Tag Archives: akalabeth


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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California Pacific

There are two conflicting stories about how the game that Richard Garriott sold in that Houston-area ComputerLand store made it to the West Coast offices of California Pacific, one of the most prolific and prominent of early Apple II software publishers. One says that the man who had prompted Garriott to start selling Akalabeth in the first place, ComputerLand manager John Mayer, did him a second huge favor by sending a copy of the game to CP for their consideration. The other says that the game got to CP’s offices within a few weeks of appearing in that ComputerLand via software-piracy channels. The latter story is the one Richard himself tells today, and, for what it’s worth, the one I tend to subscribe to. Perhaps the former was invented closer to the events themselves, to avoid anyone having to explain just how pirated software made its way into CP’s offices. However Akalabeth came to their attention, CP’s founder, Al Remmers, called Richard before the summer of 1980 was out, offering to fly him to Davis, California, to discuss a publication contract that would give Akalabeth nationwide distribution.

In those days game designers and programmers (almost always embodied in the same person) who could push the envelope conceptually and technically were worshiped within the still small but rapidly growing community of Apple II users. Amongst the most prominent of these was the star in CP’s stable, Bill Budge, who made his name during 1979 and 1980 with a series of frenetic action games considered remarkable for their graphics. Garriott, like any engaged Apple II user, knew Budge’s work well, so much so that his first reaction on getting the call was amazement that his work could be considered worthy by the publisher of the great Budge. He made the trip to California with nervous parents in tow, who wanted to be sure their son would not be ripped off by the fast-talking Remmers. They found no grounds for concern, and the deal was quickly done.

It was Remmers, who could show a keen promotional instinct when the mood struck him, that suggested they credit the game not to Richard Garriott but only to his in-game alter ego, Lord British, starting a tradition that would persist for many years. Upon Akalabeth‘s CP release, probably in late October or November of 1980, Remmers orchestrated a contest with Softalk magazine, in which the magazine would publish a series of cryptic clues from which readers were expected to guess Lord British’s real identity:

Lord British is not a member of the Silicon Gulch.

Lord British attends the largest university in the state of friendship.

He and his home city are closely related to present and future blastoffs.

He works at a store on the King’s Highway near the city of the clear lake in the land of computers.

ComputerLand knows him as the Son of Skylab I and if you call you’ll know him too.

No one who wasn’t already a Richard Garriott acquaintance managed to decipher the clues, and the contest fizzled out rather anticlimactically with a series of consolation prizes for things like most imaginative solution methodology in Softalk‘s May, 1981, issue. The following issue featured a full profile of Garriott that revealed all at last. Still, yet another thing that would follow Garriott throughout his career, his larger-than-life persona in the computer press as Lord British, was now in place, and once again largely accidentally, at the behest of others. Truly the young Richard Garriott led a charmed life.

While Akalabeth and Garriott did receive considerable press thanks to Remmers’s cozy relationship with Softalk, the question of its actual sales is one I can’t quite consider settled. Garriott himself recently reiterated in this blog’s comments a claim he has often made, that Akalabeth sold some 30,000 copies and netted for its author at least $150,000. There are however, several pieces of admittedly circumstantial evidence that do tend to pull against this a bit.

As a point of comparison, we might take a game I discussed earlier in this blog, On-Line Systems’s The Wizard and the Princess. According to official histories from Sierra (the company that On-Line Systems morphed into), this game eventually sold 60,000 copies. However, in the September/October, 1982, issue of Computer Gaming World, we find a list of the top sellers of various game publishers as of June 30, 1982. There, The Wizard and the Princess is listed as having sold just 25,000 copies by that date, almost two years after its release. That’s surprising, but not untenable; the microcomputer industry was growing so quickly in the early 1980s that sales even of older games could increase month by month and even year by year simply because there were so many new consumers always coming online to buy them. So, let’s run with The Wizard and the Princess as a 25,000-copy seller through mid-1982. As I noted in an earlier post, The Wizard and the Princess was a perennial on Softalk‘s best-seller top ten for well over a year after its release, spending much of that time in the top five. Akalabeth, by contrast, made just two appearances in the top 30, appearing in the January, 1981, list at number 23 and then disappearing for two months, only to bubble up one last time at number 26 in the April issue. Given that Akalabeth would permanently disappear from shelves in 1982 for reasons we’ll get to down the road a bit, and thus would not be able to benefit from the long tail of new consumers that presumably benefited The Wizard and the Princess, this is hard to reconcile with the idea that Akalabeth outsold The Wizard and the Princess by 5000 copies between the former’s late 1980 release and mid-1982.

