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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on Arthurian Legends and Serpent Isle

Discussion in 'RPG Codex News & Content Comments' started by Infinitron, Sep 6, 2019.

  1. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Grab the Codex by the pussy Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    Tags: Arthurian Legends; Electronic Arts; Origin Systems; Richard Garriott; The Digital Antiquarian; Ultima VII: Serpent Isle; Warren Spector

    For the past eight years, the Digital Antiquarian blog has been following the history of Richard Garriott and Origin Systems, developers of the Ultima series, the preeminent RPG franchise of the 1980s and early 1990s. Now he's reached the point where it all began to fall apart for them. In late 1992, faced with financial uncertainty after the underwhelming commercial reception of Ultima VII, Origin agreed to be acquired by Electronic Arts. Naturally, they had a few games already in development when this happened. For starters, there was the unambitious Forge of Virtue expansion for Ultima VII and Looking Glass' Ultima Underworld II. This article however chooses to focus on the titles that came afterwards - the two Ultima VII engine-based projects, the Worlds of Ultima-style spinoff Arthurian Legends which was soon cancelled, and direct sequel Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle.

    The game which would be released under the long-winded title of Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle had had a complicated gestation. It was conceived as Origin’s latest solution to a problem that had long bedeviled them: that of how to leverage their latest expensive Ultima engine for more than one game without violating the letter of a promise Richard Garriott had made more than a decade before to never use the same engine for two successive mainline Ultima games. Back when Ultima VI was the latest and greatest, Origin had tried reusing its engine in a pair of spinoffs called the Worlds of Ultima, which rather awkwardly shoehorned the player’s character from the main series — the “Avatar” — into plots and settings that otherwise had nothing to do with Richard Garriott’s fantasy world of Britannia. Those two games had drawn from early 20th-century science and adventure fiction rather than Renaissance Faire fantasy, and had actually turned out quite magnificently; they’re among the best games ever to bear the Ultima name in this humble critic’s opinion. But, sadly, they had sold like the proverbial space heaters in the Sahara. It seemed that Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs were a bridge too far for fans raised on J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord British.

    So, Origin adjusted their approach when thinking of ways to reuse the even more expensive Ultima VII engine. They conceived two projects. One would be somewhat in the spirit of Worlds of Ultima, but would stick closer to Britannia-style fantasy: called Arthurian Legends, it would draw from, as you might assume, the legends of King Arthur, a fairly natural thematic fit for a series whose creator liked to call himself “Lord British.” The other game, the first to go into production, would be a direct sequel to Ultima VII, following the Avatar as he pursued the Guardian, that “Destroyer of Worlds” from the first game, from Britannia to a new world. This game, then, was Serpent Isle. Originally, it was to have had a pirate theme, all fantastical derring-do on an oceanic world, with a voodoo-like magic system in keeping with Earthly legends of Caribbean piracy.

    This piratey Serpent Isle was first assigned to Origin writer Jeff George, but he struggled to find ways to adapt the idea to the reality of the Ultima VII engine’s affordances. Finally, after spinning his wheels for some months, he left the company entirely. Warren Spector, who had become Origin’s resident specialist in Just Getting Things Done, then took over the project and radically revised it, dropping the pirate angle and changing the setting to one that was much more Britannia-like, right down to a set of towns each dedicated to one of a set of abstract virtues. Having thus become a less excitingly original concept but a more practical one from a development perspective, Serpent Isle started to make good progress under Spector’s steady hand. Meanwhile another small team started working up a script for Arthurian Legends, which was planned as the Ultima VII engine’s last hurrah.

    Yet the somewhat muted response to the first Ultima VII threw a spanner in the works. Origin’s management team was suddenly second-guessing the entire philosophy on which their company had been built: “Do we still create worlds?” Arthurian Legends was starved of resources amidst this crisis of confidence, and finally cancelled in January of 1993. Writer and designer Sheri Graner Ray, one of only two people left on the project at the end, invests its cancellation with major symbolic importance:

    I truly believe that on some level we knew that this was the death knell for Origin. It was the last of the truly grass-roots games in production there… the last one that was conceived, championed, and put into development purely by the actual developers, with no support or input from the executives. It was actually, kinda, the end of an era for the game industry in general, as it was also during this time that we were all adjusting to the very recent EA buyout of Origin.
    Serpent Isle, on the other hand, was too far along by the time the verdict was in on the first Ultima VII to make a cancellation realistic. It would instead go down in the recollection of most hardcore CRPG fans as the last “real” Ultima, the capstone to the process of evolution a young Richard Garriott had set in motion back in 1980 with a primitive BASIC game called Akalabeth. And yet the fact remains that it could have been so, so much better, had it only caught Origin at a less uncertain, more confident time.

