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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.