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Ultima IV

There’s lots of somethings to be said for sheer audacity in art, for a willingness to stick your neck out and give your audience something they never, ever expected from you. I think sometimes about how the first folks who listened to Revolver must have felt when the erstwhile cuddly Fab Four unleashed the otherworldly chaos of “Tomorrow Never Knows”; how the first buyers of Achtung, Baby must have felt when they hit the play button and heard not the expected soaring anthem but the grinding industrial murk of “Zoo Station”; how, to choose something I’ve already written a bit about here on this blog, viewers who tuned into The Prisoner‘s “Living in Harmony” episode must have felt when instead of a spy drama they got a Western that refused to reveal itself as a dream sequence but instead just kept going and going right through the show’s running time. Lots and lots of people run screaming from these sorts of switcheroos. As for me, though… they always send a thrill up my spine. A willingness to rip it up and start again is pretty high on the list of things likely to draw me to a creator.

Ultima IV

I get some of that thrill when I think about those first people who booted up Ultima IV expecting to create a party via the usual min/maxing routine, only to be greeted with a simple story with the gravitas of a parable — a parable about, well, you.

The day is warm, yet there is a cooling breeze. The latest in a series of personal crises seems insurmountable. You are being pulled apart in all directions.

Yet this afternoon walk in the countryside slowly brings relaxation to your harried mind. The soil and stain of modern high-tech living begins to wash off in layers. That willow tree near the stream looks comfortable and inviting.

The buzz of dragonflies and the whisper of the willow’s swaying branches bring a deep peace. Searching inward for tranquility and happiness, you close your eyes.

A high-pitched cascading sound like crystal wind chimes impinges on your floating awareness. As you open your eyes, you see a shimmering blueness rise from the ground. The sound seems to be emanating from this glowing portal.

There’s the echo of another spiritual journey’s beginning, that undertaken by the narrator of Dante’s Inferno: “In this the midway of our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray, gone from the path direct.”

Ultima IV‘s opening parable culminates in a mysterious gypsy fortune teller who poses a series of ethical dilemmas designed to determine not what class or race you’d like to play but what kind of person you are. Of the eight noble virtues of Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Valor, which ones matter most to you?

Ultima IV

Ultima IV

Ultima IV

By 1985 gaming had already seen its fair share of debates about who the player’s character in a role-playing game or interactive fiction really was. The very term “role-playing” would seem to imply that the player was not just playing herself thrust into another world, that she was playing a role there, performing as one of Gary Gygax’s idealized Shakespearian thespians. Infocom also had tried to sell their players, to decidedly mixed success and occasional howls of outrage, on seeing interactive fiction through the eyes of people who weren’t necessarily the same as them. For the grand experiment of Ultima IV to succeed it was critical that the opposite point of view prevail, that the player feel it to really be her in the game. Richard Garriott: “Since this is a game about the player’s personal virtues, it is very important that one always identifies with the character and feels responsible for the character’s deeds.”

In a computer game if you roll random dice, you’re just going to sit there and go roll, roll, roll. You get all maxed-out numbers and it’s, “Okay, I’ll take that one.” If you don’t let them roll out and you let them choose numbers, well, it’s kind of a fixed equation. Once they know the map and the game, they can make the perfect decision as to exactly what their stats should be if they are aware that the equations are internal. So I don’t want to give you either of those.

Ultima IV I wanted to be a very personal experience. The reason is because in most of these games you are the puppeteer running this puppet around the world. If this puppet is doing bad things it’s not you, it’s the puppet. You can detach. And I wanted this game to be about personal and social responsibility. It is very important that this be you in the world of Britannia, not something you’ve rolled up. If I’m the computer nerd at home wanting to be a big barbarian going around crushing things, I still want to be a computer nerd down there, in nice clothing. The essence of that character is really the essence of you as an individual.

The gypsy’s questions were designed to tease out the player’s real beliefs and place her in the role in the game that best suited her own personality — to whatever extent seven questions determining the most important to her of eight abstract virtues could manage such a feat, of course. Richard again:

We worked on the phrasing of those questions. Unfortunately, there’s no really perfect way to ask those questions that we’ve yet discovered. Here’s something else that’s interesting. When we were working on this system, I said, “Here’s what I want to do for character development.” I went around to everyone in the office, saying, “Here’s these eight virtues along with a short description as to what I mean by them. Give me your ranking, one to eight, as to how important you think they are.” And then about a week later, after we generated those questions, we went back to the same people and said, “Answer these questions.” Although our company was only about twenty people large, everybody except two people had the exact same outcome to the questions as they did to the judgment. And those two who were wrong only had two transposed in the list. And so it turns out you get the exact same responses as you do to an intellectual discussion of it.

For the record, every time I answer the questions Compassion trumps everything else, and thus I end up a bard starting just outside Lord British’s castle. I don’t know whether this necessarily represents the person I always am, but it’s certainly a good approximation of the person I’d most like to be. So, at least for me, the system does indeed seem to work pretty well.

After that radical opening, the screen which greets the player after the gypsy has passed her final judgment must have struck many as comforting in its familiarity.

Ultima IV

Yes, we’re back to our familiar view with our familiar alphabet soup of single-letter commands to explore the world. That world is now named Britannia rather than Sosaria; it was so renamed after Lord British united the land under his rule following the passing of the Three Ages of Darkness represented by Ultima I, II, and III. The fact that the geography is completely different from that of the previous game is similarly handwaved away, attributed to a great upheaval — must have been one hell of an upheaval — following the destruction of Exodus in Ultima III. The fact that Ultima II inexplicably took place on our Earth is, as per developing Ultima tradition, completely ignored; there are limits to what even the most dedicated ret-conner can accomplish. Also simply ignored is the last of the stupid attempts at anachronistic cleverness that dogged the early Ultimas, the big reveal at the end of Ultima III that Exodus was really a giant computer; in the Ultima IV manual’s version he was just your everyday world-domination-bent evil wizard.

Importantly, this new world of Britannia that you enter is not under attack from yet another evil wizard, or an evil anything else for that matter. This is one of the few CRPGs ever made, and almost certainly the first, to neither have an evil wizard nor to take place in some melodramatic Age of Darkness. Richard has drawn parallels between the Britannia of Ultima IV and Renaissance Italy — or, even better, King’s Arthur’s Britain at the height of the golden age of Camelot; between the player’s quest to become an Avatar of Virtue and the similarly spiritual quest for the Holy Grail. This quest is necessary not despite the land being peaceful and prosperous but because of it, because times of peace and prosperity are the only ones that allow the luxury of pondering a philosophy for living.

That said, becoming an Avatar of Virtue actually represents only the first step of the two-step process of solving Ultima IV. The second step requires you to descend into the Stygian Abyss, a remnant of the Dante-inspired Hell that was the centerpiece of Richard’s first conception for the game, and recover something called the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. The final dungeon serves to hammer home the game’s rhetorical message via a series of puzzles which require you to apply what you’ve learned about the system of virtues, but everything that happens after you become an Avatar is otherwise much less interesting than what happens before. Just as what the Holy Grail represents to Lancelot is far more important to the legend than Galahad’s eventual drinking from it, the recovery of the physical Codex comes as something of an anticlimax to your achievement of Avatarhood. Richard Garriott himself said as much in later interviews, calling the Codex “largely irrelevant” to the real message of Ultima IV, even admitting that he had trouble remembering where or what the Codex actually was. Mostly it just allows Ultima IV a bit more of a traditional CRPG structure, serving as a stand-in for the usual evil wizard’s Whatchamacallit of Infinite Power that can be recovered only by defeating him at the bottom of the last and cruelest dungeon.

Let’s talk, then, about that first, more interesting stage of the game. Becoming an Avatar of Virtue requires that you demonstrate your dedication to each of the eight virtues through your deeds over many hours of adventuring in Britannia. When you have proved yourself worthy of “ascension” in a particular virtue, and have collected a necessary entry rune and a mantra, you can visit a shrine to that virtue and meditate to achieve one-eighth of your eventual Avatarhood. Ultima IV boldly applies these sorts of mystical trappings to an ethical philosophy which carefully avoids the subject of God in favor of simple practicality. Richard Garriott: “If I beat you up, you are going to be angry at me and will be on my back. If I’m nice to you, you are likely to be nice back. It makes good rational sense.” This has been expressed more rigorously by philosophers for millennia now as the idea of enlightened self-interest: you do best for yourself by doing well by others. Parsing a distinction which admittedly really exists only in his mind, Richard claims to ignore morals, which to him represent decisions about right and wrong based on feelings or spiritual beliefs, in favor of ethics, which are grounded in simple, rational common sense. A similar determination to remove the supernatural from the fantastic is everywhere in Ultima, perhaps as a byproduct of Richard being the son of a scientist who would probably have become one himself had Dungeons and Dragons and computers not stepped in. Richard saw Ultima IV‘s magic system, for instance, not as something mystical and mysterious but as merely the natural science of a world that just happens to have different natural laws than our own.

In developing Ultima IV‘s system of ethics, Richard began with a long jumble of possible virtues. Among them were three rather extreme abstractions on this list of abstractions: Truth, Love, and Courage. Watching The Wizard of Oz one day, it struck him that L. Frank Baum may have started with a similar list: “I thought of the Scarecrow looking for a brain, which was Truth; the Tin Man looking for a heart, Love; and the Cowardly Lion, looking for Courage.” It then occurred to his scientist’s mind that these three could be seen as core principles which could be combined to form most of the other items on his list. Honesty is Truth alone; Compassion is Love alone; Valor is Courage alone; Truth tempered by Love is Justice; Love and Courage are Sacrifice; Courage and Truth are Honor; Truth and Love and Courage all together become Spirituality; the absence of all three is Humility. Richard, who loved his symbols, devised a cool-looking diagram to represent the relationships, which ended up inadvertently — or at least subconsciously — resembling Judaism’s Star of David.

The symbol of Ultima IV's system of virtues. The three traditional primary colors represent the core principles: blue is Truth, red Courage, yellow Compassion. They combine to form the eight virtues (including Humility, which contains none of the three and is thus the black border).

The symbol of Ultima IV’s system of virtues. The three traditional primary colors represent the core principles: blue is Truth, red Courage, yellow Compassion. They combine to form the eight virtues (including Humility, which contains none of the three and is thus the black border).

A more readable if less ornate diagram of the virtues

A more readable if less ornate diagram of the virtues.

