Ultima Online: Samurai Empire Q&A - Overview
Associate producer and team lead Jessica Lewis explains what you can expect from this expansion pack for Ultima Online.
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Massively multiplayer games typically let you create a single character, then go out and fight monsters and acquire treasures in a colorful, persistent world with other like-minded players. While these games have their roots in text-based multiuser dungeon (MUD) games, some years ago developers had the bright idea to make games that add graphics to create a visual online world. One of the first such games was Ultima Online, which was launched in 1997 and continues to draw in devoted adventurers night after night, even to this day. EA Games and the recently relocated Ultima team are now hard at work producing the next expansion pack for the game. Samurai Empire will add all-new character classes, housing options, and lands to explore. Associate producer and team lead Jessica Lewis explains.
GameSpot: Tell us what the team hopes to accomplish with Samurai Empire. We know the expansion has several new features, but are the new character classes, housing options, and other content intended to just give players more to do, or is there a specific direction in which Samurai Empire is intended to bring Ultima Online?
Jessica Lewis: With each expansion, we want to build on the concept of Ultima Online being a virtual world, a place as vast, complex, and mysterious as the real world. Samurai Empire gives us the chance to add an entirely new culture complete with new clothes, weapons, monsters, mythology, and even food. We hope that players who visit Tokuno Islands for the first time have the same feeling one gets when visiting a new country for the first time--a feeling of everything being foreign and exotic, a sense that surprises and new experiences are around every corner.
GS: Tell us about the new character classes, the samurai and ninja. What will their defining abilities be, and what roles does the team expect them to play? (For instance, the ninja's animal form ability sounds like it could be very useful for scouting hostile territory.)
JL: Honorable execution, weapon parry, confidence, momentum strike, and lightning strike are just some of the new samurai special abilities. Fighting a samurai may change the dynamics of a battle. Many of their strengths come with fighting in numbers.
As one would imagine with a ninja, having excellent stealth skills is a must. Shadow jump, mirror image, and surprise attack are some examples of the ninja's special abilities that improve with being stealthy. Being a ninja is going to give players a chance to sneak around and fight in ways they've never been able to, as well.
GS: The new classes sound intriguing, and they also sound like they will be extremely powerful. Will they be the new must-have classes that everyone plays? How will they be balanced against existing character classes and players who already have advanced characters and may not want to start over?
JL: Designer Jennifer "Niobe" Lane offered to answer this question. "No matter the game, the newest shiny [thing] will always be the 'must-have' when it first goes live. Our goal is not to force players to switch characters, but to offer more variety and gameplay styles. With that said, the ninja and samurai will have the advantage when wielding the new Samurai Empire weapons, though they will need significant skill before attempting the special abilities only they can perform.
Though the samurai and ninja professions have their own abilities and skills, they should not make other professions less valuable or eliminate the need for them. We will continue to test and tweak these character types to balance them against existing professions.
Advanced players who would like to try out one of the new professions, but do not want to start from scratch, will be able to partially train ninjutsu or Bushido skills from a select number of characters in Zento City. This will allow veteran players to hone existing characters for the new professions."
GS: Tell us about the new housing features in the expansion. What kinds of things can players expect to be able to put in their houses--and will they have all-new kinds of houses to build? Will these new features serve merely as decorations, or will they serve other purposes in the game--an important market for the economy or perhaps granting some kind of bonuses to players in the same house?
JL: Samurai Empire has new floor, wall, and roof tiles; over two dozen new decoration items that are also rare items; plus over 60 new craftable items. We really wanted players to be able to create a dojo or pagoda from top to bottom. There are new sword racks, lanterns, Japanese garden tiles, fans and scrolls to hang on the wall, and food items to craft. Players will have to find the rare items or buy them from a vendor or another player. Having thief skills will be a great advantage in acquiring these sought-after articles. The bonsai tree seeds are offered as rare loot items--only found on Samurai Empire creatures.
Samurai? There Goes the Neighborhood
GS: Tell us about the new landmasses and areas that will be featured in the expansion. Is it safe to assume that the new areas will be in keeping with the theme of the expansion--that is, feudal Japan-themed areas? Can we expect to see any new politics or factions associated with the new territory (or just with the expansion itself)--wandering ronin, samurai that serve daimyo warriors, or ambitious characters (either players or non-player characters) that aspire to be shogun?
JL: The Tokuno Islands consist of three islands: Homare-jima, Isamu-jima, and Makoto-jima. Our partners in EA Japan helped us find the right names for the islands (and a ton of other things in the expansion!). Each island is named after a virtue, which reminds us of the way of the samurai. "Homare" means honor, "Isamu" means courage, and "Makoto" means honesty. There is one city, two dungeons, and quite a few noteworthy points of interests, like the Kitsune Woods on Homare-jima where you must watch out for the bake-kitsune, a three-tailed fox with glowing eyes. Or the northern Winter Spur on Isamu-jima where the feared lady of the snow lurks.
Our designers and world builders have gone out of their way to help theme these islands in many unique ways. There are large points of interest like the Fan Dancer Dojo, Bushido Dojo, Field of Echoes, and smaller points of interest like tea huts, shrines, and scattered abandoned hideaways, all adding to the original beauty of the islands. (We have added ronin and elite ninja humanoid creatures too, so be warned. They fight a deadly battle.)
GS: When last we spoke with the team, we were told that unlike how content from the canceled Ultima Worlds Online later appeared in a regular Ultima Online expansion pack, there are no plans to reuse or repurpose any of the content developed for the recently canceled Ultima X: Odyssey. Is this still the case? Are there other plans for the work that was done on that game, or on the "separate Ultima product" that was hinted at earlier, that you can divulge for us now?
JL: Yep, this is still the case. Simply put, Ultima X: Odyssey and Ultima Online use entirely different engines. It isn't like we can just swap out the art files. There is not an easy or practical way to repurpose Ultima X: Odyssey content, particularly for the timeline of Samurai Empire. Our art process was well under way all the way back in early spring. We will have more to share with you next year about future projects with Ultima Online.
GS: One of the most intriguing features of Ultima X: Odyssey was the prospect of revisiting the classic Ultima universe and its original cast of characters, namely the Guardian and the Avatar (the Avatar being famous for his legendary "virtues"). Any chance of this sort of classic Ultima content making an appearance in Samurai Empire or in future updates of Ultima Online?
JL: Samurai Empire is keeping with the traditional Ultima Online story and content. We will be hosting player events in the near future, ramping up to the release.
The Samurai Empire fiction has not yet been introduced, and it is too soon to discuss whether it will be in future updates of Ultima Online. The original cast of characters you speak of will not specifically appear in this series of episodes. However, you will see some familiar names and places from both Ultima Online and classic Ultima fiction.
GS: In addition to the expansion pack's various features, what other changes and additions will the expansion make to the original game? Also, are there any separate changes planned for the core game that will be implemented even for players who don't decide to get the expansion?
JL: I mentioned before that the guild system is new and improved. I believe the guild system will be a pleasant surprise to all players of Ultima Online. We are introducing guild leaders, emissaries (who can invite or remove members), warlords (who can set and accept the win conditions to guild wars), and ronin (a "mercenary" rank of sorts--they are part of the guild with the absolute minimum permissions required to participate in wars). There will also be a new voting system for players to vote in or out a guild leader.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Samurai Empire?
JL: One of my favorite aspects of this expansion is the diversity of the new creatures, weapons, and armor. Our artists did an amazing job. Oh, and keep your ears open for new environmental music for war and peace modes, heard only on the Tokuno Islands!
We will be hosting a closed beta in the near future. Stay tuned for more details.
GS: Got it. Thanks Jessica.