The Digital Antiquarian: The Road to Ultima 5


I have been sitting on this for about a week, so many of you have probably heard it elsewhere. Regardless, there’s a lengthy and thoroughly excellent article up at The Digital Antiquarian concerning Ultima 5. And not just Ultima 5, actually; the article is more or less a direct continuation from the Antiquarian’s previous write-ups about the creation and release of Ultima 4, and so looks (in part) at the process of how Ultima 5 came to be.

The larger part of the article, though, concerns the political and economic machinations that went on between Origin Systems and Electronic Arts. Because, yes, well before EA bought Origin, the two companies did in fact partner up to release another Ultima game: Ultima 4.

The origin of Origin’s EA problem dated back to August of 1985, about a month before the release of Ultima IV. By this point distribution was starting to become a real issue for a little publisher like Origin, as the few really big publishers, small enough in number to count on one hand, were taking advantage of their size and clout to squeeze the little guys off of store shelves. Knowing he had a hugely anticipated game on his hands with Ultima IV, one that with the proper care and handling should easily exceed the considerable-in-its-own-right success of Ultima III, Robert also knew he needed excellent distribution to realize its potential. He therefore turned to EA, one of the biggest of the big boys of the industry.

The agreement that resulted was quite the coup for EA as well as Origin. Thanks to it, they would enjoy a big share of the profits not just from The Bard’s Tale, the hit CRPG they had just released under their own imprint, but also from Origin’s Ultima IV. Together these two games came to dominate the CRPG field of the mid-1980s, each selling well over 200,000 copies. For a company that had never had much of anything to do with this genre of games before, it made for one hell of a double whammy to start things off.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the deal broke down:

All went well between Origin and EA for the first eighteen months. The trouble started shortly after Richard’s move back to Austin, when he got word of EA’s plans to release a rather undistinguished CRPG called Deathlord that was even more derivative of Ultima than was the norm. As Strategic Simulations, Incorporated, had learned to their chagrin a few years earlier in the case of their own Ultima clone Questron, Richard didn’t take kindly to games that copied his own work too blatantly. When EA refused to nix their game, and also proved uninterested in negotiating to license the “game structure and style” as SSI had done, Richard was incensed enough to blow up the whole distribution deal.

Richard and Robert believed that Origin would be on firm legal ground in withdrawing from the distribution agreement at the onset of the third year because EA was projected to have purchased just $6.6 million worth of product from Origin by September 1, 1987, way short of the goal of $9.3 million. Origin informed EA of their intentions and commenced negotiating a new distribution agreement with another of the big boys, Brøderbund, currently riding even higher than EA on the strength of The Print Shop and Carmen Sandiego.

…it was the Ultima I situation that most ruffled EA’s feathers. When the rights to the first game of the series, having passed through the hands of the long-defunct California Pacific and then Sierra, reverted back to Richard in 1986, Origin assigned several programmers to rewrite it from scratch in assembly language rather than BASIC, adding graphical upgrades and interface enhancements along the way to bring it at least nominally up to date. Already a semi-legendary game, long out of print on the Apple II and never before available at all on the Commodore 64 or MS-DOS, the new and improved Ultima I carried with it reasonably high commercial hopes. While not the new Ultima, it was a new Ultima for the vast majority of Lord British fans, and should ease some of the disappointment of not being able to get Ultima V out that year. But in the wake of the Deathlord dust-up it became clear to EA that Origin was deliberately holding Ultima I back, wanting to tempt their prospective next distributor with it rather than give EA their fair share of its earnings. This…well, this pissed EA right the hell off. And, then as now, pissing off EA wasn’t usually a very good idea.

What transpired next is a bit complicated, so do be sure to click on through to read all the details. In essence, EA took a look at the contract with Origin, found a few places where they could shave dollars off of their financial obligations to Richard Garriott’s company, and then dropped a couple million dollars of essentially random product orders on Origin to fulfil their end of the deal.

You’re probably wondering what on earth EA is thinking in throwing away almost $2 million on any old anything at all just to retain Origin as a distributee. Far from cutting off their nose to spite their face, they’re playing hardball here; what they’ve just done is far more dangerous for Origin than it is for them. To understand why requires an understanding of “overstock adjustments,” better known as returns. It’s right there in the original contract: “Vendor [Origin] agrees to issue credit to EA based on the original purchase price for the return of resalable overstock made any time beyond 90 days of original receipt.” This provision gives EA the ability to crush Origin, accidentally or on purpose, by over-ordering. Origin can honor the order, only to have it all come back to them along with a bill big enough to bury them when EA doesn’t sell it on. Or Origin can refuse to honor the order and get buried under a nasty breach-of-contract lawsuit. Or they can come back to EA hat in hand and ask nicely if both parties can just forget the whole thing ever happened and continue that third year of their agreement as was once planned.

Fortunately, Origin managed to wriggle out of this particular trap:

…In rushing to become a distributee of Brøderbund, they’d found shelter with a company with the resources to go toe-to-toe with EA; Doug Carlston, founder and president of Brøderbund, was himself a lawyer. Brøderbund took Origin’s cause as their own, and a settlement agreement presumably entailing the payment of some sort of penalty from Origin and/or Brøderbund to EA was reached in fairly short order. (The actual settlement agreement is unfortunately not included in the Strong’s collection.) Origin signed a two-year distribution contract with Brøderbund, and all of EA’s worst suspicions were confirmed when the revamped Ultima I shipped on the very first day of the new agreement. And that wasn’t even Origin’s last laugh: Deathlord, the match that had lit the whole powder keg, got mediocre reviews and flopped. True to his tradition of adding references to his contemporary personal life into each Ultima, Richard added the words “Electronic Arts” to the in-progress Ultima V’s list of forbidden swear words (“With language like that, how didst thou become an Avatar?”). Just for good measure, he also built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” on the grounds of Britannia Manor. Like most monarchs, Lord British apparently didn’t forget a slight quickly.

This accounts, by the way, for why there were so many subtle — and not-so-subtle — references to EA and Trip Hawkins in the middle games of the Ultima series.

At any rate, lest you think the Antiquarian concludes the article by noting how Brøderbund basically saved Origin Systems from ruin, I’ll just note that in all the above, what isn’t much discussed is the actual development of Ultima 5. That, too, is included in the article, and because I have already excerpted quite a lot of text here, I’ll suggest that you head on over to read the rest for yourself.

One other note: the article also discusses the struggle and squabble that went on between Richard Garriott and his brother Robert concerning…well, a few different things, including where Origin should be headquartered. It gives new meaning to this video, if nothing else:

6 Responses

  1. Infinitron says:

    It’s a bit unseemly that the community didn’t know EA distributed Ultima 4 until now. It’s always been assumed that every Ultima from 3 up until and not including 7 was completely self-published by Origin, and that’s what Wikipedia says. We need to double-check all our assumptions now. I guess Broderbund had a hand in distributing 6 and 7?

  2. Stirring Dragon says:

    Hey I’m just glad my box of Ultima IV doesn’t have extra EA logos slapped all over it. 🙂

    The Ultima IV box is really more a work of art anyway. It doesn’t even have the traditional marketing use of game screen shots on the back that pretty much every game did. In fact, I think all the Ultimas up to IV left out the back of the box screen shots, which probably bugged some people but I actually think it made it a bit more intriguing that way. Of course there was already an established fan base by then and the Ultima fans did put a lot of trust in Garriott. This allowed him to get away with marketing the game without any back of the box screen shots. Starting with Ultima V they started adding in the traditional back of the box screen shots though for some reason. Maybe marketing pressure?