The King of the Underworld is Exploration

Ultima Underworld

Chalk another game off my backlog, I just completed Ultima Underworld and I must say it was much more than the game I was expecting. Sometimes when the nostalgia bug bites, you head back to an older game or two, and they just don’t hold up. It’s not as good as you remember it being, the graphics are just too dated to enjoy it, or times have changed so much that the flow of the game is totally opposed to today’s standards. Ultima Underworld, though, was more of a look into the future from the past.

Did I forget to mention that you could also play musical instruments in Underworld? Yup, you totally could. Not only that, but at one point it became integral to the main quest. Fishing, too. The amount of features stuffed into this one game, a game who this month is turning 23 years old, is absolutely staggering. Not only did the game hold up well over time, it held up well enough for me to play a complete runthrough of the game without even wanting to divert my attention elsewhere.

Ultima Underworld

I should… call Origin to receive a personal congratulations?! I wonder if any one of the old Origin employees or anyone at EA would honor this.

The best feature of Underworld, hands down, is it really nailed that feeling of exploration. The storyline was bare at best, and revolved around saving a maiden and finding a handful of particular items, using clues given by the NPCs you met. Finding them is what drove you forward, and every item you needed was just down one more level tucked into a far corner somewhere or held by some unsuspecting NPC, and all you had to do was find it. Around any corner could be a monster that would slap you around, a friendly face, a pile of treasure, a piece of lore, a freaking game of Pac-Man, a talking door, a developer homage, lava and waterfalls, a platform puzzle, etc. In other words, Ultima Underworld rewarded handsomely the person who explored every nook and cranny.

Ultima Underworld, Pac-Man

So I’m to collect these blue orbs as I run around this maze that’s filled with different colored ghosts. Sure, that sounds perfectly reasonable.

And not a single drop of procedural generation was used. The only randomness seemed to come from periodic monster spawns. After clearing a level occasionally you would meet a random monster, and these either didn’t happen often, or happened and they mixed in so well that they weren’t that noticeable. They didn’t use random encounters as an experience crutch, though, as is commonly found in a metric ton of other games. Everything was on purpose. But even with those rails, it felt like the rails didn’t exist.

Werit, another Star Trek Online player, makes a couple great points about the topic of exploration. If “exploration” is made procedurally generated, it doesn’t “feel” like you’re really exploring. It instead feels like you’re traveling down the highway and seeing yet another rest stop. A few restaurants, maybe a quirky gift shop, bathrooms, and that’s about it. If all you have to look forward to with more exploration is yet another rest stop, it doesn’t feel that fulfilling. And yet, Star Trek Online players, like many other players, are clamoring for more exploration!

Ultima Underworld really nailed what games today are still having problems trying to emulate. The Elder Scrolls series, I think, has come the closest to that feeling of rewarding exploration, where you could pick any direction and find rewarding adventure. That’s the reason why Skyrim has sold an almost mind-boggling amount of units. Rewarding exploration is what players really want. It is also why The Elder Scrolls Online didn’t fare so hot on release, their rails were showing too much.

Ultima Underworld, Warren Spector

A spectre named Warren, a not-so-subtle nod to Warren Spector. Wonder why he’s upset, though? Maybe the whole ‘ghost’ thing has something to do with it.

Not many younger players these days can stomach a game that has such dated graphics, no matter how good it is. Ultima Underworld, though, felt like listening to good classic rock. Different from today’s music, both in structure and style, but the soul never changes.

Playing Ultima Underworld evoked feelings like listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. You know that what you’re experiencing is from a different time period, but that does nothing to diminish the genius that went into producing it.

//Ocho

P.S. – By the way, mark it down. On March 2nd, 2015 the Internet was won by Ocho.

Ultima Underworld, Richard Garriott, Congratulations

P.S. – Supporting the Underworld Ascendant Kickstarter for me was a no brainer. It’s being produced by the same designer, Paul Neurath, someone who obviously knows what’s up. Their biggest hurdle, I believe, will be in topping what was an industry-changing game. No small feat.

P.P.S.- Here are links to my other two writeups on Underworld: My initial writeup, My mid-game writeup.

