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.

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