An Interview with Robert Woodhead, Co-Creator of ‘Wizardry’: The Remake, M&Ms, Ninjas, and More

Hey, everyone! The spiffy new Digital Eclipse-developed remake of Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord is out now on a variety of platforms. It’s very good! It also gave me a chance to speak with one of the people behind the original game: Mr. Robert “Trebor" Woodhead. He had a lot to say about the making of the original game, what he thinks of the new remake, and a whole lot more. Ever wonder why there are ninjas and samurai in Wizardry? You’ll find out by reading this interview! Also sitting in with us and chiming in at times was Mr. Justin Bailey of Digital Eclipse, a fine fellow who was able to provide additional insight on the remake. Get yourself a drink, because this is a big one.

Introductions and M&Ms

TouchArcade (TA): It feels kind of silly to ask this, but… tell us who you are and what you’re about, and also your favorite pizza toppings. That’s very important.

Robert Woodhead (RW): My name is Robert Woodhead. Back in the day I used to write computer games, and later on subtitled anime. Basically, I’ve spent my entire life just doing very strange things with computers. And my favorite pizza topping is none, because I’m not a big pizza fan!

TA: Wow! That’s actually a new answer to that question. Well done! And over here?

Justin Bailey (JB): About me: I was previously involved from a business side in bringing back another classic, Grim Fandango with Doublefine. Wizardry was another iconic game that was commercially unavailable for over two decades. My role was lining up the financing, getting the rights, and distributing the game, so I guess you could call me a producer. I’m currently on a veggie kick, so my favorite pizza toppings are mushrooms, mixed olives, and red onions.

RW: Now may I ask you a question?

TA: Sure, go ahead!

RW: M&Ms: Plain or Peanut, and why?

TA: Ah, Peanut. I like that mix of saltiness and sweetness. That’s the way to go. How about you?

RW: Um, I’m a Peanut fan myself, but the best answer I’ve ever had to that question – I used to ask that question when we were interviewing people to work at our company – was Extra Crispy. I hired the guy on the spot.

TA: Really? Well, that’s an outside-the-box answer, so…

RW: There you go! That’s a true story.

JB: I thought you were going to say “none". The right answer is always “none". (laughs)

TA: I thought maybe it was going to be someone who chooses the Peanut ones but then they suck the chocolate off, and then eat the peanut independently because those guys are a little strange, but in a way I respect that hustle.

RW: Well, there’s something to be said for biting it in half and then extracting the peanut, and then the second half of the chocolate.

TA: That is true.

JB: That, that is how I like to eat my Peanut M&Ms.

On Messing Around and the Origins of Wizardry

TA: I love this, we’re already off to a good start! This is fantastic. Okay so, my next question. So obviously, you’re one of the co-creators of Wizardry. To what extent have you been involved with the remake?

RW: Um, mostly just giving some advice and feedback when asked. You know, I personally feel that developers and creators should have as much freedom as possible. I was very lucky when I was writing Wizardry that there was nobody around to tell me what to do, and so when it comes to new Wizardry games like they’re doing here in Japan, or the remake, I feel that it’s very important for the new developers to have that same kind of freedom to, when they’re faced with a game design problem, make their own decisions. If they want feedback from me in terms of whether it feels like Wizardry, sure I’ll give that to them, but they should trust their own judgement.

Quite frankly, with the remake, I mean… when they showed me the kinds of things they were doing, I was going like, “of course, that’s obvious, that’s exactly the right thing to do". And in a couple of cases it was like, “oh wow, that’s a… that’s a really cool thing that you did there, you know, I’m really impressed". I think they just hit it out of the park.

TA: Thank you. So, I did my homework a little with previous interviews that you had done, and I’ve seen you answer the question about how you made Wizardry in the first place with Andrew (Greenberg), but there was one thing I didn’t see answered. So, before you were working with Andrew on Wizardry, you were working independently on something similar called Paladin. What led you to want to create that? Where was the motivation there for that?

