The games industry has no shortage of soap opera material. Stories like The Death of Ultima IX, The ego's at Id, and Stormy weather at Ion Storm, are prime examples of the great material that developers in our industry give the press to write about. What ever happened to the days of clever individuals relentlessly, selfishly pursuing unique visions of entertainment, and creating these visions without regard to who believed in them before they were completed?
A few things happened. First, there are the realities of the game companies as a maturing business, where distribution and marketing weigh in as at least equals with individual creative talent. Second, the prima-donna egos that are born with early successes create unhealthy working conditions and poor business decisions. Third, inexperienced management brought about by the emergence of a new industry with new challenges makes new rounds of leadership mistakes. Additionally, there is this pervasive belief that many of the new participants in this industry have that they have the right stuff and that they deserve the big bucks and that they deserve it right now. This belief causes stress and instability in companies. Beyond all that, there is still plenty of stupid money pouring in from venture capitalists and outside companies who are late to the game, but willing to waste their dollars trying. All this adds up to an unstable mix of rash thinking, ignorant mistakes, blame, yet still a few great success stories.
Years ago, back in the mid 70's, I began writing games as a personal creative outlet. I had the artistic interest of my mother, without the fine art skills. I had the scientific and technical interests of my father, but not the deep scholastic interest. I had acquired a theatrical presentation interest honed through participation in years of community theater and particularly from my studies under Claire Harmon. Lastly, I acquired an instant deep interest in the creation of fantasy worlds through "The Lord of the Rings" given to me by my sister in law, and the discovery of Dungeons and Dragons in the first few years if its existence. Put all this together, and I began creating fantasy worlds in earnest, as I still do to this day. I created Ultima like games (in fact many, very small ones), throughout high school. I built larger and larger Haunted Houses, as I do still to this day. This love of creation, and my artistic and technical background has been essential to my career in the games industry. Note that profit was not on the list. I still spend hundreds of thousands of dollars building Haunted Houses that we open for free to the public. They are funded by my past successes in games.
The games business has become a glamour business like the movie industry. People love to participate in activities that appear to be all fun and games to execute, and create a fun compelling result. And if there appears to be easy money, well, then this really attracts a lot of people, without regard to their skills and dedication. Making games was and still is fun. Early on, I must admit making games and lots of money for little skill and effort was easy. Making games now is still very hard work. Publishing a profitable game is even harder. Getting rich in short order is all but impossible. Yet, getting to the top of this industry for the properly motivated and skilled person, and then reaping healthy rewards and even great wealth is still much easier than in most industries. Yet way too many people, teams, and companies believe they deserve huge rewards for second tier results achieved through early efforts.
First lets focus on building a great game. Then we can worry about selling it. Great games are few and far between. When you add up the essential elements needed to produce a great game, it becomes clearer why.
Most teams I have seen at most studios lack the first essential ingredient, a true visionary. Most teams are a mix of green resources and "B" resources. Usually the "B" leadership has never led a top tier product successfully. This is the most common formula for mediocrity. Not to say that new visionaries don't emerge from the wilderness, but this is far from a bankable proposition. Some great managers can grow green creatives into great creative leaders, but our industry, due to its youth has few such managers. Generally teams need at least one great creative visionary to see ahead of the pack as to what form of entertainment might be achievable and desirable in the years ahead.
Beyond this, you need a great team. The nominal skill set that a team needs from every participant gets higher each year. Few teams have a stable of aces, but fewer and fewer winning projects can afford to have anything else. Not only is it hard to find this stable of aces, but it's even harder to keep them together. So many people remember the old days when it only required one or two aces and they all feel that they deserve to be the top dog and thus are prone to go their separate ways in an attempt to achieve individual success.
An experienced working relationship is another critical need in this industry. If you look at the very mature movie industry you see that the roles have been so well defined that a lighting designer can come in and use standard equipment and a standard process to add value to a film shoot. The games industry is different. Until a team has completed a full game cycle together it has little chance of being able to create its best work, to exploit the best skills of its members, or to predict the time required to take a project to completion. And as teams often lose members from one project to the next, rarely is a stable multi-project team found. But the companies that do this well succeed much more often. Consider id building Doom or Westwood building C&C: both of these companies had moderate success with prequels and then built the masterpieces with largely the same stable teams.
