EA vs Ultima IV

By Alec Meer on March 30th, 2011 at 1:03 pm.

Bit of a Moses complex there, Richard?

Back in the late 90s, EA rereleased Ultima IV as freeware. Sort of. If you didn’t download it from an officially authorised host, you’re still technically committing piracy – even though the game is indeed freely available. It’s a long story, documented exhaustively here, but the sudden upshot of it is that EA are cracking down on sites that have been hosting it for bloomin’ ages. Unfortunately, this has also affected a number of ambitious and long-standing fan mods and remakes.

Why? And why now?

Well, the theory goes that it could be related to whatever secret project it is that Mythic are currently working on. Hints have been dropped that it could be Ultima-related, and a great many fans seem pretty convinced that’s the case, but there’s nothing even slightly like confirmation. You can browse all the rumours and speculation to date here.

Whether this has anything at all to do with the spate of Ultima IV removals is anyone’s guess – it could simply be standard IP protection stuff, after the right/wrong piece of paper happened to float to the top of a pile somewhere all of sudden.

The good news is that a few places (such as this one) do still host the original Ultima IV, at least for now. Get it while you definitely can, I would.

, .

76 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    Anthile says:

    Maybe it’s going to be a MMO… based on Ultima!
    Oh wait.
    Seriously, EA is sitting on a lot of famous IPs that are now unused for years and they have never been the kind of company that has been loose with copyright stuff.

    • MichaelPalin says:

      We gog.com users know about this painful reality very well. EA is certainly the most hated company in that community. Well, maybe not, I don’t visit the forums much, but they are by far the company holding the most classics. In fact, there are no EA owned games in the site, >:(

    • bob_d says:

      The odd thing is that EA has been working on a sequel to Ultima Online ever since that game was finished. I know they’d worked on and discarded at least two MMOs since that point. It may be that they finally decided they’re thinking of releasing one rather than dustbin it for a change, and they want to track downloads to see if there’s sufficient interest in Ultima.

  2. bluebottle says:

    I was going to say the obvious couldn’t be any worse than IX, but that almost sounds like a challenge to EA.

    • Urael says:

      I liked IX. But then I’ve not played any of the others. :)

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Now, now. Everyone knows VIII was worse than IX, and it was still a halfway decent RPG even if it was not really deserving of the Ultima name and only 2/3 finished.

      IX was released in a horribly buggy state, but after the major patch was released (and if you actually registered, you got a whole new install disc for free OR if you bought one of the later Ultima Online versions, at least one of them came with a free copy of the updated U9) it was actually quite decent. And after tweaking the config files, I have to honestly say it becomes good.

      Really, Ultima 9’s biggest crime was the default walk/run speed. It should have been at least twice as fast, and the game doesn’t even notice if you crank it up to three times as fast. (However, 4x lets you move a little to fast for a lot of the enemy AI and makes combat a little too easy. 2x or 3x is a nice “sweet spot”.) Once that is fixed, the game becomes much more enjoyable as you are able to get to everything faster and the overall pacing becomes more like U7.

      Without this, however, the whole game does indeed seem like a tedious, slow slog from one point to another. Considering how changing the default speed is practically yelled at you in the official guide, I don’t understand why they didn’t figure out that the Avatar moved too slowly before release. They did allegedly playtest it.

      EDIT: Okay, yes, the game world overall is smaller with far fewer characters per town than in U7: The Black Gate. But everything is fully voice acted and the amount of important NPCs is about the same. Despite the major Big Twist pissing off a lot of fans (because, for one thing, it does contradict official continuity from Silver Seed and Underworld 2), the main quest is otherwise very Ultima-ish and fun.

    • Tuco says:

      @MadTinkerer: I’m pretty sure you are trolling.
      Ultima VII still is probably the best RPG ever made.

    • Urthman says:

      Ultima 9 pretty much invented what is now the most popular single-character style of action RPG.

      Gothic, Risen, The Witcher, Divinity II, Morrowind, Oblivion are all descended from Ultima 9. (With other ancestors, of course, including Daggerfall, Ultima Underworld, and Ocarina of Time).

