Ultima IV, EA, and a New Ultima Online

I have seen the new Ultima Online, and it’s the Ultima Online that many readers of this website are currently playing, just with high resolution graphics and better player experiences, for both old and new players alike.

You read that right. Below are eight ten reasons why I think there will not be a new Ultima Online, but also why I think the current UO will feel like a new MMO if EA follows through on their plans. Some of these I’ve spoken at length about in the past, but given the high interest generated in Ultima IV that is currently present on the web, I think it’s important to point some things out.

I’d also like to point out that the jobs postings that have come to light (link) are tied to a possible second attempt at The Sims Online, only through a web browser this time around. Some have confused them and not actually read the job description, which explicitly states that it’s tied to a new Sims “experience” on the web. Even Massively failed to read through the links and see that the job posting was for somebody to work on The Sims.

Speaking of the Ultima IV story, that’s why I’m writing this – I’ve had several people ask me for my thoughts on it. If you are not familiar with it, read the original Ultima Aiera story about Ultima IV and some of the actions EA is taking as well as the article WTF Dragon posted earlier today trying to clear up a lot of the misinformation that is floating around the various game sites.

For the record, I think there is something happening with the Ultima franchise, obviously with UO as my long-winded post below illustrates, but also in other areas. Whether these are simply the original Ultimas distributed in some kind of DOSBox format or packaging, or some kind of online play, or some kind of update similar to the Secret of Monkey Island special editions, remains to be seen.

On with the list.

1. There are some still left in EA that remember the fiasco with Ultima Online 2.
However you may look upon Ultima Online 2 and how it was handled, EA did not have the ability to handle an MMO that was going head-to-head with an already existing EA MMO, and some of those in the upper ranks of EA’s current management were around to witness it. You can attribute it to not knowing what they wanted to do with Ultima and Origin, not knowing the target audience, or any number of other things. That’s not to say that other companies haven’t done so successfully – Sony has done so with Everquest and Everquest II, and CCP hopes to have two different MMOs successfully integrate, with EVE Online and Dust 514. Dust 514 is an FPS (First Person Shooter) MMO that will be set within the EVE Online universe and the players from each will be able to interact with one another.

If a new Ultima Online were created, while the old one was in place, it would create of hostility and resentment from current UO players if the new Ultima Online were treated better than the current UO, which wouldn’t be hard to do. Everquest II came fairly quickly after Everquest I, within 5 years I believe, whereas current UO players have been around for over a decade. Admittedly, UO’s numbers today versus the era when Ultima Online 2 was in development are much lower, but as I point out below in reasons #5, #6, #7, and #8, the actions that EA is supposed to be taking with the current UO do not reflect those of a company who would be considering another Ultima MMO, because they are indicative of a company who is trying to bolster the long-term survivability of the existing UO.

2. The way The Video and the last House of Commons were handled.
Somebody at EA is seriously concerned with how UO is being presented as far as future plans. Hermes considers both the video and the house of commons to be a recent low-point and I have mixed feelings. If you are wondering what I’m talking about, here is the transcript to the 2011 Ultima Online Developer Diary. What was supposed to be a quick and dirty video took on a life of its own and created a lot of drama and tension as it was delayed from early January until nearly the end of February.

One important point that gets lost in the drama that arose around that video diary, and the follow-up house of commons, is that prior to it being released, the UO producer made an interesting comment: Between editing and all the things that have happened between January 3rd and now, the answers have not changed, but the method in which we broadcast has many times.

I’ve edited videos, both for family and public consumption, and even for UO Journal. I don’t think time was the problem, I think it was content. EA clearly did not want certain things revealed just yet, which is why the video was so heavily edited – you can see for yourself by reading the transcript above. The important thing is that the UO producer made a cryptic comment in regards to major things happening between January 3rd and February 23.