One of the reasons for this is how fast the rules are changing in our industry. Great games require a good deal of experimentation, and we are shooting for moving targets of machine capabilities and gamer expectations. As most jobs in our industry are not cookie cutter fill-ins, it takes time for a team to gel and be able to anticipate each other's moves.
It has been sad to see that as our industry matures, people seem to always believe the old adage, the grass is always greener on the other side. People now move quickly from company to company, in search of more money and the top job. Because there is so much money still poring into out industry, getting more money by changing jobs in this biz is very easy, with little regard to one's actual capabilities. Eventually, people who move from company to company do get the bad reputation they deserve, but this usually takes a few moves. The most important damage is to our industry as a whole, as the teams they leave are now hurt and the teams they join are often too green. Furthermore, the mover is often accepting a position over his/her head, thus compounding the suffering of all. But, they did get more money and advancement..
This not only happens with individuals but whole teams at a time. In my mind, G.o.D. is a prime example of this effect taken to extremes. They fail to realize the important job that powerful worldwide distributors do for them. They fail to realize how few (if any) of their products will be top 10 worthy and how only a few distributors have enough clout with retailers to help realize the potential of a possible hit.
In the online world, things may be different. New forms of distribution usually do create new players. Like Amazon.com, they would not exist if not for a new form of distribution. I'd be far more enthusiastic about a new company who sold a new type of entertainment that sold through the web.
So my advice to individual developers and teams is this. Keep your teams together. Even a 'B' team will do better after their 1st full product together. Build teams flush with 'stars' in every field. Don't be satisfied with anything less around you from your leadership through every support staff member.
My advice to people hoping to get into the games biz, is to first become well educated. Be that at school or on your own, strong skills are a must from the beginning.
My advice to anyone in the games biz, is to find a company dedicated to its people and the highest standards of quality. Stay there!
Symbols and symbolism in Ultimas
Pentagrams, Religion, Zionists and Prejudice
I often receive letters either asking about the sources of certain symbolisms and messages in Ultimas, or expressing concern about events or symbols in Ultima that are in conflict with some peoples personal values. I do not expect the following tome to win me friends in certain circles, in fact I may offend a few people, perhaps even a few at Origin. At the very least, I expect it will generate some lively responses. It is important to understand that I am not a religious person. I have no religious or supernatural beliefs of any kind. In fact you could say, I don't "believe in" anything. Rather, I use the reliable aspects of reality as a tool for exploration and understanding, view the unknown with great curiosity and adventure, and anything that appears supernatural or incongruous with a healthy dose of skepticism and at best a reason to go back and check earlier assumptions. What follows is sort of a retrospective of the evolution of how and why certain symbols and situations are included in Ultimas.
Back in 1982 when we founded Origin an interesting thing happened. For the first time I received what some might call Fan Mail. I suspect people may have written to me before at my earlier publishers, but these notes never reached me. Its funny that most letters start fairly complimentary of any game further back than whichever was the last one, but quickly turn to what I/we did wrong in the most current release and how we could improve it. As U3 was the first time I received such, it was strange to acclimate too. Now though, I look forward to it as an important aspect of improving our craft.
Back in the 1980s, role-playing games like Ultima and D&D were under a huge amount of criticism from religious groups and others who felt that role playing and pretend magic were an invitation to the devil, and role players were slowly turning themselves over to the dark side. One of the favorite letters Ive ever received was a strongly worded note calling me The Satanic Perverter of Americas Youth! (This person had not played or even seen an Ultima, they had only seen an Origin ad.) At the time I was rather shocked. At the time, I wasnt sure how to respond to such a charge. Clearly I didnt agree.
We founded Origin in my parents garage, but quickly moved to the northeast for a few cold years. (That is another story.) Having dropped out of college to play games for a living, living on my own for the first time, getting to the age where I began to think about my place in the world and being called the satanic perverter of Americas youth, all added up to a very introspective year.
Though obviously role-playing is not satanic, and combat games do not cause murders, I do think there is a connection between play habits and real life habits. All you have to do is watch small kids who hit each other after playing a combat game to see this. Role-playing is used at all ages as a teaching tool. Children role-play to learn basic social skills, teens role-play in many classes, I've even role-played tough management situations, to learn how to deal with them. Role-playing does have a powerful way of touching people.
