one former Origin staffer — but, then again, necessity can almost always make strange bedfellows.)
Likewise, we can only wonder what if anything EA’s negotiators saw fit to say to Origin generally and Garriott specifically about all of the personal attacks couched within the last few Ultima games. I rather suspect they said nothing; if there was one thing the supremely non-sentimental EA of this era had come to understand, it was that it seldom pays to make business personal.
So, the deal was finalized at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California, on September 25, 1992, in the form of a stock exchange worth $35 million. Both parties were polite enough to call it a merger rather than an acquisition, but it was painfully clear which one had the upper hand; EA, who were growing so fast they had just gone through a two-for-one stock split, now had annual revenues of $200 million, while Origin could boast of only $13 million. In a decision whose consequences remain with us to this day, Richard Garriott even agreed to sign over his personal copyrights to the Ultima franchise. In return, he became an EA vice president; his brother Robert, previously the chief executive in Austin, now had to settle for the title of the new EA subsidiary’s creative director.
From EA’s perspective, the deal got them Ultima, a franchise which was perhaps starting to feel a little over-exposed in the wake of a veritable flood of Origin product bearing the name, but one which nevertheless represented EA’s first viable CRPG franchise since the Bard’s Tale trilogy had concluded back in 1988. Much more importantly, though, it got them Wing Commander, in many ways the progenitor of the whole contemporary craze for multimedia “interactive movies”; it was a franchise which seemed immune to over-exposure. (Origin had amply proved this point by releasing two Wing Commander mainline games and four expansion packs in the last two years, plus a “Speech Accessory Pack” for Wing Commander II, all of which had sold very well indeed.)
As you do in these situations, both management teams promised the folks in Austin that nothing much would really change. “The key word is autonomy,” Origin’s executives said in their company’s internal newsletter. “Origin is supposed to operate independently from EA and maintain profitability.” But of course things did — had to — change. There was an inescapable power imbalance here, such that, while Origin’s management had to “consult” with EA when making decisions, their counterparts suffered no such obligation. And of course what might happen if Origin didn’t “maintain profitability” remained unspoken.
Thus most of the old guard at Origin would go on to remember September 25, 1992, as, if not quite the end of the old, freewheeling Origin Systems, at least the beginning of the end. Within six months, resentments against the mother ship’s overbearing ways were already building in such employees as an anonymous letter writer who asked his managers why they were “determined to eradicate the culture that makes Origin such a fun place to work.” Within a year, another was asking even more heatedly, “What happened to being a ‘wholly owned independent subsidiary of EA?’ When did EA start telling Origin what to do and when to do it? I thought Richard said we would remain independent and that EA wouldn’t touch us?!? Did I miss something here?” Eighteen months in, an executive assistant named Michelle Caddel, the very first new employee Origin had hired upon opening their Austin office in 1987, tried to make the best of the changes: “Although some of the warmth at Origin has disappeared with the merger, it still feels like a family.” For now, at any rate.
Perhaps tellingly, the person at Origin who seemed to thrive most under the new arrangement was one of the most widely disliked: Dallas Snell, the hard-driving production manager who was the father of a hundred exhausting crunch times, who tended to regard Origin’s games as commodities quantifiable in floppy disks and megabytes. Already by the time the Origin had been an EA subsidiary for a year, he had managed to install himself at a place in the org chart that was for all practical purposes above that of even Richard and Robert Garriott: he was the only person in Austin who was a “direct report” to Bing Gordon, EA’s powerful head of development.
On the other hand, becoming a part of the growing EA empire also brought its share of advantages. The new parent company’s deep pockets meant that Origin could prepare in earnest for that anticipated future when games would sell more copies but would also require more money, time, and manpower to create. Thus almost immediately after closing the deal with EA, Origin closed another one, for a much larger office space which they moved into in January of 1993. Then they set about filling up the place; over the course of the next year, Origin would double in size, going from 200 to 400 employees.