It’s very frustrating, because I see other EA games like Dragon Age 2, The Sims Medieval, and Star Wars: The Old Republic where the flow of information and hype being presented to the public is very smooth and very polished, and then we have EA handling the flow of information in regards to UO in an almost schizophrenic and cloak-and-dagger manner. It’s especially frustrating given that Dragon Age 2 and Star Wars are BioWare titles. EA doesn’t want to seem to give us the bigger picture, even though we have a good idea of it already, from what has been said. If you’re a pessimist, you think that EA has plans that are going to upset UO players. If you’re an optimist like me, well good things are coming, but we just don’t know where EA plans on positioning UO in the scheme of things. By good things, I mean that EA thinks UO still has some life left in it.

3. There isn’t room for a new Ultima MMO within EA’s strategy for Warcraft
EA intends to take on World of Warcraft and Blizzard with one and only one game, and that game is Star Wars: The Old Republic. That is a message that is being delivered loud and clear from the EA CEO down into BioWare proper. This is a part of their new strategy of putting most of their resources into larger and more profitable games. I question it, because it seemed to be a similar strategy to how they handled Warhammer, but Star Wars is huge, and BioWare has a good history with Star Wars. Adding a second-tier Ultima Online 2, and it would have to be second-tier given how much money and resources have been allocated to Star Wars, into the lower-tier MMOs within EA’s BioWare Mythic MMO stable, including the current UO, Dark Age of Camelot, and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially since, as reason #1 points out, EA would be introducing a game that would be competing directly with another game they already have and that they appear to be allocating resources to.

4. It’s Cheaper to upgrade the existing Ultima Online
See reasons #5, #6, #7, and #8 for proof that this is happening. It’s far cheaper to partially reverse what happened in 2009 with the layoffs, and to upgrade the artwork to a higher resolution, and to take advantage of next year’s anniversary. They already have a client that can handle high resolution artwork, and they already have an existing group of subscriptions. At this point in time, I don’t see EA wanting to invest heavily into another Ultima MMO right now, not with Star Wars being unreleased. If this were two years from now, and Star Wars had incredibly good numbers and incredibly good retention, it’s a completely different story. $300 million is a lot of money to make up and Star Wars probably won’t earn it back that quickly. The moves being made, that are mentioned below, are the sign of a company wanting to shore up an existing game for the long term, and they are moves being made long before any of us knows just how Star Wars will be received past the first few months or year.

It might even be an insurance policy of sorts. EA wants to remain a major player in the MMO game. UO and even Dark Age of Camelot are not going to compete with Star Wars regardless of any upgrades, and they are good candidates for chipping away at World of Warcraft and other MMOs and pulling in MMO players that may not be interested in Star Wars but want something different. I have not followed DAOC too much since I stopped playing it, but if anybody has seen similar moves as far as additional work being done on DAOC, please leave a comment below.

Worst case scenario for EA: Star Wars doesn’t do as well as they want it to, and so they take a divide and conquer strategy of using UO, DAOC, Warhammer, and Star Wars to go after different segments of the MMO market. A person giving EA money for UO or DAOC is still a person giving money to EA that could have just as easily gone to another MMO and EA may have finally realized that.

5. Server/Hardware upgrades
This one is fresh on our minds due to the migration of Oceania earlier today. Back during the House of Commons last month, UO’s lead engineer made the comment that moving all of the shards to new hardware was going to “pay off for the game” “in the long run” and I don’t see EA investing money in new hardware for the existing Ultima Online if they were planning on a new Ultima MMO, especially given that some might leave the existing UO for the new Ultima MMO, lowering the number of players and demand on the hardware a bit.

6. A new quest system
This ties into #8, the new player experience. This is one of those things that is both a part of player retention and extending the longevity of the game and of bringing in new players, and it’s also one of those things that is currently a problem. I don’t have a lot to say about this, since any current UO players know what it’s like – the current quest system does not lend itself to quests being repeated or extended. A new system, properly done, would also help with the issues of more events that are shorter in nature, but that help extend the in-game fiction. I liked the comments about a new quest system getting into the why you would do certain things, instead of making you just go to location A and bring back 10 of item B and given to NPC C and then go to NPC D and then travel to location E and bring back 50 of item B.