    • bluebottle says:

      Well… what is posterity, eh?

      Never saw anything that really redeemed IX, it was simply a series of poor dungeon crawls burdened with a clunky system that seemed to disregard everything that went before it in the Ultima series. I guess those are criticisms that could also be leveled at VII, but at least that was disconnected enough from Britannia not to openly contradict the lore, and at least had a really interesting magic system and a decent story to offset that.

      In the end, both were pretty bad games, and terrible Ultimas.

    • Bullwinkle says:

      “Ultima 9 pretty much invented what is now the most popular single-character style of action RPG.”

      That’s an interesting statement. And by ‘interesting’, I mean ‘crazy’.

    • Urthman says:

      No it’s not. Ultima 9 was the first attempt at a fully 3D action-RPG where you have a big open world to explore, with lots of interactivity with the world and the NPCs and items in it, and a single character who moves and jumps and fights and casts spells in real time (so reflexes matter).

      Ultima Underworld had the real-time combat and the interactive world, but was confined to single large dungeon (or series of dungeons in UU2) and wasn’t fully 3D.

      I haven’t played Daggerfall, but it seems like the randomly generated terrain makes it a different sort of game. And it doesn’t have the interactivity and physics in the world that even Underworld has.

      Ocarina of Time had the open world and 3D combat and exploration, but it’s seems like more of an action-adventure game than a real RPG.

      Ultima 9 had a lot of problems, but if you’ve played it and then play Gothic or Morrowind or Divinity 2, the basic gameplay feels more like U9 than any other earlier game. Or is there another game I’m missing?

    • Bullwinkle says:

      @Urthman:

      By that logic, any game which isn’t a perfect clone of something before it could be considered the ‘inventor’ of any similar game after it. You yourself have given several examples of games (of far greater success and popularity) that did what U9 did (and better). And maybe it’s because you never played it, but giving Daggerfall short shrift–especially considering the rather straightforward chain Daggerfall–>Morrowind–>Oblivion–does it a disservice. I think you’re also discounting the natural evolution that comes with the advancement of software and technology; Daggerfall was 1996, and UU1/2 were in 92/93.

      The Ultima series was unquestionably influential, especially in the area of interactivity. But then U7 was really the groundbreaker there.

    • Urthman says:

      All I know is that I played Ultima 9 and then I played Gothic and my reaction was, “This is Ultima 9 done right.” And when I played Oblivion, my reaction was again, “This feels like what Ultima 9 was trying to do.” I think those kinds of single-person modern action-RPG’s feel more like Ultima 9 than they do any other previous game.

      They certainly feel more like Ultima 9 than they feel like the Underworld games. Or any previous Ultima. Or the Diablo games or Baldur’s Gate or Wizardry or Might and Magic or Bard’s Tale or Lands of Lore or Zelda or Thief or Final Fantasy or Fallout or any other RPG I can think of.

      Daggerfall I haven’t played, but from watching gameplay video, I would argue that in many ways Morrowind and Oblivion feel more like Ultima 9 than like Daggerfall.

  3. MadTinkerer says:

    Too late, EA! I already have TWO legitimate copies of the Ultima Collection, THREE total copies of Ultima VII Parts 1 and 2 + expansions (overlaps with Ultima Collection), two legit copies of Underworld 2, one legit copy of Underworld 1, Two legit copies of Ultima 9, and a whole bunch of now-redundant Ultima Online discs!

    And a useless Tabula Rasa install disc I now use as a coaster!

  4. Hoaxfish says:

    This stuff always confuses me… what legal control do they have over it once they release it as freeware?

    • bill says:

      They don’t release it as freeware. They release it for free from their site.
      It’s a bit like if tescos starts giving away free bottles of coke with their sandwiches… you can’t walk into asda and stuff your pockets with coke.

      Actually, quite a few games that people claim were released as freeware weren’t. They were made available for free, under specific terms, and often for limited periods.

    • Giant, fussy whingebag says:

      Yeah, it’s like Portal was free for a bit.

