Franchise Festival #69: Ultima (Part Two)

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be scrupulously unspooling the second half of the Ultima story, covering roughly 1992 to 2004. If you would like to read about how the franchise got to this point, please read Franchise Festival #68: Ultima (Part One). Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Though I will be citing my research throughout the article, I’d like to draw particular attention to a few major sources:


Table of Contents

Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992)
Ultima VII: Serpent Isle (1993)
Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994)
Ultima IX: Ascension (1999)



By 1992, Richard Garriott had been successfully releasing entries in his pioneering Ultima series for over ten years. All but two of the franchise’s six entries had also been published by his own development studio following a couple difficult years working with California Pacific Computer Co. and On-Line Systems/Sierra On-Line. It is impossible to begin discussing the history of the Ultima series’ second decade, though, without addressing the outsized role of Electronic Arts (EA).

Free Fall Associates’ Archon (1983), one of the first five games published by Electronic Arts. Source: Wikipedia

The publishing giant was founded in 1982 by former Apple employee Trip Hawkins. Hawkins’ original goal, the elevation of software to the status of art through the promotion of game developers as artists, would be challenged by an increasing emphasis on profits by the end of the 1980s. In at least one high-profile case relevant to our subject, the studio’s aggressive marketing and development deadlines led to a falling out between EA and its business partners in the development world.

I wonder what made Richard Garriott think that Deathlord – seen here – looked like Ultima. Source: Lemon64

EA published Deathlord, a Japan-themed role-playing game (RPG) developed internally by programmers Al Escudero and David Wong, in 1987. According to the November 1992 issue of Computer Gaming World (CGW), Richard Garriott believed that the cosmetic and mechanical similarities between this hastily-produced game and his Ultima resembled plagiarism more than homage. He severed ties between EA and his own Origin Systems, which had been part of EA’s affiliated label promotional network since 1985, after Trip Hawkins personally confirmed that EA would not make any changes to Deathlord as a result of Garriott’s concerns. This conflict was only the beginning of a tempestuous relationship between the two studios which would come to define the Ultima series during the 1990s.


Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992)

Richard Garriott had ceased to be the only programmer working on Ultima with the franchise’s fifth entry, as his ambitions had finally outstripped his reach. Still more resources were poured into Ultima VI, with heavy lifting on the game’s movement mechanics, writing, and conversation systems designed respectively by Herman Miller, Raymond Benson, and Cheryl Chen. Origin Systems had expanded from a tiny studio operating out of Richard’s parents’ garage in 1983 to a 200-employee operation by 1992. While the studio had long been developing small, one-off titles like Ogre (1986) and Omega (1989), it had recently moved from focusing primarily on core Ultima series entries to producing spinoffs under the Worlds of Ultima banner and successfully launching a second intellectual property (IP) called Wing Commander (1990-2007).

While it is plainly more technologically complex, it’s easy to trace the path from Ultima I‘s space battles to Wing Commander (1990, seen here). Source: MobyGames

In the midst of this expansion, Richard Garriott and his team kept their eyes on the franchise which had made a name for the company. Ultima VII: The Black Gate would be published for DOS PCs in April 1992 and greeted with near-universal critical acclaim. Unlike its predecessors, Ultima VII had been planned out as the start of a new trilogy of adventures set in the series’ increasingly expansive mythos. Though the first three Ultima games had been retroactively deemed the Age of Darkness Trilogy and Ultima IV through VI formed a thematic trilogy called the Age of Enlightenment, Richard Garriott laid extensive groundwork for the next three games to focus on an ongoing struggle between The Avatar and a powerful villain called The Guardian. The third and final trilogy of his fantasy magnum opus would be called the Age of Armageddon.

He’s not the most intimidating villain, but I’d be scared it this thing started talking to me through a computer screen. Source: SingingBrakeman

Introduced through The Avatar’s earthly in-game computer terminal during an animated opening cutscene, The Guardian constitutes the most significant existential threat that Britannia has faced so far. The Avatar – protagonist of Ultima IV to VI – returns to defend Lord British’s realm from its newest would-be conqueror by way of an ominous red moongate and soon discovers that two centuries have passed within the world since the events of Ultima VI. This accounts for some major overhauls to the look and feel of the game world, but also serves to explain why the country has fallen away from its old value system and embraced the leadership of a shady new cabal called The Fellowship. Invoking a new, darker atmosphere, Ultima VII sees The Avatar investigating a series of grisly murders, exposing the corruption of The Fellowship, and saving the realm from The Guardian at great personal cost.

