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Making Wizardry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Roots of Sir-tech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Robot War

If you want to understand how different the computer world of 1981 was from that of today, a good place to look is the reception of Silas Warner’s programming game, Robot War. It received big, splashy feature articles in Softalk, the early flagship of the Apple II community, as well as the premiere issue of Computer Gaming World, one of the first two computer magazines unabashedly dedicated just to games. (Softline, a spinoff of Softalk, edged it out by just a hair for the prize of first.) In the only metric that ultimately matters to a publisher, it even bounced on and off of Softalk‘s monthly lists of the top 30 Apple II software bestsellers for a year or so. All this for a “game” that involved a text editor, a compiler, and a debugger — a game that sounds suspiciously like work to modern ears. But in 1981 the computer world was still a comparatively tiny one, and virtually everyone involved knew at least a little bit of programming as a prerequisite to getting anything at all done; most home computers booted directly into BASIC, after all. More abstractly, even the hardcore gamers (not that that term had yet been invented) were as fascinated with the technology used to facilitate their obsession as they were with games as entities unto themselves. In this milieu, a programming game didn’t sound like quite such an oxymoron.

Robot War was by far the most ambitious game Silas had yet created for Muse, a dramatic departure from simple BASIC excursions like Escape! Not coincidentally, it was also the first he created after finally agreeing to come to Muse Software full time in 1980. He did already have a leg up on it to start, for Robot War on the Apple II is basically the same game as the version he had programmed for the PLATO system a few years before. It does, however, offer some enhancements, most notably the ability for up to five robots to battle one another at one time in a huge free for all; the original had offered only one-on-one matches.

While they didn’t approach software development as systematically as did Infocom, Muse had developed some unusually sophisticated tools by this stage to make assembly-language coding a less arduous task. At a time when other shops seemed to accept perpetual reinventing of wheels as a way of life, Muse had also gotten quite good at reusing its code wherever possible. Large chunks of Robot War, for instance, are lifted straight out of Super-Text, the company’s word processor. One edits one’s source code in a streamlined version of Super-Text itself. Employing one of the strangest criteria for recommending a game ever, Softalk noted that playing Robot War makes “learning the real Super-Text a snap.”

The other way that Super-Text helped beget Robot War is more surprising, and gives me the opportunity to make one of my little lessons in technology — specifically, computer display technology.

The screen on which you’re reading this is almost certainly a bitmapped display. This means that it is seen by the computer as just a grid of colored pixels. The text you’re reading is mapped onto that grid in software, “drawn” there like an unusually intricate picture. This is a cool thing for many reasons. For one, it allows you to customize things like the size, shape, and style of the default font to suit your own preferences. For another, it allows writers like me to play with different typefaces to get our message across. It’s a particularly nice thing for word processing, where a document on the screen can be rendered as a perfect — or at least nearly perfect — image of what will appear when you click “Print.” (We call this what-you-see-is-what-you-get, or WYSIWYG). It’s also got some disadvantages, however: rendering all of that text letter by letter and pixel by pixel consumes a lot of processing power, and storing that huge grid of pixels consumes a lot of memory. The screen on which I’m writing this is 1920 X 1200 pixels. At the 4 bytes per pixel needed to display all the colors a modern computer offers — another, separate issue — that amounts to about 9 MB. That number is fairly negligible on a machine with 4 GB of memory like this one, but on one with just 48 K like the Apple II, even accounting for the need to store vastly fewer colors and a vastly lower resolution, it can be a problem. So, the standard, default display mode of the Apple II is a textual screen, stored not as a grid of individual pixels but as a set of cells, into each of which a single letter or a graphical glyph — essentially a “letter” showing a little glyph which can be combined with others to draw frames, diagrams, or simple pictures — can be inserted. Rendering these characters to the screen is then handled in the display hardware rather than involving any software at all. This approach has plenty of disadvantages: one is limited to a single font; said font must be mono- rather than variable-spaced; changing the font’s size or style are right out; etc. On the plus side, it’s fast and it doesn’t use too much memory. In fact, the Apple II was unique among the trinity of 1977 in offering a bitmapped graphics mode at all; the TRS-80 and PET offered only character-oriented displays. The Apple II’s Hi-Res mode is much of the reason it stood out so amongst its peers as the Cadillac of early microcomputers.

