Monthly Archives: October 2012

The BBC Micro

Continental Europe is notable for its almost complete absence during the early years of the PC revolution. Even Germany, by popular (or stereotypical) perception a land of engineers, played little role; when PCs started to enter West German homes in large numbers in the mid-1980s, they were almost entirely machines of American or British design. Yet in some ways European governments were quite forward-thinking in their employment of computer technology in comparison to that of the United States. As early as 1978 the French postal service began rolling out a computerized public network called Minitel, which not only let users look up phone numbers and addresses but also book travel, buy mail-order products, and send messages to one another. A similar service in West Germany, Bildschirmtext, began shortly after, and both services thrived until the spread of home Internet access over the course of the 1990s gradually made them obsolete.

The U.S. had no equivalent to these public services. Yes, there was the social marvel that was PLATO, but it was restricted to students and faculty fortunate enough to attend a university on the network; The Source, but you had to both pay a substantial fee for the service and be able to afford the pricy PC you needed to access it; the early Internet, but it was also restricted to a relative technical and scientific elite fortunate enough to be at a university or company that allowed them access. It’s tempting to draw an (overly?) broad comparison here between American and European cultural values: the Americans were all about individual, personal computers that one could own and enjoy privately, while the Europeans treated computing as a communal resource to be shared and developed as a social good. But I’ll let you head further down that fraught path for yourself, if you like.

In this area as in so many others, Britain seemed stuck somewhere in the middle of this cultural divide. Although the British PC industry lagged a steady three years behind the American during the early years, from 1978 on there were plenty of eager PC entrepreneurs in Britain. Notably, however, the British government was also much more willing than the American to involve itself in bringing computers to the people. Margaret Thatcher may have dreamed of dismantling the postwar welfare state entirely and remaking the British economy on the American model, but plenty of MPs even within her own Conservative party weren’t ready to go quite that far. Thus the British post developed a Minitel equivalent of its own, Prestel, even before the German system debuted. But for the young British PC industry the most important role would be played by the country’s publicly-funded broadcasting service, the BBC — and not without, as is so typical when public funds mix with private enterprise, a storm of controversy and accusation.

Computers first turned up on the BBC in early 1980, when the network ran a three-part documentary series called The Silicon Factor just as the first Sinclair ZX80s and Acorn Atoms were reaching customers. It largely dealt with computing as an economic and social force, and wasn’t above a little scare mongering — “Did you know the micro would cut out so-and-so many skilled jobs by 1984?” The following year brought two more specialized programs: Managing the Micro, a five-parter aimed at executives wanting to understand the potential role of computers in business; and the two-part Technology for Teachers, about computers as educational tools. But even as the latter two series were being developed and coming to the airwaves, one within the BBC was dreaming of something grander. Paul Kriwaczek, a producer who had worked on The Silicon Factor, asked the higher-ups a question: “Don’t we have a duty to put some of the power of computing into the public’s hands rather than just make programs about computing?” He envisioned a program that would not treat computing as a purely abstract social or business phenomenon. It would rather be a practical examination of what the average person could do with a PC, right now — or at least in the very near future.

The idea was very much of its time, spurred equally by fear and hope. With all of the early innovation having happened in America, the PC looked likely to be another innovation — and there sure seemed to have been a lot of them this century — with which Britain would have little to do. On the other hand, however, these were still early days, and there did already exist a network of British computing companies and the enthusiasts they served. Properly stoked, and today rather than later, perhaps they could form the heart of new, home-grown British computer industry that would, at a minimum, prevent the indignity of seeing Britons rely, as they already did in so many other sectors, on imported products. At best, the PC could become a new export industry. With the government forced to prop up much of the remaining British auto industry, with many other sectors seemingly on the verge of collapse, and with the economy in general in the crapper, the country could certainly use a dose of something new and innovative. By interesting ordinary Britons in computers and spurring them to buy British models today, this program could be a catalyst for the eager but uncertain British PC industry as well as the incubator of a new generation of computing professionals.

Much to Kriwaczek’s own surprise, his proposed program landed right in his lap. The BBC approved a new ten-part series to be called Hands-On Micros. Under the day-to-day control of Kriwaczek, it would air in the autumn of 1981 — in about one year’s time. His advocacy for the program aside, Kriwaczek was the obvious choice among the BBC’s line producers. He had grown interested in PCs some months earlier, when he had worked on The Silicon Factor and, perhaps more importantly, when he had stumbled upon a copy of the early British hobbyist magazine Practical Computing. Now he had a Nascom at home which he had built for himself. A jazz saxophonist and flautist by a former trade, he now spent hours in his office trying to get the machine to play music that could be recognized as such. (“My wife and family aren’t very keen on the micro,” he said in a contemporary remark that sounds like an understatement.) Working with another producer, David Allen, Kriwaczek drafted a plan for the project that would make it more substantial than just another one-off documentary miniseries. There would be an accompanying book, for one thing, which would go deeper into many of the topics presented and offer much more hands-on programming instruction. And, strangely and controversially, there would also be a whole new computer with the official BBC stamp of approval.

To understand what motivated this seemingly bizarre step, we should look at the British PC market of the time. It was a welter of radically divergent, thoroughly incompatible machines, in many ways no different from the contemporary American market, but in at least one way even more confused. In the U.S. most PC-makers sourced their BASIC from Microsoft, which remained relatively consistent from machine to machine, and thus offered at least some sort of route to program interchange. The British market, however, was not even this consistent. While Nascom did buy a Microsoft BASIC, both Acorn and Sinclair had chosen to develop their own, highly idiosyncratic versions of the language, and a survey of other makers revealed a similar jumble. Further, none of these incompatible machines was precisely satisfactory in the BBC’s eyes. As a kit you had to build yourself, the Nascom was an obvious nonstarter. The Acorn Atom came pre-assembled, but with a maximum of 12 K of memory it was a profoundly limited machine. The Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81 were similarly limited, and also beset by that certain endemic Sinclair brand of shoddiness that left users having to glue memory expansions into place to keep them from falling out of their sockets and half expecting the whole contraption to explode one day like the Black Watch of old. The Commodore PET was the favorite of British business, but it was very expensive and American to boot, which kind of defeated the program’s purpose of goosing British computing. So, the BBC decided to endorse a new PC built to their requirements of being a) British; b) of solid build quality; c) possessed of a relatively standard and complete dialect of BASIC; and d) powerful enough to perform reasonably complex, hopefully even useful tasks. The idea may seem a more reasonable one in this light to all but the most laissez-faire among you. The way they chose to pursue it, though, was quite problematic.

As you may remember from a previous post, Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry had worked together at Sinclair’s previous company, Sinclair Radionics, before going on to found Sinclair Research and Acorn Computers respectively. In the wake of the Black Watch fiasco, the National Enterprise Board of the British government had stepped in to take over Sinclair Radionics and prevent the company from failing. Sinclair, however, proved impossible to work with, and was soon let go. The NEB shuttered what was left of Sinclair Radionics. But they passed its one seemingly viable project, a computer called the NewBrain which Sinclair had conceived but then lost interest in, to another NEB-owned concern, Newbury Laboratories. As the BBC’s grand computer literacy project was being outlined, the NewBrain was still at Newbury and still inching slowly toward release. If Newbury could just get the thing finished, the NewBrain should meet all of the BBC’s requirements for their new computer. They decided it was the computer for them. To preserve some illusion of an open bidding process, they wrote up a set of requirements that coincidentally corresponded exactly with the proposed specifications of the NewBrain, then slipped out the call for bids as quietly as they possibly could. Nobody outside Newbury noticed it, and even if they had, it would have been impossible to develop a computer to those specifications in the tiny amount of time the BBC was offering. The plan had worked perfectly. It looked like they had their new BBC computer.