Ultima Underworld, Moongate

The whole Pink Floyd analogy was a little more apt, too. The run after the final encounter is a little… trippy.

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Unintentionally, I Just Bought My First Collector’s Edition #SotA

Shroud of the Avatar

I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. In a way, I feel tricked but I don’t. I’m still working out my feelings on this one.

First and foremost let me just say that I’m not of the same mind as (it seems) some of my fellow bloggers, that we should treat our favorite game companies as charities. I fully believe in the process of natural selection, even for businesses,  and simply put, if a company’s product isn’t worth the value, I’m not going to shell out more money to them just to help keep them afloat. No, my money needs to be earned by these companies. If I drop money on a subscription price and box fee, then that product better be heads and shoulders above the same entertainment I could get for a similar price elsewhere.

But one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. We don’t all have the same perception of value. To one person, having four concurrent subscriptions is a great value as they can drop into a game at any time, and the world will be waiting for them. For me, having any more than one time-based subscription is a waste of money that could be much better spent elsewhere. My time is valuable to me, a lot more than any subscription price, and if that one game doesn’t give me enough value to justify a time-based price, I’ll leave to another game that justifies my time & money more. Economics, in a nutshell.

But yet, I have now pledged up to the “Explorer” tier in backing Shroud of the Avatar, and it’s because of a very slippery slope.

I won’t lie, I’m a big fan of the Ultima series and Richard Garriott. So, an Ultima successor in feel (not in actuality due to copyright), without intervention from Electronic Arts, where the creators have a very open development? This makes me very happy, and I was more than happy to open my wallet to see this come to pass. But I didn’t want to open it too far… after all, I have a high perceived value of the finished product but the finished product doesn’t exist. So at first I kept myself in check.

Shroud of the Avatar

The Slippery Slope

My first purchase was for the $33 “Pioneer” tier, as I had missed the 1st and 2nd Responder tiers. This would get me a digital copy of the game. I could access the alphas and betas, too, but I wasn’t so interested in them. I’m only interested in betas to get a taste of what the game is, and not to help them test. I’m a bit selfish like that, but realistically I’m not their employee, I’m a consumer. Betas have turned me off quite a few games, too, so I tend to avoid them if I can help it. Total Spent: $33.

But wait. This is just for Episode 1! There are more episodes! I did not realize this at first. Well, what tier has THOSE, too? It ended up being the “Royal Artisan” tier, with Episode 2 & 3. Now, if I’m reading this correctly, each episode of the overall game will use the same engine, but be entirely separate. Similar to Guild Wars. Cool. I like that. And having all of them put together is like having a Transformers of Ultima. Even cooler. I could see myself playing all of them and adding another $47 for the next 2 episodes ($23.50/episode), when the first was $33, seems like a good deal. Total Spent: $80.

That’s where I stopped for a long time until I found this page, which noted a promotion from Alienware to upgrade your pledge by $20. Sweet! Using the coupon (as easy as clicking the link and signing into Shroud’s page), suddenly I was bumped up to $100, which was now the “Virtual Collector” tier. Total Spent: still $80.

Shroud of the Avatar is going to come in *FIVE* episodes, though. So far, I’ve only pledged for the first three. So, looking once more at the tiers, to get all five would be the “Explorer- All Digital” tier, for only $20 more. So, two more at $10/episode is a much better deal than before, so I jump on it. Total Spent: $100

Just for giggles, and I’m already so well vested like a poker player deep into a hand, I check out the next tier. The “Explorer” tier, and see that it’s only $5 more, and I get quite a few nice tangible physical items, like a *cloth map*, a collector’s box, the soundtrack, a game manual, and physical media. I don’t really care about most of them, but those cloth maps play my nostalgia strings like a lute, and for only $5? I have to. I have no choice. Total Spent: $105.

Now the next tier is at $150, and that’s where I draw the line. A collector’s coin and a “mysterious trinket” are included, which starts playing at my curiosity, but I’m not an extra $45 curious.

Shroud of the Avatar

Is It Worth It?

I don’t know how to feel about this. On one hand, I’m getting quite a bit. Every episode, a cloth map, and so many digital goodies I won’t know what to do with myself (no, really, the list is ridiculous… I added it in the postscript). On the other, Episode 1 hasn’t even come out yet! Let alone episodes two through five! Have some control, man! You just spent $105 on a game that you’ve only seen a very rough part of (and boy, was it rough)!

