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How Wizardry Cast Story Aside in Favor of Casting Spells

HISTORY OF RPGS | In Part Two of our monthly series, Robert Woodhead enlightens us about Wizardry's pursuit of systems over story.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

This is the second entry in an ongoing series in which Retronauts co-host Jeremy Parish hopes to explore the evolution of the role-playing genre, often with insights from the people who created the games that defined the medium.

Why do role-playing video games work the way they do? The answer to that question often boils down to, "Because Wizardry did it." But why did Wizardry do those things in the first place? To hear Wizardry programmer Robert Woodhead tell it, that answer amounts to, "Because of PLATO."

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord debuted in the fall of 1981, the second wildly influential computer role-playing game to debut that year on Apple II. Richard Garriott's Ultima had shipped a few months earlier with its grab-bag approach to the genre. Ultima combined first-person dungeon exploration with outdoor travel from town to town presented with a god’s-eye viewpoint. Ultima also included all kinds of odd anachronisms, including time travel and an outer space shooting sequence brazenly lifted from the finale of Star Wars, but its biggest influence was undoubtedly Garriott’s time spent shaking dice in Dungeons & Dragons.

Wizardry took a different approach. Designed and programmed by Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg, it consisted of nothing but dungeon-diving. The game was viewed entirely through the first-person wireframes seen in Ultima’s dungeons (and Akalabeth before that). It had no overworld. A town at the mouth of the dungeon—navigated entirely through menus—allowed players to shop for gear, rest at inns, and save their progress. There was no wandering around to gather clues from random townsfolk. There definitely was no space combat. There was only the dungeon, consisting of 10 floors of monsters, tricks, and traps, each level spread across a labyrinthine 20x20-space grid.

Wizardry on Apple II. | MobyGames

PLATO's Allegory of the Dungeon

What Wizardry most notably offered over the original Ultima was the ability for the player to assemble a large team of heroes—a six-member party—to tackle the dungeon's depths. Players could define their team makeup by designating the race, alignment, and class of each combatant. This concept, a fundamental element of the genre today, could well be Wizardry's most important contribution to gaming. And according to Woodhead, it all came about as a hack to compensate for the Apple II's shortcomings versus the platform where he had cut his teeth: PLATO, which in many ways proved to be an even greater influence on Wizardry than D&D.

According to Woodhead, PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) "is one of the great sort of unsung heroes of computing and gaming. PLATO was basically where everything you love about the internet was invented between 1970 and 1975," he says. The PLATO system supported hundreds of connected terminals across the country, each boasting impressive 512x512 graphical displays—plasma screens equipped with touch panels, wild stuff for the early ’70s.

It was an incredibly advanced piece of tech for the era, but perhaps its most important feature was its network connectivity. "Because all these terminals were networked together and had very low latency, they generated a social community," says Woodhead. "And that expressed itself not only in things like message boards and chat, but also in games. Games on PLATO were multiplayer games that you could play with people all over the country."

Those games included a few inspired by the hot new trend sweeping America's college campuses: Dungeons & Dragons. Woodhead himself wasn't immune to that pandemic's charms. "At the end of the first semester of my senior year, Cornell asked if I might want to take a little time off because of low grades," he admits. "Actually, they were pretty firm about it! One of the things that had caused me to get thrown out of Cornell was playing too much Dungeons & Dragons. And there obviously had been dungeon games on PLATO. So I started thinking about how you would do this on the limited resources you had available on the Apple II. How would you deal with a single-player aspect?"

Woodhead had been deeply affected by his experiences with PLATO's networked systems, but the home computing space wouldn't catch up to that technology en masse for more than a decade. Outside of college, Woodhead's programming efforts were limited to the tiny boundaries of his Tandy TRS-80, a vastly more limited platform than PLATO. Still, Woodhead found himself intrigued by the challenge inherent in recreating the essence of PLATO games for Tandy's minuscule microcomputer.

