TCW 114 - The Wizards of Sir-Tech

TCW 114: The Wizards of Sir-Tech


Jeffrey: This is They Create Worlds episode 114: The Wizards of Sir-Tech!

Welcome to They Create Worlds. I'm Jeffrey and I'm joined by my cohost, Alex.

Alex: Hello.

Jeffrey: We're off to see the wizard. But not the wizard of Oz, or really any kind of wizard of magic. We're going to see some programmers who were able to program one of the most influential games in computer gaming history Wizardry.

Alex: That's right. Wizardry has certainly come up before, particularly in the context of our Japanese RPG episode, and as we said at the end of our last episode. When you were thinking computer role playing games in the eighties early nineties even into the late nineties there were basically two types of computer RPGs in the United States.

Those that copied Ultima with its tile based overworld exploration and tactical combat. And those that emulated Wizardry with its first person, dungeons and special pop outs with animated, sometimes animated, but graphically rendered monsters that you fought Ultima, Wizardry. Just about the entire world could be summed up by those two words. At the very beginning of all of this Wizardry was the bigger of the two by far.

Jeffrey: And we already sort of covered Ultima before with our coverage of Origin Systems and the big story behind that.

Alex: Yes. And while Richard Garriott was still piddling around trying to figure out how to make all of this tile stuff work and actually make a good game, and that's not being harsh on him. I'm just saying he was at a different place in his knowledge when he started. The Wizardry people were already very accomplished programmers that had some great examples to follow, and he came out with a more polished, more prepared and ultimately more popular product.

However, as we'll see, that will not last. Over time as Richard gets better and better and better at making Ultima games, Wizardry for the longest period of time just stands still and is ultimately surpassed. But this is not just the story of Wizardry, even though that will occupy a lot of what we're talking about, because we are also talking about the company behind Wizardry Sir-Tech Software.

As I kind of intimated again at the end of the last episode, this company evolves in a very different manner from almost all of its contemporaries. Even though it's formed in a similar manner to some of the early companies like Online Systems and Broderbund where you get a hot shot programmer and some people with business knowledge together and they market product. It doesn't get run in the same way and it doesn't explode in the same way. We talked about how in the nineties through consolidation, basically all of the important computer game companies that were founded in the early 1980s. Either got super huge and devoured other companies or got devoured.

You can basically throw every company into that. Activision and EA getting huge and companies like Interplay and SSI and even Sierra getting devoured. Sir-Tech doesn't really have either one of those fates. It just kind of does its own thing in its own way, has some success for a while and then just kind of fades away. We're going to look into some of that and some of the reasons for that as this episode continues.

Jeffrey: Okay. So coming off on the tail end of our previous episode, where we looked at this transition period between mainframes and time shared computers. The transition over into the Trinity of the Commodore Pet, the TRS 80 and the Apple II, who are the people that came to make up Sir-Tech and which platform did they ultimately go, "You know, I really liked that TRS 80! Let's make our game on that."

Alex: Well, you know, it really doesn't come together quite in that kind of way. In order to do the tale of Sir-Tech Software justice, we really have to go back. Back to the old world, back to the mid 20th century and a gentlemen in what was then Czechoslovakia

Jeffrey: Nikola Tesla?

Alex: [Laughs] By the name of Bedrich, Sirotek. Mr Sirotek was and architect of some renown, I mean, not a world famous architect by any stretch, but an architect who was much in demand in his native country and became quite successful. Was even able to buy and remodel his own castle in good old Czechoslovakia.

During World War II, he was a supporter of the Partisans who were resisting Nazi rule. He sheltered resistance fighters and whatnot in his castle. So he became something of a local hero in that sense as well. However, as a very successful entrepreneurial type, when the communist revolution happened to Czechoslovakia, soon after the end of the war.

He was no longer one of the good guys. According to the new government. He knew that his days were numbered in the country, so he made provisions to immigrate and get the heck out of there. He was able to do so basically by giving the communists all of his wealth, all of his property, he wasn't planning to come back anyway.

Even though obviously that hurt, most of his worth was tied up in real estate, so it wasn't stuff he could carry with him anyway, and under the new communist regime, he couldn't sell it. So even though obviously that was painful, it was stuff that he couldn't take with them anyway and was able to immigrate to Canada where he continued to serve as an architect.

