Yesteryear’s box art, games from the past – Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Wizardry’s Box had embossed dragon art and the classic name design that would become a trademark for the series. The back was plain white with text and a lone, black and white screenshot. Like D&D’s modules, it played itself off as the first “scenario” for characters levels 1 – 13. It only needed a whole 48k to run an entire world of adventure. It also didn’t call all itself a game — it was a “fantasy role-playing simulation”.

A lot of gaming companies I’ve read up on usually have a clear-cut beginning and end whether it’s Origin Systems’ slow heat death with EA or SSI bowing out in the 90s with little fanfare.

Sir-Tech is something of a mystery. Even when writing up a short piece to remember why they were an important piece of the CRPG puzzle awhile back, I still had a lot of questions left unanswered. Things got a little more interesting late last year, in the Fall of 2012, when a seller on Ebay put up a few lots of old documents and production material allegedly straight from a stash that Sir-Tech crammed into storage and apparently forgotten.

Antique dealers and other like-minded sellers such as the one that ran the auction often make a living scouring things like estate auctions, abandoned storage spaces, and the occasional yard sale to find that one thing that someone from across the world might want to add to their collection. It’s the kind of trade where a $3 bowl bought on a whim might actually turn into a $2.2 million payday later. But to CRPG fans that are interested in the history of the genre, and given the rough state of early games preservation, Sir-Tech’s lost archive was a treasure trove. Or it would have been.

A few sites tracked the auction and one of them, the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History, had even managed to snag a few maps for the unfinished Wizardry: Stones of Arnhem. Then the rest of the auctions concerning some of those lots were suddenly stopped — but not before a few sales were already made.

Who stopped them? The seller can for any number of reasons, and that’s where the speculation is running wild.

Like the end game to Sir-Tech’s history, it’s just another chapter floating in a murky pool swimming with strange, filler titles, and a niche attitude that eventually saw the trademark rights for Wizardry sold to a Japanese holder at the end of the day. Something of a strange and sad end to one of the CRPG pillars of yesteryear.

Mailing Lists to Monsters

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been amazed at what a computer can be programmed to do…but [Wizardry] does amaze me. It pushes the…computer to its limits. The amount of detail is fantastic. Wizardry may even open a whole new medium of programming.”
– Neil Shapiro, Popular Mechanics (quote used on the back of Wizardry I’s box)

According to Computer Gaming World’s editor, Johnny Wilson, in a writeup on Sir-Tech in December of 1992, Robert Woodhead and Fred Sirotek, Jr. knew each other through a novelty business that Woodhead’s mother had. More accurately, according to an interview with Softalk in 1982 by Jim Salmons, Janice Woodhead and Fred Sirotek were business partners — Janice ran a resin plant (Resin Sands) that she had set up with her husband years earlier. The problem was that suppliers for the plant would change material prices almost weekly which meant that Mrs. Woodhead would need to take “two weeks to recalculate cost and pricing.”

Enter her son, Robert Woodhead, a computer science and psychology student at Cornell. They asked if he could write a program estimating the costs over rail for material shipments needed for her business. When that was done, Sirotek Jr. must have known that this would be the start of something big, and it would be computers that would be leading the way.

Buying the program and investing $7,000 into an Apple, Sirotek Jr. supplied the hardware that Woodhead would use to go on and create a mailing list program called Infotree which drew crowds (and potential dollar signs). Sirotek, Sr., after some convincing, then bankrolled his son’s idea for a company that would be built around gaming with Woodhead’s Galactic Attack (which has drawn comparisons to an earlier, similar title on PLATO networks, Empire) in 1980. Both Infotree and Galactic Attack became Sir-tech’s first products in the spring of 1981.

By that time, Woodhead would also meet up with Andrew Greenberg who was also at Cornell — and who also had exposure to PLATO and the multi-user RPGs that were sucking hours away from students’ productivity. Both were also working on their own ideas for a dungeon crawling RPG.

PLATO was an educational system that combined both graphics and educational material, sharing it out via terminals. It had already gone through a few versions by the time Woodhead and Greenberg made it to Cornell, but the essential ideas — graphics and text — had already made a number of dungeon-style games such as Moria (which were also often created by other students) possible, becoming some of the earliest precursors to the MMORPGS of today. Moria’s wireframe dungeons and first-person perspective, in turn, could also have been informed by another earlier game — Maze War — which was first developed on Imlac PDS-1’s by Steve Colley at NASA in 1973 eventually ending up at MIT where it was further expanded.