"I started thinking, how could I do some of the PLATO games on this dinky little computer?" he says. "How would that style of game work on a TRS-80?" His first attempts didn't set the world on fire, but they nevertheless registered as a modest success: "The first professional product I released was a little tape that had 15 [...] TRS-80 implementations of all the classics, like Mugwump [and] Reversi. Stuff like that. I thought maybe I'd sell two or three of them. I think I sold a couple hundred."

"[PLATO] is one of the great sort of unsung heroes of computing and gaming."

Before too long, Woodhead upgraded to an Apple II, a somewhat less cramped computing format, when his mother volunteered him to use the computer to build a database to manage their family pewter-casting business' inventory. "We got Pascal for [the Apple II], because I was familiar with Pascal from Cornell. And so I set to work doing this inventory system, and in my spare time [...] the first thing I did was play around with data structures to learn a little bit more about Apple's Pascal implementation. I ended up producing this kind of tree structure database program, which we called Infotree. [Company president] Fred Sirotech had two sons, Rob and Norm, and somehow, they found out I was doing this and somebody had the idea: 'Why don't we try to sell this?' It actually sold, again, several hundred copies.

"Then somebody had the idea of doing a game. I don't for the life of me remember whose idea it was. So I started thinking about it and I thought, 'You know, what game do I want to write?' One of my favorite games on PLATO was a game called Empire. It's a tremendous tactical strategic space war game—multiplayer. I thought to myself, 'How could you ever do this on this little dinky Apple II?' I realized I couldn't do a multiplayer game, so I needed to do a single-player game. So I said to myself, 'Well, if this was a single-player game, you know, how would you do it?'" This became Woodhead's first game release, Galactic Attack.

Galactic Attack was an early pioneer of computer strategy games, but it wasn't an RPG—that would come next. Again, though, Woodhead recognized that much of the core appeal of both tabletop gaming and PLATO RPGs would be lost in a solitary computing environment. "The thing that was great about the PLATO games was you could join with a bunch of your friends and go down and beat on the monsters," he says. "How could you do that on a little Apple II? So I started writing a game, fleshing out some ideas. My working title for it was Paladin."

Woodhead's computer RPG would simulate the multiplayer experience by allowing the player to control an entire party of heroes all at once. While this obviously would sacrifice the social element that made those earlier RPG experiences so engrossing, the presence of a team of warriors opened up the door for more complex combat strategies than had been available in previous computer RPGs, including Ultima. Still, even if playing the game would lack a social aspect, its creation was very much about collaboration.

"I heard that somebody I knew from Cornell, Andy Greenberg—also a PLATO person—was also working on doing a kind of D&D type game on the Apple II," Woodhead says. "We got in contact with each other and started talking about it, and it turned out he was further along in the project than I was. He had actually written a game in Applesoft BASIC that had a lot of the core design features that Wizardry later used. And he had one thing that turned out to be probably the most important thing: He had the name Wizardry.

"He also had a very interesting resource. He had a bunch of friends who were avid gamers who would play the game and tell him everything that sucked about it."

And so, Woodhead and Greenberg led a party of WARGs (the Wizardry Advanced Research Group, or what we in modern parlance refer to as "beta testers") on a quest to create one of the most influential RPGs of all time.

Illustration by Anni Sayers.

Wizards and Warriors

To hear someone describe Wizardry, you wouldn't think it would be a game that can take hundreds of hours to complete. A single town and a dungeon consisting of 10 floors, each on a 20x20 grid—how long could that possibly take to complete?

As it turns out, quite a while. For one thing, the game itself moved at a decidedly leisurely pace; because Woodhead and Greenberg had programmed the game in BASIC, it didn't run as quickly as it might have had it been coded closer to the metal. But even so, the volume of material present in Wizardry—the player's skills, the dungeon layout, the monster logic—ran up against the boundaries of the platform and the floppy diskettes from which the game data ran.

"We were really pushing the limits of what an Apple II could do," Woodhead says. "I mean, we were swapping things into and off of the disk like crazy. You actually had to flip the diskette when you played it so we could put the database for the game in the same place as the operating system on the other side of the disk. All sorts of really bizarre little tricks like that."

