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Enlightening: Ultima Forever Interview

There is no way to monetise virtue

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When I heard that there would be a free to play Ultima game, my knee jerked so hard that I fractured my leg in four places. To learn more I spoke with lead designer Kate Flack and found that Ultima Forever could be a virtuous project, emphasising character development over looting, moral quandaries over monster-bashing and more interested in tracking player behaviour than spending patterns. I also managed to peek at a trailer showing the similarities between Forever and IV with transitions into the new visuals, an example of which is below. Beta signups are open now and I might be eating my words and going back to Britannia after all.

Should be obvious but just to be clear, the Honesty and Honor cards are from Ultima IV as are the two images following that. Onward.

RPS: Are you comfortable talking about Ultima Forever as a remake of Ultima IV? That’s where you’re looking back to, right?

Flack: I like to think of it as less of a remake and more of a reboot. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one. We’re not here to remake exactly the experience you had in Ultima IV. What I’m interested in doing is taking the effect and the intent behind Ultima IV and then applying that to a game. If you think about Ultima IV, the time it came out, 1985, it was fairly cutting edge in terms of technology and massively high concept. It was the first game to really tackle ethics.

I wanted to do something that was as subversive, as interesting, as deep…something that could ask as many questions as Ultima IV.

RPS: There was an interview with Richard Garriott from a long time ago, where he said that one of the main inspirations for Ultima IV was the realisation that so many things that you did in RPGs, including the original Ultima trilogy, were bad things. Even in games like Zelda you’d just walk into a house and steal from a chest. He said he wanted to acknowledge that and, for me, that’s the main thing that Ultima IV did. The virtue system.

Flack: That’s our touchstone. That and the world of Ultima, which is much beloved, including in the online game, which still has an active community. Another thing that I wanted to do, aside from touching on an ethical system, was to take Ultima and keep it going.

When you work on a big IP, say Warhammer, LOTR or Batman, you know that there are designers, writers and artists that came before you. With Ultima I want to make sure there will be designers, writers and artists after me as well. That’s why when we talk about it moving on, we’re looking to bring the world to a new generation. It has to pass on in order to continue.

Click to embiggen.

RPS: When I first saw the announcement, I grumbled because I had that rather silly reaction that a reboot is a replacement. That’s not true of course.

Flack: Not at all. We want to be really respectful though. We understand that we’re messing with peoples’ memories. It’s not about overwriting their childhood or their dreams, or the things they remember, it’s about ensuring there’s something to pass down.

RPS: In terms of geography, is it going to be the same map layout as Ultima IV.

Flack: Yeah, it’s based on the Ultima IV map. The geography of Britannia and Sosaria changes over time, but we wanted to touch on the things that Ultima IV deals with so we wanted to use that map.

A couple of things have moved around slightly to make things a little easier from an MMO perspective. We’re set 21 years after the events of Ultima IV, the later games haven’t happened yet, so we’re in a separate kind of shard, if you like. But if you’ve played Ultima IV, all the towns are there.

RPS: Would you describe the game as an MMO then?

Flack: It’s definitely multiplayer. There are four player dungeons and hundreds of people running around on the wrold map and in the towns.

RPS: But dungeons are always a group of four?

Flack: Yeah, that seems to be the perfect size for maximum co-op but minimum hassle. MMO comes with a kind of genre definition though and one of the things that’s hard to communicate is that we don’t really fit that definition. We’re explicitly trying to do something new, by going onto the iPad, which is the console of the new generation, but we’re making sure that everything is available on the PC. That kind of cross-platform play is incredibly interesting from a design perspective, making sure that things work with one finger tap, but also with a mouse and keyboard.

We’re calling it a multiplayer adventure game, not a massively multiplayer game.

RPS: So in the overworld, with lots of people running around, what kind of interactions are available there? In Ultima VII and Ultima Online, I liked just being able to exist in the world. What kind of social interactions do you have there?

Flack: It’s synchronous multiplayer, so you’ll be able to chat, send tells, get into groups and friend people. That aspect is all completely there.

RPS: Britannia always felt like a real place though; being able to sit in pubs, watch the world go by. Do you have any of that?

Flack: Well, that’s one of the reasons we draw the distinction between Ultima IV and VII. Ultima VII has a lot of simulation, NPCs with timetables sending them from place to place…you could watch a simulated world go by.