RW: It’s pretty much the same thing. I mean, I was looking for a game to write. Doing a dungeon crawler seemed like the obvious next thing to do, based on all the games I had seen that I had really enjoyed. So okay, let’s try to do a Dungeons & Dragons game! Basically, I was only a few weeks into the project when I found out that Andy was also doing the same sort of thing, and after we talked about it and compared notes, it seemed like such an obvious thing to do, to combine our efforts.

He had spent a lot more time thinking about the game design and the story… the lore, if you will. And I had a lot more time to work on the programming because I had been thrown out of school for a year… (laughs) for messing around on computers too much, so I had the time. He was in graduate school, or getting his Masters, I don’t remember which, but he was much more time-limited. He did the initial game design, and then I went off and started implementing it. The first thing we wrote was the database editors. Wizardry really is a business database program that is pretending to be a computer game.

TA: I can kind of see that, yeah.

RW: So that was the division of labor.

TA: One little question, I guess. What was the idea behind having multiple characters in the party? Because I think that was kind of a new thing, right?

RW: That was actually our way of having the same feeling as both the tabletop Dungeons and Dragons, where you play with a party of people, and also the multiplayer games on PLATO where you would have people at various terminals all around the country that were playing together. The thing is, how do you get that sort of thing on a dinky little Apple II? Having a party of multiple characters seemed to be an obvious way to solve that problem.

TA: So were you a Dungeons & Dragons player?

RW: Oh, definitely. That’s another reason I got thrown out of Cornell for a year! I was playing Dungeons & Dragons for like, 70 hours in a weekend. (laughs)

TA: What type of character did you play? What race, class, alignment?

RW: I was usually Lawful Good. My main character was a cleric, his name was Cant, and that’s why you have The Temple of Cant in Wizardry. Many of the names in Wizardry come from the Cornell Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Like the trading post, Boltac’s Trading Post. Boltac was a character of a friend of mine in the game. So we stuck him in the game. A lot of the friends of me and Andy ended up in the game one way or another.

TA: That’s cool. You kind of briefly touched on this earlier, but… having a game similar to Wizardry on PLATO, and then trying to fit it onto the Apple II are two very different things. Can you recall any of the major programming challenges you ran into trying to make Wizardry?

RW: The big thing was that our development environment on Apple II was 64k, because we had the little extra 16k of RAM, the memory card that you had to have to run PASCAL. But at release, we could only depend on 48k being there. Apple eventually came out with the much-delayed Run-Time System, which would run PASCAL in 48k. But it had such a limited amount of memory that there were a lot of things you couldn’t do. Like, you couldn’t run the full operating system and compile, and stuff like that, but you could run programs. Wizardry ran very comfortably in 64k, but not so much in 48k, and it took about two months of refining the code and optimizing, and learning how to write stuff so that it compiled to one fewer byte. It was a huge challenge.

And the other aspect of it was that I was a young programmer. I was very energetic, but still young and inexperienced. I had taken some computer programming courses, I had read some books, stuff like that. But it’s not like today where you’ve got a programming problem, and you can just Google and up comes Stack Overflow with, like, five different pages on the algorithms you could potentially use. You didn’t have those sort of references. I ended up inventing what I thought were incredibly cool algorithms to do stuff, and then a year later I would mention it to somebody and find out, you know, that’s hashing! Or run-length encoding, stuff like that. Because I didn’t have access to library resources, I was reinventing wheels the whole time.

TA: I imagine there was a lot of that at that time, though. Like you say, the world was not so connected.

(A lot of back-and-forth chatter about modems and baud rates happened here between me, Robert, and Justin. I’m cutting it for brevity’s sake, and also to show that I actually do edit these interviews.)

RW: When I first came to Japan, the only link for sending email between the US and Japan was a single 9600 baud modem connection, and they literally charged you by the kilobyte. So you kept your emails concise! I remember I used to have to bring a little toolkit with me when I was traveling so that I could hotwire the internet connection into the phone.

