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Like all forms of entertainment, computer gaming has its giants. Sid Meier, who designed Civilization. Will Wright, who gave us Sim City and his current hit, The Sims. And Richard Garriott, more popularly known by the alter-ego he uses in his games, Lord British.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Garriott’s vision has helped shaped computer gaming. From his first game, Akalabeth, otherwise known as Ultima O, to the massive success of Ultima Online, Garriott has redefined the industry by creating games that set new standards, whether by pushing available technology, or by crafting compelling stories while other games stick to “kill ’em all” plots.
A theme throughout the original Ultima series is that the character you play is, literally, you. Not Lara Croft, not a counter-terrorist, but you, a normal person brought to a strange new land to right wrongs. At the climax of Ultima IV, the character you play literally becomes an embodiment of righteousness, the Avatar. By introducing the eight virtues into Ultima, Garriott put into computer gaming something never seen before and rarely seen since, a moral dimension in a genre typically frowned upon for its violence. The nine thousand members of the Ultima Dragons, an unofficial fan club for the Ultima series, stand as testimony to Garriott’s creativity.
Since the first Ultima in 1980, Garriott has shown himself to be innovative, he has told us riveting stories, he has even been daring – putting a pentagram on the cover of Pagan, the eighth Ultima, knowing that stores would not give it prime display space, or even want to sell it (this was, after all, when role-playing games, from Dungeons and Dragons to their computer counterparts, were considered ‘satanic’). We cannot deny that Garriott has shaped computer gaming.
But that was in the past. Pagan, though successful commercially, was scorned and ridiculed by the fans. Unlike it’s two predecessors, Pagan did not release an add-on, though one was in development. Ultima Online, though, again, hardly a commercial failure, owes most of its success to the fact that it was the first Internet based multi-player game. Ascension, the ninth and final Ultima, though quite likely the most eagerly anticipated game of all time, failed miserably when it was released late last year. Most people could not even play the buggy game, with or without the numerous patches released in a frenzy through their website. Little is known of Garriott’s latest project, code-named ‘X’, except that it will not be an Ultima, though Garriott has said that X, being the roman numeral for ten, would maintain some connection to his series.
And then, on the 30th of March, 2000, it was announced that Garriott had left Origin Systems Inc., the company he founded and later sold to Electronic Arts. A few days later, like a bad April’s Fool joke, rumours started circulating that he was fired by his corporate bosses. Are we to believe these rumours? Yes, it is highly likely. Numerous staff were also released from Origin at the time, including a cancelled project rumoured to be Privateer Online.
About a month later, Verant, the producers of the hugely successful Internet game Everquest, announced that they will be opening a new studio in Austin, Texas, where OSI’s offices are. Part of the staff for this new studio include Rich “Dupre” Vogel, Raph “Designer Dragon” Koster and Chris Mayer, all of whom were part of the original Ultima Online team, and Anthony L. Sommers, a lead developer on several Wing Commander titles.
Is Origin over? Ultima Online still has over a hundred thousand subscribers, Ultima Online II is still hugely anticipated. On the other hand, with the recent firings and defections, it seems that they have no other projects in line for the future, which can only mean that Origin’s star has dimmed.
As for Lord British, whether or not he continues with X, and even if he never has another hit game again, he still leaves behind an amazing legacy. And for that we have to thank him.