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Monthly Archives: February 2016

Wasteland

Wasteland

We can mark the formal beginning of the Wasteland project to the day in December of 1985 when Brian Fargo, head of Interplay, flew out to Arizona with his employee Alan Pavlish to meet with Michael Stackpole. If all went well at the meeting, Pavlish was to join Stackpole and Ken St. Andre as the third member of the core trio who would guide the game to release. His role, however, would be very different from that of his two colleagues.

A hotshot programmer’s programmer, Pavlish, though barely twenty years old, had been kicking around the industry for several years already. Before Interplay existed, he’d done freelance work on Commodore VIC-20 games for their earlier incarnation as Boone Corporation, and done ports of games like Murder on the Zinderneuf to the Apple II and Commodore 64 for another little company called Designer Software. When Pavlish came to work for Interplay full-time, Fargo had first assigned him to similar work: he had ported the non-Interplay game Hacker to the Apple II for Activision. (In those pre-Bard’s Tale days, Fargo was still forced to accept such unglamourous work to make ends meet.) But Fargo had huge respect for Pavlish’s abilities. When the Wasteland idea started to take off while his usual go-to programming ace Bill Heineman1 was still swamped with the Bard’s Tale games and Interplay’s line of illustrated text adventures, Fargo didn’t hesitate to throw Pavlish in at the deep end: he planned to make him responsible for bringing the huge idea that was Wasteland to life on the little 64 K 8-bit Apple II and Commodore 64.

However, when Fargo and Pavlish got out of their airplane that day it was far from certain that there would be a Wasteland project for Pavlish to work on at all. In contrast to St. Andre, Stackpole was decidedly skeptical, and for very understandable reasons. His experiences with computer-game development to date hadn’t been happy ones. Over the past several years, he’d been recruited to three different projects and put considerable work into each, only to see each come to naught in one way or another. Thanks largely to the influence of Paul Jaquays,2 another tabletop veteran who headed Coleco’s videogame-design group during the first half of the 1980s, he’d worked on two games for the Coleco Adam, a would-be challenger in the home-computer wars. The more intriguing of the two, a Tunnels & Trolls adaptation, got cancelled before release. The other, an adaptation of the film 2010: Odyssey Two, was released only after the Adam had flopped miserably and been written off by Coleco; you can imagine how well that game sold. He’d then accepted a commission from science-fiction author cum game developer Fred Saberhagen to design a computer game that took place in the world of the latter’s Book of Swords trilogy. (Stackpole had already worked with Flying Buffalo on a board game set in the world of Saberhagen’s Berserker series.) The computerized Book of Swords had gone into stasis when it became clear that Berserker Works, the development company Saberhagen had founded, just didn’t have the resources to finish it.

So, yes, Stackpole needed some convincing to jump into the breach again with tiny Interplay, a company he’d never heard of.3 Luckily for Interplay, he, Fargo, and Pavlish all got along like a house on fire on that December day. Fargo and Pavlish persuaded Stackpole that they shared — or at least were willing to accommodate — his own emerging vision for Wasteland, for a computer game that would be a game and a world first, a program second. Stackpole:

Programmers design beautiful programs, programs that work easily and simply; game designers design games that are fun to play. If a programmer has to make a choice between an elegant program and a fun game element, you’ll have an elegant program. You need a game designer there to say, “Forget how elegant the program is — we want this to make sense, we want it to be fun.”

I was at a symposium where there were about a dozen people. When asked to tell what we were doing, what I kept hearing over and over from programmer/game designers was something like “I’ve got this neat routine for packing graphics, so I’m going to do a fantasy role-playing game where I can use this routine.” Or a routine for something else, or “I’ve got a neat disk sort,” or this or that. And all of them were putting these into fantasy role-playing games. Not to denigrate their skills as programmers — but that’s sort of like saying, “Gee, I know something about petrochemicals, therefore I’m going to design a car that will run my gasoline.” Well, if you’re not a mechanical engineer, you don’t design cars. You can be the greatest chemist in the world, but you’ve got no business designing a car. I’d like to hope that Wasteland establishes that if you want a game, get game designers to work with programmers.

This vision, cutting as it does so much against the way that games were commonly made in the mid-1980s, would have much to do with both where the eventual finished Wasteland succeeds and where it falls down.

Ditto the game’s tabletop heritage. As had been Fargo’s plan from the beginning, Wasteland‘s rules would be a fairly faithful translation of Stackpole’s Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes tabletop RPG, which was in turn built on the foundation of Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls. A clear evolutionary line thus stretched from the work that St. Andre did back in 1975 to Wasteland more than a decade later. No CRPG to date had tried quite as earnestly as Wasteland would to bring the full tabletop experience to the computer.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective rather than the first-person view of The Bard's Tale. This screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective instead of the first-person view of The Bard’s Tale. Note that this screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later (and vastly more pleasant to play) MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

Early in the new year, Stackpole and St. Andre visited Interplay’s California offices for a week to get the process of making Wasteland rolling. St. Andre arrived with a plot already dreamed up. Drawing heavily from the recent ultra-violent action flick Red Dawn, it posited a world where mutually-assured destruction hadn’t proved so mutual after all: the Soviet Union had won the war, and was now occupying the United States. The player would control a group of American freedom fighters skulking around the farmlands of Iowa, trying to build a resistance network. St. Andre and Stackpole spent a month or more after their visit to California drawing maps of cornfields and trying to find ways to make an awful lot of farmers seem different from one another. (Some of this work can be seen in the Agricultural Center in the finished Wasteland.) But finally the pair had to accept the painful truth: the game they were designing was boring. “I said it will be the dullest game you ever saw,” remembers St. Andre, “because the Russians would be there in strength, and your characters start weak and can’t do anything but skulk and hide and slowly, slowly build up.”

St. Andre suggested moving the setting to the desert of the American Southwest, an area with which he, being born and raised in Arizona, was all too familiar. The region also had a certain thematic resonance, being intimately connected with the history of the atomic bomb. The player’s party might even visit Las Vegas, where folks had once sat on their balconies and watched the mushroom clouds bloom. St. Andre suggested nixing the Soviets as well, replacing them with “ravening monsters stalking through a radioactive wasteland, a few tattered humans struggling to survive against an overwhelming threat.” It meant chucking a fair amount of work, but Fargo agreed that it sounded too good to pass up. They might as well all get used to these sorts of false starts. Little would go smoothly or according to plan on this project.

After that first week at Interplay, St. Andre and Stackpole worked from home strictly in a design role, coming up with the plans for the game that were then left to Pavlish in California to implement in code — still an unusual way of working in the mid-1980s, when even many of the great designers, like Dan Bunten4 and Sid Meier, tended to also be great programmers. But St. Andre and Stackpole used their computers — a Commodore 64 in the case of the former, a battered old Osborne luggable in that of the latter — to do nothing more complex than run a word processor. Bundle after bundle of paper was shipped from Arizona to California, in the form of both computer printouts and reams of hand-drawn maps. St. Andre and Stackpole worked, in other words, largely the same way they would have had Wasteland been planned as a new tabletop adventure module.

Wasteland must be, however, one hell of a big adventure module. It soon became clear that the map-design process, entailing as it did the plotting of every single square with detailed descriptions of what it contained and what the party should be able to do there, was overwhelming the two. St. Andre:

I hadn’t thought a great deal about what was going to be in any of these places. I just had this nebulous story in my mind: our heroes will start in A, they’ll visit every worthwhile place on the map and eventually wind up in Z — and if they’re good enough, they’ll win the game. Certain things will be happening in different locations — monsters of different types, people who are hard to get along with, lots of comic references to life before the war. I figured that when the time came for me to design an area, the Indian Village, for example, I would sit down and figure out what would be in it and that would be it. Except that it started taking a long time. Every map had 1024 squares on it, and each one could do something. Even if I just drew all the buildings, I had to go back and say, “These are all square nine: wall, wall, wall, wall, wall. And if you bump into a wall you’ll get this message: ‘The Indians are laughing at you for walking into a wall.'” Whatever — a map that I thought I could toss off in one or two days was taking two weeks, and the project was falling further and further behind.

Fargo agreed to let St. Andre and Stackpole bring in their old Flying Buffalo buddies Liz Danforth and Dan Carver to do maps as well, and the design team just continued to grow from there. “The guys who were helping code the maps, correcting what we sent in, wanted to do some maps,” remembers Stackpole. “Everyone wanted to have his own map, his own thumbprint on the game.”

Even Fargo himself, who could never quite resist the urge to get his own hands dirty with the creations of this company he was supposed to be running from on high, begged for a map. “I want to do a map. Let me have Needles,” St. Andre remembers him saying. “So I said, ‘You’re the boss, Brian, you’ve got Needles.'” But eventually Fargo had to accept that he simply didn’t have the time to design a game and run a company, and the city of Needles fell to another Interplay employee named Bruce Balfour. In all, the Wasteland manual credits no fewer than eight people other than St. Andre and Stackpole with “scenario design.” Even Pavlish, in between trying to turn this deluge of paper into code, managed to make a map or two of his own.

Wasteland is one of the few computer games in history in which those who worked on the softer arts of writing and design outnumbered those who wrote the code and drew the pictures. The ratio isn’t even close: the Wasteland team included exactly one programmer (Pavlish) and one artist (Todd J. Camasta) to go with ten people who only contributed to the writing and design. One overlooked figure in the design process, who goes wholly uncredited in the game’s manual, was Joe Ybarra, Interplay’s liaison with their publisher Electronic Arts. As he did with so many other classic games, Ybarra offered tactful advice and generally did his gentle best to keep the game on course, even going so far as to fly out to Arizona to meet personally with St. Andre and Stackpole.

Those two found themselves spending as much time coordinating their small army of map designers as they did doing maps of their own. Stackpole:

Work fell into a normal pattern. Alan and I would work details out, I’d pass it down the line to the folks designing maps. If they had problems, they’d tell me, Alan and I would discuss things, and they’d get an answer. In this way the practical problems of scenario design directly influenced the game system and vice versa. Map designers even talked amongst themselves, sharing strategies and some of these became standard routines we all later used.

Stackpole wound up taking personal responsibility for the last third or so of the maps, where the open world begins funneling down toward the climax. St. Andre:

I’m fairly strong at making up stories, but not at inventing intricate puzzles. In the last analysis, I’m a hack-and-slash gamer with only a little thought and strategy thrown in. Interplay and Electronic Arts wanted lots of puzzles in the game. Mike, on the other hand, is much more devious, so I gave him the maps with difficult puzzles and I did the ones that involved walking around, talking to people, and shooting things.

The relationship between these two veteran tabletop designers and Pavlish, the man responsible for actually implementing all of their schemes, wasn’t always smooth. “We’d write up a map with all the things on it and then Alan would say, ‘I can’t do that,'” says St. Andre. There would then follow some fraught discussions, doubtless made still more fraught by amateur programmer St. Andre’s habit of declaring that he could easily implement what was being asked in BASIC on his Commodore 64. (Stackpole: “It’s like a duffer coming up to Arnold Palmer at an average golf course and saying, ‘What do you mean you can’t make that 20-foot putt? I can make a 20-foot putt on a miniature golf course.'”) One extended battle was over the question of grenades and other “area-effect” weapons: St. Andre and Stackpole wanted them, Pavlish said they were just too difficult to code and unnecessary anyway. Unsung hero Joe Ybarra solved that one by quietly lobbying Fargo to make sure they went in.

One aspect of Wasteland that really demonstrates St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to divorce the design from the technology is the general absence of the usual numbers that programmers favor — i.e., the powers of two that fit so neatly into the limited memories of the Apple II and Commodore 64. Pavlish instinctively wanted to make the two types of pistols capable of holding 16 or 32 bullets. But St. Andre and Stackpole insisted that they hold 7 or 18, just like their real-world inspirations. As demonstrated by the 1024-square maps, the two did occasionally let Pavlish get away with the numbers he favored, but they mostly stuck to their guns (ha!). “It’s going to be inelegant in terms of space,” admits Stackpole, “but that’s reality.”

Logic like this drove Pavlish crazy, striving as he was to stuff an unprecedentedly complex world into an absurdly tiny space. Small wonder that there were occasional blowups. Slowly he learned to give every idea that came from the designers his very best try, and the designers learned to accept that not everything was possible. With that tacit agreement in place, the relationship improved. In the latter stages of the project, St. Andre and Stackpole came to understand the technology well enough to start providing their design specifications in code rather than text. “Then we could put in the multiple saving throws, the skill and attribute checks,” says St. Andre. “Everything we do in a [Tunnels & Trolls] solitaire dungeon suddenly pops up in the last few maps we did for Wasteland because Mike and I were doing the actual coding.”

When not working on the maps, St. Andre and Stackpole — especially the latter, who came more and more to the fore as time went on — were working on the paragraph book that would contain much of Wasteland‘s story and flavor text. The paragraph book wasn’t so much a new idea as a revival of a very old one. Back in 1979, Jon Freeman’s Temple of Apshai, one of the first CRPGs to arrive on microcomputers, had included a booklet of “room descriptions” laid out much like a Dungeons & Dragons adventure module. This approach was necessitated by the almost unbelievably constrained system for which Temple of Apshai was written: a Radio Shack TRS-80 with just 16 K of memory and cassette-based storage. Moving into the late 1980s, the twilight years of the 8-bit CRPG, designers were finding the likes of the Apple II and Commodore 64 as restrictive as Freeman had the TRS-80 for the simple reason that, while the former platforms may have had four times as much memory as the latter, CRPG design ambitions had grown by at least the same multiple. Moving text, a hugely expensive commodity in terms of 8-bit storage, back into an accompanying booklet was a natural remedy. Think of it as one final measure to wring just a little bit more out of the Apple II and Commodore 64, those two stalwart old warhorses that had already survived far longer than anyone had ever expected. And it didn’t hurt, of course, that a paragraph book made for great copy protection.

