Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dude! Where's my Ultima4?

Ok, I promised I would eventually tell what happened to my version of Ultima 4, and why I had to take it down. Here are three sides to my story:
  1. What happened from my perspective.
  2. What happened from the perspective of what might have been going on at Electronic Arts.
  3. What my visitors told me once I had removed the game from my site.
My Perspective
Here's what I know. One day I got an email from somebody who told me that they could no longer play my Ultima 4 game on my website. I had been working some pretty LONG hours on CityVille at the time, so I really couldn't follow up with 'server issues', but then it became apparent that this was not a case of my ISP being down. I got an "cease and desist" email (CND) notifying me that my website was being suspended for "violating copywrite materials".

Now I HAD to get involved. As I mentioned before, I worked at Electronic Arts for more than 7 years. I thought that if I ever had problems with my previous employer, that I could hopefully give my old department heads a call and we could "sort stuff out". But that didn't work out so well. First, I let my ISP know what was going on, that I was planning on appealling the cease and desist. It turned out that the guy at my ISP I spoke with was a fan of the original game. He thought it was pretty cool that I had taken it upon myself to rebuild the game in Flash, but rules are rules. So long as nobody could play the game on my site, then my Phi Psi Software website could run just fine. So I quickly pulled down the game from the main HTML page, which resulted in a broken link. That was good enough for my ISP so my website was reinstated. It was amazing to get the responses that I did with the broken link webpage. Many players sent me emails telling me that something was "wrong" with the Ultima 4 game, and wanted to know when I would fix it so that they could continue playing my game... more on that later.

Eventually, I called the number for the lawyer who had sent the CND email (strictly speaking Jean my wife made the call), and tried to explain why the Ultima 4 game had been such a passion for me. I reiterated that I had made absolutely NO MONEY from the creation of my version of the game, and how there were a couple thousand people who were visiting me every month to play on my website. (I had done VERY LITTLE to promote my game. In fact, my traffic didn't go crazy until PC Gamer published a web-article on my project: PC Gamer Article) The lawyer told me that I could appeal the CND, but ultimately I was too busy working on CityVille, and I let the matter slide. A few days later I posted the follow-up notice on my website. This prompted many wonderful responses from the people who had played my version of Ultima4.

Behind the Scenes
What happened from within EA? Well I can only guess. I have managed to glean a few details over the past year, but nothing is 100% certain. So anything I say in this section could easily be mistaken... but as far as I know this is what happened. But if anybody knows differently then please let me know.

First of all, Electronic Arts is apparently working on an MMO based on the Ultima Britannia world. That's kinda cool! From what I've heard (unknown source), the developers working on the project knew about my version; moreover, they were impressed with what I had been able to accomplish by myself in such a short timespan. My passion for the game was clearly evident, as is true for anybody who plays my game who knew the original. Granted the combat and monster encounters could use a little rebalancing... (yeah I'm look'n at you crpgnut! Try casting protection spells why don't ya?!? Heh! Just kidding!) but that stuff is pretty easy to tweak, given that I rewrote all of the original data in XML. But even with the development of a new Ultima MMO, how would my little application pose a threat? The answer is that it doesn't. If anything, my version would help promote the new version by providing free and readily accessible access to the original game.

Second possibility.. well this is where we venture into speculation and rumours. Again, I don't know FOR SURE what happened but these are the events as I know them. A few months after my site came down, a pretty cool offer was made by Great Old Games ( where with a standard subscription to their site, and you could download the original Ultima 4 game. This is the original game that you could run on a PC with an emulator (DOSBox), which is fairly straightforward but does require a 'bit' of configuration. Whereas with my version, all you need to do is use a browser to get to my game: no other plug-ins are required except a Flash player, which is pervasive technology. Here is the question that I have to consider from this timeline: was there some kind of the deal between GOG and EA that resulted in sites like my Ultima 4 being shut down? In this way, GOG would not have to compete with the convenience of my site. (I'm guessing on this point.) Because Great Old Games wanted to offer the "official" version of Ultima 4, my site could not be active to compete with their version. I find it absurd that it is still possible to 'compete' over a game that is 25 years old with pixelated sprite graphics. Another absurdity, that my name/web-site would have been mentioned in a contract saying that you EA are required to crush this fan project in order for this business deal to be completed. Wow! This shows quite the spirit for Good Old Games.

Response from Players and Others
Ok, let's get back to what the response was from the people who played the game. Many people were VERY HAPPY to have found my version. A group of people wanted to send me a donation for all of my work and attention in recreating the original game. One person described the moment that he stumbled across my site as "paradise found". Some people got a real kick out of the fact that I made players go back and have to talk to people rather than just 'auto-finding' the hidden objects in the game. One high-school teacher used Ultima 4 in his honours class to teach quest motifs to his students. He found my site invaluable for getting his students to play through the game (especially with my embedded documentation). There was one woman who had played the game when she was younger, but now suffered from Parkinson's Disease. She no longer had the motor skills to play modern CRPG games, but when her son discovered my site, she remembered happier times in her past and was able to complete the game with her son. Almost universally, people were appreciative of the MEMORIES that my version had rekindled. Ultima 4 is such a BELOVED game for so many people. I can't tell you the number of people who said that they played the original Ultima4, and were now sharing it with their children.

