Robert Woodhead on Designing Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Last month, USgamer ran an article dedicated to Richard Garriott’s early games that kicked off their new retrospective “History of RPGs” series. And this month brings us the second article in this series. In it, Robert Woodhead, one of the designers on the original Wizardry, shares some stories from the game’s development and talks a bit about its surprising success in Japan and the realities of early video game development in general. There’s a lot of good stuff there, so be sure to check it out. An excerpt:

“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.

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Val Hull
Val Hull

Resident role-playing RPG game expert. Knows where trolls and paladins come from. You must fight for your right to gather your party before venturing forth.

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