Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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The Greatest PC Game Developer of All Time?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 1, 2010

Kotaku has a nice piece discussing the awesomeness that was, once upon a time, Origin Systems. It proclaims Origin the be the greatest PC game developer of all time. Long gone, but still a fond memory for many old-school gamers.

I figure the point is pretty debatable, but the Ultima and Wing Commander series were pretty dang influential to me, personally.  And not just as a game developer. So yeah, I’d probably lean this way if forced to choose, too.

I still find myself revisiting Shay Addam’s “The Official Book of Ultima” on a regular basis, especially during the time I’ve been working on Frayed Knights. I don’t think there’s anything new to be gleaned from it, as I’ve read it so many times. I think part of me is still trying to decipher any more elements of the “secret sauce” that made the games so enduring in the minds of players. Consciously, I realize that much of that was purely relative to the time and technology in which they were released. Between modern gamers completely rejecting Ultima IV, being able to see the games played sans rose-colored glasses via Blogging Ultima and The CRPG Addict, and going back to play them myself in one of my little retrogaming excursions, I’m reminded that the games weren’t all that. I have still never finished Ultima VI in spite of multiple attempts, and never played more than ten minutes of the first two games. Maybe one day…

It is sobering reading Addam’s book, a snapshot taken Origin’s heyday around 1990 or 91, and seeing their eventually doom a decade later. Only a couple of years later, in spite of their string of successes (well, okay, they had some duds too), they were forced to sell themselves to EA, a company they’d once painted as something of their arch-enemy. And now we have a horrible Wing Commander arcade game on XBLA, and an Evony-style clone mysteriously branded as an Ultima. It’s like hearing your favorite rock anthem of your youth being used in a paper towel commercial.

I still miss ’em.

Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 17 Comments to Read

  • Captain Kal said,

    I still miss them too. Although I ‘ve never played any Ultima ( Shame on me :). I am tempted to start Exult, and go from there), Wing Commander was a defining moment in my gaming career :). And I played the downgraded Amiga 500 version. I still have all the games and started replaying them again. (Let me tell you WC1 Secret Missions are WAY TOO difficult.) The highlight of the series IMHO was Privateer. Thanks to DosBox that I am still able to play it, and to introduce it to the new ganeration of gamers (or its equally brilliant fun remake “Privateer Gemini Gold”).

  • McTeddy said,

    Ultima and Wing Commander were pretty darn influential to me too despite me getting to the table a little late.

    Origin is best described as their motto “We create Worlds”… because their strength wasn’t create games. They created entire universes with interesting characters and plotlines. Even with the advances of today, developers still have trouble making universes feel real.

    The depth that origin created has become the goal of nearly all developers nowadays… Despite many young dev’s thinking the idea of story in an action game came from Halo.

    Since I’ve been playing through Wing Commander and Ultima again, I do see flaws. But I also see the roots of everything we now think of as Standard. I’m playing a game thats as old as I am… I find myself yelling at Maniac to shut the hell up… and praying that I can get Spirit as my wingman again because she’s so happy to follow my orders and doesn’t often whine. That is character personality it’s finest in my opinion.

    Besides, my current project I’m working on is a tribute to Ultima 1… so to this day… Origin continues to inspire people… just not as many of our taste deprived young ‘uns 🙂

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Origin have always had a special place in my heart, my first RPG experience was Ultima IV.

    Ultima VII in particular is great, and I still have a good working knowledge of the rune system (some of the earlier games all had signs in Britannian runes, so it made things easier).

    Really wish EA would sign up to Good Old Games or something, so that the likes of Origin, Bullfrog and Westwood could be seen by a wider audience.

  • Calibrator said,

    Highly subjective matter, isn’t it?

    While I certainly admire Origin for their versatile CRPG portfolio which is perhaps only matched by SquareSoft and Enix (convienently excluded by the arbitrary restriction on PC developers, doh!) and my still favorite CRPG of all time – U7 Black Gate – they were also largely responsible for the “you have to upgrade your PC to play optimally”-mantra that cost me and other freaks lots of money.
    It can also be said that Origins biggest influence on other developers – and success with the fans – were caused by the earlier episodes, that were developed on the Apple II and laid the groundwork not only for the PC-based U6+ but also Japanese RPGs like the Final Fantasy series.

    I could also nominate id Software for their relentless participation in making virtual killing look more realistic with each iteration of their push-buttons-open-doors-and-blast-everything-else engine. For years their games were the synonym for mainstream PC gaming – at least as long as shotguns, chainsaws and rocket jumps are concerned mainstream.

    What company I’m personally mourning about is Looking Glass Technologies, though.
    After Origin published the first Ultima Underworld (Looking Glass was still named Blue Sky Software at the time) and better integrated their Britannian “staff” in the sequel they continued to bring fantastic games with the first System Shock (the sequel was done by Irrational Games) and later the Thief series.

