This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
If there's any video game on the planet that demands a remake, it's Ultima IV: Quest Of The Avatar. As arguably the most important title in what I still believe is certainly the most historically important series in video game history, it's something that deserves to be played by as many people as possible.
Yet the years have not been kind to Ultima IV. Unlike certain other games commonly cited as "needing" remakes, Ultima IV comes from an era before in-game tutorials and before the mouse had achieved market saturation. It is, unfortunately, just out of the range of accessible for many, regardless of its reputation.
So when I first heard about Ultima Forever, I was cautiously optimistic. Perhaps a respectful remake could maintain the core of the story while appealing to a much wider audience. Of course what that "core" is may be different things to different people. For me, the core of Ultima IV is the combination of open-world mechanics, conversational freedom, and its rigid morality system. These aspects of the game work together to make Ultima IV an exploration of the world, its inhabitants, and one's self – which, at the time, also meant an examination of the player's relationship with computer games as a whole. Yes, it really was that special.
On the other hand, I personally am perfectly willing to sacrifice the game's interface and combat system. The clunky keyboard movement and interactions would have to be removed for any remake to be accessible. And the combat system – a turn-based, repetitive semi-tactical affair – was always one of the weakest parts of the game. The idea that Ultima Forever is an action-RPG isn't an immediate problem for me, especially given the series' later experiments in interface and combat style.
But my alarm bells started ringing when I saw that only two classes were available in the game: Fighter and Mage. Character class in the middle Ultima games (IV, V, VI) was intrinsically tied to its Virtue system, which was equally connected to the game's geography, as well as individuals. Eight classes, eight virtues, eight towns, eight dungeons, eight recruitable characters. For example, a Bard was associated with Compassion and the town of Cove, with Iolo joining your bard.
The entire point of Ultima IV was to have your character embody those virtues, by either being or recruiting that class, by acting according to the virtue (for Compassion, donating to the poor), understanding the town of Cove in order to learn about the symbols of Compassion, and in proceeding to the associated nearby dungeon to cleanse the evil from the area. That formal symmetry gave Ultima IV power. It wasn't just "collect the seven runes to save the universe!" as so many games had, it was a structure that gave both the game and its world structure. In an interview with MMORPG.com, creative director Paul Barnett suggested that there would be more classes to tie into those virtues, although they might lie behind a paywall.
That's the second major warning sign for me: Ultima Forever is going to be free-to-play. How this is going to work is unclear at this point, but the most common form of F2P is to withhold continuous play without payment. This may work in some genres, even RPGs, at times, but not with Ultima. This series relies on the player having time and space to explore and understand the world. Time/action limits make that difficult, if not impossible. This kind of gating seems possible, according to the Kotaku preview: "The entire game can be completed for free, although it would take you a long time" says Barnett there, although he continues to describe it more as taking shortcuts than being simply blocked off: "kill the necromancer to get the rights to go and have my boat made ... or I could give them a buck and just have the boat." Yet this still implies a linearity that's at odds with the core of Ultima IV.
The other most popular alternative is to provide items that distinguish players aesthetically or pragmatically in online multiplayer. From how it's described, the Ultima Forever multiplayer sounds similar to that of Diablo. That style of gameplay could work in strict gameplay terms, but I question its appropriateness for a story ostensibly about the moral journey of a hero becoming an Avatar.
And yet, despite my skepticism, if there's anything that gives me hope for Ultima Forever, it's the clear affection for the original shown by Barnett in the interviews. "Every generation deserves an Ultima ... and we're giving this generation the best BioWare Ultima that we can." BioWare's become a brand name for a bunch of EA studios, so that doesn't mean this is literally a new Dragon Age. It's being designed by BioWare Mythic, developers of Dark Age Of Camelot and Warhammer Online. Yet it's clear that Dragon Age and BioWare-style dialogue are important influences to Barnett. I'm not certain that the Ultima IV-style strict morality system will work with BioWare style choices, and I hope it doesn't do a simple good/evil dichotomy like so many do, but I'm willing to find out.
If there is one thing I am unambiguously pleased with, it's the resurgence of interest in classic PC RPGs. The Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter drives were the most obvious of these, but Ultima getting press again – so many years since it was relevant – continues the trend. Combined with the commercially and critically successful resurrection of the Fallout series and the upcoming Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, this gives me hope that mainstream Western RPGs will acknowledge that they have a history before Morrowind and Knights Of The Old Republic. There are dangers to focusing on the past too much and letting nostalgia dominate creativity, but that's a risk I'm willing to take. Just ... maybe not for Ultima Forever. Not without more information.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.