2021 has been a whirlwind year that’s been a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For the gaming world, however, 2021 marked the 40thanniversary of one of its earliest and most importance franchises. It’s been forty years since the release of the first Ultima game.
Originally published in 1981, the original Ultima would be the first in a series of PC role-playing games that would go on to include nine numbered entries and several spin-offs. These include Ultima Online, one of the world’s first genuinely “massive” MMORPG experiences.
The earliest Ultima games were the product of a single developer: Richard Garriott de Cayeux.
Only twenty years old at the time of the first game’s release, his influence on 1980s computer role-playing games, as well as the decades to follow, can’t be overstated. From in-game ethical decision-making to the now universal phrase “avatar,” Garriott’s games have enjoyed a level of influence few others can match.
Mr. Garriott was recently kind enough to answer a few questions reflecting on the past forty years, his memories of Ultima, the influences that drove its development, and the current state of games.
Stew Shearer: Reflecting on the past 40 years, how do you personally feel about the influence Ultima has had on so many gamers and creators?
Richard Garriott:It’s been a great ride! I was fortunate to get in at the very beginning, but obviously it took lots of hard work to try and stay near the top. As I look back at the ideas I got to either literally do first, or at least be super early and refine, I still think it’s pretty foundational.
Starting from being one of the earliest developers at all for personal computers, to helping kick off RPGs on computers, the first 3D RPGs, NPCs with conversations, NPCs with schedules, ethical parables as plot lines, and the term “avatar” for YOU instead of a fictional Character you’re playing, psychological profiles vs random attributes, active bad guys worthy of your animus (vs waiting for you to level grind and kill them).
SS: Are there any memories or favorite moments from the Ultima series that you particularly loved, but don't often get the opportunity to talk about?
RG: I remember when my brother Robert and I started Origin, and I started receiving “fan mail” at our office (my parents’ home), and people were writing in about Ultima III. One person wrote “Wow, I think it’s so amazing, I was fighting a very tough creature unsuccessfully, until I switched from my large sword to my small dagger and then it died. Great design!”
I thought… “What is he talking about? The sword should be doing much more damage than the dagger.” So, I looked at the code, only to discover there was a never noticed bug, that it didn’t actually matter which weapon you use in Ultima III. As your level went up, your damage increases, but which weapon you used was irrelevant! Likely it’s still true to this day! No one ever noticed.
SS: Similar question. What moment from the Ultima series are you personally most proud of?
RG: Which child do you love best? All of them! But Ultima IV, Ultima VII and UO are clearly milestones. Virtues and the term “avatar”, deep sandbox virtual worlds and the entire category of MMO’s with digital items trades and sales - now a standard. Ultima set many standards of the gaming industry.
SS: I know that your Shroud of the Avatar MMORPG was, in part, an effort to bring back some role-playing mechanics that have fallen out of the mainstream in recent years. Are there other "classic" RPG mechanics you'd like to see return in new games?
RG: My main beef with most RPG games is they are light on relevant storytelling, and heavy on level grinding. Sadly, the rapid growth of the power of computers has the side effect of making creators constantly rewrite engines to take advantage of that power, and then wrap it in pretty simple (but far more beautiful) gameplay. Deep relevant stories are still a rarity.
SS: I've frequently read/heard that you played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons back in the days when Ultima was first being developed. Are there any specific elements from your D&D play that definitely made it into the earliest Ultima games?
RG: When I played tabletop RPGs the hallmark of my games was that I paid LITTLE attention to your characters attributes, and far more attention to what you DID as a player. If what you did seemed within the characters capability, and was smart, funny, or would make the story better, it worked. Conversely, if you tried something your character would clearly not be capable of, or was illogical, or unfun, no dice were rolled… the DM says it failed. I think that is why while many GREAT games like [World of Warcraft] have fine-tuned challenge/reward cycles compared to mine, I instead focused on story.
SS: Do you play any D&D (or other tabletop RPGs) these days? If so, how do you feel about the current RPG scene? Strengths? Weaknesses?
RG: I still play “D&D” without the D&D rules… once or twice a year. I continue to play RPG’s (about yearly) and think the modern designs are far better than many old ones. Easier to play, easier to get into the story!