Monthly Archives: March 2012

Of Game Consoles, Home Computers, and Personal Computers

When I first started writing the historical narrative that’s ended up consuming this blog, I should probably have stated clearly that I was writing about the history of computer games, not videogames or game consoles. The terms “computer game” and “videogame” have little or no separation today, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s the two were regarded as very distinct things. In Zap!, his history of Atari written just as that company was imploding in 1983, Scott Cohen takes the division as a given. He states, “Perhaps Atari’s most significant contribution is that it paved the way for the personal computer.” In predicting the future of the two categories, he is right about one and spectacularly wrong about the other. The PC, he says, will continue up a steadily inclining growth curve, becoming more and more an expected household fixture as the years go by. The game console, however, will be dismissed in future years as a “fad,” the early 1980s version of the Hula Hoop.

If we trace back far enough we can inevitably find some common origins, but the PC and game console were generally products of different folks with very different technical orientations and goals. Occasional collisions like Steve Jobs’s brief sojourn with Atari were more the exception than the rule. Certainly the scales of the two industries were completely out of proportion with one another. We’ve met plenty of folks on this blog who built businesses and careers and, yes, made lots of money from the first wave of PCs. Yet everything I’ve discussed is a drop in the bucket compared to the Atari-dominated videogame industry. A few figures should make this clear.

Apple, the star of the young PC industry, grew at an enviable rate in its early years. For example, sales more than doubled from 1979 to 1980, from 35,000 units to 78,000. Yet the Atari VCS console also doubled its sales over the same period: from 1 million in 1979 to 2 million in 1980. By the time the Apple II in 1983 crossed the magical threshold of 1 million total units sold, the VCS was knocking at the door of 20 million. Even the Intellivision, Mattel’s distant-second-place competitor to the VCS, sold 200,000 units in 1980 alone. In mid-1982, the height of the videogame craze, games consoles could already be found in an estimated 17% of U.S. households. Market penetration like that would be years in coming to the PC world.

In software the story is similar. In 1980, a PC publisher with a hit game might dream of moving 15,000 units. Atari at that time already had two cartridges, Space Invaders and Asteroids, that had sold over 1 million copies. Activision, an upstart VCS-game-maker formed by disgruntled Atari programmers, debuted in 1980 with sales of $67 million on its $25 game cartridges. By way of comparison, Apple managed sales of $200 million on its $1500 (or more) computer systems. The VCS version of Pac-Man, the big hit of 1981, sold over 2 million copies that year alone. Again, it would be a decade or more before PC publishers would begin to see numbers like that for their biggest titles.

So, we have two very different worlds here, that of the mass-market, inexpensive game consoles and that of the PC, the latter of which remained the province of the most affluent, technology-savvy consumers only. But then a new category began to emerge, to slot itself right in the middle of this divide: the “home computer.” The first company to dip a toe into these waters was Atari itself.

Steve Jobs during his brief association with Atari brought a proposal for what would become the Apple II to Atari’s then-head Nolan Bushnell. With Atari already heavily committed to both arcade machines and the project that would become the VCS, Bushnell declined. (Bushnell did, however, get Jobs a meeting with potential investor Don Valentine, who in turn connected him with Mike Markkula. Markkula became the third employee at Apple, put up most of the cash the company used to get started in earnest, and played a key role in early marketing efforts. Many regard him as the unsung hero of Apple’s unlikely rise.) Only later on, after the success of the Apple II and TRS-80 proved the PC a viable bet, did Atari begin to develop a full-fledged computer of its own.

The Atari 400 and 800, released in late 1979, were odd ducks in comparison to other microcomputers. The internals were largely the work of three brilliant engineers, Steven Mayer, Joe Decuir, and Jay Miner, all of whom had also worked on the Atari VCS. Their design was unprecedented. Although they had at their heart the same MOS 6502 found in the Atari VCS and the Apple II, the 400 and 800 were built around a set of semi-intelligent custom chips that relieved the CPU of many of its housekeeping burdens to increase its overall processing potential considerably. These chips also brought graphics capabilities that were nothing short of stunning. Up to 128 colors could be displayed at resolutions of up to 352 X 240 pixels, and the machines also included sprites, small graphics blocks that could be overlaid over the background and moved quickly about; think of the ghosts in Pac-Man for a classic example. By comparison, the Apple II’s hi-res mode, 280 X 160 pixels with 6 possible colors, no sprites, and the color-transition limitations that result in all that ugly color fringing, had represented the previous state of the art in PC graphics. In addition, the Atari machines featured four-voice sound-synthesis circuitry. Their competitors offered either no sound at all, or, as in the case of the Apple II, little more than beeps and squeaks. As an audiovisual experience, the new Atari line was almost revolutionary.

Still, externally the Apple II looked and was equipped (not to mention was priced) like a machine of serious intent. The Ataris lacked the Apple’s flexible array of expansion slots as well as Steve Wozniak’s fast and reliable floppy-disk system. They shipped with just 8 K of memory. Their BASIC implementation, one of the few not sourced from Microsoft, was slow and generally kind of crummy. The low-end model, the 400, didn’t even have a proper keyboard, just an awkward membrane setup. And it wasn’t even all a story of missing features. When you inspected the machines more closely, you found something unexpected: a console-style port for game cartridges. The machines seemed like Frankensteins, stuck somewhere between the worlds of the game console and the PC. Enter the home computer — a full-fledged computer, but one plainly more interested in playing games and doing “fun” things than “serious” work. The Atari logo on the cases, of course, also contributed to the impression that, whatever else they were, these machines weren’t quite the same thing as, say, the Apple II.

Alas, Atari screwed the pooch with the 400 and 800 pretty badly. From the beginning it priced them too high for their obvious market; the 800 was initially only slightly less expensive than the Apple II. And, caught up like the rest of the country in VCS-fever, they put little effort into promotion. Many in management hardly seemed aware that they existed at all. In spite of this, their capabilities combined with the Atari name were enough to make them modest sales successes. They also attracted considerable software support. On-Line Systems, for instance, made them their second focus of software development, behind only the Apple II, during their first year or two in business. Still, they never quite lived up to their hardware’s potential, never became the mass-market success they might (should?) have been.

The next company to make a feint toward the emerging idea of a home computer was Radio Shack, who released the TRS-80 Color Computer in 1980. (By the end of that year Radio Shack had four separate machines on the market under the TRS-80 monicker, all semi- or completely incompatible with one another. I haven’t a clue why no one could come up with another name.) Like so much else from Radio Shack, the CoCo didn’t seem to know quite what it wanted to be. Radio Shack did get the price about right for a home computer: $400. And they provided a cartridge port for instant access to games. Problem was, those games couldn’t be all that great, because the video hardware, while it did indeed allow color, wasn’t a patch on the Atari machines. Rather than spend money on such niceties, Tandy built the machine around a Motorola 6809, one of the most advanced 8-bit CPUs ever created. That attracted a small but devoted base of hardcore hackers who did things like install OS-9, the first microcomputer operating system capable of multitasking. Meanwhile the kids and families the machine was presumably meant to attract shrugged their shoulders at the unimpressive graphics and went back to their Atari VCSs. Another missed opportunity.

The company that finally hit the jackpot in the heretofore semi-mythical home-computer market was also the creator of the member of the trinity of 1977 that I’ve talked about the least: Commodore, creator of the PET. I’ll try to make up for some of that inattention next time.



The Wizardry Phenomenon

Of the two long-lived CRPG franchises that made their debuts in 1981, the Ultima series would prove to be the more critically and commercially successful in the long term. Yet in a state of affairs that brings to mind clichés about tortoises and hares and battles and wars, it was the first Wizardry game that really captured imaginations, not to mention the most sales, in 1981 and 1982. Ultima, mind you, was another very big success for Richard Garriott, receiving positive reviews and selling 20,000 copies in its first year. It along with Akalabeth made him a very prosperous young man indeed, enough that he would soon have to question whether there was any point in continuing at university to prepare for a “real” career (a story we’ll get to later). But Wizardry was operating on another plane entirely.

