From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant, and the cloudy end of Sir-Tech

The ad had turned a corner for Sir-tech’s marketing — instead of reading like the back of the box, it was actually trying to instill a sense of adventure in everyone that looked at it along with the screenshots. For fans, however, a new Wizardry really didn’t require any kind of introduction.

No one could have guessed that the ending to the trilogy started in Bane of the Cosmic Forge would arrive nine years after the release of Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant in 1992.

Crusaders was a watershed moment for the series. It was as if it had finally come of age, catching up with what the rest of the genre had already been doing while adding a number of innovative ideas on top of the depth its character development system continued to promote. Now, the world of Wizardry finally stepped out into outdoor areas with an actual sky overhead, day and night cycles, and the sense of being a world heavily laced with lore and danger. It was as if Wizardry decided to join the rest of the world. In some ways, it had to.

Players had a lot to pick from by the time Crusaders arrived. Two years before in 1991, a developer by the name of Westwood Associates had rolled out Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon under SSI’s label using the TSR license. New World Computing’s Might & Magic continued to churn out sequel after sequel with Clouds of Xeen in ’92 and Darkside of Xeen, also in ’93, both of which created a new world when both were installed together. These and others were already doing on the surface what Wizardry continued to lag behind on.

Despite their waning presence in the market, Sir-tech had carved a respectable niche for themselves in the CRPG genre, one built upon tough dungeon crawls and a lavish degree of dice crunching attention paid to the layers of statistics and skill-driven character development that their titles continued to boast. It was almost as if the series continued blissfully unaware of what was going on with the competition and was fine in doing so, riding on the laurels of its success in the 80s. Yet when Wizardry V and VI tried to push beyond the typical formula into larger spaces and deeper interactions to texture those experiences with better immersion, it seemed to be moving at a glacial pace. Bane was a good start. Crusaders finally slammed things into overdrive, its grid-based movement and stat heavy systems stretching their legs into a new world.

It started things off with not one, but four different “beginnings” for players. Three were reserved for those importing their characters in from Bane of the Cosmic Forge — one for each of its endings. The fourth one was reserved for players that hadn’t gone through Bane and rolled up a new party instead. It uniquely set the game apart from other CRPGs that simply concerned themselves with transferring statistics and equipment over.

Ever since Sir-tech made character transfers mandatory for their first three games, Wizardry had always continued to look for opportunities in pushing the same approach that tabletop RPGs promoted creating a kind of continuity often reserved only for tabletop experiences. Ultima would tie-in the Avatar through each game via the set story, cascading from one to the next. Crusaders went further and made the player’s efforts feel as if they truly did matter in deciding how the story ended in Bane and how it would begin in Crusaders.

Crusaders dove right into the kind of sci-fi/fantasy mix that designers such as Jon Van Caneghem and Richard Garriott had touched on in their own CRPGs, pulling the veil back on a universe in which Cosmic Lords were concerned with the loss of the Bane in the previous game. The Bane had the power to make anything it had written ‘real’ and the Cosmic Lords had used it to hide the discovery of a planet, Lost Guardia, upon which was a relic of fantastic power — the Astral Dominae.

Tongue-in-cheek, it was said that Phoonzang, the being that created it, had discovered a secret so great that it could create or unmake a universe. Instead of destroying that secret, he chose instead to preserve within the Dominae and hid it on Lost Guardia. He also created a map, broke it into pieces, and hid those on the planet as well. His work done, Phoonzang disappeared into history…but the legend lived on.

When the Bane was stolen by an evil king and his sorceror (setting into motion the events of Bane of the Cosmic Forge), the cloak hiding Lost Guardia began unraveling until a chance discovery by a space miner revealed it to others. These others, representatives of a number of space faring races, are now on a race to find the Astral Dominae before anyone else. And that’s where the player and their party comes in.

Before you start thinking ray guns and colossal star ships, Crusaders isn’t like that. These aren’t rampaging armies of high tech scouring the surface of Lost Guardia. These are parties of other adventurers, of other races, all doing their thing to find the pieces of the map and recover the Astral Dominae first. Sword and sorcery still holds its own against the relatively low tech approach of the races themselves — everyone knows about the science, wonders about the weird shapes flying about in the sky, but aren’t particularly armed with hulking war machines or death drones. It’s a quirky, not-so-serious mix that works well enough in establishing the basic motivations for everything and everyone on Lost Guardia.

