Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Dawn of Multimedia

Cover illustration from Byte, June 1982

Unless you’re an extremely patient and/or nostalgic sort, most of the games I’ve been writing about on this blog for over two years now are a hard sell as something to just pick up and play for fun. There have been occasional exceptions: M.U.L.E., probably my favorite of any game I’ve written about so far, remains as magical and accessible as it was the day it was made; some or most of the Infocom titles remain fresh and entertaining as both fictions and games. Still, there’s an aspirational quality to even some of the most remarkable examples of gaming in this era. Colorful boxes and grandiose claims of epic tales of adventure often far exceeded the minimalist content of the disks themselves. In another era we might levy accusations of false advertising, but that doesn’t feel quite like what’s going on here. Rather, players and developers entered into a sort of partnership, a shared recognition that there were sharp limits to what developers could do with these simple computers, but that players could fill in many of the missing pieces with determined imaginings of what they could someday actually be getting on those disks.

Which didn’t mean that developers weren’t positively salivating after technological advances that could turn more of their aspirations into realities. And progress did come. Between the Trinity of 1977 and 1983, the year we’ve reached as I write this, typical memory sizes on the relatively inexpensive 8-bit machines typical in homes increased from as little as 4 K to 48 K, with 64 K set to become the accepted minimum by 1984. The arrival of the Atari 400 and 800 in 1979 and the Commodore 64 in 1982 each brought major advances in audiovisual capabilities. Faster, more convenient disks replaced cassettes as the accepted standard storage medium, at least in North America. But other parts of the technological equation remained frozen, perhaps surprisingly so given the modern accepted wisdom about the pace of advancement in computing. Home machines in 1983 were still mostly based around one of the two CPUs found in the Trinity of 1977, the Zilog Z80 and the MOS 6502, and these chips were still clocked at roughly the same speeds as in 1977. Thus, Moore’s Law notwithstanding, the processing potential that programmers had to work with remained for the moment frozen in place.

To find movement in this most fundamental part of a microcomputer we have to look to the more expensive machines. The IBM PC heralded the beginning of 16-bit microcomputing in 1981. The Apple Lisa of 1983 became the first mass-produced PC to use the state-of-the-art Motorola 68000, a chip which would have a major role to play in computing for the rest of the decade and beyond. Both the Lisa and an upgraded model of the IBM PC introduced in 1983, the PC/XT, also sported hard drives, which let them store several megabytes of data in constantly accessible form, and to retrieve it much more quickly and reliably than could be done from floppy disks. Still, these machines carried huge disadvantages to offset their technical advancements. The IBM PC and especially the PC/XT were, as noted, expensive, and had fairly atrocious graphics and sound even by the standards of 1983. The Lisa was really, really expensive, lacked color and sound, and was consciously designed to be as inaccessible to the hackers and bedroom coders who built the games industry as the Apple II was wide open. The advancements of the IBM PC and the Lisa would eventually be packaged into forms more useful to gamers and game developers, but for now for most gamers it was 8 bits, floppy disks, and (at best) 64 K.

Developers and engineers — and, I should note, by no means just those in the games industry and by no means just those working with the 8-bit machines — were always on the lookout for a secret weapon that might let them leapfrog some steps in what must have sometimes seemed a plodding pace of technological change, something that might let them get to that aspirational future faster. They found one that looked like it might just have potential in a surprising place: in the world of ordinary consumer electronics. Or perhaps by 1983 it was not so surprising, for by then they had already been waiting for, speculating about, and occasionally tinkering with the technology in question for quite some years.

At the end of the 1960s, with the home-videocassette boom still years away, the American media conglomerate MCA and the Dutch electronics giant Philips coincidentally each began working separately on a technology to encode video onto album-like discs using optical storage. The video would be recorded as a series of tiny pits in the plastic surface of the disc, which could be read by the exotic technology of a laser beam scanning it as the disc was rotated. The two companies decided to combine their efforts after learning of one another’s existence a few years later, and by the mid-1970s they were holding regular joint demonstrations of the new technology, to which they gave the perfect name for the era: DiscoVision.

A DiscoVision prototype in action

A DiscoVision prototype in action

Yet laser discs, as they came to be more commonly called, were painfully slow to reach the market. A few pilots and prototype programs aside, the first consumer-grade players didn’t reach stores in numbers until late 1980.

