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Vol. 2, Issue 11
February 7, 2000
Inside Origin Systems

An article by Tim “Damarr” O'Malley

O rigin Systems is one of the world’s leading software companies. Going from hit title to hit title, they have been one of the market leaders since the 1980’s. In this article, I’ll be taking a look at what got the company where it is today, who got it there, the main man behind it (Richard Garriot) and where the company will be going in the future.

Who are they? Origin Systems Inc. (OSI) is based in Austin, Texas, founded in 1983 by Robert (now retired) and Richard Garriot (aka Lord British), and spent many years publishing the Ultima series of games, with the final installment of the Avatar’s quest (Ultima IX: Ascension) being released last December.

Today, OSI is made up of over 200 employees, with QA testers, programmers, artists and an extensive customer support team, so it has clearly come a long way from the small company it was in 1983.

Origin was purchased by Electronic Arts in 1993, enabling it to have much greater international support for its games, with Ultima Online having customer support departments in England, Germany, the United States and Japan.

To date, OSI has published well over 50 games, and is currently concentrating on what they see as the future of entertainment: online massive multi-player games. Their first project, Ultima Online, is still running strong at 135,000 players after two and a half years, despite serious competition from Verant’s EverQuest, and Turbine’s Asheron’s Call.

Other successful games published by OSI included Wing Commander, Privateer, Crusader, System Shock, Bioforge, and of course, the Ultima series, with Origin’s first published title being Ultima III: Exodus.

Who makes up Origin?
Richard Garriot – Vice President of Origin, and the Executive Designer.
Jack Heistand – Vice President, and General Manager
Jeff Anderson – In charge of production
Gordon Walton (aka Tyrant) – Online Services and Operations
Carly Staehlin (aka LadyMoi) – Player/Community Relations for Origin

Of course, there are many more people at Origin who aren’t mentioned here, but these names would probably be among those best known to the general public.

The man behind the company: Richard Garriot

The first name that would come to anyone’s mind when thinking of OSI would have to be Richard Garriot, co-founder of Origin and the man behind the longest running RPG series of all time, Ultima. Operating under the alias of Lord British in all his games, and naming the capital of his world Britain, you start to wonder what is going on. Richard Garriot was born in Cambridge in England, and less than two months later, moved to Texas where he lives to this day, in his very own special house, which is made up like a castle on the inside, but wouldn’t appear too odd from the outside. His monicker dates back to his days at college, where all of the new students were given nicknames on the first day. It was thought he had a British accent, and so he was given the nickname “British”. And naturally, it stuck.



Garriot’s first published game was Akalabeth in 1979, which he put together while in college, at the age of 19. It was a simple game, and the first few editions were actually made by Garriot himself, with photocopied instruction manuals and the containers put together by hand, each disk individually copied. The total expenditure for the first few copies was the grand sum of $200, and they were put up for sale in a local shop called Computer Land. A week (and 5 copies) later, a publisher contacted Garriot and offered to publish the game for him. He agreed, and his first game was now on the market, ultimately selling over 30,000 copies in total.

He later published Ultima: The First Age of Darkness. On its original release, it had no overall plot whatsoever, but when later remade for the PC, it introduced the story of the Avatar, that ran all of the way up to Ultima IX: Ascension, where the Avatar left Britannia behind him. Ultima II was also released before Origin’s creation, and it continued the story of evil, and the Avatar being sent to put a stop to it. The first few games were made for Apple computers, but were soon been made for the PC, which was becoming the prime choice for games designers to work on.

Garriot had always wanted to make something more of the Ultima series, and proved himself to truly be one of gaming’s pioneers when he released the award winning Ultima Online, which was the first truly massively multi-player game ever released to the public. It suffered many teething problems, but that was because it was the first of its kind, and a massive leap forward for online gaming. Origin never really expected the game to do as well as it did. It wasn’t thought it would sell over 15,000 units, and that only one game server would be needed. Today, there are 20 UO game servers in the US, Asia, Europe and one opening soon in Australia, and it is Origin’s fastest selling game ever.

Garriot only ever once had an ego problem that usually comes with all the fame, but he quickly realized it after some friends pointed it out to him and changed his ways. Garriot, along with the likes of John Carmack, Sid Meier, Peter Molyneux, is a rare breed of game developer who can be instantly recognized when you see him, and is known to almost every hard-core gamer on the planet.

Garriot firmly believes there is much more to online games than the usual ‘kill everything’ approach that some games take. Co-operation with other players in Ultima Online ultimately brings greater rewards than going it alone, or being anti-social towards other players. Some of the areas in UO can be so dangerous that going in alone is suicide, unless you’re an expert at running away. More time is spent in UO talking, trading, skill/stat building and enquiring than actual adventuring, but then again, its not as though anyone’s life is non-stop action 24 hours a day.