Ultima Forever is not like that. We went for adventure, playing with your friends and moral choices, over the simulation aspects. It’s for technical reasons but more so, for creative reasons; I wanted to do the virtue stuff. Video gaming is ripe for something like that right now.

RPS: As far as I can remember, Ultima IV was one of the first games, if not the first, to address those ethical issues. It’s more common now, with what I’ll loosely term moral choices being part of Dragon Age, KOTOR…how do you see Ultima’s virtue system fitting into today’s world?

Flack: My mission as a designer is to make you pause at the keyboard and think. You’re cast as a hero, you’re there to save Brittannia and the choices you have are virtuous ones. But jus becuase you’re trying to be good, doesn’t mean your decisions are easy.

So we put you in situations where you’re conflicted, so you might have three virtues to choose from and you pick the one that is appropriate for you. There’s a quest fairly early on in the game where a woman says that her husband has gone missing. You go venturing down into some sewers, kill a bunch of spiders and the other things you find down there, and you find his dead body.On his body is a letter to a mistress and you find out that this guy has been having an affair. You now have a choice. Do you go back to the wife and tell her he’s dead but don’t mention the affair, do you tell her he’s dead and that he’s been cheating on her, or do you go and tell the wife and then travel out to find the mistress to let her know as well.

As a designer, I haven’t assigned any right or wrong to those choices, I’m asking what do you think is the right thing to do.

RPS: That hits on the difference. Often in games with some sort of moral choice, there’s the ‘be a good guy’ option or there’s the ‘bastard button’ that you can press. If I press it I’m being a dick. It fits into Ultima to take away the bastard button and make it a choice of virtues.

Flack: I tend to think of it as taking ethics in gaming and zooming into the details. Just like in real life, the devil is in the details. Soemtimes the choices you make are nothing to do with your actions, they’re to do with your motivations. We allow the player to make quite finely detailed, discriminatory choices between the things that they want.

That’s because we have eight virtues. It’s a very intricate, complicated and high-minded system. As a designer sitting down and trying to figure out ways to measure the player’s spirituality is quite a challenge! (laughs)

RPS: It sounds like a fun challenge though!

Flack: Very true! Then you have the multiplayer aspect as well. So it’s not just about how you treat NPCs, it’s about how you treat other players and that to me is fascinating.

We use the prisoner’s dilemma, so in dungeons we have a thing called an honesty box and if you find one you can open it up. Sometimes there’s treasure inside and sometimes there isn’t, but we give you the option: do you want to share this with your party or do you want to steal it. Your party will never know but the game knows. And the game will judge you. So do you want a bump of gold so you can get the next load of gear or do you want to share with your friends. I’ll be fascinated to see what the standard behaviour becomes.

RPS: Would you be gathering all that data? Would you ever share it?

Flack: We have discussed it. At the moment we think no. What’s fascinating about the alpha is seeing what the players are doing – there’s a difference between what people say they think about the virtues and how they actually act in the game.

RPS: I was playing the Telltale Walking Dead recently and the choices there hit me. Given the choice to kill someone who really deserved to die, I didn’t and at the end, the game showed me how many people had made the same choice as me. The vast majority had. There’s a perception that games are all about killing and violence, but given the option, people often seem to do the opposite.

Flack: Anecdotally, game designers tend to believe that as well, that most people tend to be good. Helps restore your faith in humanity right?

RPS: Yes! My reading of Ultima IV is that it was meant to communicate that, to show that people do horrible things all the time in games, but that’s because it’s the only option they have. If the goal is virtue, rather than to be an unstoppable killing machine, people will happily engage with that goal, it’s just they’re not often given the choice.

Flack: I think one of the fascinating things about Ultima IV and one of the reasons it’s still enduring today is that you can have those kind of discussions about it in quite a sophisticated way, the same as you could about a movie or a novel, or a piece of music even. It’s nice to see that games can do that.

RPS: So to reboot it, what do you think has to be changed for a modern audience? Admittedly, as someone who bangs the drum for the series all the time, I do appreciate that it can be difficult to show them to one of these youths I hear about and try to get them interested, particularly with the early ones.

Flack: There’s some basic stuff to do, like core controls, which have to fit the platform you’re on. Having it so you don’t need 27 differnet function keys to remember. Nice menus, quest logs, maps. Things we take for granted now.