The militaristic Umpani, who resemble walking rhinos, and the insectroid T’rang are the two biggest competitors. The Dark Savant is the third, and most dangerous, of them all. He’s also looking for the Astral Dominae and his ruthlessness and power are well known to the spacefaring races. There are also the many other native races on Lost Guardia as well, each one with their own agendas from the mafiosi Rattkin to the enigmatic Helazoid who seem to have some kind of high-tech secret up their sleeves.

As for the party, well, they’ve come from much humbler origins. And they’ll show that attitude in making random observations of the world around them. They’ll comment on the strange devices they see around them but also practice diplomacy in talking to NPCs in the game who will be actively competing against them for the map pieces. It’s entirely possible to find an empty quest objective because someone else had gotten to it first, meaning that the player will have to track them down and hopefully find a way to get the piece back.

Crusaders still retains the deep character crunch that Wizardry has prided itself on. A vast stable of races, classes (with the choice to change classes later), equipment, brutal effects from disease to death, and even stamina will affect their fortunes. It’s essentially everything that the system has carried with it since the first game in ’81 only with the visual polish and content added to it from Wizardry VI. It’s an amazing feat of crunchy goodness that didn’t so much go in for streamlining as it did in sticking additional turbo chargers on the engine.

Stamina, introduced in Wizardry VI, is back to make your fighters’ lives more interesting as they tire from combat along with encumbrance limiting what they can carry. But now talking to NPCs and grilling them with a parser has become a lot more important than it was in the last game, especially when trading info can be a double edged sword. They might beat you to a piece of the map after you get what you needed. Of course, players can always either try and see what they want for it, or just beat it out of them. Crusaders offered a lot of options for players while keeping the pressure on with its challenges. It even had auto-mapping whose detail was tied to a characters’ cartography skill.

Yet it wasn’t all sharpened blades and bard’s tales.

One thing that Crusaders had a lot of was combat. Lots and lots of combat. While that’s expected in a CRPG, Crusaders’ encounters could be a little much even for experienced veterans to grind through much less parties of first-level newbies. As Scorpia noted in her look at the game for Computer Gaming World, importing characters in from Bane was also a preferred method of getting a leg-up on the game (albeit reduced to level five for fairness), if not for the items that they can bring over such as powerful weapons and armor.  Scorpia also wasn’t a fan of the inane amount of backtracking in the game to find or retrieve items that might have been inadvertently missed — often because the game does a poor job of making such things clear. However, she still gives it a glowing thumbs up especially if you’re a Wizardry fan.

The steps that Bane had taken to update the Wizardry formula under D.W. Bradley’s lead were massive strides, something that Crusaders continued to expand on. Visually, Crusaders was a solid piece of work. Story-wise, it added a degree of lore with its multiple starting points and multiple endings that the series had begun with in Bane of the Cosmic Forge with a tongue-in-cheek flair. Wizardry seemed to be slowly coming around to ideas that many others were already trying to work into their games while embellishing itself with plenty of new approaches that made it stand out from the crowd. It’s a lot like the ad above — going from the staid, basic style of Wizardry’s previous efforts to a dramatically different look overnight.

Crusaders had everything that the competition had and far more than any of the series’ fans may ever had expected. Before BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins made a big hullabaloo about multiple “origins” to begin the story with, Crusaders beat it to the punch by roughly 17 years. That’s more years than some of its fans have been playing games, Mature rating or not. Sir-tech had also been doing the multiple-ending thing since Wizardry IV in 1987.

The game was published for IBM PC compatibles in 1992 and later ported over to Japan on platforms such as like the FM-Towns, PC-98, and even the Playstation. It was even re-released as Wizardry Gold in 1996 with a number of enhancements and then added to the Wizardry Archives compilation in 1998 along with the original game. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the few ways that anyone can pick it up for as it hasn’t found a home on a digital distribution service like Desura or Good Old Games yet.

Back then, however, despite sticking to its guns, Wizardry’s presence seemed to be waning. Sir-tech’s house system continued to be uncompromisingly detailed — it was crammed with classes, stats, races, and other goodies that had helped innovate a genre 12 years earlier.

Despite having that, however, and the critical acclaim it would receive from fans, Crusaders would be the last Wizardry to see the light of day until Wizardry 8 in 2001 nine years later. It was also the same year that Sir-tech’s publishing arm, the core of the company, had shuttered its doors though the Canadian branch continued on for at least two more years until it finally ended its run in 2003.

And that was it for one of the houses that had influenced an entire genre on both sides of the ocean.

