The Digital Antiquarian Looks At the History of Ultima 6

Jimmy Maher, known to many as The Digital Antiquarian, has once again turned his attentions to the history of Origin Systems and the Ultima series. This time around, he is taking a look at the development of Ultima 6:

The challenge Garriott faced after finishing and releasing that game in March of 1988 was in its way even more emotionally fraught: the challenge of accepting that, just as he’d reached the limits of what he could do alone on the Apple II a couple of years ago, he’d now reached the limits of what any number of people could do on Steve Wozniak’s humble little 8-bit creation. Ultima V still stands today as one of the most ambitious things anyone has ever done on an Apple II; it was hard at the time and remains hard today to imagine how Origin could possibly push the machine much further. Yet that wasn’t even the biggest problem associated with sticking with the platform; the biggest problem could be seen on each monthly sales report, which showed the Apple II’s numbers falling off even faster than those of the Commodore 64, the only other viable 8-bit computer remaining in the American market.

Reports vary on how long and hard Origin tried to make Ultima VI work on the Apple II. Richard Garriott, who does enjoy a dramatic story even more than most of us, has claimed that Origin wound up scrapping nine or even twelve full months of work; John Miles, who had done the bulk of the programming for Ultima V and was originally slated to fill the same role for the sequel, estimated to me that “we probably spent a few months on editors and other utilities before we came to our senses.” At any rate, by March of 1989, the one-year anniversary of Ultima V‘s release, the painful decision had been made to switch not only Ultima VI but all of Origin’s ongoing and future projects to MS-DOS, the platform that was shaping up as the irresistible force in American computer gaming. A slightly petulant but nevertheless resigned Richard Garriott slapped an Apple sticker over the logo of the anonymous PC clone now sitting on his desk and got with the program.

Origin was in a very awkward spot. Having frittered away a full year recovering from the strain of making the previous Ultima, trying to decide what the next Ultima should be, and traveling down the technological cul de sac that was now the Apple II, they simply had to have Ultima VI finished — meaning designed and coded from nothing on an entirely new platform — within one more year if the company was to survive. Origin had never had more than a modestly successful game that wasn’t an Ultima; the only way their business model worked was if Richard Garriott every couple of years delivered a groundbreaking new entry in their one and only popular franchise and it sold 200,000 copies or more.

He also notes that it wasn’t Richard Garriott, per se, who was really the one to turn Ultima 6 into a success for Origin. That credit, Maher gives to Warren Spector:

But arguably the real savior of Ultima VI was not a new computing platform but a new Origin employee: one Warren Spector, who would go on to join Garriott and Chris Roberts — much more on him in a future article — as one of the three world-famous game designers to come out of the little collective known as Origin Systems….Whatever role his acquaintance with Richard Garriott and some of the other folks there played in getting him an interview, it certainly didn’t get him a job all by itself; Spector claims that Dallas Snell, Robert Garriott’s right-hand man running the business side of the operation, grilled him for an incredible nine hours before judging him worthy of employment. (“May you never have to live through something like this just to get a job,” he wishes for all and sundry.) Starting work at Origin on April 12, 1989, he was given the role of producer on Ultima VI, the high man on the project totem pole excepting only Richard Garriott himself.

Age 33 and married, Spector was one of the oldest people employed by this very young company; he realized to his shock shortly after his arrival that he had magazine subscriptions older than Origin’s up-and-coming star Chris Roberts. A certain wisdom born of his age, along with a certain cultural literacy born of all those years spent in university circles, would serve Origin well in the seven years he would remain there. Coming into a company full of young men who had grand dreams of, as their company’s tagline would have it, “creating worlds,” but whose cultural reference points didn’t usually reach much beyond Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, Spector was able to articulate Origin’s ambitions for interactive storytelling in a way that most of the others could not, and in time would use his growing influence to convince management of the need for a real, professional writing team to realize those ambitions. In the shorter term — i.e., in the term of the Ultima VI project — he served as some badly needed adult supervision, systemitizing the process of development by providing everyone on his team with clear responsibilities and by providing the project as a whole with the when and what of clear milestone goals. The project was so far behind that everyone involved could look forward to almost a year of solid crunch time as it was; Spector figured there was no point in making things even harder by letting chaos reign.