Once he came West, he anglicized the spelling of his first name to Frederick. Bedrich and I could be pronouncing that wrong because I don't really know Cezch, but that is the Cezch equivalent of the name Frederick. Bedrich Sirotek, Cezch name became Frederick Sirotek senior. Frederick Sirotek senior had a son, Frederick Sierra tech junior.

Fred jr got into some very interesting entrepreneurial businesses. He did work in the construction business with his father. Which makes sense, but then he also got into something completely different souvenir spoons.

Jeffrey: Souvenir spoons? So what are you talking about here? One with like the beer steins in Germany where I have like pretty pictures at the bottom of my spoon or at the end of my spoon handle or something?

Alex: Right, right.

Jeffrey: What is... What is that?

Alex: Exactly. I mean, I'm not too familiar with with souvenir spoons myself. I guess that used to be a thing, but you're right. That's exactly what it is. You know, I don't know whether it would be cities or landmarks or businesses or whatever have commemorative spoons that you could buy in the gift shop or whatever in order to serve as souvenirs.

And I don't know why this was a thing. I don't know if this was just the thing in Canada or if it was something that was big across North America in the 1970s it's a different time. What can I say? But yes, he was in the souvenir spoon business. One of the things that Mr Sierra tech needed in the creation of his soons was resin sand.

Resin sand was very important in the manufacturing process. So he ended up doing a lot of business with a company just across the border in Ogdensburg New York. Way, way, way up in upstate New York. One person once said in a magazine article on Sir-Tech when describing Ogdensburg, he said, you know what you've heard about the great white North? This is North of that.

Jeffrey: Oh my.

Alex: Well actually, I think he said it the other way. I think he said that South of here, but the point is way, way, way up in the North near the Canadian border. Ogdensburg New York. No, interstate. No good transportation infrastructure at all, really. I mean, some rail, I think, which is why the resin sand could ship out of there, but it's not a place where people just kind of ended up when they were wandering across the United States or even across upstate New York.

Jeffrey: You're lucky to get there by dog sled or something?

Alex: Something like that. No, I mean, they had highways obviously, but just local and state highways, not federal and interstate highways. There was a company that Fred Sirotek ended up doing a lot of business with called Resin Sands.

Jeffrey: Well, that's poetic.

Alex: Yes, exactly. Resin Sands was owned by a woman named Janice Woodhead, who was actually English. This is a very international story. Janice Woodhead was an English woman, but she married a chemist. Then they relocated to Canada in 1966 and then to the United States in 1973. And that's when her husband, the research chemist, Mr Woodhead, I don't have his first name handy, established this company, Resin Sands.

But then, uh, he died in 1975, just two years after they established the company. So Janice actually ended up being the one running it. And Fred Sirotek was relying on them for sand, and then he ended up investing in the company as well to have more control over his supply. So you've got this souvenir spoon company, Fred Sirotek up in Canada, and you have this Resin Sands, Janice Woodhead in Ogdensburg New York. Well, what does any of this have to do with anything?

Jeffrey: Well, obviously since they mess with all this sand, they made silica chips and then made some sort of computer or something.

Alex: Good gues, good guess, but no. What this has to do with is the volatility of the resin sand trade. Because there were a lot of chemicals involved in the process. Prices were fluctuating all the time. The price was just moving very fast, so there would be delays in being able to get necessary materials. There would be cost overruns and getting materials.

It was just kind of a mess. I mean, the business was still profitable. I mean, it was still worth it in the end. Everyone was making money. But, certainly both Sirotek and Woodhead thought there's got to be a way to do this better. Like say maybe through a computer program.

Jeffrey: At least to some sort of computer program that could automate the buying and selling inventory management. Better calculate the ratios for the chemical and alchemical processes that are going on.

Alex: Yeah, a database program essentially to keep track of the different chemicals and materials and their costs and which you could input in information as you learn it and track it very easily. Fred Sirotek came up with this idea of, of why don't we do this to get some more certainty in our business.

And it just so happened that Janice had a very bright son, currently in college at the time, by the name of Robert Woodhead. Who would be absolutely perfect for seeing this done for the families. Robert Woodhead, I don't know exactly how he discovered David Al's book "101 Basic Computer Games", but when he was in high school at the Ogdensburg Free Academy, somehow he got ahold of this book and it just fascinated him.

