Richard Garriott at The Moth

June 25th, 2018 8:06 AM
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What I love about The Moth storyslam is how relatable it is. Attendees throw their names in the hat for an opportunity to tell a true story from their own lives in which they feature as the protagonist. From falling in love to being lost to finding your way, the stories echo themes that resonate with their listeners, whether in a live audience or on the podcast.

But a select few Moth stories extend beyond the boundaries of everyday occurrences. The Moth Mainstage invites singers, actors, even astronauts to share their experiences — but these extraordinary lives still retain humble themes of humanity.

While I've come to expect the occasional mainstream celebrity to make an appearance at The Moth, I was surprised to find a superstar from our own niche Apple II community take the stage. As I queued the latest episode of The Moth podcast, a familiar name and voice were introduced: Richard Garriott, creator of the legendary role-playing game franchise Ultima.

In his story, "Reach For The Stars One Small Step At A Time", he reflects on how his perspective on the world changed as he grew up, from discovering a world beyond his neighborhood to one beyond the horizon, and the ensuing ambition that drove his career and his life.

As someone who's seen the documentary Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars, I still learned more about Garriott from this story: he was not a star academic student; he lost almost everything when the dot-com bubble burst; the vision issues that originally grounded him were part of the research he conducted in space.

I love how The Moth provides an outlet for us to be vulnerable. By sharing his weaknesses and how he overcame them, Richard Garriott spun a story that Apple II users and others can relate to.

Ready Player One's Richard Garriott inspiration

June 11th, 2018 1:01 PM
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Ready Player One was my favorite novel of 2011, providing a dystopian cyberpunk adventure targeted at geeks who grew up immersed in 1980s pop culture. I've since recognized the book's problematic elements with gatekeeping, transphobia, and fan service without substance … yet I still can't help but be fascinated by all the elements author Ernest Cline wove into his narrative.

With Ready Player One's recent adaptation to film, audiences are discovering anew the Oasis, the fictional virtual world created by James Halliday (played by Sir Mark Rylance), a virtuoso computer programmer who sets himself up as the massively multiplayer online role-playing game's benevolent (but absent) god. Many of Halliday's (and thus Cline's) favorite games make appearances in Ready Player One, and in this new WIRED interview, Cline details each and every game in the movie — with one in particular being of interest to Apple II users.

Turns out one of the Apple II's own played a major role in the story:

Akalabeth is one of the first attempts by a computer programmer to translate the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons into a computer game. It was created by Richard Garriott, who also helped serve as the inspiration for James Halliday. Richard Garriot is a famous video game designer from Austin, Texas, where I live, who has an alter-ego: his Dungeons & Dragons and game avatar called Lord British. He would dress up as Lord British in public at press events and things. He eventually ended up using his video-game money to travel into space and go on the International Space Station. He was really an inspiration to me as like a geek with unlimited funds and what could be accomplished. So he and Howard Hughes helped inspire James Halliday in my book. And his game, Akalabeth, and the games that followed it: Ultima I, II, III, IV, and then Ultima Online, the first MMO, those all helped inspire the Oasis in my novel.

While Garriott was directly referenced in the book, I didn't pick up any mentions in the movie. Little did I know that an entire, integral character was based on Lord British himself!

(Hat tip to Hades Kong via WTF Dragon)

Game Informer's Top 100 RPGs

June 19th, 2017 7:51 AM
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In the 1980s, role-playing games, or RPGs, were my favorite genres of computer and video games. The hours of character development and narrative created a much richer fictional world than the era's action games. Perhaps due to their inability to translate to arcades, RPGs were a niche genre, and so I hungrily played any I could get my hands on.

The decades since have seen an explosion in the popularity of RPGs, or at least the willingness to serve that niche — so much, that the cover story of issue #290 of Game Informer is the staff's picks for the top hundred RPGs of all time. To have had that many to choose from in the 1980s would've been staggering, though Game Informer admits that the definition of RPG has become nebulous, now encompassing such modern titles as Mass Effect 3, Destiny, Horizon Zero Dawn, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Fortunately, Game Informer acknowledges the genre's roots by including several Apple II games on their list:

The criteria for the staff's selection were not disclosed, so it's hard to say whether these games were acknowledged because they were fun to play then, are still fun to play, or are important to the evolution of gaming. Wasteland, for example, is noted as being the pre-cursor to Fallout; Wizardry is "often cited as the first party-based RPG"; and for The Bard's Tale, "Some players may still have their hand-drawn graph paper maps tucked away in an old box."

Regardless, with so many franchises, platforms, publishers, and developers at play, it's impressive that the Apple II got so many mentions. But any listicle is bound to be contentious, and no one will fully agree with the choices or order of games. For example, Game Informer has probably never played one of my favorite Apple II games: The Magic Candle. With a jobs system in which player characters could learn crafts and trades, earn money from town jobs, and even split the party, it was an innovative and ahead of its time, being released three years before Final Fantasy V, which is often hailed for its job system.

What Apple II RPGs would you have included on this list, and why?

Richard Garriott's teletype D&D ported

June 30th, 2014 11:17 AM
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In March 2013, Richard Garriott, aka Lord British, aka the Tony Stark of gaming, announced his return to Ultima with a spiritual successor called Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. This computer role-playing game, which will be playable both online and off, is scheduled for release in 2015. But we don't need to wait until then to see Lord British return to his roots.

