(I know parts of this post sound like a rant or an appeal, but really it isn't. I definitely didn't mean to slander the work of other writers, either. Even though I focus on pointing out factual issues with the cited articles, most of them are actually well written, competent pieces of journalism. Only when the whole world relies on them for a piece of information, the results can be a bit unfortunate. I actually intended this to be more of a reminder, partly to myself, to take care about how we deal with our sources and to document them, and—most importantly— to use good sources in the first place. But most of all, it is the diary of a never quite complete journey on the search for some definite answers.)
On my recent research for an article about the Wizardry series of games, I've come across an annoying issue. The computer RPG market in the Western world was for the better part of the 1980s dominated by the rivalry of two great series, Richard Garriott's Ultima and Wizardry by Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg. Therefore when writing about the one, one cannot but take into account and compare with the other, and it all starts with the first game in each series.
Wikipedia tells us (be quiet already, you badmouthers! I know you all use it, and even the one in a hundred of you that really doesn't has to live in a world full of wikipediots, as the site has long become by far the most used source of "education" around the globe.) that the game that became counted later as Ultima I "was first published in the United States by California Pacific Computer Company, September 2, 1980," while "In 1979, Robert Sirotek and Fred Norman created Sir-tech Software, Inc. to distribute the game, and it was released in 1981." The info box puts the release more precisely at December 31st, 1981, so more than a year later than its rival.
But let's take a look at the sources for both claims. The Wizardry article quotes Swords & Circuitry: a Designer's Guide to Computer Role Playing Games by one Jana Hallford. This was released in 2001, a mere twenty years after the fact. I can't argue much with the reliability of that book, as I don't have it and can't check its sources (which I personally doubt the Wikipedia author did, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt), but it should be noted that the quotation only includes the year 1981, with the December 31 date (which I intend "prove" wrong in just a few minutes) left unreferenced.
The Ultima entry is a bit more fishy: It quotes "'U.S. Copyright Office'. Reg. #PA-317-501. Retrieved 2007-08-08." The site linked apparently has been restructured since and that specific entry isn't searchable, anymore, but either way the quote could only ever have referenced a copyright registration, not a release date.
But this isn't another big rant about the workings and lack of reliability at Wikipedia. Searching the web and various print publications for more accounts, one gets a wild mixture of claims for 1980 or 1981. Wikipedia already beats most of them by actually stating where their date is coming from. The best one only ever gets elsewhere is Garriott's word in interviews, which also favors 1980. Yet I dare anyone who ever printed or posted this to find a single copy of the game with the floppy dated as such. The Museum of Computer Adventure Game History sure doesn't have one.
Then I stumbled upon this gem of an article: Forgotten ruins: The roots of computer role-playing games: Sir-tech. I loved this, not necessarily for its text body (because it happens to obfuscate facts with fancy writing and gets others wrong by merely glossing over the matter), but for its list of sources at the end. Here I learned—not being an US citizen and never having encountered the magazine in its time—that Computer Gaming World would be an excellent source for early home computer game history, and, just as importantly, that it was probably available online somewhere, as the web journalists who have the means and would bother to do actual research on physical old stuff surely can be counted on one's fingers. Turns out it is, indeed (more info to follow below).
Weeding through the early issues of one of the first magazines focused on this form electronic entertainment, I finally hit gold in issue 2.5 (Sep/Oct 1982), page 2: The mag's "List of Top Sellers (as of 30 June 1982)" contained two entries very interesting to my cause:
24,000 Wizardry (Sir-tech Software, Sept. 1981)
20,000 Ultima (California Pacific Computer Co., June 1981)
Not only do we learn that Wizardry outsold Ultima—at least in the beginning— their actual releases apparently were much closer together than Wikipedia & Co. would have one believe. Why does it matter? Well, aside from historic accuracy, it means for one that Wizardry itself could hardly have been influenced by Ultima. Even moreso as it was available in some kind of public beta state earlier that year, as High score!: the illustrated history of electronic games by Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson tells us (among others). It also means that whatever common traits Ultima and Wizardry had weren't necessarily "old news" to early players of the latter.
But wait, there's still Akalabeth, isn't it? The supposedly highly influental "Ultima 0," programmed by Garriott in 1979 and also published via California Pacific in 1980. According to 1Up, "Akalabeth sold tens of thousands of copies." To quote the aforementioned book High Score!, this figure stems from a statement made by Lord British himself: "They sold 30,000 units, and my royalty was $5 per unit. Something that had taken four to six weeks to create had earned me $150,000."
Now developer interviews are the most deer and valuable —and often the only— ressource video game journalists/historians can work with, and I wouldn't blame Garriott for intentionally falsifying figures, but the human memory is a fuzzy thing, begging to at least raise the question how much trust we can put on new answers about 20-30 year old questions. For all we know, he could have confused it with Ultima, or something in that manner. After all, the same man has been cited in another book (Dungeons and Dreamers: the rise of computer game culture from geek to chic) with a very different statement regarding the development time: It says: "Akalabeth was two years' worth of programming, but he had never meant it to be a real product," although it conforms with the sales figures.
