“The Night the Directors Left.” – An Interview with Bill Armintrout

"The Night the Directors Left." - An Interview with Bill Armintrout

Ultima Codex: How was Serpent Isle designed?

Bill Armintrout: In many cases, computer games are designed by a small group of designers, with the rest of the team brought on board when it is time to implement the design. With Serpent Isle, this was not the case. The entire original team was in place very early on — two lead designers, four design assistants, three programmers. (Art, music and sound FX were separate departments, at that time at Origin.) 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.

Therefore, we had a lot of people involved in the design process, and more time for design that originally planned.

To start with, the lead designers (myself and Sheri Graner) researched the World of Ultima for background material and plot ideas. At the same time, the team brainstormed as a group, to come up with things they wanted to see in a game.

Then, the lead designers took those ideas and suggestions, brainstormed, and came up with the initial plot document (the “main plot”). It was presented to the team, and everyone liked it.

The main plot was then broken down into subplots (also known as ‘town plots’), and each of the designers had one or more parts of the plot that they were given to flesh out, and to come up with the specifications for the game engine (i.e., how many unique characters, how many conversations, how many usecode tasks, etc.). When a team member had their subplot document ready, they would submit it to the rest of the team, and we all had a chance to make comments (written into the document — everyone had their own ‘comment color’). The designer would then go back and rework their design to make improvements.

For example, at one point I was working on the townplot for Fawn. The original concept was that this town was connected to the sea, so all of the townspeople had sea-related names. The team hated my choice of names! Another designer (Lisa Smith, if I remember correctly) came up with a better selection of names. 🙂

When the end of the design phase was approaching, it was my job as lead designer to finalize all of the various design documents — basically, wrapping up any remaining loose ends. Then, it was on to implementation!

UC: Who came up with the Ophidian belief system?

BA: We knew we wanted a belief system in the game, as that would be a very Ultima-like feature. Based on the main plot, we had a good idea of what it should look like. But nailing down a design was very difficult — and easy…

As the lead designers, Sheri and I wrestled with the Ophidian belief system, but nothing seemed to work. At the end of one brainstorming session, I said I was giving up for a while, but Sheri said she wanted to continue to play with it. At this point, one of our two programmers (we had lost one by then, moved elsewhere in Origin) came into the office — Brendan Seagraves. The two started to brainstorm, had a ‘eureka!’ moment, and the Ophidian belief system was born.

This was also an example of something we worked hard on the Serpent Isle team to accomplish — all members of the team working together, talking together, no matter what their job titles were. 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.) So, as a team, the Serpent Isle group promised each other that we would make a special effort to work as a team, and not to break down along ‘departmental’ lines. That was how a programmer could make the vital contribution to a design problem, because he knew he was always welcome to chat with the designers, and the designers welcomed input from any team member.

UC: How did you end up working with Origin in the first place?

BA: When Warren Spector (producer) and Jeff George (director) were looking to hire designers for Serpent Isle, they put the word out, and a friend named David Ladyman contacted me. (Warren, Jeff, David and I had all previously been associated with Steve Jackson Games, a game publishing company in Austin.) I was very reluctant to take the offer as I had just gone back to college… but they persuaded me. 🙂

UC: Any good (or bad) memories to share about these times ?

BA: When I arrived, the company was in the middle of producing Ultima VII and Wing Commander II, and the place was a hive of activity. There was even a “bedroom” with bunk beds for those who had worked all night and weren’t safe to drive home! I came to work one day and found the cables of my computer were missing — recruited for a Wing Commander emergency!

UC: How did you end up directing Serpent Isle in the end?

BA: 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. One of them was Jeff George, who had been instrumental in the early Wing Commanders, and then had worked on Ultima sequels. Since I was lead designer on the project, this left me as the de facto project lead.

Origin never gave me the ‘director’ title. The team thought this was rather silly, and so gave me their own title: The Cantaloupe. So we all knew there was no director on Serpent Isle, only a cantaloupe. 🙂

UC: Can you believe it’s been two decades since Serpent Isle came out?

BA: When I go on Facebook and see the faces of those I worked with on Serpent Isle — boy, they’ve gotten older! 🙂 But no, it doesn’t feel like 20 years to me at all.

UC: What do you think made Serpent Isle stand out from other RPGs and other Ultima from its time?

BA: First of all, the Serpent Isle team was almost entirely green (new to the software industry) — in some ways, that made us want to work hard as a team to make a great game. Second — and the credit for this primarily goes to Jeff George — we had a heck of a talented team, even if we were inexperienced as a group. Third — and this was mostly by accident — our team had an unusually long period to prepare, as we had to wait for Ultima VII to finish before we could really begin work. This meant we had an in-depth understanding of what the game engine and its tools could do. And lastly, we had a friendly rivalry with the Ultima VII team (Lord British’s team), and we were eager to “beat them” if we could.