As a system of belief, it’s perhaps not exactly compelling for an adult (although, hey, cults have been founded on less). As an ethical philosophy… well, let’s just say that Richard Garriott is unlikely to ever rival Kant in university philosophy curricula. There are plenty of points to quibble about: Honesty, Compassion, and Valor are, at least in this formulation, really just synonyms for the core principles that supposedly compose them; the idea that Spirituality is made up of all the virtues lumped together seems kind of strange, as does its presence at all given Richard’s determinedly materialist worldview; the idea of Humility as literally an ethical vacuum seems truly bizarre. (Richard later clarified in interviews that he would have preferred this latter to be Pride, but, “Pride not being a virtue, we have to use Humility”; make of that what you will.) And of course the names of the virtues themselves are rather painfully redolent of the life of a Dungeons and Dragons-obsessed teenager. But poking holes in the system is really missing the point. Ultima IV gave its audience permission to think about these things, laid out in a cool if only superficially logical way. The fact that these ethics still speak the language of Dungeons and Dragons was a good thing, because that’s the language most of Ultima IV‘s audience spoke. Richard himself didn’t claim any mystical truth for the system, freely admitting in interviews that it was essentially arbitrary, that dozens of other formulations could have served his purposes just as well. The one real overriding concern I have with the system is that it can lead to a possibly dangerous ethical absolutism; the only place where Ultima IV does even lip service to the idea that there can be conflicts between its virtues, debate about their merits, is in those questions that open the game. (To his credit, Richard Garriott also spotted the danger, and, indeed, dedicated Ultima V, in many ways an even more thoughtful work than its more heralded predecessor, to exploring the danger of ethical absolutism. Richard characterized that game as, “Now that you’ve shown everybody Avatarhood, let’s show everybody why it’s bad.”)

The way that you build (or lose) mastery of the various virtues is by far the most interesting mechanic in the game, the core thing that makes Ultima IV Ultima IV and the core reason for the game’s stellar reputation today. As you go about your business in its world, Ultima IV is quietly monitoring your actions. If you cheat the blind magic-store proprietor by sneakily paying her less than you should, you lose Honesty; if you’re square with her, you gain it. Running away from enemies costs you Valor; standing and fighting gains it. Giving blood to the healer gains you Sacrifice; refusing costs it. Giving money to beggars gains you Compassion; refusing them… well, you get the picture. Unsurprisingly, the idea has its roots in an admittedly not-widely-used rule in Dungeons and Dragons, which recommends that Dungeon Masters monitor and chart the actions of their players in relation to their professed alignment — “lawful evil,” “chaotic good,” etc. Drift enough and the Dungeon Master could actually impose a new alignment on you, possibly with drastic consequences if, say, your god demanded a certain alignment. In Ultima IV, your progress in the virtues is, inevitably, nothing more than a system of numerical attributes not fundamentally unlike other character attributes — Strength, Experience, Gold, etc. Still, just as Ultima IV tries to make character creation more than a series of dice rolls, it strains mightily to make the virtues an honest reflection of your attitudes and behaviors rather than just a system to be optimized. It hides all of the numbers from you. The only way to learn of your progress in the virtues is to visit the Seer Hawkwind in Lord British’s castle, and even then he just describes your progress in vague generalities. Especially in this day and age, when all of the virtue system’s mechanics have been meticulously documented, we understand all too well that it’s possible to, say, raise Compassion to Avatar level just by giving over and over to the same beggar in the same town. But back in the day particularly, when the system’s underpinnings were not so well understood, it really did feel organic.

The other mechanics of solving Ultima IV — the minutiae of classes and equipment and monsters and leveling up, the puzzles and quests and how to solve them, the locations of towns and dungeons and shrines and artifacts, the seven companions (each representing one of the seven virtues you didn’t choose as most important to you at the beginning of the game) you must eventually round up to complete your adventuring party, etc., etc. — have likewise already been documented as extensively as those of any videogame ever produced. In addition to the countless FAQs, blogs, and web sites generated by the franchise’s many still-rabid fans, at least half a dozen entire books have been published with detailed descriptions of exactly how to best play and solve the game. Most of the nuts and bolts of Ultima IV‘s engine merely extend the technology that Richard had already built through Ultima III in fairly commonsense ways; Richard has often stated that Akalabeth through Ultima III were mostly about improving his technology, Ultima IV about applying his technology at long last to a really worthwhile design. So, I’m not going to talk about most of that in a great deal of depth here; there’s little or nothing I could add to the mountain of practical data at every web surfer’s fingertips, and few fundamental changes to note in the mechanics I described in earlier articles about the franchise. You’ve got a (larger) world map to traverse along with cities, towns, castles, and dungeons; you’ve got horses, ships, and other vehicles to acquire; you’ve got food and equipment to manage (along with, this time, spell reagents, and for a party that will eventually number eight rather than the four of Ultima III); you’ve got lots of people to talk to (this time with a keyword-based pseudo-parser to deepen the interactive possibilities); and of course you’ve got monsters to fight. By now you know the drill.

At this point I probably should confess something: I’m far from sold on Ultima IV as a holistic, playable game. Oh, the concept of the virtues that overlays and underlies the whole is as brilliant and inspiring as I and so many others have already said it is. But you don’t spent all that large a percentage of your time in Ultima IV directly engaging with that concept. You rather spend a whole lot of time, easily hundreds of hours worth if you play the game “straight,” without walkthroughs or spoilers, on lots of things that are often less than compelling at best, dull at average, horrifically, unfairly cruel at worst. Take (please!) the much-vaunted new magic system, in which you have to prepare every single spell you cast by buying its reagents and mixing them together one at a time, a process absolutely devoid of interest after you figure out a given spell’s recipe, one that entails about half a dozen key presses for every single spell you prepare; you can easily spend ten minutes just getting the spells ready for a major dungeon expedition. Combat, never a strong point for Ultima, is more infuriating here than ever; you now have to micromanage up to eight characters through the busywork of taking out the endless hordes of uninteresting monsters that constantly attack when you just want to, you know, walk to the next damn town already. (The number of monsters in each attacking group is actually keyed to the number of characters in your party. In an interesting example of unintended consequences, this means that just about all guides to the game recommend keeping to a party of one as long as possible to try to stave off some of the soul-killing boredom of combat for as long as possible.)

Ultima IV itself doesn’t do a very good job of evincing virtues like Compassion, Justice, even Honor. This is a staggeringly difficult game, a fact that gets rather obscured by the fact that most people playing the game and/or writing about it today are mostly replaying it, and usually with the benefit of that aforementioned copius store of FAQs and walkthroughs. Taken without all that, the way a kid who found it under the tree at Christmas 1985 would have had to approach it, it’s honestly hard to imagine anyone solving it unaided. The design is a spiderweb of all but invisible strands; fail to trace any one of them and you won’t win. Most of the cities in the game are marked on the cloth map that came in the package, but just enough are left unmarked that you’ll need to to scour the whole map square by tedious square to find everything. One village sits at the center of a huge inland lake, its existence impossible to detect unless you happen to meet a pirate ship on the lake — a vanishingly unusual occurrence — fight it, steal it, and take it for a sail. Or you can find the village if you manifest an apparent death wish and sail a ship on the open ocean directly into a whirlpool. Many of the towns and castles contain critical secret doors that are distinguished by the presence of one extra pixel amidst the grainy graphics.

See that single white dot above the character that looks kind of like a graphics artifact of some sort? That's a game-critical secret door.

See that single white dot above the character that looks kind of like a graphics artifact of some sort? That’s a game-critical secret door.

Conversations can be another nightmare. Every character in the game responds to three keywords given in the manual: “Name,” “Job,” and “Health” (no, I don’t know how Richard settled on that particular inexplicable trio). You’re expected to find other keywords by asking about things the character mentions in those three generic openers, in addition to following up on clues gained in other places of the “Ask XX about YY” variety. But, inevitably, the vast majority of promising-looking words any character mentions are actually not keywords at all. Conversations quickly devolve into a rote entering of every noun or active verb a character uses, with 90 percent of them resulting in “That, I cannot help thee with.” Miss one critical word in a conversation out of sloth or negligence, and that’s a clue overlooked, a thread untraced, and your chance for victory forsworn. Each town or castle, which number sixteen in total, is populated with dozens of individuals. Miss that critical fellow hiding out in a visually impenetrable glade at the extreme edge of the map, and you’re screwed. Miss the single pixel representing a secret door, and you’re screwed. When you finally get to very bottom of the Stygian Abyss and stand before the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, if you fail to answer correctly an out-of-left-field question whose answer requires the ability to read Richard Garriott’s mind, you’re screwed — teleported back to the surface to battle your way down through eight levels of the fiercest creatures in the game and try again. If you were playing in 1985, without the benefit of emulator save states, you would get to do this again and again until you gave up or, as many people finally did, called Origin’s hint line for the answer. If none of what I’ve just described sounds like all that much fun, that’s because for all but the most dogged of players of today it’s really not. Like so many old-school adventure designs, it rewards not cleverness but sheer persistence, a willingness to lawnmower through map after conversation after battle no matter how boring it is.

That, then, is the flip side to Ultima IV the transcendent masterwork: Ultima IV the fiddly, borderline unplayable, tedious mishmash. It’s absurdly easy to make any adventure game impossible, which is one of the many reasons that a designer needs playtesters, and lots of them. Richard Garriott, however, had basically no feedback on many parts of his design. In an interview for Computer Gaming World published shortly after the game, he let drop the bombshell that he was the only person who had managed to complete the game when Origin put it in a box and unleashed it on the world.

A few years ago Michael Abbott, academic and “Brainy Gamer,” sparked quite some conversation with a blog post telling how his students had rejected Ultima IV as “boring.” Predictable outrage toward those kids today followed in the comments and the heaps of reaction posts from other bloggers. Yet my own reaction is to side with Dr. Abbot’s students; Ultima IV is, most of the time, pretty boring. Good on them for recognizing this, I say, for refusing to get sucked into doing boring things for the sake of it. I think kids today are at a minimum every bit as smart as those of my generation were when Ultima IV first hit store shelves, thoroughly capable of deciding that a game is mostly just wasting their time. We shouldn’t begrudge them that freedom if more refined entertainments make their verdict an uncomfortable one for us. Ultima IV stands for me as a hugely important work in the history of its medium, but also one that hasn’t stood the test of time all that well. I love to think about it, love the fact that it exists, that Richard Garriott had the courage to make it — but just thinking about playing it makes me tired. Like a work of conceptual art, to some extent the real power of Ultima IV today is just the fact of its existence.

