Many modern games ask players whether and how to do the right thing, but none quite like Ultima IV, according to BioWare Mythic's Paul Barnett. But the 1985 role-playing game, which is renowned for its system of interacting virtues, has a few rusty hinges and rough edges.
"It's like reading Chaucer," Barnett said in an interview with GameSpot. "The controls are deeply inadequate, the graphics are horrible, the input system is byzantine at best." That's why his team is remaking it with modern trappings--updated graphics, multiplayer, and action RPG combat--and they're making it free-to-play.
Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar is set to launch on iPad and PC later this year. The game, which Barnett said will be playable "start to finish" for free, is the second major free-to-play project from BioWare, the first being Facebook tie-in Dragon Age Legends. He said the team took several lessons from the EA2D project, which was recently discontinued online.
"It had a lot of good ideas in it, it struggled to find a long-term audience, and perhaps was too aggressive with its monetization policy," Barnett said. So instead of "glass walls" preventing advancement through the game, Ultima Forever players will be able to buy additional means of transport or the ability to fast travel through the world.
Ultima Forever will feature the same set of virtues from its 1985 counterpart, but players will find new choices and consequences reflected in the game's fully integrated multiplayer. "Virtue is how you treat other people, in lots of games that's how you treat NPCs," said lead designer Kate Flack. "We want to take that same idea of how you treat other people and then apply it to the players."
She explained the game's mentorship system, through which high-level characters temporarily reduce their level to help with less-experienced friends' campaigns. Mentors grow in the virtue of sacrifice, for helping out on tasks beneath their heroic stature, and mentees grow in humility, for admitting they need help.
Barnett said the game will use Origin's matchmaking services across iPad and PC to facilitate multiplay between small groups of friends. These updates create a delicate balance between adhering to the vision of Ultima creator Richard Garriott, who is not involved in the project, and alterations for BioWare's approach to narrative and usability by a touch-centric generation. Ultimately, he said, the idea is to get back to what has kept Ultima IV a topic of conversation more than 25 years after its release.
"The idea that it's finding out who you are, that there's a difference between who you claim you are and who you actually are in the game," Barnett said. "Hopefully, if we've done it right, what it's actually hearkening back to is that good storytelling that we used to do in the past, when the technology was a lot simpler."