RSS

Tag Archives: origin

Ultima VII

From the time that Richard and Robert Garriott first founded Origin Systems in order to publish Ultima III, the completion of one Ultima game was followed almost immediately by the beginning of work on the next. Ultima VI in early 1990 was no exception; there was time only for a wrap party and a couple of weeks of decompression before work started on Ultima VII. The latter project continued even as separate teams made the two rather delightful Worlds of Ultima spinoffs using the old Ultima VI engine, and even as another Origin game called Wing Commander sold far more copies than any previous Ultima, spawning an extremely lucrative new franchise that for the first time ever made Origin into something other than The House That Ultima Built.

But whatever the source, money was always welcome. The new rival for the affections of Origin’s fans and investors gave Richard Garriott more of it to play with than ever before, and his ambitions for his latest Ultima were elevated to match. One of the series’s core ethos had always been that of continual technological improvement. Garriott had long considered it a point of pride to never use the same engine twice (a position he had budged from only reluctantly when he allowed the Worlds of Ultima spinoffs to be made). Thus it came as no surprise that he wanted to push things forward yet again with Ultima VII. Even in light of the series’s tradition, however, this was soon shaping up to be an unusually ambitious installment — indeed, by far the most ambitious technological leap that the series had made to date.

As I noted in my article on that game, the Ultima VI engine was, at least when seen retrospectively, a not entirely comfortable halfway point between the old “alphabet soup” keyboard-based interface of the first five games and a new approach which fully embraced the mouse and other modern computing affordances. Traces of the old were still to be found scattered everywhere amidst the new, and using the interface effectively meant constantly switching between keyboard-centric and mouse-centric paradigms for different tasks. Ultima VII would end such equivocation, shedding all traces of the interfaces of yore.

These screenshots from a Computer Gaming World preview of the game provide an interesting snapshot of Ultima VII in a formative state. The graphics are less refined than the final version, but the pop-up interface and the graphical containment model — more on that fraught subject later — are in place.

For the first time since Richard Garriott had discovered the magic of tile graphics in his dorm room at the University of Texas, the world of this latest Ultima was not to be built using that technique; Origin opted instead for a free-scrolling world shown from an overhead perspective, canted just slightly to convey the impression of depth. Gone along with the discrete tiles were the discrete turns of the previous Ultima games, replaced by true real-time gameplay. The world model included height — 16 possible levels of it! — as well as the other dimensions; characters could climb stairs to other floors in a building or walk up a hillside outdoors while remaining in the same contiguous space. In a move that must strike anyone familiar with the games of today as almost eerily prescient, Origin excised any trace of static onscreen interface elements. Instead the entire screen was given over to a glorious view of Britannia, with the interface popping up over this backdrop as needed. The whole production was designed with the mouse in mind first and foremost. Do you want your character to pick up a sword? Click on him to bring up his paper-doll inventory display, then drag the sword with the mouse right out of the world and into his hand. All of the things that the Ultima VI engine seemed like it ought to be able to do, but which proved far more awkward than anticipated, the Ultima VII engine did elegantly and effortlessly.

Looking for a way to reduce onscreen clutter and to show as much of the world of Britannia as possible at one time, Origin realized they could pop up interface elements only when needed. This innovation, seldom seen before, has become ubiquitous in the games — and, indeed, in the software in general — of today.

Origin had now fully embraced a Hollywood-style approach to game production, marked by specialists working within strictly defined roles, and the team which built Ultima VII reflected this. Even the artists were specialized. Glen Johnson, a former comic-book illustrator, was responsible for the characters and monsters as they appeared in the world. Michael Priest was the resident portrait artist, responsible for the closeups of faces that appeared whenever the player talked to someone. The most specialized artistic role of all belonged to Bob Cook, a landscape artist hired to keep the multi-level environment coherent and proportional.

Of course, there were plenty of programmers as well, and they had their work cut out for them. Bringing Garriott’s latest Ultima to life would require pushing the latest hardware right to the edge and, in some situations, beyond it. Perhaps the best example of the programmers’ determination to find a way at all costs is their Voodoo memory manager. Frustrated with MS-DOS’s 640 K memory barrier and unhappy with all of the solutions for getting around it, the programming team rolled up their sleeves and coded a solution of their own from scratch. It would force virtually everyone who played the game at its release to boot their machines from a custom floppy, and would give later users even more headaches; in fact, it would render the game unplayable on many post-early-1990s machines, until the advent of software emulation layers like DOSBox. Yet it was the only way the programming team could make the game work at all in 1992.

As usual for an Ultima, the story and structure of play evolved only slowly, after the strengths and limitations of the technology that would need to enable them were becoming clear. Richard Garriott began with one overriding determination: he wanted a real bad guy this time, not just someone who was misguided or misunderstood: “We wanted a bad guy who was really evil, truly, truly evil.” He envisioned an antagonist for the Avatar cut from the classic cloth of novelistic and cinematic villains, one who could stick around for at least the next few games. Thus was born the disembodied spirit of evil known as the Guardian, who would indeed proceed to dog the Avatar’s footsteps all the way through Ultima IX. One might be tempted to view this seeming return to a black-versus-white conception of morality as a step back for the series thematically. But, as Garriott was apparently aware, the moral plot twists of the previous two games risked becoming a cliché in themselves if perpetuated indefinitely.

Then too, while Ultima VII would present a story carrying less obvious thematic baggage than the last games, that story would be executed far more capably than any of those others. For, as the most welcome byproduct of the new focus on specialization, Origin finally hired a real writing team.

Raymond Benson and Richard Garriott take the stage together for an Austin theatrical fundraiser with a Valentines Day theme. Benson played his “love theme” from Ultima VII while Garriott recited “The Song of Solomon” — with tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course.

The new head writer, destined to make a profound impact on the game, was an intriguingly multi-talented fellow named Raymond Benson. Born in 1955, he was a native of Origin’s hometown of Austin, Texas, but had spent the last decade or so in New York City, writing, directing, and composing music for stage productions. As a sort of sideline, he’d also dabbled in games, writing an adventure for the James Bond 007 tabletop RPG and writing three text-adventure adaptations of popular novels during the brief mid-1980s heyday of bookware: The Mist, A View to a Kill, and Goldfinger. Now, he and his wife had recently started a family, and were tired of their cramped Manhattan flat and the cutthroat New York theater scene. When they saw an advertisement from Origin in an Austin newspaper, seeking “artists, musicians, and programmers,” Benson decided to apply. He was hired to be none of those things — although he would contribute some of his original music to Ultima VII — but rather to be a writer.

When he crossed paths with the rest of Origin Systems, Benson was both coming from and going to very different places than the majority of the staff there, and his year-long sojourn with them proved just a little uncomfortable. Benson:

It was like working in the boys’ dormitory. I was older than most of the employees, who were 95 percent male. In fact, I believe less than ten out of fifty or sixty employees were over thirty, and I was one of them. So, I kind of felt like the old fart a lot of times. Most of the employees were young single guys, and it didn’t matter to them if they stayed at the office all night, had barbecues at midnight, and slept in a sleeping bag until noon. Because I had a family, I needed to keep fairly regular 8-to-5 hours, which is pretty impossible at a games company.

A snapshot of the cultural gulf between Benson and the average Origin employee is provided by an article in the company’s in-house newsletter entitled “What Influences Us?” Amidst lists of “favorite fantasy/science fiction films” and “favorite action/adventure films,” Benson chooses his “ten favorite novels,” unspooling an eclectic list that ranges from Dracula to The Catcher in the Rye, Lucky Jim to Maia — no J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert Heinlein in sight!

Some of the references in Ultima VII feel like they just had to have come directly from the slightly older, more culturally sophisticated diversified mind of Raymond Benson. Here, for instance, is a riff on Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s landmark work of first-person journalism about racial prejudice in the United States.

It’s precisely because of his different background and interests that Benson’s contribution to Ultima VII became so important. Most of the writing in the game was actually dialog, and deft characterization through dialog was something his theatrical background had left him well-prepared to tackle. Working with and gently coaching a team consisting of four other, less experienced writers, he turned Richard Garriott’s vague story outline, about the evil Guardian and his attempt to seize control of Britannia through a seemingly benign religious movement known as the Fellowship, into the best-written Ultima ever. The indelible Ultima tradition of flagrantly misused “thees” and “thous” aside, the writing in Ultima VII never grates, and frequently sparkles. Few games since the heyday of Infocom could equal it. Considering that Ultima VII alone has quite possibly as much text as every Infocom game combined, that’s a major achievement.

The huge contributions made by Raymond Benson and the rest of the writing team — not to mention so many other artists, programmers, and environment designers — do raise the philosophical question of how much Ultima VII can still be considered a Richard Garriott game, full stop. From the time that his brother Robert convinced him that he simply couldn’t create Ultima V all by himself, as he had all of his games up to that point, Richard’s involvement with the nitty-gritty details of their development had become steadily less. By the early 1990s, we can perhaps already begin to see some signs of the checkered post-Origin career in game development that awaited him — the career of a basically good-natured guy with heaps of money, an awful lot of extracurricular interests, and a resultant short attention span. He was happy to throw out Big Ideas to set the direction of development, and he clearly still relished demonstrating Origin’s latest products and playing Lord British, but his days of fussing too much over the details were, it seems, already behind him by the time of Ultima VII. Given a choice between sitting down to make a computer game or throwing one of his signature birthday bashes or Halloween spook houses — or, for that matter, merely playing the wealthy young gentleman-about-town in Austin high society more generally — one suspects that Garriott would opt for one of the latter every time.

Which isn’t to say that his softer skill set wasn’t welcome in a company in transition, in which tensions between the creative staff and management were starting to become noticeable. For the people on the front line actually making Ultima VII, working ridiculous hours under intense pressure for shockingly little pay, Garriott’s talents meant much indeed. He would swoop in from time to time to have lunch catered in from one of Austin’s most expensive restaurants. Or he would tell everyone to take the afternoon off because they were all going out to the park to eat barbecue and toss Frisbees around. And of course they were always all invited to those big parties he loved to throw.

Still, the tensions remained, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Lurking around the edges of management’s attitude toward their employees was the knowledge that Origin was the only significant game developer in Austin, a fast-growing, prosperous city with a lot of eager young talent. Indeed, prior to the rise of id Software up in Dallas, they had no real rival in all of Texas. Brian Martin, a scripter on Ultima VII, remembers being told that “people were standing in line for our jobs, and if we didn’t like the way things were, we could just leave.” Artist Glen Johnson had lived in Austin at the time Origin hired him to work in their New Hampshire office, only to move him back to Austin once again when that office was closed; he liked to joke that the company had spent more money on his plane fare during his first year than on his salary.

The yin to Richard Garriott’s yang inside Origin was Dallas Snell, the company’s hard-driving production manager, who was definitely not the touchy-feely type. An Origin employee named Sheri Graner Ray recounts her first encounter with him:

My interviews at Origin Systems culminated with an interview with Dallas Snell. He didn’t turn away from his computer, but sort of waved a hand in the general direction of a chair. I hesitantly took a seat. Dallas continued to type for what seemed to me to be two or three hours. Finally, he stopped, swung around in his desk chair, leaned forward, put one hand on his knee and the other on his hip, narrowed his eyes at me, and said, “You’re here for me to decide if I LIKE you.” I was TERRIFIED. Well, I guess he did, cuz I got the job, but I spent the next year ducking and avoiding him, as I figured if he ever decided he DIDN’T like me, I was in trouble!

Snell’s talk could make Origin’s games sound like something dismayingly close to sausages rolling down a production line. He was most proud of Wing Commander and Savage Empire, he said, because “these projects were done in twelve calendar months or less, as compared to the twenty-to-thirty-month time frame that previous projects were developed in!” Martian Dreams filled six megabytes on disk, yet was done in “seven calendar months!!! Totally unprecedented!!” Wing Commander II filled 15 megabytes, yet “the entire project will have been developed in eight calendar months!!!” He concluded that “no one, absolutely no one, has done what we have, or what we are yet still capable of!!! Not Lucasfilm, not Sierra, not MicroProse, not Electronic Arts, not anyone!” The unspoken question was, at what cost to Origin’s staff?

It would be unfair to label Origin Systems, much less Dallas Snell alone, the inventor of the games industry’s crunch-time culture and its unattractive byproduct and enabler, the reliance on an endless churn of cheap young labor willing to let themselves be exploited for the privilege of making games. Certainly similar situations were beginning to arise at other major studios in the early 1990s. And it’s also true that the employees of Origin and those other studios were hardly the first ones to work long hours for little pay making games. Yet there was, I think, a qualitative difference at play. The games of the 1980s had mostly been made by very small teams with little hierarchy, where everyone could play a big creative role and feel a degree of creative ownership of the end product. By the early 1990s, though, the teams were growing in size; over the course of 1991 alone, Origin’s total technical and creative staff grew from 40 to 120 people. Thus companies like Origin were instituting — necessarily, given the number of people involved — more rigid tiers of roles and specialties. In time, this would lead to the cliché of the young 3D modeller working 100-hour weeks making trees, with no idea of where they would go in the finished game and no way to even find out, much less influence the creative direction of the final product in any more holistic sense. For such cogs in the machine, getting to actually make games (!) would prove rather less magical than expected.

Origin was still a long way from that point, but I fancy that the roots of the oft-dehumanizing culture of modern AAA game production can be seen here. Management’s occasional attempts to address the issue also ring eerily familiar. In the midst of Ultima VII, Dallas Snell announced that “the 24-hour work cycle has outlived its productivity”: “All employees are required to start the day by 10:00 AM and call it a day by midnight. The lounge is being returned to its former glory (as a lounge, that is, without beds).” Needless to say, the initiative didn’t last, conflicting as it did with the pressing financial need to get the game done and on the market.

Simply put, Ultima VII was expensive — undoubtedly the most expensive game Origin had ever made, and one of the most expensive computer game anyone had yet made. Just after its release, Richard Garriott claimed that it had cost $1 million. Of course, the number is comically low by modern standards, even when adjusted for inflation — but this was a time when a major hit might only sell 100,000 units rather than the 10 million or so of today.

Origin had first planned to release Ultima VII in time for the Christmas of 1991, an impossibly optimistic time frame (impossibly optimistic time frames being another trait which the Origin of the early 1990s shares with many game studios of today). When it became clear that no amount of crunch would allow the team to meet that deadline, the pressure to get it out as soon as possible after Christmas only increased. Looking over their accounts at year’s end, Origin realized that 90 percent of their revenue in 1991 had come through the Wing Commander franchise; had Wing Commander II not become as huge a hit as the first installment, they would have been bankrupt. This subsidizing of Ultima with Wing Commander was an uncomfortable place to be, and not just for the impact it might have had on Lord British’s (alter) ego. It meant that, with no major Wing Commander releases due in 1992, an under-performing Ultima VII could take down the whole company. Many at Origin were surprisingly clear-eyed about the dangers which beset them. Mike McShaffry, a programmer and unusually diligent student of the company’s financial situation among the rank and file — unsurprisingly, he would later become an entrepreneur himself — expressed his concern: “The road ahead for us is a bumpy one. Many companies do not survive the ‘boom town’ growth phase that we have just experienced.”

Thus when Ultima VII: The Black Gate — the subtitle was an unusually important one, given that Origin had already authorized a confusingly titled Ultima VII Part Two using the same game engine — shipped on April 16, 1992, the whole company’s future was riding on it.


Classic games, it seems to me, can be plotted on a continuum between two archetypes. At one pole are the games which do everything right — those whose designers, faced with a multitude of small and large choices, have made the right choice every time. Ultima Underworld, the spinoff game which Origin released just two weeks before Ultima VII, is one of these.

The other archetypal classic game is much rarer: the game whose designers have made a lot of really problematic choices, to the point that certain parts of it may be flat-out broken, but which nevertheless charms and delights due to some ineffable spirit that overshadows everything else. Ultima VII is the finest example of this type that I can think of. Its list of trouble spots is longer than that of many genuinely bad games, and yet its special qualities are so special that I can only recommend that you play it.

Inventory management in Ultima VII. It’s really, really hard to find anything, especially in the dark. Of course, I could fire up a torch… but wait! My torches are buried somewhere under all that mess in my pack.

Any list of that which is confusing, infuriating, or just plain boring in Ultima VII must start with the inventory-management system. The drag-and-drop approach to same is brilliant in conception, but profoundly flawed in execution. You need to cart a lot of stuff around in this game — not just weapons and armor and quest items and money and loot, but also dozens of pieces of food to keep your insatiable characters fed on their journeys and dozens or hundreds of magic reagents to let you cast spells. All of this is lumped together in your characters’ packs as an indeterminate splodge of overlapping icons. Unless you formulate a detailed scheme of exactly what should go where and stick to it with the rigidity of a pedant, you’ll sometimes find it impossible to figure out what you actually have and where it is on your characters’ persons. When that happens, you’ll have to resort to finding a clear spot of ground and laying out the contents of each pack on it one by one, looking for that special little whatsit.

Keys belong to their own unique circle of Inventory Hell. Just a few pixels big, they have a particular tendency to get hopelessly lost at the bottom of your pack along with those leftover leeks you picked up for some reason in the bar last night. Further, keys are distinguished only by their style and color — the game does nothing so friendly as tell you what door a given key opens, even after you’ve successfully used it — and there are a lot of them. So, you never feel quite confident when you can’t open a door that you haven’t just overlooked the key somewhere in the swirling chaos vortex that is your inventory. If you really love packing your suitcase before a big trip, you might enjoy Ultima VII‘s inventory management. Otherwise, you’ll find it to be a nightmare.

The combat system is almost as bad. Clearly Origin, to put it as kindly as possible, struggled to adapt combat to the real-time paradigm. While you can assemble a party of up to eight people, you can only directly control the Avatar himself in combat, and that only under a fairly generous definition of “control.” You click a button telling your people to start fighting, whereupon everyone, friend and foe alike, converges upon the same pixel as occasional words — “Aargh!,” “To arms!,” “Vultures will pick thy bones!” — float out of the scrum. The effect is a bit like those old Warner Bros. cartoons where Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner disappear into a cloud of arms and legs until one of them pops out victorious a few seconds later.

The one way to change this dynamic also happens to be the worst possible thing you can do: equipping your characters with ranged weapons. This will cause them to open fire indiscriminately in the vague direction of the aforementioned pixel of convergence, happily riddling any foes and friends alike who happen to be in the way full of arrows. In light of this, one can only be happy that the Avatar is the only one allowed to use magic; the thought of this lot of nincompoops armed with fireballs and magic missiles is downright terrifying. Theoretically, it’s possible to control combat to some degree by choosing from several abstract strategies for each character, and to directly intervene with the Avatar by clicking specific targets, but in practice none of it makes much difference. By the time some of your characters start deciding to throw down all their weapons and hide in a corner for no apparent reason, you just shrug and accept it; it’s as explicable as anything else here.