On Chainmail, Shogun, and Interesting Boxes

TA: How do you feel about the legacy of Wizardry? It was there pretty early, it was a trailblazer. There were a lot of games that took inspiration from it, there were a lot of games that borrowed the template and then built on it, and of course Wizardry itself is still around. You mentioned the Japanese sequels, and now the remake. How do you feel about all of that?

RW: Well, I feel that I got incredibly lucky. I was in the right place at the right time with the right people, and everything like that. Everything came together for me. The analogy I’ve developed for this over the years is that games are like links in a big chainmail shirt. Here’s Wizardry, and Bard’s Tale, and Ultima, all these other games, and they’re all linked. And you’re linked both to the games that come after you, and also to the games that came before you that inspired you. So, when people say Wizardry was the inspiration for RPGs, I kind of get a little bit… not upset, but concerned because that doesn’t give enough credit to the games that came before. Both computer games and the tabletop role-playing games, and books.

You know, the Shogun book by James Clavell and that mini-series. If we hadn’t enjoyed that and thought it would be cool to stick some Japanese stuff into the game, then would Wizardry have been as popular in Japan? This is the thing that I think many people don’t really appreciate, is how random and contingent life is. It’s this ridiculous sequence of interacting things, and if any one of them was different then the outcome would be totally different.

Another example of this: Wizardry was a good game and all, but one thing I didn’t really appreciate until many years later, one of the things I think made Wizardry such a hit, was a decision that was not made by me. It wasn’t anything about the game! It was that it got put in a box. It was the first game, as far as I know, the first computer game to be released in a nice box, as opposed to a Zip-Loc bag. I didn’t think one way or another about that decision, that was made by the business people at Sir-Tech Software. That was actually made because their dad was kind of old-school and said that it should go in a box. But when you think about it, if you go into the computer store and you want to buy a game, and you see all of these racks of Zip-Loc bags, and then you see this black box with the foil printing and it catches your eye, which one do you decide to buy?

TA: That’s true, that’s a very deluxe image compared to the others.

JB: Although, it’s interesting, Wizardry was one of the only games that never had a collector’s edition. I guess the actual base version was kind of the collector’s edition?

RW: I think Wizardry came out before collector’s editions were a thing! (everyone laughs)

TA: A little bit of a follow-up, because I definitely get your point about how it’s part of the tapestry and all…

RW: That’s another good analogy, a tapestry.

TA: I would say that in some sense Wizardry has endured as a series, as a brand, in a way that some of the other things of that era perhaps didn’t. Why do you think Wizardry hung in there, versus say… I mean, you don’t see too much from Ultima these days, or even Bard’s Tale. They ducked their head up a little there and then they were gone. Why does Wizardry hang around?

RW: I have absolutely no idea! I mean… it’s been like 40 years, and people are still asking about this. It’s just so weird. But Ultima for example went on to become very successful when it was Ultima Online. It’s just like… it’s just the strangest thing. There’s no way I could have ever imagined when I was writing it that it was going to be the success that it was, or that it was going to be so enduring. I’m obviously incredibly grateful that it all turned out so well, because it’s allowed me to do all sorts of cool things, and it certainly has allowed me to avoid having a real job for my entire life, which is great. I guess I got the golden ticket.

JB: I think Robert is really modest on this one, because when you look at those other series… you were talking about Shogun, right? You’ve got the ninjas, you’ve got the samurai lore, and such. That made it relevant to the audience here in Japan, and then Japan, with JRPGs, a lot of creators who formed the basis of the genre basically were inspired by Wizardry, and call back to it. And because of that, I think it really found, in Japan…

RW: Yeah, I’m big in Japan! (laughs)

JB: The series, it captivated this audience, and then there were new installments. How many Wizardry titles are there? Compare that to Bard’s Tale and Ultima, and you know… Ultima had nine very successful titles, but nothing close to the 40+ titles that Wizardry has.

TA: By the way, those ninjas were the bane of my existence. They were very rude gentlemen.

JB: I think Benny-san said one of them was a woman?

(Shaun’s note: Here Justin is referring to Benny Matsuyama, a Japanese fiction writer who specializes in helping game companies flesh out their lore. He has done a lot of work with the Wizardry series over the years in Japan.)

