As I continue my journey through the early roleplaying games from my collection, there’s one title we simply can’t ignore, Ultima, a title that would spawn one of the biggest franchises in gaming history. Now, there’s an abundance of information on Ultima available on the internet and also in physical form by much more knowledgeable people than myself, like Stephen Emond’s Ultima: the Ultimate Companion Guide and Ultima: the Ultimate Collector’s Guide alongside Andrea Contato’s recent book Through the Moongate, so I have decided not to write a whole bunch, it’s more of an overview of the Ultima (I) titles in my collection.
Also, I have planned for a future article on the game that started it all, Akalabeth, so I’ll only be mentioning it briefly here.
In 1980 Al Remmers, the founder of California Pacific Computer Company received a copy of Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth. Remmers impressed by the high schoolers’ hobbyist project soon helped turn it into a commercial success. While there seems to be a bit of discrepancy around the actual number of sold copies, different sources suggest a number anywhere between 10.000 and 30.000. Nonetheless, if Garriott’s hobby game, which in essence was made for himself, could gain traction like that, how much would a professionally made game be able to achieve.
California Pacific released three different releases of Akalabeth. This being the third from 1980. The demon artwork by Denis Loubet was initially made for The Space Gamer Magazine. Garriott commissioned Loubet to paint the cover for Ultima who later went on to create the artwork for numerous Origin titles
The Space Gamer number 28 from May/June 1980 which featured Denis Loubet’s awesome demon cover art
While being a sophomore at the University of Texas, Garriott started working on a much more ambitious and professional game than Akalabeth. A game that eventually would become Ultima. Much of the inner workings of Akalabeth were reused and towns, quests, and a user interface alongside sci-fi-inspired elements were added. Garriott finished the game in less than a year. Initially, it was intended to be released as Ultimatum, but to avoid any confusion or even legal complications with J. Michael Hemphill’s 1979 board game Ultimatum: A Game of Nuclear Confrontation, the title was changed to Ultima by the suggestion of Remmers.
Ultima was released for the Apple II in the early summer of 1981. Only a year later it had sold 20,000 copies, and went on to sell around 50,000 copies.
The very first release of Ultima, published for the Apple II in 1981 by California Pacific Computer Company. The game was only released for the Apple II – It was programmed in Apple BASIC (with a few Assembly routines by Kenneth Arnold) which essentially made it impossible to port to other systems without rewriting the entire game
Ultima was re-released for the Apple II under California Pacific’s Progame label, also in 1981
Garriott knew that he had pushed BASIC to its limit with Ultima and decided to use his summer break in 1981 to study assembly language before starting the development of the next Ultima. In the fall Garriott headed back to college where he would spend most of his time working on what would become Ultima II. Around the same time, financial issues started to surface at California Pacific, resulting in not fully paid royalties, which led to a fallout between Garriott and Remmers. Remmers allegedly had used Garriott’s royalties to finance his drug habit, while this is very likely highly inaccurate, California Pacific was indeed in deep financial trouble and didn’t pay Garriot whatever they were contracted to. In late 1981 California Pacific Computer Company went out of business.
Garriott’s success with Akalabeth and Ultima hadn’t gone unnoticed and swiftly the word spread that he was without a publisher. Interested publishers soon learned that Garriott demanded not only a very high royalty rate but also wanted a detailed high-quality cloth map to be included with his Ultima II.
Most potential publishers ran away, only one could agree to Garriott’s “demands”, On-Line Systems (soon to be Sierra On-Line). A publishing deal between Ken Williams of On-Line Systems and Garriott was agreed upon. Sierra wouldn’t interfere with Garriott’s game design and would produce the now-famous cloth map.
Sierra On-Line spotted an opportunity to monetize on the popularity of the Ultima name (Sierra had obtained the legal right to the Ultima name from defunct California Pacific) and re-released Ultima for the Atari 8-bit line of computers in 1983 with the title Ultima I The Original.
Sierra On-Line re-released Ultima as Ultima I The Original for the Atari 8-bit in 1983. Sierra contracted Sigma Micro Systems to convert the game and even though the Atari system was superior to that of the Apple II the conversion was made to look as identical to the original release as possible, even down to color scheme (and glitches)
At the time Sierra was experiencing financial difficulties which probably could be why they ended up using the backside of the Ultima II box as cover art for the re-release.
Controversy with Sierra over the contract terms and royalties for the IBM/PC port of Ultima II, the feeling that Garriott and his Ultima weren’t as appreciated as other designers and their products, and tension between him and Williams soon led Garriott to look for other opportunities.
With Sierra in the rearview mirror, Garriott teamed up with his father Owen and brother Robert, alongside Chuck Bueche, to found Origin systems in 1983, where he started work on Ultima III: Exodus.
It would take a number of years before the rights were back with Garriott but in 1986, Origin System rewrote the original Ultima now with superior graphics, animated tiles, new maps, and other various addition and improvements. It was initially released for the Apple II in December of 1986 as Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness. Later it was ported to the Commodore 64 and IBM/PC.
IBM/PC owners could finally sit down and enjoy the first title in the Ultima series when Origin System published Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness for the platform in 1987
Many subsequent releases were made in later years, including multiple releases for the Japanese market.
In 1988 Ultima I: the First Age of Darkness was converted and published in Japan by PonyCanyon for the PC-8801 system
Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness was also released for the Japanese FM-Towns computer but only as a part of the FM-Towns Ultima Trilogy I-II-III compilation, with upgraded graphics and as the only version of Ultima I to feature music
Andrea Contato’s Through the Moongate – The Story of Richard Garriott, Origin Systems Inc., and Ultima: Part 1 – From Akalabeth to Ultima VI. An excellent read.
The book is available from Amazon
Stephen Emond’s Ultima: the Ultimate Companion Guide and Ultima: the Ultimate Collector’s Guide can be purchased from multiple sources online.