Sponsored By

Book Excerpt: Ultima and Worldbuilding in the Computer Role-Playing Game

'Ultima and Worldbuilding in the Computer Role-Playing Game is the first scholarly book to focus exclusively on the long-running Ultima series of computer role-playing games (RPG) and to assess its lasting impact on the RPG genre and video game industry.'

Image via Amherst College Press.

The following is an excerpt from Ultima and Worldbuilding in the Computer Role-Playing Game, a historical study of Ultima (Origin Systems, 1981). The book was published in April 2024 by Amherst College Press and is available for open-access download or paperback purchase.

In her classic work on human-computer interaction, Computers as Theatre, game designer Brenda Laurel (2013) posits that computer games and software programs are not whole systems on their own—they are partial, complete only when they are in use, with the human user essential to completing the system. Alexander R. Galloway (2006) further suggests that games exist primarily as potential:

video games are actions […] Without action, games remain only in the pages of an abstract rule book. Without the active participation of players and machines, video games exist only as static computer code. Video games come into being when the machine is powered up and the software is executed; they exist when enacted.

(Galloway 2006, 2, emphasis in original)

Drawing on both Laurel and Galloway, we argue that Ultima titles rely heavily on players for their very existence as games. Games, but especially those which depend on players to craft personalized characters who make moral choices and evolve as imagined people, require players to put them into motion. The attract mode on an arcade screen, for example, is not a game but an invitation.

As the Ultima franchise expanded in scope and complexity, with its geographic and narrative worlds becoming larger and more open-ended, the games increasingly depended on players to make them function. Structurally, Ultima titles invite players to think of their in-game experiences as unique and personal, encouraging their investment and sense of ownership. This intimate player-game relationship is integral to understanding the long-standing appeal of the franchise. Personal investment encourages players to create Ultima artifacts, stories, and experiences inside and beyond the boundaries of the games; it inspires and sustains fan-driven efforts to preserve and archive the titles; it catalyzes original works made in homage; and it encourages a sense of community as evidenced by the thousands of people who still, today, connect over the games on discussion boards, websites, and social media. These practices are essential to understanding the impact, legacy, and importance of the franchise and help explain why the games continue to enjoy cultural cachet rather than  being merely historically interesting. They raise provocative questions about the intersection between forms of authorship, notions of personal and shared ownership, and the power of player communities to sustain a fantasy universe long after it has ceased to be an attractive commercial property.

Semi-Authorial to Amateur Archival

While a strong sense of ownership can be a double-edged sword—inspiring players’ loyalty and fostering their desire for meaningful control—it is central to the long-standing success of the series. Devoted players and fans occupy a distinct role in the Ultima universe by documenting, extending, and analyzing the games with an incredible attention to detail. Game studies scholars Melanie Swalwell, Helen Stuckey, and Angela Ndalianis (2017) argue that the work of game fans can be considered in a variety of ways: “It is time to recognize the impact and centrality of video game fan communities—as a collective intelligence, as a pool of individual creators of games and as interested and engaged parties in the collecting and remembering of game history” (1).

In the case of the first Ultima, original copies of physical game media and packaging are rare, and finding functional solutions for playing the earliest releases on discontinued media formats like the 1980s floppy disk can range from challenging to impossible. The popularity of the Ultima series has resulted in a number of reissues and remastered versions, but remakes usually lack the physical artifacts and packaging in ways that substantially alter the original play experience. Fan preservation efforts help maintain evidence of these materials. Both preservation (including emulation projects) and documentation efforts illustrate fans’ collective sense of ownership and the cultivation and sharing of player expertise. They also make clear the centrality of community to many games, including single-player titles. If games without players are incomplete, then player communities are indispensable for maintaining and recreating those primary and supporting materials necessary for accessing what the game might have looked and felt like on its initial release. Further, as Anastasia Marie Salter (2009) suggests, the locus of game authorship can actually change over time. Writing about classic adventure games, they note: “Authorship of these games has changed hands: it is now under the control of the fans, the former and current players” (0.1). To some degree, this is true of Ultima as well.