The plot lines in most RPGs are basically the same old drivel, over and over again. I call it the standard RPG plot. I think you will find it familiar: You start the game as the great hero. (You know this because you are told so in the instructions.) You job is to kill the big evil guy. (Also, from the instructions.) You pillage and plunder everyone and everything to become strong for your final battle. (Of course the supposed bad guy is doing no evil right now, but you sure are.) When ready at last, you kill the bad guy who has been sitting there peacefully waiting.
Well, after 3 games of my own that retold this story, combined with all that introspection, I was ready for something more. I felt that role-playing would be even stronger in a more realistic setting. I felt that people are basically good, not merely for fear of some divine being, but because it was logical. Thus was born the modern Ultima design. I was really worried before we released Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, that people might think Id gone off the philosophical deep end, but instead, it was my first best selling game.
Ultimas since then have had a deep sense of ethics, which I carefully separate from morals. By my definition, Ethics are logically based, while Morals are religion based. Thus, if you object to pre-marital sex because it is against Gods laws, thats Morality; if you oppose it because of the risk of unwanted pregnancies, thats an Ethic. I do not subscribe to any Morals, yet believe I am a very Ethical person.
The Virtues in Ultima are Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility. A fictional collection, to be sure. A good basis for ethical behavior, yes. A good series of thoughts to use to provoke personal introspection, yes. My entire personal belief system, no. Some have asked, what I meant by Spirituality, as it often is used in a religious context. In this case I mean for it to mean the concept of introspection about ones inner values and the deeds they manifest. I do not mean ones soul or piety. I do consider myself a very spiritual person. However, to this day, I still get the occasional Die heathen or Satan worshiper note.
I quickly learned that I could not appease the religious right since I am not religious, and do not share their editorial approach to fiction in general. It has been interesting to note the various lines people draw as to how much is too much. Some say playing an RPG is bad enough, some say just dont pretend to do magic, some say just avoid Pentagrams and similar symbols. Me, I have no line. Worse yet, I seem to have developed a bit of a sadistic retaliation streak in response to their attacks.
Most people who would be offended by role-playing are not generally buying role-playing games. So, if I poke fun at these people, whom I feel to be closed minded, within the game, well.... Years ago I started playing with the edge of good taste. I put a 666 on my office door, my car, my phone extension and other places. I dont actually believe in any of it, but it is interesting to watch other peoples reactions.
Ultima is full of stories with a mythical theme and often shares a sense of parable that is found in places like the Old Testament. I am told that Ultima Parables are very much like parables found in other cultures. (As I am an unread, illiterate bum, I wouldnt know first hand.) With this in mind I am very happy with the positive undercurrent that exists in Ultimas. But dont get me wrong I love lots of games that have far less lofty inclinations.
It has been interesting to test the limits of peoples comfort zones down through the years. Over time I have grown to believe that testing peoples comfort zones makes them think about their closely held beliefs. I think this is always a good thing, as I think no one should believe anything dogmatically, especially if their reason for a belief is how they were raised which is where most people gain such beliefs. Let me share some of the stories of testing the comfort zone down through the years, at first inadvertently, later by design.
When Origin was founded in 1982, I finally had control over all aspects of the game including the manuals. I had always dreamed of creating an experience that felt real from the moment you opened the box. For the magic books, I wanted them to feel real, so I went to the bookstore and bought a bunch of real magic books. Boy, what a disappointment. I hoped for books, which read like arcane yet meaningful tomes, yet what I found was a bunch of boring text that was not very inspirational. So, I decided I could do better myself. I wrote spells that felt as real as I could imagine them. I created reagents, language and symbolism that to me felt real. We even put the most powerful spells behind a sealed tab, which read, open only when you are ready, for powerful evil can befall the weak.
I had a spell where you had to prick your finger and add a few drops of your own blood to the potion. This was my first line crossing. My family members, (who were my business partners,) were afraid that children would actually try this at home, so they made me cut it out. Then when we went to print these manuals, some local print shops wouldnt print them, as they thought they were satanic. Then a few years after the release of U3 we got an angry letter from a Rabbi, who said that we had included a graphic which was the never-to-be-written-name of God. (As I thumb through the book now, I cant tell which symbol that was.)
