Ultima X: Odyssey Q&A

We sit down with senior producer Rick Hall to discuss the next game in the Ultima series.

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Massively multiplayer online role-playing games have grown and changed over the years. They first appeared as text-based "multi-user dungeons" (or MUDs), though later games like Ultima Online and EverQuest added colorful graphics and fully realized, persistent online worlds that helped these games become even more immersive and addictive. Though the premise is similar in most of these games--you create a character of a specific race and profession, then go off to fight monsters and acquire treasures in an online world with other like-minded players--online RPGs have grown and changed over the years and have offered adventures in both high-fantasy and sci-fi settings. EA Games' Origin Systems studio is working on an all-new online RPG based on the Ultima mythos--the fantasy universe, created over a decade ago, that helped lay the foundations for modern role-playing games. We sat down with senior producer Rick Hall for more information.

Ultima X: Odyssey will offer diverse environments and equally diverse quests and opponents to face.
Ultima X: Odyssey will offer diverse environments and equally diverse quests and opponents to face.

GameSpot: Thanks for joining us, Rick. What aspects of Ultima X: Odyssey is the team working on now? We saw that the game was already in a playable state at its unveiling, so is the team currently working on building out new content, or tweaking network code, or something else entirely?

Rick Hall: All of the above. We've got some great ideas for modifications and additional features from the players who attended the event, and we're already hard at work on these. These things involve some tweaks to the combat system, a lot of interesting ideas for guilds, some creature and ability ideas, and some thoughts people gave us on questing.

In addition to that, yes, we're adding in lots of content. Since the unveiling, we've added a horde of new monsters, about two dozen new maps, quite a lot of new quests, the basic guild creation and management features, some enhancements to the party system, item imbuing, some new special abilities, and a few other things. And, yes, we've also been working hard to optimize everything from the network code to the frame rate.

GS: Could you describe how character creation will work in the game? We know that you can choose to specialize in different character skills, like swordfighting and sorcery, but will the new game have a character development system that's as open-ended as that of Ultima Online?

RH: When you initially create your character, the first thing you'll do is choose your character race. You can be human, elf, gargoyle, orc, pixie, or phoda. You can be male or female in every race, except pixie (which has no males) and orc (which has no females). You'll also be able to customize with options like skin tone and face choices. And, finally, you'll be able to choose your character's path, which will be either the path of the blade, the path of balance, the path of the arcane, or the path of nature.

Each of the four paths encompass three different "disciplines," which are similar to what you might think of as "classes." For instance, the path of the blade contains the disciplines of barbarians, fighters, and knights.

Each discipline has its own themed set of skills associated with it. These skills are arranged in "tiers," with three choices in each discipline available at first level. In other words, a first-level follower of the path of the blade has three barbarian skills, three fighter skills, and three knight skills to choose from. But that character will not have access to any skills from the paths of the arcane, balance, or nature.

As players accumulate experience points, they will be rewarded with ability points. These ability points can be "spent" on the skills noted above. New skills can be purchased, or existing skills can be enhanced. After enough skill points are accumulated, the next tier of skills will be unlocked. There are six tiers in each discipline, with three skills per tier.

While there will be some benefits to choosing the majority of your skills from within a single discipline, there is nothing to prevent the player from choosing skills from any discipline within his class. This allows for better customization of the character's capabilities, while still adhering to a general theme.

You'll be able to aspire to the same level of virtue that the Avatar attained.
You'll be able to aspire to the same level of virtue that the Avatar attained.

GS: We understand that players can attempt to aspire to the same level of virtue as the Avatar. How will the system work in practice? Will this kind of advancement take place primarily through quests? And will players have the option of eschewing virtue in favor of vice in order to serve the Guardian and advance as an evil character?

RH: Since the ascension system is still in its prototype stages, we don't want to release a lot of details that might change before we go into public beta. With that stated, I can verify that you will indeed be able to achieve the same level of virtue as the Avatar, when he ascended, and this advancement will heavily involve questing.

And in answer to your remaining question, we're not planning on supporting an antivirtue system in the initial release. However, if players express enough interest in this, we can certainly undertake it in an expansion. As you know, massively multiplayer games evolve and take on a life of their own after launch. We plan to solicit feedback from the players as much as possible, and we'll base our decisions for additions and enhancements on that.