      That doesn’t mean it would have been OK to download it freely elsewhere. Well, morally it’s fine, but legally… less so. But it certainly isn’t OK to pirate it now, just because it was free once…

    • MichaelPalin says:

      Freeware as in freebeer, not as in freedom.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Is Ultima IV currently for sale anywhere?

      This is my real bugbear about copyright, and it’s the crux of the Google Books issue. If copyright expired, say, five years after a work is no longer available commercially in any form, the world would be a much happier place. We’d have a crapload of free content, and the authors wouldn’t lose any money, because they’re not making any money in the first place.

    • Premium User Badge

      phlebas says:

      Or lots of publishers would announce print-on-demand offers on their entire back catalogues, a bargain at only £1000 a shot.

    • adonf says:

      “Is Ultima IV currently for sale anywhere?”

      No but it’s still available for free on those web sites that were specifically allowed to distribute it. I don’t understand why everyone is complaining, and I hate EA as much as the next guy.

    • dysphemism says:

      @phlebas
      Why would they price it such that nobody would ever buy it? There are set-up and maintenance costs associated with print-on-demand programs, and publishers want to recoup those costs.
      If anything, the availability of POD services and electronic publishing is an argument for terms that expire x years after a work is no longer available commercially; except in rare instances, there’s simply no excuse anymore for a book to be out of print.

    • Premium User Badge

      phlebas says:

      @dysphemism: I just meant that in response to such a law it would be very easy for publishers to make things technically ‘available’ but on such terms that nobody would actually take them up on it, thus preventing the copyright expiring without needing to do anything about it in practice.

    • Gvaz says:

      I never would have bought it if it wasn’t free because it’s old as fuck.

  5. Baboonanza says:

    I bet they’re working on ULTIMA: AVATAR OF WAR, a first-person action RPG. You won’t have direct control of your party, but they will be there to help you in your quest by opening doors when the script says to.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      YES PLEASE! That sounds fantastic! :)

      What, didn’t you play the Underworld games?

      (Seriously, though: first person + decent companion AI sounds like a perfect Ultima game to me.)

    • Ravenger says:

      It’ll be full of prompts saying ‘Press X’. Day 1 DLC will include a quest that asks you to ‘Press Y’.

  6. Red_Avatar says:

    Any Ultima game where you can’t fully interact with the world, move things around, manage to completely break the game by exploiting the freedom, etc. is NOT an Ultima game.

    • bwion says:

      Well, that’s the first five or so Ultima games out, then.

    • Red_Avatar says:

      To be fair, the first 5 were, while being groundbreaking at the time, nowhere near as engaging as the last ones. If they had remade the first 5 to be like Ultima VII, I would die a happy man. As is, the first 5, while reasonable fun, have aged badly compared to VII & VIII (and even IX which I still think was an enjoyable game).

    • 7rigger says:

      Personal opinion there. I could never get into the later Ultima games (I’ve not even played Underworld, but that’s a different matter.)

      I have many fond memories of III-V, some of my best roleplaying experiences come from them. Remaking IV in the style of the later games would send me into a MASSIVE NERDRAGE INTERNET ANGRYMANS!

    • DerShcraa says:

      And everyone else who loves Roguelikes.

    • Wizardry says:

      Well, Ultima IV and V are certainly better than VIII and IX, however you look at it. Also, you can’t forget that Ultima V has the best combat in the entire series, even though the combat in the series is generally poor. Mechanically, V is the best. For content, VII is the best.

  7. Premium User Badge

    The Sombrero Kid says:

    IMO, This is simply a case of these types of games re-acquiring value in the form of emulation on mobile platforms & digital distribution channels, if EA could legally relinquish all free distribution i’m certain they would have, but they can’t so they’ll settle for enforcing their copyright this only implys that EA is CONSIDERING re-releasing it’s old ultima games & utterly fits with their recent comments about not abandoning old IPs.

    Edit: i have no idea how ” & compliantly” got in there sorry.

    • Bullwinkle says:

      I’m betting this is the case too. Square Enix has released the first three Final Fantasy on iPhone; it’s a good medium for a lot of these old games. Personally, I’d pick up the original Ultimas on iTouch in a heartbeat..