On that same mid-1982 Computer Gaming World list, California Pacific claims Garriott’s next game, Ultima, as its own top seller, with sales of — and this is interesting — just 20,000 copies. And then there is a question that’s been raised in vintage-software-collector circles: if 30,000 copies of Akalabeth were sold, where are they? The California Pacific Akalabeth (let’s not even talk about the ComputerLand version) remains exceedingly rare, much more so than other titles of similar vintage which allegedly sold in much smaller numbers.

Now, it’s very true that objections could be raised to many of these points. Softalk‘s sales listings, for instance, were generated by surveying “Apple-franchised retail stores representing approximately 15 percent of all sales of Apple and Apple-related products [who] volunteered to participate in this poll.” Notably, mail-order sales were not considered at all. Since it deals only in ratios, not absolute numbers, Softalk‘s editors assumed the poll to be a valid reflection of the Apple II software market in general, but perhaps this assumption did not entirely hold true. Even the Computer Gaming World list was generated by simply asking the various publishers. It’s entirely possible that, due to conscious deception, confusion that grew from an admittedly rather poorly worded premise, or simple mistakes, some of these numbers are inaccurate — perhaps dramatically so. And I do want to emphasize again that, if the 30,000-copy figure is not correct, I certainly don’t attribute the confusion to deliberate deception on Garriott’s part — merely to 30-year-old events and poor record keeping in a software industry that, as we’ll see all too clearly when we get to later events in Garriott’s career, was not exactly a model of responsible business practice.

Whatever its sales figures, we can feel confident that Akalabeth generated a nice chunk of money for its starving-student creator. Garriott has characterized this time in the software industry as the “free money era,” during which even programs that frankly weren’t very good could generate a lot of money for their creators — such was the demand for new software, any software among new minted Apple II zealots. CP sold Akalabeth for $35 (up from the $20 Garriott had charged at ComputerLand). Accounting for inflation, this figure puts it right in line and then some with a hot new AAA console title of today. CP was known for offering a very generous royalty rate to its developers, often as high as 50%. Garriott presumably gave a little something to his title-screen artist Keith Zabalaoui, but the rest was all his. Even if Akalabeth didn’t sell anywhere near 30,000 copies, that adds up to one hell of a windfall for a university student. (If Garriott earned $15 per copy and Akalabeth sold even 10,000 copies, there’s your $150,000 right there.) As Garriott recently said in a lengthy interview by Warren Spector, it’s been “all downhill from there” as far as return on investment in the computer-game industry. Indeed, I find the idea that it was for at least a year or two possible to make $150,000 from a 22 K BASIC program you wrote all by yourself simultaneously exciting and vaguely horrifying. Alas, I was born ten years too late…

Even before he returned to Austin for another year of classes and SCA events, Garriott began working on another game. This one would be more ambitious than Akalabeth, his first creation conceived and written entirely on the Apple II and his first to be consciously crafted for commercial sale. We’ll get to that soon, but next I want to switch topics yet again to look at the origins of the company many of you who read this blog love more than any other.


Posted by on December 20, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Richard Garriott was a remarkable kid, but he was also a teenage dungeon master. So if we cringe a bit when Akalabeth opens with what seems a veritable caricature of teenage-dungeon-master speech which we can imagine issuing from some spotty kid in the lunch room crouching behind his Keep on the Borderlands adventure-module cover, we’ll also have to accept it as a product of its time and of its maker’s time of life.

Just a couple of idle muses, issued in said spirit of acceptance:

Why do writers of medieval fantasy (including plenty who ought to know much better than our young Mr. Garriott) always turn to the Renaissance-era Shakespeare when they want to make their English diction sound all high-falutin’ and authentic-like? There is a fellow named Geoffrey Chaucer, you know…

And given Garriott’s documented dissatisfaction with the approach Crowther and Woods took in Adventure, is “Beyond Adventure” (or should I say “Beyond Adventure“?) a not-so-subtle dig at the competition?

