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The Rise of POMG, Part 4: A World for the Taking

Just as the Ultima Online beta test was beginning, Electronic Arts was initiating the final phase of its slow-motion takeover of Origin Systems. In June of 1997, the mother ship in California sent down two Vice Presidents to take over completely in Texas, integrate Origin well and truly into the EA machine, and end once and for all any semblance of independence for the studio. Neil Young became Origin’s new General Manager on behalf of EA, while Chris Yates became Chief Technical Officer. Both men were industry veterans.

Appropriately enough given that he was about to become the last word on virtual Britannia, Neil Young was himself British. He attributes his career choice to the infamously awful English weather. “There are a lot of people in the games industry that come from the UK,” he says. “I think it’s because the weather is so bad that you don’t have a lot to do, so you either go into a band or teach yourself to program.” He chose the latter course at a time when computer games in Britain were still being sold on cassette tape for a couple of quid. After deciding to forgo university in favor of a programming job at a tiny studio called Imagitec Design in 1988, he “quickly realized there were more gifted engineers,” as he puts it, and “moved into producing.” Having made a name for himself in that role, he was lured to the United States by Virgin Interactive in 1992, then moved on to EA five years later, which organization had hand-picked him for the task of whipping its sometimes wayward and lackadaisical stepchild Origin into fighting shape.

Chris Yates had grown up amidst the opposite of English rain, hailing as he did from the desert gambler’s paradise Las Vegas. He was hired by the hometown studio Westwood Associates in 1988, where he worked as a programmer on games like Eye of the Beholder, Dune II, and Lands of Lore. In 1994, two years after Virgin acquired Westwood, he moved to Los Angeles to join the parent company. There he and Young became close friends as well as colleagues, such that they chose to go to EA together as a unit.

The two were so attractive to EA thanks not least to an unusual project which had occupied some of their time during their last year and a half or so at Virgin. Inspired by Air Warrior, the pioneering massively-multiplayer online flight simulator that had been running on the GEnie commercial online service since the late 1980s, a Virgin programmer named Rod Humble proposed in 1995 that his company invest in something similar, but also a bit simpler and more accessible: a massively-multiplayer version of Asteroids, the 1979 arcade classic whose roots stretched all the way back to Spacewar!, that urtext of videogaming. Neil Young and his friend Chris Yates went to bat for the project: Young making the business case for it as an important experiment that could lead to big windfalls later on, Yates pitching in to offer his exceptional technical expertise whenever necessary. Humble and a colleague named Jeff Paterson completed an alpha version of the game they called SubSpace in time to put it up on the Internet for an invitation-only testing round in December of 1995. Three months later, the server was opened to anyone who cared to download the client — still officially described as a beta version — and have at it.

SubSpace was obviously a very different proposition from the likes of Ultima Online, but it fits in perfectly with this series’s broader interest in persistent online multiplayer gaming (or POMG as I’ve perhaps not so helpfully shortened it). For, make no mistake, the quality of persistence was as key to its appeal as it was to that of such earlier featured players in this series as Kali or Battle.net. SubSpace spawned squads and leagues and zones; it became an entire subculture unto itself, one that lived in and around the actual battles in space. The distinction between it and the games of Kali and Battle.net was that SubSpace was massively — or at least bigly — multiplayer. Whereas an online Diablo session was limited to four participants, SubSpace supported battles involving up to 250 players, sometimes indulging in crazy free-for-alls, more often sorted into two or more teams, each of them flying and fighting in close coordination. It thus quickly transcended Asteroids in its tactical dimensions as well as its social aspects — transcended even other deceptively complex games with the same roots, such as Toys for Bobs’s cult classic Star Control. That it was playable at all over dial-up modem connections was remarkable; that it was so much fun to play and then to hang out in afterward, talking shop and taking stock, struck many of the thousands of players who stumbled across it as miraculous; that it was completely free for a good long time was the icing on the cake.

It remained that way because Virgin didn’t really know what else to do with it. When the few months that had been allocated to the beta test were about to run out, the fans raised such a hue and cry that Virgin gave in and left it up. And so the alleged beta test continued for more than a year, the happy beneficiary of corporate indecision. In one of his last acts before leaving Virgin, Neil Young managed to broker a sponsorship deal with Pepsi Cola, which gave SubSpace some actual advertising and another lease on life as a free-to-play game. During that memorable summer of the Ultima Online beta test, SubSpace was enjoying what one fan history calls its “greatest days” of all: “The population tripled in three months, and now there were easily 1500-plus people playing during peak times.”

With the Pepsi deal about to run out, Virgin finally took SubSpace fully commercial in October of 1997, again just as Ultima Online was doing the same. Alas, it didn’t go so well for SubSpace. Virgin released it as a boxed retail game, with the promise that, once customers had plunked down the cash to buy it, access would be free in perpetuity. This didn’t prevent half or more of the existing user base from leaving the community, even as nowhere near enough new players joined to replace them. Virgin shut down the server in November of 1998; “in perpetuity” had turned out to be a much shorter span of time than anyone had anticipated.

As we’ve seen before in this series, however, the remaining hardcore SubSpace fans simply refused to let their community die. They put up their own servers — Virgin had made the mistake of putting all the code you needed to do so on the same disc as the client — and kept right on space-warring. You can still play SubSpace today, just as you can Meridian 59 and The Realm. A website dedicated to tracking the game’s “population statistics” estimated in 2015 that the community still had between 2000 and 3000 active members, of whom around 300 might be online at any given time; assuming these numbers are to be trusted, a bit of math reveals that those who like the game must really like it, spending 10 percent or more of their lives in it. That same year, fans put their latest version of the game, now known as Subspace Continuum, onto Steam for free. Meanwhile its original father Rod Humble has gone on to a long and fruitful career in POMG, working on Everquest, The Sims Online, and Second Life among other projects.



But we should return now to the summer of 1997 and to Origin Systems, to which Neil Young and Chris Yates came as some of the few people in existence who could boast not only of ideas about POMG but of genuine commercial experience in the field, thanks to SubSpace. EA hoped this experience would serve them well when it came to Ultima Online.

Which isn’t to say that the latter was the only thing they had on their plates: the sheer diversity of Young’s portfolio as an EA general manager reflects the confusion about what Origin’s identity as a studio should be going forward. There were of course the two perennials, Ultima — meaning for the moment at least Ultima Online — and Wing Commander, which was, as Young says today, “a little lost as a product.” Wing Commander, the franchise in computer gaming during the years immediately prior to DOOM, was becoming a monstrous anachronism by 1997. Shortly after the arrival of Young and Yates, Origin would release Wing Commander: Prophecy, whose lack of the Roman numeral “V” that one expected to see in its name reflected a desire for a fresh start on a more sustainable model in this post-Chris Roberts era, with a more modest budget to go along with more modest cinematic ambitions. But instead of heralding the dawn of a new era, it would prove the franchise’s swan song; it and its 1998 expansion pack would be the last new Wing Commander computer games ever. Their intended follow-up, a third game in the Wing Commander: Privateer spinoff series of more free-form outer-space adventures, would be cancelled.

In addition to Ultima and Wing Commander, EA had chosen to bring under the Origin umbrella two product lines that were nothing like the games for which the studio had always been known. One was a line of military simulations that bore the imprimatur of “Jane’s,” a print publisher which had been the source since the turn of the twentieth century of the definitive encyclopedias of military hardware of all types. The Jane’s simulations were overseen by one Andy Hollis, who had begun making games of this type for MicroProse back in the early 1980s. The other line involved another MicroProse alum — in fact, none other than Sid Meier, whose name had entered the lexicon of many a gaming household by serving as the prefix before such titles as Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, and Colonization. Meier and two other MicroProse veterans had just set up a studio of their own, known as Firaxis Games, with a substantial investment from EA, who planned to release their products under the Origin Systems label. Origin was becoming, in other words, EA’s home for all of its games that were made first and usually exclusively for computers rather than for the consoles that now provided the large majority of EA’s revenues; the studio had, it seemed, more value in the eyes of the EA executive suite as a brand than as a working collective.

Still, this final stage of the transition from independent subsidiary to branch office certainly could have been even more painful than it was. Neil Young and Chris Yates were fully aware of how their arrival would be seen down in Austin, and did everything they could to be good sports and fit into the office culture. Brit-in-Texas Young was the first to come with the fish-out-of-water jokes at his own expense — “I was expecting a flat terrain with lots of cowboys, cacti, and horses, so I was pleasantly surprised,” he said of Austin — and both men rolled up their sleeves alongside Richard Garriott to serve the rest of the company a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, a longtime Origin tradition.

Neil Young and Chris Yates on the Thanksgiving chow line.

Young and Yates had received instructions from above that Ultima Online absolutely had to ship by the end of September. Rather than cracking the whip, they tried to cajole and josh their way to that milestone as much as possible. They agreed to attend the release party in drag if the deadline was met; then Young went one step farther, promising Starr Long a kiss on the lips. Yates didn’t go that far, but he did agree to grow a beard to commemorate the occasion, even as Richard Garriott, whose upper lip hadn’t seen the sun since he’d graduated from high school, agreed to shave his.

Young and Yates got it done, earning for themselves the status of, if not the unsung heroes of Ultima Online, two among a larger group of same. The core group of ex-MUDders whose dream and love Ultima Online had always been could probably have kept running beta tests for years to come, had not these outsiders stepped in to set the technical agenda. “That meant trading off features with technology choices and decisions every minute of the day,” says Young. He brought in one Rich Vogel, who had set up and run the server infrastructure for Meridian 59 at The 3DO Company, to do the same for Ultima Online. In transforming Origin Systems into a maintainer of servers and a seller of subscriptions, he foreshadowed a transition that would eventually come to the games industry in general, from games as boxed products to gaming as a service. These tasks did not involve the sexy, philosophically stimulating ideas about virtual worlds and societies with which Raph Koster and his closest colleagues spent their time and which will always capture the lion’s share of the attention in articles like this one, but the work was no less essential for all that, and no less of a paradigm shift in its way.

So, the big day came and the deadline was met: Ultima Online shipped on September 24, 1997, three days before Meridian 59 would celebrate its first anniversary. The sleek black box was an end and a beginning at the same time. Young and Yates did their drag show, Starr Long got his kiss, and, most shockingly of all, Richard Garriott revealed his naked upper lip to all and sundry. (Opinions were divided as to whether the mangy stubble which Chris Yates deigned to grow before picking up his razor again really qualified as a beard or not.) And then everyone waited to see what would happen next.

A (semi-)bearded Chris Yates and a rare sight indeed: a clean-shaven Richard Garriott.

EA made and shipped to stores all over the country 50,000 copies of Ultima Online, accompanying it with a marketing campaign that was, as Wired magazine described it, of “Hollywood proportions.” The virtual world garnered attention everywhere, from CNN to The New York Times. These mainstream organs covered it breathlessly as the latest harbinger of humanity’s inevitable cyber-future, simultaneously bracing and unnerving. Flailing about for a way to convey some sense of the virtual world’s scope, The New York Times noted that it would take 38,000 computer monitors — enough to fill a football field — to display it in its entirety at one time. Needless to say, the William Gibson quotes, all “collective hallucinations” and the like, flew thick and fast, as they always did to mark events like this one.

Three weeks after the launch, 38,000 copies of Ultima Online had been sold and EA was spooling up the production line again to make another 65,000. Sales would hit the 100,000 mark within three months of the release. Such numbers were more than gratifying. EA knew that 100,000 copies sold of this game ought to be worth far more to its bottom line than 100,000 copies of any other game would have been, given that each retail sale hopefully represented only the down payment on a long-running subscription at $10 per month. For its publisher, Ultima Online would be the gift that kept on giving.

In another sense, however, the sales figures were a problem. When Ultima Online went officially live, it did so on just three shards: the Atlantic and Pacific shards from the beta test, plus a new Great Lakes one to handle the middle of the country. Origin was left scrambling to open more to meet the deluge of subscribers. Lake Superior came up on October 3, Baja on October 10, Chesapeake on October 16,  Napa Valley on November 14, Sonoma on December 13, Catskills on December 22. And still it wasn’t enough.

Origin’s estimates of how many players a single server could reliably support proved predictably overoptimistic. But rather than dial back on the number of players they allowed inside, thereby ensuring that each of them who did get in could have a reasonably enjoyable experience, they kept trying to cover the gap between technical theory and reality by hacking their code on the fly. As a result, Ultima Online became simultaneously the most loved and most hated game in the country. When it all came together, it was magic for many of its players. But truth be told, that didn’t happen anywhere near as often as one might have wished in that first year or so. Extreme lag, inexplicable glitches, dropped connections, and even total server crashes were the more typical order of the day. Of course, with almost everyone who surfed the Web still relying on dial-up modems running over wires that had been designed to carry voices rather than computer data, slowdowns and dropped connections were a reality of daily online life even for those who weren’t attempting to log onto virtual worlds. This created a veneer of plausible deniability, which Origin’s tech-support people, for lack of any other suggestions or excuses to offer, leaned on perhaps a bit too heavily. After all, who could say for sure that the problem any individual player might be having wasn’t downstream from Origin’s poor overtaxed server?

Weaselly excuses like these led to the first great act of civil disobedience by the residents of Britannia, just a few weeks after the launch, when hundreds of players gathered outside Lord British’s castle, stripped themselves naked, broke into the throne room, drank gallons of wine, and proceeded to disgorge all of it onto Richard Garriott’s virtual furniture, whilst chanting in unison their demands for a better, stabler virtual world. The world’s makers were appalled, but also weirdly gratified. What better sign of a budding civic life could there be than a full-on political protest? “We were all watching and thinking it was a grand statement about the project,” says Richard Garriott. “As unhappy as they were about the game, they voiced their unhappiness in the context of the game.” Much of what happened inside Ultima Online during the first year especially had the same quality of being amazing for philosophers of virtual worlds to witness, but stressful for the practical administrators who were trying to turn this one into a sustainable money tree. The rub was that the two categories were combined in the very same people, who were left feeling conflicted to say the least.

The journals of hardcore gaming, hardly known for their stoicism in the face of hype on most days, were ironically more reserved and skeptical than the mainstream press on the subject of Ultima Online, perchance because they were viewing the virtual world less as a harbinger of some collective cyber-future and more as a game that their readers might wish to, you know, actually play. Computer Gaming World wittily titled its scathing review, buried on page 162 and completely unmentioned on the cover of the issue in question, simply “Uh-Oh.” Among the litany of complaints were “numerous and never-ending bugs, horrible lag time, design issues [that] lead to repetitive and time-consuming activities, and [an] unbalanced economy.” The magazine did admit that “Ultima Online could become a truly great game. But we can’t review potential, we can only review concrete product.” Editor-in-chief Johnny L. Wilson, for his part, held out little hope for improvement. “Ultima Online begins with hubris and ends in Greek tragedy,” he said. “The hubris is a result of being unwilling to learn from others’ mistakes. The tragedy is that it could have been so much more.” Randy Farmer, co-creator of the earlier would-be virtual world Habitat, expressed a similar sentiment, saying that “Origin seems to have ignored many of the lessons that our industry has learned in the last ten years of building online worlds. They’re making the same mistakes that first-time virtual-world builders always make.”

The constant crashes and long periods of unexplained down time associated with a service for which people were paying good money constituted a corporate lawyer’s worst nightmare — or a different sort of lawyer’s wet dream. One of these latter named George Schultz began collecting signatures from Origin’s most disgruntled customers within weeks, filing a class-action lawsuit in San Diego at the beginning of March of 1998. Exhibit A was the copy right there on the back of the box, promising “a living, growing world where thousands of real people discover real fantasy and adventure, 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” with all of it taking place “in real time.” This was, claimed Schultz, a blatant case of false advertising. “We’re not trying to tell anyone how to design a good or a bad game,” he said. “What it’s about is holding Origin and EA to the promises they made on the box, in their advertising, and [in] the manual. It’s about the misrepresentations they’ve made. A big problem with the gaming industry is that they think there are some special rules that only apply to them.”

Whatever the truth of that last claim, there was no denying that just about half of the learning curve of Ultima Online was learning to navigate around the countless bugs and technical quirks. For example, Origin took down each shard once per day for a backup and a “therapeutic” reboot that was itself a testament to just what a shaky edifice the software and hardware were. When the server came back up again, it restored the state of the world from the last backup. But said state was a snapshot in time from one hour before the server went down. There was, in other words, an hour every day during which everything you did in virtual Britannia was doomed to be lost; this was obviously not a time to go on any epic, treasure- and experience-point-rich adventures. Yet such things were documented nowhere; one learned them only through the proverbial school of hard knocks.

In their defense, Origin was sailing into completely uncharted waters with Ultima Online. Although there had been online virtual worlds before, dating all the way back to that first MUD of 1978 or 1979, none of them — no, not even Meridian 59 and The Realm — had been as expansive, sophisticated, and most of all popular as these shards of Britannia. Most of the hardware technologies that would give rise to the era of Web 2.0, from DSL in homes to VPS’s in data centers, existed only as blueprints; ditto most of the software. No one had ever made a computer game before that required this much care and feeding after the initial sale. And it wasn’t as if the group entrusted with maintaining the beast was a large one. Almost the entirety of the Ultima IX team which had been parachuted in six months before the launch to just get the world done already was pulled out just as abruptly as soon as it started accepting paying subscribers, leaving behind a crew of maintainers that was little bigger than the original team of ex-MUDders who had labored in obscurity for so long before catching the eye of EA’s management. The idea that maintaining a virtual world might require almost as much manpower and ongoing creative effort as making it in the first place was too high a mental hurdle for even otherwise clever folks like Neil Young and Chris Yates to clear at this point.

