Role-playing games have been a part of computer gaming for nearly as long as the medium has existed. This makes perfect sense: The guys who were obsessed with tricking primitive early computers into becoming entertainment devices were also generally the same guys who spent their free time playing table top war games, which evolved into Dungeons & Dragons around the same time formative computer classics like Zork began to take shape.
The problem with turning tabletop RPGs into computer programs is that while the computers are very good at replicating the parts of the games that involve numbers -- character stats, monster values, combat die rolls -- what separates D&D from the war games it built on was all the stuff outside of combat. The heart of D&D isn't fighting but rather the interactions between party members and the world around them, as relayed by the game master, and computers are terrible at recreating those elements.
Fast-foward several decades later and video games still aren't much good at it, which is why RPGs cover such a wide gamut of styles, from bare-bones dungeon crawlers to elaborate character-driven combat movies. Everyone has their own idea of how to handle the dungeon master's role, but it always turns out to be a loose interpretation. The funny thing is, outside of massively multiplayer RPGs -- which work out to be more or less a tabletop session by online proxy -- most designers are simply iterating on the principles laid down 30 years ago by the genre's two pillars, Wizardry and Ultima.
Wizardry's approach to dealing with the ephemera of RPGs was to say, "The hell with it," sweep it all off the table, and double down on pure combat and exploration. Ultima, on the other hand, dealt more in plot and world-building. Combat happened, and quite often, but it came off as a means to an end in service of the grand story and vast worlds to explore. Literal worlds: The first two Ultima adventures seemingly drew as much inspiration from John Carter as from D&D and sometimes sent the hero packing into space, taking players well beyond the bounds of the standard primal fantasy so common to RPGs.
However, it wasn't really until Ultima III: Exodus, released 30 years ago this month for Apple II, that the series properly came into its own. Although Exodus served as a capstone for the first two games -- the eponymous Exodus was the demonic offspring of the villains of Ultima (the wizard Mondain) and Ultima II (the sorceress Minax) -- it broke from their conventions and mechanics to greatly improve on the concept of computer role-playing.
For starters, Exodus finally put players in control of an entire party of characters rather than dealing in solo combat. (The Dragon Quest series would more famously make a similar transition several years later.) This brought Ultima to parity with Wizardry, its rival franchise, especially in light of its greatly expanded array of character classes for the party. In addition to selecting races like elves, dwarves, the decidedly Tolkein-esque bobbits, and others, players also needed to define their heroes' roles. With a party of only four warriors and 11 classes to choose from -- with certain races more adept at filling specific classes, though not mandatorily assigned as such -- Ultima III required tough choices with lasting repercussions on the entire game right from the start. Many of the new classes combined attributes from the previous games' basic job sets, making them best suited for advanced players who properly understood the nuances of Ultima's underpinnings.
The shift to a party system necessitated a change in Ultima's entire approach to combat. This newly minted battle system, along with Exodus' fundamental design of a vast overworld containing countless dungeons and towns to explore, would prove to be the game's biggest contribution to the genre. So many games today play like Ultima that it can be difficult to grasp just how different and inventive it was in 1983. Players viewed the world from a top-down perspective, except in dungeons, which transpired in a first-person mode similar to that of previous Ultimas. But whether in a cave or on the field, initiating combat sent players into a separate battle mode -- a feature previously seen in only one other RPG (Tunnels of Doom for TI's 99-4/A, which debuted shortly before Exodus).
Battles in Exodus hearkened back to the genre's D&D tabletop origins. The player's entire party and the enemy host traded blows not in the simple side-versus-side style that would become standard fare in console RPGs, but rather through a zoomed-out field view that resembled a primitive take on what would now be termed a strategy or tactical RPG. Each character's turn consisted of both movement and action, forcing them to be mindful of their proximity to foes and the ease with which enemies could surround and overwhelm them. Clearly inspired by the wargaming miniatures that had given rise to D&D, Exodus' battle system would live on through countless other computer RPGs with an eye for their heritage, including SSI's beloved "Gold Box" Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series and BioWare's latter-day take on AD&D, Baldur's Gate. Beyond that, however, you can also draw a line without too much trouble from Ultima III's combat style to Japanese tactical RPGs like Fire Emblem, Shining Force, and Tactics Ogre.
Like many older RPGs, Ultima tossed players into a large, open world with very little guidance. Conversations with townsfolk could help steer would-be heroes in the right direction, but much of the adventure was down to trial-and-error and careful note-taking. Particularly maddening were the mysterious Moon Gates, mystical teleportation stations whose functions varied with the phases of the moon. Mastering Moon Gates proved key to success in the adventure, but sorting out their mechanics took tremendous effort. Even the final boss, Exodus himself, couldn't be defeated by raw power; players had to collect clues and riddles throughout the world to sort out the secret to victory.
A lot of what defined Ultima III would come across as poor design or arbitrary nonsense to contemporary gamers. It was a game created in an era in which RPGs were designed to last months, even years, and user-friendliness tended to be a secondary consideration -- or even antithetical to the whole affair. How better to stretch out a game's value than with opaque design and arbitrary difficulty? But that's not really fair to Richard Garriott and Origin Systems, who pushed the genre forward significantly with this classic. Ultima wouldn't come fully into its own until 1985's Quest of the Avatar, but Exodus provided an important bridge between that masterpiece and the more primitive titles of the series' early days; the sophisticated core game design of Exodus allowed Garriott to focus on the genre-changing world- and story-building of Quest of the Avatar. For Ultima, and for countless developers inspired by it, it all truly began here.