Thursday, October 8, 2015

Questron: More from the Creator

Charles and John Dougherty pose for a shot included in the Legacy of the Ancients box art.

I haven't been playing any games over the last month or so, but I have been having a great conversation with the man responsible for my CRPG addiction in the first place: Chuck Dougherty, creator of Questron. Like many of the developers who occasionally visit my blog, Chuck proved extraordinarily friendly and informative despite my criticisms of many of his game elements. I've selectively quoted some of his correspondence below, but please note that the entire text appears at the end of this posting.

Dougherty's series--Questron, Legacy of the Ancients, Questron II, and The Legend of Blacksilver--represent an unusual branch of the RPG family tree. Although they may look like Ultima or other games, their mechanics are very different--with both good and bad results. Some examples:

  • The games eschew the typical D&D list of monsters in favor of a highly-original list of (usually) two-word oddities, including sparrow piranhas, flesh renders, soul buyers, brain leeches, crusher rocks, stilted drebs, and dirt weirds.

As if a regular whale wasn't dangerous enough.
  • Monsters deliver no experience and only the smallest amount of gold, so they serve more as a temporary annoyance to exploration than a core element of gameplay.
  • Stats can increase through the use of mini-games. These stat increases are generally overridden, however, by those caused by plot developments. You might start with a strength of 15, increase it to 19 by playing some game, and then have it automatically boosted to 40 the first time you visit a castle.

My Legacy of the Ancients character increases his endurance by fending off fireballs in a minigame.
  • Each game features castles that you must plunder, slaughtering guards by the scores, to progress.
  • Getting rich involves, in part, mastering a series of gambling mini-games.
  • You amass spells by purchasing them individually; you can only cast them in dungeons.
  • Improvements in weapons and armor only arrive as you spend more time in the game, not just because you become richer. You might win a million gold pieces in the first hour, but you still have to play another 8 hours before the long bow starts showing up in shops.
  • As the game goes on, the evil wizard actually starts destroying towns.
  • Hit points are treated like currency. Where a D&D game might take your fighter from 10 to 60 hit points over the course of a 40-hour game, in Questron your character can easily go from 100 to 50,000. Towards the end of the game, random events might blithely strip you of thousands.

A few of these elements show up in Ultima, too--particularly the lack of experience, the odd approach to hit points, and the senseless massacre of guards. Questron feels like a game created by a gifted programmer who only had experience with Ultima and wasn't aware of the conventions of other RPGs.

It turns out, that's exactly what it is. Dougherty admits that he had "almost no experience" when he started creating Questron in 1981. He had spent 18 months teaching himself BASIC and assembly language on his Apple II Plus and then serendipitously encountered Ultima for the first time. "I'd never played anything like it," he wrote. "I really didn't have experience with RPGs, so it blew me away with the sheer adventure of it....I think it's fair to say that I didn't know what the 'norm' was."

A comparison of the outdoor areas of Ultima (top) and Questron (bottom).
But while Questron might look like Ultima, and share a few of its mechanics and plot devices, Dougherty correctly points out that there are many differences under the hood. "Lack of experience points was sheer ignorance," he wrote, "but there were other parts of the game that were very intentional." The attribute-increasing arcade games, for instance, are his original creation, as are his approaches to gambling games. (RPGs featured gambling back to some of the PLATO games, but I think Questron is the first to offer full mini-game versions of fairly complex games like blackjack and roulette.) He thinks that Legacy might be the first game to offer a graphic engine in which players walk up to an exterior view of a building and the roof disappears as they enter (I can't think of an earlier example).

This is one of the game's graphical innovations that I didn't note at the time.

One thing about Ultima that disappointed Dougherty was the ending: "There was essentially no reward. Given the amount of work a player put into that type of game, how could there not be honor and a celebration?" Hence, his dedication to providing a uniquely memorable ending to Questron, which almost every player and publication commented on. I know in my own case, the quality of Questron's ending spoiled other RPGs for a long time.

