Created in the mid-Seventies by Richard Garriott, Origin Systems was one of the most important PC developers around. Wing Commander, Crusader and the mighty Ultimata are just a few of the key franchises it has created, while Garriott has been a huge influence to gaming as the industry has evolved. Here, key members, including Garriott himself, look back at the company’s early, pioneering days.
It’s 1974. A young freshman high school student is reading The Lord Of The Rings for the first time, and has also stumbled upon a newly published tabletop role-playing game called Dungeons & Dragons. The freshman is Richard Garriott, later to be known by his alter ego Lord British in the popular role-playing computer game franchise Ultima. With Tolkien and Gary Gygax as his inspiration, Richard was moved to create his own primitive fantasy worlds, sowing the seeds for his award-winning ‘trilogy of trilogies’ in the fantasy world of Britannia. “I had access to a teletype machine,” he recalls, “and it was natural to me to start creating these teletype products in BASIC that still looked a lot like the tile graphics that you would see in later Ultimas, but all done with ASCII characters on what was effectively a very slow mechanical typewriter.” The program, christened D&D #1, was the first in a long line of projects leading to Richard’s first commercial game, D&D #28b, more popularly known as Akalabeth, a name taken from a chapter in The Silmarillion.
“When personal computers came out I started writing on the Apple II,” he continues. “My first games were published through two different companies: California Pacific and Sierra On-Line. Akalabeth and the first Ultima were sold by California Pacific and Ultima II was published by Sierra. But although the games sold very well through those companies, I did not get paid very well because both of them were poorly managed. And that’s when my brother, who I had called upon to help try and collect the revenues from those first two companies, turned to me and said ‘Richard, why don’t you and I start Origin, because I would at least know that when the company earns a dollar from one of your games, the person they darn well better pay is the person that makes the game…’”
Richard poses for the launch of Ultima III: Exodus
Origin was founded in 1983 in Houston, Texas, with Richard and Robert Garriott partnering with their father Owen, and Richard’s university room-mate Chuck ‘Chuckles’ Bueche. “We literally started in my parent’s garage,” Richard reminisces. “It was a three-car garage with an art studio on top of it. The studio became our company headquarters, while the garage downstairs became our manufacturing and shipping department. During the day we’d sit upstairs and write code or do the daily business functions, and in the evenings the whole family and our friends would come out and literally spend the whole evening hand-copying discs on an Apple II, folding and shrink-wrapping boxes, and shipping them out by UPS.”
Origin’s first product, Ultima III: Exodus, was an indication of the ambitious game-design philosophy of the company. As he would with every game in the series, Richard abandoned the code from Ultima II and re-wrote the game from scratch, adding a D&D-style party system, a proper soundtrack, and fully-animated characters, a first for computer RPGs. “We had a simple statement which was let’s just run a good business in addition to making good games,” he tells us. “Origin was specifically founded as an author-friendly company, which is one of the reasons it grew so fast. We were very pro-creator and our contracts supported that. That was how we drew in so many top talents, while lots of other companies were literally ripping people off.”
“I’m a completely self-taught developer and it really was the desire to learn from each new game,” says Richard of his decision to discard every previous instalment’s code in the Ultima franchise. “When I wrote my first game, it wasn’t really written very well from a code structure standpoint, so when I started the next one I started from scratch, mostly because I’d learned so much writing the first one. So if you go back through the series Akalabeth was really a teletype game. Ultima I was my first personal computer game written in BASIC, but then I realised you could have more control if you wrote in assembly language, which I used for Ultima II. But since it was the first assembly language program I had written, of course I could do a better job if I started from scratch for Ultima III. For Ultima IV the coding was no longer the challenge, and that was the first time I really sat down free of the need to learn how to program and began instead to focus on what it took to make a great game.”
Before he became a famous actor, Clive Owen was starring in games
for Origin Systems.
The company motto ‘We Create Worlds’, emblazoned on the title screens and packaging of many of its later products, also summed up what Origin was trying to achieve. “Robert ran the business, and was rarely allowed to contribute creatively, mostly because he wasn’t that good at contributing creatively to the products,” says Richard. “But that by-line actually came from him, and we often describe it as his one moment of creative brilliance. Not only was it a powerful statement but we agreed because we believed in it and lived it…”
Former Origin designer David Shapiro (aka Dr Cat) remembers his first visit to the company premises well. “Origin ran an ad in The Space Gamer magazine to announce that they existed and would be publishing Ultima and other games,” he says. “It also said they were looking for programmers, game designers, artists and writers. Though they actually didn’t have any jobs open yet. I found out later I was the only one to respond! Robert Garriott arranged to pick me up at the airport and drive me to their house – they were still living with their parents, Owen (the astronaut) and Helen (the artist). Richard was just finishing up Ultima III, working in a nicely set up room over the garage. He had six or eight Axlon Ramdisks hooked up to his Apple so everything ran extra fast. When Ultima III was done, I went with Richard and Robert to a computer store in Houston where they’d promised to premiere the game. A bunch of fans were there to get the first copies and get them autographed. Also a couple of obvious pirates who probably wanted to be the first ones to crack the extensive copy protection…”
Mark Hamill starred in several Wing Commander games.