UC: How much was Richard Garriott involved in Serpent Isle’s development and design?

BA: As you may know, Jeff George originally wanted to do a pirate game, but was told that the next game had to be a direct sequel to Ultima VII. So the first Serpent Isle design work was about pirates in the Ultima world, with the “surprise” being that the players discover in the end that the winding continent they’re on is actually The Great Earth Serpent.

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.

While the team was coming up with a new design, I arranged (through Warren) for Richard Garriott to visit Sheri Graner (my fellow designer) and I for an hour, to give us the direct insight on “what an Ultima was.” That was how Sheri and I learned the fundamentals of what Richard felt an Ultima should be.

Later, when the initial design work was complete, we presented the document to our producer for approval. He said that he would send it along to Richard, but that he didn’t think Richard would like it. (Out producer mentioned then that he had hoped we might make an Ultima with a pro-ecological message instead.) So the team was waiting nervously for a few days, waiting for Richard’s verdict. At last, we were summoned to the producer’s office… and Richard was very excited with the design! (And gave us permission to kill off Dupre!)

The only surprise? He said his only disappointment was that we hadn’t used the idea of the continent being The Great Earth Serpent!!!??? (A miscommuncation somewhere!) 🙂

After this, Richard was entirely involved in his next project, Ultima VIII, so we didn’t see him after that.

UC: Do you wish you could have worked on another Ultima game?

BA: I would have loved to work on another one, 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.

UC: Did you have other ideas of what you might have done in another Ultima?

BA: Nothing specific, although the idea of Ultima Online appealed greatly to me. (I later worked with online fantasy games, but after my time with Origin.)

UC: Serpent Isle made some interesting changes to the Ultima 7 engine, and made extremely good use of these. One example was, of course, the frozen lands of the north, and how the player would take damage if not kitted out with a fur hat, cloak, and boots. Who came up with that idea initially?

BA: I’m afraid that I don’t remember.

UC: And just following on from the above, can you think of any other games that made use of a similar mechanic, or is it yet another Origin innovation that has more or less fallen by the wayside in modern gaming?

BA: I can’t think of another game that’s done that.

UC: There was a tattoo artist in Monitor, Lydia. Any chance she was inspired by the Groucho Marx tune (or, if you prefer, Kermit the Frog’s cover thereof)?

BA: Probably, but you would have to ask Raymond Benson, who did the initial design work on Monitor. (He has, incidentally, gone on to greater fame working in the 007 universe.)

There’s an interesting story involving Lydia. As you probably know, all of the Serpent Isle original team members and many other Origin personalities provided their photos, to be used as inspiration for the portraits of characters in the game. Our portrait artist was Micael Priest, a wonderful fellow whose previous career had been doing art for the music industry. There was one thing unusual about him: he was color-blind. So Micael would “learn the palette” for the portraits, and another artist would double-check from time to time, to make sure the skin tones weren’t green!

Micael preferred to produce portraits based on actual photographs. When we ran out of Origin people to base character portraits on, we hit upon a wonderful resource — the contest entries from Ultima VII, when people had submitted their photos to have a shot at being put into the game. Well, there was only one winner for Ultima VIII, but we were putting dozens of real people into the game! I made the phone calls to the former contest entrants, asking for permission to use their pictures — which was great fun, talking to the fans! The only person who said ‘no’ was the guy we wanted to use for one of the ‘bad’ wizards (I forget which one), because he looked so grumpy! Well, he was grumpy in real life, too — and he hadn’t submitted the photo, his son had!

The next problem was to scan in the photos, but in those days scanners were rare at Origin — there was in the Marketing Department, but we couldn’t get permission to use it. So one night, several of us went over to the building where Marketing was, and acting as if we belonged there, got one of the executives to let us in! That was how Micael got his scans, which I converted to sepia tones, which he then redrew and colorized.

Back to Lydia, who in the original Monitor subplot was something of a ‘bad girl’. Raymond Benson was the original designer for Monitor (though he left the project early on), and wrote Lydia’s conversations. Lydia’s portrait happened to be based on the wife of someone in management.

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.

UC: Who was the Dallas Cowboys fan on the team?

BA: There were a LOT of Dallas Cowboys fans on the team, but the biggest fan — and the one who put the Cowboys into the game — was Steve Powers. He was (and is) something of a genius, and while I was the author of the Moonshade subplot, he was the one who built the city and brought it to life.

UC: Who made the decision to set the game in one of the continents of ancient Sosaria, and why were the Lands of Danger and Despair chosen?

BA: I probably suggested that idea, and the team decided they liked it. Sheri and I had done a lot of background reading on the Ultimas in order to learn more about the world of Ultima, and I had also needed that background when I worked on the manual for Ultima Underworld. We wanted to set the game in the Ultima world, but not in Britannia (since we were a ‘sequel game’), and so we looked closely at the old continents from Ultima III (if I recall correctly).

