Monday, February 8, 2010

Whither Ultima 4?

So when I tell people that I'm trying to rebuild a classic computer game I usually get the same response.... which one??? And then when I tell them "Ultima 4" I get one of two reactions:

1) They look at me kinda funny and don't know what I'm talking about. First they have never heard of the Ultima series, and second they are unsure about how the number 4 somehow qualifies the game as a 'classic'.

2) The other reaction is one of trembling incredulity... oh my god.... really?!? I haven't thought about that game in years! That's AMAZING! One person sent me an email saying that I was his new personal hero.

Those are two fairly disparate responses to a computer game. I mean I can understand if people don't know about it: twenty-five plus years have passed since Ultima 4 first came out. This is in an industry where most games are considered obsolete within three or four years. And yet the other response shows that there IS something special about this game.

So for those who are in the first camp... let me give ya some the other responses from the second group. One game critic who has been around for a while has the pseudonym Scorpia. She is notable for two reasons... she has been writing game criticism for over twenty years, and she is a woman writing about a fairly male-dominated medium. So here's her response when asked about her favorite game of all time: "Of course, "best game ever" isn't correct; what's really meant is "best game so far", since there is always the future, and something may come along to take top position. Until that time, the best game I've played so far, hands down, is Ultima IV." (

Here's another response: In 1996, Computer Gaming World named Ultima 4 as #2 on its Best Games of All Time list for the PC. (#1 was Sid Meier's Civilization & #3 was a game called M.U.L.E.)

Now arguably, most top 100 games lists might not contain Ultima 4, but I'd be willing to bet that they would contain at least ONE of the Ultima games: i.e. the recent top 100 games list from PC Gamer listed Ultima 7 at number 24.

Ok so why do people remember this game? Why would I spend-what will probably be-two months of my time to recreate this game?

I think there are three main reasons why this game stands out for me... but I'd luv to know what other people think.

1) The character creation system--though often imitated--was completely original for the time. Normally when you played an RPG from the time, you would manually assign your stats to a bunch of characteristics. You would 'roll' your character as if you were playing a table-top, pencil and dice role playing game. But with Ultima 4, there was none of that. Just a set of eight pick A or B questions that would determine what your character would become. There were no 'right' or 'wrong' answers, but simply responses that would determine the moral strengths and weaknesses of the character you were about to become. Nobody had seen ANYTHING like it before, and if you played the original game, then I'm willing to bet that you never forgot that moment when "Thy path is chosen!".

2) This was the first game where you would play in a single continent world called 'Britannia'. You would actually play in the same basic world in the next three Ultima games, each time you would see what had happened to the world as time had passed. In the same way that the children from the Lewis' Narnia series, you would get to go back to revisit the special world that you had previously explored. Also, Ultima 4 created a new system for 'talking' with people. In previous games you would talk at a person and they would say the same bit of 'canned' text. But in Ultima 4 you would have to give a response to be able to pump people for info. In such a way you could be talking to somebody in one city, and then find out you had to go to another city, find a particular person, and then ask them about a specific TOPIC. In some cases, this was the only way to solve certain problems, or find hidden objects in the world. So in the same way that you returned to the same physical world, you would get to visit with the same 'people', and see how they would develop throughout the series of games.

3) Finally, I think the reason why this game has such a lasting appeal is that it broke to traditional quest structure of computer role-playing games. Typically the story goes as follows... journey in a fantasy world, gain enough levels of experience, and then find the big 'baddie' of the game and kill it. Not much has changed in this regard... Wizardry, Diablo, Bard's Tale, Zelda, Fallout... they still follow this same general pattern. What did Ultima 4 do? Instead of having one baddie that you had to 'off' you instead had to travel the realm being and learn the moral code of the world. You would then enter into the toughest dungeon of the game, and when you made it all the way to the end you had to answer 'virtue' questions to see if you knew the code backwards and forwards. So the ultimate aim of the game... is to improve yourself and be a decent human being to the rest of the world. Not a bad concept on which to tell a story.

So I guess my overarching goal is to try to get the people from group 1 (what's an Ultima?!?) to have a little better understanding for the people in group 2 (you are my new hero, and when does your Flash version go live?!?).

I guess there's one other thing I'd like to share with ya on answering the question "Whither Ultima4?". I've worked in the games industry for a long time, and on all kinds of projects. I have to say, that beyond a doubt, that this is the most fun I've had coding in a long, looooong time. I wake up each day with a renewed vigour to see another bit of Britannia come to life. I can't wait to share my work with people. I want so much to be able to teleport new users back to the wonder of Britannia.

Next time I'll give you guys an update of some of the technical issues and reworkings that I've been doing.


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