If reviews of Ultima were very positive, early reviews of Wizardry were little short of rapturous. Softalk, who published a review even before the game was available thanks to a pre-release copy, called Wizardry not just a game but “a place,” and “the ultimate computer Dungeons and Dragons,” and said those who “don’t give this game a try” would be “missing much.” Computer Gaming World called it “one of the all-time classic computer games,” “the standard by which all fantasy role-playing games should be compared.” Even Dragon magazine took note. In one of its occasional nods to the CRPG scene, it said that “there is so much good about this game, it’s difficult to decide where to begin,” and that it “would excite any dedicated fantasy role-player.” The consensus of these reviewers is that Greenberg and Woodhead had in some sense perfected the idea of D&D on the microcomputer, producing the first compulsively playable example of the form after all of the not-quite-there-yet experiments of Automated Simulations and others. While Ultima, for one, certainly has its own charms, it’s difficult to entirely disagree.

Rapturous press and positive word of mouth paid off commercially. Just two months after its release in September of 1981, Wizardry was already the second bestselling Apple II program on the market, behind only the unstoppable VisiCalc, according to Softalk‘s sales surveys. The September/October 1982 issue of Computer Gaming World included a survey of top-selling games and their alleged sales numbers through June 1982. (This is also the source that I used for the 20,000-copy figure for Ultima). Here, nine months after its release, Wizardry is claimed to have sold 24,000 copies. Ultima had not only sold fewer copies in total, but had been on the market three months longer. The only adventure games to have outsold Wizardry were Zork (32,000 copies), Temple of Apshai (30,000 copies), and The Wizard and the Princess (25,000 copies). All of these games had been on the market at least twice as long as Wizardry, and in the case of the former two on other platforms in addition to the Apple II. For the record, the only other games to outsell Wizardry were K-Razy Shootout (35,000 copies) and Snack Attack (25,000 copies), clones of the arcade hits Berzerk and Pac-Man respectively; Raster Blaster (25,000 copies), a pinball game from Apple II supercoder Bill Budge; and the evergreen Flight Simulator (30,000 copies). (Yes, bizarre as it sounds, the completely unremembered K-Razy Shootout may well have been the bestselling computer game of all-time in mid-1982 — counting only games sold for full-fledged PCs rather than game consoles, of course. On the other hand, there are enough oddities about CGW‘s list that I’m far from ready to take it in its entirety as gospel.) Impressive as its sales to that point had been, in mid-1982 Wizardry was still quite early in its commercial lifespan. As Apple IIs continued to sell in ever greater numbers, Wizardry also would continue as a major seller for several more years. A full year after the CGW list, Electronic Games magazine still called it “without a doubt, the most popular fantasy adventure game available for the Apple II.”

Sales success like this, combined with the devotion the game tended to engender amongst those who bought it and, yes, the rampant piracy that was as typical of this era as it is of our own, led to a user base of active, long-term Wizardry players that was larger than the entire installed base of some of the Apple II’s competition. Wizardry is of course a famously difficult game, leading many of these folks to cast around for outside aid. One of the more fascinating and important aspects of the Wizardry story is the cottage industry that arose to feed this hunger. At least two third-party character editors from tiny publishers, WizPlus and WizFix, appeared within months of Wizardry itself, offering players the opportunity (for $25 or so) to alter their characters’ statistics at will and rescue dead characters left in the dungeon. These programs grew so popular that Sir-tech already felt behooved to respond upon the release of the second Wizardry scenario in May of 1982 by inserting into the box a sheet bearing the following rather mean-spirited scold:

It has come to our attention that some software vendors are marketing so-called “cheat programs.” These programs allow you to create characters of arbitrary strength and ability.

While it may seem appealing to use these products, we urge you not to succumb to the temptation. It took more than four years of careful adjustment to properly balance Wizardry. These products tend to interfere with this subtle balance and may substantially reduce your playing pleasure. It would be akin to playing chess with additional queens, or poker with all cards wild.

It has also come to our attention that some of these programs are unreliable and may even destroy data. While we repair or replace inoperative disks free within 30 days of purchase, or for a nominal fee of $5.00 anytime thereafter, we will not do so for disks damaged by a cheat program.

Such pedantry foreshadows some of the mistakes that Sir-tech would soon begin to make with the franchise.

A year or two later, The Wizard’s Workbench from Magicsoft took advantage of Greenberg and Woodhead’s determination to make Wizardry a reusable, database-based game system by offering what amounted to a reconstruction of the tools Woodhead had created to author the original game. A full-fledged CRPG authoring tool in all but name, Wizard’s Workbench let the player alter existing Wizardry scenarios at will, as well as create her own with custom mazes to be mapped, monsters to be fought, magic items to be acquired, and puzzles to be solved — a precursor to systems like The Bard’s Tale Construction Set and Unlimited Adventures and, by extension, the more recent Neverwinter Nights.

Others trafficked not in software but in information. One Michael Nichols put together a binder’s worth of maps, data on monsters and items, and playing advice under the name “The Wizisystem”:

Wizardry is one of the most exciting and challenging games available for the Apple computer. Its complexity and seemingly endless variations make it interesting long after the average game has been gathering dust for months. Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Wizardry is that it forces the player to think logically, to act rationally, and to organize masses of data into usable form in order to be successful. In other words, the Wizardry player must combine the skills of a master strategist, a tax lawyer, a cartographer, an experienced researcher, and a Knight of the Round Table!

The Wizisystem allows the average player, who has neither the time nor the means to learn all these skills, to be successful at the game by teaching him to exert control over every phase of the game — from creating characters to opening chests. It gives the player a successful, easy-to-follow format and backs it up with information that is as complete and helpful as possible.

The essence of the Wizisystem is control through planning, organization, knowledge, and a methodical approach to the game.

Products like Wizisystem showed publishers that there was a market hungry for such detailed information on individual games. Soon most adventure-game publishers would be selling hints books as a tidy extra profit channel, and soon enough after that book-store shelves would be full of sometimes-hundreds-of-pages-long deconstructions of popular games of all stripes.

It all added up to something that Softline could already in its March 1982 issue call a “phenomenon” with only slight hyperbole. As with Eliza fifteen years before, some saw applications for Wizardry that sound over the top or even downright silly today. Harry Conover considered playing the game good training for working as a small-business manager: “As the manager of a small group of individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, you must manipulate the members’ performances against the ‘competition’ so that they achieve a certain goal.” Chuck Dompa used Wizardry in a graduate-level continuing-education course (“CS470: Teaching Fantasy Simulation”) for educators at Penn State University. Dr. Ronald Levy, a New York child psychiatrist, started using the game in his work. He wrote a letter to Sir-tech describing his experiences with a deeply depressed, apparently suicidal child:

Jim agreed to play videogames on my Apple computer and he became fascinated by my description of the Wizardry game. He made a set of characters, gave them names, and played nonstop for almost an hour. After the first half hour, he was willing to discuss with me what he was doing in the game, and I was able to learn a great deal about him from what he had told me and from watching him play.

I found out that he was not as depressed as he seemed and that he was able to become enthusiastic about something he was interested in; and we were able to talk about some of his worries, using the game as a springboard. At the conclusion of this visit, he told me he had no intention of killing himself because he “wanted to come back and play some more.” In this case, an in several others, I have been able, by using your game, to evaluate correctly children who initially seemed much more disturbed than they really were… Although you intended to create a recreational game, you have inadvertently provided me with a marvelous tool for my work with children.

