Ophidian Dragon blogs his way through the entire Ultima series, from beginning to end.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ultima VI, Day 7

Today's gaming took far longer than expected--I decided to hit the anthill in the desert. It's not very dangerous, but it is ridiculously convoluted. It has four levels, and I mapped all four without finding the piece of the map that I was looking for! How frustrating. As it turned out, there was a small alcove on level four which housed the queen and the dead body with the map on it--but sadly, no other treasure worth having. I missed it the first time around.

Unfortunately, there's really not much to say about the ant hill--it's just a big dungeon without much in it! Therefore, I'll scatter screenshots around here while I discuss other things. Specifically, I think it would be interesting to discuss the ways in which the Ultima series changed over time. In my mind, it was all about increased depth--each game added new features which draq you into the game more thoroughly than the last one. Ultima VI is the game where this focus became most obvious, I think, and it lasted only one more main-series game, sadly, with Ultima VIII and IX trying to be more action-RPGs than anything else. In some ways, I think Serpent Isle, even in its broken state, is the height of the style of RPG gaming emphasized by Ultima VI and VII: A detailed world filled to the brim with unique locations, and particularly a world that reacts to the behaviours and choices of the player.

Of course, Serpent Isle is far from perfect--the world's reactions are all pre-programmed and you must win the correct way or never finish the game at all; the game is not open-ended. Also, it is comically linear in places, with chests appearing out of nowhere with quest items in it. I won't even mentioned all the quests deleted in order to get it out on time. It seems to me this development style was cut short after Electronic Arts began to exert more control over Origin, and then their overall direction shifted radically until the company went under. RIP. The Ultimas were basically a niche product, and trying to make them appeal to the masses was a big mistake.

I will correct something I said earlier--the "world reacting to player choices" actually began in a rudimentary way with Ultima IV. I think that's why it's so important to gaming history, because even if just in a very rudimentary way, the world became more dynamic and responsive in a way other than experience points and treasure to the particular "role" you play in this supposed "role-playing" game. Before that, computer RPGs could be simply called "roll playing games," in that your ole is only defined by numbers used in combat and stealing. The later games take that to an extreme.


Anonymous said...

I've always marveled how if your really stop and think about it, a lot of the things that you could do in Ultima 6 -- from big things like ride horses and sail the seas, to small things like re-arrange most of the component furniture in a room -- are lost on a lot of modern games. Even later 2D RPG-type games like Diablo and Baldur's Gate didn't really have this ability to just dive in to the world and interact with it so intimately.

And 3D games, almost as a matter of course, do not offer much in the way of such things -- it is vastly more difficult to make such things happen in a 3D environment, and requires a lot of scripting...or, at least, this has been my experience.

I think you are right, also, about Ultima being a niche product, and niche marketing is never something EA has done well. Their games are, by definition it seems, targeted at a wide audience, and cater to what could be called the 'lowest common denominator' in terms of plot offered and levels of action.

A successful EA game has a sparse-to-medium plot punctuated by lots of action, the definition of a trend in game design today that seems to expect and require its audience to have attention deficit issues. A successful Ultima is almost exactly the inverse of that formula.

Jeff said...

Though I'm aware some of the Serpent Isle issues you'd alluded to (after the Banes destroy civilization, the handful of survivors seem hardly to have noticed) I didn't know that there were chunks of the game dropped in an attempt to hurry it out the door. Where can I get more information about that? Even with its problems, Serpent Isle is one of my all-time favorite games, and perhaps my favorite Ultima.

Hm, related question: do you plan on going straight to the Black Gate after Ultima VI, or will you play Savage Empire, Martian Dreams, and Ultima Underworld?

Clarco said...

The anthill is a very nice place to level chars I think, you an get loads of experience points there very easily, though I think it was even easier in the "Cyclops Cave" (if I remember the name correctly).

Some true words about depth in games, yes.
Today, for instance in WoW, a role is defined by the equipment you wear and whether your mage can do 1000 or 1010 points of damage in 5 seconds.

I think the only actual role play happens in p&p, which unfortunately, I have kept my hands off and now there is no chance to have a group.

The niche statement is probably true, though EA has made a grave mistake there: had they continued the Ultima series (and launched UO 2, or perhaps, UO3 by now), perhaps today, most people would be playing that game and not WoW.

Granted, Blizzard did a halfway good job with it, but especially among the people in the late 20's, early 30's, there are quite a few who lost interest in WoW very quickly.

Considering the size and possibilities, it does not have the interaction options for instance Serpent Isle had (or any better MUD has).

Still, history is as it has become and there is nothing we can do about it, apart from not playing games anymore :)

Thats it for me,


Anonymous said...

Where can I get more information about that? Even with its problems, Serpent Isle is one of my all-time favorite games, and perhaps my favorite Ultima.

Dino's Ultima Page is your friend (more so than even Google)!!

There is a section on that page that contains links to details surrounding much of the "lost plot" of Serpent Isle.

Anonymous said...

Dear blogger,
Excellent comments on the Ultimas in general with this entry, and Ultima IV's place in history, in particular.

That's really what I was hoping for when I found your blog - that beyond going through the games, it would fuel a wider discussion about our beloved RPGs.

I agree with you that UVII was a high water mark of detailed world design. Raph Koster (UO, Designer Dragon) is currently wondering whether it is even possible to design games that cause players to stop and "smell the roses":

Raph's Blog

(Great read, by the way, if time allows.)

Fortunately, this was a huge part of the fun of the later Ultimas. I can't tell you how much time I spent arranging things on my magic carpet, what with a chest on the back for a little "trunk". Haha!

Thanks for the great work on the blog. Enjoying it greatly.

of Ultimas III - VII and UO