The next time I discovered a comfort zone was during U4. While creating dungeon rooms, 256 of them, it was hard to continually think of compelling new spaces. All I had to work with was furniture, monsters, treasure and the ability to use something and change out a few tiles in response. So, any thing that seemed clever gave me much satisfaction. So, I did orc rooms, wizard chambers, torture chambers then a few that I was fairly proud of. For example a room near the end of the game, where I put 1 of each of the 8 player types, knowing that the player would also have these 8 in his/her party. Thus the player might wonder what to do, fight or flee. (Dont forget this game was about proving yourself to be an Avatar, so be good!) One of the next I thought of was a room with cages full of children and a lever in the middle. If you pulled the lever, the children were released. The children were, of course, monsters and thus would attack you. As you were the Avatar I knew this would cause a dilemma as to how to handle the situation, as the players knew that their deeds were often recorded by the game. I was quite happy having thought of some rooms I hoped would spark mental quandary.
Well, one day, my brother, (the GM of Origin), called me into his office. It seemed that a play tester had written him a letter stating that he refused to work for a company that so clearly supported child abuse, and demanded I remove the room full of monster children. Amazingly, my brother agreed with him! Even my parents got involved in the debate and cautioned me against this rooms inclusion for fear of media and public outcry and pleaded with me to remove it. I argued that this was exactly the kind of provocation I was going for and was set in my belief that it should stay. Besides, I argued, you could put them to sleep, you could charm them, and there were many ways to avoid having to kill or hurt the children. The room stayed in. No one had a problem with it. But ever since then Ultimas have had an event involving killing children.
More recently, there was the fiery pentagram on the front of U8. That caused quite a stir. Some stores wouldn't carry it. Some stores ads had the center removed. Numerous players called foul. To me classical imagery provokes thoughts and meaning that have value to the realistic feel that I want Ultima to have. So, they stay.
Over 10 years ago, I created an artifact in one of the museums in Britannia. It was merely skeleton, the same as was used when a creature died. I labeled this one, "The Bones of Zog" and included an explanation to the effect that Zog was an ancient Britannian who had cast the armageddon spell and wiped out all life on the planet at that time. More recently, The UO Live team was looking for a good name for a new doomsday cult in UO, so they called them Zog. Well, sometime between these uses, some dumb obscure anti-Semitic group has called themselves something like the Zionist occupation group. So when we used our zog, some people protested loudly. Unfortunately, I was out of town at the time. Origin changed zog to the FOA, followers of armageddon. I would not have made this decision, as our game had nothing to do with a few peoples sensitivities over an obscure unrelated cult.
On the other hand, we have had some real incursions of hate groups into our virtual world. They are not welcome. They have, and will always be, banned upon identification. Our virtual worlds should, just as our real world should, have no tolerance for these close minded people. Just as I will not have the religious extremes effect our art, nor will we let these extremists do so, either. Both are closed minded groups and do not share the spirit of Ultimas, which is the path of constant learning, constant thinking, challenging yourself, and challenging your own beliefs.
I hope this sheds some light on the how's and why's certain things are included and excluded from Ultimas.
I have a friend who was telling a client about Heather's and my travels to the Antarctic and the Titanic. This woman expressed her concern that clearly we were still searching for the meaning of life, that could only be found in God. Which reminded me of a bumper sticker I had made in High School in response to all the "I Found it" stickers that were popular at the time. Mine read, "I'm not even looking for it!" Really though, to me life is a grand adventure, and I hope we are building grand adventures for you.
Some people do get it. I am reminded of a letter I received after U4. A woman wrote me after she and her daughter played the game. She was pleased to see how her daughter, saw direct cause and effect of good and bad deeds without having to make those mistakes in the real world. She felt that her daughter had truly learned and grown through the experience. Ultima IV was a highlight for me. I hope the work we are putting into Ultima IX: Ascension will have similar depth and impact.
Well, that seems to be more than enough for one letter. Now its time to think about my new castle. Today, Halloween, we broke ground. Its address will be 13 Rue De La Morte (Road of the Dead); it overlooks Dead Monkey Cove. Happy Halloween!
- Richard Garriott a.k.a. Lord British
What could have been an interesting article on the trials and tribulations of game creation, instead became tabloid journalism, and a forum for one ex-employee. I know all of you realize that it is very unlikely that you will ever hear much of anything good from a company's ex-employees. Either they quit because they were unhappy or they were fired which will make them unhappy. Such persons are thus a dubious source of information on our current status and our goals. Unfortunately, this pattern of negative attitude towards Ultima has gone on for years at CGW. The most recent article was inaccurate, misleading, and of questionable merit. Major national magazines should strive for true journalism if they wish to remain credible to their audience.