Maher also notes an interesting inspiration for Ultima 6 that I, for one, had never heard of before: Dungeon Master.

Dungeon Master might initially seem an unlikely source of inspiration; it’s about as far as you can get from the free-form, plot-and-conversation-heavy Ultima series and still have a game that is identifiable as a CRPG. And yet the proof is in the pudding. Apart from the immediately obvious difference that Dungeon Master used a first-person display while Ultima VI stuck with third person, many or most of Dungeon Master‘s interface innovations were imported wholesale into Ultima VI. The entire game could now be controlled, if the player liked, with a mouse, with all of the keyed commands duplicated as onscreen buttons; this forced Origin to reduce the “alphabet soup” that had been previous Ultima interfaces, which by Ultima V had used every letter in the alphabet plus some additional key combinations, to ten buttons, with the generic “use” as the workhorse taking the place of a multitude of specifics. Also imported almost wholesale was Dungeon Master‘s graphical approach to inventory management, including the soon-to-be ubiquitous “paper doll” method of showing what the player was wearing and carrying.

Also discussed, of course, is Ultima 6’s living world (these days, the term immersive sim would be used to describe it):

Ultima V had introduced the concept of a “living world” full of interactive everyday objects, along with characters who went about their business during the course of the day, living lives of their own. Ultima VI would build on that template. The world was still constructed, jigsaw-like, from piles of tile graphics, an approach dating all the way back to Ultima I. Whereas that game had offered 16 tiles, however, Ultima VI offered 2048, all or almost all of them drawn by Origin’s most stalwart artist, Denis Loubet, whose association with Richard Garriott stretched all the way back to drawing the box art for the California Pacific release of Akalabeth. Included among these building blocks were animated tiles of several frames — so that, for instance, a water wheel could actually spin inside a mill and flames in a fireplace could flicker. Dynamic, directional lighting of the whole scene was made possible by the 256 colors of VGA. While Ultima V had already had a day-to-night cycle, in Ultima VI the sun actually rose in the east and set in the west, and torches and other light sources cast a realistic glow onto their surroundings.

In a clear signal of where the series’s priorities now lay, other traditional aspects of CRPGs were scaled back, moving the series further from its roots in tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. Combat, having gotten as complicated and tactical as it ever would with Ultima V, was simplified, with a new “auto-combat” mode included for those who didn’t want to muck with it at all; the last vestiges of distinct character races and classes were removed; ability scores were boiled down to just three numbers for Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence. The need to mix reagents in order to cast spells, one of the most mind-numbingly boring aspects of a series that had always made you do far too many boring things, was finally dispensed with; I can’t help but imagine legions of veteran Ultima players breathing a sigh of relief when they read in the manual that “the preparation of a spell’s reagents is performed at the moment of spellcasting.” The dodgy parser-based conversation system of the last couple of games, which had required you to try typing in every noun mentioned by your interlocutor on the off chance that it would elicit vital further information, was made vastly less painful by the simple expedient of highlighting in the text those subjects into which you could inquire further.

The complexity of the world model was such that Ultima VI became the first installment that would let the player get a job to earn money in lieu of the standard CRPG approach of killing monsters and taking their loot. You can buy a sack of grain from a local farmer, take the grain to a mill and grind it into flour, then sell the flour to a baker — or sneak into his bakery at night to bake your own bread using his oven. Even by the standards of today, the living world inside Ultima VI is a remarkable achievement — not to mention a godsend to those of us bored with killing monsters; you can be very successful in Ultima VI whilst doing very little killing at all.