You’ll learn to dread your party’s constant mewling for food, not least because it forces you to engage with the dreadful inventory system. (No, they can’t feed themselves. You have to hand-feed each one of them like a little birdie.)

Thankfully, nothing else in the game is quite as bad as these two aspects, but there are other niggling annoyances. The need to manually feed your characters is prominent among them. There’s no challenge to collecting food, given that there are lots of infallible means of collecting money to buy it. The real problem is that those means are all so tedious. (I spent literally hours when I played the game marching back and forth from one end of the town of Britain to the other, buying meat cheap and selling it expensive, all so as to buy yet more meat to feed my hungry lot.) The need for food serves only to extend the length of a game that doesn’t need to be extended, and to do it in the most boring way possible.

But then, this sort of thing had always been par for the course with any Ultima, a series that always tended to leaven its inspired elements with a solid helping of tedium. And then too, Ultima had always been a little wonky when it came to its mechanics; Richard Garriott ceded that ground to Wizardry back in the days of Ultima I, and never really tried to regain it. Still, it’s amazing how poorly Ultima VII, a game frequently praised as one of the best CRPGs ever made, does as a CRPG, at least as most people thought of the genre circa 1992. Because there’s no interest or pleasure in combat, there’s no thrill to leveling up or collecting new weapons and armor. You have little opportunity to shape your characters’ development in any way, and those sops to character management that are present, such as the food system, merely annoy. Dungeons — many or most of them optional — are scattered around, but they’re fairly small while still managing to be confusing; the free-scrolling movement makes them almost impossible to map accurately on paper, yet the game lacks an auto-map. If you see a CRPG as a game in the most traditional sense of the word — as an intricate system of rules to learn and to manipulate to your advantage — you’ll hate, hate, hate Ultima VII for its careless mechanics. One might say that it’s at its worst when it actively tries to be a CRPG, at its best when it’s content to be a sort of Britannian walking simulator.

And yet I don’t dislike the game as much as all of the above might imply. In fact, Ultima VII is my third favorite game to bear the Ultima name, behind only Martian Dreams and the first Ultima Underworld. The reason comes down to how compelling the aforementioned walking simulator actually manages to be.

I’ve never cared much one way or the other about Britannia as a setting, but darned if Ultima VII doesn’t shed a whole new light on the place. At its best, playing this game is… pleasant, a word not used much in regard to ludic aesthetics, but one that perhaps ought to crop up more frequently. The graphics are colorful, the music lovely, the company you keep more often than not charming. It’s disarmingly engaging just to wander around and talk to people.

Underneath the pleasantness, not so much undercutting it as giving it more texture, is a note of melancholy. This adventure in Britannia takes place many years after the Avatar’s previous ones, and the old companions in adventure who make up his party are as enthusiastic as ever, but also a little grayer, a little more stooped. Meanwhile other old friends (and enemies) from the previous games are forever waiting in the wings for one last cameo. If a Britannia scoffer like me can feel a certain poignancy, it must be that much more pronounced for those who are more invested in the setting. Today, the valedictory feel to Ultima VII is that much more affecting because we know for sure that this is indeed the end of the line for the classic incarnation of Britannia. The single-player series wouldn’t return there until Ultima IX, and that unloved game would alter the place’s personality almost beyond recognition. Ah, well… it’s hard to imagine a lovelier, more affectionate sendoff for old-school Britannia than the one it gets here.

The writing team loves to flirt with the fourth wall. Fortunately, they never quite take it to the point of undermining the rest of the fiction.

Yet even as the game pays loving tribute to the Britannia of yore, there’s an aesthetic sophistication about it that belies the series’s teenage-dungeonmaster roots. It starts with the box, which, apart from the title, is a foreboding solid black. The very simplicity screams major statement, like the Beatles’ White Album or Prince’s Black Album. Certainly it’s a long way from the heaving bosoms and fire-breathing dragons of the typical CRPG cover art.

When you start the game, you’re first greeted with a title screen that evokes the iconic opening sequence to Ultima IV, all bright spring colors and music that smacks of Vivaldi. But then, in the first of many toyings with the fourth wall, the scene dissolves into static, to be replaced by the figure of the Guardian speaking directly to you.


As you wander through Britannia in the game proper, the Guardian will continue to speak to you from time to time — the only voice acting in the game. His ominous presence is constantly jarring you when you least expect it.

The video snippet below of a play within the play, as it were, that you encounter early in the game illustrates some more of the depth and nuance of Ultima VII‘s writing. (Needless to say, this scene in particular owes much to Raymond Benson’s theatrical background.)


This sequence offers a rather extraordinary layer cake of meanings, making it the equal of a sophisticated stage or film production. We have the deliberately, banally bad play put on by the Fellowship actors, with its “moon, June, spoon” rhymes. Yet peeking through the banality, making it feel sinister rather than just inept, is a hint of cult-like menace. Meanwhile the asides of our companions tell us not only that the writers know the play is bad, but that said companions are smart enough to recognize it as well. We have Iolo’s witty near-breaking of the fourth wall with his comment about “visual effects.” And then we have Spark’s final verdict on the passion play, delivered as only a teenager can: “This is terrible!” (For some reason, that line makes me laugh every time.) No other game of 1992, with the possible exception only of the text adventure Shades of Gray, wove so many variegated threads of understanding into its writing. Nor is the scene above singular. The writing frequently displays the same wit and sophistication as what you see above. This is writing by and for adults.

The description of Ultima VII‘s writing as more adult than the norm also applies in the way in which the videogame industry typically uses that adjective. There’s a great extended riff on the old myths of unicorns and virgins. The conversation with a horny unicorn devolves into speculation about whether the Avatar himself is, shall we say, fit to ride the beast…

For all of the cutting-edge programming that went into the game, it really is the writing that does the bulk of the heavy lifting in Ultima VII. And it’s here that this early million-dollar computer game stands out most from the many big-budget productions that would follow it. Origin poured a huge percentage of that budget not into graphics or sound but into content in its purest form. If not the broadest world yet created for a computer at the time of the game’s release, this incarnation of Britannia must be the deepest and most varied. Nothing here is rote; every character has a personality, every character has something all her own to say. The sheer scale of the project which Raymond Benson’s team tackled — this game definitely has more words in it than any computer game before it — is well-nigh flabbergasting.

Further, the writers have more on their minds than escapist fantasy. They use the setting of Britannia to ponder the allure of religious cults, the social divide between rich and poor, and even the representation of women in fantasy art, along with tax policy, environmental issues, and racism. The game is never preachy about such matters, but seamlessly works its little nuggets for thought into the high-fantasy setting. Ultima VII may lack the overriding moral message that had defined its three predecessors, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to say. Indeed, given the newfound nuance and depth of the writing, the series suddenly has more to say here than ever before.

Because of how much else there is to see and do, the main plot about the Guardian sometimes threatens to get forgotten entirely. But it’s enjoyable enough as such things go, even if its main purpose often does seem to be simply to give you a reason to wander around talking to people. In the second half of the game, the plot picks up steam, and there are a fair number of traditional CRPG-style quests to complete. (There are also more personal “quests” among the populaces of the towns you visit, but they’re largely optional and hardly earth-shattering. They are, however, often disarmingly sweet-natured: getting the shy lovelorn fellow together with the girl he worships from afar… that sort of thing.) The game as a whole is very soluble as long as you take notes when you’re given important information; there’s no trace of a quest log here.

While a vocal minority of Ultima fandom decries this seventh installment for the perfectly justifiable reasons I mentioned earlier in this article, the majority laud it as — forgive the inevitable pun! — the ultimate incarnation of what Richard Garriott began working toward in the late 1970s. Even with all of its annoying aspects, it’s undoubtedly the most accessible Ultima for the modern player, what with its fairly intuitive mouse-driven interface, its reasonably attractive graphics and sound, and its relatively straightforward and fair main quest. Meanwhile its nuanced writing and general aesthetic sophistication are unrivaled by any earlier game in the series. If it’s not the most historically important of the main-line Ultima games — that honor must still go to the thematically groundbreaking Ultima IV — it’s undoubtedly the one most likely to be enjoyed by a player today.

Indeed, it’s been called the blueprint for many of the most popular epic CRPGs of today — games where you also spend much of your time just walking around and talking to a host of more or less interesting characters. That influence can easily be overstated, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to the claim. No other CRPG in 1992, or for some time thereafter, played quite like this one, and Ultima VII really does have at least as much in common with the CRPGs of today as it does with its contemporaries. On the whole, then, its hallowed modern reputation is well-earned.


Richard Garriott (far left) and the rest of the Ultima VII team toast the game’s release at Britannia Manor, the former’s Austin mansion.

Its reception in 1992, on the other hand, was far more mixed than that reputation might suggest. Questbusters magazine, deploying an unusually erudite literary comparison of the type of which Raymond Benson might have approved, called it “the Finnegans Wake of computer gaming — a flawed masterpiece,” referring to its lumpy mixture of the compelling and the tedious. Computer Gaming World‘s longtime adventure reviewer Scorpia had little good at all to say about it. Perhaps in response to her negativity, the same magazine ran a second, much more positive review from Charles Ardai in the next issue. Nevertheless, he began by summing up the sense of ennui that was starting to surround the whole series for many gamers: “Many who were delighted when Ultima VI was released can’t be bothered to boot up Ultima VII, as though it goes without saying that the seventh of anything can’t possibly be any good. The market suddenly seems saturated; weary gamers, sure that they have played enough Ultima to last a lifetime, eye the new Ultima with suspicion that it is just More Of The Same.” Even at the end of his own positive review, written with the self-stated goal of debunking that judgment, Ardai deployed a counter-intuitive closing sentiment: “After seven Ultimas, it might be time for Lord British to turn his sights elsewhere.”

Not helping the game’s reception were all of the technical problems. It’s all too easy to forget today just how expensive it was to be a computer gamer in the early 1990s, when the rapid advancement of technology meant that you had to buy a whole new computer every couple of years — or less! — just to be able to play the latest releases. More so even that its contemporaries, Ultima VII pushed the state of the art in hardware to its limit, meaning that anyone lagging even slightly behind the bleeding edge got to enjoy constant disk access, intermittent freezes of seconds at a time, and the occasional outright crash.

And then there were the bugs, which were colorful and plentiful. Chunks of the scenery seemed to randomly disappear — including the walls around the starting town of Trinsic, thus bypassing the manual-lookup scheme Origin had implemented for copy protection. A plot-critical murder scene in another town simply never appeared for some players. Even worse, a door in the very last dungeon refused to open for some; Origin resorted to asking those affected to send their save file on floppy disk to their offices, to be manually edited in order to correct the problem and sent back to them. But by far the most insidious bug — one from which even the current edition of the game on digital-download services may not be entirely free — were the keys that disappeared from player’s inventories for no apparent reason. Given what a nightmare keeping track of keys was already, this felt like the perfect capstone to a tower of terribleness. (One can imagine the calls to Origin’s customer support: “Now, did you take all of the stuff out of all of your packs and sort it out carefully on the ground to make sure your key is really missing? What about those weeks-old leeks down there at the bottom of your pack? Did you look under them?”) Gamers had good cause to be annoyed at a product so obviously released before its time, especially in light of its astronomical $80 suggested retail price.

A Computer Gaming World readers’ poll published in the March 1993 issue — i.e., exactly one year after Ultima VII‘s release — saw it ranked as the respondents’ 30th favorite current game, not exactly a spectacular showing for such a major title. Wing Commander II, by way of comparison, was still in position six, Ultima Underworld — which was now outselling Ultima VII by a considerable margin — in a tie for third. It would be incorrect to call Ultima VII a flop, or to imply that it wasn’t thoroughly enjoyed by many of those who played it back in the day. But for Origin the facts remained when all was said and done that it had sold less well than either of the aforementioned two games after costing at least twice as much to make. These hard facts contributed to the feeling inside the company that, if it wasn’t time to follow Charles Ardai’s advice and let sleeping Ultimas lie for a while, it was time to change up the gameplay formula in a major way. After all, Ultima Underworld had done just that, and look how well that had worked out.

But that discussion, of course, belongs to history. In our own times, Ultima VII remains an inspiring if occasionally infuriating experience well worth having, even if you don’t normally play CRPGs or couldn’t care less about the lore of Britannia. I can only encourage all of you who haven’t played it before to remedy that while you wait for my next (and last) article about the game, which will look more closely at the Fellowship, a Britannian cult with an obvious Earthly analogue.

(Sources: the book Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin dated August 7 1991, October 25 1991, December 20 1991, February 14 1992, February 28 1992, March 13 1992, April 20 1992, and May 22 1992; Questbusters of July 1991 and August 1992; Computer Gaming World of April 1991, October 1991, August 1992, September 1992, and March 1993; Compute! of January 1992; online sources include The Ultima Codex interviews with Raymond Benson and Brian Martin, a vintage Usenet interview with Richard Garriott, and Sheri Graner Ray’s recollections of her time at Origin on her blog.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate is available for purchase on GOG.com. You may wish to play it using Exult instead of the original executable. The former is a free re-implementation of the Ultima VII engine which fixes some of its worst annoyances and is friendly with modern computers.)

 
67 Comments

Posted by on February 15, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , ,

Life Off the Grid, Part 2: Playing Ultima Underworld

I rarely play or even see current games; the demands of this historical project of mine simply don’t allow for it. Thankfully, though, being a virtual time traveler does have its advantages. Just when I’m starting to feel a little sorry for myself, having heard about some cool new release I just don’t have time for, I get to experience a game like Ultima Underworld the way a player from its own time would have seen it, and suddenly living in my bubble is worth it.

It really is difficult to convey to non-time travelers just how amazing Ultima Underworld was back in March of 1992. To be able to move freely through a realistically rendered 3D space; to be able to walk up and down inclines, to jump over or into chasms, even to swim in underground streams… no one had ever seen anything like it before. At a stroke, it transformed the hoary old CRPG formula from a cerebral exercise in systems and numbers into an organic, embodied virtual reality. In time, it would prove itself to have been the starting point of a 3D Revolution in gaming writ large, one that would transform the hobby almost beyond recognition by the end of the 1990s. We live now in a gaming future very different from the merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood which was foreseen by the conventional wisdom of 1992. Today, embodied first-person productions, focusing on emergent experience at least as much as scripted content, dominate across a huge swathe of the gaming landscape. And the urtext of this 3D Future through which we are living is Ultima Underworld.

Given what an enormous technological leap it represented in its day, it feels almost unfair to expect too much more than that out of Ultima Underworld as a game. After all, Blue Sky Productions was working here with a whole new set of affordances, trying to figure out how to put them together in a compelling way. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect that the craftspeople of game design, at Blue Sky and elsewhere, would need a few iterations to start turning all this great new technology into great games.

But it’s in fact here that Ultima Underworld astounds perhaps most of all. This very first example of a free-scrolling 3D dungeon crawl is an absolute corker of a game design; indeed, it’s arguably never been comprehensively bettered within its chosen sub-genre. In almost every one of the many places where they were faced with a whole array of unprecedented design choices, Blue Sky chose the right one. Ultima Underworld is a game, in other words, of far more than mere historical interest. It remains well worth learning to overlook the occasional graphical infelicities of its fairly primitive 3D engine in order to enjoy the wonderful experience that still awaits underneath them.

Needless to say, this isn’t quite the norm among such radically pioneering games. Yet it is a trait which Ultima Underworld shares with the two great earlier pioneers in the art of the dungeon crawl, Wizardry and Dungeon Master. Those games too emerged so immaculately conceived that the imitators which followed them could find little to improve upon beyond their audiovisuals. Just what is it about this particular style of game that yields such success right out of the gate? Your guess is as good as mine.

Regardless, we really should take the time to look at Ultima Underworld‘s gameplay still more closely than we have up to this point. So, today, I’d like to take you on a little tour of the most groundbreaking game of 1992.


Ultima Underworld puts its most conventional foot forward first. After the conventionally horrid introductory movie, it asks us to create a character, choosing from the usual collection of classes, abilities, and skills. The only thing here that might bring a raised eyebrow to the jaded CRPG player is the demand that we specify our character’s handedness — the first clear indication that this is going to be a much different, more embodied experience than the norm.

As soon as we begin the game proper, however, all bets are off. This looks and feels like no CRPG before it. The grid has disappeared from its dungeon; we can move smoothly and freely in real time, just as if we were really inside its world.

Which isn’t to say that Blue Sky didn’t have to make compromises to bring this free-scrolling 3D environment to life using 1992-vintage hardware. I already discussed one of the compromises in my previous article: the use of affine texture mapping rather than a more rigorous algorithm. This allows the game to render its graphics much faster than it would otherwise be able to, at the expense of a slight wonkiness that afflicts the rendering engine in some situations much more than in others. The second compromise is even more obvious: the actual first-person view fills less than half of the total screen real estate. Simply put, fewer pixels to render means that the rendering can happen that much faster.

Wolfenstein 3D

Of course, virtually every game ever made is at bottom a collection of compromises with the ideal in a designer’s head. Blue Sky made these two specific ones because they weren’t willing to compromise in other areas. Two months after Ultima Underworld was released, id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, the other great 3D pioneer of 1992. It features a first-person view that fills much more of the screen than that of Ultima Underworld, and with a considerably faster frame rate on identical hardware to boot. But its world is far less interactive. Its levels are all just that — entirely flat — and it won’t even let you look up or down. These were compromises which Blue Sky wasn’t willing to make. A commitment to verisimilitudinous simulation is the dominant theme of Ultima Underworld‘s design. It would go on to become the attribute that, more than any other, distinguishes the games of their later incarnation, Looking Glass Technologies, from the “just run and shoot” approach of id.


In light of the ubiquity of first-person 3D games in the decades since Ultima Underworld, it’s worth examining Blue Sky’s approach to controlling such a game, formulated well before any norms for same had been set in stone. Unlike what followed it, Ultima Underworld‘s preferred approach uses the mouse for everything; this was very much in line with the conventional wisdom of its era, which privileged the relatively new and friendly affordance of the mouse over the keyboard to such an extent that most games used the latter, if they used it at all, only for optional shortcuts. Thus in Ultima Underworld, you move around the world by moving the mouse into the view area and clicking as the cursor changes shape to indicate the direction of travel or rotation.

Blue Sky’s control scheme is a little different from what we may be used to, but it’s not necessarily worse. In fact, the use of the mouse in lieu of the more typical “WASD” keyboard controls for movement has at least one rather lovely advantage: moving the mouse pointer further in a given direction causes you to move faster. The WASD setup, in which each key can only be on or off at any given time, allows for no such sliding scale of movement speed, forcing clumsier solutions like another binary toggle on the keyboard for “run.”

