Academic Ultima

Filed under Game trail, Musings, Software showcase;

Before my current job at Computerworld, I taught 11th grade tech writing at a math and science charter school. My fellow teachers had an open door policy that allowed me to observe their classes, and I developed a rapport with the computer science teacher. When an emergency called her away from class one day, she asked me to fill in but left me no lesson plan. Fortunately, I’d already installed both Adventure and VisiCalc for just such an emergency. The resulting lesson in computer history was reported in Juiced.GS, though I never did get the opportunity to explore Adventure with my students.

But other educators have had the opportunity to use electronic entertainment as a learning tool. Besides the use of interactive fiction in a classroom setting, as detailed in Get Lamp, Michael Abbott has taken a more ambitious approach to virtual adventuring by introducing his students to Richard Garriott‘s seminal role-playing game, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

In his blog, the teacher doesn’t outline his learning objectives, other than puzzle-solving and note-taking. I hope his goals were not much loftier than that, because it seems these students disappointed him:

It mostly came down to issues of user-interface, navigation, combat, and a general lack of clarity about what to do and how to do it. … it [wa]sn’t much fun for them. They want a radar in the corner of the screen. They want mission logs. They want fun combat. They want an in-game tutorial. They want a game that doesn’t feel like so much work.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

That looks like a lot of reading!
Photo courtesy Blake Patterson.

I’m unsure how many of these obstacles were inherent to the game, and how many were symbolic of a generational gap. Today, I often want a game that immerses me within the first five minutes, and which I can put down after ten. That means either simple gameplay (in the case of classics like Pac-Man or Qix) or familiar gameplay (like Dragon Quest VIII, an RPG I played hours on end for a total of 80, but whose mechanics had remained largely unchanged since the franchise’s origin in 1986).

I was not always predisposed against learning curves. I grew up playing and enjoying Ultima, but not on the Apple II. I was and am primarily a console gamer, and I played these games’ Nintendo adaptations, which vexed me with none of the issues that these students encountered. I wondered how dramatically different the NES version had been that maybe it had eased my entry into Britannia. Sure enough, one blog commenter wrote:

… have you considered giving people the NES port of Ultima IV? It faithfully retains the ethical systems design of Garriott’s original while reimagining the visual aesthetics and interface design according to the conventions of JRPGs. It was how I played Ultima IV back in the day, and it’s still probably a lot more in line with modern RPG convention than the original PC Ultima IV.

But I’d wager that most alumni of Ultima IV experienced it on the computer, which apparently did not preclude its success, so surely its original interface was not insurmountable. More likely is the change in gaming mores over the decades. In the book Dungeons & Dreamers, authors Brad King and John Borland relate the detail and intricacy with which the developers of Ultima Online imbued their world. Ecology, economy, and more were devised to create a world that lived and breathed along with the players. When it finally launched — the world was shot to hell. Gamers traveled into the countryside, burning trees and killing animals. No plane could long host such chaos, so the developers had to go back to the drawing board. I suspect Mr. Abbott’s students would likely have contributed to that headache.

Nonetheless, I hope the blog’s conclusion does not spell the end of this exercise: “I love great old games like Ultima IV, but I can no longer assume the game will make its case for greatness all by itself.” Just as we have courses in art and music appreciation, it’s important to understand and appreciate the origin of Ultima and other video game hallmarks. Today’s gaming industry was not born in a vacuum, and just as the bold experiments of yesteryear determined the future of the genre, they still have much to teach today’s gamers and programmers about what works, what doesn’t, and why things are the way they are. Finding a context in which to teach that lesson is, much like the games themselves, worth the effort.

(Hat tip to Richard Garriott)

  1. Josh Brandt says:

    You know, Ultima IV _was_ a lot of work. Most adventure games of that era were– I had a notebook full of maps for Bard’s Tale and Legacy of the Ancients, and they were less complex than Ultima IV.

  2. Bruce Baker says:

    Frankly I always agreed with this assessment of Ultima in general and IV in particular.

    I struggled to play I, II, and III. I was not terribly successful. IV was so hard that I did not get much beyond the first screen.

    I thought Bard’s Tale and specifically BT3 was a better interface and a bit more interesting story. That is about the only full size commercial game that I finished. But I only did that with the help of online fellow gamers.