These tricks proved more enduring than Sir-Tech could ever have guessed. Many games have patterned themselves closely after Wizardry, perhaps most notably Etrian Odyssey and the early Shin Megami Tensei games by Atlus. Many of the details these and other derivative dungeon-crawlers (including much of developer 5pb's catalog) have internalized and perpetuated came about not as brilliant inspirations of game design but rather as reluctant workarounds for the restrictions of the Apple II platform.

Consider, for example, how many of these games give players a starting point of single town with a menu-based town interface. It's a genre standard that came into being entirely because the original Wizardry didn't have storage space to include anything else. "The reason you had to go back to the town to save was that we couldn't layer in a save code to the other areas of the game," Woodhead admits. "We would've run out of space.

"When you went into the dungeon, the town stuff just got discarded and it loaded the core dungeon code. When you got into combat, it would then throw that away, bring in the combat code. Then, when you were actually fighting, it would actually load in sub levels. That's why there was a lot of disk activity when you were fighting. We used every single [diskette] sector in the final Wizardry game—there was absolutely nothing left over. Adding a line of code that caused one part of the program to become one block bigger would break the entire game. We didn't have the space for it.

A battle in Wizardry. [Screencap from Moby Games]

"It was a continual battle. Adding a level would have added two blocks. [The disk] was about 1Kb. Why was the dungeon 10 levels? Because that's how many levels we thought we could get away with."

Wizardry also introduced the concept of a standard syntax for spell names—again, as a matter of necessity. By working with a series of consistent phonemes for spell names, Wizardry was able to cram more playable features into less data space. This, too, has become a convention that spans even beyond the dungeon-crawler format. Consider Final Fantasy's spell conventions (e.g., Blizzard/Blizzara/Blizzaga for ice magic), or MegaTen's even more systemic naming convention, which denotes a spell's element, its area of effect, and its power level through a consistent structure. What began as a technical workaround for a 1981 video game has become an industry standard.

"It's a resource problem," Woodhead says. "Given the constraints you're working under, you know, what game systems are the most important? What things do you kind of have to fake? Because you have to kind of cheat a little bit to get done."

Of course, cheating in Wizardry only happened on the development side (well, aside from one small experience glitch some fans exploited). The game expected players to give the game a full, earnest investment of time and energy in order to conquer the depths of the Mad Overlord's dungeon.

Much of the commitment that players had to make for conquering Wizardry resulted from the utterly ruthless design of the dungeon. Because the entire adventure played out through a first-person perspective, players had to keep track of their progress by hand. The concept of an auto-map didn't exist in 1981, and even if it had, Woodhead and Greenberg wouldn't have had any room left on the disk to include it. Every step of the dungeon needed to be tracked manually, with graph paper and pencil, lest the heroes become hopelessly lost and die in combat while bumbling their way back to town to rest and save. This tradition still lives on with the Etrian Odyssey games, which include their "graph paper" as an in-game element on the lower DS/3DS touch screen.

Yet even this process was more easily said than done. Unlike players, the game didn't have to play fair. A few levels into the dungeon, nasty tricks began to appear. Teleporters would drop players to another location within the maze. Cruel spinner tiles would change the player's orientation. These traps were not always obvious, forcing players to pay meticulous attention to their location and surroundings—more easily said than done in a world consisting entirely of white outlines on stark black. A specific magic spell could help with the orienteering, and later updates of the game blunted the ferocity of the traps to a degree, but Wizardry made its intentions clear: It was not your friend, it wasn't your mom, and it didn't feel the need to coddle you.

Illustration by Anni Sayers.

Indeed, Woodhead would have made the game even more punishing if he could have. "When people talk to me about how much they enjoyed playing the game was, they almost invariably have a story about how they were having this great expedition and they got all this great loot and they're running back," he muses. "Then, like, three steps away from town, they hit an encounter and it's like, 'No!' If I had known that, we would have probably twisted up so that you had a slightly higher chance of an encounter when you head back towards town, because that turned out to be such an emotional experience for people."

