The Wizardry Phenomenon

26 Mar

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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19 Responses to The Wizardry Phenomenon

  1. Odkin

    March 26, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    I was around and reading the Apple magazines at the time. I had both Ultima and Wizardry and liked Ultima more. In retrospect Wizardry is a much more polished and sophisticated product. But as a kid, with a kid’s imagination, Ultima was BIGGER – a whole WORLD. Wizardry was one Dungeon and some text representing a Store, a Temple, and an Inn. Anyway, I remember looking at those sales charts and not understanding how Ultima could be losing to Wizardry.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 27, 2012 at 6:56 am

      Yeah. While it’s not without whimsy (“Trebor Sux”), there’s an austerity about Wizardry that’s not present in Ultima, which is all giddy fun. I find Wizardry’s aesthetic quite appealing, but also see how a kid could be drawn much more to the — literally — more colorful world of Ultima. What’s highlighted here are two contrasting visions of what a CRPG is, a contrast that we still see today.

    • Captain Rufus

      March 29, 2012 at 9:34 pm

      I was a Commodore kid/teen so Ultima was always higher in my esteem than Wizardry. Of course even in Xmas 87 when I got the mighty 64, and early in the next year when I got Ultima 1 as my first RPG Wizardry really wasn’t out for the 64.

      Eventually they would at least get 1 and 5 on there, but Sir Tech never really seemed to like Commodores much. Similar to Sierra but not quite as bad.

      (Maybe a reason I have never much liked Sierra?)

      While I enjoy both styles of RPG, the 8 bit Ultimas are way more fun than Wizardry IMHO. More freedom to explore and goof around, lower death penalties, save almost anywhere options.

      You really can see how the JRPG was born from both series though. (Clan of the Grey Wolf on Retroware TV and Youtube has a pretty good 40 minute video about it.)

      A lot of what JRPGs do seems to be taken off of the Wizardry design. Only the top down view and talking seems to be taken from Ultima.

  2. Conrad Cook

    March 26, 2012 at 11:51 pm


    You don’t talk about what it’s like to play the game, as you did with Ultima. Have you played it? Do you intend to review it? –I’d be interested in your thoughts about what Wizardry was doing that lead to its popularity (besides being one of the only games in town.)


    • Tim Jump

      March 27, 2012 at 1:51 am

      I think you may want to look right above your comment, there’s a link there for the previous blog entry entitled “Playing Wizardry”.

    • matt w

      March 27, 2012 at 2:46 am

      I think what you want is in the post before this one.

  3. artaxerxes

    March 27, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Can we see the full text of the letter of from Dr Levy that speaks about “fragment of the player’s psyche, alluding to the ideas that Hermann Hesse”?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm

      I don’t have it in its entirety I’m afraid. You can however find an article which excerpts considerably more of it in that March 1982 issue of Softline, which you can download in PDF form from

  4. Conrad Cook

    March 27, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Must’ve missed it — I’ll check it out.

    Thanks for the link, Jimmy.


  5. an old gamer from tokyo

    March 27, 2012 at 7:05 pm


    I thoroughly enjoyed your articles about the history of Wizardry. It’s a compelling read.
    I’ve read a lot of “history of computer game” books, but as far as I know, there’s no book covering the history of that popular game and I’d been wondering why no one do that.
    Now I’m fulfilled and I’d really like to thank you for that.

    an old gamer from tokyo

  6. Fungaroo

    November 16, 2018 at 3:26 am

    Apologies if this is addressed elsewhere, but wizardry is often credited as the inspiration for the JRPG genre, as well. Which is interesting when you consider how popular many of those ended up being with Western audiences, many years later.

  7. Michael

    February 28, 2020 at 10:43 pm

    Out of curiosity, since this post doesn’t include footnotes, do you happen to know which issue of Dragon Magazine the quotes came from?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 1, 2020 at 9:52 am

      Issue 65, dated September of 1982.

      • Michael

        March 3, 2020 at 10:46 pm


  8. Turing Test

    April 21, 2020 at 9:09 pm

    You didn’t have to buy a 3rd party editor, Byte magazine published the code (as computer magazines were wont to do back in the day) for one its creator called Wizfix.

    Myself, my brother and a friend nearly wore our fingers out typing it in.

    • Kevin Butler

      December 4, 2020 at 4:34 pm

      Do you know what issue of Byte that was? Just curious since I’ve been tinkering around with Wizardry.

      Thank you

  9. Fronzel

    March 2, 2021 at 5:21 pm

    As a footnote, Wizardy was very popular in Japan as well as America; so much so that several games with the name were made that were never released elsewhere. It also spawned a direct-to-video one-shot anime in 1991 based on the first game in a straightforward manner with details like the blue ribbon and elevator appearing. A more humorous treatment appeared in an episode of the action-comedy Mobile Police Patlabor where a sewer stood in for the dungeon, the six-member party limit was riffed on, and being too lazy to draw a map led the protagonists into disaster.

    • Ross

      March 3, 2021 at 3:53 am

      Indeed, I think I’ve heard people submit that the JRPG genre is pretty straightforwardly what you get when you let Wizardry evolve in the absence of Ultima.

  10. GusCE6

    August 23, 2023 at 2:25 pm

    Wizardry was astonishing in its day.

    This was a game which in many ways truly acted as a game of Dunegons and Dragons. Of course there are many aspects even modern efforts cannot duplicate but four decades ago? It was pure magic.

    As a side note did you know that there was a battery-backed RPG similar to Wizardry for…the ColecoVision? It was called “Lord of the Dungeon,” and had it been released ColecoVisions would have flown off shelves at warp seven. It may well have changed the entire history of videogaming here in America.


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