Overwhelmed as they were, the maintainers began to rely heavily on unpaid volunteers from the community of players to do much of the day-to-day work of administrating the world, just as was the practice on MUDs. But Ultima Online ran on a vastly larger scale than even the most elaborate MUDs, making it hard to keep tabs on these volunteer overseers. While some were godsends, putting in hours of labor every week to make Britannia a better place for their fellow players, others were corrupted by their powers, manipulating the levers they had to hand to benefit their friends and punish their enemies. Then, too, the volunteer system was another legal quagmire, one that would doubtless have sent EA’s lawyers running screaming from the room if anyone had bothered to ask them about it before it was rolled out; sure enough, it would eventually lead to another lawsuit, this one more extended, serious, and damaging than the first.

In the meanwhile, though, most players did not rally behind the first lawsuit to anything like the degree that George Schultz might have been hoping. The fact was that even the ones who had vomited all over Lord British’s throne had done so because they loved their virtual Britannia and wanted to see it fixed rather than destroyed, as it would likely be if Schultz won the day. The suit concluded in a settlement at the end of 1998. The biggest concession on the part of the defendants was a rather weird one that gave no recompense to any individual inhabitant of virtual Britannia: EA agreed to donate $15,000 to the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation. Perhaps Schultz thought that it would be able to innovate up a more reliable virtual world.

While many of the technical problems that beset Ultima Online were only to be expected in the context of the times, some of the other obstacles to enjoying the virtual world were more puzzling. First and foremost among these was the ever-present issue of players killing other players, which created so much frustration that George Schultz felt compelled to explicitly wall it off from the breach-of-trust claims that were the basis of his lawsuit: “We’re not getting into whether there should be player-killing.” Given that it had been such a constant theme of life (and death) in virtual Britannia going all the way back to the alpha-testing phase, the MUDders might have taken more steps to address it before the launch. As it was, though, one senses that, having seen so many of their ideas about a virtual ecology and the like not survive contact with real players, having been forced to give up in so many ways on virtual Britannia as a truly self-sustaining, living world, they were determined to make this the scene of their last stand, the hill that they would either hold onto or die trying.

Their great white hope was still the one that Richard Garriott had been voicing in interviews since well before the world’s commercial debut: that purely social pressures would act as a constraint on player-killing — that, in short, their world would learn to police itself. In fact, the presence of player-killing might act as a spur to civilization — for, as Raph Koster said, “cultures define and refine themselves through conflict.” They kept trying to implement systems that would nudge this particular culture in the right direction. They decided that, after committing murder five times, a player would be branded with literal scarlet letters: the color of his onscreen name would change from blue to red. Hopefully this would make him a pariah among his peers, while also making it very dangerous for him to enter a town, whose invulnerable computer-controlled guards would attack him on sight. The designers didn’t reckon with the fact that a virtual life is, no matter how much they might wish otherwise, simply not the same as a real life. Some percentage of players, presumably perfectly mild-mannered and law-abiding in the real world, reveled in the role of murderous outlaws online, taking the red letters of their name as a badge of honor rather than shame, the dangers of the cities as a challenge rather than a deterrent. To sneak past the city gates, creep up behind an unsuspecting newbie and stab her in the back, then get out of Dodge before the city watch appeared… now, that was good times. The most-wanted rolls posted outside the guard stations of Britannia became, says Raph Koster, “a high-score table for player killers.”

The MUDders’ stubborn inflexibility on this issue — an issue that was by all indications soon costing Ultima Online large numbers of customers — was made all the more inexplicable in the opinion of many players by the fact that it was, in marked contrast to so many of the other problems, almost trivial to address in programming terms. An “invulnerability” flag had long existed, to be applied not only to computer-controlled city guards but to special human-controlled personages such as Lord British to whom the normal laws of virtual time and space did not apply. All Origin had to do was add a few lines of code to automatically turn the flag on when a player walked into designated “safe” spaces. That way, you could have places where those who had signed up mostly in order to socialize could hang out without having to constantly look over their backs, along with other places where the hardcore pugilists could pummel one another to their heart’s content. Everyone would be catered to. Problem solved.

But Raph Koster and company refused to take this blindingly obvious step, having gotten it into their heads that to do so would be to betray their most cherished ideals. They kept tinkering around the edges of the problem, looking for a subtler solution that would preserve their world’s simulational autonomy. For example, they implemented a sort of karmic justice system, which dictated that players who had been evil during life would be resurrected after death only after losing a portion of their stats and skills. Inevitably, the player killers just took this as another challenge. Just don’t get killed, and you would never have to worry about it.

The end result was to leave the experience of tens of thousands of players in the unworthy hands of a relatively small minority of “griefers,” people who thrived on causing others pain and distress. Like all bullies, they preyed on the weak; their typical victims were the newbies, unschooled in the ways of defense, guiding characters with underwhelming statistics and no arms or armor to speak of. Such new players were, of course, the ones whose level of engagement with the game was most tentative, who were the mostly likely to just throw up their hands and go find something else to play after they’d been victimized once or twice, depriving Origin of potentially hundreds of dollars in future subscription revenue.

In light of this, it’s strange that no one from EA or Origin overrode the MUDders on this point. For his part, Richard Garriott was adamantly on their side, insisting that Ultima Online simply had to allow player-killing if it wasn’t to become a mockery of itself. It was up to the dissatisfied and victimized residents themselves to band together and turn Britannia into the type of world they wanted to live in; it wasn’t up to Origin to step in and fix their problems for them with a deus ex machina. “When we first launched Ultima Online, we set out to create a world that supported the evil player as a legitimate role,” said Garriott in his rather high-handed way. “Those who have truly learned the lessons of the [single-player] Ultima games should cease their complaining, rise to the challenge, and make Britannia into the place they want it to be.” He liked to tell a story on this subject. (Knowing Garriott’s penchant for embellishment, it probably didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen quite like this. But that’s not relevant to its importance as allegory.)

One evening, he was wandering the streets of the capital in his Lord British persona, when he heard a woman screaming. Rushing over to her, he was told that a thief had stolen all of her possessions. His spirit of chivalry was awoken; he told her that he would get her things back for her. Together they tracked down the thief and cornered him in a back alley. Lord British demanded that the thief return the stolen goods, and the thief complied. They all went their separate ways. A moment later, the woman cried out again; the thief had done it again.

This time, Lord British froze the thief with a spell before he could leave the scene of the crime. “I told you not to do that,” he scolded. “What are you doing?”

“Sorry, I won’t do it again,” said the thief as he turned over the goods for a second time.

“If you do that again, I’m going to ban you from the game,” said Lord British.

You might be able to guess what happened next: the thief did it yet again. “I said I was going to ban you, and now I have to,” shouted Lord British, now well and truly incensed. “What’s wrong with you? I told you not to steal from this woman!”

The thief’s answer stopped Garriott in his tracks. “Listen. You created this world, and I’m a thief,” he said, breaking character for the first time. “I steal. That’s what I do. And now you’re going to ban me from the game for playing the role I’m supposed to play? I lied to you before because I’m a thief. The king caught me and told me not to steal. What am I going to do, tell you that as soon as you turn around I’m going to steal again? No! I’m going to lie.”

And Garriott realized that the thief was right. Garriott could do whatever he wished to him as Lord British, the reigning monarch of this world. But if he wished to stay true to all the things he had said in the past about what virtual Britannia was and ought to be, he couldn’t go outside the world to punish him as Richard Garriott, the god of the server looking down from on-high.

Some of the questions with which Origin was wrestling resonate all too well today: questions involving the appropriate limits of online free speech — or rather free action, in this case. They are questions with which everyone who has ever opened an Internet discussion up to the public, myself included, have had to engage. When does strongly felt disagreement spill over into bad faith, counterpoint into disruption for the sake of it? And what should we do about it when it does? In Origin’s case, the pivotal philosophical question at hand was where the boundary lay between playing an evil character in good faith in a fantasy world and purposely, willfully trying to cause real pain to other real people sitting behind other real computers. Origin had chosen to embrace a position close to the ground staked out by our self-described “free-speech maximalists” of today. And like them, Origin was learning that the issue is more dangerously nuanced than they had wished to believe.

But there were others sorts of disconnect at play here as well. Garriott’s stern commandment that his world’s inhabitants should “cease their complaining, rise to the challenge, and make Britannia into the place they want it to be” becomes more than a bit rich when we remember that it was being directed toward Origin’s paying customers. Many of them might have replied that it was up to Origin rather than they themselves to make Britannia a place they wanted to be, lest they choose to spend their $10 per month on something else. The living-world dynamic held “as long as everyone is playing the same game,” wrote Amy Jo Kim in an article about Ultima Online and its increasingly vocalized discontents that appeared in Wired magazine in the spring of 1998. “But what happens when players who think they’re attending an online Renaissance Faire find themselves at the mercy of a violent, abusive gang of thugs? In today’s Britannia, it’s not uncommon to stumble across groups of evil players who talk like Snoop Doggy Dogg, dress like gangstas, and act like rampaging punks.” To be sure, some players were fully onboard with the “living-world” policy of (non-)administration. Others, however, had thought, reasonably enough given what they had read on the back of the game’s box, that they were just buying an entertainment product, a place to hang out in a few hours per day or week and have fun, chatting and exploring and killing monsters. They hadn’t signed up to organize police forces or lead political rallies. Nor had they signed up to be the guinea pigs in some highfalutin social experiment. No; they had signed up to play a game.

As it was, Ultima Online was all but impossible to play casually, thanks not only to the murderers skulking in its every nook and cranny but to core systems of the simulation itself. For example, if you saved up until you could afford to build yourself a nice little house, made it just like you wanted it, then failed to log on for a few days, when you did return you’d find that your home had disappeared, razed to make room for some other, more active player to build something. Systems like these pushed players to spend more time online as a prerequisite to having fun when they were there. Some left when the demands of the game conflicted with those of real life, which was certainly the wisest choice. But some others began to spend far more time in virtual Britannia than was really good for them, raising the specter of gaming addiction, a psychological and sociological problem that would only become more prevalent in the post-millennial age.

Origin estimated that the median hardcore player spent a stunning if not vaguely horrifying total of six hours per day in the virtual world. And if the truth be told, many of the non-murderous things with which they were expected to fill those hours do seem kind of boring on the face of it. This is the flip side of making a virtual world that is more “realistic”: most people play games to escape from reality for a while, not to reenact it. With all due respect to our dedicated and talented real-world tailors and bakers, most people don’t dream of spending their free time doing such jobs online. Small wonder so many became player killers instead; at least doing that was exciting and, for some people at any rate, fun. From Amy Jo Kim’s article:

There’s no shortage of realism in this game — the trouble is, many of the nonviolent activities in Ultima Online are realistic to the point of numbingly lifelike boredom. If you choose to be a tailor, you can make a passable living at it, but only after untold hours of repetitive sewing. And there’s no moral incentive for choosing tailoring — or any honorable, upstanding vocation, for that matter. So why be a tailor? In fact, why not prey on the tailors?

True, Ultima Online is many things to many people. Habitués of online salons come looking for intellectual sparring and verbal repartee. Some other people log on in search of intimate but anonymous social relationships. Still others play the game with cunning yet also a discernible amount of self-restraint, getting rich while staying pretty honest. But there’s no avoiding where the real action is: an ever-growing number are playing Ultima Online to kill everything that moves.

All of this had an effect: all signs are that, after the first rush of sales and subscriptions, Ultima Online began to stagnate, mired in bad reviews, ongoing technical problems, and a growing disenchantment with the player-killing and the other barriers to casual fun. Raph Koster admits that “our subscriber numbers, while stratospheric for the day, weren’t keeping up” with sales of the boxed game, because “the losses [of frustrated newbies] were so high.”

Although Origin and EA never published official sales or subscriber numbers, I have found one useful data point from the early days of Ultima Online, in an internal Origin newsletter dated October 30, 1998. As of this date, just after its first anniversary, the game had 90,000 registered users, of whom approximately half logged on on any given day. These numbers are depicted in the article in question as very impressive, as indeed they were in comparison to the likes of Meridian 59 and The Realm. Still, a bit of context never hurts. Ultima Online had sold 100,000 boxed copies in its first three months, yet it didn’t have even that many subscribers after thirteen months, when its total boxed sales were rounding the 200,000 mark. The subscriber-retention rate, in other words, was not great; a lot of those purchased CDs had become coasters in fairly short order.

Nine shards were up in North America at this time, a number that had stayed the same since the previous December. And it’s this number that may be the most telling one of all. It’s true that, since demand was concentrated at certain times of day, Ultima Online was hosting just about all the players it could handle with its current server infrastructure as of October of 1998. But then again, this was by no means all the players it should be able to handle in the abstract: new shards were generally brought into being in response to increasing numbers of subscribers rather than vice versa. The fact that no new North American shards had been opened since December of 1997 becomes very interesting in this light.

I don’t want to overstate my case here: Ultima Online was extremely successful on its own, somewhat experimental terms. We just need to be sure that we understand what those terms were. By no means were its numbers up there with the industry’s biggest hits. As a point of comparison, let’s take Riven, the long-awaited sequel to the mega-hit adventure game Myst. It was released two months after Ultima Online and went on to sell 1 million units in its first year — at least five times the number of boxed entrées to Origin’s virtual world over the same time period, despite being in a genre that was in marked decline in commercial terms. Another, arguably more pertinent point of comparison is Age of Empires, a new entry in the red-hot real-time-strategy genre. Released just one month after Ultima Online, it outsold Origin’s virtual world by more than ten to one over its first year. Judged as a boxed retail game, Ultima Online was a middling performer at best.

Of course, Ultima Online was not just another boxed retail game; the unique thing about it was that each of the 90,000 subscribers it had retained was paying $10 every month, yielding a steady revenue of almost $11 million per year, with none of it having to be shared with any distributor or retailer. That was really, really nice — nice enough to keep Origin’s head above water at a time when the studio didn’t have a whole lot else to point to by way of justifying its ongoing existence to EA. And yet the reality remained that Ultima Online was a niche obsession rather than a mass-market sensation. As so often happens in life, taking the next step forward in commercial terms, not to mention fending off the competition that was soon to appear with budgets and publisher support of which Meridian 59 and The Realm couldn’t have dreamed, would require a degree of compromise with its founding ideals.

Be that as it may, however, one thing at least was now clear: there was real money to be made in the MMORPG space. Shared virtual worlds would soon learn to prioritize entertainment over experimentation. Going forward, there would be less talk about virtual ecologies and societies, and more focus on delivering slickly packaged fun, of the sort that would keep all kinds of players coming back for more — and, most importantly of all, get those subscriber counts rising once more.

I’ll continue to follow the evolution of PMOG, MMORPGs, and Ultima Online in future articles, and maybe see if I can’t invent some more confusing acronyms while I’m at it. But not right away… other subjects beg for attention in the more immediate future.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: the books Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online by Wes Locher, Postmortems: Selected Essays, Volume One by Raph Koster, Online Game Pioneers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Through the Moongate, Part II by Andrea Contato, Explore/Create by Richard Garriott, and MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle, and Dungeons and Dreamers by Bard King and John Borland. Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of February 20 1998 and October 30 1998; Computer Gaming World of February 1998 and November 1998; New York Times of October 20 1997; Wired of May 1998.

Web sources include a 2018 Game Developers Conference talk by some of the Ultima Online principals, an Ultima Online timeline at UOGuide, and GameSpot‘s vintage reviews of Ultima Online and its first expansion, The Second Age. On the subject of SubSpace, we have histories by Rod Humble and Epinephrine, another vintage GameSpot review, and a Vice article by Emanuel Maiberg.

 

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The Rise of POMG, Part 3: Competition and Conflict

While the broth of Ultima Online was slowly thickening, not one but two other publishers beat EA and Origin Systems to the punch by releasing graphical persistent virtual worlds of their own. We owe it to them and to ourselves to have a look at these other POMG pioneers before we return to the more widely lauded one that was being built down in Texas. They were known as Meridian 59 and The Realm.


Meridian 59 was inspired by Scepter of Goth,[1]The first word in the name is often spelled Sceptre as well. a rare attempt to commercialize the text-only MUD outside of the walled gardens of online services such as CompuServe and GEnie. After a long gestation period on a mainframe of the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium, it was ported in 1983 to an IBM PC/XT, to which were cabled sixteen modems and sixteen phone lines, one for each of the players who could be online at any given time. A company called InterPlay — no, not that Interplay — franchised the software out to operators in at least seven American cities. These franchisees then charged their customers an hourly fee to roam around inside the world. The business model worked surprisingly well for a couple of years, until InterPlay’s founder was sent to prison for tax evasion and his company went down with him.

During the fairly brief window of time that Scepter of Goth remained a going concern, a pair of brothers named Andrew and Chris Kirmse fell in love with the incarnation of it that was run out of their hometown of Fairfax, Virginia. Not yet teenagers when they discovered it, they never forgot it after it disappeared. In the summer of 1994, when Andrew had just earned his bachelor’s degree from MIT and Chris had just finished his junior year at Virginia Tech, they set about bringing something similar to life, albeit this time with a top-down graphical view of the world rather than scrolling text. By the end of the year, they felt they had “the foundation of a game,” as Andrew puts it.

