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Break Out: Ultima III and the familial origins of Origin Systems

The following excerpt comes from Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution by David L. Craddock, available in hardcover from Schiffer Publishing. The book chronicles the making of over a dozen groundbreaking PC games, featuring interviews with their developers and details how they went on to influence the games of today. In chapter, “Virtuous Quest – Moral Dilemmas in Ultima, Richard “Lord British” Garriott and his family come together to found his company, Origin Systems.

Origin Story

Where Ultima represented a leap forward from Akalabeth, Ultima II was more of a step, at least in regard to gameplay. As before, players choose a race and class, navigate a tile-based map shown from an overhead view, and kill monsters and loot treasures from dungeons, displayed from first-person view.

Ultima II‘s true evolution lies in its technical pedigree. Richard Garriott wrote the game in assembly from top to bottom; as a result, graphics render faster and data loads quicker. There are more places to explore, many of which do not need to be explored to finish the story, and the topography changes depending on when in time players access certain areas.

Not that critics and players minded. Upon its arrival in August 1982, Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress delighted critics and sold over 50,000 copies by the end of the year — a staggering number in only four months. Garriott took a moment to breathe. His part in creating Ultima II was done. Now Sierra’s programmers would convert it from the Apple II to platforms such as the Atari 800, a 16-bit computer, and MS-DOS, Microsoft’s operating system for IBM PCs.

By Christmas, the relationship between Sierra and Garriott had soured. In the issue of Computer Gaming World published in March 1986, Garriott gave a lengthy interview in which he accused Sierra of not being author friendly, implying that Ken Williams had cut Garriott into royalties from sales of the Apple II version of Ultima II, but not sales of the game’s myriad ports on other platforms.

Garriott returned to Texas in low spirits. His bank account was blossoming, yet he once again faced the task of convincing a publisher to sign his next game. His older brother, Robert, proposed an alternative plan.

Where Richard was a college dropout, Robert was “overeducated,” as Richard puts it. His brother had earned bachelor degrees in engineering and economics from Rice University, and took a job at Texas Instruments designing memory chips for PCs. He later enrolled at Stanford and received a master’s in business while at the same time starting a venture capital firm focused on tech startups. His job was to evaluate companies and decide if their projects were worth backing.

Richard had made good use of his brother’s business acumen and understanding of the tech industry. When Sierra stiffed him on royalties, he called Robert for help putting the screws to them: as they were making bank on conversions of his game, Richard felt he deserved a seat at the table. Unfortunately, Robert was powerless. Unless Richard’s contract with Sierra stated that he was entitled to royalties from conversions, he was at Sierra’s whim.

At the family gathering that Christmas, Robert ran an idea by Richard. “He said, ‘Why don’t you and I go into business together?’” Garriott remembers. “‘These other guys are hobbyists, same as you. They don’t have anybody [with business experience] working with them. At the very least, when I get a sales check from a retailer, I’ll make sure you’re the first person who gets paid. We may win, we may lose, but I promise you: every penny that comes into our company, you’ll get your fair share.’”

The partnership between Richard and Robert was not the first instance of the Garriotts pitching in to help their own. “When I was younger, my mom did all different kinds of art,” Garriott remembers. “Silversmithing, pottery, etching. Of all the art she did, there was one piece of art that became incredibly popular by local standards. Don’t forget, my family was a NASA family. All our neighbors were astronauts. So my mom made this cookie jar called an earthrise pot.”

Above: One of Helen Garriott’s earthrise pots, whose creation helped lead to Origin Systems.

Helen’s earthrise pot started as a token of friendship given to neighbors. Her design is elegant and elaborate. The pot, cratered and pockmarked, resembles the craggy surface of the moon, and boasts extraordinary detail and accuracy. Holding it up to the light reveals twelve glimmering rhinestones, each set in a location where a manned landing on the moon’s surface took place. She paints the lid pitch black, and then, using a small brush, paints earth’s continents along the lid’s rounded finial. In summation, the jar is a to-scale model meant to capture how an astronaut standing on the moon (painted on the pot) perceives Earth (painted on the finial) from across the blackness of space (the base of the lid).

As word of her earthrise pots spread beyond her Houston neighborhood, Helen decided to sell them. Demand quickly grew beyond what she could handle on her own. “These became so popular in Houston that she made literally thousands,” Garriott says. “To make thousands, her art studio became a manufacturing facility for these pots, and all of us kids became part of an assembly line for years.”