Of course I’m well aware as a digital historian that my modern take on Ultima IV is a fundamentally anachronistic one. In 1985, the game represented an all but unrivaled gateway to imagination. Solving an Ultima wasn’t really the point; these were worlds to explore, to revisit over a period of months or years until the next Ultima came out (Ultima V would be almost three years in arriving). Everything about Ultima IV — packaged in its big, grandiose box with two big, ornate manuals, with its die-cast ankh that countless boys stuck on a chain and wore to school around their necks, with its big cloth map — marked it as something special, something to be cherished and savored.

The ankh would join the Silver Serpent as one of the enduring symbols of Ultima, a supposed visual representation of the Way of the Avatar to stand alongside the diagram of the virtues. It was yet another bit of pop-culture detritus that made its way into Ultima: Richard first saw it in the movie Logan’s Run, where it served as the symbol of an underground resistance movement, thought it looked cool and “positive,” and stuck it in the game. When he learned that it meant “life and rebirth” to ancient Egyptians, that just made it that much cooler.

The ankh would join the Silver Serpent as one of the enduring symbols of Ultima, a supposed visual representation of the Way of the Avatar to stand alongside the diagram of the virtues. It was yet another bit of pop-culture detritus that made its way into Ultima: Richard first saw it in the movie Logan’s Run, where it served as the symbol of an underground resistance movement, thought it looked cool and “positive,” and stuck it in the game. When he learned that it meant “life and rebirth” to ancient Egyptians, that just made it that much cooler.

When you discovered a new village tucked away in some corner of the map you didn’t complain about the unfairness of it all, you rejoiced at having uncovered another corner of this fantastic world. Actually solving the game was something that few managed, but it didn’t really matter that much anyway. The point was the journey. Even the price contributed: showing an instinct for manipulating perception through pricing that would have done Apple proud, Origin’s suggested list price gave the game a street price of $50 to $55, about $20 more than the typical title. Far from cutting into its sales, the high price just made the game all the more desirable, all the more special. This experience of Ultima IV was absolutely specific to its time and place, not something we can recapture today no matter how much we blog or commentate or notate. Yes, the magic of Ultima IV was ephemeral, but in its day it was very, very powerful.

By way of illustration, let me tell you about Brian. Brian was one of my best friends in middle and high school, his attitudes fairly typical of the cracking and pirating underground in which he was quite thoroughly immersed. Like most of his friends in the scene, Brian didn’t so much play games as collect them. He had hundreds, maybe thousands of Commodore 64 floppies containing virtually every remotely notable game released for the platform in North America or Europe. Most got booted once or twice, to see what the graphics were like; a few action games would grab his attention in a bigger way for a while, but were soon set aside in favor of haunting the pirate BBS network and enjoying the social dramas of the cracking scene (let me tell you, teenage girls had nothing on this crew). Ultima IV, though, was different. It’s the only game I can ever remember Brian actually buying, the only one more complicated than Boulderdash for which he read the manual, into which he put a real effort. Like a hundred thousand other kids, he hung the map on his bedroom wall, wore the ankh to school. Oh, I’m pretty sure he never came close to finishing it. He probably played it much less, all told, than most similar kids who didn’t have the same embarrassment of gaming riches from which to choose. But the fact that his teenage heavy-metal nihilism went away when he talked about the virtues, that it awoke some other — better? — part of him that was impervious to every other game… I’ve always remembered that. Ultima, and Ultima IV in particular, was just like that.

Chester Bolingbroke, better known as the CRPG Addict, was another Brian.

I wrote each [virtue] with its definition on an index card and every morning I shuffled the cards and chose one at random. That one, I did my best to practice for the day. If honesty came up, I was careful to tell no lies throughout the day. If it was sacrifice, I looked for ways to do something charitable.

Not many, I suspect, would admit to deriving what amounts to their religion from a computer game. But I had rejected conventional religion even as a pre-teen. I balked at Judeo-Christian doctrines that seemed both haphazard and arbitrary: meticulous rules about food and dress, but none about the need to actively seek out and destroy evil (my interpretation of “valor”); commandments against adultery and sabbath-breaking, but none against assault and slavery. Ultima IV, on the other hand, offered a comprehensive and completely nondenominational — secular, even — system of virtue. It fit me like a glove.

There were hundreds of thousands of kids just like Brian and Chester. Ultima IV caused its players to set aside their angst and their irony and try to improve themselves in school lunch rooms and family dinner tables across the land. It was far from the first game with artistic aspirations, far from the first to want to be about something more than escapism; 1985 alone also brought Mindwheel, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and Balance of Power. But those admittedly more philosophically sophisticated efforts appealed mostly to a different, older audience; the average age of the average Infocom buyer was north of thirty, while very few kids indeed had the wherewithal to corner a Macintosh long enough to play Balance of Power even had they been interested in the vagaries of geopolitics. Part of the magic of Ultima IV was that it had been created by a kid just like the ones who mostly played it, raised on Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars, more comfortable with a movie than a novel. Richard Garriott spoke their language, came from the same place they were coming from. Ultima IV, the last of the one-man-band Ultimas, still stands as the most personal expression he would ever create. When he said that ethics matter, that we have the power to choose our values and to live according to them, it resonated because it reflected, as art should, his own lived experience. Yes, many of its players would outgrow Ultima IV‘s simplistic take on ethics, just as many would outgrow the game itself. But hopefully few of that small minority who completed it ever forgot its closing exhortation, delivered as it was in Richard Garriott’s best teenage-Dungeon-Master diction:

Thou must know that the quest to become an Avatar is the endless quest of a lifetime. Avatarhood is a living gift. It must always and forever be nurtured to flourish. For if thou dost stray from the paths of virtue, thy way may be lost forever. Return now unto thine own world. Live there as an example to thy people, as our memory of thy gallant deeds serves us.

(You can download Ultima IV for free from GOG.com. Sources for this article are the same as for the last. I borrowed the diagram of the virtues from Eliott Wall.)

 

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The Road to IV

Ultima IV

Late in the fall of 1983, when it was clear that Ultima III was turning into a huge success and thus that their new company Origin Systems was going to be a viable operation, Robert Garriott came to his little brother Richard with a forlorn plea. Robert, you may remember, had for months been commuting via his private Cessna between the Garriotts’ family home in Houston, whose garage served as Origin’s development studio and assembly line, and North Andover, Massachusetts, where his wife Marcy worked for Bell Labs. It wasn’t, to say the least, an ideal way to run a marriage. Would Richard and the rest of the fledgling company agree to move to North Andover for three years? After that Marcy expected a promotion that should make it much easier for she and Robert to move, and, assuming the company was still alive, they’d then move wherever Richard and the rest liked. Young, unattached, and ready for adventure as they were, just about everyone agreed. They packed their cars with their personal possessions and rented two trucks to fill with supplies, computers, and other equipment — most notably the precious shrink-wrap machine — and headed northeast just weeks later.

That winter was a bad one, with some of the worst storms of the decade. They hit major snow before they got out of Arkansas. Anyone who’s ever seen a Texan trying to drive on snow and ice can perhaps attest to what a miracle it was that they got to North Andover at all. Once there, the snow and bitter cold just continued for months. That first winter wasn’t the best introduction to the place that Richard still calls “the frozen wastes of New England.” He totaled his car on the icy streets within days; his house right next door to his brother Robert’s, which he rented with Chuck Bueche and Mary Fenton, was burglarized not once but twice, resulting in the loss of thousands of dollars worth of computers and home electronics; he and his buddies couldn’t seem to connect with any of the locals, who viewed their Texas accents and strange business of making computer games with suspicion. Things wouldn’t get much better; Richard in particular remained a hopeless fish out of water throughout his time in New England.

The only thing to do was to throw himself into life inside the Origin bubble. He made his own fun, instituting a daily five o’clock ritual called “Rubbaser war,” using $75 graphite-and-steel guns that could shoot rubber bands at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour; they hit with such force that the combatants had to wear helmets. He also continued to celebrate his favorite holiday with elaborate Halloween parties, even if the number of people around him eager to attend them had rather dwindled since the move. The moment when the locals decided once and for all that they wanted nothing to do with him may well have been the first of these: Richard, who was great at preparing for such big events but not so great at cleaning up after himself, left unnervingly realistic-looking bloody body parts strewn across his lawn through much of the following winter.

With Chuck Bueche’s action game Caverns of Callisto having failed to set the industry on fire, Origin now concentrated on, as their tagline would eventually have it, “creating worlds” in the form of big, ambitious games. Soon after the move to New England, they hired Dave Albert away from Penguin Software. Albert, who had majored in journalism at university and served as editor and writer for SoftSide magazine before coming to Penguin, would help Robert Garriott to put a professional face to this collection of young hackers. Albert also brought with him Greg Malone and his game in progress, the very original if polarizing oriental CRPG Moebius. Before releasing their next slate of games after Ultima III and Caverns of Callisto, Origin signed a distribution deal with Electronic Arts, becoming one of the first of what would eventually be quite a number of EA “Affiliated Labels.” This gave the still tiny Origin a badly needed presence in mass-market chains like Toys “R” Us and Sears.

Origin stretched out its tendrils in many intriguing directions during these early days. They entered into a contract with Steve Jackson Games — Steve Jackson was a friend of Richard’s from his Austin SCA troupe — to adapt that company’s popular board game Car Wars for the computer. They also agreed to make a computer game to accompany a planned film version of Morgan Llywelyn’s novel Lion of Ireland; Richard would get to spend two weeks on the set in southern Ireland soaking up the ambiance in the name of research. Richard also made tentative plans with none other than Andrew Greenberg of Wizardry fame to collaborate on “the ultimate fantasy role-playing game.” Most of this came to naught: the movie’s financing fell through and it never got made; the ultimate collaboration remained nothing more than talk. Only the Car Wars project survived, and only after a fashion: Chuck Bueche turned the turn-based board game into the real-time CRPG Autoduel over the considerable misgivings of Steve Jackson.

Meanwhile and preeminently, there was Ultima IV, the game that would change everything for Ultima and for Origin. As was his routine by now, Richard started working on it almost from the moment that Ultima III shipped, starting once again from the previous game’s code base and once again designing and coding virtually everything himself on his trusty Apple II. But, like the fourth Wizardry game that was its obvious competitor, it took much longer to complete than anyone had anticipated. Originally slated for Christmas 1984, it took a final desperate dash just to get it out in time for Christmas 1985.

