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Ultima Online expansion launches, producer discusses challenges, fans and the future

Tracey John

Fans of the massively multiplayer online game genre know that Ultima Online paved the way for so many other titles. But twelve years later, should we still care?

Though it's still touted as the first MMO to reach 100,000 subscribers, a lot has changed since 1997. The game's on its second engine, and its eighth expansion Stygian Abyss -- with a new playable race as well as new skills and play areas -- launches today. So while longtime fans of the franchise will no doubt be checking out what's new, we wondered if UO had anything to offer those who've never logged on.

"Do we think we'll attract new players? Yes," says producer Calvin Crowner in an e-mail interview with Massively. "I think we will, simply because the average gamer out there is looking for a new play experience. I think they are finding the 'rail' method of adventuring is getting old and want a more expansive 'world' to play in... [Ultima Online is] a world without boundaries that every game since UO has tried to achieve, but not thoroughly captured."

Crowner also talks about the challenges of working on the longtime-running game and if Stygian Abyss marks the beginning of a new era for UO... or the beginning of the end.

Ultima Online is a 12-year-old game. As a developer, what design and technical challenges do you face? How do you overcome them, overall and on a day-to-day basis?

Probably the first hurdle for Stygian Abyss was getting all of the art initially developed for the expansion ported over to the classic client. Initially, Stygian Abyss was only going to be supported with the [2007's] Kingdom Reborn engine. But we decided to change that and have it support the classic client as well. So we had to update the art pipeline -- no mean feat -- and migrate many of those art assets to the classic client.

Quite a significant hurdle... there were lots of interesting "artifacts" that happened during those days with the art... This is a Teen-rated game so I can't say what they all were. Also, we are across several hemispheres and when the live game has a problem in any region, we have to respond to that. Fortunately, we have a dedicated worldwide IT guy who helps us manage those problems.

On the technical side... we have a scripting system, "Wombat," that [lets] designers pretty much create anything they want inside the game. [Lead designer] Tim Cotten will be talking about the good and bad parts of what that means at GDC this year, but the great part of an open-ended scripting language is that the designers are not shackled, and can create anything they set their minds to.

A few things the engineering team has done with the enhanced client is make it a lot more stable than the original engine; small things like actual particle-effect snow, fade to black when dying and transparent textures for ethereal creatures are all thing we've added during the time of the expansion. So we didn't just make an expansion -- we also enhanced the game.

Do you feel that this new expansion is more for longtime players or to attract new ones? Do you think you'll attract new players at this point with
Stygian Abyss?

Great question. When we started this expansion, we did it with the mindset of doing justice to the Ultima series, not simply Ultima Online. You can see more than a few nods to the Ultima VI lore in the map design and how the world is laid out. So I can't say we are just doing this for new or simply for existing players -- [it was] more we did it for anyone who loves RPGs, and specifically fans of Ultima. Do we think we'll attract new players? Yes, I think we will, simply because the average gamer out there is looking for a new play experience. I think they are finding the "rail" method of adventuring is getting old and want a more expansive "world" to play in.

Also, it doesn't hurt that we have a long history of players who have many great and memorable experiences surrounding this game, and I think they will return just to check out what's new and different.

Speaking of new players, obviously Ultima Online has influenced games like World of Warcraft. But many WoW players probably have never played UO. If you wanted to attract the WoW player whose first MMO may have been WoW, what would you say to them to convince them to try UO?

What's interesting is that from EverQuest to the current day, UO is considered the force behind the original massively multilplayer experience. However,
UO and WoW are completely different experiences. It is a completely different style of game. You don't grind. Everyone says that, but in UO its more accurate as you are rewarded for your gameplay style. Wanna just craft? Get better at that. Tame rabbits? Well, you can do that, but they will get squashed easily. Care to have epic battles? It's here, too. With the added convenience of being able to build houses, an economy where you sell things as you would in real life... In short, it's a world without boundaries that every game since UO has tried to achieve, but not thoroughly captured.

Another revamp of a longtime-running MMO is launching on the same day as your game -- namely Turbine's Dungeons and Dragons Online. How do you feel about the competition? Is there room for both? Do you think there's an overlap between players?

Yes, there is room for everyone in this space. Is there overlap? Again, that is a constant question -- "Will 'X' game impact UO?" I think if you are still into the rail gameplay, then you will continue to feel comfortable there. I still think Ultima Online has much to offer any new or existing player. The fact that both EA and Mythic have given us the resources and freedom to release Stygian Abyss says a lot about their support for the franchise, and that they understand we are answering and developing for a completely different playerbase.

Do you think the subscription model is still valid in this economy, especially for an older game like Ultima Online?

Yes. However, it depends on the quality of the game. For a game like UO, where you are getting twelve years of content beneath the hood and considering we just made up through Mondain's Legacy [UO's seventh expansion released in 2005] free for active subscribers, absolutely, it makes sense.

Also, in our Master of Arts classes, we did discuss the concept of value and the customer perspective of value. In the video game industry, no matter what side of the political fence you stand on, making video games is an art form. I say support the arts. Some will look at something in a gallery and call it art; some will say, "My four-year-old can do that." I've heard of that same art selling for tens of thousands of dollars. That fee, in my opinion, is not about paychecks or servers...

People right now are weighing Starbucks versus gas money. If your game experience with several dozen people you've built relationships with is worth you passing McDonald's (meals) a couple more times a month, then you'll keep subscribing. I say dozen of hours of gameplay per week is a great value, and a lot cheaper than going to the movies.

Is this expansion the beginning of a new era for Ultima Online? Or do you see this as one of the last content updates for the game?

Since the beginning of UO, many have decried "This is the end!" And, "Certainly they can't do X, Y, or Z." Yet here we still are doing very well, and discussing longevity. A new era for UO? Hard to say. I'll just say we did our best, and hope the players appreciate all the work we've put into it, understand our decisions, and, most of all, have a lot of fun and continue their adventures in the game.

Can we expect a completely brand-new Ultima Online in the future?

Well, I can't say just yet, but Mythic is always looking at our existing intellectual properties and discussing the best course of action for the franchises.

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