The humble plastic zip-top bag is great for storing a sandwich, but what does it have to do with old school gaming? Quite a bit, in fact! Back in 1979, a young man programmed a video game that was distributed in a zip-top bag, which would come to spawn a trilogy of trilogies, countless spin-offs and ports, and one of the world’s first commercially successful graphical MMORPGs. This series still provides inspiration to game developers all around the world, even today. But, I’m getting ahead of myself! Let’s focus on the beginning:
At the tail end of the 1970s, high school student Richard Garriott worked a part time job at ComputerLand, a well known and successful chain of computer stores. In his spare time throughout high school he had been programming a game on his school’s DEC PDP-11 minicomputer that he called DND. This game produced printed output on a teletype, much like many early games of that era. However, when Richard Garriott received his first home computer from his father, an Apple ][+, he converted his game to a graphical adventure which he named Akalabeth.
After showing the game to friends and co-workers, his boss at ComputerLand suggested that Richard package the game up and sell it at the front counter of their store. While Richard had never intended the game to be published and sold, he decided to give it a try. After spending about $200 dollars to gather materials, quite a large sum back in 1979 for a high school student, he set to work. With cover art drawn by his mother Helen Garriott and a homemade, stapled manual, everything was ready. These would go, along with the 5.25″ floppy disk that contained the game, into a plastic zip-top bag. Roughly twelve of these were sold, before one of them made its way into the hands of California Pacific Computer Company, which at the time was a successful computer game publisher. They saw the potential for great commercial success in Akalabeth and offered Richard a publishing deal where he would receive $5 for each copy they sold. After a plane trip to California, the deal was struck, although Richard chose to use the alias Lord British as the author of the game, rather than his own name.
California Pacific had new cover art and a new manual professionally designed, but as was standard at the time, still sold the game in a plastic zip-top bag. The venture was highly successful, as 30,000 copies of Akalabeth were sold by the end of 1981. This brought Richard Garriott $150,000 in profit, which at the time was even more than the salary of Richard’s famous SpaceLab astronaut father, Owen Garriott. The then 20 year old Richard had a decision to make. Program another game, or head to college?
Richard discussed his options with his family and collectively they decided that he should give a shot to programming another game while still attending college. Richard himself was quoted as saying, “Gee, if what I’m doing for fun can make money, it’s logical to write a much better game intended for publication.” (1)
Richard’s next programming project would be known as Ultima, the first of a series which would launch dozens of games over two decades, and spawn hundreds of similar titles that are still being produced today!
(1) The Official Book Of Ultima by Shay Addams