    That was the only way I finished any game of more than easy difficulty.

    How about only Eamon games as a introduction to text based fantasy gaming?

  3. Ultima IV, asked a set of questions then dumped you into the middle of the wilderness with no clue of what to do. You had to explore and learn from the ground up.
    On top of that Ultima IV was standing on the shoulders of I, II and III many controls came on what the interface standards of the time were. My guess is, you could take a subset of people that have never played Madden Football and set them infront of the 2011 version and they’d be almost as lost. Handing a dual analog setup to some who hasn’t played since NES is just baffling.

    Personally, I am getting disappointed more and more with console games today creating a pretty tunnel or movie to travel through instead of worlds of wonder. I play more and more these days on the PC/Mac because there are experiences that exist that to me are far richer and closer to how games used to be, but using up to day technology. Of course it could just be my resentment of how much I would rather not control my games with clunky dual analog controls or my disappointment with how bad the Xbox 360 d-pad is. How it got past QA baffles me.

  4. It is probably endemic with the generation with which we are here dealing. When micros were new and shiny, and Zork or Akalabeth was state-of-the-art, there were far fewer distractions than people today deal with. I have more experience with the text adventure genre, and loved playing those games. I will say, however, that they required a degree of concentration and planning that appealed only to a certain type of game player. Those who liked the action and visual appeal of Pac-Man, Galaxian, etc, found text adventures boring. Those who liked reading books found the immersive appeal of a well-done text adventure almost like being IN the book.

    People who are detail oriented, who like planning out moves ahead of time, may find mapping adventures more appealing than those who are visual learners or those who like action. The additional distractions (distractability?) with younger people today may be inhibiting their ability to focus on a game that requires strategy, rather than on just blowing up everything in their way.

  5. Martin Haye says:

    Ultima IV was tough. I even wrote a hack — not to remove copy protection, but to print out a detailed map. After very much noise from the color ImageWriter II, I was able to finish more of the game, but not the whole thing.

    @Dain: I agree that the pretty tunnel of many games sucks. But there are some shining counter-examples, e.g. the Elder Scrolls series.

  6. I got near the end of Ultima IV, only to have one of my disks fail. Score one for the consoles, I imagine that the Ultima IV NES carts still work 100 percent fine. I enjoyed these games for their living and breathing worlds (yes..even with the rudimentary tile engines they used).

    I cringe to think what would happen if instead of Ultima, people were dropped into a rogue-like such as Angband or Moria.

    I guess as I look back on things, maybe I am too harsh and critical. It’s hard to put one in the shoes of today’s game producers. It’s no longer about a small budget nor about a small team of crack programmers. As game production budgets head through the stratosphere, no longer can a publisher be content with selling 50 to 100,000 copies of a game. Their investment in some cases won’t turn profit unless they sell 3 million copies. The only way to do that is to tune the content to reduce as many barriers as they can. Single player games must be easier, flashier and completable in 10-20 hours instead of a hundred hours.

    Fortunately, I still have the ability to relive this part of my childhood/adolescence with my still functioning Apple IIgs. It’s a different gaming world definitely, and gaming will never be quite the same to me, but one thing I can say for certain, I will never miss floppy swapping.

  7. I played 1/2/3 but had to give up on IV. It was just too much work. Loved bards tale and dungeon master – I spent countless hours mapping those games on graph paper.

    The big difference now is you have games like WoW that have set the standard for RPGs with massive UI helpers that do all the micromanagement – quest logs tell you what to do and where to go. People have so much access to entertainment – tv channels, twitter, internet – no-one has time to spend weekends just mapping on paper where the traps and switches are on level 14.

    Remember, in those days we’d also spent hours typing hex codes into the c64 to get a magazine demo to run. If I was doing that now, I wouldn’t have had time to find and respond to this random internet forum that I found via a twitter link.

    I think the we’ve lost something that people can’t enjoy this type of game anymore, but we’d traded that experience for an awful lot of cool stuff we aren’t going to want to give back.

    I’m actually writing a game for the iPad/iPhone that is heavily influenced by the Ultima series, but I had to grapple with these questions early in the development since I figured no-one in the modern world is going to put up with the workload of those old games – though I’d still like to give them some of the emotional experiences I got from the playing ultima.