If you just can’t deal with Ultima Underworld‘s preferred movement scheme, however, there are alternatives — always a sign of a careful, thought-through design. You can click directly on the little gray movement buttons down there below the view window. Or, in what was something of a last-minute addition, you can actually using the keyboard in a way very similar to what you may be used to from more recent games. Here, though, the WASD scheme is replaced with SADX, with the “W” key serving as the run toggle. The difference drives some modern players crazy, but it really needn’t do so. Try to get used to moving using only the mouse; you might be surprised at how well it works. (It’s worth noting as well that even id wouldn’t arrive at the WASD standard for quite some time after Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D. As late as 1993’s Doom, they would still be mapping the arrow keys to movement by default.)

While left-clicking in the view window lets you move around, right-clicking allows you to manipulate the environment. The vertical row of icons to the left of the view window lets you choose a verb: “talk,” “take,” “examine,” “fight,” or “use,” with the topmost icon leading to the utility menu. If no icon is explicitly selected at a given point, the game intuits a default action when we right-click something in the environment. The end of the short video snippet above shows how elegantly this works in practice. We notice a message scrawled on the wall, and simply right-click it to do the most reasonable thing: to read it.


The video above gives a further taste of the interface in action. Note the ability, so conspicuously absent in id’s contemporaneous games, to look up and down as we move through the world and interact with it. This is accomplished via an exception to the mouse-centric approach. It’s only a little awkward: the “3” key shifts the view upward, “2” centers it vertically, and “1” shifts it downward. It would be at least a couple of years after Ultima Underworld‘s release before any other 3D engine would offer this capability.

This video also illustrates the game’s “paper doll” interface in action, as we pick up objects from the environment and move them into our inventory. The paper doll itself wasn’t new to Ultima Underworld; it had been pioneered by Dungeon Master and long since picked up by the main-line Ultima engines among others. This implementation of it, however, does Dungeon Master one better by living entirely on the main gameplay screen. Indeed, the game has no other screens, with just one exception which we’ll get to momentarily; its commitment to a mode-less interface is even more complete than was Dungeon Master‘s. This, one might even say, is the hidden benefit of that constrained view window. Everything that surrounds it is necessary; the view window might be small, but there is no wasted space anywhere else on the screen. Even what might seem, judging only from the videos above, to be small areas with no purpose actually aren’t, as further playing will reveal. The gray area to the left of the compass will tell us what magical status effects are active; the shelf to the right of the compass is where we will build spells using runes; the crystal at far left, just below the icon bar, shows our current attack strength, and is thus vital for combat. The fact that you aren’t constantly moving between screens does much to enhance the all-pervasive sense that you are there in the dungeon.

Equally important for this effect is a general disinterest in using numbers to represent the current status of your character — or, perhaps better said in light of the game’s commitment to embodiment, your status. While numbers do appear in places — especially if you go looking for them — they’re nowhere near as prevalent as they are in most contemporaneous CRPGs. Your health and mana levels, for instance, are represented graphically by the red and blue vials on the bottom right of the screen — this being another part of the screen you might have initially assumed to be decoration, but which is actually vital.

Later in the video above, we fire up a torch, shedding some welcome light on our surroundings and showing off the game’s advanced lighting model. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I must say, yet again, that no other game of Ultima Underworld’s era or for some time thereafter could match the latter.

Finally, we see something of the game’s physics model in action, as we toss a (useless) skull against the wall. Such kinetic, tactile responsiveness is a far cry from most CRPGs, even as the strength of your character’s throw is indeed affected by his statistics. Dungeon Master, that critical way station beyond Wizardry and Ultima Underworld, pioneered some of this more kinetic approach, but the free-scrolling environment here allows the game to use it that much more effectively.

In addition to the torch, we found in that first sack the game’s auto-map. Even as its presence as a physical object in the world emphasizes the game’s ongoing commitment to embodiment, this is actually the only place where the game’s commitment to its mode-less interface falters — but what a spectacular exception it is! I’ve cheated a bit with the screenshot above, choosing a point from much deeper in the game in order to show the auto-map in its full glory. It’s a feature that simply has to be here; the rest of the game, remarkable as it is, would fall apart without it. Cartography — making your own maps on reams of graph paper — had been a standard part of the dungeon-crawl experience prior to Ultima Underworld. Even real-time dungeon crawls like Dungeon Master had left mapping to the player. By removing the discrete grid, however, Ultima Underworld made this style of mapping, if not utterly impossible, at least far too difficult to be any fun even for the dedicated graph-paper-and-pencil crowd. An auto-map was as fundamental to its design as anything in the game.

But if an auto-map of some sort was essential, it certainly wasn’t necessary for its implementation to be this absurdly fantastic. Dan Schmidt, one of the Ultima Underworld developers, has said on several occasions that he considers the seemingly plebeian affordance of the auto-map to be the most impressive single thing in a game that’s bursting at the seams with unprecedented features. There are days when I find myself agreeing.

Whilst ditching the need for graph paper and pencil, Ultima Underworld preserves the foremost pleasure of CRPG cartography: that of seeing all of the blank spaces on your map filled in, enjoying the gradual transformation of the chaotic unknown into the orderly known. The map of each level is lovely to look at as it takes shape. You want to visit every nook and cranny on each one of the levels just to make it as pristine and complete as possible. You’ll even swim the length of the underground streams and lakes, if that’s what it takes to get them completely documented on parchment.

And there’s one final thing the auto-map does which few games — few games ever, mind you — can match: you can make your own notes on the thing, wherever and whenever you want to. Did you notice all of the text on the map above? I did that, not the game. Needless to say, the programming needed to accommodate this — which, incidentally, had already been completed by Doug Church and J.D. Arnold before the rest of the Blue Sky programming team even arrived — couldn’t have been easy. In terms of both design and implementation, Ultima Underworld‘s auto-map really is nothing short of spectacular.


In the video above, we move down the corridor from the game’s starting point. Notice again how we can move slower or faster merely by shifting the position of the mouse within the view window.

We find our first door at the end of the corridor. This door can be opened by a pull chain just beside it, but we rather perversely elect to close it again and then bash it open. Our ability to do so serves as a further illustration of Blue Sky’s commitment to simulation and emergence. The main-line Ultima games as well have doors of variable strength, but, as any dedicated player of those games quickly realizes, Origin Systems had a tendency to cheat in order to fill the needs of a plot that got steadily more complex from installment to installment: many doors — the plot-important doors — are indestructible. You need the correct key to open them, whose acquisition ensures that certain bits of plot are seen before other bits. (As Ron Gilbert once put it, heavily narrative-focused game design ultimately all tends to come down to locks and keys of a literal or metaphorical stripe.)

But Blue Sky, who don’t have the same sort of elaborate pre-crafted plot full of important story beats to worry about, never cheats. Any given door may indeed have a key which you can find, but, if you haven’t found the key, it is at least theoretically possible to pick its lock, to open it using a magic spell, or to simply bash it down. Mind you, doing the last may not do your weapon any favors; keen sword blades were not made to chop through wood. Here we have yet another example of the game’s focus on simulation, albeit one that may feel somewhat less welcome in practical terms than it does in the abstract when your poor misused sword breaks at an inopportune moment — like, say, in the midst of a desperate combat.


The game’s magic system is marked by the same sense of embodied physicality as everything else. Before you can cast spells at all, you’ll need to find a rune bag helpfully left behind by one of the dungeon’s unfortunate earlier explorers. For a long time to come, you’ll be collecting runes to put in it. You combine these runes into “recipes” — most of which are found in the manual — in order to cast spells. In the video above, we place two recently discovered runes into our rune bag and then cast a light spell which can serve as a handy replacement for a torch. (Note that it takes a couple of tries to successfully cast the spell, a sign of our character’s inexperience.) All character classes can use magic to a greater or lesser degree. Even an otherwise “pure” fighter will probably find simple spells that obviate the need to cart around torches or food to be very useful indeed. Thanks to magic, there’s no time limit on the game in the form of depleting resources; by the time you’ve scarfed up all the food in the dungeon, you’ll have long since mastered the “create food” spell.

The rune-based magic system is another aspect of Ultima Underworld that smacks of Dungeon Master (as is, for that matter, the flexible character-development system in which any character can learn to do anything with enough time and effort). But the Blue Sky team has denied looking closely to the older game for inspiration, and we have no reason to doubt their word. So, we’ll have to chalk the similarities up to nothing more than the proverbial great minds thinking alike. If anything, Ultima Underworld‘s magic system is even more elegant than its predecessor’s. Because you’re collecting physical runes, rather than mere spell recipes in the form of scrolls as in Dungeon Master, the sense that everything that matters to the game is an embodied thing in the world is that much more pronounced here.


It should come as no surprise by this point that Ultima Underworld‘s combat system is built along the same lines of embodied physicality. That is to say, you physically swing (or shoot, or throw) your weapon against monsters that are embodied in the same space as you. The video above gives a taste of this, in the form of a battle against a giant rat guarding some choice booty. (Ultima Underworld may be a breathtakingly original design, but some things in the world of CRPGs are timeless. Meeting giant rats as your first opponents is among these.)

Later battles will see you using the environment in all sorts of creative ways: shooting down upon monsters from ledges, blasting them with magic and then running away to recharge your batteries behind a closed door. You can also try to sneak past monsters you’d rather not fight, using not only your character’s innate stealth ability but your own skill at maneuvering through light and shadow. In fact, a sufficiently dedicated pacifist could finish Ultima Underworld while doing surprisingly little killing at all. One of the advantages of the simulation-first approach is that it really does let you play the game your way — possibly even in ways that the game’s designers never thought of.

But Ultima Underworld isn’t all emergent simulation. It does have a plot of sorts, albeit one that you can approach in your own way, at your own speed, and in your own order. You learn soon after arriving in the dungeon that you need to assemble a collection of magic objects. Doing so will occupy your attention for the bulk of the game.

This scavenger-hunt structure may be less innovative than most of the game, but it’s executed with considerable verve. Each level has its own personality and its own inhabitants, living in what feel like credible communities. Importantly, you don’t — or shouldn’t, anyway — indiscriminately slaughter your way through the levels. You need to talk to others, an element that’s notably missing from Wizardry and Dungeon Master. The dungeon’s inhabitants actually remember your treatment of them. An early example of the game’s relationship model, if you will, is provided on the very first level. Two tribes of goblins who hate one another live there in an uneasy symbiosis. Will you ally yourself with one or the other? Or will you try to thread the needle between friend and foe with both, or for that matter go to war with both? The choice is up to you. But choose carefully, for such choices in this game have consequences which you will be living with for a long time to come.

Regular readers of this blog are doubtless aware that I place a high premium on fairness and solubility in games. I’ve gone on record many times saying that a game which is realistically soluble only through a walkthrough cannot by definition be a good game, no matter what other things it does well. In this context, everything would seem to be working against Ultima Underworld. A bunch of MIT whiz kids, all freelancing without recourse to any central design authority, working in an insular environment without recourse to outside play testers… it doesn’t give one much hope for fair puzzles.

Yet, here as in so many other places, Ultima Underworld defies my prejudices and expectations alike. There are perhaps two or three places where the clues could stand to be a little more explicit — certainly no one should feel ashamed to peek at a walkthrough when playing — but there are no egregious howlers here. Take careful notes, take your time, and follow up diligently on all of the clues, and there’s no reason that you can’t solve this one for yourself. Sure, by modern standards it’s an absurdly difficult game. There is no quest log to keep everything neat and tidy for you, and, as a byproduct of its ethos of respecting and empowering its player at every turn, the game will happily let you toss essential quest items into a river, never to be seen again, without saying a word about it. At the same time, though, the utter lack of guardrails can be bracing. If you solve this one, you’ve really accomplished something. And, unlike so many of the games I’ve complained about on this blog, Ultima Underworld never feels like it’s trying to screw you over. It just won’t prevent you from doing so if you decide to screw yourself over.

Only occasionally does the commitment to simulation get in the way of friendly, fair design. To wit: after talking to a character once, trying to elicit the same information again often results only in some variation on “I already told you that!” Dan Schmidt, who was responsible for pulling all of the dialog together, told me that he believed at the time that this was only fair, another way of committing to verisimilitude in all things. Nowadays, I (and he) are more likely to categorize it under that heading of design failures known as “the designer being a jerk just because he can.” Given what a masterpiece Ultima Underworld is on the whole, it’s almost comforting to know that Blue Sky still had a few things to learn about good design.

On the other hand, I really love the way the design uses the game’s virtual space. There are a considerable number of quests and puzzles that span multiple levels in the dungeon, forcing you to retrace your steps and revisit “finished” levels. Another of Ultima Underworld‘s more unique design decisions in comparison with the dungeon-crawl tradition, this does much to give the game a holistic feel, making its dungeon feel like a living place rather than just a series of levels to be solved one after another.

The puzzles themselves are as mode-less as the basic interface. None of them pull you out of the game’s world: no riddles, no mini-games. Instead they work brilliantly within it. There are some wonderfully rewarding puzzles here, such that I hate to spoil them by saying too much about them. Following up on the clues you’re given, you’ll do things that seem like they couldn’t possibly work — surely the game engine can’t be that granularly responsive! — and be shocked and delighted when they actually do. In one fine example, you’ll have to literally learn a new language — okay, a limited subset of it anyway — via clues scattered around the environment. Sometimes challenging and often complex but never unfair, the puzzles will richly reward the effort you put into them.

Perhaps the best example of how the puzzles of Ultima Underworld are integrated into its environment is Garamon, a mysterious personage who often visits your dreams when you sleep. He at first seems like nothing more than a contrived adventure-game clue dispenser, but you gradually realize that he is a real — albeit deceased! — character in the story of the Abyss, and that he has something very personal he wants you to do for him: to give his body a proper burial so he can find peace. When you discover a certain empty tomb, and connect it with the figure from your dreams, the flash of insight is downright moving.

I could go on with yet more praise for Ultima Underworld — praise for, by way of example, its marvelous context-sensitive music, provided by the prolific game composers George “The Fat Man” Sanger and Dave Govett (also the composers of the Wing Commander score among many, many others). Yet I hesitate to cause what may already seem like an overly effusive review to read still more so. I can only hope that my reputation as a critic not overly prone to hyperbole will precede me here when I say that this game truly is a sublime achievement.

Ultima Underworld II

I have less — and far less that is positive — to say about the second and final Ultima Underworld game, which bears the subtitle Labyrinth of Worlds. In contrast to its groundbreaking predecessor, it’s a fairly typical sequel, offering as its only mechanical or technical innovation a somewhat larger view window on the 3D environment. Otherwise, it’s more of the same, only much bigger, and not executed quite as well.

The new entity that was known as Looking Glass Technologies — the product of the merger between Blue Sky Productions and Lerner Research — became a much more integral part of the Origin Systems family after the first Ultima Underworld‘s release and commercial success. The result was a plot for the new game that was also better integrated into the Ultima timeline, falling between the two games made by Origin themselves with their own Ultima VII engine in terms of both plot and release chronology. The new interest in set-piece plotting and Ultima lore does the sequel few favors; it rather straitjackets the sense of free-form exploration and discovery that marks the original. Instead of being confined to a single contiguous environment, Ultima Underworld II sends you hopscotching back and forth through its titular “labyrinth of worlds.” The approach feels scattershot, and the game is far less soluble than its predecessor — yet another proof of a theorem which the games industry could never seem to grasp: that a bigger game is not necessarily a better game.

The sequel was created from start to finish in less than nine months, nearly killing the team responsible for it. Origin and Looking Glass’s desire to get a second game out the door is understandable on the face of it; they had a hit on their hands, and wanted to strike while the iron was hot. This they certainly did, but the sequel reportedly sold less than half as many copies as its predecessor — although it should also be noted that even those numbers were enough to qualify it as a major hit by contemporary standards. Still, Paul Neurath, the head of Blue Sky and co-head of Looking Glass, has expressed regret that he didn’t give his people permission and time to make something more formally ambitious. In the future, Looking Glass would generally avoid these sorts of quickie sequels.

While the second game is probably best reserved for the CRPG hardcore and those who just can’t get enough of the experience provided by the first one, the original Ultima Underworld is a must-play. Without a doubt one of the very best CRPGs ever made, it’s even more important for the example it set for gaming in general, showing what heights of flexibility and player-responsiveness could be scaled through the emerging medium of 3D graphics. The pity is that more developers — even many of those who eventually went 3D — didn’t heed the entirety of its example. Countless later games would improve on Ultima Underworld‘s sometimes wonky visuals by throwing out its simplistic affine texture mapping in favor of better techniques, and by blowing up its view window to fill the whole screen. Very few of them, however, would demonstrate the same commitment to what Blue Sky/Looking Glass saw as the real potential of 3D graphics: that of simulating an intuitively emergent world and placing you, the player, inside it. Whether judged in terms of historical importance or by the more basic metric of how much fun it still is to play, Ultima Underworld is and will always remain seminal.

(Ultima Underworld I and II can be purchased from GOG.com.)

 
 

Tags: , , , ,

Life Off the Grid, Part 1: Making Ultima Underworld

The 1980s was the era of the specialist in game development, when many of the most successful studios did just one or two things, but did them very, very well. For Infocom, that meant text adventures; for Sierra, graphic adventures; for MicroProse, military simulations; for SSI, strategic wargames and Dungeons & Dragons; for Epyx, joystick-twiddling sports and action games; for Origin, Ultima. When such specialists stepped outside of their comfort zones, the results were occasionally a triumph, but more often merely served to reemphasize their core competencies.

The most respected studios of the 1990s, however, tended toward more eclecticism. Developers like Dynamix and Westwood may have had their roots in the previous decade, but they really came into their own in this one, and did so with games of very diverse types. Westwood, for example, was happily making CRPGs, graphic adventures, real-time-strategy games, and Monopoly, for Pete’s sake, all virtually at the same time. Even the holdover specialists from the 1980s — those who were still standing — aggressively tried to diversify in the 1990s: Sierra moved into strategy games, MicroProse into CRPGs and graphic adventures, Origin into Wing Commander.

Still, if we look harder at many 1990s developers, we can find themes that bind together their output. In the case of Dynamix, we might posit that to be an interest in dynamic simulation, even when working in traditionally static genres like the graphic adventure. In that of Westwood, we can identify an even more pronounced interest in bringing the excitement of real time to traditionally turn-based genres like the CRPG and the wargame. And in the case of the studio we’ll be meeting for the first time today — Looking Glass Technologies, arguably the most respected and beloved 1990s studio of all — the binding thread is crystal clear. From beginning to end, they used the flexibility of 3D graphics to bring virtual environments to life in unprecedentedly immersive ways. Whether making a CRPG or a flight simulator, a first-person shooter or a first-person sneaker, this was their constant.


3D graphics were, one might say, baked right into Looking Glass’s DNA. Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner, its two eventual founders, met one another in 1978 in a computer-science course at Wesleyan University, where Neurath was studying environmental science, Lerner physics. For the course’s final project, they teamed up to make a 3D space game rendered in ASCII text. They got a B-minus on it only because their professor considered games to be beneath his course’s dignity.

