Creative director Paul Barnett tells all in a manic GDC Online presentation
“We went back in time to go forward," Ultima Forever creative director Paul Barnett said during a GDC Online presentation, Wednesday, on the game's tumultuous production history.
Ultima IV is one of those much praised games that I know I will never play despite it sounding incredible. Well, at least not play in its original form. Lucky for me, the game is being remade for mobile and PC. The original is much more than just a fantasy RPG or, you know, an Ultima game. Instead of focusing on saving the world, the game's plot centered on the player's quest for nobility and virtue. The chosen hero must level his or her's virtues by performing kind deeds, such as giving food to a beggar even though that means you'll risk starving to death (as in, taking HP damage until you eat).
It's a one-of-a-kind game that many Ultima fans consider the high-water mark of the series, alongside Ultima VII.
“We really cared about it! We really wanted do to it, and we could get our hands on it," Barnett says about Ultima. "You’d be surprised how many times you want to put your hands on something and someone else says, ‘It’s mine you know!’”
Just a couple yards away sits Ultima creator Richard "Lord British" Garriott who laughed and applauded throughout Barnett's off-the-walls, hysterical presentation, which doubled as a descent into one man's madness experienced during production. Ultima Forever has been rebuilt multiple times, shuffled around by production houses, and saved from cancellation through the act of begging to BioWare's co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk.
Given Barnett's candor and spirited delivery, it's hard to tell when he's serious or not -- though, after the speech, he insisted he wasn't making anything up on stage. One of the most baffling things is that an early promo video for Ultima Forever (then attached with the subtitle "Quest for the Avatar") showed up at Mythic's office with a BioWare logo positioned at the start ... but they didn't work for BioWare, at the time. This is how they first heard of the 2010 BioWare Mythic merger that apparently marketing knew about before the developer.
In March 2011, EA was overlooking its projects, trying to figure out which ones were making progress and which ones should be canned. Mythic scrambled together new footage and invited BioWare's Ray Muzyka for a studio tour. After feeding him a sandwich, Muzyka rushed off and threw up for two days. Instead of giving Muzyka a tour, Mythic had given him the wondrous gift of food poisoning.
“We needed people to believe in what we were doing. All we had was a chicken and a spoon. We were up against it!” Barnett says.
Barnett felt bad about Muzyka throwing up for two days in a Fairfax, Virginia hotel, so he sent Muzyka a video tour. The video opens with the team waving and shouting, "Hi, Ray!" The words "Sorry we poisoned you!" slowly fade into the screen. One gets the sense that working at Mythic is not so unlike living in an office sitcom. Another video made by the company is a holiday greeting that opens with a developer, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, diving into a snowman.
“We had nothing. Nothing!" Muzyka shouts, talking about the state of the game during the time of EA was investigating the company's future.
With support from Muzyka, the team scrambled together a new video of footage that mostly contained b-roll of the development staff driving around and goofing off in the office. It worked.
“We just had to prove it could work," Barnett says, as a video of an employee imitating Medusa plays in the background. Another glimpse into the madhouse of Mythic.
Months spent making a working prototype in Excel (not a joke) and painstakingly hand-crafted maps were for nothing, as the developer soon rebuilt Ultima Forever from the ground up. The main conflict came from an aesthetic disconnect between the art direction and game. For such a lighthearted adventure and bright world, it didn't make sense to have grim, D&D-style character portraits.
The new Ultima Forever retains many aspects of Ultima IV but gives the game a new coat of paint. It's now a Diablo-style clickfest, it sounds like a PopCap game, and it looks as bright and shiny as Warcraft III. It may upset and divide some Ultima purists, but Ultima IV's original creator seems to support the new direction. The eight-week build shown is said to be "ancient" but it's the closest Mythic has yet come to making Ultima Forever look like a game people would pay to play (that is its chosen release model, after all). The studio continues to work with a large painting, styled after the iconic Obama "Hope" poster, of Richard Garriott: the words "Britannia believes in you" written below.
Mythic printed a couple promotional maps for the game. A photo of Barnett and Garriott displaying the map is shown on the screen. Garriott proudly lifts his map up, in the audience. Barnett, on the other hand, no longer has his map.
"[It] sold on eBay for $250. I think I found out how to monetize this game!”
Ultima Forever is slated for release on iPad later this year, with a browser-based PC release to follow.