  8. patricij says:

    I got it….EA can kiss my bottom now :P

  9. cjlr says:

    I suppose it makes sense, legally…

    But if they’re still not selling it, so how does it actually benefit them?

    • adonf says:

      I think that contrary to copyrights, trademarks must be actively protected for their owners to keep them. If they let anyone distribute the game then they might lose the Ultima 4 trademark and anyone else could make a U4 game. Not just a fan remake but a commercial game.

      So it’s actually a good thing that they are protecting this specific trademark, it could mean they want to make their own remake. And the benefit is not having anyone dispute their right as owner as the trademark.

    • Acorino says:

      You ARE confusing copyright with trademark here.
      Say, some other company would use the name Ultima for one of their commercial products, maybe even for a videogame. THEN EA, under the law, would need to take action against them.
      Quite a different matter.

    • adonf says:

      Isn’t this what I said ? EA is protecting its trademark by not letting unauthorized web site distribute the game (and thus violating both trademark and copyright). If they didn’t then it could be argued that EA let the trademark go moot and they don’t want this, possibly because they have plans for a new game.

    • bob_d says:

      Letting it be distributed for free doesn’t impact the trademark – if someone started making a game called “Ultima” and EA did nothing, then that would have an impact.
      I could see that controlling the downloads would allow EA to track how popular it was, which would allow some suit to argue, “See, there’s sufficient interest in the IP (if we add up all the current players of all the Ultima games) to produce a new game in the franchise.”

  10. Navagon says:

    In all honesty I’ve never actually played any of the Ultima games. But after spending some time with Arx Fatalis recently I am intrigued by the possibility of a proper comeback.

  11. SilverSilence says:

    You can download all the files here as well; http://www.ultima-origins.com/ultima4/u4down.htm

  12. Premium User Badge

    Acosta says:

    Yes guys please, keep “your” legacy alive shutting down the downloads and don’t allow anyone get it in any possible way though GoG or your shitty online market. That works, old videogames are better left abandoned in your hard drives or lost forever.

    • Megadyptes says:

      Ignoring the fact that one or two of the websites that EA gave permission to host legal downloads of Ultima IV are still up and running and thus you can still legally get the game for free.

  13. adonf says:

    “a few places do still host the original Ultima IV, at least for now. ”

    You’re being dramatic for no good reason here. Back in the days Origin gave these guys the explicit right to distribute U4 for the PC, so unless they lose interest in Ultima and close their web sites it’s going to stay online, EA can do nothing about it. The sites that were asked to take down the game were the one that had no rights to distribute it.

  14. MyPoorFeet says:

    EA are likely intending to give it a new lick of paint and release it as ‘Dragon Age 3 : Rehash’.
    Mariah will be a scantily clad bloodmage and Iolo is nailed on as the male same sex love interest.

  15. Red_Avatar says:

    A well known Abandonware website where I’m administrator still hosts it too. I put it towards the other staff members there if we should preemptively remove it but usually we wait for a C&D letter.

    We work together with the ESA (which is a collection of most well known developers) so it’s not exactly illegal but as long as we agree to their rules (which are pretty lenient to be honest) we can host these old games without them objection. In case of Ultima IV, the only way we’d break those rules, would be if they started selling it again so maybe they’re planning on releasing an Ultima Collection pack on Steam or so.

    • Premium User Badge

      Andy_Panthro says:

      I’m sure nobody will mind if you mention Abandonia by name.

      I try not to link to it though, relying on people doing a quick search for it if they’re interested.

  16. Unaco says:

    This is important for reasons of preservation. Think of something like the BBC “Doctor Who” serials with the 1st Three Doctors and how many of them have been lost. A while back, the BBC legal team may have been in a tizzy (it’s the BBC, I expect their lawyers are entirely more restrained than any other lawyers. I assume their cease and desist letters come on scented paper, in a flowing hand and regularly ask after the well being of family and friends and constantly apologise for their imposition) if someone was recording and archiving and making available BBC shows… but now, it’s those same people that the BBC are thankful for, because they have preserved those old shows.