What a slide, too, from $33 to $105. As a previous salesman, I use to do this to customers all the time. “Oh, hey, you’re already spending $50 on books, how about a $5 bookmark?” It wasn’t even that difficult. As long as you kept the additions logical and less than 20% of the total, you could double a sale pretty easily. It plays off a lot of psychological tactics: overestimated future use, fear of a wasted purchase, the increase of the perception of value based on the more you spend, sunk time and costs, etc. and I feel I just had all of that psychology, that I am well aware of, used against me.

I guess time will tell if I am really happy about my purchase or if it was a waste.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

// Ocho

P.S. – If you want to get in on the Shroud of the Avatar Pre-order, that $20 Alienware coupon is good for new purchases, too, as well as current pledges. $25 for the first game isn’t bad at all if you’re an Ultima fan, story fan, or sandbox fan and are on the fence.

P.P.S. – By the way, here is the list of what the “Explorer” tier gets you (if you pledged during the Kickstarter itself)…

  • Episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5 (Alpha and Beta Access, Developer Blog Access)
  • Blade of the Avatar Novel by Tracy Hickman, “The Story of Mondain in the World of Sosaria” by Richard Garriott, Akallabeth Dungeons and Dragons Campaign
  • Physical: Cloth Map, Collector’s Box, Media, Soundtrack, Manual
  • Digital: Runic Translation Print, PDF Artbook, Soundtrack
  • In-Game: Creature Taming Call Ability, Early Skill Access
  • Teachable Emotes: Darkstarr Salute, Adventurer, Pilgrim, Immortal Adventurer, Founder, Royal Artisan, Virtual Collector, Explorer
  • Titles: Benefactor, Pioneer, Adventurer, Immortal Adventurer, Founder, Artisan, Royal Artisan, Archivist, Royal Archivist, Cartographer, Royal Cartographer
  • Items: Replenishing Snowball Box, Founder Shield, Immortality Fruit, Ankh of Virtue Necklace, Founder Cloak, Royal Elderberry Plant, Last Name, Star Citizen Cross-Promotion Item, Non-Combat Pets, Benefactor Tunic, Darkstarr Cloak, 1-use Crystal Sword, Founder Tunic, Starter Melee Weapons, Indestructable Artisan Tool, Starter Ranged Weapons, Iolo’s Lute, Darkstarr Metronome, Indestructable Crafting Tool, Starter Founder Armor, Family Crest (of your own design), Framed Cover Art, Framed Map.

… Wow.

Ultima VII is One Giant Reference to How Terrible Electronic Arts Is

Ultima 7

I’ve been following Syp’s playthrough of Ultima VII very closely, as it is by far one of my favorite games of all time, and remembered that Richard Garriott placed TONS of easter eggs in the game. Every party member of the Avatar’s group is some reference to someone Garriott knows, for example. Iolo is a reference to bowyer and composer David R. Watson, Iolo’s wife Gwenno is a reference to Watson’s wife Kathleen, Chuckles the Jester is a reference to one of the founders of Origin, Chuck Bueche, and Shamino and Lord British are references to Garriott himself. In fact, Sherry the Mouse is based off of one of his former girlfriends and the actress portraying Sherry at the Royal Theatre in Britain is dating Garriott’s alter-ego Shamino!

And all of these references are just the icing on the cake for us Ultima fans. They give nods to previous Ultimas played, to the developers themselves, and really added to the enjoyment of the game. However, it never occurred to me until recently to dig a little deeper. The deeper you go, though, the more you start to see something disturbing. Namely, Garriott did not like EA from the start, and he made that clear in Ultima VII.

Warning: I know this game came out in 1992, but SPOILERS AHEAD. Ye have been warned.

Ultima 7, Guardian, EA

— The Guardian Represents Electronic Arts —

The big bad menace of Ultima VII is called “The Guardian”. He is a huge red dude who wants nothing more than to enter the world of U7, Britannia, and destroy it. He accomplishes this by getting into the minds of the people, and pushing them to help the Guardian enter the world. Many worlds have already fallen to his evil. He is referred to by the wisps as “vain, greedy, egocentric, and malevolent”.

