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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on the decline of Wizardry and the (temporary) rise of The Bard's Tale

Discussion in 'RPG News & Content' started by Infinitron, Jun 26, 2014.

  1. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Tags: Bard's Tale; Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight; Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate; Interplay; Sir-Tech; The Digital Antiquarian; Wizardry; Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylgamyn; Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna

    It's been over a year since the last time The Digital Antiquarian, Jimmy Maher's outstanding gaming history blog, had a post about RPGs. Today, perhaps to coincide with Matt Barton's ongoing interview with Robert Sirotek, he has published a long article about the decline of the Wizardry series throughout the 1980s, and how it was effectively replaced by Interplay's The Bard's Tale series. Here's an excerpt:

    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 commercial rewards were immense. 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 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.

    [...] And then came the fiasco of Wizardry IV, a game which embodies all of the worst tendencies of the Wizardryseries 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.

    [...] 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 especiallyVI, 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.
    In writing about The Bard's Tale franchise, Jimmy notes that it too would eventually meet the same fate as Wizardry did, for similar reasons - an inability to meaningfully expand the gameplay from sequel to sequel. Overall, despite the Bard's Tale games' fancier presentation, he considers them to have been ultimately trite and without meaning, and Wizardry, despite its faults, to have been the superior series. His next article, however, will be about an RPG "that does have something important to say". I'm guessing it's going to be Ultima IV.
     
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  2. Decado Prestigious Gentleman Old time handsome face wrecker Patron

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    I think he's wrong, BT1 is one of the best CRPGs of the era. Derivative or not, it was simply addicting. The animations were awesome for the time, the combat was difficult but not impossible, the dungeons were difficult but not impossible, and the overall tone of the game was unified, fun, and menacing by turns. Wizardry's wire-frame horseshit was tired and stale by the third game, especially since the technology had progressed beyond that. Werdna was the nail in the coffin.
     
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  3. Dorateen Arcane

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    I have a hard time with the notion of decline being associated with Wizardry. This series was the pioneer in the adapting of rules-based role-playing systems to the personal computer. It was a groundbreaking effort, and while they might have stumbled with some of the later releases, the DW Bradley titles more than made up for it. I know the author was talking about commercial dominance by that time, however the reality of the market was already shifting. The fact remains, Wizardry ended on a note of incline, producing some of the most amazing cRPGs in terms of depth and quality. Maher seems to handwave at installments VI through 8, in order to maintain the article's narrative.
     
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  4. Beautiful Clown Painting Arcane

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    I'm glad he wrote about Questron, the first CRPGs I played were Ultima II, Questron and Wizardry and the one I enjoyed the most was Questron.
    As for the Bard's Tale it was a revolution at the time, but only in terms of graphics, the game was absolutely boring. But the franchise did become amazing, contrary to what is said in the article, Bard's Tale III introduced the automap and inventory-based puzzle (to the mainstream, Shadowkeep did it before but it was unplayable) to the blobber genre, and then you had Dragon Wars, still a masterpiece, cruelly underrated.
    Dragon Wars/World of Xeen/Wizardry VII/Shin Megami Tensei Strange Journey. The cream of the cream of the turn-based blobber (Dragon Wars still being my favourite one).
     
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  5. Tramboi Cipher

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    I didn't know of this blog, there's lots of fascinating stuff to read !
    (especially the parts on Telarium, Penguin software, and Infocom but I'm an adventurefag)
     
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  6. Beautiful Clown Painting Arcane

    Beautiful Clown Painting
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    Telarium was a really great game company lost to time. I especially love their two arcade-adventure games (best versions on the C64) Alice in Wonderland and Below the Root, they're the only games ever that I have replayed regularly. Their interactive fictions were also really fun, even if not as sophisticated as the ones from Level 9, Magnetic Scrolls, Interplay or Legend.
     
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  7. Abelian Somebody's Alt

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    Infinitron, I blame you for getting me hooked on The Digital Antiquarian a couple of weeks ago. First I read just the articles you linked, and then I restarted chronologically... I'm up to 1982 now.
     
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  8. Infinitron I post news Patron

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    Charles-cgr standing up for Might & Magic in the comments:

     
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  9. Charles-cgr OlderBytes Developer

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    Well, someone has to. +M
    :incloosive:
     
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  10. mondblut Arcane

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    Well, they could have hired an artist on the profits made from Proving Grounds. Normally I am all for "don't fix that which ain't broken" mentality, but sticking with vector stickmen all the way into 1987 is mind-boggling. Small wonder they squandered their headstart and ended up having to play catch-up with their own no-name copycats like BT and M&M.
     
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  11. Dorateen Arcane

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    Yes, but the way I see it, catch-up they did. With an end result of launching a respectable trilogy to close out the series. What bothered me about the article is that the author seems to be focusing only on how Wizardry squandered it's start, leading up to IV, which he is highly critical of. I don't care for the premise of Werdna either, but I don't consider it so much a decline, as they were experimenting with different gameplay scenarios at the time. Obviously, they moved back in the right direction of the traditional party-based RPG. I found the author did not go into much history from Wizardry V onward.

    If the thrust of the article was the decline of Wizardry and the temporary rise of Bard's Tale, a more accurate description would be the temporary decline of Wizardry, and how it would eventually surpass Bard's Tale, etc.
     
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  12. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    It's worth noting that the Digital Antiquarian's area of expertise is the 1980s, and so talking about the latter Wizardries is out of his scope. That said, he makes it clear throughout the article that he's talking about commercial decline. Were Wizardries 6 and 7 anywhere near as much of a "phenomenon" as the first one was? I don't think so. To say nothing of Wizardry 8 which was the company's swan song.
     
