Lessons In Video Game History- The Ultima Saga, Part 11- The Follow-Ups!

NamerOfStars

My first encounter with the Ultima series was with VII. My brother had been given the game, and was so enthusiastic about it, so amazed by the depth and possibility, that he HAD to show someone. But Dad was at work, Mom was busy, and our sister was asleep. So he grabbed four-month-old me, sat me down in his lap, and showed ME the incredible game. Some time later, Mom went to check on me, found me missing, and briefly panicked, before thinking to ask my brother if he knew anything, and found the two of us staring enraptured at the screen as he explained to me what he was doing. Of course I don't remember this, but he said, years later, "I seem to recall you drooled appreciatively at certain moments". The series ended for him two years later, with the disappointing VIII; he'd go no further with it. Seven months ago, I began writing these MyTakes to tell people about the series, and now I've finished it, and scealahpeum (the feeling of sorrow and loss that comes with reaching the end of a long series and realizing there isn't any more) is starting to set in. So it's time to wrap this up with a look at the creators' attempts to recapture the magic after the saga ended.

Now, the series ended badly, with Ultima IX- but that was over twenty years ago. Other series have risen to try and claim the title of "RPG about morals", and some have succeeded, to varying degrees, but none have achieved Ultima's reputation or status. On the surface, this seems natural enough- the market is a MUCH more crowded place now than it was in 1999, let alone 1982. But it's not like any of the elements of the games made them unique, or impossible to replicate. And it's not like Richard Garriott or the other people responsible are DEAD, they've just left the company, and most are still in the industry. After Garriott's next attempted game, Tabula Rasa, failed to gain the traction he'd hoped for, and the publisher attempted to screw him by faking a resignation letter he'd've had to have given them while he was IN SPACE, he decided to return to what worked, buy the rights, and create Ultima Online 2. EA, however, wasn't biting; they couldn't come to terms. So in 2009, he announced the formation of ANOTHER new company, Portalarium. And in 2013, they announced what was to be the first installment of a new epic, a successor, if not a continuation, of Ultima:

Lessons In Video Game History- The Ultima Saga, Part 11- The Follow-Ups!

Garriott noted that "shroud", like "avatar", was a word that had many meanings, and part of the series would be exploring all the various permutations of them. No longer tied down by the limits of EA or other big corporations, they could go directly to the fans for funding. The Kickstarted pulled in almost $2 million, and work began in 2013. Here was potential and excitement; the king was returning, and many of his old fans eagerly awaited the game. A great deal had been promised, and many were doubtful they could pull it off. Could they? Well, maybe- but a troublesome sign was on the horizon, and that sign looked like this:

Lessons In Video Game History- The Ultima Saga, Part 11- The Follow-Ups!

Chris Roberts, behind the Wing Commander series, had left Origin not long before Garriott did, citing his difficulties with working with a massive company like EA. Roberts went on to make movies as well as games, starting with the adaptation of his own Wing Commander, which... look, if I start thinking about THAT abomination, my brain's going to short-circuit, so we'll just say it sucked. Roberts went on to produce several other movies, many of which did NOT suck; clearly, he'd underestimated the difficulties involved- understandably, given that Wing Commanders 3 and 4 basically WERE movies, that also featured gameplay. Roberts decided to return to game-making, and in 2012, launched a Kickstarter for his dream project, Star Citizen: an attempt to build what 2003's Freelancer tried to be, essentially a scaled-up multiplayer version of Elite. Roberts declared that if the studio could raise $23 million, there'd be no need for outside funding. They hit that goal and zoomed past it, and continued to raise money by selling in-game starships to backers- a process that continues TO THIS DAY, despite releases being nothing more than semi-functional pieces of what they HOPE to have done some day. The latest figures on money they've raised from backers puts it at just shy of $500 million- yet DESPITE that, they've also obtained another sixty million or so from outside investors.

Roberts showed the world that with enough promises and the odd bit of released tech (and an admittedly fantastic reputation), you can build a powerful financial empire without ever actually RELEASING a game. I don't know if the people at Portalarium were inspired by this, but it sure seems that way: their prioritization was CLEARLY about how to make more money, rather than how to make the best game. Look at this map of a town:

Not my screenshots, by the way; these are from reviews.
Not my screenshots, by the way; these are from reviews.

Every one of those rectangles not filled in with gray or brown is player-purchasable housing; not with in-game currency, but with real money. This is a game with lots that can cost upwards of a thousand dollars just to BUY, and then you have to pay MORE to actually get buildings and furniture to build on them, and much of THAT is just repurposed assets from the Unity store. And there's no delicate way to put this, so I'll just say it outright: you can have aesthetic consistency, or you can have player-controlled visual designs. You cannot

Lessons In Video Game History- The Ultima Saga, Part 11- The Follow-Ups!

Have

Lessons In Video Game History- The Ultima Saga, Part 11- The Follow-Ups!

