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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on Ultima VIII

Discussion in 'News & Content Feedback' started by Infinitron, Feb 20, 2021.

  1. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Tags: Origin Systems; Richard Garriott; The Digital Antiquarian; Ultima VIII: Pagan

    It's been nearly a year and a half since the Digital Antiquarian last wrote about the Ultima series. Today his chronicle finally continues with the long-awaited retrospective of its controversial eight installment, Ultima VIII: Pagan. It's a savage takedown that accuses Pagan of nothing less than single-handedly destroying the franchise. The Antiquarian takes the time to puncture some of Richard Garriott's mythmaking about interference from Electronic Arts being primarily to blame for the game's poor quality, examines its troubled development which involved even more crunching than usual, and even sticks up for project director Mike McShaffry, who apparently took much of the blame for its failure within Origin. The real reason why Pagan turned out the way it did, he claims, is that Origin had simply lost confidence in the traditional roleplaying genre.

    Yet the story of Ultima VIIII is more than that of just one more game that was released before its time. Even had all of Origin’s plans for it come off perfectly, it would still have been a radical, seemingly nonsensical departure from everything Ultima had been in the past. Multiple sources confirm that it was in fact Richard Garriott himself rather than any soulless suit from EA who decided that the latest installment in Origin’s epic CRPG series ought to become a… platformer. He was inspired in this not by Super Mario Bros., as many fans would later suspect, but rather by Prince of Persia, Broderbund Software’s hugely popular, widely ported, elegantly minimalist, intensely cinematic linear action game. Prince of Persia was and is a more than worthy game in its own right, but it seems a strange choice indeed to use as inspiration for the latest Ultima. We should try to understand where the choice came from in the context of the times.

    Garriott has often joked that he spent the first twelve years of his career making essentially the same game over and over — merely making said game that much bigger and better each time out. If so, then Ultima VII was the ultimate, if you will, version of that game. Today its reputation is as hallowed as that of any game of its era; it remains a perennial on lists of the best CRPGs of all time. Yet its mixed reception in 1992 rather belies its modern reputation. Many reviewers expressed a certain ennui about the series as a whole, and ordinary gamers seemed less excited by its arrival than they had been by that of Ultima IV, V, or VI. Ultima Underworld, a more action-oriented spinoff which was created by the outside studio Blue Sky Productions and published by Origin just a month before Ultima VII, collected more critical praise and, likely most frustratingly of all for the hyper-competitive Garriott, continued to outsell its supposed big brother even after the latter’s release. A survey in the March 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World magazine is particularly telling: Ultima VII is rated as the 30th favorite game of the magazine’s readers, while Ultima Underworld is in a tie for third favorite. Meanwhile Origin’s eighteen-month-old Wing Commander II, a cinematic action game of Star Wars-style space combat, still sits at number six.

    Indeed, the role of Wing Commander in all of this should not be neglected. The brainchild of an enthusiastic young Englishman named Chris Roberts, the first game in that series had upon its release in 1990 surprised everyone by handily outselling that same year’s Ultima VI. The Wing Commander franchise had kept on outselling Ultima ever since, whilst being faster and easier to make on an installment-by-installment basis. This too could hardly have sat well with Garriott. The House That Ultima Built had become The Home of Wing Commander, and Chris Roberts was now more in demand for interviews than Lord British. The harsh truth was that EA had been far more excited about Wing Commander than Ultima when they decided to acquire Origin.

    Taken as a whole, all of this must have seemed intensely symbolic of a changing industry. As computers got faster and came to sport higher-fidelity audiovisual capabilities, visceral action titles were taking a bigger and bigger slice of computer-game sales, as evinced not only by the success of Ultima Underworld and Wing Commander but by other big hits like id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. Onscreen text was out of fashion, as was sprawl and complexity and most of the other traditional markers of an Ultima. Shorter, more focused games of the sort that one could pick up and play quickly were in. Origin had to keep up with the trends if they hoped to survive.

    In fact, Origin was in an extremely perilous financial state just before the EA acquisition. EA’s deep pockets would allow them to keep pace with spiraling development costs for the time being. But in return, the games they made had to have enough mass-market appeal to recoup their larger budgets.