We’ve also focused gameplay into segments. The shortest loop you can play the game for is fifteen minutes, so it’s built into these fifteen minute chunks. This isn’t sit down for six hours like with something along the lines of Skyrim. You can get in and get out fairly quickly. So, short dungeons, get in, get to the end, get out. That’s both to facilitate play on the iPad but also to accomodate groups coming in and coming out. Not everyone has hours to sit down and raid anymore. I squeeze my gaming in around a whole bunch of stuff I’m doing in my life.

You can play for fifteen minutes and have a viable and productive session, but if you do have two hours you can do multiple game loops, dungeon runs, quests, advance your virtues some more.
Do you play a lot of MMOs?

RPS: At the minute, just The Secret World. I don’t have time. I never have time. Unless I’m going to write about a game, I barely find the time to play it.

Flack: It’s sort of like that as a designer too! When I play a game I look at mechanics and art style, learn from them.

In a lot of MMOs people just don’t quests, they just click, click, click, accept, go where they’re told. That’s to do with the questing system. You know there’s a rhythm. Accept, go somewhere, kill things or interact with something. They don’t need to read and there’s often a lot of text there that just gets ignored. So we had to develop a style of narrative that was compact and appealing to people who may only have a short amount of time to play the game and may be on an iPad where there’s limited real estate for text. So our writing style is much more akin to web journalism, where you have to get the story across succinctly and compellingly in twitter length narrative.

That’s been interesting and humbling. We have a thing called Gamelab where testers come in to play the game and a camera wathces them and records their screen. It’s tremendously humbling to watch players play your game and not read anything, just clicking away. It’s not my job to sit there and force people to read War and Peace. I have to do it in a way that incentivises players to read and be interested. So we’ve had to develop a really brief, punchy, Hemingwayesque kind of style that does the job while also asking some interesting and important questions.

RPS: It’s always interesting to work within limitations. They always exist but the more noticeable they are, the greater the challenge. Whether it’s a stage or a wordcount, it asks questions of the writer.

Flack: Absolutely. Just because our text is brief, that doesn’t mean it can’t be powerful. The shortest saddest story in the world is “for sale: one pair of baby’s shoes, unused”. Wonderful economy of words, but with power.

RPS: You mentioned ‘enhancing’ virtues. Are there actual bars that show how far people have advanced along each virtue track?

Flack: Well, our character sheet is separated into two halves. One is your physical body and external nature and the other half is your virtues and internal nature. To become the Avatar you need to excel in both of those things. It’s not good enough to be a brutish Conan, you have to be a warrior poet on the other side.

So one half is dedicated to your virtues and as you go through the game there are a couple of different ways to gain virtues. One is progressing through the main quest, the Quest for the Avatar, where the choices you make will result in virtue points. So, like, +37 compassion. That fills up an XP bar and then you go to a shrine, which you have to find around Britannia, and meditate. That causes your acutal virtue to rise.

You can also earn virtue by doing dungeon runs, which is about encouraging play with other people. So when you enter the dungeon we start tracking your behaviour and then at the end of that we drop virtue rewards based on what you have and haven’t done.

RPS: And on the dungeon runs you enhance your physical side as well, just by fighting?

Flack: You get experience points that go into your general experience pool, which also ranks you up as well. There are the eight virtues to master and then ranks and levels. IT’s quite an intricate character development system, because in some ways the game is a glorified personality test. We have a lot of detail around the character.

The other way to raise virtues is through what we call moral quandaries. An NPC will approach you and say, “here’s my situation, what shall I do?” For example, you find a beggar who has been beaten almost to death and there are three actions you can choose. Compassion – ‘Get medicine for a painless death’, to Sacrifice – ‘Indebt yourself to the Druids in the hope their magic healing can save him’, or Justice – ‘track down the people who beat him up’.

A bizarrely popular one we had was a guy who has just got married and his new wife is allergic to his pet dog. His wife says the dog is old, it makes her sick so he should put it down. The guy wants advice on what he should do. So you can tell him ‘put your wife’s needs first’ or ‘Your dog is loyal to you, you should be loyal to it.’ Or ‘Give the dog away, you won’t be happy, but at least your wife and dog will be.’ That one caused loads of arguments in the office.”

They’re quite quick, the quandaries, but they’re important for making the player pause and think rather than being a way to earn lots of virtue.