Wizardry's GUI would share a lot of elements in common with Oubliette on PLATO, reversing the position of the party roster, dungeon view, and command list.

Wizardry’s GUI would share a lot of elements in common with Oubliette on PLATO. The party roster, for example, would be reversed, taking up the bottom 1/3rd of the screen instead with the 3D dungeon view pushed to the upper left and a command box listing hotkeys in the upper right quadrant. It would also become a style that would carry over into other CRPGs from Interplay’s Bard’s Tale in ’85 to SSI’s Gold Box series such as Pool of Radiance.

As Woodhead saw it, he viewed fitting a similar dungeon game incorporating a party of characters into the tiny, isolated limits of a computer like the Apple as a challenge. And then there was Dungeons and Dragons, another source of inspiration that the young programmer wanted to tackle. With Andrew Greenberg, they collaborated on their first game together. According to Salmons’ article, Woodhead relates that he did most of the programming while Greenberg “concerned himself with the data structures, the design of the scenario, the very tricky criteria in terms of how things work inside the game. It was a situation where we each did what we were best at.”

The game that would become Wizardry was first named Dungeons of Despair, though the double Ds would put it into hot water with another franchise that had two Ds in its initials — Dungeons and Dragons. After, as Johnny Wilson relates in his article, TSR threatened litigation, the name was changed to the one that would be remembered by its fans when it arrived in September, 1981.

Credit: Softline, August 1982

Photo credit: Softalk, August 1982

Wizardry initially sold itself in plastic baggies with a photocopied manual and orders started steamrolling in. Improvements to the manual were made after players called in with questions, even going so far as to call them up at the Sirotek home. As Robert Woodhead recalled to Jim Salmon: “At the time, the company name was a pretty bad pun, Siro-tech. After the fourth phone call at the Sirotek home around four in the morning, we dropped the ‘o’ to become ‘Sir-tech’ and made sure the company phone number was in prominent places on the manual and the packaging.”

Just how massive is a small matter of debate. According to Wilson’s CGW article, the “original Wizardry” hit a sales total of “100,000” in its first year. A 1982 issue of CGW (Sept – Oct) lists sales as of June 30, 1982, as 24,000, however, making for a strange discrepancy (Wizardry came nearly a year earlier, in September).

Even looking at the low 24k figure, that was still an amazing amount of games to move in the early 80s making Wizardry Sir-Tech’s Call of Duty in terms of sales. In contrast, however, Henk Rogers’ Black Onyx in Japan (which helped pave the way for JRPGs alongside Ultima and Wizardry), sold over “150,000” copies in its first year according to Edge Magazine solely in the Land of the Rising Sun. Developed by Rogers who had moved to Japan, Black Onyx was released by ASCII in early 1984.

Yet Wizardry was still a massive success regardless of which figure is right. Salmon’s article noted that “by the end of its second month of distribution, Wizardry was threatening VisiCalc for the number one bestseller spot.” For a game to knock a productivity program off of its perch like that was no mean feat, especially when quite a few people had the same attitude that the senior Sirotech, Fred Sirotek Sr., had in seeing computers primarily as business machines.

Sirotek Jr.’s bet had paid off. By the summer of 1983, Computer Gaming World included it on its list for longest selling games alongside Infocom’s Zork, Epyx’s Temple of Apshai, and Wizardry’s own sequel, Knight of Diamonds. Ultima, oddly enough, wasn’t on the list, despite being popular in its own right (in the same period above, according to CGW’s article, it sold 20,000 copies — not too shabby).

Wizardry would also sport its own box and Sir-Tech didn’t skimp on the packaging — the minimalist, but artsy, boxes that the games arrived on shelves were meant to stand out for the embossed, dragon and the signature look of the title that the series would carry with it until the very end in 2001 with Wizardry 8. As simple as it was, the embossed label wrapping the cardboard lid screamed fancy pants marketing that few other titles could boast at the time.

Party All the Time

It had a party of adventurers that players could create, a ten level maze filled with monsters, levels, spells, alignments, classes, and a number of races to pick from for each foolhardy adventurer added to the party roster of six. Classes ranging from the basics (Fighters, Mages) to the exotic (Samurai and Ninja) provided plenty of combinations that players could mix together. Wizardry’s grid-based movement and blob-style combat (so-named because, well, you were a ‘blob’ of characters smashing your way through a dungeon) would become a CRPG staple, going from student pasttime to the big time. In many ways, it was the Doom of its day for CRPGs, at least in the West.