His favorite Ultima games would be IV, because of the strong use of the “Virtues,” and VII, because it was the first game with a fully simulated world. After publishing Ultima I, he and his friends all thought that the entertainment software phase would just blow over, and he would have to go back to college to get a real job. Quite to the contrary, despite a serious drop of interest in games in the mid-80’s, the gaming industry has grown now to be comparable to the film industry, and a long way from the handful of developers in the 70’s making games for the Amiga and Apples.



Technical Innovations
Origin, unlike many companies, moves with the flow of technology, and sometimes redefines it. Every game in the Ultima series scrapped the previous game’s engine, and instead used a totally new one. It is this attitude to always staying ‘on the ball,’ which has kept Origin ahead of the bulk of software houses. If you look at Ultima I, you can clearly see its simplicity. As you go through the games, they change rapidly, with color, proper graphics, new views to see the action from, a bigger game and finally with Ultima IX: Ascension, a full-blown 3D view for a 3D world. Despite its many bugs, no one who has played the game can deny how impressive and large its world can seem at times, with hundreds of animals and NPCs (Non Player Characters) just walking about, living their lives. In Ultima I, the code used for the dungeons was the same code that had been used to design Akalabeth, and Ultima II was the first game he made in assembly language. Ultima III was the first game that Garriot actually got to do exactly what he wanted, as his lack of experience in code meant that the other games were all very rough around the edges. Ultima III was much better defined, and everything was much more coherent, and was the last game in what is referred to as the “Age of Darkness Trilogy.”

Ultima IV was the first game to penalize players for bad behavior, with NPCs treating you badly if you were a known psychopath, but at the other end of the scale, if you were a hero who went around helping people out, NPCs would be more willing to do you favors, showing a clear advance in computer AI and understanding of the player. Ultima V challenged the traditional good/bad scenario, as it introduced characters with many shades of gray, and so it was no longer obvious what side someone was on. Ultima VI was the first game were continuity was a concern, and was more a game of personal exploration, as the Avatar was killing gargoyles only to find they saw humans as monsters, just as humans saw them. This was the first game that concentrated heavily on storyline, and a step forward for the series in establishing itself as a true RPG epic. This was also the last game in the “Age on Enlightenment Trilogy.”

Following this, Ultima VII was released. This was a major step forward for the series, as it was the first Ultima to contain a truly impressive world, and would set the standard for the titles to come after it. Ultima VIII was best known for its arcade style adventure, but lacked real gameplay, and only advanced the series in terms of its graphical appearance. Ultima IX, as many people will know, brought the series to a close, but was a massive leap forward at the same time. No 3D game has ever had such a large and detailed world, with something interesting around every corner, and it is on a truly huge scale. This ended the “Guardian Trilogy” and the “Trilogy of Trilogies,” as some had called it, brining the story of the Avatar and Britannia to a satisfying close.

FMV being used in a game, although now a largely disused form of telling the story, was seen being displayed to its full affect in Origin’s Wing Commander series of games. Featuring Mark Hamill, the sequences were used as a new form of storytelling for a video game. Aside from the FMV, the Wing Commander games set the benchmark for other space simulators. The latest (and possibly last) installment of Wing Commander, called Wing Commander: Secret Ops was released on the Internet as a free download, with each level weighing in from 30-50 megabytes each.



For Ultima: Ascension, Origin choose to design their own 3D engine rather than license one from another company. While they may have needed to do this due to Ultima IX’s special needs, it did prove costly. The engine was seriously incompatible with some 3D cards, and only people with 3dfx-based video cards had any real chance of getting it to run properly. On top of that, there were many crippling bugs in the game, such as invisible walls, or blocked entrances. Indeed, in one dungeon, the entrance refused to open again, and a bottomless pit was behind the player, leaving them stuck, with no choice but to restart the game with patches in place. Even now, while looking at the release notes for the patches, there are still many “This will not work if you have already entered the game world” beside many fixes, but none of those bugs are very serious, and it has to be said, the patches so far have fixed virtually all problems with the game for those with fresh installs of the game.


Current Projects
Current projects under development at OSI include Ultima Online 2 (due for release sometime in Winter this year) and the mysterious project “X.”

So far, very little information has been released on UO 2, let alone any screenshots, but the game looks as though it will be every bit as fun as its predecessor, but with a new 3D engine, although its not known what view/perspective the game will use. The beta is expected in late Autumn/early Winter, so it’s a long wait yet for everyone who’s looking forward to playing it. The beta will be offered to current UO subscribers before the general public, so get in there if you want to be one of the first to get into the beta test.

