“A small win for the scruffy geeks.” – An Interview With Brian Martin


Brian Martin

Ultima Codex: You were credited as being a designer on Ultima VII: The Black Gate. What specifically were your responsibilities on the project?

Brian Martin: To call me a “designer” on this game is an overstatement. This was the first Ultima I worked on and I came in late to help fill out the world. We were actually called Technical Design Assistants (TDA’s) at the time – guys like John Watson, ‘Manda (both of whom did *way* more on this game than I did), a few others and I were the first TDA’s. The term “Designer” was reserved for the likes of Richard and Chris because back then “Designer” meant the one person who envisioned, designed and coded the games. As games got bigger and needed more people, the guys like Rich & Chris couldn’t do it all and needed more people — artists, additional coders and then world builders. Those world builders morphed into people who wrote scripts (use code as it was called), created extra art, and wrote conversations. We did eventually get called designers, but we were TDA’s for a while.


Sir Pendaran

So I seem to have digressed. My duties on U7 were world building and creating a small side plot. To be honest, I forget exactly where that side plot was but I think it was in Skara Brae [Actually, it was Serpent’s Hold.WtFD]. Following Richard’s example, I populated it with the SCA personas of my friends, my wife and myself. As I recall, the side plot involved someone defacing a statue of Lord British and I think I made myself (Sir Pendaran) the bad guy.

In addition to that I just helped to flesh out the world by placing items, monsters and other stuff around the world. I didn’t have near the input into/impact on the game that people like John, ‘Manda, Ken Demarest, Herman Miller and many other people did. Oh, and yeah; that Richard Garriott guy had a fair amount of impact on the game. 😉

Ultima Codex: What was Austin like before the tech-boom?

Brian Martin: It was a lot smaller. A lot smaller. I just read that the Austin metro area now has 1.83 million people in it. I know that’s not a lot compared to the major metro areas in the country, but its enormous compared to pre-boom Austin. Austin wasn’t just a college town like it was in the 80s (when I moved here) but it was a small city. The suburb I live in has grown from 7,000 people to around 50,000 since 1993 so that says something.

Specific to the game business, it was different because Origin was the only game in town if you’ll pardon the awful pun. That meant that people in Austin who wanted to work in games only had one choice: Origin. The TDA group was told once that people were standing in line for our jobs and if we didn’t like the way things were, we could just leave. That changed when the boom hit and there were more game companies in town. Suddenly Origin had to compete with other companies for talented people. There was a *lot* of turnover and salaries really took off. Before the boom, programmers would work for a lot less money just to work in the game business. After the boom, we all started making a lot more money. To be honest, it became less fun at that point. I think we felt more bonded when we were a small (less than 100 people) company that were working our tails off for each other. Later, we were larger and making more money but it was more of a job. I know that it felt that way for me. On the plus side, though; we could afford to buy decent cars and actual houses (rather than renting), so it was worth it. But still, you kind of longed for that earlier time when we were in it for each other.

Ultima Codex: Give us your best (favorite) Origin story that happened during development.

Brian Martin: For U7? I have to say, I’m having a hard time remembering any good stories from that game. Like I said, I came in near the end. I can remember the Shelton brothers (QA guys) joking about management taking the chains off of people for the publicity shots (the joke being that we were chained to our desks).

Now that I think of it, I do have a cool story from U7. Richard Garriott really is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and he would often think of ways to say thanks for the team for our hard work and long hours. Richard’s favorite restaurant at the time was a place called The Emerald. It was a great place — really expensive with classic European cuisine. Richard paid for The Emerald to cater a lunch for the team. For some reason — I guess we didn’t have room inside of our office for the whole team to eat — the team sat in the hallway outside the office to eat our wonderful meal. The real bonus was that we always got dirty looks from our neighbors in the building. We were scruffy game developers and they were professionals in suits. Some of them smelled the food and came out to see what was going on. It was kind of fun to tell them that the fabulous meal was by invitation only. So it was a small win for the scruffy geeks.

This is also a good example of what it was like to work for Rich in the pre-EA days. There were times when he would tell the team that everyone needed a break and he’d take us down to Zilker Park (a great park on Town Lake, a classic Austin place) and he’d buy lunch for everyone and we’d play Frisbee and just hang out and relax/unwind. It made those 12 hour days in crunch mode a lot more tolerable. Later, after the EA purchase, Richard couldn’t do that anymore — but to be fair we were making real money by then. So, it’s that trade off that I mentioned earlier.