While both of his parents and presumably others of course offered ideas and suggestions, Akalabeth is completely the work of Richard alone, the culmination of three years of tinkering, first on that teletype terminal in his high school and then on his shiny new Apple II Plus. The one exception comes in the form of title graphics, provided by a Houston neighborhood friend, Keith Zabalaoui, and sufficient to earn him a “Graphics” credit on the packaging.

After we have paged through Zabalaoui’s title graphics and the in-game instructions, the BASIC code of the game itself is loaded in and run. Everything that follows is implemented in a single BASIC program of some 22 K. First, we are told to “Type thy lucky number.” This number will serve as a seed to the random-number generator, determining almost everything that follows: the attribute scores we begin with, the layout of the wilderness and dungeon maps, etc. Thus, typing the same lucky number effectively guarantees us the same game, right down to the character we start with, and doing the exact same thing from there will literally result in the exact same game, for even “random” die rolls are ultimately controlled by this magic number. Generating a virtual world mathematically, on the fly as needs must rather than storing it as prepared data that simply needs to be retrieved from disk, was by no means unheard of in other early computer games that struggled with their hosts’ limited memories and disk capacities; most famously, Elite built its whole eight-galaxy universe dynamically from Fibonacci sequences. It is interesting that Garriott chose that approach here, however, rather than just using the Apple II’s perfectly adequate “real” random-number generator to present a truly random storyworld and gameplay.

Anyway, after making that most critical of decisions we next get to choose a difficulty level of between 1 and 10, which controls how tough the monsters we fight will be and how many quests we will need to complete to win the game. Next we see our character, consisting of a subset of the typical Dungeons and Dragons markers: hit points, strength, dexterity, stamina, wisdom, gold. We also can choose between two classes, fighter or mage. And so we end up in the inevitable shop, although this time without the chatty shopkeepers and haggling of Temple of Apshai or Eamon.

Like Temple of Apshai, Akalabeth‘s equipment list is pretty basic, consisting of just the handful of generic items shown above, without even any possibility of finding special loot in the dungeons. Notably, however, here we have to deal with maintaining our food supply; our avatar will consume a little bit of food with every single turn, and if we run out he dies instantly. Starvation can be a real threat early in the game when gold is scarce, but soon enough we can afford hundreds of packages of food, and death by starvation becomes likely only through carelessness.

When the game proper begins, the basis of Garriott’s only half joking assertion that he spent the first 15 years of his career making the same game over and over really becomes clear. We are presented with an outdoor map, seen from an overhead perspective, which we navigate around using one-key commands. Any Ultima veteran should feel right at home, although unlike in the Ultimas, which eventually grew to use just about every key on the keyboard, we have just 10 or so options, most dealing simply with movement.

Note that the display above is implemented using the Apple II’s unique hi-res graphics mode with four lines of regular text at the bottom for status messages — Wozniak’s gift that kept on giving for game programmers.

Also like in later Ultimas, our first real mission must be to find the castle of Garriott’s alter ego, Lord British. After calling us a “peasant” (tell us how you really feel, Richard), he will assign us the first of a series of “quests” to simply kill monsters of increasing difficulty. The number of these quests we must complete to win the game is controlled by the difficulty level we chose at the beginning.

Isn’t that “a(n)” bit above priceless?

It’s in the dungeons scattered around the outdoor map that we find monsters to fight. These dungeons are the real meat of the game; we’ll spend most of our time exploring and mapping them and of course fighting their inhabitants, which grow increasingly fearsome as we descend to lower and lower levels. It’s also here that we find the game’s most obvious formal innovation, its use of a three-dimensional, first-person perspective that puts us right into the storyworld.

The use of such a perspective was not completely unprecedented even in 1980; there was of course that Escape game that had inspired Richard in the first place. And better remembered is Flight Simulator, the fruit of many years of 3D graphics experimentation by Bruce Artwick, which first appeared on the Apple II in 1979 or very early 1980. Garriott was, however, the first to implement it in a CRPG. As such, it would be very influential on a whole generation of dungeon-crawl games to follow, even as Garriott’s own Ultima series would ironically place increasingly less emphasis on its own dungeon delving in favor of creating ever richer above-ground worlds. And if we take Akalabeth‘s 3D dungeons out of the strict context of CRPG history, they stand near the top of a slippery slope that eventually led to Doom and, well, most of the hardcore games of today.