    I think it’s similar with old games. Can a company that had no part in the creation of the game, but own the IP, be fully trusted to preserve these games? In 10 years time, will EA be turning to these people they’ve sent C&D’s to, asking them “actually, could we have a copy of that please? Oooh… and scans of the box art, could you Fax* that to us? Please? Pretty Please”

    *I predict a major resurgence in the popularity of the Fax machine in 10 years time.

    • bob_d says:

      In this case there are still websites that EA has allowed to distribute it, but I can certainly think of examples where developers at a company were making use of “unauthorized” means of distribution to get files they didn’t have access to any longer, while simultaneously (and ironically), the legal team tried to shut down those same points of distribution.

  17. KilgoreTrout_XL says:

    I COULD NEVER FIND THE GODDAMNED NIGHTSHADE.

    My brother and I really enjoyed the game, though we were too young to really know how to play it correctly.. I’m terrified to see what they’ll do with it.

    • Wizardry says:

      Presto in Skara Brae tells you to speak to the barkeep at The Axe-n-Ale in the village of Vesper about nightshade. Arron, the barkeep, after a tip, tells you to speak to Virgil in Trinsic about nightshade. Finally, Virgil tells you that nightshade can be found at latitude J’F” and longitude C’O” on “the darkest of nights” (new moon). You then need a sextant to find this location. If you speak to either Senora, in Jhelom, or Sailor Sam in Trinsic, they will tell you to speak to the barkeep in Jhelom about sextants. After a tip, the barkeep Celestial will tell you to purchase item “D” from the guild shops. Doing so will land you a sextant.

      Or something like that.

  18. DavidM says:

    I am sure those IBM PC emulated versions of Ultima 4 will completely destroy their sales of *whatever* they are working on.

    Brilliant, EA.

    Kilgore, If I remember correctly you can get the nightshade only in certain places(swamp?) during a non-moon phase ( black night ).

  19. 7rigger says:

    Not happy news, as Ultima IV was always my favorite of the series. Of course they could be doing their own high end reboot, but I wouldn’t hope for it.

    Many happy memories of playing this game with my brother, even with trainers we were unable to complete it. I think we got 5 of the 7 virtues, but couldn’t get valor as we ran away from fights a lot (Couldn’t be arsed with them)

    Still, I’ve had a copy from the Ultima collection and XU4 for ages. EA are pretty much closing the barn door after the cows have downloaded

  20. BloatedGuppy says:

    Meh.

    I’m sure the Necromancers at EA just took a break from torturing lambs and burning down orphanages long enough to look around and say “We haven’t given any fans of our classic franchises a rough fucking lately, we should get up on that.”

  21. James T says:

    [singing Ultima IV Master System overland theme]
    Da dant dant dant daddle-a daddle-a, da dant dant dant daddla-la la….

    God I love Ultima IV. I’d have been happy if every Ultima game afterward had just been a refinement on U4, EA Sports-style. Gradually create the ultimate messiah simulator!

  22. Eclipse says:

    FFFFF they removed even that awesome browser based remake a guy did few months ago http://www.phipsisoftware.com/ultima4/Ultima4.html :(( SIGH

  23. Bassism says:

    The case of EA has never made any sense to me, with respect to old games. Most companies either allow people to distribute their old games, or else make them available on the myriad of digital download services in the world today.

    EA, on the other hand, actively chases anybody who distributes their old games and refuses to sell those same games anywhere. Honestly, if EA would give me a way to buy the Ultima Collection for a third time, I would actually do so.

    I guess in this case they are at least allowing some places to continue to host it (though who knows for how long), so at least it is available. But if you look through the catalogue, there are an awful lot of rather good EA owned games that are impossible to acquire.

    • adonf says:

      “who knows for how long” -> for ever. They’re allowed to do it and EA can’t change the terms of the agreement if the other side doesn’t agree.