Ultima Codex: Who were the ‘unsung heroes’ of development for U7?

Brian Martin: Wow, there were a lot. Ken Demarest was the lead developer and he did a great job. Herman Miller was (and I guess still is) an amazing programmer. Herman handled all of the low level, really core, code and was brilliant. Mike McShaffry came in kind of late and just tore it up (in a good way). I remember someone calling Mike a code machine and they were right. John Watson was certainly an unsung hero. He loved those games and worked insanely hard on them and he always had a smile on his face. ‘Manda is another name that immediately comes to mind. Really all of the people that worked the 12 hour days for months — programmers, artists, designers and QA — who didn’t get the big money and the glory were unsung heroes. Probably the QA guys because their job was so thankless. Keep in mind; we didn’t begrudge Richard for getting the big bucks and the fame: he created the whole thing. Without him there wouldn’t have been an Ultima or an Origin. We understood why Rich was the rock star and weren’t upset by that.

Ultima Codex: Do you still keep in touch with any of the old team?

Brian Martin: I do with some but too many. I’d like to say that it’s just because I wasn’t on U7 for very long but I haven’t stayed in touch with many of the old Origin crowd. Unfortunately I’m not very good at staying in touch with people and not being a big time gamer, I run in different circles than most of those folks. I still keep touch with a few folks via Facebook and there is one guy — Scott Jones — who worked at Origin (post U7) who is one of my dearest friends. I should do a better job of keeping up with people.

Ultima Codex: What was Ultima 7 coded in? Any idea what the graphics were created in?

Brian Martin: I think it was coded in C. I’m pretty sure that it was pre-C++. You’re talking to a creative guy here, not a technical guy. 😛

Ultima Codex: What kind of system (workstation) did you have for the development of the game? Did you have the latest-and-greatest, or were you developing on a ‘slower’ system?

Brian Martin: The newest, biggest and baddest systems went to the programmers first, and their old machines trickled down to the artists, then the designers and then finally to QA. In those pre-3D days, the programmers needed the processing power for compiling.

I think I had a 386/33 machine on U7. Talk about your processing power!

Ultima Codex: Were there any issues or problems during development?

Brian Martin: Yes. Always. We had issues just like any other job. They usually revolved around trying to do too much game in too little time. People would get tired/stressed out and snap at each other from time to time but it wasn’t serious. Stuff like that got patched up quickly. Mostly we just wanted to get a great game onto the shelf.

Ultima Codex: Did you keep any mementos from your time at Origin? What is your prized possession from your Origin days?

Brian Martin: Ah, not really. I do have a wooden lion (I love lions) in my home office that I’ve had since 1995. It sat on my desk at Origin from 95 to when I left in 99. I don’t have anything that’s specifically Origin. I know that’s probably not a great answer, but there it is. I think a lot of people thought that we spent a lot of time thinking “I can’t believe I’m working at Origin!” but we didn’t. I mean, the big time fans of the games did when they first came to the company, but I wasn’t a gamer so I never thought that. I just thought “I’m glad to have a job!” And even those fans got over that initial euphoria over time and it became a job. A job they loved, to be sure, but a job.

Ultima Codex: You were the famed Demon in the Britannia Manor Halloween event. What was that like?

Brian Martin: You mean this guy?

Just to be clear; I took part in three Britannia Manor spook houses. I went through the first one that was held in Austin, in 1989, as a guest. I participated in Britannia Manor 90, 92 & 94 and was the finale demon in 90 & 94. These spook houses got exponentially bigger, more elaborate and more impressive with each year. I mean, as a guest, I thought the one in ’89 was amazing but it didn’t compare to 94. It wasn’t even in the same ball park.

To answer your question “what was that like”, it was a lot of things. It was hot, it was uncomfortable, it was restrictive, it was liberating but most of all, it was awesome! I mean, come on; I got to wear that cool makeup! I got to have my voice run through a huge sound system, I got to be the biggest bad guy in the biggest, most original and most elaborate spook house in the US. How could it not be awesome?

Of course the makeup was kind of intense. It took four hours every night to get into it. Then there were the pneumatic stilts that I wore to make me taller. Including the horns I was like 8 feet tall and I had yellow, cat-eye contact lenses and fanged dentures. All in all it was an amazing outfit.