The Fellowship has been noted for its similarities to Scientology. The initials of in-game Fellowship co-founders Elizabeth and Abraham point towards a different organization, on the other hand. Source: Ultima Wiki

While Ultima VII‘s expansive narrative iterates successfully on the less complex stories of its predecessors, a correspondingly enhanced systemic approach to gameplay is still more impressive. Once The Avatar navigates a tutorial area framed as a murder scene, he or she can freely wander Britannia and either engage with the main plot or explore side quests and in-game hobbies. Players can watch non-player characters (NPCs) go about dedicated routines to discover the sheer breadth of interactivity on display, including crafting food or items to sell at market. Dungeons from earlier series entries are present and hold combat encounters – now presented in real-time rather than turn-based progression – but these are de-emphasized in favor of engaging in dialogue and activities with Britannia’s innumerable AI-driven characters on the surface. Dialogue trees with selectable responses reduce the apparent interactivity of earlier series entries’ keyboard-based conversations but lead to more efficient gameplay. For perhaps the first time in a computer RPG, the player is genuinely free to have his or her character live a full life within the bounds of a vast, open world.

Options for responses appear over The Avatar’s head during dialogue sequences. Source: SingingBrakeman

The user interface (UI) is similarly revised, as Ultima VII features no reused code from its predecessors. The result is a UI redesigned from the ground up for user-friendliness. Ultima VI had moved towards a mouse-driven experience, but Ultima VII fully embraces the DOS platform’s mouse peripheral by moving away from keyboard commands almost entirely. Players reliably tap the left mouse button to interact with an in-game object or character and right click to move The Avatar, reserving hotkeys for access to the inventory and save menus. When combined with in-game tutorials, clearer quest prompts delivered by personable NPCs, and a pop-up UI system called GUMPS which only gives access to menu elements when they are relevant to on-screen action, Ultima VII dramatically reduces the barrier to entry which had kept some players away from earlier titles.

The GUMPS system in action! This charming skull box pops up when the player clicks on a corpse to show the items within. Source: SingingBrakeman

Though the graphics are refined generally, these are less of an overhaul from Ultima VI than Ultima VII‘s gameplay systems or UI. Players still navigate their character from an overhead perspective and the world is comprised of colorful, detailed sprites. Greater attention is placed on the surrounding environment due to its enhanced interactivity and the absence of intrusive UI layers, but Ultima VII‘s chief update to presentation is in its audio. For the first time in the series – outside of Ultima VI‘s Japanese FM Towns port – some characters feature voiceover performances. The Guardian’s booming monologue in the game’s opening sequence is particularly memorably, setting a clear tone for the franchise’s newest release.

The ‘paper doll’ approach to character equipment is a neat way to make The Avatar feel like less of a distant sprite and more of a physical presence. Source: SingingBrakeman

Though an expansion pack titled Forge of Virtue would be released in 1992 and a stripped-down Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) port would be localized for Japanese audiences by Pony Canyon shortly thereafter, Origin Systems entered a period of serious uncertainty following the release of The Black Gate. The commercial response to Richard Garriott’s newest Britannian adventure – perhaps due to its notoriously buggy state at launch – had fallen short of expectations in an era when the company was spending more and more on increasingly ambitious software. A combination of rapid technological advancement in the world of early 1990s PCs and an inability to borrow funding during an ongoing financial sector meltdown in the studio’s home state of Texas brought on by the United States’ savings and loan crisis led to Origin Systems’ apparent financial instability by late 1992.

The SNES port of Ultima VII: The Black Gate is noticeably shortened and censored, though its presentation is remarkably faithful to the DOS original. This version would inexplicably make its way to the PlayStation Portable (PSP) in 2006. Source: Ultima Wiki

EA stepped in and purchased the fiercely independent developer for $35 million before the situation grew worse. Origin Systems’ claimed that it was also contemplating an initial public offering during this period, but its decision to sell out to EA in spite of the two studios’ negative history suggests that times were tough. A former member of Origin Systems, when discussing the matter with Allan Varney for a 2005 retrospective in The Escapist, suggested that the key factor which made the deal possible was the recent departure of EA founder Trip Hawkins. Perhaps this was enough to end the feud which had been simmering since the 1987 release of EA’s Deathlord. Whatever the reasons, Origin Systems’ acquisition by EA would prove to be a pivotal moment in Ultima‘s history. Bringing increased resources to bear on the studio’s properties would have little impact on the next Ultima game, however, as it was already well into development at the time of the sale.


Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle (1993)

Ultima VII: Serpent Isle has its roots in a long-running problem that had bedeviled Origin Systems since Richard Garriott had publicly promised not to reuse a game engine in two sequential Ultima entries. This had seemed like a good idea at the time, as it definitively set Ultima apart from Sir-Tech’s contemporary Wizardry franchise. Both invoked JRR Tolkien’s fantasy tropes and were built on the foundation of TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game, but Wizardry grew stale throughout the 1980s while Ultima meaningfully evolved with every new entry. In an era of expensive development cycles and much more complex game engines – indeed, the era in which Origin Systems found itself by the early 1990s – this business strategy was beginning to show signs of strain.

As these stills from Wizardry, Wizardry II, Wizardry III, and Wizardry V (left to right) attest, the perils of sticking with a game engine beyond its relevance are real. Source: SingingBrakeman

Consequently, Origin Systems had found a way to avoid undermining Richard Garriott’s promise while still reusing the Ultima VII game engine. Two spinoffs were planned for 1993, according to luminary computer gaming historian Jimmy Maher at The Digital Antiquarian: Arthurian Legends would be an unrelated adventure based on England’s mythological history and Serpent Isle would be a direct sequel to The Black Gate with an all-new setting based on pirate tropes. The former was quietly canceled in January 1993 following The Black Gate’s middling commercial performance but the latter, having been retooled by Warren Spector after original writer Jeff George left Origin Systems, would be released as Ultima VII: Serpent Isle in March 1993.

Though the rest of the game looks functionally identical to the aesthetics of The Black Gate, Serpent Isle puts its best foot forward with a lightly animated atmospheric cutscene. Source: SingingBrakeman

Serpent Isle occurs directly after the events of The Black Gate, putting the player back into the shoes of The Avatar as he or she joins companions Dupre, Iolo, and Shamino on a mission to save recurring character Gwenno from the villainous Batlin. Batlin, who had first appeared as a key member of The Black Gate‘s sinister Fellowship, is a lieutenant of The Guardian and dedicated to restarting The Guardian’s plot to destroy Britannia on the titular Serpent Isle. The Black Gate‘s sequel is the first core series entry to take place outside of Britannia since Ultima III, with the newly uncovered landmass eventually being revealed as one of the Sosarian continents which sunk beneath the waves at the end of Ultima I.

The design of the Serpent Isle, as pictured here in the cloth map which came with original copies of the game, was based on a necklace worn by Richard Garriott. Source: Ultima Wiki

Gameplay is very similar to that in The Black Gate, as it shares an underlying engine and much of the same development staff. The Avatar begins his or her quest on an isolated shore, though, and narrative progression is much more tightly scripted than it had been in any earlier Ultima release. Areas of the Serpent Isle open up as the plot requires rather than being fully accessible to the player from the beginning of the adventure.

Since combat proceeds in real-time, the player can now assign rudimentary battle strategies to companions using a menu. Source: SingingBrakeman

Though long-time fans might bristle at the game’s more restrictive pace, this does facilitate a complex narrative featuring numerous scripted sequences. The island itself serves as an interesting mirror image of Britannia with its own interrelated history. Of particular note are the Ophidian Virtues, a set of governing ethics on Serpent Isle introduced by designers Sheri Graner Ray and Brendan Seagreaves. Unlike the Eight Virtues of Britannia, these six principles fall into a broader spectrum of balance between Chaos and Order. The virtues underpinning chaos – tolerance, enthusiasm, and emotion – must be kept in balance with their twin virtues illustrating order – ethicality, discipline, and logic – lest they tilt towards one of the extremes and result in one of six corresponding anti-forces – prejudice, apathy, ruthlessness, anarchy, wantonness, and insanity.

Why yes you can ride giant turles on Serpent Isle. I’m glad you asked. Source: MobyGames

Unfortunately, a strict deadline imposed by new publisher EA after Origin Systems missed an initial December 1992 completion date on the project led to a heavily compromised final product. Released in March 1993 on DOS PCs, Ultima VII: Serpent Isle became notorious for a badly truncated final act even as its basic gameplay refinements and reliance on an already-proven engine ensured that it ran better than The Black Gate upon release. An expansion pack, The Silver Seed, would add a lengthy additional quest but would not reintegrate the base game’s cut late-game content or a more extensive introductory movie that had been omitted for space reasons; the floppy disk format was clearly showing its age. Unlike all preceding series entries, no ports were produced prior to a re-release on CDProjektRed’s Good Old Games digital distribution platform alongside The Black Gate in the 2010s.


Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994)

Origin Systems had historically worked very hard to deliver ambitious experiences on as close to an annual schedule as possible, but the challenges associated with 1990s programming were beginning to make this difficult. Where once a designer or two could handle virtually all of the heavy lifting on a game, the mechanical complexity and visual fidelity of modern PC games ensured that a team of dozens was needed for any given mainstream project. Managing these teams and forcing them to adhere to release deadlines typically fell to publishers. In Ultima VIII‘s case, sadly, EA’s heavy-handed approach to this oversight role would lead to the first universally panned entry in Richard Garriott’s venerable franchise.

The Guardian abducts The Avatar in an introductory sequence. Source: MobyGames

Ultima VIII: Pagan is, like its direct predecessor, again set outside of Britannia. The Avatar is kidnapped by The Guardian at the conclusion of Ultima VII: Serpent Isle and isolated within the ruined world of Pagan while The Guardian attempts to invade Lord British’s realm. The player’s goal in Ultima VIII, in a nod to Ultima VI‘s reversal of previous objectives, is to guide The Avatar in his escape from Pagan by reconstructing the very black gate which he had destroyed in Ultima VII‘s first chapter. This daunting task requires The Avatar to engage in under-handed skullduggery as he manipulates his way into Pagan’s ruling magical societies and kills these organizations’ Elemental Titans.

The Titans are certainly not pushovers. Source: Ultima Wiki

The Avatar’s quest, in stark contrast to earlier series entries, is framed as an inherently unvirtuous one. At the direction of Richard Garriott, the franchise’s first M-rated title was intended to strike a much darker tone than its predecessors. The grim result is a post-apocalyptic world where The Avatar is forced to compromise his values in order to escape and save Britannia. Ironically, though, players have fewer options to engage in wanton devastation than they had in the highly moralistic Ultima IV. Due to the limited space of the floppy disks on which Ultima games were still being published and heightened graphical fidelity, one of the many cuts sustained by Ultima VIII is the presence of death animations for friendly NPCs. Where players had once been able to cut a swath of destruction through the most pleasant of towns, they were now only able to attack and kill antagonists. This may seem a small change, but it reflects a much more significant rot at the core of Ultima‘s ongoing evolution under EA.

Upping the ante from Ultima VII: The Black Gate‘s murder investigation opening, Ultima VIII sets the tone of Pagan with a beheading. Yuck. Source: MobyGames

Options and player-driven decisions are broadly scaled back in the series’ ninth core release. The player can no longer customize his or her Avatar, and is instead required to play the game as a man. Party members are absent and it is impossible to level up; The Avatar’s individual stats instead increase as he engages in corresponding actions a la Final Fantasy II (1988/2003), so melee combat improves strength, ranged combat improves dexterity and so on. Vast swathes of the world were cut during production, due to a draconian schedule imposed by EA, so Pagan is appreciably smaller and emptier than any other Ultima entry. The pack-in cloth map infamously bears only a limited resemblance to the in-game overworld.

At least individual rooms in Ultima VIII are packed full of silly objects to interact with. Source: MobyGames

Perhaps most regrettably, Ultima VIII features the series’ first implementation of platforming mechanics. This design decision was driven by concerns that Ultima needed to attract new fans in an era where platformers were the most popular game genre. Richard Garriott had recently played Prince of Persia (1989) and directed the Ultima VIII development team to integrate more action into the game, though this proved difficult to implement under EA’s tight timetable. The clumsy mechanic was so divisive that it required a later patch to eliminate most real-time jumping from the game.

Sure this lava looks dangerous, but The Avatar is equally endangered by leaps over shallow pools of water. Source: GiantBomb

An expansion pack called The Lost Vale was planned but then canceled in the wake of Ultima VIII‘s exceptionally poor critical and commercial performance. This piece of software, which would have introduced a new area cut off from the rest of Pagan, had been fully completed and promoted before EA announced that it would not be released. Though the code appears to be lost as of writing in 2019, one copy of the expansion’s box has been preserved and is in the hands of a private collector.