Uncompromising Indifference

Though Crusaders wouldn’t be the last game that Sir-tech would release, the years between it and Sir-tech Canada’s Wizardry 8 were not kind to the company. There has been a lot of conjecture, half-truths, veiled references, and other bits and pieces that have surfaced since then to try and paint a picture of what exactly happened. All I can say is that even after going through its history, there are still many questions that might only be answered by chance such as when an enterprising Ebayer discovered that cache of Sir-tech office castoffs in an abandoned storage unit at Ogdensburg, New York.

Part of the reason may have been hinted at by Robert Sirotek in an interview with IGN in 1998 in speaking on the topic of how the industry had changed since the early 80s — of retailers’ need to rapidly shift product and a lack of respect between they and publishers who aren’t “EA”.

It’s not hard to see why. The PC space in the 90s was crammed with far more games than it had been and a new 3D craze was about to explode across genres, ushering in an arms race for hardware. Consoles were also rising to take command of their own piece of the entertainment pie, pushing right back at PCs for that shelf space real estate. There was only so much space that anyone could afford to pay out for and retailers knew it. If you wanted a place at the retail table, you had to pay the price.

As venerable as Sir-tech was, they largely continued to operate like indie developer and publisher that seemed to be increasingly lost within the shadows cast down by other, much larger, companies. If anything good can be said about Origin Systems’ absorption by EA, it gave their products the marketing moxie to avoid having to ask the same questions that Sir-tech couldn’t answer. As Robert Sirotek put it in his interview with IGN above:

“Should we have sold years ago? I don’t know. I mean, I’m an entrepreneur. Norman’s an entrepreneur. We have that entrepreneur flair, and we’re ready and willing to take reasonable risks, and we felt all along that our risks did not surpass the opportunity for reward.”

Sir-tech’s diversification strategy was also weak in comparison to a company like Origin’s who had brought together programmers and designers under one roof to explore everything from sci-fi to martial arts action titles in 80s and well into the 90s. However, they were also facing their own money crunch making their decision to go in with EA as more of a matter of survival as the Escapist notes in their piece on Origin’s downfall.

With cash in its coffers from Wizardry sales in the 80s, it’s also a mystery on why Sir-tech didn’t pursue the same direction that rivals Origin and SSI did in gathering together development talent to better widen their catalog and open up other channels of income.

The company seemed indifferent to what was going on elsewhere, satisfied that their niche would be enough to help them survive. However, the same problems that afflicted Origin Systems toward the end of the 80s may have also inflicted blows on Sir-tech whose Wizardry series was also focused on the Apple II when the platform gave way to the IBM PC.

Instead of a company like EA swooping in to help them in a potential rough spot as Origin had gone through, it’s reasonable to guess that some of that capital was used to simply keep the company afloat and independent. Whatever the reason may have been, however, the windfall from Sir-tech’s Wizardry series didn’t translate into efforts similar to those followed by competitors like SSI. Or pay the bills when it came to royalties as Andrew Greenberg’s continuing litigation shows.

Part of that weakness had probably stemmed from gambles taken on properties whose narrow appeal looked good on paper but didn’t quite catch on in North America. They brought in the Realms of Arkania trilogy from Europe, a CRPG based on Das Schwarze Auge (the Dark Eye) tabletop role playing system popular in Germany. Though it didn’t quite make the mark as a popular CRPG in North America, it had its followers and boasted a degree of mechanical detail that carried over much like how SSI had translated AD&D into its Gold Box series.

It also mirrors what THQ did years later. Drakensang was brought over by THQ in 2009 with a lot of crunch that I loved though the game also had issues of its own, especially in terms of how it handled chapter progression. It’s interesting to see how THQ had also wanted to dabble in CRPGs though ultimately, it didn’t quite pan out for them in the end. As detailed as these games were, they never quite garnered the audience in North America that either company was looking for.

Sir-tech had also dabbled with strategy and tactics by publishing Madlab Software’s Jagged Alliance in 1994. Sir-tech Canada completed the sequel and Topware was the publisher when it arrived at last in 1999. As well remembered as these games were to veterans, the RTS field of the 90s was awash with competitors ranging from Ensemble’s Age series to Westwood’s Dune II and C&C which only pushed Sir-tech’s efforts further into its own niche.

There were also a number of bizarre picks by Sir-tech, games that came out of left field. Titles like Virus: The Game in 1997 or Excalibur 2555 in the same year. No one really knew what to make of Druid: Daemons of the Mind in 1995. Fable, a point ‘n click adventure, came out in 1996, though the adventure game market was going through its own turmoil at the same time. Also, it wasn’t quite that great.

The bizarre box art was the least of Druid’s problems.

