Dark or Light

The Making of a Classic Part 1

Adam Tingle Posted:
General Articles 0

In the dark times before Ultima Online tossed its illustrious hat into the realm of online role-playing, players only had MUDs, MUSHes, and D&D boards. Sony, 3DO, and Turbine would all work on their own projects, hoping to pip one another to the post of success, but Origin System's groundbreaking game showed the rest what was possible, and exactly how it could be achieved pointy hat and all.

Without a cosplaying, anachronistic, future astronaut, we the MMORPG players of this world might have to engage in reality and actually go forth into the physical realm with all of its bumps and scrapes: All I can say is thank god for pen and paper imagination. To celebrate Ultima Online's impending 15th anniversary, here is a guide to the making of the game that defined the genre.

The Ultimate RPG (1961-1993)

Born on the 4th of July 1961 in Cambridge, England, Richard Allen Garriott was the son of scientist and astronaut Owen K. Garriott and Helen Garriott a professional artist. Although now widely known by his role-playing alter-ego Lord British, interestingly this alias doesn't spring from the place of his birth (he grew up in Texas) instead it comes from a brief summer stint at computer camp in 1977, when he greeted his fellow campers with "hello" instead of the standard "hi" – children can be strange creatures. Throughout the 7 weeks the young Garriott spent there, he was introduced to D&D, and from that point forth the fantastical character was born.

From an early age Richard always knew that computers would be his thing; from directing his own programming class at high school, to finding part-time work at hobby-shop Computer Land, these new beige boxes caught the young man's attention. Being a product of the 70’s, Richard was also fascinated by Dungeons and Dragons, and so combining these interests work began on bringing these experiences out of imagination, and on to the screen. Using his Apple II, and mastering the programming language BASIC, Garriott begun work on a project he simply titled “D&D”.

The programme was a basic design taking influence from the titular dungeon crawl, and also text-based oddities such as Adventure.  Throughout 1979 Garriott would design his computer role-playing game, revising it, adding to it, showing his friends, and finally when "D&D 28b" was finished, he renamed it Aklabeth, taken from J.R.R.Tolkein's The Silmarillion.

Although primarily a single-player experience, Garriott would always have in his mind’s eye the idea that his games could be social, and while network connection was something relegated to places of study, there was an essence of an idea somewhere within to recreate the social Dungeons and Dragons experience, later recalling “Aklabeth, Ultima 1, and 2, were emulations of Pen and Paper stuff, for me, the game was really always a multiplayer game, or at least that was what it was intended to be”.

Having spent many months slaving over code, Garriott began showing the complete product off to friends, and more importantly to his boss at Computer Land. Recognising a talent in the young, creative teenager, the shop began to sell self-produced copies of Aklabeth, packaged in zip-lock bags with art provided by its creator’s mother. The early CRPG’s retail reception initially gained a resounding shrug, selling less than a dozen copies at the sole store, but luckily one DIY-package managed to make its way to LA, and into the hands of Bill Budge of software publisher California Pacific.

By 1980, Richard Garriott was one of the few 19 year olds he knew that had earned almost half a million dollars ($150,000 in 1980, adjusted for inflation) having sold more than 30,000 copies of his Aklabeth creation.  But the D&D inspired game wasn’t perfect in its developer’s eyes, and so after enrolling at the University of Texas in the fall of that year, Garriott began work on a sequel.

Like its predecessor, Garriott forged on with the theme of fantasy. The overworld map would contain towns and shops, whilst the action came in the form of groundbreaking first-person vector-style graphics. The idea was to “simulate the fantasy” that Garriott and his friends would weave when roleplaying on the table-top, creating a world of monsters, heroic deeds, and world-saving quests. By 1981, Garriott, along with fellow student Ken W. Arnold, had created Ultimate RPG, consciously made for the budding gaming market, and coded on the basis of Alkabeth. Naming it Ultima, he gave the publishing rights to California Pacific, this time shifting 50,000 copies, and making himself annoyingly rich by the age of 21.

In the years to come, Garriott would design a new Ultima adventure every other year, forming his own games development company Origin Systems in the process. Taking the formula of a hero, the Avatar, it was the player’s job save the world from whatever impending doom that may be on the horizon, allowing Britiannia to live on for another day, and Lord British to rule ever more. The first three games would become “The Age of Darkness”, the less linear and more ambitious proceeding trilogy would make up “The Age of Enlightenment”, and the final three titles would be known as “The Age of Armageddon”. Further Ultima spin-offs such as the “Underworld” series would cement the developer’s role as leader of RPG gaming, and from time to time Garriott would knock around the idea of a multiplayer Ultima, but quickly dismiss it due to lacking technology.

Each new Ultima would distil the vision that the young designer of Aklabeth was originally striving for.  Starting afresh each time, every instalment adhered to the Garriott ethos of “simulating fantasy” and even the company slogan echoed this sentiment with “We Create Worlds”. Warren Spector, Origin producer from 89-96, would later reflect "There was a feeling of creating something new, of being on the cutting edge; that was incredibly exciting” this was a studio that would continue to feed the imagination, push the boundaries further, and ultimately try to create that ultimate fantasy experience that the young Garriott had striven for ever since sitting down with his Apple II.