The Pioneer VP-1000, most popular of the early consumer-grade laser-disc players

The Pioneer VP-1000, most popular of the early consumer-grade laser-disc players

By that time VCRs were selling in huge numbers. Laser discs offered far superior video and audio than VCRs, but, at least from the standpoint of most consumers, had enough disadvantages to more than outweigh that. For starters, they were much more expensive. And they could only hold about 30 minutes of video on a side; thus the viewer had to get up and flip or change the disc, album-style, three times over the course of a typical movie. This was a hard sell indeed to a couch-loving nation who were falling in love with their new remote controls as quickly as their VCRs. Yet it was likely the very thing that the movie and television industry found most pleasing about the laser disc that really turned away consumers: the discs were read only, meaning it was impossible to use them to record from the television, or to copy and swap movies and other programs with friends. Some (admittedly anecdotal) reports claim that up to half of the laser-disc players sold in the early years of the format were returned when their purchasers realized they couldn’t use them to record.

Thus the laser-disc format settled into a long half-life in which it never quite performed up to expectations but never flopped so badly as to disappear entirely. It became the domain of the serious cineastes and home-theater buffs who were willing to put up with its disadvantages in return for the best video and audio quality you could get in the home prior to the arrival of the DVD. Criterion appeared on the scene in 1984 to serve this market with a series of elaborate special editions of classic films loaded with the sorts of extras that other publishers wouldn’t begin to offer until the DVD era: cast and crew interviews, “making of” documentaries, alternate cuts, unused footage, and of course the ubiquitous commentary track (like DVDs, laser discs had the ability to swap and mix audio streams). Even after DVDs began to replace VCRs en masse and thus to change home video forever circa 2000, a substratum of laser-disc loyalists soldiered on, some unwilling to give up on libraries they’d spent many years acquiring, others convinced, like so many vinyl-album boosters, that laser discs simply looked better than the “colder” digital images from DVDs or Blu-ray discs. (Although all of these mediums store data using the same basic optical techniques, in a laser disc the data is analog, and is processed using analog rather than digital circuitry.) Pioneer, who despite having nothing to do with the format’s development became its most consistent champion — they were responsible for more than half of all players sold — surprised those who already thought the format long dead in January of 2009 when they announced that they were discontinuing the last player still available for purchase.

The technology developed for the laser disc first impacted the lives of those of us who didn’t subscribe to Sound and Vision in a different, more tangential way. Even as DiscoVision shambled slowly toward completion during the late 1970s, a parallel product was initiated at Philips to adapt optical-storage technology to audio only. Once again Philips soon discovered another company working on the same thing, this time Sony of Japan, and once again the two elected to join forces. Debuting in early 1983, the new compact disc was first a hit mainly with the same sorts of technophiles and culture vultures who were likely to purchase laser-disc players. Unlike the laser disc, however, the CD’s trajectory didn’t stop there. By 1988 400 million CDs were being pressed each year, by which time the format was on the verge of its real explosion in popularity; nine years later that number was 5 billion, close to one CD for every person on the planet.

But now let’s back up and relate this new optical audiovisual technology to the computer technologies with which we’re more accustomed to spending our time around these parts. Many engineers and programmers have a specific sort of epiphany after working with electronics in general or computers in particular for a certain amount of time. Data, they realize, is ultimately just data, whether it represents an audio recording, video, text, or computer code. To a computer in particular it’s all just a stream of manipulable numbers. The corollary to this fact is that a medium developed for the storage of one sort of data can be re-purposed to store something else. Microcomputers in particular already had quite a tradition of doing just that even in 1983. The first common storage format for these machines was ordinary cassette tapes, playing on ordinary cassette players wired up to Altairs, TRS-80s, or Apple IIs. The data stored on these tapes, which when played back for human ears just sounded like a stream of discordant noise, could be interpreted by the computer as the stream of 0s and 1s which it encoded. It wasn’t the most efficient of storage methods, but it worked — and it worked with a piece of cheap equipment found lying around in virtually every household, a critical advantage in those do-it-yourself days of hobbyist hackers.