While the existence of a Wasteland paragraph book in itself doesn’t make the game unique, St. Andre and Stackpole were almost uniquely prepared to use theirs well, for both had lots of experience crafting Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures. They knew how to construct an interactive story out of little snippets of static text as well as just about anyone, and how to scramble it in such a way as to stymie the cheater who just starts reading straight through. Stackpole, following a tradition that began at Flying Buffalo, constructed for the booklet one of the more elaborate red herrings in gaming history, a whole alternate plot easily as convoluted as that in the game proper involving, of all things, a Martian invasion. All told, the Wasteland paragraph book would appear to have easily as many fake entries as real ones.

You fight some strange foes in Wasteland. Combat shifts back to something very reminiescent of The Bard's Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone's location that you can access by tapping the space bar.

For combat, the display shifts back to something very reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone’s location that you can access by tapping the space bar. And yes, you fight some strange foes in Wasteland

Wasteland‘s screen layout often resembles that of The Bard’s Tale, and one suspects that there has to be at least a little of the same code hidden under its hood. In the end, though, the resemblance is largely superficial. There’s just no comparison in terms of sophistication. While it’s not quite a game I can love — I’ll try to explain why momentarily — Wasteland does unquestionably represent the bleeding edge of CRPG design as of its 1988 release date. CRPGs on the Apple II and Commodore 64 in particular wouldn’t ever get more sophisticated than this. Given the constraints of those platforms, it’s honestly hard to imagine how they could.

Key to Wasteland‘s unprecedented sophistication is its menu of skills. Just like in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, you can tailor each of the up to four characters in your party as you will, free from the restrictive class archetypes of Dungeons & Dragons (or for that matter Tunnels & Trolls). Skills range from the obviously useful (Clip Pistol, Pick Lock, Medic) to the downright esoteric (Metallurgy, Bureaucracy, Sleight of Hand). And of course career librarian St. Andre made sure that a Librarian skill was included, and of course made it vital to winning the game.

Also as in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, a character’s chance of succeeding at just about anything is determined by adding her level in a relevant skill, if any, to a relevant core attribute. For example, to determine a character’s chance of climbing something using her Climb skill the game will also look to her Agility. The system allows a range of solutions to most of the problems you encounter. Say you come to a locked door. You might have a character with the Pick Lock skill try getting in that way. Failing that, a character with the Demolition skill and a little handy plastic explosives could try blasting her way in. Or a strong character might dispense with skills altogether and just try to bash the door down using her Strength attribute. Although a leveling mechanism does exist that lets you assign points to characters’ skills and attributes, skills also improve naturally with use, a mechanism not seen in any previous CRPG other than Dungeon Master (a game that’s otherwise about as different from Wasteland as a game can be and still be called a CRPG).

The skills system makes Wasteland a very different gameplay experience from Ultima V, its only real rival in terms of 8-bit CRPG sophistication at the time of its release. For all its impressive world-building, Ultima V remains bound to Richard Garriott’s standard breadcrumb-trail philosophy of design; beating it depends on ferreting out a long string of clues telling you exactly where to go and exactly what to do. Wasteland, by contrast, can be beaten many ways. If you can’t find the password the guard wants to let you past that locked gate, you can try an entirely different approach: shoot your way in, blow the gate open, pick the lock on the back door and sneak in. It’s perhaps the first CRPG ever that’s really willing to let you develop your own playing personality. You can approach it as essentially a post-apocalyptic Bard’s Tale, making a frontal assault on every map and trying to blow away every living creature you find there, without concerning yourself overmuch about whether it be good or evil, friend or foe. Or you can play it — relatively speaking — cerebrally, trying to use negotiations, stealth, and perhaps a little swindling to get what you need. Or you can be like most players and do a bit of both, as the mood and opportunity strikes you. It’s very difficult if not impossible to get yourself irretrievably stuck in Wasteland. There are always options, always possibilities. While it’s far less thematically ambitious than Ultima V —  unlike the Ultima games, Wasteland was never intended to be anything more or less than pure escapist entertainment — Wasteland‘s more flexible, player-friendly design pointed the way forward while Ultima V was still glancing back.

Indeed, a big part of the enduring appeal of Wasteland to those who love it is the sheer number of different ways to play it. Interplay picked up on this early, and built an unusual feature into the game: it’s possible to reset the entire world to its beginning state while keeping the same group of lovingly developed characters. Characters can advance to ridiculous heights if you do this enough, taking on some equally ridiculous “ranks”: “1st Class Fargo,” “Photon Stud,” etc., culminating in the ultimate achievement of the level 183 “Supreme Jerk.” This feature lets veteran players challenge themselves by, say, trying to complete the game with just one character, and gives an out to anyone who screws up her initial character creation too badly and finds herself overmatched; she can just start over again and replay the easy bits with the same party to hopefully gain enough experience to correct their failings. It takes some of the edge off one of the game’s most obvious design flaws: it’s all but impossible to know which skills are actually useful until you’ve made your way fairly deep into the game.

The very fact that re-playing Wasteland requires you to reset its world at all points to what a huge advance it represents over the likes of The Bard’s Tale. The first CRPG I know of that has a truly, comprehensively persistent world, one in which the state of absolutely everything is saved, is 1986’s Starflight (a game that admittedly is arguably not even a CRPG at all). But that game runs on a “big” machine in 1980s terms, an IBM PC or clone with at least 256 K of memory. Wasteland does it in 64 K, rewriting every single map on the fly as you play to reflect what you’ve done there. Level half of the town of Needles with explosives early in the game, and it will still be leveled when you return many days later. Contrast with The Bard’s Tale, which remembers nothing but the state of your characters when you exit one of its dungeon levels, which lets you fight the same big boss battles over and over and over again if you like. The persistence allows you the player to really affect the world of Wasteland in big-picture ways that were well-nigh unheard-of at the time of its release, as Brian Fargo notes:

Wasteland let you do anything you wanted in any order you wanted, and you could get ripple effects that might happen one minute later or thirty minutes later, a lot like [the much later] Grand Theft Auto series. The Ultima games were open, but things tended to be very compartmentalized, they didn’t ripple out like in Wasteland.

Wasteland is a stunning piece of programming, a resounding justification for all of the faith Fargo placed in the young Alan Pavlish. Immersed in the design rather than the technical end of things as they were — which is itself a tribute to Pavlish, whose own work allowed them to be — St. Andre and Stackpole may still not fully appreciate how amazing it is that Wasteland does what it does on the hardware it does it on.

All of which rather raises the question of why I don’t enjoy actually playing Wasteland a little more then I do. I do want to be careful here in trying to separate what feel like more objective faults from my personal issues with the game. In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, let me put the latter right out there first.

Put simply, the writing of Wasteland just isn’t to my taste. I get the tone that St. Andre and Stackpole are trying to achieve: one of over-the-top comic ultra-violence, like such contemporary teenage-boy cinematic favorites as the Evil Dead films. And they do a pretty good job of hitting that mark. Your characters don’t just hit their enemies in Wasteland, they “brutalize” them. When they die, enemies “explode like a blood sausage,” are “reduced to a thin red paste,” are “spun into a dance of death,” or are “reduced to ground round.” And then there’s some of the imagery, like the blood-splattered doctor in the infirmary.

Wasteland

The personal appeal you find in those quotes and that image, some of the most beloved among Wasteland‘s loyal fandom, says much about whether you’ll enjoy Wasteland as a whole. In his video review of the game, Matt Barton says that “you will be disgusted or find it hilarious.” Well, I must say that my own feelings rather contradict that dichotomy. I can’t quite manage to feel disgusted or outraged at this kind of stuff, especially since, in blessed contrast to so many later games, it’s almost all described rather than illustrated. I do, however, find the entire aesthetic unfunny and boring, whether it’s found in Wasteland or Duke Nukem. In general, I just don’t find humor that’s based on transgression rather than wit to be all that humorous.

I am me, you are you, and mileages certainly vary. Still, even if we take it on its own terms it seems to me that there are other problems with the writing. As CRPG Addict Chester Bolingbroke has noted, Wasteland can’t be much bothered with consistency or coherency. The nuclear apocalypse that led to the situation your characters find themselves in is described as having taken place in 1998, only ten years on from the date of Wasteland‘s release. Yet when the writers find it convenient they litter the game with absurdly advanced technology, from human clones to telepathic mind links. And the tone of the writing veers about as well, perhaps as a result of the sheer number of designers who contributed to the game. Most of the time Wasteland is content with the comic ultra-violence of The Evil Dead, but occasionally it suddenly reaches toward a jarring epic profundity it hasn’t earned. The main storyline, which doesn’t kick in in earnest until about halfway through the game, is so silly and nonsensical that few of even the most hardcore Wasteland fans remember much about it, no matter how many times they’ve played through it.

Wasteland‘s ropey plotting may be ironic in light of Stackpole’s later career as a novelist, but it isn’t a fatal flaw in itself. Games are not the sum of their stories; many a great game has a poor or nonexistent story to tell. To whatever extent it’s a triumph, Wasteland must be a triumph of game design rather than writing, one last hurrah for Michael Stackpole the designer before Michael Stackpole the novelist took over. The story, like the stories in many or most allegedly story-driven games, is just an excuse to explore Wasteland‘s possibility space.

And that possibility space is a very impressive one, for reasons I’ve tried to explain already. Yet it’s also undone, at least a bit, by some practical implementation issues. St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to make an elegant game design rather than an elegant program comes back to bite them here. The things going on behind the scenes in Wasteland are often kind of miraculous in the context of their time, but those things are hidden behind a clunky and inelegant interface. In my book, a truly great game should feel almost effortless to control, but Wasteland feels anything but. Virtually every task requires multiple keystrokes and the navigation of a labyrinth of menus. It’s a far cry from even the old-school simplicity of Ultima‘s alphabet soup of single-keystroke commands, much less the intuitive ease of Dungeon Master‘s mouse-driven interface.

Some of Wasteland‘s more pernicious playability issues feel like they stem from an overly literal translation of the tabletop experience to the computer.  The magnificent simplicity of the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system feels much more clunky and frustrating on the computer. As you explore the maps, you’re expected to guess where a skill and/or attribute might be of use, then to try manually invoking it. If you’re not constantly thinking on this level, and always aware of just what skills every member of your party has that might apply, it’s very easy to miss things. For example, the very first map you’re likely to visit contains a mysterious machine. You’re expected to not just dismiss that as scenery, or to assume it’s something you’ll learn more about later, but rather to use someone’s Intelligence to learn that it’s a water purifier you might be able to fix. Meanwhile other squares on other maps contain similar descriptions that are just scenery. In a tabletop game, where there is a constant active repartee between referee and players, where everything in the world can be fully “implemented” thanks to the referee’s imagination, and where every player controls just one character whom she knows intimately instead of a whole party of four, the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system works a treat. In Wasteland, it can feel like a tedious, mechanistic process of trial and error.

Other parts of Wasteland feel like equally heroic but perhaps misguided attempts to translate things that are simple and intuitive on the tabletop but extremely difficult on the computer to the digital realm at all costs, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. There is, for instance, a convoluted and confusing process for splitting your party into separate groups that can be on entirely separate maps at the same time. It’s impressive in its way, and gives Wasteland claim to yet another first in CRPG history to boot, but one has to question whether the time and effort put into it might have been better spent making a cleaner, more playable computer game. Ditto the parser-based conversation engine that occasionally pops up. An obvious attempt to bring the sort of free-form conversations that are possible with a human referee to the computer, in practice it’s just a tedious game of guess-the-word that makes it far too easy to miss stuff. While I applaud the effort St. Andre and Stackpole and their colleagues at Interplay made to bring more complexity to the CRPG, the fact remains that computer games are not tabletop games, and vice versa.

And then there’s the combat. The Bard’s Tale is still lurking down at the foundation of Wasteland‘s combat engine, but Interplay did take some steps to make it more interesting. Unlike in The Bard’s Tale, the position of your party and their enemies are tracked on a graphical map during combat. In addition to the old Bard’s Tale menu of actions — “attack,” “defend,” etc. — you can move around to find cover, or for that matter charge up to some baddies and stave their heads in with your crowbars in lieu of guns.

Yet somehow combat still isn’t much fun. This groundbreaking and much beloved post-apocalyptic CRPG also serves as an ironic argument for why the vast majority of CRPG designers and players still favor fantasy settings. Something that feels important, maybe even essential, feels lost without the ability to cast spells. Not only do you lose the thrill of seeing a magic-using character level up and trying out a new slate of spells, but you also lose the strategic dimension of managing your mana reserves, a huge part of the challenge of the likes of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. In theory, the acquiring of ever more powerful guns and the need to manage your ammunition stores in Wasteland ought to take the place of spells and the mana reserves needed to cast them, but in practice it doesn’t quite work out like that. New guns just aren’t as interesting as new spells, especially considering that there really aren’t all that many of the former to be found in Wasteland. And you’re never very far from a store selling bullets, and you can carry so many with you anyway that it’s almost a moot point.

Most of all, there’s just too much fighting. One place where St. Andre and Stackpole regrettably didn’t depart from CRPG tradition was in their fondness for the wandering monster. Much of Wasteland is a dull slog through endless low-stakes battles with “leather jerks” and “ozoners,” an experience sadly divorced from the game’s more interesting and innovative aspects but one that ends up being at least as time-consuming.

For all these reasons, then, I’m a bit less high on Wasteland than many others. It strikes me as more historically important than a timeless classic, more interesting than playable. There’s of course no shame in that. We need games that push the envelope, and that’s something that Wasteland most assuredly did. The immense nostalgic regard in which it’s still held today says much about how amazing its innovations really were back in 1988.

As the gap between that year of Wasteland‘s release and Fargo, Pavlish, and Stackpole’s December 1985 meeting will attest, this was a game that was in development an insanely long time by the standards of the 1980s. And as you have probably guessed, it was never intended to take anything like this long. Interplay first talked publicly about the Wasteland project as early as the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1986, giving the impression it might be available as early as that Christmas. Instead it took fully two more years.