And so the work of game development went on. When EA bought Origin, the latter naturally already had a number of products, large and small, in the pipeline. The first-ever expansion pack for an existing Ultima game — an idea borrowed from Wing Commander — was about to hit stores; Ultima VII: Forge of Virtue would prove a weirdly unambitious addition to a hugely ambitious game, offering only a single dungeon to explore that was more frustrating than fun. Scheduled for release in 1993 were Wing Commander: Academy, a similarly underwhelming re-purposing of Origin’s internal development tools into a public-facing “mission builder,” and Wing Commander: Privateer, which took the core engine and moved it into a free-roaming framework rather than a tightly scripted, heavily story-driven one; it thus became a sort of updated version of the legendary Elite, and, indeed, would succeed surprisingly well on those terms. And then there was also Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, developed like its predecessor by Blue Sky up in Boston; it would prove a less compelling experience on the whole than Ultima Underworld I, being merely a bigger game rather than a better one, but it would be reasonably well-received by customers eager for more of the same.
Those, then, were the relatively modest projects. Origin’s two most expensive and ambitious games for the coming year consisted of yet one more from the Ultima franchise and one that was connected tangentially to Wing Commander. We’ll look at them a bit more closely, taking them one at a time.
The game which would be released under the long-winded title of Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle had had a complicated gestation. It was conceived as Origin’s latest solution to a problem that had long bedeviled them: that of how to leverage their latest expensive Ultima engine for more than one game without violating the letter of a promise Richard Garriott had made more than a decade before to never use the same engine for two successive mainline Ultima games. Back when Ultima VI was the latest and greatest, Origin had tried reusing its engine in a pair of spinoffs called the Worlds of Ultima, which rather awkwardly shoehorned the player’s character from the main series — the “Avatar” — into plots and settings that otherwise had nothing to do with Richard Garriott’s fantasy world of Britannia. Those two games had drawn from early 20th-century science and adventure fiction rather than Renaissance Faire fantasy, and had actually turned out quite magnificently; they’re among the best games ever to bear the Ultima name in this humble critic’s opinion. But, sadly, they had sold like the proverbial space heaters in the Sahara. It seemed that Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs were a bridge too far for fans raised on J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord British.
So, Origin adjusted their approach when thinking of ways to reuse the even more expensive Ultima VII engine. They conceived two projects. One would be somewhat in the spirit of Worlds of Ultima, but would stick closer to Britannia-style fantasy: called Arthurian Legends, it would draw from, as you might assume, the legends of King Arthur, a fairly natural thematic fit for a series whose creator liked to call himself “Lord British.” The other game, the first to go into production, would be a direct sequel to Ultima VII, following the Avatar as he pursued the Guardian, that “Destroyer of Worlds” from the first game, from Britannia to a new world. This game, then, was Serpent Isle. Originally, it was to have had a pirate theme, all fantastical derring-do on an oceanic world, with a voodoo-like magic system in keeping with Earthly legends of Caribbean piracy.
This piratey Serpent Isle was first assigned to Origin writer Jeff George, but he struggled to find ways to adapt the idea to the reality of the Ultima VII engine’s affordances. Finally, after spinning his wheels for some months, he left the company entirely. Warren Spector, who had become Origin’s resident specialist in Just Getting Things Done, then took over the project and radically revised it, dropping the pirate angle and changing the setting to one that was much more Britannia-like, right down to a set of towns each dedicated to one of a set of abstract virtues. Having thus become a less excitingly original concept but a more practical one from a development perspective, Serpent Isle started to make good progress under Spector’s steady hand. Meanwhile another small team started working up a script for Arthurian Legends, which was planned as the Ultima VII engine’s last hurrah.
Yet the somewhat muted response to the first Ultima VII threw a spanner in the works. Origin’s management team was suddenly second-guessing the entire philosophy on which their company had been built: “Do we still create worlds?” Arthurian Legends was starved of resources amidst this crisis of confidence, and finally cancelled in January of 1993. Writer and designer Sheri Graner Ray, one of only two people left on the project at the end, invests its cancellation with major symbolic importance:
I truly believe that on some level we knew that this was the death knell for Origin. It was the last of the truly grass-roots games in production there… the last one that was conceived, championed, and put into development purely by the actual developers, with no support or input from the executives. It was actually, kinda, the end of an era for the game industry in general, as it was also during this time that we were all adjusting to the very recent EA buyout of Origin.