7. A Graphics Upgrade, Art
Back at the beginning of this month, a graphics upgrade for Ultima Online was mentioned on the official Facebook page: Well we are working on some updates to the graphics this year. It’s one of our priorities. A bit more details soon :) As in the doc is written, need to clean it up for public consumption :).

This was a follow-up to the House of Commons and the Video Developer Diary from a week or two prior to that, in which updates to high resolution graphics were mentioned. EA would not spend the resources modernizing the existing UO if they were planning on a new Ultima MMO. If they were rolling out a new Ultima MMO, the last thing they would want to do is muddy the waters and confuse players by having a modern-looking UO alongside a new Ultima MMO.

An argument could be made that this is simply being done to keep existing players who have been frustrated time and again with UO graphics updates and revisions, or bring back old players who left for glitzier new MMOs. You can’t look at this alone though – there is also a new player experience being developed alongside this, along with a new questing system (see #8). When taken in context, it points to a company who wants to shore up the old game and bring it to a new audience. It would also get very expensive if it was done simply for player retention.

8. New Player Experience
This is one of the most important things that sticks out, and there actually isn’t a lot to say about it. It would make no sense to put in a lot of developer resources into a new player experience. I know, I know, it’s EA, they do a lot of things that make no logical sense, but this one is not tied to retaining existing customers or bringing back old customers that have left for better looking games. At the same time, it would make no sense to put the resources into a new player experience without the other things – namely the quest changes and the graphics update. The current new player experience is not good. A lot of resources and a lot of thought are being put into the new player experience, and from what we could see in the videos, this seemed to be one of their top priorities.

9. The Depth of Ultima Online and Comparisons to Other Games (and UO)
A new Ultima Online 2 would be expensive, and a modernized UO has the potential of drawing players away from that, or confusing players at the least. That would be a nightmare for EA – to spend a lot of money on both a new Ultima MMO and the original Ultima Online and to have the original become unprofitable or have the original draw players away from the new. They could find themselves either having to prop the old one up at a loss, propping up the new one at a loss, or closing the original down and risk upsetting a lot of people who would probably swear off the new Ultima MMO and probably anything having to do with EA. The people still playing UO as it is, comprise a very dedicated following that a company would be foolish to ignore

The existing Ultima Online has a depth to it that few other MMOs have. It is still a very large game with a lot of things for players to do, even after all these years, and no other game has come close to matching parts of it, such as player housing. If a new Ultima MMO was not nearly as large or comprehensive, the media would pounce on it and question it widely and loudly, and would question the wisdom of EA pouring money into a new Ultima MMO that was a shallow imitation of the old, especially if the old UO is updated with modern graphics. This would almost necessitate a large allocation of resources from EA into a new UO from the very beginning, and I don’t see them doing something like that in the next few years, at least not until we see how Star Wars does and what ultimately happens to Warhammer.

Arguably any new and serious MMO from EA is going to require a lot of resources up front. This isn’t 1996 where UO is a side project. While there are smaller companies rolling out MMOs, given how EA operates and that they want to move away from smaller projects, it would have to be on the level of Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, at the very least. That would be a lot of additional money for EA to put out when they don’t know how Star Wars will perform and the fantasy MMO market is very saturated at this point. Star Wars is a fairly safe bet. A brand new Ultima Online would be as risky as Warhammer was, if not riskier. Upgrading the existing UO, alongside some other moves such as online or repackaged versions of the original Ultima games, could really tap into the nostalgia of a lot of older gamers, and nostalgia is a pretty safe bet these days.

10. Comments Made About Things Happening Between January 3rd and late February
Remember this comment from the UO producer that I mentioned earlier: Between editing and all the things that have happened between January 3rd and now, well if those things were bad for the existing UO, then the video developer diary and the House of Commons would have been radically different than they were. We would not be seeing quest, high resolution graphics, and new player experience updates – remember, those things were not announced until after that period of time when “all the things that have happened between January 3rd and now” have happened. There was no indication in December of any of those things happening with UO.