So how is the Guardian the representation of EA? The Guardian is called “The Destroyer of Worlds”. Origin’s motto: “We Create Worlds”. Also, Origin saw EA’s way of doing business as immoral. According to Origin, EA’s method was not only to make games, but also to interfere in others ability to do so. EA suing Origin probably didn’t help.

Ultima 7, Elizabeth and Abraham

— The Murderers Elizabeth and Abraham… E & A —

Elizabeth and Abraham are two figures that figure prominently in the storyline of Ultima VII. Elizabeth and Abraham are two of the founding members of the Fellowship, the pseudo religion the Guardian has a hand in, similar to Scientology, and travel from city to city collecting funds and convincing the important people to build Fellowship branches.

E & A seem well intentioned on the outside. Big surprise, though, the Fellowship turns out to not be on the level, and E & A help out in assassinations of those who speak out against them. E & A? Killers.

— “Create Love” is Slaughtered by E & A —

Inamo, Ultima 7, EAOne of the very first scenes of the game, the Avatar is tasked with finding the killer of a murder that has just occurred. The blacksmith Christopher has been ritually murdered. At the time, this was ridiculously graphic. He had been tied down, had his extremities severed, decapitated, and his blood filled in buckets. His assistant, the Gargoyle Inamo, was also run-through with a pitchfork.

What does Inamo’s name mean in his own language? “Create Love“. Who killed him? E & A. Yup.

— The Destroyer’s Power Over the People Comes From The Cube, The Sphere, and The Tetrahedron… EA’s Logo —

Might as well save the best for last. In the Avatar’s travels across Britannia he finds out that he needs to destroy three structures, “generators”, which give the Guardian his power. The Cube helps broadcast the Destroyer’s voice to his followers, the Sphere helps disrupt the moongates and trap the Time Lord in his prison, and the Tetrahedron helps to disrupt magic through the land.

The Cube, The Sphere, and the Tetrahedron are symbols of the Guardian’s evil. Remind you of anything?

EA, Cube, Sphere, Tetrahedron

// Ocho

P.S. In case you were wondering, here’s a  history between Origin and EA:

— The History of EA and Origin —

Origin Systems was created in 1983 as a way for Richard Garriott to capitalize on his game-making talents. Up until then, Akalabeth, Ultima I, and Ultima II had all been published by other publishers who took advantage of Garriott’s work.  The California Pacific Computer Company bought the rights for Akalabeth and Ultima I, and Sierra On-Line bought up Ultima II. It was issues with Sierra that caused Garriott to finally form his own company. Origin’s first game was the next in the series, Ultima III, which helped them to get through the great video game crash of 1983. From there, Origin produced further Ultimas IV, V, and VI, Wing Commander 1 and 2 and many other games. By 1988, Origin had about 50 employees under it’s umbrella.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate was released in April of 1992 and is greatly considered the pinnacle of the Ultima series. At the time, Electronic Arts was a big competitor of Origin. At one point, the bigger EA took Origin to court, which ended in a costly out-of-court settlement for Origin. Origin believed the games they made were works of love, and saw EA as trying to get ahead any way they can. In September of 1992, though, Origin was acquired by Electronic Arts.

Under EA’s banner, Origin went on to release a lot of great games like the rest of the Wing Commander series. However, the quality of the Ultima series started to drastically suffer. The last game, Ultima IX was, well, it was stunningly terrible. The storyline had been scrapped multiple times due to EA’s interference, the systems had been pared down to almost nothing, the majority of the team was pulled away to work on Ultima Online, and Electronic Arts would not waver on the release date. Ultima IX was not received well by the community, to say the least. Not long after, all games being worked on by Origin, like Ultima Online 2 and Ultima X, were canceled and Origin was shuttered by EA.

EA still owns the name of the Ultima franchise, as shown in their Free-to-Play, Pay-to-Win, iOS title Ultima Forever, which is a reimagining of Ultima IV. In my opinion, reimagining one of the greatest RPG’s of all time as an iOS P2W App is a huge slap in the face to the original and the series.

