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Ultima Codex Interview: Ultima VIII Programmer Jason Ely
Interview - posted by Infinitron on Tue 18 March 2014, 22:21:27Tags: Origin Systems; Ultima VIII: Pagan
This week is the 20th anniversary of the release of Ultima VIII: Pagan, the penultimate title in the Ultima series. Pagan was a pretty bad game, notoriously disappointing to Ultima fans, and not much of an RPG at all. As one of the main heralds of the infamous "mid-90s decline of RPGs", the story of its development is a subject of great interest to genre historians. We actually know remarkably little about why U8 turned out the way it did, other than Richard Garriott's vague laments over the years that EA made him release the game early.
That's why I was so interested in the Ultima Codex's latest interview featuring Jason Ely, who was a programmer and level designer on the Ultima VIII development team. While unfortunately I can't say that he has any real insight into the game's overall direction, having joined the project several months after it began development, there's still plenty of interesting information to be had here. Have a snippet:
JE: Ultima 8 originally shipped on floppy disks (prior to the speech pack) so we had very limited space for artwork and content. This was the main reason why cuts had to be made.
One example of a cut that we were quite sad about had to do with combat and death animations for all town npcs. In doing this it was no longer possible to fight and kill every townsfolk in the game. It had always been tradition in Ultima to give you the freedom to wreak havoc on a town if you wanted to let out a bit of frustration.
Also, there was one map in particular that we had to cut. It was an underworld map being worked on by Melanie Green. I do not remember the name or how it fit into the storyline, but I do remember it was a cavernous map with deep blue walls.
UC: On a related note, what led to the incorporation of a more action-based game play style, which was also a significant departure from the style of earlier games in the series?
JE: I’m not sure of the exact reason for going to a more action oriented game play style. I do know that Richard wanted to try something different with this Ultima and appeal to a wider audience. I know the climbing and jumping were inspired from some other adventure games that were in the market at that time. Other than the original jumping mechanics I personally enjoyed the more action oriented play.
UC: Do you know if there ever were plans to have a party in Ultima 8, or was the game always conceived as a solo adventure with the Avatar alone against the World? If the former, what led to the change in design?
JE: I do not believe parties were ever in the plans. I never heard any discussion of it and nowhere in the code does it reflect that parties were ever considered. The game engine was designed to be ‘Avatar-centric’.
UC: While my understanding is that you moved to Crusader after Ultima 8 shipped, you seemed — based on Usenet posts — to have some knowledge about the first iteration of Ultima 9, which was supposedly using the same engine. Do you have specific recollection about the content of this game, what its world and story would be kind? Was this chapter of the series meant to be as arcade-like as Ultima 8?
JE: Originally Ultima 9 and Crusader were using the same code which was a more refined Ultima 8 engine. I was busy upgrading the old U8 engine to support higher resolutions (640×800, 800×600, 1024×768) and trimming off some of the fat. We made sure that the engine worked for both projects, and it did.
A few months into the development John Watson showed me the Britannia map and he was exploring the map with what we called “Tiny tar”. The game was looking like an isometric version of Ultima 3, 4 or 5 where you had a zoomed out version of the world and a smaller avatar. When you came to a town, castle or cave you were teleported to a new map with a normal sized avatar.
At some point they took a very different direction and decided to go with a full 3D game and abandoned the bitmapped version. I am not sure of the reason behind that decision. I have to say I was looking forward to Tinytar.
There's lots more in the full interview, including details on the never-released Crusader sequels that Jason also worked on, and the rather amusing story of how he got to work at Origin in the first place. Definitely check it out, if you're old enough to care.