After university, the two New England boys remained friends as they started their professional careers. When the home-computer craze got rolling in earnest, each bought an Apple II. They started experimenting, together and apart, on games much like the one they had written for that computer-science class, only implemented in real bitmap graphics, with a real joystick as a controller. These efforts culminated in a joint game known as Deep Space: Operation Copernicus, which they sold in 1985 to the publisher Sir-Tech, purveyors of the Wizardry CRPG series. Sir-Tech didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Neurath and Lerner’s very different sort of game, and it never escaped Wizardry‘s long shadow. Nevertheless, the experience of making a game and getting paid for it — however modestly — lit a fire in both partners. Each went off to pursue his own agenda, but they remained in touch, keeping one another updated on their progress and often sharing code and technical tricks.

Initially, it was Ned Lerner who made the most determined effort to become a real commercial game developer. He formed a little company called Lerner Research, and started gathering like-minded souls around him. As fixated as ever on 3D graphics, he decided that an at least semi-realistic flight simulator would be a good application for the technology. The leading product of that type on the market, subLOGIC’s generically titled Flight Simulator, he considered akin to a “textbook lesson”; he envisioned a flight simulator of his own that would be more accessible and fun. He hired an aerodynamic engineer to design a flight model for his game, which would focus on high-performance military aircraft like the legendary SR-71 Blackbird rather than the little Cessna that was forever tooling around from airport to airport in subLOGIC’s simulator. In fact, his game would let you fly any of fourteen different airplanes, in contrast to its rival’s one, and would concentrate on goal-oriented activities — “Flight Instruction,” “Test Flight,” “Formation Flying,” or “Airplane Racing” — instead of just expecting you to choose a starting airport and do whatever tickled your fancy.

Chuck Yeager and Ned Lerner discuss the vagaries of aerodynamics.

Electronic Arts, who lacked a competitive flight simulator and were eager to get in on one of the industry’s fastest-growing segments, signed on as publisher. Unlike Sir-Tech, they knew the appeal of snazzy packaging and celebrity endorsements. They convinced Chuck Yeager to put his name on the product. This was quite the coup; Yeager, a World War II fighter ace and the first man to break the sound barrier, was by far the most famous pilot in the country, after having been brought to indelible life by the actor Sam Shepard in the recent hit movie The Right Stuff. It was a decidedly nervous group of nerds and businessmen who met this aerospace legend for the first time in March of 1987. Lerner:

As we were sitting there in the office, listening to the rain outside, Rich Hilleman, associate producer at EA, was first to spot the Blazer entering the parking lot (license plate “BELL X1”). A few minutes later, we heard the unmistakable West Virginia drawl outside the door, as pure and easygoing as the man on TV who sells spark plugs with a shotgun. For a brief second, I remembered the opening scene of Patton where George C. Scott steps forward, dressed to the teeth in full military regalia. The door suddenly opened, and there he was: wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a polo shirt under his racing-style jacket. General Yeager had a trim figure, and his face was tan, well-weathered, as if he had spent a lot of time outdoors. The general stepped forward, shaking hands with the members of the group, but I sensed a certain degree of reservation in his actions.

To get past this awkward beginning, we loaded in the current version of Advanced Flight Trainer. I flew the simulator for a while, then offered to let General Yeager take over. “I never fooled with these things,” he said. “That’s because, you know, the damned things are so…” — he searched for the word — “…insignificant. If you want to really scorch something, hell, you can program the X-31 in there, the aerospace plane. Now, see, you got some kid who can say, ‘Man, this thing is smoking along at mach 25.'”

The ice had finally been broken, and we all began contributing to the conversation. After discussing the subjects of liquid-oxygen fuel and the current type of aircraft that are touching the edge of space, the day was practically over. “This thing’s pretty dang realistic,” he told us. “You’ve got a lot of goodies in there.”

Released about six months later with much publicity, Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer became by far EA’s biggest hit of the year, and one of their biggest of the whole decade. With that push to get them off and running, Lerner Research continued their work on the frontiers of 3D graphics, giving EA a substantially revised version 2.0 of their flagship game in 1989.

Even as Ned Lerner was hobnobbing with famous test pilots, Paul Neurath was making his own inroads with the games industry. Shortly after finishing Deep Space, he had heard that Origin Systems of Ultima fame was located in New Hampshire, not all that far from him at all. On a lark, he drove down one day to introduce himself and take the temperature of the place. He hit it off immediately with Richard Garriott and the rest of the crew there. While he never became a full-fledged employee, he did become a regular around the Origin offices, contributing play-testing, design ideas, and occasional bits of code to their games on a contract basis.

In early 1987, Richard Garriott, who loathed New England with every fiber of his being, packed up and moved back to Austin, Texas, with most of Origin’s technical and creative staff. He left behind his older brother and business manager Robert, along with the latter’s support staff of accountants, secretaries, and marketers. A few developers who for one reason or another didn’t want to make the move also stayed behind. Neurath was among this group.

At about this same time, Neurath got the green light to make a game all his own for Origin. Space Rogue began as another 3D space shooter — another Deep Space, enhanced with some of the latest graphics technology from his friends at Lerner Research. To this template Neurath grafted a trading economy, a customizable spaceship, and a real plot. The player was even able to exit her spaceship and wander around the space stations she visited, talking to others and taking on quests. There was a surprising amount of ambition in this fusion of Deep Space, Elite, and Ultima, especially considering that Neurath designed, wrote, and programmed it all almost single-handedly from New Hampshire while most of his friends at Origin pursued other projects down in Austin. Although its disparate parts don’t ever gel quite well enough to make it a true classic, it’s remarkable that it works as well as it does.

Space Rogue sold in moderate numbers upon its release in 1989. More importantly in terms of gaming history, Chris Roberts of Origin spent a lot of time with it. Its melding of a space shooter with an adventure-game-like plot became one of the inspirations behind Wing Commander, the first Origin game to fully escape the shadow of Ultima — and, indeed, the beginning of one of the blockbuster franchises of the 1990s.

Space Rogue‘s hilarious cover art, with its artfully pouting male model who looks better suited to a Harlequin-romance cover. Paul Neurath remembers Origin’s marketing department asking him about his packaging preferences for his game. He said he would prefer a “non-representational” cover picture. Naturally, the marketers delivered about the most representational thing imaginable.

By the time of Space Rogue‘s release, Paul Neurath was a lonelier game developer than ever. In January of 1989, the last remnants of Origin’s New Hampshire operation had moved to Austin, leaving Neurath stranded in what Richard Garriott liked to call “the frozen wastes of New England.” For him, this was a crossroads of life if ever there was one. Did he want to continue to make games, and, if so, how? Sure, he could probably move down to Austin and get a job with Origin, but, truth be told, he had no more desire to live in Texas than Garriott had to live in New England. But how else could he stay in games?

At last, Neurath decided to take a page from Ned Lerner’s book. He would put together his own little company and try to establish it as an independent studio; after all, it had worked out pretty well for Ned so far. He registered his company under the name of Blue Sky Productions.

Neurath had always loved the CRPG genre, ever since Wizardry had become one of the first games he bought for his new Apple II. That love had once led him to publish Deep Space through Sir-Tech, and sent him out to Origin’s New Hampshire offices for that fateful visit. Now, he dreamed of taking the first-person dungeon crawl beyond the turn-based Wizardry, even beyond the real-time but still grid-based Dungeon Master, the state of the art in the genre as the 1980s expired. On a visit to Lerner Research, he saw the technology that he believed would make the genre’s next step possible — the foundation, one might even say, for everything he and his fabled studio Looking Glass would do in the 1990s. What he saw was the first 3D texture mapper that was suitable for use in an ordinary computer game.

3D graphics were hardly unknown on personal computers of the 1980s, as can be seen not least through the early careers of Ned Lerner and Paul Neurath. Yet, being enormously taxing to implement in the context of an interactive game, they demanded a lot of aesthetic compromise. Some early 3D games, such as Elite and the first versions of subLogic’s Flight Simulator, didn’t draw in the surfaces of their polygons at all, settling for wire frames. With the arrival of more powerful 16-bit computers in the mid-1980s, filled surfaces became more common in 3D games, but each side of a polygon was drawn in a single color. Combine this fact with the low polygon count that was still necessitated by the hardware of the time — resulting in big, fairly crude polygons — and you had a recipe for blotchy landscapes made up of garishly clashing primary colors.

A few clever developers were able to turn the limitations of 3D graphics into an aesthetic statement in its own right. But most of those who used them — among them makers of flight simulators and space shooters, such as Lerner and Neurath — suffered with their limitations because there just wasn’t any practical alternative for the sorts of games they were making. For an out-the-cockpit view from an airplane, the aesthetic compromises necessitated by going 3D were just about acceptable, given the way the distant landscape below tends to blur into hazy abstractions of color even in real life. But for a more personal, embodied experience, such as a first-person dungeon crawl, real-time 3D graphics were just too crude, too ugly. You couldn’t render the grain of a wooden door or the patina of a stone wall as one uniform splotch of color and expect to get away with it — not with the way that gamers’ audiovisual expectations were increasing every year.

A screenshot from Dungeon Master, the state of the art in dungeon crawls at the end of the 1980s. Notice how the walls, floor, and ceiling are shown in aesthetically pleasing detail. This was possible because movement in Dungeon Master was still based on a grid, which meant that each view could be assembled from pre-rendered component parts rather than needing to be rendered from scratch. A free-scrolling, real-time-rendered 3D version would have had to replace all of this detail with great uniform slabs of gray in order to run at an acceptable speed. The result, needless to say, would not have been pretty.

None of these problems were unknown to academic computer-graphics researchers; they’d been wrestling with them since well before the first personal computer hit the market. And they’d long since come up with a solution: texture mapping. The texture in question takes the form of an ordinary image file, which might be drawn by hand or digitized from a real-world photograph. A texture suitable for a wooden door, for example, could be an extreme closeup of any slab of wood. The texture is “glued” onto a polygon’s face in lieu of a solid color. Just like that, you suddenly have doors that look like real doors, slimy dungeon walls that look like real slimy dungeon walls.

The problem with texture mapping from the perspective of game development was the same one that haunted the whole field of 3D graphics: the problem of performance. Simple though the basic concept is, a lot of tricky math comes into play when one introduces textures; figuring out how they should wrap and fit together with one another over so many irregular polygonal surfaces is much more complicated than the lay observer might initially believe. At a time when just managing to paint the sides of your polygons in solid colors while maintaining a respectable frame rate was a real achievement, texture mapping was hopeless. Maybe it could be used in another decade or so, said the conventional wisdom, when Moore’s Law put a supercomputer on every desk.

But one recent arrival at Lerner Research wasn’t so sure that texture mapping was impossible using extant PC hardware. Chris Green had considerable experience with interactive 3D graphics, having spent several years at subLogic working on products like Flight Simulator and Jet. He arrived at Lerner Research knowing that texture mapping couldn’t be done on the likes of an 8-bit Apple II, the computer on which Neurath and Lerner among so many others had gotten their start. On the latest 16- and 32-bit MS-DOS hardware, however… he suspected that, with the right compromises, he could make it work there.

There was doubtless much efficient code in the texture mapper Green created, but it was indeed an unabashed compromise that made it feasible to attempt at all. The vertices of the polygons in a 3D graphics system are defined with an X, a Y, and a Z coordinate; it’s this last, of course, that makes such a system a 3D system at all. And it’s also the Z coordinate that is the source of all of the complications relating to 3D graphics in general. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of texture mapping. To do it correctly, textures have to be scaled and transformed to account for their position in relation to the viewing location, as largely defined by their Z coordinate. But Green didn’t bother to do texture mapping correctly; he effectively threw away the Z coordinate and glued his textures onto their polygons as if they were in a 2D space. This technique would come to be known inside the industry as “affine texture mapping.” It yielded an enormous increase in rendering speed, balanced by a degree of distortion that was almost unnoticeable in some situations, very noticeable indeed in others. Still, an imperfect texture mapper, Green decided, was better than no texture mapper at all.

The video clip above, from the finished game of Ultima Underworld, shows some of the spatial distortion that results from affine texture mapping, especially when viewing things from a very short distance. Moving through the game’s virtual space can look and feel a bit like moving through real space after having drunk one beer too many. Nonetheless, the environment is far more realistic, attractive, and immersive than any first-person 3D environment to appear in any game before this one.

Ned Lerner had recently signed a contract with EA to make a driving game bearing the name of Car and Driver magazine. Knowing the technology’s limitations, he planned to use Chris Green’s texture mapper in a somewhat constrained fashion therein, to draw onto the faces of billboards and the like. Yet he wasn’t averse to sharing it with Paul Neurath, who as soon as he saw it wanted to use it to take the next step beyond Dungeon Master.

To do so, however, he’d need more programmers, not to mention artists and all the rest; if there was one thing the two years or so he had spent making Space Rogue had taught him, it was that the days of the one-man development team were just about over. Luckily, a friend of his had a nephew who had a friend who was, as Neurath would be the first to admit, a far better programmer than he would ever be.

Doug Church was an MIT undergraduate who had let himself get so consumed by the fun going on inside the university’s computer labs that it had all but derailed his official education. He and his buddies spent hours every day hacking on games and playing them. Their favorite was a 3D tank game called Xtank, written by one of their number, a fellow student named Terry Donahue. They tinkered with its code endlessly, producing variations that departed radically from the original concept, such as a Frisbee simulator. When not coding or playing, they talked about what kinds of games they would like to make, if only they had infinite amounts of money and time and no hardware limitations whatsoever. They envisioned all sorts of little simulated worlds, rendered, naturally, in photo-realistic 3D graphics. Thus when Neurath introduced himself to Church in early 1990 and asked if he’d like to work on a free-scrolling, texture-mapped 3D dungeon crawl running in real time, he dropped his classes and rushed to get in on the chance. (Terry Donahue would doubtless have been another strong candidate to become lead programmer on the project, but he felt another calling; he would go on to become a priest.)

Neurath also found himself an artist, a fellow named Doug Wike who had worked on various projects for Origin in New Hampshire before those offices had been shuttered. Together the three men put together a crude non-interactive demo in a matter of weeks, showing the “player” moving up a texture-mapped dungeon corridor and bumping into a monster at the end of it. At the beginning of June, they took the demo to the Summer Consumer Electronics Show, where, behind all of the public-facing hype, many of the games industry’s most important deals got made.

As Neurath tells the story, the response from publishers was far from overwhelming. The demo was undeniably crude, and most were highly skeptical whether this unproven new company could get from it to a real, interactive game. It turned out that the only publisher willing to give the project any serious consideration at all was none other than Neurath’s old friends from Origin.

That Neurath hadn’t taken his idea to Origin straight away was down to his awareness of a couple of strategic decisions that had recently been made there, part of a whole collection of changes that were being made to greet the new decade’s challenges. Origin had, first of all, decided to stop giving contracts to outside developers, taking all development in-house so as to have complete control over the products they released. And secondly, they had decided, for the time being anyway, to make all of their output fit into one of two big franchises, Ultima and Wing Commander. Both of these decisions would seem to exclude Blue Sky’s proposed dungeon crawler, which they were calling simply Underworld, from becoming an Origin product. Nor did it help that a sexy public demonstration of the first Wing Commander game1 had become the hit of the show, making it difficult for Origin to focus on anything else; they could practically smell the money they were about to make from their new franchise.

Luckily, Blue Sky and Underworld found a champion at Origin even amidst all the distractions. Warren Spector was a relatively recent arrival at the company, but Neurath knew him pretty well; as his very first task for Origin, Spector had spent about a month expanding and polishing the text in Space Rogue just before its release. Now, looking at Underworld, he was sure he saw not just a game with real commercial potential but a technologically and aesthetically important one. “I was blown away,” he says today. “I remember thinking as I watched that demo that the world had just changed.” Spector convinced his colleagues to take a chance, to violate their rule of in-house development and sign a contract with Blue Sky, giving them a modest advance of $30,000. If the game worked out, they might be in on the ground floor of something major. It might also be something they could brand with the Ultima name, make into the beginning of a whole new sub-series in the franchise — a revival of the first-person (albeit turn-based) dungeons that had been in every Ultima through Ultima V. And if it didn’t work out, the $30,000 they’d lose on the flier was far from a fortune. The deal was done.

With that mission accomplished, Neurath’s little team returned to the office space he’d rented for them in New Hampshire. They spent almost a year there trying to understand the new set of technical affordances which Chris Green’s texture mapper had put at their disposal. They didn’t invent anything fundamentally new in terms of 3D graphics technology during that time. Like the texture mapper which spawned the project, everything they put into Underworld could be found in any number of books and journals at the MIT library, many of them dating well back into the 1970s and even 1960s. It was just a matter of adapting it all to the MS-DOS architecture. As it happened, the hardware they had to work with was about equal to the cutting-edge research workstations of ten years ago, so the old journal articles they pored over actually made a pretty good fit to it.

They kept coming back to the theme of embodiment, what Neurath called “a feeling of presence beyond what other games give you.” None of the earlier dungeon crawlers — not even those in the Dungeon Master tradition that ran in real time — had been able to deliver this. They could be exciting, stressful, even terrifying, but they never gave you the feeling of being physically embodied in their environments. It was the difference between reading a book or watching a movie and really being someplace.

It went without saying that Underworld must place you in control of just one character rather than the usual party of them. You needed to be able to sense the position of “your” body and limbs in the virtual space. Neurath:

We wanted to get a feeling that you were really in this dungeon. What would you expect to do in a dungeon? You might need to jump across a narrow chasm. You might expect to batter down a wooden door. You might expect to look up if there was a precipice above you. All these sorts of physical activities. And we tried to achieve, at least to a reasonable degree, that kind of freedom of motion and freedom of action. That really extended the R&D stage. It was about nine months, even a year, before we had all the underlying technology in place that allowed us to visualize this fantasy universe in a manner that we felt was appropriate and would work well and would allow the player the freedom to maneuver around and perform different kinds of actions.

Over the course of this time, Neurath hired only one more programmer, one Jonathan “J.D.” Arnold, who had previously worked on Infocom’s Z-Machine technology in that company’s twilight years. But finally, in the late spring of 1991, with the basic interface and the basic technical architecture all in place, Neurath decided it was time to hire some more people and make a real game out of it all. Doug Church immediately thought of his old friends back at MIT, and Neurath had no objections to recruiting from that pool; they were smart and passionate and, just as importantly, they were all happy to work for peanuts. Given the time of year it was, Church’s old buddies were all either graduating or finishing up their semester of coursework, leaving them free to come to Blue Sky.