Organizations like the Ultima Dragons Internet Chapter (UDIC) and websites and repositories like the Ultima Codex represent game emulation and preservation efforts that breathe life into aging franchises. Some of these initiatives are extremely long running. For example, UDIC was initially founded in 1992 on the online service Prodigy and remains active more than three decades later. The Ultima Codex positions itself as a fan network, offering a rich collection of news items and documentation related to everything Ultima, including an Ultima-focused podcast and a vast wiki cataloging all of the Ultima titles in great detail. A separate wiki hosted at Fandom.com boasts of 2,994 articles related to the series (Ultima Wiki n.d.). More general repositories of video game knowledge also demonstrate the devotion of fans. The Museum of Computer Game Adventure History, launched in 2001 by Howard Feldman, currently has scans of 49 different editions of Ultima games. While this website is substantial, it still isn’t as exhaustive as Stephen Emond’s Ultima: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition (2012). This tome spans 826 pages, covering 520 different releases of Ultima games and cataloging a total of 955 distinct items, which is unique in its inventory of international editions of the games.

As a genre, RPGs across media invite player engagement in distinct ways. This sense of immersion through player-customized characters in an expansive world complete with its own culture, history, and reality has proven to have exceptional stickiness for those who continue playing and replaying the games for years or even decades. In the case of Dungeons & Dragons, this long-term engagement has kept this analog tabletop title—and its many iterations across media—commercially viable for decades. Its current publishers regularly update it, and the game supports an entire microindustry. But in the case of computer games, this longer engagement represents a complicated commitment. Changes in technology can result in games quickly becoming inaccessible. For instance, publishers stop supporting servers needed for online play once a title has faded in popularity or when it becomes financially problematic. Or supplementary paratexts that complete games may be lost or damaged with the passage of time. These types of challenges are understandable at a production level. Maintaining servers and support staff can be expensive, as can the fabrication of physical goods. Even during its initial release, the metal feelies of the Ultima universe were borderline cost prohibitive. Decades later, these titles have become of more niche interest and, as game distribution has increasingly moved towards digital channels, reproducing the feelies would increase production and distribution costs considerably.

However, these games are incomplete without their paratexts, just as they are incomplete without their players. Preservation and documentation efforts that make, at the very least, information about the games’ paratexts available serve a critical role in keeping the games playable and at least passably complete. These projects, carried out through online efforts like the Ultima Codex or the High-Resolution Ultima Map Project (HRUMP) offer a corrective to the type of digitally driven reissues that make up the bread and butter of digital game distribution businesses like Good Old Games (GOG.com). There, games are ported to modern machines and stripped of their initial, physical context—we get the game, but are typically denied the out-of-box accessories and multimodal thresholds. While many editions include digital versions of physical artifacts, these function differently than their physical counterparts. This is what the market can support, perhaps, but it is neither an accurate representation of what the game was, nor is it likely what fans would prefer under ideal circumstances.

Sites like the Museum of Computer Game Adventure History carefully catalog the packaging and other paratexts of numerous games in an act of fan-driven documentation that serves as a corrective to the games’ digital decontextualization. Ironically, these otherwise orderly sites also embrace a certain unruliness when it comes to corporate control of commercial products that are formational for communities. They exist as sometimes radical remedies, providing through informal channels something the market will no longer bear. Emulation and reproduction efforts bring this tension into sharper relief. That is, while Electronic Arts de jure owns Ultima outright, its de facto ownership is much muddier. These types of volunteer efforts are driven by connection, by love—for the games, for the community, for the medium, and for the present and past of all three. If games are only completed with player participation, older games are most completely realized in their fan-preserved incarnations, in collective memory, and in ongoing play; or, in what game historian Raiford Guins (2014) terms, their “afterlife.”