Anticipation grew all the while. For a game to remain in active, continuous development for two years at that time was virtually unprecedented. Truly Richard Garriott must be doing something amazing. The hints and tidbits that he let drop during interviews certainly sounded good: Ultima IV‘s world map would consist of 256 X 256 tiles, 16 times the size of Ultima III‘s 64 X 64-tile world; there would be a full parser-based conversation engine for talking with others; spells would now require reagents to cast, with the finding of their recipes and ingredients a mini-game within the game; dungeons would now contain “rooms” that opened into a tactical map. Yet the thing that Richard kept bringing up most was none of these incremental improvements, but something he insisted marked a change in the very nature of the game. There would be, he said, no evil character to defeat. Instead the player must become a better person, an “Avatar of Virtue.” What was that all about?

Richard Garriott has told many times the story of how Ultima IV came to be. Akalabeth, Ultima I, and Ultima II had, he says, existed for him in a vacuum — or, maybe better said, an echo chamber. Any fan mail or other feedback from players of those games had never reached him because neither California Pacific nor Sierra had bothered to forward it to him. Once Ultima III came out under his own company’s aegis, however, he started getting a flood of letters telling him how fans really played his games. This generally entailed lots of murdering, stealing, and all-around reprehensible behavior. Now, it’s perhaps a bit surprising that this should come as such a shock to Richard, since those early games essentially forced this behavior on the player if she wished to succeed. Still, the letters set it out all out in unmistakeable black and white, as it were. And then there were the truly crazy letters from religious fundamentalists and anti-Dungeons and Dragons activists, which included such lovely epithets as “Satanic perverter of America’s youth.”

The first few of those letters that I got at the age of 22 really bothered me. You sit back and go, “Gosh, I know I’m not a wicked individual, I know I’m not teaching Satan worship, I know I’m not doing any of these things.” But the fact that someone would think so bothered me. It made me want to call the person up and say, “Look, you’re wrong, you just misinterpreted it.” But of course it would do no good to do so.

“People,” Richard said in another interview, “read things into my games that were simply statistical anomalies in the programming. They thought I was putting messages into the game.” To his mind, those first four games were all simply “here’s some money, here’s some weapons, here’s some monsters, go kill them and you win.” Like the Beatles a generation earlier, he now decided to give those who wanted hidden messages something that actually, you know, existed to think about it. Less facetiously, all of this feedback did make him begin to think seriously for the first time about the sorts of messages his games were delivering, to begin to understand they were not “just games,” that they could and did say something about the world. He began to understand that every creative work says something, whether its creator intends it to do so or not. It says something about the person who created it, the culture he came from, the audience to which it’s expected to appeal. Richard wasn’t sure he liked what his games were saying — albeit all but unbeknownst to their creator — so he decided to take conscious control of his message with Ultima IV.

It makes for kind of a beautiful story about a young man discovering himself as an artist, discovering that the work he puts into the world really does matter. And there’s no reason to believe it isn’t true in the large strokes. That said, there are indications that the full story may be at least a bit more complicated than the glib summary that Richard has given in almost thirty years worth of interviews.

In the November 1983 issue of Softline magazine is an interview with Richard in which he describes his plans for the nascent Ultima IV. Already at this stage the player’s goal was to be to become an enlightened avatar by acquiring sixteen attributes — twice as many as in the finished game.

Fifteen attributes represent powers over forces of nature and life, and the final attribute is clairvoyance. The first fifteen attributes may be obtained through certain great deeds in the physical world: areas like those portrayed by all the previous Ultima games. For the final attribute, the adventurer must make a quest into the ninth plane of Hell (presumably through all the lesser planes as well).

The article goes on to state that the resolutely non-bookish Richard had read Dante’s Inferno by way of preparation, “so we can expect the depictions of the planes to be vivid and graphic.”

This is fascinating stuff on a couple of levels. It’s of course always interesting to see how a major work like Ultima IV evolved (if you didn’t find it so, I assume you wouldn’t be reading this blog). It’s interesting that sixteen “attributes” — a word that positively reeks of Dungeons and Dragons — became a more manageable eight virtues. It’s interesting to note how Dante’s Hell turned into the more abstract Stygian Abyss of the final game, doubtless a very wise decision in light of the easily outraged folks already convinced that fantasy role-playing in general and Ultima in particular were the work of Satan. It’s interesting just to note the influence Dante had on Ultima IV, an influence which, for all the words that have been spilled about the game since its release, appears to have gone completely unremarked in all of them.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the timeline of all this. Given magazine lead times, the interview that led to this article must have been done bare weeks or days after Ultima III‘s release — hardly enough time to let Richard receive lots of fan mail and other feedback on the game, internalize it all, and proceed so far down the road to a response in the form of Ultima IV. If we take that as a given, it leaves open just two alternative possibilities: that Sierra at least had in fact been forwarding to Richard his fan mail (this wouldn’t hugely surprise me; demonizing those first two publishers who did so much to give him his start has unfortunately become one of Richard’s less noble hobbies in recent years), or that this feedback, when it arrived, would be a contributory factor to Ultima IV but not quite the prime motivator it’s become in Richard’s telling. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the other factors that may have been at play here.

It seems likely that the real point of genesis of Ultima IV was not a fan letter but rather a television documentary about the Dead Sea Scrolls. This program, mentioned by Richard in interviews but which I unfortunately haven’t been able to identify more specifically, apparently mentioned in passing the belief held by some Christians and Hindus that Jesus Christ visited India during the so-called “unknown years” of his life, that period between about age twelve and thirty which is not described in the New Testament or any other accepted record. Some such folks believe that Jesus was a Hindu “avatar,” a god descended to earth in human form. Richard was captivated by the concept. He wasn’t the first bright young person to seek in the religions of the East a spiritual alternative to the dogmatic rigidity of the Christianity that he saw around him in his daily life. His august company includes the likes of Roger Zelazny, Steve Jobs, and of course a certain four lads from Liverpool. “I am not a religious individual,” he once said, “but I do have difficulty with the scare tactics that religions use to teach ethics, saying you must be good or something bad will happen to you.”

But what was the religious history of the “not religious” Richard? He described it at greatest length to Shay Addams for The Official Book of Ultima:

My family did go to church when I was very young, but by the time I was in my teens we really didn’t. So I went to Sunday school at an interdenominational church, which was a very interesting upbringing because it was extremely interdenominational. I mean, all sorts of different sects of Christianity as well as Judaism and who knows what else — I was too young to know what else might have been there. But it was very interesting the way Sunday school was taught in this church, which I really believe was an amazingly responsible thing to do: they would read a Biblical story that had a moral to it, and they would tell you why this means achieved this end, and then say, “This is a story put in the Bible to teach this lesson.” Christians believe it because it was recorded in this way, and so on, and they would explain it to you not as “this is fact” but as “this is a story that exists for this purpose.”

Although I was a child, I accepted it as fact, literally, but they didn’t tell me this was fact — that you must believe or you are going to Hell. As an adult, I could reflect upon it and say, “I don’t have to believe that. I understand why it was told, and why it was recorded. But it is my choice as to whether I believe it or not.” My eldest brother is religious; myself and Robert are not. We had a choice, though, which is the point. That is why I find it amazingly responsible, the way they brought us up. My father, for instance, was not religious and my mother only somewhat religious, but they believed it was important that their children have that upbringing as a knowledge base, and they found a place where they could get it. So, we all got to make those choices as adults. I thought that was very responsible on my parents’ part and pretty rare.

The factors that made the notion of an interdenominational church so appealing to the pragmatic Richard were likely the same that drew him to the story of Jesus as Hindu avatar: an emphasis on shared spirituality and shared ethics over the niceties of religious dogma. He became fascinated with Hinduism and in particular with Hindu Yoga. Their influence would be all over that first conception of Ultima IV he outlined for Softline, and internalized somewhat more subtly into the finished game.

They have a belief that there are sixteen ways you could purify yourself. In one of these sixteen ways you would get some sort of power, spiritual power, based on that. Some Yogis can kind of like stop their heart and other bodily functions and things of this nature, and I believe these people can literally do those physical things. I’m not saying why they can do them, but apparently the biggest, most powerful Yogis can even do things like teleport themselves to other places on the planet, which I have never seen personally and am somewhat skeptical of, but you never know. But it’s a very interesting thing that the Hindus believe Christ was a very powerful Yogi who, when he studied with them, attained the most powerful level, the avatar. The culmination of Yogis is to become an avatar, and the definition of an avatar is someone who has purified themselves in all sixteen of these ways.

There are five ways of purifying your physical body, for example, and five ways of purifying your spirit, and so on, and the last one, the sixteenth way, was to become one with God Himself. Interestingly enough, to this day Hindus say there have been two avatars in existence throughout history: one was a woman who predates written history, and the second one was Christ.

Garriott’s conception of Hinduism and Yoga is, shall we say, a somewhat idiosyncratic and confused one, steeped at least as much in Dungeons and Dragons and his work-hard-and-achieve upbringing as Hindu or Biblical scripture; this was after all still the kid who had named the villain in Ultima III “Exodus” just because it sounded cool. Thus we have Christ “leveling up” until he becomes an avatar — a word which itself means something different in Hinduism from what Richard seems to think it means — at level 16. Still, what Richard learned or thought he learned about Hinduism and Yoga would remain a critical piece of Ultima IV.

If we postulate a new concern with the messages that his games were sending and a renewed interest in religion — particularly Hinduism — as two legs of the three-legged stool on which rests Ultima IV, the last must be something even more universal: the simple life experience of growing up. Richard had, truth be told, lived a pretty sheltered existence to this point in the bosom of his family and NASA and his Dungeons and Dragons buddies and later of the University of Texas and his SCA troupe. Escapism, whether into fantasy or just the well-scrubbed safety of high-school science fairs, is an obvious running theme. By Richard’s own admission, he was if anything quite immature for his age when Origin decamped for New England. But now he was suddenly living in a house he and his friends were renting for themselves, far from home in the “frozen wastes” of Massachusetts. He was becoming an adult at last, with adult responsibilities.

Lord British in leather

Lord British in leather

Richard started to feel his oats a bit during this period. He found his rather mild rebellious streak later than do many of us, but this did give him the luxury of something teenage rebels mostly lack: money. And so he replaced the practical car he had totaled in the snow with a new Mitsubishi Starion painted a striking jet black. He took to dressing in black leather pants and jacket, with studded bracelets around his wrists. He grew a single strand of hair into a long, braided pony tail that stretched beyond his shoulder blades. His relationship with his “extraordinarily conservative” brother and next-door neighbor Robert became decidedly strained; it seems Robert was usually more inclined to agree with his other neighbors than Richard regarding the latter’s parties and other antics. Warren Spector, a game designer who would become an important contributor to later Ultimas, was working as an assistant editor at Steve Jackson Games in Austin at this time. He describes the version of Richard that he glimpsed for the first time during one of the latter’s occasional return visits to Austin thus: “In drove this rock star in his Mitsubishi, all black. Got out, all black, bling everywhere. I was thinking, okay, I’m in the wrong line of work, I’ve got to find a way to work with this guy!”