Mystery Digital Eclipse Guy: So yes, ninjas on level six and level eight are female if you look closely, but others apart from those are male.

TA: I hadn’t even picked up on that.

JB: So when he did this before, he wrote the guide, he filled out the lore a little bit. We had Benny-san come in, and for the new remake we’re putting out now we have these full descriptions, and he for example filled out the lore of why those higher-level ninjas are women.

Robert, what you said about coincidences is kind of cool. Because Shogun was popular when you were writing Wizardry, and now the remake is releasing and the new Shogun just came out.

TA: That’s weird. One of those cosmic coincidences.

On the Wizardry Remake and Added Options

TA: Robert, I think you talked about this a little earlier, but the remake is… I’ve been playing it already and it’s been blowing my mind in various ways. There’s a lot of additions here, a graphical overhaul, some new features that make it easier to play… how do you feel about these additions? Is there anything in particular that you think is great?

RW: The thing that immediately struck me the first time I saw it was the picture-in-picture where you can see the original game running. That… I just looked at it and said “that is so cool, that is so f—ing cool!" You can see, we’re not just going to say that it’s playing the same game as the original, we’re going to show you that it’s playing the same game as the original.

TA: It’s wild watching that while you’re playing, it really is.

RW: As soon as I saw that, I knew that I didn’t need to look at anything else, because if they made the right decision there, I knew that they were going to make the right decisions the rest of the way. Everything I’ve looked at with the game, I haven’t found a single place where I think they stepped wrong. I had the freedom to work on Wizardry the way I wanted to, and they did the way they wanted to, and the results are pretty good as far as I can see.

TA: How do you feel about the settings, optional of course, that make the game a little less… uhhh…

RW: Abusive? (laughs)

TA: You said it, not me!

RW: That’s fine. The reason Wizardry didn’t have a lot of those things back in the day, well… there are two reasons. First, they hadn’t been invented yet. And second, even if they had been, we didn’t have the room to put them in! There are times where Wizardry only has a couple hundred bytes of space available in memory. That just shows you what 40 years of game design and iteration can do. People learned what works and what doesn’t, and it got passed on to future games. We’re just taking a little side road around all of that, like let’s steal everything and put it in the current game. (laughs)

TA: Sometimes I think about how back when the original game was made, there wasn’t always this assumption that the player was going to reach the ending. I think that’s one of the differences now. People expect that they should be able to reach the ending of the game. I think maybe back then that wasn’t always on people’s minds.

RW: Again, that sort of thing hadn’t really been invented yet. In those early days, and it’s the same with Wizardry and Ultima and all the early games, we were making it up as we went along. I mean, we had inspirations and stuff like that, but in terms of what we could and couldn’t do and the resource limitations we were working under, we were always thinking like “oh this seems like a good idea, we’ll do this". The games that we remember like Wizardry and Ultima were the ones that, more often than not, what we thought was the right idea turned out to be the right idea.

JB: We were talking about something called the “core gameplay loop", and Robert said “There wasn’t something called the ‘core gameplay loop’ when I made this!", and there it is now. You outfit your team, you go in the dungeon, you fight, you come back out, you level up. You know, games like Darkest Dungeon, you can see that a lot of that was inspired by that core gameplay loop.

RW: I always referred to it as hack-hack, kill-kill, loot-loot, run-run.

TA: That’s a good way to describe it. You fight until you push your luck a little too far and then you hope you can run until you get out of the dungeon.

JB: That was one thing in the remake that we paid some attention to. When you come in for the first time, you can get right into the game by pressing three buttons. Your party is such that… so what we noticed when people were playing the original is that first of all, you would take about an hour to make your characters. Your characters would be so weak that they would go down into the dungeon and they’d stay around the staircase until they got to level 2. Maybe go to the first room. It’s funny because you look at the box, and it came with the map, with the graph paper, right? And the smallest little area in the bottom left is filled out, and that’s kind of what you explore when you first play Wizardry.