How do I even come to question that statement? Well, for that we have to take a look at the complete list from CGW 2.5:
List of Top Sellers (as of 30 June 1982)
35,000 K-RAZY Shoot-Out (K-Byte, Jan. 1982)
32,000 Zork I (Infocom, Feb. 1981)
30,000 Temple of Apshai (Automated Simulations, Aug. 1979)
30,000 Flight Simulator (Sublogic Communications, Dec. 1979)
25,000 Raster Blaster (BudgeCo., April 1981)
25,000 Wizard & the Princess (Sierra On-Line, Aug. 1980)
25,000 Snack Attack (Datamost, Oct. 1981)
24,000 Wizardry (Sir-tech Software, Sept. 1981)
23,000 Ghost Hunter (Arcade Plus, Nov. 1981)
23,000 Gorgon (Sirius Software, June 1981)
20,000 Ultima (California Pacific Computer Co., June 1981)
20,000 Super Invader (Creative Computing Software, Nov. 1979)
20,000 Castle Wolfenstein (Muse, Sept. 1981)
15,000 Apple Panic (Broderbund Software, July 1981)
15,000 Scarfman (The Cornsoft Group, Aug. 1981)
15,000 Pool 1.5 (Innovative Design Software, April 1981)
10,000 Galactic Chase (Spectrum Computers, Sept. 1981)
9,000 Choplifter (Broderbund Software, May 1982)
8,300 Canyon Climber (Datasoft, June 1982)
8,000 The Warp Factor (Strategic Simulations, Feb. 1981)
6,000 Photar (Softape, Feb. 1982)
5,000 Pac Attack (Computerware, Sept. 1981)
5,000 Horizon V (Gebelli Software, Feb. 1982)
5,000 Dragonquest (The Programmer's Guild., Jan. 1981)
5,000 Asylum (Med Systems, Feb. 1981)
4,500 International Gran Prix (Riverbank Software, Aug. 1981)
3,600 Tax-Man (H.A.L. Labs, Oct. 1981)
3,500 Rocket Raiders (Artworx Software, Dec. 1981)
3,500 Apventure to Atlantis (Synergistic Software, March 1982)
3,400 Rear Guard (Adventure International, Dec. 1981)
3,000 Voyage of the Valkyrie (Advanced Operating Systems, Aug. 1981)
2,000 The Game Show (Computer-Advanced Ideas, Oct. 1981)
2,000 Stone's Reversal (Powersoft, Nov. 1981)
1,000 Swordthrust #1 (CE Software, May 1981)
1,000 Hi-Res Computer Golf (Avant-Garde Creations, Nov. 1981)
1,000 ZX81 Classics (Lamo-Lem Laboratories, Jan. 1982)
1,000 Super Stellar Trek (Rainbow Computing, Aug. 1981)
As you can see, the list goes as far back as August 1979, definitely before the commercial release of Akalabeth (but you can factor in the dozen-or-so homemade copies if you want, it doesn't change much). What also sticks out is the yawning absence of Akalabeth. Now this can mean two things: Either the game was omitted from the list for some reason or accident, or it didn't sell much more (maybe even less) than 1,000 copies, at least not until it was bundled with later Ultima games (which happened quite early. The legendary rarity of the original release seems to favor the latter theory. If anyone had ever bothered to ask for and print a copy of Garriot's royalty with California Pacific, we had a case, but as it is there stand his words, formulated decades later, against contemporary statistics. Although there still is no undeniable proof for either possibility, at least we now know that we don't know, and that's good to know, isn't it? At least it reminds to be wary when taking personal statements at face value when it comes to determine hard facts like release dates and sales figures.
Of course, there remains the question to what degree video games journalists are, should and can be video game historians. If you're writing a 4-page restrospective on the Ultima series in a magazine, chances are you're not nearly paid enough to go through the same process I just did. In fact, I "wasted" two free days I should have spent working on my master's thesis for research old computer games. Although the mad historian in me wants to aks if one really should write an article about a game if one can't even get the release date straight, I'm well aware of how unrealistic that claim is. My own article on the history of video gaming in Korea contains more than one hundred footnotes over all its pages, and yet the whole thing is a horrible, shoddyly put-together mess. Some sources are much less trustworthy than others, the founding date of the biggest Korean game developer/publisher for the 1980s might or might not be off by 6 years due to a typo in an old magazine, and release dates are a wild mixture between official sale dates, (contemporary) reported sightings in stores by magazines, probable-but-not-secured announcements, in-game copyrights, even educated guesses. Surely, the proper way of dealing with it would be documenting the sources for all of those dates—but then I'd still be working on part 1 of the article, probably for a few years to come.
Even as it is, that article is an enormous time investment I'm still not sure I actually can afford to make, but who else is gonna do it? There is some great academic and semi-academic work done on the history of video games, but it's much, much to few and far between to really branch out into all relevant subjects, so the area is still totally dependent on the work of crazy nerds with the crave to spend all their free time to get trivial(?) facts straight.