However, Richard Garriott has a new offering in Shroud of the Avatar, the “spiritual successor” to the Ultima series which features just enough similarity to not trigger any copyright issues. As far as can be concerned it currently looks like a successful endeavor having raised over $3.3 Million in funds, is extremely open about it’s production (as it should be), and has been having periodic Alpha weekends for it’s supporters. I have personally played in the first Alpha, and I must say they look to be on the right track. More than graphics and features, the Ultima games had a specific “feel” to them.

In one of the best compliments I can give to the game, Shroud of the Avatar has that feel.

P.P.S. – According to Mr. Garriott, the plans to include all the “EA is the root of all evil” plots had already been so ingrained within Ultima VII that EA gave them their blessings to continue with them in place. I couldn’t imagine if U7 had turned out any other way, really, so I’m certainly glad they let them proceed.

Richard Garriott, EA, Origin

Shroud of the Avatar: Deck Building Combat? #SotA

Recently on the forums for the upcoming Shroud of the Avatar, Starr Long, one of the game’s executive producers and previous Project Director of Ultima Online, busted out details on upcoming available skills for the new game. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, to be honest. It’s quite the information overload, and without the game, out-of-context, it’s hard to picture. However, using other games we have played, we can make a few general assumptions on what we can expect.

Firstly, Starr explains that there will be two kinds of acquired experience: Crafting experience and Adventuring experience, which will give skill points. This makes sense. In Guild Wars 2, making hamburgers and salads somehow made you a better fighter. People found this awesome as they had an alternate method of leveling, which is always good, but if I go home and make 200 sandwiches, I’m not suddenly going to be more effective in a fist fight. Having Crafting experience separated from Adventuring is a good step.

He then goes on to explain that there will be no classes. Similar to The Secret World, Skill points earned in each discipline can be used to buy any skills you want, with more powerful skills needing the prerequisites underneath them. So, for Ranged weapons, you first pick up the basic skill Aimed Shot, which then forks to Active skills Disabling Shot & Piercing Shot, and the Passive skill Eagle Eye. Skill trees are found everywhere in almost every game, so this should be nothing new to anyone.

Physical combat has 8 specializations: On the offense there is Blades, Polearms, Bludgeons, and Ranged, and on the defense there is Light Armor, Medium Armor, Heavy Armor, and Shields. These seem pretty straight-forward, very Oblivion-esque.

Magic, too, seems like the style of Elder Scrolls. So far, there are 9 different styles: Sun, Moon, Earth, Air, Life, Death, Water, Fire, and Chaos. Every magic skill, apart from Chaos, appears to have it’s opposite style represented.

But throughout the post, he drops hints that combat itself might be something different than we are use to. For example, on spending Skill Points on Active Skills:

Adding skill points to Active Skills increases the number of copies of that skill the player has therefore increasing the frequency that skill will appear during combat.

Wait… what? “Increasing the frequency that skill will appear”? The wording he uses here is interesting. He doesn’t say “will decrease the cooldown of the skill” or “reduce the time in between attacks”, he says adding skill points to Active Skills adds to the “number of copies of that skill the player has”. I don’t know about you, but this is sounding a little like a card game style of combat.

There is a skill in Chaos Magic, too, which adds to this deck/card game style combat idea, the aptly named Tabula Rasa skill:

Tabula Rasa: Instantly discard all skills and replace with new skills

Discard and replace skills, huh? Okay. So far, then, we know Shroud of the Avatar’s combat will include copies of skills, which adding points to will increase the frequency that they will appear, and a magic skill to completely discard all skills and replace them with new ones.

Also in Chaos, there is the skill Chaotic Confusion which says it “randomly rearranges target’s skills”. Woah. This skill doesn’t seem like it would be very powerful in, say PvE, as the computer doesn’t care where it puts its skills, but in PvP, just imagine being thumped with an attack that completely rearranges your skillbars. In every game we play, that would feel pretty overpowered, unless your skills themselves are also being changed out consistently.

So are they somehow going to fuse the third-person 3D world that we are use to, with a randomized skill deck style of combat? I am intrigued, to say the least. Combat would feel very dynamic and fast-paced, especially if you’re not exactly sure what your next upcoming attacks may be.

