RSS

Ultima VIII (or, How to Destroy a Gaming Franchise in One Easy Step)

19 Feb

In 1994, Origin Systems’s Ultima series was the most universally lauded franchise in computer gaming. Over the course of seven mainline games and five spinoffs and side stories, the Ultima brand had consistently stood for elaborate but doggedly nonlinear plots which seriously engaged with questions of ethics; for the familiar but ever-evolving and ever-welcoming world of Britannia in which most of the games took place; for a merry group of recurring boon companions with whom the Avatar, the player-defined protagonist of the games, adventured each time; for complex rules systems and knotty central mysteries that required brainpower and lots of notepaper rather than reflexes to work through.

But then, for the eighth game in the mainline Ultima series, Origin decided to try something just a little bit different. They made a game in which you played a thoughtless jerk moving on rails through a linear series of events; in which you never went to Britannia at all, but stayed instead on a miserable hellhole of a world called Pagan; in which you spent the whole game adventuring alone (after all, who would want to adventure with a jerk like you?); in which the core mechanics were jumping between pedestals like Super Mario and pounding your enemies over the head with your big old hammer.

Tens of thousands of eager Ultima fans, some of whom had been buying every installment of the series for ten years or more, rushed home from their local software stores with Ultima VIII: Pagan in their hot little hands. An hour later, they were one and all sitting there scratching their heads and asking themselves what the hell had happened. Had they bought the wrong game entirely? No, it said “Ultima” right there on the box!

For the past quarter century, Ultima fans have continued to ask themselves that same question: what the hell happened with Ultima VIII? It stands today as one of the most bizarre would-be series continuations in gaming history, such a colossal failure to meet its players’ expectations that, alone and unaided, it killed dead at a stroke the most venerable franchise in computer gaming. No, really: Origin couldn’t have shot Ultima in the head more efficiently if they’d tried. And so we ask ourselves again: what the hell happened? What the hell was Origin thinking?

In seeking to explain the seemingly unexplainable, Ultima fans have tended to hew to a simple, naturally appealing narrative that paints Electronic Arts — gaming’s very own Evil Empire — as the unmitigated villain. After acquiring Origin in late 1992, so the story goes, EA forced them to abandon all of the long-established principles of Ultima in order to reach the mass market of lowest-common-denominator players to which EA aspired. Richard Garriot — a.k.a. “Lord British,” the father of Ultima and co-founder of Origin — has embraced this explanation with gusto, part and parcel of a perhaps too prevalent tendency with His Lordship to lay his failures at the feet of others. From Garriott’s 2017 memoir:

The reality is that EA earns most of its revenue with terrific games like Madden Football. Every year they publish a new edition, which reflects the changes in the NFL. They don’t have to create much that’s new — they just tweak their football-game engine and update the rosters. The rules of football change slowly. At the deadline they wrap it up and release it. The audience is pre-sold.

Conversely, the games we were making could easily take two years or more to create. We released them when we were done. That was not EA’s way of doing business. “Richard,” they told me, “your release of games is incredibly unreliable.” They wanted us to change our development process to meet their deadlines. The game we were developing when we sold Origin was Ultima VIII; EA wanted it on the shelves in time for the following Christmas. This was the first time in my life that the realities of business became more important than the quality of a product. They were adamant: “Richard, you need to cut whatever needs to be cut to get this game done.” So I cut it; I cut it and I cut it and I cut it, and as a result I shipped the most incomplete, dumb, buggy game I’ve ever shipped. I still believe that if we had waited until it was complete, Ultima VIII would have been a great game. We would have been the first to market with a variety of features that eventually proved very popular in other games. But we didn’t wait, and that was my fault. I bowed to the outside pressure.

Most distressing was seeing the results of making those cuts on both the game and my team. The team saw past the warts, knew what we were up against, and loved the game for what it was; they appreciated the innovations in it rather than bemoaning what it could have been. But the press, as well as a number of players, didn’t like it at all. The reviews were terrible. All the money I’d been paid had no meaning. I felt awful that I had let down so many people in my effort to be loyal and learn from EA.

And a lot of people had made serious sacrifices to meet EA’s schedule. Many of our programmers had worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week for ten months. We would bring dinner in for them because we were afraid if they left, they might not come back. The last month or so we gave them every other Sunday off so, as one of them pointed out, they could see their family or do some laundry. The creative joy we’d once shared in developing a game had been replaced by the prosaic demands of running a business. It was hard to believe how much had changed; only a few years earlier our people would happily work all night and love every minute of it, and now we had become a sweatshop.

At least partially as a consequence of that disappointment, management told me, basically, that they didn’t want me making big games like Ultima anymore.

This classic passive-aggressive apology — “I felt awful that I had let down so many people in my effort to be loyal and learn from EA” doesn’t exactly ring out with contrition — isn’t even internally consistent; if the development team loved their game so much, why was Origin’s management forced to devise stratagems to keep them from going home out of the fear that they wouldn’t come back? Nevertheless, it does contain a fair amount of truth alongside its self-serving omissions; one would be foolish to deny that the EA acquisition played a major role in the Ultima VIII debacle. And yet the discussion should perhaps be framed rather differently. It might be more accurate to see Origin’s acquisition by EA and the eventual Ultima VIII as mutual symptoms rather than cause and effect, both being the result of Origin trying to negotiate trends that seemed to leave Ultima with less and less space to be what it had always been.

Let’s start by looking more closely at the timeline than Garriott deigns to do above. EA and Origin signed the acquisition contract in September of 1992, just five months after Ultima VII: The Black Gate had shipped. Ultima VIII would still have been in the early-concept phase at best at that point. When he refers to “the following Christmas” above, Garriott thus presumably means the Christmas of 1993. While this release date may have been a stated aspiration, it’s hard to believe it was a serious one; it would have marked the swiftest turnaround time between two mainline Ultima games since the first three of them in the early 1980s. As it was, Ultima VIII wouldn’t ship until March of 1994, still in a woefully unfinished state.

Yet the story of Ultima VIII is more than that of just one more game that was released before its time. Even had all of Origin’s plans for it come off perfectly, it would still have been a radical, seemingly nonsensical departure from everything Ultima had been in the past. Multiple sources confirm that it was in fact Richard Garriott himself rather than any soulless suit from EA who decided that the latest installment in Origin’s epic CRPG series ought to become a… platformer. He was inspired in this not by Super Mario Bros., as many fans would later suspect, but rather by Prince of Persia, Broderbund Software’s hugely popular, widely ported, elegantly minimalist, intensely cinematic linear action game. Prince of Persia was and is a more than worthy game in its own right, but it seems a strange choice indeed to use as inspiration for the latest Ultima. We should try to understand where the choice came from in the context of the times.

Garriott has often joked that he spent the first twelve years of his career making essentially the same game over and over — merely making said game that much bigger and better each time out. If so, then Ultima VII was the ultimate, if you will, version of that game. Today its reputation is as hallowed as that of any game of its era; it remains a perennial on lists of the best CRPGs of all time. Yet its mixed reception in 1992 rather belies its modern reputation. Many reviewers expressed a certain ennui about the series as a whole, and ordinary gamers seemed less excited by its arrival than they had been by that of Ultima IV, V, or VI. Ultima Underworld, a more action-oriented spinoff which was created by the outside studio Blue Sky Productions and published by Origin just a month before Ultima VII, collected more critical praise and, likely most frustratingly of all for the hyper-competitive Garriott, continued to outsell its supposed big brother even after the latter’s release. A survey in the March 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World magazine is particularly telling: Ultima VII is rated as the 30th favorite game of the magazine’s readers, while Ultima Underworld is in a tie for third favorite. Meanwhile Origin’s eighteen-month-old Wing Commander II, a cinematic action game of Star Wars-style space combat, still sits at number six.

Indeed, the role of Wing Commander in all of this should not be neglected. The brainchild of an enthusiastic young Englishman named Chris Roberts, the first game in that series had upon its release in 1990 surprised everyone by handily outselling that same year’s Ultima VI. The Wing Commander franchise had kept on outselling Ultima ever since, whilst being faster and easier to make on an installment-by-installment basis.This too could hardly have sat well with Garriott. The House That Ultima Built had become The Home of Wing Commander, and Chris Roberts was now more in demand for interviews than Lord British. The harsh truth was that EA had been far more excited about Wing Commander than Ultima when they decided to acquire Origin.

Taken as a whole, all of this must have seemed intensely symbolic of a changing industry. As computers got faster and came to sport higher-fidelity audiovisual capabilities, visceral action titles were taking a bigger and bigger slice of computer-game sales, as evinced not only by the success of Ultima Underworld and Wing Commander but by other big hits like id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. Onscreen text was out of fashion, as was sprawl and complexity and most of the other traditional markers of an Ultima. Shorter, more focused games of the sort that one could pick up and play quickly were in. Origin had to keep up with the trends if they hoped to survive.

In fact, Origin was in an extremely perilous financial state just before the EA acquisition. EA’s deep pockets would allow them to keep pace with spiraling development costs for the time being. But in return, the games they made had to have enough mass-market appeal to recoup their larger budgets.

This, then, was the calculus that went into Ultima VIII, which begins to make the inexplicable at least somewhat more comprehensible. At this juncture in time, epic CRPGs were at literally their lowest ebb in the entire history of computer games. Therefore Ultima, the series that was virtually synonymous with the epic CRPG in the minds of most gamers, needed to become something else. It needed to become simpler and faster-paced, and if it could also jump on the trend toward grittier, more violent ludic aesthetics — I point again to the rise of id Software — so much the better. It may not have been a coincidence that, when Ultima VIII eventually shipped, it did so in a box sporting garish orange flames and a huge pentagram — the same general graphics style and even iconography as was seen in DOOM, id’s latest ultra-violent hit.

Of course, the flaws in the thought process that led to Ultima VIII aren’t hard to identify in retrospect. Games which lack the courage of their own convictions seldom make for good company, any more than do people of the same stripe. The insecure child of a nervous creator who feared the world of gaming was passing him by, Ultima VIII could likely never have aspired to be more than competent in a derivative sort of way.