Maher also discusses a likely inspiration for the plot of Ultima 6:

When discussing the story of Ultima VI, we shouldn’t ignore the real-world events that were showing up on the nightly news while Garriott and Spector were writing it. Mikhail Gorbachev had just made the impossibly brave decision to voluntarily dissolve the Soviet empire and let its vassal states go their own way, and just like that the Cold War had ended, not in the nuclear apocalypse so many had anticipated as its only possible end game but rather in the most blessed of all anticlimaxes in human history. For the first time in a generation, East was truly meeting West again, and each side was discovering that the other wasn’t nearly as demonic as they had been raised to believe. On November 10, 1989, just as Garriott and Spector were finishing their design notebook, an irresistible tide of mostly young people burst through Berlin’s forbidding Checkpoint Charlie to greet their counterparts on the other side, as befuddled guards, the last remnants of the old order, looked on and wondered what to do. It was a time of extraordinary change and hope, and the message of Ultima VI resonated with the strains of history.

However, after noting this, Maher makes an assertion with which I take (a small amount of) issue:

Firmly ensconced though it apparently is in the middle of the classic run of Ultimas, from Ultima IV through Ultima VII, that form the bedrock of the series’s legacy, Ultima VI is the least cherished of that cherished group today, the least likely to be named as the favorite of any random fan. It lacks the pithy justification for its existence that all of the others can boast. Ultima IV was the great leap forward, the game that dared to posit that a CRPG could be about more than leveling up and collecting loot. Ultima V was the necessary response to its predecessor’s unfettered idealism; the two games together can be seen to form a dialog on ethics in the public and private spheres. And, later, Ultima VII would be the pinnacle of the series in terms not only of technology but also, and even more importantly, in terms of narrative and thematic sophistication.

I’d argue (because of course I would) that this is…not a particularly accurate assessment of the story of either Ultima 7 or Ultima 6. Granted, Ultima 7 has much more polished dialogue, thanks to the involvement of Raymond Benson in that game’s development. However, in essence, Ultima 7’s story is a fairly straightforward murder mystery and chase plot, with some interesting things happening in the margins. Ultima 6, meanwhile, greets the player with what looks very much like a tropey quest to save the kingdom from invading monsters; it then subverts this by giving the monsters a legitimate grievance against the kingdom of Britannia, and against the Avatar in particular. There’s substantially more thematic depth to the story of Ultima 6 than there is to the story of Ultima 7, and the themes that Ultima 6 draws upon are also arguably more timeless, speaking as they do to matters of cultural conflict and racism.

Still, that quibble aside, Maher has put together a great look at the development, history, and reception of Ultima 6, which is well worth a read in full.

7 Responses

  1. Ultima VII is a book – you can play it several times, you rediscover the story. Ultima VI on the other hand is extremely particular. I’ve never managed to play it several times because the discovery could not happen again. I was one of those who were caught by the magnificent box illustration from Denis Loubet, and I wanted to be this triumphant Avatar, killing the demonic Gargoyles… but what a shock when I’ve understood what was really happening ! It was so brilliant, so smart… I was feeling so ashame to have done these misdeeds, in the Avatar armor. It was such a lesson that, as a kid, I would learn for my lifetime – seriously ! I have changed my way of thinking after playing Ultima VI – towards migrants and refugees mostly. And after all these years, the original box with the floppy disks are still two meters away from me in my living room. 🙂

    • WtF Dragon WtF Dragon says:

      I don’t know…I replay Ultima 6 on a yearly basis, and while obviously the impact of the narrative reversal isn’t as profound, there’s still much to be drawn out of the story with each successive playthrough.

      I replay Ultima 7 a fair bit as well (less frequently, admittedly), and I generally ignore the main plot. The more interesting part of Ultima 7 is the stuff that happens on the side (e.g. Alagner); indeed, I typically try to pass U7 with as little interaction with the main plot as possible. The problem with U7, too, is that it’s very on the nose; Batlin is so obviously a crook the first time you meet him, as are most of the Fellowship leadership…they might as well have big, flashing VILLAIN signs over their heads. Whereas U6 tends to be a bit more subtle and nuanced.