We've talked about the book before. Of course, in the context of time sharing and even in last week's episode is one of the very first, commercial sources gathering together all the games that were being made across the country and compiling them in a book of type in code for other people to use. So he found this book. He devoured this book. He was fascinated by this book about the idea of being able to make a computer do something by typing in these commands. However, as I told you, Ogdensburg was kind of out in the middle of nowhere. So even though this was a period of time when more and more high school students were getting exposed to computers through time-sharing terminals, Ogdensburg Free Academy was not one of the places that had any time sharing terminal. So he had the book, but he had no way to use it.

So, not having a computer was not going to deter young Robert from doing something, anything related to programming. So he actually discovered a computer teaching device called CARDIAC. It's an acronym. It's in all caps. That was created by a Bell Labs engineer by the name of David Hagelbarger. What this was, was a cardboard fold out manual that allowed you to essentially pretend you were programming. It taught you basics of programming and allowed you to punch stuff or mark stuff on the cardboard here and here and pretend that you were making computer programs. It was intended as a public school aid in a time when a lot of schools didn't have computers.

But like so many of the other people we've talked about from this period, this engineer felt that computer use and not just computer use, but computer programming was going to be an indispensable skill in the future. So he saw this as a kind of stop gap to allow schools that couldn't afford a computer to teach programming. So that's why it's CARDIAC. It's the Cardboard Illustrative Aid To Computation. Woodhead got himself one of these, cause it, you know, it wasn't that expensive. It's something he could afford. He started programming on cardboard.

Jeffrey: I guess you can don't have any way to really test. The program you coated, but at least you get the mechanics of it and have maybe some kind of feedback I guess?

Alex: Yeah. Now that kept on going for a couple of years. Um, by his junior year, he was able to get some time on the Dartmouth timesharing system. We've talked about the DTSs before. It wasn't nearby. There was a college, he didn't indicate which one, but a college about 30 miles from Ogdensburg, had terminals connected to the Dartmouth time sharing system, that pioneering timesharing system where basic audit start and all that good stuff.

We talk about it in our time sharing episode. So on weekends he would go down and use the terminals at the college, and so he got to do some real program. But again, it wasn't through his school. I mean, it was a struggle. It was, you know, 30 minutes down, 30 minutes back using up his weekends. But he loved it.

And that's how he started to really get into programming. So Woodhead went to Cornell after he graduated, you know, very fine school, uh. And majored in computer science there. I mean he was hooked on programming by this point. He took a job with the local Computer Land, which was one of the very first computer store chains in the country.

Got a job with the local Computer Land in 1976 to help cover his tuition. Computer Land, they sold Apple II, that was their big seller. So of course he was exposed to the Apple II when he worked for the computer land. Once the Apple two came out in 77 but he could not afford one. He desperately wanted his own computer.

This was just perfect for what he liked to do. All the programming could not afford one. So he ended up going down to the local Radio Shack in Ogdensburg and purchasing a TRS 80. Which he was able to get even cheaper than the normal price. Because again, and this is not, this is not to belabor the point too much. Ogdensburg was not the most happening place in the country. It was not necessarily down with the new times. So the local radio shack was having some trouble moving those TRSA to computers. So he got himself a pretty good deal on one. So he bought himself a TRS 80 which promptly, sadly got him fired.

Jeffrey: Wait what?

Alex: Well, you have to remember, as we talked about, the TRS 80 of course, was created by the Tandy corporation, which was also the owner of the Radio Shack chain of electronic stores. So that was the exclusive source for those computers. Computer Land sold Apple II, and his boss basically said it would be like working at a Ford dealership and driving a Chevy. So his boss let him go from the Computer Land because he was using the competitions stuff.

Jeffrey: Wow. That's crazy.

Alex: But, uh, he was able to find another job. He got a job working for Cornell's, a school of hotel administration, part of Cornell university, and he wrote a program to display the school menu. Very fancy.

Jeffrey: I guess if we need to print out the school menu that works.

