Texas, 1977. While attending Clear Creek High School in Houston, 16-year-old Richard Garriott is writing dungeon games produced on a teletype machine with punch cards at the school and getting A’s for them from bewildered teachers. Through his high school “career”, he creates 28 such fantasy works. In 1979, while working part-time at a local Computerland store, he is exposed to the Apple II and decides to write an Applesoft BASIC game for the platform incorporating elements from his other interests, organizing large Dungeons & Dragons games in his parents’ house and reading Tolkien. Calling the game Akalabeth, he finishes the program that summer. In it the player scrolls around a map of ASCII symbols completing quests given by Lord British and battling creatures in black & white outline psuedo-3D dungeons. The game so impresses the manager of the store that he convinces Garriott to offer it for sale. Spending 200 dollars on Ziplock bags and cover sheets, he only sells about eight copies on cassette tape. But, unbeknownst to him, his boss has sent one copy to west coast software outfit California Pacific Computer Company, who fly Garriott to California to sign a contract for publishing rights. Releasing the game on 5 1/4″ floppies, Akalabeth is a big hit in 1980, selling 30,000 copies. Dissatisfied with the original cover sheet design, a new one is commissioned by Garriott from acquaintance Denis Loubet, who goes on to provide artwork for many of Garriott’s later works. All of the games are credited to Lord British, a nickname having been created by his fellow students at the University of Oklahoma due to Garriott’s use of proper English. While born on the very American date of July 4 in 1961, the location of his birth was actually Cambridge, England. While Garriott was a mere two months old when his family returned to California, this tale of a British birth probably added to the overall effect.
That fall, nineteen-year-old Garriott starts classes at the University of Texas. Still living at his parent’s house in Houston, he and friend Ken Arnold begin work on another game Garriott calls Ultimatum, also programmed in BASIC. But a board game by Dallas, TX-based Yaquinto Publications, released in 1979, already exists with that name, so they shorten the title to Ultima. Later subtitled The First Age of Darkness, it features a tile-based graphics engine, with the same look-down perspective as Akalabeth. Set in the mystical land of Sosaria, our nameless hero must use might and magic to slaughter evil creatures roaming the landscape, gaining experience and hit-points for the ultimate showdown with the big boss…the evil wizard Mondain. Multiple castles dotting the land are ruled by different kings, who’s quests must be completed to finish the game. Upon entering a dungeon, the graphics are reminiscent of those in Akalabeth, with notable improvements. In the package for Ultima is a game disk, as well as a master player disk which users are expected to copy if they want to create multiple characters.
When released by California Pacific in 1981, it sells even more than the first game (a re-release is made by Origin in 1986, featuring spruced-up graphics). While working on a follow-up that year, Garriott attends multiple showings of Terry Gilliam’s movie Time Bandits, and uses maps and concepts from the film in the design of the game. After a falling-out with California Pacific, Garriott signs a deal with Sierra to distribute his next game, as they’re the only company he talks to that agrees to include a cloth map with the packaging. Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress is released for the Apple II in 1982, with a limited interaction with NPCs (non-player characters) now possible. The game also marks the beginning of Ultima’s move to assembly language, greatly increasing the speed of the games. Deep into his persona as Lord British, Garriott has taken to appearing at software trade shows in full royal regalia, including crown, cape, and medieval sword.
After the release of Ultima II, Garriott drops out of the University of Texas to work on the Ultimas full-time. A friend from back in their high-school computing days, as well as Garriott’s roommate in college, Chuck “Chuckles” Bueche ports UII over to the Atari 800 computer for Sierra and becomes the character Chuckles the Clown in the Ultima series. When Sierra offers a questionable royalty deal for the release of the PC version of Ultima II, Garriott decides to create his own company to produce and distribute the games.