One would naturally expect a word processor — about the most text-oriented application imaginable — to work in the Apple II’s text mode. As Ed Zaron of Muse was developing Super-Text, however, he had to confront a problem familiar to makers and users of much early Apple II application software. The Apple II’s text mode could display just 40 big, blocky characters per line. Amongst other reasons, this design decision had been made because the machine’s standard video feed was just an everyday, fairly low-quality analog television signal. Trying to display more, smaller characters, especially on the television many users chose in lieu of a proper monitor, would just result in a bleeding, unreadable mess. The problem for word processing and other business applications was that a standard typewritten page has 80 characters to a line. Thus, and even though the word processor was not going to be anything close to WYSIWYG under any circumstances given the other limitations of the Apple II’s display, it was even harder than it might otherwise be for the user to visualize what a document would look like in hard copy while it was on the screen, what with each hardcopy line spread over two onscreen. Zaron therefore considered whether he might be able to use Hi-Res mode to display 80 characters of text, at least for those whose displays were good enough to make it readable.

The problem with that idea, however, was that the Apple II has no built-in ability to render text to the Hi-Res screen. One can paint individual pixels, even draw lines and simple shapes, but there is no facility to tell the machine to, say, draw the letter “A” at position 100 X 100. Zaron therefore spent considerable time developing a Hi-Res character generation of his own — a program that could essentially render little pictures representing each glyph to the screen on command, just as your display works today. Zaron and Muse ultimately decided the idea just wasn’t viable for Super-Text. Even with a good monitor it was just too ugly to work with for long periods of time given the color idiosyncrasies of Hi-Res mode, and it was unacceptably slow to work with for entering and editing text. Besides, by that time something called the Sup’R’Terminal was available from a company called M&R Enterprises. This was a card which plugged into one of the Apple II’s internal slots (bless Woz’s foresight!) and solved the problem by adding an entirely new, alternate display system that could render 80 columns of text quickly and cleanly. It also solved another problem for word processors in being able to render lower-case as well as upper-case text (the original Super-Text had had to distinguish upper case from lower case by highlighting the former in reverse video). Soon enough an array of similar products would be available, eventually including some from Apple itself. So, Zaron’s character generator went on the shelf…

…to be picked up by Silas Warner and incorporated into Robot War. While plenty of games made use of the Apple II’s split-screen mode which allowed a few lines of conventional text to appear at the bottom of a Hi-Res display, the screenshot above is one of the few examples in early Apple II software of dynamically updated text being incorporated directly into a Hi-Res display, thanks to Zaron’s aborted Super-Text character generator. Sometimes software development works in crazy ways.

Even if you aren’t a programmer, the idea of Robot War — of programming your own custom robot, then sending him off to do battle with others while you watch — is just, well, neat. That neatness is a big reason that I can’t resist taking some time to talk about it here, where we’re usually all about the ludic narrative. Of course, given the technological constraints Silas was working with there are inevitable limits to the concept. You don’t get to design your robot in the physical sense; each is identical in size, in the damage it can absorb, in acceleration and braking, and in having a single rotatable radar dish it can use to “see” and a single rotatable gun it can use to shoot. The programming language you work with is extremely primitive even by the standard of BASIC, with just a bare few commands. Actual operation of the robot is accomplished by reading from and writing to a handful of registers. That can seem an odd way to program today — it took me a while to wrap my mind around it again after spending recent months up to my eyebrows in Java — but in 1981, when much microcomputer programming involved PEEKing and POKEing memory locations and hardware registers directly, it probably felt more immediately familiar.

Here’s a quick example, one of the five simple robots that come with the game.



