The Ultima Codex Interviews Bill Armintrout

These days, Bill Armintrout runs The Miniatures Page, a web magazine for fans of tabletop minifig gaming. Before that, however, he designed a handful of board games, and wrote and edited a number of books for Steve Jackson Games, Bard Games, and as a freelancer.

And he cultivated a very repsectable CV as a computer game designer, as well. He got his start in the industry as a writer for Ultima 7 Part 2: Serpent Isle, and was soon directing the project personally after a number of the company’s directors quit rather suddenly. And while Serpent Isle is probably his most well-known game, it was not the only one he contributed to whilst at Origin Systems. He wrote AI code for Pacific Strike, worked as a designer for BioForge, and directed the canceled BioForge 2 project (among other things).

He also worked at a number of other game development companies in the years after his departure from Origin, including Second Nature Interactive, Psygnosis, and Vicarious Visions.

And he’s been quite generous with his time toward Ultima fans; some of you may recall that he answered a few questions about Serpent Isle’s original design a while ago, for Old Aiera.

That generosity has not, it would seem, slipped during the intervening years, as Mr. Armintrout very graciously agreed to answer another battery of questions from myself and Sergorn Dragon, which the Ultima Codex is pleased to present here.

1 Response

  1. Sanctimonia Sanctimonia says:

    Thanks WtF and Sergorn for a great interview. I love hearing stories like these, as I’ve always wondered what was going on at Origin during this period (and earlier).

    Since the collapse of Origin has always been a hot topic around here I’d like to quote further evidence from this interview that poor management was largely responsible. Read, and weep:

    We also had a late start, first due to the change from a ‘pirate game’ to a ‘non-pirate game’, and also because we needed the ‘final’ Ultima VII code base, and that game ran behind schedule.

    We could see from observing the Ultima VII team that there was a lot of animosity over there between different groups, and much miscommunication — the designers once told me they were waiting for a dueling system to be added to the game, and the programmers instead gave them weather! (They never got a duelling system.)

    In what I like to think of as The Night the Directors Left, three of the directors (project leads) at Origin quit all at once.

    When Jeff departed, Warren (our producer) let us know that the pirate idea was dead, too. He also told us that Richard Garriott wasn’t too excited about the whole “continent is the Great Earth Serpent” idea, so that was nixed, too.
    [snip]
    The only surprise? [Garriott] said his only disappointment was that we hadn’t used the idea of the continent being The Great Earth Serpent!!!??? (A miscommuncation somewhere!)

    I would have loved to work on another [Ultima title], but I wasn’t in Lord British’s unit of the company (which made all the main Ultimas), and I was in another unit by then, which didn’t do Ultima sequels.

    The next problem was to scan in the photos, but in those days scanners were rare at Origin — there was [a scanner] in the Marketing Department, but we couldn’t get permission to use it.

    To my complete surprise, I discovered late in development that someone had rewritten the conversations involving Lydia, to make her not such a ‘bad girl’ after all. Apparently, someone in management was unhappy about how “his wife” was being portrayed in Serpent Isle! This was done behind the back of the Serpent Isle team, and could potentially have created plot problems or even bugs in the game…I don’t know why, if they wanted something changed, they didn’t simply ask.

    That was the idea. However, this cut — while it looked very dramatic — actually cut conversations from the game, not the programming-intensive types of usecode that were the scheduling bottleneck. So I’m doubtful that this had any impact on the schedule! I voiced my concerns to management at the time, but because I was new to the company and computer games, my opinion didn’t have a lot of weight.

    To my shock, management announced that the [sex] scene was being cut from the game! There was complete silence — I think the team members were all in shock. I thought that it was the wrong decision, but I said that if they wanted it cut, I would go in and remove it (since I was the most familiar with the usecode for that part of the game). But for whatever reason, management never gave the final order to ‘remove it’, and so Frigidazzi made it into Ultima history!