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Of Wizards and Bards

After debuting within a few months of one another in 1981, the Ultima and Wizardry franchises proceeded to dominate the CRPG genre for the next several years to such an extent that there seemed to be very little oxygen for anyone else; their serious competition during this period was largely limited to one another. Otherwise there were only experiments that usually didn’t work all that well, like the Wizardry-meets-Zork hybrid Shadowkeep, along with workmanlike derivatives that all but advertised themselves as “games to play while you wait for the next Ultima or Wizardry.” One of these latter, SSI’s first CRPG Questron, so blatantly cloned the Ultima approach that it prompted outraged protest and an implied threat of legal action from Origin Systems. SSI President Joel Billings ended up giving Origin a percentage of the game’s royalties and some fine print on the back of the box: “Game structure and style used under license of Richard Garriott.” It’s highly debatable whether Origin really had a legal leg to stand on here, but these were days when Atari in particular was aggressively threatening publishers with similar “look and feel” lawsuits, sending lots of them running scared. Faced with the choice between a protracted legal battle and lots of industry bad will, neither of which his small company could well afford, or just throwing Origin some cash, Billings opted, probably wisely, for the latter.

In the competition between the two 800-pound gorillas of the industry, Wizardry won the first round with both the critics and the public. Compared to Ultima I, Wizardry I garnered more attention and more superlative reviews, and engendered a more dedicated cult of players — and outsold its rival by at least a two to one margin. Wizardry‘s victory wasn’t undeserved; with its attention to balance and polish, its sophisticated technical underpinnings, and its extensive testing, Wizardry felt like a game created by and for grown-ups, in contrast to the admittedly charming-in-its-own-way Ultima, which felt like the improvised ramblings of a teenager. (A very bright teenager and one hell of a rambler, mind you, but still…) The first Wizardry sold over 200,000 copies in its first three years, an achievement made even more remarkable when we consider that almost all of those were sold for a single platform, the Apple II, along with a smattering of IBM PC sales. While Infocom’s Zork may have managed similar numbers, it had the luxury of running on virtually every computer in the industry.

As early as 1982, however, the tables were beginning to turn. Richard Garriott continued to push Ultima forward, making games that were not just bigger but richer, prettier, and gradually more accessible, reaping critical praise and commercial rewards. As for Wizardry… well, therein lies a tale of misplaced priorities and missed opportunities and plain old mismanagement sufficient to make an MBA weep. While Ultima turned outward to welcome ever more new players to its ranks, Wizardry turned inward to the players who had bought its first iteration, sticking obstinately to its roots and offering bigger and ever more difficult games, but otherwise hardly changing at all through its first four sequels. You can probably guess which approach ended up being the more artistically and commercially satisfying. One could say that Ultima did not so much win this competition as Wizardry forfeited somewhere around the third round. Robert Woodhead, Andrew Greenberg, and Sir-Tech did just about everything right through the release of the first two games; after that they did everything just as thoroughly wrong.

As I wrote earlier, the second Wizardry, Knight of Diamonds, was an acceptable effort, if little more than a modest expansion pack to the original. It let players advance their characters to just about the point where they were too powerful to really be fun to play anymore, while giving them six more devious dungeon levels to explore, complete with new monsters and new tactical challenges. However, when the next game in the series, 1983’s Legacy of Llylgamyn, again felt like a not terribly inspired expansion pack, the franchise really began to go off the rails. Greenberg and Woodhead hadn’t even bothered to design this one themselves, outsourcing it instead to the Wizardry Adventurers Research Group, apparently code for “some of Greenberg’s college buddies.” Llylgamyn had the player starting over again with level 1 characters. Yet, incredibly, it still required that she purchase the first game to create characters; they could then be transferred into the third game as the “descendents” of her Wizardry I party. It’s hard to even account for this as anything other than a suicidal impulse, or (only slightly more charitably) a congenital inability to get beyond the Dungeons and Dragons model of buying a base set and then additional adventure modules to play with it. As Richard Garriott has occasionally pointed out over the years, in hewing to these policies Sir-Tech was effectively guaranteeing that each game in their series would sell fewer copies than the previous, would be played only by a subset of those who had played the one before. We see here all too clearly an unpleasant pedantry that was always Wizardry‘s worst personality trait: “You will start at the beginning and play properly!” It must have been about this time that the first masses of players began to just sigh and go elsewhere.

Speaking of pedantry: as I also described in an earlier article, a variety of player aids and character editors began to appear within months of the first Wizardry itself. Woodhead and Greenberg stridently denounced these products, pronouncing them “sleazy” in interviews and inserting a condescending letter to players in their game boxes stating their use would “interfere with the subtle balance” of the game and “substantially reduce their playing pleasure.” This is made particularly rich because, while Woodhead and Greenberg deserve credit for attempting to balance the game at all, the “subtle balance” of their first Wizardry was, in some pretty fundamental ways, broken; thus the tweaks they instituted for Knight of Diamonds. Did they really think players should ignore these issues and agree to spend dozens or hundreds of hours laboriously rebuilding countless lost parties, all because they told them to? Would players with so little capability for independent thought be able to complete the game in the first place? All the scolding did was put a sour face on the Wizardry franchise, giving it a No Fun Allowed personality in contrast to the more welcoming Ultima and, soon, plenty of other games. Players are perfectly capable of deciding what way of playing is most fun for them, as shown by the increasing numbers who began to decide that they could have more fun playing some other CRPG.

Meanwhile the Apple II’s importance as a gaming platform was steadily fading in the face of the cheaper and more audiovisually capable Commodore 64 in particular. Yet Sir-Tech made no effort for literally years to port Wizardry beyond the Apple II and the even less gaming-centric IBM PC. Their disinterest is particularly flabbergasting when we remember that the game ran under the UCSD Pascal P-Machine, whose whole purpose was to facilitate running the same code on multiple platforms. When asked about the subject, Woodhead stated that ports to the Commodore and Atari machines were “not technically possible” because neither ran any version of the UCSD Pascal language and because their disk systems were inadequate — too small in the case of the Atari and too slow in the case of the Commodore. Countless other companies would have and, indeed, did solve such problems by writing their own UCSD Pascal run-times — the system’s specifications were open and well-understood — and finding ways around the disk problems by using data compression and fast-load drivers. Sir-Tech was content to sit on their hands and wait for someone else to provide them with the tools they claimed they needed.

And then came the fiasco of Wizardry IV, a game which embodies all of the worst tendencies of the Wizardry series and old-school adventure gaming in general. This time Greenberg and Woodhead turned the design over to Roe R. Adams, III, a fount of adventure-game enthusiasm who broke into the industry as a reviewer for Softalk magazine, made his reputation as the alleged first person in the world to solve Sierra’s heartless Time Zone, and thereafter seemed to be everywhere: amassing “27 national gaming titles,” writing columns and reviews for seemingly every magazine on the newsstand, testing for every publisher who would have him, writing manuals for Ultima games, and, yes, designing Wizardry IV. Subtitled The Return of Werdna, Wizardry IV casts you as the arch-villain of the first Wizardry. To complete the inversion, you start at the bottom of a dungeon and must make your way up and out to reclaim the Amulet that was stolen from you by those pesky adventurers of the first game.

Wizardry IV doesn’t require you to import characters from the earlier games, but that’s its only saving grace. Adams wanted to write a Wizardry for people just as hardcore as he was. Robert Sirotek, one of the few people at Sir-Tech who seemed aware of just how wrong-headed the whole project was, had this to say about it in a recent interview with Matt Barton:

It was insanely difficult to win that game. I had such issues with that. I felt that it went way beyond what was necessary in terms of complexity, but the people that developed it felt strongly to leave a mark in the industry that they had the hardest game to play — period, bar none. That’s fine if you’re not worried about catering to a customer and making sales.

Return of Werdna was the worst-selling product we ever launched. People would buy it, and it was unplayable. So they’d put it down, and word spread around. There were other hard-core players in the market that loved it. They said, “Ah, why doesn’t everybody do this?” Well, we don’t because you guys are a minority. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you’re going to have to get your pleasure somewhere else because nobody can survive catering to such a small number of people.

