Bits from my personal collection – Robert Clardy, Synergistic Software, and the birth of the personal home computer roleplaying game

In 1978 Robert Clardy released his first computer game, Dungeon Campaign for the Apple II computer. Dungeon Campaign, alongside Don Worth’s Beneath Apple Manor, is now regarded as the earliest examples of roleplaying games for the personal computer. While greatly inspired by the hugely successful pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons, there were no proven concepts or templates for how roleplaying games best operated in the digital realm of computers. It was very much a trial and error effort to figure out what features and elements would work and just as importantly what was achievable with the limited technology at the time. Today these pioneering games might seem extremely primitive and somewhat quirky, especially from what we now perceive as the standard template in computerized versions of roleplaying games – but at the time these were truly innovative.

In the mid-’70s, computers, how they were used, and who had access to them started to significantly change. The computer landscape was starting to move from a time of mainframes, computers taking up entire rooms or even floors, to hobbyist kit, that with the right mind and skill set could be turned into a more or less useful device, to a time where non-technical users suddenly had the means to go out and buy an off the shelf working computer, a personal computer that was powerful enough to run somewhat sophisticated software.
This alteration in the nature of computing can very much be credited to the 1977 Personal Computer Trifecta, the year we tend to refer to as the birth year of the personal computer as we know it – This happened when Commodore, Apple, and Tandy Radio Shack all released their own take on an accessible personal computer. These computers were not only powerful enough to be useful they were also mass-produced and marketed to the average consumer, who did not necessarily have the technical skillset earlier machines had required.

The advent of computer roleplaying games, especially on mainframes and later to a smaller extent on the personal computer has to be found in the remarkable human nature to innovate – making something do something it was never intended for.
People with access to these mysterious computer colossuses quickly saw the potential for more than just boring analytics and data-crunching.
While action games, like Space War, had been lurking in the deeps of mainframes for years, a cultural phenomenon in the mid to late ’70s would sweep across continents like a 15th-century plaque. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, released in 1974 and later the more rules-heavy Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, became the hottest thing around for boys and adults alike. Coupled with the renewed interest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy writings, it was inevitable that fantasy and D&D would become a major inspiration for a new generation of games written for mainframes at the time. A myriad of Dungeon Crawlers and Multi-User Dungeons would soon be scattered across mainframes at universities, large companies, and even research facilities.

Dungeon & Dragons took the concepts from earlier war board games but instead of vast armies and a birds-eye approach, D&D went in and individualized characters, focusing on single unique roles.
Players now had the ability to adapt to a specific role (typically Fighters, Magic-Users, and Clerics), each given different abilities, and limitations by the roll of the dices. These abilities would greatly impact how the different characters would cope with different challenges and scenarios throughout the game – With these roleplaying features, the appeal of board games greatly increased, now players had the possibility to live out and to an extent identify with their “virtual” characters – I think most who have played roleplaying games can identify with how their character would become somewhat of a fantasy extension of themselves. Feeling a deep connection – Feeling pain, anger, and joy all through their character in the game. Many would have a character for months or even years.
The amount of bookkeeping a typical game of D&D required was a perfect fit for an automated process and it wouldn’t be long before people with access to computers, typically programming students, would start writing simple programs helping with this cumbersome and tedious process, this of course, quickly turned into programmers starting to write their own games, most build upon the features and rules of pen and paper Dungeon & Dragons.

Robert Clardy
Robert Clardy had, like many of the early adopters of home computers, been exposed to computers and programming in the early ’70s. This, not only through his interest in science, which let him take an introductory computer software programming course the summer before heading off to college but more significantly his time at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he doubled majored in Electrical Engineering and Mathematical Science, both, courses that were tied in with programming and computers.
While, today we think of computer courses being in front of an actual computer, typing in data, and immediately receiving outputs, this was not the case in the early ’70s. Programs were written in hand and then later punched onto cards, hundreds of cards, which all were carefully handed over to the computer operator, who would then feed the computer’s punchcard reader. If you were lucky and you had done your programming flawlessly, you would days later, hopefully, receive an anticipated output, if not, you would start all over.
– As a student at the time, you didn’t have access to the computer itself, this was typically stored away in basements or in closed-off rooms, all handling was solely done by the computer operator(s).