Adversity Doth Best Discover Virtue

GS: Give us a rundown of Ultima X: Odyssey's combat system. How will it be more fast-paced and more tactical than that of other online RPGs?

Ultima X: Odyssey will feature fast-paced combat.
Ultima X: Odyssey will feature fast-paced combat.

RH: The combat system is much more interactive than the typical "sandwich combat" we tend to see in a lot of other online RPGs today. Players won't be able to just set their character in "war mode" and then head downstairs for a snack, only to return later and see if they won the fight. They will have to constantly make decisions, attack, defend, maneuver, execute combos, and manage their resources in every encounter.

In UXO, you'll have real-time control in combat. Your character will have to react in accordance to his situation. Midfight decisions and adjustments will often mean the difference between winning and losing. Given this level of control, there will be any number of different strategies and approaches to combat. It all depends on the imagination and creativity of the player doing the fighting.

GS: Give us a rundown of the game's magic system. What elements of Ultima Online, if any, will it incorporate?

RH: Please keep in mind that we are not trying to re-create Ultima Online. UO still has a very strong player base, and there are no plans to shut it down. The intent of UXO is to provide a fundamentally different play experience that happens to be set in the Ultima universe.

Having established that, the magic system is intended to be easy to use but flexible. First of all, every spellcaster has a basic attack. This will generally be some sort of low damage magic missile or small fireball. This attack costs no power to use and can be cast as often as desired.

Spells, on the other hand, are acquired as mentioned above--under the question about character creation and development. These spells are slower to cast, and they cost power. The effects of spells are quite varied. They can inflict different types of damage, affect monster behavior, summon creatures to fight for you, affect player stats, etc. And unlike many other online RPGs, spellcasting cannot, in general, be interrupted when the caster is damaged (unless he or she dies as a result, of course).

Additionally, we have opted not to require spell reagents because we felt that it was unfair to require spell casters to constantly spend gold in order to participate in combat, while melee types just have to buy a sword.

One of our fundamental goals for spellcasters was to enable them to operate solo if they wanted to. In fact, that's a goal for any character class in the game. While we do encourage grouping, there are times when many players really just want to jump into the game and have some fun on their own. Hopefully, we'll make that possible, even for a spellcaster who doesn't have a "tank" standing in front of him or her.

GS: And for players that don't care to wield sword or sorcery, what sort of other character professions and activities will be available? Crafting and trade skills? Housing and custom merchant shops?

The game will feature an unusual crafting system that actually requires you to travel and undertake quests to create items.
The game will feature an unusual crafting system that actually requires you to travel and undertake quests to create items.

RH: Another of our philosophies of product development is that we think it's an inherently bad idea to try to "scattergun" a game. In order to provide our best efforts, we prefer to work on a focused set of features and try to do them each very well and very deeply. Attempting to take on too many ideas all at once will inevitably result in none of them being executed particularly well.

Housing is a good example. Most developers will tell you that, despite appearances to the contrary, housing is a fairly complex system to design and implement. Rather than just plunk a cheap housing system into UXO, just so that we could say we have housing, we'd prefer to wait for an expansion so that we can give it the attention it deserves.

Regarding crafting, I can honestly say that I've never seen a crafting system in an online RPG yet that felt even remotely fun to play. While it's a great feeling to be able to produce items that can't be found in the game or bought from NPC vendors, typically the gameplay for crafting systems amounts to an endless tedium of clicking and spending gold.

Our intent is to allow players to still be able to manufacture powerful items that can't be found or bought from NPCs but to actually make the process fun. For this reason, we settled on the idea of "virtue imbuing." By questing in the world, you'll be able to gain virtue. The virtue points that are accumulated can be used to either develop your character or imbue magic into items such as weapons, armor, and wearables, which can then be sold, traded, or given to other players. The end result is similar to existing crafting systems in other games, but the process actually involves doing something fun.

Virtue Is a Habit of the Mind

GS: We understand that the team considers player convenience to be very important, especially when it comes to time commitments. What features will Ultima X: Odyssey have to help players with demanding personal schedules so that they can play and enjoy the game on a regular basis?