So, it was controversial in that way. In the end, I think I was proven correct that making crazy impossible products in terms of difficulty was not the way forward.

But insane difficulty is only part of the tale of Wizardry IV. It has another dubious honor, that of being one of the first notable specimens of a species that gamers would get all too familiar with in the years to come: that hot game of the perpetually “just around the corner!” variety. Sir-Tech originally planned to release Wizardry IV for the 1984 holiday season, just about a year after Legacy of Llylgamyn and thus right on schedule by the standard of the time. They felt so confident of this that, what with the lengthy lead times of print journalism, they told inCider magazine to just announce the title as already available in their November 1984 issue. It didn’t make it. In fact it took a staggering three more years, until late 1987, for Wizardry IV to finally appear, at which time inCider dutifully reported that Sir-Tech had spent all that time “polishing” the game. Those expecting a mirror shine must have been disappointed to see the same old engine with the same old wire-frame graphics. In addition to being unspeakably difficult, it was also ugly, an anachronism from a different era. Any remaining claim that the Wizardry franchise might have had to standing shoulder to shoulder with Ultima either commercially or artistically was killed dead by The Return of Werdna. Beginning with Wizardry V and especially VI, Sir-Tech would repair some of the damage with the help of a new designer, D.W. Bradley, but the franchise would never again be as preeminent in North America as it had in those salad days of 1981 and 1982.

Wizardry I, 1981

Wizardry I, 1981

Wizardry IV, 1987. Not much has changed...

Wizardry IV, 1987. Not much has changed…

Those remaining fans who were underwhelmed by Wizardry IV were left asking just what Sir-Tech had been up to for all those years during the middle of the decade. Robert Woodhead at least hadn’t been completely idle. With Wizardry III Sir-Tech debuted a new interface they called “Window Wizardry,” which joined the likes of Pinball Construction Set in being among the first games to bring some of the lessons of Xerox PARC home to Apple II users even before the Macintosh’s debut; both earlier Wizardry games were also retrofitted to use the new system. In 1984 Woodhead improved the engine yet again, to take advantage of the new Apple II mouse should the player be lucky enough to have one. And a few months after that his port to the Macintosh arrived.

A Japanese edition of the first two Wizardry games, published by ASCII Corporation.

A Japanese edition of the first two Wizardry games, published by ASCII Corporation.

But Woodhead’s biggest distraction — and soon his greatest passion, one that would change his life forever — was Japan. After first marketing Wizardry in Japan through Starcraft, a Japanese company that specialized in localizing American software for the Japanese market and vice versa, Sir-Tech signed a blockbuster of a deal with another pioneering company, ASCII Corporation, publishers of the magazine Monthly ASCII that can be justifiably called the Japanese Byte and Creative Computing all rolled into one. Increasingly as the 1980s wore on, ASCII also became a very important software publisher. With Woodhead’s close support, ASCII turned Wizardry into a veritable phenomenon in Japan, huge even in comparison to the height of its popularity Stateside. By the latter half of the decade there were entire conventions in Japan dedicated to the franchise; when Woodhead visited them he was mobbed like a rock star. In the face of such profits and fame, he began to spend more and more of his time in Japan. After leaving Sir-Tech in 1988 he lived there full-time for a number of years, married a Japanese woman, and eventually founded a company with his old buddy Roe Adams which is dedicated to translating Japanese anime and other cinema into English and importing it to the West; it’s still going strong today. The Japanese Wizardry line also eventually spun off completely from Sir-Tech to go its own way; games are still being made today, and now far outnumber the eight Sir-Tech Wizardry games.

That explains what Woodhead was doing, but it doesn’t do much to otherwise explain Sir-Tech’s Stateside sloth until we consider this: incomprehensibly, Sir-Tech clung to Woodhead as their only technical architect, placing their entire future in the hands of this one idiosyncratic, mercurial hacker. (Greenberg filled mostly a designer’s as opposed to programmer’s role, and never worked full-time on Wizardry; after the second game his role was largely limited to that of an occasional consultant.) So, Woodhead was fascinated by the potential of the GUI and thought the Macintosh pretty neat; thus those projects got done. But he was dismissive of the cheap machines from Commodore and Atari, so those markets, many times the size of the Mac’s when it came to entertainment software, were roundly ignored. Only in 1987, with Woodhead all but emigrated to Japan, did Sir-Tech finally begin to look beyond him, funding a Commodore 64 port at last. But by then it was far too late.

Wizardry comes to the Commodore 64 at last. Predictably, not much has changed.

Wizardry comes to the Commodore 64 at last. Predictably, not much has changed.

For the reason why, we have to rewind to 1984, and move our wandering eyes from Sir-Tech’s Ogdensburg, New York, offices to a struggling little development company in the heart of Silicon Valley who called themselves Interplay. Interplay already had a couple of modestly successful illustrated adventure games to their credit when a friend of founder Brian Fargo named Michael Cranford suggested that he’d like to make a sort of next-generation Wizardry game in cooperation with them. They were all big fans of Wizardry and Dungeons and Dragons — Cranford had been Dungeon Master for Fargo’s D&D group back in high school — so everyone jumped aboard with enthusiasm. There’s been some controversy over the years as to exactly who did what on the game that would eventually become known as The Bard’s Tale, but it seems pretty clear that Cranford, who had already authored a proto-CRPG called Maze Master that was restricted in scope by its need to fit onto a 16 K cartridge, was the main driver. The most important other contributor was Bill “Burger” Heineman, who helped Cranford with some of the programming and did much of the work involved in porting the game to systems beyond its initial home on the Apple II. (Bill Heineman now lives as Rebecca Heineman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times.) After Cranford parted ways with Interplay following The Bard’s Tale II, Heineman would take over his role of main programmer and designer for The Bard’s Tale III.

The Bard's Tale on the Commodore 64. Note that this predates the screenshot immediately above by two full years.

The Bard’s Tale on the Commodore 64. Note that this predates the screenshot immediately above by two full years.

In retrospect, the most surprising thing about the first Bard’s Tale, which was published through Electronic Arts in late 1985, is that nobody did it sooner. It was certainly no paragon of original design. If anything, it was even more derivative of Wizardry than Questron had been of Ultima, evincing not just the Wizardry template of play but almost the exact same screen layout and even most of the same command keys, right down to a bunch of spells that were cast by entering their four-letter codes found only in the manual (a useful form of copy protection). But Wizardry, thanks to Sir-Tech’s neglect, was vulnerable in ways that Ultima was not. Interplay did the commonsense upgrades to the Wizardry formula that Sir-Tech should have been doing, filling the game with colorful graphics, occasional dashes of spot animation, a bigger variety of monsters to fight, more equipment and spells and classes to experiment with. And, most importantly of all to its commercial success, they made sure a Commodore 64 version came out simultaneously with the Apple II. In the years that followed they funded loving ports to an almost Infocom-like variety of platforms, giving it further graphical facelifts for next-generation machines that the early Wizardry games would never reach, like the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple IIGS.

The Bard's Tale

The Bard’s Tale‘s original touches, while by no means entirely absent, tinker with the Wizardry formula more than revamp it. Instead of doing everything outside of the dungeons via a simple textual menu system, you now have an entire town with a serious monster infestation of its own to explore. In the town of Skara Brae you can find not only equipment shops and temples and all the other stops typical of the errand-running adventurer but also the entrances to the dungeons themselves — five of them, with a total of 16 levels between them, as opposed to the original Wizardry‘s single dungeon of 10 slightly smaller and generally simpler levels. But the most obvious way that The Bard’s Tale asserts its individuality is in the whimsical character class of the bard himself, who can perform magic by playing songs; you actually hear his songs playing on your computer, another flourish The Bard’s Tale has over its inspiration. More importantly, he lends the game some of his lovably roguish personality: “When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking,” ran the headline of EA’s advertisements. The official name of the game is actually Tales of the Unknown, Volume 1: The Bard’s Tale; the rather white-bread Tales of the Unknown, in other words, was originally intended as the franchise’s name, The Bard’s Tale as the mere subtitle of this installment. Interplay originally planned to call the next game The Archmage’s Tale, next stop in a presumed cycling through many fantasy character archetypes. The bard proved so popular, however, such an indelible part of the game’s personality and public image, that those plans were quickly set aside. The next game was released as The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, the Tales of the Unknown moniker quietly retired.

