Martian Dreams Design Documents

Courtesy of former Origin programmer Bill Randolph, and thanks to the tireless efforts of Joe Garrity of the Origin Muesum, the Ultima Codex is pleased to present six documents — which have been broken out into over thirty (30) images — which discuss some of the technical details of Martian Dreams.

Specifically, the documents — all of which appear to be internal documents from Origin Systems — discuss the game’s alpha testing, the clue path and plot, the planned dream world encounters, maps, tilesets, and in-game flags.

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There is some truly fascinating stuff to be found within these (often amusingly ketchup-stained) pages, at least for those who enjoy getting a look at the technical foundations of software.

The tile sets document, for example, contains just that: hand-drawn sketches and notes about the various tilesets that were to be used in Martian Dreams, including the spaces reserved in the graphics repositories for NPC animation frames.

The map locations document is a short list of coordinates — with some corrections, possibly indicating that certain landmarks were moved around during the game’s development — of where different landmarks and things can be found in the game.

There’s also a really cool sketch of the gameworld map (that is: Mars), which was scanned in two parts by Joe Garrity and stitched together by myself:

Lots of goldurned ice!

The flag list document is another short list, this time of the various boolean flags that were to control the flow of conversations with various NPCs in Martian Dreams. Does Roosevelt have the Avatar’s fingerprints? That’s one example.

The dreamworld encounters document is a brief summary of the various encounters that the Avatar and various NPCs were to be able to have in the game. At the beginning of the document, a list of which dreams are assigned to which NPC (and which dreams are assigned to the Avatar) is given; some of the dreams described thereafter were not — at the stage of the game’s development this document was produced at — assigned to anyone.

As an example, here’s the first dream assigned to the Avatar:

  • 1) Martian Childhood Reminiscence – A Martian is dreaming of its childhoood. It begins as a seed that the Avatar must plant, in which it grows to maturity. At the point that it emerges from the pod, it is angry because now that it is adult, the dream is over.

The cluepath and plot document — the first page of which is signed by a “Philip S.” — is probably the longest document in the collection, and describes in detail every point of the plot as it was intended to progress. Many words and phrases in the document have been circled, crossed out, or otherwise marked up, which of course tells us that this document too was not the final version of the plot and game path. In one sense, it’s basically just a dry summary of every detail of how the game was to progress..but in another sense, it’s a very interesting glimpse at how Martian Dreams was plotted and designed, and how the plot of the game was modified and tweaked over time.

The alpha document is probably the document I find most fascinating, as it seems to be a guide for the alpha testers who first got to poke around with builds of Martian Dreams. Special locations for testing items and combat mechanics are detailed, as are convenient cheats which can be used for teleportation and as-needed healing. There is also a map of something called “Pem’s Martian Monster Park and Hunting Preserve”, which was evidently the space for testing the game’s weapons and combat mechanics.

The last two pages of the document are a map of “Demo Land”, a small island on which many of the various tile and scenery objects were placed (presumably for testing); it is noted that every object in the game was also to be present on this map, between two segments of a small canal system.

Bandit LOAF of the Wing Commander CIC offered a few additional insights when Joe and I asked for his input. Ever a font of information, he had this to say as a general comment on the documents as a whole:

  • [T]hese are extremely cool documents that really give you a feel for how worlds were created. Unlike the last set, I think it will be pretty obvious what each one is.

Concerning the alpha document, LOAF had this to add:

  • This is a guide written by Mike McShaffry for people who are testing the very earliest version of the game. They’ve created a “Martian Children’s Museum” with all the game’s different interactibles (weapons, tools, etc.) so players can warp in and test the limits of the game mechanics.

    That’s all very cool, and it’s a sort of testing you don’t see anymore…and maybe someone better versed in Martian Dreams‘ innards can tell us if this area is still available in the finished game…but MOST interesting is light hearted style the document is written in. Read through it — all the titles and little comments (“try ’em, you’ll like ’em”) have this great sense of fun to them. The guys doing this were having the time of their lives and it shows — which is very refreshing in a day and age where we’re reading about game developers treated like slaves.

    Mr. McShaffry is a real industry veteran today. He has worked on a dozen projects for huge companies, he’s written a book about game development and he runs a consulting company today…but back in 1990-91 this was his FIRST project. And you can just see how exciting that must have been in this doc. He has one of those autobiographical Mobygames entries that does a great job of giving you his life story…and he describes Origin as “the boot camp of the computer game industry”. It feels a little less cynical starting out!

    (Also, just a thought but I wonder if this being a ‘happy’ project is why Origin folks mourned the cancellation of the following Arthurian Legends game so much more than other dead projects.)

Compare the above with LOAF’s comments on the Ultima 6 design documents released previously:

  • I think the lack of humor is kind of funny in these. Looking at code and design documents for later [projects] there’s much more “ease” and a sprinkling of in-jokes and comments that only the team would appreciate — this stuff is DEADLY serious. You get the feeling they know this is going to be reference work for future projects (and surely it was).

    You just know they realize this is going to be read by the folks doing Worlds of Ultima and that King Arthur game and so on.

These Martian Dreams documents definitely demonstrate the ease and in-jokes that LOAF was referring to previously; it’s obvious that the development team were pretty comfortable with the game’s engine and technology, and were really just out to have as much fun as they could making a very different sort of game.

Anyhow, the usual disclaimers follow.

The images here, in JPEG format, are lower-resolution extracts from PDF scans of the original documents. They are legible, but not of particularly high quality, and thus are not recommended for printing; download the PDF files for that purpose.

Most importantly, though: enjoy! Pull up the images, download the PDFs, and pore over them. Search out every little detail, and enjoy a fascinating glimpse into the nuts and bolts of how Origin crafted a truly ground-breaking RPG. The Ultima Codex is indebted to Joe Garrity for providing these documents, to Bill Randolph for releasing them and making them available for us to see, to Ben “Bandit LOAF” Lesnick for his invaluable insights, and to Mike McShaffry, “Philip S.”, and everyone who worked at Origin Systems.

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