[In this excerpt from his newly published book Dungeons & Desktops, Matt Barton explores the "silver age" of RPGs on computers. This article covers the emergence of the Ultima series and a host of other exciting, innovative titles that blew up in the 1980s. Dungeons & Desktops has its genesis in a series of pieces Barton wrote for Gamasutra in 2007, which can be found here: The Early Years, The Golden Age, and The Platinum and Modern Ages.]
In 1981, the CRPG was still in its infancy. Programmers were refining their techniques and discovering the true capabilities of personal computers. More importantly, standards were emerging that would greatly improve interfaces, making CRPGs much more intuitive and far less cumbersome. So far, most CRPGs had been of interest only to hardcore role-playing fans already intimately familiar with D&D conventions.
These games lacked the sort of user friendliness that would have made them accessible to a larger audience. In any case, many gamers didn't relish the idea of learning one role-playing system just to abandon it when the next game came out.
The solution came in the form of long-running series, such as Ultima, Apshai, and Wizardry. Once gamers had mastered the interface, they could move on to the next game in the series with relative ease. As we'll see, these series had benefits for both developers and gamers, and they mark an important turning point in the history of the CRPG.
The most important games of the Silver Age are Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness and Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (both 1981). Both games launched successful and influential series that lasted into the 2000s, but it was Ultima that catapulted the genre into the mainstream -- indeed, its influence even extended overseas and inspired the Japanese console RPGs that so many of us are familiar with today. We'll talk about the first three Ultima games in this chapter.
Garriott had justifiably high expectations for his new Ultima series, which soon became the standard by which all other CRPGs were judged.
Wizardry, meanwhile, earned a reputation for challenging, hardcore gameplay. It also demonstrates what would become a long and established practice of "engine recycling," or reusing the bulk of a game's code in subsequent games. This technique allowed developers not only to create games faster and for less cost, but also to focus more on developing content, such as graphics and stories.
Tension began to build between gamers who expect sequels to be quite radical revisions and those who resent such changes and demand consistency -- a tension brought out nicely by comparing the Ultima and Wizardry series.
The Silver Age also saw several other important and influential games, such as Telengard, Sword of Fargoal, Dungeons of Daggorath, Tunnels of Doom, and Universe. Each of these games introduced or affirmed gameplay concepts that would show up in countless later games, and each vividly demonstrates the diversity of the genre in the early 1980s. They're also some of the more beloved of the early CRPGs and are still regularly played today by hundreds if not thousands of nostalgic gamers around the world.