Let’s just step through this quickly. We begin by plugging 250 into the RANDOM register, which tells the robot we will expect any random numbers we request to be in the range of 0 to 249. We store the value currently in the DAMAGE register (the amount of damage the robot has received) into a variable, D, for safekeeping. Immediately after we test the DAMAGE register against the value we just stored; if the former is now less than the latter, we know we are taking fire. Let’s assume for the moment this is not the case. We therefore add 17 to the AIM register, which has the effect of rotating our gun 17 degrees around a 360-degree axis. We send a pulse out from our radar dish in the same direction that the gun is now facing. If the radar spots another robot, it will place a number representing the negation of its distance from us into the RADAR register; otherwise it places a 0 or a positive number there. (Yes, this seems needlessly unintuitive; Silas presumably had a good technical reason for doing it this way.) If we do find a robot, we fire the gun by placing the absolute value of the number stored in RADAR into the SHOOT register. This fires a shell set to explode that distance away. We continue to shoot as long as the robot remains there. When it is there no longer, we go back to scanning the battlefield for targets.

Should we start taking fire, we need to move away. In accordance with our name, we decide this by storing random numbers from 0 to 249 — the battlefield is grid of 256 X 256 — into two variables representing our desired new horizontal and vertical positions, H and V. What follows gets a little bit more tricky. The SPEEDX and SPEEDY registers represent horizontal and vertical movement respectively, with negative numbers representing movement to the left or upward and positive numbers to the right or downward. For an added wrinkle, we can only accelerate or decelerate 40 units per second, regardless of what we place in these registers. So, we’re figuring out the relative distance and direction of our goal to our current position, which we find by reading registers X and Y, then moving that way by manipulating SPEEDX and SPEEDY. Because this is not a terribly sophisticated robot, we move into position on each axis individually rather than trying to move on a diagonal. Once we have reached our (approximate) goal, we settle down to scan and shoot once more.

So, what you’re really doing here is writing an AI routine of the sort that someone making a game from scratch might program. If nothing else, that makes it a great training tool for a prospective game programmer. Although one can have some fun playing against the robots that come with it, Robot War is really meant to be a multiplayer game, where one places one’s creations up against those of others. It begs for some sort of tournament, and in fact that’s exactly what happened; Computer Gaming World was so enamored with Robot War that they sponsored a couple in partnership with Muse. For each, several Apple IIs spent several weeks in the basement of Muse’s office/store crunching through battles to determine an eventual champion. I was intrigued enough by the idea to consider proposing a tournament here with you my gentle readers, but upon spending some time with the actual software I tend to think it’s just too crusty and awkward to modern sensibilities to garner enough interest. If you think I’m wrong, though, tell me about it in comments or email; if there’s real interest I’m happy to reconsider. Regardless, here’s the Apple II disk image and the manual for you to have a look at.

In common with another Silas Warner game of 1981, Robot War had a cultural impact far beyond what its sales figures might suggest. It was common enough even in 1981 for computer programs to model the real world, in the form of flight simulators, war games, etc. The subject matter of Robot War, however, went in the opposite direction when something called the “Critter Crunch” took place in Denver in 1987. Today real-world robot combat leagues are kind of a big deal, with their matches often televised and given exposure that any number of human sports would kill to have. I can’t say all of this wouldn’t have started without Silas Warner’s game, but it’s perhaps more than just coincidence that two of the first sustained robot-combat leagues were called Robot Wars, as were a couple of the robot-combat television series (one of which, ironically, turned back into a videogame series). Even more definitive is the influence Robot Wars exerted on the programming games that followed it. The most obvious direct homage is Robot Battle, but there’s plenty of the Robot War DNA in more mainstream efforts like MindRover, not to mention plenty of free hacker-oriented programming games which may or may not involve actual robots. And to think that Robot War was just Silas Warner’s second most influential game of a prodigious 1981…

We’ll get to that other game, which actually bears more directly on this blog’s usual obsessions, soon. First, though, I want to grab one of these other balls I’ve got in the air and check in with one of our old friends.