The changes were not just external. Richard went through something of a minor existential crisis: “I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing anymore. I tried to figure out who I was and what I was going to do next.” Trivial as it may sound, when Robert Garriott shook his head in embarrassment and the neighbors scowled at the body parts strewn across his lawn after Halloween or the empty trash cans that remained unretrieved at roadside for days on end, he was learning that actions — or, as the case may be, inaction — has consequences. All of these factors led Richard, like so many idealistically-inclined young men before him, to try to develop a philosophy of life that made sense to him. Richard was unique, however, in that he planned to put it all into a computer game — indeed, he saw doing so almost as a duty. He was well aware that the audience for his games was a pretty young and impressionable one, the most common demographic category being an adolescent boy.

If someone spends 100 hours playing my game, I have 100 hours of the input that makes that person what they are. With that comes, in my mind, a sense of responsibility regarding the content of what I’m going to pipeline into that individual for 100 hours. That was really the kernel thought that started what has now really changed Ultima henceforth and probably forever.

He set himself no less a task than the development of a complete code of ethics, a set of rules for living. As interesting as he found Hinduism and other religious traditions, it was very important to him that his rules for living must be explicitly divorced from any sort of supernatural agency. Some of the most brilliant thinkers in history, a list including Plato, Kant, and Nietzsche just for starters, devoted their lives to wrestling with the same task. Now the 22-year-old college drop-out Richard Garriott hung up a whiteboard, bought a stack of books, and prepared to do the same. The biggest issues he’d wrestled with for previous Ultimas were how many hit points this or that monster should have or how many experience points it should take to raise a character’s level. Now he was trying to devise a complete, internally consistent system of moral philosophy. It was a heady change indeed. Rather typically, Richard found the basic building blocks of the system of ethics he would finally include in Ultima IV not in any of the aforementioned highbrow philosophers but in The Wizard of Oz.

And that makes a pretty good place to stop for today. Next time we’ll look more closely at the ethical system he devised, along with much else in the finished game. Before I let you go, though, I do want to ask you to think about just what a remarkable conceptual leap Richard Garriott was making here, a leap made all the more remarkable by the fact that he did it all on its own, in a vacuum that still contained barely a whiff of our contemporary notions of serious games or ludic rhetoric, and in the genre of the CRPG that had heretofore been about little more than killing monsters and taking their stuff, with none of the higher-toned literary aspirations that Infocom and their competitors had brought to the text adventure.

Above all, it was — and I think this is a very important point with which to close — a tremendously brave choice. Richard was desperately worried about how it would be received by a public who expected just a bigger version of Ultima III. Should enough of those players accustomed to “kill, kill, kill” reject the game, it could bring down his company and put most of his closest friends out of work. The stress actually caused him to suffer the occasional panic attack while he programmed; his stomach would suddenly cramp up and he would have to lie down, willing himself to just breathe. “To succeed in this game,” he notes, “you had to radically change the way you’d ever played a game before.” This was the leap that the creators of Wizardry were unable to make, the one that transformed Ultima forevermore into something just a little bit nobler, a little bit more important, a little bit better than competing franchises. The fact that Richard was willing to make that leap, and that — yes, I’m sparing you the suspense — his public responded to it in huge numbers, makes it in its way as inspiring a story as any you’ll find in gaming history. Robert Gregg’s comments in Dungeons and Dreamers, describing the revelation that Ultima IV was to him when he first encountered it, offer the perfect closing thoughts: “The game was commenting on society, and on the observer himself, just like other forms of art. That was the most exciting part to me — watching the emergence of a new form of art, coming right off the computer.” You and me both, Robert.

(Sources for this article and the next include the books The Official Book of Ultima by Shay Addams, Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland, and Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; the Computer Gaming World issues of September/October 1984, November/December 1985, and March 1986; the Questbusters of August 1985; the Softline of November/December 1983; and the Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985. Also useful were Warren Spector’s video interview with Richard Garriott, and Matt Barton’s with Richard Garriott and with Chuck Bueche.)

 

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Ultima III in Pictures

Ultima III

There’s a lot of interesting stuff to talk about in Ultima III, to the extent that I wasn’t quite sure how to wedge it all into a conventional review. So I decided to try this approach, to balance my usual telling with quite a bit of showing. Or something like that. Anyway, I found it fun to do.

If you’re inspired to play Ultima III yourself, know that Good Old Games is selling it in a collection which also contains Ultima I and II. Less legitimately, there are the usual abandonware sites and ROM collections where you can find the original Apple II version that I play here, but you’re on your own there. Some spoilers do follow, although Ultima III is tricky enough that you may just welcome whatever little bit of guidance you glean from this post.


Ultima III

Garriott was really proud of his game’s subtitle, Exodus, to the extent that in the game itself and most early advertising it’s actually more prominent than the Ultima name. He draws no connection to its meaning as an English noun or to the Bible. It’s simply a cool-sounding word that he takes as the name of his latest evil wizard, the love child of his two previous evil wizards, Mondain from Ultima I and Minax from Ultima II. Roe R. Adams III did make a somewhat strained attempt to draw a connection to the expected implications of the word in the manual via a recasting of an old seafaring mystery:

One possible clue as to the identity of thy nemesis has been discovered. A derelict merchant ship was recently towed into port. No crewmen were aboard, alive or dead. Everyone had vanished, as if plucked by some evil force off the boat. The only thing found was a word written in blood on the deck: EXODUS.

I never hear anything about this ghost ship in the game itself. Also left unexplained, as it was in Ultima II, is why Mondain was on Garriott’s fantasy world of Sosaria and Minax was on our own Earth. This time I’m stuck back on Sosaria again. Garriott would finally get more serious about making an Ultima mythos that makes some kind of sense with the next game, but for now… let’s just say I won’t be spending much more time discussing the plotting or the worldbuilding.


Ultima III

In Ultima III I get to create and control a full party of four adventurers rather than a single avatar. This is actually the only Ultima that works quite this way. Later games would use the code Garriott first developed here to allow players to have more than one person in their parties, but would start them off with a single avatar. Finding other adventurers in the game world itself and convincing them to join would become part of the experience of play and an important component of those games’ much richer plots.


Ultima II

Ultima III

With my party created, I’m dumped into Sosaria, right outside the town of Britain and the castle of Lord British in what has already become by Ultima III a time-honored tradition.

One of the fascinating aspects of playing through the Ultima games in order is seeing which pieces are reused from earlier games and which are replaced. Programming often really is a game of interchangeable parts. On the left above is Ultima II, on the right Ultima III. The same old tile engine that dates back to Ultima I is still in place in both games, but Ultima III changes the screen layout considerably and makes everything a bit more attractive and ornate within the considerable limitations of the Apple II. It no longer uses the Apple II’s mixed display mode that displays text rather than graphics on the bottom four lines of the screen. Instead the whole screen is now given over to a graphics display, with a character generator, once an exotic piece of technology but by 1983 commonplace, used to put words anywhere on the screen.


Ultima III

When I enter a town for the first time another of Ultima III‘s additions to the old tile-graphics engine becomes clear: a line-of-sight algorithm now prevents me from seeing through walls. This adds an extra dimension of realism, but proves to be a mixed blessing. We’ll talk about why that is in just a little bit.


Ultima II

Ultima III

And when I run into a couple of wandering orcs for the first time I see another big addition: a separate strategic-combat screen that pops up when a fight begins. You can see that on the right above; the old Ultima II system of flailing in place on the map screen is on the left. The earlier system would obviously be unworkable with a party of four. Unlike with Wizardry, combat has never been the heart of Ultima‘s appeal, but that doesn’t mean you don’t spend a lot of time — maybe too much time — in Ultima III engaging in it. The new system does add some welcome interest to the old formula. I can now move each character about individually, use missile weapons (a highly recommended strategy that lets me take out many monsters before they can get close enough to damage me), and cast quite a variety of offensive and defensive spells. Less wonderfully, all those random encounters with orcs and cutthroats now take much more time to resolve, which is one of the things that can turn Ultima III into quite the slog by the time all is said and done. Also contributing to the tedium: in a harbinger of certain modern CRPGs, random encounters are balanced to suit the general potency of my party, thus guaranteeing that they will still take some time even once I have quite a powerful group of characters.


Ultima III

As part of a general tightening of the game’s mechanics likely prompted by unfavorable comparisons of previous Ultimas to previous Wizardries, the strange system of hit points as a commodity purchasable from Lord British has finally been overhauled. Now healing works as you might expect: each character has a maximum number of hit points which Lord British raises by 100 every time I visit him after gaining a level. Alas, this works only until level 25 and 2500 hit points. At least I don’t have to pay him for his trouble anymore. In the screenshot above his “Experience more!” means that I haven’t yet gained a level for him to boost my hit-point total; small wonder, as all my characters are still level 1.


Ultima III

Ultima III

Having gotten the initial lay of the land, I settle into the rhythm of building my characters, exploring the world map, and talking to everyone I can find in the towns. The latter process, like so much in Ultima III, is equal parts frustrating and gratifying. The good citizens of Sosaria insist on speaking in the most cryptic of riddles. And here we see the darker side of Garriott’s new line-of-sight system: most of the most vital clue-givers are tucked away in the most obscure possible corners of the towns, like the fellow shown in the screenshot above and left. I have to scour every town square by tedious square to be absolutely certain I haven’t missed a vital clue, a vital link in a chain of tasks required to win that is much more complicated than those found in the earlier games. On the other hand, the gratification that comes when another piece of the puzzle falls into place is considerable. Ultima has always been better at delivering that thrill of exploration than just about any other CRPG.

There are in many places in Ultima III some small kindnesses, some elements that, once I figure out how they work, can make things easier. In the screenshot to the right I’m using a magic gem, purchasable from thieves guilds in a couple of the towns, to get a bird’s-eye view of the town I’m currently in. Ferreting out these secrets and hidden mechanics contributes to another thing Ultima always does well: making you feel smart.


