Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Historical Note: Lord British Half-Apologizes for Ultima VIII

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 1, 2010

A long time ago, I bought Ultima VIII: Pagan on CD, but never actually ended up playing more than a few minutes of it. Didn’t quite get into it. And some of the grumblings I heard from other players and critics made me a little less than optimistic to “power through” the beginning of the game in hopes of finding great rewards of fun at the end.

(Kinda like how / why I never finished Final Fantasy XII, come to think of it…)

Stumbling across the CD a couple of weeks ago, I decided to install it again just to reacquaint myself with it. Now, this was a re-release of the game, which originally shipped on floppy discs in 1994 for DOS. The re-release came fully patched and at a discounted price (IIRC). Anyway, as I was figuring out how to install it (in DOSBox), I came across a text file to fans by Richard “Lord British” Garriott that kinda surprised me. Here’s the full text of the message:

Dear Ultima Fans,

With each Ultima we have created, we have made massive changes in technology, interface and approach.  This pattern was started with the first few Ultimas.  Back in those days we were just learning how to make games.  By the time one was finished it was clear that there was a much better way, so the best plan was usually to start over from scratch.  Interestingly, it had another effect as well.  Since each game was really, measurably, noticeably better than its predecessor, it also sold better.  Whereas, most of Ultima’s competitors, were cranking out sequels in the same old engine and selling to a subset of their initial market.  So our pattern of innovation and experimentation that began as a learning experience became a powerful tool to insure success.

With each new game it is always the interface and play style experiments that cause the most debate.   With each product it is interesting to note how changes we have made are received.  I remember how much debate there was about converting from keyboard control to mouse control, a decision I am very pleased with now.  There is still an ongoing debate about ‘mono scale maps’ like we have had in the last few Ultimas.  In fact it appears that for Ultima IX we are going to have two scales, town scale and outdoor travel scale.  This will allow more interesting travel by horses, ships, dragons and such.  I’m sure these debates will continue.  Probably the most debated play style changes, though, came in Ultima VIII.

In Ultima VIII, we worked very hard to reach a lofty goal of audio visual impact.  We wanted the Avatar to be seen in greatly  detailed animation.  We wanted it to feel like you were really there.  In addition we were concerned by the fact that Ultimas had become so big, that only hard core gamers were willing to play them. They were especially daunting to new, non-Ultima-playing gamers.  So we decided to really focus on the scope and pace of the game to try to reach some of this ‘new’ audience.  To a large degree, we succeeded at many of our goals.  Ultima VIII is easily the most beautiful Ultima to date; the animation is smooth and detailed.  This  helped draw new players to the product who had never bothered to look before, especially in Europe.  This did, however, come at some cost.

Many aspects of what people had grown accustomed to in an Ultima were less emphasized, and some new aspects felt a bit out of place. And, overall, there was so much change that I think we had not yet mastered the new style.  Like they say, hindsight is 20/20…

We have studied and examined Ultima VIII, considered customer feedback, and debated new directions for Ultima IX.  We have come up with a plan that, we believe, will retain the strong advancements we made in Ultima VIII and really give people the epic game that will be worthy of the last game in the trilogy of trilogies!

Origin has always prided itself on strong customer interaction.  Customer feedback consistently mentioned issues with the implementation of jumping, the arcade feel, a frustrating user interface, holes in the storyline, and low interactivity. The design of Ultima IX (which is still in progress) relies heavily on this feedback and has resulted in a dramatic turnaround back toward classic role playing. Even better, it has resulted in a classic Britannian Ultima.

Some of the new design features were tested in the Ultima VIII engine. The jumping was improved by removing the fixed distance and allow a ‘targeted’ jump. The user interface was also improved.  Ultima VIII game play was enhanced so much that Origin decided to publish a patch.  As long as a patch was going to be published, some members of the Ultima VIII team got together and fixed other parts of the game: interface, story, and even some map details. In all, nearly 100 different modifications and enhancements were made.

I am confident that if you try out this patch, you will be very pleased.

Lord British

I imagine this is only of interest to geeks like me who are as fascinated by the history of video games as the games themselves. I know there’s a few of you.