Serpent Isle, on the other hand, was too far along by the time the verdict was in on the first Ultima VII to make a cancellation realistic. It would instead go down in the recollection of most hardcore CRPG fans as the last “real” Ultima, the capstone to the process of evolution a young Richard Garriott had set in motion back in 1980 with a primitive BASIC game called Akalabeth. And yet the fact remains that it could have been so, so much better, had it only caught Origin at a less uncertain, more confident time.
Serpent Isle lacks the refreshingly original settings of the two Worlds of Ultima games, as it does the surprisingly fine writing of the first Ultima VII; Raymond Benson, the head writer on the latter project, worked on Serpent Isle only briefly before decamping to join MicroProse Software. In compensation, though, Serpent Isle is arguably a better game than its predecessor through the first 65 percent or so of its immense length. Ultima VII: The Black Gate can at times feel like the world’s most elaborate high-fantasy walking simulator; you really do spend most of your time just walking around and talking to people, an exercise that’s made rewarding only by the superb writing. Serpent Isle, by contrast, is full to bursting with actual things to do: puzzles to solve, dungeons to explore, quests to fulfill. It stretches its engine in all sorts of unexpected and wonderfully hands-on directions. Halfway in, it seems well on its way to being one of the best Ultima games of all, as fine a sendoff as any venerable series could hope for.
In the end, though, its strengths were all undone by Origin’s crisis of faith in the traditional Ultima concept. Determined to get its sales onto the books of what had been a rather lukewarm fiscal year and to wash their hands of the past it now represented, management demanded that it go out on March 25, 1993, the last day of said year. As a result, the last third or so of Serpent Isle is painfully, obviously unfinished. Conversations become threadbare, plot lines are left to dangle, side quests disappear, and bugs start to sprout up everywhere you look. As the fiction becomes a thinner and thinner veneer pasted over the mechanical nuts and bolts of the design, solubility falls by the wayside. By the end, you’re wandering through a maze of obscure plot triggers that have no logical connection with the events they cause, making a walkthrough a virtual necessity. It’s a downright sad thing to have to witness. Had its team only been allowed another three or four months to finish the job, Serpent Isle could have been not only a great final old-school Ultima but one of the best CRPGs of any type that I’ve ever played, a surefire entrant in my personal gaming hall of fame. As it is, though, it’s a bitter failure, arguably the most heartbreaking one of Warren Spector’s storied career.
And there was to be one final note of cutting irony in all of this: Serpent Isle, which Origin released without a lot of faith in its commercial potential, garnered a surprisingly warm reception among critics and fans alike, and wound up selling almost as well as the first Ultima VII. Indeed, it performed so well that the subject of doing “more games in that vein,” in addition to or even instead of a more streamlined Ultima VIII, was briefly discussed at Origin. As things transpired, though, its success led only to an expansion pack called The Silver Seed before the end of the year; this modest effort became the true swansong for the Ultima VII engine, as well as the whole era of the 100-hour-plus, exploration-focused, free-form single-player CRPG at Origin in general. The very philosophy that had spawned the company, that had been at the core of its identity for the first decade of its existence, was fading into history. Warren Spector would later have this to say in reference to a period during which practical commercial concerns strangled the last shreds of idealism at Origin:
There’s no doubt RPGs were out of favor by the mid-90s. No doubt at all. People didn’t seem to want fantasy stories or post-apocalypse stories anymore. They certainly didn’t want isometric, 100 hour fantasy or post-apocalypse stories, that’s for sure! I couldn’t say why it happened, but it did. Everyone was jumping on the CD craze – it was all cinematic games and high-end-graphics puzzle games… That was a tough time for me – I mean, picture yourself sitting in a meeting with a bunch of execs, trying to convince them to do all sorts of cool games and being told, “Warren, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘story’ any more.” Talk about a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water, a dose of reality.
If you ask me, the reason it all happened was that we assumed our audience wanted 100 hours of play and didn’t care much about graphics. Even high-end RPGs were pretty plain-jane next to things like Myst and even our own Wing Commander series. I think we fell behind our audience in terms of the sophistication they expected and we catered too much to the hardcore fans. That can work when you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars – even a few million – but when games start costing many millions, you just can’t make them for a relatively small audience of fans.