From now on, if you really want the scoop on Ultimas, please peruse our website at www.ultima-ascension.com, or even Email me directly at email@example.com.
Ultima Ascension is late very late. All of the best Ultima's have been. Ultima's 0-3 had no schedule. Ultima IV was two years late. Ultima's 5-7 we're about a year late each. So, Ultima IX, which is many years late, should be great! Really though, Ultima Ascension has seen its share of difficulties, but is now healthier than any Ultima has been in years.
This seems like a good time to talk about my attitudes on Ultima game design and why I believe it is so hard to find designers up to the task of designing Ultimas in this rapidly maturing industry with team sizes, budgets and technology advancing so rapidly.
I believe that a great game design must be crafted. A truly great game design must be worked and honed to achieve a level of polish, impact and worthiness. Easily arrived at answers are usually predictable, uninspiring and rarely compelling. All too many RPG designers feel that D&D rules and a collection of monsters and puzzles makes for a great role-playing game. Some of you may prefer this formula, but I do not.
I consider myself a role-playing purest. Role-playing, especially on the computer is never easy. I have had the luxury of entering this field when games were small and have grown with the products. So I have developed methods to observe and analyze designs in progress that I feel help to insure strong resulting interactive stories in which to role-play.
Many people are attracted to the game industry because they have their great game design idea. Personally, I truly feel that game ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard part is in the details of how you execute on those big ideas and how you choose a collection of ideas that make a truly great game.
Game designers in general have an interesting career challenge. Judging a good coder is fairly easy. Does it work? Is the code versatile, supportable, debugable? For artists, can they use the tools and show you the final product, which you can evaluate. But how can you look at the resume of a burgeoning designer and know if they can design? How can you find out if they can understand the high concepts that drive an Ultima? That is much more difficult to answer.
Computer game design is a non-trivial operation. It is a craft, which requires careful planning, lots of labor and insight that can either come naturally or is learned through years of trial and error. Since this has been my labor of love for nearly 25 years, I feel I have learned much, and yet have much to learn. For me the best results have come when we have tested our assumptions repeatedly, modified when appropriate, researched answers to insure results that would be unexpected. We even use particular strategies, (which I'd love to share someday, perhaps a later address,) as to how a design is recorded, expressed and analyzed.
As team sizes have grown, so has the creation process and our demands of new skills on the part of team members. With all this in mind, perhaps it can be seen why finding both a great game designer and especially one that can share in my vision of Ultima year after year, can be particularly difficult.
Down through the years, I have worked with many people who shared parts of the Ultima dream with me. In the earliest days people such as Ken Arnold not only shared the vision but also added greatly in numerous ways including the early music which I often still have melodies stuck in my head. Herman Miller, who is still a principal team member, not only shares the vision, but leads with added depth of things like the gargoyle language and much more than just the code he writes.
Perhaps the most important and definitely the hardest role is to fill, is the role of being my design partner on any Ultima. Down through the years, I have had periodic high hopes but have still only found a few people who seem to have the design and leadership talents, share the vision of Ultima, and can tolerate me. One such individual is Starr Long. He, backed up by Raph Koster and hopefully now Damion Schubert, know how to design an Ultima. In fact, they are leading us into new areas, which are beyond my 20 years of experience. Its like we are starting over again in the Aplle ][ days. Except the teams, budgets, competition and responsibilities are lots bigger. (So, maybe its not much like the old days ah well.) Seth Mendelsohn, my design partner on Ascension, and I are very much of one mind as to the future of lineage Ultimas. With them and the rest of our extremely talented teams, our products will speak for us.
Another thing we are working hard to improve is our support of the online community. In the past we have failed to provide you with regular accurate information on our status and our planning.