Here Be Ultima Dragons

Members of the Ultima Dragons Internet Chapter (UDIC) are at the forefront of these efforts. If someone is involved in anything Ultima-related, and if they’re using an online name with “Dragon” in it, they’re almost certainly a UDIC member. The fan group today boasts nearly 16,000 members on its official website roster, where members are individually listed by their Dragon name, human name, and their UDIC email address. UDIC also lists a similar number of members on its public Facebook group, where members discuss Ultima-related projects of their own, ask for help accessing or playing the games, and share a diversity of content ranging from RPG-related memes to science reporting, to Halloween decorating tips (“Ultima Dragons Page 144 →Internet Chapter Facebook” n.d.). Dragons talk shop about gameplay, share obscure lore, celebrate Ultima-related news, make their own series-inspired projects, and meticulously document anything that may be remotely related to Ultima.

Their efforts are central to Ultima’s afterlife. At the UDIC website, membership is open to those who “have played an Ultima, are willing to help others with their Ultima questions, and would like to be a member of the Ultima Dragons.” Prospective members can join via email or by a short questionnaire that asks for some biographical information, which Ultima titles the applicant has played and/or completed, and what their Dragon name should be (“UDIC – Ultima Dragons Internet Chapter” n.d.). On the last point, the site offers this tip: “Don’t pick something that’s been in an Ultima; pick something that ought to be. ‘Dragon’ will be automatically appended. You may want to check the master roster of current members before choosing a dragon name.” A last requirement is made explicit elsewhere on the site: prospective members must provide a “real name.” The transparency about membership—the membership roster is public on both the Facebook group and the UDIC website—and the visibility of real names are indicative of the age of the community (as is the site’s late-1990s design aesthetics that, once generic, now convey a distinctive visual style). In fact, providing a real name and having played an Ultima game are the only two requirements for joining, and Fallible Dragon offers the following explanation for the name policy:

First, where it asks for real name, you have to type in your real name. If you’re really concerned, you can use your first initial and your last name. But it has to be your real name. The whole thing. “John” alone won’t cut it. We want to see “John Doe” or “J. Doe”.

This is a question of honesty and respect. You being honest with the rest of the club and respecting us, and the rest of the club respecting you in return. How can we respect you if you don’t feel we’re worthy of knowing your name? If you really don’t want to give out your real name, then you’re welcome to lurk and participate in the activities, but please don’t waste your time by filling out an application.

(“Dragon Requirements” n.d.)

Research on the implications of real-name policies suggests that they can reduce antisocial behaviors at the aggregate level, shaping community norms and discourse (Cho, Kim, and Acquisti 2012). This policy is, effectively, a community management practice that shapes the UDIC, and the UDIC, as an exceptionally visible group, shapes the collective experience of Ultima. Further, the mixing of real names and dragon names interpellates community members through the types of naming practices that exist throughout the Ultima universe. Here, you are a person who exists in the real world and as a character all at once. The language of the name policy is reflective of the kinds of values integrated across the series. Honesty, respect, and worth may sound like a heavy burden for an internet community made up of members with names like Rainbow Dragon to bear, but this dual emphasis on personal values and a sense of play are central to the series and its community.

Devotees of Ultima, like the members of UDIC, cannot help but engage with questions of values because those questions are central to the series. The players understand community behaviors and norms as a matter of values, and they directly and indirectly point towards the games as moral texts. In preserving the games and shaping a community, UDIC exhibits a central concern with integrity—of member behavior and of the game world, which is viewed as something to be preserved and supplemented with careful fidelity. This investment in the Ultima franchise can reflect a certain degree of reverence, but it also invites a sense of ownership. After all, many UDIC members are experts on the games, and a fundamental function of the group is to grow and to share that expertise. This use of expertise goes far beyond playing with the games as once published and extends into efforts aimed at preservation and immersion.