In Clardy’s junior year, Rice University would acquire an IBM System/360 mainframe, and unlike the earlier Burroughs B5500 mainframe, the new IBM system came with dumb terminals. Programmers now had the ability to much more easily write, run and test code in “realtime”. In Clardy’s senior year the system would be expanded to include video terminals, terminals that would show input and output on a screen instead of through a teletype and printer. These displays were not only able to deliver text but also simple graphics in the form of lines and points.
Clardy, in his senior-level course project in 1973, decided to produce a small 1-minute animated computer-generated movie, years ahead of the first commercial movies with serious computer-generated images.
Clardy’s early interest in computer graphics would, later on, be a driving force in his games. His first title was one of the first commercially third-party-developed Apple II games to feature graphics.

In 1974 after having graduated from Rice University, Clardy got a job as an electrical engineer with Boeing at the Johnson Space Center, which at the time was providing tech support for the Space Shuttle program.
Clardy stayed with Boeing for several years, and while he worked on interesting and very much complicated electronic circuitry his passion for programming wasn’t being fulfilled, but getting a programming job at the time was not only extremely difficult it was also very much tied into a stiff and uncreative world of business, statistics, and data processing culture.
In 1977 Clardy and his wife Ann moved to Seattle, where he would work on the AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) radar program as a liaison engineer with Boeing.

The Personal Computer
Clardy’s first personal computer exposure came when a friend of his purchased the newly released TRS-80, Clardy, while intrigued, still found personal computers too limited to pursue a dream of programming immersive games.
The same year the original Apple II was released with color display, but with only 4kb of memory, he felt it also would be pretty much useless for complex games. Finally, in 1978, Clardy bought his first computer, an upgraded Apple II with 16kb of memory, knowing that the expanded memory could help achieve his vision for complex and immersive games.
Shortly, Clardy started to type in games from various sources but quickly decided that he needed to learn more about this powerful machine on his desktop.
The holy Apple II bible, the Apple II Reference Manual, also known as the Red Book, came with the computer and provided great insights into the inner workings of the computer and its features. The Red Book also included 6 games to type into Steve Wozniak’s Integer BASIC, one of those games was called Dragon Maze, an interesting name for a game indeed. Clardy, the avid and passionate D&D player and lover of science fiction and fantasy, was quickly drawn to the magic that hid behind the name and its many lines of codes.
Dragon Maze consisted of a procedurally generated dungeon, in which you had to find your way through, all while being chased by a dragon.
While typing in the game to the Apple II’s memory Clardy would soon modify, add and rework much of the code. With pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons, Clardy had discovered that creating and directing games as dungeon master was much more appealing than actually playing the game, this was a perfect starting point for trying to create a more elaborate computer game.

Dungeon Campaign
While the limited technology of the personal computer at the time typically resulted in simple action games, Clardy wanted to create a game that would adopt characteristics and features from Dungeons & Dragons, he wanted his game to have more complexity, more monsters, more advanced combat schemes, and of course graphics… all in one package.
Modifications to the Dragon Maze code eventually lead him to create a completely new game and after 3 months of work, Clardy’s first game Dungeon Campaign was completed. Like Dragon Maze, the game featured randomly generated dungeon mazes, four levels, each with different challenges. You had to go and explore each maze, find treasures, all why engaging in combat.
Clardy added two unique characters, an elf, and a dwarf both with special abilities to help you throughout the game and 13 human warriors to the player’s party.
Each character in the party would essentially act as both hit points and strength, calculated by different factors, lose a character, and your hit points would drop, the same with your party’s strength.
The game ended either when you had no party members left or when you found your way out of the dungeon.

The random generation of the four mazes in Dungeon Campaign was a painfully slow process, but instead of having the player staring at a loading screen, Clardy made the generation visible, giving the player a small window to map out the dungeons on paper

Even though Clardy wanted to have Dungeon Campaign encompass more, the 16kb of available memory was all used, and he had to consider the game finished.
With his new game complete, and while still working at Boeing, Clardy started selling Dungeon Campaign, under his Synergistic Software label, through a few ComputerLand stores, in December of 1978.
Dungeon Campaign was initially released on cassette, placed in a ziplock bag together with a hand-drawn image, by Clardy himself, on the cover of the two-page manual.
After a few months, Clardy had only sold a few dozen copies but sales started picking up when he bulk mailed other Apple II stores.

