Through the Portalarium

It already seems a long time ago but just over a week back, I got the unlikely chance for a tour of Portalarium and questions with Richard Garriott. The offices are on the 7th floor of an unassuming office block in downtown Austin.


They had just put the Halloween decorations up when we arrived. Letting LOAF lead the way, we were ushered into a small conference room barely big enough to get us all in. It was immediately apparent we were in the right place though as there was an entire wall of Ultimate RPG concept art on the near wall. I’m unfortunately not allowed to talk about this but I can mention some of the other adornments such as the original Ultima 9 tapestry artwork and a trio of cover art pictures for Chuckles’ 3 games including Caverns Of Callisto:-

Caverns Of Callisto - Origin Artwork

A brief wait later and we are getting the tour from Richard Garriott himself. The hub of the tour is a central corridor in which Garriott has placed some of the significant items from his gaming history. The plan is to bring more of this collection out of storage as Portalarium and the offices grow but even now it’s still the sort of display that any Ultima fan would have to remortgage their house for:-

Portalarium Akalabeth Display

This is the first section with the bottom left being some of Garriott’s pre Akalabeth games on paper tape + his written out code which never got punched in. The earliest Computerland Akalabeth case contains a version on cassette as Akalabeth actually predates the Apple II disk drive. He doesn’t think he sold any of these but wasn’t entirely certain so there may be one out there somewhere.

Going further down the corridor there is the original artwork for just about every Ultima game as well as some Destination Games displays but I don’t have photo’s to share unfortunately.

Wing Commander Artwork

For the Wing Commander fans, in the next room off to the side there is some more artwork including the original Wing Commander logo as well as a very familiar looking Wing Commander Prophecy movie style poster. Also in this room is Garriott’s pre Akalabeth D&D games map which was fairly massive and had some very familiar town names. He explained that it formed the basis for Ultima 1 although interestingly it was more or less all one large land mass. This fits in with an ancient RG interview I read elsewhere that Ultima 1 & 3 were in fact based on the same game map with the 4 continents of Ultima 1 being chopped up/rotated around versions of the same world as Ultima 3. This looked to fit with what I saw but I wish I grabbed a photo. Maybe next time…

We strolled through some of the developer’s offices after this. One of them was working on removing the Garage Sale text from the Ultimate Collector artwork so it looks like it’s going to have a name change. The name Ultimate Collector was apparently “borrowed” when a TV show of the same name contacted Garriott and he liked the name so much he thought he would use a variant on it.

Richard Garriott's Apple II

The Portalarium offices are quite a modest affair at the moment and we were soon back in the main corridor where at the far end there is the original Apple II used to write Akalabeth and the early Ultimas, permanently set up running Akalabeth these days. There is also a small but growing new collection of toys which has been inspired by all the cool items the team has come across making Ultimate Collector. Another recently acquired item is a teletype machine exactly the same as the one used to punch in the pre-Akalabeth D&D games.

With the tour concluded it was back to the conference room and a Q&A session. I can’t speak for everyone else there but this isn’t the sort of thing I’m used to and it’s hard not to get more than a little starstruck. It’s not like RG isn’t an easy-going sort of guy but I’ve thought of a lot of questions I should have asked afterwards. In no particular order, this is what I remember from a week later much of which I’ve already covered in a previous post.

One of the questions that came up was whether he would be able to help track down a copy of Wing Commander 2 on the SNES. This has been a holy grail for Wing Commander fans for a long time. The game was sent out to reviewers and full write-ups appeared in magazines back at the time but it never went on general sale. It even had some enhancements to the original version such as colour communications screens. The good news here is that RG was extremely positive that he may have a copy. He said that he made sure to get a copy of every Origin game and 10 copies if it was Ultima and thinks that with WC2 getting that far he will almost definitely have it in storage. The downside is that he wouldn’t just let us rummage around for it so we will have to wait some time.

