The folks at RPG Codex have put together a retrospective interview with Warren Spector, who's most often remembered for his seminal work on Deus Ex, but who also offered significant contributions while at ORIGIN Systems, on which this interview focused. Here's an excerpt:
From what we know, Serpent Isle was originally conceived by Jeff George as a pirate-themed game that wasn't supposed to be a part of the core Ultima series. Do you recall anything about George's original design? How challenging was it for you to take over the project after George had left the company, and what influence did you have on turning the game into a more traditional Ultima title?
If memory serves, Serpent Isle was always meant to be an Ultima universe game, but it was a pirate adventure at first. Honestly, it wasn't really making the kind of progress, creatively, I hoped it would who wouldn't want to play a pirate RPG, right? But when Jeff left, I started working with a fellow named Bill Armintrout on the creative and it became a direct sequel to Ultima VII. The game was made entirely in my unit, so I had a lot to say about the decision and the way the creative [process] unfolded! I don't recall the transition being terribly difficult but that project was by far the biggest I'd worked on at that time and the team grew along with the game's scope. None of us had a clue how to manage a team that size which led to the worst crunch mode I've personally experienced, to this day. That team worked incredibly hard. At the end of the day, the game ran over 100 hours for most players. It even took QA nearly a full 24-hour day to play through. We actually didn't get our first cheat-free playthrough until the day before we signed off and all of us were terrified we might be shipping the buggiest game of our career. Didn't turn out that way, luckily!'‹
Serpent Isle's recurring themes were those of religious conflict, dissidence and colonization. First inhabited by an ancient people with a sophisticated culture who destroyed each other in a massive religious war, the land was ages later settled by the New Sosarians fleeing the "tyranny" of Lord British. Centuries after that, the villain Batlin arrived with a crew of Fellowship members most of them innocents, who could ironically be seen as another people persecuted by Lord British. And then came the Avatar, hunting them down and encountering the societies built by those who had rejected the Britannian ways. So you had these multiple layers of religious conflict, of dissidents fleeing persecution and colonizing new worlds. It was, in short, a thoroughly inspired game a love letter to the fans who took the Ultima lore seriously. However, we've never seen any member of the Serpent Isle team speak at length about the ideas and inspirations behind it a real shame, because a lot of thought went into its creation. So we'd be very pleased if you could shed some light on this topic. How did the world and history of Serpent Isle come together the way they did?
A lot of the creative energy in the game has to be attributed to Bill Armintrout. He led the design charge and I was happy to support him in his desire to make a game that takes itself and its subject matter seriously. A lot of it, though, was the quality of the team. So many members of that team went on to do great work. We had some real creative muscle there. A lot of what Bill and I had to do was make sure everyone was pulling in the same direction and not get in people's way!'‹
Could you tell us how the Worlds of Ultima series originated and why Origin decided to take the approach of making these games deliberately weird? Who was responsible for that, and to what extent were you involved in the series' creation and the direction it was taking? As an aside, what exactly was your own role on Savage Empire, since you don't actually appear in the credits despite being a character in the game?
You know, I bet everyone involved in the creation of the Worlds of Ultima series has a different view of how that sub-series came to be. My memory is probably as inaccurate as anyone's, but I remember it being my idea, to be honest. We simply needed to create more games than Richard Garriott and Chris Roberts could produce. And with guys like Paul Neurath and Greg Malone and Stuart Marks and Todd Porter gone, guys like Jeff Johannigman and I had to step up. I think I was the one to suggest creating a spin-off series of non-numbered Ultimas, produced by me and Jeff, that would re-use tech from last numbered one while Richard was creating ground-up new tech for the next numbered one.
My role on Savage Empire started and ended early. I wrote up the initial 20-ish page design spec (which I wish I still had!) for a lost world, dinosaur game. And I wrote up a spec for what became Martian Dreams. I couldn't make both and wasn't willing to pass up the chance to make a Victorian time travel game, so I took on Martian Dreams and Johan did Savage Empire. He and designer, Aaron Allston, probably scrapped my initial design doc instantly. No matter, Savage Empire ended up being a swell game and, despite all the traipsing around the Martian surface, I'm still inordinately proud of Martian Dreams. Frankly, I wish we'd kept the Worlds of Ultima games going.'‹