In many real ways, Ultima fans are the series’ historians and its guardians. Indeed, because the games’ original developers no longer have the intellectual property rights to the brand and lack the liberties available to fans as producers of transformative works, fans protect the series’ legacy to a greater extent than the original producers.

Authorship and Ownership

Fan-driven projects can raise the visibility and usability of historic games, such as those preserved through multiple arcade machine emulation (MAME). While original Ultima paratexts and ephemera may be difficult to locate today, fan projects provide and expand on information that can substitute for these missing materials. They can also provide insights into the aspects of the games players find particularly compelling. For example, fan-made tourism brochures reveal a loving devotion to the games’ cultural and geographic landscapes. But more importantly, these practices demonstrate the degree to which Ultima is for many players a fully-rendered world. In both drawing from and extending the series’ narrative universe, fan works participate in metalepsis, a narrative practice articulated by French literary theorist Gerard Genette (1980, 234–236). Tisha Turk (2011), who studies fan videos, describes how these projects engage in metalepsis: “These fan works are both texts in their own right and supplements (in the Derridean sense) to the original source material: fan works supplement texts that are already complete, but always with the shadow meaning, the possibility, of adding in order to complete” (83–84). Ultima fan works both assume that Sosaria and Britannia are real worlds and that they can supplement what is available in the official canon—a process that they first initiate through character-creation. Later, as they become well-versed in the games, players sometimes invest time in producing supplements and utilities they would find useful or those they think will make the games more accessible by expanding the series’ spaces and stories. Yes—fans document Ultima but they also iterate on it. Fan works can preserve and conserve the original, world-building efforts. Furthermore, they can also correct, complicate, adapt, and expand those realms. These practices build worlds upon worlds, offering experiences that are anchored in but are nevertheless distinct from the original titles.

Conclusion: Whose Game World Is It?

Many of the expansion, documentation, and preservation efforts of Ultima players fall into an awkward status with regards to copyright. These projects are overwhelmingly small-scale and are noncommercial in nature. And while some creators are hit with cease-and-desist letters, most produce works that extend the broader Ultima world without incurring the ire of lawyers. Writing about fan practices around adventure games, Salter notes that copyright does not always curtail fan creation because fans either ignore it or because the projects are deemed to be transformative works. In reproducing or expanding the games, fans become creators in their own right. Salter (2009) notes:

Fan creators of the classic adventure game movement can also be identified as cocreators, as they are in dialogue with the work of the original developers[…]. Fan authorship co-opts material from the existing games without requiring the game itself. A game authored by a fan stands on its own and is playable as a complete structure. It is informed by the original, and may even be an exacting remake of the original, but it is developed separately.

Players, then, pursue diverse activities that preserve and document games. They also engage in metaleptical practices that extend and conceivably complete the games as well. Through these activities, fans claim ownership of the game world, either directly (as in reproductions or extensions of the Ultima franchise) or indirectly (through documentation and preservation). They build on the customization and personalization of game experiences, moving from sanctioned to unsanctioned types of engagement and remaking CRPGs and their game worlds.

Like all digital and analog games, the Ultima series present partial gaming texts—systems that are incomplete without players and their gameplay practices. Even when these games were new, players created resources for one another. And as the games have aged, fans increasingly claim ownership and actively participate in various acts of authorship. Without fans extending the game experience, Ultima would largely be mothballed. Instead, their robust activities keep the games circulating in popular culture.

The Ultima titles demonstrate how vital community can be for a game series. The fan community that grew up with the series provided dependable commercial support when the games were first released. But its community has, over time, evolved to become central to others’ experiences of the franchise. Fans like those who join UDIC play Ultima, but—as importantly—they also play with it, expanding its world with works of their own, experimenting with what the narrative limits of that world might be, and mentoring others in the skills and the knowledge needed to participate in the community. Richard Garriott and Origin Systems built the first generation of Ultima worlds, but the series endures and maintains its landmark status because fans have stepped into the creative void as its collective of world-builders and world-preservers.

Read more about:

Book ExcerptTop Stories
Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like