But by 1992, despite the successes of Origin’s flagship series, as well as Wing Commander, and Crusader, the company was plucked from independency by Electronic Arts.  Due to external factors such as the price of floppy discs (OSI games taking up to 8 at the time), the developer's own success necessitating more cash flow to produce software to market demand, and the collapse of the Apple and Commodore 64 market, all combined made Origin’s position precarious. Finally with a heavy heart they succumbed to the security of allying themselves with a publisher such as EA - a publisher they had previously alluded to as murderers in Ultima 7; even though Garriott would later claim the buyout “was only agreed upon when Trip Hawkins exited to form 3DO”.

This move would see the once independent company ultimately digested by the publishing goliath EA, but it also gave them monetary freedom for the time being, and with the companies bankroll provided for, the origins of Ultima Online truly began.

Simulating Fantasy (1994-1995)

In 1994, Origin released their first poorly received Ultima title, Ultima 8: Pagan. A mix between out of place platforming, and with claims that shareholders and external forces had too much leverage over development, later Garriott lamented the missed opportunity “had we done it less hacked, and accurately we would have had a Diablo-style success on our hands”.  The result of this poor release found the illustrious studio for the first time, trying to make up for a fairly lacklustre product. They needed to come up with something befitting of their development lineage: enter Starr Long.

Joining Origin's quality assurance team in 1992, Starr was a college graduate of theatre rather than the DIY games developer of Garriott's ilk. An avid reader of Sci-Fi, fan of skateboarding, and also an ordained minister, he and a fellow co-worker Ken Demarest started playing online games together. Inspired by AOL MUDS such as Neverwinter Nights, and also DOOM, the pair started to realise the importance of this kind of social gaming, and saw an opportunity to take Origin Systems to the forefront of ideas and creative design once again. Reflecting on his experiences, Starr Long told Replay "the Internet was just beginning - it was like 'wow, people don't even physically have to be in the same space anymore, they could get social experiences through the Internet'."

Together they started to knock ideas back and forth, based upon these new experiences, and came up with the premise of a multiplayer Ultima, or "Multima" as they affectionately termed it.  They envisioned a world where players could come together to quest in Britannia, rid the world of Mondain's legacy, Blackthorn's treachery, and The Guardian's evils; it sounded like the perfect fit for the series, and just the sort of boost the company needed.

Long and Demarest pitched "Multima" to the founder of Origin and he was impressed, immediately seeing the potential of the idea, having had scattershot ideas of a similar multiplayer premise for the series. Garriott couldn't however give the go ahead to this project without the permission of EA, and so he explained the ambitions of this new online experience and was met with unenthusiastic eyes. "We went through a period of time where we tried to convince everybody that this would work - it took us a long time to convince Electronic Arts," said Garriott.

The MUDs that had been available since the late 80s were only modest successes, with less than 10,000 subscribers, and it wouldn't be until 1996 that Meridian 59 would climb to 25,000 concurrent users – there was simply not much of a precedent set for this kind of market. Undeterred however, Garriott continued to push and finally came away with a micro-budget of $250,000 to green light production of a prototype; looking back at the UO pitch, producer Rich Vogel remembers “It was given the go-ahead because it had a great name – I mean five million people played Ultima games” if all else failed, EA could rest easy that Garriott's hardcore RPG fan base would help the esoteric idea along.

Initially Ken Demarest was contracted to develop a small prototype utilising the Ultima 6 engine as a network demonstration of how the specifics would work, and later in 95’ Rick Delashmit modified the aforementioned engine to create a death match test, Raph Koster, creative designer, explained “Rick converted Ultima VI to be a 100-person Orks vs. Humans [game]. They ran that as an internal play test. Based on that, Garriott was able to get funding for the final product.”

Interestingly when UO went into production, Richard Garriott stepped back from the day-to-day role within the development of project, instead handing the reigns over to Starr Long. Talking to fans in an IRC discussion, Garriott explained “Ultima IX is in fact my main focus at Origin...in fact UO has been managed and run by Starr Long.. with me watching over his shoulder”. Although the head of the studio would give a creative hand from time to time, it wouldn’t be until Ultima Ascensions’ postponement that he would take an active role in developing the game.

When production started, the team decided that UO would forgo a 3D engine, instead opting for the traditional series’ isometric viewpoint. Hardware 3D was still a few years away, but Garriott argued that the technology used better fitted the essence of the game “I actually preferred top-down 2D, as it allowed you to interact in a very detailed way with the world. I would even argue today that the vast majority of MMOs are about running around, killing, [but] not about interacting with the physical world in detail”. The look and feel of the project would mirror Ultima 7, albeit with slightly better visuals, but this decision would hinge upon how the players could manipulate the world, how they could engage and feel like the experience was as life-like as possible.

Check back tomorrow as we delve into the eventual launch, success, and potential future for the venerable Ultima Online.


Adam Tingle