RW: That essentially marked… this is an example of how to draw a map.

JB: We made it (in the remake) so that your first starting party has the ability to go past that normal place, you can go a little further in the game. But there are also things, like little cues, that will tell you that the game is getting harder. You’ll go through a door and it might say “beware", you know?

TA: I noticed that. Appreciated, for sure.

RW: Go through this door and you will DIE!

JB: There are also skeletons around the door now too.

RW: Little subtle hints!

On Current Games and Gaming

(Dyson Sphere Program)

TA: So are you playing any games these days, Robert? I know about ten years ago you were really into EVE Online and all that.

RW: Yeah. I’m basically a filthy casual, so the most recent games that I’ve played to any real extent are Cyberpunk 2077, Starfield, and Dyson Sphere Program, which I really got into. For me, I’m so busy doing other things that I really don’t have a huge amount of time to sit down on the computer. Because I know if I really get into a game, I’ll play it for three weeks and not work, and still have things to do. So usually it’s only every year or two years that a game comes out and I feel like I really have to play it.

TA: Those are good choices. Nothing wrong with going with the big hits. You mentioned that you played recent games like Cyberpunk and Starfield. You have been involved with games since the really early years. You’ve been able to watch it grow and evolve. How do you feel about the way video games have progressed from back then to now? Are there things that you like about today’s game business, things that you don’t like? Things where you think a path went wrong or right?

RW: To a large extent I just see it from the outside, as a player, because I’m not actively a game developer. The really big games are these huge teams, it’s like making movies these days. Back in the day it was one or two people. Three people was a huge team. I guess the closest analog to what we were doing is today’s indie game scene. And yet, you see indie games come out with a single developer and they’re like… some really amazing games.

There’s one that just came out that I’ve been thinking about playing, it’s a single developer game with city building and a bit of combat. The name is on the tip of my tongue. It just went into Early Access, so it probably needs six months to a year to get itself really fleshed out, but it seems like an amazing game. I’ll remember the name of it as soon as you walk out. But that shows that there is still room for the lone wolves to do their thing, and there are a lot of things like Unity, a lot of tools now that are available that make it possible for someone who really wants to mess around to do stuff. Every so often, one of them is going to be in the right place at the right time just like I was and hit it big, which is great.

TA: I think the indie scene is really a cool thing to have seen develop. I’ve been with TouchArcade for around eleven years now, and we’re of course primarily mobile gaming. We started off as iOS gaming, and at that time there was this really big surge of indie developers doing their thing on mobile. And I’ve kind of watched where all of that has gone, which is a little unfortunate, but the spirit of that scene moved over to other places and that’s really cool. Like you say, one person can do so much now because there are so many tools available to them.

On Revisiting Wizardry in Various Forms 

TA: So you say you haven’t really done any game making recently. Have you ever thought of making another one? Have you ever thought about calling up Andy and saying “Hey let’s get the band back together for one more go"? Anything like that?

RW: To be honest, at this point… if I was to get involved with doing a game, it would be more on an advisory level, which I’ve done occasionally. But in terms of getting in the trenches and programming stuff? I enjoy programming, I still do it every day practically, but the level of intensity and focus that is required to do something really high quality? I’ve just got way too much other stuff going on in my life to really devote the kind of time necessary to do that.

TA: Thanks. If you have anything you want to say to our readers, or any message you want to give, here’s your free space. Go ahead!

(Robert gestures to Justin here.)

JB: I’m not sure, I think this is just a “you" interview.

TA: Well, if you want to contribute too, go ahead! Sell it! Sell it!

RW: Yeah, the whole point of this trip is so that you can sell your game!

JB: The reality is, I’m fine that Wizardry is getting the spotlight. I think it deserves it.