Alex: He also started programming and BASIC on the side for the TRS 80. He released a tape with a few simple games on it that he adapted from other sources, probably mostly 101 basic computer games. Since of course he had that book, maybe some of the stuff he was exposed to on the Dartmouth timesharing system. Nothing. It's special. Nothing fancy. It's just he put out a tape, a software. I don't think it probably did that well. And he was also at school exposed to the Plato system. We've talked about Plato before. Someday we'll do a whole episode on Plato because it's absolutely worthy of it. Plato uh, just as a brief reminder, was a pioneering, amazing computer system housed at the university of Illinois, but with terminals at other institutions around the country. It could support by the time Plato four came along the fourth version, it could support 1000 users simultaneously. It was a time shared system through terminals. These terminals incorporated plasma screens.

Jeffrey: Glowy and pretty.

Alex: Yeah. The plasma srceen was basically invented for Plato. I don't know the history well enough to know if there was, wasn't some lab somewhere that was also working on plasma screen technology. There may have been, but the plasma screens of Plato were kind of the first ones that were deployed in the field, at least on a massive scale, and they were touchscreens. This was cutting edge technology 20 years later. We're talking about the seventies here. It was a real time system. A graphical realtime system. So there were all sorts of things like electronic mail and chat functionality, instant messenger type functionality, all sorts of incredible things on the system.

Jeffrey: Pretty much late 1990s internet back in the seventies.

Alex: Yeah, it's, it was truly a stunning, stunning system that we will definitely give to due one of these days. He became very deeply involved with the Plato system. And very deeply involved with playing games on the Plato system because even though this was an educational system, and even though educational uses were prioritized, and even though games, we're generally actively discouraged for the most part, many, many games popped up on the system.

These were unlike any of the games we've I talked about, like Star Trek and Hammurabi, all these things that are mostly text-based. We're talking about games that featured graphics, sometimes three-dimensional graphics. And we're talking about games that were multiplayer even massively multiplayer. Not massively multiplayer as we would measure it in 2020 but massively multiplayer in the sense that you could have six, eight, ten, a dozen people playing the same game at the same time. In competition or cooperation. We're talking about role playing games.

Where you could actually explore Dungeons with a party of adventurers that were other people, like a modern MMO. It's just stunning what was capable on the system, and Robert Woodhead was right at the heart of that. So much of the, at the heart of it. Then in 1980 he was asked to leave the university for a time because his grades, we're very low. Because he was spending all of his time playing computer games on Plato.

I mean, this guy, this guy was hooked. The good news is, in the midst of all this, he was very talented with computers. So he was asked by Fred Sirotek and by his mother, Janice, to go ahead and put together this database system. So he did, he wrote this inventory software, inventory database software. This is what allowed them to finally get an Apple II, because part of his deal for creating this program, what you wanted to create on the Apple II was that he get an Apple II, the program it on. So the man finally got his Apple. He went ahead and created this program called Info Ttree. He did it not in basic, that's slow and cumbersome language, not and assembly. Which is more powerful, but but finicky and more difficult.

Jeffrey: Fast and tedious.

Alex: Yes. And tedious, but in another language called Pascal.

Jeffrey: Oh, good old Pascal.

Alex: That's right. You have to understand something about basic to understand something about Pascal. Basic was created for ease of learning, ease of use by novices. We've talked about basic before. Part of doing lat was to arrange complexity in layers so that you could do very simple things with just a few commands and then you would learn some simple things and learn some other things to build on that. Learn some other things to build on that. Until you're finally doing very complex things. Or at least as complex as basic can handle.

That's great for getting started programming. But it leads to massive spaghetti code if you're doing anything complex because it relies on all of these very basic, simple commands. So you're always routing back through these basic commands, and it's just leads to a mess of code if you're doing anything complex.

Well, there was another programer contemporaneous with the Dartmouth people that was also interested and getting ordinary people to learn how to code. But he wanted them to actually really learn how to code. So he wanted to create a language that was simpler than your Fortran or your COBOL, and certainly much simpler than your assembly or machine language. But was structured, properly, so that when you coded in it, your code was clean and beautiful and wonderful and structured at all times.