Less compellingly, Levy raised the stakes further to claim that the individual characters that make up a Wizardry party were really each a fragment of the player’s psyche, alluding to the ideas that Hermann Hesse put forward in Steppenwolf. Alas, Dr. Levy, sometimes a computer game is just a computer game.

Wizardry‘s success inspired a certain amount of resentment from some of the old guard on PLATO, from whose games Greenberg and Woodhead had lifted so many of their ideas. Dirk Pellett, who did much work on the seminal PLATO CRPG dnd, claims to this day that Woodhead attempted to copy that game and release it under his own name on PLATO as Sorcerer. When he was called out for that, claims Pellett, he and Greenberg then “plagiarized” another popular PLATO game, Oubliette, to create Wizardry. For what it’s worth, I find this claim absurd. Oubliette did pioneer many ideas used in Wizardry, including the first-person view, but the contents of the latter’s dungeons were completely original. And the most obvious innovation of Wizardry, its placing the player in charge of an entire party instead of a single avatar, does indeed appear to originate with Wizardry itself. If Wizardry plagiarized Oubliette, then Zork plagiarized Adventure — and dnd plagiarized D&D. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a computer game of the last 30 years that is not a product of plagiarism under those terms. Yet with Greenberg and Woodhead having gotten so much recognition and money from being the first to bring to a paying market so many of the ideas of PLATO, such resentments are perhaps inevitable. (More surprising is the complete equanimity Will Crowther and Don Woods have always shown in the face of the commercialization of their own seminal work, Adventure.)

What all of this attention ultimately came down to for Sir-tech, of course, was sales. Lots and lots of sales. For its first offices the company rented out a 100 square-foot area in the spoon factory that had gotten all of this started in the first place. Sir-tech started out copying disks by hand for sale at a rate of about 100 per day, but soon invested in specialized duplication machines that raised their daily capacity to 500. And they started hiring; soon Norman and Robert Sirotek were joined in the office by five employees. Meanwhile Greenberg and Woodhead started doing what you do when you’ve just made a hit computer game: working on the sequel.

We’ll be tracing the parallel evolutions of the Wizardry and Ultima series for a long time to come. But next, as usual, something completely different.


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Playing Wizardry

Writing about Ultima earlier, I described that game as the first to really feel like a CRPG as we would come to know the genre over the course of the rest of the 1980s. Yet now I find myself wanting to say the same thing about Wizardry, which was released just a few months after Ultima. That’s because these two games stand as the archetypes for two broad approaches to the CRPG that would mark the genre over the next decade and, arguably, even right up to the present. The Ultima approach emphasizes the fictional context: exploration, discovery, setting, and, eventually, story. Combat, although never far from center stage, is relatively deemphasized, at least in comparison with the Wizardry approach, which focuses on the process of adventuring above all else. Like their forefather, Wizardry-inspired games often take place in a single dungeon, seldom feature more than the stub of a story, and largely replace the charms of exploration, discovery, and setting with those of tactics and strategy. The Ultima strand is often mechanically a bit loose — or more than a bit, if we take Ultima itself, with its hit points as a purchasable commodity and its concept of character level as a function of time served, as an example. The Wizardry strand is largely about its mechanics, so it had better get them right. (As I wrote in my last post about Wizardry, Richard Garriott refined and balanced Ultima by playing it a bit himself and soliciting the opinions of a few buddies; Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead put Wizardry through rigorous balancing and playtesting that consumed almost a year.) These bifurcated approaches parallel the dueling approaches to tabletop Dungeons and Dragons, as either a system for interactive storytelling enjoyed by “artful thespians” or a single-unit tactical wargame.

Wizardry, then, isn’t much concerned with niceties of setting or story. The manual, unusually lengthy and professional as it is, says nothing about where we are or just why we choose to spend our time delving deeper and deeper into the game’s 10-level dungeon. If a dungeon exists in a fantasy world, it must be delved, right? That’s simply a matter of faith. Only when we reach the 4th level of the dungeon do we learn the real purpose of it all, when we fight our way through a gauntlet of monsters to enter a special room.


And that’s the last we hear about that, until we make it to the 10th dungeon level and the climax.

What Wizardry lacks in fictional context, it makes up for in mechanical depth. Nothing that predates it on microcomputers offers a shadow of its complexity. Like Ultima, Wizardry features the standard, archetypical D&D attributes, races, and classes, renamed a bit here and there for protection from Mr. Gygax’s legal team. Wizardry, however, lets us build a proper adventuring party with up to six members in lieu of the single adventurer of Ultima, with all the added tactical possibilities managing a team of adventurers implies. Also on offer here are four special classes in addition to the basic four, to which we can change characters when they become skilled enough at their basic professions. (In other words, Wizardry is already offering what the kids today call “prestige classes.”) Most impressive of all is the aspect that gave Wizardry its name: priests eventually have 29 separate spells to call upon, mages 21, each divided into 7 spell levels to be learned slowly as the character advances. Ultima‘s handful of purchasable scrolls, which had previously marked the state of the art in CRPG magic systems, pales in comparison. Most of the depth of Wizardry arises one way or another from its magic system. It’s not just a matter of learning which spells are most effective against which monsters, but also of husbanding one’s magic resources: deciding when one’s spell casters are depleted enough that it’s time to leave the dungeon, deciding whether the powerful spell is good enough against that demon or whether it’s time to use the really powerful one, etc. It’s been said that a good game is one that confronts players with interesting, non-obvious — read, difficult — decisions. By that metric, magic is largely what makes Wizardry a good game.

Of course, Wizardry‘s mechanics, from its selection of classes and races to its attribute scores that max out at 18 to its armor-class score that starts at 10 and moves downward for no apparent reason, are steeped in D&D. There’s even a suggestion in the manual that one could play Wizardry with one’s D&D group, with each player controlling a single character — not that that sounds very compelling or practical. The game also tries, not very successfully, to shoehorn in D&D‘s mechanic of alignment, a silly concept even on the tabletop. On the computer, good, evil, and neutral are just a set of arbitrary restrictions: good and evil cannot be in the same party, thieves cannot be good.

Sometimes you meet “friendly” monsters in the dungeon. If good characters kill them anyway, or evil characters let them go, there’s a chance that their alignments will change — which can in turn play the obvious havoc with party composition. (In an amusing example of unintended emergent behavior, it’s also possible for the “evil” mage at the end of the game to be… friendly. Now doesn’t that present a dilemma for a “good” adventurer, particularly since not killing him means not getting the amulet that the party needs to get out of his lair.)

So, Greenberg and Woodhead were to some extent just porting an experience that had already proven compelling as hell to many players to the computer, albeit doing a much more complete job of it than anyone had managed before. But there’s also much that’s original here. Indeed, so much that would become standard in later CRPGs has its origin here that it’s hard to know where to begin to describe it all. Wizardry is almost comparable to Adventure in defining a whole mode of play that would persist for many years and countless games. For those few of you who haven’t played an early Wizardry game, or one of its spiritual successors (read: slavish imitators) like The Bard’s Tale or Might and Magic, I’ll take you on a very brief guided tour of a few highlights. Sorry about my blasphemous adventurer names; I’ve been reading the Old Testament lately, and it seems I got somewhat carried away with it all.

Wizardry is divided into two sections: the castle (shown below), where we do all of the housekeeping chores like making characters, leveling up, putting together our party, shopping for equipment, etc.; and the dungeon, where the meat of the game takes place.

When we enter the dungeon, we start in “camp.” We are free to camp again at any time in the dungeon, as long as we aren’t in the middle of a fight. Camping gives us an opportunity to tinker with our characters and the party as a whole without needing to worry about monsters. We can also cast spells. Here I’ve just cast MAPORFIC, a very useful spell which reduces the armor class of the entire party by two for the duration of our stay in the dungeon. All spells have similar made-up names; casting one requires looking it up in the manual and entering its name.

