The long and hardeous development of Ultima IX

As I am now done with Ultima IX, I figure it’s better late than never to go and talk a bit the development of the game, and how it evolved over the years. Notably since it explains a lot of the issues the final game had.

Because you see: the game we had was nothing short of the fourth iteration of the final episode of the “Guardian Saga” and even nowadays, it is extremely rare for a game to evolve that much during its development.

The *real* original design of Ultima IX was to follow the same core design philosophy as Ultima VIII. It was to be set on the Guardian’s homeworld, and used a revamped S-VGA version of the Crusader engine (which was already a heavily modified version of Ultima VIII’s engine).

The game was already called Ascension for this was to be the focus and the main thematic of the game: the Avatar ascending to the status of Titan of Ether. It was basically about gathering followers in order to because an entity as strong as the Guardian to be able to face him on his own ground – but this without falling to dark side and turning into a second Guardian. The basic thematic sounds interesting, but little else is known about this version of the game and no plot details or images of it were ever released.

This iteration was in development for about a year until Richard Garriott pulled the plug on it, dissatisfied by the direction it was taking (which was reportedly even more arcadish than Ultima VIII).

In addition, the fan backlash about the commercially successful Ultima VIII lead Origin to rethink their strategy for Ultima IX and restart the project from scratch. Thus it was decided to return to a more traditional Ultima by having the final chapter of the “trilogy of trilogies” taking place on Britannia, after it had been conquered by the Guardian and using it to bring back a lot of elements from the entire series, and tying things back to Ultima I.

This is what is commonly (mis)referenced as the original Ultima IX which used the infamous “Bob White plot.” It should be noted that this plot was not written by Bob White but in truth imagined by Richard Garriott, Brian Martin and John Watson. Bob White was only brought aboard much later to polish it, but as he is the one who released a summary of this original version to the public, it became known as such.

This second iteration of the game was meant to use a 3D engine with an overhead perspective that could be zoomed in and out, and rotated as you wished – in essence very much like the engines of more modern games like Neverwinter Nights or Dungeon Siege. It was also set to mark the comeback of the party system (albeit with only two companions) and several elements seem to suggest this version was meant to use a dual scale map rather than the seamless maps of Ultima VI&VII (notably the leaked design docs we got a while ago which mentions balloon travel).

This original plotline shares many elements to the final game. In this version, the Guardian had also entered Britannia with Blackthorn serving as his lackey, and crafted Eight Gigantic Columns from the Runes that ravaged Britannia. It did not have much focus on the Virtues however, and the story resolved mostly about a brooding civil wars (obviously set by Blackthorn and the Guardian) between the two ruling factions of Britain and Moonglow while Lord British remains helpless on the throne: aged and weak. Various characters present in the final game such as Raven and Samhayne were also a bit part of this plot.

The world depicted was much bleaker, and really on the brink of chaos. One of the most interesting aspect of the plot however, was that it pitted the Avatar and Lord British pitted one against the other, with the Guardian having “sendings” sent inside Lord British’s dream, depicting actually actions from the Avatar… but in a twisted way to make him feel he was acting against him and wanted to take the throne (eventually leading to a point where the Avatar would not be welcomed anymore at Castle Britannia!).

The most shocking aspect really was the ending however: as the whole Civil War plan was just a ploy to keep the Avatar busy and that the Guardian’s real plan was to suck Britannia of all its life force, and being rebirth stronger than he ever was by its destruction. Which lead to the end of the game… where the Avatar and Lord British basically have to cast Armageddon and destroy Britannia to get rid of the Guardian. Both Lord British and the Avatar ended up dead (or in the case of the Avatar, he ascended beyond mortality by his death… and he was actually gaining etheric powers throughought the game, thus not forgetting the whole “Titan of Ether” aspect), with Britannia completely destroyed , except for the Isle of Skara Brae… floating in the void with the remaining survivors of the land thanks to the protection of the Runes of Virtues.

This was a bold and shocking ending to be sure. And it feels even crazier when you know that at this time Ultima IX was NOT meant to be the final episode of the series and that an Ultima X was planned, which would then be focusing on a new player character (and was also to be the last Ultima game with a roman numeral in its title).

