If in 1982 you were to ring the Wizardry hint line on 315-393-6633, a future games industry luminary would have picked up: “This is Brenda, how can I help you?”
It was a career that began a year earlier in a school bathroom of snowy Ogdensburg, New York, where a 15-year-old Brenda Romero offered a non-menthol cigarette to a young woman who introduced herself as Linda. The fellow smoker turned out to belong to the Sirotek family, which ran an unlikely RPG empire right there in the Canadian-American border city, in isolation from the rest of the games industry. “Somehow I was unaware of this company called Sir-Tech Software,” Romero says. “Which was tiny at that point in time, there were nine people.”
Shortly afterwards, Romero saw her first graphical colour videogame: a 1981 Sir-Tech creation called Wizardry. “Oh my god, I can still remember the absolute magic of that moment,” she says today. “I think I was too young to know that it was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
Within two weeks of that fateful meeting in the bathroom, Romero and Linda were colleagues. “Imagine today if somebody said, ‘I’ve got a deal for you: just play the games, memorise them, and if somebody calls, you’re a living FAQ,’” Romero says. “That’s what I did, and it was easy and amazing and then I just never left.”
Romero worked at Sir-Tech for two decades, during a period when the dominant RPG kingdoms weren’t Bioware and Bethesda, but Sir-Tech and Austin-based developer Origin – the latter making beloved fantasy adventures under the name Ultima.
“With Wizardry and Ultima, it’s interesting how different they were,” Romero says. “In Ultima you’re trying to be this good person. Wizardry allowed you to take an evil party of characters down into the dungeon. But the biggest difference between them was that Ultima was top-down and Wizardry was first-person. It’s amazing how much of the world your brain would fill in.”
“Imagine today if somebody said, ‘I’ve got a deal for you: just play the games, memorise them, and if somebody calls, you’re a living FAQ. That’s what I did, and it was easy and amazing and then I just never left.”
Oddly enough, Wizardry’s legacy is felt most keenly in Japan, where it became that rarest of things: a Western RPG which crossed over. “That was a tactical thing,” Romero says. “[Sir-Tech founders] Norm and Rob Sirotek really pursued that market and did a fantastic job. Wizardry had everything from TV shows to orchestras. Even the merch we had coming back from Japan was substantial. Final Fantasy was directly inspired by Wizardry.”
Yet on the home front, Sir-Tech eventually fell behind its rival. “Every time they started a new Ultima, they cleaned the table and started with a new codebase and new features,” Romero says. “Wizardry didn’t do that. To play Wizardry 2 or 3, you had to have Wizardry 1. So in effect, it was nearly a mod requiring the original, and the audience was always a subset of the previous audience. By the time you got to Wizardry 4, it looked really dated.”
Occasionally Romero bumps into the former Lord British – aka Ultima kingpin Richard Garriott – an encounter you might imagine to be like Cold War spies comparing stories after the fall of the Iron Curtain. “My impression was that Richard knew at some point that he was in the lead,” Romero says. “And he’s right about that. He was really the industry’s first rock star. He would go to conferences with a crown and a robe, he was a presence.”
Nonetheless, Sir-Tech made it to the millennium and the much-loved Wizardry 8. By that time, Romero was a designer, and had planned the birth of her child around the RPG’s development. “I know plenty of people who have planned pregnancies around games,” she says. “The design meetings for Wizardry were fantastic. Linda was pregnant, I was pregnant. Our meeting room happened to also double as the kitchen. I bet you the other people on the design team, Charles Miles and Alex Meduna, also gained 20 pounds in pregnancy weight.”
Then the release of Wizardry 8 was pushed back. “Pregnancies usually ship on time,” Romero says. “Pregnancies don’t get delayed for six months.” After handing over duties for creatures, loot drops and character dialogue, she took time off to give birth.
“We were in Canada, and I remember calling Sir-Tech and saying that I wanted a little bit more time deciding if I was going to take the full year of maternity leave,” Romero says. “And they let me know ahead of the staff that Sir-Tech was going to be closing. They were like, ‘Well actually, Brenda, you can take all the time you need.’”
Today though, as a co-founder of Romero Games, Brenda is fresh from directing exactly the sort of game Sir-Tech might have made in its prime. Empire of Sin is an impassioned attempt to capture the business and drama of the Prohibition era – the nationwide ban on alcohol in the US between 1920 and 1933 – as a gangster management game. It asks you to run supply chains and speakeasies selling black market booze, and to wrap your fingers around a Tommy gun – “Chicago’s most famous typewriter”, as the game puts it – to scrap for territory in turn-based combat.
“With Wizardry and Ultima, it’s interesting how different they were. In Ultima you’re trying to be this good person. Wizardry allowed you to take an evil party of characters down into the dungeon.”
Squint a bit and you’ll recognise the multi-layered structure of Jagged Alliance, Sir-Tech’s legendary merc management series. “There’s a very clear influence line,” Romero says. In between Wizardry entries, she worked on the Jagged Alliance games as a writer, and got to watch designers Ian Currie, Linda Currie (formerly Sirotek) and Shaun Lyng at work. While they pulled together the core fantasy of squad tactics, Romero helped imbue hired guns with the surprising depth of RPG companions. In Jagged Alliance 2, each was recruited through a Tinder-esque website, and arrived on the field with their own backstories and deeply held grudges.
“If I could make Linda laugh with a character’s personality, that would be fun for me,” she says. “I remember commenting that I thought Rudy ‘Lynx’ Roberts was hot, and next thing, I find out that I’ve been put in the game and I have a crush on that character.” If you’ve ever recruited Louisa ‘Buzz’ Garneau as a markswoman, you’ve hung out with Romero under another name.
