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Ultima 5: Lazarus Interview with Ian Frazier

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Ultima 5: Lazarus Interview with Ian Frazier

Interview - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Wed 15 February 2012, 20:24:27

Tags: Ian Frazier; Ultima 5: Lazarus; Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny

Ultima 5: Lazarus Interview with Ian Frazier

Released in 1988, Ultima V is an RPG with tactical turn-based combat and an emphasis on world interactivity, featuring a large cast of unique characters to talk to, a vast open world, a highly non-linear path to the endgame and a non-violent resolution. Released 14 years later, Dungeon Siege is a party-based real-time RPG with a heavy emphasis on combat, featuring an extremely linear path with no possible deviations, no exploration to speak of and a typical big boss fight at the end. What could possibly bring such diverging games together? The answer is Ultima V: Lazarus, an extremly ambitious remake of Ultima V in the Dungeon Siege engine.

While Lazarus is mostly very faithful to the original Ultima V, many changes had to be made to fit the Dungeon Siege engine. Examples include the switch from a tile-based overhead view to a 3D one, shifting from turn-based to real-time and the complete redesign of the many dungeons. Some features had to be removed outright, including some of the spells, the magic carpet, whirlpools and the ability to move around many of the objects that make up the world. Having said that, Lazarus more than made up for these changes by greatly expanding on just about everything else - all of the NPCs from the original game are present, but are far more fleshed out and generally have a whole lot more to say; all the over-world locations are faithfully reproduced, but with a whole lot more detail put into the world building; and thanks to the Dungeon Siege engine's ability to treat the entire game world as a single continuous entity, the world feels even more cohesive. Team Lazarus even expanded the evil quest, stunted in the original, into a full-fledged path. The end result was one of the most enjoyable CRPGs of the past decade, filled with fun things to do and interesting places to explore.

Ian Frazier, the Lead Designer of Lazarus and fresh out of designing the recently released Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning with Big Huge Games, kindly took some time out to answer a series of questions we put to him regarding the development of Lazarus.

The world of Ultima V: Lazarus is 3D, yet faithful to the original's layout.

- Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you first get into computer role-playing games? Did you come from pen and paper RPGs? Which cRPG was your first love?

I’ve been playing CRPGs since I was…oh…maybe 10 or so? I have fond memories of the old Gold Box TSR games, but I think the first RPG that truly captured me and made me love the genre was Betrayal at Krondor. That game was pure magic. I still have some pieces from the soundtrack in my music collection to this day.

As for pen and paper: oddly enough, I don’t come from that background at all. I played a little bit of the board game Hero Quest as a kid (and yes, I still have it), but that’s as close as I got to tabletop RPGs for a long time. I had a few friends in both high school and college who tried to get me into D&D, but I wasn’t really interested. Big Huge Games has always had a big tabletop culture, though, and I’ve found myself getting into it myself since I started working here. I’ve had a great time with several different systems at this point (D&D, Savage Worlds, Aces & Eights, the Dragon Age RPG, Chaosium’s Cthulhu, etc.) and have been DMing a Forgotten Realms campaign for a couple of years now—good times.

- The cRPG genre covers a lot of ground, from games featuring deep character customisation to others that focus on NPC interaction and narrative decision making. What aspect of a cRPG is most important to you?

As a designer, I tend to put my focus on whatever the project I’m working on needs most, but as a player? As a player, it’s definitely narrative choice and self-expression that matters most to me in an RPG.
I want to be able to express my character’s personality, and for that matter my philosophy and morality, and have the world and the characters around me react to that. I think that’s a large part of what always drew me to Ultima, and for that matter it’s a big part of my undying love for Planescape:Torment.

- How did you get into the Ultima series? Have you played all of the Ultima games or are there some that you've yet to try out? What do you think embodies the essence of the Ultima games and made them stand out among the other big RPGs of the time?