Origin Systems Inc. is founded in 1983 by Richard Garriott, his older brother Robert, their father Owen, Keith Zabalaoui, Ken Arnold and Chuck Bueche. Robert is the one handling the business side of things. That fall the company releases Ultima III: Exodus, with some major advances over the previous games. A multi-party system is introduced, allowing the player to create four adventurers to control. The combat system is also revamped, with a zoom-in to the battle, and allowing each character a turn to attack. Also released that year is the oddball Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash, for Commodore’s VIC-20 computer. The game is made by Keith Zabalaoui. It tasks players to escape the 15-level dungeon of Mt. Drash and features a screen split into multiple views: a 3D view of the dungeon hallways and rooms, as well as an overhead view of the layout and a tactical battle screen along the bottom portion. The graphics are comprised of the built-in graphical character symbols on the VIC. Sierra slaps an Ultima label on the game to help it sell, but it moves so little units that it eventually becomes a highly sought rarity item for game collectors.
Signing a distribution deal with Electronic Arts in 1984, Origin begins work on the next installment, the first in the “Avatar” trilogy, which will be a drastic departure from the original trilogy games. It is the first “ethics” based CRPG, requiring the player to answer moral questions, whose answers determine their character. Actions taken throughout the game are remembered by the citizens of the world, and one could be refused business at a local shop if one’s reputation was tarnished enough. Instead of simply roaming the countryside looking for orc ass to kick, the player must seek out the temples of the eight virtues and integrate them into his being. The Apple II version of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar is released in 1985, and in 1988 Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny becomes the final game for that platform as Origin games move exclusively to the PC for development and release. This same year also marks Origin’s re-release of the original three Ultima games in a single package, so newcomers can see where it all began. Nintendo’s NES console joins the crusade in 1989, with a version done by Origin and published by FCI. This cartridge joins the first two Zelda games as the third to have a battery backup to save character and game data for up to five years. Ultima VI: The False Prophet arrives in the early 90’s across a wide variety of computer platforms and the Nintendo SNES, introducing an isometric view of the action. 1992 sees the release of Ultima VII: The Black Gate, the last game independently produced by Origin. EA buys the company that year in a deal worth $35 million, paid for with around 1.3 million in EA shares. Richard Garriott retains his position as President and CEO as Origin.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss is another huge departure in the series, being one of the earliest fully graphic first-person 3D games. It is released in March of 1992, preceding id Software’s 3D makeover of MUSE’s Castle Wolfensein by two months. It also features several technological advances over id’s product, including the player’s ability to look up and down. A sequel, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, follows the next year. In 1997, in the middle of the multiplayer gaming explosion, the company releases two years of work with Ultima Online, the largest Internet gaming system yet conceived. Here players can move about the Ultima universe with a large number of real-life human counterparts online, joining guilds and participating in multi-character quests assigned by Lord British himself. There are, however, several disgruntled players who sue Origin in 1998, represented by George Schultz of the law firm of Bauer and Schultz. The lawsuit claims several failures of Origin to meet its extravagant promises for the service a year after its creation, such as regular, unscheduled down-times and surprise costs not explained to the consumer. The suit is settled in 1999, with EA donating $15,000 dollars to the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation, although not officially admitting to any wrong-doing.
The Avatar Rests
Along with Chris Robert’s Wing Commander franchise, the Ultimas give Origin its powerful place in the world of computer gaming until absorbed by EA and eventually dismantled in 2004. Ultima IX: Ascension is the last in the series, released in 1999, marking 20 years of the long, fruitful reign of Lord British over the computer RPG landscape. After the shaky release of Ultima IX, Garriott leaves Origin, the company he created, and in 2000 founds Destination Games with his brother Robert and Starr Long who follow him from Origin. Joining forces with MMOG maker NCSoft, they release sci-fi MMOG Tabula Rasa in 2007. With the title meaning “blank slate” in Latin, the game is meant to be a redefining of the online RPG genre, but the game is met with mostly blank stares from the public and paid subscriptions to the online service lag. In 2008, while Garriott is still in quarantine after his trip into space, his departure from Destination Games is announced by NCSoft. He later sues the company over the resignation, terming the announcement and his forced resignation from the company, as fraudulent. He is eventually awarded a 28 million dollar judgment against NCSoft, which is upheld in appeals court.