    Serpent Isle lacks the refreshingly original settings of the two Worlds of Ultima games, as it does the surprisingly fine writing of the first Ultima VII; Raymond Benson, the head writer on the latter project, worked on Serpent Isle only briefly before decamping to join MicroProse Software. In compensation, though, Serpent Isle is arguably a better game than its predecessor through the first 65 percent or so of its immense length. Ultima VII: The Black Gate can at times feel like the world’s most elaborate high-fantasy walking simulator; you really do spend most of your time just walking around and talking to people, an exercise that’s made rewarding only by the superb writing. Serpent Isle, by contrast, is full to bursting with actual things to do: puzzles to solve, dungeons to explore, quests to fulfill. It stretches its engine in all sorts of unexpected and wonderfully hands-on directions. Halfway in, it seems well on its way to being one of the best Ultima games of all, as fine a sendoff as any venerable series could hope for.

    In the end, though, its strengths were all undone by Origin’s crisis of faith in the traditional Ultima concept. Determined to get its sales onto the books of what had been a rather lukewarm fiscal year and to wash their hands of the past it now represented, management demanded that it go out on March 25, 1993, the last day of said year. As a result, the last third or so of Serpent Isle is painfully, obviously unfinished. Conversations become threadbare, plot lines are left to dangle, side quests disappear, and bugs start to sprout up everywhere you look. As the fiction becomes a thinner and thinner veneer pasted over the mechanical nuts and bolts of the design, solubility falls by the wayside. By the end, you’re wandering through a maze of obscure plot triggers that have no logical connection with the events they cause, making a walkthrough a virtual necessity. It’s a downright sad thing to have to witness. Had its team only been allowed another three or four months to finish the job, Serpent Isle could have been not only a great final old-school Ultima but one of the best CRPGs of any type that I’ve ever played, a surefire entrant in my personal gaming hall of fame. As it is, though, it’s a bitter failure, arguably the most heartbreaking one of Warren Spector’s storied career.

    And there was to be one final note of cutting irony in all of this: Serpent Isle, which Origin released without a lot of faith in its commercial potential, garnered a surprisingly warm reception among critics and fans alike, and wound up selling almost as well as the first Ultima VII. Indeed, it performed so well that the subject of doing “more games in that vein,” in addition to or even instead of a more streamlined Ultima VIII, was briefly discussed at Origin. As things transpired, though, its success led only to an expansion pack called The Silver Seed before the end of the year; this modest effort became the true swansong for the Ultima VII engine, as well as the whole era of the 100-hour-plus, exploration-focused, free-form single-player CRPG at Origin in general. The very philosophy that had spawned the company, that had been at the core of its identity for the first decade of its existence, was fading into history.​

    I'm actually underselling this article, which also covers Chris Roberts' Wing Commander series and failed spinoff Strike Commander. The bottom line is that Origin's first year under EA was a commercial disappointment, and 1994 was the year they had to deliver with Ultima VIII. We all know how that worked out, so prepare for impact.
     
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  2. RK47 collides like two planets pulled by gravity Patron

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    :lol:
     
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  3. CappenVarra phantasmist Patron

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    it's "brace for impact" dude
     
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  4. KeighnMcDeath Learned

    KeighnMcDeath
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    Wonder if the Holy Grail would have been in that WOU?

    Anywayswe can't forget this either.
    Show Spoiler
    [​IMG]


    Or can we?
     
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  5. karnak Arcane Patron

    karnak
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    Grab the Codex by the pussy
    That which EA touches, it destroys.

     
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  6. Bumvelcrow Bellator Sempervirens Patron

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    Yeah, my reaction on reading that was, was that seriously your hot take of why Ultima 7 sold less well than expected? FFS, hardcore fans, my arse. There was nobody more hardcore than me and I was utterly dismayed by Ultima 7 on first playing it. The story captivated me eventually but U7 was the first of the dumbed down Ultimas for popular consumption.
     
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  7. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Grab the Codex by the pussy Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    What he was basically saying there (it's from our interview with him) is that the graphics and overall production quality in RPGs weren't good enough compared to other genres back then. He believes, I assume, that it took until the late 1990s and Baldur's Gate for RPG developers to start catching up on that front.

    Ultima VII was "hardcore" by his definition because it was an average-looking game (compared to other genres) that threw players into a huge open world (no quest arrows or even quest diaries back then) with tons of text walls.
     
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  8. Bumvelcrow Bellator Sempervirens Patron

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    I think that's revisionism (the average-looking part, anyway). Ultima 7 at the time was such a massive undertaking it could barely run on a top end PC. I remember magazines drooling over the graphics. I wouldn't be surprised if that sold more copies than any other aspect of the game, just so people could boast about being able to run it.