We are making changes now to insure that you hear details of our status and plans faster and more fully. Even though we believe Origin can easily be the leader in online community development, we are still struggling with how to best organize the company to support it. For example: We have 3 teams in LB productions working on Ultima products directly. We have a game master group running UO live and we have a web group that is part of marketing and builds the web sites that surround these product. The problem, as I see it, has been coordination and planning. Between the 3 teams, the GM's and the web team there was not a single individual driving our consistent support of the Ultima community. So I am happy to announce the hiring of Carly Staehlin-Taylor as our new Minister of Information. Many of you have already met her. Carly come to us from our friends Crack dot Com. There she ran one of the most vibrant community support efforts I've seen. She will doing things like:
One of the things I am most proud of is the longevity and growth of the Ultima series. In the last 20 years, computers have changed, tastes have changed (the players and our own). In the end don't forget Ultima, Origin and I have been together nearly 20 years. In that time you have to expect some bumps in the road.
In 20+ years of game development I have never seen a wholly stable team or company. Frankly, I feel I am one of the few constants of the industry. I still work at the same company I have for 15 years. I still create the longest running computer game series in history. The other game series that rival Ultima's longevity have changed development leadership and strategy down through the years. Ultima's are and have been, since the days before they we're called Ultima, been striving to become a completely believable virtual world. Frankly, I don't care how people categorize that RPG, adventure or whatever.
I am very excited about this Ultima; the team is exited about this Ultima. Sure we didn't plan on it dragging on for years, but those are the cards we were dealt this time through. No one is more eager to get it finished than we are, but not at the cost of creating a masterpiece.
Your servant, Richard Garriott / Lord British
I come to speak to you today of our next great work in progress, Ultima: Ascension. Just prior to E3 we launched the Ultima: Ascension web site. As part of our community building plans, I hope this to be the beginning of a regular series of posts where I can present our thoughts and plans for UA. Think of this as a State of the Union address, of sorts. I plan to post things that you might find interesting, clear up rampant misinformation and speculation, respond to areas of particular interest and exchange design feedback.
You may notice some information in this document that is similar to the FAQ that we posted recently. That's because I wrote this about 3 weeks ago, and regrettably, we have been slow getting it out. (I think we have solved the time-to-publish issue for the future.)
Let me begin by making a few broad comments about what we intend for Ultima: Ascension to be: a masterpiece. We will craft this game until the game play is fun and compelling throughout. We will craft it until it is easy to play and understand. Ascension will have the depth and meaning you'd expect from the climactic conclusion of the trilogy of trilogies. In many ways UA will be unlike any Ultimas which have come before, so those who are hoping that it will be a rehash of their favorite Ultima of the past will, well, hopefully adjust. Ascension will not be an action game like Tomb Raider, an arcade game like Doom or a strategy game like Heroes of Might and Magic II. It will be an Ultima. It will be an immersive, virtual world that will focus on you travelling to a very real place known as Britannia. Ascension will give you a compelling reason to be there and an epic cause to fight for. It will be an adventure in the sense of having adventurous elements around every corner, and it will be a role-playing game in the sense that you will be expected to play the role of the Avatar.
Perhaps I should mention my definitions for "role-playing" and "adventure games," as I sense that I do not share the same definitions by which many games are pitched. Back when I used to play D&D, a good game master was defined as a great interactive storyteller. No one cared about the "rules"-all that mattered was the "thought." As D&D grew in popularity, all too often the absence of a good storyteller caused people to argue about damage and weapon details rather than immersing themselves in the experience. In my mind, the term "role-playing" is attached to what I consider statistics management games. For example, Diablo is not what I consider a true role-playing game. I would call it an inventory management and stats-based fantasy hack and slash. A great game perhaps, but not the role-playing game I want to build. Heroes of Might and Magic II is another great game I have played for dozens of hours, but not by my definition a role playing game. I would call it a fantasy themed statistics-based strategy game. The same goes for most all of the Japanese style RPG's like Zelda, etc. Only Final Fantasy 7 strives to be role-playing, though it still has a stats-based game at its core. Now you may say I am splitting hairs, but I want you to understand what we are striving for in Ascension. Our goal is to make a role-playing game where you, your mind and your id travels and adventures in the compelling and realistic place we call Britannia.
(BTW - You should know this is not a marketing piece by the fact that I am willing to mention other company's products by name a marketing no-no.)
In the absence of clear information, people have latched on to the little bits they hear and see and extrapolate their worst fears from there. This is natural in the best of cases, but since it has been so long since we have seen a lineage Ultima, and Pagan's release was, shall we say, a bit rough, people have justification for concern. Hopefully, this dialog will help.