If Serpent Isle and its expansion were the last gasps of the Origin Systems that had been, the company’s other huge game of 1993 was every inch a product of the new Origin that had begun to take shape following the worldwide success of the first Wing Commander game. Chris Roberts, the father of Wing Commander, had been working on something called Strike Commander ever since late 1990, leaving Wing Commander II and all of the expansion packs and other spinoffs in the hands of other Origin staffers. The new game took the basic idea of the old — that of an action-oriented vehicular simulator with a strong story, told largely via between-mission dialog scenes — and moved it from the outer space of the far future to an Earth of a very near future, where the international order has broken down and mercenaries battle for control over the planet’s dwindling resources. You take to the skies in an F-16 as one of the mercenaries — one of the good ones, naturally.
Origin and Chris Roberts pulled out all the stops to make Strike Commander an audiovisual showcase; the game’s gestation time of two and a half years, absurdly long by the standards of the early 1990s, was a product of Roberts constantly updating his engine to take advantage of the latest cutting-edge hardware. The old Wing Commander engine was starting to look pretty long in the tooth by the end of 1992, so this new engine, which replaced its predecessor’s scaled sprites with true polygonal 3D graphics, was more than welcome. There’s no point in putting a modest face on it: Strike Commander looked downright spectacular in comparison with any other flight simulator on offer at the time. It was widely expected, both inside and outside of Origin, to become the company’s biggest game ever. In fact, it became the first Origin game to go gold in the United States — 100,000 copies sold to retail — before it had actually shipped there, thanks to the magic of pre-orders. Meanwhile European pre-orders topped 50,000, an all-time record for EA’s British subsidiary. All in all, more than 1.1 million Strike Commander floppy disks — 30 tons worth of plastic, metal, and iron oxide — were duplicated before a single unit was sold. Why not? This game was a sure thing.
Alas, pride goeth before a fall. Just a couple of weeks after Strike Commander‘s worldwide release on April 23, 1993, Origin had to admit to themselves in their internal newsletter that sales from retail to actual end users were “slower than expected.” Consumers clearly weren’t as enamored with the change in setting as Origin and just about everyone else in their industry had assumed they would be. Transporting the Wing Commander formula into a reasonably identifiable version of the real world somehow made the story, which hovered as usual in some liminal space between comic book and soap opera, seem rather more than less ludicrous. At the same time, the use of an F-16 in place of a made-up star fighter, combined with the game’s superficial resemblance to the hardcore flight simulators of the day, raised expectations among some players which the game had never really been designed to meet. The editors of Origin’s newsletter complained, a little petulantly, about this group of sim jockeys who were “ready for a cockpit that had every gauge, altimeter, dial, and soft-drink holder in its proper place. This is basically the group which wouldn’t be happy unless you needed the $35 million worth of training the Air Force provides just to get the thing off the ground.” There were advantages, Origin was belatedly learning, to “simulating” a vehicle that had no basis in reality, as there were to fictions similarly divorced from the real world. In hitting so much closer to home, Strike Commander lost a lot of what had made Wing Commander so appealing.
The new game’s other problem was more immediate and practical: almost no one could run the darn thing well enough to actually have the experience Chris Roberts had intended it to be. Ever since Origin had abandoned the Apple II to make MS-DOS their primary development platform at the end of the 1980s, they’d had a reputation for pushing the latest hardware to its limit. This game, though, was something else entirely even from them. The box’s claim that it would run on an 80386 was a polite fiction at best; in reality, you needed an 80486, and one of the fastest ones at that — running at least at 50 MHz or, better yet, 66 MHz — if you wished to see anything like the silky-smooth visuals that Origin had been showing off so proudly at recent trade shows. Even Origin had to admit in their newsletter that customers had been “stunned” by the hardware Strike Commander craved. Pushed along by the kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm of Chris Roberts, who never had a passing fancy he didn’t want to rush right out and implement, they had badly overshot the current state of computing hardware.