If a cassette could be used to store a program, so could a laser disc. Doing so had one big disadvantage compared to other storage methods, the very same that kept so many consumers away from the format: unless you could afford the complicated, specialized equipment needed to write to them yourself, discs had to be stamped out from a special factory complete with their contents, which afterward could only be read, not altered. But the upside… oh, what an upside! A single laser-disc side may have been good for only about 30 minutes of analog video, but could store about 1 to 1.5 GB of digital computer code or data. The possibility of so much storage required a major adjustment of the scale of one’s thinking; articles even in hardcore magazines like Byte that published the figure had to include a footnote explaining what a gigabyte actually was.

Various companies initiated programs in the wake of the laser disc’s debut to adopt the technology to computers, resulting in a plethora of incompatible media and players. Edward Rothchild wrote in Byte in March of 1983 that “discs are being made now in 12- and 14-inch diameters, with 8-, 5 1/4-, 3-, and possibly 2-inch discs likely in the near future.”

The Toshiba DF-2000, a typically elaborate optical-storage-based institutional archiving system of the 1980s

The Toshiba DF-2000, a typically elaborate optical-storage-based institutional archiving system of the 1980s

Others moved beyond discs entirely to try cards, slides, even optical versions of old-fashioned reel-to-reel or cassette tapes. Some of the ideas that swirled around were compelling enough that you have to wonder why they never took off. A company called Drexler came out with the Drexon Laser Card, a card the size of a driver’s license or credit card with a strip at the back that was optical rather than magnetic and could store some 2 MB of data. They anticipated PCs of the future being equipped with a little slot for reading the cards. Among other possibilities, a complete operating system could be installed on a card, taking the place of ROM chips or an operating system loaded from disk. Updates would become almost trivial; the cards were cheap and easy to manufacture, and the end user would need only swap the new card for the old to “install” the new operating system. Others anticipated Laser Cards becoming personal identification cards, with everything anyone could need to know about you, from citizenship status to credit rating, right there on the optical strip, a helpful boon indeed in the much less interconnected world of the early 1980s. (From the department of things that never change: the privacy concerns raised by such a scheme were generally glossed over or ignored.)

The Drexon Laser Card

The Drexon Laser Card

Some of these new technologies — the Laser Card alas not among them — did end up living on for quite some years. Optical storage was ideal for large, static databases like public records, especially in institutions that could afford the technology needed to create the discs as well as read them. IBM and others who served the institutional-computing market therefore came out with various products for this purpose, some of which persist to this day. In the world of PCs, however, progress was slow. It could be a bit hard to say what all that storage might actually be good for on a machine like, say, an Apple II. Today we fill our CDs and DVDs mostly with graphics and sound resources, but if you’ve seen the Apple II screenshots that litter this blog you know that home computers just didn’t have the video (or audio) hardware to make much direct use of such assets. Nor could they manipulate more than the most minuscule chunk of the laser disc’s cavernous capacity; connecting an Apple II to optical mass storage would be like trying to fill the family cat’s water bowl with a high-pressure fire hose. Optical media as a data-storage medium therefore came to PCs only slowly. When it did, it piggybacked not on the laser disc but on the newer, more successful format of the audio CD. The so-called “High Sierra” standard for the storage of data on CDs — named after the Las Vegas casino where it was hashed out by a consortium of major industry players — was devised in 1985, accompanied by the first trickle of pioneering disc-housed encyclopedias and the like, and Microsoft hosted the first big conference devoted to CD-ROM in March of 1986. It took several more years to really catch on with the mass market, but by the early years of the 1990s CD-ROM was one of the key technologies at the heart of the “multimedia PC” boom. By this time processor speeds, memory sizes, and video and sound hardware had caught up and were able to make practical use of all that storage at last.

Still, even in the very early 1980s laser discs were not useless to even the most modest of 8-bit PCs. They could in fact be used with some effectiveness in a way that hewed much closer to their original intended purpose. Considered strictly as a video format, the most important property of the laser disc to understand beyond the upgrade in quality it represented over videotape is that it was a random-access medium. Videocassettes and all other, older mediums for film and video were by contrast linear formats. One could only unspool their contents sequentially; finding a given bit of content could only be accomplished via lots of tedious rewinding and fast forwarding. But with a laser disc one could jump to any scene, any frame, immediately; freeze a frame on the screen; advance forward or backward frame by frame or at any speed desired. The soundtrack could be similarly manipulated. This raised the possibility of a new generation of interactive video, which could be controlled by a computer as cheap and common as an Apple II or TRS-80. After all, all the computer had to do was issue commands to the player. All of the work of displaying the video on the screen, so far beyond the capabilities of any extant computer’s graphics hardware, was neatly sidestepped. For certain applications at least it really did feel like leapfrogging about ten years of slow technological progress. Computers could manage graphics and sound through manipulating laser-disc players that they wouldn’t be able to do natively until the next decade.