A very early version of the game that would evolve into Meridian 59. At this point, it was known as Blackstone.

Then, like so many other young men of their generation and disposition, they found their productivity derailed by a little game called DOOM. “I spent the early part of 1995 playing DOOM II to the exclusion of all else,” admits Andrew. As soon as he had finished all of the single-player levels, he and a friend started to make a DOOM-like engine of their own — again, just as about a million other young programmers were doing at the time. But there was a key difference in Andrew’s case: he didn’t want to make a single-player game, nor even one oriented toward the one-and-done online deathmatches that were all the rage at university campuses all over the country. He rather wanted to combine DOOM with the persistent online game which he and his brother had already begun — that is to say, to make a DOOM that took place in a persistent world.

Andrew and Chris Kirmse cleared their schedules so that they could spend the summer of 1995 in their parents’ basement, figuring out whether it was possible and practical to make the unholy union a reality. With the Internet now entering the public consciousness in a big way, it was a no-brainer to move the game there, where it would be able to welcome far more than sixteen players without requiring a warehouse worth of modems. A handful of other young dreamers joined them as partners in a would-be company called Archetype Interactive, contributing art, world designs, and even a modicum of business acumen from locations all over the country. Like Kali and for that matter DOOM itself, it was the very definition of an underground project, springing to life far from the bright lights of the major publishers, with their slick “interactive movies” and their fixed — and, it would turn out, comprehensively wrong — ideas of the direction mainstream gaming was destined to go. At first the Archetypers wanted to call their game Meridian, simply because they thought the word sounded cool. But they found that the name was already trademarked, so they stuck an arbitrary number at the end of it to wind up with Meridian 59.

By December, they had a bare-bones world with, as Andrew Kirmse says, “no character advancement, no spells, no guilds, no ranged weapons, just the novelty of seeing other people walking around in 3D and talking to them.” Nevertheless, they decided they were ready for an alpha test, several months before Ultima Online would reach the same milestone. They fired up the server late one evening and went to bed, and were thrilled to wake up the next morning and find four people — out of a maximum of 35 — poking around in their world at the same time. Andrew still calls the excitement of that moment “the high point of the entire project.” They redoubled their efforts, roping in more interested observers to provide more art and expand upon the world and its systems, pushing out major updates every few weeks.

In an testament to the endearingly ramshackle nature of the whole project, the world of Meridian 59 was built using a hacked DOOM level editor. Likewise, much of the early art was blatantly stolen from DOOM.

The world went into beta testing in April of 1996. The maximum number of concurrent players had by now been raised by an order of magnitude, but Meridian 59 had become popular enough that the Archetypers still had to kick people out when they needed to log on themselves to check out their handiwork. Among the curious tire-kickers who visited was Kevin Hester, a programmer with The 3DO Company. Founded by Trip Hawkins five years earlier with the intention of bringing a “multimedia console” — don’t call it a games console! — to living rooms everywhere, 3DO was rather at loose ends by this point, having banked on a future of digital entertainment that was badly at odds with the encroaching reality. But Hawkins’s latest instincts were sounder than those of a half-decade previous: he had now decided that online play rather than single-player multimedia extravaganzas was the future. He jumped on Meridian 59 as soon as Hester brought it to his attention, putting together in a matter of days a deal to acquire the budding virtual world and its far-flung network of creators for $5 million in 3DO stock. The Archetypers all signed on the dotted line and moved to Silicon Valley, most of them meeting one another face to face for the first time on their first day in their new office, where they were thrilled to find five servers — enough for five separate instances of their virtual world! — just waiting for them to continue with the beta test.

It had started off like a hacker fairy tale, but the shine wore off quickly enough. Inspired by the shareware example of DOOM, the Kirmse brothers had expected to offer the game client as a free download, with the necessity to pay subscription fees kicking in only after players had been given a few hours to try it out. 3DO vetoed all of this, insisting that the client be made available only as a boxed product with a $50 initial price tag, plus a $15 monthly subscription fee. And instead of being given as much time as they needed to make their new world fit for permanent habitation, as they had been promised they would, the Archetypers were now told that they had to begin welcoming paying customers into Meridian 59 in less than three months. Damion Schubert, Meridian 59‘s world-design lead, claims that “3DO was using us to learn about the business of online gaming,” seeing their very first virtual world as a stepping-stone rather than a destination unto itself. Whatever the truth of that assertion, it is a matter of record that, while the Archetypers were trying to meet 3DO’s deadline, the stock they had been given was in free fall, losing 75 percent of its value in those first three months, thereby doing that much more to convince the accountants that Meridian 59 absolutely, positively had to ship before 3DO’s next fiscal year began on October 1.

An aesthetic triumph Meridian 59 was not.

So, the game that was officially released on September 27, 1996, was not quite the one the Kirmses had envisioned when they signed the contract with 3DO. To call it little more than a massively-multiplayer DOOM deathmatch with a chat system grafted on would be unkind but not totally unfair. Its pseudo-3D engine would have looked badly outdated in 1996, the year of Quake, even if the art hadn’t been such a mismatched grab bag of aesthetics and resolutions. Meridian 59 evinced none of the simulational aspirations of Ultima Online; this was not a world in which anyone was going to pass the time baking bread or chopping lumber. For lack of much else to do, people mostly occupied themselves by killing one another. Like Ultima Online, the software permitted player-versus-player combat anywhere and everywhere; unlike Ultima Online, there were no guards patrolling any of the world’s spaces to disincentivize it. A Meridian 59 server was a purely kill-or-be-killed sort of world, host to a new war every single day. Because there was no budget to add much other content to the world, this was just as well with its creators; indeed, they soon learned to lean into it hard. Activities in the world came to revolve around the possession of guild halls, of which each server boasted ten of varying degrees of splendor for the disparate factions to fight over. If you didn’t like to fight with your fellow players more or less constantly, Meridian 59 probably wasn’t the game for you.

Handed the first-ever full-fledged massively-multiplayer online role-playing game, 3DO’s marketers chose to… write non-sequiters about latex. This might be the worst advertisement I’ve ever seen; I literally have no idea what joke it’s trying and failing to land. Something about condoms, I presume?

Luckily, there were plenty of gamers who really, really did like to fight, as the popularity of DOOM deathmatches illustrated. Despite its dated graphics and despite promotional efforts from 3DO that were bizarrely inept when they weren’t nonexistent, Meridian 59 managed to attract 20,000 or more subscribers and to retain them for a good while, keeping all ten of the servers that were given over to it after the beta test humming along at near capacity most of the time. 3DO even approved a couple of boxed expansion packs that added a modicum of additional content.

But then, in late 1997, 3DO all but killed the virtual world dead at a stroke. Deciding it was unjust that casual players who logged on only occasionally paid the same subscription fee as heavy users who spent many hours per day online, they rejiggered the pricing formula into a tangle of numbers that would have baffled an income-tax accountant: $2.49 per day that one logged on, capped at $9.99 per week, with total fees also capped at $29.99 per month. But never mind the details. Since the largest chunk of subscribers by far belonged to the heavy-user category, it boiled down to a doubling of the subscription price, from $15 to $30 per month. The populations on the servers cratered as a result. Meridian 59‘s best days — or at least its most populous ones — thus passed into history.


The other graphical MMORPG to beat Ultima Online to market had a very different personality. Sierra’s The Realm was the direct result of Ken Williams’s musings about what an “online adventure game” might be like, the same ones that I quoted at some length in my last article. After trying and failing to convince Roberta Williams to add a multiplayer option to King’s Quest VII, he went to a programmer named David Slayback, saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do something like our adventure games, that was Medieval themed, and allowed players to swap items with each other, buy weapons, and attack monsters?” Slayback then took the ball and ran with it; as Ken himself acknowledges, that initial conversation was “the limit of my involvement creatively.”

The original plan was for The Realm to become a part of America Online, the great survivor of the pre-Web era of commercial online services. That deal, however, fell through. Meanwhile Sierra was itself acquired by an e-commerce firm called CUC International, and The Realm seemed to fall between two stools amidst the reshuffling of deck chairs that followed. A beta test in the summer of 1996 did lead to the acceptance of the first paying subscribers in December of that year, but Sierra never did any real promotion beyond its own customer magazine, making the client software available only via mail order. Still, by all indications this virtual world attracted a number of players comparable to that of Meridian 59, perhaps not least because in its case buying the boxed client entitled the customer to a full year of free online play.

The Realm stands today as a rather fascinating artifact, being the road largely not taken in the MMORPG space. In presentation, aesthetics, and culture, it has more in common with Habitat, an amazingly early attempt by Lucasfilm Games and America Online’s direct predecessor Quantum Link to build a non-competitive graphical space for online socializing, than it does with either Meridian 59 or Ultima Online. This world was very clear about where its priorities lay: “The Realm offers you a unique environment in which to socialize with online friends (or make some new ones) and also gives you something fun to do while you’re socializing.” It was, in other words, a case of social space first, game second. As such, it might be better read as a progenitor to the likes of Second Life or The Sims Online than something like World of Warcraft.

Each player started in her own house, which she had to fight neither to acquire nor to defend. The interface was set up like one of the point-and-click graphic adventures that had been Sierra’s bread and butter since the mid-1980s, with the player guiding her avatar in the third person across a map made up of “rooms” that filled exactly one screen each. The graphical style too was right out of King’s Quest. None of this is terribly surprising, given that The Realm was built using SCI, Sierra’s venerable adventure-game engine.

Although there were monsters to fight and treasure to collect, player-versus-player combat was impossible. Even profanity was expressly forbidden. (“This includes ‘masking’ by using asterisks as part of the word,” noted the FAQ carefully.) The combat was also unusual in that it was turn-based. This choice, combined with the way that The Realm off-loaded an unusual amount of work to the player’s local client, meant that Sierra didn’t have to spread it across multiple servers; uniquely for this era, there really was just one Realm.

All of this attracted a dramatically different clientele from that of Meridian 59; many more women hung out in The Realm, for one thing. Interior decoration and fashion trumped murder and theft in the typical range of pursuits. Beth Demetrescu wrote in Sierra’s magazine InterAction about her own first days there:

As with all newbies, I started in my house. I was a poor, hungry, fashion faux pas. After I got out of my house, moved about six screens, and was lost in my hometown, I encountered HorseWoman, whose biography said she was an eleven-year-old. She took me to her home, gave me decent clothes, and taught me about basic communication, navigation, and combat. This was my first experience with the warm, welcoming community of The Realm.

I soon found myself outside of the town fighting rats. There are plenty of large, ferocious beasts to fight, but for the time being, all I could handle were rats. I was really worried the first time one of these rats killed me, thinking I was going to get kicked out of the game and would have to log back on. Instead, I lost everything I was carrying, but I was found by wanderers who dragged me home to heal…

I learned of Realm weddings. BlueRose, the Justice of the Peace, often called the Lady of Love, conducts over half of the Realm weddings…

I have picked up several valuable things from the many Realmers I have encountered. Not only did I get important information on The Realm’s features and inhabitants, but I also learned from their example about The Realm’s vast, multinational community. These people are friendly and helpful.

The contrast with Meridian 59, where a bewildered newbie was more likely to be given a broadsword to the back of the neck than navigational and sartorial assistance, could hardly have been greater.

A wedding in The Realm.

All told, then, Meridian 59 and The Realm provided the early MMORPG space with its yang and its yin: the one being a hyper-violent, hyper-competitive free-for-all where pretty much anything went, the other a friendly social space that was kept that way by tight moderation. Nevertheless, the two did have some things in common. Neither ever became more than moderately popular, for one — and that according to a pretty generous interpretation of “moderately” in a fast-expanding games industry. And yet both proved weirdly hard to kill. In fact, both are still alive to this day, abandoned decades ago by their original publishers but kept online by hook or by crook by folks who simply refuse to let them go away — certainly not now, when the aged code that makes their worlds come alive can be run for a pittance on a low-end server tucked away in some back corner of an office or data center somewhere. Their populations on any given evening may now be in the dozens rather than the hundreds or thousands, but these virtual worlds abide. In this too, they’ve set a precedent for their posterity; the Internet of today is fairly littered with online games whose heyday of press notices and mainstream popularity are well behind them, but that seem determined to soldier on until the last grizzled graybeard who cut his teeth on them in his formative years shuffles off this mortal coil. MMORPGs especially are a bit like cockroaches in this respect — with no insult to either the worlds or the insects in question intended. Suffice to say that community can be a disarmingly resilient thing.



But we return now to the story of Ultima Online, whose makers viewed the less than overwhelming commercial acceptance of Meridian 59 and The Realm with some ambivalence. On the one hand, Ultima Online had avoided having its own thunder stolen by another MMORPG sensation. On the other, these other virtual worlds’ middling trajectories gave no obvious reason to feel hugely confident in Ultima Online‘s own commercial prospects.

This was a problem not least because, as 1996 turned the corner into 1997, the project’s financial well had just about run dry, just as this virtual Britannia was ready to go from the alpha to the beta stage of testing, with ten to twenty times the number of participants of earlier testing rounds. It wasn’t clear how this next step could be managed under the circumstances; the client software was by now too big to ask prospective testers to download it in its entirety in this era of dial-up connections, yet there simply wasn’t sufficient money in the budget to stamp and ship 20,000 or more CDs out to them. The team decided there was only one option, cheeky though it seemed: to ask each participant in effect to pay Origin for the privilege of testing their game for them, by sending in $5 to cover the cost of the CD. The principals claim today that 50,000 people did so as soon as the test was announced online, burying Origin in incoming mail; I suspect this number may be inflated somewhat, as many of those associated with Ultima Online tend to be in the memories of those who made it. But regardless of the exact figure, the response definitely was considerable, not to mention gratifying for the little team of ex-MUDders who had been laboring in disrespected obscurity up there on a gutted fifth floor. It was the first piece of incontrovertible evidence that there were significant numbers of people out there who were really, really excited by the idea of living out an Ultima game with thousands of others.

The original Ultima Online beta CDs have become coveted collectors’ items.

As the creators tell the story, the massive popular reaction to the call for beta testers was solely responsible for changing the hearts and minds of their managers at EA and Origin. Realizing suddenly that Ultima Online had serious moneymaking potential, they went overnight from passive-aggressively trying to kill it to being all-in with bells on. In March of 1997, they moved the MUDders from their barren exile down to the scene of the most important action at Origin, where a much larger team had been working on Ultima IX, the latest iteration in the single-player series. Yet it was the latter project that was now to go on hiatus, not Ultima Online. This new amalgamation of developers, five or six times the size of the team of the day before, had but one mandate: get the virtual world done already. After two years of living hand to mouth, the original world-builders had merely to state their wishes in terms of resources in order to see them granted.

Most of the conceptual work of building this new online world had already been done by the time the team was so dramatically expanded. Still, we shouldn’t dismiss the importance of this sudden influx of sometimes unwilling bandwagon jumpers. For they made Ultima Online look like at least a passable imitation of a AAA prestige project, in a way that Meridian 59 and The Realm did not. A high design standard combined with a relatively high audiovisual one would prove a potent combination.

With its isometric perspective, Ultima Online most resembled Ultima VII in terms of presentation. The graphics were by no means cutting-edge — Ultima VII had come out back in 1992, after all — but they were bright and attractive, without going full-on cartoon like The Realm.

Did all of this really happen simply because the response to the call for beta testers was better than expected? I have no smoking gun either way, but I must say that I tend to doubt it. Just about everyone loves a good creatives-versus-suits story, such that we seldom question them. Yet the reasoning that went on in the executive suites prior to this turnaround in Ultima Online‘s fortunes was perhaps a little more complex than that of a pack of ravenous wolves chasing a tasty rabbit that had finally been revealed to their unimaginative minds. Whatever else one can say about them, most of the suits didn’t get where they were by being stupid. So, maybe we should try to see the situation from their perspective — try to see what Origin looked like to the outsiders at EA’s California headquarters.

Throughout the 1990s, Origin lived on two franchises: Richard Garriott’s Ultima and Chris Roberts’s Wing Commander. To be sure, there were other games here and there, some of which even turned modest profits, but it was these two series that kept the lights on. When EA acquired Origin in September of 1992, both franchises were by all indications in rude health. Wing Commander I and II and a string of mission packs for each were doing tremendous numbers. Ultima VII, the latest release in Richard Garriott’s mainline series, had put up more middling sales figures, but it had been rescued by the spinoff Ultima Underworld, which had come out of nowhere — or more specifically out of the Boston-based studio Blue Sky Productions, soon to be rebranded as Looking Glass — to become another of the year’s biggest hits.

Understandably under the circumstances, EA overlooked what a dysfunctional workplace Origin was already becoming by the time of the acquisition, divided as it was between two camps: the “Friends of Richard” and the “Friends of Chris.” Those two personifications of Origin’s split identity were equally mercurial and equally prone to unrealistic flights of fancy; one can’t help but sense that both of their perceptions of the real world and their place in it had been to one degree or another warped by their having become icons of worship for a cult of adoring gamers at an improbably young age. Small wonder that EA grew concerned that there weren’t enough grounded adults in the room down in Austin, and, after first promising a hands-off approach, showed more and more of a tendency to micro-manage as time went on — so much so that, as we learned in the last article, Garriott was soon reduced to begging for money to start his online passion project.