UC: It has been known for some time that the plan for the Three Banes wasn’t just to have them commit genocide across the breadth of the Serpent Isle, but rather that they would have corrupted each of the three major cities whilst still keeping most of the populations thereof alive. The Avatar would then have had to oust each Bane from the rule of each city, before proceeding to the sequence in the game in which each Bane-possessed companion would have to be killed and each Bane captured. Can you elaborate on this at all?

BA: When the design for Serpent Isle was made, we were careful to specify as much as we could, so that we could have an accurate idea of how long it would take to make the game. We also collected data from the Ultima VII team, to have some idea of how long certain tasks would take.

Now, the heart of an Ultima game in those days was really the usecode — which is what we called the scripting language. It was called ‘usecode’ because that was the program that was run when the Avatar ‘used’ an object in the game, but it was also used for a wide variety of situations and encounters in the game. However, even though usecode was vital to the game, it was seen as ‘second class’ programming and the ‘programmers’ (those with that job title) mostly avoided working with it. Therefore, I wrote a manual so that any member of our team would be able to write usecode.

Unfortunately, a few months into production, we found that our estimates — based on the Ultima VII data — were wrong about how long it would take to produce the usecode for Serpent Isle. Sadly, I brought the issue to management’s attention.

Now when Sheri and I had designed the original main plot, we had a back-up plan for this contingency. Our idea was that if we fell behind schedule, the game could be divided into two parts, and Serpent Isle would end with the death of Batlin. (There would then be a follow-on game concerning the released Banes.)

However, my proposal to split the game (Sheri by then was working on another Ultima sequel project) was not approved by management. Various meetings were held to determine ‘what to cut’, but nobody could find the solution. Eventually I believe I was the one who proposed ‘killing everyone.’ This was certainly interesting for shock effect in the game, and took some cleverness from the programmers to implement. Management was satisfied that the game was being cut back.

UC: And that content was all cut to meet a deadline, correct?

BA: 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. Management instead responded to my concerns by adding temporary staff to the Serpent Isle team… but that’s another story.

UC: Was the resurrection of slaughtered townspeople mentioned in the Silver Seed expansion an attempt to walk back some of the negative impacts of the cut content?

BA: I wasn’t involved with Silver Seed. I had already moved to a different production unit by then.

UC: Claw Isle…the big, cat-themed island in the middle of Serpent Isle’s world. We’ve gained some idea of its intended purpose(s) over the years, but can you shed any further light on its purpose? Or, for that matter, why cats were chosen as the predominant feature?

BA: It was an in-joke involving Wing Commander. (There had been something similar, but smaller in scope, in Ultima VII.) Claw was also cut in the effort to rein in the schedule.

UC: In addition to computer games, you’ve also worked on board games and RPG games. Would you say thee are common ground in design these kind of games? How similar or different is that from designing a computer game?

BA: In the early days in the computer game industry, nobody knew where game designers could come from. Some were hired from the movie industry, others from the RPG/boardgaming industry. While these backgrounds were useful, what was key was to be able to understand what the computer (or game engine) could do, and to be able to design in a logical manner. (If a designer couldn’t plan it, how could a programmer implement it?)

I’ve always felt that my great luck was that I had both backgrounds — I had the RPG design experience, but I was also a programmer. That helped me understand how designers needed to think when creating an interactive game.

UC: As far as I can tel, it’s been many years since you’ve worked in the videogame industry. Do you ever think about going back to design computer games at some point, or are videogames in the past you?

BA: I’ve been out for about ten years, but I still work with games — I run a website about miniature wargaming (playing games on a tabletop with model soldiers), which is great fun and I’m the boss of my (very small!) company. Internet gaming has great appeal to me, but at the moment, I’m totally involved with my website projects.

UC: Thank you again for taking you time to do this interview, it’s an honor and it’ll be great to hear your insights about Serpent Isle. 🙂

BA: Now wait, I have one more story to tell! 🙂 One of the most controversial parts of Serpent Isle was the famous (infamous?) “sex scene” with Frigidazzi, and you might not know that it almost was cut at the last minute!

Personally, I’m not a great fan of “sex scenes” in fantasy RPGs (I’m old fashioned!), but we felt it was part of the “Ultima tradition” to include one. In Ultima VII, the ‘scene’ had been contained in conversation, but for Serpent Isle, we tried as much as possible to put the action into the game engine. I was the one who wrote the usecode for the seduction scene… and I always thought the scene was more funny than sexy!

Since the Avatar could be female, this was also probably the first lesbian love scene in a computer game. We weren’t trying to set any records, it was just that there wasn’t the budget or time to code an alternate path for a female Avatar. The one change I made, compared to Ultima VII, was to make the sex scene voluntary — that is, the player could opt out if he or she wanted to.

We had great feedback on the Frigidazzi sequence from the playtesters, and I thought nothing more of it until very late in the production cycle, when the subject came up in a team meeting. To my shock, management announced that the 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!