Ultima III

Ultima III

Still, it’s possible to take this whole discovery thing too far. In one of the more astonishing design decisions in Ultima III, Garriott has consciously engineered into his hotkey-driven interface an element of guess the verb. After all, why should text adventurers have all the fun? There’s a mysterious OTHER command this time, which lets me enter new verbs. Divining what these are depends on my sussing that words surrounded by “<>” in characters’ speech refer to new verbs. (“<SEARCH> the shrines.”) A very strange design choice, which does a good job of illustrating the gulf in player expectations between now and then, when guess the verb was still trumpeted by many as an essential element of adventure games rather than just a byproduct of their technical limitations. Given that, why not try to engineer it into Ultima, a series which always tried to offer more, more, more? Thankfully, it would disappear again from Ultima IV, in what could be read as another reflection of changing player expectations.

In the screenshot at left above I’ve just used the hidden verb “BRIBE” to convince a guard who just a second before was standing right next to me to go away for the modest fee of 100 gold. Now I can go into the shop and steal with relative impunity. (Ultima III is, as we’ll continue to see, very much an amoral world, the last Ultima about which that can be said.) Bribing is only useful; other hidden verbs are vital.

For instance, the second screenshot above shows me gathering a piece of important information using the hidden verb “PRAY” inside a temple. This is actually quite an interesting sequence. PRAYing yields the information that I must YELL — YELL being one of the standard hotkey-based commands — “EVOCARE” at a certain place. It’s perilously closed to two guess-the-verb — or at least guess-the-word — puzzles joined together.


Ultima III

Ultima III

We see an interesting re-purposing of previous Ultima technology in the form of the eight moon gates which wink in and out of existence in a set pattern on the world map. In Ultima II, you may recall, these supposedly allowed me to travel through time, although effectively they just provided access to different world maps; nothing I did in one time could have any direct effect on any of the others. Here they’re renamed and used more honestly, as ways to move quickly from place to place on the primary world map. (There are only two world maps this time, the primary one and an alternate world called Ambrosia which we’ll get to shortly.) They also allow me to reach a few places that are otherwise completely inaccessible, as the screenshot at right above illustrates. Well, okay… I could also get there with a ship, an element we’ll talk about later. But that’s not always the case; there’s at least one vital location that can be visited only via moon gate. Thus understanding the logic of the moon gates and charting their patterns is another critical aspect of cracking the puzzle of Ultima III. Moon gates would continue to be a fixture in the Ultimas to come.


Ultima III

Ultima III

Garriott had completely rewritten his dungeon-delving engine for Ultima II, replacing what had been the slowest and most painful part of Ultima I with a snappy new piece that replaced a wire-frame portrait of the surroundings with glorious filled-in color. It’s easily the most impressive and appreciated improvement in that game. But then, like so much else in Ultima II, he squandered it by giving his players no reason to go there. Thus Ultima III almost feels like the new dungeon engine’s real debut. Not only can I harvest a lot of desperately needed gold from the dungeons, but I must also explore them to find five vital “marks” that give special abilities which are in turn key to solving the game. And at the bottom of the Dungeon of Time I meet the Time Lord. (Garriott’s Time Bandits fixation had apparently not yet completely runs its course — or are we now dealing with a Doctor Who obsession?) He gives a portentous clue that will be vital to the end-game.


Ultima III

Ultima III

Sosaria is still a world where might makes right. Lord British, the supposedly benevolent monarch, has a dirty little secret, an ugly torture chamber hidden in the depths of his castle. It’s almost enough to make you ask who’s really the evil one here. The manual talks a good game about Exodus, but he doesn’t actually do anything at all in the game itself, just hangs out in his castle and waits for us to come kill him. Meanwhile Lord British has torture chambers, and his lands are beset with monsters trying to kill me, and he seems completely disinterested in helping me beyond boosting my hit points from time to time. Nor am I exactly morally pure: my own mission in the torture chamber is not to save the fellow who’s been thrown into a lake of fire, merely to extract some information from him.

The screenshot at the right shows an even more morally questionable episode, albeit one that requires a bit more explanation. I’m the one on the horse. Each of the three clerics next to me has a critical clue to convey. However, I can’t interact on a diagonal, meaning that the one at bottom right is inaccessible to me — unless I open up a lane by killing one of his companions in cold blood, that is. I want to emphasize here that the clue the inaccessible cleric has to offer is absolutely necessary; he tells where to dig for some special weapons and armor that provide the only realistic way to survive the end-game in Exodus’s castle. Thus the only way forward is, literally, murder, and it’s a conscious design choice on Garriott’s part. Of course, he didn’t think of it quite that way. He just saw it as an interesting mechanic for a puzzle, having not yet made the leap himself from mechanics to experiential fiction. Again, all of that would change with Ultima IV.


Ultima III

Ultima III

Speaking of horses: given Garriott’s newfound willingness to edit, the vehicles available to me in Ultima III are neither so plentiful nor so outrageous as they were in Ultima II. The ridiculous and ridiculously cool airplane, for instance, is gone.

I can buy horses for my party in a couple of towns. These let me move overland a bit faster, using less food and avoiding many of the wandering monsters and the endless combats they bring which can test the patience of the hardiest of players. A ship can be acquired only by taking it from one of the roving bands of pirates that haunt the coastline. There aren’t actually a lot of pirates about, which can get very frustrating; a ship is required to visit several important areas of the game, and finding one can be tough. In the right-hand screenshot above I’ve sailed to an island, where, following the lead of the cleric whose companion I killed in cold blood, I’ve dug up the aforementioned special weapons that are required to harm Exodus’s innermost circle of minions.


Ultima III

Ultima III

I also need a ship to get to the alternate world of Ambrosia, which I can manage only by the counter-intuitive step of sailing into a whirlpool. Here I find shrines to each of the four abilities, the only ways to raise my scores above their starting values. Doing so is vital; in Ultima III‘s still somewhat strange system, ability scores have much more effect on my performance in combat and other situations than my character level. For instance, the number and power of spells I can cast has nothing to do with my level, only with my intelligence (wizard spells) or wisdom (cleric spells).

The explicitly Christian imagery in these shrines, and occasionally in other places in the game, is worth noting. It’s doubtless a somewhat thoughtless result of Garriott’s SCA activities and his accompanying fascination with real medieval culture, but it could certainly be read as disrespectful, a trivializing of religious belief. It’s the sort of thing that TSR, creators of Dungeons and Dragons, were always smart enough to stay well away from (not that it always helped them to avoid controversy). Similarly, you definitely will never see crosses in a big-budget modern fantasy CRPG.


Ultima III

Ready at last, I piece together a string of clues and sail to the “Silver Snake”. There I yell the password “EVOCARE” to enter Exodus’s private grotto. The Silver Snake itself provides a good illustration of just how intertwined the early Ultima games were with Garriott’s own life. And the anecdote that explains its presence here also shows some of the difficulties of trying to pin down the facts about Garriott’s life and career.

Growing up in Houston in the mid-1970s, Garriott was one of the few people to see the infamously awful adventure film Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. Members of the lost Central American tribe that Savage battles in the movie all bear a tattoo on their chest of the Mayan god Kulkulkan, about whom little is known today apart from his symbol: a serpent.

Kulkulkan

Young Richard thought the symbol so cool-looking that he went to his mother’s silversmithing workshop in that room above his family’s garage that would one day house Origin Systems and made the design — or as close an approximation as he could manage — for himself. He put his new amulet on a chain made from one of his mother’s belts. He told Shay Addams about it circa 1990:

“And this chain now resides around my neck 365 days a year, 24 hours a day — it has essentially remained there for the rest of my life ever since the day I put it on. There is no way to remove it without taking a screwdriver to it and prying open one of the links. For the first couple of years that I wore it, I actually had a link that I used to open and close a little bit. After I realized I was wearing out something by doing that, I quit doing it, so this necklace has remained here ever since. It literally never comes off. The chain was gold-colored with I first put it on. As it wears off, the colors keep changing, and now it rusts on my neck. I mean literally, every day. When I go, I may die of rust poisoning or something.”

Shortly after finishing Ultima III, Garriott loaned the original to his father Owen to carry with him on his second and final trip into space. It went into space again with Richard himself in 2008, and it seems that he still wears it frequently if not constantly. For what it’s worth, the color now seems to be a dull silver, almost a pewter shade.

But… wait. A close look at the early portrait of Origin Systems I published earlier shows that he doesn’t seem to be wearing it there, although Ken Arnold is using either the original or a duplicate as a key ring. Various other contemporary photos show no evidence of a chain or amulet, at least not of the construction and bulk of the one he wears to public appearances in recent years. Now, you could say that to even question this is petty, and in a very real sense you’d be right. Really what does it matter whether he never takes the serpent medallion off or whether it’s merely a precious link to his past that he wears on special occasions? I mention it here only because it points to how slippery everything involving Garriott can be, how much the man often seems to prefer SCA-style legend over the messier world of historical facts, and by extension how eager his interviewers and chroniclers often are to mythologize rather than document. That in turn forces me to spend far more time than I’d like to debunking or at least double-checking everything he says and much of what is said about him. But we’ve moved far afield from Ultima III now, so enough beating of this particular dead horse.


Ultima III

Ultima III

As I’ve mentioned before, Garriott excised most of the anachronistic science-fiction elements from Ultima III to focus on fantasy. But notice that I said “most.” When I get to the grand climax at last, I learn that Exodus apparently is in fact… a giant deranged computer in the tradition of Star Trek. The four magic cards I quested for were apparently punched cards — Exodus is an old-fashioned evil computer — that I need to use to shut him down or change his programming or… something. Of course, none of this make a lick of sense — how did Mondain and Minax manage to breed a computer child? But I dutifully insert the cards and shut him down, and am left to “speculation” about Ultima IV.

In that spirit, let’s note that Garriott himself sees the Ultimas through Ultima III as essentially technical exercises, written “to satisfy my personal interest in seeing how much better a game I could put together with the skills I’d acquired while creating the previous game.” While his technology would continue to improve, with Ultima III it reached a certain point of fruition at which it was capable of delivering more than an exercise in rote mechanics, was capable of sustaining real experiential fictions. Garriott didn’t entirely realize that at the time he was writing Ultima III, and thus the game takes only the most modest of steps in that direction. When he started on the next one, however, it would all come home. In a way, it’s with that game that Ultima really became Ultima as we remember it today. We have much else to talk about before we get there, but I hope you’ll still be around when we do. With Ultima III Garriott had his foundation in place. Next would come the cathedral.