The original Integer BASIC Dungeon Campaign for the 16k Apple II released on cassette in December of 1978. Because of the unreliable nature of data cassettes at the time, Clardy copied the game 3 times to each side of the cassette.
The cover artwork was done by Clardy himself

Dungeon Campaign, floppy releases.
On the left the Apple II Integer 16k version, on the right the Apple II Applesoft 48k version

Wilderness Campaign
As both Clardy’s skills and the technology capabilities grew so did Clardy’s ambition, and with Dungeon Campaign just finished he began working on his next title, and while somewhat dissatisfied with how the limitations of memory should define the scope of his game, wanted his new game to feel a bit closer to his pen and paper Dungeon & Dragons experiences, with more role-playing features, more possibilities, and of course a switch from lo-res to hi-res graphics.

The advance from Dungeon Campaign’s lo-res 40×40 mode (40×40 graphics with four lines of text at the bottom) to Wilderness Campaign’s hi-res 280×192 mode

Wilderness Campaign would feature large outdoor environments, with randomly placed villages, temples, tombs, ruins, and abandon castles. In the villages, you had the opportunity to hire troops or buy equipment and weapons for your party for your upcoming struggles against evil.
The goal of the game was to gather enough gold to hire and outfit an army, find the Sanctuary of the White Mage and receive a powerful device to defeat the Great Necromancer, who for ten years had been tyrannizing and devastated the kingdom.
The first release of Wilderness Campaign was still written in Integer BASIC, which made it compatible with both the Apple II and the newly released Apple II+, though it quickly became apparent that the Integer BASIC would have the game crash when the player’s amount of gold exceeded 32.767 (the largest number the Integer BASIC could handle). To overcome this issue, the initial Integer BASIC game was rewritten in Microsoft’s Applesoft BASIC by David Dickens who, at the time, unlike Clardy, had an Apple II+. The cover also received a new and somewhat professional artwork as well.
The Apple II+ was released with 48kb of memory and Microsoft’s Applesoft Basic in ROM which allowed for different high-resolution graphics modes. Since Applesoft didn’t include any tools to easily generate shapes in high-res mode, Clardy developed his own tool, which later would become Higher Graphics and a commercial product of Synergistic Software.

Wilderness Campaign, released in 1979.
On the left the original cassette, in the middle the Applesoft 48k version and on the right the Apple II 16k version from the Dungeon Campaign/Wilderness Campaign bundle

With Wilderness Campaign finished in the summer of 1979, Clardy ended up quitting his job at Boeing to fulfill his ambition of turning his hobby into a full-time job. At the time there was literally no publisher to pickup, market, or distribute third-party developed games, getting sales meant spending lots of time contacting stores and otherwise administrate the business and provide support for the customers, juggling all that with a full-time job at Boeing and taking an MBA in the evenings weren’t feasible in the long run.
For the first few years, Clardy would work from his basement in his Seattle home, and as time went on and the business grew his wife Ann would join him to help with the packaging of the games and the more administrative jobs.

The Dungeon Campaign / Wilderness Campaign bundle, released for the Apple II in 1979

Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure
Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure was Clardy’s next endeavor and first floppy-only-based game. It was much bigger than the two earlier titles. It featured three scenarios to give a bigger and more epic experience and combined elements from both Dungeon Campaign and Wilderness Campaign. History would quickly seem to repeat itself as he soon, yet again, ran of available storage space, the game had to be considered finished. Some areas of the game had to be in lo-res graphics and the ending was shortened.

Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure for the Apple II 48k, released in 1980.
While it may seem that the title has some serious misspellings, this was intentional – Apventure was Apple and adventure combined

Odyssey left so many unfinished ideas that Clardy wrote Apventure to Atlantis as a sequel, in 1982, to wrap up all the loose ends, also this ended up being too big for the available technology at the time and had to be limited.