Of course, it was fun being the demon because I could be mean and obnoxious to people because, well, I was playing the devil. So I could play with the people who wanted to play along and say things you always want to say to obnoxious people who didn’t want to play along. It was fun. I’ll also say this: in the nine years that I worked at Origin, those spook houses were the most fun and probably the most creative things I was ever a part of — and that’s saying something. There was just an amazing group of talented people — writing, construction, art, set design, acting, makeup — who worked so hard and had so much fun. It was just amazing. I treasure the memories of those spook houses and of the people that worked on them. They were amazing times and I’m very thankful to Richard for doing them. He shelled out some serious money to make those things happen and they were a big gift to the people of Austin and an even bigger gift to those of us who built and ran them.

Ultima Codex: Being involved in the games industry (and assuming that you’re still a gamer), do you still see things in modern games that remind you of any things that were pioneered during U7’s development?

Brian Martin: My stint in the game industry ended in 1999 at Origin before U9 came out. To be honest, I don’t see things in the modern games that were pioneered in U7, but I do see things in today’s games that we attempted in Wing Commander 2 and in U8 (on which I did work). I think the concept of the game as a sort of movie was really coming into mind with Wing Commander and we first started talking about the concept of a 3D game when we were working on U8. U8 wasn’t 3D, but that’s when the conversations started. I remember how excited we all were when the decision was taken to make U9 3D. Of course, that game didn’t pan out as well we wanted. Let’s face it, there were interface issues, but that was our first stab at 3D. But the quality of art and the 3D world that you see in a lot of modern games had their roots in games like U9 and Wing Commander.

Ultima Codex: What are you doing now? Are there any current projects you can tell us about?

Brian Martin: I work for Hewlett Packard as a test program manager. I’m sure that’s a pretty disappointing answer given that you thought I was still in the game biz, but I actually prefer working in the normal, corporate world. There’s a misconception about the game industry. People think that it’s all fun but it’s not and frankly, I think that game companies treat their employees worse than most of those “evil corporate world” companies. Now, I have to say that I was never treated badly at Origin, but several friends were. I saw more promotion by friendship there than anywhere else in my career and more layoffs in that industry than any other. All in all, the game industry demands more hours for less pay than places like Dell, AT&T and Hewlett Packard (the three companies for which I’ve worked since leaving Origin). Shoot, Dell was like a vacation after Origin: fewer hours, less stress and more money? What’s not to like? Of course, there are people who wouldn’t work anywhere but in the game biz and I say more power to them. I don’t begrudge my time at Origin, in fact I’m grateful for it, but in the end, it was time for me to move onto a different career path.

Ultima Codex: Final question — I hear that you were a member of the Origin Softball team — any stories about that you’d like to share?

Brian Martin: Ha, yeah; that was fun. We called the team “Swing.bat”. Steve Powers came up with that name and it’s a coding reference that most people probably wouldn;t get today. We had a lot of fun and owed that experience to a baseball nut (and hilarious guy) named Dave Beyer for putting it together. We weren’t very good but we had a lot of fun.

My favorite story would probably be about our pitcher, Dicko. Dicko was, without a doubt, one of the coolest guys you could ever meet. He was completely genuine and completely original. He was funny, cool, a great artist, played lead guitar in a hard rock band known for their funny/raunchy lyrics called The Rock Busters and was just a great guy. Anyway, we played softball in this league full of plumbers and electricians and the like. You know; burly red neck types who thought we were complete freaks. Of course we mostly were and Dicko was the freakiest one of the bunch. So in our first game the umpires were looking at us funny and telling Dicko that he had to take his earring (his mother’s tooth – I swear, I’m not lying) out and take the fork that was bent around his wrist off before he could play. They clearly thought Dicko was a complete nut and I think he knew it but didn’t care. It didn’t bother him at all. He just hung out with those guys and started talking to them and being Dicko and by the middle of the season, these guys all thought that Dicko was the coolest guy ever. We’d come pulling up and they’d look past us as ask “Where’s Dicko? Is he playing tonight?” It just showed what completely great guy Dicko was. I don’t think I ever met anyone who didn’t like him. I think it’s impossible to dislike Dicko. Wow, you have to be really careful how you say that last sentence…

Brian Martin is in the green striped shirt. Back row.

Update: I’ve corrected the references to “‘Manda Dee” to just “‘Manda”, after a request from the developer. Evidently, the “‘Manda Dee” moniker is actually a bit of a confusion, a conflation of this developer and game designer Jeff Dee.

If you’re curious what ‘Manda is up to these days, she is currently writing under the pen name Talzhemir Mrr. Her latest project is on Kickstarter; check it out!