Commodore 64 owners especially, starved as they had been of the Wizardry experience for years, set upon The Bard’s Tale like a horde of the mad dogs who are some of the first monsters you encounter in its labyrinths. Combined with EA’s usual slick marketing, their pent-up desire was more than enough to make it a massive, massive success, the first CRPG not named Wizardry to be able to challenge the Ultima franchise head to head in terms of sales, if not quite critical respect (it was hard for even the forgiving gaming press of the 1980s to completely overlook just how derivative a game it was). The Bard’s Tale would wind up selling 407,000 copies by the end of 1990, becoming the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s and single-handedly making Interplay a force to be reckoned with in the games industry. They would remain one of the major creative forces in gaming for the next decade and a half; we’ll have occasion to visit their story again and in more detail in future articles.

There is, however, a certain whiff of poetic justice to the way that Interplay allowed this particular franchise to go stale in much the same way that Sir-Tech had Wizardry. The Bard’s Tale II (1986) and III (1988) were each successful enough on their own terms, but a story all too familiar to Sir-Tech played out as each installment sold worse than the one before. The series then faded away quietly after The Bard’s Tale Construction Set (1991), for which Interplay polished up some of their internal authoring tools for public consumption. By then The Bard’s Tale was already long past its heyday, its position of yin to Ultima‘s yang taken up by yet another franchise, the officially licensed Advanced Dungeons and Dragons games from SSI. (At least two attempts at a Bard’s Tale IV never came to fruition, doomed by the IP Hell that resulted from Interplay parting company with EA; EA owned the name of the franchise, Interplay most of the content. Interplay’s attempt at a Bard’s Tale IV did eventually come to market as Dragon Wars, actually a far more ambitious game than any of its predecessors but one that was markedly unsuccessful commercially.)

The sequels did add some wrinkles to the formula. The Bard’s Tale II deployed a strangely grid-oriented wilderness to explore in addition to towns — six of them this time — and dungeons, and added range as a consideration to the combat engine. The Bard’s Tale III: The Thief of Fate offered more welcome improvements to the core engine, including a simple auto-mapping feature and, at long last, the ability to save the game even inside a dungeon. But mostly the sequels fell into a trap all too typical of CRPGs, of offering not so much new things to do as just ever larger amounts of the same interchangeably generic content to slog through and laboriously map; over the course of the trilogy we go from 16 to 25 to an absurd 84 dungeon levels. This despite the fact that there just aren’t that many permutations allowed by this simple dungeon-delving engine and its spinners, magical darknesses, teleporters, and traps. Long before the end of the first Bard’s Tale it’s starting to get a bit tedious; by the time you get to the sequels it’s just exhausting. It’s not hard to understand Interplay’s motivation for making the games ever huger. Gamers have always loved the idea of big games that give them more for their money, and by the third game Interplay’s in-house tools were sophisticated enough to allow them to slap together a gnarly dungeon level in probably much less time than it would take the average player to struggle through it. Still, the early Wizardry games stand up better as holistic designs today. The first Wizardry‘s ten modest dungeon levels were enough to consume quite some hours, but not too many; the game is over right about the time it threatens to get boring, a mark the latter Bard’s Tales in particular quite resoundingly overshoot.

So, I’m quite ambivalent about The Bard’s Tale franchise as a whole, as I admittedly am about many old-school CRPGs. To my mind, there are some time-consuming games, like Civilization or Master of Orion, that appeal to our better, more creative natures by offering endless possibilities to explore, endless interesting choices to make. They genuinely fascinate, tempting us to immerse ourselves in their mysteries for all the right reasons. And then there are some, like The Bard’s Tale or for that matter FarmVille, that somehow manage to worm their ways into our psyches and activate some perversely compulsive sense of puritanical duty. Does anyone really enjoy mapping her twentieth — not to mention eightieth! — dungeon inside a Bard’s Tale, wrestling all the while with spinners and teleporters and darkness squares that have long since gone from being intellectually challenging to just incredibly, endlessly annoying? The evidence of The Bard’s Tale‘s lingering fandom would seem to suggest that people do, but it’s a bit hard for me to understand why. Oh, I suppose one can enjoy the result, of having ultra-powerful characters or seeing chaos held at bay for another day via another page of graph paper neatly filled in, but is the process really that entertaining? And if not, why do so many of us feel so compelled to continue with it? Is there ultimately much point to a game that rewards not so much good play as just a willingness to put in lots and lots of time? I want to say yes, if the game has something to say to me or even just an interesting narrative to convey, but The Bard’s Tale, alas, has nothing of the sort. Ah, well… maybe it’s just down to my distaste for level grinding as an end in itself as opposed to as a byproduct of the interesting adventures you’re otherwise having — a distaste everyone obviously doesn’t share.

It can be oddly difficult to find a “clean” copy of this hugely popular game in its most popular incarnation, the Commodore 64 version. Most versions floating around on the Internet are played on, hacked, and/or, all too often, corrupted. If you want to experience The Bard’s Tale, a commercial and historical landmark of its genre despite any misgivings I may have about it, you may therefore want to download a virgin copy from this site. Alternately, all three games are included as a free bonus with a 2004 game of the same name that otherwise has very little to do with its predecessors. That’s available for various platforms from GOG.com, Steam, Google Play, and iTunes. Next time we’ll turn to a CRPG that does have something important to say, arguably the first of all too few examples of same in the history of the genre.

(Matt Barton has posted interviews with some of the folks I write about in this article on his YouTube channel: Rebecca Heineman, Brian Fargo, and Robert Sirotek. Interviews with Michael Cranford can be found on Lemon 64 and the RPG Codex. The Bard’s Tale Compendium has some background on the games and the people who made them. Now Gamer’s history of SSI includes details of the Questron tension with Origin Systems. The inCider magazine articles referenced above are in the November 1984 and November 1987 issues. See the August 1988 Computer Play for more on the Wizardry phenomenon in Japan, and the October 1983 Family Computing for Greenberg at his hectoring worst on the subject of third-party player aids and the necessity of playing Wizardry the “right” way. Finally, I located the Bard’s Tale sales figures in the March 1991 issue of Questbusters.)

 

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Origin Systems

Early days in the garage at Origin. Top row, from left: Ken Arnold, Mike Ward, Laurie Thatcher, James Van Artsdalen, Helen Garriott, John Van Artsdalen. Bottom row: Richard Garriott, Robert Garriott, Chuck Bueche.

Early days in the garage at Origin. Top row, from left: Ken Arnold, Mike Ward, Laurie Thatcher, James Van Artsdalen, Helen Garriott, John Van Artsdalen. Bottom row: Richard Garriott, Robert Garriott, Chuck Bueche.

When we last checked in with Richard Garriott, he had just released Ultima II under the imprint of Sierra Online. Despite all of the pain and tension of its extended development process and the manifold design flaws that resulted from that, Ultima II proved to be a hit, selling over 50,000 copies within the first year or so and eventually approaching sales of 100,000. Contemporary reviews were uniformly stellar. In contrast to Ultima II‘s modern reputation as the black sheep of the Ultima family, reviewers of the era seemed so entranced by the scope and vision of the game, so much grander than anything else out there, that they were willing to overlook all of the useless spinning gears that didn’t connect with anything else and the many things that just didn’t make sense even by the generous standards of CRPG storytelling. Only one review that I’ve seen takes note of Ultima II‘s strangely disconnected design elements at all, James A. McPherson’s piece for Computer Gaming World. Even he bends over backwards to put the best possible interpretation on it:

My only thought as I finished the game was that very little of this enormous work was really being utilized as being required to finish the game. It was almost as if this was only a small initial quest to give you the lay of the land and that additional scenarios would be released, each one using more of the game until the “Ultimate” quest was finished.