I actually came to Ultima pretty late. When I was in 8th grade, I was looking for something that would run on my increasingly antiquated 486, and I came across a bundle of The Complete Ultima VII in a bargain bin. After getting the damn thing to run (CURSE YOU, VOODOO MEMORY MANAGER!), I had such a spectacular time. Black Gate absolutely blew me away in terms of what a video game could be. It legimitately simulated a world, while giving me an incredible amount of freedom, while introducing characters I cared about...it was amazing. I burned through it quickly, followed by Serpent Isle, and immediately felt compelled to collect the rest of the series and play them all in order.

The only Ultima games I’ve not played AT ALL are the console ones (Runes of Virtue on GB, and the Nintendo versions of some of the others). Of the PC ones, I’ve played them all, and I’ve completed all of them except for Savage Worlds and Martian Dreams. I really need to go back and complete those two one of these days...

As for what made Ultima stand apart, I think it was a lot of factors, and I think it changed over the course of the series. In the earliest days, I think it probably just did well because honestly there weren’t many options out there. By Ultima III, though, I think all the love (and general craziness) put into the world made it a really big deal. I mean cripes, a cloth map? And the mage and cleric books! I remember reading those things and one of the spell descriptions talking about cutting out an owl’s eyeballs or something crazy like that, and going "Whoa...this game isn’t kidding around!" Starting with Ultima IV, the introduction of morality was obviously a huge deal. Then from U5 on through Serpent Isle I think the big thing was the idea of this living, breathing world. Plenty of games have NPC scheduling or weather or day/night cycles now, but at the time that was incredibly revolutionary!

A lot of custom made content went into the game, including new music and intro screens.

-What were your primary motivations for recreating Ultima V in a modern engine? How did the Lazarus project come about and how did you get involved with it? Why did you choose to remake Ultima V as opposed to one of the earlier or later games in the series?

The first motivator was simply a love of Ultima. After Ascension came out, I was incredibly sad. Partially because I was disappointed by Ascension itself, but more because I hated for the series I loved so much to finally be over. The idea of bringing it back to life (i.e. Lazarus) in some form was very appealing to me.

The next motivator was that Ultima V itself seemed to me like it had so much potential to be an amazing "modern" game experience. It had this story with shades of gray and this giant cool world to explore and an interesting, dark atmosphere…but all of those things were hinted at more than actually there—after all, the game was from 1987! NPCs had tiny snippets of dialogue, the graphics were archaic, the music was beautifully crafted but sounded very dated in midi form, etc. I wanted to take that core idea and spirit that made Ultima V so cool and bring it back to life with all that 15 years of technological advancement afforded us. (this is also why I didn’t choose to remake one of the later games—I felt Ultima V had the most potential, plus I thought Ultima VII was still playable enough that it didn’t “need” remaking)

The third motivator was selfish: I knew from 6th grade onward that I wanted to be a game designer, and as I was preparing for college I knew that I needed to make a game of my own to learn the skills and "prove myself," because class-work alone was not going to get me into the incredibly competitive games industry. I figured I needed a project and, well, Lazarus was it! Starting my first week of college, I began to sketch out the early designs for Lazarus and start trying to get fellow students and some Ultima fans online to join me in working on this crazy project, and eventually it started to build up steam. A long 5 years later, we finished!

- What experience did you have with games development before Lazarus? Had you done any game modding previously?

Not a lot. I’d done some small mod projects for Quake, but that’s about it, mod-wise. I’d been using third party game making tools since I was a kid, though, like Recreational Games Software Designs‘ Gamemaker (not to be confused with the Game-Maker that’s still around today) and the PIE 3D GCS (it let you make simple FPS games with about the technological level of Duke 3D).

- How was the team assembled, how was the project broken down and how was the workload shared? Besides being the project director, did you contribute to the writing or artwork?