Those of you who have been following Ultima for some time know that my goal has always been to create a living, breathing virtual world in which we can live. I have often commented that I hoped Ultima X would be a "true virtual reality" with all the VR hardware to go along with it. Unfortunately, hardware has not kept pace, but Ultimas have grown closer and closer to being a well simulated, virtual place to live.
Beyond creating a virtual world, I want to create an experience where it is you, not your alter ego or the puppet you control, who goes to Britannia. That's why I have included things like cloth maps, tangible trinkets and manuals that always speak to the reality of Britannia-not of your computer. That's why the game often begins with you on earth finding a portal to Britannia. Character creation often polls you about your personal beliefs in order to create a character that is, in essence, you. A character whose actions you, the real you, are responsible for.
Since Ultima IV, I've taken great efforts to include compelling story in the game, which requires tough personal choices for the player to make. Not that I have a problem with a good bash and kill game, mind you, but I did those for the first 10 years of my career and for the second 10, I have enjoyed these ethical dilemma plays. For the third 10, we will have to see.
Many have expressed concern regarding our decision to make Ultima: Ascension a more broadly accessible game. Again, I can understand player's concerns that we will ruin their favorite playground by "lightening it up," but this is not our intention. However, as Ultimas have become more and more complex, they have also become more and more daunting in which to get started. This has had the net effect of turning people away from the game before they have even had a chance to appreciate it. I now feel this is a critical problem for the Ultima series.
The good news is that I do not think that accessibility comes at the cost of true Ultima depth. Think about C&C and Warcraft. Both of these are great games with plenty of depth. However, they have different controls and units. So it's a good thing that they both start you out with only a unit or two and let you master early principles before overwhelming you with the full technology trees. Consider Ultima Online instead. In UO you are met, day one, with 40+ skills to try to differentiate before you can play at all. So, in the Ultimas we design today, we are keeping the depth, but presenting it one piece at a time rather than overwhelming the player from day one.
Now, let us move onto the broader feature set. The following feature list was one we created for an internal design review some months back. I have removed some secret plot info that was in the list. Please understand that this list represents our current goals and may yet change, but I think it will fill in a few gaps in your understanding of what we are trying to achieve.
Richard Garriott, creator if the Ultima Series, is intimately involved
in design and creation
Return to Britannia with familiar characters and places
(Censored story elements.)
(Censored story elements.)
(Censored story elements.)
Now let me address some specific areas of concern and their current status:
One of the most commonly asked questions concerns "the party." Players have often described their desire to travel again with the companions of the Avatar. I also share this desire to have strong personalities as your sidekick while you travel throughout Britannia. However, the classical interpretation of a party has not shown to add the value we expected it to. As Britannia has become far more real that ever before, rather than symbolically as before, the experience has fundamentally changed. Britannia is alive in ways we had only dreamed of before.
We have succeeded well in creating an immersive, virtual world in which to live. When we stepped back to manage the affairs of the party members, it became a major break in the suspension of disbelief within the game. Adding to this is the difficulty with the party members following you through the complex 3-D geometry. Also, foes needed to be multiplied by the number of party members to make a fair battle. I felt that the gains of making Britannia a real place far outweighed the cost of building a less compelling party inventory management game with lower poly detail.
However, I still wish to keep what I thought was the great aspect of the party, which is, party members added cool color and depth to your experience by commenting along your journeys and participating in their own ways. Our plan is to have the companions still in the game, still with you, but not as robots that shadow your every move. Instead, they have their own wills and their own agendas. They will often travel with you for short stints, or on specific activities. They will meet with you often and do deeds for you and help you do the many tasks that will be required to complete your quests. What we will do is make them even more real, as we are doing with the rest of Britannia.
Jumping and climbing are topics that often stir people as well. Our plan is this. We are creating a full 3D environment with 3D obstacles to navigate. Climbing and jumping is a part of this. However, unlike Ultima 8 where jumping towards a moving object was hard to predict, in Ascension, you jump to the spot that you specify. Thus, it changes from an arcade action to one of planning and analysis. In the end you will have to try it to understand. I think those who saw it at E3 were pleased, and that was still in an early form. You will have to decide for yourself when you see it.
Action! No, we are not creating an action game. When people saw "action adventure," on some of our E3 materials, this choice of wording left many with an unintended impression. We are creating a game with a high pace of play and constant tension element. What I mean by this is best described using Ultima Underworld as an example. One of my favorite features of Underworld was that sense of tension at all times. NPC and monster threats were closely interwoven.