None of these people had ever worked on a commercial computer game before. In fact, most of them hadn’t even played any commercial computer games recently, having been ensconced for the last several years inside the ivory tower of MIT, where the nature of gaming was markedly different, being a culture of creation rather than strictly one of consumption. And yet, far from being a disadvantage, the team’s sheer naivete proved to be the opposite, making them oblivious to the conventional wisdom about what was possible. Doug Church:

I had actually played Space Rogue because one of my friends had a Mac, but the clusters [at MIT] were all Unix boxes so I ran X-Trek and NetHack and things, but I hadn’t played a PC game in five years or something. So we just said, “Let’s do a really cool dungeon game in 3D, let’s go.” It’s interesting because a lot of people talk about how we were doing such a Dungeon Master game, but as far as I know none of us had ever played Dungeon Master. We didn’t have any idea we were doing anything that wasn’t just obvious in some sense because we had no context and the last time any of us had played a [commercial] game was back when we were fourteen. We played games in college, but they were very different; you’re playing networked X-Trek or something, it doesn’t feel like a home-computer game.

At first, the new arrivals all crowded into the New Hampshire office Neurath was renting. But most of them were actually living together in a rambling old three-story house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it struck them as silly to make the drive out to New Hampshire every day. They soon convinced Neurath to let them work on the game from home. From dawn until night, seven days a week, they ate, drank, slept, and breathed Underworld there.

At a time when most studios had begun to systematize the process of game development, dividing their employees into rigid tiers of specialists — programmers, artists, designers, writers — Blue Sky made a virtue of their complete lack of formal organization. It was an org-chart-wielding middle manager’s nightmare; just about everybody wound up doing a little bit of everything. There was nothing like a designer giving instructions to a technical team. Instead, Blue Sky’s method of working was more akin to the way that things got done among the hackers at MIT — a crowd of equals pulling together (and occasionally pulling apart) to work toward a common goal. Anyone could contribute absolutely anywhere, knowing his ideas would be judged only on their intrinsic worth.

When it became clear that it was time to start making the actual dungeon the Underworld player would have to explore, the team divided up this design work in the most democratic manner imaginable: everybody made one level, then they were all combined together to make the eight-level final dungeon. Dan Schmidt, who had officially been hired for the role of “AI programmer,” agreed to take on the mantle of “writer,” which really meant coordinating with everyone to merge the levels into a seamless whole.

For most of the time the game was in development, Origin’s role and overall interest — or, rather, lack thereof — was a consistent sore spot. It often seemed to Blue Sky that the folks in Austin had entirely forgotten their existence way off in the frozen wastes of New England. This was good in the sense that they got to make exactly the game they wanted to make, but it didn’t do much for their confidence that a committed publisher would be ready and eager to market it properly when they were done. Warren Spector was busy with Wing Commander and, later, with an Ultima spinoff called Martian Dreams, so Origin initially assigned Jeff Johannigman to Blue Sky in the role of producer. Communication with him was nothing short of terrible. After going two full months without hearing a peep from him, Neurath tried to call him down in Austin, only to be told that he had left the company. A second producer was finally selected, but he wasn’t much more engaged. Blue Sky believed they were making a great, groundbreaking game, but it seemed that Origin really couldn’t care less.

In many ways, Underworld was at odds with the prevailing trends inside Origin, not to mention in much of the games industry at large. Following the huge success of the first Wing Commander, Origin was banking heavily on cinematic games with big, set-piece storylines. The company’s org chart reflected the new impetus, with film-making terminology — producer, director, screenwriter — shoehorned in absolutely everywhere. Blue Sky, on the other hand, was making something very different, an immersive, emergent, non-linear experience without cut scenes or chapter breaks. Yes, there was a plot of sorts — the player got cast into a dungeon to rescue a princess or die trying — along with puzzles to be solved, quests to be fulfilled, and other characters to be spoken to, but it was all driven by the player, not by any relentlessly unspooling Hollywood-style script. Origin, it seemed, wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, wasn’t quite sure where it fit. And certainly it’s easy enough, given Blue Sky’s unorthodox working methods, to understand why so many at Origin were skeptical of their ability to deliver a finished game at all.

The danger of Blue Sky’s approach was that they would keep iterating endlessly as they kept having better and better ideas. This tendency among hackers to never be able to finish something and walk away from it had already derailed more than one promising games studio — not least among them FTL, the makers of the storied Dungeon Master, who had yet to release a proper followup after some four years. (Dungeon Master II wouldn’t finally arrive until 1995.) The need to finish games on a timetable was, one might say, the reason that industry executives had begun to impose the very organizational structures that Blue Sky was now so happily eschewing. Doug Church remembers creating “four movement systems and three combat systems because we’d just write something: ‘Oh, this seems cool, go for it.'” Would they just continue chasing whatever shiny objects struck their fancy until the money ran out? That wouldn’t take much longer, given that Paul Neurath was largely financing the whole effort out of his pocket, with some help from his ever-loyal friend Ned Lerner, whose success with his Chuck Yeager flight simulators had left him with a bit of money to spare.

Thus they were all fortunate that Warren Spector, their once and future savior, suddenly returned on the scene late in 1991. Virtually alone among his colleagues down in Austin, Spector had been watching Blue Sky’s progress with intense interest. Now, having finished up Martian Dreams, he got himself assigned as Underworld‘s third producer. He had considerable clout inside the bigger company; as soon as he started to press the issue there, things started to happen on Origin’s side to reassure Blue Sky that their game would in fact be released if they could only deliver it.

Indeed, after almost eighteen months of uncertainty on the question, Origin finally made it official that, yes, Underworld would be released as an Ultima game. As usual, the star would be the Avatar, who was becoming quite a busy fellow between this game, the mainline Ultima games, and the recent pair of Worlds of Ultima spinoffs. The dungeon in question, meanwhile, would be none other than the Stygian Abyss, where the Avatar had found the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom at the end of Ultima IV. Underworld‘s backstory would need to be bent and hammered enough to make this possible.

Blue Sky soon discovered that becoming an official Ultima game, while great for marketing purposes and for their own sense of legitimacy, was something of a double-edged sword. Origin demanded that they go back through all the text in the game to insert Ultima‘s trademark (and flagrantly misused) “thees” and “thous,” provoking much annoyance and mockery. And Origin themselves made a cinematic introduction for the game in Austin, featuring Richard Garriott, one of the industry’s worst voice actors of all time — and that, friends, is really saying something — in the leading role, bizarrely mispronouncing the word “Stygian.” It seems no one at Origin, much less at Blue Sky, dared to correct Lord British’s diction… (The British magazine PC Review‘s eventual reaction to the finished product is one for the ages: “I had to listen to it two or three times before I fully grasped what was going on because for the first couple of times I was falling about laughing at the badly dubbed Dick Van Dyke cockney accents that all these lovable Americans think we sound like. You know: ‘Awlright, Guv’noor, oop the happle un stairs!'”)

While Origin made the dodgy intro in Texas, Warren Spector got everybody in New England focused on the goal of a finished, shipped game. Doug Church:

Not only was he [Spector] great creatively to help us put finishing touches on it and clean it up and make it real, but he also knew how to finish projects and keep us motivated and on track. He had that ability to say, “Guys, guys, you’re focused in totally the wrong place.” He had that ability to help me and the rest of the guys reset, from the big-picture view of someone who has done it before and was really creative, but who also understood getting games done. It was a huge, huge win.

It’s very easy in hacker-driven game development to wind up with a sophisticated simulation that’s lots of fun for the programmers to create but less fun to actually play. Spector was there to head off this tendency as well at Blue Sky, as when he pared down an absurdly complex combat system to something simple and intuitive, or when he convinced the boys not to damage the player’s character every time he accidentally bumped into a wall. That, said Spector, “doesn’t sound like fun to me” as a player — and it was the player’s fun, he gently taught Blue Sky, that had to be the final arbitrator.

At Spector’s behest, Neurath rented a second office near Boston — officially known as the “Finish Underworld Now” office — and insisted that everyone leave the house and come in to work there every day during the last two months of the project. The more businesslike atmosphere helped them all focus on getting to the end result, as did Spector himself, who spent pretty much all of those last two months in the office with the team.

Spector did much to make Blue Sky feel like a valued part of the Origin family, but the relationship still remained rocky at times — especially when the former learned that the latter intended to release Ultima Underworld just two weeks before Ultima VII, the long-awaited next title in the franchise’s main series. It seemed all but certain that their game would get buried under the hype for Ultima VII, would be utterly forgotten by Origin’s marketers. Certainly marketing’s initial feedback hadn’t been encouraging. They were, they said, having trouble figuring out how to advertise Ultima Underworld. Its graphics were spectacular when seen in motion, but in still screenshots they didn’t look like much at all compared to a Wing Commander II or an Ultima VII. Blue Sky seethed with frustration, certain this was just an excuse for an anemic, disinterested advertising campaign.

In Origin’s defense, the problem their marketers pointed to was a real one. And it wasn’t really clear what they could have done about the release-date issue either. The original plan had been, as they didn’t hesitate to remind Blue Sky, to release Ultima Underworld in time for the Christmas of 1991, but the protracted development had put paid to that idea. Now, Blue Sky themselves needed Ultima Underworld to come out as quickly as possible because they needed the royalties in order to survive; for them, delaying it was simply impossible. Meanwhile Origin, who had cash-flow concerns of their own, certainly wasn’t going to delay Ultima VII, quite possibly the most expensive computer game ever made to that point, for a mere spinoff title. The situation was what it was.

The balloons fly as Doug Church, Paul Neurath, and Warren Spector celebrate Ultima Underworld‘s release.

Whatever was to happen in terms of sales, Blue Sky’s young hackers did get the satisfaction in late March of 1992 of seeing their game as a boxed product on store shelves, something more than one of them has described as a downright surreal experience. Dan Schmidt:

We were a bunch of kids straight out of school. This was the first professional project we’d ever done. We felt lucky that anyone would see it at all. We’d go into a games store and see our game there on the shelf. Someone would walk up to it, and we’d want to say, “No! No! You don’t want to buy that! We just hacked that together. It’s not, like, a real game.”

In the beginning, sales went about as expected. A snapshot from Origin’s in-house newsletter dated July 31, 1992, shows 71,000 copies of Ultima VII shipped, just 41,000 copies of Ultima Underworld. But, thanks to ecstatic reviews and strong word of mouth — Origin may have struggled to see how groundbreaking the game really was, but gamers got it immediately — Ultima Underworld kept on selling, getting stronger every month. “It was the first game that ever gave me a sense of actually being in a real place,” wrote one buyer in a letter to Origin, clear evidence that Blue Sky had absolutely nailed their original design goal. Soon industry scuttlebutt had it outselling Ultima VII by two to one. Paul Neurath claims that Ultima Underworld eventually sold more than half a million copies worldwide, an extraordinary figure for the time, and considerably more than Ultima VII or, indeed, any previous Ultima had managed.

Shortly after Ultima Underworld‘s release, Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner finally did the obvious: they merged their two companies. They had recently discovered that another, slightly older company was already operating under the name of “Blue Sky Software,” making educational products. So, they named the merged entity Looking Glass Technologies. Their first release under the name would be Ultima Underworld II.

Two months after the first Ultima Underworld appeared, a tiny company out of Dallas, Texas, who called themselves id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, another first-person game set in a 3D environment. Their game, however, had none of the complexity of Ultima Underworld, with its quests and puzzles and magic spells and its character to develop and even feed. In id’s game, you ran through the environment and killed things — period.

For the remainder of the 1990s, 3D games would exist on a continuum between the cool, high-concept innovation of Looking Glass and the hot, visceral action of id, who were interested in innovation in the area of their graphics technology but somewhat less so in terms of their basic gameplay template. id would win the argument in terms of sales, but Looking Glass would make some of the most fascinating and forward-looking games of the decade. “We were thinking, ‘Why don’t we just run around and shoot?’” says Austin Grossman, another early Looking Glass employee. “But we were interested in simulation and depth. We were driven by this holy grail of simulated worlds, by that enabled choice and creativity of the player.”

We’ll be following the two companies’ artistic dialog for a long time to come as we continue with this history. First, though, we need to give Ultima Underworld a closer look, from the perspective of the player this time, to understand why it’s not just an example of groundbreaking technology but a superb example of pure game design as well.

(Sources: the books Game Design: Theory & Practice 2nd edition by Richard Rouse III, Ultima VII and Underworld: More Avatar Adventures by Caroline Spector, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, and Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation: Modeling, Rendering, and Animating with 3D Computer Graphics by Michael O’Rourke; Questbusters of February 1992 and September 1992; PC Review of June 1992; Game Developer of April/May 1995, June/July 1995, August/September 1995, December 1995/January 1996, and April/May 1996; Commodore Magazine of January 1988; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from January 17 1992, March 27 1992, May 8 1992, August 28 1992, and December 18 1992. Online sources include “Ahead of Its Time: A History of Looking Glass” on Polygon, an interview with Paul Neurath and Doug Church on the old Ultima Online site, Gambit Game Lab’s interviews with Paul Neurath and Dan Schmidt, and Matt Barton’s interview with Paul Neurath. My thanks to Dan Schmidt and Ned Lerner for making the time to talk with me personally about their careers.

Ultima Underworld and its sequel can be purchased from GOG.com.)


  1. Wing Commander was actually still known as Wingleader at this time

 
 

Tags: , , ,

Wing Commander II

If there was ever any doubt inside Origin Systems that Chris Roberts’s Wing Commander was destined to join Ultima as the company’s second great franchise, it was banished the moment the first game in the new series was released on September 26, 1990, and promptly sold by some accounts 100,000 copies in its first month on the market. Previously known as a maker of highly demanding CRPGs that were devoured by an exclusive audience of loyalists, Origin was suddenly the proud publisher of the game that absolutely everybody was talking about, regardless of what genre they usually favored. It was a strange turn of events, one that surprised Origin almost as much as it did the rest of their industry. Nevertheless, the company wouldn’t be shy about exploiting the buzz.

The first dribble in what would become a flood of additional Wing Commander product was born out of a planned “special edition” of the original game, to be sold only via direct mail order. Each numbered copy of the special edition was to be signed by Roberts and would include a baseball cap sporting the Wing Commander logo. To sweeten the deal, Roberts proposed that they also pull together some of the missions and spaceships lying around the office that hadn’t made the cut for the original game, string some story bits between them using existing tools and graphic assets, and throw that into the special-edition box as well.

But the commercial potential for the “mission disk” just kept growing as customers bought the original game, churned through the forty or so missions included therein, and came clamoring for more. Roberts, for one, was certain that mission disks should be cranked out in quantity and made available as widely as possible, likening them to all of the “adventure modules” he had purchased for tabletop Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. And so the profile of the so-called Secret Missions project kept growing, becoming first a standalone product available by direct order from Origin, and then a regular boxed product that was sold at retail, just like all their other games. “When I make the decision to purchase a product,” Roberts noted in his commonsense way, “I want to go to the store and buy it immediately. I don’t want to make a phone call and wait for someone to ship it to me.”

The add-on disk’s mission design wasn’t as good as that of the original game, which had already done a pretty good job of digging all of the potential out of the space-combat engine’s fairly limited bag of tricks. With no way of making the missions more interesting, the add-on settled for making them more difficult, throwing well-nigh absurd quantities of enemy spacecraft at the player. But it didn’t matter: players ate it up and kept right on begging for more. Origin obliged them again with Secret Missions 2, a somewhat more impressive outing that employed the engine which was in development for a standalone Wing Commander II, and was thereby able to add at least a few new wrinkles to the mission formula along with a more developed plot.

It was Wing Commander II itself, however, that everyone — not least among them Origin’s accountants — was really waiting for. Origin hoped to get the sequel out by June of 1991, just nine months after the first game. Chris Roberts, now installed as Origin’s “Director of New Technologies,” had been placed in charge of developing a true next-generation engine from scratch for use in the eventual Wing Commander III, and thus had a limited role in this interim step. Day-to-day responsibility for Wing Commander II passed into the hands of its “director” Stephen Beeman,1 who had just finished filling the same role on Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire.

Beeman’s team of coders improved the space-combat engine in welcome ways. They properly accounted for the speed of the computer running the game, thus mostly fixing the speed issues which have dogged the first Wing Commander to this day. They added an innovative layer of adaptive artificial intelligence on the part of enemy ships, so that if the player flew and shot better the enemy did as well and vice versa, in an effort to remedy one of the primary complaints players had made about the Secret Missions disks in particular: that too many of the missions were just too darn hard. And they also created a whole new slate of ships to fight and to fly; most notable among them was the Broadsword, a lumbering torpedo bomber of a spaceship with rear- and side-facing gun turrets which the player could jump into and control.

Wing Commander II‘s most obvious new gameplay wrinkle is the Broadsword torpedo bomber, in which you can control gun turrets that shoot to the sides and behind. But it doesn’t work out all that well because your ship just keeps flying straight ahead, a clay pigeon for the Kilrathi, while you’re busy in the turret. I tend to ignore the existence of the turrets, and I suspect I’m not alone.

With Wing Commander II, Origin’s artists began using Autodesk 3D Studio. Jake Rodgers, the first 3D artist they hired to work with the new tool, had learned how to do so at an architecture firm. “After talking with Origin, I decided that creating spaceships sounded a lot more interesting than working on buildings,” he remembers. The actual game engine remained only pseudo-3D, but Rodgers and the artists he trained were able to use 3D Studio to make the sprites which represented the ships more detailed than ever, both in the game proper and in some very impressive animated cut scenes. The 3D revolution that was destined to have as huge an impact on the aesthetics of games as it would on the way they played was still a couple of years away from starting in earnest, but with the arrival of 3D Studio in Origin’s toolbox the first tentative steps were already being taken.

Wing Commander II introduces the possibility of good Kilrathi, thus softening some of xenophobia of the first game. And yes, it remains completely impossible to take these flying Tony the Tigers seriously.

Most of all, though, Origin poured their energy into the story layer of the game — into all the stuff that happened when you weren’t actually sitting in the cockpit blowing up the evil Kilrathi. Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi took an approach to game design that could best be summed up as “give the people what they want.” With barely six months to bring the project to completion, Origin combed through all of the feedback they had received on the first game, looking to punch up the stuff that people had liked and to minimize or excise entirely the stuff they seemingly didn’t care so much about.

And they found out that what the people had really liked, alongside the spectacular graphics and sound, had been the feeling of playing the starring role in a rollicking science-fiction film. The people liked the interactions in the bar with their fellow pilots, the briefing scenes before each mission, and the debriefs afterward. They liked the characters of their fellow pilots, to whom they claimed an emotional bond that surprised even Chris Roberts. And they liked the idea of all of the missions they flew finding their context within a larger unfolding narrative of interstellar war — even if, taken on its own terms, the story of the first game was so vague as to barely exist at all. Faced with such a sketchy story, alongside a collection of characters that were often little more than ethnic stereotypes, players had happily spun more elaborate fictions in their minds, reading between lines the game’s developers had never drawn in the first place. For instance, some of them were convinced that Angel, the female Belgian pilot, secretly had the hots for the hero, something that came as news to everyone at Origin.

