20 years and counting – Origin Systems

2010
05.14

reposted from my LiveJournal blog – Dated Nov 5th 2009

With the 30th of October, 2009 being my 20th anniversary in this industry, I thought I’d take a minute and look back at some of the moments I remember and share ‘em. I’ll start with Origin Systems….

** My interview at Origin Systems culminated with an interview with Dallas Snell. Michelle Cadell (sp?) took me in to his office. He didn’t turn away from his computer, but sort of waved a hand in the general direction of a chair. I hesitantly took a seat and Michelle left. Dallas continued to type for what seemed to me to be 2 or 3 hours. Finally he stopped.. swung around in his desk chair, leaned forward, put one hand on his knee the other on his hip, narrowed his eyes at me and said, “You’re here for me to decide if I LIKE you.” I was TERRIFIED.  Well, I guess he did, cuz I got the job but I spent the next year ducking and avoiding him as I figured if he ever decided he DIDN’T like me, I was in trouble!

** I spent the first month at Origin with no computer. After two days, I brought in a little Trash 80, just cuz I wanted SOMETHING to work on. That afternoon Jeff George (a producer at the time) walked in and said, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s a computer.” He said, “Is it yours?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well.. get rid of it! If they see you have a machine on your desk.. even one like that.. they won’t get you a machine! Take it home!” I did.. and it still took a month to get a machine.

** I spent a couple of months researching the correct usage of “thee” and “thou” and then going through every conversation in Ultima VII to make sure it was being done properly. Then Richard and Raymond  went over them and some of them were changed back cuz they liked the sound of the incorrect way better.

** ”Sparky” the little boy in Trinisic who follows you around in the beginning of Ultima VII was written by Raymond Benson  and based on his son. The idea was cute, but the character got annoying really fast.. particularly for the testers. They would regularly  dress him in a dress and then starve him to death until he became a ghost following you around. Raymond really didn’t like this. Raymond also wrote the “barks” for the party as they followed you. Iolo saying “Let’s sing a sea shanty” when you came close to the ocean was one of the most infamous.

** My first office at Origin was a “fishbowl.” It was on the second floor in an interior office with big windows into the hall. My desk was pushed up against one of those windows so it was a bit like sitting in the hallway. (Coincidentally the office directly across from me had a window into the hall too… and was occupied by Steve Beeman!)

On about the third or fourth day at my new job, I heard the sound of Kazoos. Then down the hall came a HUGE bunch of helium balloons (obscuring the person carryingi them) and a parade of people all playing Taps on their kazoos. Of course I had to join the parade and see what in the world was up.

We made our way through the building to the smokers’ porch. There the person with the balloons stood up and gave a speech commemorating the valient work of G.I. Joe and his contribution (as the rotoscope subject) to the Wing Commander project. They went on to talk about how they were now sending him on to his next assignment.

And sure enough there was a GI Joe tied to the bunch of balloons. He had a note tied to him, telling whoever found him to report his location back to Origin and we’d send them a copy of Wing Commander. Then with applause and laughter the balloons were released and GI Joe was lifted high in to the sky. And.. actually about six weeks later we did get a call. He’d been found in an oil field outside of Houston Texas!

** Originally Bill Armintrout and I were doing the initial design on Serpent Isle. The mandate we were given by Richard and Jeff George (the producer at that time) was that it was to be about the conflict between Brittanian magic and VoDun (VooDoo) magic. And that the island was to be called Serpent Isle because it we were suppoesed to make it in the shape of the snake necklace that Richard wore (and still does, I think.)  So I spent a month at the UT LIbrary checking out and reading books on VoDun as that was my side of the design. We’d been in design about three or four months when there was a “re-org.” Jeff George quit and the game was given to Warren Specter to produce. We were told to essentially toss everything out and start over. I recently gave the maps and docs from the earliest part of that design to the Origin Museum.

** It was during the reset of Serpent Isle that I came up with the Order + Chaos = Balance religion that made up the base of the current Serpent Isle. I had it all on a white board in the office and was trying to explain it to Bill Armintrout. Bill refused to see it and kept saying “You can’t add things that aren’t numbers. This makes no sense. Things like that don’t add together. ”

I got SOO frustrated with trying to explain it that I pulled in Brendan Seagraves and explained it to him. He saw that it made perfect sense and then he explained it to BIll.. and only then did Bill “get it” and agree to put it in the game. Prem Kirshnan and I then worked on putting it together and coming up with the final components.

** Brian Martin and I worked on a title that was never released called Arthurian Legends. The basis of the game was Brian’s idea and was based on an event he had developed for his SCA group. It was a title we were originally working on under Richard and then it was moved to Warren. Warren wanted a game where you chose a Knight of the Round Table and then played his adventures. This is where I started my “but what if the player is female? There are no female knights!” And we convinced Warren to let you play as your own character and just work with the various knights. Brian wanted the game to be based strongly in the actual Arthurian Legends, not the Disney-fied versions. So we went to school on the legends and build an entire game where you basically helped each of the knights with their specific quests in your quest to save Camelot.

The game had actual art done.. maps… quests.. everything, but people kept getting leached off the team to other teams. Brian and I voiced our concerns. Warren took us and the rest of the team (all four of us) to lunch at Fuddruckers and told us not to worry that he’d just come from a Producers meeting and the hopes of the company were riding on this project. But still folks got leached away. Finally it was just me and Brian… and then one evening, Warren walked in and told me the game was cancelled. Brian wasn’t in the room at the time, so I had to break it to him. We were heartbroken.

Before we left that night, Brian laid down in the common area that was right outside our office and I went around his body with masking tape… like a chalk line… we added the outline of a crown and the outline of a sword. We then draped our door in black cloth and put up a sign that said, “The King is Dead. Long live the King.” …. and a very odd thing happened. The next morning when we arrived, there were flowers by the outline. as the day wore on more flowers arrived.. and a candle.. and some coins were put on the eyes… and a poem arrived… it was uncanny. This went on for several days with the alter growing more and more. Finally, we were told we had to take it down, because there was a press junket coming through and they didn’t want the press seeing it.

I truly believe that on some level we knew that this was the death knell for Origin. It was the last of the truly grass roots games in production there.. the last one that was conceived championed and put into development purely by the actual developers, with no support or input from the executives. It was actually, kinda the end of an era for the game industry in general as it was also during this time that we were all adjusting to the very recent EA buy out of Origin.

** I want to dispell one of the biggest myths surrounding Ultima’s. Lost Vale, the Ultima VIII add-on not only existed, but was completed and ready to gold mastering. It was not actually replicated and distributed because they felt that Ultima VIII had not sold enough copies to warrant the expense of selling an expansion for it. How do I know this? Because Lisa Smith and I were the designers on it. I do not believe ANY archive of it exists at all because at the time Origin had no real official “back up” policy. Nor did they have any process or procedure for saving anything that wasn’t critical. So.. nothing was saved from those days. I will post some things about Lost Vale in my next posting.

It’s kinda fun strolling down these memories.. I hope you’re enjoying them too!

2 Responses to “20 years and counting – Origin Systems”

  1. [...] further details on exactly what the original Serpent Isle was supposed to be about can be found at Sheri Graner Ray’s blog: Originally Bill Armintrout and I were doing the initial design on Serpent Isle. The mandate we [...]

  2. [...] Bill Armintrout, who was one of the original designers that worked on Serpent Isle (see also: Sheri Graner Ray’s brief account of Serpent Isle‘s early development), and posed a couple of questions about the original [...]

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