Once we leave camp, we’re greeted with the standard traveling view: a first-person wireframe-3D view of our surroundings occupies the top left, with the rest of the screen given over to various textual status information and a command menu that’s really rather wasteful of screen space. (I suspect Greenberg and Woodhead use it because it gives them something with which to fill up some space that they don’t have to spend computing resources dynamically updating.)

I was just saying that Wizardry manages to be its own thing, separate from D&D. That becomes clear when we consider the player’s biggest challenge: mapping. It’s absolutely essential that she keep a meticulous map of her explorations. Getting lost and not knowing how to return to the stairs or elevator is almost invariably fatal. While tabletop D&D players are often also expected to keep rough maps of their journeys, few dungeon masters are as unforgiving as Wizardry. In addition to all the challenges of keeping track of lots of samey-looking corridors and rooms, the game soon begins to throw other mapping challenges at the player: teleporters that suddenly throw the party somewhere else entirely; spinners that spin them in place so quickly it’s easy to not realize it’s happened; passages that wrap around from one side of the dungeon to the other; dark areas that force one to map by trial and error, literally by bashing one’s head against the walls.

On the player’s side are an essential mage spell, DUMAPIC, that tells her exactly where she is in relation to the bottom-left corner of the dungeon level; and the knowledge that all dungeon levels are exactly 20 spaces by 20 spaces in size. Mapping is such a key part of Wizardry that Sir-tech even provided a special pad of graph paper for the purpose in the box, sized 20 X 20.

The necessity to map for yourself is easily the most immediately off-putting aspect of a game like Wizardry for a modern player. While games before Wizardry certainly had dungeons, it was the first to really require such methodical mapping. The dungeons in Akalabeth and Ultima, for instance, don’t contain anything other than randomized monsters to fight with randomized treasure. The general approach in those games becomes to use “Ladder Down” spells to quickly move down to a level with monsters of about the right strength for one’s character, to wander around at random fighting monsters until satisfied and/or exhausted, then to use “Ladder Up” spells to make an escape. There’s nothing unique to really be found down there. Wizardry changed all that; its dungeon levels may be 99% empty rooms, corridors, and randomized monster encounters, but there’s just enough unique content to make exploring and mapping every nook and cranny feel essential. If that’s not motivation enough, there’s also the lack of a magic equivalent to “Ladder Up” and “Ladder Down” until one’s mage has reached level 13 or higher. Map-making is essential to survival in Wizardry, and for many years to follow laborious map-making would be a standard part of the CRPG experience. It’s an odd thing: I have little patience for mazes in text adventures, yet find something almost soothing about slowly building up a picture of a Wizardry dungeon on graph paper. Your milage, inevitably, will vary.

In general Wizardry is all too happy to kill you, but it does offer some kindnesses here and there in addition to DUMAPIC and dungeon levels guaranteed to be 20 X 20 spaces. These proving grounds are, for example, one of the few fantasy dungeons to be equipped with a system of elevators. They let us bypass most of the levels to quickly get to the one we want. Here we’re about to go from level 1 to level 4.

From level 4 we can take another elevator all the way down to level 9. But, as you can see below, entering that second elevator is allowed for “authorized users only.”

Wizardry doesn’t have the ability to save any real world state at all. Only characters can be saved, and only from the castle. Each dungeon level is reset entirely the moment we enter it again (or, more accurately, reset when we leave it, when it gets dumped from memory to be replaced by whatever comes next). Amongst other things, this makes it possible to kill Werdna, the evil mage of level 10, and thus “win the game” over and over again. One way the game does manage to work around this state of affairs is through checks like what you see illustrated above. We can only enter the second elevator if we have the blue ribbon — and we can only get that through the fellow who enlisted our services in another part of level 4 (see the quotation above). By tying progress through the plot (such as it is) to objects in this way, Greenberg and Woodhead manage to preserve at least a semblance of game state. The blue ribbon is of course an object which we carry around with us, and that is preserved when we save our characters back at the castle. Therefore it gives the game a way of “knowing” whether we’ve completed the first stage of our quest, and thus whether it should allow us into the lower levels. It’s quite clever in its way, and, again, would become standard operating procedure in many other RPGs for years to come. The mimesis breaker is that, just as we can kill Werdna over and over, we can also acquire an infinite number of these blue ribbons by reentering that special room on level 4 again and again.

There’s a surprising amount of unique content in the first 4 levels: not only our quest-giver and the restricted elevator, but also some special rooms with their own atmospheric descriptions and a few other lock-and-key-style puzzles similar to, although less critical than, the second-elevator puzzle. In levels 5 through 9, however, such content is entirely absent. These levels hold nothing but empty corridors and rooms. I believe the reason for this is down to disk capacity. Wizardry shipped on two disks, but the first serves only to host the opening animation and some utilities. The game proper lives entirely on a second disk, as must all of the characters that players create. This disk is stuffed right to the gills, and probably would not allow for any more text or “special” areas. Presumably Greenberg and Woodhead realized this the hard way, when the first four levels were already built with quite a bit of unique detail.

We start to see more unique content again only on level 10, the lair of Werdna himself. There’s this, for instance:

From context we can conclude that Trebor must be the quest giver that we met back on level 4. “Werdna” and “Trebor” are also, of course, “Andrew” and “Robert” spelled backward. Wizardry might like to describe itself using some pretty high-minded rhetoric sometimes and might sport a very serious-looking dragon on its box cover, but Greenberg and Woodhead weren’t above indulging in some silly fun in the game proper. When mapped, level 8 spells out Woodhead’s initials; ditto level 9 for Greenberg’s.

In the midst of all this exploration and mapping we’re fighting a steady stream of monsters. Some of these fights are trivial, but others are less so, particularly as our characters advance in level and learn more magic and the monsters we face also get more diverse and much more dangerous, with more special capabilities of their own.

The screenshot above illustrates a pretty typical combat dilemma. In an extra little touch of cruelty most of its successors would abandon, Wizardry often decides not to immediately tell us just what kind of monsters we’re facing. The “unseen entities” above could be Murphy’s ghosts, which are pretty much harmless, or nightstalkers, a downright sadistic addition that drains a level every time it successfully hits a character. (Exceeded in cruelty only by the vampire, which drains two levels.) So, we are left wondering whether we need to throw every piece of high-level magic we have at these things in the hopes of killing them before they can make an attack, or whether we can take it easy and preserve our precious spells. As frustrating as it can be to waste one’s best spells, it usually pays to err on the side of caution in these situations; once to level 9 or so, each experience level represents hours of grinding. Indeed, if there’s anything Wizardry in general teaches, it’s the value of caution.

I won’t belabor the details of play any more here, but rather point you to the CRPG Addict’s posts on Wizardry for an entertaining description of the experience. Do note as you read that, however, that he’s playing a somewhat later MS-DOS port of the Apple II original.

The Wizardry series today has the reputation of being the cruelest of all of the earlier CRPGs. That’s by no means unearned, but I’d still like to offer something of a defense of the Wizardry approach. In Dungeons and Desktops, Matt Barton states that “CRPGs teach players how to be good risk-takers and decision-makers, managers and leaders,” on the way to making the, shall we say, bold claim that CRPGs are “possibly the best learning tool ever designed.” I’m not going to touch the latter claim, but there is something to his earlier statements, at least in the context of an old-school game of Wizardry.