Thanks to Wasteland‘s long gestation, 1987 proved a very quiet year for the usually prolific Interplay. While ports of older titles continued to appear, the company released not a single original new game that year. The Bard’s Tale III, turned over to Bill Heineman following Michael Cranford’s decision to return to university, went into development early in 1987, but like Wasteland its gestation would stretch well into 1988. (Stackpole, who was apparently starting to like this computer-game development stuff, wrote the storyline and the text for The Bard’s Tale III to accompany Heineman’s design.) Thankfully, the first two Bard’s Tale games were continuing to sell very well, making Interplay’s momentary lack of productivity less of a problem than it might otherwise have been.

Shortly before Wasteland‘s belated release, St. Andre, Stackpole, and Pavlish, along with a grab bag of the others who had worked with them, headed out to the Sonoran Desert for a photo shoot. Everyone scoured the oddities in the backs of their closets and the local leather shops for their costumes, and a professional makeup team was recruited to help turn them all into warriors straight out of Mad Max. Bill Heineman, an avid gun collector, provided much of the weaponry they carried. The final picture, featured on the inside cover of Wasteland‘s package, has since become far more iconic than the art that appeared on its front, a fitting tribute to this unique team and their unique vision.

Some of the Wasteland team. Ken St. Andre, Michael A. Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Some of the Wasteland team. From left: Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Both Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III were finished almost simultaneously after many months of separate labor. When Fargo informed Electronic Arts of the good news, they insisted on shipping the two overdue games within two months of each other — May of 1988 in the case of Wasteland, July in that of The Bard’s Tale III — over his strident objections. He had good grounds for concern: these two big new CRPGs were bound to appeal largely to the same group of players, and could hardly help but cannibalize one another’s sales. To Interplay, this small company that had gone so long without any new product at all, the decision felt not just unwise but downright dangerous to their future.

Fargo had been growing increasingly unhappy with Electronic Arts, feeling Interplay just wasn’t earning enough from their development contracts for the hit games they had made for their publisher. Now this move was the last straw. Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III would be the last games Interplay would publish through Electronic Arts, as Fargo decided to carry out an idea he’d been mulling over for some time: to turn Interplay into a full-fledged publisher as well as developer, with their own name — and only their own name — on their game boxes.

Following a pattern that was already all too typical, The Bard’s Tale III — the more traditional game, the less innovative, and the sequel — became by far the better selling of the pairing. Wasteland didn’t flop, but it didn’t become an out-and-out hit either. Doubtless for this reason, neither Interplay nor Electronic Arts were willing to invest in the extensive porting to other platforms that marked the Bard’s Tale games. After the original Apple II and Commodore 64 releases, the only Wasteland port was an MS-DOS version that appeared nine months later, in March of 1989. Programmed by Interplay’s Michael Quarles, it sports modestly improved graphics and an interface that makes halfhearted use of a mouse. While most original players of Wasteland knew it in its 8-bit incarnations, it’s this version that almost everyone who has played it in the years since knows, and for good reason: it’s a far less painful experience than the vintage 8-bit one of juggling disks and waiting, waiting, waiting for all of those painstakingly detailed maps to load and save.

Wasteland‘s place in history, and in the mind of Brian Fargo, would always loom larger than its sales figures might suggest. Unfortunately, his ability to build on its legacy was immediately hampered by the split with Electronic Arts: the terms of the two companies’ contract signed all rights to the  Wasteland name as well as The Bard’s Tale over to Interplay’s publisher. Thus both series, one potential and one very much ongoing, were abruptly stopped in their tracks. Electronic Arts toyed with making a Bard’s Tale IV on their own from time to time without ever seeing the idea all the way through. Oddly given the relative sales numbers, Electronic Arts did bring a sequel of sorts to Wasteland to fruition, although they didn’t go so far as to dare to put the Wasteland name on the box. Given the contents of said box, it’s not hard to guess why. Fountain of Dreams (1990) uses Michael Quarles’s MS-DOS Wasteland engine, but it’s a far less audacious affair. Slipped out with little fanfare — Electronic Arts could spot a turkey as well as anyone — it garnered poor reviews, sold poorly, and is unloved and largely forgotten today.

In the absence of rights to the Wasteland name, Fargo initially planned to leverage his development team and the tools and game engine they had spent so long creating to make more games in other settings that would play much like Wasteland but wouldn’t be actual sequels. The first of these was to have been called Meantime, and was to have been written and designed by Stackpole with the help of many of the usual Wasteland suspects. Its premise was at least as intriguing as Wasteland‘s: a game of time travel in which you’d get to meet (and sometimes battle) historical figures from Cyrano de Bergerac to P.T. Barnum, Albert Einstein to Amelia Earhart. At the Winter CES in January of 1989, Fargo said that Meantime would be out that summer: “I am personally testing the maps right now.” But it never appeared, thanks to a lot of design questions that were never quite solved and, most of all, thanks to the relentless march of technology. All of the Wasteland development tools ran on the Apple II and Commodore 64, platforms whose sales finally collapsed in 1989. Interplay tinkered with trying to move the tool chain to MS-DOS for several years, but the project finally expired from neglect. There just always seemed to be something more pressing to do.

Somewhat surprisingly given the enthusiasm with which they’d worked on Wasteland, neither St. Andre nor Stackpole remained for very long in the field of computer-game design. St. Andre returned to his librarian gig and his occasional sideline as a tabletop-RPG designer, not working on another computer game until recruited for Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2 project many years later. Stackpole continued to take work from Interplay for the next few years, on Meantime and other projects, often working with his old Flying Buffalo and Wasteland colleague Liz Danforth. But his name too gradually disappeared from game credits in direct proportion to its appearance on the covers of more and more franchise novels. (His first such book, set in the universe of FASA’s BattleTech game, was published almost simultaneously with Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III.)

Fargo himself never forgot the game that had always been first and foremost his own passion project. He would eventually revive it, first via the “spiritual sequels” Fallout (1997) and Fallout 2 (1998), then with the belated Kickstarter-funded sequel-in-name-as-well-as-spirit Wasteland 2 (2014).

But those are stories for much later times. Wasteland was destined to stand alone for many years. And yet it wouldn’t be the only lesson 1988 brought in the perils and possibilities of bringing tabletop rules to the computer. Another, much higher profile tabletop adaptation, the result of a blockbuster licensing deal given to the most unexpected of developers, was still to come before the year was out. Next time we’ll begin to trace the story behind this third and final landmark CRPG of 1988, the biggest selling of the whole lot.

(Sources: PC Player of August 1989; Questbusters of Juy 1986, March 1988, April 1988, May 1988, July 1988, August 1988, October 1988, November 1988, January 1989, March 1989. On YouTube, Rebecca Heineman and Jennell Jaquays at the 2013 Portland Retro Gaming Expo; Matt Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo; Brian Fargo at Unity 2012. Other online sources include a Michael Stackpole article on RockPaperShotgun; Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman on Gamasutra; GTW64’s page on Meantime.

Wasteland is available for purchase from GOG.com.)


  1. Bill Heineman now lives as Rebecca Heineman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

  2. Paul Jaquays now lives as Jennell Jaquays. 

  3. Interestingly, Stackpole did have one connection to Interplay, through Bard’s Tale designer Michael Cranford. Cranford sent Flying Buffalo a Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure of his own devising around 1983. Stackpole thought it showed promise, but that it wasn’t quite there yet, so he sent it back with some suggestions for improvement and a promise to look at it again if Cranford followed through on them. But he never heard another word from him; presumably it was right about this time that Cranford got busy making The Bard’s Tale

  4. In what must be a record for footnotes of this type, I have to also note that Dan Bunten later became Danielle Bunten Berry, and lived until her death in 1998 under that name. 

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Friends of the Wasteland: The Legacy of Flying Buffalo

Flying Buffalo

Two advances, one technical and one conceptual, led to computerized adventure and RPG games as we came to know them in the 1980s. The technical advance was of course the PC revolution, dating from, depending on how you prefer to look at these things, either the arrival of the first Altair kit computers in 1975 or that of the first pre-assembled consumer-grade computers, the legendary Trinity of 1977. The conceptual advance was a slightly older, subtler development, but hardly of less importance. It dates to 1974, the year that Dungeons & Dragons was published. Shortly after beginning this blog, I wrote of Dungeons & Dragons that “its impact on the culture at large has been, for better or for worse, greater than that of any single novel, film, or piece of music to appear during its lifetime.” Much as that claim may cause many cultural gatekeepers to slam down their portcullises in horror, I stand by it more than ever today.

When it comes to computer games in particular, the noise that a bunch of tabletop gamers struck up in the 1970s just keeps on echoing. Whether you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG or not, if you play computer games today you are heir to what those folks first wrought all those decades ago. Sometimes the influence is so strong that I feel compelled to take an extended look back.

Well, readers, what can I say? We’re coming to another of those times. In the course of the next handful of articles I’ll find myself again needing to look back to the tabletop games of the 1970s to understand the computer games of the 1980s. We’ll start that journey today with a loose-knit group of friends and colleagues who quietly changed the face not only of games but also of books. And it all started because one of them arrived late to a game night.

Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, and programmer Alan Pavlish dressed up as Wasteland Warriors, 1988.

Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, and programmer Alan Pavlish dressed up as Wasteland Warriors, 1988.

The game night in question took place in April of 1975 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The individual in question was a shy 28-year-old librarian with the incongruously Arthurian name of Ken St. Andre. In deference to his chivalrous moniker, St. Andre had always loved adventure and fantasy fiction, right from the day he first discovered the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard as a young boy. His motivation for reading, then as always, was unabashed escapism:

I have never been particularly strong, athletic, heroic, good-looking, or successful with women. I’m the kind of guy who would like to live a life of high adventure, but am either too smart or too chicken to really pursue such a life. Tarzan and Conan—those guys are my ideals—physically superhuman, handsome, courageous, and irresistible.

He dreamed of becoming a professional writer of similar stories, but, not being a terribly outgoing or self-confident sort, had found it easier to take a graduate degree in library science and settle into a quiet nine-to-five routine.

St. Andre’s social calendar, such as it was, was dominated by his other great love: that of games. He had learned chess at his father’s knee at the age of 6, and gone on to become president of his high school’s chess club. But as of the spring of 1975 his biggest ludic obsession was Diplomacy. Having discovered the game only a year or so before, he now played every chance he got, and was already crafting variants of his own that moved the setting from pre-World War I Europe to worlds of fantasy drawn from his imagination and the paperbacks on his bursting bookshelves. He thus had cause to be particularly disappointed tonight to find that his friends had already started playing without him: the game they were playing was Diplomacy.

Bored and made restless by the fun his friends were having without him, St. Andre started poking through the other games lying about the place. One of them couldn’t help but catch his eye, a wood-grained box lying amid the sea of cardboard with the name Dungeons & Dragons stamped on its front. Released more than a year before by a tiny garage-run company called Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), Dungeons & Dragons was prompting considerable discussion in gaming circles. But, with TSR’s distribution reaching little beyond the Midwest, the game was hard to come by in other parts of the country. St. Andre had heard of it, but had never seen it in the flesh. Now, thanks to a member of his gaming group who’d scored a copy somewhere and brought it along as a curiosity to show to the group, he had his chance. He opened the box to discover four rulebooks and a pile of reference cards.

St. Andre loved what he read on the first pages of the first of the rulebooks. Promising as he did to let him play the role of Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars or Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, Gary Gygax could hardly have done a better job of appealing to St. Andre’s instinct for escapist adventure had he written the introduction just for him. As he read further, however, St. Andre grew more and more nonplussed. This game was complicated. When he turned to the combat rules, which were grouped together in a rulebook inexplicably titled Chainmail instead of Dungeons & Dragons, he gave up, baffled by rules that demanded miniatures and a referee willing to literally build the battlefield on a tabletop (“construct terrain on 2′ X 2′ pieces of masonite or similar material, sculpting hills, gullies, ridges, rivers, and so on with plaster and/or paper mache”). That sort of arts-and-crafts project might have sounded appealing to some, but St. Andre wasn’t among them.

It was a classic clash of expectations. Gary Gygax and TSR were steeped in the culture of hardcore miniatures wargaming, where no rule was too complicated, where physically making from scratch the battlefield and the combatants that roamed across it was half the fun. Dungeons & Dragons itself had been created not as a standalone game but as a fantasy storytelling “supplement” to TSR’s Medieval wargame Chainmail.

St. Andre, for all his love for games in general, had no particular truck with minutiae-obsessed wargames. He preferred more easygoing, social games like Diplomacy or even Monopoly. His reaction to Dungeons & Dragons was thus: “What a great concept! What a terrible execution!” He would later sum up his differences with Gygax by saying that he was interested in taking the stories he loved and turning them into games, while Gygax wanted to take his hardcore wargames and add a bit of story.

Still, the fire had been lit. Over three feverish days and nights, St. Andre laid out the basis for a new game, which he then tested and refined with his friends for the next couple of months. For most of this period they continued to call the game they were playing Dungeons & Dragons, an anecdote that provides as good a marker as any of the endeavor’s fundamental innocence as well as its sheer derivativeness. But when he started thinking about actually publishing the game, St. Andre knew that he needed to give it a name of its own. He came up with Tunnels & Troglodytes, whereupon a member of his group named Dan Carver promptly shortened it to Tunnels & Trolls. Pithy, catchy, and cheeky in its willingness to riff off of its inspiration, it suited the game’s personality perfectly. A kind critic of Tunnels & Trolls might note how much faster and simpler it was to play than Dungeons & Dragons. A less kind critic might note that those qualities were not down to any unique mechanical elegance so much as a willingness to leave just about everything to the Dungeon Master — yes, Tunnels & Trolls retained the name for its own referee — to make up as the game went along. Whether you find that notion appealing says much about what sort of player you are.

St. Andre paid the print shop at Arizona State University $60 to run off the first 100 copies of his game, which now filled about 40 typewritten pages — or roughly the size of one of those four Dungeons & Dragons books. He struggled to sell more than a handful of his modest print run; he was anything but a natural salesman.