With Richard hard at work cranking out new instalments of Ultima, Origin began employing other programmers for a variety of alternative projects. Chuck Beuche’s first game for Origin, Caverns Of Callisto, was a fast-paced scrolling shoot-’em-up for the Apple II with overtones of Scramble and Jetpac. A deal with board game publisher Steve Jackson Games saw him moving to Autoduel (based on Steve Jackson’s Car Wars) and the hex-based tank combat game Ogre. David Shapiro was taken on to develop the Commodore 64 version of the side-scrolling RPG Moebius from scratch in two-and-a-half months for its Christmas release in 1985. “They were so pleased with my work they offered me a full-time job,” he says. “What I liked about Origin was the high level of talent, intelligence, experience, creativity and enthusiasm of the team. I feel that during the period I was there, from 1986 to 1991, Origin was one of the absolute best game developers in the world. Making the best games and advancing the state of the art in technology and game design, that was the main thing.”
1989 saw the release of an ambitious game by Paul Neurath that foreshadowed its most famous franchise next to Ultima. Space Rogue was an interstellar trading and combat simulation, with RPG elements and a more developed storyline than its nearest competitor, Elite. It also trumped the famous British space-sim by incorporating full-colour, fast solid 3D polygon graphics as opposed to Elite’s wire-frame models. Space Rogue received rave reviews, including a 97% Overall score and Gold Medal award in the UK-based Commodore 64 review magazine Zzap!64. Its success paved the way for another space-combat game, produced with the design talents of an American-born exile from Manchester, currently residing close to Origin’s brand new headquarters.
Chris Robertson, the creator of Wing Commander, is currently
working on Star Citizen.
“When Chris Roberts first came to us, we’d moved out of my parents’ garage in Houston and moved to Austin,” says Richard. “We had a freelance artist named Dennis Loubet, who did the covers of nearly every one of our products. At the time we transplanted from Houston to our Austin office we decided to hire Dennis in-house. Dennis was doing some freelance work for Chris to make a small game that he was planning to publish in Europe. So we’d hired his only artist, and when Chris asked where he’d gone Dennis told him he’d joined us at Origin, which caused Chris to come walking in our door to ask if he could work with us too. So we acquired Dennis on purpose and Chris by accident.”
“In the UK Chris had been doing games for the ZX-80 and they certainly weren’t strong enough to change the world because it was such a primitive machine. His first Apple II game, Times Of Lore, was a medieval fantasy game that was good but not earth-shattering. Then came the day that Chris came to our business meeting with the idea for the game he was going to do next. It was going to be called Wing Commander. He’d taken some time on his own to build a little prototype of not only the 3D space flight section of the game but a cinematic method for you to get into your ship and launch into that 3D environment. So he showed his prototype with a guy running down the hall cutting to the side of a spaceship with the canopy opening up, then the guy jumping into his seat, putting on his helmet, then shooting down a tube into space. That was the first any of us had seen of his idea, and it was the first any of us needed… it was so obvious that it was going to be a huge success.”
Richard is one of the few non-astronauts to have actually gone to the International Space Station. He made the trip in 2008.
Published in 1990, Wing Commander was a revolutionary PC title for its time, and the response to the game, as in that Origin boardroom meeting, was one of astonishment. It featured a spectacular 3D game engine that supported full-colour, exquisitely detailed spacecraft combat sequences, framed by cinematic cutscenes and mission briefings. Inspired by Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, Chris’s creation played like an epic sci-fi version of World War II in space, with the Terran Confederation battling for survival against a cat-like alien race, the Kilrathi. While the original game and its improved sequel stuck firmly to traditional computer graphics, for the third instalment of the game, Wing Commander III: Heart Of The Tiger, Chris was given a suitably astronomical budget of $10 million in order to embrace the upcoming PC CD-ROM technology and include movie-like full-motion video sequences. This included the prospect of playing a character in the guise of Luke Skywalker himself…
“Of course it was always scary looking down the front of that barrel,” admits Richard when asked about what was at that point the biggest budget ever thrown at a videogame. “But Chris always returned whatever he’d spent in some good multiple… Ultimas were expensive too, compared to other games on the market. However the Wing Commander games soon became five or ten times more expensive than any Ultima. But most people believed pretty passionately in what Chris was doing, so in the end we all made a good decision to back him.” It was an important move for the company, but even more exciting things were just around the corner…
Notable Origin Systems Games
To read the whole feature you can download issue 134 from GreatDigitalMags.com
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