Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Why Can't I Get Over The Cancellation of Ultima X : Odyssey?

Like a tiny gnat buzzing around my head all the time? Like a high-pitched ringing in my ears? Like that feeling Guinan had on that episode of Star Trek : The Next Generation when the timeline was altered and everything was wrong? I've tried to come up with a way of describing the unease that haunts me to this day, two and a half years after the fact, when I think about the cancellation of Ultima X : Odyssey.

The game was unveiled in August 2003 at an amazing event in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to have been invited, due to my Ultima Online fansite and community connections, and I was really blown away by the game, by the dedication of the design team, and by the city of San Francisco itself. So much so, that last fall I made a movie about the event that I mentioned in an earlier entry on this blog.

Oddly enough, I went the event primarily to meet SunSword, the then-producer of UO, who wanted to meet and talk about his plans for a seafaring expansion to the game. Nonetheless, when I returned home I updated my UO fansite with an event report on Ultima X : Odyssey.

What sold me then was the design of the game. It was steeped in classic Ultima lore, such as the virtues, it was being designed to be quick and easy to play with hotkeys and the like, it had the most epic music I've ever heard in any videogame, and it had a graphical style that was also unique, being somewhat whimsical and cartoony but not to the point it was farcical.

We had playable demonstrations at the event. We saw many monster designs and views of different areas, at the event and in the weeks that followed. We were told that the beta test was not that far away and that the attendees to the event would all be invited.

The axe really fell in early 2004, when EA announced that they were closing their Austin, Texas offices and that the UO and UXO staff had to move to San Francisco to keep their jobs. The heart and soul of the game, the designers, were cut out by this move, as for the most part they elected to resign and remain in Austin. We were told at the time that Ultima X: Odyssey development would continue, but things got real quiet about the game, until finally, on June 30, 2004, the game was cancelled.

A month and a half later, I ventured to another event with the UO designers and community folks being held at GenCon in Indianapolis, Indiana. Again, I was there to question them about Ultima Online, but during the question and answer session, I had to ask Community Coordinator Chris Lanius, a.k.a. Binky, about the cancellation of UXO, in the context that, if EA were so willing to throw away all that work, how could we trust them to continue to invest in Ultima Online?

Binky's response to my query was to downplay just how much the UXO team had accomplished. Even though we had played a demo in San Francisco, and even though we've seen screenshots of many areas and monsters, and even though they were using the Unreal Warfare game engine for UXO rather than building their own engine from scratch, and even though the beta test was supposed to begin only a few months after the unveiling, the game was a long way off.

I certainly have no reason to doubt my good friend Binky on that matter. After all, he was there, in the thick of the game design world, and my understanding of how games are made is zilch. I accepted Binky's response and went on with my life.

Over time, though, it gnawed at my brain. Quite simply put - I cannot get my mind around the fact that EA spent - what - a few million dollars on the game's development, plus at least a few hundred thousand for the unveiling event(these figures are all pulled directly from my posterior), only to cancel the game and take a loss on all that investment. Such a nauseating waste of design talent, passion, and of course money.

I doubt we'll ever get the real story behind the cancellation of Ultima X : Odyssey. One of my suspicions was that EA executives saw the impending release of World of Warcraft in 2004 as a major threat, which turned out to be true. That game had a lot in common with UXO, including the graphic style and ease of gameplay, and it became the most monstrously popular MMORPG in history.

But what if UXO had been completed and released against such a juggernaut as World of Warcraft? Well, clearly, it would not have been as popular. But I suspect that it would have fared well in a marketplace that was suddenly very friendly to MMORPGs like WoW. It couldn't have put much of a dent in WoW's subscription numbers, but it would have been a worthwhile endeavor for EA nonetheless.

Oddly enough, two of the major EA policy factors that lead to UXO's demise have changed since their fatal impact three years ago. First, a few EA employees that still work on UO are now being allowed to telecommute from Austin. Yes, EA has apparently dropped their insistence that all things EA be within their Redwood Shores offices.