That would have also been a very controversial ending. I remember a lot of people complaining about the ending of Ultima IX and how they just “killed the Avatar to kill the series.” I can’t even begin to imagine the reactions an ending featuring the death of not only the Avatar but also Lord British AND Britinnia would have been.

Indeed I am pretty sure this iteration of Ultima IX would have been a very controversial game. The ending is a point, but I feel even the British/Avatar opposition as interesting as it is would not have sited well with some people. Nevermind the fact that Blackthorn’s is the Guardian’s lackey – this would never have agreed with some fans who felt he should have come back on the good side. The lack any definite Origin with the Guardian would probably have been controversial as well considering for how long fans have debated about this very aspect. And there is reason to believe that some other controversial elements and retcons of Ultima IX would still have been found in this version.

But most importantly really – it would all have depended on the execution and the quality of the Writing. It is easy to say that this would have been great from a small summary… but a poor execution could have ruined everything. Indeed: the basic plotline of Ascension was known for month before the game’s released and most people loved it!

I do have to admit I would have loved to play this version of the game tough, although from the leaked design document I can only wonder whether we would truly have seen the game as is: because of how crazy ambitious it was.

In any case development originally went well with a planned release for Spring 1997. But when Ultima Online (which was at the time Origin’s little black sheep project to which nobody belived in) entered alpha test and unexpectedly drew 50 000 players: EA realized the potential of this game and decided to put Ultima IX on hiatus and transfer its team to finish Ultima Online.

Unfortunately, while this transfer was meant to last only a few months – the development of UO took longer than expected, putting Ultima IX on hiatus for over a year. By the time Ultima Online was released, the team had lost a lot of its motivation and more and more people didn’t believe in Ultima IX anymore, some people even leaving the team.

What changed things however was the release of 3Dfx’s original Voodoo video card. Now for those who might not have know of this era… the Voodoo was a revolution, bringing to gaming a new graphical novelty: bilinear filtering. This is something so common in games, that you wouldn’t even imagine life without it: but what I mean what the end of pixelization by blending pixels together thus leading to a whole approach to graphics. You sometime see people nowadays complaining about pixilated graphics: trust me – they don’t know what pixilated means. Pixelated games ended with 3Dfx.

When programmer Mike McShaffry ported the engine to 3Dfx, everyone at Origin was blown away. Within another day of coding, he had brought the camera closer to the land and behind the Avatar and that was a revelation: everybody became excited again by all the possibilities 3D offered and decided to do a true 3D engine with a behind the shoulder perspective that would follow the Avatar around and provide a more immersive world than ever before.

So the previous iteration of Ultima IX was scrapped, and development restarted in late 1997 with a brand new 3D accelerated engine. It’s not exactly fair to say that they started from scratch since a lot of art was recycled and the new engine was built on legacy code from the old one (a decision however which probably caused more trouble that what it was worth in the long run). Release however was planned for XMAS 1999.

Development of this new version rapidly proved controversial however, with some people saying from the very first shot that the game would be a Tomb Raider clone because of it’s point of view (because you now, point of view if everything, after all Ultima Underworld was a FPS you know), and the new producer Ed Del Castillo was deemed responsible for the direction this new version was aiming had of a lot of the design decisions behind it. Controversies even went on amongst Origin, with many team member leaving Origin due to their dislike of this new version of Ultima IX, including Bob White, which a few month earlier at begun opening dialogue with the fans on the Ultima IX Horizons forum.

To be fair there were reasons to be skeptical: it was announced that the party was cut (again) and the game was aiming at a more arcadish design. Indeed it was clearly marketed as a action-adventure game during E3 1998 it ended up being renamed as “Ultima: Ascension” with a new logo dropping the traditional Ultima font, and to add insult to injury the game was marketed by the use of heavy metal music (yep… they did not wait for Dragon Age to do this!)

I don’t think everything was all bad though: while it was controversial I actually like the idea of having to play other characters (such as Shamino, Lord British and Raven) at times where the Avatar was unavailable or in jail, and behind the doors presentation of the game for the german magazine Gamestar did show gameplay elements more reminiscent of traditional Ultima design.

To be fair there was also some overreaction on the fan’s part – for example the E3 1998 presentation of the game feature no Inventory because it hadn’t been implemented yet, which leads many fans to believe that this mean the game would not have a true inventory.