No “additional scenarios” would have a chance to appear even if Garriott or someone at Sierra had read this review and thought it a good idea. As McPherson wrote those words Garriott’s relationship with Sierra was falling to pieces.

As I described in my earlier article, the relationship had been full of tension for months before the release of Ultima II. Big, blustery Ken Williams of Sierra took pretty good care of his people and was beloved by most of them for it, but he never let it be forgot that he considered them his people; he always made it clear who was ultimately in charge. Richard Garriott, younger and quieter than Ken though he may have been, had just as strong a will. He just wasn’t going to be the junior partner in anything. In fact, he even had a small entourage of his own, some of his old running buddies from high school who assisted with his projects in various ways. Most prominent amongst this group were Ken Arnold, Keith Zabalaoui, and Chuck Bueche (immortalized as “Chuckles the Jester” in many an Ultima), the latter two of whom also spent time in Oakhurst at the Sierra offices. Throw in a serious culture clash between the free-spirited California lifestyle of Sierra and the conservatism of Garriott’s suburban Texas upbringing and a final blow-up was probably inevitable. It came just weeks after Ultima II‘s release.

Through much of 1982 Sierra was essentially a two-platform shop. Most of their games were developed on the Apple II, and then those that were successful would be ported to the Atari 8-bit line. (A minority, such as the works of Atari stalwart John Harris, went in the opposite direction.) Accordingly, immediately upon signing Garriott Sierra had not only re-released Ultima I, whose rights they recovered from the now defunct California Pacific as part of the deal, but also funded a port of that game to the Atari machines. Ultima II‘s Atari port was done by prior agreement by Chuck Bueche for a piece of Garriott’s generous royalties. By this time, however, it was becoming clear that Sierra would need to support more than just these two platforms if they wished to remain a major player in the exploding software industry. They therefore funded an additional port of Ultima II, without Garriott’s direct oversight, to the IBM PC. (Another unsupervised port, to the Commodore 64, would follow later in 1983.) The contract he had signed not only allowed Sierra to choose where and when to port Ultima II, but also allowed them to pay Garriott a considerably lower royalty for ports with which he and his entourage were not involved. Effectively he would be paid as the designer only, not as the designer and the programmer. Garriott, who had apparently overlooked this aspect of the contract, felt like he was being swindled even though Sierra remained well within the letter of the law. You can choose to see all of this as you like, as Ken Williams slyly manipulating contract law to put one over on his naive young signee or as a simple failure of due diligence on Garriott’s part.

Regardless, Garriott had consciously or subconsciously been looking for a reason to split with Sierra for some time. Now he had a suitable grievance. Luckily, he had been wise enough to retain the right to the Ultima name. Even Ultima I and II were given exclusively to Sierra only for a few years before reverting back to their creator. There was thus nothing stopping him from continuing the Ultima series elsewhere.

But where? He certainly had no shortage of suitors, among them Trip Hawkins, who pitched hard for Garriott to become one of his electronic artists. Still, Richard wasn’t sure that he wanted to get in bed with yet another publisher at all. He talked it over with his business adviser, his older brother Robert, who in the best over-educated tradition of the Garriott family was just finishing his second Master’s degree at MIT with the thesis “Cross Elasticity Demand for Computer Games.” Robert proposed that they start their own publisher, with him managing the business side and Richard and his buddy Chuck Bueche the technical and creative. And so Origin Systems was born. It would be a little while before they came up with their brilliant slogan — “We Create Worlds” — but just the company name itself was pretty great. It probably owed something to the Origins Games Fair, one of the two most prominent North American conventions for tabletop gamers of all types. Richard, who had played Dungeons and Dragons obsessively in high school and at university in Austin had become an intimate of Steve Jackson Games, had deep roots in that culture. Richard, Robert, their father Owen, and Chuck Bueche all put up money — with the lion’s share naturally coming from the relatively flush Richard — to become the founders of a new games publisher.

Everything about the young (literally; look at their picture above!) Origin Systems was bizarre, even by startup standards. They set up shop in Richard’s personal playhouse, a space above the Garriott family’s three-car garage which had once served as an art studio for his mother but had been commandeered by Richard and his friends years before for their D&D games. It was a big room scattered with desks, chairs, and even cots. Here Richard and his friends set up their various computers. A little cubbyhole at one end served as Robert’s business office. Robert himself was still officially living in Massachusetts with his wife, who had quite a career of her own going as a manager at Bell Labs and thus couldn’t move. Robert, however, was a pilot with a little Cessna at his disposal. He spent three weeks of each month in Houston, then flew back to spend the last with his wife in Massachusetts.

Together Chuck Bueche and Richard worked feverishly on the games that would become Origin Systems’s first two products. Chuck’s was an action game called Caverns of Callisto; Richard’s was of course the big one upon which they were all depending to get Origin properly off the ground, Ultima III.

Given its flagship status, Garriott felt compelled to try to remedy some of the shortcomings of his earlier games. In particular, he was obviously eying the Wizardry series; for all of the Ultima series’s stellar reviews and sales, the first two Wizardry games had garnered even better and more of both. Much of what’s new in Ultima III is there in the name of addressing his series’s real or perceived failings in comparison with Wizardry. Thus he replaced the single adventurer of the early games with a full party which the player must manage; added a new strategic combat screen to make fights more interesting; added a full magic system with 32 separate spells to cast to replace the simplistic system (which the player could easily and safely ignore entirely) of his previous games; added many new class and race options from which to build characters; made some effort to bring some Wizardry-style rigorousness to the loosy-goosy rules of play that marked his earlier games.

Notably, however, Ultima III is also the first Garriott design that doesn’t simply try to pile on more stuff than the game before. Whether because he knew that, what with his family and friends all counting on him, this game needed to be both good and finished quickly or just because he was maturing as a designer, with Ultima III he for the first time showed an ability to edit. Garriott was never going to be a minimalist, but Ultima III is nevertheless only some 60% of the geographical size of Ultima II, the only example of the series shrinking between installments prior to everything going off the rails many years later with Ultima VIII. Also gone entirely is the weird sub-game of space travel, as well as — for the most part — the painful stabs at humor. Yet it’s safe to say that Ultima III will take the average player much longer to finish, because instead of leaving huge swathes of game — entire planets! — dangling uselessly in the wind Garriott this time wove everything together with an intricate quest structure that gives a reason to explore all those dungeons. In fact, there’s a reason to visit every significant area in the game.

Viewed from the vantage point of today, Ultima III is perched on a slightly uncomfortable border, right between the simple early Ultimas that predate it and the deeper, richer works that make up the heart of Ultima‘s (and Richard Garriott’s) legacy today. I don’t know if any other game in the series sparks as much diversity of opinion. To some it’s just a long, boring grind, while a small but notable minority actually name it as their favorite in the entire series. Personally, I can appreciate its advances but take issue with many aspects of its design, which strike me as cruel and rather exhausting. My favorite of the early Ultimas, the one that strikes me as most playable today, remains Ultima I. But I’ll talk about Ultima III at much greater length in a future post. For now let’s just note that it gave CRPG players of 1983 exactly what they wanted — a big, convoluted, epic experience that pushed the technology even further than had the previous game — without the bugs and other issues that had plagued Ultima II.

Having dropped out of even a part-time university schedule and now largely living right there in that garage loft, Richard wrote Ultima III quickly, almost inconceivably so given its technical advancements. It was done in about six months, barely one-third the time invested into Ultima II and considerably less time than it would take many a player to finish it. As usual, the game itself was essentially a one-man effort, but as it came together he recruited family and friends to help with numerous ancillary matters. Ken Arnold, his old buddy from the ComputerLand days, wrote and programmed a lovely soundtrack for the game, playable by those who had purchased one of the new Mockingboard sound cards for their Apple II. A huge advance over the bleeps and farts of the previous games, it was the first of three Arnold-composed soundtracks that have become a core part of Ultima nostalgia for a generation of players, especially once ported to the Commodore 64, where they sounded even better on the magnificent SID chip.