But why was the BBC so fixated on the NewBrain? It’s hard not to see bureaucratic back-scratching in the whole scheme. Another branch of the British bureaucracy, the National Enterprise Board, had pissed away a lot of taxpayer money in the failed Sinclair Radionics rescue bid. If they could turn the NewBrain into a big commercial success — something of which the official BBC endorsement would be a virtual guarantee — they could earn all of that money back through Newbury, a company which had been another questionable investment. Some damaged careers would certainly be repaired and even burnished in the process. That, at any rate, is how the rest of the British PC industry saw the situation when the whole process finally came to light, and it’s hard to come to any other conclusion today.

Just a few months later, the BBC looked to have hoisted themselves from their own petard. It had now become painfully clear that Newbury was understaffed and underfunded. They couldn’t finish developing the NewBrain in the time allotted, and couldn’t arrange to manufacture it in the massive quantities that would be required even if they did. It was just as this realization was dawning that they received two very angry letters, one from Clive Sinclair and one from Chris Curry at Acorn. Curry had come across an early report about the project in his morning paper, describing the plan for a BBC-branded computer and the “bidding process” and giving the specifications of the computer that had “won.” He called Sinclair, with whom he still maintained polite if strained relations. Sinclair hadn’t heard anything about the project either. Putting their heads together, they deduced that the machine in question must be the NewBrain, and why it must have been chosen. Thus the angry letters.

What happened next would prompt even more controversy. Curry, who had sent his letter more to vent than anything else, was stunned to receive a call from a rather sheepish John Radcliffe, an executive producer on the project, asking if the BBC could come to Acorn’s Cambridge offices for a meeting. Nothing was set in stone, Radcliffe carefully explained. If Curry had something he wanted to show the BBC, the BBC was willing to consider it. Sinclair, despite being known as Mr. Computer to the British public, received no such call. The reasons he didn’t aren’t so hard to deduce. Sinclair had screwed the National Enterprise Board badly in the Sinclair Radionics deal by being impossible to work with and finally apparently deliberately sabotaging the whole operation so that he could get away and begin a new company. It’s not surprising that his reputation within the British bureaucracy was none too good. On a less personal level, there were the persistent quality-control problems that had dogged just about everything Sinclair had ever made. The BBC simply couldn’t afford to release an exploding computer.

At the meeting, Curry first tried to sell Radcliffe on Acorn’s existing computer, the Atom, but even at this desperate juncture Radcliffe was having none of it. The Atom was just too limited. Could he propose anything else? “Well,” said Curry, “We are developing this new machine we call the Proton.” “Can you show it to me?” asked Radcliffe. “I’m afraid it’s not quite ready,” replied Curry. “When can we see a working prototype?” asked Radcliffe. It was already December 1980; time was precious. It was also a Monday. “Come back Friday,” said Curry.

The Acorn team worked frantically through the week to get the Proton, still an unfinished pile of wires, chips, and schematics, into some sort of working shape. A few hours before the BBC’s scheduled return they thought they had everything together properly, but the machine refused to boot. Hermann Hauser, the Austrian Cambridge researcher with whom Curry had started Acorn, made a suggestion: “It’s very simple — you are cross-linking the clock between the development system and the prototype. If you just cut the link it will work.” After a bit of grumbling the team agreed, and the machine sprang to life for the first time just in time for the BBC’s visit. Soon after Acorn officially had the contract, and along with it an injection of £60,000 to set up much larger manufacturing facilities. The Acorn Proton was now the BBC Micro; Acorn was playing on a whole new level.

Acorn and the BBC were fortunate in that the Proton design actually dovetailed fairly well with the BBC’s original specifications. In places where it did not, either the specification or the machine was quietly modified to make a fit. Most notably, the BASIC housed in ROM was substantially reworked to conform better to the BBC’s wish for a fairly standard implementation of the language in comparison to the very personalized dialects both Acorn and Sinclair had previously favored. After the realities of production costs sank in, the decision was made to produce two BBC Micros, the Model A with just 16 K of memory and the Model B with the full 32 K demanded by the original specification and some additional expansion capabilities. The Model B also came with an expanded suite of graphics modes, offering up to 16 colors at 160 X 256, a monochrome 640 X 256 mode, and 80-column text, all very impressive even by comparison with American computers of the era. It would turn out to be by far the more popular model. At the heart of both models was a 6502 CPU which was clocked at 2 MHz rather than the typical 1 MHz of most 6502-based computers. Combined with an innovative memory design that allowed the CPU to always run at full speed, with no waiting for memory access, this made the BBC Micro quite a potent little machine by the standards of the early 1980s. By way of comparison, the 3 to 4 MHz Z80s found in many competitors like the Sinclair machines were generally agreed to have about the same overall processing potential as a 1 MHz 6502, despite the dramatically faster clock speed, due to differences in the designs of the two chips.

By quite a number of metrics, the BBC Micro would be the best, most practical machine the domestic British industry had yet produced. Unfortunately, all that power and polish would come with a price. The BBC had originally dreamed of a sub-£200 machine, but that quickly proved unrealistic. The projected price steadily crept upward as 1981 wore on. When models started arriving in shops at last, the price was £300 for the Model A and £400 for the Model B, much more expensive than the original plans and much, much more than Sinclair’s machines. Considering that buying the peripherals needed to make a really useful system would nearly double the likely price, these figures to at least some extent put the lie to the grand dream of the BBC Micro as the computer for the everyday Briton — a fact that Clive Sinclair and others lost no time in pointing out. A roughly equivalent foreign-built system, like, say, a Commodore PET, would still cost you more, but not all that much more. The closest American comparison to the BBC Micro is probably the Apple II. Like that machine, the BBC Micro would become the relative Cadillac of 8-bit British computers: better built and somehow more solid-feeling than the competition, even as its raw processing and display capabilities grew less impressive in comparison — and, eventually, outright outdated — over time.

As the BBC Micro slowly came together, other aspects of the project also moved steadily forward. By the spring of 1981 three authors were hard at work writing the book, and Kriwaczek and Allen were traveling around the country collecting feedback from schools and focus groups on a 50-minute pilot version of the proposed documentary. With it becoming obvious that everyone needed a bit more time, the whole project was reluctantly pushed back three months. The first episode of the documentary, retitled The Computer Programme, was now scheduled to air on January 11, 1982, with the book and the computer also expected to be available by that date.

And now what had already been a crazily ambitious project suddenly found itself part of something even more ambitious. A Conservative MP named Kenneth Baker shepherded through Parliament a bill naming 1982 Information Technology Year. It would kick off with The Computer Programme in a plum time slot on the BBC, and end with a major government-sponsored conference at the Barbican Arts Centre. In between would be a whole host of other initiatives, some of which, like the issuing of an official IT ’82 stamp by the post office, were probably of, shall we say, symbolic value at best. Yet there were also a surprising number of more practical initiatives, like the establishment of a network of Microsystem Centres to offer advice and training to businessmen and IT Centres to train unemployed young people in computer-related fields. There would also be a major push to get PCs into every school in Britain in numbers that would allow every student a reasonable amount of hands-on time. All of these programs — yes, even the stamp — reflected the desire of at least some in the government to make Britain the IT Nation of the 1980s, to remake the struggling British economy via the silicon chip.

When the first step in their master plan debuted at last on January 11, everything was not quite as they might have wished it. The BBC’s programming department reneged on their promises to give the program a plum time spot. Instead it aired on a Monday afternoon and was repeated the following Sunday morning, meaning ratings were not quite what Kriwaczek and his colleagues might have hoped for. And, although Acorn had been taking orders for several months, virtually no one other than a handful of lucky magazine reviewers had an actual BBC Micro to use to try out the snippets of BASIC code that the show presented. Even with the infusion of government cash, Acorn was struggling to sort out the logistics of producing machines in the quantities demanded by the BBC, while also battling teething problems in the design and some flawed third-party components. BBC Micros didn’t finally start flowing to customers until well into spring — ironically, just as the last episodes of the series were airing. Thus Kriwaczek’s original dream of an army of excited new computer owners watching his series from behind the keyboards of their new BBC Micros didn’t quite play out, at least in the program’s first run.