For all its legendary difficulty, Wizardry requires no deductive or inductive brilliance or leaps of logical (or illogical) reasoning. It rewards patience, a willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes, attention to detail, and a dedication to doing things the right way. It does you no favors, but simply lays out its world before you and lets you sink or swim as you will. Once you have a feel for the game and understand what it demands from you, it’s usually only in the moment that you get sloppy, the moment you start to take shortcuts, that you die. And dying here has consequences; it’s not possible to save inside the dungeon, and if your party is killed they are dead, immediately. Do-overs exist only in the sense that you may be able to build up another party and send it down to retrieve the bodies for resurrection. This approach is probably down at least as much to the technical restrictions Greenberg and Woodhead were dealing with — saving the state of a whole dungeon is complicated — as to a deliberate design choice, but once enshrined it became one of Wizardry‘s calling cards.

Now, this is very possibly not the sort of game you want to play. (Feel free to insert your “I play games to have fun, not to…” statements here.) Unlike some “hardcore” chest-thumpers you’ll meet elsewhere on the Internet, I don’t think that makes you any stupider, more immature, or less manly than me. Hell, often I don’t want to play this sort of game either. But, you know, sometimes I do.

My wife and I played through one of the critical darlings of last year, L.A. Noire, recently. We were generally pretty disappointed with the experience. Leaving aside the sub-Law and Order plotting, the typically dodgy videogame writing, and the most uninteresting and unlikable hero I’ve seen in a long time, our prime source of frustration was that there was just no way to fuck this up. The player is reduced to stepping through endless series of rote tasks on the way to the next cut scene. The story is hard-coded as a series of death-defying cliffhangers, everything always happening at the last possible second in the most (melo-)dramatic way possible, and the game is quite happy to throw out everything you as the player have, you know, actually done to make sure it plays out that way. In the end, we were left feeling like bit players in someone else’s movie. Which might not have been too terrible, except it wasn’t even a very good movie.

In Wizardry, though, if you stagger out of the dungeon with two characters left alive with less than 10 hit points each, that experience is yours. It wasn’t scripted by a hack videogame writer; you own it. And if you slowly and methodically build up an ace party of characters, then take them down and stomp all over Werdna without any problems at all, there’s no need to bemoan the anticlimax. The satisfaction of a job well and thoroughly done is a reward of its own. After all, that’s pretty much how the good guys won World War II. To return to Barton’s thesis, it’s also the way you make a good life for yourself here in the real world; the people constantly scrambling out of metaphorical dungeons in the nick of time are usually not the happy and successful ones. If you’re in the right frame of mind, Wizardry, with its wire-frame graphics and its 10 K or so of total text, can feel more immersive and compelling than L.A. Noire, with all its polygons and voice actors, because Wizardry steps back and lets you make your own way through its world. (It also, of course, lets you fuck it up. Oh, boy, does it let you fuck it up.)

That’s one way to look at it. But then sometimes you’re surprised by six arch-mages and three dragons who proceed to blast you with spells that destroy your whole 15th-level party before anyone has a chance to do a thing in response, and you wish someone had at least thought to make sure that sort of thing couldn’t happen. Ah, well, sometimes life is like that too. Wizardry, like reality, can be a cruel mistress.

I’m making the Apple II version and its manual available for you to download, in case you’d like to live (or relive) the experience for yourself. You’ll need to remove write permissions from the first disk image before you boot with it. As part of its copy protection, Wizardry checks to see if the disk is write protected, and refuses to start if not. (If you’re using an un-write-protected disk, it assumes you must be a nasty pirate.)

Next time I’ll finish up with Wizardry by looking at what Softline magazine called the “Wizardry phenomenon” that followed its release.


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Making Wizardry

When we left off, Robert Woodhead had just completed Galactic Attack and, as he and Norman Sirotek waited for the Apple Pascal run-time system that would let them release it, was already considering what game to do next. Once again he turned to the lively culture of PLATO for inspiration. As I described in an earlier post, PLATO had been home to the very first computerized adaptations of Dungeons and Dragons, and still housed the most sophisticated examples of the emerging CRPG form. Microcomputers in 1980 had nothing to compare with PLATO games like Moria, Oubliette, and Avatar, games that not only foreshadowed the PC-based single-player CRPGs soon to come but also the online social dynamics of more modern MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. Looking around at a microcomputer scene that offered only much less sophisticated games like Temple of Apshai, Woodhead began considering how he might bring some modicum of the PLATO CRPG experience to PCs. He tentatively named his new project Paladin.

Coincidentally, a computer-science graduate student at Cornell, Andrew Greenberg, had been working on the same idea for quite a long time already. During spring-break week, 1978, Greenberg, still an engineering undergraduate at the time, was lazing around his with his friends, playing chess, Scrabble, and cards. From the first issue of the short-lived newsletter WiziNews:

After a couple of days, he [Greenberg] says that, “I was getting tired of these same games. I was bored and complained about my boredom.” A friend suggested offhand that he go put Dungeons and Dragons on a computer.

Greenberg worked on the idea in fits and starts over the months that followed, constantly expanding the game — which he had dubbed Wizardry — on his dorm-room Apple II. He could sense he had the germ of something good, especially when his friends started visiting to play the game on his computer and ended up staying all night. Like so many would-be game makers, however, Greenberg found bringing all of his ideas to fruition in the face of limitations — both his own and those of his hardware — to be a challenge. He had coded the game in BASIC, the only language other than assembly to which he had access on his Apple II. It was slow. Painfully slow. And as it got bigger, dealing with all the frustrations and limitations of BASIC became a bigger and bigger problem.

Meanwhile, Greenberg was working in the university’s PLATO computer lab, where one of his duties was to keep the hordes of gamers from monopolizing terminals ostensibly intended for education. PLATO-addict Woodhead was, naturally, one of his biggest problem children. The two engaged in a constant battle of wits, Greenberg devising new schemes to lock down the gaming files and Woodhead always finding ways around his roadblocks. “He was one of those people who just seemed to live to make my life miserable,” says Greenberg.

But then his nemesis, who had played one of the copies of his game that were being passed around campus, came to Greenberg with a proposition. Greenberg had — or at least was well on the way to having — an innovative, original design, but was having problems realizing it technically; Woodhead had gotten very good at programming the Apple II in Pascal, but had only the sketch of a design for his game. Further, Woodhead had, through his connections with the Sirotek family, the resources to get a game published and marketed. Greenberg hadn’t previously thought along these lines, having envisioned his game as just a fun project for his “buds,” but he certainly wasn’t averse to the idea. The match was obvious, and a partnership was born. The two sat down to discuss just what the new game should be. Rather than just make a clone of the PLATO CRPGs, they had some original ideas of their own to include.

Another popular genre on PLATO was the “maze runners,” in which players had to find their way out of a labyrinth shown to them in a three-dimensional, first-person perspective. (I’ve had occasion to mention them before on this blog; they were also the inspiration, by way of Silas Warner’s port of one to the Apple II, for the dungeon-delving section of Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth.) Greenberg and Woodhead wondered if it might be possible to build a CRPG from that perspective, putting the player right into the world, as it were, rather than making her view the action from on-high. The two were also very fond of the party dynamics of tabletop D&D sessions, in which every player controlled an avatar with different tactical strengths and weaknesses, forcing the players to work together to devise an optimum strategy that made the best use of all. Being built on an online network, many of the PLATO CRPGs also let players team up to explore and fight together. This sort of thing just wasn’t possible on an Apple II given the state of telecommunications of the time, but as a next-best thing they thought to give the player control over an entire party of adventurers rather than a single character. What she lost in not being able to bond with a single character that definitively represented her would presumably be more than made up for by the tactical depth this configuration would allow.