    On the other hand, I do have nostalgic memories of cataloguing great swathes of notes in various coloured folders for easy reference - not something that could be considered casual even back then. Still, the game basically was the end of Ultima as a RPG. What steadily diminishing role playing elements it once had ended here, and that was the biggest disappointment.
     
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  9. Mortmal Arcane

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    He's right, origin games were requiring the very best hardware , it was extremely impressive graphically for it's time while not having the most complex and hard core combat system ever. I remember in high school amongst hundreds of kids only me and another guy could run it and it wasn't at release day we were still owning amigas . Its af if today you were requiring a I7 with 2080ti as minimum requirement , with I9 and 2 titan in sli as recommended, yes that was that kind of prices in europe at least . If anything killed the sales it must be the ridiculously high hardware requirement and of course piracy ,ah if only it had an amiga version...Just a quick look at 1992 wiki is evidence enough , its bullshit the game was clearly one of the best looking.
     
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  10. Tramboi Cipher

    Tramboi
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    It's so frustrating because SI starts reallly well and has good things going for it. Leaving Britannia was so cool (unlike with desolated Pagan), and the mood of this continent was perfectly set.
    The last good Ultima :'( The last I enjoyed, at least.

    Regarding requirements, U7 was quite ok compared to the rest of Origin games.
    The real trouble was their Voodoo memory manager, which made it quite complicated to have enough conventional memory to run it :)
     
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  11. Mortmal Arcane

    Mortmal
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    I calculated exactly how much would you would need to invest comparatively to run ultima 7 today : 2292 euros . Fun time it was, now you can run everything on 800 euros configs.
     
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  12. Unorus Janco Lurker

    Unorus Janco
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    I don't know, Ultima VII does look plain and old-school compared to more colorful RPGs like Might and Magic 3, Lands of Lore and Eye of the Beholder, or Origin's own Ultima Underworld and Wing Commander. It doesn't matter how graphically demanding that game was, as artistically speaking it does look less inviting than many technically inferior games (not to mention that weird camera perspective and janky movement, that didn't help either). Certainly not an ugly game at the time, but it wasn't the kind of game that was supposed to survive a CD-ROM apocalypse.

    But it is a dumbed-down game compared to many computer RPGs from that era and the older Ultima entries that seemed to move the genre forward at the time. Ultima VII felt like the same old shit again, with better writing perhaps, but also streamlined gameplay (no more text parser, karma system, character customization options, tactical combat, or having to master things like wind, moon gates and different kinds of teleportation spells to move around the world effectively), a more linear and conventional plot about a big baddie trying to take over the world, and many technical issues. It was pure decline made for newcomers and storyfags, and reviews at the time reflected this (Scorpia for example bashed this game after being an Ultima fangirl since 1985), no wonder why Underworld, the truly forward-looking Ultima that year, surpassed it both critical and commercially.

    "Because RPG fans are dumb" the Antiquarian would say, sure.
     
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  13. MRY Prestigious Gentleman Wormwood Studios Developer

    MRY
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    That doesn't seem true to me.

    Panzer General, acclaimed 1994 war game:
    [​IMG]

    Civilization II, acclaimed 1996 TBS:
    [​IMG]

    Command and Conquer, acclaimed 1995 RTS:
    [​IMG]

    RPGs were probably somewhat worse than adventure games in terms of graphics (everything was), and to my taste PC graphics were often worse than console graphics, but PC RPGs weren't glaringly worse than other popular PC games. And there were plenty that were absurdly beautiful, like Lands of Lore.

    Speaking of which, has anyone ever done an article/retrospective on why Lands of Lore and Kyrandia have such absurdly good graphics?
     
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  14. MRY Prestigious Gentleman Wormwood Studios Developer

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  15. commie The Last Marxist Patron

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    Sorry MRY but Panzer General looked awesome back in 1994. Crisp, clean graphics at high res, with FMV vignettes and great sound. It was miles above any wargame and RPG's which actually looked better in early VGA times. C&C also had awesome production values. Closest things in that department RPG wise were Stonekeep and Lands of Lore 2 which came later in 1997. It had that Westwood quality, but was actually pretty outdated in the 3D department, just as M&M was even later in 1998.
     
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  16. Unorus Janco Lurker

    Unorus Janco
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    Yeah, Panzer General looks much better than Ultima VII (and VIII), especially in movement.
     
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  17. Infinitron I post news Patron

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    Grab the Codex by the pussy Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    Strategy games as the exception that proves the rule?
     
