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Ultima Codex Interview: Ultima VIII Project Director Mike McShaffry

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Ultima Codex Interview: Ultima VIII Project Director Mike McShaffry

Interview - posted by Infinitron on Sat 12 April 2014, 15:48:06

Tags: Origin Systems; Ultima IX: Ascension; Ultima VIII: Pagan

Keneth Kully's Ultima Codex continues its series of retrospective interviews with the developers of Ultima VIII: Pagan. This time he's gotten hold of Ultima VIII's project director himself, Mike McShaffry. On video, no less!

Since an hour and twenty minutes is probably too long for most people, Kenneth has also helpfully provided a transcript of the interview. Here's an excerpt from it:

UC: I’ll remember to follow up then; I did actually get ahold of Mr. Morris, so I will be talking with him at some point here.

So anyway, kind of related to the darker tone, Ultima 8 was obviously much more action-oriented; the gameplay style was more like what we would call, in modern times, an ARPG, versus some of the more classical RPGs that were the earlier Ultimas. Again, also a fairly significant departure in style, so…what drove that?

MM: Richard played Prince of Persia somewhere around the time that Ultima 7 was wrapping up, or Martian Dreams was wrapping up, and was really smitted with how much fun it was, and how much action it was, and that it still had a lot of RPG elements. So he took a lot of inspiration from that, and he really wanted to try move the game in that direction. Again, it was…definitely Richard that wanted to do that, and he was inspired by Prince of Persia.

UC: Okay. I do recall having heard a little bit about Prince of Persia before. That would probably also explain the jumping puzzles; I recall that game had quite a few of them.

Now…Ultima 8Serpent Isle also had this, and I’m sure there’s examples from earlier in the series too, but there was a lot of cut content from Ultima 8. Richard of course is on record, somewhere, saying that so much was cut from the game that the map, the cloth map, really didn’t even reflect the state of the world of Pagan to any particular degree of accuracy. Do you recall anything in particular that did wind up on the cutting room floor?

MM: Well, I recall that…since we were in a new place, and using new technology, it was harder for us to know how much game we could build and still hit the dates that we wanted to hit. And as it turns out, the dates that we wanted to hit – March of 1994 — that was pretty tricky for us because we really wanted to hit that date, because the merger between Electronic Arts and Origin had just finished. And we knew it was coming; it wasn’t a huge secret. So it became really, really important for us to make those dates.

And I don’t think it’s uncommon for game developers to do a lot of cutting in order to get the game that they really want. The way to look at it is: most games start with a ton of things that everybody wants to put in the game, and then those things that are less important tend to get removed until all that’s left is this really fantastic thing, a beautiful sculpture. It has nothing on it that you don’t want or don’t need.

With Ultima 8′s case, I think we obviously went way too far with cutting, in order to get what we wanted. We didn’t spend enough time getting the game fun before building all the content. That was probably one of our biggest mistakes. And looking back on that now after all I’ve done — working on a ton of other games, especially action platformers and other action games on console — you do spend a lot of time getting the game fun, and then building content. And we just felt like we were under so much pressure, we started building all this content…but the game wasn’t really fun yet! We really should’ve worked on that a little sooner.

And that was also a really typical problem at Origin, and typical of many game developers. They look at the schedule and they go “My God! To build a game of that size, you have to have 35 people working a year of crunch mode or you’re doomed!” And so all these people start coming on to your project and start building all these things, but…it’s not really ready to build yet, and so there’s always this pressure that happens, and Ultima 8 was no exception.

You know, I don’t actually remember why the cloth map didn’t match that much. I would actually look at that as just a little bit more of a disorganization between the exact shape of all the things that were going into the world, and this thing that looked like Pagan that was an island. I don’t think it was anything more than just a little bit of miscommunication: “Oh my gosh! The game design requires this dungeon over here!” Well, you’re not going to change the map to make that work!

Britannia was set in stone for years; it was easy to make Britannia look like Britannia. But this was a new place, and I think that’s what happened.​

The full interview has more honest talk about what went wrong with Ultima VIII and also about Mike's preliminary work on the first iteration of Ultima IX. It's a must-read for early 90s RPG nostalgists.

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