Was Sir-Tech’s Wizardry A Rip-Off of Oubliette?

I was writing a chapter about one of my favorite silver-age CRPGs, Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord today. It’s been awhile since I dug into the research, and was intrigued by one of CRPG Addict’s posts about its key inspiration, Oubliette. Oubliette was one of many highly innovative and ahead-of-their-time games for the PLATO system, which has been on my mind since my most recent interview with Richard Bartle, the main main responsible for MUD (forthcoming on Matt Chat). Bartle got pretty animated when the subject of PLATO came up. In his opinion, the influence of PLATO and its games is highly exaggerated. In his case, apparently people tend to claim or insinuate that he himself was inspired to create MUD after playing some MUD-like games on the system, though he’d never even heard of it.

Real-time combat! Or, at least timed combat...

Died on my first encounter. Yep, this definitely smacks of Wizardry!!!

Of course, in my interview with Robert Woodhead (co-creator of Wizardry), the subject of PLATO came up, too. Woodhead was very passionate about how influential PLATO had been, and as far as I know never made a secret of his passion for several PLATO games, including Oubliette, whose influence on Wizardry is clear to see (as CRPG Addict makes clear). Anyway, I noticed some pretty heated comments on CRPG Addict’s post, including some from Corey Cole, co-designer of Quest for Glory. Cole pointed out that basically there was no wrongdoing here, since the development context of Oubliette was entirely different (even though its designers did go on later to attempt a few commercial releases, one for the C64 and a more recent one for mobiles). In any case, I do have to agree with CRPG Addict that it’s a little odd that there wasn’t even a slight nod to the original game to be seen.

So, I decided to contact the Oubliette team and get their take on it. Following are the emails I received back from creator Jim Schwaiger. Specifically, I asked Jim to comment on the post by CRPG Addict and the claims that are made there about the similarities between the two games. Here’s Jim’s response:

The author is fairly comprehensive and largely correct in his comparison of the two. A number of the comments support his proposition. Some of the comments are not quite correct – I am amused by one person who points out that Wizardry had 3 people in the front/back who were in contact with the monsters, while Oubliette had 2. This is incorrect – Oubliette on PLATO had 3 in contact, the same as Wizardry, since our parties allowed up to 12 players. When I rewrote the game to style for existing home computers (TRS-80, Commodore 64 and DOS machines), I was restricted by the size of the screen, especially on the C64, which was 40 x 24 characters. As a result of screen limitations, parties could not be as large as PLATO, and I needed to be able to function with a party of as little as 6 – thus the drop in microcomputer versions from 3 in contact –> 2. Also to accommodate this we eliminated surprise from behind (which reordered during combat from front/back) on the microcomputer version.

I only examined Wizardry on the Apple II once – spent just a short time, certainly less than 30 minutes, but could not find any meaningful difference with Oubliette. There were some cosmetic changes in screen layout, made possible by the fact that Apple II was a real computer (not powerful by current standards) but able to display and update the entire screen in real time. On the other hand, Oubliette was played on a computer whose bandwidth to the user was almost always 2400 baud (essentially about 300 characters/bytes per second), or less. Processing power was also quite limited, the maximum available was generally 10 TIPS (thousand instructions per second). These instructions were a bit more powerful than those available to the 6502 processor, but even the Apple II, TRS-80 and the like were running at 2-4 MHz (MILLION instructions, a factor of 1000x faster than PLATO). Oubliette actually averaged 3-4 TIPS processing, so it was relatively economical in its day. Wizardry had the 3D perspective plotter which we introduced on PLATO when Oubliette was released in November 1977.

The most incriminating similarity in my view was the spell names from Wizardry. Although the Oubliette spells were patterned in their function and level after D&D style, they were not named “sleep”, “charm person”, “fireball”, etc. We wanted a more unique feel for the game, so one of our friends (then a physics graduate student) created a language unique to the game, and the spells were all written in its unique language. For example, the elements of “FIE” meant fire, “TOK” meant earth, “SOM” mean water, “GEI” meant air. “GOR” meant thought, “MOR” meant direct, “DUMA” mean control, “MINA” was wound, “MINAT” was “wound open”, KOMINAH was wound close (heal), “BOR” was loosely rod.

