The following excerpt comes from Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution by David L. Craddock, available in hardcover from Schiffer Publishing. The book chronicles the making of over a dozen groundbreaking PC games, featuring interviews with their developers and details how they went on to influence the games of today. In chapter, “Virtuous Quest – Moral Dilemmas in Ultima,“ Richard “Lord British” Garriott and his family come together to found his company, Origin Systems.
Where Ultima represented a leap forward from Akalabeth, Ultima II was more of a step, at least in regard to gameplay. As before, players choose a race and class, navigate a tile-based map shown from an overhead view, and kill monsters and loot treasures from dungeons, displayed from first-person view.
Ultima II‘s true evolution lies in its technical pedigree. Richard Garriott wrote the game in assembly from top to bottom; as a result, graphics render faster and data loads quicker. There are more places to explore, many of which do not need to be explored to finish the story, and the topography changes depending on when in time players access certain areas.
Not that critics and players minded. Upon its arrival in August 1982, Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress delighted critics and sold over 50,000 copies by the end of the year — a staggering number in only four months. Garriott took a moment to breathe. His part in creating Ultima II was done. Now Sierra’s programmers would convert it from the Apple II to platforms such as the Atari 800, a 16-bit computer, and MS-DOS, Microsoft’s operating system for IBM PCs.
By Christmas, the relationship between Sierra and Garriott had soured. In the issue of Computer Gaming World published in March 1986, Garriott gave a lengthy interview in which he accused Sierra of not being author friendly, implying that Ken Williams had cut Garriott into royalties from sales of the Apple II version of Ultima II, but not sales of the game’s myriad ports on other platforms.
Garriott returned to Texas in low spirits. His bank account was blossoming, yet he once again faced the task of convincing a publisher to sign his next game. His older brother, Robert, proposed an alternative plan.
Where Richard was a college dropout, Robert was “overeducated,” as Richard puts it. His brother had earned bachelor degrees in engineering and economics from Rice University, and took a job at Texas Instruments designing memory chips for PCs. He later enrolled at Stanford and received a master’s in business while at the same time starting a venture capital firm focused on tech startups. His job was to evaluate companies and decide if their projects were worth backing.
Richard had made good use of his brother’s business acumen and understanding of the tech industry. When Sierra stiffed him on royalties, he called Robert for help putting the screws to them: as they were making bank on conversions of his game, Richard felt he deserved a seat at the table. Unfortunately, Robert was powerless. Unless Richard’s contract with Sierra stated that he was entitled to royalties from conversions, he was at Sierra’s whim.
At the family gathering that Christmas, Robert ran an idea by Richard. “He said, ‘Why don’t you and I go into business together?'” Garriott remembers. “‘These other guys are hobbyists, same as you. They don’t have anybody [with business experience] working with them. At the very least, when I get a sales check from a retailer, I’ll make sure you’re the first person who gets paid. We may win, we may lose, but I promise you: every penny that comes into our company, you’ll get your fair share.'”
The partnership between Richard and Robert was not the first instance of the Garriotts pitching in to help their own. “When I was younger, my mom did all different kinds of art,” Garriott remembers. “Silversmithing, pottery, etching. Of all the art she did, there was one piece of art that became incredibly popular by local standards. Don’t forget, my family was a NASA family. All our neighbors were astronauts. So my mom made this cookie jar called an earthrise pot.”
Helen’s earthrise pot started as a token of friendship given to neighbors. Her design is elegant and elaborate. The pot, cratered and pockmarked, resembles the craggy surface of the moon, and boasts extraordinary detail and accuracy. Holding it up to the light reveals twelve glimmering rhinestones, each set in a location where a manned landing on the moon’s surface took place. She paints the lid pitch black, and then, using a small brush, paints earth’s continents along the lid’s rounded finial. In summation, the jar is a to-scale model meant to capture how an astronaut standing on the moon (painted on the pot) perceives Earth (painted on the finial) from across the blackness of space (the base of the lid).
As word of her earthrise pots spread beyond her Houston neighborhood, Helen decided to sell them. Demand quickly grew beyond what she could handle on her own. “These became so popular in Houston that she made literally thousands,” Garriott says. “To make thousands, her art studio became a manufacturing facility for these pots, and all of us kids became part of an assembly line for years.”
Helen arranged her children (and her husband, when Owen was available) in an assembly line and assigned each one a task. First up: pour silt into a round mold the size of a baseball to as large as a basketball. Next, the molds containing the silt must be turned until the liquid clay attains a level of thickness comparable to a milkshake. The silt dries, and then the next Garriott in line scrapes it out of the mold and smooths it using a wet sponge. “We’d take those and pre-fire them in a kiln to make them hard, then send them over to a painting station,” Garriott says. “A black coat of paint went down on the lid and the base, then someone would use a sandy grit to paint on the features of the moon. Then someone even more skillful would scratch the craters in with a scratching tool.”
With the fine details applied, an earthrise pot went back into the kiln for another round of firing. Pulling them out, Helen or one of the older kids painted continents and oceans with a fine-tipped brush. One last trip to the kiln followed. Afterward, at long last, one of the Garriotts drilled holes into the pot and set the rhinestones signifying twelve moon landings. “Then, ta-da! Here’s a real map of the moon, with real landing sites, in the form of these pots.”