Luckily, he had among his gaming acquaintances a fellow named Rick Loomis, owner of a tiny company called Flying Buffalo that was based right there in Scottsdale. We’ve met Flying Buffalo before in the context of their main business as of 1975: a play-by-mail grand-strategy game called Starweb that was moderated by a big Raytheon 704 minicomputer. Starweb, which incredibly is still ongoing today, would become an influence on later PC games, particularly on those of the British designer Mike Singleton, creator of the 1984 classic The Lords of Midnight. Indeed, after a start like Starweb one can imagine Flying Buffalo doubling down on gaming’s digital frontier, perhaps becoming an early publisher of PC games. But instead Loomis made his big play on the tabletop, a decision that was all but foreordained by what transpired between him and Ken St. Andre in 1975.

St. Andre asked Loomis in his shy way if the latter might be able to take his remaining copies of Tunnels & Trolls with him to the first ever Origins Game Fair at Johns Hopkins University that July. Loomis agreed to do so as a favor without much enthusiasm. Once at the Fair, he stuck the plain, hand-stapled booklets on a corner of Flying Buffalo’s table, sure no one would glance at them twice. He sold every single copy.

Legend says that he did so under the evil eye of Gary Gygax, selling his Dungeons & Dragons sets for several times the cost of Tunnels & Trolls and staring daggers at Loomis all the while from TSR’s booth on the other side of the hall. Never the cuddliest of personalities, Gygax was outraged by Tunnels & Trolls, considering it nothing more than a cheap, inferior knockoff of his idea. (The name didn’t do much to help Flying Buffalo’s case…) Several times over the years TSR, which grew to be a very litigious firm under Gygax’s watch, would rattle their legal sabres at Flying Buffalo, thankfully without ever quite following through on the big lawsuit that might have buried the smaller company under lawyers’ fees.

The first RPG to be published by a company other than TSR, Tunnels & Trolls established the dynamic that has continued to rule the tabletop-RPG industry to this day. Unusually in this world of ours where pioneers so often go unrewarded, Dungeons & Dragons, the first tabletop RPG, has remained the most popular by a veritable order of magnitude. All other games have been forced to define themselves in relation to — and frequently in opposition to — Gygax’s vision. Of no game was this more true than Tunnels & Trolls. After all, Tunnels & Trolls prompted the comparisons before you even opened its rulebook, just as soon as you read its title. As he’s always at pains to emphasize, St. Andre may very well have had only the vaguest understanding of Dungeons & Dragons at the time he wrote Tunnels & Trolls, but his game was comprehensively a reaction to it nevertheless: “deliberately designed to be simpler in its mechanics, less expensive, faster to play, and more whimsical.”

The things that had baffled St.Andre about Dungeons & Dragons were largely the same things that would continue to baffle new players for decades to come. Why did armor make characters more difficult to hit instead of absorbing damage when they were hit? (St. Andre opted for the latter approach in his game.) What the hell was the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom? (Reasoning that anyone truly wise wouldn’t be spending her days chasing monsters and looting dungeons, St. Andre ditched the latter statistic, replacing it with Luck.) Was it really necessary to use a pile of weird polyhedral dice, especially given that such dice didn’t come included with Dungeons & Dragons and weren’t terribly easy to find in the mid-1970s? (St. Andre made sure that his game needed only a couple of standard six-sided dice, of the sort anyone could find by raiding that old Monopoly game in the closet.) In what kind of society did people walk around advertising that they were “lawful,” “neutral,” or “chaotic?” (St. Andre ditched the concept of alignment entirely.) Did there really need to be two entirely separate schools of magic, each with its own fiddly rules? (St. Andre ditched clerics as well, a decision that had the added upside of keeping his game from being “dominated by some pseudo-Christian religion.”) Even if a foolish consistency really was the hobgoblin of little minds, was it necessary for Dungeons & Dragons to be so consistently inconsistent, for every rule to read like it had been created in a vacuum, with no reference to or knowledge of any of the others?

Tunnels & Trolls can almost be read as a satire of Dungeons & Dragons, if it’s possible to satirize something that was itself so new and nascent. St. Andre reworked Gygax’s sturdily descriptive but humorless spell names to bring a dash of joy to their casting: “Lightning Bolt” became “Take That You Fiend!,” “Neutralize Poison” became “Too Bad Toxin.” He once aptly described Tunnels & Trolls as The Lord of the Rings filtered through the sensibility of Marvel Comics. One of the most iconic pieces of Tunnels & Trolls art is one of the earliest, a troll — who, I must say, actually looks rather like a gorilla — with an arrow through his head and a caption below saying, “HA-HA! Yah missed all my vital spots!!” It stems from one of St. Andre’s early game sessions, during which the character being run by Rob (brother of Dan) Carver shot a giant lion at point-blank range with an arbalest, only to see the beast keep right on coming and maul him. St. Andre’s response to Carver’s loudly expressed outrage was immortalized by Carver himself the following day. Crudely drawn yet easygoing and funny where Dungeons & Dragons was pedantic and serious, it captures the anarchic spirit of Tunnels & Trolls beautifully. Come to think of it, “crudely drawn yet easygoing and funny” sums up Tunnels & Trolls itself pretty well.

Tunnels & TrollsHad Tunnels & Trolls been merely the first non-TSR RPG or “merely” the progenitor of the countless rules-light, storytelling-heavy games of today, its place in history would be secure. Yet its influence has been still more marked than those descriptions would imply, thanks to a conversation the Flying Buffalo friends had one night after attending a Phoenix science-fiction convention.

The topic was that perennial problem of so many RPG players, then and now: the need to reconcile busy lives with getting together on a regular basis with friends to play. What if there was a way to play a solo game of Tunnels of Trolls? A fellow named Steve MacAllister suggested that it might be possible to create a sort of interactive, programmed book. The player could read a paragraph setting up the scene, then, depending on the circumstances, either choose an option from a multiple-choice list or roll dice according to the standard Tunnels & Trolls rules, then turn to the next appropriate numbered paragraph to continue the story. And so on, and so on, until the adventure ended in victory or death or some state in between. It might not capture the full flavor or offer the full freedom of a multi-player Tunnels & Trolls session with a good Dungeon Master, but for plenty of players it might just be better than nothing. Loomis himself ran with the idea, and Flying Buffalo published his Buffalo Castle, Tunnels & Trolls Solo Adventure #1, in May of 1976.

Coming three years before Bantam Books kicked off the gamebook craze of the 1980s with the first book of their Choose Your Own Adventure line, the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures were perhaps the most prescient idea of all to come out of Flying Buffalo.1 They were quite successful by the company’s modest standards, selling so much better than conventional multi-player adventures and supplements that at times Flying Buffalo seemed to publish little else. But, as would prove typical for Flying Buffalo in general and Tunnels & Trolls in particular, their influence far outstripped their sales. In the early 1980s, Steve Jackson of the British company Games Workshop had the idea of combining the programmed paragraphs and light RPG mechanics of the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures with the everyday paperback-book form factor of Choose Your Own Adventure. The result was the Fighting Fantasy line, a bestselling juggernaut on both sides of the Atlantic. Sales of the first book in the line alone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982), bettered those of every Tunnels & Trolls product ever made by many multiples. Estimates are that well over 15 million Fighting Fantasy books have been sold in total.

About 1977, a newcomer named Liz Danforth arrived on the scene at Flying Buffalo as a telephone-support operator for Starweb and staff illustrator among other odd jobs. After proving herself as good with words as she was with pictures, she was given the job of editing Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Flying Buffalo’s equivalent to TSR’s Dragon magazine. (As ever, Flying Buffalo was still defining itself in reaction to TSR and what St. Andre liked to call That Other Game. “Sorcerer’s Apprentice will attempt to carry the T&T philosophy of FRP gaming to a wider audience,” he wrote for the first issue. “Namely that role-playing is fun. Dungeons & Dragons, despite its inherent silliness, has somehow taken on the quasi-serious aspects of a religion.”) In later years, Danforth would achieve considerable fame as a freelance illustrator of countless games and book jackets. For now, though, she applied a much-needed sheen of professionalism to the output of Flying Buffalo, whose publications at the time she arrived still looked and read like fanzines. Notably, she all but completely rewrote St. Andre’s rambling prose for a slicker, tighter new edition of Tunnels & Trolls that appeared in 1979.

In 1978, another newcomer named Michael Stackpole arrived. An avid player of Starweb who struck up an acquaintance with Loomis through that game, Stackpole first sold him a new Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure and then parlayed that into a full-time job at Flying Buffalo, something even St. Andre himself — he was, you’ll remember, not much for “high adventure” in real life — never quite dared give up his stable librarian gig to accept. Once again, had Flying Buffalo’s only claim to fame been to serve as the incubator of Michael Stackpole’s talent it would be worthy of at least a substantial footnote in the history of gaming and science-fiction fandom. Stackpole would go on to become a prolific science-fiction novelist, frequently writing books set in the universes of big ludic and cinematic properties like BattleTech, World of Warcraft, and, perhaps most notably, Star Wars. Not being terribly interested in such things, I can’t speak to his qualities as a writer, but he’s certainly been successful at it.

With the help of Danforth and Stackpole, Flying Buffalo slicked-up and professionalized just in time for the wave of success that rolled across the world of tabletop RPGs in general during the next few years. These were the years when school lunch rooms across the country were dotted with Dungeons & Dragons manuals and funny dice, when TSR’s annual revenues topped $20 million, and when a young Tom Hanks was starring in a terrible movie about the dangers of the craze. (The name of that movie and its titular game, Mazes and Monsters, could easily have been that of Tunnels & Trolls had St. Andre and his friends chosen another letter to alliterate on.) TSR, the flagship of the industry, pulled along a whole convoy of smaller vessels, among them Flying Buffalo, in their wake. It was a prosperity and level of mainstream attention — admittedly not always positive mainstream attention — the likes of which the tabletop-RPG industry had never known before nor would ever know again. Flying Buffalo expanded quickly, increasing both the quality and quantity of their output of both Tunnels & Trolls and other products. They were now big enough to attract names like Dave Arneson, Gygax’s less pedantic partner in crafting the original vision for Dungeons & Dragons, and Charles de Lint, another soon to be prominent novelist, to write for them.

Perhaps their most fondly remembered product of this brief halcyon period, as indelibly Flying Buffalo as any Tunnels & Trolls publication, is Grimtooth’s Traps (1981), a system-agnostic collection of hilariously lethal party killers, as introduced and annotated by the titular troll himself. Deeply unfair by any conventional standard, the traps in all their Rube Goldberg complexity are so much fun that you’d almost be willing to forgive any sadistic Dungeon Master who sprung any of them on your party. But then St. Andre has always scoffed at conventional notions of game balance, saying that if the odds were truly even then the heroes wouldn’t be heroes, now would they? Anyway, in his world the Dungeon Master is the absolute final arbiter of everything, free to fudge or ignore dice rolls and deus ex machina the players out of a jam whenever she feels it necessary to advance the real goal of entertaining, exciting cooperative storytelling.

For our purposes, Flying Buffalo’s most significant non-Tunnels & Trolls product must be an entirely new 1983 game called Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes — a game of twentieth-century adventure of all stripes, from John Rambo (mercenary) to James Bond (spy) to Sam Spade (private eye). Michael Stackpole, still a few years removed from beginning his career as a novelist, took it as an opportunity to graduate from writing adventures and supplements to crafting a whole new game system of his own — albeit a game system that owed more than a little to the mechanics of Tunnels & Trolls. His most significant addition to those mechanics was an à la carte menu of skills that took the place of Tunnels & Trolls‘s rigid character classes. Stackpole devised an ingenious and quietly influential system wherein skills could be added to a character’s core abilities to determine her chance of succeeding at something. For instance, she might use Dexterity plus her Pistol skill to shoot at something, Intelligence plus Pistol to figure out what type of pistol a given specimen is, or even Charisma plus Pistol to impress someone else with her shooting skills.

Unfortunately, the year of Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes‘s publication was also the year that the bloom began to come off the tabletop rose, not least because the sorts of kids who had flocked to Dungeons & Dragons and its competitors began to discover the adventurous computer games the tabletop industry had done so much to influence. Thanks to declining sales and some unwise financial decisions of the sort that are endemic to a young industry enjoying a sudden spurt of growth — in this case the particular culprit was a too-good-to-be-true financing deal with a local printer — Flying Buffalo very nearly went under. Loomis suddenly didn’t have the resources to properly promote or support Stackpole’s game, nor to do much of anything else for that matter. Sorcerer’s Apprentice ceased publication as part of a series of heartbreaking cost-cutting measures, and Liz Danforth moved on. Michael Stackpole stuck around longer, but would eventually go freelance as well as his career as a novelist began to take off. Flying Buffalo flies on to this day, but, like Chaosium, that other tabletop survivor we met earlier, has never since enjoyed anything like the success of their brief early-1980s heyday.

And that is largely that for Flying Buffalo’s most influential period. But what an influence it was! There’s the proto-4X game and proto-MMORPG all rolled into one that was Starweb. There’s Tunnels & Trolls, the game that proved that Dungeon and Dragons need not be the be-all end-all when it comes to fantasy RPGs, and that showed in the process how much rollicking fun could be had with a rules-light, story-oriented system. There’s the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures and the millions of dog-eared, pencil-smeared paperbacks they spawned. There’s the later careers of Liz Danforth and Michael Stackpole. One could doubtless write several substantial articles of any of these legacies. The legacy on which I’d like to concentrate, however, is yet another one, albeit one related to all of these things.

Even as Flying Buffalo was frantically downsizing, a youthful computer-game executive was fingering his copy of Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes and musing. Brian Fargo, founder and head of a little Orange County developer called Interplay, was in the process of finishing his company’s first CRPG, a Wizardry-like dungeon delver called The Bard’s Tale that had been written primarily by his old high-school buddy Michael Cranford and would soon be published by Electronic Arts. But Fargo already had grander ambitions. He loved pulpy post-apocalyptic fictions: the movies The Omega Man and Mad Max, the comic book Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. The post-apocalyptic CRPG he was dreaming of would be the first of its type, and must entail more than mapping endless mazes and slaughtering endless hordes of monsters — not that a little slaughtering would be amiss, mind you. Looking at Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, a game he liked very much, he started thinking about another first: working with experienced tabletop designers to translate a set of tabletop mechanics, which even in the rules-lights form favored by Flying Buffalo were far more complex than those of the typical CRPG, to the computer.

