Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Ultima IV and Rational Worlds

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 18, 2014

Ultima_IV_boxI’m gonna take a break for the weekend on the Frayed Knights posts (more next week!), and just refer you to a couple of posts by The Digital Antiquarian about a game that’s very near & dear to my heart, Ultima IV.

First, the origin story – and some conjectures about the real history behind it that go beyond the short & sweet “official” story:

Article: The Road to IV

Article: Ultima IV

Now, as much as I like to wax prosaic about Ultima IV, because it really was a pretty landmark game and IMO still a great game to play, it is still a (relatively) simple game with simple mechanics. Although the interesting thing is that while modern games with complex faction systems may be far more sophisticated, the simple rules and ability to check with Hawkwind to monitor your progress may have actually strengthened the focus of the game and increased the verisimilitude than far more murky but “realistic” systems. Go figure.

But maybe a more significant factor – and reason that the game series is so beloved today – is suggested in the second article. Though violated as often as reinforced, a logic and consistency permeated the Ultima games. This was a part of game design as well as the fictional world-building. At least through the middle of the series, the games were far more simulationist than narrativist. The game ran on consistent rules with very little special-case code. The player acquired and learned to use tools to make progress in the game – from finding an artifact to fly over mountains to using a cannon to shoot a door off its hinges.

The magic system tried to follow that same consistency – it seemed to be created of a combination of elements, which included reagents some games, and runes in Ultima Underworld. Likewise, the virtue system was a combination of a handful of base elements. In Ultima VI and VII, crafting and simple economy were introduced much the same way, with a number of basic procedures allowing the creation of items in the game.

Maybe it was the transparency of these systems – and how they permeated the same game – that made players feel like Origin was living up to its motto, “We create worlds.” And maybe there’s a lesson to be learned by game designers (especially RPG designers) about ┬áthe art of world-building.


Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 5 Comments to Read



  • samsin said,

    Loved these games in the 80s-90s. I think a big part of the love for the early Ultimas (for me its Ultima V, then IV) by older gamers is how each sequel improved on just about every front: world size and variety, dialogue, interaction with the environment, etc. Back then such improvements were firsts of their kind.

    I think such “wow” moments happen in modern games too, but to me they always feel like improvements on older games. Of course kids today are probably having their own “wow” moments with some of the more innovative games like Minecraft, etc.

  • McTeddy said,

    Ultima 4 to me, is like Ultima 7 to you. Keep in mind, I suck at the game and haven’t actually beaten it.

    But I read about the game in a magazine it drew me in. A game that is watching every one of your actions and judging you. When I eventually played, I put so much effort into choosing how my avatar was supposed to act because I never knew what actions mattered.

    To this day, I’ve never felt in-game morals to that extent. Now? I get to choose the Good/Evil option from a menu despite it being completely out of character. Oh boy!

    Realistically though, It’d never work today because of the internet. Weeks before a game is even released people have already posted the mechanics and every possible branch.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I played it to completion *after* I completed Ultima VII, interestingly enough. I’d played it part-way when it first came out, but when I finished The Black Gate, I just felt I *HAD* to get more Ultima, so I jumped back into 4 and finished it in about 2 weeks.

    And the amazing thing was that while the game was already feeling pretty ancient at the time (I think it was *only* 8 years old then…) after I got past some of the primitive graphics and interface problems, I was having a blast with it.

    I guess you could say that was the game that turned me into a retro-gamer. And now all the “new” games that were hot stuff back then are a lot older and more retro now.

  • Daniel King said,

    I find that with many old games, while graphics are all well and good, I can really enjoy a good game regardless. I played Wizardry 5 recently and had a great time. :)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I didn’t *really* play a Might & Magic game in earnest until I was part-way through development of Frayed Knights. I guess I’d played a little of M&M 3 waaay back in the day, but only enough to get a taste of it. Going back, it was almost a revelation. Fantastic games. Still very fun to play, once you can get over the limitations.

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