The biggest blunder was the decision to slap the Ultima name on the thing at all, thereby raising expectations on the part of the franchise’s preexisting fan base which the game was never designed to meet. Ironically, the audience for an Ultima was every bit as “pre-sold,” as Garriott puts it above, as the audience for the latest Madden. And yet one game that fails to meet fan expectations can destroy just such a pre-sold audience really, really quickly, as Garriott was about to prove. (An analogy to the radical change in course of Ultima VIII might be a Madden installment that suddenly decided to become a cerebral stat-based game of football management and strategy instead of an exercise in fast-paced on-the-field action…) It would have been better to announce that Ultima was taking a break while Lord British tried something new. But it seems that Garriott identified so strongly with the only line of games he had ever seriously worked on that he couldn’t imagine not calling his latest one Ultima VIII.

So much for the conceptual flaws in the project. Alas, its execution would prove even more of a disaster.

Richard Garriott’s involvement in the day-to-day work of game development had been decreasing almost year by year, ever since he had first agreed to let other programmers help him with Ultima V back in 1986. The Ultima VIII project was set up in the same way that the last couple had been: Garriott provided a set of general design goals and approaches along with a plot outline, then dropped in occasionally on the Origin staff who were assigned to the project while they made it all happen. This time the role of project director fell to one Mike McShaffry, who had come to Origin in 1990 to work as a programmer on Ultima Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams, then held the same role on Ultima VII. Meanwhile the nuts-and-bolts designers of Ultima VIII became John Watson and Andrew Morris.

None of these people were incompetent; all would continue to pursue fruitful careers in the games industry after Ultima VIII was behind them. But on this occasion they found themselves in an untenable situation, given neither the time nor the support they needed to make a competent game even of the dubious type for which Garriott was asking. Ultima VIII would not employ the talents of Raymond Benson, the accomplished wordsmith who had made Ultima VII‘s script so exceptionally rich and subtle; he was now gone from the company, driven away like many of his peers by the insanely long hours Origin demanded of their employees. Rather than replacing him with another proper writer, Origin cobbled together a collection of programmers, artists, and designers to provide all of its comparatively scant text, most of them doing double duty with their other roles on the project. After all, it was now the age of multimedia action. How much did mere words really matter anymore?

As 1993 wore on, external events heaped more and more pressure on the team. Chris Roberts’s latest game Strike Commander appeared in the spring of 1993; it moved his patented Wing Commander approach into the milieu of a near-future techno-thriller. Everyone confidently expected it to become Roberts’s latest blockbuster hit, EA’s first great dividend on the price of the Origin acquisition. But instead it under-performed relative to expectations; gamers seemed nonplussed by the change in setting, and their computers struggled to meet its high system requirements. Origin would manage to score some successes on a more modest scale in 1993 with other, cheaper Wing Commander spinoffs and an Ultima VII Part Two, but their big cannon for the year had shot a dud. It was now up to Ultima VIII to put smiles on the faces of EA’s management.

For all that the EA acquisition certainly was a major factor in the story of Ultima VIII, it’s difficult to say for sure how much of the pressure Origin felt was brought directly to bear by their new corporate parent and how much was merely perceived. As we’ve seen, Richard Garriott hasn’t hesitated to chalk the failure of Ultima VIII up to EA’s interference, full stop. Yet the actual EA executives in question have vociferously denied micromanaging the project, insisting on the contrary that it was conceived, created, and finally shipped on terms dictated by no one outside of Origin. Even some Origin employees have admitted that EA handled their new charge with a fairly light touch for the first couple of years; it was only after such disappointments as Strike Commander and Ultima VIII had convinced them that adult supervision was sorely needed down in Austin that they took a more hands-on approach. In the end, then, we can say for sure only that the appalling state in which Ultima VIII was released was down to some gradation in between an earnest desire on Origin’s behalf to please their parent and a stern dictate from said parent to ship it now, or else!

It must be said as well that the reality of crunch time at Origin prior to Ultima VIII was somewhat different from the rosy picture which Garriott paints above. The bad-cop counterpart to Garriot the lunch-providing good cop was Dallas Snell, Origin’s hard-driving production manager. The company’s internal newsletters from the early 1990s are littered with complaints about the stresses of crunch time, sometimes accompanied by Snell’s strident but unconvincing attempts to defend the practice on the basis of passion, dedication, and esprit de corps. As a result, Raymond Benson was only one of a steady stream of talented people who came to Origin, stayed there a relatively brief period of time, and then moved on to other parts of the games industry or to other industries entirely, having made the perfectly sensible decision that no job is worth sacrificing one’s health and general well-being for.

Still, the crunch that produced Ultima VIII was extreme even by Origin’s usual standards, and the stress was undoubtedly compounded by the bad vibe of compromise and trend-chasing that had clung to the project from the start. It didn’t help that Mike McShaffry had never attempted to manage a software-development project of any sort before; he was completely unequipped to bring any semblance of order to all of the frantic effort, as he freely admits today:

To a lot of people on the development team, Ultima VIII unfortunately was a very negative development experience. Most of the team who were managing Ultima VIII — myself especially — you know, it was our first really big management task, and so…to say I really screwed it up doesn’t really come close, I don’t think, to the truth.

You can’t just put anybody at the helm of an oil tanker and say, “Take it through the strait!” and not expect something really horrible to happen. And Ultima’s a big ship to steer, and it was unfortunate that I never had the chance to figure out how to manage a team that large. It took me another ten years to really get better at it.

All of these factors led to Ultima VIII shipping in a state that almost defies critical description; seldom has a game so blatantly unfinished been allowed onto store shelves. The writing is so sparse and unrefined that it often seems like placeholder text, and yet still manages to leave threads dangling and plot holes yawning everywhere; the cloth map that is included in the box bears almost no relation to the world in the game itself, what with so much of the latter having gone missing in action; what’s left of the CRPG mechanics are so broken that it’s possible to max out your character in less than an hour of play; every place in the game looks the same, being all too clearly built from the same handful of pre-rendered graphics (giant mushrooms everywhere for the win!); every single chest in the game explodes, even if it doesn’t contain anything, as if the developers didn’t have time to address each one individually and so just set a global flag somewhere; your unresponsive lunk of a character drowns instantly if he falls into two feet of water. Tellingly, the one part of Ultima VII that is painstakingly preserved in Ultima VIII is its most annoying: an impossible inventory-management system that forces you to spend minutes at a time dragging around tiny overlapping icons just to find anything.

But none of that was quite enough to make the original version of Ultima VIII worthy of the adjective “unplayable.” What served for that was the absurdly broken jumping system. Super Mario Bros. and Prince of Persia had been designed for joypads and joysticks. Seeking to translate those paradigms to a moused-based computer, Origin came up with a relativistic jumping system whereby the length of your leap would be determined by the distance the cursor was from your character when you clicked the mouse, rather than opting for the more intuitive solution whereby you simply pointed at and clicked on a would-be destination to attempt to jump there. McShaffry:

I think, for us, it was such a departure from what we were used to. And honestly, a jumping mechanic like what we were trying to do… I think that we just didn’t have enough people on the team who were really hardcore platformer players. Something like Mario, where you have an intuitive feel for what works in a jumping system and what doesn’t work in a jumping system. I certainly hadn’t played a lot of those games until then, and so I honestly didn’t know what I was looking for.

Honestly, that’s a case where we should have listened a whole lot more to QA. They were platformers! They played every Nintendo console [game] out there, and they came back to us and said, “Hey, this jumping is kind of busted.”

I think sometimes in product development we’d get on the high horse and go, “It’s not busted; we know what we’re doing.” And in that case… that was a horrible mistake on our part to not listen to them. But hey, we were in our twenties; when you’re in your twenties, you think you’ve got god-like powers and you’re immortal.

In truth, jumping in Ultima VIII wasn’t “kind of busted” at all; it was completely, comprehensively busted. Figuring out where any given jump would land you was a black art, thanks to the sloppy mouse cursor and the impossibility of accurately judging depths in the game’s canted isometric view. The only way to get anywhere was to save before each jump and give it a try, then reload and adjust until you got it right. After four or five attempts, you might just manage it if you were lucky. Then you got to rinse and repeat for the next jump, out of what might be a dozen or more in all to get across a single obstacle. In order to fully appreciate the horror of all this, you have to remember that every single save or restore would have taken on the order of 30 seconds back in 1994. And now imagine trying to work through this process when some of the platforms you need to jump from and to are moving. On release day, Ultima VIII really was perilously close to being literally unplayable.

Oh, my… I’m afraid we’re going to be here a while…

In keeping with a tradition dating back to the early 1980s, Richard Garriott, Mike McShaffry, and several other members of the development team turned up on CompuServe for an online conference with fans just a couple of weeks after the game’s release. These affairs were heavily moderated, and this prevented the outrage that was already percolating through the fan community from being expressed too aggressively. Nevertheless, the developers quickly learned that this meetup was not to be the usual love fest. Instead they got an earful from the fans:

Let me say that I have been playing Ultimas since I was charmed and amazed by Ultima IV on my Commodore 64. One of the best things about Ultimas was the rich, detailed world and intricate, lengthy storylines. I could look forward to easily over 100 hours with each new Ultima, an excellent value for the money. Ultima VIII, on the other hand, is way too short…

It seems like there were a lot of bugs in Ultima VIII…

I thought the game was a little rough around the edges, especially the jumping. Since many Ultima players don’t like the heavy arcade element, are you set on keeping Ultima a CRPG/action game?…

My favorite part of Ultima VII was the large world. I was a little disappointed when I found that the world in Ultima VIII was actually smaller. Will Ultima IX have a larger world and more puzzles that require thinking, as opposed to jumping and running?…

I note with some trepidation your interest/fascination with “action” and “digital speech.” I think that too many game companies are spending too many resources on the latest graphics, sounds, etc., and nowhere near enough on character development and story and interaction. Is the swing to action/arcade a marketing-driven decision, your personal [decision], or [down to] some other reason?…

I have noticed a trend toward a single-threaded story line. Any hopes of returning to the original roots with the Ultima IX story line?…

What I and a lot of other old Ultima fans saw disappear after Ultima VII was the great ability to interact. Like baking bread, etc., and I would like to know if you plan for this to return in Ultima IX. And will you pay more attention to the plot?…

I’m concerned about the decline in the Avatar’s principles. I spent two days trying to solve Bane and Vordion without breaking my oath…

I am disappointed about the length of Ultima VIII, as others have said. There’s too much running around, and the clues to locations are far too vague…

I’m disappointed in Ultima VIII. I’ve played every single Ultima, and I feel Ultima VIII is a serious step back from previous Ultimas. I hope you realize that it takes more than glitz and sound to make a good CRPG. Lastly, I really do hope you’ll fix more bugs. I had to reformat my whole hard drive because of Ultima VIII…

Are we ever going to get various sexes and races of Avatars to choose from again?…

If they didn’t know it before, Origin must have realized by the time this conference ended that they had a big, big problem on their hands. The subsequent fan reactions to Ultima VIII were and remain far more entertaining than the game itself; few games have inspired as many unhinged, poetically profane rants as this one. Writing in the fannish newsletter Questbusters, Charles Don Hall struggled to reconcile this awful game with the Lord British cult of personality that so much of hardcore Ultima fandom had always been: “My best guess is that Lord British had nothing at all to do with it, and turned development over to soulless drones who were capable of playing the earlier Ultimas but incapable of understanding what made them such great games.”