Still, Akalabeth isn’t generally accorded a whole lot of respect as a game qua game today. The CRPG Addict, for instance, calls it “more of a demonstration project than a game.” Certainly the garish artwork and teenage DM diction make it seem even more of an amateurish creation than most games from its early era. There’s some fitful stab at a milieu and a story, but it doesn’t really make any sense in light of the player’s goal to simply kill monsters and become a knight; after the introductory stuff, there are fewer total words in the game proper than there are in this paragraph. And there are things that feel just plain odd. For instance, Akalabeth has no concept of character levels; after exiting from a dungeon you are rewarded only in hit points, based on the quantity and quality of monsters you slew down below. The game has no concept of healing or of some theoretical maximum hit-point value; hit points are simply a collectable commodity, like gold. This system would persist even into Ultima I. As the CRPG Addict notes about that game, “it[‘s] the only game I know in which when you’re low on hit points, you’d better head straight for the nearest dungeon and find some monsters to fight!” Counter-intuitive as it is, fighting is literally the only way to recover hit points. (Which means, of course, that if you somehow manage to run your hit points too low without killing some pretty tough monsters, you’re effectively screwed.)

Yet there’s also a surprisingly smart design sensibility in evidence here in addition to the technical innovation of the 3D dungeons. These are aspects for which Akalabeth doesn’t get enough credit. In fact, I was surprised at how playable Akalabeth really is — much more playable than, say, the more conceptually ambitious Temple of Apshai and its successors. Part of the problem others have had with it may be a failure of expectations. Akalabeth is not trying to give its player an extended, epic experience like its Ultima successors; it does not even have a save capability. It’s rather designed as a replayable exercise in dungeon delving. The difficulty system assures that the player is always challenged, and the magic-number system allows her to generate an almost infinite variety of maps while also being able to return to exactly that pesky setup that got her killed last time, should she so desire. Taken in that light, Akalabeth is a remarkably forward-thinking, even player-friendly design for its era. And while I won’t say that I was captured for days by it or anything, I genuinely had fun toying around with it in preparation for writing this entry, something I certainly can’t say about all of the historically important early games I’ve covered previously.

Other common criticisms provide an object lesson on the need to do this sort of software archaeology using as authentic a setup as possible. In 1997, Electronic Arts released The Ultima Collection, a collection of the first eight games in the series. They also included as a bonus a port of Akalabeth to MS-DOS, marking the first such ever done after the Apple II original. Most people who attempt to play Akalabeth today use this version, as it is more accessible than getting a real Apple II or Apple II emulator working. The problem is, this version actually appears to be less sophisticated than its antecedent. For instance, in the port every single dungeon on the map is a clone of every other; in the original, each dungeon is unique. Thus we are left with a false and unfavorable impression of Garriott’s original design.

Another common criticism is that the magic amulet effectively breaks the game. Some quick background: one of the items the player can buy or find in dungeons is a magic amulet, which, in addition to a few usefully predictable functions such as making magic ladders to move up or down in a dungeon, also has a sort of wildcard option. Most of the time the results of choosing this are bad in the extreme, such as being turned into a toad. Occasionally, however, the player will get turned into a lizard man, which might not sound so great but actually is: all of her stats instantly and permanently increase by 150%. The exploit, then, is to save the game — a feature the MS-DOS port, unlike the original, did include — and try your luck. If something bad happens, you simply restore and try again, until you become a lizard man. Do this a few times and you are effectively invincible. Fine — but we need to remember that players of the original didn’t have the comfort of a save command, or even an emulator’s saved state. So trying this would have been a truly desperate roll of the dice, probably undertaken when the player had nothing left to lose. Seen the way a player in 1980 would have seen it, it’s not a game breaker at all, but a clever touch that just might once in a blue moon provide a miracle to the desperate.

So, taken all in all, it’s not hard to see why the software publisher California Pacific came calling after Richard, wanting to give his game a national release. I’ll get into that story next time.