  24. Megadyptes says:

    I don’t get all the rage expressed at this news. The game is sill legally available to download from one or two websites that were given permission from Origin/EA to do so years ago and mods/remakes should still be fine as long as you don’t include the full game or significant assets from the full game in your mod/remake. Just include a link to the legal download locations or the game and instructions on how to go about installing the mod or importing the game files into your remake or whatever.

    This is all pretty much explained in the link to the story at ultimaaiera.com but seems to be completely ignored for the sake of sensationalism or frothing rage at the very outrageous thought that copyright laws exist!

    • gritz says:

      Because it’s hypocritical to shut down some sites and not others, perhaps? If they were truly interested in protecting their IP, they’d shut down everyone. Instead they’re just bullying fans for no apparent reason.

    • adonf says:

      @Megadyptes: Thank Jebus, a sensible comment. At last.

  25. HeavyStorm says:

    Since we’re talking a lot of Ultima these days, I’d like to point out that Project Exult has released a Release Candidate, in honor of Duke Nukem Forever.

  26. ScubaMonster says:

    Mythic working on Ultima? Sadface.jpg

    But I don’t know who else EA would have work on a new Ultima MMO. I’d prefer a single player entry though.

  27. sinister agent says:

    I think EA just have an annual arsehole quotient that they have to meet, or they suffer some kind of terrible penalty.

  28. AlexMax says:

    If one looks at this in the brightest possible terms, this might also mean that EA has signed a deal with Good Old Games and is trying to take down alternative free sources in advance of them selling it on GoG.com.

  29. geldonyetich says:

    From what I gather, the Ultima IV’s targetted were specific implementations that made the game playable over the web. Speculation has it that the reason why they’re getting targeted is EA is going to create a playable version of Ultima IV over Facebook and doesn’t want the competition.

  30. Urthman says:

    If EA thinks they’re gonna make money off of Ultima IV they might want to look at this article:

    http://www.brainygamer.com/the_brainy_gamer/2010/09/unplayable.html

    Gradually my students have grown less and less capable of handling one particular assignment: Ultima IV…As one of them put it, “I’d say for gamers of our generation, an RPG like Ultima IV is boring and pretty much unplayable.”

    And as much as I hate to say it – even after they learn to craft potions, speak to every villager, and take notes on what they say – it isn’t much fun for them. They want a radar in the corner of the screen. They want mission logs. They want fun combat. They want an in-game tutorial. They want a game that doesn’t feel like so much work…I believe we’ve finally reached the point where the gap separating today’s generation of gamers from those of us who once drew maps on grid paper is nearly unbridgeable.

    • Dominic White says:

      Meanwhile, new Wizardry games, in full retro grid-based style are released in Japan on the PS3 (and one of them is getting a US/EU digital release soon!), and the Etrian Odyssey series, where you even have to draw your own grid-maps, is a hit on the DS.

      There was even a cutesy-yet-hardcore Wizardry spinoff on the PSP not long ago, about a dungeon-crawlers school, where your goal is to raise a team of heroes from class clowns to senior badasses.

      Hell, both Nintendo and Square have their own ‘roguelikes for kids’ ranges – Pokemon & Chocobo’s dungeons, respectively, and those are hits, too.

      My conclusion: Western gamers have somehow gotten it into their heads that masturbatory power-fantasies are the only kind of game viable (see Biowares explanations for Dragon Age 2), and that challenge and self-reliance are to be avoided at all costs.

  31. pipman3000 says:

    maybe they’re taking them down because they plan to put their entire back catalogue on GoG right? :(

  32. Dominic White says:

    It would be nice if EA had a reason to do this… but it’s more likely just random corporate spite. Remember when Square-enix threatened that guy making a Carmageddon fan-game? Do you think they’re dusting off the Carmageddon license? No, didn’t think so. Or how about Activision going after King’s Quest stuff? Yeah, because they totally want to revive the classic Sierra adventure brand.

    Nine times out of ten, it’s companies just flexing legal muscle because they can. Contrary to internet echo-chamber belief, you don’t lose your copyright/trademark if people share or copy or even produce fan-works of your game. Not unless they’re releasing it as a paid commercial title.

  33. suibhne says:

    I’d be surprised if this isn’t leading up to an iOS release in the future.