The glossier magazines weren’t quite sure what to do about Ultima VIII. Torn between the need to serve their readerships and Origin’s advertising dollars, they equivocated like crazy, often settling on an “it’s not the game, it’s me” approach: i.e., I didn’t much enjoy Ultima VIII, but you might.

The big exception was Computer Gaming World, the most long-lived and respected of all the journals, whose status gave it a degree of insulation from the need to chase advertisers. Scorpia, the magazine’s influential adventure-gaming columnist, ripped the game to shreds in her review. I’ll share just a few highlights here:

Pagan, the purported Ultima VIII, is unlike any other Ultima you may have played. If you were expecting characterization, rich story, role-playing — you’re expecting it from the wrong game…

The game might easily have been called, as a friend of mine put it, “Mario: The Avatar.” If the name “Ultima” wasn’t on the box, you might think you’d picked up the latest Sega or Nintendo game by mistake…

Pagan could well be subtitled “School Daze,” as a good 75 percent of it is having the Avatar prove he is worthy to belong to a particular magic organization. “You want to be a Necromancer? First, you must be tested!” “You want to be a Theurgist? First, you must be tested!” “You want to be a Sorcerer? First you must be tested!”…

The story, such as it is, can be summed up as “Homeward-Bound Avatar Wrecks World…”

[The Avatar] lies to become a Necromancer; joins the Theurgists solely to steal an item (thereby negating their spell-casting abilities); betrays a Sorcerer who trusted him (thereby becoming an accessory to murder); kills (in supposed self-defense) the Master of Sorcerers to obtain another needed item; and frees the two bound Titans, so the world is wracked by continual violent storms and lava rain…

Overall, Pagan is a disaster, and an embarrassment to Origin, Lord British, and Ultima fans everywhere. It tries to go in two directions at once, and succeeds only in tearing itself apart, failing dismally on all fronts…

Instead of giving a smattering of hints and tips for Ultima VIII, as was her wont with the games she reviewed, Scorpia published an outright walkthrough, in order to “help anyone playing it to finish quickly and move on to better things.” For the following issue, she wrote a detailed retrospective of Ultima IV, her avowed favorite game of all time, pointing out all the ways in which it was the archetypal Ultima — and, by pointed implication, all of the ways in which Ultima VIII had failed to live up to its legacy.

In that very same issue, Origin offered an unprecedented mea culpa for Ultima VIII. Having clearly decided that this installment was beyond hope, they tried to save the franchise’s future by throwing it, and to at least some extent its project leader Mike McShaffry, under the bus. Richard Garriott had, he said, “heard the cry of his fans”; he admitted that “the latest game design had moved too close to action gaming and strayed too far from the strengths of the series.” Origin would, they promised, place the rock-steady Warren Spector — the man who had helmed Ultima VI, Martian Dreams, and the two Ultima Underworld games — in charge of Ultima IX. “If,” Spector pleaded, “we can get some of our followers who were disappointed in Pagan to try Ultima IX, we don’t think they’ll be disappointed.” In the meantime, an all-but-complete Ultima VIII expansion disk was axed as part of a general desire to forget that the game had ever happened.

One man, however, could not possibly forget. Mike McShaffry says today that he “felt like persona non grata at Origin because I personally felt like I was being blamed for the mistakes.” After months of ineffectual bad feelings, he finally decided to do something about it. He took all of the Ultima VIII code home with him over the Thanksgiving weekend of 1994 and, as he puts it, “fixed the jumping myself,” replacing the weird system of relative leaps with a simple click-here-to-jump-here approach. Despite their wish to flush the whole thing down the memory hole, Origin agreed to put out a patch incorporating this change and a number of other desperately needed quality-of-life improvements.

It’s this version of Ultima VIII that you’ll find hosted on digital storefronts today. It’s definitely a vast improvement over the original, even taking into account the philosophical objection that it turns the jumping — intended to be a major part of the experience — into a triviality. Much respect to Mike McShaffry for making it; if he hadn’t done so, the game’s reputation would be even worse today. Even Scorpia took note of the patch in her column, and was prompted to soften her stance toward the game ever so slightly. (“I can’t guarantee the game will be more fun, but it will certainly be less frustrating.”)

Indeed, it’s quite common to hear today that Ultima VIII really wasn’t a bad game at all — that it was merely a bad Ultima, in departing way too radically from that series’s established traditions. Some fuel for this argument is provided by Crusader: No Remorse and Crusader: No Regret, a pair of science-fiction action games that used the engine developed for Ultima VIII, but were able to do so without the baggage which the Ultima name brought with it. Both were well-received upon their release in 1995 and 1996 respectively, and are still fondly remembered in some circles today. Some have gone so far as to claim that the engine influenced Diablo, Blizzard Entertainment’s 1996 mega-hit of a streamlined, story-light action-CRPG.

Still, to say that McShaffry’s patch makes a good game out of Ultima VIII strikes me as a leap too far (pun intended). At best, it moves it from unplayable to the lower end of mediocre: the boring environments, uninteresting and/or broken mechanics, poor and sometimes nonexistent writing, and general air of unpleasantness remain unpatched. Ultima VIII is not the misunderstood classic that a few thoroughgoing contrarians would have it be.

Ultima VIII is best studied not as an exercise in game design in the abstract but as an endlessly illustrative sign of its times, showing what happened when the changes being wrought upon the culture of computer gaming by the likes of Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM — not to mention Wing Commander! — collided head-on with one of that culture’s traditional standard bearers. In this case, the standard bearer in question would never be the same again. The Ultima IX which certain factions inside Origin were so eager to make as a way of spitting out the bad taste of Ultima VIII would keep getting pushed down in the priority queue after Wing Commander III appeared in late 1994 and finally provided the big hit which Origin had been looking for ever since the EA acquisition. With that event, Wing Commander‘s takeover of Origin was complete. It would be over two and a half years before gamers would hear the name of Ultima from Origin again.

(Sources: the books Explore Create by Richard Garriott with David Fisher and Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland; Computer Gaming World of March 1994, July 1994, August 1994, and May 1995; Electronic Entertainment of April 1994; Questbusters 111; PC Gamer of May/June 1994; PC Zone of June 1994; Dragon of August 1994; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of December 1993, March 1994, and May 5 1995. Online sources include Sheri Graner Ray’s memories of her time at Origin Systems, “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, and the Ultima Codex interviews with Mike McShaffry and Jason Ely. My huge thanks to Judith Pintar for digging up the online CompuServe conference that followed Ultima VIII‘s release. Note that I’ve heavily edited the excerpts that are included here for grammar, clarity, and brevity; feel free to download the full, unedited transcript.

Ultima VIII is available as a digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 
88 Comments

Posted by on February 19, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , ,

88 Responses to Ultima VIII (or, How to Destroy a Gaming Franchise in One Easy Step)

  1. Ishkur

    February 19, 2021 at 6:06 pm

    Ultima VIII was a mess.

    A big, fat stupid god damn mess. I liked the premise, the music was fantastic and chilling, the plot was alright, and I didn’t even mind the graphics that much. The problem was the functionality and gameplay made it utterly unplayable. And the platform jumping (it’s pejoratively called Super Avatar Bros. for a reason) didn’t even bother me that much although to be fair I bought the patched version back in the day. It was the maddening pixel-hunts demanded of many of the magic schools just to make spells. I wasted way too much stupid time trying to make sorcery spells because one of my candles wasn’t placed on the pentagram’s point correctly.

    Pagan had promise. It was effectively a (sad attempt at being a) single person dungeon crawler and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it adds to the sense of loneliness and desolation to have the Avatar spend the bulk of the game crawling through similar-looking catacombs on inane fetch quests. No party, no friends, no familiar locations or settings and no NPCs who revered him as their savior. He was all alone, and the game’s moody, gothic music (its only redeeming quality) really captured that sense of despair and anxiety.

    But if you’re going to make a Diablo-esque dungeon romp, at least make the dungeon fun to explore instead of a crazy death trap where one wrong step (and you’ll make many given the game’s wonky controls) meant a sudden end via any number of invisible caltrops, wall darts, exploding mushrooms, fumaroles, falling stalactites, electric forcefields, loose floor, lava/water, moving platforms, or rolling spike balls. And oh yeah, exploding chests. The god damn stupid exploding chests, every time. This game needed to stop punishing your curiosity so much. It reminded me of the million ways to die in Sierra adventure games. Should’ve been called Avatar Quest.

    But buried underneath the crappy functionality and “exploration == suicide” themes, however, was a great premise.

    Here you are, the Avatar, on an alien world where abiding by the virtues will not help you. You have to lie, cheat, steal, and yes, kill innocent children (optional) to progress ahead. It’s nothing you haven’t done before (the first three Ultimas were all about laying waste to whole towns to advance in level), but it is a very morose take on the Avatar in the Age of Virtue.