If you’d like to try out the original Akalabeth for yourself in the meanwhile, here’s an Apple II disk image for ya.


Posted by on December 18, 2011 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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A Word on Akalabeth and Chronology

Just to demonstrate how thoroughly rotten my commercial instincts are, for my first post after returning from my little holiday hiatus I’m going to go all meta and esoteric on you and talk about a truly burning question: the exact dates of events in Richard Garriott’s early career as a game designer. I have a couple of reasons for picking these particular nits. The first and most self-interested is that I’m about to begin looking at old Richard, whom you might better know as Lord British, as my next big subject for discussion, and I want to preemptively defend myself against hordes of Ultima fans taking issue with my dating of events. The other is that this little tale may serve as an example of the process I go through to come to (my version of) historical truth, as well as the advantages and drawbacks of different sorts of sources. If you’re an historian, a reporter, or a researcher, you’re likely all too familiar with trying to reconcile separate pieces of credible evidence that nevertheless contradict each other. If you’re not, though, maybe you’ll be interested to know just what a digital antiquarian has to go through these days.

Garriott’s life and career has been better documented than that of all but a handful of game designers. In addition to countless magazine and Internet profiles, much of the book Dungeons and Dreamers was devoted to him, and the various editions of Shay Addams’s The Official Book of Ultima all fawned over him and his history with abandon. Given that, I was surprised to find myself so uncertain about the dating of Garriott’s first game, Akalabeth.

The story of Akalabeth has been told many times; if you haven’t heard it yet, stay tuned for my next post, wherein I’ll get back to historical narrative and tell you all about it. For now, though, the short version is that Garriott wrote it on his Apple II in the summer of 1979, while he was working at an Austin, Texas, ComputerLand store between high school (which he’d finished that spring) and starting at the University of Texas. His boss saw the game and suggested that he package it and sell it in the store, which Garriott did. Within days a copy had made its way — probably through the magic of piracy — to California Pacific, a major early software publisher. They flew young Richard out to California to sign him to a distribution deal, and Akalabeth became a huge hit, selling 30,000 copies and netting Garriot some $150,000 — not a bad nest egg for a kid to carry off to college. This is the story told in both of the books I mentioned above, and the one that Garriott has repeated in interviews stretching back literally decades. As the guy at the center of all these events, Garrott certainly ought to know. Yet when we start to dig into some primary sources the waters quickly muddy.

By far the best way I know to track the month-by-month doings of the early computer industry is via the magazines. In them we can watch as products are introduced and trends come and go, all with hard dates indelibly stamped right there on the covers. Sometimes, as in this case, the things we find there can upset chronologies that have come to be accepted as unchallenged fact.

Softalk magazine is one of the best resources on the early Apple II market. Surprisingly, Akalabeth does not appear there until the January, 1981, issue. Once it does, however, it appears in a big way, with a prominent mention in an article on California Pacific, a feature review, a listing at position 23 in Softalk‘s list of the top 30 Apple II software bestsellers, and the inauguration of a contest to deduce the real identity of Akalabeth creator Lord British (i.e., Garriott). Allowing for the typical magazine lead time of a couple of months, everything would seem to indicate that Akalabeth was in late 1980 a brand new product (at least on the national stage), more than a year after the standard narrative says Garriott wrote it. If we accept that, we are left with two possibilities, both of which to some extent contradict Garriott’s story. Either Akalabeth was not in fact picked up by California Pacific until more than a year after its creation, languishing in that time in obscurity while Garriott did the college thing, or it was not created in the summer of 1979, after his senior year in high school, but rather in the summer of 1980, after his freshman year at university. Howard Feldman recently scanned a copy of an original ComputerLand Akalabeth for his superb Museum of Computer Adventure Game History. That edition bears a copyright of 1980, which leaves me pretty confident that the latter scenario is in fact the correct one; Garriott himself as well as the conventional histories are off by fully one year. Further, I also find myself doubting Garriott’s sales claims. An article in the September/October, 1982, issue of Computer Gaming World tells us that The Wizard and the Princess, a game that was a Softalk top 10 perennial throughout late 1980 and 1981, had by mid-1982 sold just 25,000 copies. It’s hard to imagine how Akalabeth, which sneaked into the bottom parts of the top 30 only a few times during that period, could have ended up with the sales figures claimed.

