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Chapter 23. Ultima (1980): The Immaculate Conception of the Computer Role-Playing Game

Chapter 23. Ultima (1980): The Immaculate Conception of the Computer Role-Playing Game

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Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

Screenshot from Akalabeth.

on the fly. Garriott claims to have spent $200 on the plastic zipper

storage bags and cover sheets, undoubtedly one of the most serendipitous investments in all of game history.1

Screenshot of the self-running

demo from Ultima.

According to Garriott, one of the eight copies he sold of the game

ended up on the desk of California Pacific Computer Company.

The publisher flew Garriott from Texas to California, where they

worked out a deal for wider distribution. The game proved a success for Garriott and the publisher, but Lord British was just getting


See David Taylor’s 1992 interview with Garriott at http://www.uo.com/archive/


Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

started. He felt that Akalabeth had been a hobby project, an

amateurish production whose unexpected success owed more to

luck than his own skill and talents. Nevertheless, Akalabeth provided him with the capital and confidence to pursue a more ambitious goal—a game targeted squarely at the fledgling computer

games market. That project was Ultima, which—together with its

sequels—not only set sales records but helped expand the market

from a tiny niche to the multibillion dollar juggernaut it is today.

Garriott’s determination to up the ante with each new Ultima

earned him a reputation as one of the world’s best game developers, and his eagerness to take full advantage of the latest hardware

and programming routines kept him (and fans) on the cutting

edge of technology. In time, gamers and critics would look to the

latest Ultima as a paradigm shift—not just a new installment in

the series, but the next stage of gaming itself. Garriott’s ambition

and perfectionism often caused clashes with his publishers, who

felt that his more radical ideas were unsound. Indeed, after Sierra

On-Line failed to see things his way, he founded his own company,

Origin Systems, in 1983, to publish Ultima III. Garriott proved himself an able publisher, selecting and releasing projects that were

nearly as popular and influential as his own games.2

What was it, though, about the Ultima series that can explain

its broad appeal? How did it rise to dominance over its contemporaries, which include Sir-Tech’s Wizardry (starting in 1981; Apple II

and others) and Epyx’s Apshai series (starting 1979; TRS-80 and

others)?3 Perhaps the best way to begin answering these questions

is with a closer look at Lord British, whose flamboyant public persona and concern with such “trivial” issues as packages and packins helped make the series stand out against the competition.

Garriott’s nickname was bestowed on him by some of his older

schoolmates at Clear Creek High School in League City, Texas,

ostensibly because they thought he spoke with a British accent.

Although Garriott claims he never affected such an accent (at least

not intentionally), it’s easy to imagine that even at this early stage,

he found many creative ways to express his keen interest in medieval life and fantasy fiction. Always a fan of role-playing, the Society

of Creative Anachronisms (SCA), and renaissance fairs (one such

festival even makes an appearance in Ultima IV ), Garriott enjoyed

re-creating the medieval life. He dressed up in medieval costumes

for game conventions, and later bought a medieval-style castle,

appropriately named Britannia Manor. During an interview with a

public television station, Garriott remarked that “my gaming life and


Origin would still rely on the distribution networks of other companies, such as



For more about these and other CRPG series, see author Barton’s book Dungeons

and Desktops (A K Peters, Ltd, 2008).



Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

my real life are very related to each other,” an insight that goes a long

way toward explaining the series’ unique appeal.4 It’s hard to imagine a developer who could immerse himself as deeply in his subject

matter as Lord British. The son of a noted astronaut, Garriott never

lacked for encouragement or example, and could inspire other

Back of the box for Epyx’s updated

Temple of Apshai Trilogy.


See http://www.klru.org/austinnow/archives/garriott/richard_garriott.php.

Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

people as well. It’s rare today for a developer to attain the personal

fame and celebrity of Lord British—perhaps only Roberta Williams

of Sierra On-Line loomed as large during the 1980s (see Chapter 11,

“King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown (1984): Perilous Puzzles, Thorny


Garriott’s perfectionism extended beyond the game to the packaging and extras. He was convinced that the buying public would

take games more seriously if they came in well-designed boxes

and included memorable souvenirs or trinkets (called “feelies”).

These included full-color cloth maps of Britannia and small metal

ankhs. Most publishers were skeptical, because the quality box and

extensive printed documentation would contribute to higher costs

(which would ultimately be passed on to consumers, of course).

However, few if any gamers objected to these materials. Indeed, it’s

important to realize that many of the joys associated with Ultima

came from reading the well-written manuals, admiring the box

and map art, and cherishing the feelies. Those who acquired the

game illegally (or modern users playing them in an emulator) have

missed out.5

Let’s turn our attention, though, to the game itself. Though

of course primitive by today’s standards, Ultima helped lay the

groundwork for most later CRPGs. Of particular note here is

the top-down, tile-based graphics. This key innovation enabled

Garriott to build what felt like a large, expansive gameworld,

all represented onscreen. What’s even more impressive is that

Garriott and his friend Ken “Sir Kenneth” Arnold were able to

achieve this using only Apple BASIC, a simple but effective programming language for the Apple II computer. The overhead view

was used whenever the main character (known after the fourth

game as “The Avatar”) roams outside or in towns or villages.