Wing Commander maintained its momentum for quite some time after the acquisition, even after DOOM came along to upend much of the industry’s conventional wisdom with its focus on pure action at the expense of story and world-building, the things for which both Garriott and Roberts were most known. Wing Commander III was released almost a year after DOOM in late 1994 with a cast of real actors headed by Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, and became another huge success. Ultima, however, started to lose its way almost as soon as the ink was dry on the acquisition contract. Ultima VIII, which was also released in 1994, chased the latest trends by introducing a strong action element and simplifying most other aspects of its gameplay. This was not done, as some fan narratives wish to state, at the behest of EA’s management, but rather at that of Richard Garriott himself, who feared that his signature franchise was at risk of becoming irrelevant. That said, EA can and should largely take the blame for the game being released too early, in a woefully buggy and unpolished state. The critical and commercial response was nothing short of disastrous, leaving plenty of blame to go around. Fans complained that Ultima VIII had more in common with Super Mario Bros. than the storied Ultima games of the past, bestowing upon it the nickname Super Avatar Bros. in a backhanded homage to the series’s most hallowed incarnation, 1985’s Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, whose unabashed idealism now seemed like something from a lifetime ago in a parallel universe.

Then, in early 1996, Origin’s other franchise went squishy as well. As the studio’s own press releases breathlessly trumpeted, Wing Commander IV was the most expensive digital game ever made to that date, with a claimed production budget of $12 million. The vast majority of that money went into a real Hollywood film shoot, directed by Chris Roberts himself and starring a returning Mark Hamill among a number of other recognizable faces from the silver screen. Wing Commander IV wound up costing four times as much as its predecessor and selling half as many copies, taking months of huffing and puffing to just about reach the break-even point. The interactive-movie era had reached the phase of diminishing returns; under no circumstances was EA going to let Origin make a game like this one again.

But what kinds of games should Origin be making? That was the million-dollar question in the aftermath of Wing Commander IV. After Chris Roberts left the studio to pursue his dream of becoming the latest George Lucas in Hollywood, Origin announced that his series was to be continued on a less grandiose scale, moving some of the focus away from the cut scenes and back to the gameplay. Yet there was no reason to believe such games would make many inroads beyond the hardcore Wing Commander faithful. Meanwhile Richard Garriott had pledged to repair the damage done by Ultima VIII, by making the next single-player Ultima the biggest, best one ever. But epic CRPGs in general had been in the doldrums for years, and the Ultima IX project was already showing signs of becoming another over-hyped, over-expensive boondoggle like Wing Commander IV. Exacerbating the situation was the loss of two of the only people at Origin who had shown themselves to be capable of restraining and channeling Garriott’s flights of fancy. Origin and EA alike felt keenly the loss of the diplomatic and self-effacing designer and producer Warren Spector, the first everyday project lead on Ultima IX, who decamped to Looking Glass in 1995 when that project was still in its infancy. Ditto the production manager Dallas Snell, a less cuddly character whose talent for Just Getting Things Done — by cracking heads if necessary — was almost equally invaluable.

Of course, one can still ding EA for failing to see that Richard Garriott was onto something with Ultima Online long before they did. In their partial defense, though, Garriott tended to propose a lot of crazy stuff. As his checkered post-millennial career in game development illustrates all too clearly, he has not been a detail-oriented creator since his days of conceiving and coding the early Ultima games all by himself. This has made his ideas — even his good ones, which Ultima Online certainly was — all too easy to dismiss.

Nonetheless, the potential of persistent online multiplayer gaming was becoming impossible to deny by early 1997, what with the vibrant virtual communities being built on the likes of Kali and Battle.net, in addition to the smaller but no less dedicated ones that had sprung up in Meridian 59 and The Realm. You’d have to be a fool not to be intrigued by the potential of Ultima Online in a milieu such as this one — and, again, EA’s executives most definitely weren’t fools. They wanted to keep Origin alive and viable and relevant as badly as anyone else. Suddenly this seemed the best way to do so. Thus the mass personnel transfer from Ultima IX, which was increasingly smelling like gaming’s past, into Ultima Online, which had the distinct whiff of its future.

It was a difficult transition for everyone, made that much more difficult by the fact that most of the people involved were still in their twenties, with all of the arrogant absolutism of youth. Both the project’s old-timers and its newcomers had plenty of perfectly valid complaints to hurl at their counterparts. Raph Koster, who had been told that he was the design lead, was ignored by more experienced developers who thought they knew better. And yet he did little for his cause by, as he admits today, “sulking and being very rude” and “behaving badly and improperly” even to Richard Garriott himself. From his point of view, the newcomers showed that they fundamentally didn’t understand online games when they wasted their time on fluff that players who needed to be captured for months or years would burn through in a matter of hours, such as lengthy, single-player-Ultima-style conversation trees for the non-player characters. Yet the newcomers were right to express shock and horror when they found that, amidst all the loving attention that had been given to simulating Britannia’s ecology and the like, no one on the original team had thought up a consistent system for casting spells, a bedrock of Ultima‘s appeal since the very beginning. Even today, one Ultima IX refugee accuses the MUDders of being “focused on minutia, what I would call silly little details that really added nothing to the game.”

When the two-month-long beta test finally began after repeated delays in June of 1997, the dogged simulation-first mentality of Koster and company faced a harsh reckoning with reality. Many of the systems that had seemed wonderful in theory didn’t work in practice, or displayed side effects that they’d never anticipated. Here as in many digital games, attempting to push the simulation too far just plunged the whole thing into a sort of uncanny valley, making it feel more rather than less artificial. For instance, the MUDders had made it possible for you to learn or improve skills simply by standing in close proximity to someone who was using the skill in question at a high level, on the assumption that your character was observing and internalizing this example of a master at work. But they’d also instituted a cap on the total pool of skill points a character could possess across all disciplines, on the assumption that no Jack of all trades could be a master of them all; just as is the case for most of us in real life, in Ultima Online you could be really good at a few things, or fair at a lot of them, but not really good at a lot of them. When a character hit her skill-point cap, learning new things would cause some of her other skills to decline to stay under it. In practice, this caused players to desperately try to avoid seeing what that baker or weaver was doing, for fear of losing their ability to hunt or cast spells as a result. Problems like these hammered home again and again the fact that any digital simulation is only the crudest approximation of a lived existence; in the real world, matters are not quite so zero-sum as instantly losing the ability to catch a fish because one has learned to cook a fish.

But the most extreme case of unforeseen consequences involved the aforementioned lovingly crafted ecology of virtual Britannia. To put it bluntly, the players destroyed it — all of it, within days if not hours. The population of deer and rabbits, the food sources of apex predators like dragons, were slaughtered to extinction by players instead. This was not done out of sheer bloody-mindedness alone, although that was undoubtedly a part of the equation. The truth was that deer and rabbits had value, in the form of meat and pelts. In a sense, then, virtual Britannia was becoming a real economy, just as its creators had always hoped it would. But it was an economy without real-world limits or controls, unimpeded by consequences which were themselves only virtual, never real; no one was going to go hungry in real life for over-hunting the forests and fields of Britannia. The same went for trees and fish and a hundred other precious resources that we of the real world usually make some effort to conserve, however imperfectly. With the simulation spinning wildly out of control, Origin had to start putting its thumb on the scales, applying external remedies such as magically re-spawning rabbits and trees, lest the world degenerate into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a deserted moonscape where roving bands of starving players were chased hither and yon by equally hungry dragons. People came to an Ultima game expecting a Renaissance Faire version of Merry Olde England, not a Harlan Ellison story.

Of course, the external corrections themselves had further knock-on consequences. By creating an endless supply of animals to hunt and trees to fell, Origin was in effect giving the economy a massive, perpetual external stimulus. The overseers were therefore always on the lookout for ways to suck gold back out of the world. Ironically, one of the best was to let players get killed a lot, since between death and resurrection they lost whatever money they’d been carrying with them. Thus Origin had a perverse incentive not to try too hard to make Britannia a safer, more friendly place.

Such collisions between idealism and reality were scarring for the MUDders. “This was a wake-up call for me,” says Raph Koster. “The limits on what we can get an audience to go along with, and how much we can affect the bottom line. A lot of people [on the development team] were emotionally hurt by the player killing. Many of the tactics we would use on MUDs just didn’t work at a large scale. Players behaved differently. They were ruder to one another.” All of which is to say that Richard Garriott’s fondly expressed wish that the persistent quality of Ultima Online would serve to put a brake on the more toxic ways of acting out on the anonymous Internet did not come to pass to anything like the extent he had imagined.

At the same time, though, it wasn’t all destruction a nd disillusionment during that summer of the beta test. Some players proved less interested in killing than they were in crafting, becoming armorers and blacksmiths, jewelers and merchants, chefs and bankers and real-estate agents. Players cooked food and sold it from booths in the center of the cities or earned a (virtual) living as tour guides, leading groups of people on treks to scenic but dangerous corners of the world. Enterprising wizards set up a sort of long-distance bus service, opening up magical portals to shuttle their fellow players instantly from one side of the world to another for a fee. Many of the surprises of the beta period were just the kind the MUDders had been hoping to see, emerging from the raw simulational affordances of the environment. “[Players] used the ability to dye clothing to make uniforms for their guilds,” says Raph Koster, “and they [held] weddings with coordinated bridesmaids dresses. They started holding sporting events. They founded theater troupes and taverns and police forces.” The agents of chaos may have been perpetually beating at the door, but there was a measure of civilization appearing in virtual Britannia as well.

Or rather in the virtual Britannias. One of the most frustrating compromises the creators had to make was necessitated by, as compromises usually are in game development, the practical limitations of the technology they had to hand. There was no way that any one of the servers they possessed could contain the number of players the beta test had attracted. So, there had to be two virtual Britannias rather than just one, the precursors to many more that would follow. Both Garriott and Koster have claimed to be the one who came up with the word “shards” as a name for these separate servers, each housing its own initially identical but quickly diverging version of Britannia. The name was grounded in the lore of the very early days of Ultima. In Ultima I back in 1981, the player had shattered the Gem of Immortality, the key to the power of that game’s villain, the evil wizard Mondain. It was claimed now that each of the jewel’s shards had contained a copy of the world of Britannia, and that these were the duplicate worlds inhabited by the players of Ultima Online. Rather amusingly, the word “shard” has since become a generalized term for separate but equal server instances, co-opted not only by other MMORPGs but by administrators of large de-centralized online databases of many stripes, most of which have nothing to do with games.

Each shard could host about 2500 players at once. In these days when the nation’s Internet infrastructure was still in a relatively unrefined state, such that latency tended to increase almost linearly with distance, the shards were named after their real-world locations — there was one on each coast in the beginning, named “Atlantic” and “Pacific” — and players were encouraged to choose the server closest to them if at all possible. (Such concerns would become less pressing as the years went by, but to this day Ultima Online has continued the practice of naming its virtual Britannias after the locations of the servers in the real world.)

On the last day of the beta test, there occurred one of the more famous events in the history of Ultima Online, one with the flavor of a Biblical allegory if not a premonition. Richard Garriott, playing in-character as Lord British, made a farewell tour of the shards in the final hours, to thank everyone for participating before the servers were shut down, not to be booted up again until Ultima Online went live as a paid commercial service. Among fans of the single-player Ultima games, there was a longstanding tradition of finding ways to kill Lord British, who always appeared as a character in them as well. People had transplanted the tradition into Ultima Online with a vengeance, but to no avail; acknowledging that even the most stalwart commitment to simulation must have its limits when it comes to the person who signs your paycheck, the MUDders had agreed to provide Lord British with an “invulnerability” flag. As he stood up now before a crowd on the Pacific shard to deliver his valediction, someone threw a fireball spell at him. No matter; Lord British stepped confidently right into the flames. Whereupon he fell over and died. Someone had forgotten to set the invulnerability flag.

If Lord British couldn’t be protected, decided the folks at Origin on the spur of the moment, he must be avenged; in so deciding, they demonstrated how alluring virtual violence could be even to those most dedicated to creating a virtual civilization. Garriott:

It’s amazing how quickly the cloak of civilization can disappear. The word spread verbally throughout the office: let us unleash hell! My staff summoned demons and devils and dragons and all of the nightmarish creatures of the game, and they cast spells and created dark clouds and lightning that struck and killed people. The gamemasters had special powers, and once they realized I had been killed, they were able to almost instantly resurrect Lord British. And I gleefully joined in the revelry. Kill me, will you? Be gone, mortals! It was a slaughter of thousands of players in the courtyard.

It definitely was not the noble ending we had intended.

And while some players enjoyed the spontaneity of this event, others were saddened or hurt by it. When most characters die they turn into a ghost and are transported to a distant place on the map. Then they have to go find their body. So the cost of being killed is a temporary existence as a ghost. In the last three minutes of these characters’ existence, they suddenly found themselves alone, deep in the woods, unable to speak or interact with anyone else. The net result of this mass killing in retaliation for the assassination of Lord British was that not only were all of these innocent people slaughtered, they were also cast out of the presence of the creators at the final moment. As the final seconds trickled down, they desperately tried to get back, but most often failed. The fact that all of us, the creators and the players, were able to turn the last few moments of the beta test into this completely unplanned and even unimagined chaos was proof that we had built something unique, a platform that would allow players to do pretty much whatever they pleased, and that it was about to take on a life — and many deaths — of its own.

After more than two and a half years, during which the face of the games industry around it had changed dramatically and its own importance to its parent company had been elevated incalculably, Ultima Online was about to greet the real world as a commercial product. Whether the last minutes of its existence while it was still officially an experiment boded well or ill for its future depended on your point of view. But, as Richard Garriott says, the one certain thing was uncertainty: nobody knew quite what would happen next. Would Ultima Online be another Meridian 59 or The Realm, or would this be the virtual world that finally broke through? And what would it mean for gaming — and, for that matter, for the real world beyond gaming — if it did?



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: the books Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online by Wes Locher, Postmortems: Selected Essays, Volume One by Raph Koster, Online Game Pioneers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Through the Moongate, Part II by Andrea Contato, Explore/Create by Richard Garriott, MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle, and Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams; Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction of Spring 1996, Summer 1996, Spring 1997, Summer 1997, Fall 1997, Summer 1998, and Fall 1998; PC Powerplay of November 1996; Next Generation of March 1997.

Web sources include a 2018 Game Developers Conference talk by some of the Ultima Online principals, an Ultima Online timeline at UOGuide, “How Scepter of Goth Shaped the MMO Industry” by Justin Olivetti at Massively Overpowered, David A. Wheeler’s history of Scepter of Goth, “How the World’s Oldest 3D MMO Keeps Cheating Death” by Samuel Axon at Vice, Andrew Kirmse’s own early history of Meridian 59, Damion Schubert’s Meridian 59 postmortem and its accompanying slides from the 2012 Game Developers Conference, and Gavin Annand’s video interview with the Kirmse brothers.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The first word in the name is often spelled Sceptre as well.
 
17 Comments

Posted by on February 16, 2024 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Case of the Rose Tattoo

What is it that we love about Sherlock Holmes?

We love the times in which he lived, of course, the half-remembered, half-forgotten times of snug Victorian illusion, of gas-lit comfort and contentment, of perfect dignity and grace. The world was poised precariously in balance, and rude disturbances were coming with the years, but those who moved upon the scene were very sure that all was well — that nothing ever would be any worse nor ever could be any better…

— Edgar W. Smith

The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: Case of the Serrated Scalpel was an unusually quiet sort of computer game. It was quiet when you played it, being a game that rewarded contemplation as much as action, and one that placed as much emphasis on its text as its audiovisuals. It was quietly released in 1992 by Electronic Arts, a publisher well along by that point in their transition from being a collective of uncompromising “software artists” to becoming the slick, bottom-lined-focused populist juggernaut we know and don’t always love today. And yet, despite being so out of keeping with EA’s evolving direction, Serrated Scalpel quietly sold a surprising number of units over a span of several years.

That unexpected success had consequences. First it led EA to fund a 1994 re-imagining of the game for the 3DO living-room console, featuring video clips of live actors voicing dialog that had previously appeared only as text on the screen. And then, with the MS-DOS original still selling at a steady clip — in fact, rounding by now the magical 100,000-unit milestone — it led to a somewhat belated full-fledged sequel, which was released in mid-1996.

The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: Case of the Rose Tattoo was largely the work of the same crew that had made its predecessor, notwithstanding the gap between the two projects. Once again, R.J. Berg, a former EA manual writer and perpetual Sherlock Holmes fan to the Nth power, wrote the script and generally masterminded the endeavor. And once again a small outfit called Mythos Software, based in Tempe, Arizona, handled all of the practicalities of the script’s transformation into a game, from the art to the programming.

Indeed, Rose Tattoo as a whole is very much a case of not fixing what wasn’t broken in one of my favorite adventure games of the 1990s, so much so that I almost fear that this review will come across as superfluous to those who have already read my homage to the original. The one really obvious difference is a reflection of the four years separating the two games’ release dates, over the course of which the technology of the typical home computer advanced considerably. So, Rose Tattoo is able to present its version of Victorian London with a more vivid clarity, thanks to a screen resolution of 640 X 480 rather than 320 X 200. More ingeniously, Mythos has found a middle ground between the pure pixel graphics of the original game and the awkwardly spliced video clips of the 3DO remake. “Sprites” made from real actors are shrunk down and inserted directly into pre-rendered 3D scenery, making an almost seamless fit.