In the long run, however, the BBC Micro became a big success, if not quite the epoch-defining development the BBC had originally envisioned. Its relatively high price kept it out of many homes in favor of cheaper machines from Sinclair and Commodore, but, with the full force of the government’s patronage (and numerous government-sponsored discounting programs) behind it, it became the most popular machine by far in British schools. In this respect once again, the parallels with the Apple II are obvious. The BBC Micro remained a fixture in British schools throughout the 1980s, the first taste of computing for millions of schoolchildren. It was built like a tank and, soon enough, possessed of a huge selection of educational software that made it ideal for the task. By 1984 Acorn could announce that 85% of computers sold to British schools were BBC Micros. This penetration, combined with more limited uptake in homes and business, was enough to let Acorn sell more than 1.5 million of them over more than a decade in production.

As for the butterfly flapping its wings which got all of this started: The Computer Programme is surprisingly good, in spite of a certain amount of disappointment it engendered in the hardcore hobbyist community of the time for its failure to go really deeply into the ins and outs of programming in BASIC and the like (a task for which video strikes me as supremely ill-suited anyway). At its center is a well-known BBC presenter named Chris Serle. He plays the everyman, who’s guided (along with the audience, of course) through a tour of computer history and applications and a certain amount of practical nitty-gritty by the more experienced Ian McNaught-Davis. It’s a premise that could easily wind up feeling grating and contrived, but the two men are so pleasant and natural about it that it mostly works beautifully. Rounding out the show are a field reporter, Gill Neville, who delivers a human-interest story about practical uses of computers in each episode; and “author and journalist” Rex Malik, who concludes each episode with an Andy Rooney-esque “more objective” — read, more crotchety — view on all of the gee-whiz gadgetry and high hopes that were on display in the preceding 22 minutes.

There’s a moment in one of the episodes that kind of crystallizes for me what makes the program as a whole so unique. McNaught-Davis is demonstrating a simple BASIC program for Serle. One of the lines is an INPUT statement. McNaught-Davis explains that when the computer reaches this line it just sits there checking the keyboard over and over for input from the user. Serle asks whether programs always work like that. Well, no, not always, explains McNaught-Davis… there are these things called interrupts on more advanced systems which can allow the CPU to do other things, to be notified automatically when a key press or some other event needs its attention. He then draws a beautiful analogy: the BASIC program is like someone who has a broken doorbell and is expecting guests. He must manually check the door over and over. An interrupt-driven system is the same fellow after he’s gotten his doorbell fixed, able to read or do other things in his living room and wait for his guests to come to him. The fact that McNaught-Davis acknowledges the complexity instead of just saying, “Yes, sure, just one thing at a time…” to Serle says a lot about the program’s refusal to dumb down its subject matter. Its decision not to pursue this strange notion of interrupts too much further, meanwhile, says a lot about the accompanying concern that it not overwhelm its audience. The BBC has always been really, really good at walking that line; The Computer Programme is a shining example of that skill.

Indeed, The Computer Programme can be worthwhile viewing today even for reasons outside of historical interest or kitsch value. Anyone looking for a good general overview of computers and how they work and what they can and can’t do could do a lot worse. I meant to just dip in and sample it here and there, but ended up watching the whole series (not that historical interest and kitsch value didn’t also play a factor). If you’d like to have a look for yourself, the whole series is available on YouTube thanks to Jesús Zafra.



Level 9

Before the likes of the Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81 and the Acorn Atom which I discussed in a previous post on British computing, there were the solder-them-yourself kits which began to arrive in 1978. The most long-lived and successful of these were the products of a small company called Nascom. The obvious American counterpart to the Nascom was the original kit PC, the Altair. That said, the Nascom was actually a much more complete and capable machine once you got it put together (no easy feat). It came, for example, with a real keyboard in lieu of toggle switches, and with video output in lieu of blinking lights. Like the Altair, the Nascom was open and flexible and eminently hackable, a blank canvas just waiting to be painted upon. (How could it not be open when every would-be user had to literally build her machine for herself?) In the case of the Altair, those qualities led to the so-called S-100 bus standard that, in combination with the CP/M operating system, came to dominate business computing in the years prior to the arrival of the IBM PC. In case of the Nascom, they spawned the 80-Bus architecture that could eventually also run CP/M, thanks to the Nascom’s use of the Zilog Z-80 processor that was also found in most of the American CP/M machines. A hardcore of committed users would cling to their Nascoms and other 80-Bus machines well into the 1980s even in the face of slicker, friendlier mass-market machines that would soon be selling in the millions.

One of the Nascom buyers was a 25-year-old named Pete Austin. He had finished a psychology degree at Cambridge when, “looking for an excuse to stay there for an extra year” before facing the real world of work and responsibility, he signed up for a one-year course in computing. He discovered he was very, very good at it. After finishing the course, he began a career as a programmer, mostly coding applications in COBOL on big-iron machines for banks and other big institutions. He quickly found that he wasn’t as excited by the world of business computing as he had been by the more freewheeling blue-sky research at Cambridge. But while programming accounting packages and the like may not have been exciting, it did pay the bills nicely enough. At least he earned enough to buy a Nascom for some real hacking.

After buying and building the Nascom, he spent a lot of time tinkering on it with his younger brothers Mike and Nicolas, both of whom were if anything even more technically inclined than Pete himself. Together the brothers developed a number of programming tools, initially for their own use, like a set of extensions to the Nascom’s standard BASIC and an assembler for writing Z-80 machine language. In 1981 they decided to try selling some of these utilities in the nascent British software market. They took out advertisements in a magazine or two under the name Level 9 Computing, a generic but catchy name that could refer to anything from an academic qualification to the lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno to a level in a videogame to a Dungeons and Dragons dungeon or character level. They were rewarded with a modest number of orders. Encouraged, they added some simple games to their lineup, mostly the usual clones of current arcade hits. More indicative of their future direction, however, was Fantasy, a sort of proto-text adventure written by Pete. Some earlier experiences had influenced its creation.

Already a dedicated wargamer, the young Pete had been introduced to Dungeons and Dragons while at Cambridge. He promptly became obsessed with D&D and another early tabletop RPG, Empire of the Petal Throne. He later said, “In the evening we either played D&D or went down to the pub… and played Petal Throne.” Still, it took him a surprisingly long time to connect his interest in computers to his interest in RPGs. Cambridge was the premier computing university of Britain, the atmosphere within its computer science department perhaps not terribly far removed from that at MIT. As such, there were plenty of games to be had, including some early proto-CRPGs obviously inspired by tabletop D&D. Pete toyed with them, but found them too primitive, underwhelming in comparison to playing with friends. (Ironically, Pete left the university just before the rise of the Phoenix mainframe text adventure boom, about which more in a future article.) The spark that would guide his future career wasn’t kindled until he was working in business computing, and had left D&D behind along with his old gaming buddies in Cambridge. On one of his employers’ systems, he stumbled across an installation of Adventure. Yes, now follows the story I’ve told you so many times before: long story short, he was entranced. Fantasy was the first product of his fascination. But Pete wanted to do more than create a stripped-down shadow of Adventure on the Nascom. He wanted to port the whole thing.

This was an audacious proposition to say the least. When Scott Adams had been similarly inspired, he had been wise enough not to try to recreate Adventure itself on his 16 K TRS-80, but rather to write a smaller, simpler game of his own design. A year after Adams’s Adventureland, Gordon Letwin of Microsoft ported the full game onto a 32 K TRS-80. The Austins also had 32 K to work with, but they lacked one crucial advantage that Letwin had been able to employ: a disk drive to fetch text off of disk and into memory as it was needed during play. With only a cassette drive on their Nascom, they would have to pack the entire game — program, data, and text — into 32 K. It looked an impossible task.