Fargo’s first call was to Ken St. Andre, who was very receptive. (“Cross my palm with silver and I’ll be happy to work on games for any company out there,” he jokes today.) St. Andre almost immediately came up with the perfect name, one that would remain unquestioned henceforward: Wasteland. But Fargo would, St. Andre said, need to get Michael Stackpole on board if he wanted to adapt the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes rules; it was Stackpole’s game, after all.

When Fargo duly called him up, Stackpole was initially skeptical; plenty of similar feelers had never turned into anything. But when Fargo asked whether he, Fargo, could fly out to Arizona and talk to him about it in person, Stackpole started to take the idea more seriously. Soon he had officially signed on as well.

Fargo’s choice of partners proved a good one in more ways than one. St. Andre and Stackpole were both very well-acquainted with computer games and didn’t look down on them, a quality that stood them in marked contrast to many of their peers from the tabletop world. Both had become active electronic as well as tabletop gamers in recent years, and both had parlayed this new hobby, as they had their earlier, into paying gigs by writing articles, reviews, and columns for magazines like Computer Gaming World and Questbusters. St. Andre had developed a special enthusiasm for Electronic Arts’s Adventure Construction Set, a system for making simple CRPGs without programming that wasn’t all that far removed in its do-it-yourself spirit from Tunnels & Trolls. He served as head of an officially recognized Adventure Construction Set fan club.

Fiercely loyal to their old friends, St. Andre and Stackpole convinced Fargo to widen the circle yet further, first to include Liz Danforth and then Dan Carver, the very man who had given Tunnels & Trolls its name all those years ago. The new computer project missed only one key figure from the creative core of the old Flying Buffalo. Rick Loomis, busy trying to save his company, had no time for side projects.

This little group of tabletop alumni was embarking on an unprecedented project. While plenty of veterans of the tabletop had flitted over to the more lucrative world of computer games already, no single project had ever employed so many, and never with such a clear goal of bringing the vintage tabletop-RPG experience to a computer game. Whatever his little band of refugees came up with, Fargo knew as he looked on with excitement and no small trepidation, it was bound to be interesting.

(Sources: Matt Chat 90 with Brian Fargo; Brian Fargo’s speech at the 2012 Unity conference; recent interviews with Ken St. Andre at Grognardia, Poplitko, Obskures, and the Tunnels & Trolls home page; a vintage St. Andre interview with Demon magazine; RPG.Net’s review of Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes. Most of all, Shannon Appelcline’s superb book Designers & Dragons: The 1970s and Jon Peterson’s positively magisterial Playing at the World. The latter book does a far better job making the case for Dungeons & Dragons‘s importance than I have on this blog.)


  1. There were other experiments with interactive books going at the same time as and even before the first Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures. For instance, author Edward Packard of eventual Choose Your Own Adventure fame published Sugarcane Island, a sort of prototype of the concept, through the tiny Vermont Crossroads Press the same year as Buffalo Castle. There is, however, nothing to indicate that anyone at Flying Buffalo has any awareness of this or other developments prior to Choose Your Own Adventure

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Ultima V

Ultima V

Ultima V is a story about freedom of choice. You can’t put these [the eight Virtues] down as laws. It does not work to put these down as laws. They’re fine as a point of discussion, but it’s a completely personal issue. I would never try to build a pseudo-science of truth. This is never meant to be THE TRUTH. This is really meant to be, “Hey, by the way, if you just happen to live by these standards, it works pretty well.” It was never meant to be the one great truth of the universe that you must abide by.

— Richard Garriott

An awful lot of people get awfully exercised over the lore and legends of Britannia and the many failings of Richard Garriott’s stewardship thereof. Some of them spend their time in tortured ret-conning, trying to explain why the geography of the place kept changing from game to game, why its name was changed overnight from Sosaria to Britannia, or, even more inexplicably, why it suddenly turned into our own Earth for a little while there during the time of Ultima II. Others prefer to just complain about it, which is fair enough.

I have to say, though, that it’s hard for me to really care. For me, the Ultima series isn’t most interesting as the saga of Britannia, but rather as something more intimate. It’s the CRPG equivalent of the film Boyhood. As we play through the games we see its creator grow up, from the giddy kid who stuck supercomputers, space shuttles, and Star Wars in his fantasy games — because, hey, those things are all just as cool as Dungeons and Dragons to a nerdy teenager — to the more serious young man who used Ultima IV and, now, Ultima V to try to work out a philosophy for living. Taken as a whole, the series can be seen as a coming-of-age tale as well as a fantasy epic. Having reached a stage in my life where the former is more interesting than the latter, that’s how I prefer to see it anyway. Rather than talk about the Ages of Britannia, I prefer to talk about the ages of Richard Garriott.

What makes the process so gratifying is that the changes that Richard Garriott undergoes are, one senses, the changes that a good-hearted, thoughtful young man ought to undergo. Which is not to say that Garriott is perfect. Lord knows it’s easy enough to mock the sheer one-percenter excess of paying Russia a reputed $30 million to haul him into space for twelve days, and some of his public comments do rather suggest he may be lacking in the Virtue of Humility. But then, given how much his (alter) ego has been stroked over the years,1 it’s not surprising to find that Garriott regards himself as a bit of a special snowflake. Ironically, it wasn’t so much his real or imagined exceptionalism as it was the fact that he was so similar to most of his fans that allowed him to speak to them about ideas that would have caused their eyes to glaze over if they’d encountered them in a school textbook. Likewise, the story of the Richard Garriott whom we glimpse through his games is interesting because of its universality rather than its exceptionalism; it fascinates precisely because so many others have and continue to go through the same stages.

In Ultima IV, we saw his awakening to the idea that there are causes greater than himself, things out there worth believing in, and we saw his eagerness to shout his discoveries from every possible rooftop. This is the age of ideology — of sit-ins and marches, of Occupy Wall Street, of the Peace Corps and the Mormon missionary years. Teenagers and those in their immediate post-teenage years are natural zealots in everything from world politics to the kind of music they listen to (the latter, it must be said, having at least equal importance to the former to many of them).

Yet we must acknowledge that zealotry has a dark side; this is also the age of the Hitler Youth and the Jihad. Some never outgrow the age of ideology and zealotry, a situation with major consequences for the world we live in today. Thankfully, Richard Garriott isn’t one of these. Ultima V is the story of his coming to realize that society must be a negotiation, not a proclamation. “I kind of think of it as my statement against TV evangelists,” he says, “or any other group which would push their personal philosophical beliefs on anybody else.” The world of Ultima V is messier than Ultima IV‘s neat system of ethics can possibly begin to address, full of infinite shades of gray rather than clear blacks and whites. But the message of Ultima V is one we need perhaps even more now than we did in 1988. If only the worst we had to deal with today was television evangelists…

Garriott often refers to Ultima IV as the first Ultima with a plot, but that strikes me as an odd contention. If anything, there is less real story to it than the Ultimas that preceded it: be good, get stronger, and go find a McGuffin called the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom pretty much sums it up. (It’s of course entirely down to the first of these that Ultima IV is such a revolutionary game.) I sense a false conflation here of games with a plot with games that are somehow more worthwhile or socially relevant. “I’m writing stories,” he said during the late 1980s, “stories with some socially significant meaning, or at least some emotional interest.” But if we strip away the value judgments that seem to be confusing the issue, we’re actually left with Ultima V, the first Ultima whose premise can’t be summed up in a single sentence, as the real first Ultima with a plot. In fact, I think we might just need a few paragraphs to do the job.

Thanks to Denis Loubet, Origin's newly installed artist, Ultima V looks much better than the previous games in the series even on a graphically limited platform like the Apple II.

Thanks to Denis Loubet, Origin’s newly installed artist, Ultima V looks better than the previous games in the series even on a graphically limited platform like the Apple II.

So, after you became an Avatar of Virtue through the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom at the bottom of Ultima IV‘s final dungeon, you were rewarded for your efforts by being sent back to boring old twentieth-century Earth to, as the ending text so famously put it, “live there as an example to thy people.” In Britannia, the Council of Wizards raised the Codex to the surface by essentially turning the volcano that housed it inside-out, creating a mountain with a shrine to the Codex on its top. But this process created a huge underground void, an Underworld as big as Britannia’s surface that among other things allows Ultima V to make the claim that it’s fully twice as big as its predecessor. (No, the proportions of one volcano, now matter how immense, don’t quite add up to the whole of Britannia, but just roll with it, okay?)

Everything was still going pretty well in Britannia, so Lord British decided he’d like to embark on an adventure of his own instead of always sending others off to face danger. He got a party together, and they entered the new Underworld on a mission of exploration. Bad idea. He and his party were all killed or captured, only one scribe escaping back to the surface with a tale of horrors in the depths. “And this,” I can just hear Lord British saying, “is why I should have continued to let others do the adventuring for me…”

It happens that Lord British left one Lord Blackthorn as his regent. Now, with Lord British presumed dead, it looks like the post will become permanent. That’s bad news because Blackthorn, concerned that not enough people in Britannia are “striving to uphold the virtues,” has instituted a Code of Virtue to force them to do so.

  1. Thou shalt not lie, or thou shalt lose thy tongue.
  2. Thou shalt help those in need, or thou shalt suffer the same need.
  3. Thou shalt fight to the death if challenged, or thou shalt be banished as a coward.
  4. Thou shalt confess to thy crime and suffer its just punishment, or thou shalt be put to death.
  5. Thou shalt donate half of thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income.
  6. If thou dost lose thine own honor, thou shalt take thine own life.
  7. Thou shalt enforce the laws of virtue, or thou shalt die as a heretic.
  8. Thou shalt humble thyself to thy superiors, or thou shalt suffer their wrath.

A number of your old companions from Ultima IV, opposing this Britannic version of the Spanish Inquisition, have become outlaws against the crown. They arrange to transport you back to Britannia from Earth to hopefully save the day. Garriott:

So, where Ultima IV was fairly black-and-white — I mean good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys — Ultima V unfolds in a gray area. Lots of characters try convincing you that Blackthorn is doing things just right, some say he’s an evil force, and others realize he’s wrong but are taking advantage of the situation for personal profit and are willing to fight anyone who opposes Blackthorn. You now have to operate more or less like a Robin Hood-style outlaw, working against the system but from within the system, which you must bring down philosophically as well by convincing key people in the government that they are wrong about Blackthorn.

Now we can better understand where the plot is really going. Crazily elaborate by previous Ultima standards though it is, the part of the backstory involving Lord British’s trip to the Underworld is mainly there to get him out of the picture for a while so Garriott can tell the story he wants to tell. “Rescuing Lord British in Ultima V is not really the focus of the game,” Garriott admits. “It’s just the final physical activity you have to do, like recovering the Codex in Ultima IV. It is how you do it that’s important.” Garriott wants to turn Britannia, all sweetness and light in Ultima IV (albeit with something of a monster-infestation problem), into a place every bit as horrifying in its own way as the Underworld. And, more accepting of shades of gray though he may have become, he isn’t quite willing to make Lord British — i.e., himself — responsible for that.

If all this isn’t enough plot for you, there’s also the story of one Captain John, whose ship got sucked into the Underworld by a massive whirlpool. There he and his crew stumbled upon one of those Things of Which Man Was Not Meant to Know, which drove him insane and caused him to murder his entire crew, then unleashed the three Shadowlords upon Britannia: personifications of the anti-Virtues of Falsehood, Hatred, and Cowardice. It does seem that you, noble Avatar, have your work cut out for you.

It’s a much clunkier setup in many ways than that of Ultima IV. A big part of that game’s genius is to equate as closely as possible the you sitting in front of the monitor screen with the you who roams the byways of Britannia behind it. Opening with a personality test to assess what kind of a character you are, Ultima IV closes with that aforementioned exhortation to “live as an example to thy people” — an exhortation toward personal self-improvement that hundreds of thousands of impressionable players took with considerable seriousness.

All that formal elegance gets swept away in Ultima V. The newer game does open with a personality test almost identical to the one in Ultima IV, but it’s here this time not to serve any larger thematic goal so much as because, hey, this is an Ultima, and Ultimas are now expected to open with a personality test. Instead of a very personal journey of self-improvement, this time around you’re embarking on just another Epic Fantasy Saga™, of which games, not to mention novels and movies, certainly have no shortage. Garriott’s insistence that it must always be the same person who stars in each successive Ultima is a little strange. It seems that, just as every successive Ultima had to have a personality test, he reckoned that fan service demanded each game star the selfsame Avatar from the previous.

The gypsy and her personality test are back, but the sequence has a darker tone now, suiting the darker tone of the game as a whole.

The gypsy and her personality test are back, but the sequence has a darker tone now, as suits the shift in mood of the game as a whole.

But whatever its disadvantages, Ultima V‘s new emphasis on novelistic plotting allows Garriott to explore his shades of gray in ways that the stark simplicity of Ultima IV‘s premise did not. The world is complicated and messy, he seems to be saying, and to reflect that complication and messiness Ultima has to go that way too. Nowhere is his dawning maturity more marked than in the character of Blackthorn, the villain of the piece.

CRPG villains had heretofore been an homogeneous rogue’s gallery of cackling witches and warlocks, doing evil because… well, because they were evil. In tabletop Dungeons and Dragons, the genre’s primary inspiration, every character chooses an alignment — Good, Neutral, or Evil — to almost literally wear on her sleeve. It’s convenient, allowing as it does good to always be clearly good and those hordes of monsters the good are killing clearly evil and thus deserving of their fate. Yet one hardly knows where to begin to describe what an artificial take on the world it is. How many people who do evil — even the real human monsters — actually believe that they are evil? The real world is not a battleground of absolute Good versus absolute Evil, but a mishmash of often competing ideas and values, each honestly certain of its own claim to the mantle of Good. Our more sophisticated fictions — I’m tempted here to say adult fictions — recognize this truth and use it, both to drive their drama and, hopefully, to make us think. Ultima V became the first CRPG to do the same, thanks largely to the character of Blackthorn.

