In 1981 Larry Franks Vice President of Sigma Distributing, a significant Pacific Northwest computer distributor, was looking for ways to enter the rapidly expanding software market, in part helped by the computers sold by his company. Franks received permission to create a software development and distribution department of Sigma and hired Christopher Anson, a software analyst at Boeing Computer Corporation to head the new department.
Boeing was a major employer in the Seattle area and many of the early software engineers joining the personal computer revolution emerged from the company. Boeing had during the ’60s and ’70s diversified into industries such as outer space travel, marine craft, agriculture, energy production, and transit systems and in the process become more and more reliant on computer systems and software engineers. Anson hired programmer Alan Clark, a 21-year-old computer literate who had been working at a store selling computers in the latter part of the ’70s. The two hit it off and Clark got a vision of using the tool-based approach Anson had used at Boeing to write better adventure games and more efficiently.
The consumer market, while still relatively small, was predicted to grow many folds in the coming years and at the center of the craze was also the personal computer game. In 1980 Ken and Roberta Williams had heralded the graphic adventure game to unforeseen commercial successes and Zork-creator Infocom was already becoming the synonym with text-only interactive fiction, a genre Scott Adams of Adventure International otherwise had ruled ever since his first game Adventureland was released by Creative Computing and TRS-80 Software Exchange in 1978 and 1979.
While adventure games were trailing behind arcade and action titles and often required much more work to complete, the market was not as saturated and appeared to allow for an easier entrance with more elaborate products.
Clark and Anson, on nights and weekends, went on to build the tools and development framework for creating and running an adventure game. Both felt they could improve on the current state of adventure games and the areas where the existing development technology fell short. They wanted to create a more intricate parser, better graphics, and more engaging gameplay.
By December of 1981, the tools were in a state where Anson was confident enough to fully leave Sigma and join the software department full-time. Franks left Sigma in the spring of 1982 to become Vice President and general manager and in September of 1982, the offspring was incorporated as Ultrasoft.
The tools developed were named after the company, with Ultra containing the UltraCompiler generating UltraCode and Ultravision generating the graphics, which not only included static images but short animations as well. With the tools in place for a structured and modular development phase, the team began work on the first Ultratitle, The Mask of the Sun. A graphic text adventure game inspired by one of the most impactful movies of the decade, Lucasfilm‘s Raiders of the Lost Ark, released a year earlier.
Clark, Anson, and Franks defined over a hundred distinct tasks involved in creating an adventure game, with planned meetings and storyboarding throughout the process to make sure everything was discussed and agreed on. All three would also help with the writing and the design resulting in a more carefully crafted, atmospheric, and thoughtful game than what the competition at the time could muster.
A parser, allowing for more complex sentences than the typically two-word verb and noun, using concepts of artificial intelligence, was developed.
Magaret Anson, Christopher Anson’s wife was appointed art director. Margareth had graduated from the Burnley School of Fine Arts and would direct a team of commercial artists creating the graphics on paper. Approved pieces got transferred to the computer, colored, and touched up using the company’s in-house tools.
The Mask of the Sun, Ultrasoft’s first developed game, released for the Apple II in 1982.
While the title was received positively following its release, the narrow distribution reach of Ultrasoft resulted in a limited number of sold copies.
The beautiful cover art was done by renowned space and astronomy artist Don Dixon. Who, over the years would create illustrations and cover art for books and numerous sci-fi and space publications
The Mask of the Sun bears an uncanny resemblance to Raiders of the Lost Ark with archeologist adventurer and treasure hunter Indiana Jones switched for protagonist Mac Steele, searching for the lost artifact, the Mask of the Sun in Central Mexico.
The game was met with positive reviews, praised for its graphics, atmospheric, and large vocabulary. Margot Comstock Tommervik, Editor of Softalk Magazine, regarded the game as a major breakthrough in adventure graphics and found the puzzles absolutely delightful. But like most adventure games of the times, it had its fair share of unfair elements and cumbersome and dreadful mazes, that had to be mapped out.
One game authority wrote The Mask Of The Sun will not only keep you on the edge of your seat for hours but is also destined to become the number one graphic adventure game of all time.
Ultrasoft followed up with the sequel, The Serpent’s Star using the same modular approach.
The Serpent’s Star, the sequel to The Mask of the Sun, released for the Apple II in 1983
On his way to Tibet to find the legendary gem known as the Serpent’s Star, protagonist Steel now needs to locate 13 scrolls, which combined would provide advice to the gems’ hideout in the town of Kara-Koram.
The Serpent’s Star was like its predecessor reviewed positively as a carefully crafted interactive experience with great graphics and animations.
While Ultrasoft tried to self-publish The Mask of the Sun and Serpent’s Star the company found it difficult to market and distribute the titles beyond its limited reach. The market was rapidly expanding and distribution channels were needed for nationwide publication. Ultrasoft ended up partnering with Brøderbund, the world’s tenth-largest microcomputer-software company, which released the titles in 1984 for the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64.
Ultrasoft managed to get a publishing deal with Brøderbund which released The Mask of the Sun and The Serpent’s Star in 1984 for the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64
While President of Brøderbund Doug Carlston hoped to be able to publish more programs created by Ultrasoft, The Mask of the Sun and The Serpent’s Star would be the only two titles released during the partnership. Ultrasoft, now only focusing on development, had spent much time on its new framework, Ultra II, and on a new and ambitious roleplaying adventure game, Shadowkeep, it would be Spinnaker that would publish it as part of its Trillium/Telarium line of games in 1984.
Shadowkeep would be the last developed game by Ultrasoft.
While Ultrasoft’s titles were technically impressive with scrolling between scenes, in-scene animation, intelligent parser, and well-written stories and puzzles the company only managed to develop three titles over its few years of existence. Still, Clark, Anson, and Franks managed to fulfill their ambition of creating more intricate adventure games with better graphics, and more engaging gameplay. The modular and team approach showed to be ahead of its time and would soon become the standard in game development. While The Mask of the Sun and The Serpent’s Star were heralded as new standards in the adventure game genre the initially limited distribution became a barrier to commercial success. When Brøderbund started publishing the two titles, the genre and market had more or less moved on.
Alan Clark would continue to program and design games, later working for Synergistic Software amount others. He was tragically run over by car thieves and killed in 1999.
Sources: Softline May/June 1981, Softalk Magazine 1983, Wikipedia, The Digital Antiquarian