The Firm

The Firm
The Conquest of Origin

Allen Varney | 11 Oct 2005 08:00
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"I still think it was possible to make it work," Garriott says now, "except no one made time to make it work, and there were evil elements in the company."

Red Dots
In 1992 Steve Powers found in a Marketing department trashcan a group photo of the entire company. "It was taken on the steps of the Wild Basin building during the Ultima VII ship party," Powers recalls. "I scanned it and used it as my Windows wallpaper for years. One by one, as people left or were fired, I Photoshopped a red dot over them, blotting them out of the scene. Most of the dots tended to come in clusters around Christmas. Just before Christmas 1997, I dotted my own face and left. For years I kept the image updated while working for other game studios, and it wasn't until fairly recently that the last face got erased."

Some notable dots:

Wing Commander designer Chris Roberts left Origin in 1996 to found the game company Digital Anvil. Roberts wrote and directed the 1999 Wing Commander movie (Rotten Tomatoes score: 7%). He released the space game Freelancer in 2003 to modest success, then left Digital Anvil to found Point of No Return Entertainment. So far the name appears apt.

Warren Spector left Origin in 1996 to work for Looking Glass, then run ION Storm Austin. In 2000 he produced the bestselling game, Deus Ex. The genesis of DX was an Origin project called Shooter, which EA cancelled shortly before his departure. "DX could have been an EA title!" Spector says.

Artist Denis Loubet left Origin in 1997 and is now a partner in Iron Will Games, which runs the boutique MMOG Ashen Empires. One of the designers once described it conceptually as "Ultima V for 10,000 players."

In 1998, Don Mattrick opened a $54 million EA Canada development studio in Burnaby. By 2003 it had 700 employees, and Mattrick made plans to add another building. The studio currently produces sports games such as NBA Live, Triple Play Baseball, NHL Hockey, and FIFA Soccer, the best-selling sports game in the world. "Don Mattrick is a champion of the [British Columbia] high-tech industry," said studio president Sydney Williams in a 2000 interview. Last month, in a move that stunned the industry, Mattrick, the heir apparent to Larry Probst, left Electronic Arts after 23 years with the company "to seek other opportunities." EA gave no reason for his departure.

In 1999, four years after Ultima VIII, after colossal labor and at least two complete restarts, Origin released the disappointing Ultima IX. No one at the time realized this would be Origin's last new game. Richard Garriott soon left Origin and founded Destination Games (get it?), hiring most of the Ultima IX team EA laid off. In 2001, Destination metamorphosed into the American branch of Korean online gaming giant NCSoft. NCSoft Austin has published City of Heroes and Guild Wars, and is now struggling through Year Four of a projected three-year development cycle on Garriott's new MMORPG (working title: Tabula Rasa).

EA finally shut down Origin in 2004 and relocated UO to their California studio. The last employee fired was producer Jeff Hillhouse, Richard Garriott's first hire back in 1983. Hillhouse, like many other key Origin employees, now works with Garriott at NCSoft.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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