Something big happened during that time period, something big that affected the direction of UO. Up until we heard that comment from Cal and up until we saw discussion of high resolution graphics, new player experiences, and a new quest system, UO seemed destined for maintenance mode, with the booster packs being a sign of that.

Which of those are the biggest reasons to argue against a new Ultima MMO? I would pick the server, graphics and new player experience updates as the top 3. That may seem odd when you look at say Reason #1, but the servers have been bought or leased, and the graphics and new player experience will require an investment of additional resources. If EA were intent on a new Ultima MMO, they would not want its thunder stolen by a modernized Ultima Online that was headed towards its 15th anniversary, and I don’t think they would be willing to give the existing UO team additional resources to modernize the existing UO. UO would be allowed to truly go into what some call a “maintenance mode”, where enough of a team would be kept around to do bug fixes and occasional new content. Instead, things are being done that are the things necessary to bring UO up into the 2010s and to make it appeal to a group of players who may not have actually played any Ultima games.

Now we aren’t seeing an influx of new developers and artists, but I’m not worried. That’s not me being an optimist or having my head in the sand, that’s being a realist and having followed EA for many years. It was only earlier this month that they decided on how they are handling the high resolution update. We probably won’t see any hiring done until later in April. There aren’t that many projects within EA where producers/managers can just start hiring people or contracting out for certain things, they usually have to go through the typical corporate route of deciding whether to try and fill positions within internal employees, hiring new employees, or contracting out.

Does this mean there won’t be a new online Ultima game similar to Ultima X: Odyssey, or Flash-based games? Not at all. If anything, with a modernized UO, EA would be smart to take advantage of the other Ultima games to boost interest in it and bring in a little revenue as well. I doubt they’ll use Flash – my guess is that they would try to stick to something such as HTML5 that can be played on mobile devices such as iPhones. Think in terms of the online Sierra games that you can play through web browsers such as King’s Quest or Space Quest – see Sarien.net if you have a lot of free time on your hands and want to revisit some classics.

As far as stand-alone Ultima games, keep an eye on Ultima Aiera. I wouldn’t mind seeing a properly-done reboot or even something like the Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, where high resolution versions of the Monkey Island titles have been released for modern systems.

In the end, I think the new Ultima Online will be the old Ultima Online. There are hundreds of thousands who have played and left Ultima Online, and while some may have played through the Kingdom Reborn era, a UO with high resolution graphics, a better quest system, and a better new player experience, will feel like a new MMO with an incredibly rich and established world behind it, something which actual new MMOs simply cannot offer.


Ultima IV, EA, and a New Ultima Online — 2 Comments

  1. I understand your thinking and I am sorry I actually agree with it. I played Ultima Online for about 6-7 years back in the day. Few reasons I left were, item insurance ruined crafters (other than alchy’s), Artifact gear/weapons crap and cheaters/hackers of all types. It did not seem like anyone from EA did anything about them. Now for my wish lol.
    After playing WOW since beta and leaving it for SWTOR, I would love for a new and improved UO to come out. I would not mind it being just Fel again, but that would cut your potential player base by 3/4 , go back to no item insurance, monitor and ban hackers/cheaters, improved graphics and forget throwing a lot of quests in the game. I am so sick of questing.
    The beauty of UO was the mechanics behind the skills and housing of course). You gained by using, no levels involved. Back in the day, the economy was booming with all sorts of stuff, by the time I quit it was mostly DOOM arti’s and “power” weapon and jewelry.
    Personally, I think there are quite of few people out there that are getting tired of having to find 3-4 other people to do instances, or even more to raid. They would like to be able to go do things solo and feel like they accomplished something. UO did that in my opinion. Sure, there were things you could not do solo, but no one should expect to do it all alone. Sorry to make this a little long, but I would kill to have a improved graphics, and revamped UO come out. Be the only thing I would play again.