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Ever stumbled across something you’ve been looking for for a long time while you’re doing something else entirely? Well, I’ve just found the digital equivalent of my cat’s favorite toy which I found last week while reaching under the television stand to try to reset our infernal TV box. I’ve found the game Escape!, the Apple II maze game that inspired Richard Garriott to program the 3D dungeons of Akalabeth. Turns out it was written by Silas Warner of Muse Software, about whom I’ll have much more to say shortly. In the meantime, I’ve updated the old post on Garriott to reflect my discovery. Or, if you’d like to cut to the chase, here’s a screenshot and a disk image for ya. Type “RUN ESCAPE” after booting the disk to get started.


Posted by on January 23, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Lord British

If you wanted to breed a game designer, you could do worse than starting with an engineer father and an artist mother. At any rate, that’s the combination that led to Richard Garriott.

Father Owen had quite a remarkable career in his own right. In 1964 he was at age 33 a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University when NASA, in the thick of the moon race, put out the call for its fourth group of astronauts. This group of six would be different from all that came before, for, in spite of much grumbling from within and without the organization (not least from the current astronauts themselves), they would be selected from the ranks of civilian scientists and engineers rather than military pilots. Owen applied in the face of long odds: no fewer than 1350 others had the same idea in moon-mad America. He survived round after round of medical and psychological tests and interviews, however, until in May of 1965 none other than the first American to fly into space, Alan Shepard, called him in the middle of a lecture to tell him he was now an astronaut. Owen and family — including a young Richard, born in 1961 — moved to the Houston area, to a suburb called Clear Lake made up almost entirely of people associated with the nearby Manned Spacecraft Center. While Owen trained (first task: learning how to fly a jet), the rest of the family lived the exciting if rather culturally antiseptic lives typical of NASA, surrounded by science and gadgetry and all the fruits of the military-industrial complex. Whether because NASA did not quite trust these scientist-astronauts or because of the simple luck of the draw, only one from Owen’s group of six actually got the chance to go to the moon, and it wasn’t Owen. As a consolation prize, however, Owen flew into space on July 28, 1973, as part of the second crew to visit Skylab, America’s first semi-permanent space station, where he spent nearly two months. After that flight Owen stayed on with NASA, and would eventually fly into space again aboard the space shuttle in November of 1983. And those are just the adventurous highlights of a scientific and engineering career filled with awards, publications, and achievements.

Such a father certainly provided quite an example of achievement for a son, one that Richard took to heart: beginning with his kindergarten year, he entered a project into his school’s science fair every single year until he graduated high school, each one more ambitious than the last. But such an example could also, of course, be as intimidating as it was inspiring. It didn’t help that Owen was by nature an extremely reserved man, sparing of warmth or praise or obvious emotion of any stripe. Richard has spoken of his disappointment at his father’s inability to articulate even the most magical of his experiences: “My dad never told me anything about being in space. He once said it was kind of like scuba diving, but he never said anything with any kind of emotion.” Nor did Owen’s career leave him much time for Richard or his siblings, two older brothers and a younger sister.

The job of parenting therefore fell mostly to Helen Garriott. An earthier, quirkier personality than her husband, Helen’s passion — which she pursued with equal zeal if to unequal recognition as her husband’s scientific career — was art: pottery, silversmithing, painting, even dabblings in conceptual art. While Owen provided occasional words of encouragement, Helen actively helped Richard with his science-fair projects as well as the many other crazy ideas he and his siblings came up with, such as the time that he and brother Robert built a functioning centrifuge (the “Nauseator”) in the family’s garage. With the example of Owen and the more tangible love and support of Helen, all of the children were downright manic overachievers virtually from the moment they could walk, throwing themselves with abandon into projects both obviously worthwhile (the science fairs) and apparently frivolous (the Nauseator, in which the neighborhood children challenged each other to ride until they vomited).

For Richard’s freshman year of high school, 1975-76, Owen temporarily returned the family to Palo Alto, California, home of Stanford, where he had accepted a one-year fellowship. Situated in the heart of Silicon Valley as it was, Richard’s high school there was very tech-savvy. It was here that he was first exposed to computers, via the terminals that the school had placed in every single classroom. He was not particularly excited by them, however; indeed, it was his parents that first got the computer religion. Upon returning to Houston for his sophomore year, Richard dutifully enrolled in his high school’s single one-semester computer course at their behest, in which an entire classroom got to program in BASIC via the school’s single clunky teletype terminal, connected remotely to a CDC Cyber mainframe at some district office or other. Richard aced the class, but was, again, nonplussed. So his parents tried yet again, pushing him to attend a seven-week computer camp held that summer at Oklahoma University. And this time it took.

