After all that Garriotian goodwill generated by Kieron's welcome 'hey! Remember Ultima?' nostalgia-tickle over the weekend, brace yourself for a shock. EA have brought Ultima back at last! Yipee yahoo hooray! Except... it's not Ultima.
It's a - gasp! - online, browser-based -gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaasp! - strategy game, known as Lord Of Ultima. It's set in the Ultima universe, but that's about the extent of its ties to Britannia et al. It's not an RPG and Richard Garriot isn't involved, so olden Ultima fans are understandably feeling a little heartbroken right now. Though it's vaguely MMO-esque, in that it's you pitting your empire-building skills against other players, so it's sliiiiightly like Ultima Online. Sorry, that's a ridiculous thing to say. It's nothing like any Ultima game to date. So it's an incredibly peculiar decision on EA's part, but then they hardly have a rich history of treating the license well.
The chaps behind it are EA Phenomic, the chaps behind last year's bold, not-awful but somewhat unsatisfying RTS/CCG hybrid Battleforge. While I've not delved into myself yet (I've signed up, but apparently the servers are full, so I can't actually get into the bally thing), it appears to be in the vein of sedate city-builders such as Settlers or - and this is, I suspect, key to why it exists - Evony. Which is a name that, rather understandably, tends to inspire strong reactions from clued-in gamers. So far, no irrelevant mammary-based banner ads for this new browser-based city-building game, at least. For all I know it's a genuinely ace example of socially-networked strategy games, but that's still very unlikely to justify this wild use of the Ultima name. Hopefully I'll manage to join a server tomorrow and get a better sense of what, if any, its links to Ultimas-gone-by are.
As with Tiger Woods Online, EA are clearly trying to snatch a major chunk of the browser game market before someone else corners it. And, again as with Tiger Woods, it's not clear what the pay model's going to be yet. It's been something of a stealth launch in a way, currently existing in a free open beta state - presumably to drum up a fanbase and interest before the money-harvesters roll onto the scene. Will it do so? Should it do so? Go look, and try to hide your tears.
I'm reminded of the browser-based Zork, another case of snaffling a treasured PC gaming name then applying it to something with only the slightest relevance to what's gone before. Browser games are and will increasingly be incredibly important to the games industry, so it's reckless and near-sighted to dismiss them out of hand, but this really does seem a case of savagely twisting the heavy-with-history Ultima name into any shape that money could be squeezed out of. Which, really, seems a little cruel to all the people who've waited long years for a new Ultima game. Why not a different, or a new name? Would it really have harmed sales forecasts that much?