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The Digital Antiquarian on the decline of Wizardry and the (temporary) rise of The Bard's Tale
Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Thu 26 June 2014, 15:45:07Tags: 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:
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.
[...] 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.