book review

The official book of Ultima

Shay Addams (1990)

A colleague from university kindly lend me this book. She said it would make nice bedside reading. And it does. It also does a little bit more as it contains a lot of quotes from Richard Garriott (aka Lord British, Ultima’s creator and lead designer). I assume many of these quotes to be real, since Garriott himself wrote the introduction for the book.

Being written in 1990, this book covers all Ultima games up to Ultima VI: The False Prophet, which is the first Ultima I played and probably remains my favourite installment for its quality and nostalgia. The book is divided into three parts. The first part outlines the history of the Ultima series. It contains quite a lot of autobiographical information on Richard Garriott and a lot of ‘Ultima lore’. You can learn what the inspiration was for the myth of the Silver Serpent, and how world of Ultima grew during the first ten years of development. The second part focuses on the design process of Ultima VI. It discusses in length ideas that were quite new during the late eighties and early nineties: such as the working of tile maps and the idea of having a world editor. These days such things are already common knowledge or outdated. The last part is a strategy guide for the first six games.

There are a few interesting things I picked up from this book. Most of these have to do with Garriott’s design philosophy. For example he creates a world and a game engine first. This engine is build up from elements that make the game and tries to be as consistent as possible. Today this may seem like correct ‘object-oriented’ programming but at the time of Ultima VI it wasn’t a common paradigm, and sometimes I really think not a few contemporary games would have benefited from such an approach. This also means that the game is not design around a story. Rather the story is designed to showcase the world and the game engine and is written after the world is in place. Another example is the way Garriott approaches quests in the game. In his opinion quests are not about reaching the goal but about how you reach it. Quests can typically be resolved in many ways and there is not a single good way of doing it. This is approach is very clear in Ultima IV: The Quest of the Avatar, as the object of the quest is not to slay an obligatory evil wizard but to become an avatar and a true hero.

All in all The official book of Ultima is a quick and relaxing read for the weekend, but it still manages to put across some aspects of computer role-playing and game design that haven’t lost there relevance today.