Meanwhile the Austins were mulling another problem that will be familiar to readers of this blog. The burgeoning British PC industry was in a state of uncertain flux. In yet another piece of evidence that hackers don’t always make the best businessmen, Nascom the company had suddenly collapsed during 1981. They were rescued by Lucas Industries, famed manufacturers of the worst electronic systems ever to be installed into automobiles (“Lucas, the Prince of Darkness”; “If Lucas made guns, wars would not start”; “Why do the British drink warm beer? Because Lucas makes their refrigerators!”), but their future still looked mighty uncertain in the face of the newer, cheaper computers from Sinclair, Acorn, and Commodore that you didn’t have to solder together for yourself. Wouldn’t it be great if the Austins could devise a system to let them run their game on any computer that met some minimal specification like having 32 K of memory? And what if said system could be designed so that games written using it would actually consume less memory than they would if coded natively? We’ve already met the P-Machine and the Z-Machine. Now, it’s time to meet the A-Machine (“A” stands for Austin, naturally).

In some ways Level 9’s A-Code system is even more impressive than Infocom’s technology. Although Level 9’s development tools would never quite reach the same level of sophistication as Infocom’s with their minicomputer-based ZIL programming language, the A-Machine itself is a minor technical miracle. While Infocom also targeted 32 K machines with their earliest games, they always required a disk drive for storage. The Austins lacked this luxury, meaning they had to develop unbelievably efficient text-compression routines. They were understandably tight-lipped about this technology that as much as anything represented the key to their success during their heyday, but they did let some details slip out in an interview with Sinclair User in 1985:

Pete’s text compressor has been a feature of all Level 9’s mammoth adventures. It works by running through all the messages and searching for common strings.

For example, “ing” might occur frequently. The compressor replaces “ing” with a single code wherever it occurs. That done, it goes through again, and again, each time saving more space. “It doesn’t always pick up what you’d expect it to,” explains Pete. In the phrase “in the room” the compressor might decide that it was more efficient to use a code for “n th” and “e r” rather than pick out “in” and “the.” That is not something which occurs to the human mind.

The Austins used a similar technique in their actual A-Machine program code, condensing frequently used sequences of instructions into a single virtual-machine “opcode” that could be defined in one place and called again and again for minimal memory overhead.

Having started with a comparison to Infocom’s technology, I do want to remind you that the Austins developed the A-Code system without the same pool of experience and technology to draw upon that Infocom had — no DEC minicomputers for development work, no deep bench of computer-science graduate-degree-holders. The youngest brother, Michael, was not even yet of university age. Yet, incredibly, they pulled it off. After some months they had an accurate if not quite word-for-word rendering of the original Adventure running in A-Code on their faithful Nascom.

But now Pete realized they had a problem. Level 9 had taken out some advertisements for the game describing its “over 200 individually described locations.” It sounded pretty good as ad copy. Unfortunately, they had neglected to actually confirm that figure. When they sat down and counted at last, they came up with just 139. So, determined to be true to their word, they decided to start squeezing in more rooms. They replaced the original’s simple (if profoundly unfair) endgame in the adventuring repository with an extended 70-room sequence in which the player must escape a flood and rescue 300 Elvish prisoners. Just like that Level 9 had their 200-room game, and they continued to trumpet it happily, the first sign of a persistent obsession they would have with room counts in the years to come. (The obsession would reach comical heights in 1983 with the infamous 7000-room Snowball and its 6800 rooms of identical empty spaceship corridors.)

The Austins released Colossal Adventure on the Nascom in early 1982, selling it by mail order through magazine advertisements. They copied each order by hand onto a store-bought TDK cassette tape. Into the TDK case they shoved a tiny mimeographed square of paper telling how to load the game. Scott Adams’s original Ziploc-bag-and-baby-formula-liner packaging was sophisticated by comparison. But they sold several hundred games in the first few months. And, with the work of tools development behind them, they were able to follow up with two more equally lengthy, entirely original sequels — Adventure Quest and Dungeon Adventure — before the end of 1982.

Colossal Adventure in particular makes for an interesting experience today. Prior to the endgame, it’s mostly faithful to its inspiration, but there are just enough changes to keep you on your toes. To create a context for the endgame, Pete grafted a plot onto the original game. You are now exploring the caverns at the behest of an elvish warrior. The axe-throwing dwarfs that haunt the caverns are not just annoying, but Evil; it is they who are holding the elf’s people prisoner. Certain areas are re-purposed to fit the new plot. The Hall of the Mountain King, in the original a faithful reconstruction of a cavern Will Crowther knew from his journeys into Bedquilt Cave, becomes here a sinister monument to the dwarfs’ conquests; Spelunker Today becomes a dwarven propaganda rag.

Pete did tinker here and there with the structure of the game as well. The outdoors are fleshed out quite a bit, with additional locations and (naturally) an additional maze, and a few familiar items are found in different — usually less accessible — places. Whether out of a sense of mercy or because his game engine wouldn’t support it, he also eliminates the need to respond “YES” to solve the dragon “puzzle.” Much less mercifully, he inexplicably reduces the inventory limit to just four objects, which makes everything much, much more difficult than it ought to be, and makes finishing the game without buying more batteries for the lantern (and thus getting the full score) well-nigh impossible. The inventory limit also makes mapping the several mazes even more painful.

For its part, the endgame is absurdly difficult, but it also has a sense of onrushing momentum that was still rare in this era. Literally onrushing, actually; you are trying to escape a massive flood that fills the complex room by room. It’s impressive both from a storytelling and a technical perspective. For all their old-school tendencies, Level 9 would always show a strong interest in making their games narrative experiences. Dungeon Adventure and, especially, Adventure Quest show a similar determination to present an actual plot. The latter takes place decades after the events of Colossal Adventure, but begins on the same patch of forest. It does a surprisingly good, almost moving job of showing the passage of time.

It soon evolves into a classic quest narrative that could be torn from Greek mythology, with the player needing to make her way through a series of relatively self-contained lands to arrive at “the Black Tower of the Demon Lord.”

Sprinkled increasingly liberally through the three games are references to Tolkien’s Middle Earth — Black Towers, balrogs, High Councils, Minas Tirith. Still, they never feel so much like an earnest attempt to play in Tolkien’s world as a grab bag of cool fantasy tropes. It almost feels like Pete kind of wandered into Middle Earth accidentally in his quest for Cool Stuff to put in his games. As he later said, “Middle Earth was a convenient fantasy setting. It was a way of telling people the type of world they were getting.” Where another milieu offers something equally cool, he uses that; Adventure Quest, for example, features a sandworm straight out of Dune. All of this was, of course, completely unauthorized. After not mentioning the Tolkien references in early promotion, Level 9 actually advertised the games for a while as the Middle Earth Trilogy. Then, presumably in response to some very unhappy Tolkien-estate lawyers, they went the other way, excising all of the references and renaming the games the Jewels of Darkness trilogy.

Before I leave you, I just want to emphasize again what an extraordinary achievement it was to get these games into 32 K. Not only are they large games by any standards, brimming with dozens of puzzles, but — unlike, say, the Scott Adams games — the text also reads grammatically, absent that strangled quality that marks an author trying to save every possible character. Better yet, Pete knows how to create a sense of atmosphere. His prose is blessedly competent.

That’s not, however, to say that I can really recommend them to players today. In addition to quality prose, they’re also loaded with old-school annoyances: a two-word parser (in their original incarnation; the parser at least was updated in later releases); mazes every time you turn around; endless rinse-and-repeat learning by death; and always that brutal four-item inventory limit. They were damn impressive games in their time, but they don’t quite manage to transcend it. Fortunately, there were lots more adventures still to come from Level 9.

In which spirit: by the end of 1982, Level 9 had, thanks to the magic of A-Code, leaped from the Nascom onto the Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC Micro, ready to ride a full-on adventuring craze that would sweep Britain over the next few years. We’ll start to talk about the new machines that would enable that — including the latter two in the list above — next time.