Little is known about the plot details of the game in this iteration though, altough it appears it followed mostly the same premise as the Bob White plot. There were controversial additions by Ed Del Castillo’s rewrites however, notably in the form of a romance between the Avatar and Raven. I do have to admit however that I would love to know more about this oft-maligned version of the game.

But in any case the dismal reception of the game during E3 1998 by both gamers and the press lead Richard Garriott to rethink the project again, even admitting later on that he felt the direction taken by the game at that time was a mistake and that he had let himself be influenced by the wrong people. Thus Ed Del Castillo left over creative difference in Summer 1999, and Seth Mendelson was brought in as the new Lead Designer of the project.

This proved to be a drastic change in the scope and tone of the project however, and Garriott and Mendelson decided to craft a new plot focusing more on the Virtues that would bring the series full circle, and less about the war against the Guardian.

While it is often claimed that the plot was just “simplified” because of technical limitations – this is not quite true. It seems reasonable to think the war aspect would have been more present with more time to complete the game, but this really was the story Richard Garriott wanted to tell at the time. And Seth Mendelson being himself a great fan of the Ultima IV~VI era (more than an Ultima VII fan) wanted to craft a game that was more in line with the previous trilogy of Ultima.

However this was yet another major design shift for a game that had already known two of them. The end project was extremely ambitious – but in truth very little people at Origin and EA believed or even cared about the game, and truly only the dedication of Richard Garriott and the dev team allowed this game to be made. The real issue however really game from Ultima Online’s unexpected success which leads EA to turn Origin into an “Online only” company and in turn spelt the doom of many single player projects (most notably the upcoming Wing Commander games) in favor of new online games (which ironically never materialized in the end).

As irony would have it, the sole reason Ultima IX was spared was because it was an Ultima… and as such tied to Ultima Online. Which means the execs of the time felt it could be a good opportunity to bring more players to the series.

Alas, Ultima IX was eventually given a ship or kill for Thanksgiving 1999. Which lead to development being rushed, content being cut from both the world and the plot, as well as many features such a reduced interactivity or even character schedules. A lot of this was in the code and implemented really – but the issue is that there wasn’t any time to debug it properly, simply because the game had to be completed and as playable as possible by Thankgiving.

Another issue also came at that time when it appeared that 3Dfx (which was the thing back in 1997 when development got started) was losing ground in the 3D accelerated front to Direct3D compatible cards which had become a major part of the customers. Porting the engine to Direct3D came as a nightmare however as it brought a whole lot of technical and graphical issues – causing a lot of crashes and bugs. Anyone who tried the demo that was released in September 1999 can attest to that.

And the bottom line is that by the time the game was released, in addition to all of the bugs still present in the game, it was simply NOT ready for Direct3D cards. So while the game ran really well on 3Dfx cards, it was a nightmare on Direct3D cards and required a computer much more powerful that what was truly need. While most of the issues were eventually fixed by the alter patches, the harm had already been done. But it’s no surprise that the game had a much better reception on the European markets where it was released already patched.

Note that while it is easy to blame EA for all these issues – I do not feel to this is completely fair. EA has their share of blame, and releasing a game in such a state is something of which they should have been ashamed – but I can also understand from a corporate that they’d want to release a game that had been in development for over five years, even if the latest iteration was being worked on for less than two year, with a major redesign in between.

And to be fair Origin has their share of blame – I can’t help to think that they should just have continued development of the original version, simply with added 3D acceleration which would already have been enough to impress everyone.

But well… no point dealing in the past is there?

But I felt it was interesting to come back on this long development and shed some light into it.


1 Comment

  1. Donn said,

    November 2, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Very interesting; there’s a lot of stuff in there I didn’t know.

    I would have loved to play as a different character from time to time in the game. I always find that makes for an interesting way to tell a story, and makes for interesting puzzles. Also, it would have been a way to “preview” advanced powers in different disciplines, like combat and magic, to see which way you wanted to take your Avatar.

    In my first foray in 3D cards, I backed the wrong horse entirely, by getting a Matrox Mystique, which used its own proprietary acceleration. Came with a very nice version of Tomb Raider, but very few games actually supported it. Fortunately, I did get a VooDoo card by the time Ultima IX came around, which explains why I never saw so many of the reported problems – I could use the Glide engine the latest version of the game was designed for.

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