In our discussions, Chuck revealed an aspect of his games that I never commented on because it was so subtle: a detailed hint system dependent on the passage of game time. "If players couldn't figure out the next step," he wrote, "we always gave bigger and bigger hints until they knew what to do. Our hope was that each player would consider him/herself a genius for figuring it out." Now that he mentions it, I see places where the hint system comes into play, but it's extremely well-done, and I admit I felt a sense of accomplishment when I figured out the next steps based on small hints (which I assumed were the only hints). It makes me wonder what other subtle, non-obvious game mechanics I've overlooked in other games.

Presumably, if I failed to find Mesron, the game would give me more explicit hints about where to go.
Among his answers to my questions, Chuck helped clear up the issues that led to Richard Garriott receiving credit for the "structure and style" of Questron. While frankly admitting that he was inspired by Ultima, Chuck felt he had made enough changes that his title stood on its own. Then, after Questron was already finished, Ultima II was released. Although he had "never seen Ultima II prior to sending Questron off to the publishers," he was horrified to see that "Questron was far more similar to Ultima II than it had ever been to Ultima."

Dougherty never had any direct contact with Richard Garriott, but he heard from Brøderbund, Questron's first publisher, that Garriott had seen a preview of Questron at a trade show and was angry. ("Knowing what I know now, I don't blame him.") Brøderbund asked him to "make Questron look less like Ultima." He re-drew tiles, changed the nature of the controls, and updated the graphics, but when he was all done, Brøderbund said that Questron "was no longer fresh" and dropped the game.
Chuck kept shopping the game and found another publisher in SSI. It was the management at SSI that "worked out the license arrangement with Garriott--I'm not sure how that transpired and I'm not even sure I had a say in it." While he regrets that he never had a chance to speak to Garriott directly, Chuck admits he learned a valuable lesson from the experience and re-wrote future games from the ground up to look a lot less like Ultima and exemplify his own style. I certainly agree that by Questron II, the only significant elements that the game shares with Ultima is a top-down interface.

By Legacy of the Ancients, with its 3D museum and associated exhibits, the series had already diverged considerably from its Ultima roots.

(Dougherty's recollections jive reasonably well with Richard Garriott's comments in an America Online chat recorded in 1984 and quoted in part by commenter Stu in my first Questron posting.)

Chuck was joined by his twin brother John in future endeavors and founded Quest Software, but unfortunately the company never "turned the corner financially." Already sick of 6 years of 70-hour weeks, their efforts suffered a death blow when Epyx declared bankruptcy after acquiring the rights to publish The Legend of Blacksilver. The game was barely marketed, and the Dougherty brothers never got anything beyond their advance. "Seemed like a good time to quit," Chuck wrote. "Both of us found it far easier, less stressful, and far fewer hours and ultimately more lucrative when we returned to programming for businesses."

Chuck thinks that The Legend of Blacksilver was the company's best game. It's the only one I haven't yet played, so I look forward to checking it out when I get around to 1987 again.

The full text of my Q&A with Chuck Dougherty appears below. I really appreciate his contributions to my reviews of his titles.


Q. I'm curious what experience you had with computer RPGs and/or tabletop RPGs before writing Questron. You feature some mechanics--primarily the leveling-through-plot-development rather than experience--that are a little odd for the genre. One of the things I talked about in several of your games--complained about, frankly--is that monsters don't deliver any experience, so there's hardly any reason to fight them except that they're standing in your way. Were you deliberately trying to buck the norm here, or did you just not have experience with games that did it differently?

A. I had almost no experience. I’d purchased an Apple II Plus about 18 months prior to writing Questron, and had taught myself BASIC and then assembly language from a book. Then I played Ultima and loved it. I’d never played anything like it. I really didn’t have experience with RPGs, so it blew me away with the sheer adventure of it. Bear in mind that I was just this young guy living in Michigan, working full time at another job, and then kind of stumbled into this.

So I think it’s fair to say I didn’t know what the “norm” was. My primary focus was to create something that was fun to play; something that I would have liked playing. I saw the monsters as more of a way to elongate the game and make it challenging. So lack of experience points was sheer ignorance, but there were other parts of the game that were very intentional.