Ultima X: Odyssey will attempt to let you fit difficult battles, like these, into your busy schedule.
Ultima X: Odyssey will attempt to let you fit difficult battles, like these, into your busy schedule.

RH: One of the most common problems encountered by players with limited time is the fact that they can't keep pace with their friends. If you can only play five hours a week, while your friends can spend 20 hours a week, in most games they'll advance so far ahead of you so quickly that you can't stay in the same party with them. You then wind up having to play alone all the time.

With UXO, we're working to find ways to distribute experience and adjust combat such that a low-level character can even join forces with a very high-level character, and both can advance and contribute to the struggle without any penalties to either one. If we're successful, higher level players won't just automatically ignore anyone who isn't very close to them in character level.

In addition to that, we're also trying to build quests such that you can start and complete them in a reasonable amount of time. This will allow the more-casual players to feel like they've accomplished something, even if they only have an hour here and there to spend in the game.

Another feature for the part-time gamer is embedded in the advancement system. As players achieve higher and higher levels, it takes more and more time between each one. The feeling that progress simply isn't being made fast enough can be quite disappointing to those who aren't able to make the game into a full-time job. In UXO, players receive stat points and ability points at regular intervals between levels. This allows players with less time to get a feeling of accomplishment more often.

Another of the more time-consuming difficulties is locating your friends and traveling to them. We're implementing a number of features to allow you to quickly add friends to a buddy list, be kept apprised as to when they appear in the game, and join them by using a "teleport-to-me" feature. If you see a friend light up on your buddy list, a simple click of a button will allow either of you to teleport to the other's location instantly.

And to make travel even more efficient, we're also installing a large number of moongates in the world. Basically, once you've added any given moongate to your character's list, you can reach it from any other moongate. By cutting travel time, those players who only have a few hours a week to play the game can maximize the amount of time they spend advancing their characters rather than wasting it in transit to their friends.

GS: What plans do you have in place to allow players to form groups or long-standing guilds? Any other plans to add community-building or large-scale social aspects to the game, such as player-owned cities or organized sieges?

RH: Players will have some great tools for locating and assembling adventuring parties when they just want to get together for an evening or meet some new friends. And we'll absolutely have a nice set of tools for forming, customizing, and managing long-standing guilds. And both parties and guilds will have different kinds of goals that they can work toward and achieve.

As for other community-building aspects, while we don't plan to put housing in the initial release, there are a number of existing online RPGs out there that have shown that there are many different ways of promoting community. We've got several systems that we're prototyping for just that purpose, but until we finalize the details for them, it's best not to comment on that just yet. We're trying to be very careful about releasing information that will probably wind up changing as we get closer to our public beta.

GS: What lessons from Ultima Online and its many years of change and development do you plan to incorporate into the new game?

RH: One of the great things about working at Origin Systems has been that we've gotten the opportunity to see a "live" massively multiplayer game in operation for years. We've learned a tremendous amount about all of the "behind the scenes" stuff. Even though players don't see the servers, databases, network pipe, customer support tools, server monitoring tools, encryption, patching systems, and so on, they are most definitely affected by them.

The game will reward teamwork and will attempt to make joining up with a group a fast and painless experience.
The game will reward teamwork and will attempt to make joining up with a group a fast and painless experience.

But besides learning an awful lot about the infrastructure, we've also had lots of time to see what activities players spend their time on, how they go about exploits, where they're frustrated, and how they interact with each other. We've seen things that have worked, and we've seen things that haven't worked, both from a game-design standpoint and a technical standpoint.

Aside from technical experience, our most important lessons have shown us how people behave in groups--sometimes nicely, sometimes not--and how these interactions can affect game design in real time. It's very different from developing single-player games. I don't know if I'd say it's harder, but it's definitely different.

GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Ultima X: Odyssey?

RH: If I had just one thought to leave with the players, it's that when we looked at this history of Ultima--one of the industry's oldest and most venerable franchises--we just couldn't let it "go gentle into that good night" with Ultima IX. The Avatar will live on in Ultima X: Odyssey.

GS: Thanks, Rick.

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