As a son of NASA Scientist-Astronaut Owen Garriott, who broke records with his 60 day Skylab 3 mission in 1973 as well as a trip to Spacelab-1 on the space shuttle Columbia in 1983, Richard Garriott chases his own dreams of space. He becomes the 6th private citizen to journey into orbit on the International Space Station in the fall of 2008, via private space trip facilitator Space Adventures, of which he is a principal investor. Garriott spends 12 days in space, returning to Earth on Oct. 24, 2008.
In a bid to return to his Ultima roots, Garriott co-founds yet another game development company, Portalarium, in 2009 along with Dallas Snell and Fred Schmidt. One of their products is the 2018 Kickstarter-funded Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, bringing an Ultima-style RPG to modern platforms for Lord British to reign over once again.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
The Fantasy Begins with Origin Systems. Londonderry: Origin, 1985. Internet Archive. Jason Scott, 19 Oct. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/vgmuseum_origin_origin-catalog-alt>. Front cover of Origin catalog.
Worley, Joyce. “EG Hotline: Origin Wings to EA.” Electronic Games Dec. 1992: 10. Electronic Games 1992-12. Internet Archive. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. Electronic Arts signed an agreement to purchase Origin Systems, a deal valued at approximately $35 million…EA will exchange roughly 1.3 million shares for all outstanding Origin securities. Richard Garriott will continue as President and CEO of Origin…“Tradetalk.” Editorial. Softalk Apr. 1983: 226. Internet Archive. Web. 5 Feb. 2016. Ultima author Richard Garriott, a.k.a. Lord British, has formed Origin Systems, a new software company. Garriott’s brother, Robert, and father, astronaut Owen K. Garriott, are partners in the venture, along with programmers Chales “Chuckles” Beuche, Keith Zabalaoui, and Ken Arnold.Image of the National Enquirer article profiling Richard Garriott from Softline, “Infomania, Ultima Bugged”, pg. 48, Mar 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Softline collection, Nov 1 2015.
IGN: Ultima Lawsuit Ends – pc.ign.com/articles/066/066277p1.html
Owen K. Garriott – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Images of Lord British wearing maroon costume, circa 1984 from Electronic Games, “Game of the Month: Ultima III: Exodus” by Tracie Forman, pgs. 88-91, Sept 1984. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Image of Origin team, as well as other information from Softline, “New Players: Origin Systems” by Matt Yuen, pg. 24, Nov/Dec 1983. Photo by Zach Ryall. “Garriott’s brother Robert, who like to be called “Robert”, handles the business end of the company.” “Bueche wasn’t always into computers; high school chum and roommate at the University of Texas, Garriott was the one who introduced Bueche to computers.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Softline collection, Nov 2 2015.
Two-page ad for Ultima I and II from Computer Gaming World, pgs. 24 & 25, Nov/Dec 1982
Compute!, “Is A Picture Worth A Thousand Words?” by Selby Bateman, pgs. 31-44, Oct 1984
Image of Richard Garriott in helmet in front of Apple II from The Digital Antiquarian
Wikipedia, “Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultima:_Escape_from_Mt._Drash
“Ultima Suit Gets Serious.” Next Generation, Nov. 1998, p. 10. Among other complaints, fans charge that the game fails to take place in “real time” while it incurs unspecified costs and crashes often, cutting the 24-hour gameplay touted by Origin and EA. The lawyer representing the group, George Schultz of Bauer and Schultz…
Image of Ultima V map, as well as other information from Computer Play, “Warriors of Destiny” by Margo Comstock, pgs. 31, 34-36, Aug 1988. “Richard Garriott, alias Lord British, was born July 4, 1961 in Cambridge, England.” “Garriott was only two months old when the family returned to California…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Computer Play collection, Sep 19 2015.
Screengrab of gameplay from Ultima: Escape From Mt. Drash, and other information, from Computer Gaming World, “Taking a Peek – Ultima: Escape From Mt. Drash”, pg. 9, Jul/Aug 1983