Otherwise, though, Rose Tattoo is the purest form of sequel, striving not just to duplicate but to positively double down on everything its precursor did. In some contexts, that might be read as a condemnation. But not in this one: Serrated Scalpel was such a breath of fresh air that more of the same can only be welcome.

Once again, then, we have here a plot that is ironically more believable than the majority of Arthur Conan Doyle’s own Sherlock Holmes tales. Like Broken Sword, another standout adventure from the standout adventure-gaming year of 1996, Rose Tattoo kicks its proceedings off with a literal bang: it opens with Sherlock’s portly brother Mycroft Holmes getting seriously injured by an explosion at his Diogenes Club that everyone is all too eager to blame on a gas leak — “the price of progress,” as they all like to say. Even Sherlock initially refuses to believe otherwise; deeply distraught over his brother’s condition, he retreats into his bedroom to take refuge in his various chemical addictions. Thus you actually begin the game as John Watson, trying to dig up enough clues to shake Sherlock out of his funk and get him working on the case.

Once that has been accomplished, the game is truly afoot. Rather than a random gas explosion, the “accident” at the Diogenes Club turns out to be a deliberate murder plot that is connected to the theft of vital secrets from the British War Office. Your need to avenge Mycroft’s suffering will plunge you into the geopolitics of the late nineteenth century; you’ll even meet face to face with the young Kaiser Wilhelm II of the newly minted nation of Germany, who is depicted here as an intelligent, cultured, and to some extent even open-minded leader, one whose political philosophy has not yet hardened into the reactionary conservatism of his First World War persona. The game captures in their nascent form the political changes and even the evolution of the weaponry of war that would lead to the horrific conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century.

But that is only a small piece of the history which Rose Tattoo allows us to witness up close and personal. The usual videogame’s view of history encompasses war and politics and little else. Rose Tattoo, on the other hand, fastidiously recreates a fascinating time and place in social history, when the world that we know today was in many ways in the process of being invented. Your investigation takes you across the width and breadth of Victorian London and to all of its diverse social strata, from fussy lords and ladies who seem to be perpetually singing “Rule, Britannia!” under their breath to underground radicals who surface just long enough to preach their revolutionary philosophy of Marxism at Speaker’s Corner every Sunday. You visit clubs, hospitals, police departments, morgues, flats, townhouses, lofts, squats, mansions, palaces, monuments, tailors, bathhouses, billiard rooms, photography studios, animal emporiums, parks, gardens, aerodromes, laboratories, greengrocers, phrenologist’s offices, minister’s offices, barrister’s offices, warehouses, and opium dens, all of them presented in rich, historically accurate detail. “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” said Samuel Johnson. Indeed.

As in the first game, Sherlock Holmes’s iconic flat at 221B Baker Street serves as the starting point of your investigations and the home base to which you continually return. In addition to being a tribute to Sherlock’s wide-ranging curiosity, it’s a vastly more effective virtual museum of Victoriana than the real one that stands at that London address today. Spend some time here just rummaging about, and maybe follow some of its leads with some independent research of your own, and you’ll begin to feel the frisson of life in this amazing city, the melting pot of the Western world circa 1890. A small sample of the exhibits on hand:

But lest all of this start to sound like a tedious exercise in “edutainment,” know that the whole experience is enlivened enormously by R.J. Berg’s writing, which is even more finely honed here than it was in the first game, managing to be both of the time it depicts and an ongoing delight to read in 1996, 2022, or any other year. He takes a special delight in lacerating with delicate savagery the city’s many stuffed shirts, useless layabouts, and pretentious fools. (Perhaps we can learn something about character from appearance after all, at least in the world of this game…)

  • Chinless and tending to fat, this young man sits like a beluga whale in a steam cabinet. His hooded eyes are partially closed and rivulets of sweat pour down his face. It is not possible to say whether he is enjoying himself.
  • The lady masquerades as a debutante. Dressed in a hideous crepe gown, she has the carriage of a Palladium chorus girl. Possessed only of pretensions, she displays none of the high style to which she aspires.
  • The corpulent, self-important clerk is fussily dressed. If he runs true to form, he spends his leisure time and money indulging passions for art books and Belgian chocolates.
  • The man could pass as a mortician or a bank manager. Below his high domed forehead, his pale, pitted face wears a preternaturally neutral expression. The slow reptilian oscillation of his head is disconcerting.

Then there’s my absolute favorite turn of phrase: “Bledsoe awaits with the equanimity of a ring-tailed lemur in a room full of rocking chairs.

And yet Berg seldom punches down, and is by no means without compassion for the ones who were not born with silver spoons stuck firmly up their derrières: “Like thousands of indigent girls, she was sucked to the city at fourteen by the promise of twelve pounds per annum and a bed in the attic. After 40 years in service, enduring drudgery, discomfort, insult, and every sort of meanness, she has risen to become Assistant Housekeeper at the Cavendish Hotel.”


Sherlock, Watson, and the indomitable Wiggins, head of the Baker Street Irregulars, outside 221B Baker Street. While the game’s graphics aren’t breathtaking, they are, like everything else about it, quietly apropos.

Investigating a suspicious death in the morgue. There will be more than one such corpse to examine before all is said and done.

On one of the newly constructed Thames Embankments, next to Cleopatra’s Needle, recently looted by the British Empire from Alexandria.

The bucolic environs of St James’s Park. We have need of that boy’s new pet dog, which happens to be the best tracker in all of London. Hmm… what could we offer the boy for it?


In addition to gobs of historical verisimilitude and some of the best writing to appear in a game since the heyday of Infocom, Rose Tattoo shares with its predecessor a gratifyingly grounded approach to puzzles. There are problems to solve here, many of which veteran adventure gamers will find very familiar in the abstract, such as the inordinate quantity of human gatekeepers who must be circumvented in one way or another in order to gain access to the spaces they guard. But, instead of employing ludicrously convoluted solutions that could only appear in an adventure game, solving these “puzzles” mostly entails doing what a reasonable person would under similar circumstances. A surprising number of the gatekeepers can be bypassed, for instance, simply by acquiring an official letter from Scotland Yard authorizing you to investigate the case, then showing it to the obstacle in question. Rose Tattoo resists the adventure genre’s centrifugal drift toward slapstick comedy as well any game ever made; Sherlock never gets up to anything really ridiculous, never surrenders his dignity as the world’s most famous detective. He does nothing in this game that one couldn’t imagine him doing in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.

As must be abundantly clear by now, I love this game dearly; it joins Serrated Scalpel on the short list of my favorite point-and-click graphic adventures of all time. It must also be acknowledged, however, that it aligns crazily well with my own background and interests. I spent my years in and around university immersed in this setting, reading tens of thousands of pages of Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope (the last being my favorite; as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once said, “there’s nothing better than going to bed early with a Trollope”). And yes, I read my share of Arthur Conan Doyle as well. Playing Rose Tattoo is like coming home for me.

But, to state the obvious, I am me and you are you, and your experience of Rose Tattoo may very well be different. I can all too easily imagine another person finding this game more exhausting than fascinating. It’s out of step with the fashion even of 1996, never mind today, in that it expects you to read all of its long descriptions; only the diegetic words — i.e., those actually spoken by the characters in the game — are voiced. And you can’t just ignore all of the Victorian bric-à-brac that litter its many scenes because there is in fact a smattering of vital clues and objects to be found amongst the clutter. Further, there’s little here to satisfy hardcore puzzle fiends; that ancient adventure-game saw of the newspaper shoved under the door to retrieve the key pushed out of the lock with the pin is about as elaborate as things ever get from that perspective. Solving the mystery rather hinges on collecting physical evidence, interviewing witnesses, and deducing on a broader canvas than that of the individual puzzle.

Of course, a point-and-click adventure game is a discrete possibility space, which means that you could solve the mystery by brute force — by going around and around and around the map of London, talking to everyone and picking up whatever isn’t nailed down and showing it to everyone. But to do so would be to miss the point entirely, in addition to subjecting yourself to mind-numbing tedium. I would rather encourage you to make full use of the in-game journal, in which the tireless Watson records every word of every conversation Sherlock has, and which can even be saved as a text file for perusal outside of the game. (Incidentally: all of the text, in the journal and elsewhere, uses British spellings, despite this being an American game — another nice touch.) I would encourage you, that is to say, to enter into the spirit of the thing and really try to solve the mystery yourself, as a real detective might. I can promise you that it does hang together, and that the game will reward you for doing so in a way that very few other alleged interactive mysteries — excepting its precursor, naturally — can match. If all of those words in the journal and locations on the map start to feel overwhelming, don’t worry about it: just take a break. The mystery will still be waiting for you when you come back. The Victorian Age was a foreign country; they did things more slowly there.

But if all of that is still a bit too tall of an order in this hurly-burly modern world of ours, that’s okay too. No game is for everyone, and this one perhaps less so than many. Certainly it was an anomaly at the time of its release, being about as out of step with an increasingly go-go, bang-bang gaming market as anything could be. Doubtless for that reason, EA released it with almost no fanfare, just as they had its predecessor. Alas, this time it didn’t defy its low expectations once it reached store shelves: it didn’t become a sleeper success like Case of the Serrated Scalpel. The magazines seemed to pick up on the disinterest of the game’s own publisher. Computer Gaming World, the closest thing the United States had to a gaming journal of record, never even gave it a full review, contenting themselves with a two-paragraph capsule summary whose writer betrayed little sign of ever having played it, who made the inexplicable claim that it “tried too hard to be an interactive movie”; in reality, no 1996 graphic adventure was less movie-like.

So, that was that for the Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes series. R.J. Berg continued working for EA as a producer, designer, and writer for years, but on less unique fare that gave him less opportunity to deploy his deliciously arch writerly voice. Mythos Software survived until about 2003 as a developer of multimedia educational products — they were behind the popular BodyWorks series of anatomical explorations — but never made another straight-up game.

Still, to complain that we didn’t get more of these games seems churlish. Better to be thankful that the stars aligned in such a way as to give us the two that we do have. Check them out sometime, when you’re in the mood for something a bit more on the quiet and thoughtful side. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll come to feel the same way about them that I do.

(Sources: Electronic Games of February 1993, Computer Gaming World of January 1997. Also Mythos Software’s now-defunct home page.

Like its predecessor, The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: Case of the Rose Tattoo has never received a digital re-release. It is, however, supported by the ScummVM interpreter, so getting it running isn’t too much of a challenge on Windows, MacOS, or Linux once you acquire the original CD or an image of same. As of this writing, you can find several of the latter on archive.org, including one version that is already packaged up and ready to go with ScummVM. Just search for “sherlock rose tattoo”; I prefer not to link directly to avoid bringing unwanted attention to their existence from our friends in the legal trade.

And if you enjoy this type of contemplative sleuthing, you might also be interested in the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective board games, which play like analog versions of this game — perfect for a lazy late-summer afternoon on the terrace with a tall glass of something cold and the company of a good friend or two.)

 
 

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The Ratings Game, Part 3: Dueling Standards

When Sega, Nintendo, and the Software Publishers Association (SPA) announced just before the Senate hearing of December 9, 1993, that they had agreed in principle to create a standardized rating system for videogames, the timing alone marked it as an obvious ploy to deflect some of the heat that was bound to come their way later that day. At the same time, though, it was also more than a ploy: it was in fact the culmination of an effort that had been underway in some quarters of the industry for months already, one which had begun well before the good Senators Lieberman and Kohl discovered the horrors of videogame violence and sex. As Bill White of Sega was at pains to point out throughout the hearing, Sega had been seriously engaged with the question of a rating system for quite some time, and had managed to secure promises of support from a considerable portion of the industry. But the one entity that had absolutely rejected the notion was the very one whose buy-in was most essential for any overarching initiative of this sort: Nintendo. “Howard [Lincoln] was not going to be part of any group created by Sega,” laughs Dr. Arthur Pober, one of the experts the latter consulted.

So, Sega decided to go it alone. Again as described by Bill White at the hearing, they rolled out a thoroughly worked-out rating system for any and all games on their platforms just in time for Mortal Kombat in September of 1993. It divided games into three categories: GA for general audiences, MA-13 for those age thirteen or older, and MA-17 for those age seventeen or older. An independent board of experts was drafted to assign each new game its rating without interference from Sega’s corporate headquarters; its chairman was the aforementioned Arthur Pober, a distinguished educational psychologist with decades of research experience about the role of media in children’s lives on his CV. Under his stewardship, Mortal Kombat wound up with an MA-13 rating; Night Trap, which had already been in stores for the better part of a year by that point, was retroactively assigned a rating of MA-17.

Although one might certainly quibble that these ratings reflected the American media establishment’s terror of sex and relatively blasé attitude toward violence, Sega’s rating system bore all the outward signs of being a good-faith exercise. At the very least it was, as White repeatedly stated at the hearing, a good first step, one that was taken before any of the real controversy even began.

The second step was of course Nintendo’s grudging acquiescence to the concept of a universal rating system on the day of the hearing — a capitulation whose significance should not be underestimated in light of the company’s usual attitude toward intra-industry cooperation, which might be aptly summarized as “our way or the highway.” And the third step came less than a month later, at the 1994 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, which in accordance with long tradition took place over the first week of the new year in Las Vegas.

Anyone wandering the floor at this latest edition of CES would have seen a digital-games industry that was more fiercely competitive than ever. Sega, celebrating a recent report that gave them for the first time a slight edge over Nintendo in overall market share, had several attention-grabbing new products on offer, including the latest of their hugely popular Sonic the Hedgehog games; the Activator, an early attempt at a virtual-reality controller; the CDX, a portable CD player that could also be used as a game console; and, most presciently of all, a partnership with AT&T to bring online multiplayer gaming, including voice communication, to the Genesis. Meanwhile Nintendo gave the first hints about what would see the light of day some 30 months later as the Nintendo 64. And other companies were still trying to muscle their way into the bifurcated milieu of the living-room consoles. Among them were Atari, looking for a second shot at videogame glory with their Jaguar console; Philips, still flogging the dead horse known as CD-I; and a well-financed new company known as 3DO, with a console that bore the same name. Many traditional makers of business-oriented computers were suddenly trying to reach many of the same consumers, through products like Compaq’s new home-oriented Presario line; even stodgy old WordPerfect was introducing a line of entertainment and educational software. Little spirit of cooperation was in evidence amidst any of this. With “multimedia” the buzzword of the zeitgeist, the World Wide Web looming on the near horizon, and no clarity whatsoever about what direction digital technology in the home was likely to take over the next few years, the competition in the space was as cutthroat as it had ever been.

And yet in a far less glitzy back room of the conference center, all of these folks and more met to discuss the biggest cooperative initiative ever proposed for their industry, prompted by the ultimatum they had so recently been given by Senators Lieberman and Kohl: “Come up with a rating system for yourself, or we’ll do it for you.” The meeting was organized by the SPA, which had the virtue of not being any of the arch-rival console makers, and was thus presumably able to evince a degree of impartiality. “Companies such as 3DO, Atari, Acclaim, id Software, and Apogee already have rating systems,” said Ken Wasch, the longstanding head of the SPA, to open the proceedings. “But a proliferation of rating systems is confusing to retailers and consumers alike. Even before this became an issue in the halls of Congress or in the media, there was a growing belief that we needed a single, easily recognizable system to rate and label our products.”

But the SPA lost control of the meeting almost from the moment Wasch stepped down from the podium. The industry was extremely fortunate that neither Senator Lieberman nor Kohl took said organization up on an invitation to attend in person. One participant remembers the meeting consisting mostly of “people sitting around a table screaming and carrying on.” Cries of “Censorship!” and “Screw ’em! We’ll make the games we want to make!” dominated for long stretches. Many regarded the very notion of a rating system as an unacceptable intrusion by holier-than-thou bureaucrats; they wanted to call what they insisted was the senators’ bluff, to force them to put up actual government legislation — legislation whose constitutionality would be highly questionable — or to shut up about it.

Yet such advocates of the principle of free speech over all other concerns weren’t the sum total of the problem. Even many of those who felt that a rating system was probably necessary were thoroughly unimpressed with the hosts of the meeting, and not much disposed to fall meekly into line behind them.

The hard reality was that the SPA had never been viewed as a terribly effectual organization. Formed  to be the voice of the computer-software industry in 1984 — i.e., just after the Great Videogame Crash — it had occupied itself mostly with anti-piracy campaigns and an annual awards banquet in the years since. The return of a viable console marketplace in the form of the Nintendo Entertainment System and later the Sega Genesis had left it in an odd position. Most of the publishers of computer games who began moving some or all of their output to the consoles were members of the SPA, and through them the SPA itself got pulled into this brave new world. But there were certainly grounds to question whether the organization’s remit really ought to involve the console marketplace at all. Was the likes of Acclaim, the publisher of console-based videogames like Mortal Kombat, truly in the same business as such other SPA members as the business-software titans Microsoft and WordPerfect? Nintendo had always pointedly ignored the SPA; Sega had joined as a gesture of goodwill to their outside publishers who were also members, but hardly regarded it as a major part of their corporate strategy. In addition to being judged slow, bureaucratic, and uncreative, the SPA was regarded by everyone involved with the consoles as being much more invested in computer software of all stripes than console-based videogames. And what with computer games representing in the best case fifteen percent of the overall digital-games market, that alone struck them as a disqualifier for spearheading an initiative like this one.

