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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)
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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)

April 11, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 12 Next

Ascending Pagans at the Black Gate

We might expect that Origin would have incorporated Ultima Underworld's 3-D engine into its main Ultima series, but this was not the case.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate, released the same year as The Stygian Abyss, featured much better graphics than its predecessors, but still relied on the familiar top-down perspective. Perhaps the biggest interface change was a switch to real-time gameplay, which drastically altered the way combat is handled. It was also the first game in the series that can be controlled entirely by the mouse--the manual indicates that mouse play is "highly recommended by Lord British."

We might not think much of this issue today, but this was at a time when many PC owners didn't even own mice, much less see them as a game device.

Even though Black Gate didn't take the leap into 3D, it is still widely hailed as the best Ultima game, rivaled only by Ultima III in terms of popularity. The key assets are the game's gripping plot, well-developed characters, and painstakingly-detailed environments. Much was made of the game's high level of interactivity. How many CRPGs do you know that will let you milk cows and change a baby's diapers just for the heck of it?

Perhaps the best of all the Ultima Games, The Black Gate sports one of the most fully interactive gameworlds ever presented in a video game .

To put it mildly, The Black Gate is an unforgettable experience to those who have taken 60+ hours required to complete it, and will probably always enjoy a loyal and dedicated fan base. Unfortunately, the original games exploited some memory routines that render them incompatible on modern Windows-based systems. Thankfully, gamers can play Ultima VII using Exult, a GPL-licensed program that attempts to recreate the game on modern operating systems.

The Black Gate's plot is quite sophisticated compared to most games of the era, and like most other Ultima games, it has plenty of references and allusions to religion and politics. As the game opens, the Avatar is taunted by the infamous Guardian, then whisked away to the land of Britannia some 200 years after your visit, just in time to investigate the scene of a ritualistic murder. Eventually he learns about a cult called "The Fellowship," which some critics argue satirizes the Church of Scientology.

Perhaps more endearing than the plot are the characters, who are far better developed here than in almost any other CRPG. Instead of merely standing in one place for all eternity just to offer you a thinly disguised hint or geographical tidbit, the characters are shown walking about, engaging in their daily activities--they even to go to bed at night. Conversations with these characters are also more convincing, and can speak about several topics.

The game is also praised for its open-ended gameplay. There are very few guard rails in The Black Gate, a fact that can either thrill or intimidate inexperienced players. It's quite easy for players to end up wandering about the game without the faintest clue what they're "supposed" to do. Obviously, this lack of clear direction wouldn't bother players weaned on Rogue and other "sandbox" style games, but players more accustomed to "Do X, Y, and then Z" type games may find themselves quite disoriented.

Just to give you some idea of how intriguing the world of Black Gate can be, I'll quote a bit from Oleg Roschin's detailed review of the game on Mobygames. At one point in the game, Roschin's party met up with a unicorn, who, as legend has it, can only communicate with virgins. The first time around, Roschin's Avatar was, in fact, a virgin, and admitted as much to the unicorn, who then talked to him.

On a later visit, however, the Avatar had slept with a harlot at Buccaneer's Den, and the Unicorn refused to speak with him. As usual, we see that Garriott subtlety; sure, you can do sinful things, but you won't always get away with it. Later on, Bethesda would capitalize on this high level of interactivity in its celebrated Elder Scrolls series.

Origin released an expansion for the game called The Forge of Virtue later that year, but it wasn't until 1993 that Serpent Isle appeared. Instead of calling this game Ultima VIII, Origin chose to label it as Ultima VII: Part Two. This odd naming convention seems to arise from Garriott's principle that no two Ultima games should share the same game engine.

Serpent Isle may have shared the same game engine, but was much more linear and story-based than The Black Gate, a fact which divided critics pretty evenly between the two games. The story begins 18 months after the first part, and involves traveling to a land named "Serpent Isle" to restore the balance destroyed there by the Guardian.

Apparently, the game was rushed through production by Origin's new owner, Electronic Arts, and thus contained many dead ends (players who found themselves in one had to restore to earlier saved games). Origin's struggle with Electronic Arts bear an uncanny resemblance to Garriott's earlier conflict with Sierra On-Line. That conflict had also led to a lackluster entry in the series, Ultima II. Origin did release an expansion to the game called Silver Seed in 1993.

On a side note, in 1997 released its Ultima Collection for DOS and Windows, which includes the first 9 games (including a PC port of Akalabeth) and both expansions. Unfortunately, not all of the games run properly in Windows, but with a little work and a tool like DOSBox can run them under emulation.

In 1994, Origin released Ultima VIII: Pagan, a game with a somewhat controversial title that aroused even more controversy among long-term fans of the series. Again, Garriott seems to have returned to the drawing board and decided that what players really needed was more physical than intellectual challenges. Thus, like so many console hits of the day, in Pagan the Avatar can run, jump, and climb across moving platforms.