The people who worked on the DiscoVision project were not blind to the potential here. Well before the laser disc became widely available to consumers in 1980 they were already making available pre-release and industrial-grade models to various technology companies and research institutions. These were used for the occasional showcase, such as the exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in 1979 which let visitors pull up an image of the front page of any issue of the Chicago Tribune ever published. Various companies continued to offer throughout the 1980s pricey professional-level laser-disc setups that came equipped with a CPU and a modest amount of RAM memory. These could take instructions from their controlling computers and talk back to them as well: telling what frame was currently playing, notifying the host when a particular snippet was finished, etc. The host computer could even load a simple program into the player’s memory and let it run unattended. Consumer-grade devices were more limited, but virtually all did come equipped with one key feature: a remote-control sensor, which could be re-purposed to let a computer control the player. Such control was more limited than was possible with the more expensive players — no talking back on the part of the player was possible. Still, it was intriguing stuff. Magazines like Byte and Creative Computing started publishing schematics and software to let home users take control of their shiny new laser-disc player just months after the devices started becoming available to purchase in the first place. But, given all of the complications and the need to shoot video as well as write code and hack hardware to really create something, much of the most interesting work with interactive video was done by larger institutions. Consider, for example, the work done by the American Heart Association’s Advanced Technology Development Division.

The AHA was eager to find a way to increase the quantity and quality of CPR training in the United States. They had a very good reason for doing so: in 1980 it was estimated that an American stricken with a sudden heart attack faced odds of 18 to 1 against there being someone on-hand who could use CPR to save her life. Yet CPR training from a human instructor is logistically complicated and expensive. Many small-town governments and/or hospitals simply couldn’t manage to provide it. David Hon of the AHA believed that interactive video could provide the answer. The system his research group developed consisted of an Apple II interfaced to a laser-disc player as well as a mannequin equipped with a variety of sensors. An onscreen instructor taught the techniques of CPR step by step. After each step the system quizzed the student on what she had just learned; she could select her answers by touching the screen with a light pen. It then let her try out her technique on the mannequin until she had it down. The climax of the program came with a simulation of an actual cardiac emergency, complete with video and audio, explicitly designed to be exciting and dramatic. Hon:

We had learned something from games like Space Invaders: if you design a computer-based system in such a way that people know the difference between winning and losing, virtually anyone will jump in and try to win. Saving a life is a big victory and a big incentive. We were sure that if we could build a system that was easy to use and engaging trainees would use it and learn from it willingly.

The American Heart Association's CPR training system

The trainee's "coach" provides instruction and encouragement on the left monitor; the right shows the subject's vital signs as the simulation runs

The trainee’s “coach” provides instruction and encouragement on the left monitor; the right shows the subject’s vital signs as the simulation runs

At a cost of about $15,000 per portable system, the scheme turned out to be a big success, and probably saved more than a few lives.

One limitation of many early implementations of interactive video like this was the fact that the computer controller and the laser disc itself each had its own video display, with no way to mix the two on one screen, as you can clearly see in the photos above. In time, however, engineers developed the genlock, a piece of hardware which allowed a computer to overlay its own signal onto a video display. How might this be useful? Well, consider the very simple case of an educational game which quizzes children on geography. The computer could play some looping video associated with a given country from the laser disc, while asking the player what country is being shown in text generated by the computer. Once the player answers, more text could be generated telling whether she got it right or not. Yet many saw even this scenario as representing the merest shadow of interactive video’s real potential. A group at the University of Nebraska developed a flight-training system which helped train prospective pilots by combining video and audio from actual flights with textual quizzes asking, “What’s happening here?” or “What should be done next?” or “What do these instruments seem to indicate?”

Flight Training

Another University of Nebraska group developed a series of educational games meant to teach problem-solving to hearing-impaired children. They apparently played much like the full-motion-video adventure games of a decade later, combining video footage of real actors with puzzles and conversation menus to let the child find her own way through the story and solve the case.