But there were other innovative aspects of the first game which, equally to Origin’s surprise, their customers were less keen on. The most noteworthy of these, and a consistent sore point with Chris Roberts in particular, was the lovingly crafted branching mission tree, in which the player’s success or failure affected the course of the war and thus what later missions she would be assigned. Despite all of Origin’s admonitions to the contrary, overwhelming evidence suggested that the vast majority of players replayed each mission until they’d managed to complete it successfully rather than taking their lumps and moving on. Roberts and his colleagues found this so frustrating not least because they had poured a lot of energy and money into missions which the majority of players were never even seeing. Yes, one might argue that this state of affairs was to a large extent Origin’s own fault, the natural byproduct of a design which assigned harder rather than easier missions as a consequence of failure, thus sending the honest but not terribly proficient player into a downward spiral of ever-increasing futility. Still, rather than remedy that failing Origin chose to prune their mission tree; while limited branching would still be possible, the success and failure paths would be merely slightly modified versions of the same narrative arc, and failing two mission series in a row would abruptly end the game. Origin wanted to tell a real story this time around, and that would be hard enough; they didn’t have time to make a bunch of branching stories.

Who would ever have guessed that the black pilot would be the one named Downtown?

Given the new emphasis on story, Stephen Beeman was fortunate to have at his disposal Ellen Guon, the very first professional writer ever to be hired by Origin. Guon came to the company from Sierra, where she had polished up the text in remakes of the first King’s Quest game and the educational title Mixed-Up Mother Goose. Before that, she had written for Saturday-morning cartoons, working for a time with Christy Marx, another cartoon veteran who would later wind up at Sierra, on Jem and the Holograms. She’d also seen some of her science-fiction and fantasy stories published in magazines and anthologies, and her first novel, a collaboration with the more established fantasy novelist Mercedes Lackey, was being published just as she was settling in at Origin. Beeman and Guon developed the initial script for Wing Commander II together, learning in the process that they had more in common than game development; Ellen Guon would eventually become Ellen Beeman.

Chris Roberts badly wanted not just a more developed story for the second game but a darker one, an Empire Strikes Back to contrast with the original game’s Star Wars. Beeman and Guon obliged him with a script that sees the Tiger’s Claw, the ship from which the player had flown and fought in the first game, destroyed in the opening moments of the second one by a Kilrathi strike force that, thanks to the secret stealth technology the flying tigers have developed, seems to come out of nowhere. The hero of the original game, who sported whatever name the player chose to give him but was universally known to the developers as “Bluehair” after the tint Origin’s artists gave to his coiffure, is flying a mission when it happens, and through a not-entirely-sensical chain of logic winds up being blamed for the tragedy. But the prosecution fails to prove his negligence or treasonous intent beyond a reasonable doubt at the court martial, and instead of winding up in prison he gets demoted and assigned to fly routine patrols with “Insystem Security” from a station way out in the middle of nowhere. Finally, after years of this boring duty, the Kilrathi unexpectedly come to his quiet little corner of the galaxy, and the “Coward of K’Tithrak Mang” — that being Bluehair — gets his shot at redemption, under circumstances that see him reunited with many of his old comrades-in-arms from Wing Commander I and its mission disks.

A rule of war movies applies here. If someone starts talking about her family…

The increased emphasis on storytelling — on cinematic storytelling — is all-pervasive. The original game played out in a predictable sequence: conversations in the bar would be followed by a mission briefing, which would be followed by the actual mission, which would be followed by the debrief. Now, the “movie” takes place anywhere and everywhere. In order to inject some cinematic drama into the mission themselves, Origin introduced cut scenes that can play at literally any time as they unfold.

Wing Commander II really is all about the story. It doesn’t want you to spend a lot of time working out how to beat each of the missions; it just wants to keep the plot train chugging down the track. Thus the new adaptive artificial intelligence, which keeps you from ever getting stuck on a mission you just can’t crack. At the same time, however, the selfsame artificial intelligence contrives to make sure that none of your victories are ever routine. “If you meet eight enemies and manage to take out the first seven,” noted Beeman, “the last ship’s intelligence is increased by a few notches. Engaging the last ship results in a really tough dogfight.” Wing Commander II is meant to be a relentless thrill ride like the movies that inspired it, and is always willing to put a thumb on either side of the scale to make sure it meets that ideal.

…and then starts talking about her impending retirement…

From a business standpoint — from that of making games that make money — Wing Commander II could serve as something of a role model even today. There was no trace of the indecision, over-ambition, and bets-hedging that so often lead projects astray. Stephen Beeman had a crystal-clear brief, and he achieved his goals with the same degree of clarity, bringing the project in only slightly over time and over budget — not a huge sin, considering that Origin’s original timing and budget had both been wildly overoptimistic. The important thing was that the game was done in plenty of time for Christmas, shipping on August 30, 1991, whereupon Origin was immediately rewarded with smashing reviews. Writing for Computer Gaming World, Alan Emrich optimistically said that the plot had begun “bridging the chasm from ‘genre pulp fiction’ to something that could be more accurately regarded as ‘art.'” Even more importantly, Wing Commander II became another smash hit. It sold its first 100,000 units in the United States in less than two months, and a truly remarkable 500,000 copies worldwide in its first six months.

…it can only end one way for her.

Yet in my opinion Wing Commander II hasn’t aged nearly as well as its predecessor. Today, the two games stand together as an object lesson in the ever-present conflict between narrative and interactivity. In gaining so much of the former, Wing Commander II loses far too much of the latter. Speaking at the time of the game’s release, Origin’s Warren Spector noted that “we’re still learning how to tell stories on the computer. We’re figuring out where we can be cinematic, and where trying to be cinematic just flat doesn’t work. We’re finding out where you want interaction, and where you want the player to sit back and watch the action.” It’s at these intersections between “being cinematic” and not being cinematic, between interaction and “sitting back and watching the action,” that Wing Commander II kind of falls apart for me.

I’m no fan of bloated, shaggy game designs, and generally think that a keen editor’s eye is one of the best attributes a designer can possess, yet I would hardly describe the original Wing Commander as over-complicated. In the second game, I miss the many things that have been excised as superfluous. I miss the little ersatz arcade game that lets you practice your skills; I miss winning medals and promotions as a result of my performance in the missions; I miss climbing the squadron leader board as I collect more and more kills. In the first game, your wingman could get killed in battle if you didn’t watch out for him properly, resulting in a funeral ceremony, a “KIA” next to his name on the leader board, and your having to fly all by yourself those subsequent missions that should have been earmarked for the two of you. This caused you, for both emotional and practical reasons, to care about the person you were flying with like any good wing leader should. In the second game, however, this too has been carved away. Your wingmen will now always bail out and be rescued if they get too badly shot up. They die only when the railroaded plot demands that they do so, accompanied by a suitably heroic cut scene, and there’s isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. Wing Commander II thus robs you of any real agency in what is supposed to be your story. Even the idea of a branching narrative, though poorly executed in the first game, could have been done better here instead of being tossed aside as just one more extraneous triviality.

After I published my articles on the first Wing Commander, commenter Jakub Stribrny described his experience with that game:

I decided to do one true honest playthrough. Just one life. If I got shot down, there was no loading the state. I had to start from the very beginning.

And that was when I discovered what the simulator was good for. Since I had only one life I had to make sure I was really prepared before each mission. So I devised a training plan for myself. An hour in the simulator before even attempting the first mission and then two simulator sessions between each subsequent mission. This proved very effective and I was able to clear almost the whole game. In the end I died just a few missions from the end when attempting to attack a group of Jalthi – fighters with extreme firepower – head-on. Stupid.

But I never got so much fun from gaming as when I really had to focus on what’s happening around me, cooperate with my wingman, carefully manage missile use, plan optimal routes between navigation points, and choose whether it’s still safe to ignore the blinking EJECT! light or it’s time to call it a day and survive to fight the battles of tomorrow. Or when I was limping to the home base with both cannons shot up and anxiously awaiting whether the badly damaged and glitching comms system would hold at least long enough for me to ask the carrier for landing clearance. My fighter failed me then and I had to eject in the end, but boy was that an experience.

Wing Commander II obviously pleased many players in its day, but it could never deliver an experience quite like this one. Nor, of course, was it meant to.

In the years that followed Wing Commander II‘s release, a cadre of designers and theorists would unite under the “games are not movies” banner, using this game and its successors as some of their favorite examples of offenders against all that is good and holy in ludology. But we need not become overly strident or pedantic, as so many of them have been prone to do. Rather than continuing to dwell on what was lost, we can try to judge Wing Commander II on its own terms, as the modestly interactive cinematic thrill ride it wants to be. I’m by no means willing to reject the notion that a game can succeed on these terms, provided that the story is indeed catching.

This is hands-down the funniest picture in Wing Commander II, almost as good as the Kilrathi helmets with the ears on top from the first game.

The problem for Wing Commander II from this perspective is that the story winds up being more Plan 9 from Outer Space than The Empire Strikes Back. No one — with, I suppose, the possible exception of Computer Gaming World‘s Mr. Emrich — is looking for deathless cinematic art from a videogame called Wing Commander II. Yet there is a level of craftsmanship that we ought to be able to expect from a game with this one’s stated ambitions, and Wing Commander II fails to clear even that bar.

Put bluntly, the story we get just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What exactly did Bluehair do to cause the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw, a tragedy for which only he among the carrier’s entire air group was blamed? Why was everyone so quick to believe that a decorated war hero had suddenly switched sides? Why on earth — excuse me, on Terra — would the Terran Confederation reassign someone widely suspected of high treason to even an out-of-the-way posting? And once the game proper gets going, why does Bluehair’s commander persist in believing that he’s a traitor even after he’s saved the life of said commander and everyone aboard his ship half a dozen times? And if the commander does still believe Bluehair is a traitor, why does he keep assigning him to vital missions in between bitching about what a traitor he is and how much it sucks to have him on his ship? Etc., etc.

Now, you could accuse me of over-analyzing the game’s action-movie screenplay, and you’d perhaps have a point. After all, Wing Commander‘s inspiration of Star Wars is hardly the most grounded narrative in the world. What I would also say in response, however, is that there’s a craft — a sleight of hand, if you will — to keeping the reader or viewer from focusing too much on a story’s incongruities. The writer or screenwriter accomplishes this by offering up compelling characters that are easy to root for or against and by keeping the excitement ever on the boil.

This game’s story makes me feel like Bluehair looks in this picture.

And here too Wing Commander II drops the ball. At the center of the action is the charisma vacuum that is Bluehair. The first game held back on characterizing him, letting the player imagine him to be the person she wished him to be. That can no longer work in the more developed narrative of the second game, but Origin still seems reluctant to fill in the lines of his character, with the result that he falls smack into an uncanny valley between the two classic models of the adventure-game protagonist: the fully fleshed-out individual whose personality the player is expected to assume, and the proverbial “nameless, faceless adventurer” that she can imagine to be herself. Bluehair becomes what my dear old dad would call a “lunk,” a monosyllabic non-presence who rarely has much to say beyond “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir.” It feels like a veritable soliloquy when he can manage to muster up an “I’m not guilty, sir. I won’t sign it!” or a “Go to hell, Jazz!” And when the romance subplot kicks in — duly following the stated desires of their players in this as in all things, Origin made Angel the love interest — it starts to get really painful. One does have to wonder why everyone is getting so hot and bothered over this guy of all people. Luke Skywalker — much less Han Solo — he definitely ain’t.

So, we might ask, how did we wind up here? How did one of the first Origin games to take advantage of real, professional writers not turn out at least a little bit better? A strong clue lives in a document that’s been made public by the website Wing Commander Combat Information Center. It’s the initial script for the game, as prepared by Ellen Guon and Stephen Beeman and completed on November 29, 1990, before production got underway in earnest. The version of the story found herein differs considerably from that found in the completed game. The story is more detailed, better explained, and richer all the way around, including a much more dynamic and assertive Bluehair. It might be instructive to compare the opening of the story as it was originally conceived with what that of the finished game. Here’s how things started back in November of 1990:

Establishing shot — Tiger’s Claw floating in space.

Narration: CSS Tiger’s Claw, six months after the Vega Sector Campaign…

Establishing shot — Tiger’s Claw briefing room. We can’t tell yet who the commander is.

Bluehair: Okay, everyone, settle down…

Cut to Bluehair. Now we see that Bluehair is in Colonel Halcyon’s familiar position.

Bluehair: Pilots, I’d like to welcome you to the Tiger’s Claw. I’m Lieutenant Colonel Bluehair Ourhero, your new commanding officer. I hope everyone’s recovered from the farewell party for Paladin, Angel, Spirit, Iceman, and General Halcyon.

Hunter: An’ don’t forget that bloody lunatic, Maniac! They finally transferred ‘im to the psych ‘ospital.

Bluehair: Sad but true, Hunter. Now, pay close attention, pilots. We’ve just been assigned a top-priority mission, to spearhead a major raid deep into Kilrathi space to their sector command post in the K’Tithrak Mang system. The plan is to jump in with a few carriers and Marine transports, hit the starbase hard, then jump out.

Hunter: ‘nother bleedin’ starbase, eh?

Bluehair: (smiles) You got it, mate. Let’s just hope it’s as easy as the last one. Now, listen close, everyone. Knight and Bossman are Alpha Wing — check for enemy fighters at Nav 2 and 3. Kilroy and Sabra are Beta Wing…

Narration: You assign all the wings. All but one.

Bluehair: I saved the most important wing for last. Computer, display Kappa. On our way to the starbase, the Claw will pass close to the asteroid field at Nav 1. We don’t know what’s out there, so Hunter and I are going to sweep the rocks as the Claw begins its approach. We’ll either take out whatever we find or hightail it back here to warn the Claw. Any questions, pilots? Good. The Claw will complete her last jump in approximately seven minutes. Get ready for immediate launch. Dismissed.

Animation of crowd rising — different backs! Animation of Tiger’s Claw jumping.

Narration: K’Tithrak Mang system, deep within Kilrathi space.

Animation of launch-tube sequence.

Mission 0. This really should be a basically easy mission. However, just as Bluehair is returning to the action sphere that contains the Claw, we cut to a canned scene.

Bluehair: No!

The Tiger’s Claw floats in the medium distance. Close to us, three Kilrathi stealth fighters in a chevron uncloak, launch missiles, then peel off in different directions. The missiles impact the Claw and blow it to kingdom come.

Dust motes are zooming past us, as if we were headed into the starfield. Now a space station appears in the far distance, rapidly getting closer. We zoom in on this until we start moving around the station. As we do so, the planet Earth comes into view on one edge of the screen. The station itself remains center frame.

Narration: Confederation High Command, Terra system, six months after the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw.

Admiral Tolwyn presides over Bluehair’s court martial. A very formal-looking bench with seven dress-uniformed figures, Tolwyn in the middle, is in the back pane. Bluehair and his counsel are sitting at a table. Spot animations of camera drones with Klieg lights will help convey the information that this trial is based more on media image than justice.

Tolwyn: Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, stand at attention. Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, you stand accused of negligence, incompetence, and cowardice under fire. Your actions resulted in the death of 61,000 Confederation defenders. Despite your plea of not guilty and your ridiculous claim that the Kilrathi used some non-existent stealth technology, flying invisible ships past your position…

Bluehair: It’s true, sir.

Tolwyn: …you are obviously guilty of these crimes against the Confederation. But, fortunately for you, this court cannot prove your guilt. Our primary evidence, your black-box flight recorder, is missing from the Confed Security offices. Because of the lack of physical evidence, this court is required by law to dismiss your case. We find you not guilty of crimes against the Confederation. This court is adjourned. Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, report to my office at once.

Establishing shot — Tolwyn’s office

Tolwyn: I wanted to talk to you in private, Bluehair. The court couldn’t convict you because of a technicality, but we all know the truth, Ourhero. You’re a coward and a traitor, and I’ll personally guarantee that you’ll never fly again. Your career with the Navy is over. As I assumed that you have some small amount of honor left, my secretary has drawn up your resignation papers…

Bluehair: I won’t resign, Admiral.

Tolwyn: What??

Bluehair: I’m not guilty, sir. I refuse to resign.

Tolwyn: Then I’ll offer you one more option, just because I never want to see your face again. I have a request from Insystem Security for a mid-ranked pilot. If you’ll accept a demotion to captain, it’s yours. Otherwise, pilot, you’re grounded for life.

Bluehair: I’ll accept the demotion, sir.

Tolwyn: Very well. Get out of here… and you’d better hope we never meet again, traitor.

Below you can see the finished game’s interpretation of the story’s opening beats.


Some of the choices made by the finished game, such as the decision to introduce the villain of the piece from the beginning rather than wait until some eight missions in, are valid enough in the name of punching up the anticipation and excitement. (One could, of course, still wish that said introduction had been written a bit better: “Speak of your plans, not of your toys.” What does that even mean?) In other place, however, the cuts made to the story have, even during this opening sequence, already gone deeper than trimming fat. Note, for instance, how the off-hand epithet of “traitor” which Admiral Tolwyn hurls at Bluehair in the initial script is taken to mean literal treason by the final game. And note how the shot showing the court martial to be a media circus, thus providing the beginning of an explanation as to why the powers that be have chosen to scapegoat one decorated pilot for a disastrous failure of a military operation, gets excised. Much more of that sort of subtlety — the sort of subtly that makes the story told by the first draft a credible yarn within its action-movie template — will continue to be lost as the game progresses.

There’s no single villain we can point to who decided that Wing Commander II should be gutted, much less a smoking gun we can identify in the form of a single decision that made all the difference. The closest we can come to a money quote is this one from Chris Roberts, made just after the game’s release: “We learned some lessons. We tried to do too much in too little time. None of us had any idea that the game had grown so large.” Like politics, commercial game development has always been the art of the possible. Origin did the best they could with the time and money they had, and if what they came up with wasn’t quite the second coming of The Empire Strikes Back which Roberts had so wished for, it served its purpose well enough from a business perspective, giving gamers a much more concentrated dose of what they had found so entrancing in the first game and giving Origin the big hit which they needed in order to stay solvent.

Origin, you see, had a lot going on while Wing Commander II was in production, and this provides an explanation for the pressure to get it out so quickly. Much of the money the series generated was being poured into Ultima VII, a CRPG of a scale and scope the likes of which had never been attempted before, a project which became the first game at Origin — and possibly the first computer game ever — with a development budget that hit $1 million. Origin’s two series made for a telling study in contrasts. While Wing Commander II saw its scope of interactivity pared back dramatically from that of its predecessor, Ultima VII remained as formally as it was audiovisually ambitious. Wing Commander had become the cash cow, but it seemed that, for some at Origin anyway, the heart and soul of the company was still Ultima.

