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Ultima Codex Interview: Serpent Isle Project Leader Bill Armintrout

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Ultima Codex Interview: Serpent Isle Project Leader Bill Armintrout

Interview - posted by Infinitron on Tue 26 March 2013, 02:01:11

Tags: Origin Systems; Ultima VII: Serpent Isle

Today was the 20th anniversary of the release of Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle, a game which I personally consider to have been not just brilliantly designed, but also very much ahead of its time, presaging a type of CRPG that would not become common (at least in the West) until years later. To commemorate this event, the Ultima Codex conducted and published an extensive interview with Serpent Isle Project Leader Bill Armintrout. It's sort of a continuation of an earlier Q&A with him from way back in 2010, so you might want to read that first. Here are a select few questions from the interview:

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.​

UC: How much was Richard Garriott involved in Serpent Isle’s development and design?

BA: As you may know, Jeff George originally wanted to do a pirate game, but was told that the next game had to be a direct sequel to Ultima VII. So the first Serpent Isle design work was about pirates in the Ultima world, with the “surprise” being that the players discover in the end that the winding continent they’re on is actually The Great Earth Serpent.​

When Jeff departed, Warren (our producer) let us know that the pirate idea was dead, too. He also told us that Richard Garriott wasn’t too excited about the whole “continent is the Great Earth Serpent” idea, so that was nixed, too.​

While the team was coming up with a new design, I arranged (through Warren) for Richard Garriott to visit Sheri Graner (my fellow designer) and I for an hour, to give us the direct insight on “what an Ultima was.” That was how Sheri and I learned the fundamentals of what Richard felt an Ultima should be.​

Later, when the initial design work was complete, we presented the document to our producer for approval. He said that he would send it along to Richard, but that he didn’t think Richard would like it. (Out producer mentioned then that he had hoped we might make an Ultima with a pro-ecological message instead.) So the team was waiting nervously for a few days, waiting for Richard’s verdict. At last, we were summoned to the producer’s office… and Richard was very excited with the design! (And gave us permission to kill off Dupre!)​

The only surprise? He said his only disappointment was that we hadn’t used the idea of the continent being The Great Earth Serpent!!!??? (A miscommuncation somewhere!)​

After this, Richard was entirely involved in his next project, Ultima VIII, so we didn’t see him after that.​

UC: Do you wish you could have worked on another Ultima game?

BA: I would have loved to work on another one, but I wasn’t in Lord British’s unit of the company (which made all the main Ultimas), and I was in another unit by then, which didn’t do Ultima sequels.​

Bill also answers some questions about Serpent Isle's infamously cut second half, tells a somewhat disturbing anecdote about a manager whose wife's portrait was used in the game, and even has a bit to say about the game's super-cheesy Frigidazzi sex scene, which apparently was very nearly cut.

The overall impression one gets from the interview is that Serpent Isle could easily have ended up as a disaster, but somehow, despite the chaotic environment of early 90s Origin and the inexperience of the development team, a strong artistic vision emerged and guided the team to success. If only that had continued with the rest of the Ultima series...

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