 

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The Legend of Escape from Mt. Drash

The only published advert for Escape from Mt. Drash

Ultima collectors are a hardy and dedicated lot, not only authoring web sites but even huge books on their passion. An oddity called Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash has for years been rivaled only by the original hand-assembled Akalabeth as the Holy Grail for these folks. Drash, a game for of all platforms the lowly Commodore VIC-20, trickled out of Sierra in the spring of 1983, achieved miniscule distribution and miniscule sales, then vanished from history. For some years there was reason to wonder whether it had actually been released at all, rather than only being something that came and went from a single advertisement (as shown above, from the July 1983 Compute!) and a few product catalogs. Only in 2000 was a working copy of the game finally found, “at the bottom of a cliff in British Columbia” amidst a pile of other old, unsold software apparently dumped long before by a retailer or distributor.

As befits a Holy Grail, a legend sprung up around Drash that consisted of a few known facts woven together within a tapestry of conjecture. Drash, the story went, was an attempt by Sierra to make a quick buck off the Ultima name by releasing a slapdash game to the VIC-20 market, terra incognita to Richard Garriott, without his knowledge or consent. The implication is that someone at Sierra eventually got nervous about this dubious scheme and buried the game — in some versions of the story literally, by dumping remaining copies into a landfill in a tale that echoes the (itself likely exaggerated) tale of Atari’s dumping of millions of E.T. cartridges into a New Mexico landfill that same year. It’s a glib story which seems to explain much about the game’s obscurity while also investing it with a nice dollop of the nefarious, a plus for collectors of an industry that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly rife with the sort of dark secrets and forbidden fruits that their pals who collect, say, vintage records get to enjoy. Yet it’s also a story that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, to an extent that it’s hard to understand how so many bright people could buy into it. There are two serious objections, either of which would make it highly improbable. Together they make it impossible to believe.

We should first of all take note of the author of Drash: Keith Zabalaoui. Zabalaoui was a member of what I somewhat facetiously called Garriot’s “entourage” in my previous post, one of his old high-school running buddies who hung around with him in Houston and helped from time to time with his various projects. It could only have been through Garriott that Zabalaoui came into contact with Sierra in the first place. So, the legend requires us to believe that Zabalaoui met the folks at Sierra through Garriott and sold them a game, then agreed with them to secretly release it as an illegitimate knockoff of his friend’s work. Finally, after publishing the game and receiving at least some sort of royalties he continued to keep the whole affair a secret from his buddy. That’s behavior that borders on the sociopathic. There are also some serious plotting problems to this little narrative; didn’t Richard ever say, “Hey, Keith, whatever happened to that game you were working on for Sierra?”

And then let’s look at this from the other side, from the viewpoint of Sierra. Yes, the company may have started with advertising pasted together from newspaper clippings around Ken and Roberta Williams’s kitchen table, but those days were already long gone by early 1983. Sierra was by then negotiating licensing deals with Big Media players like The Jim Henson Company and accepting millions from venture capitalists who saw them as major players in a major emerging industry. Can we really believe that such a company, which by now employed a substantial legal team, would risk their reputation by sticking someone else’s trademarked name on a game in the hopes of making a quick few (tens of?) thousands of dollars and maybe sticking it somehow to Garriott, the man who had recently jilted them? As John Williams says, “Sierra On-Line management was young but not stupid.” Ken Williams had been closely involved in the complications of securing for Garriott and Sierra legal right to the Ultima name from the now defunct California Pacific after Garriott had first agreed to sign with Sierra. To imagine that he would then just blatantly steal the trademark is… well, absurd is perhaps being kind. To imagine that the legal team the venture capitalists insisted be in place would even allow him to do so is to fail to understand how such relationships work.

So, the true story is, as these things so often go, more prosaic than the legend. Zabalaoui did visit Sierra in Garriott’s company, where he was inspired to start work on a simple maze-running action game. When he eventually showed the finished product to them, they were doubtful. It wasn’t a terrible game, but it wasn’t a great one either. And by early 1983 the huge but breathtakingly short-lived VIC-20 software market had already passed its peak and started on a downward slope that would soon turn into a veritable cliff as the ever-plunging price of the vastly more capable Commodore 64 made the older machine more and more irrelevant. And Zabalaoui’s game required more than just a VIC-20: one also needed to have the 8 K memory expansion (to boost the machine’s RAM from just 5 K to 13 K) and a cassette drive, since it was too large to be installed onto a cartridge. Most of the kids who owned VIC-20s as learning toys or game machines didn’t equip them with such luxuries. Sierra hemmed and hawed, and then made a suggestion: if they could maybe market it as an Ultima that might help… Garriott was perhaps not thrilled with Sierra at this point in time, but he was always good to his friends. When Zabalaoui came to him with Sierra’s request, Garriott agreed, likely more as a personal favor to someone who had helped him out with his own projects quite a bit in the past than anything else. Today, of course, when the industry is so much more mature and so much more sensitive to the power of branding, one in Garriott’s position would never risk tarnishing his trademark in such a way. But in 1983 both Garriott and his industry were still very young.

Even with the Ultima name, Sierra was obviously skeptical about the game’s chances, particularly as the VIC-20 software market continued to decline even as packaging was prepared and the game was sent off for duplication. They manufactured the minimum quantity required by their contract with Zabalaoui, on the order of a few thousand units, placed that one halfhearted advertisement, and watched with disinterest as the game foundered commercially. The vast majority of the production run was likely, like that first copy that was rediscovered in 2000, written off and trashed, whether by Sierra themselves or their various distributors. It’s an example of a phenomenon you see from time to time in business, where a project about which no one (with the possible exception in this case of Zabalaoui) feels terribly enthusiastic just sort of drifts to completion through inertia and the lack of anyone stepping up to kill it with a definitive “no.” In this case that led to Escape from Mt. Drash passing into history as the first of the spin-off Ultimas, games that are not part of the main sequence but nevertheless use the name. Future entries in that category would actually be some of the most impressive to bear the Ultima name; Mt. Drash, however, should most definitely not be included in that group.

I’m not the first one to reveal the true story of Escape from Mt. Drash. John Williams has occasionally tried to correct the record in the past via comments to other blog posts and the like that repeated the legend. Recently it has begun to seem that word is finally getting out. Blogger Pix had the opportunity to interact with Garriott personally last year, and asked him directly about the Mt. Drash legend. Garriott at last confirmed to him that he had known about the game and duly authorized its release.

So why should I take up the cause now? Well, there are still plenty of online sources that repeat the legend. I’d thus like to add this blog’s weight — to whatever extent it has weight — to the true story. This I partly do as a favor to John Williams, who has gifted me (and you) with so many memories and insights on the early days of Sierra and the industry as a whole. John is, understandably enough, annoyed at the persistence of this falsehood, as it directly impinges the honor of Sierra and by extension himself.

More generally — and yes, I know I rant about this more than I should — this can serve as a lesson to people who consider themselves historians in this field to be a bit more rigorous, and not to substitute easy assumptions for research. I won’t get into the original source of the false legend here, only say that I’m disappointed that it was repeated for so long without ever being seriously questioned. When you are thinking of saying something that directly accuses people of unethical dealings you really need to be sure of your facts and careful with your words. Frankly, that’s a lesson that Richard Garriott himself could learn; despite my admiration for his vision and persistence as a gaming pioneer, I find his glib dismissal of the folks at California Pacific and Sierra who launched his career as dishonest, “stupid bozoos,” and “heavy drug users” to be unconscionable. It’s a lesson his fans should also take to heart.

If you do have one of those websites that repeats the legend of Escape from Mt. Drash… hey, it happens. I’ve made a hash of things myself once or twice in public. But maybe think about taking a moment to make a correction? I’m sure that at the very least John Williams and the others who built Sierra would appreciate it.

 

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Origin Systems

Early days in the garage at Origin. Top row, from left: Ken Arnold, Mike Ward, Laurie Thatcher, James Van Artsdalen, Helen Garriott, John Van Artsdalen. Bottom row: Richard Garriott, Robert Garriott, Chuck Bueche.

Early days in the garage at Origin. Top row, from left: Ken Arnold, Mike Ward, Laurie Thatcher, James Van Artsdalen, Helen Garriott, John Van Artsdalen. Bottom row: Richard Garriott, Robert Garriott, Chuck Bueche.

When we last checked in with Richard Garriott, he had just released Ultima II under the imprint of Sierra Online. Despite all of the pain and tension of its extended development process and the manifold design flaws that resulted from that, Ultima II proved to be a hit, selling over 50,000 copies within the first year or so and eventually approaching sales of 100,000. Contemporary reviews were uniformly stellar. In contrast to Ultima II‘s modern reputation as the black sheep of the Ultima family, reviewers of the era seemed so entranced by the scope and vision of the game, so much grander than anything else out there, that they were willing to overlook all of the useless spinning gears that didn’t connect with anything else and the many things that just didn’t make sense even by the generous standards of CRPG storytelling. Only one review that I’ve seen takes note of Ultima II‘s strangely disconnected design elements at all, James A. McPherson’s piece for Computer Gaming World. Even he bends over backwards to put the best possible interpretation on it:

My only thought as I finished the game was that very little of this enormous work was really being utilized as being required to finish the game. It was almost as if this was only a small initial quest to give you the lay of the land and that additional scenarios would be released, each one using more of the game until the “Ultimate” quest was finished.

No “additional scenarios” would have a chance to appear even if Garriott or someone at Sierra had read this review and thought it a good idea. As McPherson wrote those words Garriott’s relationship with Sierra was falling to pieces.

As I described in my earlier article, the relationship had been full of tension for months before the release of Ultima II. Big, blustery Ken Williams of Sierra took pretty good care of his people and was beloved by most of them for it, but he never let it be forgot that he considered them his people; he always made it clear who was ultimately in charge. Richard Garriott, younger and quieter than Ken though he may have been, had just as strong a will. He just wasn’t going to be the junior partner in anything. In fact, he even had a small entourage of his own, some of his old running buddies from high school who assisted with his projects in various ways. Most prominent amongst this group were Ken Arnold, Keith Zabalaoui, and Chuck Bueche (immortalized as “Chuckles the Jester” in many an Ultima), the latter two of whom also spent time in Oakhurst at the Sierra offices. Throw in a serious culture clash between the free-spirited California lifestyle of Sierra and the conservatism of Garriott’s suburban Texas upbringing and a final blow-up was probably inevitable. It came just weeks after Ultima II‘s release.