Q. In all of your games, the majority of monsters are original to them. I was curious about your creative process in coming up with all the names and descriptions. Did you start with monsters in other fantasy settings and simply devise new names, or did you create each creature from scratch?

A. Most all creatures were created from scratch. I would brainstorm with a friend of mine (Jeremy), who then ended up joining me in the endeavor as a creative consultant. He came up with many of the wildly creative ideas and then I kind of pulled it together, coming up with descriptions, etc. It was fun thinking of offbeat and quirky descriptions, something we did even more of when my twin brother joined me for the next three games.

Q. The historical record leaves some confusion as to why Richard Garriott is credited for the "structure and style." Some sources say you or SSI did it preemptively; others say that Garriott sued (or threatened to sue) to get a cut of the royalties. Either way, your game was hardly the first to adapt the "structure and style" of another title, so being forced to credit Garriott is a bit unusual. Do you remember how this came about, and do you have any feelings on the matter?

A. Parts of that first version of Questron were quite similar to Ultima (a naïve choice on my part--at the time it seemed like every game was copying every other game). The outside terrain originally was very similar to Ultima, the menu system and overall screen layout was quite similar. But the other thing that happened was that somewhere around the time I was finishing Questron, Ultima II was published. Bear in mind I’d never seen Ultima II prior to sending Questron off to publishers, but when it was released I realized that Questron was far more similar to Ultima II then it had ever been to Ultima. This was horrifying, and the changes/advancements I’d made to not be too similar to Ultima were often quite similar to what turned out to be natural advancements between Ultima and Ultima II.
The infamous credit on Questron's opening screen.
Everything else I have to say is hearsay because I wasn’t there for the conversations. What Brøderbund told me was they were at some trade show showing a preview of Questron and Richard Garriott saw it. Apparently he was upset--and knowing what I know now I don’t blame him. This was of great concern to Brøderbund, and they were no longer sure they were going to publish. Of course I was devastated and felt foolish.

In any case, I was asked to figure out how to make Questron look less like Ultima. The changes were fairly easy. I think I redrew the outside terrain squares, added joystick control, made some cosmetic changes, etc. However, when I finished a couple months later Brøderbund told me the game was no longer fresh and they withdrew their offer to publish.

So I shopped around again for a publisher and SSI was interested. They worked out the license arrangement with Garriott--I’m not sure how that transpired and I’m not even sure I had a say in it. I don’t recall if it lessened my royalties, but the whole thing was an embarrassment. And a lesson.  One of my regrets was never calling Richard to talk about it. But bear in mind he was a big name, I was a nobody living disconnected in the Midwest, and Brøderbund and SSI were telling me that he was pissed. I had no idea what to say to him.

So on the one hand I think I was a bit unlucky, but I have no trouble understanding how Garriott might have felt, especially because he would probably have assumed I’d seen Ultima II. Interestingly enough, in the years to follow other RPGs borrowed some of the innovative things we originated in Legacy of the Ancients and The Legend of Blacksilver. To the best of my knowledge, Legacy was the first game where the player walked up to an exterior view of a building and the top disappeared to reveal the insides (my apologies if I’m mistaken). We may have also invented arcade style games of skill to increase attributes (OK, some felt that was quirky) and games of chance to earn gold. We had also made huge graphic advancements at the time in the dungeons. All other games that I ever saw (of that day) were far more obviously composed of blocks, whereas our looked quite different

Q. Each one of your games features the merciless slaughter of castle guards, something that also featured heavily in Ultima. Did you ever have pangs about forcing players into such a situation? Did you ever receive any criticism for it?

A Questron II character prepares to plunder and massacre.

A. Yeah, I never loved that. A big problem we dealt with was the memory and disk space constraints of the machines of the time. It was almost impossible to pack a large external world with one set of graphic and controlling code, “3D” style dungeons with other coding, towns with a third, and castles with a fourth. So what you saw with the castles was largely the constraint of trying to do a lot of graphics and having not enough room for other things. I always wished I could have put a lot more plot into the games, a lot more dialogue, a lot more interactions, and more puzzles. The fact that we were trying to do a large world and high quality graphics (for the day) really meant we had to cut down on other things. I can literally remember multiple times we spent an hour or so rewriting a section of perfectly good code to save somewhere between 2-12 bytes, just to make something fit the space.