Greenberg today frankly characterizes the months that followed, months of designing, implementing, testing, and revising what would become Wizardry, as “the most wondrous of my life.” The general role played by each was precisely opposite what you might expect: Greenberg, the budding computer scientist, designed the game system and the dungeons to be explored, while Woodhead, the psychology major, did most of the programming and technical work. Partly this division of labor came down to practicalities. Woodhead, still suspended from classes, had a lot more time to work on thorny technical issues than Greenberg, immersed in the first year of an intensive PhD program. Nor were the two exclusively confined to these roles. Greenberg, for instance, had already created many of the algorithms and data structures that would persist into the final game by the time he turned his earlier game’s code over to Woodhead.

Almost from the start, the two envisioned Wizardry as not just a game but a game system. In best D&D (and Eamon) fashion, the player would carry her adventurers from scenario to scenario — or, in D&D parlance, from module to module. The first release, which Greenberg and Woodhead planned to call Dungeons of Despair, would only be the beginning. Woodhead therefore devoted a lot of attention to their tools, crafting not just a game but a whole system for making future Wizardry scenarios as cleanly and easily as possible. Greenberg characterizes the final product as “layers upon layers of interpreters,” with the P-Machine interpreter itself at the bottom of the stack. And in addition to the game engine itself, Woodhead also coded a scenario editor that Greenberg — and, it was hoped, eventually other designers — could use to lay out the dungeons, treasures, and monsters.

Apple Pascal’s unique capabilities were key to fitting such an ambitious design into the Apple II. One of the most important was the concept of code segments. Segments allowed a programmer to break up a large program into a collection of smaller pieces. The Pascal library needed load only the currently active segment into memory. When execution branched to another segment, the previous segment was dumped and the new loaded in its place. This scheme allowed the programmer to write, relatively painlessly, a single program much larger than the physical memory of the Apple II would seem to allow. It was, in other words, another early form of virtual memory. While it was possible to chain BASIC programs together to create a superficially similar effect, as evidenced by Eamon, Ultima, and plenty of others, the process was a bit of a kludge, and preserving the state of the game across programs that the computer saw as essentially unrelated was a constant headache.

Another remarkable and important aspect of Apple Pascal was its graphics system, which went far beyond the capabilities of Applesoft BASIC. It had the ability to print text anywhere on the bitmapped hi-res screen with a few simple statements. This sequence, for instance, prints an “X” in the center of the hi-res screen:

MOVETO (137,90);
WCHAR ('X');

Developers working in BASIC or assembly who wished to blend text with hi-res graphics had to either use the Apple II’s dual graphics/text mode, which restricted text to the bottom 4 lines of the screen, or invest considerable time and energy into rolling their own hi-res-mode text-generation system, as Muse Software did. By comparison, Wizardry‘s standard screen, full of text as it was, was painless to create.

Another hidden bonus of Apple Pascal would be its acting as a sort of copy-protection system. Because the system used its own disk format, Wizardry disks would be automatically uncopyable for those who didn’t themselves own Pascal, or at least who didn’t have access to special software tools like a deep copier.

Greenberg and Woodhead got a prototype version of the game working in late September of 1980. They showed it to the public for the first time two months later, at the New York Personal Computer Expo. People were entranced, many asking to buy a copy on the spot. That, however, was not possible, as Apple still hadn’t come through with the promised run-time system. A second Siro-tech product was stuck in limbo, even as Apple continued to promise the run-time “real soon now.”

Yet that was not as bad as it might seem. With the luxury of time, Greenberg enlisted a collection of friends and fellow D&D fans to put the game through its paces. In addition to finding bugs, they helped Greenberg to balance the game: “I began with an algorithmic model to balance experience, monsters, treasure, and the like, and then tweaked and fine-tuned it by collecting data from the game players.” Their contributions were so significant that Woodhead states that “it would not be unfair to credit them as the third author of the game.” To appreciate how unusual this methodical approach to development was, consider this exchange about Richard Garriott’s early games from Warren Spector’s interview of him:

WS: At this point, did you have any concept of play-testing? Did you have your friends play it? Did California Pacific have any testing? Or was it just, “Hey, this is kind of cool, let’s put it out there!”

RG: Pretty much the latter. Of course my friends were playing it, and I was playing it. I was showing it off to friends. But we didn’t have any process, like, “Hey, you know, we’re about to go manufacture a thousand, so let’s please make sure there’s no bugs and go through a testing process.” There was nothing like that.

I don’t write this to criticize Garriott; his modus operandi was that of the early industry as a whole, and his early games are much more playable than their development process would seem to imply. I do it rather to point out how unusually sophisticated Greenberg and Woodhead’s approach was, perhaps comparable only to Infocom’s. One could quibble about exactly what level of difficulty should count as “balanced” (as Rob Hall wrote in The Computist #40, “If these games are really balanced, those dungeon monsters sure weigh a lot”), but the effort Greenberg and Woodhead put into getting there was well-nigh unprecedented.

The long-awaited run-time system finally arrived in early 1981, as Greenberg and Woodhead were still obsessively testing and tweaking Wizardry. Without the need to hold the development tools in memory, it allowed an ordinary 48 K Apple II to run most programs written and compiled with Apple Pascal. From a room above his father’s spoon factory, Norman Sirotek began duplicating and packaging Siro-tech’s first two products, the comparatively ancient Info-Tree and Galactic Attack, and selling them directly to customers via a few magazine advertisements. It was a very modest beginning. Info-Tree in particular was already showing its age, and it became obvious as the phone began to ring that the quickly-written documentation was inadequate. In fact, that ringing phone posed something of a problem. “Siro-tech” was awfully close to the family name of the Siroteks, so close that customers in need of support started to look the name up in the phone book and call the Sirotek family home. In Woodhead’s words: “After about the fourth phone call at the Sirotek home around four in the morning, we dropped the ‘o’ to become ‘Sir-tech’ and made sure the company phone number was in prominent places on the manual and packaging.”

About this time Norman’s older brother Robert joined him at the new company. He had been working as a computer programmer for a large company before, “tired of the bureaucracy,” deciding to take a flyer on this new venture. Robert turned out to be a vital ally for Greenberg and Woodhead amongst the other Siroteks, who were not at all thrilled with the idea of publishing games and pressuring the two to just finish with Wizardry already so everyone could move on to some sort of proper business application. Frederick Sirotek, from Softalk‘s August 1982 feature on Sir-tech:

“The boys thought it was a great game,” Sir-tech’s top adviser confirms. “But as far as I was concerned, computers were business machines. They weren’t fun machines. You do things with them that you need. I certainly did not realize that there is such a relatively large segment of the population that has the computer only or mostly for pleasure.”

Robert, on the other hand, was much more familiar with typical uses of computers and “got” Wizardry the first time he played it; he thought it “fantastic,” well worth the time and labor.

To drum up some publicity, Sir-tech took the game to the June 1981 AppleFest in Boston (the same show where Chuck Benton had his fateful meeting with Ken Williams and On-Line Systems). They sold there a demonstration version of the game, which included just the first three dungeon levels. The reception was very positive indeed. Slowly, a buzz was building about the game outside of Sir-tech and Cornell. And then TSR stepped in.

One of the less attractive sides of Gary Gygax and his company was their fondness for using the legal system as a bludgeon. This was, remember, the company that had threatened to sue MIT because an alternate name for Zork, Dungeon, was the same as that of TSR’s Dungeon! board game. It now seemed that Gygax and his company considered the double-Ds of Dungeons of Despair too close to those of Dungeons and Dragons. (One wonders just how TSR, a profoundly un-tech-savvy company almost unbelievably tardy in getting its own products onto computers, kept finding out about all these alleged violations in the first place…) Like the Zork team before them, the Sir-tech folks scoffed a bit at TSR’s chutzpah, but ultimately decided this wasn’t a fight worth having. Dungeons of Despair became Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord — a better name in my book anyway. (If you’re going to go the purple-prose route, might as well go all out.) In a wonderful display of karmic justice, Gygax himself in the early 1990s was sued by his old company when he tried to market a new game of his own under the name Dangerous Dimensions, and had to change it to Dangerous Journeys.