Second, they now seem to be seeking an active "portfolio" of MMORPGs, instead of fearing that multiple games would draw players from their one main game (UO). The fear of drawing away subscription numbers from Ultima Online was publically cited as the reason for the cancellation of both UXO and its predecessor, Ultima Online 2. The portfolio business model has been a proven success, more or less, for Austin developer NCSoft. If EA had the foresight to develop such a policy years ago, then UXO might have fit well into such a plan.

Perhaps it's just me. I seem to have a hankering for fighting with game companies over lost causes. Still, to this day, the cancellation of Ultima X : Odyssey haunts me. I think about that event in August 2003 and the gleeful pride that those developers had in the world they were creating, and wonder how anyone could just toss that aside.

Sword of Fargoal Attempt #5

I made another run at Sword of Fargoal today, and it was a long, interesting one. No glitches this time, and all the stairs worked as they should.

My three hour and twelve minute session got me to level 13 before I died to the sudden attack of an unseen assassin. I was out of healing potions at this point, but forgot and tried to heal anyway. A quicker response on my part might have enabled me to teleport away instead, since I did have a few of those spells.

There is no way to look up your inventory while playing. It only appears onscreen during the transition between levels. I've been able to keep track of it in my head, though, for the most part.

On the very first level, I found a map to level 7. Sure enough, when I got to that level, it was completely revealed to me from the start. Very useful. Another good find was a Drift spell, which enabled me to use a pit to skip a few levels without taking any damage.

During the long waits to heal up at the shrine, I was playing Phoenix Wright : Justice For All on my Nintendo DS. It turned out to be the perfect game to play as I could keep one eye on Fargoal just in case a monster spawned on top of me or wandered too close. It seemed that whenever I got to an interesting point in Phoenix Wright, I would be healed in Fargoal and ready to move on.

The good thing is,though, Phoenix Wright has a nice, cozy, modern, and convenient save feature. Thus, while I still contend that I am "roughing it" with Sword of Fargoal, I'm taking it easy through Phoenix Wright. Sort of a best-of-both-worlds thing.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Sword of Fargoal Attempt #4

My lessons were well learned. Tread carefully, use a healing potion when necessary, stop and heal up. I was doing well on my fourth attempt, had made it to level 8, had built up my character to over 100 hit points, and was taking long and boring periods to heal up.

A funny thing happened to me on my way to level 9. The stairs would not work. There were two sets of stairs on level 8 leading down, and none of them were functional. One was surrounded by monsters, and the other was not, so I tried the safe one first. When it failed to take me down to level 9, I made a run for the other set. I stood on them, frantically pressed C, while the monsters finished me off.

Was this a bug or glitch? Did I do something wrong? I searched online for information about the game, but nothing I found mentioned such a bug. All I know is that one hour and forty-two minutes of gameplay were a complete waste. I am discouraged from further attempts, but will probably try again on my next day off.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Roughing It With Sword of Fargoal

So I'm playing the Commodore 64 classic Sword of Fargoal. Yeah. It's hard. The game has no save feature, no pause feature and no mercy whatsoever. Like campers who go out into the wilderness without modern conveniences to "rough it", I am doing the gaming equivalent by playing this quarter-of-a-century old game.

As I mentioned in an earlier article, Sword of Fargoal is a twenty level dungeon exploration game where one must find the sword and then escape with it under a 33 minute timer. The timer starts off when you get the sword. It has monsters, traps, and spells you pick up to help out with healing and other standard magical uses.

Each level takes up one full screen that must be revealed by exploring through it. They are generated randomly each time you play, too. In fact, during my three attempts yesterday (which I will detail in a moment), I discovered that if you return to a previously explored level, it not only hides it again but it seems to generate a new layout! My only hope before finding that out was to clear the levels all out on my way down to the sword, then make a run for it through previously-explored levels. So much for that.

Healing takes a long time without the use of a spell. One must stand on a square called a "temple" to regenerate the fastest. Even if one has cleared the monsters out of a level, new ones can spawn from the staircases. There's even one monster called a dimension spider which can appear anywhere at anytime.

My first run lasted 24 minutes. I was on level 4, doing good, and just as I was walking toward the staircase, a shadow dragon came out of the stairs and killed me quite quickly. If a monster initiates the attack, one cannot flee. The lesson here was to look before I leap. In Sword of Fargoal, one must take it very slow and tread carefully.