RPS: They could make the world more believable as well though. It’s one of the roles of a champion of virtue to be approachable and wise, I guess.

Flack: Yeah, absolutely.

RPS: In terms of endgame is the goal to become the Avatar, to top out in all the virtues?

Flack: The main quest is about Avatarhood and following in the steps of the first Avatar, the one from Ultima IV.

RPS: Am I right in saying that in the Age of Enlightenment trilogy there were multiple Avatars? I don’t remember clearly.

Flack: We’ve composited together the idea of the first Avatar. It’s more symbolic than literal. The NPCs will talk about the Avatar – he was around a long time ago so it’s kind of like folk memory at this point. They don’t know exactly what he did.

RPS: In terms of the free to play aspect, what kind of things can money be spent on? Will it be mostly cosmetic, or ways to speed progress?

Flack: It’s a mixture of things. We don’t gate access to content. You’ll never pay to go into a dungeon or anything like that. WE feel strongly that if people enjoy the game and think it deserves cash they’ll stick around and spend some.

You can spend money to customise your character, to unlock equipment early, or for health potions and stuff like that. Nothing you haven’t already seen in other free to play games.

RPS: In terms of equipment and loot, which feels less important in Ultima games, perhaps because the character is more central than his stuff, will there be randomisation and all that sort of stuff?

Flack: Well, armour and weapons are useful and you need them but the main creative focus is choice and virtue. There are certain bits of gear that you can’t get until you have certain virtues at a certain level. It encourages people to work on the virtues and acts as a kind of reward for doing that, like, OK, you topped out your compassion, have the armour of compassion.

RPS: I like the idea of a sword of compassion, compassionately slicing throats.

Flack: (laughs) Compassion isn’t always fluffy though, it can be hard-edged!

RPS: Cruel to be kind?

Flack: Exactly. It’s nice to work on something where we can talk about compassion in those ways.

There is no way to monetise virtue. You can’t buy compassion, you just can’t, the only way to get it is by playing the game. So even if you turn up and spend money and buy a sword, you can’t get the best stuff available without playing the game and enhancing virtue. You have to work for that like everybody else. It’s how we feel about virtue and about our best gear.

RPS: I worried about that when I first saw that it would be free to play. That I could buy my way to Avatarhood.

Flack: As the model becomes more established I think people will trust it more and more.

RPS: I’m still at the stage where I’d rather pay my money up front and have the whole experience that everybody else has. It’s not about not wanting to spend money on the game, it’s about not wanting to spend money in the game. My doubts are about how it affects fragmentation and the completeness of the game.

Flack: Look how far we’ve come with these models in the last few years though. In three years time the industry landscape might be completely different. Free to play could be completely normal and noone blinks at it. It’s an exciting game to be making games and experimenting with these ideas.

RPS: As for classes, there are just the two, mages and fighters, there are no unlockable ones at the moment?

Flack: We want to do all eight but we just haven’t had time yet.

RPS: And are the classes locked to one style or can you mix and match styles of play?

Flack: We don’t have any cross class stuff or hybridisation, no, not yet.

RPS: And I have to ask about Lady and Lord British. Do you mention the backstory of where he is and why she has taken charge?

Flack: Yeah, she’s literally just come to the throne and her father, Lord British, is off among the stars. No one knows where he is. She’s a symbolic figure, it’s about passing on to the next generation.

Rather than put words into Lord British’ mouth, which I don’t want to do because it’d be like wearing someone else’s underpants. It’d be disrespectful for me to use that character and so Lady British represents the passing of the torch and she’s trying to heal Britannia.

There have been various councils trying to rule, with differnet NPCs like Lord Blackthorn, people who have tried to do good but haven’t ruled very well. Now the forces of hatred and lies have moved in and begun to manipulate, affecting BRitannia for their own ends.

Lady British comes to the throne and says let’s open up the Moongates and bring people from Earth. Let’s have the humility to know that we need help and that this time it’s not enough to have one Avatar. So, yeah, she’s symbolic but also I can’t write very convincing men! Sorry!

RPS: Men aren’t very convincing.

Flack: Write what you know, right?

RPS: Indeed! Thanks for your time.

For direct comparison, here’s an Ultima IV shrine visit with an Ultima Forever screen below. Both can be clicked for more detail.

Squint to notice the differences.

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