July 20, 2013

The History of the RPG: Ultima (1981)

Last Installment: Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Around the same time Wizardry was teleporting gamers into walls and telling them to keep going left, another classic in the RPG genre was starving players to death and launching them into space. The game was Ultima, and much like it's counterpart, it would revolutionize the RPG and gaming in general*.

Ultima was bigger and deeper than Wizardry. This wasn't 10 levels of mayhem to defeat a wizard. This was wandering the countryside and entering cities...to defeat a wizard. But while the final goal was similar, how you got there was completely different.

Like I said, Ultima was the first RPG to give us a real "game world": the kingdom of Sosaria. The evil wizard Mondain causes mass chaos in Sosaria and cannot be defeated because of his gem of Immortality. As the hero, you have to travel to different cities and dungeons to gather gems that will enable you to power a time machine so you can go back in time and kill Mondain before he creates his gem.

Yes, I said "time machine". You also have to actually go into space. In order to finish the game you have to become a space ace and kill 20 enemy ships. Compared to permadeath, that's a tolerable added hurdle to cross.

Ultima also laid down the template for the future of RPGs in other ways. An open world map you could travel. Town and cities to visit with quests to accomplish. Dungeons in the wild. All these things we take for granted now (which find their ultimate expression in Skyrim) began with Ultima. The world map was top down, third person. You shifted to first person when in a dungeon. And those dungeons? Randomly generated, so the "pad and paper" mapping of Wizardry was pointless from game to game. And you didn't have to visit every dungeon, which was the first expression of the "open world" concept.

Character generation was similar to Wizardry, in that you had a limited number of race choices and class choices. Unlike Wizardry your initial stat points weren't a random total. You were given a set amounts and you could parcel them out however you wanted. One other thing...one of the races was a "Bobbit". Yes, it sounds like Hobbit for a reason**.

And as I said before, you could starve to death. Each move on the world map consumed a unit of food. If you ran out, you starved. This began a very annoying RPG trend that has only fully vanished in recent years***. And the Ultima series had some variation on this theme throughout most of its lifetime. I never liked this. Why not have a "balance your checkbook" requirement as well? I play RPGs for fun, not to monitor my nutritional requirements.

Once you got all the gems you needed and rescued the princess to get the time machine (and proved you could use it by becoming a space ace), you went back in time, killed Mondain and won. Sounds simple, but it wasn't.


World maps. Open world. Quests. Randomly-generated dungeons. Saving princesses. Time travel. All that began with Ultima. And all of them can still be found in RPGs today.

Descendants: Baldur's Gate. Dragon's Age. Skyrim. Any game that uses a world map and has quests. Which is pretty much every RPG worth talking about. Ultima may be second on my list, but it has had more influence in the RPG genre than any other game. Period.

Next on the list: Telengard


* To be fair, Richard Garriott (the creator) had an earlier effort called Akalabeth, that he made as a teenager. It got the attention of California Pacific Computer Company, who bought the rights and paid him $5 for each copy sold. Garriott made $150K off of Akalabeth. Ultima uses a lot of code from Akalabeth, so it deserves at least a mention here.

** I can't believe Tolkein's estate never sued Garriott or Origin for copyright infringement. Bobbits (Hobbits), Akalabeth (AkallabĂȘth) and others...I am guessing they were either flattered or unaware.

*** Even the original Fallout had a water requirement. It's taking the "reality" aspect of RPGs a step too far. Like making your computer generated character look "too human". It is more of a distraction than an enhancement.


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