Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ultima Online - Huge Layoffs and Another Forced March Across the Country

I had a feeling another big shakeup was due for UO. I've seen them occur in regular cycles since the early days.

EA is doing the whole corporate restructuring thing due to some profit concerns, it seems, which means a lot of mid-level managers being pressured to bring down the axe on their departments.

Which means that a lot of the UO team has apparently been laid off already, and those that haven't have a choice to move to EA / Mythic's main studio in Fairfax, Virginia, or lose their jobs. It's been only three and a half years since the forced relocation from Austin to San Francisco decimated the team and killed Ultima X Odyssey.

Rumors and unconfirmed inside information are starting to fly around about a harsh and bitter layoff, and who is staying and going. And specuation about the future of Ultima Online is of course mostly bleak.

I have nothing to add to all of that at this point, other than to once again wish those men and women who have been pouring their hard work and passion into UO all the best of luck during these trying times. They are real people with real lives and real families, and should they stay or go they deserve better from me and the rest of the playbase than EA is giving them.

For the players, keep logging in and enjoy it while you can. Everything you know and love inside the game could very well be unaffected by this for many months or years to come. Time will tell.

A Huge Case Load

Yesterday I purchased the third Phoenix Wright game for the DS, called Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney Trials and Tribulations. I won't be playing it anytime soon, becase I have failed to finish the second one yet.

I was making progress in the second one, moving along quite well, until The Legend of Zelda : Phantom Hourglass came out. I haven't been seen in the courtroom in quite awhile. So why did I buy the third Phoenix Wright game now instead of waiting until I'd finished the second one first?

When the first Phoenix Wright game came out at the end of 2005, it was a limited release. I got lucky and found a copy at a store called Media Play during the store's closing-down clearance sale for $17. It was the last copy they had. After that, the game was nowhere to be found for about a year until a second print run made the game available again. I checked on eBay during that time and saw it going for $60.

I wasn't about to take a chance on this new Phoenix Wright game becoming rare, so I went ahead and bought it. I'll get to it eventually. Plus, I got a little plush Phoenix Wright keychain, which is kind of crappy actually. I'm a sucker for pre-order swag, I guess.

The Legend of Zelda : Phantom Hourglass

I'll be brief and spoiler-free. I bought the Legend of Zelda : Phantom Hourglass for my Nintendo DS three weeks ago and have spent almost every free minute of my game time playing the hell out of it. It features stylus - only controls that work exceptionally well, with only a few occurrences where my own fingers holding the stylus blocked my view of the screen at a critical point.

I'm approaching the end of the game. It has lots of exploration, lots of devious puzzles, challenging but beatable bosses, and a cool map system that allows the player to scribble notes directly onto the map.

It's the best DS game, the best portable adventure game, and one of the best Zelda games I've ever enjoyed. And it has an online Wi-Fi mode that is really cool, but I've hardly touched on it because I've been having a blast with the single player adventure.

I give this game my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Some Final Thoughts About Ten Years of UO

The tenth anniversary of the landmark, pioneering Ultima Online has come and gone, a moment in gaming history hardly recogized both in the game and on the internet.

For their part, the developers at EA Mythic gave us gift boxes filled with heritage tokens and a fireworks wand (the tokens I sorely needed to redecorate my lighthouse), new items appearing on monsters in the original dungeons (the 7 anti-virtue dungeons that needed something like this to revitalize them), and some in-game fireworks events for players to attend. A brief blurb about the tenth anniversary appeared on their website here.

Some players of course complained, saying what we got was woefully inadequate, but I thought it was good enough. Especially in light of what has been happening behind the scenes at EA. But we'll get to that in a minute. Let's talk more about the anniversary before we go there.

It was kind of disheartening to see so few of UO's vast development alumni say anything at all about the anniversary. Kirk "Runesabre" Black, from the early days of UO, stopped by the Stratics UHall to wish UO a happy anniversary. Damion Schubert mentioned it briefly on his blog. But that was about it.