Blackthorn is not your typical cackling villain. As Garriott emphasizes, “his intentions are really very good.” Setting aside for a moment the message-making that became so important to Garriott beginning with Ultima IV, Ultima V‘s more nuanced approach to villainous psychology makes it a more compelling drama on its own terms. The fact that Blackthorn is earnestly trying to do good, according to his own definition of same, makes him a far more interesting character than any of the cacklers. Speaking from the perspective of a storyteller on the lookout for interesting stories, Garriott notes that a similar certainty of their own goodness was the “best part” about the Moral Majority who were dominating so much of the political discourse in the United States at the time that he was writing Ultima V.

And yet, Garriott acknowledges, legislating morality is according to his own system of values “just the wrong thing to do.” He has held fast to this belief in the years since Ultima V, proving more than willing to put his money where his mouth is. The version of Richard Garriott known to the modern political establishment is very different from the Richard Garriott who’s so well known to nerd culture. When not playing at being a Medieval monarch or an astronaut, he’s a significant donor and fundraiser for the Democratic party as well as for organizations like Planned Parenthood, a persistent thorn in the side of those people, of which there are many in his beloved Texas, who would turn their personal morality into law.

As for Blackthorn, his evil — if, duly remembering that we’re now in a world of shades of gray, evil you consider it to be — is far more insidious and dangerous than the cackling stripe because it presents itself in the guise of simple good sense and practicality. A long-acknowledged truth in politics is that the people you really need to win over to take control of a country are the great middle, the proverbial insurance underwriters and shop owners — one well-known ideologue liked to call them the bourgeois — who form the economic bedrock of any developed nation. If you can present your message in the right guise, such people will often make shocking ethical concessions in the name of safety and economic stability. As the old parable goes, Mussolini may have been a monster, but he was a monster who made the trains run on time — and that counts for a hell of a lot with people. More recently, my fellow Americans have been largely willing to overlook systematic violations of the allegedly fundamental right of habeas corpus, not to mention unprecedented warrantless government spying, in the same spirit. The citizens of Britannia are no different. “In a society that is very repressive like this,” Garriott notes, “many good things can happen. Crime is going down. Certain kinds of businesses [military-industrial complex? surveillance-industrial complex?] are going to flourish.”

The ethics of Ultima IV are easy. Really, how hard is it to decide whether it’s ethical to cheat a blind old shopkeeper of the money she’s due? This time around, Garriott doesn’t let us off so easy. He puts us through the ethical wringer every chance he gets, showing us that sometimes there is no clear-cut ethical choice, only… yes, you guessed it, infinite shades of gray. Just like antagonists, ethical dilemmas become more interesting when they pick up a little nuance. Maybe they become a little too interesting; Garriott proves willing to go to some uncomfortable places in Ultima V, places few big commercial CRPGs of today would dare to tread.

At one point, Blackthorn captures Iolo, one of your boon companions in Virtue from Ultima IV who summoned you back to Britannia. He binds him to a table beneath a razor-sharp pendulum lifted out of Edgar Allan Poe. Betray the plans of your burgeoning resistance movement, Blackthorn tells you, and he will free Iolo. Refuse and… well, let’s just say that soon there will be two Iolos. Scenes like this are familiar fare in movies and television, culminating always in a last-second rescue just before blade bites flesh. In this case, however, there will be no rescue. Do you watch your dear friend die or do you betray everything he stands for? If you let him die, Ultima V erases Iolo entirely from the disk, to deny you the hope of resurrecting him and remind you that some choices really are final.

At another point, you meet a character who holds a vital piece of information, but he’ll part with it only if you exorcise his personal grudge by turning in one of your own friends to Blackthorn’s Inquisition. Personal loyalty or the greater good? Think fast, now! Which will it be? Garriott:

There is no other solution. I agree it was a dirty trick, having to turn in one of the good guys to get information. Now, admittedly, the game never really goes and lynches the guy, but you must presume that is the ramification of what you have done. That is a tough personal thing that I put in there, not because I knew the answer myself, but because I knew it would be a tough decision.

The most notoriously memorable of all Ultima V‘s ethical quandaries, still as shocking when you first encounter it today as it was back in 1988, is the room of the children. Like so much in game design, it arose from the technical affordances (or lack thereof) of the Ultima V engine. Unlike the surface of Britannia, dungeons can contain only monsters, not characters capable of talking to you. Looking for something interesting to put in one of the many dungeons, Garriott stumbled across the tiles used to represent children in Britannia’s towns and castles.

When you walk into the room of the children, they’re trapped in jail cells. Free them by means of a button on the wall, and they prove to be brainwashed; they start to attack your party. You need to get through the room — i.e., through the children — in order to set matters right in Britannia. Once again it’s a horrid question of the greater good — or smaller evil? Garriott:

Well, I thought, that is an interesting little problem, isn’t it? Because I knew darn well that the game doesn’t care whether you kill them or whether you walk away. It didn’t matter, but I knew it would bring up a psychological image in your mind, an image that was in my mind — and any conflict you bring up in anybody’s mind is beneficial. It means a person has to think about it.

In this situation, Garriott — or, perhaps better said, the game engine — thankfully did allow some alternatives to the stark dichotomy of killing children or letting Britannia go to ruin. The clever player might magically charm the children and order them out of the room, or put them to sleep (no, not in that sense!) and just walk past them.

The room nevertheless caused considerable discord within Origin. Alerted by a play-tester whom Richard Garriott calls “a religious fundamentalist,” Robert Garriott, doubtless thinking of Origin’s previous run-ins with the anti-Dungeons and Dragons contingent, demanded in no uncertain terms that his little brother remove the room. When Richard refused, Robert enlisted their parents to the cause; they also asked why he couldn’t be reasonable and just remove this “little room.” “Why,” they asked, “are you bothering to fight for this so much?”

And I said, “Because you guys are missing the point. You are now trying to tell me what I can do artistically — about something that is, in my opinion, not the issue you think it is. If it was something explicitly racist or sexist or promoting child abuse, I could stand being censored. But if it is something that provoked an emotional response from one individual, I say I have proven the success of the room. The fact that you guys are fighting me over this makes me even more sure I should not remove that room from the game.”

And so it remained. Much to Robert’s relief, the room of the children attracted little attention in the trade press, and none at all from the sort of quarters he had feared. Buried as it is without comment deep within an absolutely massive game, those who might be inclined toward outrage were presumably just never aware of its existence.

Ultima V looks superficially all but identical to its predecessor, but a second glance reveals a new depth to the interaction. Note that I'm sitting in a chair here. In addition to the chair, the bed, the torches, the barrel, and the stone are implemented as objects with which I can interact.

Ultima V‘s screen layout and interface appear superficially all but identical to its predecessor, but a second glance reveals a new depth to the interaction. Note that I’m sitting in a chair here. In addition to the chair, the bed, the torches, the barrel, and the stone are all implemented as objects with which I can interact.

Having now spent almost 4000 words discussing the greater themes of Ultima V, I have to acknowledge that, just as with its predecessor, you spend a relatively small proportion of your time directly engaging with those themes when actually playing. Whatever else it is, this is still a conventional CRPG with all the expected mechanics of leveling-up and monster-killing. As usual for the series, its code is built on the base of its predecessor’s, its screen layout and its alphabet soup of single-letter commands largely the same. Ditto its three scales of interaction, with the abstract wilderness map blowing up into more detailed towns and still more detailed, first-person dungeons. The graphics have been noticeably improved even on the graphically limited 8-bit machines, thanks not least to Denis Loubet’s involvement as Origin’s first full-time artist, and the sound has been upgraded on suitably equipped machines to depict the splashing of water in fountains and the chiming of clocks on walls. Still, this is very much an Ultima in the tradition stretching all the way back to Akalabeth; anyone who’s played an earlier game in the series will feel immediately comfortable with this one.

That means that all the other things that Ultima fans had long since come to expect are still here, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The hilariously awful faux-Elizabethan diction, for instance, is still present and accounted for. (One of my favorite examples this time out is a father telling his son he needs an attitude adjustment, a slang phrase very en vogue at the time of Ultima V‘s release courtesy of countless harried sitcom parents: “Thou shalt take a year off from magic, Mondain, to improve thy attitudes.”) And there’s still the sense of an earnest but not yet hugely well-traveled young man — physically or intellectually — punching a bit above his weight in trying to create a new world out of whole cloth. For instance, with Garriott apparently starting to feel uncomfortable with the whole divine-rule-of-kings thing, Britannia has now become a republic with an an uncanny resemblance to the only republic with which Garriott is at all familiar, that of the United States; Lord British, naturally, sits in for the President. Even the story of the government’s founding mirrors that of the American Constitutional Convention. Tolkienesque world-building, needless to say, this is not.

For all its additional complexities of theme and plot, Ultima V actually exhibits more continuity with its predecessor than any earlier Ultima. For the first time in an Ultima, it’s possible to import your character from the previous game, an innovation dating back to the second Wizardry game that most other CRPG series had long embraced. And the overland map of Britannia in Ultima V is, apart from that new volcano that popped up where a dungeon used to be, almost exactly the same as that of Ultima IV.

At the same time, however, Ultima V is a vastly bigger and even more ambitious game than its predecessor. Positioned in the same places on the overland map though they are, all of the towns, castles, and dungeons have been extensively remodeled and expanded during the (Britannic) years that have passed between the two games. And if that’s not enough space for adventure, there’s of course also the huge Underworld that’s been added. The magic system has been revamped and better systemized, now sporting almost twice as many spells — almost fifty in total — that are divided into eight “circles” of power. The parser-based conversation system, while superficially unchanged from that of Ultima IV, now understands much, much more, and delivers more text back in response to every query.

But the heart of Ultima V‘s ambition is not in the sprawl but in the details. Ultima V‘s Britannia must still stand as one of the more impressive virtual worlds ever made. Many of its complexities are seldom seen even in games of today. To see them in a game that runs in 64 K of memory feels nothing short of miraculous. Every object in every room is now an object of its own in the programmatic as well as visual sense, one that can be realistically manipulated: torches can be taken off walls, chairs can be sat in, harpsichords can be played. Just as impressive is the game’s implementation of time. As you play, not only does day cycle to night and back again, but the seasons change, the fields filling with crops over the course of the growing season and then appearing bare and forlorn again when winter comes. Unbeknownst to many players, even the cycles of the heavens are scrupulously modeled, two moons and eight other planets moving across the sky, each according to its own orbit. Every five and a half years comes a full planetary alignment, which you can witness if you happen to look through a telescope at just the right instant. This Britannia is a land bursting with secrets and wonders, truly an unprecedented achievement in its day in virtual world-building.

In keeping with the new focus on temporal change, characters now follow daily schedules instead of standing endlessly in one spot. Consider Jeremy, who lives and works in the inn in the city of Yew. He gets up from his back-room lodgings at 9:00 each morning to go to the prison to visit his brother, who’s been incarcerated there under Blackthorn’s heresy laws. He gets back to the inn in time for the lunch rush, and spends the whole day working in the kitchen. After closing time, he visits his brother once more, then returns to his room to sleep. Meanwhile the entire town is following similar patterns; virtually everyone stops at Jeremy’s inn for a bite to eat and a bit of gossip at some point during the day. Guard shifts change; drawbridges and portcullises go up and down; shops open and close. Coupled with the richer conversations, it’s enough to make the inhabitants of the town feel like real people living real lives rather than conversation vending machines waiting for the Avatar to step up and trigger a clue, a joke, or a non sequitur.

Indeed, this version of Britannia as a whole is a less artificial place than Ultima IV‘s. While all of the towns from that game remain, each still corresponding to a Virtue, the correspondence is less neat. Garriott:

When you walk into a town it should look like a bustling Medieval village, with all the normal kinds of things you’d expect to find in a town, but there are only six characters that you have a chance to meet and talk to. These six characters don’t tell you straight out that “Moonglow is the city of Honesty,” for example. It’s not like honesty awards are plastered everywhere. It’s more that because of the nature of commerce in this town, because of what is important to these people, honesty is a consistent trait. You might hear, “By the way, everyone around here is pretty honest. It’s one of the things that we pride ourselves on around here.” Like “everything is bigger in Texas,” that kind of thing.

There are welcome signs that Garriott and his development team have themselves taken note of many of the things I complained about in my article on Ultima IV — those things that, at least in my contrarian opinion, made that game a fascinating one to talk about but not always a terribly compelling one to play. Major steps have been taken to reduce the tedium factor. As Garriott attests above, the non-player characters in the towns and castles are among a few things in Ultima V that have wisely been reduced in number in comparison to its predecessor. Instead of having to lawnmower through dozens of pointless conversations in every town, you’re left with a smaller number of personalities who fit with the world and who are actually interesting to speak to — in other words, no more Paul and Linda McCartney wandering around quoting lyrics from their latest album. The pain of the endless combat in Ultima IV is similarly reduced, and for similar reasons. There are far fewer monsters roaming the Britannic countryside this time around (another result of Blackthorn’s law-and-order policies?), and when you do have to fight you’ll find yourself dropped into a more complex combat engine with more tactical dimensions. The dungeons, meanwhile, are stuffed with interesting scripted encounters — perhaps too interesting at times, like that room of the children — rather than endless wandering monsters. Mixing reagents for spells is still incredibly tedious, and Garriott has devised one entirely new recipe for aggravation, a runic alphabet used by most of the printed materials you find in the game that must be laboriously decoded, letter by letter, from a chart in the manual. Nevertheless, on balance he has given us a much more varied, much less repetitive experience.

Ah, runes, how I do hate thee...

Ah, runes, how I do hate thee…

But alas, many of Ultima IV‘s more intractable design problems do remain. Solving Ultima V is still a matter of running down long chains of clues, most of them to be found in only one place in this vast world, and often deliberately squirreled away in its most obscure corners at that. Even if you can muster the doggedness required to see it through, you’re all but guaranteed to be completely stymied at at least one point in your journeys, missing a clue and utterly unsure where to find it in the whole of Britannia. The cycles of time only add to the difficulty; now you must often not only find the right character to get each clue, but also find the right character at the right time. Ultima V is in the opinion of many the most difficult Ultima ever made, a game that’s willing to place staggering demands on its player even by the standards of its own day, much less our own. This is a game that plops you down at its beginning, weak and poorly equipped, in a little cottage somewhere in Britannia — you have no idea where. Your guidance consists of a simple, “Okay, go save the world!” The Ultima series has never been known for coddling its players, but this is approaching the ridiculous.