Ultima III

But most of the outside effort went into the package. Origin may have literally been a garage startup, but Richard was determined that their products should not look the part. He wanted to outdo Sierra’s efforts for Ultima II; he succeeded handily. Denis Loubet, whom Richard had met back when he did the original cover art for the California Pacific Akalabeth, now drew a striking demon for the Ultima III cover which might not have had anything obviously to do with the contents of the disks but sure looked cool. (Maybe too cool; lots of overzealous Christian parents would take one look and start sending Garriott letters accusing him of Satanism.) Loubet also provided pictures for the manuals, as did Richard’s mother Helen, who drew up another mysterious cloth map complete with arcane runes along the borders; such maps were about to become another of the series’s trademarks. And did you notice I said “manuals”? That wasn’t a typo. Ultima III included three: a main game manual along with two more booklets containing elaborate faux-medieval descriptions and illustrations for each wizard and cleric spell. Said faux-medieval writing is a bit more tolerable this time because Richard, no wordsmith, didn’t write it himself. The spell descriptions were done by Margaret Weigers, a local friend, while Roe R. Adams III, who was quickly parlaying his reputation as the king of adventure-game players into a career in game development (he would soon sign on to design Wizardry IV for Sir-Tech), doused the main manual in copious quantities of suitably purple prose (yet another Ultima trademark).

As July of 1983 faded into August the game was already largely finished and the various hardcopy pieces were beginning to come in from the printers. Showing that he could challenge even Ken Williams in the charisma department when we wanted to, Richard convinced Mary Fenton and Jeff Hillhouse, two Sierra employees he’d met during his time in Oakhurst, to come join Origin. Fenton would become Origin’s first customer-service person; Hillhouse, who had learned how the industry worked at Sierra, would handle logistics and distribution. When he made contact with distributors and announced Ultima III, everyone was astonished when initial orders totaled no less than 10,000 units. Richard and Robert now kicked their long-suffering parents’ vehicles out of their own garage to make room for a big shrink-wrap machine — their biggest capital investment yet — and a workbench of computers to use for disk duplication. By now Origin had rented a tiny office in Houston to serve as the front that they presented to the world, but the real heart of the company remained there in the garage. For several months evenings in front of the television at the Garriott household would be spent folding together lurid demon-painted boxes.

Origin Systems's first advertisement, for their first two products

Origin Systems’s first advertisement, for their first two products

Ultima III began shipping in late August for the Apple II. Versions for the Atari 8-bit line and the Commodore 64 soon followed. Both ports were done by Chuck Bueche, whose role as a creative and technical force with Origin during these early days was almost as significant as Richard’s. The game was a huge hit across all platforms; Ultima III became the first Ultima to top 100,000 units in sales, a mark that all of the following titles would surpass with ease. Indeed, this moment marks the point where Ultima pulled ahead of the Wizardry series once and for all to become simply the premiere CRPG series of its era. Despite the occasional worthy competitor like the Bard’s Tale series, it would not be really, seriously challenged in that position until the arrival of the officially licensed D&D games that SSI would start releasing at the end of the decade. Happily, Ultima and Richard Garriott would prove worthy of their status; the next Ultima in particular would be downright inspiring.

But for now we still have some business for 1983 and Ultima III. I want to take a closer look at the game, which planted the seeds of much that would follow. First, however, we’ll take a little detour to set the record straight about another one of those persistent myths that dog fan histories of Ultima.

(Richard Garriott’s career has of course been very well documented. The two most in-depth histories are The Official Book of Ultima and Dungeons and Dreamers, even if a distinct whiff of hagiography makes both rather insufferable at times. And of course he’s all over contemporary magazines, not to mention the modern Internet. A particular gem of an article for students of this period in his career is in the November/December 1983 Softline. That’s where I found the wonderful picture at the beginning of this article.)

 

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The Wizardry and Ultima Sequels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Wizardry Phenomenon

Of the two long-lived CRPG franchises that made their debuts in 1981, the Ultima series would prove to be the more critically and commercially successful in the long term. Yet in a state of affairs that brings to mind clichés about tortoises and hares and battles and wars, it was the first Wizardry game that really captured imaginations, not to mention the most sales, in 1981 and 1982. Ultima, mind you, was another very big success for Richard Garriott, receiving positive reviews and selling 20,000 copies in its first year. It along with Akalabeth made him a very prosperous young man indeed, enough that he would soon have to question whether there was any point in continuing at university to prepare for a “real” career (a story we’ll get to later). But Wizardry was operating on another plane entirely.

If reviews of Ultima were very positive, early reviews of Wizardry were little short of rapturous. Softalk, who published a review even before the game was available thanks to a pre-release copy, called Wizardry not just a game but “a place,” and “the ultimate computer Dungeons and Dragons,” and said those who “don’t give this game a try” would be “missing much.” Computer Gaming World called it “one of the all-time classic computer games,” “the standard by which all fantasy role-playing games should be compared.” Even Dragon magazine took note. In one of its occasional nods to the CRPG scene, it said that “there is so much good about this game, it’s difficult to decide where to begin,” and that it “would excite any dedicated fantasy role-player.” The consensus of these reviewers is that Greenberg and Woodhead had in some sense perfected the idea of D&D on the microcomputer, producing the first compulsively playable example of the form after all of the not-quite-there-yet experiments of Automated Simulations and others. While Ultima, for one, certainly has its own charms, it’s difficult to entirely disagree.

Rapturous press and positive word of mouth paid off commercially. Just two months after its release in September of 1981, Wizardry was already the second bestselling Apple II program on the market, behind only the unstoppable VisiCalc, according to Softalk‘s sales surveys. The September/October 1982 issue of Computer Gaming World included a survey of top-selling games and their alleged sales numbers through June 1982. (This is also the source that I used for the 20,000-copy figure for Ultima). Here, nine months after its release, Wizardry is claimed to have sold 24,000 copies. Ultima had not only sold fewer copies in total, but had been on the market three months longer. The only adventure games to have outsold Wizardry were Zork (32,000 copies), Temple of Apshai (30,000 copies), and The Wizard and the Princess (25,000 copies). All of these games had been on the market at least twice as long as Wizardry, and in the case of the former two on other platforms in addition to the Apple II. For the record, the only other games to outsell Wizardry were K-Razy Shootout (35,000 copies) and Snack Attack (25,000 copies), clones of the arcade hits Berzerk and Pac-Man respectively; Raster Blaster (25,000 copies), a pinball game from Apple II supercoder Bill Budge; and the evergreen Flight Simulator (30,000 copies). (Yes, bizarre as it sounds, the completely unremembered K-Razy Shootout may well have been the bestselling computer game of all-time in mid-1982 — counting only games sold for full-fledged PCs rather than game consoles, of course. On the other hand, there are enough oddities about CGW‘s list that I’m far from ready to take it in its entirety as gospel.) Impressive as its sales to that point had been, in mid-1982 Wizardry was still quite early in its commercial lifespan. As Apple IIs continued to sell in ever greater numbers, Wizardry also would continue as a major seller for several more years. A full year after the CGW list, Electronic Games magazine still called it “without a doubt, the most popular fantasy adventure game available for the Apple II.”

Sales success like this, combined with the devotion the game tended to engender amongst those who bought it and, yes, the rampant piracy that was as typical of this era as it is of our own, led to a user base of active, long-term Wizardry players that was larger than the entire installed base of some of the Apple II’s competition. Wizardry is of course a famously difficult game, leading many of these folks to cast around for outside aid. One of the more fascinating and important aspects of the Wizardry story is the cottage industry that arose to feed this hunger. At least two third-party character editors from tiny publishers, WizPlus and WizFix, appeared within months of Wizardry itself, offering players the opportunity (for $25 or so) to alter their characters’ statistics at will and rescue dead characters left in the dungeon. These programs grew so popular that Sir-tech already felt behooved to respond upon the release of the second Wizardry scenario in May of 1982 by inserting into the box a sheet bearing the following rather mean-spirited scold:

It has come to our attention that some software vendors are marketing so-called “cheat programs.” These programs allow you to create characters of arbitrary strength and ability.

