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Interview Ultima Codex Interview: Ultima VIII Programmer Jason Ely

Discussion in 'News & Content Feedback' started by Infinitron, Mar 18, 2014.

  1. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Tags: 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:

    UC: Ultima 8 is notorious for having a lot of cut content — Richard Garriott has stated that the game was cut so severely that the cloth map never matched the game world. Do you have any specific recollection of what ended up in the cutting room floor, and what part(s) of your work ended up being cut?

    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.
     
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  2. Xor Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

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    Because that always works out so well when it comes to preserving the soul of a franchise.
     
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  3. Darth Roxor Prestigious Gentleman Wielder of the Huegpenis

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    Fuck you, it's the best one in the series! :outrage:
     
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  4. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    I found Jason's response to this question interesting:

    Harvey Smith claimed in a past interview that the Ultima 8 patch was his project, yet Jason makes no mention of this.
     
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  5. Gary Indiana Arbiter

    Gary Indiana
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    20th anniversary. I really can't get my head around that. Even at the time, it was a huge letdown. Can't imagine ever wanting to replay it, unlike VI or VII.
     
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  6. Jaesun Fabulous Moderator

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    Torment: Tides of Numenera Divinity: Original Sin 2 BattleTech
     
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  7. Minttunator Arcane Patron

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    Codex 2012 Codex 2013 Codex 2014 PC RPG Website of the Year, 2015 RPG Wokedex Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Codex USB, 2014 Divinity: Original Sin 2
    Fascinating interview! It really is a shame about U8 - and the Ultima series in general.

    His new game Elderlands looks like it could be interesting, though.
     
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  8. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Yeah, but

    [​IMG]
     
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  9. Abelian Somebody's Alt

    Abelian
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    It's nice when developers do these retrospective interviews and share some behind-the-scenes information on development. It was an entertaining read (but not as entertaining as Spoony's review of the game).
     
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  10. Daemongar Arcane Patron

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    That was an interesting article and makes me wonder how much better U8 would have been if it was released on CD-Rom instead of floppies. All that work and cutting to keep it on floppy disk. Damn. IIRC, U8 was the last game I ever bought (including speech pack) that came entirely on floppy. Think if they would have waited a couple months, just think where the franchise would have gone.

    Yeah, I just looked it up: System Shock and Doom 2 both came out in 1994, both on CD. I know I bought both of them when they came out.
     
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  11. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    System Shock also originally came out on floppy, actually.
     
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  12. Daemongar Arcane Patron

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    Yeah, and I think Doom 2 did too. However (this is going from memory) I don't think CD-Rom drives were all that rare in 1994. There is probably some data somewhere on adoption levels in 1994, but it must have crossed their minds that by releasing the game on CD-Rom, they could keep the features that they wanted without compromising the games integrity. After the problems Origin had with floppies and U7/U7SI, you'd think they'd jump at the chance to migrate to CD. But, I suppose they NEEDED to hit as many systems as they could as quickly as possible for financial reasons, and had to choose floppy.
     
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  13. Keldryn Arcane

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    Regarding CD-ROM adoption levels, I came across this article from 1996:

    source: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/CD-ROM+sales+soar.-a018014812


    Bringing this back to Ultima VIII, I think the reasons were probably more technical than financial.

    Full production on the game would have started in late 1992 or early 1993. At that point in time, the only major game releases available on CD seemed to be "talkie" versions of Sierra adventure games. CD-ROM drives were also quite expensive (in early 1994, I paid $250 CAD for a 2x drive).

    Hard disk space was still pretty expensive at that time (in the summer of 1992, I bought a 240MB hard drive for $720 CAD), so the first batches of enhanced-for-CD or CD-only games generally played straight off the disc. This worked fine for games that played on static screens (Sierra games, Myst) or that confined the players to pre-rendered paths and FMVs (Rebel Assault, 7th Guest), but 1x and even 2x CD-ROMs had extremely slow access times.

    Even with Ultima VIII's world being split into multiple smaller maps (as compared to VII), the game streams in chunks of the map as the player wanders about. Playing straight off the CD wouldn't have been a valid option, and with the minimum required 4MB of system RAM, loading an entire map into memory at once was not possible. The game would have to be installed to a hard drive in order to be playable.

    The Origin of the early 90s was always pushing the cutting edge of PC hardware, but the CD-ROM drives of 1992-1993 were, in all honesty, rather shitty for the kind of games that Origin focused on. CD-ROM would be a valid distribution option, and possibly allow for an enhanced version of the game with full speech (the speech being played off the CD), but the game itself would need to fit into a reasonable installation footprint for the hard disks of the time -- which meant that the compressed game files would still fit on floppy disks.

    The most significant casualty to having to release the game on floppy was probably the loss of a female (and ethically diverse) Avatar option, due to the massive amount of animation data required.

    Limiting hardware requirements in order to reach a broader audience never seemed to be a consideration for Origin in the past. Every one of their games from 1990 onwards played poorly on a typical PC of the time and only played well on a top-of-the-line system. Ultima VII flat-out required a 386 CPU in order to play (in April 1992), and I believe it was the first PC game that required 386 protected mode in order to even run. The then-new EA ownership could very well have pushed the financial angle and the need to target as many customers' systems as possible, I will admit. Not that the game played well on a then-reasonable 486-33MHz anyway (it took a couple of minutes to save/load a game, which paired awesomely with the original jumping implementation).
     
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  14. :Flash: Arcane

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    Wasn't that the reason he/she had a bucket on his/her head? So that sex and skin color of the Avatar wasn't defined?
     
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  15. Abelian Somebody's Alt

    Abelian
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    Maybe, but they still went with the usual blond male for the paper doll on the character page.

    [​IMG]
     
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  16. Keldryn Arcane

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    Yes. The back of the box boasts "over 1200 frames of animation for the Avatar," which takes up a lot of space when your game is shipping on floppy disks. The same bullet point mentions 400 frames of animation for each character, which is why there is such a limited variety of monsters in the game. Every variation of the Avatar would have added another 1200 frames of animation to the game's data.

    I have no experience with 3D modeling software of that era, so I have no idea if it would have simply been a matter of copying the model and changing the head or having to reconstruct some or all of the model. Certainly a female Avatar would have needed a different body model. Rendering was also a much longer and more expensive process than it is today. It may seem silly to us now that having to render an additional 3D model into sprite sheets could be of any concern, but it may well have been another factor taken into consideration. (I'm not saying it was, only that it could have been a contributing factor)
     
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