Even though computer hardware rarely crossed borders, computer software proved to be much more flexible. A large number of Western games were ported to Japanese computer systems, with companies like Starcraft, Infinity, and Pony Canyon focusing almost exclusively on localizing English games. It was a rare time when large numbers of Japanese gamers were actively interested in Western games, an interest which has only just rekindled in the last few years. A little game called Dragon Quest famously arose out of a friendly argument over two Western games. As Koichi Nakamura has stated in an interview, "A game that I have fond memories of is Wizardry, which was popular in our office, but a co-worker of mine named Yuji Horii was hooked on Ultima at the time. Yuji kept saying we should make an RPG, but while I wanted to make a game like Wizardry, he wanted it to be like Ultima. We said to ourselves that we'd combine the interesting parts from both, and what we ended up with was Dragon Quest. So if it wasn't for Wizardry and Ultima, Dragon Quest wouldn't exist -- either in Japan or in the world."
For now it seems we have underestimated the influence of the Apple II hardware in Japan, as clearly Ultima, as well as almost certainly Wizardry, did have a significant impact on the Japanese programmer scene well before they were officially published on Japanese computers. But let's explore this thread further:
THE MAKING OF... Japan's First RPG by Edge magazine, which functions here as Black Onyx designer Henk Rogers' mouthpiece. The article states:
"Voted game of the year by the readers of Login magazine (the best-selling Japanese gaming magazine at that time), Black Onyx sold around 150,000 copies, not counting huge numbers of rentals. The game’s gigantic success paved the way for the other Japanese developers to bring their own RPG titles to market. The first Dragon Quest team went on the record praising Black Onyx as the influence for them investigating other western titles in the genre (specifically Wizardry). And so the RPG hacked and slashed its way into the Japanese videogame industry and consciousness.
Thus it attributes the sole agency in bringing RPGs to Japan to BulletProof Software. But this wouldn't be the history of video games, if we didn't have conflicting reports. Wikipedai on Dragon Quest: "In 1982, Enix sponsored a video game programming contest in Japan which brought much of the Dragon Quest team together, including creator Yuji Horii. The prize was a trip to the United States and a visit to AppleFest '83 in San Francisco, where Horii discovered the Wizardry video game series."
The quote this time goe to an (old? you can't tell with Gamasutra) article by HG101's own editor-in-chief, which... doesn't deal with that episode at all. Great, wrong citation. Hitting google brought me hundreds of regurgitations of the same story, but so far no hint at a possible source. On the other hand, it doesn't exactly sound like something someone would just make up, either. This is, however, possibly the most important question of JRPG history—as it would ultimately determine The Black Onyx' importance as a mediator of the genre.
Either way, the Enix guys certainly weren't the only ones who already had got wind of the new trend. The case doesn't look as good for BulletProof when looking at Japanese Proto-RPGs like Koei's Ken to Mahou (剣と魔法) and Dungeon (ダンジョン) (warning, link contains NSFW images) or Falcom's Panorama Island (ぱのらま島), all released prior to The Black Onyx and already clearly drawing inspiration from established Western RPGs. Falcom's game even boldly claimed its title as a "Fantasy role-playing game"), taking a bit of wind out of the sails for Roberts' statement: "The word had not got out; nobody knew what an RPG was and we were on the brink of collapse."
This is not to abnegate all importance of The Black Onyx: As the first hit RPG in Japanese, it certainly did a lot for the popularity of the genre in the far east, but judging by the clues, we very likely would have gotten Dragon Quest, anyway.
It's quite baffling how many essential facts can get muddled and misinterpreted so much in only 30 years. Makes me not want to know what it means to stand in the shoes of a "traditional" historian. Oh, wait, I do. Back to my master's thesis...
To make this post more useful for those interested in the preservation and documentation of video games history, here are a few invaluable contemporaries to the events they're dealing with:
Computer Gaming World Museum preserves the whole back catalogue of CGW issues, from 1981 to 2006, but also smaller collections of other early magazines. Please don't go overboard with the downloading, though, as bandwith limits are a concern. Everyone needs to read "Come Cast A Spell With Me" by Roe R. Adams III in issue 5.4, page 21.
The Giant List of Classic Game Programmers is basically a huge compendium of really old computer game credits.
The Museum of Computer Adventure Game History showcases original boxes, manual samples and even storage media.
Full archive of Sega Force, Sega Master Force and Sega Force Mega posted on the SMS Power forums.
The Wayback Machine I bet you all know already. Doesn't go back farther than late 1996 for obvious reasons and doesn't always work, but it's a great tool to scavenge through old ruins of former company homepages and the like.
Kultpower is a German magazine archive that doesn't offer full scans, but a number of single articles and tons of review scans.
Google Books is more useful than one would think, although it is often a real pain in the ass to get to the information you want due to copyright sillyness.
(Feel free to post more in the comments, of course. These are very focused on Western sources, would be interesting if there were any Japanese magazine archives worth mentioning.)
Finally, I'd like to close with a question: While most old Western games have similarly elusive release dates as described above, for Japanese games at least since the late 80s, most release dates are known to the exact day. Gamefaqs is full of them, so is Wikipedia. But how do we know them? I'm really curious were they are coming from. Is there a reliable database somewhere, or is it all just from the Japanese Wikipedia?