Which of course leaves me wondering why Garriott has for so many years been saying things I’m almost certain are not true. While anyone who went around calling himself “Lord British” without a trace of apparent irony is maybe not quite the self-effacing sort, I’ve never seen anything to indicate that Garriott is dishonest. Indeed, in every interview I’ve seen he seems very level-headed and trustworthy. And it’s hard to see a reason why he might choose to knowingly falsify his dates. If having Akalabeth out in 1979 rather than 1980 maybe makes him seem slightly more of a pioneer, Garriott’s real record of accomplishments is certainly strong enough that it needs no boosting. Nor does an earlier release date give him a claim to any additional firsts; a 1979 Akabaleth is still far from the first CRPG, and his game is still not even all that impressive against the likes of Temple of Apshai, a much more ambitious and sophisticated piece of software already released by that summer of 1979. And as for sales… well, Garriott’s later games would sell in such quantities that he hardly needed to inflate the numbers for Akalabeth to assert his claim to importance.

So, no, I don’t believe that Garriott is knowingly lying to us. I do believe, however, that the human memory is a tricky thing. Much as the current fad for all things neuroscience annoys me, I found this episode of Radiolab about the workings of memory pretty fascinating. It describes remembering as an act of imaginative recreation rather than a mere retrieval from storage, and makes the counter-intuitive claim that the more we remember something, the more we dwell on it, the more distorted and inaccurate it can become. That’s one reason I’m very sparing in my use of direct interviews (another reason of course being that plenty of people have better things to do than talk with me anyway). It’s very easy for a person to start to believe his legend, whether it originated with his own early press releases or elsewhere, and to insert that version of events into his memory in lieu of reality. Ironically, I find that less heralded figures such as Lance Micklus often offer the most trustworthy recollections, as their versions of the past have not been distorted by years of repeating the same deeply engrained stories.

Anyway, this provides an example of the process I go through in trying to get to historical truth, balancing sources against one another and trying to reconstruct the most viable version of the past. The most frustrating cases are those for which I just can’t gather enough evidence, as in the case of the Eamon timeline, in which I had a creator who refuses to talk about his creation, a major figure (John Nelson) absolutely certain of one timeline of events, a single magazine article which would seem to imply another timeline but which doesn’t do so quite definitively, and otherwise a complete void of credible information. That’s when I have to just throw up my hands and admit I just don’t know — which is frustrating, because if I can’t document this stuff it may never get done.

Actually, that raises a good point: the “so what?” aspect of all this. In the end it’s maybe not of world-shaking importance to know whether one game designer released his first creation in 1979 or 1980, nor whether it sold 30,000 or 3000 copies. But in another way it’s important to me to get this stuff right, and not just because of the trite but true maxim that anything worth doing is worth doing right. Interactive entertainment looks certain to be the defining media of the 21st century, and therefore to be something eminently worth studying. Those who write about videogames have generally done the form few favors — just another aspect of a form of media that seems to have a hard time growing up and realizing its potential. Whatever you think of books of lists, I can’t help but compare the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die or 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die books with 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. The former are thoughtful, filled with a defensible if not absolute canon of genuinely great films and music; the latter is a mishmash of titles apparently plucked out of thin air, with commentary that often reads like it was lifted straight from the box copy. I’m not at all sure there even are 1001 videogames you “must” play, but surely there’s been enough good work produced in the last 35 years or so that we can do it a little bit better justice. I don’t want this to turn into a rant on the state of game journalism, so I’ll just say that I think we can do a better job of chronicling this medium’s history, and that this blog is my humble contribution to that ambition.

In addition, it’s kind of exhilarating to dig through the past and turn up things you didn’t expect. That’s already happened a number of times for me in the months I’ve been researching this blog, as when I discovered that Scott Adams had written eight of his “classic dozen” adventures before the 1970s were even over, or that the TRS-80 sold so well in its first couple of years that it left all the other platforms (including the legendary Apple II) fighting over the tiny non-Radio Shack scrap of the PC market. Put another way: primary sources rule. And hey, if stuff like that doesn’t interest you you probably never made it through this post, much less this blog. Let’s wallow in trivia together, shall we?


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