Starr then goes on in the post to talk about Crafting and the skill trees that will open up, and how recipes can be purchased, traded, or discovered, which seems similar to Guild Wars 2. The crafting disciplines of Gathering, Refining, and Production, though, sounds like Lord of the Rings Online.

All in all, comparing a game’s system prior to launch is, in a sense, an exercise in futility. We may see signs of what it may look like, but in the same way we know the different parts of a car’s engine and how they interact, the feel of driving is something else entirely. This concept of deck-style randomized skills, though, sounds intriguing, and I’d love to see it in action.

I’d highly suggest giving Starr’s post a read, especially if you have any interest in Shroud of the Avatar‘s development.

// Ocho

P.S. – Of course, I could be reading it the wrong way and be WAY off, or it may change completely before now and release… but speculation is kinda what we do, yeah?

Shroud of the Avatar, DRM, and Why the Gaming Industry Should Take Notice [SOTA]

Blizzard, EA, and apparently now Microsoft, too, have thrown their companies full-ahead into the age of Always-On DRM. In other words, you must always have a stable Internet connection and be communicating with their servers at all times in order to play their games in an effort to crack down on piracy. The issue of always-on DRM is one that has been long in coming with the industry having finally taken the leap and now making the worst fears of gamers a reality. So far we have seen massive server problems, delays, and stoppages preventing players who have purchased games like SimCity and Diablo 3 with their own hard-earned money from accessing these games. Games that could have easily been played without the need to be connected at all!

Murphy’s Law at it’s finest.

However, Shroud of the Avatar, just 35 hours away from finishing up it’s successful Kickstarter venture (for which I am a proud backer) is bucking the new trend. Bucking it, hitting it over the head with a chair, and throwing it completely out the window. The 5th update given during the Kickstarter campaign, only 3 days after it started, came right out and said they were listening to feedback and decided to make the Kickstarter version of the game DRM free and thus could be played completely off-line.  5 days later, the 10th update kicked it into high gear and is making, what I think, one of the greatest methods of handling gameplay I’ve ever heard.

You can play SotA in 4 completely different ways. Single-player Offline (SPOff), Single-Player Online (SPO), Friends-Play Online (FPO), and Open-Play Online (OPO).

Single-Player Offline

Just like pretty much every single-player game ever made since the dawn of gaming, single-player offline is a DRM-free, completely offline version of the game. Your character is stored on your own computer, there are no micro-transactions, and the game is played entirely client-side, no internet connection needed. Any character you create will only be playable offline to prevent hacking or exploits to enter the online play, but you can still experience the full story.

Single-Player Online

Single-Player Online mode is a version of the game where once more you are the only player in the game. However, you connect to the server, receive content updates, and get to see any long term changes other gamers have made on the world. You play the game still entirely on your own, but it would be like a single-player MMO. This is like the instanced-solo dungeons that you see in games like Neverwinter, the original Guild Wars, or Star Trek Online. You see the effects of a changing game, can participate in the economy, but you don’t have to play along with anyone else.

Friends-Play Online

Friends-Play Online is the multiplayer that we see cropping up in numerous games these days. In effect, it’s the same as SPO, but you see other players that you have already tagged as friends. It works as a limited online experience and is described as “For those who prefer the quieter game with friends or maybe for those who prefer a more focused role playing experience”.

Open-Play Online

And finally there is the method of playing that is most like the MMOs we have come to know today, Open-Play Online. In OPO, you will not be seeing everybody, but when you enter an area you will see other gamers that the server thinks you should see. Based on your own style of gameplay, you will see strangers, but strangers you might have a connection with. If you enjoy role-playing, you might find yourself surrounded by players who also enjoy role-playing. Or PvP. Or grouping. I take it you would have to fill out a small survey about your gaming style ahead of time, but even the complete strangers you’ll meet in Open-Play you’ll still have some sort of connection to.

Also, not only can you play Shroud of the Avatar in these 4 different ways, but you can switch between SPO, FPO, and OPO almost at-will while playing!

I don’t use this phrase often, but this is Revolutionary. Seriously.

What are Yew looking at?