Still, despite the way it frayed their nerves, fans wanted to complete Wizardry. For one thing, you needed to carry over your endgame party in order to be able to play the sequels. But more to the point, Wizardry was a huge, inventive, and unquestionably challenging game without precedent on the market. And despite its near-total lack of story (the plot began and ended with the Mad Overlord, Trebor, sending players into the maze to retrieve an amulet from the evil wizard Werdna), it was easily the most massive and intricate interpretation of the RPG to have appeared on computers at the time. It played like a D&D treasure-hunting module being run by a particularly cruel game master: Perhaps not to everyone's tastes, but then, there weren't a lot of other virtual campaigns on the market at that point.

Wizardry pioneered the mechanics-focused school of RPG design, centered entirely around combat and exploration. Ironically, many modern RPG fans wouldn't consider Wizardry a proper role-playing game given the lack of narrative content or character development. The player's party of six exists entirely to contribute to battle scenes; they are their spells and weapons. Again, this amounted to a compromise borne of necessity—and not necessarily one the developers were happy about.

"We always wanted more and more story," Woodhead says. "I worked on the first four Wizardry games, and each game tried to do something a little bit new, adding little story elements and trying to make that aspect of it richer within the context of the game engine. Which is why, for example, in Wizardry IV, the entire premise of the game was flipped. Now you're the bad guy and it's really a puzzle game. And so that was our attempt to play with that aspect of the experience.

"At its core, I think [an RPG] has to provide really significant emotional experiences, and it has to allow you to project yourself into the characters in the game. I think you see this in the really best games. You know, you're carried along in the story with this character which you can empathize with them. You get a chance to make decisions, like how you would be if you were in that situation. It's a projective thing.

Wizardry made its intentions clear: It was not your friend, it wasn't your mom, and it didn't feel the need to coddle you.

"I think that that the really great games are the ones that find maybe some new or better or interesting twist on how to do that, [as in] Fallout 4 and especially The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. When it comes to role-playing games, the ones that have captured my attention are the ones that provide that kind of emotional journey experience where you can play through Fallout as a complete and utter bastard or you can play through Fallout as trying to be as empathic as you can."

Wizardry demonstrated that an RPG can offer the projective element Woodhead values based on the play experience alone. The lack of in-game character writing certainly didn't keep players from growing attached to their parties. Eventually, Sir-Tech acknowledged their most loyal fans' affection for the teams they had carried across three dungeons by adding different player teams as random encounters for Wizardry IV's protagonist—the evil Werdna—to struggle against as he attempted to escape his underground prison. (Fittingly, these enshrined heroes would prove to be, by far, the most difficult part of a legendarily brutal game.)

The Founder Effect

Despite the impact of Wizardry on the role-playing genre, Woodhead seems resolutely humble about his work. He credits the game's success in large part to lucky choices that turned out well in hindsight.

"Most people don't want to admit it," he says, "but a lot of that sort of stuff really comes down to, 'It seemed like a good idea at the time.'

"We're all informed by our experiences. I'd seen all these great games both on the computer and with paper and pencil. So had Andy. So we were like, 'OK, now we've got this new medium, [home] computers. How can we do cool stuff in this environment, given these constraints?' As the constraints changed, other people looked at it and said, 'Well, they did this. Now we have this. What can we do with this set of resources?'

"So in that respect, anything anybody does is basically just a link in a chain. It's this long chain, and it goes back way before D&D. It goes back to tabletop board gaming. Before that, it was military wargaming and Tolkien and Prince Caspian."

Wizardry definitely draws on game concepts that had come before it—not just D&D, but also the wargames that helped inspire it. "Stuff like the way three people in the front row are in physical contact, while the people in the back are a bit protected but can't attack physically? That's pretty standard in war gaming," Woodhead says, comparing the front- and back-row party arrangement to military strategy games. But for the most part, he admits, they were simply winging it.