Those seven weeks were an idyllic time for Richard, during which it all seemed to come together for him in a sort of nerd version of a summer romance. On the very first day at camp, his fellow students dubbed him “Lord British” after he greeted them with a formal “Hello” rather than a simple “Hi.” (The nickname was doubly appropriate in that he was actually born in Britain, during a brief stint of Owen’s at Cambridge University.) The same students also introduced him to Dungeons and Dragons. With the pen-and-paper RPG experience fresh in his mind as well as The Lord of the Rings, which he had just read during the previous school year, Richard finally saw a reason to be inspired by the computers that were the ostensible purpose of the camp; he began to wonder if it might not be possible to build a virtual fantasy world of his own inside their memories. And he also found a summer girlfriend at camp, which never hurts. He came back from Oklahoma a changed kid.

In addition to his experiences at the computer camp, the direction his life would now take was perhaps also prompted by a conversation he had had a few years before, during a routine medical examination conducted (naturally) by a NASA doctor, who informed that his eyesight was getting worse and that he would need to get glasses for the first time. That’s not the end of the world, of course — but then the doctor dropped this bomb: “Hey, Richard, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you’re no longer eligible to become a NASA astronaut.” Richard claims that he had not been harboring the conscious dream of following in his father’s footsteps, but the news that he could not join his father’s private club nevertheless hit him like a personal rejection. Even in late 1983, as he was amassing fame and money as a game developer beyond anything his father ever earned, he stated to an interviewer that he would “drop everything for the chance to go into space.” Much later he would famously fulfill that dream, but for now his path must be in a different direction. The computer camp gave him that direction: to become a creator of virtual worlds.

Back in suburban Houston, Richard began a D&D recruiting drive, starting with the neighbor kids with whom he’d grown up and working outward from there. By a couple of months into his junior year, Richard with the aid of his ever-supportive mother was hosting weekend-long sessions in the family home. By early 1978, multiple games were going on in different parts of the house, and even some adults had started to turn up, to game or just to smoke and drink and socialize on the front porch.

To understand how this could happen, you have to understand something about Richard. Although his interests — science, D&D, computers, Lord of the Rings — were almost prototypically nerdy, in personality and appearance he was not really your typical introverted high-school geek. He was a trim, good-looking kid with a natural grace that kept the schoolyard bullies at bay. Indeed, he co-opted them; those weekend sessions were remarkable for bringing together all of the usually socially segregated high-school cliques. Most of all, Richard was very glib and articulate for his age, able when he so chose to cajole and charm almost anyone into anything in a way that reminds of none other than that legendary schmoozer Steve Jobs himself. His later friend and colleague Warren Spector once said that Richard “could change reality through the force of will [and] personal charisma,” echoing the legends of Jobs’s own “reality distortion field.” He turned those qualities to good use in finding a way to achieve the ultimate dream of all nerds at this time: regular, everyday access to a computer.

With only one computer class on the curriculum, the school’s single terminal sat unused the vast majority of the time. On the very first day of his junior year, Richard marched into the principal’s office with a proposal. From Dungeons and Dreamers:

He’d conceive, develop, and program fantasy computer games using the school’s computer [terminal], presenting the principal and the math teacher with a game at the end of each semester. There wasn’t even a computer teacher there to grade him on his skills. To pass the class, he simply had to turn in a game that worked. If he did, he’d get an A. If it didn’t, he’d fail.