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  18. Unkillable Cat Prestigious Gentleman LEST WE FORGET Patron

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  19. Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Cipher

    Tuco Benedicto Pacifico
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    I remember Ultima VII being considered an absolute looker for the standards of its time. Can't remember if this was still true when Serpent Isle released, one-year-and-something later.
    People also shouldn't forget that when they were released these Ultima games were pretty fucking demanding. In an age when a lot of users were still using 8086, 8088 or 286 at best, Serpent Isle was a "niche title" that required a 386 and performed at its best on a 486.
     
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  20. Trash Pointing and laughing.

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    Serpent Isle was also a bitch to get running on my pc. Had to fiddle with autoexec.bat and config.sys for ages to get it to work. Lots of Origin games had that. Anyway, I personally had a blast with the game. The sense of discovery was immense with lots of little nuggets all around. I loved never knowing what I would find while exploring the map.

    Strike Commander incidently was bloody ace. Loved it.
     
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  21. Unkillable Cat Prestigious Gentleman LEST WE FORGET Patron

    Unkillable Cat
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    I STILL own my Ultima 7 bootdisk, and I guard it zealously. It was NOT easy to find a mouse driver that used (IIRC) less than 2Kb of RAM.
     
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  22. MRY Prestigious Gentleman Wormwood Studios Developer

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    I went on a bit of a Rick Parks deep dive. Quite an artist.

    This post might be of interest to some:
    Show Spoiler

    Hi, I am Joseph Hewitt, former Senior Artist and Designer from Westwood Studios from 1988 to 2003. Most of the style and quality of Westwood art from Kyrandia onward can be attributed to the late, great Rick Parks. Most, but not all, of the pics in your gallery were done by him. When he joined Westwood he upped all of our game. He was a professional artist that found he really liked working on the computer. He was famous in the pre-internet Amiga BBS days for a bunch of pictures he drew, the most famous being the Mickey Mouse glass. You can find some of his work on the internet, but you really had to see it on an Amiga to see how amazing it was, screen resolution on an Amiga specific monitor, bla bla bla.

    One of things he was really good at was color, those bright, dramatic colors in a palette limited to 256 colors (minus what was fixed for the GUI or other on screen effects). Remember too, back then we were also limited to the number of color gun values, 0 to 64, or even only 0 to 32 on some systems. A lot of time now-a-days when I see people doing things they call "retro pixel art" I find myself wishing we had that range of colors. Though, on console systems you could get away with less as NTSC and PAL TVs blended them for you. But for a good example of his talent, look at how few shades of grey are used in the background of that EoB menu. Look at the dwarf wallset in the first EoB game, so few colors, yet so much detail is conveyed.

    But anyway, he was amazing it was his style we imitated or directly stole from. For example although I drew the art for the first level of the Lion King video game, it was actually Rick who drew a little piece of example art for me in way I asked for. I was really good at console game "character art" which was made up of 8x8 pixel squares limited to one color palette of 16 colors. I wanted bright areas of rock against black shadowed areas so I could manipulate the pieces to build the level. He drew that little section, defining the color palette, and I hacked and cut and redrew from that bit to make the whole level. If you play that first level, go all the way to the right, then up onto the rock area and back all the way to the left, that last bit of rock sticking out on it's own is most of what he drew almost exactly as he drew it, there was another rock bit attached to it that I don't think exists in the level as I cut it up and made it work for what I needed.

    I also loved his gold. Look at the letters in Eye of the Beholder in that menu. I would steal the color values from that for anything I needed to draw in gold because I just loved how vivid it was.

    Rick died of leukemia Dec. 15, 1996 and it was a great loss to all of us.

    ***

    All of his dithering /gradient work he did by hand, pixel by pixel. He knew exactly where, and probably more importantly why, to put a darker or lighter pixel at a particular spot. Look at that EoB menu screen, there are pixels one shade darker just sitting out there alone, but they don’t look wrong. If you were to take them out, the result would be too bland, flat, washed out. That’s skill and talent.

    As somebody who did art before VGA, using black outlines was necessary. But Rick, coming from a real art background just separated object borders the same way he would do with paint, using light and shadow. That seems obvious, but I think it was his understanding of color composition and the ability to build the limited palette accordingly that allowed him to do it so well.

    I was going to say something else, but can’t remember what. I also have an old blog post I wrote about Rick that I’ll try and dig up when I get home.


    EDIT: Here's the blog post he referenced.
     
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  23. RK47 collides like two planets pulled by gravity Patron

    RK47
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    Legend of Kyrandia is brutal af.
    Only the graphics kept me going.
    But Malcolm's revenge was too much for me.
     
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  24. MRY Prestigious Gentleman Wormwood Studios Developer

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    Because it didn't have Rick Parks's art!
     
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  25. Zed Duke of Banville Arcane Patron

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