Q. For your game series, I get Questron, Legacy of the Ancients, Questron II, and The Legend of Blacksilver. (I've played all but the last.) Are there any other titles that you worked on that aren't on the standard database lists? Any that were in development that never saw publication?

A. These four were all the games (unlike the others we didn’t write the Questron II code ourselves). Some stuff in development but not enough to really talk about.

Q. What ultimately happened to Quest Software? I get the impression that game development was always a side-career for you and John. Did you simply decide to focus on your primary careers?

A. This effort was full time work for about 6 years, not a side development. Basically we found that we never “turned the corner” financially. We never made enough money to hire an adequate staff; hence, John and I averaged about 70 hours a week and on our toughest weeks worked up to 110 hours. It was brutal. Both of us found it far easier, less stressful, far fewer hours and ultimately more lucrative when we returned to programming for businesses.

We’ve realized in retrospect that we made the wrong marketing decisions. We were programming for a niche that was too small. Our goal was to create an adventure world that was generally larger, more varied, graphically rich, more animated, more detailed storyline than typical games. But what we gave up was the detail of the fighting and magic system and primarily that was what the RPG world wanted. Our decision to keep top-down towns, castles, dungeons, museum and outside required essentially 5 different game engines, which made creating each new game quite difficult. Also, we never used the same engine for any game, feeling that each game had to be better. That required a lot of new programming each time because computers of that day didn’t get any faster (until we’d given up the business).

By the way, we thought The Legend of Blacksilver was our best, but it was released to Epyx which went bankrupt after having the rights to our game. After bankruptcy filing they shrunk from something like 80 staff to 3 staff, so they had no real ability to publish but they owned the rights and we were stuck with nothing but the advance. Seemed like a good time to quit. Perhaps we should have pursued legal action to get our game back and publish elsewhere (both EA and SSI had made us offers prior to Epyx), but that would have been a messy business pursuing a career that wasn’t panning out to be that great.

Q. Perhaps the most notable feature of Questron is the ending, complete with the celebration and fanfare. Hardly any game of the time or since have offered this kind of satisfying denouement. Were you aware you were doing something special here?

A victory for a champion.

A. The ending was very much intentional, of course, but I didn’t know much about how it compared to other games. However, the few that I had played had little fanfare/celebration, which seemed wrong to me. I remember playing Ultima and being shocked at the end when there was essentially no reward. Given the amount of work a play put into that type of game how could there not be honor and a celebration? When writing my game (and later with John when writing our games), the goal was always to think about the player and try to “tune” the game for maximal enjoyment.

Speaking of tuning, we really did try to tune the games to maximize the fun. If players couldn’t figure out the next step we always gave bigger and bigger hints until they knew what to do. Our hope was that each player would consider him/herself a genius for figuring it out. It didn’t matter that some figured things with no hints and others practically had to be told what to do. Each player would get the same feeling of achievement.


If you're wondering about changes to my "recent and upcoming" list, the short answer is this: before my unintended hiatus of the last month, I was having various degrees of issues with almost all the 1991 titles on the list. Rather than figure them out, and to make it easier to get back into gaming, I decided to blast the list and reconstitute it with new random selections. All of the games that were originally on it will reappear, just a little bit later in 1991.


  1. I enjoy a bit of history like this. Thanks for putting it together.

  2. I love a good interview! And I agree with you that one of the best things about doing some reviews (over on TAG) is that I have had the chance to interact with and get to know some of their creators.

    I love this aspect of preserving the history, both "written" and "oral" (as it were).

  3. "He thinks that Legacy might be the first game to offer a graphic engine in which players walk up to an exterior view of a building and the roof disappears as they enter (I can't think of an earlier example)."

    It what pretty much has to be a case of parallel development, the first Final Fantasy game did this as well. There's no real chance of influence one way or another as both games were first released in the same year (1987), and neither made it to the other's country before they were both out, but it is an interesting coincidence.

