The Ultima role-playing series began in 1981 with a computer game that had simplistic-looking graphics but went on to influence RPGs for years to come. Ultima gave rise to its own series, as well as offshoots like the Ultima Underworld games and one of the first graphical massively multiplayer RPGs, Ultima Online. The next game in the series will be a fully 3D online game that will revisit the Ultima universe and will also attempt to be truly enjoyable and highly streamlined. Massively multiplayer online RPGs are popular, but some players criticize them for being too time-consuming or too difficult to pick up for beginners. The development team is hard at work attempting to create a game that will solve these and other issues while remaining true to the Ultima series. Lead designer Jonathan "Calandryll" Hanna explains.
Designing the Next Ultima Legend
Jonathan "Calandryll" Hanna
Lead Designer, Ultima X: Odyssey
Have you ever played a sequel to a game or a game based on a movie that didn't quite "feel" like the original? The characters are there, the world looks familiar, but something about it just didn't give you the feeling of "déjà vu" you were expecting. Often, the reason for this has to do with the clash between the intellectual property and the developer's own vision. Sometimes developers see the property as more of a straitjacket than a set of building blocks with which they can create something.
Given the rich history and loyal fan base behind the Ultima single-player series, we wanted to make an online game that really felt like an Ultima game. Not just in the names of characters and places but in the gameplay experience itself. For us, working within the Ultima universe isn't a limitation, but rather, it's an opportunity to build on the legacy of one of the greatest computer role-playing games of all time.
At the same time, we also wanted to make a game that would appeal to players who may have never heard of Ultima. To that end, it's important to maintain the spirit of the franchise and do justice to the series while also incorporating enough new elements to broaden the audience.
So, we set out to find the "essence" of Ultima. When we decided to make UXO based on the original games, we took on the responsibility of making something that even the most ardent Ultima fan would like. To do that, we spent a lot of time researching the previous games, looking for the things that make Ultima what it is. We wanted to find the essence of Ultima. We also wanted to find those elements that would resonate with and inspire any role-playing fan looking for a rich, fantasy world.
There are actually a few things that make up Ultima's essence. But, without a doubt, the aspect that most defines the Ultima series is its "virtues." Ever since Ultima IV, the virtues have been an important aspect of the Ultima games. In many ways, the virtues were the first step toward growing beyond other computer role-playing games, most of which focused entirely on number crunching and combat. For that reason, these games were more like "roll-playing" rather than "role-playing." The virtues presented players with a true role-playing experience that forever raised the bar for computer RPGs--beyond simply hacking and slashing through endless monsters.
Unfortunately, while computer RPGs have continued to add role-playing features, this has largely been lost in massively multiplayer online RPGs. While most claim to be role-playing games, they don't really offer any features that actually give you the chance to role-play. UXO does, and I'll get back to this in a minute. Anyway, with the virtues, we had the essence of Ultima--but the real trick was figuring out what do it with them.
The most direct route to incorporate the virtues into UXO would have been to simply make a "virtue system" in the game, in addition to all of the other things. But that just wouldn't have been enough. The virtues aren't a system; they're part of the gameplay in terms of guiding a player's actions. In other words, they're the essence of what makes Ultima games fun. So rather than make a separate virtue system, in addition to other features like combat, character advancement, and adventuring, we built the entire game around the virtues, which we feel creates a strong theme that is unique to UXO.
When deciding how to incorporate the virtues in the game, we first looked at how they were used in the single-player games. Interestingly enough, the most compelling use of the virtues in the single-player games was probably at the very beginning. Those of you who played the first Ultimas will recall meeting a gypsy early on in the game and answering a series of questions based on the virtues. These questions presented the player with a couple of choices, and the answers reflected your inclination toward the different virtues and toward the types of adventures you would encounter in the game.
Virtue Is Not Left to Stand Alone
Earlier, I described role-playing opportunities in UXO. The concept of letting you make choices during a quest instead of blindly following a linear story not only fits within the Ultima theme, but it also creates a strong role-playing tool for players. That is why we decided to have the virtues form the foundation for the adventure system in UXO. Instead of simply answering the gypsy's questions, you'll get to play them out, thus making decisions in the game and gaining points in the virtues that your actions demonstrate. The adventure system takes advantage of the virtues even further, making them an integral part of character advancement. So now, instead of just reading through a story and doing whatever the quest tells you to do, you'll have opportunities to make decisions based on the virtues, and you can advance your character and earn rewards based on these decisions.
Imagine you are given a quest to guard a prisoner at the entrance of a dungeon while a group of knights ventures farther in to seek more bandits. While guarding the prisoner, you realize that the knights are under attack and are in dire peril. Do you "honor" your oath to guard the prisoner, or do you "valorously" charge into the battle, thus saving the lives of the knights? The choice is up to you, and neither one is wrong. It all depends on how you see your character. This kind of role-playing feature has been nonexistent in online RPGs--until now! The virtues also permeate our item system and even the world itself. We really want the players to "feel" the virtues as an integral part of the world.
And like virtues, another key element in the Ultima series was the Avatar. The Avatar was the hero of the Ultima games--a virtuous warrior of unwavering honor and bravery. Since UXO is a massively multiplayer game, we knew we couldn't let everyone play as the Avatar, but we wanted every player to have the opportunity to become a virtuous warrior. For that reason, when creating the world of UXO, it was important to not only incorporate the Avatar into the fiction but also into the game itself. So not only does the game's story begin with the Avatar (and his nemesis, the Guardian), but he'll also appear in the world by giving quests to players as they progress through the game.
More importantly, players can get their characters to "ascend" to almost godlike status, just as the Avatar did through the single-player games. The Avatar had eight companions (heroes like Iolo, Shamino, Katrina, and Geoffrey) who helped him on his journeys and fought alongside him during his most epic battles. Ascension lets you create characters that represent each virtue, so your main character can continue on a special "Avatar" quest. Eventually, they can ascend to the same level as the Avatar.
Of course, those of you who know the Ultima lore know that when the Avatar mastered the virtues, he inadvertently created the Guardian (the consummate evil force in the world). The guardians that UXO characters create will have to be dealt with before players can fully achieve their own "Avatar" status. I will leave how that's done for another time.
Another aspect of the game that our team took very seriously was the implementation of details. When working with an existing property, like the Ultima series, there will be times you'll want to make a change. However, this is dangerous territory, since whenever you make a change you invariably run the risk of upsetting longtime fans. But a good sequel is one that appeals to both hardcore fans and those who are new to the franchise. So when we do make a change, we do so after much consideration, and only when a change benefits the new game without hurting what the longtime fans have come to know and love.
Probably the most notable change that we've made so far is in the look of the Guardian himself. Having read comments from Ultima fans, game reviewers, and our own team, it became evident that the Guardian's overall look was lacking. Reading comments that compared him to a "red Michelin Man" and a "red doughboy" gave us the inclination to make the Guardian appear more menacing. The Guardian retains his red skin but has taken on a more demonic look. We feel this change will make him more menacing and more interesting to new players, without straying so far from his original look as to make him unrecognizable.
It has been almost five years since the last brand-new Ultima game shipped. Ultima X: Odyssey will present fans of the series with a new world that brings back fond memories of the Ultima games while introducing new players to a vast and rich world. To the fans of the Ultima series--welcome back. To those of you who have never played an Ultima game before, we hope that UXO will let you experience what everyone else has been talking about for more than 20 years.