The front and rear of the lost Lost Vale‘s box art. Source: Ultima Wiki

As had been the case with Ultima VII: Serpent Isle, no contemporary Western ports were produced outside of the DOS ecosystem (though a PC-98 Japanese localization was released by Electronic Arts Victor, a joint venture between the United States’ Electronic Arts and JVC’s Japanese subsidiary Victor Musical Industries). A CD version of the game was released in North America, featuring voiceovers for The Guardian and the Elemental Titans, but a planned enhanced re-release which would have added other audio-visual updates was canceled alongside The Lost Vale. The game would become difficult to play as DOS was steadily replaced in consumers’ homes by Windows and Apple operating systems throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but a 2012 GOG port made the game accessible to a new generation of RPG enthusiasts seeking to explore one of Ultima‘s most disappointing chapters.


Ultima IX: Ascension (1999)

Thanks to a lengthy 1998 interview between CGW and former Origin project and programming leader Mike McShaffry, we know more about the highly fraught development history of Ultima IX then we do for most of its predecessors. After Ultima VIII was finished, its staff was split up into two teams; one began work on Crusader: No Remorse (1995), an unrelated title which repurposed Ultima VIII‘s engine, and the other started planning Ultima IX. Though Crusader‘s developers were expected to augment the Ultima IX team once production wrapped on the former, a series of delays meant that the game shipped late and none of the team shifted over to work on Ultima IX once it was complete.

Concept art from Ultima IX. Doesn’t it make you wish more games had diving bells? Source: Unseen64

The staff already working on Ultima IX instead learned new skills, including 3D graphic design, and integrated entirely new employees in an effort to move the project forward without their anticipated additional resources. Development on the next core entry in Richard Garriott’s series was well underway by Summer 1996 and its team expected to have it completed within the following year. Upheaval in the wider industry and yet another instance of corporate interference would provoke a dramatic detour when a public beta test for Archetype Interactive’s Meridian 59, the world’s first graphical massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), was launched in December 1995. Accurately sensing that this signaled a sea change ahead, EA reassigned all but two of Ultima IX‘s development team members to a heretofore “small research project” called Ultima Online (more on this below in the Spinoffs section). By the time that Ultima Online shipped in September 1997, most employees who had worked on the original attempt at Ultima IX had since moved on from Origin Systems; Richard Garriott himself represented the only element of continuity when production fully resumed in 1998.

Image from an early build of Ultima IX which still retained Ultima VIII‘s isometric perspective. Source: Unseen64

Ultima IX, as planned, was intended to be a response to the numerous complaints received from long-time fans who were disappointed in Ultima VIII. Richard Garriott and the rest of the game’s designers looked to move away from the platforming mechanics which had dominated that game and return to the more systemic design ethos of Ultima IV to VII. They also opted to implement a fully polygonal world based on 3dfx Interactive’s dedicated Voodoo graphics cards and Glide API for the first time, as this had been hastily adopted as the standard for mainstream PC games in the late 1990s. An early build emphasizing action was abandoned when two of the main designers, Dan Rubenfield and Marshall Andrews, left Origin Systems under acrimonious circumstances in May 1998 and were followed one month later by Ultima IX writer Bob White. The project was radically retooled under Richard Garriott, who was forced to take a more hands-on role than he had in Ultima VIII.

A sweet dragon render from the beta version of Ultima IX. Thank goodness the 3dfx technology used to create this wasn’t going anywhere… Source: Unseen64

Tough times for the project still remained, however, as EA mandated that it ship by Christmas 1999. Unfortunately, 3dfx’s dominance of the PC graphics market had eroded during the last year of Ultima IX‘s lengthy development process; the game’s already-outdated Glide-based programming could not be readily adapted to the variety of Direct3D and OpenGL graphics APIs now powering PCs across the United States. As had been the case with Ultima VIII, Ultima IX‘s development team would be unable to fully debug the game in the midst of their attempts to cut unfinished content on EA’s tight schedule. The game shipped to customers in a plainly broken state on Windows PC in November 1999.

The player determines his or her character’s class based on this scenario quiz system for the first time since Ultima VI. I want to see a spinoff based on what this character was up to during Ultima VII and VIII; to whom was she administering quizes? Source: GiantBomb

Ultima IX opens on Earth, where The Avatar once again responds to a call for help from Lord British. It seems that – in the time since Ultima VIII – The Guardian has successfully invaded Britannia and transformed the land using massive black columns powered by Britannia’s eight virtues. The Avatar must infiltrate dungeons, acquire glyphs associated with each of the virtues, and then use the glyphs to restore each associated virtue’s shrine. In the end, The Avatar discovers the origin of The Guardian and conclusively ends the struggle which had animated Ultima‘s Age of Armageddon.

