Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar has a big legacy to live up to, so VG247’s Dave Cook spoke with BioWare Mythic to find out the secret to meeting expectations.
Ultima franchise producer Jeff Skalski and his team must have been like kids in a candy store when BioWare Mythic landed the Ultima Forever gig. They had a series steeped in immeasurable lore to play with, and one that is already placed on a pedestal my many faithful fans.
So there is already a solid fan base in place for this new Ultima outing, but as always, whenever there is eagerness for a sequel or reboot, expectations typically spin wildly out of control.
There a lot of expectations on the shoulders of Skalski and his team, but it seems like they have a handle on the situation for now. VG247 spoke with Skalski about the steps BioWare Mythic is taking to ensure fans get the Ultima game they deserve.
VG247: Ultima is a long-standing and revered franchise. What key facets of the series’ lineage did you absolutely have to bring back to keep fans happy?
Jeff Skalski: Well, we certainly didn’t have a shortage of themes from which to pull. Ultima as a franchise has so many different facets of inspiration as many of the fans know. From day one, our primary focus was making sure we had the eight virtues as a core pillar to the game experience.
“We know we can’t make all Ultima fans happy, but we hope they can enjoy the nostalgic elements that are clear nods to the past and new components introduced as we usher in the series to a whole new connected generation of players.”
Beside how one interacts with the NPCs in the game, we track how one plays with other live players around them. All of these choices open up new quests, unlock new gear and puts the gamer one step closer to realize that they truly are an Avatar sent to save Britannia.
We know we can’t make all Ultima fans happy, but we hope they can enjoy the nostalgic elements that are clear nods to the past and new components introduced as we usher in the series to a whole new connected generation of players. We’re aiming for more stimulation over simulation.
What can you tell us about the eight virtues?
From the moment you create your character and meet the Gypsy, you are impacting your virtues. Your epic quest to Avatarhood is held back by how well you uphold all eight virtues. You’ll need to meet a certain requirement before being able to touch the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.
Along the way your virtue levels will open up additional quests and unlock access to new gear to show off your true colors. And even beyond launch, we have some additional game mechanics planned to continue to reinforce our virtue system.
And how do character classes fit into those virtues and feed back into gameplay?
We have one class to represent each of the eight virtues. Each class has its own unique playing style. I’d rather avoid at this time getting too much into the details, but let’s just say abilities across classes complement each other. Part of the fun is to figure out your build and the best way to match them with group mates for some dominating combinations.
With so much established content to play with – such as the virtue system and history – there must be a certain level of pressure that comes with working on a series as revered as Ultima?
We knew getting into Ultima was a tall order, but we love the IP so much and felt it’s been dormant for far too long. Outside of Ultima Online, there hasn’t been much going on. By the way, Ultima Online is also hitting its 15 year anniversary which is rather unbelievable when you think about it.
Yeah, that’s actually really impressive, considering how different the industry was back when it launched. Why do you think the series as a whole stood the test of time?
Times have changed as we now have smart phones, tablets and have moved far beyond the old days of shipping boxes with floppies. Ultima is the grandfather of CRPGs in my book and worthy enough to do a repeat performance all over again in the mobile space.
To get things started, we brought some of the superfans in early, really early, and just recently held our first Alpha test with some of the most passionate core Ultima fans we know. We got a lot of valuable feedback from them, and the game moving forward will be better because of it.
Digging that art, man
We did see a recent quote that Ultima Forever is going to be ‘pure BioWare’, which may or may not fall in line with what people feel old school CRPGs stood for. What value do you think that BioWare expertise does bring to the table?
As a player, when I fire up a game and see that BioWare logo hit the screen I know I’m about to have an immersive gaming experience with rich story and characters. Now we’re not Dragon Age or Mass Effect, we’re Ultima, and we saw an opportunity to go back to the old school BioWare magic with titles like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights.
Looking at these games influenced how we present our conversation dialog, writing style, in-game cinematics, and harmonized really well with our virtue concept regarding ethical choice. I think this is a great time for BioWare to disrupt the RPG space in mobile.
The market is showing it’s ready for something beyond just another dungeon crawler and that’s what we plan to deliver with Ultima Forever.
Well to be fair actually, BioWare games have a lot of moral problems that are thrown at players, and Ultima IV had a significant focus on ethics and choice as well. So in a way the two are comparable. How much will that enter into gameplay?
There is no right or wrong answer in how a player handles a moral quandary moment with NPCs. It’s their answer and by adventuring through the game, players will encounter many of these situations. Beyond just how players treat NPCs it’s just as important how they treat other real players. Ultimately, it all adds ups and reflects the player’s persona.