This April, Garriott released the source code for his 1977 game called D&D #1, a precursor to Akalabeth, which itself was a precursor to Ultima. The code is BASIC and was written for a teletype machine. But it wasn't solely the code's historical significance that motivated its release. As a promotion for Shroud of the Avatar, Garriott announced a contest to port this ancient game to either Unity or a Web browser interface. Winners would receive the equivalent of the $500 backer tier from Shroud's Kickstarter. As always, the snarky team at LoadingReadyRun has the details:

I marvel that this programming contest could be seen as a challenge. Admittedly, the original game, roughly 1,112 lines of code, dwarfs a similar game I wrote in in 1996, a mere 624 lines of Applesoft. But a game for a teletype machine has to be even more basic than one for the Apple II, and development tools such as Unity make far more complex games even easier to develop than a BASIC game was 35 years ago. How hard could it be to port, or even develop from scratch, a new D&D #1?

Turns out a straight port might not be enough to win; it's the flair each developer implemented that earned them recognition. Sean Fahey recently alerted me that the contest winners had been announced, and that across the two categories were 24 entrants and six winners. Mundi King produced the winning Web port, though I've not been able to get past the initial prompts, being stymied by passive-aggressive "WHO SAID YOU COULD PLAY" responses. I prefer Santiago Zapata's runner-up entry, which sports an authentic interface:

Richard Flemming won the Unity version, which can also be run in your browser but requires a plugin. Flemming called the original "1,500 lines of single-letter variable names, magic numbers, and spaghetti logic."

These ports are neat bridges between Ultima's origin and future—and a timely one, given Juiced.GS's recent cover story on the fiftieth anniversary of BASIC. Though I'm not likely to spend much time playing these ports, I'm heartened to know that a new generation has the freedom to enjoy Garriott's legacy across the ages.

If you want to hear Garriott speak further about Ultima, he was interviewed by Greg Kasavin and Felicia Day at this month's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

Lord British returns to Ultima

March 11th, 2013 9:02 AM
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Kickstarter has been a boon not only for indie developers, but for established game designers looking to return to the virtual worlds upon which their careers were founded. Shadowgate, Space Quest, Wasteland, and Leisure Suit Larry are just a few of the franchises that got their start on the Apple II and are now slated for a well-funded modern resurrection.

But none of these games carry the impact, the longevity, or the fame as the Ultima series. Lord British has heeded the call of the fans and is turning to Kickstarter to return to Britannia.

On Friday, March 6, at 10 AM CST, Richard Garriott joined fellow Austin gaming company Rooster Teeth to host a live announcement:

The punchline was Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, a new computer role-playing game that lacks the Ultima brand that Garriott can no longer claim, but which only his team owns the legacy to.

The announcement didn't need the full hour that the above video runs, but the extra time gave Garriott and hosts Burnie Burns and Gus Sorola time to reflect on how Garriott built this empire. Working in a computer store at the age of 19, Garriott began selling Akalabeth, making twice as much money in one year as his astronaut father. Garriott brought along several artifacts from those early days, including the Apple II Plus on which he developed Akalabeth. Highlights from that interview are in this gallery of screen captures from the above video.

As much fun as the reminiscing was, it wasn't hard to forget that it was a thinly veiled sales pitch. Garriott wants one million of our dollars via Kickstarter:

Donation levels include the $10 "Guilt Pledge" ("If you ever pirated an Ultima game or used an exploit to grief other players in Ultima Online, here's your chance to repent! For your $10 donation, you will receive a clear conscience and Lord British's undying gratitude") to the $10,000 "Lord of the Manor", which comes with one of 12 known copies of Akalabeth. For those of us with humbler wallets, $40 gets you early access (December 2013) to the final game (October 2014), while $125 will also get you a cloth map feelie — just like the old Ultimas!

It's been a long time since I've been a role-playing gamer, and even longer since I've done so on a computer instead of a video game console. Yet I didn't hesitate to fork over my money to Lord British. Some folks may not be sold on this heir to the Ultima empire:

But there's no denying that Garriott has earned a chance to return to his world. As Benj Edwards tweeted:

Ancient DOS games

August 15th, 2011 11:11 AM
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Thirty years ago, when multiple incompatible computer formats vied for dominance, there were as many cross-platform games as there were exclusives. Companies who could afford to port their software benefitted from a larger potential audience, resulting in Mac, DOS, and Apple II users having similar yet disparate experiences of games such as the Ultima series.

The modern benefit to such historical cross-pollination is that many classic Apple II games can still be enjoyed, albeit in alternative formats. For example, in the July episode of Open Apple, I mentioned a free version of Ultima IV that requires DOSBox. (Several listeners recommended I instead run the game using Boxer, a DOS emulator specifically for the Macintosh.)

For a more turnkey approach to reliving the classics, I recommend two online distributors who have made games such as Ultima and Zork available again: Steam, and Good Old Games (GOG). Unlike the remake of Ultima IV (or even ADG's non-profit remakes of King's Quest), Steam's and GOG's offerings are not free for the taking — but these commercial products are designed to be run from a modern operating system, usually Windows XP or higher but occasionally for the Mac as well. How else can you easily and legally enjoy the Zork anthology for just $3.59, or four classic LucasArts point-and-click adventures for $9.97, in a native, offline environment?

If you're not sure which of these games to start with, you don't need to delve into old issues of Nibble to find what critics of the age had to say. Modern reviews are still being published at Web site Pixelmusement under the title Ancient DOS Games (ADG). Here's their review of King's Quest II:

They may not be identical with the Apple II games you remember, but these games are legitimate originals that have taken straight from the past to be enjoyed in the present. So… enjoy!