In The Beginning…

Ultima computer role-playing Akalabeth

Computer programming fascinated Richard Garriott from an early age. The creator of the Ultima series was born in 1961 in Cambridge, England to American parents. His father, both engineer and NASA astronaut, was a key source of Garriott’s inspiration. Garriott’s passion for programming, particularly game programming, continued throughout his education. In 1979 while working at Computerland (a late 1970’s/early 80’s computer retail chain), Garriott wrote Akalabeth, a piece of gaming software which was the spiritual forefather of the Ultima series. Prompted by his manager, Garriott decided to market the game through the store. The game attracted interest from California Pacific, who distributed the game for him. Alkalabeth was a ‘moderate’ (Garriott was only 18 at the time) success, selling 30,000 copies, for which he received $5 for each copy sold.

Ultima 1-3 Covers

With the success of Alkalabeth Garriott forged on with a passion. While still a freshman at the University of Texas he wrote Ultima I. Released in June of 1981, it outperformed Alkalabeth, ultimately [sic] selling more than 50,000 copies. With such success, Ultima II and III soon followed. In 1983 Garriott (along with his brother and father) established Origin Systems to publish the games. In total, Garriott would develop nine Ultima games released in three trilogies: The Age of Darkness, The Age of Enlightenment and The Age of Armageddon. 

Ultima Virtue Signalling 

Through the first trilogy the action spanned the land of Sosaria, but from Ultima 4 onwards the story moved to Britannia, a land ruled by one Lord British, (Garriott’s gaming alter-ego), a character players would see reappear throughout the rest of the series (and in other games Garriott published). Viva l’ego!

Ultima 4 Opening Screen

Not content to let lore and adventuring alone define the Ultima games,  Ultima IV: Quest Of The Avatar, introduced a brand-new dynamic to the CRPG genre. Garriott implemented this mechanic by redefining not who the Avatar was, but how he interacted with the people (ie, NPCs) around him. Being a paragon of Britannia’s eight Virtues, how these Virtues manifested through the Avatar’s–and so the player’s–actions now affected the actions and opinions of those he interacted with, including the band of followers the player attracted through the course of the game. Each possessed their own set of moral codes; each capable of reacting to the actions and choices the Avatar/player made, including leaving the party if the player behaved in a way contrary to their own code.

This represented a remarkable advance in computer RPG’s, from both technical and immersive standpoints, one that forced players and game developers alike to rethink how they approached the genre.

Ultima Success

Ultima 7 Black Gate Logo

Ultima VII: Part One – The Black Gate and Part Two – Serpent Isle released in 1992 and 1993, respectively. The games represented the largest and most ambitious entries in the series to date.

The story begins with the player character being teleported to the land of Britannia to resume his role as the Avatar and take part in an investigation into a new religious cult known as the ‘Fellowship’, (which Garriott loosely based on Scientology), a group with possible links to a number of ritualistic murders. As the investigation unfolds the Avatar needs to (again) recruit a party of adventurers to aid him, all the while exploring Britannia to determine what’s actually going on. Over the course of the story it’s discovered that the Fellowship isn’t exactly what they claim – shock – and in fact represent the smiling face of a more cosmic threat.

Ultima 7 Guardian
Ultima 7’s Big Bad, The Guardian

One of Ultima VII’s more significant changes to gameplay was the addition a ‘hunger factor’, where party members complain of needing food or drink if they go without for too long. Now the Avatar–paragon that his is–needs to concern himself with keeping his own flock fed as well as maintaining public opinion. Ain’t management grand?

NPCs throughout Britannia carry out their day-to-day routines. Smiths forge weapons, housewives and children wander the streets. Vendors leave their stalls to return to their homes to sleep. The player can visit stores, pubs and casinos, in addition to the classic adventuring options of exploring dungeons, caves, and the surrounding landscape. As in Ultima IV, every NPC has a distinct personality, able to express joy or horror at different actions taken by the player.

Playing aggressively, with a kill ’em all attitude, ultimately [sic] leads to a less than optimal ending, including possibly alienating certain NPCs, or party members losing faith in you and leaving your merry band. Again, decisions have consequences.

That Garriott exhibited such commitment not only to character interaction, but world building (this article doesn’t begin to touch upon the incredible level of NPC and miscellaneous item interaction Ultima VII affords players), confirms Garriott’s (well-earned) title as one of the great creative minds behind the first (and beyond) generation of CRPGs.

I played this game on the Atari ST back in the 1990’s. I fondly remember just how open it was. I also remember there was no shortage of magic items to be found. If you travelled off the beaten track, or broke one of the virtues ( i.e. break in to houses), one could discover powerful tools. Full disclosure: the game became much easier once I discovered the Magic Carpet and the Hoe of Destruction.

Ultima magic carpet hoe of destruction
Take a Magic Carpet ride with the Hoe of Destruction

The Forge of Virtue was the first expansion to Ultima VII. It added an extra quest line linked to a previous edition of the game.  The Avatar must defeat a dangerous foe from Ultima III and, as a reward, obtain an all-powerful weapon. Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle continues the Avatar’s Black Gate adventure by tracking the guilty party from the previous installment. The game whisks the Avatar to  Sosaria, the last bastion of the previous world before Britannia, last seen in Ultima I-III.

Unfortunately, the game’s development cycle was shortened and not fully developed due to developer deadlines. The final version languished in development for years.

Electronic Arts Claims Another IP

Ultima Electronic Arts

Eventually Garriott sold Origin Systems to Electronic Arts in 1992 for $30 million. The last installment he would be involved with was Ultima IX: Ascension, which released in 1999. After some (legal) controversy, EA ended up owning the brand while Garriott maintained the rights the rights to specific characters.

Electronic Arts launched the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) Ultima Online in 1997. It was one of the first games of its kind to launch. Garriott would return to work on its sequel but production halted before its release in 2004. While the (aging) Ultima Online servers were closed down by EA, there remains a strong following for the game, which to this day continues to run on private servers, keeping the game alive for a host of dedicated Avatars.

Ard Ultima Ad Astra

Richard garriott
I’m rich, bitches!

Garriott used his time away from game development to achieve a lifelong ambition of following in his father’s footsteps to became a (private) astronaut. In 2008 he travelled to the International Space Station on board a Soyuz rocket. While on board he carried out a number of education outreach projects with schools. His experiences are further told in his documentary Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott’s Road to the StarsHe has since decided to venture back in to the computer game market setting up the company Portalarium, and in 2010 launched a Kickstart campaign to fund his new game Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues which raised just under $2 million.

As fans–of all ages–of computer role-playing games, we owe a huge debt to Garriott’s persistence of vision.

Hailing from Dunfermline, Scotland. I am a video gaming, sci fi geek, comic book reading, novel reading, concert going, movie watching, boardgaming Scotsman. The following words are my own metadata: Scotland, HeartOfMidlothian, Alien, SongOfFireandIce, Xenomorphs, Deadpool, XMen, MoonKnight, Playstation4, ElderScrolls, Fallout, ReadDeadRedemption, GodOfWar, Star Wars, RedDwarf, Lovecraft, DoctorWho If any of these words resonate with you....we could be friends.