Helen arranged her children (and her husband, when Owen was available) in an assembly line and assigned each one a task. First up: pour silt into a round mold the size of a baseball to as large as a basketball. Next, the molds containing the silt must be turned until the liquid clay attains a level of thickness comparable to a milkshake. The silt dries, and then the next Garriott in line scrapes it out of the mold and smooths it using a wet sponge. “We’d take those and pre-fire them in a kiln to make them hard, then send them over to a painting station,” Garriott says. “A black coat of paint went down on the lid and the base, then someone would use a sandy grit to paint on the features of the moon. Then someone even more skillful would scratch the craters in with a scratching tool.”

With the fine details applied, an earthrise pot went back into the kiln for another round of firing. Pulling them out, Helen or one of the older kids painted continents and oceans with a fine-tipped brush. One last trip to the kiln followed. Afterward, at long last, one of the Garriotts drilled holes into the pot and set the rhinestones signifying twelve moon landings. “Then, ta-da! Here’s a real map of the moon, with real landing sites, in the form of these pots.”

From childhood through his three years at University of Texas, and even into work on Akalabeth and the first two Ultima games, Richard gave countless nights and weekends to his mom’s earthrise pots. “We made them for years. I’ve made so many, it’s hard to imagine. But that was a family affair. Mom, Dad, brother, sister — all making earthrise pots.”

A family-staffed production line prepared the Garriotts for what came next. When Richard and Robert announced their new company, Origin Systems, everybody pitched in. They made the garage their base of operations. The garage held two floors: a concrete base large enough to fit three cars, and Helen’s art studio on the top floor. Richard and Robert looked sheepishly at their mother. Helen rolled her eyes and started packing. It was not the first time she had sacrificed personal space for her kids. Upon discovering D&D at computer camp, Garriott had evicted his mom (nicely) so he and his friends had a place to spread their charts, hardbound books, character sheets, and dice. Helen didn’t mind. She took pride in being a den mom.

Richard and Robert set about renovating the two-car garage. Tables, chairs, and computers went upstairs; the garage floor became Origin’s all-in-one manufacturing, shipping, and distribution facility, enabling them to circumvent traditional publishers. That meant an order of magnitude more work, but on the other hand, there was no possibility of a publisher abruptly pulling out of issuing royalties. “Back in the Apple II days, we literally had a bank of machines in the garage that would manufacture the disks,” Garriott says. “We folded boxes in the evenings, hand-packed them, and shrink-wrapped them. I still own the original shrink-wrap machine from our garage in Houston that I’ve kept as a memento, so if anybody out there desperately needs their original Ultima game back in shrink wrap from the original machine — and with rolls of the original plastic — I can do that.”

Although Richard and Robert put up most of the money to start Origin, Helen and Owen kicked in $5,000 each, and Helen was appointed art director. “A little-known data point is if you go all the way back to Origin’s first published products — those would be Ultima III and Caverns of Callisto — the manuals for those games, the illustrations in those manuals, the layout of the text, that was all done by my mother.”

Jeff Hillhouse, whom Garriott had met during his time at Sierra, was hired on as director of operations — a title that meant he spent most of his workdays in the lower half of the garage overseeing equipment. Chuck Bueche, one of Garriott’s friends from high school, also helped co-found Origin. Garriott had introduced Bueche — portrayed in Ultima games as the character Chuckles — to computers in 1981 when he helped write code for Ultima. After Garriott relocated to Oakhurst to complete Ultima II, Bueche founded his own company, Craniac Entertainment, and wrote an action-puzzle game for the Apple II called Lunar Leepers. Sierra published the game after Garriott brokered an introduction between Bueche and Ken Williams. In 1983, Bueche left Sierra to invest in and co-found Origin. Seated next to Lord British in their new office, Bueche programmed Caverns of Callisto, a space-themed action game where players gather supplies to repair their spaceship and escape from an alien-infested planet. Later on, he wrote Autoduel, an Apple II adaptation of the popular Car Wars pen-and-paper game published by Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games.