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  13. Dorateen Arcane

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    I noted in the initial post I made, that I acknowledge he is talking about commercial viability, but to ignore the quality aspect of what Wizardry would go on to produce is absurd. Thus, I reject the notion of decline. Besides, the market for cRPGs was already changing by the end of the series. The fact that Wizardry 8 was made at all and released, was a bloody triumph.
     
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  14. felipepepe Prestigious Gentleman Codex's Heretic Patron

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    Funny, I just read an 1987 editorial from CGW where Scorpia pointed out similar things... she was also angry at how limited and similar RPGs were, usually limited just to combat and thing like alignments thrown in just for flair, without ever really evolving gameplay:

    Show Spoiler
    [​IMG]


    My favorite line:

    "If Lord British can do so much in 64k, what is the potential with 128 or 256 or more? The prospect is truly mind-boggling"

    Aren't you all mind-blown by what those magnificent men with their 16GB machines offer you?
     
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  15. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Well, felipepepe, the third-to-last paragraph actually describes something that RPGs eventually achieved, however imperfectly.
     
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  16. Excidium P. banal

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    :negative:
     
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  17. Melan Prestigious Gentleman Arcane Patron

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    I have always thought Wizardry IV was a great basic concept made inaccessible by its too-hardcore-for-you difficulty. Wizardry IV had:
    • a single player character surrounded by a revolving stage's worth of minions;
    • summoning circles as a strategic safe point in the dungeon to be rejuvenated and to call for more cannon fodder;
    • using monsters' special abilities for solving puzzles;
    • roaming adventurer parties with customised names;
    • interesting themed levels and boss monsters;
    • multiple hidden endings;
    • and of course the whole play-as-the-Evil-Overlord angle.
    If it was not so doggone hard, it might have influenced a generation of games which took CRPGs in new directions, perhaps creating a mixture of strategy and roleplaying. I could well imagine a game like that for a War of Roses-like scenario, or one where you play out a small uprising in a feudal land (cross-pollinating with The Lords of Midnight, maybe). When I played W4 in the Wizardry Archives, my head was full of possibilities. It is too bad that, like Dragon Wars, it is this forgotten oddity instead of a blueprint for newer (and, well, better) games.
     
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  18. felipepepe Prestigious Gentleman Codex's Heretic Patron

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    Yeah, in the 90's. The stagnation of the last decade is what annoys me... We have thousand times more powerful computers, huge teams of professional developers (some that even went into game design college!), and what we have to show besides fancy graphics?

    I'm curious about this, what Dragon Wars did that was so cool? I always though of it as a Bard's Tale clone...
     
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  19. Misconnected Savant

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    This is why every time I see an Elder Scrolls game, all I feel is disappointment and frustration. Where's the economy, ecology & climate simulations? Why are the environments not destructible? Why call it a sandbox when the player can't impact the alleged sandbox in ways other than the one or two the developers have carefully crafted? Indeed, apart from the potential for a lot of walking around, and vastly better sounds and graphics, how is it any different from the RPGs I played on my father's ZX81, 30 years ago?
     
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  20. :Flash: Arcane

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    What an article. When, while playing Ultima V, I realized that there has been no improvement since 1988, I often wondered what would have happened, if all the manpower that is put into pretty graphics were put into the actual gameplay.
    This article warns of making games that are about killing hoardes of monsters with shiny graphics, which is exactly what happened.
     
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  21. felipepepe Prestigious Gentleman Codex's Heretic Patron

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    Some cases it's even worst... think of the sci-fi RPGs, like Planet's Edge or Hard Nova.... you could land and explore countless planets, all with different environments, economy, inhabitants, atmosphere... some would even crush your ship due heavy gravity, unless you shielded yourself. And now, 20 years later, we have Mass Effect, with like 5 planets, limited explorations and that retarded "planet-scanning".

    Yeah, I understand that making hundreds of planets with AAA graphics is insane, but FFS... there seems to be no middle ground between shallow AAA stuff or hoping for a indie dev to make something similar with pixelated graphics worst than the early 90's one...
     
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  22. Melan Prestigious Gentleman Arcane Patron

    Melan
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    I'm curious about this, what Dragon Wars did that was so cool? I always though of it as a Bard's Tale clone...[/QUOTE]
    It was much more than that.
    • It was loosely based on Mesopotamian mythology, probably the only game in existence to try it. The world was fairly cohesive and logical, with its own beliefs and politics.
    • It had character skills, which you could use to solve puzzles and manipulate the environment.
    • Your characters could become competent, learning new schools of magic and skills, but they never became demi-gods. The whole power curve was fairly modest.
    • A large overland map with many places to visit - cities, magical forests, garrisons etc. Much of the progression was non-linear, allowing and requiring you to revisit places and try new things. Many of the places are entirely optional.
    • A journey to the underworld, with its own secrets.
    • Puzzles had multiple solutions - object use, spells, sometimes other options.
    • It also lacks the Bard's Tale's
      • odious number of random combat encounters
      • spinner-, antimagic- and darkness-based fuckery (seriously, BT III was vile)
      • crazy difficulty level after the first game.
    So all in all, it is really one of the better pre-90s games.
     
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  23. Excidium P. banal

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    Too bad the DOS version looks like ass
     
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  24. Abelian Somebody's Alt

    Abelian
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    How about Hamurabi, a game developed on a mainframe in the late 60's/early 70's? :smug:

    Funnily enough, the only reason I know about it because I read the The Digital Antiquarian during the last couple of weeks.
     
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  25. Melan Prestigious Gentleman Arcane Patron

    Melan
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    Hamurabi! Yes, that's correct. I have read about it, back when our ZX Spectrum was considered cutting edge. Never played, though.
     
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