Playing Ultima II, Part 2

Despite allegedly taking place mostly on our Earth and sometimes even in (basically) our time, very little about Ultima II has much in common with the world that we know. One of the more interesting exceptions is the town of New San Antonio, which is right where you’d expect to find it in 1990. Oh, there are still unanswered questions; it wouldn’t be Ultima II without them. For instance, why is it called New San Antonio? Still, the town hosts an airport where we can steal the second coolest vehicle in the game: an airplane, an obvious nod to the San Antonio of our own world, which hosts two major Air Force bases. Having grown up in Houston and attended university in Austin, Richard Garriott would have been very familiar with San Antonio’s personality. One of the bases, Lackland, houses a huge training center that has earned it, and by extension San Antonio, the nickname of “Gateway to the Air Force.” Wandering the River Walk and other tourist areas around the time of one of the various graduation ceremonies is like strolling through a Norman Rockwell painting — a sea of earnest, clean-cut young men and women in uniform accompanied by proud, doting parents and siblings.

I’ve spent a lot of time already pointing out the cognitive dissonance and design failures that dog Ultima II. Never fear, I’ll get back to doing more of that in a moment. But the airplane affords an opportunity to note what Ultima II, and the Ultima series in general, do so right. As nonsensical as its world is, it consistently entices us to explore it, to find out what lies behind this locked door or at the bottom of that dungeon. Most of the time — actually, always in the case of the dungeon — the answer is “nothing.” But we find something really neat just often enough that our sense of wonder never entirely deserts us. In this case we come upon an actual, functioning airplane. Nothing in the manual or anywhere else has prepared us for this, but here it is. We look to our reference chart of one-key commands to see what seems to fit best, experiment a bit, and we’re off into the wild blue yonder. The airplane is kind of hard to control, and we can only land on grass, but we can fly through time doors to range over any of the time zones in the game, even buzz the monsters that guard Minax’s lair in the heart of the Time of Legends. We made this crazy, undocumented discovery for ourselves, so we own the experience fully. When we take flight for the first time, it’s kind of magic.

That feeling can be hard for modern players, who have every detail about every aspect of the game at their fingertips thanks to a myriad of FAQs, Wikis, and walkthroughs, to capture. Yet it’s at the heart of what made the Ultima games so entrancing in their day. Games like Wizardry gave us a more rigorous strategic challenge, but Ultima gave us a world to explore. This likely goes a long way toward reconciling the rave reviews Ultima II received upon its release (not to mention the fond memories some of you have expressed in the comments) with the contemporary consensus of bloggers, reviewers, and FAQ-writers who revisit the game today, who generally hold it a boring, poorly designed misfire and by far the worst of the 1980s Ultimas. I don’t so much want to disagree with the latter sentiment as I want to also remember that even here in their worst incarnation there was just something special about the Ultima games. They speak to a different part of our nature than most CRPGs — I’m tempted to say a better part. The joy of exploration and discovery can make us overlook much of the weirdness of not only the world and the story but also of the core game systems, some of which (like the need to buy hit points as you would food) I’ve mentioned, but many others of which (like the fact that earning experience points and leveling up confer absolutely no benefits other than bragging rights, or that the gold and experience you earn from monsters has no relation to their strength) I haven’t.

What could be cooler than an airplane, you ask? The answer, of course, is a spaceship. We find a few in the one town in 2111, Pirate’s Harbor, located approximately where we might expect Moscow to be. (Apparently the Soviet Union won World War III.) We steal one and we’re off into space, in what must already be the hundredth videogame tribute to Star Wars‘s warp-drive sequences.

It’s possible to visit all nine planets of the solar system. (In 1982 Pluto was still considered a full-fledged planet.) As with Earth itself, however, Ultima II‘s version of the solar system doesn’t have much in common with reality as we know it. Here Mercury’s terrain consists of “water and swamp”; Jupiter of “water and grass”; Uranus of “forest and grass.” Owen Garriott, Richard’s scientist/astronaut father, must have been outraged. The rest of us can marvel instead that not one of these planets contains anything to make it worth visiting. Indeed, Ultima II can feel like a box of spinning gears that often don’t connect to anything else. In addition to the planets, there are the similarly pointless dungeons, which waste a new dungeon-delving engine that marks as big an advance over Ultima I‘s dungeons as Ultima II‘s town engine is over Ultima I‘s generic towns. For some reasons spells only work in the (pointless) dungeons, meaning that there’s absolutely no reason to make one’s character a cleric or wizard, unless one feels like playing a hugely underpowered fighter. In space again, it’s actually possible — albeit pointless — to dive and climb and turn our spaceship, implying that Garriott originally intended to include a space-combat section like that of Ultima I but never got around to it. Thus, while Ultima II is an impressive machine, it feels like a half-assembled one. A couple of those meta-textual dialogs that are everywhere perhaps offer a clue why: “Isn’t Ultima II finished yet?” asks Howie the Pest; “Tomorrow — for sure!” says Richard Garriott. The only possible riposte to this complaint is that a contemporary player wouldn’t know that planets, dungeons, and so much else were superfluous. She’d presumably explore them thoroughly and get much the same thrill she’d get if her explorations were actually, you know, necessary. I’ll let you decide whether that argument works for you, or whether Ultima II plays a rather cheap game of bait and switch.

In addition to all the unconnected bits and bobs, there are also problems with pieces that are important. The most famous of the glitches is the ship-duplication bug. We can make a new ship by boarding an existing enemy ship and sailing one square away; we’re left with a ship under our control and the original enemy, which we can continue to board again and again to crank out an endless supply of ships. It can be so much fun to make bridges of ships between islands and continents that it’s almost tempting to label this error a feature, one more of those juicy moments of discovery that make the Ultima games so unique. Other bugs, though, such as certain squares on the map where we simply cannot land a blow against a monster, are more annoying. And there’s one bug that is truly unforgivable. Flying into space requires a certain strength score. There is only one place in the game where we can raise our statistics: the clerk at the Hotel California (don’t ask!) in New San Antonio will sometimes randomly raise one when bribed appropriately. In the original release of the game, however, he will never raise our strength, thus making the game unwinnable for anyone who didn’t choose a fighter as her character class and put a lot of extra points into strength. Sierra did release a patch that at least corrected this problem — one of the first patches ever released for a game.

But, you might be asking, why should not being able to go into space make the game unwinnable if there’s nothing there to find anyway? Well, there actually is one thing we need there, but not on any of the familiar planets. Sifting through all of the jokes and non-sequiturs spouted by characters in the towns has revealed hints that a tenth planet, “Planet X,” exists. There we can pick up a blessing from one Father Antos, which in turn will let us buy a ring from a fellow back in New San Antonio on Earth. All we actually need to beat the Ultima II endgame is: the blessing; the ring; a special sword (“Enilno” — “On-Line” backward; the meta-textual fun just never stops!) that we also can buy in New San Antonio; and of course a character with good enough equipment and statistics to survive the final battle with Minax. She’s tricky, constantly teleporting from one end of her lair to the other, but in the end we finish her.

Like so much else in the game, the final message doesn’t really make sense. The optimistic reviewer for Computer Gaming World took it to suggest that Sierra might release new scenario disks to utilize some of those uselessly spinning gears. But that was not to be. Instead Ultima II is seen in its best light as a sort of technology demonstration, or a preview of the possibilities held out by Garriott’s approach to the CRPG. A better tighter, finished design, combined with another slate of technology upgrades, would let him do the job right next time.


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Playing Ultima II, Part 1

I thought we’d take a trip together into Ultima II today. I’m not going to overdo the exercise, as that wouldn’t be much fun for you or me; there’s a lot of sameness and even a fair amount of outright tedium involved in winning the game. I will, however, try to hit most of the highlights and give you a fair picture of what sort of experience the game has on offer. As always, feel free to jump in and play for yourself if you like. Ultima II is available for sale at Good Old Games in combination with Ultima I and III. As we’ll see, it has plenty of issues, but there are certainly worse ways to spend six bucks.