Lord British makes his 3D debut. He’s every bit as angular as I’d imagined. Source: GiantBomb

Unfortunately, years in development hell and staff turnover resulted in a plot that can charitably be described as unfinished. There is no justification for The Avatar’s return to Earth after having seemingly stranded himself through the destruction of the Black Gate in Ultima VII, while the franchise’s characteristic extensive dialogue and inventive solutions to complex conflicts are largely absent. Entire regions of the game world are either inaccessible or empty without explanation. The scale of discontinuity is so great that it has been exhaustively catalogued online by Ultima enthusiast Hacki.

Battling skeletons on a bed of fallen leaves just screams cozy autumn, doesn’t it? Now I want a hot apple cider. Source: GiantBomb

Gameplay is less broken but still presents signs of being incomplete. Players now take control of The Avatar –  again unable to be customized – from an over-the-shoulder perspective rather than earlier entries’ top-down view. Britannia is rendered in full polygonal 3D for the first time, though this only serves to emphasize the degree to which the continent has been shrunk since its last appearance in Ultima VII: The Black Gate. Combat occurs in real-time, the player controls a single character rather than an entire party, and nonviolent interactivity is noticeably curtailed. Platforming is less prominent than in Ultima VIII but is still present throughout much of The Avatar’s quest. For the first time, the Ultima series seems to have embraced the action-adventure side of the RPG genre.

Towns are limited in scope by the need to render them in 3D, making Ultima IX feel appreciably smaller than its predecessors. Source: GiantBomb

Ultima IX would be a staggering critical and commercial disappointment, even in the face of lowered expectations following Ultima VIII, due in no small part to the difficulty players had running it outside of a narrow range of hardware configurations. A much more stable GOG release in the 2010s would do little to rehabilitate the game’s identity as an unmitigated disaster. High turnover, poor support from EA, and directorial confusion over how to meaningfully evolve the series doomed Ultima IX to be the worst entry in a once-proud franchise. Sadly, it would also be the final Ultima game released as of September 2019.



Like few other video game franchises, Ultima produced spinoffs which were every bit as influential as its core entries. During the brief period when Sierra On-Line had publishing rights to Ultima, shortly after it changed its name from On-Line Systems, it released a maze-game called Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash (1983) for the VIC-20 computer platform. Developed by Richard Garriott’s high school friend Keith Zabalaoui and only given the Ultima name after development had been completed, the game has little in common with its parent series. It is most noteworthy for its extraordinary rarity, as it was distributed in such small quantities that it was thought not to have been commercially released at all prior to a copy finally circulating online in 2000.

Ah, a gremlin! You get a lot of them in Mt. Drash. Source: MobyGames

Origin Systems next published a series of more legitimate spinoffs under the name Worlds of Ultima. The first, The Savage Empire (1990), makes use of the Ultima VI game engine to tell a story featuring The Avatar in an isolated land called Eodon. Tasked by Lord British with investigating Ultima VI‘s Orb of the Moons artifact, The Avatar finds himself or herself battling dinosaurs and tribal peoples in an adventure inspired by Victorian pulp novels. Though its gameplay mechanics and writing are less ambitious than core series entries, it is important for its role in introducing in-game cutscenes to the franchise. Pony Canyon, the studio which had localized and sometimes remade earlier Ultima titles for Japanese audiences, produced more or less faithful ports of The Savage Empire for PC-98 and Sharp X68000 while also releasing a heavily revised version for the Super Famicom based on that platform’s port of Ultima VII: The Black Gate; an English-language version of the latter was planned for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) but was canceled following Origin’s acquisition by EA.

Though Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire draws most of its visual cues from Mesoamerica, that does not get in the way of other equatorial elements like silverback gorillas or… dinosaurs. Source: MobyGames

The second Worlds of Ultima release, Martian Dreams, was developed by Origin Systems and published on DOS in 1991. Like its predecessor, it shares its engine with Ultima VI and is likewise set between the events of Ultima VI and Ultima VII. Its plot sees The Avatar and an ally named Dr. Spector time-traveling to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and then being transported to a technologically advanced Martian civilization. The pulpy steampunk adventure involves befriending historical figures like Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud while battling the nefarious Rasputin. Though a third Worlds of Ultima game was planned – the aforementioned Arthurian Legends – it was canceled in 1993.