Sure, Richard "Lord British" Garriott showed up at a UO Town Hall in Austin earlier in September, but he could have mentioned something. Raph "Designer Dragon" Koster, one of UO's great initial visionaries, said nothing on his site. Neither did the aforementioned (see article below) Jason "Stormwind" Spangler, Anthony "SunSword" Castoro, or even Tim "Mr. Tact" Keating.

The list goes on, of course. Chris "Binky" Lanius didn't mention it on his blog, but I suspect he's got his hands full right now as his new employers, Perpetual Entertainment, have just nixed their upcoming MMORPG Gods and Heroes : Rome Rising completely to (so they say) focus solely on Star Trek Online. Good luck Binky, I hope all is well in your world.

Let's move on, though.

Earlier in September, UO Producer Aaron "Marketing Guy / Darkscribe" Cohen left for another position at EA. Chris Rabideau, also the producer of EA Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot, took the reigns, and his plans remain shrouded in mystery, as he's only seen fit so far to barely introduce himself on the occasion of the anniversary. His similar public posting about the sixth anniversary of Dark Age of Camelot, however, is gushing with pride and promises of upcoming improvements.

Further behind the scenes, Walter Yarbrough, who was until recently what was called the "Group Producer for DAoC and UO", left for Turbine. So it looks like Chris Rabideau has taken over his role. Walt had just introduced himself to the UO Community over at the Stratics UHall back on July 5th, in what turned out to be a long message thread where he officially announced the delay of the Stygian Abyss expansion.

I pulled up that thread the other day when I first read of his departure from EA and UO, which he did without any goodbye to the community. I felt it odd that someone would, just a few months ago, take some time to introduce himself and extend a listening ear to the community then sneak away in the night like an Enron executive.

To my amazement, he responded to my post at the end of that long thread where I had taken it on myself to inform the community of his departure. While other posters of course started nibbling at him like a pack of piranhas, I asked some tough questions about the management structure behind UO and what was going on.

I asked him this:

In the ranks above the UO producer, who makes the calls about expansion themes, dev team size, allocation of resources, budgets, marketing, and so forth?

And he responded by saying:

Well, Admiral, as a Group Producer at EA Mythic, I didn't get to make those calls - Mark Jacobs ultimately retained that authority.

The authority to decide allocation of resources and dev team sizes versus UO budget - this was on the list of changes Mark could have made to keep me.

His response clearly indicates some level of dissatisfaction with Mark Jacobs and EA, if only in terms of what Walt Yarbrough deemed was needed for the game. So now we know that it's Mark Jacobs, far behind the scenes in the UO world, that's calling the shots, with dual UO / DAoC producer Chris Rabideau running both games.

In his last post in the thread, and most likely his last word on UO ever, Walt give us some hope:

Chris is a good guy - and UO still has good solid leads and developers. They can still provide you solid support and service.

And this jibes with the attitude I've had on this tenth anniversary about UO. Basically, in ten years I've seen insane amounts of employee turnover on the UO team, from producers to programmers. I've seen their stated vision and direction for the game proclaim itself boldly and then slip away in the night, leaving the community the next morning wondering what the hell happened. I've seen all sorts of shifts in the game's implementation and boundaries, so much so that none of this recent rumbling shocks me at all.

UO seems to be tough enough to survive all of this, and the players keep logging in, chugging along and weathering these storms. Sure, UO deserves better - full EA support, a producer that loves the game and gets what he or she wants to make the game better - but it probably won't get it anytime soon.

Also on the EA front, it should be noted, is the pausing of the beta test for EA Mythic's big hope for the future, Warhammer Online. They apparently need some out-of-beta time to implement some major fixes to the game before returning it to beta stage. It's purported spring 2008 release date is still on, as far as I can tell.

I suspect that we'll see some more rumblings at EA Mythic in the coming months, and that UO will survive but development will continue to slow down. Hopefully, come spring, there will be some positive changes and an idea of where we're all headed together. Until then, I'll join the masses of UO players who log in and do their things without an awareness of the shifting at the top tiers of EA Mythic.