I took the chance to ask if that could also mean he had a copy of The Lost Vale. He didn’t think it had ever got finished but I’d take the word of Sheri Graner Ray here and assume that he just didn’t follow it too closely at the time. Going on what he said previously, there must be at least be a slight chance that he may just have a copy but we’ll have to wait for that alongside WC2 SNES.

There was some talk about Ultimate RPG although it’s clearly in an early stage. He discussed how Portalarium’s Poker and Ultimate Collector games are necessary building blocks towards the technology needed to make Ultimate RPG within a small company like Portalarium. He confirmed that he would be appearing in Ultimate RPG and it would always be him playing his own character just like in Ultima Online.

Inevitably there was some talk of space travel (which he thinks will be as affordable as a first class airplane ticket within 20 years). Although he is now an employee of NASA, it turns out they were less than helpful with his journey to the space station despite the fact that he was doing experiments on their behalf. I gather that NASA didn’t want to be seen as spending USA tax payer’s money on “some rich yahoo’s” jaunt into space.

For instance, Garriott had to sign a fairly standard disclaimer before travelling to the Space Station. NASA never got around to countersigning this and 3 days before the flight tried to change the terms so that RG wasn’t allowed to take photo’s through the windows owned by NASA, take photos of the NASA owned portions of the station or actually go on the NASA side of the station in the first place (more or less negating the first two). The rest of the astronauts thought this was as ridiculous as he did and advised him not to sign it since they could hardly stop him flying at this point. After being further pushed to sign it however, he had the bright idea of getting NASA to agree to add a final clause that all terms were under the guidance of the mission commander on the space station (this was actually already the case anyway and this would just reaffirm it). The moment he arrived the commander welcomed him on board, told him he could go wherever he wanted, take any photos he wanted and not to feel the need to ask again.

To get back to Earth and Ultima games, the topic of Mount Drash came up somehow. The story is that Keith Zabalaoui (a friend of Garriotts who was credited on Akalabeth) had already written the game but Sierra weren’t going to publish it unless they could use the Ultima branding to increase sales. The game was never intended to be an Ultima but Garriott gave this his blessing to help his friend out, hence Ultima – Escape From Mount Drash. This makes it a legitimate part of the Ultima series as far as I’m concerned and a whole lot more collectible (if that is possible). I might even be prepared to fork out the money myself now if the chance ever arose although I’m not so sure I wouldn’t rather buy another bookcase full of less extreme vintage software for the same price.

I asked about Ultima 4.5 which is something I’ve been curious about ever since I heard of it. According to an RG interview I read a long time back Ultima 4.5 and Ultima 5 were being developed side by side for a while and I wanted to learn more. Garriott didn’t think this was the case however and said that Savage Empire was the first time they had tried to reuse an engine.

He went into some detail about the thought process behind each of the Ultima spinoffs. The original idea was that reusing the same engine would mean that the game could be made for less than the original which is certainly what I would have expected. However with Savage Empire, it apparently was so much work to strip out the original assets that it ended up costing just as much as Ultima 6 to make. They thought could learn from this with Martian Dreams but that also cost just as much and both games sold less than the mainline Ultimas casting questions on the whole notion of engine reuse.

With the U6 spinoffs not entirely going to plan, a different approach was taken with Serpent Isle whereby the original game assets would still be used for the most part which was supposed to keep costs down but this plan failed once more. It occurs to me now that I should have asked about Crusader at this point, which I’m assuming was Plan C. If so this probably worked out better by using the engine for a completely different genre of game and thereby not just appealing to a subset of those that bought Ultima 8.

LOAF asked about the Ultima anime which was supposedly made in Japan in the 80’s. Garriott was adamant that there was never any such thing which would certainly explain why it hasn’t surfaced by now. I would assume that the screenshots that exist were simply created for a Famicom TV commercial which sounds like a far more likely explanation.

The only other things I can recall were a mention of Ultima Forever as he had just been out for dinner with Paul Barnett the day before and agreed to appear in the game travelling around in the skies. He thinks their heart is in the right place for U4E but he hasn’t seen the game so couldn’t give an opinion on it.