They shrunk Britannia down and brought it to the Game Boy with Runes of Virtue. Source: MobyGames

One more quirky console title would be produced by Pony Canyon before the Ultima series began to generate more significant spinoffs. The Game Boy’s Ultima: Runes of Virtue (1991), which stars the core series’ companion characters as they attempt to prevent an enemy called the Black Knight from conquering Britannia, shares more mechanics in common with Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda (1986/1987) than its parent franchise. A sequel featuring expanded NPC interactions and a larger in-game world would be released on the Game Boy and SNES in 1993. Both of the Game Boy Runes of Virtue games integrate multiplayer, though this feature was excised from the SNES port of Runes of Virtue 2.

In an uncharacteristically player-friendly design choice for the era, Ultima Underworld actually draws in the player character’s map as he or she explores. Source: SingingBrakeman

Even before Runes of Virtue was released, however, work had begun on one of the most influential games to bear the Ultima name. Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992) was first revealed by developers Blue Sky Productions at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1990. Development shifted from the Apple II to the IBM platform during the early days of production as designer Paul Neurath sought to integrate increasingly ambitious systems and polygonal graphics. The team, which was comprised of former Origin employees who had opted to start their own studio when Origin Systems relocated its New England office to Texas, was shepherded through a highly improvisational development cycle by producer Warren Spector.

Swinging weapons requires moving the moue in the relevant direction while holding the left mouse button. This feels a little clumsy, but serves to underline the game’s deviation from the RPG genre’s characteristic abstraction of concepts like and movement combat. Source: SingingBrakeman

The resulting game is nothing short of a triumph. Players take on the role of The Avatar as he or she navigates a mysterious subterranean world – Ultima IV‘s Stygian Abyss – from a first-person perspective in pursuit of a baron’s kidnapped daughter. Non-linear progression through the Abyss involves experimentation with simulated physics elements, real-time combat with monsters, and dialogue with NPCs.

NPCs are quite chatty as long as you don’t attack them. Source: SingingBrakeman

This innovative adventure would be highly influential on shooters through its demo’s inspiration of Wolfenstein 3D and its role in the rise of first-person real-time dungeon crawlers like Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994) and FromSoft’s King’s Field (1994, Japan). Following a refined if less remarkable sequel, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds (1993), Paul Neurath went on to co-found Looking Glass Studios. At Looking Glass and its successor studio Ion Storm, Neurath and Spector would again collaborate in the development of key immersive sims System Shock (1994), Thief: The Dark Project (1998), and Deus Ex (2000). All had their roots in Ultima Underworld.

The similarity between these four games – Ultima Underworld, The Elder Scrolls: Arena , King’s Field, and Thief: The Dark Project from left to right – is no coincidence. Source: MobyGames

Ultima’s next surprising turn would be even more pivotal for the medium’s evolution. MMORPG Ultima Online (1997) was initially pitched by Richard Garriott as a way to make the world of Britannia feel even more life-like, as he believed he had gone as far as he could in telling stories with AI characters. Starr Long and Raph Koster would be responsible for animating Garriott’s idea of a fully player-driven persistent world through the development of its underlying gameplay systems. Raph Koster would draw inspiration from non-commercial online text-based multi-user dungeons (MUDs) like Dartmouth University’s DartMUD as he sought to infuse graphics into the already-extant concept of persistent online worlds.

Ultima Online lacks many of the more exhilarating aspects of later MMORPGs, as it was focused more on social experiences than questlines or narrative. Source: MobyGames

Though the project initially received poor funding from publisher EA, the news that 3DO was planning to launch Archetype Interactive’s competing MMORPG Meridian 59 in December 1995 and the submission of 50,000 requests by players to volunteer as beta testers on Ultima Online prompted a reassessment of resources. Ultima Online was moved to the top of Origin Systems’ priority list while Ultima IX was delayed. The game would be published to Windows PCs in September 1997, dramatically surpassing anticipated sales numbers and becoming a major commercial success. Once they pay for a monthly subscription, players log on to the game’s online servers and create a character. That character can then interact with thousands of other players in real time, engaging in quests and role-playing any number of jobs or hobbies as their whims dictated. The game world itself split off from the core franchise, avoiding any ongoing issues of discontinuity, by proceeding from an alternate ending to Ultima I.