Combat was reduced (or, enhanced, depending on your perspective) to a series of rapid-fire mouse clicks, requiring more dexterity than strategy to win. As you might expect, the game gravely disappointed some fans and thrilled others, but the general consensus was that the game wasn't up to the Ultima standard. Many of the key innovations that had made The Black Gate so successful, such as a realistic night and day system, were abridged or altogether omitted.

As if these faults weren't enough to commit Pagan to the flames, a plethora of bugs surfaced, frustrating even fanatical Ultima fans. Again, Garriott blamed the problems on Electronic Arts and a rushed production schedule. However, the worst was yet to come.

The last and worst of the single-player Ultima games, Ultima IX: Ascension, was published in 1999, and fans were even more disappointed than they had been with Pagan. The problem this time seems to lie mostly in a bait-and-switch game played by Garriott, who had promised a game more in line with the classic Ultima games, and went to fans for advice—who provided it, diligently. Unfortunately, the production cycle hit gravel early on, and the code went through at least four different versions and no small amount of drama.

Ultima Online was also in production as this time, and no doubt added to the chaos (I'll have more to say about that game in a later section of this article). The end product was a buggy and even more action-oriented game than Pagan, and abandoned the by-then conventional isometric perspective for a fully 3-D world in 3rd-person perspective.

Most Ultima critics bitterly dismissed Ascension out of hand, but the game has managed to attract a small but dedicated fan base. The complaints and defenses are many. One of the most often heard is that it's really more of an "action adventure" than a true CRPG, a claim based on Ascension's rather limited "leveling up" capabilities and rather linear plot structure. Fans of The Black Gate were also irritated by the rigidity of many of the game's events, such as a love story that some felt was "shoved down their throats."

At any rate, no one complained about the game's lush graphics, and the day/night cycle returned, and the music is quite excellent. There is also a high level of interactivity with objects. However, a combination of poor voice acting, lackluster dialog, and rather banal characters certainly haven't helped the game win over diehard Ultima fans, much less large audiences.

Indeed, even a special "Dragon Edition" large-box version of the game that included several trinkets--a nod towards older and more revered Ultima games--wasn't enough to win over jaded fans. Needless to say, Ascension was a sad way for this grand old series to end. It was as if George Lucas had died just after rushing Jar Jar and the Ewoks Save Christmas into theaters.

Transcending Ascension: The Gothic Series

Even though Ascension failed miserably, German developer Pirahna Bytes was able to follow more successfully in its footsteps, pushing the “action” and “adventure” boundaries even further. The Gothic series debuted in November of 2001, and features a real-time, 3D world set in 3rd-person “over the shoulder” perspective. Gameplay focuses on inventory-based puzzles as well as a difficult arcade-style combat system.

The game is most noted for its dark, realistic ambiance and open-ended gameplay, which seems similar to that found in the Elder Scrolls series but with more focus on character interaction. Despite some irritating interface problems and bugs, the game attracted a loyal and dedicated following. Pirahna Bytes followed up with Gothic II in 2003 and just released Gothic 3 in 2006. Both games offered graphical and interface enhancements over their predecessors.

“When the scenery looks like a postcard, but the Hero wears his shield inside of his humerus, there are some major quality control issues going on.”

– Tim Tackett reviewing Gothic 3 on Game Revolution, Dec. 18, 2006.

In some ways, these games hark back to those aforementioned German imports, the Realms of Arkania series. The games have much to offer, but for some reason haven’t received the attention they deserve. While the strong competition has undoubtedly been a factor, there are other rationales for Gothic’s mediocre ratings. The second game suffers from bad voice acting and poor translations, and the third game has enough bugs to make an entomologist’s career.

Critics have remained unwilling to forgive the awkward combat system, though there doesn’t seem to be any hope for a general consensus on the overall quality of these games.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 12 Next

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Shawn Yates
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"Platinum Age," which begins in 1996 with the publication of three very important games, Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992), Blizzard's Diablo, and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall (both 1996). Other high points of the age include Interplay's Fallout (1997), Black Isle’s Planescape: Torment (1999), BioWare's Baldur's Gate (1998) and Baldur's Gate II (2000),

Man those titles combined to waste a lot of my youth. How come they dont make them like they used to? Absolutely fantastic article, made for a fascinating read!

catus joquth
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Anybody know where the World of Warcraft European servers are located? Someone said they are all in Britain but I am not sure. Would they have some in Germany, some in Finland etc?

I am trying to do a business plan for my own massive multiplayer game and was wonder how they spread out the resources.

WoW Europe Gold

David Schwarz
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This is a fantastic series of articles.

The comments on Diablo really resonate with me. It came out during a relative drought of RPGs in the mid-'90s, and with all the rave reviews and RPG of the Year awards, I decided I had to give it a try. I remember sitting there playing it in my college dorm room and thinking, "This is fun and all, but it's not an RPG. It's Gauntlet with bosses and a mouse interface." I was disappointed in the amount of subsequent CRPG development effort that was sunk into Diablo clones, and for a long time avoided anything described as an "action RPG."

About the Ultima series, one thing that wasn't mentioned in the article was Origin's tendency to lock themselves into the wrong technology while developing yet another cutting edge game engine. Ultima VII was produced at a time when games were starting to push the 640 KB conventional memory barrier of MS-DOS. Rather than use one of the emerging standard extended/expanded memory managers, Origin "rolled their own." Their Voodoo memory manager made the game a nightmare to get running, and impossible to run on later operating systems without an emulator.

Years later, they made a similarly bad call with Ultima IX, optimizing it to work with 3dfx's Glide graphics API. The graphics looked great if you had a 3dfx Voodoo3 or better graphics card. Anyone with a card optimized for the now-standard Microsoft Direct3D API was in for a slide show at release.

But that's not what killed Ultima IX for fans, nor was it the multi-year delay (apparently due to Origin and Garriott's focus on the emerging MMO market--indeed, all indications are that Garriott was barely involved in the production of Ultima IX), nor was it even the repeated engine rewrites. It was that the game was jarringly inconsistent with the rest of the series. Elements of the plot and dialog were blatantly, factually irreconcilable with the history established by the previous games, and the linearity of the game progression flew in the face of every single previous game of the core series. The world was far less interactive, and felt much smaller. It was as if the game had been designed by a group who either did not know or did not like the rest of the series.

Andrey Dyumaev
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Face it, guys, we're just too far along the way of trading in our Acne Cream for Extra-Strength Rogaine...

The game industry figures we're too old.

HOWEVER, despite my lack of a proper education in the field of marketing, having worked a bunch translating tens of thousands of pages of generic market research and hopefully amassed some grasp of the theoretic and the practical - I'm just plain old baffled at the lack of anything past occasional low-budget late sequels or crappy remakes in the Nostalgia Market or Mature Adult (no, NOT pron) Category.

WE'RE HERE. WE'RE OLDER, SO WE ACTUALLY HAVE *CASH*. WE GO AND GET WHATEVER EXCITES US YEAR-ROUND, NOT JUST FOR CHRISTMAS. It's like the car industry - 16yos may salivate over convertibles with monstrous engines, but it's the older guy coughing up the cash for a lease on a ride he's wanted since he was 16. That's why $40-100k+ convertibles come with lots of leather, but no gigantic plastic spoilers. Hell, if older guys stopped buying sweet cars, chances are that the teenagers would stop dreaming about them - it's part of what makes or breaks the appeal. Smoking is cool because adults smoke, gas guzzler phallic symbols are cool because prosperous adults drive them, and since EVERYONE knows that the computer game is also the work of The Devil, what's so different with games??


Seems like the entire industry should be falling over themselves, salivating over the prospect of such a target audience. They're not, although it's really a no-brainer. What gives?

John Ingrams
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Surprised Matt didn't mention the one thing has has kept the Elder Scrolls alive - and that is the Construction Set that came with Morrowind and Oblivion. For example, if Oblivion had not had a Construction Set I believe it would have only sold 1/3 of the titles it actually did on PC.

I think the cRPG die has been cast. You want a console style 'action-RPG' with each subsequent title having more 'action' and less 'RPG' for your PC - then you get U.S. developed games from companies like Bioware or Obsidian or Bethesda with their Mass Effects and Alpha Protocols and Borderlands and Bioshock, etc.

You want 'old-school' RPG's designed for PC first and then (maybe) console - you buy games from European developers like CD Red Projekt or Piranha Bytes or 1C, with their titles like The Witcher Risen, Two Worlds, Drakensang and Space Rangers 2. All bonafide old school cRPG's.

The fact is, the large North American publishers seem wedded to their $30 million production costs, meaning they have to sell 3.5 million units to break even. 80% of AAA titles don;t make money, and so we have a downward spiral.

Europe on the other hand, can bring PC games to market for under $10 million. Meaning a STALKER, selling 3 million units, was making profit at under 1 million units! This means while North American cRPG will be of the Mass Effect 4 5 million unit sales on PC and console variety, European developers will be able to go for the niche markets of old school cRPG's on PC that sell in the 1-3 million range.

This is how the cRPG market will break down. Many U.S. gamers will have to work harder to get the European cRPG's, but the half of the market that is in Europe will get used to the fact they are buying more and more 'local product'!!

cam smith
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The repeated assertion that in Baldur's Gate (I and II) one could only control one 'main' character is incorrect.

By selecting 'multiplayer' instead of singleplayer' anyone could create a full team of 6 original custom characters. In point of fact, it was 'normal' to start any new game as multiplayer, as the game remained the same in every aspect with the exception that one could at any time introduce custom characters to the party.

This information was available from any basic walkthrough at the time.

Furthermore, the inbuilt NPCs could also be easily customised via third party programs.

Icewind Dale (I and II) pale in comparison to the BG series of course, even without this non existent advantage, as these games really lacked any of the lateral storylines typical to most Bioware games.

PS: This website's account information requirements are completely out of control. I guess that's why no one has corrected this error in the comments section for 3 years, despite this article being referenced in Wikipedia.

Seriously - asking for addresses and job descriptions is absurd and intrusive.