I think we can find some clues as to why Ultima V is the way it is in Garriott’s development methodology. He has always built his games from the bottom up, starting with the technical underpinnings (the tile-graphics engine, etc.), then creating a world simulated in whatever depth that technology allows. Only at the end does he add the stuff that makes his world into a proper game. Ironically given that Ultima became the CRPG series famed for its plots, themes, and ideas, said plots, themes, and ideas came in only “very, very late in the development” of each game. The structure of play arises directly from the affordances of the simulated world. A classic example, often cited by Garriott, is that of the harpsichord in Ultima V. After adding it on a lark during the world-building phase, it was natural during the final design phase to give it some relevance to the player’s larger goals. So, he made playing it open up a secret panel; therein lies an item vital to winning the game. Garriott:

[This approach] makes a great deal of sense to me. The worst example of this is exactly the wrong way to design your game. If I say, “Here’s a story, pick any book at random, make me a game that does that,” it won’t work. The reason why is because that story is not written with “Is the technology feasible?” in mind. By definition it will not be as competitive as my game is because I have chosen specific story elements that the technology shows off particularly well. It required little, if any, extra work, and it works well with all the other elements that can exist. It is designed to adhere to the reality that you can pull off technologically. By definition, it fits within the reality of Britannia.

And every time a new management person comes in and says, “Richard, you’re doing it all wrong,” I make my case, and eventually they either give up on me or become a convert.

It’s interesting to note that Garriott’s process is the exact opposite of that employed by a designer like, say, Sid Meier, who always comes up with the fictional premise first and only then figures out the layers of technology, simulation, and gameplay that would best enable it. While I’m sure that Garriott is correct in noting how his own approach keeps a design within the bounds of technical feasibility, the obvious danger it brings is that of making the actual game almost a footnote to the technology and, in the case of the Ultima games in particular, to the elaborate world-building. A couple of other landmark CRPGs were released during 1988 (fodder for future articles) whose designers placed more and earlier emphasis on the paths their players would take through their worlds. In contrast to the fragile string of pearls that is Ultima V, these games offer a tapestry of possibilities. Later CRPGs, at least the well-designed ones, followed their lead, bringing to an end that needle-in-a-haystack feeling every 1980s Ultima player knows so well. Among those later CRPGs would be the later Ultimas, thanks not least to some new voices at Origin who would begin to work with Garriott on the designs as well as the technology of his creations. If you’re dismayed by my contrarian take on the series thus far, know that we’re getting ever closer to an Ultima that even a solubility-focused old curmudgeon like me can enjoy as much as he admires. For now, suffice to say that there’s enough to admire in Ultima V as a world not to belabor any more its failings as a game design.

That said, there are other entirely defensible reasons that Ultima V doesn’t hold quite the same status in gaming lore as its illustrious predecessor. Ultima IV was the great leap, a revolutionary experiment for its creator and for its genre. Ultima V, on the other hand, is evolution in action. That evolution brings with it hugely welcome new depth and nuance, but the fact remains that it could never shock and delight like its predecessors; people had now come to expect this sort of thing from an Ultima. Certainly you don’t find for Ultima V anything like the rich, oft-quoted creation story of Ultima IV, the story of how Garriott first came to think about the messages he was putting into the world. And that’s fine because his eyes were already open when he turned to Ultima V. What more is there to say?

Nor did Ultima V have quite the same immediate impact on its fans’ hearts and minds as did its predecessor. Ultima V‘s message is so much messier, and, Garriott himself now being a little older, is less tuned to the sensibilities of the many teenagers, as craving of moral absolutism as ever, who played it when it first appeared. Far better for them the straightforward Virtues of the Avatar. One can only hope that the message of this game, subtler and deeper and wiser, had its effect over time.

Whatever you do, don’t let my contrariness about some of its aspects distract from Ultima V‘s bravest quality, its willingness to engage with shades of gray in a genre founded on black and white. The game never, ever veers from its mission of demonstrating that sometimes Virtue really must be its own reward, not even when it comes to the traditional moment of CRPG triumph. When you finally rescue Lord British and save Britannia at the end of Ultima V, you’re ignominiously returned to Earth. In the anticlimax, you return to your apartment to find it broken into, your things stolen. Sigh. Hope you had insurance. It’s a messy old world out there, on Earth as on Britannia.

(Sources are listed in the preceding article. Ultima V is available from GOG.com in a collection with its predecessor and sequel.)


  1. The classic hagiography of Garriott still has to be Shay Addams’s 1990 Official Book of Ultima. Here’s Garriott the teenage Lothario, deigning to allow some of his many girlfriends to sit with him while he programs his fantastic creations:

    “My girlfriends, who understood what was going on in those days and were a big part of my life, and who always showed up in the games, would sit right behind me in the same chair at my desk.” Resting her head on Garriott’s shoulder, she would “just sit there watching me program a few lines and test it, and watch the creation unfold.”

    And here’s Garriott the scholar, plumbing musty old tomes to come up with a magic system:

    A full moon hovered over the skyline, casting a pale gold glow on the crinkled pages of the leather-bound tome as Garriott slowly thumbed through it at his desk. Magic was in the making, for his task was nothing less than to coin the language of magic that would be spoken by the mages and wizards of Ultima V. Planning to quickly ferret out a suitable synonym for poison and call it a night, he’d hauled the massive 11-language dictionary from the shelf hours ago. But so engrossed did he become with the subtle nuances and shades of meaning, so captivated by the alluring assortment of nouns and adjectives and verbs, that he sat over its faded pages long after choosing the Latin “noxius,” from “noxa,” to harm, and abbreviating it to “nox.”

     

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Road to V

Ultima V

It’s not easy having a software superstar for a little brother. That’s something that Robert Garriott, president of Origin Systems, had more and more cause to realize as the 1980s wore on. Whilst Richard Garriott quite literally lived out his fantasies, it was Robert who was left to deal with all the mundanities of running a small game developer in an industry that was ever becoming a more precarious place. Whilst Richard wrote the games and gave all the interviews and reveled in his Lord British persona, it was Robert who dealt with the sort of people who might not be terribly impressed by a wispy 25-year-old that liked to affect the personality and the dress code of a Medieval monarch. It was Robert who negotiated the business deals, Robert who represented Origin’s interests with the Software Publishers Association, Robert who put a sober, businesslike face on a company that to a lot of outsiders looked like little more than a bunch of nerds with too much time on their hands. And sometimes it was Robert who found himself trapped between the practicalities of running a business and the desires of a famous younger brother who was just slightly full of himself — what young man wouldn’t be slightly full of himself in his situation? — and was used to having things his own way.

Honestly, now... would you feel comfortable investing in a company run by this guy?

Honestly, now… would you feel comfortable investing in a company run by this guy?

The most dangerous of these conflicts was the great sibling squabble over just where Origin Systems should be located. Back at the end of 1983, you may remember, Robert had been able to convince Richard to move the company from their parents’ garage in Houston, Texas, up to New Hampshire, where his wife Marcy had found a fine position of her own working for Bell Labs. The deal was that they would remain there for at least three years. Robert, who had spent the months before the move commuting cross-country in his private plane, hoped that during the three years something might change: Marcy might get a transfer, or Richard might decide he actually liked New England and wanted to stay there. Well, at the end of 1986 the three years were up, and neither of those things had happened. Richard, who persists to this day in describing his exile in the “frozen wasteland” of New Hampshire in terms lifted straight out of Ethan Frome, figured he had fulfilled his side of the deal, had done his three years as he’d said he would. Now he wanted to move. And he knew exactly where he wanted to move to: back to warm, sunny Austin, the city that had felt like the only place he wanted to make his home almost from the day he arrived to attend university there back in 1979.

A deal being a deal notwithstanding, Robert tried to nix the move, at least for the time being. In addition to his own marriage — he and Marcy certainly didn’t relish going back to commuting cross-country — there were the other Origin employees to think about. Sure, most of the technical staff remained the same group of youngsters that had trooped up north with the Garriotts three years before; they were almost one and all in agreement with Richard that it was time to be southbound again. But there were also the support personnel to think of, New Englanders hired in New England who had been doing good work for the company for quite some time. Robert proposed that they put Origin’s future location to a simple company-wide vote.

That proposal really pissed Richard off. New Englanders now well outnumbered Texas transplants, meaning the outcome of any vote must be a foreordained conclusion — which was, Richard believed, exactly why Robert was asking for one. The two had screaming rows that spilled out of their offices into the hallways of a suddenly very tense suite of offices, while the occupants of those offices, northerners and southerners crammed together under one roof for years, now felt free to let loose on each other with all of the frustrations they’d been keeping under wraps for so long. It was civil war — the staid New Englanders who were loyal to Robert against Lord British’s merry band of anarchists. In a fit of pique and homesickness, Richard’s right-hand man Chuck Bueche, music composer and programmer for the Ultima games, porting expert, and designer of games in his own right, announced he’d had enough and headed for Texas on his own. Richard and Robert each threatened to break with the other, to do his own thing with his own splinter of the company.

Such threats were ridiculous. Richard and his crew were no more capable of taking full responsibility for a company than Robert and his were of writing the next Ultima. These two needed each other for more reasons than just the ties of blood. It was finally left to older and cooler heads, in the form of the brothers’ parents, to broker a compromise. Richard would move back to Austin with most of the technical team, to set up a small studio there that would make the games; Robert would remain in New Hampshire with Marcy, a couple of programmers working on ports and ancillary projects, and the larger support staff that was responsible for packaging and marketing the games and running the business as a whole.

Thus Richard and company, reunited again with Bueche, found themselves a minimalist office in Austin in early 1987, fifteen desks ranged along a single long hallway. And Richard himself, now becoming a very wealthy young man indeed thanks to the huge success of Ultima III and IV, started work on Britannia Manor, a custom-built house-cum-castle worthy of Lord British; it came complete with secret passageways, a cave, a wine cellar, and a stellar observatory. It was pretty clear he wasn’t planning to go anywhere else anytime soon.

Carried out though it was for very personal reasons, Richard’s return to Austin would prove the single best business move Origin ever made. Eastern Texas may not have had as sexy a reputation as Silicon Valley, but there was plenty of high technology in the environs of Dallas, Houston, and Austin, along with a booming economy and low taxes to boot. Austin itself, in addition to being home to a prestigious university boasting almost 50,000 students of diverse talents, was something of the cultural as well as government capital of the state. Along with a lively music scene and tattoo parlors and all the other attributes of a thriving college town, Weird Austin boasted a diverse tapestry of nerdier culture, including Richard’s beloved SCA chapter and the hugely influential tabletop-game publisher Steve Jackson Games. What Austin, and Texas in general for that matter, rather oddly lacked was any notable presence in the computer-games industry. Richard himself was shocked at the hungry talent that washed up unbidden at Origin’s doorstep almost as soon as they hung their shingle, all eager to work for the house that Ultima had built. “Austin as a location was fundamental to the success of Origin,” remembers Richard, “because there was so much talent here in this town.” The atmosphere inside Origin’s new Austin office was soon so exciting, so positively bursting with possibility, that Robert had to admit defeat. More and more of Origin’s operations steadily moved south. Within a couple of years, Robert would convince Marcy to make the move with him, and Origin’s operations in New Hampshire would come to an end.

But hardly was the great Texas/New Hampshire crisis resolved than another raised its head. This time the dispute wasn’t intra-family or even intra-company. It rather involved Electronic Arts, a much bigger publisher with which little Origin would have quite the love-hate relationship over the years.

The origin of Origin’s EA problem dated back to August of 1985, about a month before the release of Ultima IV. By this point distribution was starting to become a real issue for a little publisher like Origin, as the few really big publishers, small enough in number to count on one hand, were taking advantage of their size and clout to squeeze the little guys off of store shelves. Knowing he had a hugely anticipated game on his hands with Ultima IV, one that with the proper care and handling should easily exceed the considerable-in-its-own-right success of Ultima III, Robert also knew he needed excellent distribution to realize its potential. He therefore turned to EA, one of the biggest of the big boys of the industry.

The agreement that resulted was quite the coup for EA as well as Origin. Thanks to it, they would enjoy a big share of the profits not just from The Bard’s Tale, the hit CRPG they had just released under their own imprint, but also from Origin’s Ultima IV. Together these two games came to dominate the CRPG field of the mid-1980s, each selling well over 200,000 copies. For a company that had never had much of anything to do with this genre of games before, it made for one hell of a double whammy to start things off.

While it’s been vaguely understood for years that Origin and EA had a mid-1980s distribution agreement that broke down in discord, the details have never been aired. I’m happy to say that I can shed a lot more light on just what happened thanks to documents housed in the Strong Museum of Play‘s collection of Brøderbund papers. (The reason I was able to find them in a Brøderbund archive will become clear shortly.) I unfortunately can’t make these documents publicly available, but I can summarize and quote extracts from them. I do want to look at the contract that EA and Origin signed and the dispute that would eventually result from it in some detail, both because it’s so very illustrative of how the industry was changing as it entered the second half of the 1980s and because it provides a great example of one of the most dangerous of the potential traps that awaited the small fry who still tried to survive as independents. Origin would escape the trap, but many another small publisher/developer would not.

At first glance the distribution contract might seem more generous to Origin than to EA. Origin is obligated to remain the distributee only as long as EA has bought product from them totaling a stipulated amount over the course of a rolling calendar. By the end of the contract’s first year, which comes on September 1, 1986, EA must have bought $3.3 million worth of Origin games. The goal for the second year of the contract doubles; EA must have bought games worth $9.3 million in total from Origin by September 1, 1987, in order for the latter company to be obligated to honor the third and final year of their distribution contract. That’s a very ambitious sales goal for a little company like Origin whose entire reason for existence was a single series of games with a sporadic release schedule. (Origin had already released some non-Ultima titles and would continue to do so, but it would be years yet before any of them would make an impact on their bottom line to even begin to rival that of Ultima.)