It’s hard to imagine a better tone-setting moment for the unscripted antics of the MMORPG genre than Lord British’s assasination by a player during the Ultima Online beta period. Source: Wikipedia

Nine expansions were released between 1998 and 2015, introducing six additional worlds to explore and even a new game engine in 2007. Subscriptions peaked at roughly 250,000 in 2003 before declining throughout the latter half of the decade. The game would inspire countless successors in the MMORPG genre, including Everquest (1999), World of Warcraft (2004), and Final Fantasy XIV (2010), though its own planned sequel was canceled by EA in 2001. Indeed, Ultima Online actually outlasted Origin itself, being overseen by Mythic Games from 2006 to 2014 and Broadsword from 2014 to present.

Lords of Ultima looks crowded. Source: MobyGames

The most recent franchise spinoff, a free-to-play browser-based strategy game called Lords of Ultima, was developed by EA Phenomic and published by EA in 2010. Though the game featured Ultima‘s eight virtues, it was set in an entirely new world called Caledonia only tenuously connected to the Ultima franchise and saw players amassing resources and building armies to challenge one another for dominance. Servers were shut down in 2014 but a Kickstarter campaign led to the release of a still-active spiritual successor, Crown of the Gods, in 2017.


While Ultima‘s most consistent years were behind it by 1992, its most influential titles were yet to come. In spite of major disappointments like Ultima VIII and Ultima IX, the series produced numerous landmark successes during its second decade. Ultima VII pioneered the modern open-world RPG, Ultima Underworld launched the immersive sim genre and revolutionized first-person games, while Ultima Online paved the way for subscription-based online worlds.

It is impossible to ignore the role that publisher EA played in the decline and fall of Origin Systems, however. Its business-first corporate culture clashed with Origin’s creative experimentation, prompting the release of Ultima VIII and IX well before they were complete. Though its deep pockets would be instrumental in making Ultima Online successful, EA’s lack of faith in Origin Systems’ commercial viability would eventually doom the Austin-based studio.

Restrictive management first caused the hemorrhaging of key creative staff throughout the 1990s; by 2000, even Richard Garriott had departed the studio he co-founded in 1983. Projects were repeatedly canceled or denied by EA following the release of Ultima Online, as it was perceived to be the most reliable source of profits for the franchise due to its subscription model. Origin Systems’ final planned release, an MMORPG called Ultima X, was unceremoniously canceled in 2004 following EA’s stuttering of the studio.

It remains possible that fans may yet see another Ultima game. The franchise is still owned by EA, which remains one of the industry’s biggest publishers and developers, so the resources are available. Still, the absence of any new core series entry in twenty years fails to inspire confidence.

Spiritual successors, on the other hand, are countless. The rise of Obsidian’s Dungeons and Dragons titles in the late 1990s can be directly traced to Richard Garriott’s plot and systems-heavy approach to the genre. Bethesda and Bioware’s cinematic and player choice-driven RPGs of the 2000s and 2010s are likewise indebted to Ultima‘s emergent gameplay and morality systems. Garriott himself would crowdfund and direct a 2018 spiritual successor called Shroud of the Avatar which involved many of Ultima’s most noteworthy staff members, though its multiplayer and free-to-play elements came under heavy criticism at the time of release. The commercial and critical success of Larian’s Divinity: Original Sin (2014) and its 2017 sequel, though, confirm that the spirit of Ultima is alive and well among an entirely new generation of developers and players. Given Ultima‘s outsized role as the source of so many fundamental concepts in the RPG genre and beyond, video game enthusiasts may find themselves forever playing in Richard Garriott’s sandbox.

What do you think about Ultima‘s later years? Which is your favorite spinoff? Do you wish Origin had stuck with the top-down idiosyncratic style of the 1980s or perhaps that they’d jumped more fully into the action-adventure deep-end rather than striking a balance with Ultima VIII and IX? Are you a Lord of Ultima? Let’s discuss below.

Next week we’ll be moving into Franchise Festival’s second annual Spoooky Month with an article on Castlevania (2D). Please join us at 9:00 AM EST on October 4. Here is a tentative schedule including other upcoming entries (subject to change):

  • #70: Castlevania (2D) – October 4
  • #71: Castlevania (3D) – October 11
  • #72: House of the Dead – October 18
  • #73: Clock Tower – October 25
  • #74: Uncharted – November 1