Electronic Arts, the largest of all of the American game publishers, was in an interesting position here. Founded in 1983 to publish games exclusively for computers, EA had begun moving onto consoles in a big way at the dawn of the 1990s, scoring hits there with such games as the first installments in the evergreen John Madden Football series. By the beginning of 1994, console games made up over two-thirds of their total business.

A senior vice president at EA by the name of Jack Heistand felt that an industry-wide rating system was “the right thing to do. I really believed in my heart that we needed to communicate to parents what the content was inside games.” Yet he also felt convinced from long experience that the SPA was hopelessly ill-equipped for a project of this magnitude, and the disheartening meeting which the SPA tried to lead at CES only cemented that belief. So, immediately after the meeting was over, he approached EA’s CEO Larry Probst with a proposal: “Let’s get all the [other] CEOs together to form an industry association. I will chair it.” Probst readily agreed.

Jack Heistand

The SPA was not included in this other, secret meeting, even though it convened at that same CES. Its participants rather included a representative from each of the five manufacturers of currently or potentially viable consoles: Sega, Nintendo, Atari, Philips, and 3DO. Rounding out their numbers were two videogame-software publishers: Acclaim Entertainment of Mortal Kombat fame and of course Electronic Arts. With none of the console makers willing to accept one of their rivals as chairman of the new steering committee, they soon voted to bestow the role upon Jack Heistand, just as he had planned it.

Sega, convinced of the worthiness of their own rating system, would have happily brought the entirety of the industry under its broad tent and been done with it, but this Nintendo’s pride would never allow. It became clear as soon as talks began, if it hadn’t been already, that whatever came next would have to be built from scratch. With Senators Lieberman and Kohl breathing down their necks, they would all have to find a way to come together, and they would have to do so quickly. The conspirators agreed upon an audacious timetable indeed: they wanted to have a rating system in place for all games that shipped after October 31, 1994 — just in time, in other words, for the next Christmas buying season. It was a tall order, but they knew that they would be able to force wayward game publishers to comply if they could only get their own house in order, thanks to the fact all of the console makers in the group employed the walled-garden approach to software: all required licenses to publish on their platforms, meaning they could dictate which games would and would not appear there. They could thus force a rating system to become a ubiquitous reality simply by pledging not to allow any games on their consoles which didn’t include a rating.

On February 3, 1994, Senator Lieberman introduced the “Video Game Rating Act” to the United States Senate, stipulating that an “Interactive Entertainment Rating Commission” should be established, with five members appointed by President Bill Clinton himself; this temporary commission would be tasked with founding a new permanent governmental body to do what the industry had so far not been willing to do for itself. Shortly thereafter, Representative Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, introduced parallel legislation in the House. Everyone involved made it clear, however, that they would be willing to scrap their legislation if the industry could demonstrate to their satisfaction that it was now addressing the problem itself. Lieberman, Kohl, and Lantos were all pleased when Sega dropped Night Trap from their product line as a sort of gesture of good faith; the controversial game had never been a particularly big seller, and had now become far more trouble than it was worth. (Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, was still posting sales that made it worth the controversy…)

On March 4, 1994, three representatives of the videogame industry appeared before Lieberman, Kohl, and Lantos at a hearing that was billed as a “progress report.” The only participant in the fractious hearing of three months before who returned for this one was Howard Lincoln of Nintendo, who had established something of a rapport with Senator Lieberman on that earlier occasion. Sega kept Bill White, who most definitely had not, well away, sending instead a white-haired senior vice president named Edward Volkwein. But most of the talking was done by the industry’s third representative, Jack Heistand. His overriding goal was to convince the lawmakers that he and his colleagues were moving as rapidly as possible toward a consistent industry-wide rating system, and should be allowed the balance of the year to complete their work before any legislation went forward. He accordingly emphasized over and over that ratings would appear on the boxes of all new videogames released after October 31.

The shift in tone from the one hearing to the next was striking; this one was a much more relaxed, even collegial affair than last time out. Lieberman, Kohl, and Lantos all praised the industry’s efforts so far, and kept the “think of the children!” rhetoric to a minimum in favor of asking practical questions about how the rating system would be implemented. “I don’t need to get into that argument again,” said Senator Lieberman when disagreements over the probability of a linkage between videogame violence and real-world aggression briefly threatened to ruin the good vibe in the room.

“I think you’re doing great,” said Senator Kohl at the end of the hearing. “It’s a wonderful start. I really am very pleased.” Mission accomplished: Heistand had bought himself enough time to either succeed or fail before the heavy hand of government came back on the scene.



Heistand’s remit was rapidly growing into something much more all-encompassing than just a content-rating board. To view his progress was to witness nothing less than an industry waking up to its shared potential and its shared problems. As I’ve already noted, the videogame industry as a whole had long been dissatisfied with its degree of representation in the SPA, as well as with the latter’s overall competence as a trade organization. This, it suddenly realized, was a chance to remedy that. Why not harness the spirit of cooperation that was in the air to create an alternative to the SPA that would focus solely on the needs of videogame makers? Once that was done, this new trade organization could tackle the issue of a rating system as just the first of many missions.

The International Digital Software Association (IDSA) was officially founded in April of 1994. Its initial members included Acclaim, Atari, Capcom, Crystal Dynamics, Electronic Arts, Konami, Nintendo, Philips, Sega, Sony, Viacom, and Virgin, companies whose combined sales made up no less than 60 percent of the whole videogame industry. Its founding chairman was Jack Heistand, and its first assigned task was the creation of an independent Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).

Heistand managed to convince Nintendo and the others to accept the man who had chaired Sega’s ratings board for the same role in the industry-wide system. Arthur Pober had a reputation for being, as Heistand puts it, “very honorable. A man of integrity.” “Arthur was the perfect guy,” says Tom Kalinske, then the president and CEO of Sega of America. “He had good relationships inside of the education world, inside of the child-development world, and knew the proper child psychologists and sociologists. Plus, we knew he could do it — because he had already done it for us!”

Neutral parties like Pober helped to ease some of the tension that inevitably sprang up any time so many fierce competitors were in the room together. Heistand extracted a promise from everyone not to talk publicly about their work here — a necessary measure given that Howard Lincoln and Tom Kalinske normally used each and every occasion that offered itself to advance their own company and disparage their rival. (Witness Lincoln’s performance at the hearing of December 9…)

Over the course of the next several months, the board hammered out a rating system that was more granular and detailed than the one Sega had been using. It divided games into five rather than three categories: “Early Childhood” (EC) for children as young as age three; “Kids to Adults” (K-A) for anyone six years of age or older; “Teen” (T) for those thirteen or older; “Mature” (M) for those seventeen or older; and “Adults Only” (AO) for those eighteen or older. It was not a coincidence that these ratings corresponded fairly closely to the movie industry’s ratings of G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. A team of graphic artists came up with easily recognizable icons for each of the categories — icons which proved so well-designed for their purpose that most of them are still used to this day.

The original slate of ESRB icons. Since 1994, remarkably few changes have been made: the “Kids to Adults” category has been renamed “Everyone,” and a sixth category of games suitable for those ten years and older, known in the rating system’s nomenclature as “Everyone 10+,” has been added.

The ESRB itself was founded as a New York-based non-profit. Each game would be submitted to it in the form of a videotape of 30 to 40 minutes in length, which must contain the game’s most “extreme” content. The board would then assign the game to one of its teams of three reviewers, all of whom were trained and overseen by the ESRB under the close scrutiny of Arthur Pober. The reviewers were allowed to have no financial or personal ties to the videogame industry, and were hired with an eye to demographic diversity: an example which Heistand gave of an ideal panel consisted of a retired black male elementary-school principal, a 35-year-old white full-time mother of two, and a 22-year-old white male law student. A measure of checks and balances was built into the process: publishers would have the chance to appeal ratings with which they disagreed, and all rated games would have to pass a final audit a week before release to ensure that the videotape which had been submitted had been sufficiently representative of the overall experience. The ESRB aimed to begin accepting videotapes on September 1, 1994, in keeping with the promise that all games released after October 31 would have a rating on the box. Everything was coming together with impressive speed.

But as Heistand prepared to return to Washington to report all of this latest progress on July 29, 1994, there remained one part of the games industry which had not fallen into line. The SPA was not at all pleased by the creation of a competing trade association, nor by having the rug pulled out from under its own rating initiative. And the computer-game makers among its members didn’t face the same compulsion to accept the ESRB’s system, given that they published on open platforms with no gatekeepers.



The relationship between computer games and their console-based brethren had always been more complicated than outsiders such as Senators Lieberman and Kohl were wont to assume. While the degree of crossover between the two had always been considerable, computer gaming had been in many ways a distinct form of media in its own right since the late 1970s. Computer-game makers claimed that their works were more sophisticated forms of entertainment, with more variety in terms of theme and subject matter and, in many cases, more complex and cerebral forms of gameplay on offer. They had watched the resurrection of the console marketplace with as much dismay as joy, being unimpressed by what many of them saw as the dumbed-down “kiddie aesthetic” of Nintendo and the stultifying effect which the consoles’ walled gardens had on creativity; there was a real feeling that the success of Nintendo and its ilk had come at the cost of a more diverse and interesting future for interactive entertainment as a whole. Perhaps most of all, computer-game makers and their older-skewing demographic of players profoundly resented the wider culture’s view of digital games of any stripe as essentially children’s toys, to be regulated in the same way that one regulated Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars. These resentments had not disappeared even as many of the larger traditional computer-game publishers, such as EA, had been tempted by the booming market for console-based videogames into making products for those systems as well.

Johnny L. Wilson, the editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World magazine, voiced in an editorial the objections which many who made or played computer games had to the ESRB:

[The ESRB rating system] has been developed by videogame manufacturers and videogame publishers without significant input by computer-based publishers. The lone exception to this rule is Electronic Arts, which publishes personal-computer titles but nets more than two-thirds of its proceeds from videogame sales. The plan advocated by this group of videogame-oriented companies calls for every game to be viewed by an independent panel prior to release. This independent panel would consist of parents, child psychologists, and educators.

How does this hurt you? This panel is not going to understand that you are a largely adult audience. They are not going to perceive that there is a marketplace of mature gamers. Everything they evaluate will be examined under the rubric, “Is it good for children?” As a result, many of the games covered in Computer Gaming World will be rated as unsuitable for children, and many retailers will refuse to handle these games because they perceive themselves as family-oriented stores and cannot sell unsuitable merchandise.

The fate of Night Trap, an unusually “computer-like” console game, struck people like Wilson as an ominous example of how rating games could lead to censoring them.

Honestly held if debatable opinions like the above, combined perhaps with pettier resentments about the stratospheric sales of console games in comparison to those that ran on computers and its own sidelining by the IDSA, led the SPA to reject the ESRB, and to announce the formation of its own ratings board just for computer games. It was to be called the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC), and its founding president was to be Robert Roden, the general counsel and director of business affairs for the computer-game publisher LucasArts. This choice of an industry insider rather than an outside expert like Arthur Pober reflected much of what was questionable about the alternative rating initiative.

Indeed, and although much of the reasoning used to justify a competing standard was cogent enough, the RSAC’s actual plan for its rating process was remarkable mostly for how comprehensively it failed to address the senators’ most frequently stated concerns about any self-imposed rating standard. Instead of asking publishers to submit videotapes of gameplay for review by an independent panel, the RSAC merely provided them with a highly subjective questionnaire to fill out; in effect, it allowed them to “self-rate” their own games. And, in a reflection of computer-game makers’ extreme sensitivity to any insinuation that their creations were just kids’ stuff, the RSAC rejected outright any form of age-based content rating. Age-based rating systems were “patronizing,” claimed the noted RSAC booster Johnny L. Wilson, because “different people of widely disparate ages have different perceptions of what is appropriate.” In lieu of sorting ratings by age groups, the RSAC would use descriptive labels stipulating the amount and type of violence, sex, and profanity, with each being ranked on a scale from zero to four.

The movie industry’s rating system was an obvious counterexample to this idea that age-based classification must necessarily entail the infantilization of art; certainly cinema still enjoyed vastly more cultural cachet than computer games, despite its own longstanding embrace of just such a system. But the computer-game makers were, it would seem, fairly blinded by their own insecurities and resentments.

A representative of the SPA named Mark Traphagen was invited to join Jack Heistand at the hearing of July 29 in order to make the case for the RSAC’s approach to rating computer games. The hearing began in an inauspicious fashion for him. Senator Lieberman, it emerged during opening statements, had discovered id Software’s hyper-violent computer game of DOOM in the interim between this hearing and the last. This occasion thus came to mark the game’s coming-out party on the national stage. For the first but by no means the last time, a politician showed a clip of it in action, then lit into what the audience had just seen.

What you see there is an individual with a successive round of weapons — a handgun, machine gun, chainsaw — just continuing to attack targets. The bloodshed, the gunfire, and the increasingly realistic imagery combine to create a game that I would not want my daughter or any other child to see or to play.

What you have not seen is some of the language that is displayed onscreen when the game is about to be played. “Act like a man!” the player is told. “Slap a few shells into your shotgun and let’s kick some demonic butt! You’ll probably end up in Hell eventually. Shouldn’t you know your way around before you make an extended visit?”

Well, some may say this is funny, but I think it sends the wrong message to our kids. The game’s skill levels include “I’m Too Young To Die” and “Hurt Me Plenty.” That obviously is not the message parents want their kids to hear.

Mark Traphagen received quite a grilling from Lieberman for the patent failings of the RSAC self-rating system. He did the best he could, whilst struggling to educate his interrogators on the differences between computer and console games. He stipulated that the two were in effect different industries entirely — despite the fact that many software publishers were, as we’ve seen, active in both. This was an interesting stand to take, not least in the way that it effectively ceded the ground of console-based software to the newly instituted IDSA, in the hope that the SPA could hang onto computer games.

Traphagen: Despite popular misconceptions and their admitted similarities to consumers, there are major differences between the personal-computer-software industry and the videogame industry. While personal-computer software and videogame software may be converging toward the compact disc as the preferred storage medium, those of us who develop and publish entertainment software see no signs of a convergence in either product development or marketing.

The personal-computer-software industry is primarily U.S.-based, small to medium in size, entrepreneurial, and highly innovative. Like our plan to rate software, it is based on openness. Its products run on open-platform computers and can be produced by any of thousands of companies of different sizes, without restrictive licensing agreements. There is intense competition between our industry and the videogame industry, marked by the great uncertainty about whether personal computers or some closed platform will prevail in the forthcoming “information superhighway.”

Senator Lieberman: Maybe you should define what a closed platform is in this regard.

Traphagen: A closed platform, Senator, is one in which the ability to create software that will run on that particular equipment is controlled by licensing agreements. In order to create software that will run on those platforms, one has to have the permission and consent of the equipment manufacturer.

Senator Lieberman: And give us an example of that.

Traphagen: A closed platform would be a videogame player.

Senator Lieberman: Such as a Sega or Nintendo?

Traphagen: That is right. In contrast, personal computers are an open platform in which any number of different companies can simply buy a development package at a retailer or a specialty store and then create software that will operate on the computer.

Traphagen explained the unwillingness of computer-game makers to fall under the thumb of the IDSA by comparing them to indie film studios attempting to negotiate the Hollywood machine. Yet he was able to offer little in defense of the RSAC’s chosen method of rating games. He made the dubious claim that creating a videotape for independent evaluation would be too technically burdensome on a small studio, and had even less to offer when asked what advantage accrued to not rating games by suitable age groups: “I do not believe there is an advantage, Senator. There was simply a decision that was taken that the ratings would be as informative as possible, without being judgmental.”

Some five weeks after this hearing, the RSAC would hold a press conference in Dallas, Texas, the home of id Software of DOOM fame. In fact, that game was used to illustrate how the rating system would work. Even some of the more sanguine members of the gaming press were surprised when it received a rating of just three out of four for violence. The difference maker, the RSAC representatives explained, was the fact that DOOM‘s violence wasn’t “gratuitous”; the monsters were trying to kill you, so you had no choice but to kill them. One has to presume that Senators Lieberman and Kohl would not have been impressed, and that Mark Traphagen was profoundly thankful that the press conference occurred after his appearance before them.

Even as it was, the senators’ skepticism toward the RSAC’s rating system at the hearing stood out all the more in contrast to their reception of the ESRB’s plan. The relationship between Senator Lieberman and Jack Heistand had now progressed from the cordial to the downright genial; the two men, now on a first-name basis, even made room for some banter on Heistand’s abortive youthful attempts to become a rock star. The specter of government legislation was never even raised to Heistand. It was, needless to say, a completely different atmosphere from the one of December 9. When the hearing was finished, both sides sent out press notices praising the wisdom and can-do spirit of the other in glowing terms.

But much of the rest of the games industry showed far less good grace. As the summer became the fall and it became clear that game ratings really were happening, the rants began, complete with overheated references to Fahrenheit 451 and all of the other usual suspects. Larry O’Brien, the editor of the new Game Developer magazine, made his position clear in the first line of his editorial: “Rating systems are crap.”