Origin thus continued to monetize Wing Commander like crazy to pay for their latest Ultima. In a cash grab that feels almost unbelievably blatant today, they shipped a separate “Speech Accessory Pack” simultaneously with the core game. It added digitized voices to a few cut scenes, such as the opening movie above, and let your wingmen and your Kilrathi enemies shout occasional canned phrases during missions. “You want to buy our new game?” said Origin. “Okay, that will be $50. Oh… you want to play the game with all of the sound? Well, that will cost you another $25.” Like so much else about Wing Commander II, the speech, voiced by members of the development team, is terminally cheesy today, but in its day the Speech Pack drove the purchase of the latest Sound Blaster cards, which were adept at handling such samples, just as the core game drove the purchase of the hottest new 80386-based computers. And then two more add-on mission disks, known this time as Special Operations 1 and 2, joined the core Wing Commander II and the Speech Pack on store shelves. Well before the second anniversary of the first game’s release, Origin had no fewer than seven boxes sporting the Wing Commander logo on said shelves: the two core games, the four add-on mission packs, and the Speech Pack. Few new gaming franchises have ever generated quite so much product quite so quickly.

Where it really counted, Wing Commander II delivered.

Of course, all this product was being generated for one reason only: because it sold. In 1991, with no new mainline Ultima game appearing and with the Worlds of Ultima spin-offs having flopped, the Wing Commander product line alone accounted for an astonishing 90 percent of Origin’s total revenue. Through that year and the one that followed, it remained undisputed as the biggest franchise in computer gaming, still the only games out there scratching an itch most publishers had never even realized that their customers had. The lessons Origin’s rivals would draw from all this success wouldn’t always be the best ones from the standpoint of games as a form of creative expression, but the first Wing Commander had, for better or for worse, changed the conversation around games forever. Now, Wing Commander II was piling on still more proof for the thesis that a sizable percentage of gamers really, really loved a story to provide context for game play — even if it was a really, really bad story. After plenty of false starts, the marriage of games and movies was now well and truly underway, and a divorce didn’t look likely anytime soon.

(Sources: the book Wing Commander I & II: The Ultimate Strategy Guide by Mike Harrison; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from June 21 1991, August 7 1991, October 11 1991, October 25 1991, November 8 1991, January 17 1992, March 13 1992, and May 22 1992; Retro Gamer 59; Computer Gaming World of November 1991. Online sources include documents hosted at the Wing Commander Combat Information Center, US Gamer‘s profile of Chris Roberts, The Escapist‘s history of Wing Commander, Paul Dean’s interview with Chris Roberts, and an interview with Richard Garriott that was posted to Usenet in 1992.

Wing Commander I and II can be purchased in a package together with all of their expansion packs from GOG.com.)


  1. Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

 

Tags: , , ,

The Worlds of Ultima

Proud papa Warren Spector with a copy of Worlds of Ultima II: Martian Dreams.

In the very early days of Ultima, Richard Garriott made a public promise which would eventually come back to haunt him. Looking for a way to differentiate his CRPG series from its arch-rival, Wizardry, he said that he would never reuse an Ultima engine. Before every new installment of his series, he would tear everything down to its component parts and rebuild it all, bigger and better than ever before. For quite some time, this policy served Garriott very well indeed. When the first Ultima had appeared in 1981, it had lagged well behind the first Wizardry in terms of sales and respect, but by the time Ultima III dropped in 1983 Garriott’s series had snatched a lead which it would never come close to relinquishing. While the first five Wizardry installments remained largely indistinguishable from one another to the casual fan, Ultima made major, obvious leaps with each new release. Yes, games like The Bard’s Tale and Pool of Radiance racked up some very impressive sales of their own as the 1980s wore on, but Ultima… well, Ultima was simply Ultima, the most respected name of all in CRPGs.

And yet by 1990 the promise which had served Richard Garriott so well was starting to become a real problem for his company Origin Systems. To build each new entry in the series from the ground up was one thing when doing so entailed Garriott disappearing alone into a small room containing only his Apple II for six months or a year, then emerging, blurry-eyed and exhausted, with floppy disks in hand. It was quite another thing in the case of a game like 1990’s Ultima VI, the first Ultima to be developed for MS-DOS machines with VGA graphics and hard drives, a project involving four programmers and five artists, plus a bureaucracy of others that included everything from producers to play-testers. Making a new Ultima from the ground up had by this point come to entail much more than just writing a game engine; it required a whole new technical infrastructure of editors and other software tools that let the design team, to paraphrase Origin’s favorite marketing tagline, create their latest world.

But, while development costs thus skyrocketed, sales weren’t increasing to match. Each new entry in the series since Ultima IV had continued to sell a consistent 200,000 to 250,000 copies. These were very good numbers for the genre and the times, but it seemed that Origin had long ago hit a sales ceiling for games of this type. The more practical voices at the company, such as the hard-nosed head of product development Dallas Snell, said that Origin simply had to start following the example of their rivals, who reused their engines many times as a matter of course. If they wished to survive, Origin too had to stop throwing away their technology after only using it once; they had to renege at last on Richard Garriott’s longstanding promise. Others, most notably the original promise-maker himself, were none too happy with the idea.

Origin’s recently arrived producer and designer Warren Spector was as practical as he was creative, and thus could relate to the concerns of both a Dallas Snell and a Richard Garriott. He proposed a compromise. What if a separate team used the last Ultima engine to create some “spin-off” games while Garriott and his team were busy inventing their latest wheel for the next “numbered” game in the series?

It wasn’t actually an unprecedented idea. As far back as Ultima II, in the days before Origin even existed, a rumor had briefly surfaced that Sierra, Garriott’s publisher at the time, might release an expansion disk to connect a few more of the many pointlessly spinning gears in that game’s rather sloppy design. Later, after spending some two years making Ultima IV all by himself, Garriott himself had floated the idea of an Ultima IV Part 2 to squeeze a little more mileage out of the engine, only to abandon it to the excitement of building a new engine of unprecedented sophistication for Ultima V. But now, with the Ultima VI engine, it seemed like an idea whose time had truly come at last.

The spin-off games would be somewhat smaller in scope than the core Ultimas, and this, combined with the reuse of a game engine and other assets from their big brothers, should allow each of them to be made in something close to six months, as opposed to the two years that were generally required for a traditional Ultima. They would give Origin more product to sell to those 200,000 to 250,000 hardcore fans who bought each new mainline installment; this would certainly please Dallas Snell. And, as long as the marketing message was carefully crafted, they should succeed in doing so without too badly damaging the Ultima brand’s reputation for always surfing the bleeding edge of CRPG design and technology; this would please Richard Garriott.

But most of all it was Warren Spector who had good reason to be pleased with the compromise he had fashioned. The Ultima sub-series that was born of it, dubbed Worlds of Ultima, would run for only two games, but would nevertheless afford him his first chance at Origin to fully exercise his creative muscles; both games would be at bottom his babies, taking place in settings created by him and enacting stories outlined by him. These projects would be, as Spector happily admits today, “B” projects at Origin, playing second fiddle in terms of internal resources and marketing priority alike to the mainline Ultima games and to Wing Commander. Yet, as many a Hollywood director will tell you, smaller budgets and the reduced scrutiny that goes along with them are often anything but a bad thing; they often lend themselves to better, more daring creative work. “I actually liked being a ‘B’ guy,” remembers Spector. “The guys spending tons of money have all the pressure. I was spending so little [that] no one really paid much attention to what I was doing, so I got to try all sorts of crazy things.”

Those crazy things could only have come from this particular Origin employee. Spector was almost, as he liked to put it, the proud holder of a PhD in film studies. Over thirty years old in a company full of twenty-somethings, he came to Origin with a far more varied cultural palette than was the norm there, and worked gently but persistently to separate his peers from their own exclusive diets of epic fantasy and space opera. He had a special love for the adventure fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and this love came to inform Worlds of Ultima to as great a degree as Lord of the Rings did the mainline Ultima games or Stars Wars did Wing Commander. Spector’s favored inspirations even had the additional advantage of being out of copyright, meaning he could plunder as much as he wanted without worrying about any lawyers coming to call.

The Savage Empire, the first Worlds of Ultima, is thus cribbed liberally from The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic 1912 adventure novel about a remote region of South America where dinosaurs have survived extinction. The novel’s narrator, an opportunistic journalist named Edward Malone, becomes Jimmy Malone in the game, a companion of yours who bends his journalistic talents to the task of becoming a sort of walking, talking quest log. As in the book, your ultimate goal in the game is to unite the feuding native tribes who live in the lost valley in order to defeat a threat to them all — said threat being a race of ape-men in the book, a race of giant insects in the game. (The closest thing to the ape-men in the game is a tribe of Neanderthals who actually fight on your side.) And yes, as in the book, there are dinosaurs in The Savage Empire — dinosaurs of all types, from harmless herbivores to the huge, ferocious, and deadly tyrannosaurus rex. Along with the insect race, who are known as the Myrmidex, they’re your primary enemies when it comes to combat.

The Savage Empire does add to the book’s plot the additional complication of a mad scientist who has already arrived in the Valley of Eodon. He isn’t bad by nature, but has been driven to his current insanity by a mysterious stone found there. Now, he plots to use the stone to take over the world. In an affectionate tribute to their guiding light, he was named by the development team Dr. Johann Spector, with a dead ringer of a portrait to match.

Evil Warren… err, Johann Spector.

Arthur Conan Doyle was an enthusiastic proponent of much of the flawed pseudo-science of his day, from eugenics to phrenology and craniometry to, late in his life, the spiritualist movement. He was likewise afflicted with most of the prejudices of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It’s thus not hard to imagine how The Savage Empire could have gone horribly off the rails, what with the leather-bikini-clad princess who serves as your romantic interest and the many “savage” dark-skinned tribes — each modeled on (stereotypes of) an example of same from real-world history — waiting for your party of white men to swoop in and save the day. One might feel especially worried upon learning that Warren Spector wasn’t even around very much to oversee his young charges. After laying out the setting, characters, and basic plot in the form of a twenty-page outline, he moved on to act as producer on the first Wing Commander game, leaving The Savage Empire in the hands of its producer Jeff Johanningman — the source of Dr. Spector’s first name — its designer Aaron Allston, and its “director” Stephen Beeman.1

The Savage Empire‘s cover art marks a major departure from Richard Garriott’s noble policy of refusing to fill his Ultima covers with the buxom women in chainmail bikinis that dominated among the series’s peers. The Avatar’s companion here isn’t dressed in chainmail, but the leather bikini she is wearing is positively straining to keep her naughty bits under wraps. On the other hand, the cover art is right in keeping with the pulpy adventure stories the game evokes, so we can perhaps forgive it.
 
Note also that “Lord British” takes first-writer credit for a game he had nothing to do with. Cheeky fellow, isn’t he? Royalty evidently did have its privileges. Meanwhile the contributions of poor Warren Spector, whose 20-page treatment got the whole project started, went completely unacknowledged, not only on the box but in the credits list found in the manual.

But I’m happy to say that Johanningman, Allston, Beeman, and the others on their team did a surprisingly good job of skirting a fine line. The Savage Empire is definitely pulpy — it was always intended to be — but it never spills over into the offensive. Origin paid a dedicated researcher named Karen E. Bell, holder of a completed PhD, to help them get the feeling of the times right. The various tribes are handled, if not quite with nuance — this just isn’t a very nuanced game — with a degree of respect. At the same time, the game manages to absolutely nail the homage it was aiming for. The manual, for instance, takes the form of an issue of Ultimate Adventures magazine, and can stand proudly alongside the best feelies of Infocom. Clearly the development team embraced Spector’s vision with plenty of passion of their own.

The worst failing of the fiction — a failing which this game shares with its sequel — is the attempt to integrate the pulpy narrative with that of Britannia in the mainline Ultima games; Origin was still operating under the needless stipulation that the hero of every successive Ultima, going all the way back to the first, was the same “Avatar.” For The Savage Empire, this means among other things that the game has to take place in our time rather than in that of Arthur Conan Doyle — albeit a version of our time full of weird anachronisms, like the big box camera with the big magnesium flash that’s carried around by Jimmy Malone.

Origin may have hired a PhD to help with their research, but they don’t take their commitment to anthropology too seriously. I don’t think any real native people had a Larry, Moe, and Curly of their own.

The game design proper, on the other hand, is impressively nonlinear in the best Ultima tradition. Once you’ve figured out that your mission is to convince all of the eleven tribes to make common cause against the Myrmidex, you can begin negotiating with whichever of them you please. Naturally, the negotiations will always boil down to your needing to accomplish some task for the tribe in question. These quests are interesting and entertaining to see through, forcing you to employ a variety of approaches — and often, for that matter, admitting themselves of multiple approaches — and giving you good motivation for traipsing through the entirety of the Valley of Eodon.

The Savage Empire stands out for the superb use it makes of the “living world” concept which had been coming more and more to the fore with every iteration of the mainline Ultima series. Indeed, it does even more with the concept than Ultima VI, the game whose engine it borrowed. The Savage Empire is a game where you can make charcoal by pulling a branch from a tree and burning it in a native village’s fire pit. Then make a potassium-nitrate powder by collecting special crystals from a cave and grinding them down with a mortar and pestle. Then get some sulfur by sifting it out of a pit with a wire screen. Combine it all together, and, voila, gunpowder! But, you ask, what can you actually do with the gunpowder? Well, you can start by borrowing a digging stick from the villagers, taking it down to a riverbank, and pulling up some fresh clay. Fire the clay in the village kiln to make yourself a pot. Put your gunpowder in the pot, then cut a strip off your clothing using some handy scissors you brought along and dip it in the local tar pit to make a fuse. Stuff the cloth into the top of the pot, and you’ve got yourself a grenade; just add fire — luckily, you also brought along some matches — at the appropriate time. This is just one example of the many intriguing science experiments you can indulge in. Don’t try this at home, kids.

Yet for all its strengths, and enjoyable as it is in its own right, The Savage Empire is just the warm-up act for Martian Dreams, the real jewel of the Worlds of Ultima series. This time around, Spector got to do more than just write an outline of the game: he was in charge of this project from beginning to end, thus making Martian Dreams the first game published by Origin — and, for that matter, the first computer game period — that was a Warren Spector joint from beginning to end.

Martian Dreams‘s version of Ultima‘s gypsy is none other than Sigmund Freud. It’s evidently been a hard life so far for Sigmund, who would have turned 39 years old the year the game begins. More seriously, my cursory research would indicate that about 90 percent of players misread the intent of his initial question. He’s not really asking you which parent you felt closer to; he’s trying to find out what gender you are. Many a player, myself included, has gone through the character-creation process trying to answer the questions honestly, only to be confused by arriving in the game as the opposite gender. Call it all those distant fathers’ revenge…

Martian Dreams‘s premise is certainly unique in the annals of CRPGs. In fact, it’s kind of batshit insane. Are you ready for this? Okay, here goes…

Our story begins with the historical character Percival Lowell, the amateur astronomer who popularized the idea of “canals” on Mars, and along with them the fantasy of a populated Mars whose people had built the canals in an effort to recover water from the icecaps of a doomed planet slowly dying of drought. It’s 1893, and Lowell has built a “space cannon” capable of traveling to Mars. He’s showing it off at the Chicago World’s Fair to many of the “leaders of the Victorian era” when a saboteur ignites the cannon’s propellant, sending the whole gang rocketing off to Mars. In addition to Lowell himself, the unwilling crew includes names like Sarah Bernhardt, Calamity Jane, Andrew Carnegie, Marie Curie, Wyatt Earp, Thomas Edison, William Randolph Hearst, Robert Peary, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Fast-forward two years. Signals from Mars indicate to the folks back on Earth that the gang survived the trip and landed safely. Now you’re to try to rescue them in a second space cannonball, accompanied by — because why not? — Nellie Bly, Sigmund FreudNikola Tesla, and a dodgy doctor named C.L. Blood (the most obscure historical figure of the lot but one of the most interesting). Also along for the ride is your old friend Dr. Johann Spector, now freed from the insanity that led to megalomania in The Savage Empire and happy just to be your genial boon companion in adventure.

The good Johann Spector.

Upon arriving on the red planet, you find that the air is breathable, if a bit thin, and that sentient — and often deadly — plants roam the surface. You soon begin to make contact with the previous ship’s crew, who are now scattered all over the planet, and the game coalesces around the interrelated goals of learning about the Martian civilization that once existed here and figuring out a way to get your own lot back to Earth; in what can only be described as a grave oversight on your part, it seems that you neglected to devise a means of returning when you set off on your “rescue” mission.

Your reaction to Martian Dreams will hinge on your willingness to get behind a premise as crazy as this one. If the idea of getting fired out of a cannon and winding up on Mars doesn’t put you off, the million smaller holes you can poke in the story very well might; suffice to say that the fact that you boarded a cannonball headed for Mars without any semblance of a return plan is neither the only nor even perhaps the most grievous of the plot holes. Chet Bolingbroke, better known to his readers as The CRPG Addict and a critic whose opinion I respect within his favorite genre, dismisses the game’s whole premise with one word: “stupid.”

In defense of the game, I will note that this is very much a period piece, and that within that context some of the stupider aspects of the overarching concept may begin to seem slightly less so. Jules Verne, a writer who always strove for scientific accuracy according to the lights of his time, published in 1865 From the Earth to the Moon, in which a trio of Victorian astronauts flies to the Moon rather than Mars using the technique described in Martian Dreams. The same technique then cropped up again in Georges Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. (Méliès, a French illusionist who became the father of cinematic special effects through that film and others, is another of the historical figures who make it into Martian Dreams.) And then, too, the question of whether there might be an oxygen atmosphere and an alien civilization to breathe it on Mars was by no means settled until well after the turn of the twentieth century; Percival Lowell went to his deathbed in 1916 still a devout believer in his Martian canals, and he was by no means alone in his belief.

Other incongruities may be more difficult to dismiss with a hand-wave to the nineteenth century, but the fact remains that vanishingly few CRPGs have ever made much sense as coherent fictions. Players who love running around inside fantasy worlds in the character of dwarves and elves, casting spells at dragons, might want to be just a little careful when throwing around adjectives like “stupid.” After all, what do all those monsters in all those dungeons actually eat when there aren’t any adventurers to hand? And wouldn’t the citizens of all these assorted fantasy worlds do better to put together a civil-defense force instead of forever relying on a “chosen one” to kill their evil wizards? Martian Dreams‘s premise, I would submit, isn’t really all that much stupider than the CRPG norm. It’s merely stupid in a very unique way which highlights incongruities that long exposure has taught us to overlook in the likes of Dungeons & Dragons. One might say that just about all CRPG stories are pretty stupid at bottom; we forgive them an awful lot because they make for a fun game.