"We just had no idea what we were doing. There wasn't this body of experience. What we were doing in Wizardry, what Richard was doing in Akalabeth and Ultima—we're all just kind of blindly stumbling around, trying to figure out what works and what doesn't. There were a lot of people trying to do these kind of games, and I think we basically got lucky. Not to wax too philosophical, but I kind of feel that whenever you talk about successes in your life, you have to do it with a certain amount of humility."

Wizardry and Ultima have one other thing in common: Both series came to an end about 20 years ago. In Ultima's case, Electronic Arts' poor handling of the franchise caused it to fizzle out after 1999's Ultima IX. Meanwhile, Sir-Tech dissolved around the same time, and Sir-Tech Canada managed to ship 2001's highly regarded Wizardry 8 before shuttering its own doors. The rights to the series appear to have been shuffled around between several Japanese publisher—who, technically, have keep the series alive since 2001. But the dozens of games they've released under the name Wizardry have consistently failed to move the needle or introduce any new or interesting ideas worth of the series' legacy.

The party system in Wizardry inadvertently inspired what would become the norm for JRPGs. [Screencap from MobyGames]

That Wizardry should end up in Japan is probably no coincidence. Japanese RPG fans have done a much better job of keeping the torch lit for the first-person dungeon crawler, whereas Americans seem to have moved along to the logical next step in the format's evolution—free-roaming first-person games like The Elder Scrolls and the recent Fallouts.

Much of Japan's affection for the Wizardry style can likely be traced to the game's influence on the biggest RPG hits in that territory during the early- to mid-’80s. The first proper RPG designed specifically for the Japanese market, The Black Onyx, was specifically a Wizardry clone. Meanwhile, the creators of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Mystery Dungeon were all profoundly influenced by import copies of Wizardry. The series is part of the Japanese RPG's genetic makeup, in a sense.

Meanwhile, Woodhead himself has developed many ties to Japan over the years as well; currently, he runs AnimEigo, one of the first companies to have made a proper business out of licensing and localizing anime for the U.S. Yet he admits he's at a loss to explain why his work has remained so enduring overseas.

"There could be an argument made that's just a founder effect in that Wizardry and Ultima just happened to be the games that were able to literally jump across the ocean," he says. "A lot of the stuff that was going on in D&D and tabletop gaming... because of all of their text, they were [harder to localize], so they were delayed. Meanwhile, Japan didn't have access to PLATO. They didn't have access to a lot of what was going on in the sort of homebrew computer industry." So by default, he says, Wizardry helped introduce RPGs to the Japanese market.

"It's sort of a chicken and egg thing. Is it because Wizardry really appealed to them or was it because Wizardry was just the first one there and so everyone decided, well, that's how it should be done? I have no idea. You know, it, it's one of these situations where there is no real answer to those questions. It probably was just, like, one guy in Japan who noticed Wizardry and imported it and told his friends. I have no idea who that is. I'd like to thank him.

"I will say that, in terms of Wizardry's success in Japan, a huge amount of credit has to go to the people who worked at a company called Fortune that did the original localization of Wizardry. In fact, that's one of the reasons I started going to Japan, was to help them with that localization."

Fittingly, Woodhead acknowledges that the best rendition of the original Wizardry also hails from Japan. "Personally, I think the best version of the original Wizardry ever done was the Nintendo version," he says. "They managed to cram the entire game into a cartridge, and second of all, they leveraged the special graphics capabilities they had to make a really nice presentation. All the people in Japan did just tremendous work—I was really, really impressed."

It's hard to imagine the Wizardry series ever amounting to anything more than a succession of obscure low-budget games stranded in Japan again. Maybe that's fine. The game's unrelenting interpretation of tabletop gaming quietly continues to make its impact on the medium felt every time someone draws another line segment in the latest Etrian Odyssey; every time they battle a grinning blue Slime; every time they cast Curaga on a wounded halfling ninja.

Header illustration by Anni Sayers.

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