    This, then, was the calculus that went into Ultima VIII, which begins to make the inexplicable at least somewhat more comprehensible. At this juncture in time, epic CRPGs were at literally their lowest ebb in the entire history of computer games. Therefore Ultima, the series that was virtually synonymous with the epic CRPG in the minds of most gamers, needed to become something else. It needed to become simpler and faster-paced, and if it could also jump on the trend toward grittier, more violent ludic aesthetics — I point again to the rise of id Software — so much the better. It may not have been a coincidence that, when Ultima VIII eventually shipped, it did so in a box sporting garish orange flames and a huge pentagram — the same general graphics style and even iconography as was seen in DOOM, id’s latest ultra-violent hit.

    Of course, the flaws in the thought process that led to Ultima VIII aren’t hard to identify in retrospect. Games which lack the courage of their own convictions seldom make for good company, any more than do people of the same stripe. The insecure child of a nervous creator who feared the world of gaming was passing him by, Ultima VIII could likely never have aspired to be more than competent in a derivative sort of way.

    The biggest blunder was the decision to slap the Ultima name on the thing at all, thereby raising expectations on the part of the franchise’s preexisting fan base which the game was never designed to meet. Ironically, the audience for an Ultima was every bit as “pre-sold,” as Garriott puts it above, as the audience for the latest Madden. And yet one game that fails to meet fan expectations can destroy just such a pre-sold audience really, really quickly, as Garriott was about to prove. (An analogy to the radical change in course of Ultima VIII might be a Madden installment that suddenly decided to become a cerebral stat-based game of football management and strategy instead of an exercise in fast-paced on-the-field action…) It would have been better to announce that Ultima was taking a break while Lord British tried something new. But it seems that Garriott identified so strongly with the only line of games he had ever seriously worked on that he couldn’t imagine not calling his latest one Ultima VIII.
    There's much more here, including an overview of Pagan's quite negative critical reception and an analysis of its much-maligned jumping mechanic, which Mike McShaffry attempted to address in the game's official patch. For the Antiquarian however, that was only enough to move it from unplayable to merely mediocre. It would be over two and a half years before gamers would hear the name Ultima again.
     
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  2. MRY Prestigious Gentleman Wormwood Studios Developer

    MRY
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    Ultima Online?
     
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  3. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Also noted in the comments. I guess he doesn't think much of it, considering he seems to be referring it to here:

     
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  4. Skdursh Learned

    Skdursh
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    Ultima VIII was a good game and anyone who says otherwise is a fantasy-weeb with a hero complex. The jumping was pretty shit, but everything else was great.
     
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  5. Bumvelcrow Bellator Sempervirens Patron Dumbfuck

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    It had atmosphere and some great music, but was missing a game, let alone a role playing game. If they'd dropped the Ultima name it might not have had such a bad reception but almost nobody would remember it.
     
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  6. oldmanpaco Master of Siestas

    oldmanpaco
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    The only good thing that came from U8 was Crusader.
     
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  7. KeighnMcDeath RPG Codex Boomer

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    U8 needs a mod remake in a different engine. Ah hell... reboot A-9 in a single new engine. We didn't even get U8 Lost Vale or Worlds of ultima Arthurian Legends. And U7 SI had some serious latter issue like being rushed. I'm a stickler playing every variant of A-5. U8.... yeah that fucking jumping.

    I did love Crusader though.
     
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  8. Infinitron I post news Patron

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    Ah:

     
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  9. V_K Arcane

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    Had one of the most fun magic systems though, both in terms of how elaborate it was (a different system for each school) and what could be achieved (like summoning a ghost to steal items from locked rooms).
     
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  10. Zer0wing Cipher

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    ^And everyone who publically says this shit is mynameisnotimportant schoolshooter. Morality of actions was one of centerpieces in all Ultima games since U4 and previous games handled le questinable deeds question much more subtly than this Super Avatar Bros tripe. Ultima 5 was much better yet also kinda dark and... "mature".
     
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  11. vonAchdorf Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    vonAchdorf
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    I never cared about muh avatar and muh virtues, so I always thought (patched) Pagan was good for what it was. Creative magic systems and a land and history often more interesting than Britannia.
     
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  12. Grauken Professional Procrastinator Patron

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    Maher doing quality research like always
     
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  13. MRY Prestigious Gentleman Wormwood Studios Developer

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    Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect reassures me that all his other claims are grounded in cold, hard fact divorced from any a priori bias.
     