Think It Through Think It Through

Think It Through

The Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (the same organization that distributed The Oregon Trail) developed a high-school economics course:

Three types of media are used in each session. A booklet introduces the lesson and directs the student to use the other pieces of equipment. At the same time, it provides space for note taking and record keeping. A microcomputer [an Apple II] contributes tutorial, drill, and practice dimensions to the lesson. And a videodisc player presents information, shows examples, and develops concepts which involve graphics or motion.

Apple built commands for controlling laser-disc players into their SuperPILOT programming language, a rival to BASIC designed specifically for use in schools.

There was a widespread sense among these experimenters that they were pioneering a new paradigm of education and of computing, even if they themselves couldn’t quite put their fingers on what it was, what it meant, or what it should be called. In March of 1976, an amazingly early date when laser discs existed merely as crude prototypes, Alfred M. Bork envisioned what laser discs could someday mean to educational computing in an article that reads like a dispatch from the future:

I envision that each disc will contain a complete multimedia teaching package. Thus, a particular disc might be an elaborate teaching sequence for physics, having on the disc the computer code for that sequence (including possible microcode to make the stand-alone system emulate the particular machine that material was originally developed for), slides, audio messages, and video sequences of arbitrary length, all of these in many different segments. Thus, a teaching dialog stored on a videodisc would have full capability of handling very complex computer logic, and making sizable calculations, but it also could, at an appropriate point, show video sequences of arbitrary length or slides, or present audio messages. Another videodisc might have on it a complete language, such as APL, including a full multimedia course for learning APL interactively. Another might have relatively little logic, but very large numbers of slides in connection with an art-history or anatomy course. For the first time control of all the important audiovisual media would be with the student. The inflexibility of current film and video systems could be overcome too, because some videodiscs might have on them simply nothing but a series of film clips, with the logic for students to pick which ones they wanted to see at a particular time.

Bork uses a critical word in his first sentence above, possibly for the first time in relation to computing: “multimedia.” Certainly it’s a word that wouldn’t become commonplace until many years after Bork wrote this passage. Tony Feldman provided perhaps the most workable and elegant definition in 1994: “[Multimedia is] a method of designing and integrating computer technologies on a single platform that enables the end user to input, create, manipulate, and output text, graphics, audio, and video utilizing a single user interface.” This new paradigm of multimedia computing is key to almost all of the transformations that computers have made in people’s everyday lives in the thirty years that have passed since the pioneering experiments I just described. The ability to play back, catalog, combine, and transform various types of media, many or most of them sourced from the external world rather than being generated within the computer itself, is the bedrock at the root of the World Wide Web, of your iPod and iPhone and iPad (or equivalent). Computers today can manipulate all of that media internally, with no need for the kludgy plumbing together of disparate devices that marks these early experiments, but the transformative nature of the concept itself remains. With these experiments with laser-disc-enabled interactive video we see the beginning of the end of the old analog world of solid-state electronics, to be superseded by a digital world of smart, programmable media devices. That, much more than gigabytes of storage, is the real legacy of DiscoVision.

But of course these early experiments were just that, institutional initiatives seen by very few. There simply weren’t enough people with laser-disc players wired to their PCs for a real commercial market to develop. The process of getting a multimedia-computing setup working in the home was just too expensive and convoluted. It would be six or seven more years before “multimedia” would become the buzzword of the age — only to be quickly replaced in the public’s imagination by the World Wide Web, that further advance that multimedia enabled.

In the meantime, most people of the early 1980s had their first experience with this new paradigm of computing outside the home, in the form of — what else? — a game. We’ll talk about it next time.

(The most important sources for this article were: Byte magazines from June 1982, March 1983, and October 1984; Creative Computing from March 1976 and January 1982; Multimedia, a book by Tony Feldman; Interactive Video, a volume from 1989 in The Educational Technology Anthology Series; and various laser-disc-enthusiast sites on the Internet. I also lifted some of these ideas from my own book about the Amiga, The Future Was Here. The lovely picture that begins this article was on the cover of the June 1982 Byte. All of the other images were also taken from the various magazines listed above.)


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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 close 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 run 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.


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 when 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 minuscule distribution and minuscule 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 did a working copy of the game finally surface on the Internet, the source being an Indiana teenager whose parents had come home from a garage sale with it several years before.

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 Garriott’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 bozos,” 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 he 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 Bueche, 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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