My second run lasted 23 minutes. This death was my own fault. I was fighting a swordsman, a type of enemy I had beaten before quite easily, and died to it. I failed to reach the H key to heal in time. Lesson learned - enemy hit points can vary greatly, and know where the heal button is at all times.

My third and final attempt lasted 28 minutes. This time, thanks to a pit, I fell down to level seven but was instantly killed by an assassin, which was invisible. I am not entirely sure, but I suspect that the fall through the pit did enough damage to me for the assassin to quickly finish me off.

Instantaneous death is frustrating, but I was able to learn quite a bit from these three attempts. This game requires a lot of patience, a cautious step, and a huge chunk of time set aside to play. Why am I playing it when I've got three new Nintendo DS games begging for my valuable game time? To "rough it", of course - to get in touch with my gaming roots and to test my tenacity to its limits. Sword of Fargoal is a perfect game for that.

Friday, February 16, 2007

I Beat Phoenix Wright !

I just finished Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney. At last. I purchased the game new for $17.99 at Media Play during their closing clearance sale on December 28, 2005. I played it on and off for awhile, but when I heard a sequel was coming, I made a real effort to pick up where I left off.

I got seriously stuck a few times, like where you have to rotate the vase to a very particular angle to present it as evidence, but stumbled through. Highlights include the rich characters and storyline. Funny moments, like a witness throwing his toupee' at me, and putting a parrot on the witness stand, made the game memorable.

And now, it's on to Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney Justice For All ! Life is good.

Milestones : Adventure

I thought videogaming was going along great. Lots of things to shoot at. Galaxian, Asteroids, Missile Command, Astro Fighter, Centipede, Gorf, and so on. I didn't know any better and assumed that shooting at things in various manners was what it was all about. I was content to just shoot.

Then came Adventure for the Atari VCS 2600. I didn't have it, but my good friend Andy Kiss had a father who was into gaming, and he got it. And my mind was opened forever to what gaming could be.

Here was a game with an end. You could beat it. Those shooters went on forever, with no point other than a high score. Adventure, however, had a goal - get the chalice back to the gold castle. It had what seemed like, at the time, a large inventory of items. A sword, a bridge, a magnet, three keys. It had the most annoying bat of all time. And it had three ducks - er dragons. It generated the items randomly each time you played so each game presented new challenges. Sometimes you started the game and were almost immediately set upon and devoured by a dragon.

I played the thing again and again. And when my friends and I read in a very early issue of Electronic Games magazine that there was something special hidden in Adventure, we tore it apart (and tore our hair out, in a sense) trying to find it. Adventure had the first "Easter Egg" in it, which I won't spoil here.

Adventure set me on a path of seeking more adventures and that genre became my favorite among all of gaming. After Adventure, my friends and I tried Superman (again, for the Atari VCS), but that title fell flat. Next up was Haunted House, which was a great adventure game, although a bit dark. No, it wasn't until the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark that I felt that a true progression had been made. Raiders was a tough game to beat, and very very complex.

The action-adventure genre progressed over the years - Sword of Kadash for the Commodore 64, The Legend of Zelda for the NES, and so on. But it all began, for me, with Adventure. There is no other game on my list of "milestones" that truly embody the term quite like this one.

Three New Games and Progress on Phoenix Wright

Velentine's Day brought forth a small bonanza of new games for me to play. By new, of course, I mean new to me.

The first new game I bought for myself - on eBay. And it's not exactly new, but rather a quarter of a century old. It's called Sword of Fargoal, and it's my February addition to my Commodore 64 collection. I plan on getting one old game a month for the C64. Sword of Fargoal was originally released for the Commodore VIC20, then remade for the C64, from the legendary software house Epyx.

Sword of Fargoal is a difficult 20-level dungeon crawler where the player seeks out the namesake sword, which lies somewhere between levels 15 and 20. Once the sword is acquired, though, a 33 minute timer starts and the player must exit with the sword. Each level takes up one screen, with an overhead view and the characters and walls being very tiny.