At the moment, one of UO 2’s biggest issues is whether or not the game will contain a PK (player killer) switch, so people can choose whether or not they want to become involved in battle with other players, as is used in Asheron’s Call and EverQuest. OSI is going after the idea of ‘zoning’ the game, with non-player vs. player (PvP) areas that contain much smarter monsters, and PvP zones, which will of course, be rampant with player killers and thieves. How they’ll overcome this problem and keep everyone happy is yet to be seen, and may well be impossible. Richard Garriot won’t be overseeing UO 2 himself: instead Starr Long (Lord Blackthorne in the Ultima games) will be the producer. In charge of designing the characters will be cartoonist, Todd McFarlane, creator of the Spawn series of comics. McFarlane has been commissioned by RG to design several of the game’s creatures, which RG has said look amazing at their current stage, so it must be impressive.

Project ‘X’, (X being the Roman numeral for 10) is said to be a futuristic style online game, and it may even have a name change to Ultima X at the last minute according to Richard Garriot. But as he has said before, Britannia and the Avatar are gone and finished, so it will be interesting to see what story line the game will take. According to Garriot, identity will play a large part of the game. He recently told GameDaily:

“For example, one of the most successful attributes of UO is the personal identity of the characters; you can tell who the cool players are because they are well accessorized and they act well. That's one of the features I really want to push.”



So, if you want a good idea of what it will be like, imagine an online form of Blade Runner. RG also said that fashion will play a role in X as well, and it will be interesting to see how that turns out. In addition, he has said that putting hours upon hours into X won’t guarantee advancement in character stats and skills. Instead he hopes to implement a different system, but no details have been released yet.

Of course, the original Ultima Online is still an ongoing project at Origin. The game boasts a support team of over 100 Game Masters, thousands of volunteers, dedicated to providing game support or plots, and a team of 12 people constantly working on the game’s programming. They are constantly adding new, and sometimes controversial, elements to the game. Putting anything in, or taking something out, is always considered very carefully before its put into action, as it may seriously upset the players and their society. More recently, a page called “In Concept” sprung up on their web site, outlining future plans, and asking players for feedback and comments on the proposed changes. It may have its fair share of problems, but the people who complain are a vocal minority, with the vast majority of players usually agreeing to changes in the game.

A large aspect of games in the future will be putting in modifications after the game has been released. Almost every game these days has patches, which fix bugs and add new features. Perhaps one of the best patches ever added to a game was the Team Fortress Classic multi-player mod added with a bug fix to Half-Life, giving players a reward for upgrading their software to the latest version. Even now, some Dreamcast games offer extra levels, as a free download. Sonic Adventure has a downloadable Christmas level, and this has been done on some PC games before, and will happen many more times in the future, as people realize the benefits of patching a game. Origin seems to have noticed this, and Ultima Online receives patches on a monthly basis, while mostly fixing bugs, also giving players some extra items at the same time, making the patching process worth the wait, so it doesn’t seem so tedious.

It does have a lot of problems though. Anti-social players, cheaters and indiscriminate player killers have driven many people away from the game. $10 is a lot of money to pay just for the privilege of being harassed, and harassment problems rarely ever result in the offending player getting banned. The system for reporting incidents is just too dodgy, with some players afraid to use it, as miss-use can result in a ban if you do it 3 times, so most people just stay away from it all together. And on top of that, there are some websites out there, which seem hell-bent on destroying UO, but trying to justify their actions at the same time, but UO was the first game of its kind, and such problems were inevitable.

Richard Garriot decided to do Ultima Online because he believed that socializing has always been an essential part of any RPG experience, and he hoped to deliver the best social experience online anyone could get. He most certainly succeeded with his plan. Unlike EverQuest and Asheron’s Call, a very strong community exists between the players of UO, and this is partially due to the ability to build homes. Many player-built towns have sprung up all over the UO servers, and these are usually a safe heaven for role-players while out in the wilderness. Many of UO’s best-known players are the people who run some of the more famous towns, such as Paxlair.

The Future of Origin It seems that without a doubt, the future of games lies with online gaming, and Origin intend to be at the spearhead of this concept. Richard Garriot has announced that Origin will now be making online games exclusively, and Electronic Arts, their parent company, said they would be investing heavily into the new market for online only games.

The developers at Origin seem to firmly believe, that human interaction is really the best element any game can offer. In the future, children will probably laugh at the idea of having to play a game by yourself, with no other humans taking part in your adventures. Who knows what they may do in the future. Maybe in 20 years they will be producing games with a Matrix-style level of reality, with people being able to use virtual reality to actually enter the medieval world of Britannia, or the sci-fi settings of X. Whatever happens to online gaming, Origin will be one of the few developers at the head of it.

Whatever they make, like UO, it will be a massive world filled with people, both real and computer generated, and putting painstaking detail into everything that they create. I believe the following sums up everything that Origin is, and hopes to achieve in the future:

Company Motto:

“ORIGIN creates worlds of immersed simulation and technological innovation. We create worlds with unparalleled attention to detail, setting new standards in interactive entertainment. But most of all, we create worlds of fun.”

- This is Tim “Damarr” O'Malley's first contribution to loonygames.



 

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