RW: I hope the old-school Wizardry gamers enjoy the new spin on it, the new coat of paint. And I hope the newer players will get a sense of what it was like back in the day. One of the reasons that picture-in-picture is so cool is that if you’re an old-school gamer, you get to see those different design decisions that were made. The design decisions that I had to make in terms of the user interface, and how the game played, to fit within the resources I had. And now the new team had a completely different set of limitations, or lack thereof. “Oh, let’s spend a gigabyte here!". You can see how their implementation of the same game, how they expressed it, and being able to see those two side by side, is an interesting perspective, and you can see how the environment they were working in changed the way they did things.

But then if you’re a modern gamer used to a modern style of game, now you can look at that in the reverse way. You can see something familiar to you and then look back to see how it was back in the day. And I think that’s a cool perspective on the game. That’s one of the reasons why, when I saw that, I was completely blown away. I just thought that was so cool.

JB: One small piece just to throw out there, when we designed this, we designed it so that it would work with a controller, but we also did think about the potential for touch controls. So…

TA: Hm!

JB: So, nothing’s planned! But… that is something we were contemplating as we were creating this game, so…

TA: That’s an interesting nugget! I think one of the things that Digital Eclipse is really good at is presenting something modern people can enjoy, but also linking it back to the past, so it’s a fun history lesson. A FUNhistory lesson.

JB: There’s a bit of that good stuff in there. We try to chop up the broccoli really nice and put it in there, so you taste the chocolate with the broccoli. We try to make the game you remember, not the game as it was, but if you really want to play the game like it was you can do that. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make sure Robert was involved, but not too involved. It ended up being perfect. We wanted to ask, is it true to your vision? But we also wanted to look at it from the audience’s perspective and be true to the audience as well. Gel those two things together, and not have one reside more than the other. Sometimes with creators that can be a rocky road, but it was so smooth with Robert.

(To Robert) You’re very humble, and I think soft-spoken in many ways, and you have what you’ve brought to the industry and the RPG genre. And then, you have all these people who have had their experiences and you want to be true to both.

TA: Well, I guess that will be the end of it there. Thank you both very much for your time and for answering these questions. And I’m looking forward to doing another interview when you remake the rest of them, because the world needs to see Wizardry IV again. (laughing)

JB: I’m the same, he (Robert) asked me my favorite one, and I was like, IV. But speaking about not finishing games, did anyone finish IV?

RW: Roe did! (Shaun’s note: Here Robert is referring to Roe R. Adams III, one of the designers of Wizardry IV). Actually, as far as I know, all of the endings to that game have been found, including the secret ones.

TA: Man, that game was tough. But I love it, so…

RW: In retrospect, that was the fundamental flaw of that game. Roe was one of the best RPG and adventure game players in the world, and he wrote that game to be a challenge to him. All of the puzzles were designed to be ridiculously hard but fair, there are no gotchas, but maybe we… definitely we went overboard. In that respect it was a failed experiment, but I’m really glad that we did it, because from the creative aspect of working on it… Wizardry 1 obviously has the place in my heart because it was the first one, and we had to solve all the basic problems. But Wizardry IV is my second-favorite because of how we flipped everything and how much the internals of the game had to change to do that. That’s why it was a year late. I spent an entire year thinking it would be done next week. It was… I won’t say it was a development nightmare, but it was a development challenge.

TA: You know, that game evoked a lot of bad language from me at the time, my mother yelled at me a few times. But in hindsight, I think it has a lot of character. I think Wizardry IV really stands out because of that, the really high level of challenge… okay, I’m going on now. But please, please, please… remake all of them.

RW: Doing II and III, the game engine is almost identical, but doing IV? Oh, you’re in for a treat!

JB: It would be fun!

As you can see, we couldn’t quite close off the conversation cleanly. Indeed, even after I stopped the recording, we chatted a bit longer about various things like Commodore 64 programming, how big of an immediate success the first game was, and the challenges of porting it around. It turns out Trebor isn’t that scary after all! I want to thank Robert, Justin, and everyone else involved with making this interview happen. It was something of a dream for me to meet someone who made games that were so important in my childhood. And yes, do check out that Wizardry remake. We’ll have our review soon, but I can promise that if you think it looks good, you’ll certainly like it. Let’s hope the rest of the classic Wizardry games can get the same treatment!