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GDC Online 2012: Paul Barnett reimagines Ultima with a chicken and a spoon

Karen Bryan
Paul Barnett is a great storyteller with a passion for games. Anyone who followed Warhammer Online early on can't forget the engaging speeches and videos Barnett made through beta and launch. But it's no longer 2007, and he's long since moved on from Warhammer. Instead, he's been working on Ultima Forever, a browser-based, online rendition of Ultima IV. This week at GDC Online, he told the story of how the game came to be. He was given a chicken and a spoon and told to go away and try to make something. The only boundaries was that he couldn't have any other stuff, the game had to be good, and he had to do it quick and without help.

Did Barnett succeed with his chicken and spoon? Read on for Barnett's tale of Ultima Forever as well as a look at the lessons he learned along the way.

The story starts off shortly after his time with Warhammer, which he admits wasn't done right. He said that if he had to go back in time, he would have kicked himself and told himself to say no more often and be more realistic in what his team could and couldn't do. But he had to decide where to go from there, and his choice was to change the culture and change the way he makes games.

To become fashionable, he said, you have to go hunting in unfashionable places. So off he went with his chicken and spoon to explore social media like MySpace and Facebook, which was just beginning to emerge as the social powerhouse it is today. He compares it to the teams of men in Britain who used to do hot metal. These men were responsible for typing the letters, which would fall into place, and then form the mold for the hot metal to be poured in to create newspaper presses. They had a very specialized, very specific skill set, which was the ability to type backwards and in columns. But when desktop publishing came onto the scene, these men suddenly were faced with the loss of their jobs, and their skill sets were no longer needed.

They had to make a choice to either leave or convert. Barnett remembers one who decided to learn desktop publishing and was mocked by his peers, but in the end he was able to transition and even teach others. Barnett found himself in a similar position and decided he had to convert as well. With social media entering the scene, he decided that was the direction he would go with his chicken and his spoon.

Not everyone on his small team trusted the decision, though, so he had to come up with a project that people could get on board with, and that project was Ultima. There were two Ultima games that were under consideration: Ultima VII and Ultima IV. In the end, he went with Ultima IV, a game that Barnett considers the first grown-up Ultima. It was a fully realized world with great ideas about virtues and being a good person. Initially, the devs did not have the luxury of being able to consult with Richard Garriott, so they had to seek outside help for reimagining the game. Also, because the team was so small and the budget so limited, everyone on the team had to pitch in with every job.

Just as things seemed to be falling into place, there was a hitch: BioWare was added right in the middle of development. Barnett's team had been busy working on dungeons and world maps, but the game was largely an open-ended world, and BioWare is all about story. He had a moment of panic as he tried to find a way to prove that his crew understood story.

He essentially rebooted the entire game, which really put the team under the gun and their future constantly in doubt. Former BioWare CEO Ray Muzyka stopped by first, and the team members had to convince him to love them. Instead, they gave him food poisoning from a sandwich he ate at the studio, but their apology video seemed to repair the damage and Muzyka supported the project.

GDC Online 2012  Paul Barnett reimagines Ultima with a chicken and a spoon
Shortly after, though, EA put the devs on Death March, meaning they had to convince the company to keep the project going. They had nothing but were able to buy another month's time by putting together a last-minute, catchy trailer. By the second Death March, they had made enormous progress. They improved the environments, fleshed out the UI, and got the OK from EA Labels President Frank Gibeau to continue.

But just as things finally seemed to be falling into place, Barnett learned that there was a last-minute push on SWTOR, and in order to devote more resources to finishing the game, EA took away his chicken and gave him an IOU for his spoon. When you desperately need friends, Barnett said, they are really hard to make.

He forged on, though, and moved the game into alpha. There were some passionate Ultima fans who criticized some of the finer points in game, like the absence of Smith the talking horse and the change in the subtitle from "Quest of the Avatar" to "Quest for the Avatar," but overall, he said, alpha has been extremely helpful and he doesn't regret a thing. In the process of putting together Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar, the developers had to learn Ultima, but they also had to learn the mobile space as well as the free-to-play space.

As he ended his presentation, he shared in-game footage of the latest build and said that the game is due out soon. His last lesson learned was the most important: "Be humble."

All in all, Barnett's story of bringing Ultima Forever to fruition is an amazing one under the circumstances. The only question left unanswered was what happened to the chicken and the spoon!

Massively sent two plucky game journalists -- Beau Hindman and Karen Bryan -- to Austin, Texas, for this year's GDC Online, where they'll be reporting back on MMO trends, community theory, old favorites, and new classics. Stay tuned for even more highlights from the show!