Of course, said state was always evolving; it was on this fact that Origin now had to pin whatever diminished hopes they still had for Strike Commander. The talk of the hardware industry at the time was Intel’s new fifth-generation microprocessor, which abandoned the “x86” nomenclature in favor of the snazzy new focused-tested name of Pentium, another sign of how personal computers were continuing their steady march from being tools of businesspeople and obsessions of nerdy hobbyists into mainstream consumer-electronics products. Origin struck a promotional deal with Compaq Computers in nearby Houston, who, following what had become something of a tradition for them, were about to release the first mass-market desktop computer to be built around this latest Intel marvel. Compaq placed the showpiece that was Strike Commander-on-a-Pentium front and center at the big PC Expo corporate trade show that summer of 1993, causing quite a stir at an event that usually scoffed at games. “The fuse has only been lit,” went Origin’s cautiously optimistic new company line on Strike Commander, “and it looks to be a long and steady burn.”
But time would prove this optimism as well to be somewhat misplaced: one of those flashy new Compaq Pentium machines cost $7000 in its most minimalist configuration that summer. By the time prices had come down enough to make a Pentium affordable for gamers without an absurd amount of disposable income, other games with even more impressive audiovisuals would be available for showing off their hardware. Near the end of the year, Origin released an expansion pack for Strike Commander that had long been in the development pipeline, but that would be that: there would be no Strike Commander II. Chris Roberts turned his attention instead to Wing Commander III, which would raise the bar on development budget and multimedia ambition to truly unprecedented heights, not only for Origin but for their industry at large. After all, Wing Commander: Academy and Privateer, both of which had had a fraction of the development budget of Strike Commander but wound up selling just as well, proved that there was still a loyal, bankable audience out there for the core series.
Origin had good reason to play it safe now in this respect and others. When the one-year anniversary of the acquisition arrived, the accountants had to reveal to EA that their new subsidiary had done no more than break even so far. By most standards, it hadn’t been a terrible year at all: Ultima Underworld II, Serpent Isle, Wing Commander: Academy, and Wing Commander: Privateer had all more or less made money, and even Strike Commander wasn’t yet so badly underwater that all hope was lost on that front. But on the other hand, none of these games had turned into a breakout hit in the fashion of the first two Wing Commander games, even as the new facilities, new employees, and new titles going into development had cost plenty. EA was already beginning to voice some skepticism about some of Origin’s recent decisions. The crew in Austin really, really needed a home run rather than more base hits if they hoped to maintain their status in the industry and get back into their overlord’s good graces. Clearly 1994, which would feature a new mainline entry in both of Origin’s core properties for the first time since Ultima VI had dropped and Wing Commander mania had begun back in 1990, would be a pivotal year. Origin’s future was riding now on Ultima VIII and Wing Commander III.
(Sources: the book Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from March 13 1992, June 19 1992, July 31 1992, September 25 1992, October 23 1992, November 6 1992, December 4 1992, December 18 1992, January 29 1993, February 12 1993, February 26 1993, March 26 1993, April 9 1993, April 23 1993, May 7 1993, May 21 1993, June 18 1993, July 2 1993, August 27 1993, September 10 1993, October 13 1993, October 22 1993, November 8 1993, and December 1993; Questbusters of April 1986 and July 1987; Computer Gaming World of October 1992 and August 1993. Online sources include “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, “The Stars His Destination: Chris Roberts from Origin to Star Citizen“ at US Gamer, Shery Graner Ray’s blog entry “20 Years and Counting — Origin Systems,” and an interview with Warren Spector at RPG Codex.
All of the Origin games mentioned in this article are available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)
Rick Loomis, the founder of Flying Buffalo, is ill with lymphatic cancer. His has been one of the quiet voices of influence behind the culture of gaming, both on the tabletop and on the computer, since the early 1970s. His company pioneered one of if not the first play-by-mail game run on a mainframe computer, the great ancestor to the ubiquitous multi-player online games of today. And, perhaps even more relevantly for readers of this blog in particular, it served as an incubator of writing and design talent — names like Michael Stackpole, Elizabeth Danforth, and Ken St. Andre — that would later leave a mark on such fondly remembered computer games as Wasteland, Neuromancer, and Star Trek: 25th Anniversary among others. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him personally, I know that he’s been considered one of the genuine Nice Guys in his industry for many years.
Unfortunately, the American medical system being what it is, Rick is forced to worry over medical bills and mounting debt during this critical time in his life. Anything you could pitch in to help with that would be greatly appreciated. You can do so at the Go Fund Me campaign set up by his friend Steve Crompton. Thanks!