Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle Interview

Ultima Codex brings us a lengthy retrospective interview with Bill Armintrout, one of the concept designers at ORIGIN who worked on Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, and a few other titles.  You know, I never get tired of reading about the favorite games of my youth:
Ultima Codex: How was Serpent Isle designed?

Bill Armintrout: In many cases, computer games are designed by a small group of designers, with the rest of the team brought on board when it is time to implement the design. With Serpent Isle, this was not the case. The entire original team was in place very early on two lead designers, four design assistants, three programmers. (Art, music and sound FX were separate departments, at that time at Origin.) We also had a late start, first due to the change from a '˜pirate game' to a '˜non-pirate game', and also because we needed the '˜final' Ultima VII code base, and that game ran behind schedule.

Therefore, we had a lot of people involved in the design process, and more time for design that originally planned.

To start with, the lead designers (myself and Sheri Graner) researched the World of Ultima for background material and plot ideas. At the same time, the team brainstormed as a group, to come up with things they wanted to see in a game.

Then, the lead designers took those ideas and suggestions, brainstormed, and came up with the initial plot document (the (main plot)). It was presented to the team, and everyone liked it.

The main plot was then broken down into subplots (also known as '˜town plots'), and each of the designers had one or more parts of the plot that they were given to flesh out, and to come up with the specifications for the game engine (i.e., how many unique characters, how many conversations, how many usecode tasks, etc.). When a team member had their subplot document ready, they would submit it to the rest of the team, and we all had a chance to make comments (written into the document everyone had their own '˜comment color'). The designer would then go back and rework their design to make improvements.

For example, at one point I was working on the townplot for Fawn. The original concept was that this town was connected to the sea, so all of the townspeople had sea-related names. The team hated my choice of names! Another designer (Lisa Smith, if I remember correctly) came up with a better selection of names. :-)

When the end of the design phase was approaching, it was my job as lead designer to finalize all of the various design documents basically, wrapping up any remaining loose ends. Then, it was on to implementation!


UC: How did you end up directing Serpent Isle in the end?

BA: In what I like to think of as The Night the Directors Left, three of the directors (project leads) at Origin quit all at once. One of them was Jeff George, who had been instrumental in the early Wing Commanders, and then had worked on Ultima sequels. Since I was lead designer on the project, this left me as the de facto project lead.

Origin never gave me the '˜director' title. The team thought this was rather silly, and so gave me their own title: The Cantaloupe. So we all knew there was no director on Serpent Isle, only a cantaloupe. :-)


UC: What do you think made Serpent Isle stand out from other RPGs and other Ultima from its time?

BA: First of all, the Serpent Isle team was almost entirely green (new to the software industry) in some ways, that made us want to work hard as a team to make a great game. Second and the credit for this primarily goes to Jeff George we had a heck of a talented team, even if we were inexperienced as a group. Third and this was mostly by accident our team had an unusually long period to prepare, as we had to wait for Ultima VII to finish before we could really begin work. This meant we had an in-depth understanding of what the game engine and its tools could do. And lastly, we had a friendly rivalry with the Ultima VII team (Lord British's team), and we were eager to (beat them) if we could.