Through much of 1982 Sierra was essentially a two-platform shop. Most of their games were developed on the Apple II, and then those that were successful would be ported to the Atari 8-bit line. (A minority, such as the works of Atari stalwart John Harris, went in the opposite direction.) Accordingly, immediately upon signing Garriott Sierra had not only re-released Ultima I, whose rights they recovered from the now defunct California Pacific as part of the deal, but also funded a port of that game to the Atari machines. Ultima II‘s Atari port was done by prior agreement by Chuck Bueche for a piece of Garriott’s generous royalties. By this time, however, it was becoming clear that Sierra would need to support more than just these two platforms if they wished to remain a major player in the exploding software industry. They therefore funded an additional port of Ultima II, without Garriott’s direct oversight, to the IBM PC. (Another unsupervised port, to the Commodore 64, would follow later in 1983.) The contract he had signed not only allowed Sierra to choose where and when to port Ultima II, but also allowed them to pay Garriott a considerably lower royalty for ports with which he and his entourage were not involved. Effectively he would be paid as the designer only, not as the designer and the programmer. Garriott, who had apparently overlooked this aspect of the contract, felt like he was being swindled even though Sierra remained well within the letter of the law. You can choose to see all of this as you like, as Ken Williams slyly manipulating contract law to put one over on his naive young signee or as a simple failure of due diligence on Garriott’s part.

Regardless, Garriott had consciously or subconsciously been looking for a reason to split with Sierra for some time. Now he had a suitable grievance. Luckily, he had been wise enough to retain the right to the Ultima name. Even Ultima I and II were given exclusively to Sierra only for a few years before reverting back to their creator. There was thus nothing stopping him from continuing the Ultima series elsewhere.

But where? He certainly had no shortage of suitors, among them Trip Hawkins, who pitched hard for Garriott to become one of his electronic artists. Still, Richard wasn’t sure that he wanted to get in bed with yet another publisher at all. He talked it over with his business adviser, his older brother Robert, who in the best over-educated tradition of the Garriott family was just finishing his second Master’s degree at MIT with the thesis “Cross Elasticity Demand for Computer Games.” Robert proposed that they start their own publisher, with him managing the business side and Richard and his buddy Chuck Bueche the technical and creative. And so Origin Systems was born. It would be a little while before they came up with their brilliant slogan — “We Create Worlds” — but just the company name itself was pretty great. It probably owed something to the Origins Games Fair, one of the two most prominent North American conventions for tabletop gamers of all types. Richard, who had played Dungeons and Dragons obsessively in high school and at university in Austin had become an intimate of Steve Jackson Games, had deep roots in that culture. Richard, Robert, their father Owen, and Chuck Bueche all put up money — with the lion’s share naturally coming from the relatively flush Richard — to become the founders of a new games publisher.

Everything about the young (literally; look at their picture above!) Origin Systems was bizarre, even by startup standards. They set up shop in Richard’s personal playhouse, a space above the Garriott family’s three-car garage which had once served as an art studio for his mother but had been commandeered by Richard and his friends years before for their D&D games. It was a big room scattered with desks, chairs, and even cots. Here Richard and his friends set up their various computers. A little cubbyhole at one end served as Robert’s business office. Robert himself was still officially living in Massachusetts with his wife, who had quite a career of her own going as a manager at Bell Labs and thus couldn’t move. Robert, however, was a pilot with a little Cessna at his disposal. He spent three weeks of each month in Houston, then flew back to spend the last with his wife in Massachusetts.

Together Chuck Bueche and Richard worked feverishly on the games that would become Origin Systems’s first two products. Chuck’s was an action game called Caverns of Callisto; Richard’s was of course the big one upon which they were all depending to get Origin properly off the ground, Ultima III.

Given its flagship status, Garriott felt compelled to try to remedy some of the shortcomings of his earlier games. In particular, he was obviously eying the Wizardry series; for all of the Ultima series’s stellar reviews and sales, the first two Wizardry games had garnered even better and more of both. Much of what’s new in Ultima III is there in the name of addressing his series’s real or perceived failings in comparison with Wizardry. Thus he replaced the single adventurer of the early games with a full party which the player must manage; added a new strategic combat screen to make fights more interesting; added a full magic system with 32 separate spells to cast to replace the simplistic system (which the player could easily and safely ignore entirely) of his previous games; added many new class and race options from which to build characters; made some effort to bring some Wizardry-style rigorousness to the loosy-goosy rules of play that marked his earlier games.

Notably, however, Ultima III is also the first Garriott design that doesn’t simply try to pile on more stuff than the game before. Whether because he knew that, what with his family and friends all counting on him, this game needed to be both good and finished quickly or just because he was maturing as a designer, with Ultima III he for the first time showed an ability to edit. Garriott was never going to be a minimalist, but Ultima III is nevertheless only some 60% of the geographical size of Ultima II, the only example of the series shrinking between installments prior to everything going off the rails many years later with Ultima VIII. Also gone entirely is the weird sub-game of space travel, as well as — for the most part — the painful stabs at humor. Yet it’s safe to say that Ultima III will take the average player much longer to finish, because instead of leaving huge swathes of game — entire planets! — dangling uselessly in the wind Garriott this time wove everything together with an intricate quest structure that gives a reason to explore all those dungeons. In fact, there’s a reason to visit every significant area in the game.

Viewed from the vantage point of today, Ultima III is perched on a slightly uncomfortable border, right between the simple early Ultimas that predate it and the deeper, richer works that make up the heart of Ultima‘s (and Richard Garriott’s) legacy today. I don’t know if any other game in the series sparks as much diversity of opinion. To some it’s just a long, boring grind, while a small but notable minority actually name it as their favorite in the entire series. Personally, I can appreciate its advances but take issue with many aspects of its design, which strike me as cruel and rather exhausting. My favorite of the early Ultimas, the one that strikes me as most playable today, remains Ultima I. But I’ll talk about Ultima III at much greater length in a future post. For now let’s just note that it gave CRPG players of 1983 exactly what they wanted — a big, convoluted, epic experience that pushed the technology even further than had the previous game — without the bugs and other issues that had plagued Ultima II.

Having dropped out of even a part-time university schedule and now largely living right there in that garage loft, Richard wrote Ultima III quickly, almost inconceivably so given its technical advancements. It was done in about six months, barely one-third the time invested into Ultima II and considerably less time than it would take many a player to finish it. As usual, the game itself was essentially a one-man effort, but as it came together he recruited family and friends to help with numerous ancillary matters. Ken Arnold, his old buddy from the ComputerLand days, wrote and programmed a lovely soundtrack for the game, playable by those who had purchased one of the new Mockingboard sound cards for their Apple II. A huge advance over the bleeps and farts of the previous games, it was the first of three Arnold-composed soundtracks that have become a core part of Ultima nostalgia for a generation of players, especially once ported to the Commodore 64, where they sounded even better on the magnificent SID chip.

Ultima III

But most of the outside effort went into the package. Origin may have literally been a garage startup, but Richard was determined that their products should not look the part. He wanted to outdo Sierra’s efforts for Ultima II; he succeeded handily. Denis Loubet, whom Richard had met back when he did the original cover art for the California Pacific Akalabeth, now drew a striking demon for the Ultima III cover which might not have had anything obviously to do with the contents of the disks but sure looked cool. (Maybe too cool; lots of overzealous Christian parents would take one look and start sending Garriott letters accusing him of Satanism.) Loubet also provided pictures for the manuals, as did Richard’s mother Helen, who drew up another mysterious cloth map complete with arcane runes along the borders; such maps were about to become another of the series’s trademarks. And did you notice I said “manuals”? That wasn’t a typo. Ultima III included three: a main game manual along with two more booklets containing elaborate faux-medieval descriptions and illustrations for each wizard and cleric spell. Said faux-medieval writing is a bit more tolerable this time because Richard, no wordsmith, didn’t write it himself. The spell descriptions were done by Margaret Weigers, a local friend, while Roe R. Adams III, who was quickly parlaying his reputation as the king of adventure-game players into a career in game development (he would soon sign on to design Wizardry IV for Sir-Tech), doused the main manual in copious quantities of suitably purple prose (yet another Ultima trademark).

As July of 1983 faded into August the game was already largely finished and the various hardcopy pieces were beginning to come in from the printers. Showing that he could challenge even Ken Williams in the charisma department when we wanted to, Richard convinced Mary Fenton and Jeff Hillhouse, two Sierra employees he’d met during his time in Oakhurst, to come join Origin. Fenton would become Origin’s first customer-service person; Hillhouse, who had learned how the industry worked at Sierra, would handle logistics and distribution. When he made contact with distributors and announced Ultima III, everyone was astonished when initial orders totaled no less than 10,000 units. Richard and Robert now kicked their long-suffering parents’ vehicles out of their own garage to make room for a big shrink-wrap machine — their biggest capital investment yet — and a workbench of computers to use for disk duplication. By now Origin had rented a tiny office in Houston to serve as the front that they presented to the world, but the real heart of the company remained there in the garage. For several months evenings in front of the television at the Garriott household would be spent folding together lurid demon-painted boxes.

Origin Systems's first advertisement, for their first two products

Origin Systems’s first advertisement, for their first two products

Ultima III began shipping in late August for the Apple II. Versions for the Atari 8-bit line and the Commodore 64 soon followed. Both ports were done by Chuck Beuche, whose role as a creative and technical force with Origin during these early days was almost as significant as Richard’s. The game was a huge hit across all platforms; Ultima III became the first Ultima to top 100,000 units in sales, a mark that all of the following titles would surpass with ease. Indeed, this moment marks the point where Ultima pulled ahead of the Wizardry series once and for all to become simply the premiere CRPG series of its era. Despite the occasional worthy competitor like the Bard’s Tale series, it would not be really, seriously challenged in that position until the arrival of the officially licensed D&D games that SSI would start releasing at the end of the decade. Happily, Ultima and Richard Garriott would prove worthy of their status; the next Ultima in particular would be downright inspiring.

But for now we still have some business for 1983 and Ultima III. I want to take a closer look at the game, which planted the seeds of much that would follow. First, however, we’ll take a little detour to set the record straight about another one of those persistent myths that dog fan histories of Ultima.

(Richard Garriott’s career has of course been very well documented. The two most in-depth histories are The Official Book of Ultima and Dungeons and Dreamers, even if a distinct whiff of hagiography makes both rather insufferable at times. And of course he’s all over contemporary magazines, not to mention the modern Internet. A particular gem of an article for students of this period in his career is in the November/December 1983 Softline. That’s where I found the wonderful picture at the beginning of this article.)

 

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