Party Play

While Bueche wrote Caverns, Garriott stayed busy authoring Ultima III: Exodus, his most ambitious project yet. Where the first two installments gave players control of a single character, Exodus puts them in charge of four. Players choose a race and class for each party member and explore a massive overworld. Enemies appear on the overworld map, and players relay commands to their party members during battles. When players enter a dungeon, Exodus changes to first-person. Impressively, dungeons are rendered from solid shapes filled in with color, a major innovation from the wireframe outlines used in Akalabeth, Ultima I, and II.

Above: Ultima III: Exodus, revolutionary in its time.

Ultima III boasts dramatic gameplay improvements as well. Dungeons span eight floors, with tougher foes haunting each subsequent floor. If players test the waters and find a dungeon’s monsters too difficult, they can leave, gain experience, and try again later, adding a degree of openness to the adventure. The most impressive changes, however, take the form of interactions with NPCs. Before, players could steal items by sneaking around vendors. In Exodus, the option to steal is available from a menu of interaction options, along with the ability to bribe characters — additions that set the stage for major innovations in his next title. “I’d just never really thought about the fact that people might use [nefarious tactics] as their dominant form of play,” he says of earlier Ultima games. “Of course they would. It makes sense that they would. I just never thought it through.”

Ultima III: Exodus arrived in stores on August 23, 1983. Reception was overwhelmingly positive, and a watershed release for RPGs on both computers and consoles. Over the next decade, critically acclaimed series from Final Fantasy to Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in the U.S.) followed the template set by Wizardry and enhance by Ultima III‘s refined character interactions — control a party of characters, select items and combat options from menus, and switch between 2D overworld maps and 3D dungeon levels.

Commercially, Ultima III dwarfed its predecessors, selling over 120,000 copies. “We probably sold around 100,000 of them straightaway. To manufacture 100,000 of anything in our garage was sort of a challenge. That became an afternoon and evening activity for a lot of us: to help out putting together large, cardboard boxes, 50 at a time, to ship out to UPS. We were doing it very brute force.”

Despite the indelible mark Ultima III left on RPGs, it was a warm-up for the game he made next.

David L. Craddock lives with his wife in Canton, Ohio and is the author of The Gairden Chronicles fantasy series, and the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen books that recount the history of Blizzard Entertainment.

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®‘s Game Dev program.

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Climbkhana: Ken Block explains Pikes Peak assault in latest Gymkhana video

By Carter Jung

Climbkhana is clever. And no, not because it's a portmanteau. Rather it's how Ken Block and his merry band of Hoonigan Media Machine misfits took something the internet clearly loves, hooning, and paired it with a picturesque mountain tied to one of the oldest motorsport events in America, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

More than that, tire-shredding drifts and thick clouds of smoke from the Hoonicorn V2 — a 1,400-horsepower 1965 Ford Mustang converted to all-wheel drive, harkens back to the glory days of Pikes Peak. A time when car and driver would test their mettle racing up a precarious ribbon of dirt to 14,115 feet of elevation.

The new Climbkhana video is the latest chapter in the Gymkhana series. Watch the video on Monday, Sept. 25, when it debuts on YouTube.

Ahead of the debut, we talked with head Hoonigan Ken Block and Brian Scotto, co-director of Climbkhana and longtime Gymkhana collaborator.

AUTOBLOG: With this video, you've strayed from the Gymkhana naming convention, opting for Climbkhana. There's also the recent Terrakhana video. Is there meaning behind the shift?

BLOCK: Climbkhana and Terrakhana were both names that we all — Brian, myself and our team — came up with for these projects. The goal was to make it clear that while they're related in the sense that it's myself driving and incorporating Gymkhana-style moves, they're new ideas.

AB: Ken, your first exposure to Pikes Peak was watching the hill climb on TV as a youth. When did you decide to film your own four-wheeled exploits on the mountain?

BLOCK: We had been talking about doing Climbkhana at Pikes Peak when someone from the hill climb organization reached out to us. The timing aligned perfectly, and we were all on the same page about doing something cool to showcase the mountain in a way that wasn't the standard hill climb footage. We wanted to be respectful to the event, pay a bit of respect to Climb Dance, and create something that was still very much in line with what people expect from my videos.

AB: Did you ever compete in the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb?

BLOCK: I raced at Pikes back in 2005 in a Group N rally car! Although by the time I got to the top, it was a very underwhelming experience due to the lack of power thanks to the elevation.