    Richard Garriott invented a system of ethics, and then each game challenged or threatened that system:

    Ultima IV – The Virtues are Confronted
    Ultima V – The Virtues are Corrupted
    Ultima VI – The Virtues are Attacked
    Ultima VII – The Virtues are Ignored
    Ultima VIII – The Virtues are Abandoned
    Ultima IX – The Virtues are Inverted

    Pagan was the darkest of the series because it was the only one that gave the Avatar no moral compass whatsoever. There were no karma points to earn or friendly relations to maintain with any of Pagan’s denizens. The game was utterly and inhumanly amoral. All the other games routinely punished you for making the wrong moral choice through a bevvy of tantalizing options — from stealing from shopkeepers to casting the Armageddon spell. Not the case with Pagan. It was a broken, defeated land inhabited by sullen, oppressed people, and the only way the Avatar could leave it was to make everyone’s miserable lives even worse. When they’ve already hit rock bottom. It’s really quite tragic.

    The Avatar betrayed Bane/Vardion (causing the death of either), he overturned the royal court of Tenebrae (which technically may have been a good thing), he assisted in ritual sacrifice to move up in the Necromancer pecking order, he stole the Breath of Wind which robbed Stellos of his youthful mortality (which killed him) and the healing power of Theurgists everywhere, and worst of all: He freed Hydros and Pyros, dooming Pagan to an eternity of torment and, most likely, a second Titan War.

    The Avatar left Pagan in worse shape than when he arrived — a first for an Ultima game. You can see some genuine headgames from the Guardian at play here. He didn’t just choose some random planet to drop the Avatar. The very purpose of this quest was to force the Avatar to reject the values that made him the Avatar. To forsake the virtues. And he did. He had to. For the first time, the Avatar encountered a world — and a quest — that was quite simply beyond saving.

    If only the game was designed better. Great premise, terrible execution. I think a remake in the could earn it some much-needed redemption.

    Very much a bittersweet ending, and I was really hoping Ultima IX would have some sort of aftershock/post-trauma excess from this adventure. But nope — it was a whole ‘nother level of fail.

     
    • Fronzel

      February 20, 2021 at 5:21 pm

      This framing concept for Ultimas IV onward is interesting but I’m not sure your notion of VIII’s place in it has any wisdom; it just sounds like a dreary exercise in nihilism without offering any choice to the player. Who wants to play an entire game that’s a moral defeat for the hero? Having the “hero of virtue” become an amoral survivor is too simple. There’s no sophistication in merely being gloomy.

       
      • Destron

        February 23, 2021 at 2:34 am

        I’d also argue that forcing the character to do evil somewhat negates the dramatic tension. The tension, after all, comes from the struggle to do the right thing (and can be just as interesting if the character fails to do the right thing).

        Something more interesting might have been a situation in which the Avatar must do evil things in order to get back to Britannia… but also has the option of abandoning (or at least substantially delaying his return to) Britannia in order to make Pagan a more bearable place. Which, of course, means that you’re hurting (through inaction) all the people on Britannia you know and care about. That’s a decision that has some moral weight.

        Another option might be to have all your good works inverted by how horrible Pagan is–maybe in showing mercy on a local criminal, you end up giving them a chance to commit worse crimes. Though this also ends up lacking tension (and could easily veer into unintentional dark comedy).

        I do think there’s some value in the concept. But the execution, again, was lacking.

         
    • Bomb Bloke

      February 23, 2021 at 11:50 am

      The finale of U8 had the Avatar take the Titan’s power, destroying them in order to open a Black Gate. This left the world with a hope that it hadn’t seen in a long, long time: the ruling Titans, as the Guardian’s puppets, literally hadn’t allowed the sun to shine on the land in centuries. Breaking that hold was kind of a big deal.

      Sure, many of the Avatar’s actions in Pagan had tragic consequences. However, it’s not fair to question his morality over results he couldn’t’ve foreseen, and he definitely ended up changing things for the better.

       
  2. Sol_HSA

    February 19, 2021 at 6:15 pm

    “Yet the story of Ultima VIIII is more than that” – one I too many

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      February 19, 2021 at 7:18 pm

      Thanks!

       
  3. Ed

    February 19, 2021 at 6:28 pm

    Good book

     
  4. arthurdawg

    February 19, 2021 at 7:22 pm

    I loved the Ultima series… played 3 many years ago on my trusty Tandy 1000 and made it up to the 7s and the back to 1 before real life intervened and I stopped playing CRPGs. But the reviews and hatred for 8 and 9 have turned me off to the point that I doubt I’ll ever bother to get one running.

     
  5. LeeH

    February 19, 2021 at 7:34 pm

    Jimmy, the thing I most admire about your writing (and there are many!) is your willingness to confront the fact that history has nuance, and real life never unfolds along a narrative. Real life is just a whole bunch of shit all happening at once. Acknowledging the fact that Ultima VIII’s crappiness is a thing of nuance is admirable. Thanks for writing this—I enjoyed the hell out of it.

     
  6. TheHat

    February 19, 2021 at 7:43 pm

    This was a fantastic read & a very necessary corrective to some of the hagiography typical of Origin retrospectives. I’m pretty amused that I knew that was Spoony’s Ultima 8 review before I even followed the link.
    Thanks!

     
  7. Markus

    February 19, 2021 at 7:47 pm

    I found Pagan at my local public library back then, so I took it home and gave it a try. I’m not really an RPG person, making this the only Ultima game I ever actually played. But playing it through to the end I did (not sure what got into me there). Indeed though, it was only bearable after applying the patch that fixed this “Super Avatar Bros.” mess of a jumping system. I’ve never touched the game since then, but lo and behold, the Ultima8 engine is one that nowadays sees quite a bit of continuous development in the ScummVM project (an integration of the earlier “Pentagram” engine remake project; including support for the Crusader games, obviously), so there’s a chance I might give it another try if that ever gets finished.

    As for Strike Commander, I always feel its more-or-less failure was caused to a significant degree by its copy protection. IIRC, the game featured one of those protections that doesn’t indicate a breach or failure in the sense that it refuses to run; instead it started the game in all its glossy glory, but then made your plane damn near impossible to fly at some point thus rendering the game unplayable, without telling you what’s going on. Of course this bad idea makes the word of mouth advertising on the streets sound not so much “oh my gosh, it is copy protected, you will have to go and by the original!” but rather more like “dude, this game stinks, the stupid game doesn’t even fly properly, don’t buy this”…

     
  8. Vyron

    February 19, 2021 at 8:13 pm

    So, as a young (25) player of video games, I have not been exposed to the whole Lord British cult or whatever it is. So I am asking this straight question : how was he respected ? Why ? I cannot comprehend how such a silly, ravenously egoistic and quite patheticaly jealous little man could have any kind of “fan” clout or respect. What made him such an icon ? Did nobody know of the flaws then ? Or did everyone know and ignore it because he made great games ? Like, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to flame or be extra mean, but that’s really how he comes across if every retrospective about him that I see today.

     
    • Martin

      February 19, 2021 at 9:52 pm

      We didn’t have the internet back then and a*holes could live their lives without others creating a collective opinion about them.

       
    • Jimmy Maher

      February 19, 2021 at 9:59 pm

      That’s a very complicated question. Richard Garriott was very important to the development of the CRPG form, and made at least one genuinely brilliant conceptual leap in the form of Ultima IV; this latter is still the bedrock of his reputation, and, indeed, makes him more than worthy of remembrance in the annals of digital-game design. Unfortunately, he has less admirable qualities as well which have tended to stand out more as time goes on: one of these is a tendency to take all of the credit for things that go well, and none of the blame for things that go poorly. This too stretches all the way to the beginning of his career: it was Al Remmers, the head of his first publisher California Pacific, who first created the Lord British cult of personality that has served him so well, yet Garriott persists in dismissing him as a drug addict and a thief rather than acknowledging his service and perhaps even thanking him for it.

      If you really want the full story with all of its complexity and nuance, I can only suggest that you start at the beginning: https://www.filfre.net/tag/ultima/?order=ASC. Just remember as you read that people are never all one thing. In the end, Garriott is neither a hero nor a villain. He’s just a human being.

       
      • Vyron

        February 20, 2021 at 11:03 am

        Thanks ! I will absolutely check it out. I suppose I came on as judgemental and extreme, but in the end I just want to understand and know more. Thinking back on it, I suppose the fans and press reactions to the earlier Ultima games did a number on him, as it would for anyone that gathers massive success and attention. From what I know, he also was one of the first “game” personnalities, before such thing were more common, like nowadays where great industry names are more widely known. I understand that it is more complicated than a single article could convey.
        And I won’t forget that people are complicated, I promise.

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          February 20, 2021 at 12:12 pm

          The sort of extreme adulation which Garriott received — and to some extent still does — would affect the psychology of almost anyone. It’s very, very difficult in those situations not to start to believe that you really are the thoroughgoing genius your most zealous fans claim you to be.

          My impression is that Garriott really isn’t all that personally interested in games at all today, and hasn’t been for quite some time. This is no crime; people change, and, as several other commenters have noted, he remains a very charming, personable fellow, no small gift in itself. (Plenty of careers have been built around just being someone other people enjoy being around…) His problem is that he continues to allow his name to be attached to dubious gaming projects on which he can’t really be bothered to play any role other than figurehead, and which tend not to attract a lot of ethical, first-rate talent. And then, in an effort to prove he’s still with it, he winds up making ill-considered statements in the press which only advertise how out of touch he is. It’s entirely fair to say that these things have done his legacy no favors — but that shouldn’t detract from the genuine contributions he made in the past.

          For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s much guile or ill-intent about the fellow — just a sort of endemic carelessness, and a desire to *play* the great game designer without being willing put in the work of actually *being* one. One can see these tendencies starting to emerge even long before Ultima VIII. Chalk it up to what has been by any standard a very privileged life. There but for the grace of God…

           
          • Gordon Cameron

            February 20, 2021 at 8:06 pm

            >My impression is that Garriott really isn’t all that personally interested in games at all today, and hasn’t been for quite some time.