For the spell names, GEI – BOR meant “air rod” or magic missile. MINA – BOR meant “wound rod(s)”, a damage weapon for priests, MOR-FIE-GOR was “control fire thought”, with “fire thought” creatures being humanoid, “MOR – TOK – GOR” was “control earth thought”, non humanoid animals having “earth thought”. DUMATOKGOR was “control earth thought”, with control requiring more active energy from the priest, and therefore of limited duration. “KO – MINAH” was “close wound” while “KO – MINA – TOK” was “close wound earth”, being stronger by invoking the power of the earth. “FIE-MINAT” is “fire wound”, “FIE-MINA-TOK” is “fire wound earth” (more powerful), and “FIE MINA MOR” is “fire wound direct” or “controlled fireball” which did not damage one’s own party.

I must warn you that Wizardry spell names are not identical to Oubliette spell names. In fact, they are all different. But if you look at them closely, they represent a syllable for syllable (meaning for meaning) substitution for our unique language outlined above. An example of similar “difference” is between Chinese and Japanese – the Japanese word Yama – Moto means “Mountain – Root/Base” while the Chinese “Shan Ben” means “Mountain – Root/Base” – and they are written in exactly the same symbolic characters (which is why a Japanese person can easily read Chinese for meaning, even though the pronunciation is entirely different).

What is the chance that Wizardry could have created its own language for its spells and have its meaning roots and relationships be identical to our unique language for Oubliette? I was unable to go any further to look for differences between the games. (Like the microcomputer version of Oubliette, Wizardry was different in that it was a solitaire game – a single human person controlling all players in the party. Obviously this was necessary since no networks existed in the early 1980s to allow computers to communicate for gaming. I see this as a necessary concession to reality rather than a deliberate failure to copy the PLATO version of Oubliette.)

The current Android/Apple versions of Oubliette are derived from the source for my microcomputer version dating back to 1983. John Gaby had my complete consent to do that and he made a number of very nice enhancements.

I wasn’t quite sure from the above if Jim was actually upset about these similarities, so I asked for clarification. Here was the response to that:

How does George Orwell feel about Eric Blair, or Houdini about Erik Weisz?

Cheated or robbed is one person’s judgment. I have given you a number of facts, all truthful as far as I know. I prefer that the reader know the facts and draw his own conclusions – my statement of opinion only clouds that process. I don’t need or care to sell anything here.

{One distinctive feature of Hemingway’s writing was his choice to not describe how characters felt. That was left to the reader, and I never felt cheated by that. Sometimes less is more.}

I don’t really know what to make of this response to be honest. Perhaps there’s more to this story? At any rate, I thought the discussion was interesting, and Jim was nice enough to give me permission to publish these emails.

CPRG Addict brings up the Questron/Ultima kerfuffle that resulted in a licensing arrangement for the “look and feel” similarities of the interfaces. I thought the same thing, but then wondered if it’s really relevant, since those were both commercial projects from the get-go. Oubliette, of course, was a free program for a platform ostensibly for educational purposes only (and Corey brings up the “draconian” enforcers who were the sysops on those systems). Even though the title screen for Oubliette for PLATO has a big copyright notice on it, I’m not quite sure how this would work out legally (and really don’t care). 😉

3 thoughts on “Was Sir-Tech’s Wizardry A Rip-Off of Oubliette?

  1. Sam Derboo

    Good to have some clarification on the spell names – I knew they were like that in Oubliette, but since those games kept being edited later I was never sure whether it was like that originally or there was some recursive influencing going on. Specifically Dumapic is striking, although I don’t know whether it does the same as in Wizardry.

    Similar spell name systems have later been used in many Japanese RPGs, including Final Fantasy.

    I think the major achievement of Wizardry is making an interesting quest out of the system, and making it a single-player-multiple-character game (a step I don’t consider as inevitable as Jim, seeing how most other home computer RPGs at the time were single character games). The PLATO multiplayer games are super boring for anyone who is not the party leader. And of course the class change system, which makes raising your characters much more interesting.

    “and as far as I know never made a secret of his passion for several PLATO games”
    He never did when asked about it in later days, but it was never mentioned publicly back in the day. To be fair, no one asked about it back then (at least not in any of the sources we have), but there is still a bit of a “lie of omission” feel to it. That might have been a choice dictated by Sir-Tech marketing, though.

    Reply
  2. Freeman

    It is really close. As is “Galactic Attack” and “Empire” from same company and same source system.

    I think he did what a lot of developers did at the time. Took games they wanted and translated them with minor difference to be more like what they want.

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