Just imagine if a game like Diablo 3 had launched with this system in mind. For those without the greatest internet connections in the world, they could enjoy the game off-line, just like they did Diablo 2. Or, they could create an online character and play the game solo with benefits like the auction house, or only seeing other friends they have played with through Battle-Net, or a version of the game that randomly grouped like-minded and skilled gamers together. Then, if the Auction-House was only available to players who played the online versions, that would be reason enough to play online for most people and DRM would’ve just been an afterthought. Under that model, I really could’ve seen Diablo 3 being named game of the decade. As it stands now, I’ll never even touch Diablo 3. See the difference, Blizzard?!

Playing on Portalarium’s servers is now a choice that is in the gamers hands. A choice that discourages piracy, not through brute-force like EA does, but by giving tangible benefits to those that don’t pirate, playing with others and seeing the game change over time.

Instead of being treated like a criminal, SotA is going to treat gamers like guests into their world. When you empower the gamer and give us a voice, it’s not surprising at all to see the pledge number edging ever closer to $1,500,000. Through this simple action, Portalarium, and Garriott himself, has shown that he wants to work with us gamers, not against us, to make the best gaming experience possible for everyone.

// Ocho

Shroud of the Avatar vs Ultima Forever [LBSOTA and UF]

The Ultima cup runneth over.

As of this writing, Shroud of the Avatar, is currently in a fully backed KickStarter phase with 16 days to go. Launched by Portalarium and fronted by the inimitable Richard Garriott, Shroud of the Avatar is shaping up to be an unofficial successor to the Ultima games of old. But… what the heck is it?

At this point, it sounds a lot like an infomercial. It’s an MMO! It’s an offline DRM-free single-player game! New York Times best-selling author, Tracy Hickman! A dynamic world! It makes julienne fries! Okay, maybe not that last one… but it almost seems like it could at this point.

Despite my mentioning Britannia and LB giving his Twitter seal of approval, SOTA will not be taking place in Britannia. Copyrights and trademarks and whatnot.

To say the least, I’m excited. The first RPG I played way back on my parents old IBM back in 1990 was Ultima VI and I was hooked. I loved it. Having played all my gaming on an Atari 7800 up until that point, Ultima VI was a totally mind-blowing experience. Instead of sending planes through barns, inadvertently squishing captives with a helicopter, and jumping over an alligator’s head for the umpteenth time, here was a full fantasy world to explore! A fleshed out world, too. Stores were only open during certain times of the day, the inhabitants of the world all had daily schedules to keep. Can’t find that one guy you needed to talk to? If it’s around dinner time, check the tavern or try to head to his house. Ultima VII came out and playing it was a no-brainer. However, it strained my parents old system to it’s limits. Aside from the stuttering vocalizations of the Guardian from those damn Soundblaster settings, I remember it taking about 10 minutes to save a game to the hard drive, which was already filled to the brim with the game! 20 Megabytes! Compared to today, that’s like a game taking up about 450 GB. But my parents, being the saints they are, let me enjoy it.

What followed was a love of the Ultima series. To this day I’ve played Ultima IV, VI, VII, VIII, and IX to full completion. In fact, in order to make Ultima IX play I bought my first real computer upgrade, a new video card that I had to install myself. So, in effect, the Ultima series is even to blame for starting my love of modifying and building PCs!

Anyway, the Shroud of the Avatar site has a multitude of videos to watch about the future game including Garriott interviewing Greg “Dupre” Dykes and David “Iolo” Watson, which for any Ultima fan are definitely a must watch.

Ultima: Savage Empire part of the Worlds of Ultima series using the Ultima VI engine.

But what of EA and Mythic’s forthcoming Ultima Forever? When I first heard of the title, I was definitely intrigued, but the gameplay trailer stopped me in it’s first couple of seconds…

You catch that? “Coming soon to iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch”… did I mention my love of modifying and building PCs and playing those previous Ultima titles on PCs? I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that if you’re an Ultima fan, you’re most likely pretty knowledgeable of your PCs… so what are they thinking? The iPhone is popular here in the US, but I wouldn’t quite call iOS the most widely used system. For that I’d use Android. I’m sure there are a few techies out there who love their iPhone and got in on the ground floor when it was brand new, but they are far from the majority of current iPhone users. At where I work the tech department are all rocking Android. Android has that versatility and customizability that techs crave, and a recent article even posits that Android has a 70% market share! So initially snubbing the Android and PC crowd? When being an Ultima fan essentially EQUALED you being a whiz with your PC? Okay. We’ll see how that goes. Shroud of the Avatar, by the way, is primarily being developed for PC first and foremost with possible stretch goals to mobile.

