The back-story behind a new Ultima game should be a horror show: Ultima — beloved role-playing game series designed by the great Richard Garriott who sold his company to cold, corporate EA and down the tubes Ultima would go, returning in 2013 only for money-grubbing reasons. Nope. That's not it.
Some of that is accurate.
Some of that is part of the secret origin behind Ultima Forever, a re-interpretation of Garriott's beloved PC adventure Ultima IV, transformed into an massively multiplayer iOS game and released last week for zero dollars.
The game is nearly a gigabyte. It's all hand-painted, 2D, top-down. At its creators' most recent estimate, its play area is about 11,562 iPad screens large (down from at least 15,000 because they had to cut some content). It includes 22,318 lines of dialogue — 141,660 words.
The game comes from EA Mythic, which was briefly a part of BioWare. As a BioWare game it was going to be made for Netbooks, then for Facebook. It was going to be a PC browser game, then it was going to be downloadable, according to Forever producer Carrie Gouskos and studio general manager Paul Barnett. "It went from 2D to 2.5D," Gouskos told me. "It went from Zelda to Castle Crashers to Diablo light."
Forever was always meant to be a love letter to Ultima IV, the heralded fantasy RPG involving not just combat but virtues and moral quandaries (Your house is on fire... do you save your mother, your sister or the dog?) sculpted in the 1980s by Garriott, aka "Lord British." Somewhere along the way it came to seem like an impossible creation.
Last spring, Barnett was telling me and other reporters that the existence of Forever was "insane," that "we'll probably never make a game like this on the iPad again" — unless it's a smash success, in which case, it'll take them three years.
Gouskos had been telling me that they'd hoped to follow it up with Ultima Fivever, Sixever and then get to the other one they really, really wanted to remake and create Ultima Sevenever.
Garriott wasn't involved in Mythic's radical remake. Somewhere along the line he did give the game his blessing. "He looked at what we were doing and said, 'You guys are Ultima fanatics,'" Barnett recalled. "You clearly love Ultima IV. You clearly made a game that loves Ultima IV."
And somewhere along the line, the team at Mythic put this Shepard-Fairey-Obama-style painting of Garriott in their studio for inspiration...
Barnett told me that, back when Mythic was BioWare Mythic, their little Ultima-remake-that-could was "BioWared." That meant, he said, that they decided to "make it big, put a lot of story in it, be brave, make it bold." One of the heads of BioWare loved Ultima IV. The other loves MMOs. Do the maths. This was an expensive project, three years in the making.
Some time later, Mythic was just Mythic again and another fiefdom at EA, EA Mobile, became in charge of this BioWare-size Ultima project. Too bad it broke EA Mobile's rules of thumb.
"We break many rules on mobile," Gouskos told me. "Too big (size-wise), too connected (they want games to have offline content), dungeons too long (we had some dungeons that were 45 minutes — but we added 100 five-minute dungeons to compromise), way too many words (too much localisation cost), and not enough free-to-play mechanics. Definitely grateful to EA Mobile for being bold and letting us release this type of game given that it breaks so many rules."
Barnett was happy that EA Mobile took the risk, too. They assume that there can be flukes on mobile, he said. Sometimes a game that shouldn't succeed does, and, hey, most of Ultima Forever wasn't financed by the EA Mobile division of EA, so why not? "Mobile were smart enough to go, 'As we didn't pay for it — because it's come to us [nearly] finished — yeah, we'll release it. Sure. Because it might be an outlier,'" Barnett said. "They basically get an enormous RPG for free."
Who else got Ultima Forever for free?
Or you could, if you download it. It's free-to-play, and, yes, that means there's some weirdness. You need keys to do lots of things in the game, and one easy way to get keys is to just buy them with real money. This rubbed our own Mike Fahey the wrong way when he was playing it, but Barnett and Gouskous still describe the game as "immensely free." They can say this, because, they say, they've played it — played tons of it — without paying a thing.
"We really didn't want to gate content behind a paywall," Gouskos told me. "That was an internal goal for the team, but when you make a free to play game, the desire is to try to find some way to let people pay their way through convenience. There are certainly some levels that are pretty grindy without cash, but the development team played all the way through soft launch without paying because we didn't have Canadian credit cards. I've put about 100 hours into the game, am level 14 and am grinding up to 15 and trying to max out my reputations. I finally spent money once we went live, because hey, that's the right thing to do - but I don't feel like I have HAD to spend most of it."
Gouskos said that the game is even getting some "flak" from free-to-play experts about being "too free." There's no energy mechanic. There's gear to repair, but you don't have to repair it and can just get new stuff. "We've even done a bunch of stuff recently to show players why they don't have to spend real money (like try to make it very obvious that you can repair with silver keys, changed fast travel from silver to bronze, etc.) It was never our goal to make a huge cash grab off this game. We really just like making games and want to make enough money to keep doing it."
To that end, in the first week of release, Ultima Forever's had an in-app-purchase sale of 400 keys for $US20, down from $US50, with the intent, Mythic says, to let people who want to just throw down a lump of money to pay for the whole game to get pretty much anything they'd need in terms of inventory expansion, adding some abilities and being able to have a great time.
The happy news here is that this stuff can be tweaked and re-tweaked and that there really is this massive RPG in existence now, with all of its 11,500+ screens of virtual land to explore.
Last spring, Barnett was giggling about the "time to crate" achievement they were putting in the game and the cameo appearance of the Mass Effect ship the Normandy. He was tickled to tell anyone who'd listen that the game featured Lady British, not Lord British — a concession to concerns by EA Legal — but that that also helped pay tribute to the unusual number of women who worked on the game from the lead designer on down.
Both Barnett and Gouskos gave off the feeling that they'd survived some accidents to get Ultima Forever made, that they'd navigated a maze of EA needs and wants and somehow wound up with a game that broke some rules while making the most of EA's mighty resources. They made their game sound like magic. Or a miracle. Something that shouldn't be — but is. It's hard not to be rooting for them.