While it may seem appealing to use these products, we urge you not to succumb to the temptation. It took more than four years of careful adjustment to properly balance Wizardry. These products tend to interfere with this subtle balance and may substantially reduce your playing pleasure. It would be akin to playing chess with additional queens, or poker with all cards wild.

It has also come to our attention that some of these programs are unreliable and may even destroy data. While we repair or replace inoperative disks free within 30 days of purchase, or for a nominal fee of $5.00 anytime thereafter, we will not do so for disks damaged by a cheat program.

Such pedantry foreshadows some of the mistakes that Sir-tech would soon begin to make with the franchise.

A year or two later, The Wizard’s Workbench from Magicsoft took advantage of Greenberg and Woodhead’s determination to make Wizardry a reusable, database-based game system by offering what amounted to a reconstruction of the tools Woodhead had created to author the original game. A full-fledged CRPG authoring tool in all but name, Wizard’s Workbench let the player alter existing Wizardry scenarios at will, as well as create her own with custom mazes to be mapped, monsters to be fought, magic items to be acquired, and puzzles to be solved — a precursor to systems like The Bard’s Tale Construction Set and Unlimited Adventures and, by extension, the more recent Neverwinter Nights.

Others trafficked not in software but in information. One Michael Nichols put together a binder’s worth of maps, data on monsters and items, and playing advice under the name “The Wizisystem”:

Wizardry is one of the most exciting and challenging games available for the Apple computer. Its complexity and seemingly endless variations make it interesting long after the average game has been gathering dust for months. Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Wizardry is that it forces the player to think logically, to act rationally, and to organize masses of data into usable form in order to be successful. In other words, the Wizardry player must combine the skills of a master strategist, a tax lawyer, a cartographer, an experienced researcher, and a Knight of the Round Table!

The Wizisystem allows the average player, who has neither the time nor the means to learn all these skills, to be successful at the game by teaching him to exert control over every phase of the game — from creating characters to opening chests. It gives the player a successful, easy-to-follow format and backs it up with information that is as complete and helpful as possible.

The essence of the Wizisystem is control through planning, organization, knowledge, and a methodical approach to the game.

Products like Wizisystem showed publishers that there was a market hungry for such detailed information on individual games. Soon most adventure-game publishers would be selling hints books as a tidy extra profit channel, and soon enough after that book-store shelves would be full of sometimes-hundreds-of-pages-long deconstructions of popular games of all stripes.

It all added up to something that Softline could already in its March 1982 issue call a “phenomenon” with only slight hyperbole. As with Eliza fifteen years before, some saw applications for Wizardry that sound over the top or even downright silly today. Harry Conover considered playing the game good training for working as a small-business manager: “As the manager of a small group of individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, you must manipulate the members’ performances against the ‘competition’ so that they achieve a certain goal.” Chuck Dompa used Wizardry in a graduate-level continuing-education course (“CS470: Teaching Fantasy Simulation”) for educators at Penn State University. Dr. Ronald Levy, a New York child psychiatrist, started using the game in his work. He wrote a letter to Sir-tech describing his experiences with a deeply depressed, apparently suicidal child:

Jim agreed to play videogames on my Apple computer and he became fascinated by my description of the Wizardry game. He made a set of characters, gave them names, and played nonstop for almost an hour. After the first half hour, he was willing to discuss with me what he was doing in the game, and I was able to learn a great deal about him from what he had told me and from watching him play.

I found out that he was not as depressed as he seemed and that he was able to become enthusiastic about something he was interested in; and we were able to talk about some of his worries, using the game as a springboard. At the conclusion of this visit, he told me he had no intention of killing himself because he “wanted to come back and play some more.” In this case, an in several others, I have been able, by using your game, to evaluate correctly children who initially seemed much more disturbed than they really were… Although you intended to create a recreational game, you have inadvertently provided me with a marvelous tool for my work with children.

Less compellingly, Levy raised the stakes further to claim that the individual characters that make up a Wizardry party were really each a fragment of the player’s psyche, alluding to the ideas that Hermann Hesse put forward in Steppenwolf. Alas, Dr. Levy, sometimes a computer game is just a computer game.

Wizardry‘s success inspired a certain amount of resentment from some of the old guard on PLATO, from whose games Greenberg and Woodhead had lifted so many of their ideas. Dirk Pellett, who did much work on the seminal PLATO CRPG dnd, claims to this day that Woodhead attempted to copy that game and release it under his own name on PLATO as Sorcerer. When he was called out for that, claims Pellett, he and Greenberg then “plagiarized” another popular PLATO game, Oubliette, to create Wizardry. For what it’s worth, I find this claim absurd. Oubliette did pioneer many ideas used in Wizardry, including the first-person view, but the contents of the latter’s dungeons were completely original. And the most obvious innovation of Wizardry, its placing the player in charge of an entire party instead of a single avatar, does indeed appear to originate with Wizardry itself. If Wizardry plagiarized Oubliette, then Zork plagiarized Adventure — and dnd plagiarized D&D. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a computer game of the last 30 years that is not a product of plagiarism under those terms. Yet with Greenberg and Woodhead having gotten so much recognition and money from being the first to bring to a paying market so many of the ideas of PLATO, such resentments are perhaps inevitable. (More surprising is the complete equanimity Will Crowther and Don Woods have always shown in the face of the commercialization of their own seminal work, Adventure.)

What all of this attention ultimately came down to for Sir-tech, of course, was sales. Lots and lots of sales. For its first offices the company rented out a 100 square-foot area in the spoon factory that had gotten all of this started in the first place. Sir-tech started out copying disks by hand for sale at a rate of about 100 per day, but soon invested in specialized duplication machines that raised their daily capacity to 500. And they started hiring; soon Norman and Robert Sirotek were joined in the office by five employees. Meanwhile Greenberg and Woodhead started doing what you do when you’ve just made a hit computer game: working on the sequel.

We’ll be tracing the parallel evolutions of the Wizardry and Ultima series for a long time to come. But next, as usual, something completely different.

 
 

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Playing Wizardry

Writing about Ultima earlier, I described that game as the first to really feel like a CRPG as we would come to know the genre over the course of the rest of the 1980s. Yet now I find myself wanting to say the same thing about Wizardry, which was released just a few months after Ultima. That’s because these two games stand as the archetypes for two broad approaches to the CRPG that would mark the genre over the next decade and, arguably, even right up to the present. The Ultima approach emphasizes the fictional context: exploration, discovery, setting, and, eventually, story. Combat, although never far from center stage, is relatively deemphasized, at least in comparison with the Wizardry approach, which focuses on the process of adventuring above all else. Like their forefather, Wizardry-inspired games often take place in a single dungeon, seldom feature more than the stub of a story, and largely replace the charms of exploration, discovery, and setting with those of tactics and strategy. The Ultima strand is often mechanically a bit loose — or more than a bit, if we take Ultima itself, with its hit points as a purchasable commodity and its concept of character level as a function of time served, as an example. The Wizardry strand is largely about its mechanics, so it had better get them right. (As I wrote in my last post about Wizardry, Richard Garriott refined and balanced Ultima by playing it a bit himself and soliciting the opinions of a few buddies; Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead put Wizardry through rigorous balancing and playtesting that consumed almost a year.) These bifurcated approaches parallel the dueling approaches to tabletop Dungeons and Dragons, as either a system for interactive storytelling enjoyed by “artful thespians” or a single-unit tactical wargame.

Wizardry, then, isn’t much concerned with niceties of setting or story. The manual, unusually lengthy and professional as it is, says nothing about where we are or just why we choose to spend our time delving deeper and deeper into the game’s 10-level dungeon. If a dungeon exists in a fantasy world, it must be delved, right? That’s simply a matter of faith. Only when we reach the 4th level of the dungeon do we learn the real purpose of it all, when we fight our way through a gauntlet of monsters to enter a special room.