Sir-Tech’s Jagged Alliance games are still held in high regard, though Romero thinks they suffered commercially for their initial story premise, which concerned scientists fighting over a particularly profitable form of tree sap. “The story wrapper for the game was less compelling than going after aliens,” she says. “And so [rival game] X-Com ended up walking away with the lion’s share of the attention.”
Empire of Sin fixed that problem with an irresistible Al Capone hook. But it hasn’t had a smooth path to success either, launching to mixed reviews that called out bugs and balance problems. “I think it’s fair to say it kind of tripped and fell on its face,” Romero says. “There were a couple of exploits that we just didn’t see. And unfortunately, they were big exploits.” One allowed players to win the game in the space of an hour. “If you can just imagine the matrix of 14 possible bosses, all having unique missions, interacting with all these characters, there’s lots of amazing room for emergence,” Romero says. “But that also means there’s lots of amazing room for bugs.”
The staff of Romero Games, the studio that Brenda built in Galway, Ireland with her husband John in 2015, worked their “asses off” to get patches out quickly – and by the time DLC [downloadable content] came around, “we all felt really good about it”. “We changed how the strategy layer of the game worked, we made things that had not been as meaningful far more meaningful,” Romero says. “Some of the features that players requested we were able to deliver, we fixed loads and loads of bugs.”
For its next project, however, Romero Games is drawing on John’s legacy rather than Brenda’s – tapping into his history as the designer of Doom and Quake for a new IP. “Every game developer will take something from the previous game, no matter what it is,” Brenda says. “But a first-person shooter is very different from a grand-strategy-slash-RPG game.”
A new space is being built to house the studio, which is testing the seams of its current three-floor office. Ultimately the team will be 75 people. “At that size, it’s manageable,” Romero says. “The biggest project I’ve worked on, there were six senior designers. You couldn’t know the finer points of everything that was going on. For some people, those big cinematic productions are exactly what they love, but I prefer a smaller team.”
“The design meetings for Wizardry were fantastic. Linda was pregnant, I was pregnant. Our meeting room happened to also double as the kitchen. I bet you the other people on the design team, Charles Miles and Alex Meduna, also gained 20 pounds in pregnancy weight.”
That project was Def Jam: Icon, EA Chicago’s synesthesia-inspired blend of brawling and hip-hop. It’s not a title you hear associated with Romero often – but many of her lesser-known games are the more fascinating. Take 2005’s Playboy: The Mansion, an empire-building simulation for which Romero worked directly with the divisive media company to ensure that Hugh Hefner was accurately portrayed in his role as protagonist.
“It’s interesting, because I think people’s opinions change over time,” she says. “On the one hand we can say the naked female form is incredibly beautiful, and there’s no problem with photographing it expressly for the purpose of capturing that beauty. But then on the other hand, women aren’t just ornaments.”
If somebody approached Romero to work on a Playboy game today, she’d turn them down. But she’s still drawn to that bizarre challenge of gamifying a soft porn media business. During development of The Mansion, the team struggled to match the Playboy fantasy to the tame age rating demanded by high street stores. After launch, Romero watched a man emerge from a newsagents in Memphis, Tennessee with a dirty magazine in a brown paper bag and realised The Mansion had failed its intended audience.
“When the person who bought Playboy: The Mansion thinks, ‘I wanna be Hugh Hefner’, what they think about is having their choice of women to sleep with,” she says. “What it ended up being was a magazine publishing simulation. And nobody has said, ‘Man, I’d love to be Hugh Hefner. What I really want to do is publish a magazine.’”
Womanhood has been a common theme in the talks Romero has delivered at game conferences over the years – in which she has both championed important women overlooked in the history of computing, and challenged a press which has only wanted to talk about her gender and not her work. Within the games industry, Romero is now as well-known for her public speaking as for her games.
“Everything is so siloed in game companies,” she says. “We make the same mistakes again and again, independently, until we learn from them independently. And it would be just great if we could have more information out there and share information.”
“On the one hand we can say the naked female form is incredibly beautiful, and there’s no problem with photographing it expressly for the purpose of capturing that beauty. But then on the other hand, women aren’t just ornaments.”
Less visibly, she has a reputation among her peers as a font of good advice – always keen to help others find their feet. Shortly before our interview she was on a mentoring call with a grad student, “just trying to figure out what he wants to do”.
“It comes from wanting to see more diversity in the industry,” she says. “And I don’t just mean more women – more neurodivergent folks, especially people from low-income backgrounds. Both John and I come from low-income backgrounds, and it was only games that changed all of that. A lot of the people who come into games are not normal people and I certainly wasn’t a normal person. I wish in the 80s I had someone to ask about any of these things.” Rarely do modern developers get into games after chance bathroom encounters; Romero helps newcomers find their way into an industry that is now much larger, but more competitive too.
Romero’s fondness for the era of 8-bit computing and the Wizardry games that first opened her mind remains palpable – a part of her future as well as her past. “My current plan is to code a game in 6502 Assembly language on an Apple II,” she says, referring to one of the world’s first mass-produced microcomputers. “Unbelievably there’s an Apple II hardware engineer in Ireland, and we have one that runs. That would be the game I would make an RPG.” Romero refers to this project as her ‘retirement game’: “I don’t remember Garriott’s exact quote, but he said that people make RPGs for love, not money.”
Of course, a retirement game would necessitate retiring first. “There’s a certain chasing the dragon in finding innovation, something nobody else has done,” she says. “[Bullfrog Productions designer] Ernest Adams said at one point in time I was the longest continuously serving woman in games, which is pretty cool. Eventually when I die, then somebody else can take that spot, but I’ll probably just keep going until then. I love games, what else would I do?”
Find out more about Romero Games here.