    The influence of Underworld as the first “virtual reality dungeon simulator” (thanks to fluid movement and non-orthogonal dungeon walls) is not to be underestimated – Bethesda pretty much based their whole company on it – while the Thief series coined the term stealth gaming (at least when PCs are concerned, on consoles the honor goes to the Metal Gear series) the studio closed its doors not long after the second Thief game was published.
    Their legacy lives on, though, with direct successors (Thief: Deadly Shadows by Ion Storm, a “Thief 4” is rumored to be in the works) and spiritual ones (Arx Fatalis, Deus Ex and Bioshock series) and countless fan missions for the Thief games…

  • slenkar said,

    im a big fan of Joe Ybera

  • rsaarelm said,

    Does anyone know what the deal is with the Ultima VI stuff in Shay Addams book? I read the first edition last year, and it lists a bunch of weird stuff that never made it to the finished game, like multiple floors and digging through roofs. It also keeps saying the gargoyles are blue, and even says the working title of the game was something about “Blue Meanies”.

    I couldn’t quite tell if this was in-dev stuff that got changed before the game was released, or if Addams was just making stuff up to make a more interesting narrative from sparse details.

  • Whiner said,

    I remain loyal to the TRUE Sierra which was and is no longer…

  • skavenhorde said,

    Ultima III was my first truly great DOS game experience. Before that The Bard’s Tale hooked me into the RPG way, but there truly weren’t that many great RPGs made on the C64 or even Dos by then.

    Ultima III was so good it even hooked my mom into its world. We’d stay up really late playing that dang thing and one weekend while I was away at my dad’s she found the mystic arms and armor. I still clearly remember that because I was like, “What??? You found them without me? Where were they?”

    Don’t feel bad about not being able to play Ultima 1 or 2 for more than a day. Even back when Ultima IV was released it was extremely dated. My mom found Ultima 1 and got it as a Christmas present (this was back before Ebay. Still haven’t a clue how she found that game). I poured over the manual reading everything there was about it and then started playing. I was extremely disappointed. It was nothing like Ultima III or IV.

    As for gamers of today not being able to play it, well they’re missing out. Ultima, for me, wasn’t just a gaming series. It actually brought my mom and I closer together and we had many more adventures in the Ultima series. No other game I played hooked her the way Ultima did.

    One thing I’ll never understand is the constant praise for Ultima VII. I did not like that game as much as Ultima III – VI. The POV was too close. Everyone talks about it being the best of the series, but for me it ruined it. The only saving grace is that Exult solved the biggest problem I had with Ultima VII & Serpent Isle.

  • Adamantyr said,

    Origin was a great company in its day… Like any fan-boy, I wanted to work for them. I think they set some very bad patterns, though, that the industry has yet to relinquish.

    One, they spent WAY too much money on development. Wing Commander was the first game to cost over a million to develop. Chris Crawford, in a game design book I have, actually blamed Origin and WC for starting the PC game industry down the path to Hollywood “blockbuster or bust” mentality. He also pointed out that it never actually paid for itself; the expansions eventually got them in the black.

    Two, I have always hated the “grind” mentality in the gaming industry. If your team is working 60 hours a week or more, it means you’re either a piss-poor planner or you have insufficient resources. Either way, overworking your employees is very bad for the long-term, and the fact the industry still hasn’t grown up and learned this makes me glad I’m elsewhere. Maybe if I was in my 20’s I’d be stupid enough to do it, but I’m in my 30’s now, and I need a retirement package and good benefits, not long hours and a culture geared towards “sleep is for the weak”.

    That being said, I do miss them too. The RPG companies of today are pale imitations of what Origin once was.

  • Calibrator said,

    What a cool mom you have – I really feel a shade of envy right now!
    Disclaimer: I can’t complain about my mom but playing video games together would’ve been totally out of the question.

    As for U7:

    My personal top three Ultimas in order are U7a, U5 and U6
    I consider these three games completely outstanding and the time frame they were created was the Origins climax in creativity and capability to produce CRPGs.
    – U7a has the IMHO best game world Origin ever created, semi-intelligent party AI, the best tile graphics of the whole series and stuff you didn’t find in other RPGs at the time (at least if you were able to get the thing to run on your PC…). I judge each and every CRPG against it and many fail in many categories. Example: The game world of Baldur’s Gate 1 is practically universally praised but I consider it downright *static* compared to the one in U7a.
    – U5 is very close and has a good backstory, it’s as good as 8-bit CRPGs with “simple” tile mapping can get (with some heavy disk swapping!). I also loved the big underworld and the daily schedules of most inhabitants – you still don’t see that in many modern CRPGs!
    – U6 suffers from the smaller viewport (9×9 instead 11×11) and I really hate the whole Gargoyle scenario which U6 introduced. Not content with one heavy dose of mysticism we now have a second one! On the other hand I was relieved that U6 did away with the 3D dungeons of the earlier games and they did a fine job with the whole presentation.