Apventure to Atlantis, released in 1982 for the Apple II

Campaign Trilogy, released in 1980 for the Apple II. This was a repacking of Dungeon Campaign, Wilderness Campaign, and Sorcerer’s Challenge, another, but simpler, game Clardy had written.
Also in 1980, Clardy started to rework Synergistic Software’s image, going for a more professional look. Part of this was enhancing the packaging and cover artwork.
The new cover artwork was done by painter Judy Swedberg who also did the cover art on Apventure to Atlantis

Through Clardy’s many games of Dungeons & Dragons, he discovered that being the dungeon master wasn’t all about winning and making it as difficult as possible for the players, but more about taking the player’s goals and preferences into consideration, to give more exiting, balanced and long-lived gameplay.

Long term gameplay is available through repeat plays of radically changed games, not by making a single solution take weeks or months.

Robert Clardy, in Brian Wiser & Bill Martens “Synergistic Software The Early Games”

Dungeon & Dragons were very much different each time you played it, many random elements combined with the action of the players, gave an aspect of variety and replayability, something Clardy wanted to encompass in his games – very much ahead of his time. Adventure games of the time were very much linear with one fixed path to one end goal. Typically developers made games unpleasantly difficult, introduced obscure puzzles which, at times required an infinite amount of guesswork to progress – just to add longer gameplay.
Many will probably recognize this with most of On-Line Systems and later Sierra On-line titles. Also, adventure heavy hitters like Infocom and Adventure International were producing very much one laned experiences around that time.
Clardy’s experience through pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons and his ability to take what he knew worked well and implement it in his programming, pushing the technology and even innovating on it made him a true pioneer and he and his work in many ways can be seen as a big part of the cornerstone in the foundation for which almost all adventurous computer role-playing games to come would derive elements from.

While Clardy’s and Synergistic’s early titles were truly pioneering and introduced the computer roleplaying game genre to the personal computer, the titles are pretty much unknown today, even by fans of the genre.
These early Synergistic titles were only released on the Apple II platform, and while the platform in itself was successful and had a long lifespan it was, especially in the early years, heavily outnumbered by Tandy Radio Shack’s TRS-80.
Being one of the first in this small market meant only limited exposure and sales, in just a few years the number of personal computers would explode and with that, titles now had a chance to be enjoyed by tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, all hungering for electronic entertainment. This earned titles like Dunjonquest, Ultima and Wizardry much more fame and rendered them much more well-known today – leaving, for the most part, the early Synergistic titles to a dusty place on the shelves of gaming history.

In 1979 Automated Simulations (later Epyx) would release their first CRPG with the title Dunjonquest – Temple of Apshai and unlike Dungeon- and Wilderness campaign, it was ported to every imaginable home computer of the time, given it much more exposure. Apshai would also introduce real-time gameplay, a more sophisticated combat system, and in general better graphics and more intuitive gameplay. Automated Simulations also understood that the primitive graphics weren’t always enough to set the settings and therefore added descriptions to every room in the manual.
So while most people tend to think of Apshai, Ultima or Wizardry when thinking of the origin of the (personal) computer roleplaying game, it actually started years before with Synergistic’s Dungeon Campaign and Don Worth’s Beneath Apple Manor, which I might cover in another article.

Synergistic Software would go on to produce more than 160 titles in the coming two decades, encompassing both games and utility software. Unlike many, Synergistic Software continued as an independent developer as the IBM/PC platform became dominant. In 1996 Synergistic Software was acquired by Sierra On-Line but continued on as an independent development division. In 1999 Sierra started making organizational changes to streamline operations which in the end meant that Synergistic was closed down for good.
Robert Clardy left his company in 1996 to pursue other interests.

I can only recommend the A.P.P.L.E (Apple PugetSound Program Library Exchange) published titles: Cyber Jack – The Adventure of Robert Clardy and Synergistic Software and
Synergistic Software – The Early Games, both by Brian Wiser and Bill Martens.
Also, Bitmap Books gorgeous The CRPG Book, while it only touches somewhat briefly on the very early history of CRPG, it does cover most known CRPG’s between 1975 and 2015. The book is a great informative read with well-described pictures to accommodate

I’m thinking of doing a more general article about my other Synergistic titles from my collection sometime in the future.

7 thoughts on “Bits from my personal collection – Robert Clardy, Synergistic Software, and the birth of the personal home computer roleplaying game

  1. This is an excellent tribute to an often-overlooked computer game pioneer. He contributed enormously to the early development of several game genres. And he was a true gentleman.

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