From childhood through his three years at University of Texas, and even into work on Akalabeth and the first two Ultima games, Richard gave countless nights and weekends to his mom’s earthrise pots. “We made them for years. I’ve made so many, it’s hard to imagine. But that was a family affair. Mom, Dad, brother, sister — all making earthrise pots.”
A family-staffed production line prepared the Garriotts for what came next. When Richard and Robert announced their new company, Origin Systems, everybody pitched in. They made the garage their base of operations. The garage held two floors: a concrete base large enough to fit three cars, and Helen’s art studio on the top floor. Richard and Robert looked sheepishly at their mother. Helen rolled her eyes and started packing. It was not the first time she had sacrificed personal space for her kids. Upon discovering D&D at computer camp, Garriott had evicted his mom (nicely) so he and his friends had a place to spread their charts, hardbound books, character sheets, and dice. Helen didn’t mind. She took pride in being a den mom.
Richard and Robert set about renovating the two-car garage. Tables, chairs, and computers went upstairs; the garage floor became Origin’s all-in-one manufacturing, shipping, and distribution facility, enabling them to circumvent traditional publishers. That meant an order of magnitude more work, but on the other hand, there was no possibility of a publisher abruptly pulling out of issuing royalties. “Back in the Apple II days, we literally had a bank of machines in the garage that would manufacture the disks,” Garriott says. “We folded boxes in the evenings, hand-packed them, and shrink-wrapped them. I still own the original shrink-wrap machine from our garage in Houston that I’ve kept as a memento, so if anybody out there desperately needs their original Ultima game back in shrink wrap from the original machine — and with rolls of the original plastic — I can do that.”
Although Richard and Robert put up most of the money to start Origin, Helen and Owen kicked in $5,000 each, and Helen was appointed art director. “A little-known data point is if you go all the way back to Origin’s first published products — those would be Ultima III and Caverns of Callisto — the manuals for those games, the illustrations in those manuals, the layout of the text, that was all done by my mother.”
Jeff Hillhouse, whom Garriott had met during his time at Sierra, was hired on as director of operations — a title that meant he spent most of his workdays in the lower half of the garage overseeing equipment. Chuck Bueche, one of Garriott’s friends from high school, also helped co-found Origin. Garriott had introduced Bueche — portrayed in Ultima games as the character Chuckles — to computers in 1981 when he helped write code for Ultima. After Garriott relocated to Oakhurst to complete Ultima II, Bueche founded his own company, Craniac Entertainment, and wrote an action-puzzle game for the Apple II called Lunar Leepers. Sierra published the game after Garriott brokered an introduction between Bueche and Ken Williams. In 1983, Bueche left Sierra to invest in and co-found Origin. Seated next to Lord British in their new office, Bueche programmed Caverns of Callisto, a space-themed action game where players gather supplies to repair their spaceship and escape from an alien-infested planet. Later on, he wrote Autoduel, an Apple II adaptation of the popular Car Wars pen-and-paper game published by Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games.
While Bueche wrote Caverns, Garriott stayed busy authoring Ultima III: Exodus, his most ambitious project yet. Where the first two installments gave players control of a single character, Exodus puts them in charge of four. Players choose a race and class for each party member and explore a massive overworld. Enemies appear on the overworld map, and players relay commands to their party members during battles. When players enter a dungeon, Exodus changes to first-person. Impressively, dungeons are rendered from solid shapes filled in with color, a major innovation from the wireframe outlines used in Akalabeth, Ultima I, and II.
Ultima III boasts dramatic gameplay improvements as well. Dungeons span eight floors, with tougher foes haunting each subsequent floor. If players test the waters and find a dungeon’s monsters too difficult, they can leave, gain experience, and try again later, adding a degree of openness to the adventure. The most impressive changes, however, take the form of interactions with NPCs. Before, players could steal items by sneaking around vendors. In Exodus, the option to steal is available from a menu of interaction options, along with the ability to bribe characters — additions that set the stage for major innovations in his next title. “I’d just never really thought about the fact that people might use [nefarious tactics] as their dominant form of play,” he says of earlier Ultima games. “Of course they would. It makes sense that they would. I just never thought it through.”
Ultima III: Exodus arrived in stores on August 23, 1983. Reception was overwhelmingly positive, and a watershed release for RPGs on both computers and consoles. Over the next decade, critically acclaimed series from Final Fantasy to Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in the U.S.) followed the template set by Wizardry and enhance by Ultima III‘s refined character interactions — control a party of characters, select items and combat options from menus, and switch between 2D overworld maps and 3D dungeon levels.
Commercially, Ultima III dwarfed its predecessors, selling over 120,000 copies. “We probably sold around 100,000 of them straightaway. To manufacture 100,000 of anything in our garage was sort of a challenge. That became an afternoon and evening activity for a lot of us: to help out putting together large, cardboard boxes, 50 at a time, to ship out to UPS. We were doing it very brute force.”
Despite the indelible mark Ultima III left on RPGs, it was a warm-up for the game he made next.
David L. Craddock lives with his wife in Canton, Ohio and is the author of The Gairden Chronicles fantasy series, and the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen books that recount the history of Blizzard Entertainment.