We also got an impromptu illustrated guide to the iconic shapes of the Wing Commander 1 fighters (and other things), which Garriott considers to be far more memorable than those in later games. I also recall asking (more to fill an awkward silence than anything) whether Time Bandits really was the inspiration for the cloth maps which of course it was but we all knew that anyway.

Richard Garriott Space Suit Badge

Our hour was up almost as soon as it had begun. We got some final photo opportunities and there was one little bonus when we were gifted Richard Garriott space suit badges. I came out slightly shell shocked and I still can’t quite believe I got to do this in the first place. Many thanks to Lord British for taking the time to show us around and also to Loaf and Chris Reid for all but one of the photo’s on this post.

Ultima Patcher 1.22

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s update, I’ve added in support for Martian Dreams and Savage Empire to the Ultima Patcher. If there are any fan patches for either game, I wasn’t able to find them so this just adds the option to use MT-32 emulation in both games (if you have the ROM’s). This was a rush job to get it done today for the GOG release but I’m relatively sure it works. If anyone actually uses this, I’ll look at adding MT-32 emulation support to the rest of the games.

The new version can be downloaded from here.

Day 71

I started off by heading for the space capsule to get the explosive – when I get there its all gone already.

I go back and tell Carnegie and he suggests asking Roosevelt for help tracking the culprit.

First time round Roosevelt isn’t much help as I need some evidence. I walk back to the capsule again and pick up a broken metal band that was holding the explosive originally and take this back to him. Now he needs a microscope to examine it. Nellie Bly helpfully tells me where to get one at this point.

The teleporters are invaluable in the game with all the constant fetching errands between cities. I’m back with the microscope in no time and shock horror the culprit was Rasputin. Now I need to get into Argyre to see him.

I sail my barge round and its one square too big to sail right up to the gates. I’m not too happy about this but a smaller one cannoned barge is not so far away to the NE. I try this instead but it still won’t breach the gates. I must be on the right lines so I start asking everyone.

Peary is a good source on Argyre and suggests the cannons himself but I need steel balls first.

Carnegie makes them straight off and after making room in my backpack I head back to Argyre.

The new balls do the trick and I’m inside.

There are only a couple of main characters inside Argyre + some commoners who don’t get named or have much to say. Emma Goldman gives me a long talk on the merits of anarchy and overthrowing government which is apparently why she is helping Rasputin.

Rasputin immediately points out the need to disguise my metal colleague and also tells me that the explosive is now in the dream world. Aside from deactivating the dream machine he can potentially blow the planet up by transferring it back again without care.

I’m not getting anywhere with Rasputin so I go for the berries instead. There are a few bushes around so I grab all the berries I can see and head back.

I get the dye made by Sarah Bernhardt.

Then take this to the machine in the pumping station and the process is a complete success.

She now has the appearance of the woman who came to my door right at the start of the game in the intro – this sort of reversed cause and effect thing are one of the things I like about time travel stories so its nice to see that here. She suggests we go see Segal at this point.

Segal and the others start work on making more bodies while we have to go and fetch the explosive so its back to Argyre again.

When I get back all the commoners are dead and Rasputin, confesses how he was lured to Mars by Raxachk. He has retreated into the dream world and I have to follow him to get the explosive and save Mars & Earth.

In the dream world I immediately bump into a familar face in the shape of Faulinei – one of the shadowlords from Ultima 5. Its nice to see a tie-in with the main series although this is pretty much the same idea as the gargoyle shrines in Ultima 6. The idea here is that the shadowlords are still part of my subconcious and in my dreams they still exist. They want to prove their virtues over mine so I get a series of three tests.

The first test involves two doors, two Spectors and I have to decide which is real. There is a mirror which I push infront of one and it reflects a martian instead of a human being. This must be the false one then and thats 1 test done.

Next up is the shadowlord of hatred.

This test involves a dying martian allegedly wounded by my friends. I have the option to kill or save him and of course help him out.