Incredibly — and here’s where the reality distortion field really comes into play — the principal agreed. Richard claims that the school decided to count BASIC as his foreign-language credit. (A decision which maybe says a lot about the state of American language training — but I digress…)

Accordingly, when not busy with schoolwork, the science fair (which junior and senior projects also used the computer extensively), tabletop D&D, or the Boy Scouts Explorers computer post he joined and (typically enough) soon became president of, Richard spent his time and energy over the next two years on a series of computer adaptations of D&D. The development environment his school hosted on its aging computer setup was not an easy one; his terminal did not even have a screen, just a teletype. He programmed by first writing out the BASIC code laboriously by hand, reading it through again and again to check for errors. He then typed the code on a tape punch, a mechanical device that resembled a typewriter but that transcribed entered characters onto punched tape (a ribbon of tape onto which holes were punched in patterns to represent each possible character). Finally he could feed this tape into the computer proper via a punched-card reader, and hope for the best. A coding error or typo meant that he got to type the whole thing out again. Likewise, he could only add features and improvements by rewriting and then retyping the previous program from scratch. He took to filling numbered notebooks with code and design notes, one for each iteration of the game, which he called simply D&D. By the end of his senior year he had made it all the way to D&D 28, although some iterations were abandoned as impractical for one reason or another before reaching fruition as an entered, playable game.

In building his games, Richard was largely operating in a vacuum, trying things out for himself to see what worked. He had been exposed to the original Adventure when his Boy Scouts Explorers visited the computer facilities at Lockheed, but, uniquely amongst figures I’ve discussed in this blog, was nonplussed by it: “It was very different from the kind of thing I wanted to write, which was something very freegoing, with lots of options available to you, as opposed to a ‘node’ game like Adventure. At that time, I didn’t know of any other games that would let you go anywhere and do anything.” From the very beginning, then, Richard came down firmly on the side of simulation and emergent narrative, and, indeed, would never take any interest in the budding text-adventure phenomenon. It’s possible that the early proto-CRPGs hosted on the PLATO network would have been more to his taste, but it doesn’t appear that Richard was ever exposed to them. And so his D&D games expressed virtually exclusively his own vision, which he literally built up from scratch, iteration by iteration.

But how did they play? Because they were stored only on spools of tape, we don’t have them to run via emulation. (On the other hand, Richard has donated a paper tape containing one of the games to the University of Texas as part of the Richard Garriott Papers collection. If someone there could either get an old tape reader working to read it in or — if truly dedicated — translate the punches by hand, the results would be fascinating to see.) We do have, however, a pretty good idea of how they operated: more primitive than, but remarkably similar to, the commercial games that would soon make Richard famous. In fact, Richard has often joked that he spent his first fifteen or so years as a designer essentially making the same game over and over. The D&D games, like the Ultimas, show a top-down view of the player’s avatar and surroundings. They run not in real-time but in turns. The player interacts with the game via a set of commands which are each triggered by a single keypress: “N” to go north, “S” to view her character’s vital statistics, “A” to attack, space to do nothing that turn, etc. Because the games were running on a teletype, scenery and monsters could be represented only by ASCII characters; a “G” might represent a goblin, etc. And unlike the later games, the top-down view was maintained even in dungeons. This description reminds one strongly of the roguelikes of today, and of course of their ancestors on the PLATO system. It’s interesting that Richard came up with something so similar working independently. (Although on the other hand, how else was he likely to do it?) Playing the games would have required almost as much patience as writing them, as well as a willingness to burn through reams of paper, for the only option Richard had was to completely redraw the “screen” anew on paper each time the player made a move.

As his time in high school drew toward a close in the spring of 1979, Richard found himself facing a crisis of sorts: not only would he not be able to work on D&D anymore, but he faced losing his privileged access to a computer in general. He was naturally all too aware of the first generation of PCs that had now been on the market for almost two years, but so far his father had been resistant to the idea of buying one for the family, not seeing much future in the little toys as opposed to the hulking systems he was familiar with at NASA. In desperation, Richard turned on the reality distortion field and marched into Owen’s den with a proposal: if he could get the latest, most complicated iteration of D&D working and playable, without any bugs, Owen should buy him the Apple II system he’d been lusting over. Owen was perhaps more resistant to the field than most, being Richard’s father and all, but he did agree to go halfsies if Richard succeeded. Richard of course did just that (as Owen fully expected), and by the end of the summer his summer job earnings along with Owen’s contribution provided for him at last Apple’s just released II Plus model.