AB: Brian, a segue, how did you get involved with the Gymkhana films?

I've been on this ride since day one. The first Gymkhana film actually grew from an article that ran in 0-60 Magazine — which I was the editor of — about the sport of gymkhana, featuring Ken. I consulted on the first and second Gymkhana films, but by the time we released the third, I was full-time working for Ken. I stepped into the role of creative director and then eventually graduated to director, but I sort of still do both jobs.

Now, Ken is my business partner at Hoonigan, and for some reason trusts me to carry on his creation.

AB: It's incredibly challenging to close down Pikes Peak — the highway is a public toll road. It's why, for the hill climb, practice is held in segments at dawn over the week leading into race day. How were you able to convince the authorities to give you access to the mountain?

SCOTTO: Luckily, the team at Pikes Peak International Hill Climb had come to us, and were instrumental in navigating this project through the parks department. But we still had to work around the mountain's schedule. We shot super early during the mornings and did controlled traffic stops to get other shots pulled off after 7:30 a.m. when the mountain opened to the public. It was no easy task. But everyone from the mountain was amazing to work with, they really seemed to appreciate what the world of motorsports did for Pikes Peak.

AB: Past Gymkhana films were in production for a scant five days. Climbkhana took more than 13 months. What were some of the challenges you faced?

BLOCK: It definitely took us longer than I would have liked to finish! The first time we went, we had some fairly serious engine problems and were unable to get everything we wanted. We went back two months later and were still having engine issues and ran into severe weather issues. Rain, snow, lightning and sunshine all within an hour at times. Some truly wild stuff! Finally, we sorted out the motor and went back this past August and had two solid days of good weather to finish everything up.

AB: How much did having Jeff Zwart co-direct help with production?

SCOTTO: Jeff Zwart is a legend. As a kid, photos he shot decorated the walls of my room, so I was honored to not only work alongside him and share directing duties, but to have him so excited to be a part of the project and join the Hoonigan Media Machine crew. Without Zwart's extensive knowledge of the road, it would have taken us three times as long to plot it all out.

Not only has he raced there a zillion times, he has also shot a bunch of car commercials there, so he knew it from both sides. Zwart also brought a different look to the film — we have never used camera cars before. Not using them has always been a big part of our formula, but Zwart and I were able to find a way to make them work while staying true to our signature style.

AB: When it comes to driving, is it pre-planned and storyboarded from previous scouting trips or more seat-of-the-pants?

BLOCK: There's always a scouting trip prior, and then we'll do a recon pass before we start to film. For normal Gymkhana stuff, I can normally walk through the scene, but with Climbkhana, since it was the road and extended distances, I used my Focus RS to run through the sections before hopping into the Hoonicorn to film.

AB: You mentioned the film before, how many times did you and the crew watch Jean Louis Mourey's Climb Dance before going into production?

BLOCK: Maybe twice? But, I have seen it many times and I know a lot of the scenes by heart. It's very inspirational. And, it has a lot of the basic makings of how we make our videos since most of the footage was shot during the various practices of the two drivers before the race, Ari Vatanen and Robby Unser.

SCOTTO: I'm sure I've seen that film a hundred times in my life. Before we started doing the Gymkhana series, it was really the only film of its kind that was more than the typical motorsports coverage. Mourey elevated the way racing could be depicted. There's a lot of commonality in Climb Dance and our work. Many people think that it was shot during the race, but the film was actually shot just like Climbkhana, in the wee hours of the day, during practice and private testing. Oh, and I probably watched the iconic Ari Vatanen sun block shot 30 times on the day we filmed that homage moment to get everything just right.

AB: With the hill climb having recently celebrated its 101st anniversary and Pikes Peak being one of the most scenic motorsports settings in the world, there has been a lot of content to come out of the mountain. What was your take going into it?

BLOCK: I saw the road and mountain for what it was: one of the most amazing races in the world on one of the most amazing mountain roads. So, our vision was to help showcase what an amazing and challenging road it is, but to show it in a new way.

Since the road has been completely paved, everyone who races up Pikes Peak is now locked into tarmac racing lines. No one gets sideways anymore like the old gravel days, which is when I started watching the race. With Climbkhana, I wanted to show a more fun, sideways and playful way of getting to the summit.