      And yes, I think U6 has a lot of resonance in the current political climate. Which is no easy feat for a game produced over a quarter-century ago.

  2. Infinitron says:

    That’s not what “thematic depth” means.

    SausageInYourFace from RPGCodex explains it well:

    “I am having a bit of trouble with this statement as the problem of the story it not so much the theme itself, as how it is presented; mainly that for 90% of the game you are just doing the Ultima McGuffin routine and the actual point of it all is only introduced at the very end. It was probably intended as some kind of plot twist but it doesn’t really work since for most of the game you don’t really know what you are doing and why and then you are hit on the head with a theme at the very end which should have been the center of the game. Ultima 5 – as well as Ultima 7 – have these thematic threads running much more consistently throughout the whole game, which makes their stories much more powerful.”

    • WtF Dragon WtF Dragon says:

      But are you just hit over the head with it toward the end? There’s hints to be found in the first act, especially in the fact that the Gargoyles are only really attacking the Shrines. Nobody seems to know why, and some of us fans have bemoaned the fact that for a continent supposedly at war, Britannia in U6 doesn’t feel very much under siege.

      But perhaps that’s the point, and perhaps it’s significant that the Gargoyles only seem to be attacking the Shrines. Their focus is on the religion (such as it is) of the land; maybe we are meant to wonder why.

      And then there’s the book Iolo is carrying, and the way the whole second act is devoted to figuring out how to read it. That should be a big hint that there’s more to our these menacing red creatures than that they’re a tropey fantasy villain race. Why all the emphasis on understanding them?

      Sin’Vraal, when you meet him, provides still yet more explanation of what’s going on. And so too do some of the other Gargoyles, as well as the books on their side of the world.

      That is, I submit, hardly an example of a game pulling the rug out from under the plot in its last 10%. Albeit the invocation of the concept of the “McGuffin” is amusing since literally the entire main plot of U7 – up to the final battle at the Black Gate – is one huge MacGuffin chase.

      Fortunately, the Alagner side quest is more interesting.

      • Infinitron says:

        Alagner isn’t a side quest, he’s part of the main quest. I don’t think he was what made Ultima VII interesting.

        If you think U7 is just a simple “murder mystery and chase story” then you weren’t paying attention to what the game was trying to say. But we’ve spoken about this before. You seem to have an averse reaction to what U7 did to the Britannia setting that prevents you from looking deeper into it and seeing that.

        I could say more, but I suspect the Antiquarian will be more eloquent than I when the time comes.

      • WtF Dragon WtF Dragon says:

        At its core, that is what U7 is; you spend your time in it chasing a pair of murderers all over the continent, before finally encountering them in literally the last minutes of the game.

        Now, around that, there’s more; there’s the mystery and intrigue of the Fellowship (which is more profound if you actively avoid engaging with actual Fellowship members; once you talk to them, it becomes readily apparent that they’re not on the level). There’s commentary on cults and Scientology. There’s some commentary on racism and classism, and on cultural changes which are inevitable over time.

        And to be fair, it’s all presented in a very polished, exceedingly well-written way that appeals to a lot of people.

        But I submit that it’s all ultimately not nearly as profound or timeless as what U6 has to say, thematically. Cults were a thing in the late 80s and early 90s, but a lot of that commentary rings hollow now. Whereas discovering the personhood and validity of beings that you’d otherwise be conditioned to see as mortal enemies remains a poignant and relevant theme today.

      • WtF Dragon WtF Dragon says:

        Has it occurred to you that perhaps you’re just not particularly willing to accept the suggestion that U7 isn’t the best example of something that the Ultima series has to offer, that you are “averse” to doing so because you’re very invested in the idea that it represents the apex of everything the series is about?