CONGRATULATIONS, MY LOYAL AND WORTHY SUBJECTS. TODAY YOU HAVE SERVED ME WELL AND TRULY PROVEN YOURSELF WORTHY OF THE QUEST YOU ARE NOW TO UNDERTAKE. SEVERAL YEARS AGO, AN AMULET WAS STOLEN FROM THE TREASURY BY AN EVIL WIZARD WHO IS PURPORTED TO BE IN THE DUNGEON IMMEDIATELY BELOW WHERE YOU NOW STAND. THIS AMULET HAS POWERS WHICH WE ARE NOW IN DIRE NEED OF. IT IS YOUR QUEST TO FIND THIS AMULET AND RETRIEVE IT FROM THIS WIZARD. IN RECOGNITION OF YOUR GREAT DEEDS TODAY, I WILL GIVE YOU A BLUE RIBBON, WHICH MAY BE USED TO ACCESS THE LEVEL TRANSPORTER [otherwise known as an “elevator”] ON THIS FLOOR. WITHOUT IT, THE PARTY WOULD BE UNABLE TO ENTER THE ROOM IN WHICH IT LIES. GO NOW, AND GOD SPEED IN YOUR QUEST!

And that’s the last we hear about that, until we make it to the 10th dungeon level and the climax.

What Wizardry lacks in fictional context, it makes up for in mechanical depth. Nothing that predates it on microcomputers offers a shadow of its complexity. Like Ultima, Wizardry features the standard, archetypical D&D attributes, races, and classes, renamed a bit here and there for protection from Mr. Gygax’s legal team. Wizardry, however, lets us build a proper adventuring party with up to six members in lieu of the single adventurer of Ultima, with all the added tactical possibilities managing a team of adventurers implies. Also on offer here are four special classes in addition to the basic four, to which we can change characters when they become skilled enough at their basic professions. (In other words, Wizardry is already offering what the kids today call “prestige classes.”) Most impressive of all is the aspect that gave Wizardry its name: priests eventually have 29 separate spells to call upon, mages 21, each divided into 7 spell levels to be learned slowly as the character advances. Ultima‘s handful of purchasable scrolls, which had previously marked the state of the art in CRPG magic systems, pales in comparison. Most of the depth of Wizardry arises one way or another from its magic system. It’s not just a matter of learning which spells are most effective against which monsters, but also of husbanding one’s magic resources: deciding when one’s spell casters are depleted enough that it’s time to leave the dungeon, deciding whether the powerful spell is good enough against that demon or whether it’s time to use the really powerful one, etc. It’s been said that a good game is one that confronts players with interesting, non-obvious — read, difficult — decisions. By that metric, magic is largely what makes Wizardry a good game.

Of course, Wizardry‘s mechanics, from its selection of classes and races to its attribute scores that max out at 18 to its armor-class score that starts at 10 and moves downward for no apparent reason, are steeped in D&D. There’s even a suggestion in the manual that one could play Wizardry with one’s D&D group, with each player controlling a single character — not that that sounds very compelling or practical. The game also tries, not very successfully, to shoehorn in D&D‘s mechanic of alignment, a silly concept even on the tabletop. On the computer, good, evil, and neutral are just a set of arbitrary restrictions: good and evil cannot be in the same party, thieves cannot be good.

Sometimes you meet “friendly” monsters in the dungeon. If good characters kill them anyway, or evil characters let them go, there’s a chance that their alignments will change — which can in turn play the obvious havoc with party composition. (In an amusing example of unintended emergent behavior, it’s also possible for the “evil” mage at the end of the game to be… friendly. Now doesn’t that present a dilemma for a “good” adventurer, particularly since not killing him means not getting the amulet that the party needs to get out of his lair.)

So, Greenberg and Woodhead were to some extent just porting an experience that had already proven compelling as hell to many players to the computer, albeit doing a much more complete job of it than anyone had managed before. But there’s also much that’s original here. Indeed, so much that would become standard in later CRPGs has its origin here that it’s hard to know where to begin to describe it all. Wizardry is almost comparable to Adventure in defining a whole mode of play that would persist for many years and countless games. For those few of you who haven’t played an early Wizardry game, or one of its spiritual successors (read: slavish imitators) like The Bard’s Tale or Might and Magic, I’ll take you on a very brief guided tour of a few highlights. Sorry about my blasphemous adventurer names; I’ve been reading the Old Testament lately, and it seems I got somewhat carried away with it all.

Wizardry is divided into two sections: the castle (shown below), where we do all of the housekeeping chores like making characters, leveling up, putting together our party, shopping for equipment, etc.; and the dungeon, where the meat of the game takes place.

When we enter the dungeon, we start in “camp.” We are free to camp again at any time in the dungeon, as long as we aren’t in the middle of a fight. Camping gives us an opportunity to tinker with our characters and the party as a whole without needing to worry about monsters. We can also cast spells. Here I’ve just cast MAPORFIC, a very useful spell which reduces the armor class of the entire party by two for the duration of our stay in the dungeon. All spells have similar made-up names; casting one requires looking it up in the manual and entering its name.

Once we leave camp, we’re greeted with the standard traveling view: a first-person wireframe-3D view of our surroundings occupies the top left, with the rest of the screen given over to various textual status information and a command menu that’s really rather wasteful of screen space. (I suspect Greenberg and Woodhead use it because it gives them something with which to fill up some space that they don’t have to spend computing resources dynamically updating.)

I was just saying that Wizardry manages to be its own thing, separate from D&D. That becomes clear when we consider the player’s biggest challenge: mapping. It’s absolutely essential that she keep a meticulous map of her explorations. Getting lost and not knowing how to return to the stairs or elevator is almost invariably fatal. While tabletop D&D players are often also expected to keep rough maps of their journeys, few dungeon masters are as unforgiving as Wizardry. In addition to all the challenges of keeping track of lots of samey-looking corridors and rooms, the game soon begins to throw other mapping challenges at the player: teleporters that suddenly throw the party somewhere else entirely; spinners that spin them in place so quickly it’s easy to not realize it’s happened; passages that wrap around from one side of the dungeon to the other; dark areas that force one to map by trial and error, literally by bashing one’s head against the walls.

On the player’s side are an essential mage spell, DUMAPIC, that tells her exactly where she is in relation to the bottom-left corner of the dungeon level; and the knowledge that all dungeon levels are exactly 20 spaces by 20 spaces in size. Mapping is such a key part of Wizardry that Sir-tech even provided a special pad of graph paper for the purpose in the box, sized 20 X 20.

The necessity to map for yourself is easily the most immediately off-putting aspect of a game like Wizardry for a modern player. While games before Wizardry certainly had dungeons, it was the first to really require such methodical mapping. The dungeons in Akalabeth and Ultima, for instance, don’t contain anything other than randomized monsters to fight with randomized treasure. The general approach in those games becomes to use “Ladder Down” spells to quickly move down to a level with monsters of about the right strength for one’s character, to wander around at random fighting monsters until satisfied and/or exhausted, then to use “Ladder Up” spells to make an escape. There’s nothing unique to really be found down there. Wizardry changed all that; its dungeon levels may be 99% empty rooms, corridors, and randomized monster encounters, but there’s just enough unique content to make exploring and mapping every nook and cranny feel essential. If that’s not motivation enough, there’s also the lack of a magic equivalent to “Ladder Up” and “Ladder Down” until one’s mage has reached level 13 or higher. Map-making is essential to survival in Wizardry, and for many years to follow laborious map-making would be a standard part of the CRPG experience. It’s an odd thing: I have little patience for mazes in text adventures, yet find something almost soothing about slowly building up a picture of a Wizardry dungeon on graph paper. Your milage, inevitably, will vary.

In general Wizardry is all too happy to kill you, but it does offer some kindnesses here and there in addition to DUMAPIC and dungeon levels guaranteed to be 20 X 20 spaces. These proving grounds are, for example, one of the few fantasy dungeons to be equipped with a system of elevators. They let us bypass most of the levels to quickly get to the one we want. Here we’re about to go from level 1 to level 4.