While the awesomeness that was supposed to be Ultima IX didn’t quite materialize as planned (but then Ultima Online came out and changed everything), this was a surprisingly frank note to the fans from Garriott explaining why they made the decisions they did, and asking the players to give the game another chance with the patch – and to not give up faith in the next Ultima. And it acknowledged, it seems, the fan’s misgivings about having yet another Ultima set in a different world from the one they loved (as much as I’m sure the designers were sick of it).

I don’t know if this was the right PR move for Origin, to have the founder and originator of the series issue this semi-apology, but I think it reflects a level of integrity, accountability, and personal ownership in the game that gets lost in the modern mainstream games biz today, with the designers and developers shielded by layers of middlemen and lost in committees. One more reason I’m more and more into indie games these days.

I think it also demonstrates the difficulty and risks taking a “hardcore” game series and trying to make it more accessible to a new audience.  It’s a good goal, certainly, but there is a chance you can lose the vets and not pick up the newbies. Fundamentally altering the style of gameplay – in this case, providing more arcade-style feel and mechanics – is probably a mistake. It seems here that they smelled money (or were pushed that way by their new owners, EA) in the more console-style world and made a hybrid that wasn’t appreciated by either side very much. They patched it to eliminate the more aggravating aspects for their core audience – but was it too late?

(Personally, I doubt it was… I think the real problem was that Ultima IX was too late, but that’s just an uninformed opinion).

Anyway, there are undoubtedly some more lessons to be gleaned from this for RPG makers. As indies generally have to learn everything for themselves, without a support network of experienced vets to guide them, it’s helpful to devour whatever lessons history provides us.

Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I have a lot of respect for Richard Garriott, and it’s things like this that reinforce that.

    It’s a real shame that the Ultima series ended in the way it did. Ultima 7 and the Underworld games are amongst my all time favourite games, so it was sad to see them fall into the EA pit.

    I tend to blame EA for what happened only because of the similar situations with Bullfrog and Westwood… No doubt there were other things that caused problems, but it’s easier to blame the big publisher!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That pretty much mirrors my own feelings. I’m a little suspicious of my fandom, as Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII came out at around the same time period and I may be more devoted to them than I ought to be simply because of the stage of my life I was in. But part of me figures that Origin pretty much peaked around then, and in spite of UO’s success it was never able to match it’s glory of the early 90’s after being bought out by EA.

    I think in a lot of ways, RPGs in general hit a local peak at about the same time, with other games like Eye of the Beholder II and so forth hitting high water marks and then pretty much collapsing into a relative dormancy of quality for a few years.

  • Gareth Fouche said,

    Ironically, Ultima 8 was the first CRPG I ever played (it came on a disk with Wing Commander and a few others on my first computer) and I thought it was utterly fantastic. Never before had I had that feeling of being engrossed in an alien world of such detail. I loved exploring and learning about the factions and suchlike, interacting with this living world.

    And, funnily enough, what I heard and saw of the other Ultimas after I’d played Pagan turned me off. The Virtues and how you had to achieve them sound like interesting gameplay concepts…but I find the concept trite, cartoonish. And I thoroughly dislike the medieval British influences. I’ve never liked playing paladins, setting out to become the ultimate super do-gooder in a faux-Britain where everyone said ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ after being immersed in the alien world of Pagan seemed utterly unappealing.

    Funny how my response to U8 seems to be directly opposite to the Ultima fan base. 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Sounds like they did succeed on acquiring SOME new players then.

    Okay, so I may question your tastes a little more, now, I still think you’ll do a kick-butt job on SoW 🙂 I have a good friend who has always been a hardcore fan of the Ultima series who also enjoyed 8 (and 9) a great deal, so it wasn’t like a complete disaster.

    A LOOOOONG time ago, I read an article by the guy who was the lead programmer or one of the producers on the title, and it was sobering. He was basically working super-hard to meet what SOUNDED like the #1 priority – delivery on schedule. He learned a harsh lesson that releasing late hurts your reputation for a quarter, but releasing a game that fails to meet quality expectations (because you focused on releasing on time) hurts your reputation forever.

  • Milkman Dan said,

    The first and only time I played Ultima VIII, I slipped through a “crack” in the scenery and ended up running around underneath the map. As fun as that was, that wasn’t exactly the kind of fun I paid for.