For the final test of courage, I need to kill off a leviathon. This is just a case of walking on and nearly but not quite dying.

The tests are perhaps a bit easier than I would have liked. It would have been nice to see a bit more made of these since you get through the lot in 5 mins. I’m now face to face (through a glass wall) with Raxachk. I can see the explosive but can’t reach it and there is also a door I can’t get through. Talking to Raxachk, he wants me to entertain him by facing three fights.

The first two fights are pretty easy, the last is a lot tougher with a leviathon + hordes of tentacles coming after me at once. I have got an elephant gun by this point which helps + I get as many goes as I like.

Raxachk leaves me to entertain myself. I’ve picked up two lots of berries by now. One shows me the inside of the locked area and another gives me the telekinesis ability to pull the level that opens the door. Inside is a huge quantity of dreamstuff.

I grab a bit of dreamstuff and first time get an M-60!

I attack Raxachk with this and he goes down straight away.

I transfer the explosive back – it appears that some of the harmful effects of transporting from the dreamworld are true as the world is shaking when I return. I leg it over to the space cannon.

When I get there every character in the game is lined up and ready to go. I can talk to them for a brief line if I want.

Talking to Carnegie, gives him the explosive and the end sequence starts.

I’ve had a blast replaying this game. It really stands out as one of the great RPG’s for me. There is perhaps a bit too much tooing and froing between cities fetching things but the teleporters stop this from taking too long. I wish more people had played ths game. Apparently there were intended to be ancient greece (with gods) and King Arthur games to complete a set of four Worlds of Ultimas but this never happened due to the sales. I’d have liked to play both those games but will have to be content with the 2 we got.

Next: Wing Commander 2 – Special Operations 1

Day 70

The first job today was to set out to sort out the lens towers – they are all marked on the map so there is no problem finding them. I’ve been to one already and seen it was covered in weeds. I tracked back to the 1893 landing ship and picked up the weedkiller I’d ignored earlier first, then set off to have a look at the other two towers. The first had a smashed lens – this sounded like a job for our glass expert Tiffany so I picked that up.

The next tower was missing its motor – a broken one was in inside a building nearby so I took that also.

Tiffany fixes the lens in no time.

And back in Olympus Edison does the same for the motor.

Now I have to walk back to all the 3 towers fixing them – first the motor. It takes a bit of time to figure out exactly where I need to be stood to get this to work but I get there in the end.

Replacing the lens is the same procedure near enough.

Finally I use the weedkiller on the 3rd tower and then go into the control room nearby. I have to enter alignment coordinates – I got a hint way back about using the time here so I get the time from my pocket watch and sure enough that works.

Sherman pipes up about a pumping station which we could now use to fill the canals so I go to have a look.

As soon as I walk near an interesting looking valve my party gets steamed to death. I think I’ll come back here later.

Instead I go to have a look at this laboratory. It takes some finding but is directly north of the NW most martian city.

In it I find a robot gem cutter who apparently needs some radium to be able to cut gems.

Once cut these gems form the heartstone for the martian prototype body. I have some radium I’ve been carrying around so I put that in. I don’t have a gem though so I need to find some azurite. Hearst was into gems so I’ll try him.

The prototype body is in the lab ready to go as soon as I get this heartstone.

Hearst does have some azurite..

but won’t give me it unless I do him a favour in typical adventure game style. He sent a photographer to get a photo of the cannon but he never came back. Rather than look for him himself, I’ve got to do it apparently. I picked the camera up ages ago so I offer it to him.

That isn’t enough – I have to get it developed which means taking the plate to the other side of the world.

Melies develops the photo straight off.

Hearst still isn’t happy but he gives me the azurite.

Cutter makes me my heartstone. I put it in the body and then carry it all the way to one of the dream machines.

Starting up the machine works and Chsheket is transfered into the body.

Sherman takes his leave.

And is replaced by Chsheket in the party.

Nellie mentions we need to make her look more human and suggests Sarah Bernhardt so I head for Olympus.