It took place in a dungeon after all. Right outside the door of where an NPC might have been located could lurk a monster, so you always had to be on your guard. In many "lineage" Ultimas (what I call Ultimas with a # after them), we have created sedentary towns surrounded by often gigantic, aimless wanders to get to the deep dark dungeon and back. In Ascension we are trying to weave the tension into all aspects of the game as we did in Underworld. Ultimately, we have created a world that has such strife within it, it is reasonable that monsters or at least bad guys might be right around the corner.
Inventory. For E3 we hacked-in function key short cuts to access spells and a few inventory items. Some speculated that this was how the game was designed. However, we plan to have a full inventory system akin to, but hopefully improved from, that which has come before including containers, backpack, new short-cut belt, spell book, etc. Nuff said.
Baking Bread. In the game right now, you can weave cloth, spin yarn and a number of other raw goods to finished product activities. I assure you the world-sim of Ultima is very healthy. What we are doing is focusing our efforts on things that are fun to do and not mere exercises in simulation that are boring or tedious. We are trying to really punch up the interactivity in more exciting and dynamic areas. Fortunately, this method of using raw goods to create finished goods is easy to do and so there will be plenty.
Some have asked how big this Ultima will be, so let me bracket it. Bigger than U8-smaller wandering wilderness spaces than U7. How we are creating the main continent is a bit different this time to insure neither too large nor too small a space. We are first building each city in a separate map. Then we can paste them together at what feels like a good distance. In the past when I built them on the same map to start with-when we had no cut and paste tool-the distances between events often became gigantic! When we moved to 3D, we found that a small distance between events often seemed much farther than we had imagined it would. (By the way that also happen in Ultima 7, and we overcompensated for Ultima 8.) I think this time we have a good stratey on this.
How about areas we are rethinking and plan on improving pre-ship? First and foremost, our character animation system. We feel that it ran okay for E3, but we are doing dramatic (read rewrite) revisions to it to be the best possible quality. We want to make our magic effects, which we feel are one of our strong suits, even stronger. Our 3D special effects, which we also think we do well, still have numerous enhancements to make. As I mentioned, the inventory system has yet to be created. We are re-thinking some of our stats and skills details. We are still tweaking numerous plot elements to be sure they create the right mental problems for the Avatar to face.
Some of you may have heard a rumor that the world comes to an end in Ascension, well
Now let me say a few things about our team. We have a truly world class team that include many of the best and brightest in our industry. The team includes three programmers who I've worked with for nearly a decade each (Herman, Gary, Chuck), great new additions from places such as Westwood and 3DO (Dave, Jim), including the former lead programmer of C&C (Bill). Great artists whom I've worked with for years (Bev, Jennifer, Scott, Scott, Bob, Michael, Cari), those who have come to us from great teams inside of Origin (Art, Victor) and the art director for many of the Quest games for Sierra (Andy). Add to that my design partner Seth, Jeff our exec producer we stole from Paramount, along with myself, and you have a team very much up to the task of making this the very best Ultima ever.
Finally, let me tell you what I am personally doing on UA. Since we hired Jeff Anderson to replace me as executive producer, I am now free to dig into the design details like I did in the old days. As director, I can assure you that I am very involved in UA. In fact, I built much of the map we showed at E3 and I coded many of the conversations. (I have not coded in 10 years.) I am having a blast, and I believe I am now in a far better position to help make sure this Ultima is a masterpiece!
In any case, I hope this clears up some of the confusion. I expect it will cause some debate. Remember that we are creating this game for you, so your input is valued. Please, for me, keep the flames to a minimum so that I can enjoy this dialog as well and be excited to keep it up, rather than run in fear. ;)
Specific things I'd like to see discussed online, or other forms of feedback, is character creation, character statistics, character skills, inventory management, true role-playing vs. stats/inventory management. I will be scanning the Ultima sites in search of quality discussions of this information. I look forward to continuing this dialog in the near future.
Additionally, I have a new email address that was created for you to give me feedback directly. I may not be able to respond to everyone with a personal response, but I will pull interesting emails and respond to them in future posts. I will also try to set up a system by which you will at least know I am indeed receiving and reading your comments. That new address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for your time.
See ya soon in UO,
Lord British a.k.a. Richard Garriott