  • Calibrator said,

    Gareth, U8 – or as it was called at the time: “Super Avatar Brothers” because of the timed jumps – *was* a greatly dumbed down Ultima. Not only to some extent but in pretty much any sense and this is not only a solitary opinion of myself or the rabid fanbase. It’s simply a fact and easy to see if you compare it to it’s immediate predecessors.
    This isn’t to say that U8 is a bad game – it really isn’t! – and it makes for a great introductory Ultima, IMHO. So, no, your response isn’t exactly surprising to me.

    This core sentence aptly describes their intentions and a) their motivation is understandable and b) the failure of U8 in the eyes of the people expecting a “better U7” is the result:
    “In addition we were concerned by the fact that Ultimas had become so big, that only hard core gamers were willing to play them. They were especially daunting to new, non-Ultima-playing gamers. So we decided to really focus on the scope and pace of the game to try to reach some of this ‘new’ audience.”
    (I think this reminds me of a certain recent blog entry here…)

    This isn’t the developer Lord British speaking but the manager Richard Garriott who has to run a studio and is pressured to increase sales and maximize profits. A person that is aware that every new Ultima took longer and was more expensive than the one before it.

    By the way: A very similar situation drove the “holy” Warren Spector to produce the mediocre Deus Ex 2 which is universally shunned by fans. And yes – the motivation and method was exactly the same: Dumbing down a large, complex game that had a cult following – this time for console users – to get more sales.
    Some people say humankind doesn’t learn from it’s mistakes. Well, this is the proof…

    Back to U8: The -for the time- very large patch modifies the game drastically, yes, but does it really change the “dumb” U8 into a normal Ultima? IMHO it doesn’t. I played both versions and while the feeling is somewhat more traditional the game world essentially stays the same: Limited. Any Ultima fan knows that the game world is what makes an Ultima special (at least 3 to 7a/b and also 9). A large world to explore (a novice may find U8 sufficiently large but a U7-lover probably won’t), many in part unnecessary activities and stuff like baking bread etc., lots of side quests, many NPCs etc.

    Of course they could have integrated a “casual game mode” (easier enemies, less dialogue options, simpler quests) into the game, dumbing a very large, complex game down if needed – but they didn’t. Just consider that Origin was _the_ leading RPG house at the time and U7 was their masterpiece – they certainly could have pulled that off easily.
    But I’m sure they didn’t even think about that as they were too concerned about dozens of animation phases, the optional speech pack etc.

    Selling a dumbed down game to the hardcore fans will most certainly alienate them and to lots of people U8 wasn’t just “not performing” – it really was disappointing, sometimes to the brink of utter devastation.

  • Gareth Fouche said,

    @Calibrator : I didn’t mean to imply the fans of the previous Ultimas are ‘rabid’ or anything. Just found it funny how directly opposite my experiences were, having started with Ultima at U8. U8 seemed huge and filled with detail to me at the time (remember, first RPG.), I never did manage to complete it.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    As one of those rabid Ultima fans, I have to say I did enjoy Ultima 8.

    The opening cinematic is amazing, and the world was very well made (and indeed, it was supposed to be even bigger and more detailed).

    There are certain inconsistencies between it and the other games though, most obviously in mechanics. I’ve never really been a fan of jumping sections in games that aren’t primarily about that. One of my least favourite parts of Half Life is the Xen jumping bits, for example. I also remember playing it pre-patch, and it was abysmal (there are LOTS of places where you need to jump).

    However, despite the mechanics and the plot problems (visit this website for more info on how the world of Ultima changed over the course of the nine games: http://hacki.bootstrike.com/english/nitpicks.htm ) I really did enjoy it and would recommend it to anyone (especially now the jumping is easier!).

  • Kylotan said,

    Another interesting historical note about Ultima VIII is that Diablo was described in terms relative to the Origin game. If I remember correctly, adverts at the time (or was it the back of the packaging?) boasted that Diablo had better graphics and more animations than Ultima VIII. It’s as if that was the passing of the baton from traditional RPG to action RPG, where for a brief time they were considered equivalent.