            I agree with this. I think he’s more interested in expensive adventures (space, volcanoes, etc.). In this respect he reminds me of James Cameron, but he probably has a lot less cash than that fellow, and hasn’t had a hit as recently.

             
    • Gordon Cameron

      February 19, 2021 at 11:25 pm

      Then as now, it’s possible to separate the person from the work. In my opinion, Garriott is responsible for a streak of five straight-up CRPG classics: Ultimas III through VII. Couched in there is what I consider to be the best CRPG of the 1980s, Ultima V. You can throw onto the pile the fact that the first Ultima game established (with Wizardry) one of the two primary CRPG templates for years to come.

      All Joe Gamer knew about Garriott in the ’80s and early ’90s was that he had a big ego, liked to throw lavish parties, lived in a weird mansion, and wore funny clothes. It would take a lot more than that to override the positive effects of so many glorious gaming hours.

      I also feel obligated to point out that in my few journalistic and Twitter interactions with Garriott, he has been unfailingly pleasant and quite free with his time. Of course, you’re supposed to be pleasant to journalists who are about to write about your next game, so I view that as him doing his job rather than being a swell guy. But nothing in my interactions with him indicated, as you say, a “silly, ravenously egoistic and quite pathetically jealous little man.”

      On the other side, I think in retrospect it’s hard to view Shroud of the Avatar as anything other than a debacle. Garriott basically ceased to be relevant in cutting edge videogame design after Ultima Online, but that’s still a hell of a better career than most people can boast of.

      Long story short, he was – is – respected because he did excellent work. The unattractive parts of his personality weren’t/aren’t most people’s problem, any more than those of (say) John Lennon.

      None of this is to say he should have a cult of personality around him. (Nobody should, IMO.) But respect? Absolutely.

       
      • Vyron

        February 20, 2021 at 11:08 am

        People change, I suppose. My rather extreme view of it comes from all of the, how to say… modern eras papers that speak about him on other points than just his games. So who speak about the past. He obviously changed at least a bit now, it has been so long. I own and have played Shroud of the Avatar, and there are great ideas in there, but it sure could use some deep QOL changes. I wonder how much of it did he decide and design, how much his team did, and how much modern gaming landscape has affected the whole process.
        And in the end, because I didn’t play those games back then, what with not being born and all, and not having heard about it until I started growing interested in the past of videogames, I suppose I am and will always be a complete outsider to all of this. So the respect part is harder to have. But I will try to be more open.

         
        • Gordon Cameron

          February 20, 2021 at 8:10 pm

          I would say there is no particular reason to respect Garriott without having understood what he achieved in game design in the ’80s, which really means having played them. (You don’t have to have played them in the ’80s; in my opinion several of them hold up very well, allowing for obvious graphical limitations etc.) But also, without having understood what he achieved in game design in the ’80s, there’s considerably less reason to talk about him at all! It would be like evaluating Paul McCartney’s music career without mentioning the 1960s. (The analogy breaks down a bit since McCartney has done more good work post-Beatles than Garriot has post-Origin, but I hope the point stands.)

           
    • Ice Cream Jonsey

      February 20, 2021 at 4:11 am

      “but that’s really how he comes across if every retrospective about him that I see today.”

      I met him in Atlanta for E3 in 1998. E3 had this a loose requirement at the time where you had to somehow be involved with the gaming industry to attend. My friends and I got in anyway but we were just enthusiasts. Ya know… GAMERS. During the show I met Richard Garriott.

      He was the *nicest* guy in the world. He was well-aware that people who were not peers were in the show and was really pleasant to talk to. I’m trying to think of a way to phrase the next line that doesn’t sound weird: he asked me about myself, which is not one of those things that you’d think would be notable for the most part, but really down to earth for someone who had lived a crazy, accomplished life. I talked to him for just five minutes and I would have ran through a wall for him or done some of that crazy development crunch if he was my manager.

      I can only go off my own experiences, but he was an incredibly nice guy who made games – Ultima 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 for me, personally – that were really fun.

       
      • Vyron

        February 20, 2021 at 11:11 am

        I can’t help but be cynical when you put it like that, thinking “He was at an event so he was just being nice.” But maybe he wasn’t. He loved his fans, from what you are saying. I forgot that people are multi-faceted, and he might have been both really egoistic and ready to shift the blame, all the whilst still being really nice and liking to meet people. I can’t speak of experience of course, but if everyone at Origin was working super long hours and super hard, it would probably warp your view of everything you do…

         
    • Jonathan Badger

      February 20, 2021 at 7:57 am

      Garriot was maybe a bit self-serious, but he in no way was a bad person as far as we know, not taking advantage of women or other underprivileged people as many people of his era did, so I hardly think his adulation was unwarranted, given the great games he produced.

       
      • Vyron

        February 20, 2021 at 11:00 am

        I suppose I was a bit extreme in how I expressed it. It is just really how it came across to me when I read about his reactions or behaviour in this article or other articles one his less successful games. I was being judgemental. I suppose it would come down to what you perceive are personality flaws for oneself.

         
  9. R-man

    February 19, 2021 at 8:18 pm

    I had only played a little of the earlier Ultima games at friends places, so I was quite open-minded when I started playing U8. To be honest, even though the jumping bit and the fact that the general best strategy was to just run past all monsters, I really enjoyed the game. Something in how they captured the mood in Tenebre (was it?) and as someone else said, the complete loneliness and creepniess, really spoke to me. Also, by 1990:s standards the story was not bad at all.

    In addition to this, it had some semi-novel game mechanics, such as the ability to move vertically in a sense through ladders and heaving, which I found very exiting.

     
  10. Kai

    February 19, 2021 at 9:34 pm

    After the fabulous Ultima VII, Pagan obviously had been quite the disappointment. I only managed to complete it with cheats enabled. I even replayed it after it was finally patched, it was a very short game after all.

    But terrible execution and unfinished state aside, I actually liked the direction the game had taken. Making the environment more interactive with all the invisible caltrops, wall darts, exploding mushrooms, fumaroles, falling stalactites, electric forcefields, loose floor, lava/water, moving platforms, or rolling spike balls actually made traversing what little world there was a much more interesting affair than simply going from A to B in the fastest way possible. A lot of those potential deaths could be avoided by being cautious and observant, and I thought this added a welcome new dimension to RPG gameplay.

    If all of that had been part of a more fully realized world, with more and diverse locations, NPCs and quests, and with sane controls from the start, I probably would have been content. I was actually disappointed when the expansion did not materialize, as I had hoped it would fill in at least some of the many obvious blanks. And that’s really the biggest issue for me, the lack of content and the linearity. Ultima VII had this vast open world, with so much going on, how could anyone think that following up with this empty husk of a game would go down well?

     
  11. Martin

    February 19, 2021 at 9:49 pm

    While the games sounds a mess, yours, Scorpia’s and some of the other commenter’s comments about the moral bankrupt-ness of the game seem intriguing. Are there any games that take those themes and produce a game worth playing?

     
    • David Simon

      February 19, 2021 at 11:13 pm

      (Someone wants game opinions? Oh boy, I’ve got plenty to spare! Apologies if this is long winded.)

      There are plenty of games about amoral or immoral worlds and characters, which generally take a perspective of dark humor and/or grim sternness. Messiah stands out to me as a good contemporary example of this. The Last of Us Part 2 is a much more recent one, which tries to add some nuance without really letting up on the “everything sucks and so do you” theme. And a good indie approach to this is Lisa, content warning for really graphic stuff in that one though, nevermind the pixelated visuals. All three of those are (imo) well-designed and inventive, though rather depressing.

      Then there are games take a wider or outside perspective on morality. The main gimmick of Undertale explores this pretty well by responding thoroughly to everything between saving literally everyone to murdering literally everyone. And Pyre takes the opposite approach, where you cannot protect everyone or everything you might want to, even with the benefits of save scumming or outside information.

       
    • Jonathan Badger

      February 20, 2021 at 12:02 am

      One such game is 2012’s SpecOps: The Line, which on the surface is a typical Americans in the Middle East shooter game like the Modern Warfare series, but which (without giving away too much) turns into a reflection on what the player is doing and in a larger sense American involvement in the Middle East in general.

       
    • Captain Obvious

      February 20, 2021 at 10:18 pm

      Maybe this is too obvious, but Grand Theft Auto V absolutely fits the bill.

       
  12. Rowan Lipkovits

    February 19, 2021 at 10:53 pm

    Not even a faint glimmer of Ultima Online on the horizon at article’s end?

     
    • Gordon Cameron

      February 19, 2021 at 11:32 pm

      Yes, it seems that the ‘glory days’ part of Garriott’s career should at least be bumped up to 1997, when UO released.

      It’s been hard going since then, no question. But the single-player CRPG torch has been passed to other capable developers, and there’s also a thriving indie scene. I prefer to be grateful for what Garriott did back in the day, rather than worry about what he’s done for me lately.

       
    • Awl

      February 20, 2021 at 12:14 am

      I wonder if any of the Ultima VIII code made it into UO. The graphic style and even the font looks very similar.

      If that’s the case, UO was such a huge success it would easily make up for any failure here.

       
    • Jimmy Maher

      February 20, 2021 at 8:53 am

      It had been my understanding that Ultima Online was primarily the brainchild of Ralph Koster. But, from doing the cursory research that I should have done before publishing this article, I see that Richard Garriott’s involvement would appear to have been more substantial than I gave him credit for. I’ve deleted the last couple of sentences of the article, which were a bit unfair and perhaps even mean-spirited to boot. Mea culpa.

       
      • Gordon Cameron

        February 20, 2021 at 8:12 pm

        This is overall a fantastic article. I inhaled it with relish!

         
  13. Jeff M. Thomas

    February 20, 2021 at 2:37 am

    I’m surprised no one’s mentioned the ending. After you’ve done all these terrible things to these already suffering people you can finally escape back to the happy world of Britannia where you were a paragon of virtue… you enter the the foreboding screaming crystal and… the game kicks you right in the giblets. There’s no happy ending here, and it’s left unresolved because the next game didn’t come out for years (when it did it pretty much ignored the ending anyway).