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  14. ShaggyMoose Learned

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    The jumping was a least fixed to the point where it was still absurdly out of place, but at least no longer intensely aggravating. However, this quote sums up the real downfall of the game; "Homeward-Bound Avatar Wrecks World…". Playing a pyschopath that was previously the paragon of virtue was not really what I was after.
     
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  15. Tweed Professional Kobold Patron

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    All Ulitma 8 apologists need to be beaten with a stick. The game fucking sucked, it still sucks, it shall always suck and no amount of nostalgia will ever change that.
     
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  16. Calthaer Literate Patron

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    Strap Yourselves In
    I never picked up the series until VII, despite having known about it. Thought it was brilliant and picked up VIII. It was such a turd, but at least I got to watch the train wreck of public opinion destroying the franchise.
     
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  17. KeighnMcDeath RPG Codex Boomer

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    Damn U6 and U8 dungeons ugly as hell.
     
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  18. Nifft Batuff Arbiter

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    It was the first Ultima that I played and enjoyed enough to play it to the ending. I appreciated the completely non linear and systemic gameplay. The platforming parts were bad, but thanks to the possibility to save everywhere (at the time it was still a common feature in games) I found it less annoying than many modern games with check-points or limited saves, non skippable cutscenes, boss fights, etc.

    Edit: to clarify: since you can save just before the jumping (or even between a jump and the next), it becomes just a matter of simple trial and error with very limited repetitions. Annoying? Yes, but less annoying than repeating whole levels or lose big gaming sessions due to limited saves or check points that are now so common in modern games. If you put things in perspective...
     
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  19. Bumvelcrow Bellator Sempervirens Patron Dumbfuck

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    That must be worthy of an award in itself. Even with the jumping patch I only completed it with a walkthrough since otherwise I'd have been convinced that the plot was setting me up to fail. Ah, Avatar you were so quick to abandon your precious virtues - now who will ever believe in you again? My overwhelming memory of the game, other than the sanity testing inventory and magic systems was why the hell am I doing this?

    I'm not sure I'd consider that a recommendation. The game was basically unplayable unless you really, really liked jumping (and reloading).

    Now I'm faced with a question I never thought I'd have to answer. Which was worse, Ultima 8 or 9? I'd say 9, because at least with Pagan you could squint and pretend it didn't have anything to do with the Ultima series, have a thoroughly mediocre time and move on. With Ascension it was as though somebody had taken everything you liked about Ultima and turn it into a low effort parody, complete with benny hill style theme tune.
     
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  20. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    I think you have an exaggerated impression of how common checkpoint save systems are these days.
     
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  21. Grauken Professional Procrastinator Patron

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    Definitely 9. 8 at least had interesting world-building and I did like the plot concept, if not always the execution. 9 on the other hand was just Garriott on Alzheimer forgetting major and minor details and not really giving a fuck about the world and its people anymore
     
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  22. Zer0wing Cipher

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    Not quite. U9 was shafted after the success of Ultima Online for a long time and when EA woke up, they drove Origin Systems staff back into the sweatshop to crunch on Ultima 9.
     
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  23. bylam Funcom Developer

    bylam
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    Let me quote a comment beneath the Digital Antiquarian article :

    That was the thing about U8 - the atmosphere of the world was impressive and Pagan really *could* have been a genre defining game. It is such a great premise that really sadly, was not executed correctly in any way shape or form. But the sheer balls behind it is exactly what I think we rarely see in mainstream games today...
     
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  24. Atlantico unida e indivisible Patron

    Atlantico
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    Ultima V was the pinnacle of the series, for me. It's just right the right amount of janky and just the right amount of CRPG.
     
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  25. KeighnMcDeath RPG Codex Boomer

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    That's a pretty good view of 8-9. I still wish 8 had a better engine. The combination action platforming is fine in a doom game but i just can't recall a time I ever loved it in that type of view/play. Even Spell of Destruction gave me headaches at times or Fairlight, Landstalker, etc.

    Ah well. It is what it is. Again, pity the add-on wasn't produced for VIII. No lost Vale.

    I think the sloppiness started to get bad from SI onward.
     
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