However, when the character descends into a dungeon, the perspective shifts to the same first-person, wire-frame mode seen

in Akalabeth; Garriott had recycled these routines from his earlier endeavor. Garriott also added plenty of new features, including quests and a definite ending. There was also a clearly defined

mission: destroy the evil wizard Mondain, hated ruler of Sosaria.

Achieving this goal required traveling back in time to destroy

a gem that granted the wizard immortality. Naturally, traveling

back in time wasn’t easy—in fact, the player had to travel to outer

space! The fact that the game included both fantasy and sci-fi

elements generated a great deal of buzz; it was one of the most

ambitious games players had ever seen.

The underlying role-playing mechanics were fairly simple.

Players are given 90 points to distribute among six stats (strength,


See author Loguidice’s “Game Packaging: A Look to the Past when Treasures Beyond

the Game Were in the Box” at http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/node/225.



Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

agility, stamina, charisma, wisdom, and intelligence), and can

play as a fighter, cleric, wizard, or thief. There are also four races

to choose from, one of which was hobbits—an obvious allusion

to J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy works.6 What is perhaps most

unusual is that players had to either “buy” hit (health) points for

the character, which were available from kings, or receive them

automatically upon leaving a dungeon. The character was also in

constant need of food and water; running out of these precious

items would result in instant death. Thankfully, an option existed

to resurrect the character, though he ran the risk of materializing

on a water tile and being unable to move.

Screenshot from the

Commodore 64 version

of Ultima II.

Garriott turned to Sierra On-Line in 1982 to publish the sequel,

Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress. California Pacific had

gone bankrupt, and Garriott may have been intrigued by the possibilities of working with such a noted and innovative publisher.

Although the relationship was short-lived and soon went sour,

Sierra agreed to let Garriott include a cloth map within each box.

The new game offered several key improvements, most notably the option to talk to other characters. It was, like the earlier


Akalabeth is also a Tolkien reference, albeit a far more obscure one from Tolkien’s

Silmarillion. These allusions aren’t surprising, given that Garriott refers to himself

as a “big believer in what I call Tolkien game design. I believe we––as developers––

must know much more about the science, philosophy, language, and history than

ever comes out in the game.” For the source of this quotation, see http://www


Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

game, an immense undertaking that included both fantasy and

sci-fi elements. It also marked a major leap for Garriott as a programmer, since he was now programming in assembly language

rather than BASIC. The more advanced language allowed for far

more efficient routines and much smoother gameplay. In any

case, it says something about Garriott’s personality that he would

have risked creating a new game with a difficult language he

hadn’t mastered; indeed, he was learning as he went. As we might

expect, the finished product had its share of bugs.

The game was successful, but Garriott had become disillusioned with Sierra. One problem concerned the IBM PC port of

Ultima II, which hadn’t been discussed in his contract, since that

platform didn’t exist (or at least wasn’t viable) when it was drafted.

Garriott thought Sierra was bilking him on royalties. Another

problem was that Sierra felt its licensing agreement extended

to making new Ultima games, even if Garriott wasn’t involved

in their production. This is the origin of the infamous Ultima:

Escape from Mt. Drash, a 1983 game for the Commodore VIC-20.

This wretched game added insult to injury with its storyline. The

character had to escape from a prison, where he was being held

by evil “garrintrots,” a word that bears a suspicious likeness to

“Garriott.” However, Garriott apparently didn’t hear about the

game until after he’d broken ties with the company, and it sold

very few copies.7 After breaking with Sierra, Garriott decided to

form his own software publisher, Origin Systems, with his father,

his brother, and a friend named Chuck “Chuckles” Bueche.

The first Ultima game to debut under the new label was Ultima

III: Exodus. By this time, Garriott felt that he had at last mastered

assembly language and was ready to put his freshly honed skills

to the test. The third game, which became the company’s flagship product, introduced a number of bold changes, including

the ability to create and control a party of adventurers rather

than the lone Avatar. In an interview with Shay Addams, Garriott

acknowledged that he was inspired by Wizardry, the series that

represented Ultima’s key rival of the early 1980s.8 Whether a

player should create and/or control a single character or a whole

party has long been an issue with the genre, though most modern

games have opted for the former. The common belief is that the

party-based games are better for sophisticated tactical combat,

whereas single-character games give developers tighter control

over the story, characters, and structure.

Combat was also altered, now adopting a turn-based system

with time limits; if players didn’t move fast enough, the mon-


In fact, it’s clear that the game received only a limited production run and distribution, making it a much sought-after and very pricey collectible today.


See Shay Addams’s The Official Book of Ultima (# Compute! Books, 1990).



Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

Title screen from Ultima III.

sters got a free swing at the characters. This model may have

served as the inspiration for the Active Time Battle system of the

Final Fantasy series (see Chapter 7, “Final Fantasy VII (1997):

It’s Never Final in the World of Fantasy”). There were also loads

of new magical spells and weapons, including ranged weapons

like bows. The dungeons, which were now central to the mission, had been upgraded from the monochromatic wireframe to

solid color (perhaps the only similarity between this game and

Escape from Mt. Drash). The story has the party chasing after

Exodus, the child of Mondain and Minax (the villains of the previous games). It also omits the sci-fi elements that characterized the earlier games. Finally, Garriott incorporated a dynamic

musical score that took advantage of Sweet Micro Systems’s new

Mockingboard card for the Apple II. The Mockingboard compensated greatly for the Apple’s limited sound capabilities and is a

good early example of how Garriott pushed the industry forward

by catering to high-end gamers, rather than the far more numerous low-end gamers.

Exodus was a triumph for the series and a best-seller for

Origin. It established the company as a world-famous developer and Lord British as a master craftsman of CRPGs. The game

was ported to most of the popular platforms of the era, including the Nintendo Entertainment System, and is certainly the best

of the early series. GameSpot selected it as one of its “15 Most

Influential Games of All Time,” citing it as the inspiration for later

hits such as BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate (1998; Apple Macintosh, PC).

The immense popularity of Exodus had made Garriott a powerful and influential figure in the industry, but he didn’t necessarily

feel giddy—indeed, he began to feel guilty about his previous work.

Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

To put it comically—in the Stan Lee sense—he felt that “with great

power comes great responsibility.” He believed that most games,

including his own, did little to promote good, ethical conduct in

players, instead rewarding them for pillaging and plundering.

Box and contents from the

Apple II version of Ultima IV.

The result of Garriott’s soul-searching was Ultima IV: Quest of

the Avatar, a 1985 release that debuted the “Age of Enlightenment,”

a trilogy of games exploring morality and society. The gameplay

was reworked substantially from the previous game, and the difference was visible immediately. Rather than create a character or

party based on stats, players were asked a series of questions pertaining to moral dilemmas. The system was based on eight virtues:

humility, sacrifice, compassion, justice, valor, spirituality, honor,

and honesty, each of which was linked to a particular character

class. The goal was to let the player make a character that would

truly conform to his or her own outlook and moral values, as well

as take the game well away from its roots in “hack and slash.”

Garriott took the real-life social aspect of the game quite seriously, and seems to have genuinely desired to use his position to

improve society. The manual speaks of the game as a “search for a

new standard, a new vision of life for which our people may strive,”

in short, a game that would make players into better people. This

spiritual aspect of the game was reinforced with another feelie, this

time a small metal ankh.



Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

Title screen from Ultima IV.

Quest of the Avatar was another massive hit for Origin, outselling its predecessor and reaping praise from critics. It remains the

favorite of many long-time fans of the series, and has shown up on

plenty of “all time” lists; Computer Gaming World voted it the #2

game of all time in 1996, and 1UP.com named it as the twenty-first

Box and contents from the

Apple II version of Ultima V.

Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

Title screen from Ultima V.

of its “Essential 50” list. After Quest of the Avatar, Garriott set himself to converting the earlier games into full assembly language,

updating the audiovisuals and releasing the set as Ultima Trilogy in

1987. The timing was perfect for such a compilation, as the countless thousands who had been introduced to the series with Quest

of the Avatar now had a convenient way to familiarize themselves

with its backstory. The trilogy sold exceptionally well, and it’s likely

these versions that most people have in mind when they discuss

the first three Ultima games.

The next game in the series, Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny

(1988), was the last to be developed on the venerable old

Apple II platform—it was also the last time Garriott would take

an active hand in the coding. Whereas the first game had been

about the Avatar’s own quest for virtue, this game put players in

a more ambiguous position—what happens when the state tries

to force its own interpretations of moral virtues on its people?

As players explored the world, they found that some bad people

prospered and some good people were condemned; the lines

between good and evil were often quite blurry. Ultima VI: The

False Prophet brought the series up to the new VGA standard on

the PC.9 It was the best-looking game of the series so far, with

2,048 different tiles in 256 colors. It also had support for the

Roland and AdLib sound cards, expensive but gamer-friendly

alternatives to the IBM PC’s single-channel internal speaker. As

with his support of the Mockingboard earlier, here Garriott was

a driving force behind the wider adoption of these graphic and

audio standards. The moral theme this time was racism and


Like the earlier games, The False Prophet received multiple ports.



Chapter 23 ULTIMA (1980)

xenophobia, and again players were faced with tough decisions

with disturbing consequences.

Box back from Ultima VI.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate, released in 1992 for the PC, was

again a paradigm shift from earlier games and is often regarded

as the best in the series. The game’s primary feature is a huge

and robust interactive world, which was far more detailed than

anything gamers had experienced. Players could, for instance,

plant seeds, grow wheat, bake it into bread, and sell it at the

market. It also took advantage of the mouse, which had by

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Chapter 23. Ultima (1980): The Immaculate Conception of the Computer Role-Playing Game

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