From level 4 we can take another elevator all the way down to level 9. But, as you can see below, entering that second elevator is allowed for “authorized users only.”

Wizardry doesn’t have the ability to save any real world state at all. Only characters can be saved, and only from the castle. Each dungeon level is reset entirely the moment we enter it again (or, more accurately, reset when we leave it, when it gets dumped from memory to be replaced by whatever comes next). Amongst other things, this makes it possible to kill Werdna, the evil mage of level 10, and thus “win the game” over and over again. One way the game does manage to work around this state of affairs is through checks like what you see illustrated above. We can only enter the second elevator if we have the blue ribbon — and we can only get that through the fellow who enlisted our services in another part of level 4 (see the quotation above). By tying progress through the plot (such as it is) to objects in this way, Greenberg and Woodhead manage to preserve at least a semblance of game state. The blue ribbon is of course an object which we carry around with us, and that is preserved when we save our characters back at the castle. Therefore it gives the game a way of “knowing” whether we’ve completed the first stage of our quest, and thus whether it should allow us into the lower levels. It’s quite clever in its way, and, again, would become standard operating procedure in many other RPGs for years to come. The mimesis breaker is that, just as we can kill Werdna over and over, we can also acquire an infinite number of these blue ribbons by reentering that special room on level 4 again and again.

There’s a surprising amount of unique content in the first 4 levels: not only our quest-giver and the restricted elevator, but also some special rooms with their own atmospheric descriptions and a few other lock-and-key-style puzzles similar to, although less critical than, the second-elevator puzzle. In levels 5 through 9, however, such content is entirely absent. These levels hold nothing but empty corridors and rooms. I believe the reason for this is down to disk capacity. Wizardry shipped on two disks, but the first serves only to host the opening animation and some utilities. The game proper lives entirely on a second disk, as must all of the characters that players create. This disk is stuffed right to the gills, and probably would not allow for any more text or “special” areas. Presumably Greenberg and Woodhead realized this the hard way, when the first four levels were already built with quite a bit of unique detail.

We start to see more unique content again only on level 10, the lair of Werdna himself. There’s this, for instance:

From context we can conclude that Trebor must be the quest giver that we met back on level 4. “Werdna” and “Trebor” are also, of course, “Andrew” and “Robert” spelled backward. Wizardry might like to describe itself using some pretty high-minded rhetoric sometimes and might sport a very serious-looking dragon on its box cover, but Greenberg and Woodhead weren’t above indulging in some silly fun in the game proper. When mapped, level 8 spells out Woodhead’s initials; ditto level 9 for Greenberg’s.

In the midst of all this exploration and mapping we’re fighting a steady stream of monsters. Some of these fights are trivial, but others are less so, particularly as our characters advance in level and learn more magic and the monsters we face also get more diverse and much more dangerous, with more special capabilities of their own.

The screenshot above illustrates a pretty typical combat dilemma. In an extra little touch of cruelty most of its successors would abandon, Wizardry often decides not to immediately tell us just what kind of monsters we’re facing. The “unseen entities” above could be Murphy’s ghosts, which are pretty much harmless, or nightstalkers, a downright sadistic addition that drains a level every time it successfully hits a character. (Exceeded in cruelty only by the vampire, which drains two levels.) So, we are left wondering whether we need to throw every piece of high-level magic we have at these things in the hopes of killing them before they can make an attack, or whether we can take it easy and preserve our precious spells. As frustrating as it can be to waste one’s best spells, it usually pays to err on the side of caution in these situations; once to level 9 or so, each experience level represents hours of grinding. Indeed, if there’s anything Wizardry in general teaches, it’s the value of caution.

I won’t belabor the details of play any more here, but rather point you to the CRPG Addict’s posts on Wizardry for an entertaining description of the experience. Do note as you read that, however, that he’s playing a somewhat later MS-DOS port of the Apple II original.

The Wizardry series today has the reputation of being the cruelest of all of the earlier CRPGs. That’s by no means unearned, but I’d still like to offer something of a defense of the Wizardry approach. In Dungeons and Desktops, Matt Barton states that “CRPGs teach players how to be good risk-takers and decision-makers, managers and leaders,” on the way to making the, shall we say, bold claim that CRPGs are “possibly the best learning tool ever designed.” I’m not going to touch the latter claim, but there is something to his earlier statements, at least in the context of an old-school game of Wizardry.

For all its legendary difficulty, Wizardry requires no deductive or inductive brilliance or leaps of logical (or illogical) reasoning. It rewards patience, a willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes, attention to detail, and a dedication to doing things the right way. It does you no favors, but simply lays out its world before you and lets you sink or swim as you will. Once you have a feel for the game and understand what it demands from you, it’s usually only in the moment that you get sloppy, the moment you start to take shortcuts, that you die. And dying here has consequences; it’s not possible to save inside the dungeon, and if your party is killed they are dead, immediately. Do-overs exist only in the sense that you may be able to build up another party and send it down to retrieve the bodies for resurrection. This approach is probably down at least as much to the technical restrictions Greenberg and Woodhead were dealing with — saving the state of a whole dungeon is complicated — as to a deliberate design choice, but once enshrined it became one of Wizardry‘s calling cards.

Now, this is very possibly not the sort of game you want to play. (Feel free to insert your “I play games to have fun, not to…” statements here.) Unlike some “hardcore” chest-thumpers you’ll meet elsewhere on the Internet, I don’t think that makes you any stupider, more immature, or less manly than me. Hell, often I don’t want to play this sort of game either. But, you know, sometimes I do.

My wife and I played through one of the critical darlings of last year, L.A. Noire, recently. We were generally pretty disappointed with the experience. Leaving aside the sub-Law and Order plotting, the typically dodgy videogame writing, and the most uninteresting and unlikable hero I’ve seen in a long time, our prime source of frustration was that there was just no way to fuck this up. The player is reduced to stepping through endless series of rote tasks on the way to the next cut scene. The story is hard-coded as a series of death-defying cliffhangers, everything always happening at the last possible second in the most (melo-)dramatic way possible, and the game is quite happy to throw out everything you as the player have, you know, actually done to make sure it plays out that way. In the end, we were left feeling like bit players in someone else’s movie. Which might not have been too terrible, except it wasn’t even a very good movie.

In Wizardry, though, if you stagger out of the dungeon with two characters left alive with less than 10 hit points each, that experience is yours. It wasn’t scripted by a hack videogame writer; you own it. And if you slowly and methodically build up an ace party of characters, then take them down and stomp all over Werdna without any problems at all, there’s no need to bemoan the anticlimax. The satisfaction of a job well and thoroughly done is a reward of its own. After all, that’s pretty much how the good guys won World War II. To return to Barton’s thesis, it’s also the way you make a good life for yourself here in the real world; the people constantly scrambling out of metaphorical dungeons in the nick of time are usually not the happy and successful ones. If you’re in the right frame of mind, Wizardry, with its wire-frame graphics and its 10 K or so of total text, can feel more immersive and compelling than L.A. Noire, with all its polygons and voice actors, because Wizardry steps back and lets you make your own way through its world. (It also, of course, lets you fuck it up. Oh, boy, does it let you fuck it up.)

That’s one way to look at it. But then sometimes you’re surprised by six arch-mages and three dragons who proceed to blast you with spells that destroy your whole 15th-level party before anyone has a chance to do a thing in response, and you wish someone had at least thought to make sure that sort of thing couldn’t happen. Ah, well, sometimes life is like that too. Wizardry, like reality, can be a cruel mistress.

I’m making the Apple II version and its manual available for you to download, in case you’d like to live (or relive) the experience for yourself. You’ll need to remove write permissions from the first disk image before you boot with it. As part of its copy protection, Wizardry checks to see if the disk is write protected, and refuses to start if not. (If you’re using an un-write-protected disk, it assumes you must be a nasty pirate.)

Next time I’ll finish up with Wizardry by looking at what Softline magazine called the “Wizardry phenomenon” that followed its release.

 
 

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