Apparently there is a machine we can use to spray a rubber flesh like substance onto the body but we need some rouge berries to dye it the right colour. I’ve seen the machine in the pumping station already. The rouge berries are in Argyre which is the one place I haven’t been so I head there next.

As I was probably told way back at the start of the game, I ‘m locked out of Argyre by a big metal barrier. Its conveniently next to a canal which puts me in mind of that barge with the cannons. First I’ll need to fill the canals again so its back to the pumping station.

I send Chsheket through on her own. Being metal the steam doesn’t affect her and she is able to restart the pumping station.

All the canals are full again and there is a convenient barge just outside. This is just a little one without cannons so I sail it off towards the big one.

On the way I’m attacked by my first canal worm. These aren’t as tough as they look but Spector does take some hits.

The bigger barge has a rail track down the middle which has got to be a clue. I still have the problem of the iron ore – I decide to head for the iron mines on the way back.

Sure enough the rail tracks match up when I get to the mine.

I use the drill I rescued Shermann with earlier to mine for some iron ore. This I shovel into a cart which I push back to the barge.

I sail it to the Olympus mines and push the cart all the way to Carnegie who can now finish his cannon apparently. All we need now is some of the explosive from the 1893 ship to propel the ship back again to Earth which he asks me to fetch.

I’m running out of tasks now  – I just need to fetch those berries and get the explosive. There is still the matter of the possessed humans at Argyre though so I expect I’m not all that near the end yet. I’ll have a go at finishing this off tommorow night but have a feeling I may need another day.

Day 69

The first job I did today was to fetch the control panel for Edison and get him to fix it. This didn’t seem to be any use at the dream machine in Olympus but will no doubt come in useful elsewhere.

I decide to take a look at this motherlode on the map I got from Cooter. On the way I’m attacked by a Martian agricultural robot which is a first.

I find the spot on the map and it turns out to be some sort of power station. There are two robots in there. The first called Coker fetches coal and puts in on a conveyor.

The conveyor is broken though – I take the broken belt with me so I can get it fixed.

The other robot Stoker takes the coal to the furnace. I don’t find this motherlode anywhere but there is a door that won’t work without power.

Back at Olympus Trippet fixes the belt.

I take it back to the power station, wheelbarrow some coal into the furnace to get it going then the robots take over.

The electricity comes back on and the locked door now opens and reveals limitless bins of oxium which I help myself to.

Stoker mentioned electricity towers which would need fixing if the power was brought straight back on. Sure enough on the other side of the station I find the towers with cables flapping around.

Spectors wearing rubber gloves so I try to get him to fix it but he won’t have it.

I swap the equipment around and do it myself.

That gets the electric supply for the whole planet going again. I head out to have a look at one of the towers to the north next.

When I get there the controls don’t work as the lens is overgrown with weeds. I’ve can’t do anything about this yet so will come back.

The teleport tubes now work which should help me out no end. I decide to take a look at the dream machine down at Hellas.

I notice a rusted shut door on the way – I use some lamp oil on it and find a load of live martian seeds behind it – these have to be useful so I grab one.

Marcus gives me a bit of advice about the dreamworld and where to find the machine.

On the way to the machine I find a canal barge – I’m sure I’ll be using these later but the canals are still empty even with the electric going.

I fix the dream machine with Edisons panel + some radium and fire it up.

This transports me to a very odd world of void and obelisks. Walking into an obelisk takes me to another world.

These worlds are pretty bizarre – each obelisk represents one of the posessed people who have been trapped in nightmares by the martians. I have to go in and solve some problem or other to get them out. In the first one I have to get a minotaur who is causing havoc in a china shop out the back of the shop by using a red carpet and then locking him out.

Once complete Tiffany is now standing where the obelisk was ready to be returned to his body.

The next obelisk takes me to a dreamworld recreation of Hellas complete with a small population of Martians. I get all sorts of information here. One of the martians was aparently working on some sort of replacement body in a laboratory under the north icecap which I will need to find later but it apparently was under ice a lot of the time even when the canals were full so I’ll have to get the canals filled first.

