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Beyond MUDs: Kate Flack on Designing Ultima Forever
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Beyond MUDs: Kate Flack on Designing Ultima Forever

February 8, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Ultima has gone through many incarnations since the series' 1981 debut. It was also one of the first major series to tackle the idea of the consequences of a player's actions, good or ill, affecting the story. In 1997, the series took a turn for the massively multiplayer, with Ultima Online. In 1999, the world got a polygonal facelift, with Ultima IX: Ascension. In 2010, Ultima went free-to-play, with Lord of Ultima, though that game was only loosely tied to the original Ultima universe. Lord was the first game without the series' creator, Richard Garriott, and reception was mixed thanks to that -- and the player base's skepticism of a free-to-play model.

Now, in 2013, the series takes another stab at free-to-play, with Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar, which takes the world of Ultima IV and adapts it for an action RPG context, with hand-drawn backgrounds and 3D characters. The game is currently in development by BioWare Mythic Entertainment, under the eye of general manager Paul Barnett, and the direction of lead designer Kate Flack.

Flack has a history with MUDs, primarily, and it's this history into which we will now delve, to discuss how early MUDs have influenced MMO design, even today. Beyond that, how do the virtue systems of Ultima work in this new free-to-play space, and with casual players? We spoke at length with Flack about her history, and how that will intertwine with the upcoming Ultima Forever.

Let's talk first about your history, for people who don't know...

Kate Flack: Sure. I've been working in the industry for just over a decade now. I got my start when all this was text, by making MUD games, so I was paid by the word writing quests and creating monsters, that kind of thing.

I then went into pen and paper roleplaying. I did the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying. I wrote Dark Heresy, which was the Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game, with Owen Barnes and Robert Schwalb, and a couple of other really awesome designers, so I kind of got a bit of experience taking a beloved IP and bringing it to a new audience or reimagining it in a way. After I did that, I moved over to Mythic and worked on Warhammer Online. I was also involved in the first Warhammer Online, which was done by Climax Entertainment. Since then, I've been working at BioWare Mythic, building this game.

Did you find it at all difficult to translate from working so heavily with text to this simultaneously more and less interactive arena, where you don't have as much possibility space as you do in a MUD or a tabletop game?

KF: In a MUD, you have a wonderful realm of imagination; there's so much stuff you can get away with. In a way, it's almost a more pure design. You're not having to interface with an art department; you're not having to worry about coders. But the thing with something like Ultima Forever, or Warhammer, or these more graphical MMOs, is that they're much more accessible. It's the way the industry's going. Although personally I enjoy things like Christine Love's Digital: A Love Story, I know there's not a huge audience for those types of games. Of course you have to go with the graphical angle; of course you have to make them look good, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Do you think that there's anything aside from perhaps superior writing ability that you take from that world to bring to this?

KF: Well, the first MUD started -- this is going to get really nerdy and technical, so just bear with me.

That's perfectly acceptable.

KF: If we look at nearly all of the big graphical MMOs out there, they're based on a DikuMUD code base, which has certain inherent principles within it. For example, let's talk about quests, right? In an MMO, we have this idea that you have to be on a quest; it has to be sitting inside your quest log before you can go fulfill it. If a man wants you to go kill five wolves, it doesn't matter that you [already] just killed five wolves; now you're on the quest, you have to go off, and you have to collect the wolf paws, because that's all that DikuMUD can detect at the time.

But the games I was playing and writing on were European MUD engines with completely different basic assumptions within them. For example, Legends of Terris, which is the first MUD I worked on, would log every single thing that you killed just as a matter of course. You could pull up your kill list and inspect what you'd killed and all these different things.

So when you were doing a quest, very often, you'd get to there and the NPC would say, "Hey! Kill me white wolves!" and then it would detect, oh, you've already done that; here's the quest credit. Why should you have to go off and do it all over again? It's just a simple example of how a difference in engine can make a difference in gameplay. It's that experience; it's a way of playing that doesn't necessarily have the same assumptions underlying them. It gives you a breadth of background and heritage that you can pull from. Just because it's always been done that way doesn't mean I have to do it the same way in Ultima Forever.

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Michael Joseph
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"I have never experienced that, but I have always thought it would be possible to have a moment where I really have to make a choice that I care about. But for me it's never occurred. I guess my brain has always just defaulted to whatever good path is offered.... I always presume that the game is created in such a way that I'm not going to be punished for a good deed;"

This reminds me of Heavy Rain where your character is presented with the option of murdering a bad guy to help save his son. Faced with this decision, the player invariably jumps back behind the fourth wall and starts weighing their options in terms of the game and not in terms of the morality or the emotions of the situation. Murdering the bad guy makes you feel like you would be losing the game somewhat or otherwise not playing as perfectly as you could.

Perhaps this is one of the problems with heavy handed narrative games where the player is asked to be someone else rather than to be what they want to be. It's counter intuitive perhaps that being asked to role play a character that is designed for you makes it harder to role play. You just end up trying to do things that stays true to the character. The character never really becomes an extension of yourself or an alter ego.

In other words, playing a character is not the same as role playing. I think it goes back to what Tadhg Kelly was saying in his excellent article.

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Michael Mullins
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I am so very very ready for design like this. It's nice in some ways to have diminishing ROI for pure technical advances and to have re-ignition of design concepts from the 80s and 90s. We're finally giving ourselves (players, developers, the whole community) permission to begin iterating and thinking deeply about all these unfinished threads. I'm excited.

Carsten Germer
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I love concepts like virtues, positive/negative reinforcement etc. in multiplayer games. Being a fan of "Ultima" from thee olden times, I always thought this is one thing that distinguishes the series.
Trying to implement mechanics and consequences like this in a multiplayer environment, though ... just from the description in this interview I see possibilities of loops an holes. Players will try to exploit every mechanic to find an optimal strategy, even if it's not "fair".
I am looking forward to see how it will be done in Ultima Forever, sign me up ;-)

Joshua Darlington
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Virtue as one metric? - Or something like Spenser's Faerie Queene?

"A letter written by Spenser to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1590[3] contains a preface for The Faerie Queene, in which Spenser describes the allegorical presentation of virtues through Arthurian knights in the mythical "Faerieland". Presented as a preface to the epic in most published editions, this letter outlines plans for 24 books: 12 based each on a different knight who exemplified one of 12 "private virtues", and a possible 12 more centered on King Arthur displaying 12 "public virtues". Spenser names Aristotle as his source for these virtues, although the influence of Thomas Aquinas can be observed as well. It is impossible to predict what the work would have looked like had Spenser lived to complete it, since the reliability of the predictions made in his letter to Raleigh is not absolute, as numerous divergences from that scheme emerged as early as 1590, in the first Faerie Queene publication.

In addition to these six virtues, the Letter to Raleigh suggests that Arthur represents the virtue of Magnificence, which ("according to Aristotle and the rest") is "the perfection of all the rest, and conteineth in it them all"; and that the Faerie Queene herself represents Glory (hence her name, Gloriana). The unfinished seventh book (the Cantos of Mutability), appears to have represented the virtue of "constancy.""