As the game has actually been billed as a reboot of Ultima IV, can you tell us more about the common traits both games share, as well as any big new differences?
Similar landmarks, top down perspective, boats and familiar faces with the exception they may look a few years older as we’ve pushed the timeline 21 years later. These are a just a few of the things we have in common.
We are also leveraging the classic tale of meeting the mystical Gypsy and being pulled from Earth into Britannia. As for differences, the first big one that come to mind is we are no longer just an offline single player game.
“Your party companions are no longer NPCs, but instead your friends. The second biggest change would have to be how we’re handling combat. We’ve made major changes here. Turn based has been replaced with something more visceral.”
Now, as you travel through the streets of Moonglow, you’ll cross paths with other fellow adventurers. Perhaps you’ll even get lost in a conversation with a total stranger in the tavern in Britain, or meet a stranger at sea while exploring the world.
Your party companions are no longer NPCs, but instead your friends. The second biggest change would have to be how we’re handling combat. We’ve made major changes here. Turn based has been replaced with something more visceral.
You can now flank and time your attacks to take advantage of your enemy’s moment of weakness. It feels great, yet not overwhelming or overly complicated. It’s fun crushing your foes.
It sounds genuinely intriguing, particularly the collaborations with other adventurers. But what about Ultima purists? What would you say to them to convince them that their favourite series is in safe hands?
In my honest opinion, there are only two companies in this world worthy of touching this franchise respectfully. I’m happy to be at one of them, BioWare. My first Ultima experience started back when I would sneak over to my friends house to play on his Apple II and continued all the way through the 80’s and 90’s until I was one of the early testers for Ultima Online.
I am very thankful for Ultima. It inspired some of my favourite RPGs and birthed a genre I enjoy so much. It put the M in MMO, and now I’m just as excited about what it can bring to the M in mobile.
Mobile, tablet, smartphones – they are becoming such cherished formats in the games industry today. How does multiplayer make use of what these devices can do?
We are an online adventuring game that has cross platform play. We built U4E to be accessible from anywhere at any time. Phone, tablet, or desktop, we’ve got you covered. One thing we’re tired of is server selection screens, so we decided to get rid of them.
Instead, we dynamically open up instances of zones as needed based on population demands. As you group with players, we keep you together, and friends can always be reached via our friends list. Dungeons are setup for 1-4 players to keep things intimate and manageable while conquering bosses and overcoming puzzles.
We understand that Ultima Forever will not use the energy system employed by other F2P titles, is that right?
Yeah, I don’t know about you, but being limited to play a game in 2 minute intervals is not really my definition of a gaming experience. It’s kind of like saying the ad that appears before your YouTube video is really the content you’re looking to watch.
“Players can play as much as they like in Ultima Forever, and our approach to how we monetise the game is what I would call a fair handshake. “
Yeah that’s a bloody pain actually.
We never want to tell players, ‘Stop [insert big colourful window], pay now or get the hell out!’ Players can play as much as they like in Ultima Forever, and our approach to how we monetise the game is what I would call a fair handshake. Having fun in the game? Throw some coin our way, so we can continue to make the game even more awesome.
How will microtransactions enter into Ultima Forever specifically.
We have a premium currency players can purchase at anytime to gain access to items and boost their level progression. It’s something we’ll discuss more as we get closer to release, but one thing we won’t sell is virtue. That’s something you’ll need to earn.
All of what we’ve spoken about has come together now in your alpha test build. What can you tell us about the alpha feedback and how will this determine the format of the eventual beta?
Well, over 80% of the players did not want to stop playing, which was great to see they were all engaged. We had some players put some crazy hours into the game during alpha even though it was only open for three days. The feedback really helped us identify areas we could better leverage the Ultima IP, and influenced changes to several game mechanics.
What sort of things will you be keeping a keen eye out for during beta testing to help you make this a better game at launch?
Retention is number one. Betas are great to see how players are playing the game and staying engaged. It’s also a good time to smoke test our backend systems to make sure we can scale to support the demand. Following that would be new user experience and UI design.
Ultima IV was out a long time ago. How have advances in tech and control helped you make this an even better game than the original?
Two words, touch interface. It just feels so good with this perspective style game. Very intuitive to manage and pickup. Beyond that, the advancements we had with broadband alone have opened up a whole new level of multiplayer. This will be the first “Instant-On” Ultima title.
If this reboot is a success, would you be willing to create a new game in the Ultima series?
Definitely! Perhaps Warriors of Destiny next? [winks]
Ultma Forever: Quest for the Avatar beta registrations are open now. To register, head to the official beta site.