All went well between Origin and EA for the first eighteen months. The trouble started shortly after Richard’s move back to Austin, when he got word of EA’s plans to release a rather undistinguished CRPG called Deathlord that was even more derivative of Ultima than was the norm. As Strategic Simulations, Incorporated, had learned to their chagrin a few years earlier in the case of their own Ultima clone Questron, Richard didn’t take kindly to games that copied his own work too blatantly. When EA refused to nix their game, and also proved uninterested in negotiating to license the “game structure and style” as SSI had done, Richard was incensed enough to blow up the whole distribution deal.

Richard and Robert believed that Origin would be on firm legal ground in withdrawing from the distribution agreement at the onset of the third year because EA was projected to have purchased just $6.6 million worth of product from Origin by September 1, 1987, way short of the goal of $9.3 million. Origin informed EA of their intentions and commenced negotiating a new distribution agreement with another of the big boys, Brøderbund, currently riding even higher than EA on the strength of The Print Shop and Carmen Sandiego.

The notice was greeted with shock and outrage by EA, who felt, and by no means entirely without reason, that it was hardly their fault that they were so far from the goal. That goal had been predicated on not just one but two or three or possibly even four new Ultima games being released during those first two years. Foreshadowing the way that Origin would handle Ultima VII years later, Richard’s plan at the time the contract was signed had been to release an Ultima IV Part 2 that would reuse the same engine in relatively short order, and only then to turn to Ultima V. But those plans had fallen by the wayside, undone by Richard’s idealistic need to make each Ultima clearly, comprehensively better than its predecessor. And now Ultima V was taking even longer than had Ultima IV. Having long since missed the original target of Christmas 1986, it now looked almost certain to miss Christmas 1987 as well; it still looked to be a good six months away from release as of mid-1987.

Yet it was the Ultima I situation that most ruffled EA’s feathers. When the rights to the first game of the series, having passed through the hands of the long-defunct California Pacific and then Sierra, reverted back to Richard in 1986, Origin assigned several programmers to rewrite it from scratch in assembly language rather than BASIC, adding graphical upgrades and interface enhancements along the way to bring it at least nominally up to date. Already a semi-legendary game, long out of print on the Apple II and never before available at all on the Commodore 64 or MS-DOS, the new and improved Ultima I carried with it reasonably high commercial hopes. While not the new Ultima, it was a new Ultima for the vast majority of Lord British fans, and should ease some of the disappointment of not being able to get Ultima V out that year. But in the wake of the Deathlord dust-up it became clear to EA that Origin was deliberately holding Ultima I back, wanting to tempt their prospective next distributor with it rather than give EA their fair share of its earnings. This… well, this pissed EA right the hell off. And, then as now, pissing off EA wasn’t usually a very good idea.

EA’s lawyers went through the contract carefully, looking for anywhere where they might knock a few dollars off the requirement of $9.3 million in orders inside two years.

The original goal for 9/1/87 was stated in Exhibit A as $9,300,000. This amount “is reduced by $40,000 for every month in which any of the software products listed in Exhibit B are not available according to the schedules set forth in Exhibit B.” Moebius/Apple was listed as being available in September 1985, and was not available until November 1985, a slip of two months. Ogre/Apple was listed as being available in November 1985 and was not available until June 1986, a slip of seven months. Moebius/C64 was listed as being available in November 1985 and was not available until October 1986, a slip of eleven months. Taking into account only those titles listed in Exhibit B, a total of 22 months are applicable to the $40,000 provision, equaling a deduction of $880,000 from the $9,300,000 goal mentioned earlier, leaving a net goal of $8,420,000 for 9/1/87.

The adjusted goal of $8.4 million still left EA $1.8 million short. No problem. They attached to the same letter a purchase order for a random hodgepodge of Origin products totaling the full $1.8 million. EA didn’t really care what Origin shipped them, as long as they billed them $1.8 million for it: “If Origin is unable to ship any of the products in the quantities stated on the purchase orders, please consider this an order for a similar dollar volume of any of your products that can be shipped in sufficient quantities to meet our 9/1/87 objectives.”

You’re probably wondering what on earth EA is thinking in throwing away almost $2 million on any old anything at all just to retain Origin as a distributee. Far from cutting off their nose to spite their face, they’re playing hardball here; what they’ve just done is far more dangerous for Origin than it is for them. To understand why requires an understanding of “overstock adjustments,” better known as returns. It’s right there in the original contract: “Vendor [Origin] agrees to issue credit to EA based on the original purchase price for the return of resalable overstock made any time beyond 90 days of original receipt.” This provision gives EA the ability to crush Origin, accidentally or on purpose, by over-ordering. Origin can honor the order, only to have it all come back to them along with a bill big enough to bury them when EA doesn’t sell it on. Or Origin can refuse to honor the order and get buried under a nasty breach-of-contract lawsuit. Or they can come back to EA hat in hand and ask nicely if both parties can just forget the whole thing ever happened and continue that third year of their agreement as was once planned.

Many small publishers like Origin were becoming more and more angry and/or terrified by the logistics of distribution by the latter half of the 1980s. This is why. Nevertheless, with the big publishers squeezing out any other means of getting their games onto store shelves, most of the small companies were forced to get in bed with one of the big boys against their better judgment. Although several other big publishers had affiliate distribution programs, Activision and EA became the most aggressive of the bunch, both in recruiting and, if things didn’t work out, destroying affiliated labels by returning hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars worth of product along with a bill for same. The battlefield of the industry’s history is fairly littered with the corpses of companies who signed distribution deals much like Origin’s with EA.

Origin, however, was lucky. In rushing to become a distributee of Brøderbund, they’d found shelter with a company with the resources to go toe-to-toe with EA; Doug Carlston, founder and president of Brøderbund, was himself a lawyer. Brøderbund took Origin’s cause as their own, and a settlement agreement presumably entailing the payment of some sort of penalty from Origin and/or Brøderbund to EA was reached in fairly short order. (The actual settlement agreement is unfortunately not included in the Strong’s collection.) Origin signed a two-year distribution contract with Brøderbund, and all of EA’s worst suspicions were confirmed when the revamped Ultima I shipped on the very first day of the new agreement. And that wasn’t even Origin’s last laugh: Deathlord, the match that had lit the whole powder keg, got mediocre reviews and flopped. True to his tradition of adding references to his contemporary personal life into each Ultima, Richard added the words “Electronic Arts” to the in-progress Ultima V’s list of forbidden swear words (“With language like that, how didst thou become an Avatar?”). Just for good measure, he also built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” on the grounds of Britannia Manor. Like most monarchs, Lord British apparently didn’t forget a slight quickly.

The Garriotts were still living charmed lives. Much as so many love to romanticize Trip Hawkins’s “electronic artists” of the 1980s, complete with crying computers and all the rest, EA has always been a rough customer when it gets down to the brass tacks (knuckles?) of doing business. Few others have tangled with them like Origin did and lived to tell the tale.

Behind all this drama there lurked always the real point of the whole endeavor that was Origin Systems: Ultima, specifically Ultima V. Just like all the other games in the series, it was well on the way to dwarfing its predecessor in terms of scale and technical ambition, with all the birthing pains that must imply.

Beginnings and endings can be tricky things for an historian to come to grips with. Certainly the middle period of the eventual nine-game Ultima series is full of them. There’s the beginning marked by the great conceptual leap that is Ultima IV, when the series became about more than killing monsters, collecting loot, and leveling up — a leap that changed the series’s character to such an extent that plenty of fans will tell you that you needn’t even bother with anything that came before, that the real Ultima starts right here. And there’s the ending that is Ultima VI, the first Ultima not built on the code base of its predecessor, the first not developed and released first and foremost for the Apple II, the first for which Richard did none of the programming.

In between the two lies Ultima V, a crossroads game if ever there was one. It marks the end of the line for the 8-bit Ultimas, the basic structure that began with Akalabeth pushed to a complex extreme that would have been unthinkable back in 1980. How extraordinary to think that this game runs on essentially the same computer as Akalabeth, plus only 16 K of memory here or an extra disk drive there. The series’s glorious last hurrah on the Apple II, it also marks the beginning of a radically different development methodology that would carry forward into the era of the MS-DOS-developed Ultimas. Starting with Ultima V, new Ultimas would no longer be the end result of Richard Garriott toiling alone in front of a single Apple II for months or years until he emerged with bleary eyes and disk in hand. From now on, Richard would direct, design, and supervise, while other people did most of the grunt work.

It was an obviously necessary step from the perspective of even the most minimally informed outsider. Ultima IV had taken him two years, twice as long as originally planned, and had nearly killed him in the process. If the series was to continue to grow in scale and ambition, as he himself always demanded it should, something had to give. Yet Richard resisted the obvious for quite some time. He struggled alone, first with the abortive Ultima IV Part 2 and then with Ultima V, for almost a year while while everyone fretted at the lack of progress. He genuinely loved programming, took pride in knowing each new Ultima was truly his personal expression, top to bottom. But at last he accepted that he needed help — an acceptance that would change everything about the way that Ultimas got made forevermore.

The process started with two new programmers, Steve Meuse and John Miles. The former started writing tools to make it easier to create the world, to put a friendly interface on all of the tasks that Richard normally managed by hand using nothing more than a hex editor. Meuse’s “Ultima Creation Package” would grow into something that, according to Richard, “almost anyone could use.” Meanwhile Miles took over most of the actual game-programming tasks from Richard; more than half of the code that shipped in the finished game would be his. “The transition of doing it all yourself to doing it as a team was very painful,” Richard says of this landmark change of late 1986 that marked the abrupt end of his days as a working programmer. “However, once you had a team in place, and especially once you were no longer sharing the duties of both doing it and managing it, the pain went away.”

Richard’s team only continued to expand after the move to Austin, as all of that pent-up Texas talent began arriving on Origin’s doorstep. The finished game credits no fewer than six programmers in addition to Richard himself. With so many more people involved, this Ultima needed a project manager — the role also commonly referred to as “producer” — for the first time as well. That role went to Dallas Snell, late of Penguin Software, who, nobody being too specialized yet at this stage, did some of the programming as well. Snell lobbied for months for the hiring of a full-time artist, but Richard remained skeptical of the need for one until quite some time after the move to Austin. But at last Denis Loubet, an Austin artist who had been doing cover art for Richard’s games since the days of Akalabeth, joined the Origin staff to do all of the art for Ultima V, whether the media be paper or cardboard or pixels. Loubet’s work, blessedly free of the chainmail bikinis and other cheesecake tendencies that make most vintage CRPG art so cringe-worthy, would now become even more integral to the series, helping to maintain its aura of having just a little more class than the standard CRPG fare. Finally, and also largely thanks to Snell’s determination to professionalize the process of making Ultimas, there are fourteen people — fourteen! — credited solely for play-testing Ultima V, more than enough to ensure that there wouldn’t be any more blatant screw-ups like the vital clue that was left out of Ultima IV.

Denis Loubet on the job at Origin.

Denis Loubet on the job at Origin.

Freed from the pressure of programming, Richard could make Ultima V a much more consciously designed game than its predecessors. From an interview conducted almost a year before the game was published:

In previous Ultimas the combat systems were not designed out on paper ahead of time. I kind of ranked weapons in order of strength… the higher up the list of weapons you got, the better the weapon. Now I’ve actually designed an entire gaming system, including magic and combat, that is just as good to play on paper as on the computer. It’s extremely well-balanced, both [sic.] the weapons, armor, and magic, and we’ve been balancing the costs and uses of those things for six months — essentially by playing Ultima on paper.

Origin was so proud of this system of rules that they planned for some time to make an Ultima tabletop RPG out of them. That project fell by the wayside, but just the fact that Richard was thinking this way represented a huge step forward for a series whose mechanics had always felt ad hoc in comparison to those of its original rival, Wizardry. “I can tell you in numbers the probabilities of your being able to do something,” said Richard, “whereas in previous Ultimas I probably wouldn’t be able to do so. I just kind of did it until it looked right.”

While all of the extra care and thought that was going into this Ultima was welcome, it was also time-consuming. A series of release dates spouted by an overoptimistic Richard in interview after interview fell by the wayside, as subscribers to adventurer-catering magazines like Questbusters read for a year and a half of a game that was perpetually just a few months away. Still, the game they kept reading about sounded better with every mention: it would fill no less than eight Apple II disk sides; it would offer twice as much territory as Ultima IV to explore; each non-player character would have three times as much to say; non-player characters would have realistic day-and-night schedules that they followed; just about every single thing in the world, from table and chairs to torches and even a harpsichord, would be a discrete, manipulable object.

An early public preview of Ultima V at Dragon Con, October 1987.

An early public preview of Ultima V at Dragon Con, October 1987.

More philosophically-minded fans wondered about a subject on which there was less concrete information available: what would the new Ultima be about? After the great conceptual leap that had been Ultima IV, would Lord British be content to return to monster-killing and evil-wizard-bashing, or would there be another — or perhaps the same? — message on offer this time out?

All of their questions were answered on March 18, 1988, when Origin released Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny for the Apple II; versions for MS-DOS and the Commodore 64 followed in July and October respectively, with ports to a handful of other platforms trickling out over the following year or so. We’ll dive into the virtual world that awaited Ultima V‘s army of 200,000-plus eager buyers next time.

(Sources for this article and the next: Questbusters of June 1987, July 1987, August 1987, March 1988, July 1988; Game Developer of September 1994; Computer Gaming World of March 1986, December 1987, July 1988, January 1989, November 1991, November 1992. The books The Official Book of Ultima by Shay Addams; Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland; Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector. See also Richard Garriott’s extended interview with Warren Spector. And of course the Strong’s collection; my thanks to Jon-Paul Dyson and his colleagues for hosting me there for a very productive week!

Ultima V is available from GOG.com in a collection with its predecessor and sequel.)

 
 

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