The team was assembled in three different ways: first, simply by putting up a website describing what we were doing and calling out the sorts of people we were looking for, and letting people apply. Second, directly recruiting fellow students at Purdue (my university) who were interested in helping out. Third, hunting down Ultima fans online who seemed to have the skills I was looking for (writing, programming, etc.) and directly requesting their help. With all three approaches, I think I was a bit more restrictive in who we let onto the team (I actually instituted a standard "hiring practice") than is the norm for volunteer mod projects.

Setting a higher bar for entry and sometimes kicking people off the team if they were unwilling or unable to finish work on time made it much harder to get the mod done in a reasonable period of time, but it also meant that our quality went way up. To this day, I’m still incredibly proud of Team Lazarus.

As for the workload being shared: I assigned all tasks to individual team members based on their skillset and available time (understandably, some folks have more time for mod work than others) and then established deadlines for each piece of work. I used waterfall schedules constructed in both MS Excel and MS Project to manage the work that needed done on a large scale, and the team would report in their work on a regular basis via Instant Message, Email, or via our private message board—being an online project, the vast majority of team communication happened via that board.

As for my personal contributions: outside of the management/director role, I worked on a pretty random mix of content throughout the game. I did all the high-level systems design (combat rules, skill system, enemy stats, weapon stats, etc.), did the level design for a few areas, wrote dialogue for a few characters (Wartow in New Magincia was my first character, and probably the one I’m proudest of), modeled and textured new terrain nodes for some of the custom locations, and other miscellaneous design work.

The dialogue interface expands on the original, providing much more detailed dialogue with all the inhabitants of the world of Britannia.

- Why Dungeon Siege? What limitations were present in other engines such as the Neverwinter Nights engine? In hindsight, do you think you made the right choice, or would it have been easier to work around the limitations of other engines instead?

There were a two main reasons for using Dungeon Siege. First, its node-based engine was perfectly suited for making a very large, open-world game that the player could explore without ever seeing a load screen. Next, the flexibility of the engine for modding purposes was incredible, allowing us to do everything from replacing core elements of the UI, to reinventing the dialogue system, to creating entirely new creatures and architecture from scratch, to implementing dynamic ship travel!

Although some other toolsets certainly would have been easier to work with, I’m glad we went with Dungeon Siege—I don’t think we could have pulled off Lazarus (at least not to the same extent) with any other engine at that time.

- What were the biggest obstacles you faced when dealing with the Dungeon Siege engine? Were there many hard-coded annoyances that were difficult to bypass?

There were a lot of technical challenges over the course of working on Lazarus—the Dungeon Siege engine wasn’t really intended to do what we were forcing it into. But time and again we were surprised to find what could be accomplished with a little ingenuity. I think the things we struggled with most were custom node creation and the ship travel system.

Custom terrain nodes had to be built within very specific construction requirements, and if you had a single vertex off by even a centimeter, you’d build a huge area and then suddenly realize there were tiny cracks spreading across the whole map like an earthquake.

Meanwhile ship travel—actually freely controlling a boat while it moved across a sea of „elevator“ terrain nodes at the player’s direction—was very difficult to implement, simply because it was so far outside the scope of what the engine’s elevator tech was intended for. In the end of the day we made it work, though, thanks to the technical genius of Shaddock „Frilly Wumpus“ Heath and Jesse „Zephyr“ Strachman.

- How difficult was it to implement elements of Ultima V that were not directly compatible with Dungeon Siege's engine? One example would be the combat system, which in Ultima V was strictly turn-based. Do you feel that there were sacrifices that needed to be made or would you have experimented with these elements even if they could have been perfectly translated?

Some features like ship travel, the Grappling Hook, the Blink spell, and our whole dialogue system were very difficult to pull off since they were pretty far outside the core Dungeon Siege experience, but we felt they were critical to making the game really capture the feel of Ultima V, so we put in the time to make them work.

As for combat, I really enjoyed the pausable-but-real-time nature of the combat in the Infinity Engine games, so I had no problem with that being the core combat experience of Lazarus. I’d have done lots of things differently at a detail level if we’d been making the game from scratch, but the high level design probably would have been similar.