When we first create our character and start Ultima II proper, we might wonder just what Richard Garriott spent eighteen months working on. Aside from some animation that has been added to the water, everything looks just as it did in the last game. All of the graphics tiles appear to be exactly the same as those used last time around. As soon as we start to interact with the game, however, we have reason to bless Garriott’s move to assembly-language programming; everything is much, much snappier.

The map over which we wander is also different: this time we’re adventuring on Earth rather than Garriott’s old Dungeons and Dragons world of Sosaria. Moving over such familiar continents brings out the really weird scaling of the Ultima maps in a way that the previous game never did. Here London is exactly nine steps away from the southern tip of Italy, Africa eighteen steps from north to south. Ultima I presumably represented similarly immense distances with each tile, but because it was a fantasy creation I never really thought about it that way. I suppose there’s nothing absolutely prohibiting each step of our journey over the world map from representing days of travel. Yet Ultima II just doesn’t feel like it’s playing out over such an immense time scale; if it is, then the process of winning the game must involve decades (or more) of game time. And even that doesn’t explain why it’s possible to construct a bridge between North America and Europe by lining up a handful of ships. It makes a constant reminder that this is a highly constructed, highly artificial computer landscape we’re wandering through. That’s fine, I suppose… weird at first, but fine.

Speaking of weird: Ultima II may just have the most nonsensical fictional context I’ve ever seen in a CRPG — and that, my friends, is really saying something. Let me do my best to explain it. The screenshot below shows us passing one of the “time doors” that blink in and out of existence at various places on the landscape; charting them is the whole point of the ornate cloth map that was such a priority for Garriott. Through them we can journey to primordial history, when the Earth still contained just the single über-continent Pangea; to “B.C.,” a time “just before the dawn of civilization as history records it” where we begin the game; to 1990; or to the “Aftermath” of 2111, when the Earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s also possible to go to the “Time of Legends,” a “time before time, peopled by creatures of myth and lore.” Along with the time doors themselves, Legends is the most obvious direct lift from Time Bandits in the game. The same place existed with the same name in the movie, and, there as here, was the scene of the final showdown between good and evil.

It seems that after we defeated the evil Mondain to win Ultima I, his protege Minax, “enchantress of evil,” took up his cause, albeit using a subtler approach:

For Minax is not content to spread evil among the good, causing misery and pain. She prefers to sow seeds of evil in the good and thus set the good against the good, leaving no person untouched. Destruction abounds — and those horrors known only to the once good, guilt and horror and self-hatred, taint the Earth.

The climax was the holocaust of 2111, Minax’s greatest triumph to date, in which ancient civilizations born of love of beauty and wisdom and thought turned upon one another and, in their vicious anger and hate, destroyed almost all of the very Earth that had nurtured them.

What makes no sense about all this is that Ultima I, you’ll remember, took place on Sosaria. Now we’re suddenly fighting the legacy of Mondain on Earth for reasons that, despite furious retconing by fans in later years, go completely unexplained in the game itself. Garriott said later that he chose to set Ultima II on Earth because “time travel needs context.” In other words, we need a familiar historical frame of reference on which to hang everything to get the contrast between, say, prehistoric times and contemporary society. Hopscotching through the timeline of a fictional world whose history means nothing to us just isn’t all that interesting. All of that makes perfect sense — except that the version of history depicted in the game has little to do with our Earth’s. Why are orcs wandering about contemporary Earth attacking people? Assuming Garriott didn’t have big plans for world domination in his immediate future, why does Lord British apparently rule the world of 1990 from his castle? Why can we buy phasers and power armor from merchants in prehistoric times? It feels like two (or more) games that smashed together, with everything that made sense about either spinning off into oblivion. Put less charitably, it all just seems really, really dumb, especially considering that Garriott could have had his time doors without at least the most obvious of the anachronisms just by setting his game on Sosaria. Better yet, he could have just made his time doors the moon gates of later Ultimas; there is absolutely no concept here of actions in one time affecting the others. Garriott gains nothing from time travel but a sop to his Time Bandits fixation and a whole lot of stupid.

Anyway, we make our way to “Towne Linda,” located on the southern tip of Italy in B.C. When we enter we see one of the most obvious demonstrations of the work Garriott has been doing on his game engine since Ultima I: towns are now portrayed using the same tile graphics as the wilderness areas, filling many screens. Every city and village is now a unique creation, with its own geography and personality and its own selection of shops and services. There aren’t a lot of towns, just a few per time period (another thing that seems weird in the context of wandering a map of the Earth), but they do much to highlight the primacy of exploration over combat that has always made the Ultima experience unique. In the same spirit, it’s now possible to talk with anyone and everyone in the towns. In fact, it’s necessary to do so to pick up vital clues and information.

As Garriott has noted many times, walking around in the early Ultima can be a bit like wandering through the psyche of the young Richard, meeting the people, places, and interests that filled his time. Towne Linda, for instance, is named after his little sister, with whom he was very close. In a way this is kind of a fascinating concept — the videogame as intellectual landscape. As I’ve said before, one can picture an Annotated Ultima of a (fictional?) future where videogames are accepted as a form of literature. In it some hyper-dedicated scholar has laboriously run down all of the references and shout-outs in the same way that some have written books about Ulysses‘s allusions that are longer than Ulysses. And anyway, who can fault a guy for adoring his little sister? The problem comes when Garriott decides to get witty on us.

Now, Garriott is many things, with adjectival superlatives like “brilliant” very possibly among them. However, he’s not really a funny guy, and when he tries to be one here the results can be painful. Perhaps most grating, just because we have to see them over and over, are the generic phrases spouted by those for whom Garriott hasn’t written anything specific to say: like the guards who say, “Pay your taxes!” (why would a guard say that?), or the wizards with their immortal “Hex-E-Poo-Hex-On-You!” But even those with something unique to say are equally tedious, a jumble of obvious pop-culture references that isn’t exactly Gilmore Girls in its sophistication along with plenty of pointless non sequiturs. It feels like a teenage boy trying to ape Monty Python, which is just about the surest route to the profoundly unfunny I know of. Pity poor Richard; most of us left the humor of our teenage years in the past, but Garriott made the mistake of gifting his to the world. Reading some of the worst of this stuff brings on a sort of contact embarrassment for the guy.

Time Bandits: you have a lot to answer for. I’m sure Garriott imagined Ultima II as a manic, eccentric thrill ride like the movie, but, as he definitively demonstrates here, that tone is harder than it looks to pull off. At worst, it comes off like one of those amateur IF Competition entries in which the (usually young) author, realizing he’s written a game that makes no sense, tries to compensate by making it into an extended meta-comedy about the absurdities of text adventures — an exercise that fools exactly no one.

Like in Ultima I, saving the world from the forces of Evil in Ultima II requires that we not get too hung up on being Good. If we try to buy all of our equipment, food, and hit points (Ultima II persists with the bizarre mechanic of its two predecessors of making hit points a purchasable commodity), we find ourselves in a Sisyphus-like cycle of being able to earn just enough from killing monsters to keep ourselves in food and hit points, but not enough to buy better equipment or for doing any of a number of necessary things, like giving bribes to certain townspeople. To get ahead we need to, at a minimum, steal our food. Further, getting into a number of special areas requires keys that we can acquire only by attacking and killing town guards in cold blood.