Both.

Lessons In Video Game History- The Ultima Saga, Part 11- The Follow-Ups!

Eugh.

Well, it's not like servers are free; maintenance costs money, and I understand that. But the actual GAME, by all accounts, was released as a buggy, unfinished mess, and hasn't really gotten better. In fact, in less than six months after launching, the game went free-to-play; a year later, it was sold to a company called Catnip games; Portalarium has since lost its business license, and essentially ceased to exist. So much for that five-game saga.

Okay, so Garriott hasn't done so hot (his latest effort is about a fantasy MMO driven by NFTs). What about Paul Neurath, the guy behind Ultima Underworld? He'd been working on-and-off with EA for almost twenty years, looking for permission to make another Underworld game, and they finally gave him the rights to make one, though he couldn't make it an *Ultima* underworld game- which kind of defeats the point; there's no reason you couldn't do a similar game in ANOTHER setting. But in 2014, the Kickstarter for Underworld Ascendant began. They hoped for $600,000, and got $850,000- much more reasonable than the others on this list. Neurath understood that you can't make a mass-market version of a game like Underworld; appeal that broad means a far blander experience. And unlike Star Citizen and Shroud of the Avatar, Underworld Ascendant was actually released. Not quite on time, but the original plan had been for September of 2018, and it actually came out in... November of 2018. Well, that's hardly a huge delay! Sounds some SOMEONE actually knew how to be responsible. Or it would, if the game were actually FINISHED.

NPC interaction is almost nonexistent, the physics engine thinks you can throw a pint bottle of water the same distance and speed as an 80-lb barrel, the world design makes NO sense whatsoever (why is there a swamp inside a fort? Why is there a fort inside a volcano?), and it has no sense of PLACE. The Abyss in Underworld was mostly narrow and claustrophobic, but it felt REAL; here, there's no connection between levels. There's also no sense of connection between the different tribes of creatures living in the Underworld, because there ARE no such tribes- just massed clusters of the same four enemy types. When last I'd heard, the big addition they were going to put in were skeletons that wore pirate hats. Yeah, because adding in a hat worked SO WELL to make the game better in Team Fortress 2.

But there was still one more figure of the Ultima bunch who could've pulled of something wonderful. Warren Spector had left Looking Glass after realizing that the company wasn't making enough money to stay afloat, and joined Ion Storm when John Romero promised him he could make his dream game.

Lessons In Video Game History- The Ultima Saga, Part 11- The Follow-Ups!

Deus Ex features graphics that were old even at the time, an engine that's as stable as a Battlestar Galactica cameraman, voice acting that's often clunky, and a combat system that's lackluster at best, yet it's an absolutely fantastic game, as anyone who's played it can tell you. It was followed up by Deus Ex: Invisible War, which... sucked. That's putting it succinctly. Spector left Ion Storm, which closed not long after. When his next project, Epic Mickey, was gutted by Disney from his original vision into something that Disney would approve of, Spector decided to leave game development and move into academia- but he jumped at the chance to return when he was given the chance to revisit his classic IP, System Shock, by... Paul Neurath.

The rights to System Shock had been held up for years, caught in a morass of legal complexities, and finally wound up with an insurance company in Michigan. A company called NightDive studios, which specializes in resurrecting old game IPs, bought them, and licensed the rights out to Neurath's Otherside studios in 2015, and they proudly announced they were working on System Shock 3. But after five years, little beyond promotional art had been released, and two publishers had been approached, given funding, and then withdrawn it or collapsed. In May of 2020, an enterprising journalist noticed, and noted, that ownership of the System Shock 3 website had passed to... Tencent, the video gaming arm of the Chinese government's propaganda wing. Spector had left the project (though not the company) in 2019.

So no, no one's yet managed to make a worthy successor that lasted more than a game or two, and even the old creators can't match their early output. Perhaps adjusting to the changes of the modern marketplace is just a temporary thing, and either the old or the new- or both- will rise to the challenge after some false starts, and give us something even better, but... Akalabeth means "she who has fallen" in Quenya, and although the timing's off, I don't think that's a coincidence.

Ultima rose, had its time in the sun, and fell. Playing through the series over these last several months has been quite the ride, and I hope you've enjoyed this series of essays, or at least learned something from them. I find it sad that many have never even heard of the franchise, and I've tried to fix that, at least for a few people. They're definitely worth knowing about, even if they're not all worth playing. And now, it's time for me to close the last Notepad file and all the related browser tabs I still have open on the topic, and move on to something else. While 1999 was almost a quarter century ago, it still feels wrong to let it go without marking it off as the end of something. I think the best way to finish all this is the same way the games did:

1982-1999
1982-1999
Lessons In Video Game History- The Ultima Saga, Part 11- The Follow-Ups!
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  • DubiousIntentions

    You do know that if you play these games too much, like Shroud of the Avitar, your control button finger will morph into something not quite human.

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