It also had a few things that would build on its reputation for being a hardcore CRPG. Characters aged in the game and after a hitting a certain age, their abilities would begin to decay. Earning experience also didn’t automatically give you a level every time you hit a milestone — only trudging back to the Castle on the surface and sleeping at the Adventurer’s Inn provided the “me” time characters needed to learn from their battles. Characters also didn’t insta-heal overnight. Days could pass until all of their wounds were healed. As long as you had the money, you could literally spend as much time as you want in bed, aging along the way.

Death could also be somewhat permanent. Until you had an experienced Priest, for example, that had the right spell, traveling back to the Temple of Cant was the only way to bring back party members from the dead. Even that wasn’t guaranteed. Failed resurrections could reduce characters to ash from which no further resurrections were possible — unless you had the right, high level spell. Otherwise, time to hit up those tissues.

People sent in disks to Sir-tech to get their favorite characters or parties returned to them when the game wouldn’t allow it. According to Norman Sirotek on the kind of support overhead they had to deal with as he related it to Softalk’s Jim Salmon, “People take Wizardry very seriously. Every day, we get letters with disks enclosed requesting that we raise favorite dead characters, find lost parties, you name it. We even had to include waivers of liability in case we aren’t able to recover a character.”

In 1984, ASCII in Japan licensed Wizardry and distributed the first game for the Famicom. Unlike Ultima’s packaging presentation, the box art and cartridge didn’t get the ‘anime’ treatment. ASCII would also publish The Black Onyx in the same year. The game, like the cover, had both English and Japanese text that players could toggle between.

Players could also disband a party in the dungeon, essentially calling it quits and abandoning the game (if you turn off the PC, your party is considered “lost” in the maze but still alive with the option to recover them). But Wizardry also allowed players to build a new party to go rescue these lost souls left behind in the dungeon — something that no other CRPG had really explored, before or since. Characters could also have a password set to protect them from other players that might want to play your copy of Wizardry. If you forget what it is, you could also pony up $15 on top of whatever shipping you might need to pay to have Sir-Tech delete it for you.

With its wire-frame 3D dungeons, party options, and endless monster mashing, Wizardry’s popularity was almost natural. Story-wise, it didn’t really try to boast Shakespearean odes to grid-based movement — it was simple stuff.

The Mad Overlord, Trebor (“Robert” backwards), wants a particular amulet that a particular wizard, Werdna (“Andrew” backwards…of course) has. Conveniently enough, Trebor’s Castle (and the starting point for every expedition into the underground) is sitting atop the ten level dungeon that Werdna has created using the amulet and now calls home. Turning it into “his” Proving Grounds, Trebor promises rewards aplenty if a brave party can find Werdna and kill him. Simple stuff, but more than enough for hours upon hours of looting, monster busting, and exploration.

And ninjas.

Wizardry for Good

In 1982, Softline, an early magazine covering PCs (particularly Apples), has an article by Roe Adams III (who would later go on to be a fellow designer at Sir-Tech) exploring the Wizardry phenomenon.

One of the most remarkable experiences cited was that relayed by a Dr. Ron Levy, a board certified psychologist, who used Wizardry in reaching through to a heavily depressed child. Using the game, he managed to make a breakthrough as the two began talking about the game and his characters — eventually stepping away from talking suicide opting instead to keep at Wizardry. In a day and age when so-called pundits like blaming games for the ills of society, it’s examples like these that often go sadly ignored.

Wizardry I would also be ported to a wide number of platforms over the nears from the Commodore 64 to Nintendo’s Game Boy. Despite that, it’s not available for purchase on popular download services such as Desura or Good Old Games existing only on Ebay as disk copies or abandonware like so many other classics. But its legacy has left an undeniable mark on the CRPG genre and would be the first step in what would prove to be a long journey for an iconic series that would become dungeon master to an audience of eager players over nearly two decades.

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord was a pioneering title that translated the parties and dungeon concepts inspired partly by PLATO-based mainframe RPGs away from the halls of academia and into the Apple IIs everywhere else. This was Dungeons & Dragons for the computer — and it had a party of adventurers crafted and named by your hand. As popular as Ultima was also at the time, it didn’t have that. But like Ultima, it would also be eaten up by a hungry Japanese market, something that would ensure its place in the Land of the Rising Sun in more than one way.

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