Sir-tech spent the rest of that summer of 1981 making final preparations to release Wizardry at last. Here Frederick Sirotek made a vital contribution. Realizing from his own business experience how important an appearance of professionalism was and all too aware of the inadequate Info-Tree documentation, he insisted that Sir-tech put together a solid, attractive package for the game and make sure the manual “was readable by people without computer backgrounds.” From the embossed cover to the unusually lengthy, professionally-edited-and-typeset manual found within, Wizardry looked a class act, standing out dramatically from the Ziploc bags and amateurish artwork of the competition. Wizardry looked like something major.

The first pages of the manual reinforced the impression, even if their idea of what constitutes a huge, time-consuming game-development project sounds laughable today:

Wizardry is unlike any other game you have played on your Apple II computer. Using all the power and sophistication of the Pascal language, we have been able to create the most challenging fantasy war game available for any personal computer.

Wizardry is a huge program — in fact, at 14,000 lines of code, it may be the largest single microcomputer game ever created. The entire Wizardry game system, including the programs used to create the extensive Wizardry databases, comprises almost 25,000 lines of code, and is the result of over one man year of intensive effort.

The result is a game that simply could not have been written in BASIC. Wizardry has so many options and is so flexible that the only limits to the game are your imagination and ingenuity.

In something of a coup, they were able to hire one Will McLean, who had done cartoons for Dragon magazine and The Dungeon Master’s Guide, to illustrate the manual.

McLean’s work gave Wizardry more than a whiff of the house style of TSR itself, a quality sure to be attractive to all of the tabletop D&D fans likely to play it. (Remarkably, TSR didn’t try to sue them for that one…)

At the end of September, Sir-tech began shipping Wizardry at last. All of the Siroteks’ doubts were answered almost immediately; Wizardry became a sensation, the biggest release of the year in Apple II gaming. “Two months after Wizardry came out,” said Norman, “I was ready to eat my hat! I’m glad I wasn’t more convincing with my arguments.” We’ll chart its impact in a future post, but before we do that we’ll take a closer look at the game itself.


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The Roots of Sir-tech

The story of Sir-tech, the software publisher that brought the Wizardry franchise to the world, is inseparable from the story of the family that founded it. To properly trace the company’s roots, we have to go to a time and place far removed from the dawning American microcomputer industry: to Czechoslovakia during the interwar period. Appropriately enough, a castle figures prominently.

Czechoslovakia was patched together from scraps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. Composed of three separate and not always friendly ethnolinguistic groups — Czechs, Slovaks, and Germans — the new country had a somewhat fractious start. Within a few years, however, things stabilized nicely, and there followed an all-too-brief happy time in the country’s short and generally vexed history. Having inherited much of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire’s industrial heartland and being possessed of an unusually well-educated population, Czechoslovakia became one of the top ten economies in the world. With business booming, a prosperous populace eager to buy homes, and a burgeoning national reputation for innovative architecture, it was a good time to be a talented and industrious Czech builder. That’s exactly what Bedrich Sirotek was, and he prospered accordingly.

The good times ended for Czechoslovakia in 1938 with the Munich Agreement, in which the country’s alleged allies conspired with Nazi Germany to strip it of its border defenses, of 3.5 million of its citizens, of many of its most valuable natural resources, and of its dignity as a sovereign nation. Sirotek was as proud a Czech as anyone, but he was also a pragmatic businessman. The uncertainty — in some sectors, verging on panic — that followed the loss of the Sudetenland led to a drastic decline in property values. Sirotek started methodically buying up land, hedging against the time when peace and prosperity would return again. Sadly, that would be a long, long time in coming for Czechoslovakia.

One of the properties Sirotek bought was special: a 12th-century Romanesque castle in the village of Stráž nad Nežárkou. It had sat empty for almost a decade following the death of its previous owner, the ill-starred opera diva Emmy Destinn, who in her time had sung with the likes of Enrico Caruso. Decrepit as it was, Sirotek envisioned the castle as the perfect seat of the business dynasty he was building. He moved in right away with his wife, son, and daughter, and started making renovation plans. But within weeks the Germans arrived to gobble up the rest of the helpless country. Sirotek’s son, Bedrich Jr., describes the scene:

“Aside from a garage door falling on me when I was 7 in Smichov, my first real memory is as a 9-year-old boy on March 15, 1939. My sister Miluska and I started out to school, but the streetcars weren’t running and there were strange-looking guys in strange-looking uniforms and strange-looking vehicles driving on the wrong side of the street. [Prewar Czechoslovakia used to have British-style left-hand driving until it became a “protectorate” of right-driving Nazi Germany.] So we went home and found my father listening to the radio. And he took us both aside and said: ‘Now hear this. The Germans have arrived. From here on out, nothing you hear in the family gets repeated.'”

Sirotek’s family continued living in the castle, which he strove to make as livable as he could given the privations of life under the Nazis. Sirotek himself, however, spent much of his time in Prague, where he became heavily involved with the resistance. On several occasions the Gestapo seemed on to him and the game seemed to be up, but, unlike virtually all of Czechoslovakia’s Jewish population, Sirotek was lucky. He survived to see the country liberated by the Soviets.

For a time it looked like Czechoslovakia might be allowed to become again the happy, prosperous little country it had been before the war, as the Soviets stepped back and allowed the people to conduct elections and form a new republic. Sirotek returned to his business interests with gusto, and finally began the extensive renovations of the family castle he had been planning to do so many years before. Bedrich Jr. names his happiest memory there as his sister’s wedding on New Year’s Eve, 1947, when he was 17. But less than two months later, the Czech Communist Party, with the encouragement and support of the Soviets, executed a coup d’état to seize absolute control of the country. Sirotek, well known for his opposition to the Communists, was in danger once again. I’ll let Bedrich Jr. tell the rest of the story, which reads like an episode from a John Le Carré novel:

One weekend soon after the commies seized power, my dad got a call from his bank manager, who’d joined the party to protect himself – and, I guess, his clients. He said: ‘Mr. Sirotek, I’d advise you to leave before dawn on Monday because that’s when they’re coming to pick you up.’ So we loaded up our Tatra and headed out to Frantiskovy Lazne, the spa nearest the West German border. My dad still had contacts from his underground days and had been negotiating with a people-smuggler even before he got the warning.

“We checked into a good hotel and, a day or two later, my mother and father and sister and I got our marching orders to go to a station nearer the frontier; my sister’s husband was already in Geneva on business.

“The smuggler wasn’t there to meet our train. It was market day, so my mother and sister just melted into the crowd of women going to shop. But my father and I stood out like sore thumbs in that closely watched station, so some cops took us in to meet the chief of police himself.

“The chief asked what we were there for, and my father said we wanted to look at the local carpet factory. But he advised us it had been closed for several years. Now he asked if we had any weapons. My father reached into his pocket and came up with a .45-caliber revolver. The chief emptied the bullets and pocketed them. Then he asked my father if he had a permit. Dad produced one.

“The chief was very polite. ‘But, Mr. Sirotek,’ he said. ‘This permit is for a .38, not a .45. Do you happen to have the .38 with you?’

“My father reached into his other pocket and produced the .38. I thought for sure we would leave that room only in handcuffs. But the chief then called our hotel to verify whether we were registered there and had we checked out? We hadn’t – and the manager told him, wrongly, that my mother and sister were still there. So the chief said: ‘Mr. Sirotek, I’m going to keep your weapons. There’s a train back to your family in an hour and I want you both to be on it.’

“We said we would and then headed for the town pub, where my mother and sister and the smuggler were waiting and worrying. By train time, we were hiding in an unused chicken coop, waiting for darkness. It was right on the Iron Curtain; we could hear the guards talking and sometimes there were gunshots. But that night we walked out of the lion’s cage and clear of the zoo.”