    I remember finishing the game and thinking, “Well, that was a terrible Ultima game, but I kinda had fun anyway.” True that even with the patch it’s quite broken, with quests that can’t be finished and ways to lock yourself out of finishing not to mention a number of areas that can’t be accessed without cheating. I hated being forced into doing evil acts, and yet I still remember having fun exploring the world. Maybe it was because I played it years later so the save/die/reload cycle was faster, I had access to a good walkthrough for when I got stuck and I wasn’t very emotionally attached to the Ultima universe anymore.

    But then I also enjoyed Ultima 9, so maybe I’m not a very good reference :D

     
  14. whomever

    February 20, 2021 at 3:42 am

    Heh, I’ve been waiting for this review for some time. The opening paragraph describes me to a T, and yes, I DO want to know what went wrong. I’m still sort of grumpy that I spent my allowance $$$ on this. I bought it at it’s release, because it’s the next Ultima! For those who think Jimmy is exaggerating, nope, he’s if anything being kind. In particular, let’s not forget the bugs, my god it was buggy. I also had a fairly decent machine for the time, no problems with Wing Commander or Ultima VII but Ultima VIII performed like an absolute dog. I mean, I didn’t even get to the point of complaining about the chests because even basic playing was so painful.

    I can’t be the only person who was so burned by this that I didn’t even bother with Ultima IX. I’m kind of hoping that the review will say “actually it wasn’t that bad” so I can go get it on GOG, but sounds like it’s not :-(

    The only other nuance is Strike Commander, what this article doesn’t mention is that Strike Commander famously super late even by Origin standards, to the point people were mocking it long before release. I’d be curious about an article one that as well (I never did play it, though I get the impression that once it was finally released and bugs fixed it was a decent game).

     
  15. Roger

    February 20, 2021 at 4:56 am

    I know it was a disappointment, but what a mean way to end your article considering his great accomplishments.

     
  16. Pystopheles

    February 20, 2021 at 5:06 am

    No UO eh? Probably got PK’d. =P

     
  17. bayoublue

    February 20, 2021 at 6:50 am

    I first played Ultima 3 on my c64 in middle school, and fell in love.
    I felt 4 was life-changing as high school freshman and 5 was amazing follow-up.
    I played 6 on my step-dad’s luggable EGA PC, and enjoyed the two “Worlds” on my VGA 286 in college.
    I had to wait until graduation to afford a computer that could handle 7 and Serpent Isle, but they were worth the wait (even with Serpent Isle being basically unfinished).

    Of course I bought Ultima 8, when it came out.
    I will admit being a bit apprehensive when an advertising blurb on the box mentioned some technical spec of how the Avatar was animated. I was not sure what that had to do with the role playing series I had grown up with and spent countless hours on.

    The beginning seemed somewhat off, but I figured it would get better.
    I made it past the fist jumping torture by save scumming, figuring what was beyond would be worth it.
    Then…… I had to admit that I was playing the game because I wanted it to be good, not because it was good. I went online (probably AOL) looking to see what others thought about the game, and saw I was not alone.
    I put it aside and never finished it.

     
    • Gordon Cameron

      February 20, 2021 at 8:13 pm

      3, 4, and 5 were among the very most important texts I encountered in late childhood/early adolescence. It would be difficult to overstate their impact on me.

       
  18. Jaakko Seppälä

    February 20, 2021 at 8:29 am

    I’m in the definite minority here, but I loved Ultima VIII.

    To me, the graphics felt sympathetic and colorful, the music had tons of atmosphere and I even liked organizing all those various little objects and devices into a neat order in my backpack. (Boy, was I elated to discover that you can make your inventory even tidier by utilizing pouches to categorize your belongings within your main inventory :D).

    I was 12 at the time I got my hands on Ultima VIII, so the writing did not feel derivative or low-quality to me. It was all new and exciting! (Spoilers ahead) Even today, a quarter of a century later, the idea of the Guardian, presenting him-/her-/itself as the good guy, fighting an invented Destroyer and reducing the world into sad ruins in the process, and still making the people of said world worship him (or rather, the evil elemental titans installed in his place) is a neat plot line, and quite a chilling one, too.

    I do admit I had not played the previous installments of the series by then. I had tried Ultima III on my C64 briefly, but it was just too slow for me to enjoy (The 1541 disk drive didn’t do it any favors) even though I liked retrogaming with my Commodore otherwise.

    I guess that frantic playing Impossible Mission and other platformers of its ilk had rendered me kind of immune to the frustration of Ultima VIII’s platforming aspects. Hey, in this game you could actually SAVE your progress! Unlike in, say C64’s Gateway to Apshai, in which an unlucky encounter with a dragon would wipe out hours of progress forever. But I digress.

    As for the moral/amoral/immoral qualities of Ultima VIII’s quest: I always viewed it as you were freeing the people of the island from the yoke of the enslaving elementals. Great gods that bunch was: Lithos took your deceased loved ones and made them into undead zombies to fulfill his bidding. Hydros did the same for people that drowned. Pyros was bound by the sorcerers, yes, but the people wielding his power used this power to terrorize their fellow citizens under the guise of mob-like protection, thus not eliminating the malevolent influence of Pyros, only toning it down. Even Stratos, the seemingly benevolent titan of air was like an overpossessive mother, stifling her “children”, not shy to eliminate them if they didn’t play by her rules (as seen in the end fights, when she shows her true colors).

    Yes, you do free Hydros to cause storms and torrential rains, but only because she duped you into doing so. And you do cause the Theurgist healers to lose their power by severing their link to Stratos. (You also MAY free Pyros to cause volcanic eruptions all around, but you don’t have to do it – nobody forces you to walk into that great pentagram while carrying the tongue of flame.)

    But I saw the end fights in the ethereal plane as your redemption: You subdue the elementals and constrain them inside the blackrock fragments. No more Hydros to storm the shit out of Tenebrae. No more Pyros to turn the place into a lava field. The only true loss is that as Stratos is gone, the Theurgists are no longer able to heal others using the powers of the Air.

    Ultimately, even that will be a triumph to the people on the island. They will have to devise their own ways of healing and doctoring, and it shall not be easy. But they are going to make it, on their own, not tied to the will and whims of malevolent gods. They are finally free from the yoke of the titans and the Guardian, and can begin making their world and lives better.

     
    • Bomb Bloke

      February 27, 2021 at 12:56 am

      Stratos isn’t as much of a “loss” as you might think; the Titan of Air would’ve been the main reason as to why the sun no longer shone on Pagan. Sure the healing powers of Theurgy were nice, but they were only available to those Stratos deemed “worthy” – whereas Thaumaturgy remained available to anyone who wished to study it.

       
      • Jaakko Seppälä

        March 5, 2021 at 3:45 pm

        Oh my gawd. All these years, and I never saw it. You are right!

        I had always thought that the disappearance of sun was the making of a) The Guardian himself (most likely), b) the whole bunch of the titans together, c) Pyros, since Pyros = fire = kinda like sun – and because Malchir asks him about the mystical Sun.

        But of course it has to be Stratos. She can obscure the sky with clouds or otherwise perform some optical illusions or other hijinx with the heavens since the sky is her domain.

        This really made my day :D

         
    • Brendan Vance

      March 1, 2021 at 6:12 am

      Your experience sounds very similar to mine! I encountered this game as a small kid and it served as my introduction to the wider Ultima series. Tenebrae certainly has what people today would identify as a VIBE, haha, and I think that’s something worth celebrating.

      I’ve actually been working just recently on some YoutTube vids yacking about these kinds of details I enjoy from the game! Maybe working towards an essay about it someday. These vids will include a lot of the same things you mention, such as me meticulously organizing my inventory into bags! (As well as generally shouting ‘bag!’ every time I notice one in the game world, as they are such high value items in this weird-ass videogame.)

      My fav part of the game involves looting every house in Tenebrae, which includes the gleeful absurdity of this game’s secret doors (like how the player can CLEARLY SEE secret rooms on the far side of walls, so the avatar knows to hunt for those little switches… but how could he know!? Why does everybody in this city have goofily-hidden hideaways in the first place? Are they panic rooms?? Do the peasants from outside ever secretly live in the panic rooms!?)

      One of those vids: https://youtu.be/8qtzyc412Rs

      I loved this essay! It’s incredibly informative, and I think it does a great job getting beneath that veneer of business fiction surrounding ‘Lord British’ and the bigwigs at EA et cetera (instead revealing the DUBIOUS circumstances surrounding this game’s production). Certainly I feel persuaded that U8 should exist more as a debacle than an underloved classic.

      My thing about this game is, I think it’s interesting to see it as a weird piece of connective tissue joining the 1980s lineage of ‘Games Containing Beholders’ to a plethora of genres that’d only be recognized later. Ultima 8 is a lot like survival horror games! The creeping through houses thing in some ways is looking forward to ‘stealth fiction’ e.g.: Thief. It’s definitely one of those games that has a strong claim to being ‘antecedent to Dark Souls’ (I couldn’t stop calling him “Gravelord Lithos”, lol).

       
  19. Beast British

    February 20, 2021 at 10:46 am

    Ultima VIII’s lead programmer Tony Zurovec was not very pleased with the direction Ultima VIII was taking the Ultima series

    “I really liked working on the Ultima series, but I found it frustrating and constraining at times – far more so towards the latter half of Ultima VIII. It’s very difficult to sacrifice two years of your life and see a game that you played for hundreds of hours in your youth veer off into what you think is completely the wrong direction, and to have no ability to change it.”
    https://web.archive.org/web/20160314060948/http://www.superluminal.us/Blog.asp

    Later on, Tony Zurovec directed Crusader: No Remorse, Crusader: No Regret and unfinished Loose Cannon. I’d be curious about an article about Loose Cannon, which could have become GTA III before GTA III.

     
  20. Mike Taylor

    February 21, 2021 at 3:13 pm

    Jimmy, I found this fascinating and I’d love to know the end of the Ultima saga. Would you consider skipping ahead to Ultima IX, out of sequence, so we can know how it all ends?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      February 21, 2021 at 3:59 pm

      I don’t think that would be a great idea. There’s also the story of Ultima Online, which, in addition to being at least as important to gaming history as that of any single-player Ultima, is quite intertwined with the story of Ultima IX. One of the reasons I follow a chronology fairly strictly is because it lets me inject a lot of context through my research of multiple events from the same time. I’d be kind of out there on an island if I jumped to Ultima IX now. And you know what happens when you start to make exceptions… ;)

      Sorry!