Perhaps the best response came from the original creator himself: Richard Garriott (a.k.a. Lord British). At one point I was so despondant that the project that I had loved and worked with so much effort was being shut down. I tweeted to Mr. Garriott asking him if he knew about the recent crackdowns by EA over the fan versions of his game. He tweeted me back (paraphasing from 140 characters): we can't control what EA does with the license, but that his team would most likely be the ones to carry on the "true legacy" of the Ultima name.

So now what? Well I still believe that Ultima 4 is a game that DESERVES to be played. This is a seminal work in the development of the computer role-playing genre. My version of Ultima 4 allowed thousands of people to play the original game with little or no technical difficulty. This is a game that has been in existence for more than 25 years--a virtual eternity in the field of game technology. No major case has yet to be made in terms of how or when the copyright on electronic entertainment software expires. 
Further, Electronic Arts has yet to develop anything new or original with their Ultima license. Hopefully that will change if an official MMO ever sees the light of day. But why block an important game, in a form that allows for a greater widespread appeal? I hope that this is not the fault of Good Old Games... because if it is, then I think that their tactics do nothing to support a greater appreciation of the history of electronic entertainment. Fan sites like mine promote interest and allow a new generation of players to enjoy these games in an easy to use format. I could easily spend years of my life converting the favourite computer games of my childhood into Flash: passing on my treasured experiences to a new generation of players.

So that's the gist and I'm done here... I've written my two blogs about what happened to me over the past year, and now given the inside details on why my game got pulled down. Going forwards, I want to write a few blogs looking at the current state of the CRPG genre (Skyrim for example), and talk about the new directions I'd like to see the genre develop.

Cya in a bit,
Blair Leggett

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Beyond the Final Frontier... ends up as Dallas

Hiya! Nice to see you again. 'member me? I'm the guy who was working on Ultima4 in Flash, and then I kinda dropped off the radar? You might have heard that I had to take down my version of Ultima? So what happened?
Ok, well let me walk you through what happened.

So I was working away on my Ultima game, and trying to set-up some side projects in Vancouver. Then I joined my wife Jean on a trip to San Francisco, and then everything changed. I happened to get my resume off to one of the co-founders at Zynga. One week later I had a programming job, and would get to relocate to the Bay Area with only about three weeks to pack up my stuff. Sometimes life moves THAT fast.

The funny thing is, that it was my work on my Ultima game that cinched me getting the job. When I had been working on my game I had NO idea that this would lead to me getting a job. I had hoped. But I had to just keep working on the project I loved. The three months for which I was developing Ultima 4, and the two for which I was debugging were among the most satisfying in my professional career. There you go folks, do what you love, have the passion to finish a personal project, and it might just lead you to a new horizon. If you can show that passion to a potential employer... well who wouldn't want to hire a self-driven and passionate employee?

In San Francisco, I would be working on a 'little' social game called CityVille. Heard of it? Yeah, a couple million people play it every day. I had so much fun learning the Zynga codebase, and working with the CityVille team. Ten months later I was then sent off to another project in Dallas Texas. They liked me so much that I switched over to THAT team (though I still miss the City people), which turned out to be CastleVille.

So I am now in Dallas. I'm working on a great game, and (for the moment) I am the only developer who has worked on both the #1 and #2 social games on Facebook: CityVille and CastleVille. What a difference a year and a half makes!

Here's another amazing thing about my time working at Zynga. For the first time in my 12+ year professional career, my father is playing one of the games that I made. He is an absolute CastleVille addict, and I love him dearly for his passion with the game. I just got back from a Christmas holiday visiting my parents in Ontario, and he wanted to know every little detail about the game, and spoilers for what was going to be happening in the CastleVille world in the coming weeks. Just amazing. I loved working on console games, PC games, and now social games. I'm still coming to terms with the pervasiveness of Zynga games. I'm amazed where I can be standing on a street corner wearing my CityVille shirt, and a little girl (probably no more than 10) looks at me, waves, and then smiles and points mouthing "Great Game!" as her mother drives her to school.

Oh and one more thing. I have to give a shout to a great guy who I almost got the chance to work with again: Scott Henshaw of Kibble Games. I had worked with Scott at Electronic Arts Canada. Well he's started up his own development studio. Before the Zynga job, I was really looking forward to working with him again and helping him to get his project off the ground. I never got the chance to wrap things up with him. (Jeez I only had three weeks to pack up my life to move to a new country.) I hope to see great things from Kibble Games in the not too distant future. If I'm ever travelling back to Vancouver then I'm hoping to have the time to reconnect with you guys. All the best Scott.

Well I was going to write this as one big post, but I've only tackled one of the topics I was hoping to share. So in my next post I'll shed a little light on why my Ultima 4 version got pulled down, I'll share some of my experiences in playing Skyrim, and let you know what I've got planned for my future CRPG projects.