With the entire entertainment industry rolling over whenever Congress calls a hearing, it’s fallen on us to denounce these initiatives for what they are: cynical posturing and electioneering with no substance. Rating systems, whether for movies, television, videogames, or any other form of communication, don’t work, cost money, and impede creativity. Everyone at those hearings, politicians and witnesses alike, knows that. But there’s nothing politicians love more than “standing up for the family” and blaming America’s cultural violence on Hollywood. So the entertainment industry submissively pisses all over itself and proposes “voluntary” systems from the pathetic to the laughable.

Parents should decide. If parents don’t want their kids to play X-COM or see Terminator 2, they should say no and put up with the ensuing argument. They don’t need and shouldn’t get a rating system to supplement their authority. The government has no right to help parents say no at the video store if that governmental interference impedes your right to develop whatever content you feel appropriate.

We all have responsibilities. To create responsibly, to control the viewing and gaming habits of our own children, and to call the government’s ratings initiatives what they are: cynical, ineffective, and wrong-headed.

The libertarian-leaning Wired magazine, that voice of cyber-futurism, published a jeremiad from Rogier Van Bakel that was equally strident.

Violent games such as DOOM, Night Trap, and Mortal Kombat are corrupting the minds and morals of millions of American children. So what do you do? Easy.

You elect people like Herb Kohl and Joe Lieberman to the US Senate. You applaud them when they tell the videogame industry that it’s made up of irrepressible purveyors of gratuitous gore and nefarious nudity. You nod contentedly when the senators give the industry an ultimatum: “Either you start rating and stickering your games real soon, or we, the government, will do it for you.”

You are pleasantly surprised by the industry’s immediate white flag: a rating system that is almost as detailed as the FDA-mandated nutrition information on a can of Campbell’s. You contend that that is, in fact, a perfect analogy: all you want, as a consumer, is honest product labeling. Campbell’s equals Sega equals Kraft equals 3DO.

Finally, you shrug when someone remarks that it may not be a good idea to equate soup with freedom of speech.

All that was needed now was a good conspiracy theory. This Karen Crowther, a spokesperson for makers of shareware computer games, helpfully provided when she said that the government had gotten “hoodwinked by a bunch of foreign billion-dollar corporations (such as Sony, Nintendo, and Sega) out to crush their US competition.”

Robert Peck, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, flirted with a legal challenge:

This [rating] system is a response to the threat of Senators Lieberman and Kohl that they would enact legislation requiring labels unless the industry did something to preempt them. The game manufacturers are being required to engage in speech that they would otherwise not engage in. These ratings have the government’s fingerprints all over them.

This present labeling system isn’t going to be the end of it. I think some games are going to be negatively affected, sales-wise, and the producers of those games will probably bring a lawsuit. We will then see that this system will be invalidated.

The above bears a distinct whiff of legalistic wishful thinking; none of it came to pass.

While voices like these ranted and raved, Jack Heistand, Arthur Pober, and their associates buckled down soberly to the non-trivial task of putting a rating on all new console-based videogames that holiday season, and succeeded in doing so with an efficiency that one has to admire, regardless of one’s position on the need for such a system. Once the initial shock to the media ecosystem subsided, even some of the naysayers began to see the value in the ESRB’s work.

Under the cover of the rating system, for example, Nintendo felt able to relax many of their strict “family-friendly” content policies. The second “Mortal Monday,” heralding the release of Mortal Kombat II on home consoles, came in September of 1994, before the ESRB’s icons had even started to appear on games. Nevertheless, Nintendo improvised a stopgap badge labeling the game unsuitable for those under the age of seventeen, and felt protected enough by it to allow the full version of the coin-op original on their platform this time, complete with even more blood and gore than its predecessor. It was an early sign that content ratings might, rather than leading game makers to censor themselves, give them a feeling of carte blanche to be more extreme.

By 1997, Game Developer was no longer railing against the very idea of a rating system, but was fretting instead over whether the ESRB’s existing approach was looking hard enough at the ever more lifelike violence made possible by the latest graphics hardware. The magazine worried about unscrupulous publishers submitting videotapes that did not contain their games’ most extreme content, and the ESRB failing to catch on to this as games continued to grow larger and larger: “The ESRB system uses three (count ’em, three) ‘demographically diverse’ people to rate a game. (And I thought television’s Nielsen rating system used a small sample set.) As the stakes go up in the ratings game, the threat of a publisher abusing our rating system grows larger and larger.”

Meanwhile the RSAC strolled along in a more shambolic manner, stickering games here and there, but never getting anything close to the complete buy-in from computer-game publishers that the ESRB received from console publishers. These respective patterns held throughout the five years in which the dueling standards existed.

In the end, in other words, the computer-game people got what they had really wanted all along: a continuing lack of any concerted examination of the content of their works. Some computer games did appear with the ESRB icons on their boxes, others with the RSAC schemas, but plenty more bothered to include no content guidance at all. Satisfied for the time being with the ESRB, Senators Lieberman and Kohl didn’t call any more hearings, allowing the less satisfying RSAC system to slip under the radar along with the distinct minority of digital games to which it was applied, even as computer games like Duke Nukem 3D raised the bar for violence far beyond the standard set by DOOM. The content of computer games wouldn’t suffer serious outside scrutiny again until 1999, the year that a pair of rabid DOOM and Duke Nukem fans shot up their high school in Columbine, Colorado, killing thirteen teachers and students and injuring another 24. But that is a tragedy and a controversy for a much, much later article…

(Sources: the books Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent, and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff; Game Developer of September 1994, December 1994, August/September 1995, September 1997, and January 1998; Computer Gaming World of June 1994, December 1994, May 1996, and July 1999; Electronic Entertainment of November 1994 and January 1995; Mac Addict of January 1996; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1994; Washington Post of July 29 1994; the article “Regulating Violence in Video Games: Virtually Everything” by Alex Wilcox in the Journal of the National Association of Administrative Law Judiciary, Volume 31, Issue 1; the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s publication Rating Video Games: A Parent’s Guide to Games; the 1994 episode of the television show Computer Chronicles entitled “Consumer Electronics Show.” Online sources include Blake J. Harris’s “Oral History of the ESRB” at VentureBeat and C-SPAN’s coverage of the Senate hearings of December 9 1993, March 4 1994, and July 29 1994.)

 

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Origin Sells Out

One day in early June of 1992, a group of executives from Electronic Arts visited Origin Systems’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. If they had come from any other company, the rank and file at Origin might not have paid them much attention. As it was, though, the visit felt a bit like Saddam Hussein dropping in at George Bush’s White House for a fireside chat. For Origin and EA, you see, had a history.

Back in August of 1985, just prior to the release of Ultima IV, the much smaller Origin had signed a contract to piggyback on EA’s distribution network as an affiliated label. Eighteen months later, when EA released an otherwise unmemorable CRPG called Deathlord whose interface hewed a little too closely to that of an Ultima, a livid Richard Garriott attempted to pull Origin out of the agreement early. EA at first seemed prepared to crush Origin utterly in retribution by pulling at the legal seams in the two companies’ contract. Origin, however, found themselves a protector: Brøderbund Software, whose size and clout at the time were comparable to that of EA. At last, EA agreed to allow Origin to go their own way, albeit probably only after the smaller company paid them a modest settlement for breaking the contract. Origin quickly signed a new distribution contract with Brøderbund, which lasted until 1989, by which point they had become big enough in their own right to take over their own distribution.

But Richard Garriott wasn’t one to forgive even a small personal slight easily, much less a full-blown threat to destroy his company. From 1987 on, EA was Public Enemy #1 at Origin, a status which Garriott marked in ways that only seemed to grow pettier as time went on. Garriott built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” — the name of Trip Hawkins, EA’s founder and chief executive, spelled backward — at his Austin mansion of Britannia Manor. Ultima V‘s parser treated the phrase “Electronic Arts” like a curse word; Ultima VI included a gang of evil pirates named after some of the more prominent members of EA’s executive staff. Time really did seem to make Garriott more rather than less bitter. Among his relatively few detail-oriented contributions to Ultima VII were a set of infernal inter-dimensional generators whose shapes together formed the EA logo. He also demanded that the two villains who went on a murder spree across Britannia in that game be named Elizabeth and Abraham. Just to drive the point home, the pair worked for a “Destroyer of Worlds” — an inversion of Origin’s longstanding tagline of “We Create Worlds.”

And yet here the destroyers were, just two months after the release of Ultima VII, chatting amiably with their hosts while they gazed upon their surroundings with what seemed to some of Origin’s employees an ominously proprietorial air. Urgent speculation ran up and down the corridors: what the hell was going on? In response to the concerned inquiries of their employees, Origin’s management rushed to say that the two companies were merely discussing “some joint ventures in Sega Genesis development,” even though “they haven’t done a lot of cooperative projects in the past.” That was certainly putting a brave face on half a decade of character assassination!

What was really going on was, as the more astute employees at Origin could all too plainly sense, something far bigger than any mere “joint venture.” The fact was, Origin was in a serious financial bind — not a unique one in their evolving industry, but one which their unique circumstances had made more severe for them than for most others. Everyone in the industry, Origin included, was looking ahead to a very near future when the enormous storage capacity of CD-ROM, combined with improving graphics and sound and exploding numbers of computers in homes, would allow computer games to join television, movies, and music as a staple of mainstream entertainment rather than a niche hobby. Products suitable for this new world order needed to go into development now in order to be on store shelves to greet it when it arrived. These next-generation products with their vastly higher audiovisual standards couldn’t be funded entirely out of the proceeds from current games. They required alternative forms of financing.

For Origin, this issue, which really was well-nigh universal among their peers, was further complicated by the realities of being a relatively small company without a lot of product diversification. A few underwhelming attempts to bring older Ultima games to the Nintendo Entertainment System aside, they had no real presence on videogame consoles, a market which dwarfed that of computer games, and had just two viable product lines even on computers: Ultima and Wing Commander. This lack of diversification left them in a decidedly risky position, where the failure of a single major release in either of those franchises could conceivably bring down the whole company.

The previous year of 1991 had been a year of Wing Commander, when the second mainline title in that franchise, combined with ongoing strong sales of the first game and a series of expansion packs for both of them, had accounted for fully 90 percent of the black ink in Origin’s books. In this year of 1992, it was supposed to have been the other franchise’s turn to carry the company while Wing Commander retooled its technology for the future. But Ultima VII: The Black Gate, while it had been far from an outright commercial failure, had garnered a more muted response than Origin had hoped and planned for, plagued as its launch had been by bugs, high system requirements, and the sheer difficulty of configuring it to run properly under the inscrutable stewardship of MS-DOS.

Even more worrisome than all of the specific issues that dogged this latest Ultima was a more diffuse sort of ennui directed toward it by gamers — a sense that the traditional approach of Ultima in general, with its hundred-hour play time, its huge amounts of text, and its emphasis on scope and player freedom rather than multimedia set-pieces, was falling out of step with the times. Richard Garriott liked to joke that he had spent his whole career making the same game over and over — just making it better and bigger and more sophisticated each time out. It was beginning to seem to some at Origin that that progression might have reached its natural end point. Before EA ever entered the picture, a sense was dawning that Ultima VIII needed to go in another direction entirely — needed to be tighter, flashier, more focused, more in step with the new types of customers who were now beginning to buy computer games. Ultima Underworld, a real-time first-person spinoff of the core series developed by the Boston studio Blue Sky Productions rather than Origin themselves, had already gone a considerable distance in that direction, and upon its near-simultaneous release with Ultima VII had threatened to overshadow its more cerebral big brother completely, garnering more enthusiastic reviews and, eventually, higher sales. Needless to say, had Ultima Underworld not turned into such a success, Origin’s financial position would have been still more critical than it already was. It seemed pretty clear that this was the direction that all of Ultima needed to go.

But making a flashier next-generation Ultima VIII — not to mention the next-generation Wing Commander — would require more money than even Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld together were currently bringing in. And yet, frustratingly, Origin couldn’t seem to drum up much in the way of financing. Their home state of Texas was in the midst of an ugly series of savings-and-loan scandals that had made all of the local banks gun-shy; the country as a whole was going through a mild recession that wasn’t helping; would-be private investors could see all too clearly the risks associated with Origin’s non-diversified business model. As the vaguely disappointing reception for Ultima VII continued to make itself felt, the crisis began to feel increasingly existential. Origin had lots of technical and creative talent and two valuable properties — Wing Commander in particular was arguably still the hottest single name in computer gaming — but had too little capital and a nonexistent credit line. They were, in other words, classic candidates for acquisition.

It seems that the rapprochement between EA and Origin began at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago at the very beginning of June of 1992, and, as evidenced by EA’s personal visit to Origin just a week or so later, proceeded rapidly from there. It would be interesting and perhaps a little amusing to learn how the rest of Origin’s management team coaxed Richard Garriott around to the idea of selling out to the company he had spent the last half-decade vilifying. But whatever tack they took, they obviously succeeded. At least a little bit of sugar was added to the bitter pill by the fact that Trip Hawkins, whom Garriott rightly or wrongly regarded as the worst of all the fiends at EA, had recently stepped down from his role in the company’s management to helm a new semi-subsidiary outfit known as 3DO. (“Had Trip still been there, there’s no way we would have gone with EA,” argues one former Origin staffer — but, then again, necessity can almost always make strange bedfellows.)

Likewise, we can only wonder what if anything EA’s negotiators saw fit to say to Origin generally and Garriott specifically about all of the personal attacks couched within the last few Ultima games. I rather suspect they said nothing; if there was one thing the supremely non-sentimental EA of this era had come to understand, it was that it seldom pays to make business personal.

Richard and Robert Garriott flank Stan McKee, Electronic Arts’s chief financial officer, as they toast the consummation of one of the more unexpected acquisitions in gaming history at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California.

So, the deal was finalized at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California, on September 25, 1992, in the form of a stock exchange worth $35 million. Both parties were polite enough to call it a merger rather than an acquisition, but it was painfully clear which one had the upper hand; EA, who were growing so fast they had just gone through a two-for-one stock split, now had annual revenues of $200 million, while Origin could boast of only $13 million. In a decision whose consequences remain with us to this day, Richard Garriott even agreed to sign over his personal copyrights to the Ultima franchise. In return, he became an EA vice president; his brother Robert, previously the chief executive in Austin, now had to settle for the title of the new EA subsidiary’s creative director.

From EA’s perspective, the deal got them Ultima, a franchise which was perhaps starting to feel a little over-exposed in the wake of a veritable flood of Origin product bearing the name, but one which nevertheless represented EA’s first viable CRPG franchise since the Bard’s Tale trilogy had concluded back in 1988. Much more importantly, though, it got them Wing Commander, in many ways the progenitor of the whole contemporary craze for multimedia “interactive movies”; it was a franchise which seemed immune to over-exposure. (Origin had amply proved this point by releasing two Wing Commander mainline games and four expansion packs in the last two years, plus a “Speech Accessory Pack” for Wing Commander II, all of which had sold very well indeed.)

As you do in these situations, both management teams promised the folks in Austin that nothing much would really change. “The key word is autonomy,” Origin’s executives said in their company’s internal newsletter. “Origin is supposed to operate independently from EA and maintain profitability.” But of course things did — had to — change. There was an inescapable power imbalance here, such that, while Origin’s management had to “consult” with EA when making decisions, their counterparts suffered no such obligation. And of course what might happen if Origin didn’t “maintain profitability” remained unspoken.

Thus most of the old guard at Origin would go on to remember September 25, 1992, as, if not quite the end of the old, freewheeling Origin Systems, at least the beginning of the end. Within six months, resentments against the mother ship’s overbearing ways were already building in such employees as an anonymous letter writer who asked his managers why they were “determined to eradicate the culture that makes Origin such a fun place to work.” Within a year, another was asking even more heatedly, “What happened to being a ‘wholly owned independent subsidiary of EA?’ When did EA start telling Origin what to do and when to do it? I thought Richard said we would remain independent and that EA wouldn’t touch us?!? Did I miss something here?” Eighteen months in, an executive assistant named Michelle Caddel, the very first new employee Origin had hired upon opening their Austin office in 1987, tried to make the best of the changes: “Although some of the warmth at Origin has disappeared with the merger, it still feels like a family.” For now, at any rate.

Perhaps tellingly, the person at Origin who seemed to thrive most under the new arrangement was one of the most widely disliked: Dallas Snell, the hard-driving production manager who was the father of a hundred exhausting crunch times, who tended to regard Origin’s games as commodities quantifiable in floppy disks and megabytes. Already by the time Origin had been an EA subsidiary for a year, he had managed to install himself at a place in the org chart that was for all practical purposes above that of even Richard and Robert Garriott: he was the only person in Austin who was a “direct report” to Bing Gordon, EA’s powerful head of development.

On the other hand, becoming a part of the growing EA empire also brought its share of advantages. The new parent company’s deep pockets meant that Origin could prepare in earnest for that anticipated future when games would sell more copies but would also require more money, time, and manpower to create. Thus almost immediately after closing the deal with EA, Origin closed another one, for a much larger office space which they moved into in January of 1993. Then they set about filling up the place; over the course of the next year, Origin would double in size, going from 200 to 400 employees.

