Ultima 7 deserves better than to be forgotten. Sadly though, that seems to be exactly what's happening. Ask anyone younger than 25 for their thoughts on Ultima and you're apt to get a blank stare in return.
Ultima 7's developer Origin Systems was the first in a long line of studios to be acquired and eventually cannibalized by EA. Its fate was sealed when EA completed the transaction in September 1992, less than six months after the release of Ultima 7—arguably Origin's magnum opus. Origin Systems would eventually be disbanded 12 years later, with even the incredible success of Ultima Online not being enough to save it. Our last glimpse of Ultima was the banal Ultima Forever for iOS, which Eurogamer's Rich Stanton derisively called "a cow clicker with a beard."
To understand what a tragedy this is for RPGs, and what a missed opportunity this is for EA, one need only observe the success of Ultima 7. Before Elder Scrolls, Fallout, or any other sandbox RPG, Ultima 7 dropped players into Britannia and let them to have at it. It was an RPG rife with possibility, whether in murdering every single quest giver in the game, or even calling down the apocalypse with a wayward spell.
It was intended to be the beginning of a brand new trilogy, the main foe being an extradimensional demon called "The Guardian" that wishes to enter Britannia and remake it in its own image. The first glimpse of the Guardian comes in a charming sequence reminiscent of the Outer Limits, or maybe Max Headroom, in which The Guardian takes control of a computer monitor and mockingly lays out its evil plan for the Avatar (that's you). A portal subsequently opens up in the Avatar's backyard, and it's back to Britannia to see what's changed in the intervening 200 years.
Upon exiting the portal, players are confronted with a world bigger and brighter than anything that had come before it. No longer confined to a tiny window in the screen's upper left quadrant, Ultima 7 sported a fully operational point and click interface and state of the art graphics. Rather than begin with a traditional dungeon crawl, it opened with a murder mystery that invited players to put together clues and uncover the story for themselves. Upon passing this first test, players were turned loose into the massive world of Britannia, where they could go pretty much wherever they wanted.
This was pretty heady stuff back in the early 90s, when RPGs were still largely limited to D&D-style dungeon crawls, and consoles were dominated by platformers and arcade shoot 'em ups. Ultima strove to paint its world as an extension of our own, pitching Britannia as a Narnia-like world in which players filled the role of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. Having met Ultima creator Richard Garriott, I get the sense that he always wished that it were actually true; that he could step through a portal and actually become Lord British. He even went so far as to call his home "Britannia Manor," regularly hosting lavish Halloween parties in which locals were invited to participate in a real-life dungeon crawl.
To that end, Ultima in general, and Ultima 7 in particular, was less concerned with the abstraction of stats than most RPGs. Ultima 7's combat was real-time and encounters more or less resolved themselves. Much more interesting were the hundreds of individual interactions that served as the foundation of its gameplay experience. In many ways it felt more like an adventure game than an RPG, with quests resolved by talking to NPCs, wading through dialogue trees, and finding inventive ways out of conflicts.
These concepts would later be adopted by other RPG developers, particularly Black Isle Studios, but Ultima was the first to explore them in any meaningful way. Indeed, Garriott was constantly looking for ways to make players feel more like the Avatar. A famous example is 1985's Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar, which was built in reaction to players being a "plague of locusts" who looted and killed throughout the world.
In our History of RPGs series detailing the making of Ultima 4, Garriott told USG, "I started writing Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar. I deliberately said, 'I'm going to let people play the way they've been playing, but if you go through the town and kill everybody or you steal from that shop, that person's not going to want to help you in the future.' If you need [a key item] but you've been stealing from that shop, they'll go, 'I'd love to help the hero, but you are the most dishonest thieving scumbag I've ever met, so I'm not going to help you.'"
Ultima 4 laid the groundwork for many RPGs to come in demonstrating how the world could change based on the player's actions. Ultima 7 was its final evolution—a sprawling and beautiful (for the time) open-world in which you could be as good or evil as you wanted, albeit with the potential consequence of alienating your friends, townspeople... pretty much everyone if you were mean enough. It offered an unparalleled sense of freedom in exploring its absolutely enormous sandbox; moving every object and watching as NPCs went about their business (the latter of which Elder Scrolls would take more than a decade to implement in any meaningful fashion).
Because it was a sprite-based game with no voice acting, Origin was free to basically go crazy in developing its world. Cities were packed with NPCs, many of whom would visit the Blue Boar at night and swap stories. You could bake bread, not just by clicking a menu option, but by actually scything and milling wheat and baking it all together. The motto of Origin Systems was "We Create Worlds," and that was singularly apparent in Ultima 7.
Many old-school fans see Ultima 7 as the high-water mark for the genre—the last gasp of the original golden age of RPGs from the 1980s. But rather than the last of the old, I prefer to see Ultima 7 as the first of the new. As Rowan and I discussed on the Axe of the Blood segment about Ultima 7, it paved the way for many of the open-world RPGs that we know and love today, from Baldur's Gate 2 to Deus Ex to Skyrim. Even today, few have come close to topping the outrageous amount of detail found in its character and its world.
Sadly, Ultima 7 was the high-water mark for Origin as well. Ultima 8 would dispense with much of what made Ultima 7 great in favor of a strange Prince of Persia-like action experience. Ultima 9 would right the ship somewhat in 1999, but it offered far less freedom than other games in the series, the path forward often being artificially blocked. By this time Origin was struggling through the cancellation of multiple games and the departure of Garriott. Despite the outsized success of Ultima Online, the writing was on the wall for what had been one of the pioneering studios of the 80s.
One wonders what the RPG landscape today would look like if EA hadn't put its foot on Origin's neck and crushed it. With its emphasis on top-end graphics and open-ended design, maybe Origin would be regarded in the same light as CD Projekt. Maybe Ultima would be a blockbuster franchise on par with Fallout or Skyrim.
Thanks to EA, we'll never know. But I do know this: Ultima 7 is a true RPG classic, and it deserves to be remembered as fondly as its contemporaries.