Getting from continent to continent requires a ship. In the screenshot at above right we’ve used some of our ill-gotten keys to steal one from the village of Port Boniface. Once we deal with this sea monster that apparently lives in the harbor, we’ll be home free. Since towns reset themselves every time you leave and bloody murder has no other consequences, you eventually start feeling sort of like the CRPG Addict did when he played:

As far as I can tell (and I admit I didn’t keep a careful log), the only recurring characters are Lord British, Iolo, and Gwenno. The latter two are encased in a grassy area in…I don’t know. One of the towns. Remembering how I killed Gwenno for her key in Ultima I and having by now fully internalized my role as a serial killer, I landed a bi-plane in the grassy area and hacked them both to death.

For my part, I found that — gameplay tip here! — I could earn gold fastest by attacking this one townsperson who is always right at the entrance of the town of Le Jester in prehistoric Africa. I must have killed him and run out of town before the guards could get to me 500 times. Yes, Ultima II makes serial killers of us all.

Next time we’ll penetrate all the way into Minax’s lair in the Time of Legends. The assortment of monsters that greet us when we step through a time door to go there is a pretty good sign that we’re in the right place…


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The Wizardry and Ultima Sequels

By far the two biggest CRPGs of 1981 — bigger in fact than any that had come before by an order of magnitude or two — were Wizardry and Ultima. So, it was natural enough that the two biggest CRPGs of 1982 were a pair of sequels to those games. Some things never change.

Wizardry: Knight of Diamonds appeared in March of 1982, barely six months after its predecessor. It was more what we would today call an expansion than a full-fledged sequel, requiring that the player transfer in her characters — of 13th level or above — from the previous game. Still, in 1982 as today, putting out a solid expansion with new content for a bestselling game was a perfectly justifiable move, whether viewed as a fan wanting more to do or just in the cold light of economics. After all, Wizardry I was selling like crazy and causing a minor sensation in the computer press, and customers were clamoring for more.

Given the short time Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg had to prepare Knight of Diamonds, major improvements to the game system could hardly be expected. Yet they did a very good job of leveraging the engine and the construction tools they had built for the first game, offering six more dungeon levels for high-level characters who had presumably already vanquished the evil wizard Werdna in Wizardry I. If it lacked the shock of the new that had accompanied that game, Knight is in many ways a better, tighter design. The player’s quest this time is to assemble the magical paraphernalia of a legendary knight in order to rescue the kingdom of Llylgamyn from something or other — the usual CRPG drill. The six pieces are each housed on a separate level of the dungeon. This gives a welcome motivation to thoroughly explore each level which is largely absent from Wizardry I, whose dungeon levels 5 through 9 literally contain nothing of interest other than monsters to fight to build up the party’s strength. Woodhead and Greenberg also slightly tweaked the game balance by making it impossible for a side that surprises another to use magic spells during that first, free attack round they get as a result. This has the welcome result of excising a scenario Wizardry I players had come to know all too well: getting surprised by a group of high-level magic users who proceed to take out the entire party with area-effect spells before anyone can do anything in response. It’s still possible to get into similar trouble in Knight of Diamonds when encountering monsters with non-magical special attacks, but the occurrence becomes blessedly much less common. Other oddities that almost smack of being bugs in the original, such as the strange ineffectiveness of some spells against all but the lowest level enemies, are also fixed, and of course there are also plenty of new, high-level monsters to learn about and develop counter-strategies against. For anyone who enjoyed the first game, Knight of Diamonds delivers plenty of the same sort of fun, with even more strategic depth and an even better sense of design.

Woodhead and Greenberg, then, did the safe, conservative thing with their sequel, leveraging their existing tools to give the gaming public more of what they had loved before, and very quickly and with minimal drama at that. It was a commercially astute move, one of the last that the pair and Sir-Tech would make for a franchise that they would soon mismanage to the brink of oblivion. The story of Ultima II, by contrast, is much longer and messier, spanning eighteen months rather than six and involving major technical changes, business failures, and some minor crises in the life of the young Richard Garriott. The game that finally emerged is also longer, messier, and much more problematic than Knight of Diamonds, but in its gonzo way more inspiring.

After finishing Ultima I, one thing was absolutely clear to Garriott: he had ridden BASIC as far as it would take him. As impressive as his game was technically, it was also painfully slow to play, even with the addition of a handful of assembly-language routines provided by a friend from his old job at Computerland, Ken Arnold. BASIC was also inherently less memory-efficient, an important factor to consider as Garriott’s design ideas got ever more grandiose. He therefore decided that, rather than get started immediately on Ultima II, he would learn assembly language first. He called his publisher, California Pacific, to see if they could help him out. They put him in touch with their star action-game programmer, Tom Luhrs, currently riding high on his game Apple-oids, an Asteroids clone that replaced asteroids with apples. In Garriott’s own words, Luhrs “held his hand” through an intense, self-imposed assembly-language boot camp that lasted about a month during his summer break from university. Without further ado, Garriott then started coding on the project that would become Ultima II.

He returned to Austin in the fall of 1981 to begin his junior year at the University of Texas, even as his studies there increasingly took a back seat to computer games and his deep involvement with his SCA friends. One particular course that semester would serve as a catalyst which made him choose once and for all between committing wholeheartedly to a career in games or getting a degree.

The story of Garriott’s class in 6809 assembly-language programming is one that he’s told many times over the years to various interviewers, who have nevertheless tended to report it slightly differently. The outline is clear enough. The Motorola 6809 was the successor to the older 6800. Like its predecessor, the 6809 never became a tremendously common choice of microcomputer manufacturers, perhaps due to its relatively high price. It did, however, find a home in Radio Shack’s Color Computer line. More important to our purposes is to recall the relationship of the earlier Motorola 6800 to the MOS 6502. Chuck Peddle had worked on the 6800 at Motorola, then left to join MOS, where he designed the 6502 as the cost-reduced version of the 6800 that Motorola had not been interested in building; the 6502 used a subset of the 6800’s instruction set. When Garriott started in his assembly-language class, he therefore found he could do all of the assignments by simply writing 6502 code, an instruction set with which he was by now very familiar. Problem was, students were graded not just on whether their programs worked, but also on whether they were properly written, taking maximum advantage of the more efficient instruction set of the 6809. Suddenly Garriott found himself failing the class, even though his programs all worked perfectly well.

That’s the story that’s always told, anyway, a story that conveniently casts the professor teaching the course as a sort of rigid, establishment ogre shaking his finger in the face of the original, freethinking Garriott and his practical hacker ethic. One version of the story, however, found in the book Dungeons and Dreamers, paints a less than flattering picture of Garriott as well:

He refused to learn what the new processor could do. Why should he? He completed his assignments, but he refused to include the latest features of the new processor in his work. His professor wasn’t amused and knocked points off Richard’s grade for each successive sign of intractability. With each dropped point, Richard’s motivation waned until he finally hit bottom: an F in the class, and a determination to get out. He just couldn’t take the demands of the professor seriously.

What seems pretty clear, at least from this version, is that young Richard by this stage could already be a difficult person to deal with, arrogant and uninterested in compromise. There’s no reason we should really blame him for that today. Barely 20 years old, he was already featuring in glossy magazines under his nom de plume Lord British, selling many thousands of games and making a lot of money. (Although, as we’ll see shortly, exactly how much is another of those details that are still somewhat in question.) How many young men wouldn’t become a bit arrogant under those circumstances, uninterested in sitting through boring classes offering knowledge they didn’t feel they needed? Suffice to say that it’s worth remembering that there was a prickly side to Garriott as we continue his story in this post and later ones.

With the decision made to drop not only the class but also university entirely, Richard was faced with the daunting prospect of telling his family about it. Said family was, in his own words, “painfully overeducated.” With an astronaut father, he had been raised in a culture of extreme achievement, in which graduate degrees were not so much an achievement as a baseline expectation; both of his parents and, eventually, all three of his siblings would have one or more. Now Richard had to tell his father, a man very skeptical of this whole games thing anyway, that he was going to drop out well short of his undergraduate degree to pursue them full time. “We were pretty sure he was going to kill Richard,” remembered his brother Robert. The conversation first ended in an uneasy compromise, in which Richard would come back to Houston to devote most of his time to his game, but would take part-time classes at the University of Houston. This he did, albeit in somewhat desultory fashion, for about a year, until his father finally accepted that the games industry offered more opportunity than university for Richard at this moment. “When this ends,” said his father, “you’ll go back to school and get a real job.” That day, of course, would never come.