This gentleman was actually a Swiss fellow. By the name of Niklaus Wirth, who was based at the Federal Institute of Technology in Z├╝rich, Switzerland. So he created Pascal with novices in mind. He tried to make it as easy as possible, but he also made the structure of it very, very rigid. Which is both good and bad the way that, uh, Jimmy Maher describes it in Digital Antiquarian. Uh, you know, he's got such a great blog on computer game history. Is that in Pascal, you can create a beautiful symphony, just using a music metaphor, all of the instruments in harmony, every part of the orchestra in its place, everything working together to create something beautiful. But you can't do swing or improvisation.

You have to be doing things the way Pascal wants you to be doing things or you're not doing anything at all. That sound about right to you. I'm sure you've had some experience with Pascal probably.

Jeffrey: I've actually never coded in Pascal, but I've heard the hard and, uh, trials and tribulations of it.

Alex: Sure.

Jeffrey: I actually, as part of my curriculum when I was actually in college, I was the first class generation to go through that got to skip Pascal.

Alex: Interesting. Yeah. You know, it's something that hasn't lasted because. It was big for a while. I mean, the company, Borland international basically became a huge, one of the biggest software companies in existence because of its turbo Pascal language. So there was a time when Pascal was huge. But it kind of got squeezed out because, you know, the novice coders would go do basic, and then of course C came in.

I mean, C already existed, but C on PCs as PCs became more robust, had more memory. C became kind of the GoTo language to do things in and Pascal, because it was more finicky, then even C is just kind of slowly got shunted to the side .And like you said, got to the point where it wasn't even being taught anymore at computer science programs. But there was a time when it was a big deal and a part of what made it such a big deal, were a couple of things. First of all, it was ridiculously portable. Now Wirth was working in the world of mini computers. He was not thinking about microcomputers when he created this language. I mean, he was created in the late sixties early seventies. But he wanted it to be widely available in the same way that the basic people wanted basic, widely available because he did see it as a teaching tool. So he created the P machine emulator. You know, we talked about the Z machine of Zork. Well, one of the main inspirations of that was the P machine, which allowed compiled Pascal code to be run on anything. So again, just like with Zork, being able to create a massively huge game that normally wouldn't fit into the memory of a microcomputer, like a Trash 80 or an Apple II. The P machine worked in the same way.

You could create a Pascal program. And then compile it and then interpret it down to these primitive microcomputers and you could create a game that was much, or a program, in this case, the game that was much bigger then that computer could normally do because you could swap in portions of memory, swap chunks of memory in an out of the beam machine in order to have something much larger.

Jeffrey: So I can sort of see a interpreter here. I have something that's almost akin to say, Java. Where I program my code in Java, and then it's compiled down into a jar file, which is generally how Java programs are han- handed off. And then I have an interpreter of that jar file that can run on a phone that can run on a PC, that can run on an arm processor, that can run on whatever. And that's sort of akin to a more modern day rendition of it. Of course. Obviously it's not one to one, but sort of in that vein.

Alex: Right. To my understanding, as I often say, I'm not a technical person, but, uh, to my understanding that sounds about right. It became something available on microcomputers through the work of another guy by the name of Ken Bowles, who was a professor at the University of California, San Diego. He was a big time sharing guy, but the powers that be at the university were still very much in the old mainframe world.

They were still fully on board with the batch processing. Hulking iron, IBM, mainframe kind of computers, and he was trying to get them more into the timesharing interactive kind of scene. He managed to get the university to replace its old CDC computer with a Burroughs timesharing system. Burroughs is another one of these seven dwarves that was, uh, in the computer industry for a time.

But then in 1974. They went back and they got an IBM mainframe and they ditched the boroughs system and they didn't even bother to tell him. He found out about it when the Burroughs, people called him and were like, "Hey, you're ditching our computer. What's the deal?" And he was like, "I don't know what is the deal?"

So he was very frustrated that he was kept out of the loop and that he felt that the administration at his school was just horribly behind the times. He decided since he didn't have access to a time-sharing computer where he could teach his classes programming on these kinds of systems. You know, they were just going to learn the old punch card stuff. He got himself a P kit, which was a Pascal kind of development system that allowed him to work in Pascal with his students. And then, you know, he had students that then they went on and made some changes to it. They expanded the language. They put some more modern conveniences in that Wirth hadn't been thinking of a few years before.

This is the first 30 minutes of the episode transcribed. For the complete episode transcription please check out Patreon.