On September 4th, the University of Texas Videogame Archive held a fundraising event to both raise money and promote the development of the new museum collection. An article over at GameSetWatch listed some of the memorabilia that were auctioned off at the fundraiser; one of those items was a pre-release copy of Emond’s book, “Ultima: The Ultimate Collector’s Guide”. A web search yielded few results, and I was compelled to contact Stephen regarding his soon-to-be-published book. He told me that not only was his book auctioned-off at the fundraiser, but he was an invited guest for the entire affair. I asked Stephen a few questions about his experiences at the fundraiser, his interests in the Ultima series, and (of course) his upcoming book.
Chris - I didn’t catch on to the Ultima series until I was in grade school, and got severely hooked playing Ultima VII: The Black Gate on my 486. What was your first Ultima experience?
Stephen – My very first Ultima was Quest of the Avatar on the Amiga. To this day it remains my favorite game of all time. That’s not to say later Ultimas didn’t improve upon what made Ultima IV so incredible but I still regard it as the ‘soul’ of the series, the game that truly defined Ultima.
(Editorial note: For those who have not yet had the pleasure of playing Origin’s seminal Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, or simply need a refresher, I strongly suggest reading either Scorpia’s review or the review at Mobygames for exemplary analyses of the game. These reviews demonstrate just why Ultima IV remains to be a capstone of novel and meaningful RPG design and storytelling, even 20+ years later. It can be played on a variety of systems thanks to the XU4 emulator, available free here.)
Chris: I have fond memories of sitting for hours exploring the catacombs in Ultima VIII, and the jungle in Savage Empire, and the vast dungeons of the Stygian Abyss in Ultima Underworld. Do you have a personal favourite in the series, and if you do – why? Has it withstood the test of time?
Stephen: Now THAT’s a tough question… So many aspects of the series appealed to me. Each game had its own unique charms that I will always look back on fondly – even the less popular games like Pagan (and I played it *before* the patch). I really enjoyed exploring all the worlds… In fact for Ultima I-IV I mapped everything – every world, every town, every dungeon. The Ultima I Sosaria and Ultima IV Britannia maps are HUGE.
If I had to pick one thing that really stood out for me though it would be the belief systems. While the Britannian Virtues are the most commonly known, almost every Ultima from Exodus on had at least one unique belief system. The ethical dilemmas you encounter during your quests really set the games apart for me. It wasn’t a matter of absolute good or evil, it was about the many shades in between.
Chris: What inspired you to write an Ultima collector’s guide? The series certainly has a tendency to produce fans and collectors… I even have a sizable collection on the bookshelves of my basement. Is there something specific about Ultima, say – compared to the Might and Magic series, or the Wizardry series – that invites rather ardent fandom?
Stephen: I’m a collector by nature so over the years I’ve collected quite a variety of things… Gaming being my biggest passion it was only natural for me to focus on that. I currently have over 3500 games spread across almost every gaming platform. Of all of them Ultima remains my favorite, and not just because they were such outstanding games. Most game collectors would agree that Origin consistently went above and beyond when it came to packaging and contents, particularly with the Ultima series. Beautifully detailed booklets, cloth maps, and meaningful ‘trinkets’ from Ankhs to Moonstones were the norm. With most games (then and now) you’d be lucky to find that in a special collector’s edition.
As for starting the guide, one thing that really struck me was the lack of collecting resources available for video games. Sports cards, comics, coins, stamps, toys… Almost every other collectible out there has a wealth of information available from checklists to grading systems to price guides and more. Mind you since I first began my guide information has become more readily available, but even now it’s almost exclusively limited to the internet. Being a completist I wanted to dig deeper than the standard information and find all the variations and obscure items that most people would never bother with. It was a project I really started for my own benefit but will hopefully be useful to most Ultima collectors.
Chris: (And of course, I have to ask) – What was it like meeting the Ultima game developers like Garriott, Spector and Loubet at the Videogame Archive fundraiser? Given that these folks have been more-or-less idolized by fans and gamers for over 20 years, was there anything about them that you found particularly surprising?
Stephen: It was huge for me just to have the chance to go to Austin and meet the developers I’d idolized for so many years – but for them to not only know ME but to be impressed with MY work… it was almost surreal. In the course of my book I’d emailed a couple of them in the past, but it was great to actually shake their hands and talk to them in person. Between the UT fundraiser, the Tabula Rasa pre-launch party and the Austin GDC I got to meet:
(image courtesy of the UT Videogame Archive)
Richard Garriott (‘Lord British’), Warren Spector, George Sanger (‘Fatman’), Starr Long, Denis Loubet, Sheri Graner, Billy Cain, Mike McShaffry, Robin McShaffry, Caroline Spector, Chris Launius (‘Binky’), David Watson (‘Iolo’), Michelle Caddel (‘Mariah’), Paul Sage, Tim Cotten (UO Dev), as well as April Burba (‘CuppaJo’) and most of the people at Destination Games (Richard Garriott’s new company currently developing Tabula Rasa).
They were all outstanding and made me feel right at home. Lord British was of course the star of the show so I only got to talk with him briefly but I did get the full tour of the amazing Britannia Manor.
Warren was awesome, he even wrote about me in his blog! According to Fatman he’d spent quite some time searching through my guide to find anything I missed but couldn’t come up with anything
Fatman was kind enough to help me get through the swarm surrounding Richard and Warren so I could talk to them before the main event started. He put on a great performance with his group ‘Captains of the Chess Team’.
Denis invited me to the launch party for his new company’s game “Fireteam Reloaded”.
Spending the afternoon with Iolo (David Watson) was everything I could have hoped for. He is incredibly diverse and fascinating to listen too – they captured his character quite well in Ultima. He had numerous stories of a young Richard Garriott who had just joined the SCA. After I toured his workshop (and played with his crossbows) he presented me with my very own crossbow bolt – which he pulled from a quiver he made for Sentri He even pulled out his lute and played Stones for me, with the seldom heard lyrics no less… I really have to thank Joe for letting me tag along and asking Iolo to give me the full package tour
Starr was really cool too, I talked with him about Tabula Rasa and assured him my Ultima Online book was on the way.
April (community manager for Tabula Rasa and all around amazing woman) gave me the full tour of Destination Games / NCsoft. Very cool – ESPECIALLY the Hall of Ultima. I think the janitor had to mop up a little drool afterwards but that’s ok. ALL the original Denis Loubet cover arts, prototype maps, gold disk sales awards… I even got to pet D&D #1
Needless to say it was an experience I will *never* forget.
Chris: Warren Spector said on his blog that he’s looking forward to reading your book when it’s done – what kind of response have you gotten from those who have seen an advance copy so far?
Stephen: So far only three copies exist (mine, a copy I presented to Richard and the one auctioned off at the fundraiser). As such exposure has been somewhat limited. The feedback I did receive though has been quite positive and enthusiastic. Considering it came primarily from former Origin legends and the Center for American History (who requested another copy as reference material for the archive itself) I really couldn’t ask for higher praise. I just hope other collectors will feel the same way if they decide to get a copy.
Chris: Hell, I could go on forever here. So maybe just one last question – have you secured a publisher for the book? When can we hope to get our grubby hands on one?
Stephen: I’m working out the final details now but it should be available very soon. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.