    1. Dragon Quest did it in 86, I think that's where Final Fantasy got the idea from.

    2. A slight difference in implementation exists: Final Fantasy had all interiors on a single layer and visible if you entered any building, while Legacy seems to only remove the roof from the building you enter. Thanks for pointing this out though, I don't know how I didn't think of it.

    3. What's funnier is that Ultima 5 then "borrowed" this convention too.

  4. This is great, and I mean GREAT to read.

    Legacy of the Ancients (C64 version) and Legend of Blacksilver are two of my favorite CRPGs ever. Yes, they are somewhat arcade-like at times (the mini-games) but I absolutely loved them. As a kid, I used to look at the packaging for these games and think about them even when I wasn't playing. The Dougherty brothers were like rock stars to me in my young age, and inspired me to (briefly) get into game creation. I always wondered what a modern version of these games would be like.

    For years after the RPG landscape started changing and games became far more streamlined and commercialized, I always wondered what happened to these guys, and always had lots of questions I always wanted to ask about the whole creation process and development of the game. Most of these were answered, FINALLY!

    Glad to read this. Thank you!!

    1. Right On! Well said, Chip. Ditto to everything you wrote!

  5. That is a fantastic read and a great bit of history and lore. Thank you!

  6. Even though I was too young to be developing for that first generation of home computers, I got to relive that period in software development history when I worked for a company making games for feature phones in 2003. We often had to resort to dirty, dirty tricks to make the games fit on these hopelessly underpowered devices. One of the better models had a 1-inch screen with 128x128 resolution.

    We called it "ninja-ing" the code (or graphics) down to fit. And, I always thought it was a lot of fun -- creative problem-solving. And, such a feeling of accomplishment when the damn thing finally worked!

    Sadly, phones, like home computers, are now so powerful that they all have GPUs, retinal displays, and multiple cores. It's all glitz and glamour, again. Ho-hum.

  7. It's ironic that the things Questron and its peers were attempting, like more detailed worlds with very basic magic and combat, are the most popular things on todays RPG market.

    1. I don't know exactly what games you're talking about, but I'm going to use your post to vent on a pet peeve of mine: people who complain that Skyrim's combat is weak. I think it's the most exciting part of the game. Yes, I'll grant you that the literal combat mechanics are a bit basic--attack, power attack, block--and it would have been nice to have Fallout's approach to damage on specific body parts. That said, the integration of combat with the rest of the game world, plus a variety of skill combinations, give you far more tactical options in Skyrim than the typical RPG where combat is on a separate screen.

      The last time I played the game, I played on "legendary" difficulty, and it was exhiliarating finding ways to defeat foes I could never have defeated just standing there swinging away. Between various stealth options, leading enemies to each other, spells and powers like "Calm" and "Frenzy," leading bandit chiefs up the sides of mountains so I could FUS-RO-DAH them back down, making daring escapes by jumping into rivers, sniping dragons from behind cover, conjuring allies to occupy enemies while I found a new place to hide, trapping Dwemer spheres behind grates, luring enemies into their own traps, and a thousand similar scenarios, I felt the game offered just about all I needed for combat tactics. I think if the next Elder Scrolls changes nothing but still allows headshots, it will be one of the best real-time combat systems ever made.

    2. Oh, and I suppose in the future, I wouldn't mind being able to make more use of objects in the environment--locking doors behind me, blocking passages with furniture, and the like.

    3. You'd probably also enjoy the combat variety within Magicka (top-down Real-Time) and Divinity: Original Sin (turn-based). Both have a wealth of combat options and make use of combining 'elements'. The way fire/poison/water/electricity/oil interact in Original Sin blew my mind. It made spells feel like they do in p&p roleplaying.

    4. I never said it was bad, on the contrary Skyrim has the best combat in a first person RPG that I've ever played.

      But it IS less involved from a mechanical standpoint compared to something like the Gold Box games or Wizardry. When I said "basic" I meant that you don't have to take statistics or complex rules into account as much.

    5. Honestly it's the improvements to combat that Oblivion and especially Skyrim made that kind of breaks Morrowind for me.