The Sirotek family arrived in Canada with little more than the proverbial clothes on their backs; their entire fortune, castle included, was left to the Communists back in Czechoslovakia. Undaunted, Sirotek started over. Both he and his son changed their first names to the more English-friendly Frederick, and by 1951 they had formed their own home-building business. Once again they were on hand for a great economic moment, the prosperity of the 1950s in which a generation of ex-soldiers found good jobs, married, and started buying houses. The company moved on from home-building to gas stations to major commercial projects all over eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, including such prestige projects as a wind tunnel for Ottawa Airport and a linear accelerator and ion lab for the Canadian National Research Council. Frederick Jr., now married and with three children of his own, took over complete control of the family’s numerous business concerns after his father died in 1974.

Those concerns had by this point diversified far beyond construction. The family had, for example, for many years owned a factory manufacturing those little souvenir spoons sold in gift shops. During the mid-1970s, Sirotek became aware of a small industrial-resin manufacturer in Ogdensburg, New York, looking for an outside partner to invest. The owner of the company was a woman named Janice Woodhead, a British émigré to the United States by way of Canada. The husband with whom she had founded the business had recently died, and she needed a partner to continue. Sirotek, who saw an opportunity to acquire the resin his spoon-factory needed at a much cheaper price, signed on.

The partnership eased one link in his chain of supply, but there was still a problem further up the line. The base of the resin manufactured by Woodhead’s company was ordinary sand. That might seem a cheap and plentiful commodity, but this wasn’t generally the case. Prices for the stuff kept changing from week to week, largely in response to changing railroad-shipping rates. Every time that happened, Woodhead would have to recalculate by hand manufacturing costs and pricing. Sirotek didn’t really know anything about computers, but he did know enough to wonder aloud one day whether it might not be possible to program one to do all of this for them, and to do it much more quickly.

As it happened, Janice had a son named Robert who knew a thing or two about computers. Robert was attending Cornell University, allegedly majoring in psychology, but making very slow progress. The reason: Janice had been unwise enough to send Robert to a university on the PLATO network. Like an alarming number of other students, Robert became totally and helplessly addicted, cutting classes and neglecting his assignments in favor of endless hours of online socializing, games, and hacking. As he later said, “PLATO was like crack for computer nerds.” To make the situation even worse, Robert had recently acquired another dangerously addictive device: a TRS-80. Robert had already begun an alternate career in computers, working in a Computerland, programming business applications on contract, even making programs for his own university’s School of Hotel Administration.

At Janice’s suggestion, Sirotek talked to Robert about their problem. Robert’s programming resume and immediately positive response impressed him enough that Sirotek went out and paid $7000 for a top-of-the-line Apple II system to be shared by the two companies. Robert made the program as promised. As a bonus, he also implemented a mailing-list database to help the spoon manufacturer stay in contact with its suppliers and distributors. Wonderful, money well spent, time to move on, etc. Except now the wheels were beginning to turn in Sirotek’s head. His family hadn’t gotten to where it was without a keen business instinct and a nose for opportunity. Certainly lots of other businesses must have similar software needs, and Robert was a smart, personable kid he felt happy to help. As an experiment, they polished up the in-house mailing-list program, named it Info-Tree, and put some packaging together. They agreed that Robert would take the $7000 Apple II system along with the program to the Trenton Computer Festival of April 1979. (The keynote that year was delivered by Wayne Green, and had the perfect theme: “Remarkable Opportunities for Hobbyists.”)

But there was a problem: Sirotek wasn’t willing to ship his expensive computer by air, and Robert didn’t drive. Sirotek therefore decided to ask one of his sons, Norman, if he would be willing to drive Robert out to New Jersey for the show. At the time, Norman was having a bit of trouble deciding what he wanted for his life. After high school he’d enrolled in a business-management program at Clarkson College, only to decide it wasn’t for him after two years. He’d tried engineering for a time, but dropped out of that program as well. Recently he’d been managing construction jobs for his father’s companies while taking some engineering-drafting courses on the side. Norman had no particular interest in computers, and wasn’t thrilled about spending a weekend at a trade show for the things. However, his father was able to convince him by mentioning that Trenton was very close to the casinos and nightlife of Atlantic City.

Norman did spend some time that weekend in Atlantic City, but he also spent much more time than expected with Robert at the show. In fact, he was fascinated by what he saw there. On the drive home, he proposed to Robert that they officially go into the software business together: he would market the programs using his family’s wealth and connections, and Robert would write them. “Siro-tech” Software was born. The proposal came at a perfect time for Robert, who had just been suspended from university for a full year due to his poor grades.

The senior Sirotek officially took the role of president of the new company, but was happy to largely let the young men run with their ideas on their own, figuring the venture would if nothing else make a good learning experience:

“It was a good starter for the boys, learning from the ground up,” Fred Sirotek observes. “Neither Robert Woodhead nor Norman had too much business experience. I guess they both had some credits from the university on the subject, but in terms of hands-on experience they didn’t have any. So Norman would come to me for help — you know, ‘What do I do with this, Dad?’ I’d either produce a suggestion or direct him to what he needed.”

Robert and Norman had a long discussion about what they should do for their second product, after Info-Tree. Robert told Norman that — as if it hadn’t been obvious from the software on display at the show — games were hot. And they certainly sounded a lot more fun to write and market than business software. Norman was not, however, initially thrilled with the idea of selling games:

“I remember late one evening telling Bob Woodhead to forget the new game and put his efforts into something worthwhile, like a business package. I said nobody needs or wants the game. Bob looked straight at me and said I was wrong and went back to work.”

And so, over Norman’s mild objections, the die was cast. Siro-tech would try to make its name as a games publisher.

One of the most popular games on PLATO at the time (and one of the system’s legendary titles even today) was a space wargame called Empire. It’s a game we’ve brushed up against before on this blog: Silas Warner helped its designer, John Daleske, with its early development, and later developed a variant of his own. Robert believed it would be possible to write a somewhat stripped-down version of the game for the Apple II. Progress was slow at first, but after a few months Robert bought the brand-new Apple Pascal and fell in love with it. He designed and programmed Galactic Attack in Pascal during the latter half of 1979. Demonstrating that blissful ignorance of copyright that marked the early software industry, he not only swiped the design pretty much whole-cloth from Daleske but made his alien enemies the Kzinti, a warlike race from Larry Niven’s Known Space books.

The game was complete, but now the would-be company had a problem, a big one: they had no way to release it. Apple had promised upon the release of Apple Pascal that a “run-time system” — a way to allow ordinary Apple IIs without the Apple Pascal software or the language card to run programs written in Pascal — would be coming shortly. (The run-time system would be, in other words, a standalone P-Machine interpreter.) Robert had taken them at their word, figuring the run-time would be available by the time Galactic Attack was ready. Now it was, and the run-time wasn’t. Apple continued to promise that it was in the works, but for now Siro-tech was stuck with a game they couldn’t distribute. All they could do was wait, pester Apple from time to time, and have faith. Luckily, the deep pockets of the Sirotek family gave them that luxury. In fact, they showed quite a lot of faith: Robert was such a fan of Pascal that, in spite of all the uncertainty, he plunged into a new Pascal project even as Galactic Attack sat on the shelf. This one would be bigger, more ambitious, and more original. We’ll see where that led next time.

But before we do that, know that the Sirotek family did eventually get their castle back. It was officially returned to Frederick by the Czech government as part of its restitution for the Communist years in the early 1990s.

(In addition to the links imbedded above, this article is based heavily upon articles in the March 1982 Softline, August 1982 Softalk, and December 1992 Computer Gaming World.)


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