When the publishing arm of Sir-tech shuttered in 2001, effectively killing the company, people were wondering what would happen to Wizardry 8. There were even rumors of a game called “The Stones of Arnhem”, a new Wizardry game that should have followed Crusaders of the Dark Savant and then, as mysteriously, disappear in the gap between Crusaders and Wizardry 8. As an auction last year had shown, Stones of Arnhem looks like it had really existed in some form before development was killed.

Yet Wizardry 8 did come out in 2001, a game that saw Brenda Brathwaite go from writing manuals to being part of the design team much like how Roe Adams III had when he took the reigns of Wizardry IV. It was a fantastic memorial to Sir-tech’s memory with brutal encounters and a story steeped in the kind of sci-fi fantasy that the previous game had begun with complete with multiple starts and endings. And then, that was it.

From West to East

Sir-tech left behind a legacy of CRPG fantasy that not only helped to innovate an entire genre and inspire countless developers, but remained true to its roots — a rare example of a series sticking to its core without apology. While many games today “dumb down” features in an effort to broaden their appeal and keep the money wheels turning, Wizardry exists as an anachronism in that assessment.

But that’s also not to say that it was “perfect” — some of the things that Wizardry did seemed to be there if only as an excuse to make things more difficult simply because the designers thought they could. Sir-tech Canada had even continued that tradition in their own way for Wizardry 8. Its “Iron Man” mode was crafted for truly masochistic players which allowed for permadeath, tougher encounters on top of the already ridiculously frequent randoms, and no in-game saves unless they exited the game.

Sir-tech also shoulders some of the blame for failing to keep up with a changing market and for the same hard nosed indifference to similarly detailed CRPGs coming out from others with much higher ambitions — especially titles offering up the same degree of crunch immersing players within larger worlds, better stories, and without some of the repetitive frustration that Wizardry could sometimes be known for.

Today, the Wizardry trademark is apparently owned by a Japanese company (IPM Inc.) that specializes in licensing IP.

How it ended up in their hands is something of a mystery. Following the paper trail through the USPTO, it seems that in 1998, Wizardry’s trademarks (which go all the way back to 1982) were assigned to a corporation in Ontario simply noted as “1259190 ONTARIO INC.” with Robert Sirotek signing the rights over. Despite the mysterious name, according to a 2010 filing (which was one more chapter in the long running battle by Andrew Greenberg to recover royalties from the Siroteks), it seems that the company was formed (with Norman Sirotek as the president) simply to hold the rights and license them over to Sirtech Canada — the outfit responsible for the development of Wizardry 8.

On November 28, 2006, that company, and Norman Sirotek, signed over the rights to Aeria IPM with a Takahiro Shinozaki signing for the Japanese company. Of course, Wizardy games unrelated to the Western versions have been developed and published before that had happened, but now it seems that in 2006, everything had finally ended up in Japan’s court.

In the span of time between Crusaders and Wizardry 8, Japanese spinoffs bearing the Wizardry name have continued a streak that Sir-tech could only have wished for with their series in the West. Even today, Wizardry Online by Gamepot, a Japanese company specializing in MMOs, was opened to the free-to-play public by Sony at the end of January, 2013. All that may be left for Wizardry in the West are memories and abandonware, but it continues to thrive in Japan where it has seen PC, PS2, and virtual titles developed bearing the name.

Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg had long since moved on to other projects that they were interested in pursuing. After Wizardry IV, Robert Woodhead dove headlong into his other hobby-turned-business opportunity — Animeigo — which he had also founded with Sir-tech alum, Roe Adams III, in 1988. Anime junkies would recognize the company’s label as one of the earliest to bring over Japanese animation en masse such as the classics Oh! My Goddess! and Vampire Princess Miyu.

As for Andrew Greenberg, he had also gone his separate way with the company and became an intellectual property lawyer. Wizardry V in 1988 was the last Wizardry he’s credited on working with. He’s also involved in a long running legal dispute on royalties with the Sir-tech Canada and Robert Sirotek after having left the company due to “irreconcilable differences“. Despite that, it hasn’t taken a toll on the pride he feels for the work that he had done with Robert in creating a series that had gone on to inspire so many others.

Overall, the series might not have been as flashy or as up-to-date when it comes to presentation, but that’s part and parcel of what made Sir-tech stand out for so many — a no-nonsense approach that stood out in the genre as serious faced dungeon crawlers that intimidated many. Once you got to know them, however, and could deal with their hang ups, they really had a lot to talk about even if they couldn’t provide all of the answers.

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