The calm before the storm: the enormous cafeteria at Origin’s new digs awaits the first onslaught of hungry employees. Hopefully someone will scrounge up some tables and chairs before the big moment arrives…

And so the work of game development went on. When EA bought Origin, the latter naturally already had a number of products, large and small, in the pipeline. The first-ever expansion pack for an existing Ultima game — an idea borrowed from Wing Commander — was about to hit stores; Ultima VII: Forge of Virtue would prove a weirdly unambitious addition to a hugely ambitious game, offering only a single dungeon to explore that was more frustrating than fun. Scheduled for release in 1993 were Wing Commander: Academy, a similarly underwhelming re-purposing of Origin’s internal development tools into a public-facing “mission builder,” and Wing Commander: Privateer, which took the core engine and moved it into a free-roaming framework rather than a tightly scripted, heavily story-driven one; it thus became a sort of updated version of the legendary Elite, and, indeed, would succeed surprisingly well on those terms. And then there was also Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, developed like its predecessor by Blue Sky up in Boston; it would prove a less compelling experience on the whole than Ultima Underworld I, being merely a bigger game rather than a better one, but it would be reasonably well-received by customers eager for more of the same.

Those, then, were the relatively modest projects. Origin’s two most expensive and ambitious games for the coming year consisted of yet one more from the Ultima franchise and one that was connected tangentially to Wing Commander. We’ll look at them a bit more closely, taking them one at a time.

The game which would be released under the long-winded title of Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle had had a complicated gestation. It was conceived as Origin’s latest solution to a problem that had long bedeviled them: that of how to leverage their latest expensive Ultima engine for more than one game without violating the letter of a promise Richard Garriott had made more than a decade before to never use the same engine for two successive mainline Ultima games. Back when Ultima VI was the latest and greatest, Origin had tried reusing its engine in a pair of spinoffs called the Worlds of Ultima, which rather awkwardly shoehorned the player’s character from the main series — the “Avatar” — into plots and settings that otherwise had nothing to do with Richard Garriott’s fantasy world of Britannia. Those two games had drawn from early 20th-century science and adventure fiction rather than Renaissance Faire fantasy, and had actually turned out quite magnificently; they’re among the best games ever to bear the Ultima name in this humble critic’s opinion. But, sadly, they had sold like the proverbial space heaters in the Sahara. It seemed that Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs were a bridge too far for fans raised on J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord British.

So, Origin adjusted their approach when thinking of ways to reuse the even more expensive Ultima VII engine. They conceived two projects. One would be somewhat in the spirit of Worlds of Ultima, but would stick closer to Britannia-style fantasy: called Arthurian Legends, it would draw from, as you might assume, the legends of King Arthur, a fairly natural thematic fit for a series whose creator liked to call himself “Lord British.” The other game, the first to go into production, would be a direct sequel to Ultima VII, following the Avatar as he pursued the Guardian, that “Destroyer of Worlds” from the first game, from Britannia to a new world. This game, then, was Serpent Isle. Originally, it was to have had a pirate theme, all fantastical derring-do on an oceanic world, with a voodoo-like magic system in keeping with Earthly legends of Caribbean piracy.

This piratey Serpent Isle was first assigned to Origin writer Jeff George, but he struggled to find ways to adapt the idea to the reality of the Ultima VII engine’s affordances. Finally, after spinning his wheels for some months, he left the company entirely. Warren Spector, who had become Origin’s resident specialist in Just Getting Things Done, then took over the project and radically revised it, dropping the pirate angle and changing the setting to one that was much more Britannia-like, right down to a set of towns each dedicated to one of a set of abstract virtues. Having thus become a less excitingly original concept but a more practical one from a development perspective, Serpent Isle started to make good progress under Spector’s steady hand. Meanwhile another small team started working up a script for Arthurian Legends, which was planned as the Ultima VII engine’s last hurrah.

Yet the somewhat muted response to the first Ultima VII threw a spanner in the works. Origin’s management team was suddenly second-guessing the entire philosophy on which their company had been built: “Do we still create worlds?” Arthurian Legends was starved of resources amidst this crisis of confidence, and finally cancelled in January of 1993. Writer and designer Sheri Graner Ray, one of only two people left on the project at the end, invests its cancellation with major symbolic importance:

I truly believe that on some level we knew that this was the death knell for Origin. It was the last of the truly grass-roots games in production there… the last one that was conceived, championed, and put into development purely by the actual developers, with no support or input from the executives. It was actually, kinda, the end of an era for the game industry in general, as it was also during this time that we were all adjusting to the very recent EA buyout of Origin.

Brian Martin, one of the last two developers remaining on the Arthurian Legends project, made this odd little memorial to it with the help of his partner Sheri Graner Ray after being informed by management that the project was to be cancelled entirely. Ray herself tells the story: “Before we left that night, Brian laid down in the common area that was right outside our office and I went around his body with masking tape… like a chalk line… we added the outline of a crown and the outline of a sword. We then draped our door in black cloth and put up a sign that said, ‘The King is Dead. Long live the King.’ …. and a very odd thing happened. The next morning when we arrived, there were flowers by the outline. As the day wore on more flowers arrived.. and a candle.. and some coins were put on the eyes… and a poem arrived… it was uncanny. This went on for several days with the altar growing more and more. Finally, we were told we had to take it down, because there was a press junket coming through and they didn’t want the press seeing it.”

Serpent Isle, on the other hand, was too far along by the time the verdict was in on the first Ultima VII to make a cancellation realistic. It would instead go down in the recollection of most hardcore CRPG fans as the last “real” Ultima, the capstone to the process of evolution a young Richard Garriott had set in motion back in 1980 with a primitive BASIC game called Akalabeth. And yet the fact remains that it could have been so, so much better, had it only caught Origin at a less uncertain, more confident time.

Serpent Isle lacks the refreshingly original settings of the two Worlds of Ultima games, as it does the surprisingly fine writing of the first Ultima VII; Raymond Benson, the head writer on the latter project, worked on Serpent Isle only briefly before decamping to join MicroProse Software. In compensation, though, Serpent Isle is arguably a better game than its predecessor through the first 65 percent or so of its immense length. Ultima VII: The Black Gate can at times feel like the world’s most elaborate high-fantasy walking simulator; you really do spend most of your time just walking around and talking to people, an exercise that’s made rewarding only by the superb writing. Serpent Isle, by contrast, is full to bursting with actual things to do: puzzles to solve, dungeons to explore, quests to fulfill. It stretches its engine in all sorts of unexpected and wonderfully hands-on directions. Halfway in, it seems well on its way to being one of the best Ultima games of all, as fine a sendoff as any venerable series could hope for.

In the end, though, its strengths were all undone by Origin’s crisis of faith in the traditional Ultima concept. Determined to get its sales onto the books of what had been a rather lukewarm fiscal year and to wash their hands of the past it now represented, management demanded that it go out on March 25, 1993, the last day of said year. As a result, the last third or so of Serpent Isle is painfully, obviously unfinished. Conversations become threadbare, plot lines are left to dangle, side quests disappear, and bugs start to sprout up everywhere you look. As the fiction becomes a thinner and thinner veneer pasted over the mechanical nuts and bolts of the design, solubility falls by the wayside. By the end, you’re wandering through a maze of obscure plot triggers that have no logical connection with the events they cause, making a walkthrough a virtual necessity. It’s a downright sad thing to have to witness. Had its team only been allowed another three or four months to finish the job, Serpent Isle could have been not only a great final old-school Ultima but one of the best CRPGs of any type that I’ve ever played, a surefire entrant in my personal gaming hall of fame. As it is, though, it’s a bitter failure, arguably the most heartbreaking one of Warren Spector’s storied career.

Unfashionable though such an approach was in 1993, almost all of the Serpent Isle team’s energy went into gameplay and script rather than multimedia assets; the game looks virtually identical to the first Ultima VII. An exception is the frozen northlands which you visit later in the game. Unfortunately, the change in scenery comes about the time that the design slowly begins to fall apart.

And there was to be one final note of cutting irony in all of this: Serpent Isle, which Origin released without a lot of faith in its commercial potential, garnered a surprisingly warm reception among critics and fans alike, and wound up selling almost as well as the first Ultima VII. Indeed, it performed so well that the subject of doing “more games in that vein,” in addition to or even instead of a more streamlined Ultima VIII, was briefly discussed at Origin. As things transpired, though, its success led only to an expansion pack called The Silver Seed before the end of the year; this modest effort became the true swansong for the Ultima VII engine, as well as the whole era of the 100-hour-plus, exploration-focused, free-form single-player CRPG at Origin in general. The very philosophy that had spawned the company, that had been at the core of its identity for the first decade of its existence, was fading into history. Warren Spector would later have this to say in reference to a period during which practical commercial concerns strangled the last shreds of idealism at Origin:

There’s no doubt RPGs were out of favor by the mid-90s. No doubt at all. People didn’t seem to want fantasy stories or post-apocalypse stories anymore. They certainly didn’t want isometric, 100 hour fantasy or post-apocalypse stories, that’s for sure! I couldn’t say why it happened, but it did. Everyone was jumping on the CD craze – it was all cinematic games and high-end-graphics puzzle games… That was a tough time for me – I mean, picture yourself sitting in a meeting with a bunch of execs, trying to convince them to do all sorts of cool games and being told, “Warren, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘story’ any more.” Talk about a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water, a dose of reality.

If you ask me, the reason it all happened was that we assumed our audience wanted 100 hours of play and didn’t care much about graphics. Even high-end RPGs were pretty plain-jane next to things like Myst and even our own Wing Commander series. I think we fell behind our audience in terms of the sophistication they expected and we catered too much to the hardcore fans. That can work when you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars – even a few million – but when games start costing many millions, you just can’t make them for a relatively small audience of fans.

If Serpent Isle and its expansion were the last gasps of the Origin Systems that had been, the company’s other huge game of 1993 was every inch a product of the new Origin that had begun to take shape following the worldwide success of the first Wing Commander game. Chris Roberts, the father of Wing Commander, had been working on something called Strike Commander ever since late 1990, leaving Wing Commander II and all of the expansion packs and other spinoffs in the hands of other Origin staffers. The new game took the basic idea of the old — that of an action-oriented vehicular simulator with a strong story, told largely via between-mission dialog scenes — and moved it from the outer space of the far future to an Earth of a very near future, where the international order has broken down and mercenaries battle for control over the planet’s dwindling resources. You take to the skies in an F-16 as one of the mercenaries — one of the good ones, naturally.

Origin and Chris Roberts pulled out all the stops to make Strike Commander an audiovisual showcase; the game’s gestation time of two and a half years, absurdly long by the standards of the early 1990s, was a product of Roberts constantly updating his engine to take advantage of the latest cutting-edge hardware. The old Wing Commander engine was starting to look pretty long in the tooth by the end of 1992, so this new engine, which replaced its predecessor’s scaled sprites with true polygonal 3D graphics, was more than welcome. There’s no point in putting a modest face on it: Strike Commander looked downright spectacular in comparison with any other flight simulator on offer at the time. It was widely expected, both inside and outside of Origin, to become the company’s biggest game ever. In fact, it became the first Origin game to go gold in the United States — 100,000 copies sold to retail — before it had actually shipped there, thanks to the magic of pre-orders. Meanwhile European pre-orders topped 50,000, an all-time record for EA’s British subsidiary. All in all, more than 1.1 million Strike Commander floppy disks — 30 tons worth of plastic, metal, and iron oxide — were duplicated before a single unit was sold. Why not? This game was a sure thing.

The hype around Strike Commander was inescapable for months prior to its release. At the European Computer Trade Show in London, the last big event before the release, Origin put together a mock-up of an airplane hangar. Those lucky people who managed to seize control for a few minutes got to play the game from behind a nose cowl and instrument panel. What Origin didn’t tell you was that the computer hidden away underneath all the window dressing was almost certainly much, much more powerful than one you had at home.

Alas, pride goeth before a fall. Just a couple of weeks after Strike Commander‘s worldwide release on April 23, 1993, Origin had to admit to themselves in their internal newsletter that sales from retail to actual end users were “slower than expected.” Consumers clearly weren’t as enamored with the change in setting as Origin and just about everyone else in their industry had assumed they would be. Transporting the Wing Commander formula into a reasonably identifiable version of the real world somehow made the story, which hovered as usual in some liminal space between comic book and soap opera, seem rather more than less ludicrous. At the same time, the use of an F-16 in place of a made-up star fighter, combined with the game’s superficial resemblance to the hardcore flight simulators of the day, raised expectations among some players which the game had never really been designed to meet. The editors of Origin’s newsletter complained, a little petulantly, about this group of sim jockeys who were “ready for a cockpit that had every gauge, altimeter, dial, and soft-drink holder in its proper place. This is basically the group which wouldn’t be happy unless you needed the $35 million worth of training the Air Force provides just to get the thing off the ground.” There were advantages, Origin was belatedly learning, to “simulating” a vehicle that had no basis in reality, as there were to fictions similarly divorced from the real world. In hitting so much closer to home, Strike Commander lost a lot of what had made Wing Commander so appealing.

The new game’s other problem was more immediate and practical: almost no one could run the darn thing well enough to actually have the experience Chris Roberts had intended it to be. Ever since Origin had abandoned the Apple II to make MS-DOS their primary development platform at the end of the 1980s, they’d had a reputation for pushing the latest hardware to its limit. This game, though, was something else entirely even from them. The box’s claim that it would run on an 80386 was a polite fiction at best; in reality, you needed an 80486, and one of the fastest ones at that — running at least at 50 MHz or, better yet, 66 MHz — if you wished to see anything like the silky-smooth visuals that Origin had been showing off so proudly at recent trade shows. Even Origin had to admit in their newsletter that customers had been “stunned” by the hardware Strike Commander craved. Pushed along by the kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm of Chris Roberts, who never had a passing fancy he didn’t want to rush right out and implement, they had badly overshot the current state of computing hardware.

Of course, said state was always evolving; it was on this fact that Origin now had to pin whatever diminished hopes they still had for Strike Commander. The talk of the hardware industry at the time was Intel’s new fifth-generation microprocessor, which abandoned the “x86” nomenclature in favor of the snazzy new focus-tested name of Pentium, another sign of how personal computers were continuing their steady march from being tools of businesspeople and obsessions of nerdy hobbyists into mainstream consumer-electronics products. Origin struck a promotional deal with Compaq Computers in nearby Houston, who, following what had become something of a tradition for them, were about to release the first mass-market desktop computer to be built around this latest Intel marvel. Compaq placed the showpiece that was Strike Commander-on-a-Pentium front and center at the big PC Expo corporate trade show that summer of 1993, causing quite a stir at an event that usually scoffed at games. “The fuse has only been lit,” went Origin’s cautiously optimistic new company line on Strike Commander, “and it looks to be a long and steady burn.”

But time would prove this optimism as well to be somewhat misplaced: one of those flashy new Compaq Pentium machines cost $7000 in its most minimalist configuration that summer. By the time prices had come down enough to make a Pentium affordable for gamers without an absurd amount of disposable income, other games with even more impressive audiovisuals would be available for showing off their hardware. Near the end of the year, Origin released an expansion pack for Strike Commander that had long been in the development pipeline, but that would be that: there would be no Strike Commander II. Chris Roberts turned his attention instead to Wing Commander III, which would raise the bar on development budget and multimedia ambition to truly unprecedented heights, not only for Origin but for their industry at large. After all, Wing Commander: Academy and Privateer, both of which had had a fraction of the development budget of Strike Commander but wound up selling just as well, proved that there was still a loyal, bankable audience out there for the core series.

Origin had good reason to play it safe now in this respect and others. When the one-year anniversary of the acquisition arrived, the accountants had to reveal to EA that their new subsidiary had done no more than break even so far. By most standards, it hadn’t been a terrible year at all: Ultima Underworld II, Serpent Isle, Wing Commander: Academy, and Wing Commander: Privateer had all more or less made money, and even Strike Commander wasn’t yet so badly underwater that all hope was lost on that front. But on the other hand, none of these games had turned into a breakout hit in the fashion of the first two Wing Commander games, even as the new facilities, new employees, and new titles going into development had cost plenty. EA was already beginning to voice some skepticism about some of Origin’s recent decisions. The crew in Austin really, really needed a home run rather than more base hits if they hoped to maintain their status in the industry and get back into their overlord’s good graces. Clearly 1994, which would feature a new mainline entry in both of Origin’s core properties for the first time since Ultima VI had dropped and Wing Commander mania had begun back in 1990, would be a pivotal year. Origin’s future was riding now on Ultima VIII and Wing Commander III.

(Sources: the book Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from March 13 1992, June 19 1992, July 31 1992, September 25 1992, October 23 1992, November 6 1992, December 4 1992, December 18 1992, January 29 1993, February 12 1993, February 26 1993, March 26 1993, April 9 1993, April 23 1993, May 7 1993, May 21 1993, June 18 1993, July 2 1993, August 27 1993, September 10 1993, October 13 1993, October 22 1993, November 8 1993, and December 1993; Questbusters of April 1986 and July 1987; Computer Gaming World of October 1992 and August 1993. Online sources include “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, “The Stars His Destination: Chris Roberts from Origin to Star Citizen at US Gamer, Shery Graner Ray’s blog entry “20 Years and Counting — Origin Systems,” and an interview with Warren Spector at RPG Codex.

All of the Origin games mentioned in this article are available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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