       
      • whomever

        February 21, 2021 at 5:23 pm

        Hi Mike! Hey, it’ll happen eventually. I too am looking forward, especially to see if I should bother playing it now (though it sounds like the answer is NO). Since Jimmy is too modest, I’ll just mention he has a Patreon which will help bring it on!

         
      • Beast British

        February 21, 2021 at 5:36 pm

        Maybe Origin’s memos and e-mails, which Ben Lesnick mentioned at WCNews forum, could be useful for your research: “Honestly, from looking at the memos and e-mails donated by Garriott at UT, it was the ‘B’ producers who kept the famous projects sane. I get the distinct impression that the actual project management was done by Warren Spector, Dallas Snell and the like. Roberts and Garriott went in with real vision, but also wanted the impossible and didn’t separate that from reality… I think teaming the two things up was what made the games great.”
        https://www.wcnews.com/chatzone/threads/lord-british-lays-out-future-vision-december-10-2011.25851/#post-372660

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          February 22, 2021 at 7:00 am

          Yes, this jibes with my impressions. Neither Garriott nor Roberts did much if any nitty-gritty game design after Ultima V in the case of the former, Wing Commander I in the case of the latter. Both men’s lack of discipline was rather painfully exposed in the post-Origin years — whereas Warren Spector in particular went on to ever greater heights. Sometimes you’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and do the work if you want to make a great game…

           
      • Mike Taylor

        February 21, 2021 at 5:41 pm

        Not to worry, Jimmy, everything you say makes perfect sense. And I will still be here, reading every article, when you do get around to it.

         
  21. jsn

    February 22, 2021 at 6:33 pm

    > It’s definitely a vast improvement over the original, even taking into account the philosophical objection that it turns into a triviality the jumping that was intended to be a major part of the experience.

    This thudded me out of the flow. I had to back up and reread four times before I got the intended meaning. Maybe consider a rewrite? I’m a native AmEng speaker, FWIW.

    Idea:

    “…that it turns the jumping–intended to be a major part of the experience–into a triviality.”

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      February 23, 2021 at 8:27 am

      Fair enough. Thanks!

       
  22. stepped pyramids

    February 23, 2021 at 4:18 am

    It’s interesting in retrospect seeing how many people were complaining about the “arcade” qualities of Ultima VIII, or comparing it to Super Mario Bros. (If only it had been anything like that, it would have been a better game!) It’s not like Ultima VII had a finely tuned tactical combat system or mind-bending puzzles. Even the vaunted bread baking is pretty much just a fun easter egg. (Ultima Online would eventually follow through on some of this promise.)

    It’s certainly possible that an U8 that hadn’t added those action mechanics would have had a richer world, better writing, and so on, but I’m skeptical. I suspect that an alternate universe U8 that took a more “traditional” approach would have been a mediocre, near-forgotten mess rather than a broken, infamous mess. In any case, I don’t think the mainline series would have lasted any longer, anyway. UO was too successful and would have cannibalized the U9 staff no matter how U8 did. The market for single-player CRPGs was entering a slump, and I don’t think there was any real capacity at Origin for the kind of late-’90s renaissance that New World Computing pulled off.

     
    • Jugistoteles

      February 23, 2021 at 8:39 am

      I pretty much agree with what you say. But your comment towards the end that the market for single-player rpgs was entering a slump – I wonder if that was more because of lack of demand, or a lack of supply? Intuitively, given that Baldur’s Gate was received so enthusiastically not that many years later, I’d reckon it was more of a supply issue. I’m sure someone must have written about this somewhere.

       
      • Jimmy Maher

        February 23, 2021 at 8:58 am

        I have. ;) There was in fact a glut of CRPGs during the very early 1990s. Ultima, Wizardry, Might and Magic, SSI Gold Box and Eye of the Beholder series, Lands of Lore, plus countless one-off and/or less remembered titles (and probably some bigger ones which I’m forgetting). To the hardcore aficionado, all of them are unique entities with countless subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions. To everyone else, they just seem like the same wonky game of generic fantasy monster-killing, over and over again. They were also greatly at odds with full-motion video, the trendy technology of the day, which lent itself to shorter-form, tightly plotted adventure games rather than expansive, open-ended CRPGs.

        So, CRPGs all but disappeared due to poor sales and a general lack of sexiness. And then, inevitably, people started to miss them, creating the perfect atmosphere for a revival in a somewhat updated form. Once Blizzard had a massive hit with the CRPG-lite Diablo in 1996, the potential was clear. Interplay was soon wise enough to release Fallout and then Baldur’s Gate, both excellent games that were accessible in ways that their ancestors mostly were not. They cemented the form’s resurrection.

         
    • Gordon Cameron

      February 23, 2021 at 6:39 pm

      It was a rather short slump, though, considering the success of Fallout in 1997 and Baldur’s Gate in 1998.

      I’m just not sure there was really much further to go with the series and the whole ‘Avatar’ concept. One notable thing about more long-lived franchises like D&D and The Elder Scrolls is that they are fundamentally about the world, not a particular character in that world. Britannia – despite being head and shoulders above most CRPG world-building in the mid-80s – maybe didn’t have the depth/breadth to sustain that.

      Or maybe it was just bad luck/circumstance and in an alternate universe, Ultimas are still thriving the way Elder Scrolls and Zelda are…

       
      • Martin

        February 23, 2021 at 8:13 pm

        Or there was a one person bottleneck that content had to go through? And that is a question.

         
      • stepped pyramids

        February 25, 2021 at 1:34 am

        It was about 4-5 years. Ultima VII, Wizardry VII, and Might & Magic IV came out in ’92, as did the last “real” Gold Box game. Fallout came out in late ’97. It’s not like there were no popular RPGs in the interim (Daggerfall was ’96), but Fallout (and Ultima Online, which came out around the same time) seems to have been the signal that it was OK to make RPGs again.

        In comparison, the great video game crash started in ’83 and was definitely over by ’87. So in market terms it wasn’t a short slump at all — the whole market for home computer games hadn’t even existed two decades by that point. (And it certainly had some permanent effects; the party-based CRPG never really came back, for instance.)

         
        • Gordon Cameron

          February 28, 2021 at 1:41 am

          Using 1992 as a cutoff is a bit arbitrary, when you consider the release of UU2, Betrayal at Krondor, and Lands of Lore in 1993; ES: Arena in 1994; Daggerfall in ’96 which you mention; and Diablo in 1996 which, while not an according-to-Hoyle CRPG, didn’t really fit into any other box and harked back to some earlier ARPGs (Times of Lore, Faery Tale Adventure, etc.). I’m just mentioning the hits, not e.g. the huge glut of early ’90s CRPGs that SSI put out while it was flailing to survive. Such releases don’t indicate the genre was thriving necessarily, but it was puttering along.

          I agree that the rise of the FPS in the mid ’90s, and the struggle of all genres to reconciles themselves to more advanced graphics and bigger budgets, meant that the landscape was changing, but whatever slump there was, I don’t think it was long enough to kill really robust franchises. Elder Scrolls survived it; so did Might & Magic. I suppose Ultima might have if VIII had been a better game. (Or if IX had!) I think it would be harder to keep Ultimas fresh because you don’t just have a big world into which you can plop a fresh adventure. You have to tie it into the ethical framework and the Avatar saga. In a way, Garriott’s 1985 stroke of genius also may have made it harder to keep the series interesting over the long term.

           
  23. Jugistotles

    February 23, 2021 at 8:46 am

    Thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Ultima VIII was pretty much the first CRPG I ever played; the computer package my dad bought in 1995 included a bundle CD including Wing Commander 2, Strike Commander, Syndicate, and yes, Ultima VIII (the patched version – or at least I dl’d the patch asap because I never played the unpatched version). The game was maddeningly frustrating, and I employed cheats with many of the sorcery spells due to the pixel-hunting, but I enjoyed exploring the world. The bleakness, accentuated by the music, was appealing to me then. I mostly have reasonably fond memories of the game…but as said, my expectations were tempered by virtue of my experience with Ultima games having been limited at a few glimpses of Ultima VIII. Furthermore, I was 11 at the time and not a native speaker, so I wasn’t much of a judge for penmanship, heh.

    I still wish the expansion would turn up somehow (but obviously realize it really won’t).

     
    • Jaakko Seppälä

      February 23, 2021 at 10:07 am

      I had the very same CD with those games!

      Ultima VIII on it was most definitely unpatched. I know that because I played it all the way up until getting the ethereal travel spell from Mythran. But he never sold it to me, because the darn unpatched game was buggy. So I had to download the patch and start all over again.

      After I had gotten over the initial disappointment, it became actually intriguing to compare the differences between the original and the patched version.

      I was happy about the fact that you could now decide if you want to jump twenty centimeters or two meters, or anything in between. But what struck me as stupid was that you could now suddenly jump to the very edge of the screen without running. You could basically hop ten meters from your standing feet. It looked stupid and broke the game in some places.

      It was great that the patch fixed the names of various places and items, making them consistent with stories and books hinting at them.

      It was not so great that they introduced a slew of new tomes into the Theurgist monastery that recited word-to-word the questions from the entrance exam to Theurgist order. This part was much more intriguing in the original version: you had to infer what the healers appreciated from books that told about the subject matter, but did not explicitly lay out the answers verbatim. (Plus, the new additions look ugly, using the same graphics of a single book over and over again).

      From Jimmy’s story, I now understand that this patch was made in a horrible rush over a couple of days. This makes its rough edges more understandable. It’s a shame they didn’t have more time to hone it properly…

       
      • Jugistoteles

        February 24, 2021 at 7:46 pm

        Hah, may have been a CD commonly sold in Finland then.