Now, to be fair, when I asked them and on their Facebook page, they do state that they plan on releasing the title for other platforms as well, like PC and Android, but they plan on releasing those in their own dear sweet time.

So, essentially, it doesn’t appear that EA is really targeting previous Ultima players as its demographic. Huh. Well, that’s fine. The industry today is far different than the industry of the 1990’s. It’s more action oriented, it’s more social, it’s more about skipping fluff quest text and getting to the meat of the game. But, for me, that’s not really what I want from an Ultima game.

Ultima Forever certainly looks nice (the huge hulking Warrior is an… odd choice), you do get to party in the old Britannia, and I’m sure playing from your tablet will be awesome. But when it comes down to what is the heart and soul of what the Ultima titles were, what was behind the graphics, it was about the story, about the choices you make and understanding your choices have consequence. From the racial issues in Ultima VI to the yin and yang of good and evil in Ultima IX, the Ultima series is ultimately about striving to be a better person.

Truth, Love, Courage. Garriott has already proven himself worthy in this department. EA, and some of their recent decisions… well, we’ll see.

// Ocho

P.S. – Good Old Games is giving away Ultima IV for free and has every single Ultima game, putting them on sale often. Graphically dated, but still classics. Especially Ultima VII.

P.P.S. – For the Ultima fans out there, just because you really shouldn’t miss this, David “Iolo” Watson playing Stones on his lute (queued up to the right time):

Huge Ultima and Wing Commander Sale at GOG.com

I’m a sucker for a good game sale. A total sucker. Once I found out about Steam, Impulse, and GOG, my compulsions take over and I get hit with a huge burst of nostalgia. Well, right now over at GOG.com there is a sale that was giving off a siren song that was way too hard to pass up.

Two iconic game series from the 1980’s and 1990’s, Wing Commander and Ultima, are at a steep 50% discount until Monday June 4th at midnight (EDT). $3 per game pack is essentially my pricepoint, so… I picked up the whole lot. For the record, thats Ultima Underworld 1&2, Ultima 1+2+3, Ultima 4+5+6, Ultima 7 Complete*, Ultima 8 Gold,  Wing Commander 1+2, Wing Commander 3, Wing Commander 4*, and Wing Commander Privateer. That’s $27 for more great nostalgic hours of gaming than you could shake a proverbial stick at. (* necessary)

Ultima 7 Complete tops the list as being my favorite game. Period. It has also been quoted by the esteemed Richard Garriott as being the pinnacle of the Ultima series, so he agrees, too:

Ultima VII represented the pinnacle of virtual world simulation where I really felt I had done the best job of interactive storytelling and of world detailing to create a play space and a play environment and reasons to be there. I felt that was the most masterfully executed of the Ultima series, so to speak.” – Richard Garriott in an interview with Gamespot.com

I was ridiculously excited when the movie Avatar came out, until I realized it was just Pocahontas with blue aliens and nothing to do with Ultima…

I 100% agree. Every Ultima game on sale right now is a great game, but especially Ultima 7. I hate to say, but the only Ultima game that doesn’t make the cut as far as quality (and the sale) was Ultima 9. Maybe it was EA’s interference but Ultima 9, storywise, was just not that good of a game.

Wing Commander 4 also stands apart as being the best of the Wing Commander series. Not necessarily for it’s gameplay, but for it’s ridiculously stellar cast list (Notice that I just linked to it’s IMDB page). If there is any game that could claim to be an interactive movie, this one is it!

Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davies, and Tom Wilson make this more than just a game, and $3 is a steal (although Wing Commander 3 also stars the inimitable Tim Curry, I still prefer Wing Commander 4).

Make popcorn and bring a date. If they had made the Wing Commander movie with THIS cast, it would’ve been a MUCH better movie.

Game well, my friends. Game well.

\\ Ocho