Time Zone and Ultima II, two deviants

Welcome to another Quick Bits article. As I don’t have too much time at the moment, which my lengthier articles demand, I’ve decided to do some short and quickly written articles. This one is an update from an old post I did 4-5 years ago.

As a collector with just a tiny amount of OCD I really do like every item in my collection being sorted by the publisher. For the most part titles from the same publisher have the same packaging format and thus fit well together on the shelves, making it for a lovely display with a sense of calmness and serenity over it.
There are of course always exceptions to the rule and Time Zone and Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress is just that exception when talking of On-Line Systems (later Sierra On-Line) released titles from the early ’80s.
I simply can’t fit those two boxes with the rest of my Sierra Collection and made me wonder, why are these two items so tall (8″x11″) and out-of-order from the rest of Sierra’s lineup? I clearly had to do some research maybe there were simple reasons behind this after all or maybe I was just chasing ghosts.

While Sierra, or On-Line Systems as it was called prior to mid-1982, had their well-known small folders for their Hi-Res series of games (and other games released at the time) Time Zone would end up in a tall box, the same format known from both SSI and Avalon Hill‘s titles at the time.
While I think the tall box probably makes sense in terms of solidifying the massive undertaking it took to develop what would become the biggest computer game of its time. Along with the huge scope came a massive retail price of $99.95 (almost $300 in today’s money), possibly making Time Zone one of the single most expensive games to ever have been released (not counting collectors edition, etc.)

Open the manual and you’re greeted on the very first page with the words: “Warning Time Zone is NOT for the beginning Adventurer.” The rest of the page proudly solidifies the size and scope of the project and by all means, it was a huge undertaking for Roberta Williams and her team at On-Line Systems. It featured around 1.300 rooms and locations and over 1.400 Hi-Res pictures, all in all, the game took up both sides of six 5.25″ floppies, around 2 Mb of data, completely unheard of in 1982.
Time Zone was well over a year in the making and was really the start moving toward the modern model of big-studio development, taking the game development process from the Jack of all trades era, where a single person or a very small team did all the work, to game development as we know of today, with AAA titles consuming huge teams of specialists.

Time Zone, the biggest and most expensive game when released in 1982. The high price tag and high difficulty level resulted in On-Line Systems’ first high-profile flop.

Around the same time as Time Zone was being developed Richard Garriott was working on his second title in his Ultima role-playing series. While California Pacific Computer Company, which had published Garriott’s Akalabeth and first Ultima title, was facing financial difficulties and couldn’t pay royalties other publishers approached Garriott wanting to publish his upcoming Ultima title. Garriott was attending the University of Texas at the time and had spent nearly two years working on his massive Ultima II, now nearing completion he insisted on it including a cloth map, to illustrate how the time doors in the game were linked. Sierra On-Line was the only publisher to agree to the cloth map, and the otherwise high royalty Garriott demanded.
The first release for the Apple II and Atari 8-it included a large cloth map, which could explain why they ended up with a tall box, the cloth map only needed to be folded two times to fit the box (a smaller box would have required the map either to be smaller or folded up more times.

Ultima II was the only official Ultima game published by Sierra. Controversy with Sierra over royalties for the PC port of this game led Garriott to start his own company, Origin Systems.

Without finding any hard evidence regarding the box size while doing research I can only draw my own conclusion. Sierra On-Line was in the early ’80s changing its packaging form factor (like the majority of other publishers) from folders and ziplock bags to boxes. Games were getting bigger, requiring more than a single floppy disk, and the space to accommodate things like bigger manuals and extras demanded more real estate. Also, boxes proved more difficult to steal than the average pocket-fitting ziplock bag, a serious issue at the time.
Maybe before On-Line Systems/Sierra On-Line really found a good and suitable form factor that would fit well at the production line, in the distribution phase, and at retailers across, these might just be two deviants in the ongoing process of making the right physical item, weighing cost and benefits.

Above, a few assorted titles from my collection showcasing some of Sierra’s different form factors from the early ’80s up to the early ’90s.
All form factors saw numerous released titles except the tall box which only included Time Zone and Ultima II.
Top: The small folder (came in both black/white and color), the large folder, the tall box, and the small flip top box.
Middle: Medium flip-top box (also came in a gatefold variant), the rainbow clamshell, the plastic clamshell, and the grey clamshell (by IBM).
Bottom: Regular slipcase, thick slipcase, and the big shoebox (also came as a flip-top box, nearly identical in size).

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