Oh, and there's no save feature. I will write more on this game later, I think, as I have yet to make a serious sit-down-for-awhile effort to beat this game.

And while I told my fiancee' that we need to limit our spending for Valentine's Day to one gift each, she gave me two Nintendo DS games that I wanted - Hotel Dusk, a detective thriller, and Contact, a quirky adventure game. I spent a little time playing Contact, and so far, it's pretty good. There's a lot to learn there, though.

And this morning, we took her car into the shop and decided to wait while it was being worked on. I took along Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney, a game I've been working on for over a year now, and made a breakthrough on what I hope is the final day of the case. I got through questioning Chief of Police Gant and now have Lana herself on the stand, but so far she's not cracking. I really, really want to finish this game so I can start on the sequel.

So I've got a Commodore 64 classic to play, a DS game I'm hopefully almost done with, and three DS games waiting in the wings. On top of that, with my fiancee' getting a new car, the last obstacle other than availability to getting myself a Nintendo Wii has been cleared. It's good to have options.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bugging SunSword

There's this guy, Anthony Castoro - known to the gaming community as SunSword. He was a designer on Ultima Online for awhile, then came back as producer. During both his tenures there, I bugged him incessantly.

First, about his proclamation in early 1999 to fix the boats of UO, which he said he was "damned serious" about fixing. Later, as producer, I bugged him to get the Serpent Pillars, an oceanic gateway for boats, fixed so that ship traffic through them could resume. I landed a brief email interview with him in May of 2003, at the end of which he proclaimed "Admiral, someday I'm going to make you a happy seafarer".

In August of 2003, he arranged to meet me at the Ultima X Odyssey Unveiling Event, at which he promised me that the next expansion pack for Ultima Online would be a seafaring one. He even made me sign an NDA, and also promised that my UO fansite would get to announce it, and that I personally would get to be involved in some way in the design and testing of it.

Shortly after I sent in the NDA, he stopped repsonding, and only though weeks of bugging one of his designers did I find out that the expansion was scrapped. I was so upset that I actually closed my fansite and quit UO, until the next summer when designers Fertbert and Leurocian started doing some work on the things I wanted to see done in the game.

I met up with SunSword again at the UO Community Day event in September 2004, and he sat next to me at lunch, where we discussed what had happened with that failed expansion idea, as well as possibilities of future endeavors in that area. This time he made no promises.

Skip ahead to today, where SunSword has a blog too. I tried to bug him there by leaving a comment a few weeks ago. I registered with TypeKey and was logged in, and left a comment, but it told me that it needed to be approved by the blogger (SunSword) before appearing on the blog. It never did.

I tried again with his latest blog entry, but even after I logged in with TypeKey, I can't do it. I'll be all logged in, click on "Comment", and the page will briefly say "Thanks for signing in," at the bottom before quickly switching to "You are not signed in. You need to be registered to comment on this site. Sign in...". When I sign in again, it still says this. After the first attempt to sign in, it goes back to the "not signed in" page every time.

Either he knows it's me and has banned me somehow, or only the most internet-saavy online gaming elite are allowed to post there. Either way, his most recent post announces that he has quit yet another online gaming publisher (this officially makes him a nomad) and has started up Heatwave Interactive in Austin. This time he says he's dead serious. Sounds familiar.

I wish him the best of luck even though I know he'll probably quit his own company two weeks before the release of its first product. Oh, and I'm still going to bug him when I can. Maybe for a job.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

One of the Few Good Things About Living in Ohio

Living in Ohio my whole life, I have a lot to complain about : bad roads, stupid people, and being at the intersection of all North American weather systems where it can go from -20 degrees to 60 above in a few days (and back again). There are a few plusses, though, like the presence of two major amusement parks, one of which constantly holds world records for highest and fastest roller coasters.

Cedar Point is the closest thing to utopia that I've seen mankind achieve. If the entire world could be transformed into such a place I'd gladly work my eight hour shift at the snack bar or the kiddie rides just so I could spend the rest of my day riding those coasters.

This year, their new attraction is a coaster called Maverick. Thanks to the internet age, you can virtually ride the thing already here.

Can't wait for summer.