    The next three are: U4, U3 and U9
    All are very good games in their own right, but far less from perfection than the top three.
    – I like U4 for its goal and great overall design. It was the Ultima that made it clear that they really thought onwards and brought the graphics more towards realism (coast outlines, river slopes for example) with this episode. On the other hand you basically follow the plot, collect items etc. and don’t explore as much besides the road. If you like sidequests you will be disappointed with U4 and U3.
    – I admire U3 simply for the gigantic progression after U2. It already contains the basic ingredients that were kept in the series until U8 and it was a blast to play on the C64 of my best friend at the time (we also played U4 together and nearly ruined our school graduation…).
    – U9: Not many people have nice things to say about it but IMHO it was what U8 should have been. At least if you wanted to shapeshift the series into “single-player action-adventures” to broaden the audience – which was a mistake in the first place. Its influence is not to be neglected, though, lots of CRPGs are set up basically exactly like it now (the German “Gothic” series of CRPGs for example).

    My least favorite three Ultimas are: U7b, U8 and U2
    – I *hated* Serpent Isle because it was such a disappointment after Black Gate! I still think that isn’t “bad”, especially when compared with Non-Ultimas as it has some great scenery, NPCs and the usual assortment of quests and gameplay of U7a on it’s main continent. However, the vast “dungeons” are some of the worst I’ve ever seen in any CRPG. I also detested the new kind of mysticism we get with this game (never to be seen again, IIRC) and the drastic fate that befell Monitor – back then I thought that it felt like a “bad drama”. Sometimes I though the game was playing me, and not all that well.
    – U8 was a game that didn’t feel like an Ultima at all to me. Though I in fact enjoy playing it for the most part (I remember not liking its magic system and thought the game was much too small in scale) I always thought it was a game for CRPG beginners.
    – I didn’t play U1 and though U2 was the very first CRPG and I have special place in my heart for it (it paved the way, after all) I still think it is the weakest Ultima I ever played.

  • Xian said,

    Origin would have been my favorite developer too. Ultima III was my first RPG, back in 1983 on the Atari 800 and after playing that I was hooked on the genre. I would still call Ultima IV my favorite game of all time. Ultima Underworld was another huge influence on me – the first real 3D game that I had played.

    Ultima VII was my least favorite. I loved the story and what you could do in the game, but the combat was just boring with everything being automated, just click and sit back and watch. I really missed the turn based combat from the earlier games in the series.

    I didn’t really mind Ultima VIII – it was different and didn’t have the “feel” of an Ultima, but since I had played another Origin favorite beforehand, Crusader No Remorse, I was able to pick up on the controls quite easily.

    Origin also had great customer service. They allowed me to trade the Atari 800 Ultima IV disks for the Atari ST version when I got a new computer for a nominal fee.
    One thing that really impressed me was the ending of one of the Ultimas, can’t remember if it was III or IV, the text said “Thou hast completed the game, report thy feat to Lord British!”. I wrote a letter to LB c/o Origin and a few weeks later I received a signed certificate back saying that I had completed the game. Sadly, that has got lost in the shuffle of several moves since the 80s.

  • skavenhorde said,

    @Calibrator Yea, she is pretty much a geek like me 🙂 Even back when parents were screaming about the horrors of D&D she was actively hunting them down. One day my 6th grade teacher phoned her to say that he caught me reading D&D in class (religious nutball) and wanted to try and dissuade her from allowing me to play the “devil’s game.” I remember her telling me later that she told him that any game where my son wants to read and write is ok in her book. I was always bugging her about the meaning to words back then and it really did help my comprehension skills. I’d ace English exams and flunk math 😀

    @Xian – When they did away with TB combat in Ultima VII my heart sank. I absolutely hated that my magic was next to useless now. Before I could blast enemies from very far away, but now they were on me before I could get any good spells off.

  • Making Games: Lubricating with a GIMLET said,

    […] Allen Varney’s article, “The Conquest of Origin” last week as I was working on my post on Origin Systems. The quote that struck me was from Stephen Beeman: “You’d like to think a marriage of […]

  • Tesh said,

    I miss MicroProse. The Master of Orion and Master of Magic games are still high on my list of great games, and the first two XCom games are likewise great. Origin was great too, and Privateer was incredible, but I just spent more happy hours with MicroProse games all in all.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Those games weren’t made in-house at Microprose, though. SimTex mad MoO and MoM, and X-Com was made by Mythos Games. But they did make / publish many of my favorites too. Particularly their sims.

  • Silemess said,

    Didn’t realize that Micropose was just the publisher for those. I suppose I should have – given that the names _do_ flash up right there on the screen as the game loads. You know, the cue for “Hit escape/enter/whatever key is necessary to skip this stuff and get to the game.”

  • Tesh said,

    Hrm… I really should have known that. Must be losing my mind in my old age. Thanks!