    6. No, I know you didn't say anything about Skyrim specifically. I was reacting more to some other nonsense I'd recently read than your specific post.

    7. Arena, Redguard and Daggerfall's combat, settings and pacing ruin Morrowind for me. I loved Skyrim because it felt a lot more like the old game than Morrowind or Oblivion.

      You want something different in terms of combat? Try Half Minute Hero, an R.P.G. seres in which you always have to rush to finish combat, because you only have a minute to complete your quest or buy more time.

    8. I dunno, count me as one who doesn't think Skyrim combat is all that great. I didn't play on Legendary. But from your description, sounds like we were playing different games.

    9. Me too. Then again, I'm not sure if I was playing like a jackass. My character was an extremely stealthy archer/mage. I didn't see a point in wasting time/skill points on melee after finding out that I can literally disappear just by "sneaking" behind any visual obstruction.

      Legendary difficulty or not, the AIs are plain idiots.

  8. Another great entry full of first-hand information -- that's why we all love your blog :)

    On a side note, I'm sorry to see Knights of Xentar move further down the playlist, though -- I'm really looking forward to what you'll be saying on this strange little gem.

  9. Wow… this post really made my day. I sit down at my office desk and the first thing I check is your blog and see this fantastic interview. I never played any of the Ultima games as a kid. Legacy of the Ancients was one of my all-time favorites. I remember being thirteen or fourteen and seeing that beautiful C64 game box in the computer store. I had only played a handful of games up until that time, like Bard's Tale I, and Beachhead. That game cover sucked me in as it hinted at adventure and wondrous sights and new experiences – and battle against ferocious creatures and deadly enemies. I NEEDED it. I saved up some money from doing odd jobs as a kid and bought it after saving for a month. It changed me. Made me fall in love with fantasy.
    I went on to play Legend of Blacksilver and loved that even more. I later played Questron II on the Amiga.
    The Dougherty brothers were demi-gods to me as a kid and into my late teens. I replayed those games many times. I have even gone back a few times over the years and played them again using emulation software. Sure, I play games like Skyrim and enjoy them as well, but there was something special about Legacy and Legend… those games made me use my imagination more than the new games do. You could propel yourself into the story, and you would develop a personality for your character that carried you through to the end of the adventure.
    I could go on and on about those games the Dougherty brothers made… such great memories. I hope Chuck sees this, because I want to think him from the bottom of my heart. And you CPRG Addict…thank you so much for this post.
    I never played the first Questron… I have on emulation, but have yet to play it. I have thought about it a few times. But because it is unknown to me, I know there is one more adventure out there I have not experienced that Chuck made… and I savor that feeling. It's exciting. I turn 42 tomorrow. I think I will save it for my 50th.

    TD Bauer

  10. Legacy of the Ancients was probably my favorite game in my adolescence. I wish Charles and John Dougherty nothing but the best.

  11. Martian Dreams is up next! That one really jumped the line, but I appreciate if you wanted a semi-known quantity to plan on your return from mini-exile.

    That means I'd better rush and play it. So... bye.

  12. This is quite a long break now Chet, so long that maybe the blog name is no longer true. I recon you need to downgrade it to 'CRPG Enthusiast'.

  13. It is always interesting to learn more about the genesis of these older games. I remember going to software stores (back when these were still a thing) and seeing what seemed like hundreds of titles on display. I always assumed these games were all created by MIT graduates in a giant office building somewhere. It surprises me how many of the games I've enjoyed were created by just one or two people in their spare time.

    Questron was an excellent game in it's time, and definitely on par with its contemporaries on a technical level. It's a shame that the complexity of modern games has made it all but impossible for hobbyists to compete with major game studios.

    I'm aware there are still success stories (Minecraft and Terraria come to mind), but it would take me a lifetime to create a game of the same caliber of Fallout: New Vegas or Civilization 5.

  14. "In short, a perfect storm of professional and personal obstacles have come together to demand my constant attention."

    Translation: Either he's decided to run for president or he's discovered Minecraft

    1. Why not both? He's running for President of Minecraft!

    2. Why not both? He's Minecrafting a President!


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