There was a whole lot going on in the world of computers and games in the years leading up to the founding of Origin Systems in 1983. It was the golden age of the arcades, and Dungeons & Dragons was probably more popular than ever with the release of the accessible Basic Sets. As the Apple II approached obsolescence and the Apple III was touted as purely a business computer, the IBM PC was launched in 1981 and the Commodore 64 in 1982. With these computers available to a wider audience, homebrew games became a more tangible cottage industry. It was in this environment that Richard Garriott self-published Akalabeth: World of Doom in 1979, famously using Ziploc bags as packaging for the floppy disks.
Garriott’s father was an astronaut who pushed his son towards programming. In 1977, Garriott had attended a programming summer camp at Oklahoma University, where he also played D&D for the first time. This experience was the hybrid seed for the creation of Origin Systems’ most famous franchise: Ultima. After a few prototypes based on D&D, he released Akalabeth and was picked up by the publisher California Pacific Computer Company. It was then that he set to work on creating what he envisioned should be a proper computer RPG experience that would compete with the tabletop experience.
He wasn't the only one. Around the same time, the first Wizardry was being developed, and it was released in the same year as the first Ultima. There's a murky history around the early competition between these two franchises, but it is generally accepted that Wizardry took the initial lead in sales. However, Ultima proved more successful throughout the 1980s, as each sequel reinvented itself while Wizardry simply rehashed the same formula. In 1986 the first Might & Magic was released, and so the three franchises were established as the unholy trinity of fantasy RPGs.
The first two Ultima games were so successful that Garriott's father and brother helped him and his friend, the programmer Chuck “Chuckles” Bueche, found Origin Systems. The first order of business was to collect royalties for Ultima I-II and Akalabeth, but soon they assembled a team to establish a running franchise with Ultima III. As their sales increased, Origin became a rising star in the emerging computer games market of the 1980s, while the console market had its infamous crash from 1983 to 1985.
These early days of the company were well-documented in Shay Addams’ The Official Book of Ultima, as well as in Brad King’s and John Borland’s Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic. As the success of Ultima became established, they hired other designers and programmers who developed their own, lesser-known games such as Moebius and Ogre. In the front page of their 1987 catalog, the studio’s identity began to take shape: “The fantasy begins with Origin Systems… and never ends.”
By 1989, with about 50 employees between their New Hampshire and Texas offices, their motto changed to “Others write software… We create worlds.” This was the turning point where Origin found their calling to develop games that don’t just entertain players but fully immerse them. In Garriott’s words, “Ultima isn’t just a collection of quests to solve, but an entire world in its own right, with new people, places and experiences around every corner...”
The first glimpse at what would become Origin’s legacy to the games industry today came into focus at this time. There were immersive games before Ultima, but not dedicated virtual worlds that players could explore as such. Arcade and console games were mostly the realm of action-packed adrenaline rides that didn’t require much in the way of immersion. Computer games, and particularly RPGs and simulation games, were a more suitable environment where these experiences could come into being.
Moving past the initial clichés associated with traditional fantasy, the late Ultima games experimented with narrative complexity. After Ultima IV, there was no longer the traditional evil antagonist to fight against, but rather a simulation of a morality system where the player had to follow a strict code to become an Avatar. While a morality system may seem very commonplace in RPGs today, it was an entirely novel approach to narrative that soon became widespread.
With the Ultima games becoming progressively bigger and more complex, Origin also began to pivot to other genres and niches. It was at this time that Chris Roberts joined the company and directed the RPGs Times of Lore and Bad Blood, which became mere footnotes to the 1990 release that defined the company’s identity as much as Ultima... Wing Commander. There were space combat simulation games before Wing Commander, but it raised the bar for the whole industry in terms of production value and realistic simulation.
Wing Commander was a great commercial success, and the demand for expansions and sequels didn’t diminish for most of the 1990s. Origin Systems was fully established as a powerhouse of both RPGs, simulation games, and first-person 3D technology. This technology was just beginning to come into play, which would give rise to the first-person shooter. John Romero had worked at Origin Systems for about a year before moving on to found id Software with John Carmack, Tom Hall, and Adrian Carmack.
Warren Spector had joined Origin Systems in 1989 as a producer for Ultima VI and Wing Commander. Paul Neurath, who had worked in some of the company’s minor games, established a new independent studio, Blue Sky Productions, later changed to Looking Glass Studios, that would go on to enjoy a close relationship with Origin Systems throughout the 1990s. Together, Neurath and Spector set on creating the first-person action-RPG Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, a groundbreaking game to the genre in every sense.
I remember the exact moment when I first played Ultima Underworld. I got a 16 MHz 286 PC as a birthday present, and one of the games I managed to scrounge was Underworld. It was unlike anything I’d ever played before. It stuck with me for many years, even as it became graphically obsolete. It is now hailed as the first “immersive sim,” a niche of first-person games allowing high interactivity with game environments.
In 1994, at the dawn of the first-person shooter era, Looking Glass released System Shock, a first-person action-adventure using the same 3D technology and the same immersive sim design philosophy as Ultima Underworld. Under the shadow of Doom, it wasn’t as successful as it could have been, but it sold well enough to keep Looking Glass afloat and became a cult classic that influenced many first-person shooters since, most notably BioShock.
Both Ultima Underworld and System Shock have had a legacy that is arguably greater than anything else Origin Systems had done before. As Sam Shahrani, writing for Gamasutra in 2006, put it, “All 3D RPG titles from Morrowind to World of Warcraft share Ultima Underworld as a common ancestor, both graphically and spiritually, though World of Warcraft utilizes a slightly different third person perspective. For better or for worse, Underworld moved the text-based RPG out of the realm of imagination and into the third dimension.”
The first game in The Elder Scrolls franchise, released in 1994, was strikingly similar to Ultima Underworld in both technology and gameplay. In many ways, The Elder Scrolls: Arena unraveled into what Underworld should have become: an increasingly complex and immersive open world RPG franchise with richly realized worldbuilding and lore. FromSoftware's first game in 1994, King's Field, was also directly influenced by Underworld and later became the spiritual predecessor of the Souls franchise.
Ultima as a whole had an enormous influence on the establishment of open world games. While initially limited by early technology, the design foundation was there from the very first Ultima. With Ultima VI, however, the consistency in perspectives and the notion of a persistent game world that could be influenced by the player was truly groundbreaking.
Following the buyout by Electronic Arts in 1992, Origin Systems turned its resources to the Internet and the emerging niche that would become MMORPGs. The term "MMORPG" itself was coined by Richard Garriott to refer to the massive potential of online games. Thus, Ultima Online was released in 1997, becoming the first massively popular MMORPG and one of the longest-running of its genre. While they continued to produce single-player games until 1999, the focus on an online game changed the company in fundamental ways. After Ultima IX's poor commercial and critical reception, Electronic Arts canceled all of Origin’s projects in development. Ultima Online subsists as a cash cow to this day, but Ultima as a single-player franchise remains in a limbo since then. Looking Glass Studios shut down in 2000 after developing some other titles of great success, such as Thief and Flight Unlimited. Thief remains popular with a very active modding community to this day.
Richard Garriott resigned following the cancellation of Origin’s projects and founded Destination Games, which had some moderate success as a developer of MMORPGs. Chris Roberts was flying under the radar for most of the late 1990s and early 2000s, with two credits as producer in Starlancer (2000) and Conquest: Frontier Wars (2001), and also the original concept for Freelancer (2003). He founded the crowdfunding giant Cloud Imperium Games in April 2012 and began developing the ambitious Star Citizen franchise, in many ways a spiritual successor of Wing Commander.
Warren Spector joined John Romero at Ion Storm in the late 1990s and produced the groundbreaking Deus Ex, a landmark of both cyberpunk and stealth games, also molded after the immersive sim school of game design. Paul Neurath founded and ran Floodgate Entertainment in 2000, where several employees came from Looking Glass Studios. They co-developed the expansion pack Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide alongside BioWare, and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic alongside Arkane Studios, as well as mobile versions of Civilization and Madden Football. Floodgate was sold to Zynga in 2010 and Neurath spent a few years as creative director of Zynga's Mobile division, working on several of their big franchises before he founded OtherSide in 2013 to develop the crowdfunded Underworld Ascendant as a spiritual successor of Ultima Underworld, due for release in 2018.
Other lesser-known but highly talented Origin Systems developers such as Doug Church, Harvey Smith, Raph Koster, and Emil Pagliarulo remain active in the industry. The reclusive Doug Church, one of the great minds behind the Ultima Underworld 3D engine, is now a Valve employee and has reportedly worked on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Harvey Smith, the QA lead for System Shock and also a Deus Ex designer, went on to become an influential creative director in the acclaimed Dishonored franchise, inspired by Thief and Deus Ex. Raph Koster, one of the lead designers of Ultima Online, was a creative director in some of the most popular MMORPGs of the 2000s and published the influential A Theory of Fun for Game Design in 2004. Emil Pagliarulo, one of the designers in Thief II, went on to Bethesda Game Studios as the lead narrative designer of all their major games since The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Origin Systems was a powerhouse of talent for almost two decades and vanished soon after the aggressive proprietary takeover of Electronic Arts, a tradition since then. As the intellectual properties they developed sit and gather dust under EA’s watch, the ideas and philosophies that animated their games have permeated some of the industry’s most interesting and successful franchises. As mentioned before, there wouldn’t be The Elder Scrolls or World of WarCraft without Ultima Underworld and Ultima Online.
Several of today’s popular games and design ideas can be traced back to what Origin Systems started in 1983, from the now very basic idea of immersive games where players can explore persistent worlds and meet characters, to the innovative and complex systems of interaction and level design that have since become commonplace through imitation. It is said that many of the world's great inventions were stolen from highly talented yet naive inventors who were more interested in innovation than profit. Origin Systems embodied this naiveté and ingenuity more than any other game company.
Update 4/19/18: A few minor corrections were made.