The leader of the group volunteers to leave the dreamworld if I can grow a new body. I get various intructions on this.

I’m also told the neccessary checmicals, I’ll need to use as a fertilzer. I’ll have a go at this after I free everyone from the dream world.

In the next world I have to get past a load of moving trees.

And then nursemaid a martian pod plant to maturity.

I’m given a few seeds and some water which I’m supposed to use to repel the attacking worms from the plant. Its easier just to fight the worms off all in all.

Eventually the pod ripens, I cut it open and thats another one done.

H.G. Wells is being attacked by a load of invisible monsters. I can see their footprints so I attack them with the elephant fun I picked up ealier in the map.

Lenin’s world is one of the oddest with workers just out of reach on a winding path.

Lenin wants me to divide the wealth equally…..

I gather up all the money and put it down in 25 piles of 10.

After giving back the spare change Lenin is happy with the job and thats the last of the obelisks done.

Next its time to grow this pod plant. The chemicals are in one of the buildings in Hellas. I trek to the north pole and back to shovel some ice into a bucket for the water.

The plant takes 9 days to grow and apparently I have to visit it every 3 days. I take the easy option and just camp outside to pass the time. The plant slowly gets bigger.

Eventually its ripe – I cut it open and get a complete martian body.

I go back in the dream machine and Prektesh tells me to put the body in the machine and he will transfer into it.

It all seems to go ok

Butt apparently the infection is now in the soil. Prektesh dies and tells me to take the body to Tekapesh.

Tekapesh agrees to be more helpful when I give him the body.

He grants me access ot his dream machine. I go and use it and get another 4 obelisks.

The first world here is a room that shrinks when you step on the grey tiles. I have to get the oil at the far end and get back again so I can open the door.

This is easy enough.

The next world is another really odd one. Its supposed to represent the solar system but does it using tiles from the rest of the game.

For instance I’m chased on one square by a red dot so thats obviously supposed to be Jupiter.

I find Lowell near the edge. He wants me to find Pluto for him which means getting past the monster.

Its a pretty mean looking canal worm but I have a cupids bow. Shooting it with this charms it and I can just walk past.

A lot of empty space later I find pluto and use my mirror to signal Lowell that I’ve found it.

The Clemens quest is one of the more boring ones. I have to move a barge around with a lever collecting the pages of his book. Invisible blocks get in the way all the time which leads to a lot of trial and error. This is one of the larger dreams also.

40+ pages later he tells me I’ve got them all and compiles them into a book for me to post.

Theres a postbox at the end of the stars. I use the manuscript on it and thats him free.

Next world, I’m immediately set upon by four proto-martians. I finish these off and then get a message saying I’ve collapsed from exhaustion.

When I wake up all my party are dead.

The moment I step outside the door I find out I’m still asleep. I grab a load of dollars off the bodies of my party and find a horse auction at the other end.

One of the horses is Smith. I bid for him at the auction and he gives me a load of clues for all the previous games. That doesn’t help me out much. I go back in and restart the world and this time buy the grey horse which turns out to be the last missing person.

Now everyone is free, I ask Tekapesh to return to the dream world and he agrees.

All the 1893 crew now seem to be back in their bodies although there are the ones at Argyre that I still haven’t been to see yet. Talking to all of them, I don’t get any particularly useful information so it looks like I need to go back and try one of the other quests next. I’ll probably have a look at the towers at the North and see if I can’t get them fixed.

I’ve spent most of this session in the dream world which proved to be fairly odd – it seems like an excuse for the developers to do some strange things with the game engine. It all fits within the context of the game – the little mini quests are definitely better than just navigating maze like dungeons. I don’t feel like I’m that near the end of the game yet – this is taking quite a bit longer than Savage Empire and doesn’t feel much smaller than Ultima 6 was. This is probably the best Origin game I’ve played up to this point so I’m not complaining anyway.