        And actually I did have the unpatched version because the agonizing trip to Mythran’s house through that horrible platformer cave came back to me. Initially I wasn’t sure it was possible to get through it without some sort of a spell. One random thing in the game was that executioner lady hanging out at Mythran’s house, by the way. Also, I remember I was running out of patience reading all those tomes at the theurgist monastery for that test. I still remember their favored pastime, the right answer to that question that is, was enjoying “a breezy evening on the porch.”

         
  24. Andreas

    February 23, 2021 at 2:14 pm

    I’d like to chime in on the side of the people who had a lot of fun with U8: Pagan

    Sure it was frustrating – but all the bugs were funny as hell. Drop a mug and it would fly around for 2 minutes before settling down? No mushrooms needed.

    To me, the absurd – but funny – thing about the (unpatched) jumping was that short distances were as challenging as long distances: the trick was to move as far away from the edge as possible so as not to go long ;-).

    It was great fun to mess with the game, even though it more often than not resulted in (your own) body parts overlaid on more (of your own) body parts behind and in front of your tombstone with a memory allocation error message on top ;-)

    Though I admit I stand in awe of what these guys did to the game – i.e. complete all the necromancy trials without learning any necromancy, have the Avatar drop a piece of cloth on a river of magma, jump on it, and have him sleep for hours, etc. Check out:

    “How to be a complete bastard in Pagan”
    http://www.it-he.org/ultima8.htm

    It underscores the amoral atmosphere of the game (I second the music being central) compared to previous installments. E.g. in U6 messing with the game was more of an homage.

    “Things your mother never told you about Ultima 6”
    http://www.it-he.org/ultima6.htm
    (check out “cloning things for fun and profit”; yes, that’s going from mineral to animal to more animals back to more minerals!)

     
    • Lhexa

      March 10, 2021 at 10:01 pm

      I’m happy to see someone cite It-he.org! Its “Hacker’s Guide to Sin” and “Ocean Travel Without a Boat” (so-called antiwalkthroughs covering System Shock and Ultima IX respectively) are classics of early Internet humor.

       
  25. Adam Pasztory

    February 24, 2021 at 6:00 pm

    Great article. I’m looking forward to your history of Ultima IX now.

     
  26. William Leonard

    February 25, 2021 at 3:53 am

    For me and many of my peer group, what actually turned us off the Ultima series was #7. The game was not bad, but was quite buggy and slow on the computers available at that time. Getting to the ending and realizing it wasn’t even a satisfying story as a standalone was enough to turn me off of the series. The memory management was particularly agonizing just to get the game to run on a PC at all. I probably would have bought and played VIII if the reviews had been good, but seeing CGW slam VIII was enough to make me stay away.

    Still have very fond memories of playing III through VI at the times they came out, though. CRPGs at the time were often a group experience in the 80s. If your friends were all playing and raving about a game, you wanted to play too. You didn’t have to solve all of the mysteries on your own, as you would likely be comparing notes at school regularly. The Ultima series had a lot of cachet in the 80s. By the time of VII and VIII, that was gone, or maybe we were too old.

     
  27. Svein-Frode

    February 25, 2021 at 8:26 am

    Wow! Great piece of writing. You made me read every word in a story about a game and game franchise that I’ve never had any interest in!

    Keep up the good work. This website is a treasure!

     
  28. Mikko

    February 25, 2021 at 4:22 pm

    I would say Ultima VIII wounded the franchise badly, but the Ultima IX development hell is what buried it. Looking forward to any future article about it, but if I have understood, it went through numerous concepts and game engines before finally arriving very late and extremely bad.

    In some way, the Ultima universe was somewhat on its way to becoming a mini-Marvel Universe (or even a second-rate Middle Earth) with a fair bit of internal consistency with its themes, characters, cities, and world map. It was also long-lived enough already that plain gamer nostalgia would allow for the survival of the franchise despite technological missteps – as long as the stories remained on a reasonable level.

    But this was not understood by the company at the time, I think – for Ultima IX, wrecking the gameplay was less important that wrecking the old, familiar Britannia. The continuity errors, personality changes, and overall style were so completely different to the recent Ultimas that it felt alien and offputting – I never finished the game.

     
    • Ross

      February 26, 2021 at 3:07 am

      A thing that always struck me is that despite the uncontested fact that Ultima IX was full of continuity errors and personality changes and things to make internet reviewers scream profanity, there’s still far more continuity in the worldbuilding between Ultima IX and the rest of the series than among practically any other video game franchise.

       
      • stepped pyramids

        February 28, 2021 at 8:28 pm

        The continuity problems with IX aren’t really much worse than earlier games in the series, which freely altered the layout of Britannia, redesigned dungeons from scratch, ignored or retconned previous events, and even altered how the Shrines, Moongates, Codex, and other important setting details work. It’s not like the setting of Ultima really stands up to much scrutiny — VI and VII have a major “why is Lord British so bad at his job” problem that neither of them really properly address. (Heck, at least IX actually has a part where Lord British takes matters into his own hands!)

        I think the biggest single problem with Ultima IX is the Avatar himself. Ultima VI had started the trend away from “the Avatar is you, the player” to “the Avatar is a particular person who you control”, which disappointed some fans but does make certain types of stories easier to tell. But Ultima IX took that one step further into “the Avatar is this particular guy, who sounds and looks like this, and also that guy is a meathead.” Having the Avatar’s dialogue be specific voice-acted lines after a long history of keyword-based dialogue just feels fundamentally non-Ultima.

        Ironically, the biggest problem with the Avatar’s dialogue is that they took the “Avatar is the player” concept too seriously. They thought new players might wonder “who are the gargoyles?” or “what’s a paladin?”, so they added those as lines, heedless of how incredibly stupid they made the character seem. A better-written game would have used the Avatar’s dialogue to inform the player.

         
        • Infinitron

          March 5, 2021 at 6:58 pm

          Actually, the problem with Ultima IX is that it’s shallow and juvenile across the board. What the people who complain about “continuity” really mean is “You had access to this vast corpus of lore that you could have used to add depth to this game, but you didn’t”.

           
  29. Nate

    February 25, 2021 at 7:09 pm

    Good article. I’m realizing that retiring from gaming in 1994 (corresponded to being too busy with college and exploring Unix) matched a shift in the industry as well.

    This is hard to parse:
    “The bad-cop counterpart to Garriot the lunch-providing good cop was Dallas Snell”

    I think the problem is the dependent clause “the lunch-providing good cop” should be set off with commas. My grammar teacher always said, “if you can remove the phrase and still have a complete sentence, it’s a dependent clause.”

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      February 25, 2021 at 8:00 pm

      Thanks, but that would spoil the rhythm of the sentence.

       
  30. Leo Vellés

    February 26, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    “Super Mario Bros. and Prince of Persia had been designed for joypads and joysticks. ”
    Gotta say, i played Prince of Persia with a keyboard on my PC and the movement and jumping was very smooth and user friendly. I even think that it is even better to play it that way than with a joystick

     
    • Josh Martin

      March 3, 2021 at 4:36 pm

      I believe Prince of Persia speedrunners typically use the keyboard as well; certainly the current world record-holder does. Mechner’s development diaries don’t indicate a preference, but he does mention the game getting all the way through QA before discovering joystick support didn’t work on the Apple IIc because nobody (including himself) had bothered to test it.

       
      • whomever

        March 3, 2021 at 6:10 pm

        Some of this is that Apple joysticks (And IBM ones by extension because they used the same style), honestly, tended to suck. Unlike the C64/Atari stye which were basically just switches (ie ,”Up is on”) they were based on potentiaometers and read a variable resistance depending on where they were, and needed lots of calibration and were quite fiddly. They tended not to support the hard core usage that, say, Summer Games would need.

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          March 5, 2021 at 8:11 am

          It really depended on the application. The analog joysticks used by Apple and IBM were indeed less than ideal for the likes of Summer Games, but were vastly superior for flight simulators.

           
  31. Tim Kaiser

    February 28, 2021 at 6:38 pm

    It feels like Origin didn’t know how to make a good Ultima game that didn’t follow the formula set up in Ultima III and used for every subsequent Ultima until #8. Ultima 3 was the first truly great Ultima and it is essentially an open world scavenger hunt, focusing on exploration and discovery and later with deeper lore and characters. And every subsequent Ultima through #8 followed this formula to a T and consistently iterated on it to make the graphics better, the world more interactive, the characters more interesting, etc.

    It feels like Richard Garriott has deluded himself into thinking he’s a great game designer. He came up with one great game design and rehashed it over and over, though in his defense these are some of the greatest CRPGs in history. But if you look at his subsequent games, most of which were flops, he was never really able to come up with anything great that wasn’t derivative of Ultima III.

     
  32. gokudo

    March 5, 2021 at 12:36 pm

    I’ve never before and never again felt myself hating a game so much as I did Ultima VIII back then. Granted I was still quite immature, but still. It felt like a big time betrayal, and what maybe made it extra bitter is that it was a final prove that the first golden age of crpg’s was really over. We didn’t know that Fallout and Baldur’s Gate were still to come, we only that the days of Wizardry, Might & Magic and Gold Box and now also Ultima were gone…at least for quite a while. And still today I’m waiting for Ultima to make its fabulous return someday, as other series did. Maybe this is only a hopeless dream but who knows what (revival or remake games) the future has in store for us.

     
  33. Lhexa

    March 14, 2021 at 3:25 pm

    Just three entries prior Garriott still did most of the coding and game design, and here we are. One of my fantasy counterfactuals involves what might have happened had Garriott been nearly as good at management as he was at design and code, or if his burnout had managed to survive the move to PC architecture. After the Apple era, he stopped playing games for fun, until much later when he fell in love with Koster’s Ultima Online; and in Ultima VI he went from coding most of the game to coding none of it. Oh well. To modify what you said in a comment above, we should be grateful for the creator we got, not disappointed about the one we didn’t.

    Another counterfactual involves what might have happened if Spector was nearly as good at game design as he is at management, but we’re still at the start of that story… and on this site we’re still in an era where leadership is worth more than creativity.

     
  34. John Henry McMills Warrington

    May 16, 2021 at 5:47 pm

    You could have put a click-counter onto the link to Ultima VIII, or even in addition, made it a warez link.
    Signed G

     

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.