- The most irritating part of Dungeon Siege's combat is that enemies never switch targets. Did the team attempt to fix this for Lazarus? Did you find it to be a deep rooted engine limitation?

Unfortunately we never made changes to the aggro system in Dungeon Siege for Lazarus. It’s been so long now since I’ve looked at the skrits (Dungeon Siege’s script format), though, that I don’t remember if that was even exposed for modding purposes.

- Lazarus features far more text than the original Ultima V, much of it in the form of comments made by party members at appropriate times throughout the game, but all of it slotting in seamlessly with the original material. What steps were taken to ensure this, and was it a challenge to write for characters with a long history and an established fan base?

There were a few keys to making this work. The first was that we started with a strong foundation of preproduction—before we made any quests or anything, Michael "New Breed" Hilborn (a writer of spectacular Ultima fanfic) crafted a couple of documents that helped set the mood, tone, and themes for the world of Britannia in the Ultima V time frame. He brilliantly articulated the "feel" of the world, the roles of the Oppression and Resistance, and how the common people of Britannia would react to the major events afoot in the world. After that, I handed out the original U5’s full transcript to the team and using that as a base, I had a handful of our best writers create Region Profiles, documents that defined the general mood, feel, and major characters of each major location in the game. Mike and I then reviewed and critiqued these region profiles until all of our various planning documents were rock solid. These documents then served as our "bible" as we started to create actual game content. [Note: Many of these documents are now available online—we released them to the public a few months ago. http://www.ultimaaiera.com/blog/new-gallery-ultima-v-lazarus-regional-profiles/

The next key was editing. As individual writers started writing dialogue and books for the game, Mike and I performed review/edit passes on every single piece of dialogue that was created, helping to keep up the general quality bar of the writing (and correcting Elizabethan grammar, haha), but also ensuring that all the dialogue in the game supported the general fiction of the world and did a good job of exhibiting the Ultima spirit, which is frankly rather hard to quantify.

The final key was the writing staff itself. We managed to get some truly amazing writers on board with the talent to create compelling characters, the drive to put in an obscene amount of time working on this project simply for the joy of seeing it completed, and the passion to rewrite the same dialogue half a dozen times over if that’s what it took to end up with a top-quality result.

A view of the magic system in Lazarus. It retains most of the same spells of the original and remains reagent based.

- The creation of original art assets is typically the biggest hurdle when attempting large fan projects such as Lazarus. Did you give this much consideration before starting the project? Did you underestimate or overestimate the amount of work required?

I definitely underestimated the work, though not by as much as you might think. One of the reasons for choosing the Dungeon Siege engine was that its art style was already fairly close to what I wanted, and therefore we could simply reuse the vast majority of its assets for Lazarus. If not for that, we definitely never could have made this mod.

The other factor that helped was that I started Lazarus just as I was beginning my undergraduate degree in Computer Animation, so I already had a lot of 3d modeling/texturing/rigging/animation work to be done for classes, and I often used pieces of Lazarus as my class projects. That helped me kill two birds with one stone, and was a large part of how I had time to make so much content.

- Ultima V was the darkest game in the Age of Enlightenment trilogy. What were the challenges in portraying the oppressive atmosphere in Lazarus? Do you feel you succeeded?

I think the biggest challenge was simply trying to make the world feel like it was in serious trouble, while simultaneous being bright and sunny and beautiful Britannia. Sunshine and doom don’t go hand in hand. Ultimately, I think we managed to pull it off, though, mostly through a combination of highly evocative music for the Oppression, Blackthorn, and the Shadowlords, and really strong dialogue for many of the characters most impacted by the ongoing Oppression.

- The music in Lazarus is outstanding and really helps to evoke the feeling that you have stepped inside Britannia once again. How did the team go about breaking up the game into the needed compositions? Which Ultima soundtracks do you feel inspired Lazarus' the most?