If we can see our way clear to bestowing the same courtesy upon Martian Dreams, there’s a hell of a lot to like about its premise. Certainly the historical period it evokes is a fascinating one. Much of what we think of as modern life has its origins in the 1800s, not least the dizzying pace of progress in all its forms. For the first time in human history, the pace of technological change meant that the average person could expect to die in a very different world from the one she had been born into. Many of the changes she could expect to witness in between must have felt like magic. The invention of the railroad transformed concepts of distance almost overnight, turning what had been arduous journeys, requiring a week or more of carriage changes and nights spent in inns, into day trips; just like that, a country like England became a small place rather than a big one. And if the railroad didn’t shrink the world enough for you, telegraph cables — aptly described by historian Tom Standage as the “Victorian Internet” — were being strung up around the world, making it possible to send a message to someone thousands of miles away in seconds.

Much of modern entertainment as well has its roots in the nineteenth century, with the genre literatures arriving to greet a new mass audience of readers. While the mystery novel was being invented by Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle, science fiction was being invented by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (the latter of whom we meet on our trip to Mars). Meanwhile the soap opera was being invented by Charles Dickens and his contemporaries, who published monthly installments of their novels for a fan base who gathered around the nineteenth century’s version of the office water cooler, obsessing over what would happen next to Little Nell or Oliver Twist. Celebrity too as we know it today has its origins in this period. When Dickens would give public readings of his novels, his female fans would scream and swoon in the throes of a sort of proto-Beatlemania, while Buffalo Bill Cody’s globe-trotting Wild West Show made his face by some accounts the most recognizable in the world by the turn of the century. (Buffalo Bill too is to be found on Mars.) And modern consumer culture begins here, with the first shopping malls opening in Paris and then spreading around the world. I could go on forever, but you get the point.

Martian Dreams proves adept at capturing the spirit of the age, conveying the boundless optimism that surrounded all of this progress in a period before the world wars and the invention of the atomic bomb revealed the darker sides of modernity. The Ultima VI engine’s look has been reworked into something appropriately steampunky, and a period-perfect music-hall soundtrack accompanies your wanderings. The writing too does its job with aplomb. To expect deep characterizations of each of the couple of dozen historical figures stranded on Mars along with you would be to ask far, far too much of it. Still, the game often does manage to deftly burrow underneath the surface of their achievements in ways that let you know that Spector and his team extended their research further than encyclopedia entries.

Theodore Roosevelt is portrayed as an awkwardly self-conscious mix of bravado and insecurity rather than the heroic Rough Rider and Trust Buster of grade-school history textbooks. Martian Dreams‘s take on the man seems to hew rather close to that of Gore Vidal, who in one of his more hilarious essays labelled Roosevelt “an American sissy.”

Martian Dreams‘s portrayal of Vladimir Lenin manages in a single sentence of dialog to foreshadow everything that would go wrong with Karl Marx’s noble dream of communism as soon as it took concrete form in the Soviet Union.

Some of the more obscure historical figures have the most amazing and, dare I say it, inspiring stories of all to share. Do you know about Nellie Bly, the young woman who checked herself into a psychiatric hospital to report first-hand the abuses suffered there by patients? Do you know about George Washington Carver, a black man who was born into slavery and became the foremost expert of his era on the techniques of sustainable farming, publishing research that has saved literally millions of lives? Even the travelers who wind up being the antagonists of the group — Grigori Rasputin, the infamous “mad monk” of late Czarist Russia, and Emma Goldman, an American anarchist activist and occasional terrorist — have intriguing things to say.

Thanks to some technology left behind by the Martians, you’ll eventually get a chance to visit many of these people inside their dreams — or nightmares. These sequences, the source of the game’s name, illuminate their personalities and life stories still further. In the case of Mark Twain, for instance, you’ll find yourself riding down a river on a paddle wheeler, trying to collect the pieces of his latest manuscript and get them to the publisher before the money runs out — about as perfect an evocation of the life the real Twain lived, writing works of genius in order to remain always one step ahead of the creditors dogging his heels, as can be imagined.

A Gallery of Eminent Victorians


A Gallery of Eminent Victorians


The purely fictional story of the apparently dead Martian civilization is crafted with equal love. Over the course of the game, you’ll slowly revive the technology the Martians left behind, restoring power to the planet and getting the water flowing once again through Percival Lowell’s beloved canals. In the process, you’ll learn that some of the Martians still live on, at least after a fashion. I won’t say more than that so as to preserve for you the pleasure I got out of Martian Dreams. I approached the game completely cold, and found myself highly motivated to make the next discovery and thereby set into place the next piece of a mystery I found genuinely tantalizing. The story that gradually emerges fits right in with the classic lore of the red planet, with echoes of Lowell’s pseudo-science, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s tales of John Carter on Mars. By the time of Martian Dreams, Origin was at long last beginning to hire dedicated people for the role of writer, instead of handing the task to whatever programmer or artist happened to not have much else going on at the moment. Games like this one were the happy result. Notably, Martian Dreams is the first Origin game to credit one Raymond Benson, a veteran of musical theater who would go on to make a profound impact as the head writer on Ultima VII, the next entry in the mainline series.

The worst aspect of the storytelling is, once again, Origin’s insistence that Martian Dreams fit into the overall story of Ultima‘s Avatar. With this Worlds of Ultima installment being explicitly rather than implicitly set in the past of our own Earth, the contortions the writing must go through to set up the game are even more absurd than those of The Savage Empire. This game whose premise already had the potential to strain many gamers’ credibility past the breaking point was forced to introduce a layer of time travel in order to send the Avatar and his companion Dr. Spector back to 1895, then to engage in yet more hand-waving to explain why our historians haven’t recorded trips to Mars in the 1890s. It’s all thoroughly unnecessary and, once again, best ignored. The game works best as alternate history with no connection to any other Ultima except perhaps The Savage Empire.

The dust storms evidently did one hell of a number on Mars…

I prefer Martian Dreams to The Savage Empire largely thanks to better writing and a richer theme; it doesn’t play all that radically different from its predecessor. It makes somewhat less use of the Ultima VI engine’s crafting potential — there’s nothing here close to the complexity of making grenades in The Savage Empire — but it is a longer game. Thanks to its more developed story, it can’t avoid being a bit more linear than its predecessor over the course of that length, but it never feels unduly railroaded. In my book, then, The Savage Empire is a very good game, while Martian Dreams is a great one.

I must admit that I enjoy both of these games more than any of the mainline Ultima games that preceded them. The latter by the dawn of the 1990s had accumulated a lot of cruft in the form of fan service that just had to be in each new installment. These games, by contrast, were able to start with clean slates — aside from the dodgy attempts to insert the Avatar into them, that is — and the results are tighter, more focused designs. And what a relief it is to escape for a little while from Renaissance Fair fantasy and all that excruciating faux-Elizabethan English! In an uncharacteristic fit of bravado, Warren Spector a few years after Martian Dreams‘s release called it “the best Ultima game ever.” On some days, I’m sorely tempted to agree. Only Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII — both released after Martian Dreams — make the debate at all complicated for me.

The biggest single improvement Worlds of Ultima made to the Ultima VI engine was to move conversations from the corner of the screen, as show above…

…and into the main display.

Still, it wouldn’t do just to praise these two games that I like so very much without pointing out some significant weaknesses. I wasn’t overly kind to the Ultima VI engine in my review of that game, and most of the criticisms I levied there apply to one degree or another here as well. The Worlds of Ultima teams did take some steps to improve the engine, most notably by moving the text that accompanies conversations into the main window instead of cramming it into a tiny space in the corner of the screen. At bottom, however, the Ultima VI engine remains caught out in an uncertain no man’s land between the keyboard-based “alphabet soup” interface of the earlier Ultima games and the entirely mouse-driven interfaces that were yet to come. Some things are much easier to do with the keyboard, some with the mouse — an awkward arrangement that’s only made more frustrating by the way that the divisions between the two categories are so arbitrary. You can get used to it after an hour or two, but nobody would ever accuse the interface of being elegant or intuitive. I’m sure that plenty of players over the years have found it so bafflingly opaque that they’ve given up in disgust without ever getting a whiff of the real joy of the game hidden underneath it.

The Ultima VI engine has a peculiar problem conveying depth. What looks like a stair step here is actually meant to represent an unscaleable cliff. As it is, it looks like we’ve joined the long tradition of videogame characters who can walk and run hundreds of miles but can’t hop up two feet.

In light of this reality, I’ve often seen the Worlds of Ultima games called, in reviews both from their own day and from ours, good games trapped inside a bad game engine. It’s a pithy formulation, but I don’t feel like it quite gives the whole picture. The fact is that some of the problems that dog these games have little or nothing to do with their engine. The most pernicious design issue is the fact that there just isn’t quite enough content for the games’ geographies. It’s here that one fancies one can really start to feel their status as “B” projects at Origin. The Savage Empire sports an absolutely massive abandoned underground city — as big as the entire jungle valley above it — that’s for all intents and purposes empty, excepting only a couple of key locations. I don’t know the full story behind it, but it certainly seems like a map that’s still waiting for the development team to come back and fill it up with stuff. Martian Dreams has nothing quite this egregious, but points of interest on the vast surface of Mars can nevertheless feel few and far between. Coupled with a strange lack of the alternative modes of transport that are so typical in other Ultima games — one teleportation mechanism does eventually arise, but even it’s very limited in its possible destinations — it means that you’ll spend a major percentage of your time in Martian Dreams trekking hither and yon in response to a plot that demands that you visit — and then revisit, sometimes multiple times — locations scattered willy-nilly all over the planet. Warren Spector himself put his finger on what he cogently described as “too much damn walking around” as the biggest single design issue in this game of which he was otherwise so proud.

Mars is mostly just a whole lot of nothing.

Another description that’s frequently applied to these games — sometimes dismissively, sometimes merely descriptively — is that they aren’t really CRPGs at all, but rather adventure games with, as Computer Gaming World‘s adventure critic Scorpia once put it, “a thin veneer of CRPG.” Once again, I don’t entirely agree, yet I do find the issues raised by such a description worthy of discussion.

Proponents of this point of view note that combat is neither terribly important nor terribly interesting in Worlds of Ultima, that magic has been reduced to a handful of voodoo-like spells in The Savage Empire and removed altogether from Martian Dreams, and that character development in the form of leveling-up is neither all that frequent nor all that important. All of which is true enough, but does it really mean these games aren’t CRPGs at all? Where do we draw the lines?

The Savage Empire‘s limited graphics and uninspiring combat manages to make the idea of encountering dinosaurs — dinosaurs, for Pete’s sake! — feel kind of ho-hum.

A long time ago, when I was going through a taxonomical phase, I tried to codify the differences between the adventure game and the CRPG. The formulation I arrived at didn’t involve combat, magic, or experience levels, but rather differing philosophical approaches. Adventure games, I decided, offered a deterministic, bespoke experience, while CRPGs left heaps of room for emergent, partially randomized behavior. Or, to put it more shortly: the adventure game is an elaborate puzzle, while the CRPG is a simulation. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether it’s possible to write a walkthrough listing every single action a player should take in a game, knowing the game will always respond in the same way every time and that said walkthrough will thus be guaranteed to get the player to the winning screen. If you can, you certainly have an adventure game. If you can’t, you may very well be looking at a CRPG.

When I first made my little attempt at taxonomy, I was thinking of early text adventures and the earliest primitive CRPGs. Yet the distinctions I identified, far from fading over time, had become even more pronounced by the time of Worlds of Ultima. Early text adventures had a fair number of logistical challenges — limited light sources, inventory limits, occasional wandering creatures, even occasional randomized combat — which were steadily filed away concurrent with the slow transition from text to graphics, until the genre arrived at 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, perhaps the most iconic exemplar of the classic point-and-click graphic adventure. CRPGs, meanwhile, remained much more simulation-oriented, emergent experiences.

So, where does this leave us with the Worlds of Ultima? Well, these definitely aren’t games that can be played by rote from a walkthrough. They sport monsters and people wandering of their own free will, a day-to-night cycle, character attributes which have a significant effect on game play, emergent logistical concerns in the form of food (The Savage Empire), oxygen rocks which allow you to breathe more easily (Martian Dreams), and ammunition (both). Many of the problems you encounter can be dealt with in multiple ways, most or all of which arise organically from the simulation. All of these qualities hew to the simulational focus of the CRPG. Sometimes they can be a bit annoying, but in general I find that they enhance the experience, making these games feel like… well, like real adventures, even if they aren’t the sorts of things that are generally found in adventure games.

Yet I do agree that these games aren’t quite CRPGs in the old-school 1980s sense either. Layered on top of the foundation of emergent simulation is a deterministic layer of narrative, dialog, and even set-piece puzzles. The closest philosophical sibling I can find among their contemporaries is Sierra’s Quest for Glory series, although the latter games have radically different looks and interfaces and were generally purchased, one senses, by a different audience.

Some of the infelicities that can arise in the course of playing the Worlds of Ultima games have at their root a failure of the two layers to account for one another properly. When I played The Savage Empire, I broke the narrative completely by exploiting the simulation layer in a way that the game’s developers apparently never anticipated. Well into the game, after recruiting eight of the eleven tribes onto my team, I got confused about what my next goal should be in a way that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say that, instead of uniting the rest of the tribes and leading them in a coordinated attack on the Myrmidex lair, I went after the murderous insects on my own, accompanied only by an indestructible robot I’d befriended. I devised a strategy for hiding behind the robot when the insects attacked, and thereby made it at last to the heart of the nest, destroying the mystical stone that was the source of the Myrmidex’s power (and of Dr. Spector’s insanity). Just like that, and much to my shock, the finale started to play; I had thought I was just solving another quest. In its way, this anecdote is an impressive testament to the emergent possibilities of the game engine — although it would have been even more impressive had the narrative layer recognized what had happened and accounted for my, shall we say, alternative solution to the problem of the Myrmidex. As it was, I saw an endgame movie that assumed I’d done a whole bunch of stuff I hadn’t done, and thus made no sense whatsoever.

Exterminating bugs with the help of my trusty (and indestructible) robot pal.

Whatever else you can say about it, it’s hard to imagine something like this happening in The Secret of Monkey Island. As CRPGs in general received ever more complex stories in the years that followed the Worlds of Ultima games, they took on more and more of the traditional attributes of adventure games, without abandoning their dedication to emergent simulation. Sometimes, as in Worlds of Ultima, the layers chafe against one another in these more modern games, but often the results are very enjoyable indeed. Largely forgotten by gaming history though they have been, the Worlds of Ultima games can thus be read as harbingers of games to come. In their day, these games really were the road not taken — in terms of adventure games or CRPGs, take your pick. Indeed, I’m kind of blown away by what they managed to achieve, and not even bothered unduly by my rather unsatisfying final experience in The Savage Empire; somehow the fact that I was able to break the narrative so badly and still come out okay in the end counts for more than a final movie that didn’t make much sense.

Unfortunately, gamers of the early 1990s were rather less blown away. Released in October of 1990, The Savage Empire was greeted with a collective shrug which encompassed nonplussed reviews — Computer Gaming World‘s reviewer bizarrely labeled it a “caricature” of Ultima — and lousy sales. With the release of Martian Dreams in May of 1991, Origin re-branded the series Ultima Worlds of Adventure — not that that was an improvement in anything other than word count — but the results were the same. CRPG fans’ huge preference for epic fantasy was well-established by this point; pulpy tales of adventure and Victorian steampunk just didn’t seem to be on the radar of Origin’s fan base. A pity, especially considering that in terms of genre too these games can be read as harbingers of trends to come. In the realm of tabletop RPGs, “pulp” games similar in spirit to The Savage Empire have become a welcome alternative to fantasy and science fiction since that game’s release. Steampunk, meanwhile, was just coming to the fore as a literary sub-genre of its own at the time that Martian Dreams was published; the hugely popular steampunk novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was published less than a year before the game.

For all that the games were thus ahead of their time in more ways than one, Worlds of Ultima provided a sobering lesson for Origin’s marketers and accountants by becoming the first games they’d ever released with the Ultima name on the box which didn’t become major hits. The name alone, it seemed, wasn’t — or was no longer — enough; the first chink in the series’s armor had been opened up. One could of course argue that these games should never have been released as Ultimas at all, that we should have been spared all the plot contortions around the Avatar and that they should have been allowed simply to stand on their own. Yet it’s hard to believe that such a move would have improved sales any. There just wasn’t really a place in the games industry of the early 1990s for these strange beasts that weren’t quite adventure games and weren’t quite CRPGs as most people thought of them. Players of the two genres had sorted themselves into fairly distinct groups by this point, and Origin dropped Worlds of Ultima smack dab into the void in between them. Nor did the lack of audiovisual flash help; while both games do a nice job of conveying the desired atmosphere with the tools at their disposal, they were hardly audiovisual standouts even in their day. At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1991, Martian Dreams shared Origin’s booth with Wing Commander II and early previews of Ultima VII and Strike Commander. It’s hard to imagine it not getting lost in that crowd in the bling-obsessed early 1990s.

So, Origin wrote off their Worlds of Ultima series as a failed experiment. They elected to stop, as Spector puts it, “going to weird places that Warren wants to do games about.” A projected third game, which was to have taken place in Arthurian England, was cancelled early in pre-production. The setting may sound like a more natural one for Ultima fans, but, in light of the way that Arthurian games have disappointed their publishers time and time again, one has to doubt whether the commercial results would have been much better.

The Worlds of Ultima games will occasionally reward major achievements with a lovely graphic like the one above, but it’s clear that their audiovisual budgets were limited.

I’m a little sheepish to admit that I very nearly overlooked these games myself. In light of the awkward engine that powers them, I was totally prepared to dismiss them in a passing paragraph or two, but several commenters urged me to give them a closer look after I published my article on Ultima VI. I’m grateful to them for doing so. And I have a final bit of wonderful news to share: both The Savage Empire and Martian Dreams have been officially re-released as free downloads on GOG.com. Whether you’re a fan of Ultima and/or old-school CRPGs in general or not, I can only suggest as strongly as I know how that you give these games the chance they were denied in their own time, promising yourself beforehand that you’ll make a good solid effort to get used to the interface before you drag them back over to the trashcan of history that’s sitting there on your computer’s desktop. You might just find that your perseverance is amply rewarded.

(Sources: the book Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show: An American Legend by R.L. Wilson; New York Review of Books of August 13, 1981; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of May 17 1991, June 21 1991, and August 7 1991; Computer Gaming World of March/April 1983, March 1986, March 1991 and September 1991; Questbusters of August 1990, January 1991, and August 1991. Online sources include an interview with Warren Spector published in the fanzine Game Bytes in 1993 and republished on The Wing Commander Combat Information Center; RPG Codex‘s 2013 interview with Spector.)


  1. Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

 
58 Comments

Posted by on February 23, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , , ,