#10: BioForge (PC)
Released toward the later years of Origin System's activity, the 1995 release BioForge is in some ways the company's attempt to branch out into new and emerging genres, perhaps to try to have the same influence over these new areas that they had on the Western RPG genre with their popular Ultima series. The game was notable for a wide variety of reasons, starting first and foremost with its production values and cinematography; BioForge was one of the first games to frame itself in some ways more like a film than a game, with a large cast of voice actors, a significant plot focus, and a high priority placed on strong computing resources.
The game's genre was survival horror, but like the older variety of survival horror games, the focus truly was on survival; this was not a first-person shooter with some more horrifically-themed monsters in the way that modern games of the genre tend to be. The game was also notable for featuring one of the more extensive early examples of player involvement in determining the identity and characteristics of the player character; rather than simply playing a fictional character in the game universe, the player takes an active role in determining the kind of character they will be. The decisions that the player makes influence the game in a variety of ways. Although the game did not sell well, it has gone on to achieve a sort of cult appreciation, highlighted by a recent re-release compatible with modern systems.
During the mid-1990s, one of the seemingly emergent genres was the combat flight simulator; in fact, for a time, it looked like it would be these sorts of flight simulators that would define the next generation of PC games. Toward that end, EA pushed for its own series of combat flight simulators during this time period, tapping Origin to develop one of the games in their Jane's combat series. Jane's, if you're unaware, is a very old publishing company specializing in content on military vehicles and weaponry, named for Fred T. Jane (information that helps understand the title of the franchise). EA purchased the right to use the name Jane's to lend credibility to the franchise.
Origin's contribution to the series, Jane's AH-64D Longbow, is one of the best both for the company itself and for the franchise and genre as a whole. It was nearly unanimously chosen by every major publisher as the flight simulator of the year at a time when the genre actually had quite a few contenders for that title. The most notable feature of the game was its ability to mesh entertainment with realism; a common problem with realistic flight simulators (and realistic simulators of anything, really – the real world is a boring place) is that they lose some of the entertainment value that a game would otherwise provide. Oftentimes, the very features that make a game more fun are the features that make it less realistic (regenerating health, for instance), but Jane's AH-64D Longbow managed to walk the line between realism and entertainment with seeming ease.
Without a doubt, the most recognizable product that Origin Systems ever produced was the Ultima series. Spanning ten games across three distinct trilogies and over a decade of releases, the Ultima franchise was a key player in defining the PC RPG industry, and more broadly the Western RPG genre as a whole (although comparing it to the other major Western RPG franchise, The Elder Scrolls, reveals that there are relatively few consistent features to tie the various versions of the genre together). By the time Ultima VII came along, the franchise had garnered a significant following, resulting in significant expectations placed on the game. Hardly any video game series had been as long-running as Ultima at the time of Ultima VII's 1992 release, either, so the idea of a seventh installment in a video game series was still uncharted territory for the franchise.
Far and away the most interesting element of Ultima VII, though, are the references to Electronic Arts. Although the latter company would later purchase Origin, at the time of Ultima VII's release, the two were competitors. Ultima, thus, invoked EA in its antagonists of the game in various ways; the motto of the antagonist is a direct rebuttal to Origin's own company motto, some evil characters in the game are named after the company's initials, and the icons of the antagonists are modeled after the EA logo itself. Personally, I like to think these questions all came up in early meetings about the buy-out, accompanied by a very awkward silence.
Aside from the famous Ultima series, the second most-famous franchise developed by Origin Systems is the long-running Wing Commander franchise of simulated space combat. Broadly, this franchise is one of the largest and most undernoticed video game franchises in the industry, spanning over 17 years and more than a dozen releases. The fame and notoriety of the franchise has led it to spawn all of the usual accoutrements that come with a famous series, such as a TV series, a collectible card game, a series of novelizations, and an awful feature-length film starring Freddie Prinze, Jr.
Rated by some as the best game in the franchise, Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi is responsible for several revolutionary changes in both the series' history and in the history of gaming in general. For the series itself, the second game in the franchise pushed the series toward more of a narrative focus, with a more concrete campaign structure and less of an open feel; these changes guided the further development of the series, although they were not popularly accepted by everyone, and some preferred the original game's more open structure. The more significant innovation of the game, however, was the inclusion of voice acting, then a revolutionary new element for the gaming industry as a whole; at the time of the game's release, 1991, companies had not yet mastered the art of including voice acting for cutscenes on games that were still restricted to floppy diskettes.
Released late in Origin Systems' life, the Crusader series is an action/adventure series with a distinctly Western RPG feel to it; the isometric viewpoint that Origin Systems helped popularize with its Ultima series makes its way here as well, with a significant resemblance to X-Com and other more recent games with similar points of view; in fact, the game is actually built on the Ultima VIII engine, despite sharing relatively few genre elements with the other game. The plot of the game revolves around a futuristic dystopia run by a corrupt world government and one technologically-enhanced soldier's attempts to overthrow it.
Crusader's contribution to the gaming industry comes in the vast amounts of environmental interaction that it facilitates. Rather than the typical liberal helping of indestructible elements that can miraculously withstand rocket fire, grenades, and nuclear bombs, the majority of Crusader's environments are in some way destructible or modifiable. This extends to the doodads and traps in the game, which often can be leveraged against enemies. This combination of interaction styles and flexibility allows the player to find multiple different ways of getting past the same area, a unique element for a game of this style. The success of the first game, Crusader: No Remorse, led to a sequel, Crusader: No Regret. The former was awarded the Action Game of the Year award for the PC for its release year, and has received attention as one of the best PC games ever released.
#5: Ultima I (PC)
Released back in 1986, Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness predated some of the most significant developments in the history of the video game industry and the genre which it largely defined on its own. The game is the product of Richard Garriott, the co-founder of Origin Systems, but itself predates the company; in fact, Origin Systems was founded in large part to lend more development manpower and publishing might to Garriott's Ultima series. Interestingly, though, the official title of Ultima I always was, in fact, "Ultima I"; even from the beginning, it was intended to be a series, and the first iteration was named to reflect those aspirations.
At the time of the release, Ultima I had relatively little to go on in the industry; RPGs were in their infancy, and the genre as a whole was waiting for a game to – as I referenced in the previous list – popularize them. Ultima I was that game, creating many of the common genre conventions like tile-based graphics and isometric view points, as well as shifting the view point between the world map, dungeons, and battle screens. The most clear influences on the game, interestingly, are tabletop RPGs, reminiscent of how many early role-playing games were simply computer incarnations of existing paper-and-pencil games. Many of the ideas now core to RPGs, such as hit points, experience points, magic points, and currency, originally came from Dungeons & Dragons and other similar games. The game was also influenced by Garriott's previous success, Akalabeth.
The Ultima franchise is broken up into three distinct trilogies, dubbed the Age of Darkness, Age of Enlightenment, and Age of Armageddon trilogies. Of these, commonly recognized as among the best games in the series are the first game within each trilogy; we've already covered the first and seventh Ultima games, originators of the Age of Darkness and Age of Armageddon, but the series' fourth installment, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, played a more significant role in redefining the franchise.
The most significant element of Ultima IV is the significant shift it applied to the series' focus. Before Quest of the Avatar, the Ultima series most heavily resembled what we would now call dungeon crawlers, built more on hack 'n' slash gameplay than RPG elements. That would seem to bode strangely for a series that I've credited as helping define the modern Western RPG genre, but it was Ultima IV that moved the franchise more in this direction. The game provides a much stronger focus on the story of the game, painting a broader world for more believable events and increased character development. The gameplay itself is rebuilt around this character-driven plot focus as well, with the character customization portions instead taking the form of ethical dilemmas posed to the player, not wholly unlike the modern Mass Effect games. The entire gameplay, in fact, has been built around an aspect of the character's development, with eight virtues mapping to three principles that then impact the player's underlying stats.
While the first games in each of the trilogies are often praised as the best Ultima games produced, the one that has actually received the most acclaim is the final game from the first trilogy, Ultima III: Exodus. In my previous list, I referred to the notion that every genre goes through four stages of development: experimentation, popularization, actualization, and normalization. For this early form of the Western RPG genre, this experimentation happened before Ultima, while Ultima I was responsible for popularizing the genre. Ultima III, in turn, actualized it.
What makes that remarkable, though, is that Ultima III was released in 1983. 1983 in video gaming was otherwise famous for games like the original Mario Bros. arcade game, and… not much else. Very little else was going on in the industry at the time, and yet Ultima III provided a depth and complexity that would remain modern for a decade hence as arguably the most defining game in the history of early Western RPGs. Tiled graphics had been around since the original game, but Ultima III demonstrated how these could be used to construct a stronger world. This was made even better by the animation of characters across those maps, a first for the industry. The game went on to play a major role in influencing later releases in the RPG genre, not least of which were Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. It was awarded several game of the year prizes, even for years after its release, and received a dozen ports and re-releases.
Origin Systems' other main franchise, the aforementioned Wing Commander, got its start back in 1990, after the company had already made quite a name for itself with the Ultima series. This was still a remarkably early time for the PC industry, however; Wing Commander demanded a state-of-the-art gaming PC for the time, with a blazing fast 12 MHz processor, full 640 kilobytes of RAM, built-in hard drive (still not standard at the time), and video card capable of 256 color rendering. Clearly, this was not for casual gamers.
At the time of its release, Wing Commander was ridiculously well-acclaimed. For many of the reviewers, it blew their star rating systems out of the water, forcing them to give it scores above their own stated maximums (a symptom of score inflation, one of the biggest issues with the game reviewing community). For example, it remained Computer Gaming World's best-reviewed game ever until its own sequel displaced it. It won several Game of the Year awards even from publications that did not focus on PC games, and subsequently earned ports for every active console of the time, including the SNES, Seda CD, 3DO, and Macintosh, and even one more recently to the PSP. The game also received a pair of expansion packs, and the re-releases for other consoles were sometimes enhanced with improved graphics and sound. It remains present in some corners of the public consciousness today, with credit given in the past two years alone by Maximum PC and Time Magazine.
Many modern MMORPGs can trace their roots to previous single-player games, not least of which is World of Warcraft, itself based on the long-running Warcraft real-time strategy series. That dynamic, though, can trace its origins to Origin, specifically with Ultima Online, released in 1997. The game was to the Ultima franchise what Final Fantasy 11 and Dragon Quest X were to their respective franchises, albeit several years earlier; in fact, Ultima Online was the first significant MMORPG. It was not the first, of course – Neverwinter Nights (little relation to the modern game) came first, and then Meridian 59 and The Realm Online, but it was Ultima Online that popularized the genre and set up later successes, including EverQuest and, of course, World of Warcraft. To give an idea of how influential Ultima Online was over the MMORPG genre, it was Richard Garriott himself that first coined the term MMORPG.
Despite its position early in the genre's history, Ultima Online was still a very strong MMORPG, a particularly remarkable achievement considering the company had relatively few conventions or established principles to go on when it was developed. Ultima Online in many ways became a microcosm of the genre as a whole as its developers had to learn first-hand about how community interaction, psychology, and in-game economics would combine to influence the game's trajectory. Studying Ultima Online became in many ways like studying a real world, where the principles that govern gameplay are not yet known. No element is more telling of Ultima Online's success, though than this: today, it is still up and running. For several years, Origin Systems existed only to support the game, but to this date, it is still available and playable, a remarkable achievement in the age where supposed "World of Warcraft" killers are announced and die every month.
Honorable Mentions: Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress, Space Rogue, Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, Autoduel, Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony, Wing Commander: Privateer, 2400 A.D., Tangled Tales: The Misadventures of a Wizard's Apprentice, Omega, Wing Commander: Prophecy, Crusader: No Regret, Jane's Longbow 2, Ultima VIII: Pagan
As mentioned above, a significant portion of Origin Systems' later years were spent primarily maintaining Ultima Online. That itself was something of a sad development considering the earlier success the company had had in the industry as a whole. In 1992, though, the company was acquired by Electronic Arts. The combination of that acquisition and the success of Ultima Online came back to bite the company: because the industry seemed to be moving in the direction of these online games, and because Origin Systems had already demonstrated a knack for the genre, EA decided that henceforth, Origin should solely develop online games. That quickly gave way to EA cancelling Origin's other projects, online and offline (and several online projects, including a Wing Commander online game and even an online Harry Potter game), to force them to focus on simply maintaining Ultima Online. Although the game lasted and lasted (and outlasted the company, which EA finally disbanded 2004), its success was Origin's downfall. Richard Garriott left the company he founded, losing the rights to the Ultima franchise. He and brother Robert then founded Destination Games (a name-play on their original "Origin" name), which itself focused primarily on online games like Tabula Rasa. Through a partnership with South Korean developer NCsoft, Destination Games has been renamed NCsoft West and focuses primarily on localizing NCsoft's projects. Garriott, in turn, has moved on to starting a third company, Portalarium, which has thus far primarily focused on casual Facebook games. However, Garriott has suggested that the company is working on a sequel to Ultima Online; little is known of the effort yet.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DDJGames (12/11/2012)
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