Compared to what he had been working with earlier, the Apple II, with its color display and graphics capabilities, its real-time responsiveness, and its ability to actually edit and tinker with a program in memory, must have seemed like a dream. Even the cassette drive he was initially stuck using for storage was an improvement over manually punching holes in paper tape. Richard had just begun exploring the capabilities of his new machine when it was time to head off to Austin, where he had enrolled in the Electrical Engineering program (the closest thing the university yet offered to Computer Science) at the University of Texas.

Richard’s early months at UT were, typically enough for a university freshman, somewhat difficult and unsettling. He had left safe suburban Clear Lake, where he had known everyone and been regarded as a quirky neighborhood star (a sort of Ferris Bueller without the angst), for the big, culturally diverse city of Austin and UT, where he was just one of tens of thousands of students filling huge lecture halls. When not returning home to Houston, something he did frequently, he uncharacteristically spent most of his time holed up alone in his dorm, tinkering on the Apple. It was not until his second semester that he stumbled upon a flyer for something called the “Society for Creative Anachronism,” a group we’ve encountered before in this blog who had a particularly large and active presence in eclectic Austin. He threw himself into SCA with characteristic passion. Soon Richard, who had dabbled in fencing before, was participating in medieval duels, camping outdoors, making and wearing his own armor, arguing chivalry and philosophy in taverns, and learning to shoot a crossbow. Deeming the “Lord British” monicker a bit audacious for a newcomer, he took the name “Shamino” (inspired by the Shimano-brand gears in his bicycle) inside the SCA, playing a rustic woodman-type to which the closest D&D analogue was probably the ranger class. The social world of the Austin SCA would play a huge role in Richard’s future games, with most of his closest friends there receiving a doppelganger inside the computer.

Meanwhile he continued to explore the Apple II. A simplistic but popular genre of games at this time were the maze games, in which the computer generates a maze and expects the player to find her way out of it — think Hunt the Wumpus, only graphical and without all the hazards to avoid. Most examples used the standard top-down view typical of the era, but Richard stumbled over one written by Silas Warner of Muse Software and called simply Escape! which dropped its player into a three-dimensional rendering of a maze, putting her right inside it. “As the maze dropped down into that low perspective, I immediately realized that with one equation, you could create a single-exit maze randomly. My world changed at that moment.”

If you’d like to have a look at this game which so inspired Richard, you can download a copy on an Apple II disk image. After booting the disk on your emulator or real Apple II, type “RUN ESCAPE” at the prompt to begin.

Escape! inspired Richard to try to build the same effect into the dungeon areas of his D&D game, which he was now at work porting to the Apple II. Uncertain how to go about implementing it, he turned to his parents, who helped in ways typical of each. First, his mother explained to him how an artist uses perspective to create the illusion of depth; then, his father helped him devise a set of usable geometry and trigonometry equations he could use to translate his mother’s artistic intuition into computer code. Richard took to calling the Apple II version of his game D&D 28B, since it was essentially a port of the final teletype version to the Apple II, albeit with the addition of the 3D dungeons.

Richard spent the summer of 1980 back in Houston with his family, working at the local ComputerLand store to earn some money. His boss there, John Mayer, noticed the game he was tinkering with, which by this time was getting popular amongst Richard’s friends and colleagues at the store. Mayer did Richard the favor of a lifetime when he suggested that he might want to consider packaging the game up and selling it right there in the shop. Richard therefore put together some packaging typical of the era, sticking a mimeographed printout of the in-game help text and some artwork sketched by his mother into a Ziploc bag along with the game disk itself. (He had by this time been able to purchase a disk drive for his Apple II.) He retitled the game Akalabeth, after one of his tabletop D&D worlds. Deeply skeptical about the whole enterprise, he made somewhere between 15 and 200 copies (sources differ wildly on the exact number), and spent the rest of the summer watching them slowly disappear from the ComputerLand software wall. In this halting fashion a storied career was born.

We’ll look at Akalabeth in some detail next time.


Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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