In the midst of the crisis of the 6809 class, another was also unfolding in Garriott’s life. California Pacific, the publisher who had discovered Akalabeth and whose head Al Remmers had named Ultima, hit the financial skids. At first blush it’s hard to understand how CP could be in trouble; Akalabeth and Ultima had both been big hits. They had other bestsellers in their stable as well, such as the aforementioned Apple-oids, in an era when profit margins were absolutely astronomical in comparison to anything that would come later. Garriott has claimed from time to time that Remmers and the others at CP all had huge drug habits, that they literally smoked up all of their profits (and then some) and ran their company out of business. While this is suitably dramatic, it should be remembered that Garriott was in Texas while CP was based in California, and that they rarely met personally. I asked around a bit, but could find no smoking gun, no one who remembered drugs to be any more of a factor at CP than at many of the other California publishers, where they sometimes hovered around the edges of corporate social lives but rarely (the sad story of Bob Davis aside) took center stage. It seems at least as likely that CP, like so many other companies in this era run by ex-hobbyists and hackers, simply lacked anything in the way of practical business sense. To Richard, raised in the straitlaced bosom of the Johnson Space Center, a joint or two on the weekend might not have been readily distinguishable from hardcore drug addiction.

Regardless of the cause, CP went under in late 1981 owing Garriott a substantial amount of money. When we ask how substantial, however, the picture immediately becomes unclear again. In places Garriott has claimed that he literally received nothing from CP for Ultima, that they paid him only for Akalabeth. Yet Dungeons and Dreamers claims that by the time he enrolled in that 6809 course he had made “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” a figure that seems difficult to attribute to Akalabeth alone. In an interview with Warren Spector, he stated that he was making “many times more” than his astronaut father by that time, and that Ultima had been “five to ten times” as lucrative as Akalabeth. Further complicating all of this are the chronological errors that are rife in accounts of Garriott’s early career, which I’ve written about before. Some accounts, for instance, have Garriott quitting university in the aftermath of Ultima II, which is clearly incorrect, and perhaps reflects a conflation of his stay at the University of Texas with that at the University of Houston. So all we can confidently say is that CP went out of business owing Garriott something, and that he is still rather angry about it to this day, referring to CP as “dumb” and “bozos” in that Warren Spector interview. (All of which seems rather harsh language to employ against the folks that discovered him, named the franchise that made him famous, and largely created the whole legend of his alter ego Lord British, but so be it.) He briefly brought in his older brother Robert, who was pursuing an MBA at MIT, to try to collect from the failed company, but found that the old adage about blood and turnips definitely applied in this case.

Garriott may have suddenly been without a publisher, but he was also one of the most well-known personalities in adventure gaming. Other companies immediately started calling. Richard, as we already noted, was feeling his oats a bit by this time. He proved to be a very demanding signee, wanting a very high royalty rate. But the real sticking point was his demand that his game be packaged with an elaborate cloth map. That odd demand — remember, this was still before Infocom revolutionized computer-game packaging with Deadline — was yet another legacy of that busy fall of 1981, when he’d first seen a new movie called Time Bandits.

A production of George Harrison’s Handmade Films which involved many alumni of Monty Python, Time Bandits is the slightly manic story of a group of rogue dwarfs who go hopscotching through space and time with the aid of a map which charts gates or rips in the fabric of space-time that blink regularly in and out of existence. Garriott was of the perfect age and personality to fall for Monty Python’s brand of zany irreverence. What really fascinated him about the movie, though, and to an almost bizarre degree, was that map. He and his friends saw the movie again and again at the $1.00 matinee, trying to sketch as much of the map as they could from the brief glimpses of it they got during the movie. Richard, you see, thought that this mechanic would be perfect for his new game; he wanted to know how the map really worked. Eventually he came to the disillusioning realization that there was no logic to it, that it was a pretty prop and nothing more. Still, he wanted to put time gates in his game, and he wanted to include an ornate cloth map to chart them. As publishers soon learned to their chagrin, this was as un-negotiable as his royalty demands; Richard was willing to give up games and return to university for a “real” career if he couldn’t find someone willing to meet them. Luckily, in the end he did — and none other than On-Line Systems. Richard may have been difficult, but Ken Williams knew a software star when he saw one. By the time Ultima II was previewed in the March 1982 issue of Softline, the basics of its insanely ambitious design were all in place, including time travel to five different eras and space travel to all of the planets of the solar system. Also in place was the deal with On-Line.

Without the distractions of a full-time university course-load, Garriott could now work full-time on his new game. Yet progress proved slower than expected. He had jumped in at the deep end in attempting to code something as ambitious as this as literally his first assembly-language project, ever. Ken tried to be as patient and encouraging as possible, keeping his in-house programming staff available as a sort of technical-support hotline for Richard. When Richard truly looked to be foundering about mid-year, he invited him to stay in Oakhurst for a time in one of the flats he had bought up around town, to work in On-Line’s offices and enjoy the feedback and camaraderie of the group. It seems to be here that the relationship really began to deteriorate.

On-Line wasn’t exactly Animal House, but they did like to party and have their fun on occasion. Richard, who for all his early success and fame had nevertheless lived a very sheltered life, didn’t fit in at all. “I’m not sure they liked me,” he later said. I recently asked John Williams about Garriott’s time in Oakhurst. He stated that everyone did their best to welcome Richard. For his part, however, Richard showed no interest in attending parties or in any of the outdoor activities that just about everyone at On-Line enjoyed. Still, John stated:

On a personal level, I really liked Richard and I think most at Sierra did. He was scary smart, knew what he wanted and did what needed to be done to make it happen, and in general was just an impressive person. He was quite young then – but you could tell he was going places. I had no idea how far he would go then. Certainly I never would have guessed outer space – but if he had said he planned to go, I’d have believed him.

Perhaps the strains on Richard’s relationship with Ken arose from that very “impressiveness.” As John told me, “There are very few people as smart and driven as Ken — and Richard was one of them.” Both were accustomed to being the center of their social universes; after all, it’s not every kid who can convince his friends to spend hours in a movie theater watching the same film over and over, trying to copy an esoteric map onto paper from the most occasional onscreen glimpses. Ken could be gruff and even confrontational, particularly so with people he thought were really good but whom he also thought needed that extra push to reach their full potential. He may have thought Richard needed just this sort of pressure to finish a game On-Line had originally projected to release in April. Yet Richard, with two hit games under his belt and a big contract from Ken himself proving his worth, was unwilling to be treated as a junior partner in anything. Serious tension was the inevitable result.

At the end of it all Richard may have been heartily glad to return to the familiarity of suburban Houston, but his sojourn in California does seem to have accomplished Ken’s purpose of getting him onto some sort of track to just finish his game already. Ultima II finally appeared, complete with the cloth map and deluxe packaging Garriott had demanded, just in time for Christmas, and just as On-Line Systems changed their name to Sierra Online. (The original packaging uses the latter name, but the actual program still refers to the former.) For the game’s big debut on the all-important trade-show circuit, Garriott dutifully appeared in Sierra’s booth at that December’s San Francisco AppleFest as Lord British, dressed in his full SCA regalia.

The game he was promoting had taken a full eighteen months to create, an unprecedentedly long time even in comparison to previous monster efforts like Sierra’s own Time Zone. Like that game, Ultima II proved to be a deeply flawed design, whose internal messiness echoed much of the stress and confusion that had marked its maker’s life over the months of development. At the same time, however, it may have been a necessary step on the way to the later, more celebrated Ultimas. We’ll talk about both aspects next time.


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