It was pretty straightforward—I simply created a list of every piece I felt we needed, with an indication of what needed to be loopable and what didn’t, and then our composers divvied it up amongst themselves. Our main composers were Jared "Salanthalas" Ellsworth, Chris Many, and James "Terilem" Dangerfield.

As for inspiration, the guys definitely pulled from the whole series, though I think U5 and U7 were the biggest sources for them. They also used film scores as inspiration when it came time to craft entirely new pieces that had no Ultima precedent, such as the themes for the Lycaeum, Empath Abbey, and Serpent’s Hold.

- What, if anything, was left on the cutting room floor? If you were to make a director's cut, what would you add to it? Is there anything you wished to achieve but found infeasible?

There are four things we never managed to pull off that I would have loved to do, but which proved too time intensive to be worth it: horseback riding, skiffs, ship to ship combat, and of course the magic carpet. Fortunately, I think the Ultima V "feel" still managed to hold together, despite the lack of those particular features.

- Are there any plans for the future? Could there be a future patch to fix the remaining bugs in the game? Is there a chance we'll see some of the enhancements from the Ultima 6 Project in Lazarus? Any chance of an Ultima IV remake?

From me? Definitely not. I’m a full-time game developer these days, and that takes every spare drop of energy, time, and creative juice I’ve got.
Who knows what other enterprising modders might accomplish, though!

- Lastly, what do you think about the current direction of the cRPG genre? There seems to be a continuing trend of publishers favouring action gameplay and the removal of character statistics. Do you believe there is a market out there for modern cRPGs in a style similar to the great cRPGs of the past?

I think there’s still a place for hardcore RPGs in today’s market, yes, but I don’t think that action gameplay is necessarily at odds with that. You can very definitely have traditional RPG stats, depth, and sophistication, while still having action gameplay, and I think there’s a place for games that combine those elements in today’s marketplace.

If what you’re really asking me about is purely turn-based RPGs (i.e. no action elements at all), then I’d say yes there’s a place for it, but it’s not in the mainstream, at least not in the West (JRPGs are a different story). I doubt we’ll see another completely turn-based AAA RPG in the West. But I think there’s plenty of opportunity for them in the growing markets of tablet, phone, social, and handheld games, where costs of development (and the amount you need to sell to be successful) are considerably smaller. I’m definitely expecting to see some sweet old-school-style RPGs appearing on my iPad over the next couple of years.

- Why do you think Lazarus was so successful when so many other 'amateur' modding projects fail to see the light of day? What did you do differently, and what advice would you offer to other amateur development teams?

I think there were two major factors: First, Ultima is beloved by a LOT of people around the world. That made it much, much easier to find and recruit people to help with the project, as well as getting just enough media attention to keep the team excited and motivated. If Lazarus had been "An adventure in the magical land of FRAZIERIA, where you are the CHAMPION OF GOODNESS and must save KING SCOTTISH from the dreadful DARKMASTERS," I wouldn’t have been able to easily recruit a team and it likely never would have gone anywhere.

Second was that from day one, we treated Lazarus as a side job, not a hobby. I’m not saying we didn’t have fun with it—we did—but everything about the project was handled as close to professional game development as we could manage. We had a team hierarchy. We had a formal hiring process. We had regularly scheduled meetings (online) and would post the notes afterwards. We had a structured preproduction process. All work was reviewed by a lead before being finalized. We had dedicated QA testers and used a bug tracker (Bugzilla). Above all, we had standard waterfall production schedules with explicit deadlines and milestones, and we did whatever it took to meet those deadlines, even though they were entirely of our own creation.

This combination of factors ultimately made it possible for us to make a 60+ hour RPG, without a penny to our names, and after all these years I’m still very proud of it.

- The indie game development scene has changed quite a bit, with online distribution really taking off in the last 3 or 4 years. Do you think a project Lazarus could still be done today?

Absolutely! You'd just need to find a group of people as thoroughly insane as we were.


Thanks Ian for his time.

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