AB: In previous Gymkhana films, you had a sandbox to play in, from an old airfield to what seemed like the entirety of Los Angeles. With Climbkhana, you were limited to the paved sections of the mountain. How did that affect the film?

BLOCK: It made it a bit more dangerous at certain points since my runoff was a sheer drop at times! It also restricted what we could do since there are only so many open areas, or unique spots like the ranger station and the parking lot next to it to play with. We can only show so many hairpins in a video like this, so we had to get creative with the various spots and storylines we could create on the mountain.

AB: What was the most challenging stunt in Climbkhana?

BLOCK: There's one turn in the upper part of the W's where I wanted to drop a wheel and spray some rocks out over the drop while still smoking the front tires on the pavement. Not easy! And the consequences were bad if I went wide, it's the same spot the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution went off a few years ago. I nailed it on my second run, but the commitment level was really high and the margin for error was pretty small, so I'd say that was by far the most challenging part.

AB: What shot are you the most proud of?

SCOTTO: That's a tough one. The shot of KB almost dying, with two wheels deep in the dirt, inches from disaster as his front wheels clawed at the tarmac to escape the long way down might be one of the greatest moments I have ever been apart of. I was standing behind our main camera for that shot, and didn't breathe the entire time.

AB: While the plumey tire smoke almost doubles as roost, what would you each trade to go back and shoot Climbkhana when Pikes Peak was still all gravel?

BLOCK: Most of my early race career was built on gravel rally experience, and my early memories of Pikes was of it all gravel. So, it would be a dream to actually drive it that way. Especially with a high-horsepower AWD rally car. So, as far as a trade? That's a tough question. Not my left nut, that's for sure. But it does have that sort of value, though [laughter]!

SCOTTO: Early on, something we discussed was that by making a Gymkhana film, it was the only way anyone would be able to drive the mountain in the same fashion as the glory days of Michelle Mouton, Ari Vatanen, Bobby Unser, Walter Rohl, Rod Millen and so on. So I'm not so sure I'd trade anything. That said, the rally fan in me wishes the mountain was still gravel for racing's sake. The faster records are cool, but nothing will beat the sideways, roosted slides with no guardrails and heaps of consequence.

AB: Ken, as someone who currently competes in the FIA World Rallycross Championship, how much does your skills hooning in videos complement what you do in a race?

BLOCK: All of the stuff you see in my videos is a direct translation from the things I would do on a rally stage or during a rallycross race. But, sideways is slow so are we are constantly fighting to keep the car straight when racing in the World Rallycross Championship. The Gymkhana videos are always fun for me to get that sideways stuff out of my system.

When Gymkhana first dropped back in 2008, it was during the early YouTube days. Do you remember what your initial expectations were?

BLOCK: I had none, really. I originally filmed it for fun and had it hosted on my personal webpage. It took off and was costing me around $10k a month to host it there! Once that happened, I knew I had something pretty special, and it's grown a lot from there.

AB: Besides excessive hosting fees, how much has the success of the Gymkhana franchise affected both of your careers?

BLOCK: I think the success of the franchise has certainly helped in terms of extra visibility as a driver and for my team and partners. It allows me to be a bit more multi-faceted than most guys on the circuit and it assisted in getting more sponsorship, which is a huge help when building out race budgets to compete around the world.

SCOTTO: Gymkhana changed the direction of my career. I went from being a magazine editor to a director. Not sure if that would have happened without this series. But then again, the entire world of media was shifting at the time, and we were all trying to figure out what the next thing was. Who knew it was making videos about sliding cars!

AB: As creators, where do you both find inspiration for your projects?

BLOCK: I find my inspiration all around me. At the end of the day, my team and I love to create cool content that we like and want to see. Through the process of brainstorming and general banter, we get inspired to come up with our ideas for the next video.

SCOTTO: Like Ken, everything around me inspires in one way or another. But if I was forced to pick one, I'd say it comes from my 7-year-old imagination. I think about the stuff that I wanted to see cars do when I played with Hot Wheels, then question what is actually possible.

AB: Say Ford came to you guys with the opportunity to film without any budget limitations, what would you each want to do next?

BLOCK: No budget restrictions? I guess the moon?

SCOTTO: I'd start with a much-needed nap. Maybe a vacation. Then we'd build our own world to hoon.

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