Monday, December 24, 2007

Twenty Six Years Ago Today

It was twenty six years ago today that I got my first videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey 2. I had wanted an Atari, of course, but some slick salesman talked my parents into an Odyssey, no doubt because it seemed so much like a computer with that keyboard and all that.

I made the best of it and found a lot of really great games for it that even my Atari-owning friends seemed to enjoy. Years later, I still have that Odyssey 2 and enjoy new homebrew games for it, including this year's purchase of Mr. Roboto, one of the deepest games ever made for the machine.

Anyway, here's a then-and-now Christmas comparison of me, the Odyssey 2, and Alien Invaders - Plus:

Christmas 1981 :

Christmas 2007 :

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may all your youthful videogaming wishes come true this year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Orcs and Elves

This is what I love portable gaming for. Orcs and Elves, a relatively new title for the Nintendo DS, is an old-school dungeon crawler done so well that it's hard to put down, yet quick and accessable to pick up and play for a few minutes whenever I want to.

The top part of the screen is where the first-person view of the action takes place. Monsters appear as 2D sprites, with only a few frames of attack animation. The graphics remind me of Hexen, another title by the game's makers, the classic Id software.

The bottom touch screen shows the player's feet and tool belt, looking down from the head. Touching items such as a sword or a map gives the player quick access to them, and it's a really unique way to play one of these games. The one spell I've got so far is also cast using the touch screen.

The game has combat, exploration, NPCs, and puzzles, with a few other surprises that show up. The shop is run by a dragon who keeps a small pen of goats around for food. While it's nothing too deep, it's perfect for portable play, and although it came out only a month or two ago, it's already dropped to twenty dollars at Gamestop, which lead me to pick it up.

I highly recommend Orcs and Elves for all you middle-aged gamers who want some old-school action on the DS.

TV : It Was A Great Fall

I'm generally quite easily entertained by television, although I don't watch that much. I find a new show, give it a few episodes to catch my attention, and if I like it I follow it from that point on.

This season there was an unprecedented bumper crop of new shows that did this for me. Monday nights had the awesomeness of Chuck, Heroes, and Journeyman. Tuesdays had the hilarious Reaper, Wednesdays had Back To You, Kitchen Nightmares, and for awhile some new episodes of South Park and the Sarah Silverman Program. Thursdays had 30 Rock, and the week wrapped up on Sundays with the Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, and American Dad, sporadically showing new episodes throughout the fall.

With this being the age of the DVR, it wasn't uncommon for us to be behind all week long in catching up with the new episodes of things to watch, so it was great always having something to look forward to seeing when we got the time to sit in front of the tube.

But then the writers strike hit, and these shows began wrapping up their seasons, or first half of seasons. Heroes, which started of so slow, finished strong. Reaper, the fate of which is still unknown, was gaining momentum. Chuck remained funny and interesting. But one of my favorite new shows, Journeyman, ended just last night with an episode so strong, with acting so well, that it hurt almost as much as the end of Firefly a few years ago.

That Firefly feeling, as I call it, goes like this. These people put together an awesome show. Cool plots, great supporting cast, and excellent performances - all of which catch my viewership and make me yearn for the show to reach its full potential, a feat which can only be done with a few seasons. It's like seeing a small sapling and realizing that, given some time and nuturing, it's going to be the best tree in the forest.

Journeyman will not get that nuturing, as the shortsighted network has pretty much cancelled it already. The same network that was smart enough to give Chuck a full season order (assuming that the strike is settled at some point, of course) is letting Journeyman wither and die. At least the series creators of Journeyman, seeing the writing on the wall with the strike, were able to work last night's episodes to end the series on a high note. There was finally some explanation about the time travel, and the main character's wife has come to peace with his travelling.

Also getting the axe is the 4400, a decent show that had been airing over the last four summers on the USA network. With that show, we've been left hanging, doomed to forever wonder what happened to those characters after the end of last season. The same thing has happened to other shows, Dark Angel and John Doe among them. I hate when they do that.

It was a great fall for new TV, and I'm going to miss getting up early Tuesday mornings and watching Chuck and Journeyman on my DVR over a bowl of cereal. Hopefully the strike can get settled soon, and people can get back to work, so at least some of the new shows that hooked me this fall can return.

But Journeyman, I will miss the most.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Upgrade Time and an Old Pirate's Dream Come True

After years of waiting, I finaly got into the open beta test of Pirates of the Burning Sea a few days ago. Anyone who knows of my old crusade to get ships and sailing fixed in Ultima Online knows how badly I've wanted to play a fully realized, state-of-the-art pirate MMORPG all these years.

After an overnight download session, I was able to play the other morning, trying out a pirate character and going through its tutorial. Character creation was very nice, with plenty of options, but nowhere near that of a game like City of Heroes. I was able to name my character Ruffie Windjammer, the same name as my pirate character in UO.

Once in the tutorial, I was able to move and talk to the NPCs okay, noticing only a few graphical glitches. The controls were standard WASD keyboard movement, with hotkeys on the bottom for sword fighting moves that I used to take out some enemies that had boarded my ship.

Once that part was over, it was time for ship combat, which is done from a zoomed-out view of your boat in the water. The controls here are just amazing. Using WASD again, with W and S raising and lowering the sail. In the upper left corner of the screen is a represntation of the ship with a left-right slider for the rudder, and up-down slider for the sails, and cannon status indicators. I quickly grasped the controls and dispatched my NPC opponents.

After that I was put into a town, and at this point the game became a bit unplayable. My graphics card, it seems, was below even the minimum specifications, and it showed. There was plenty of lag, and my character's avatar was glitchy. He had no jacket or arms. I saw only his upper torso, head, legs, hands, and sword. Any pirate can tell you that it's not a good idea to walk around a pirate port town armless.

And there was unplayable lag. I walked around the town as best I could but finally logged off. Clearly, it was time to upgrade my video card. So, yesterday, I took the plunge and picked up an ATI Radeon HD 2400 Pro. The guys at Best Buy were amazingly helpful. I also picked up a DVI cable for my monitor to get a better picture out of it. And I cannibalized a little additional memory from Monique's recently departed computer.

Well, it didn't help that much with Pirates of the Burning Sea. I'm still armless, and there is still quite a bit of lag when walking around port. I didn't have much time to test it, though, so some improvement may still occur in later sessions. A quick check of the official message board revealed that other players are experiencing similar glitches with their avatars, and yes, the lag too. It wasn't just me.

The upside of all of this is that the new card has made Ultima Online : Kingdom Reborn look and play a hell of a lot better. I'm actually spending a little time now messing with it, and although I'm ready to yet ready to adapt it as my client of choice, I could see myself leaning that way with more improvements forthcoming from the developers.

Upgrading my PC is never a worry-free experience for someone like me, who's not that big of a techie. Although it went well, I didn't get the results I'd hoped for in Pirates of the Burning Sea, but it seems that it's up to the developers now to fix a few things on their side. I've done my part. I can't wait for a chance to really dig into this game, and I anticipate plenty of peril and plunder ahead. Arrrr!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ultima Online : Kingdoms

I now consider myself not just a veteran UO player, but an Ultima Online historian.

I find the development of the game - the directions its taken, the people who've put their work into it, and the many still unsolved mysteries about what the hell was going on behind the scenes - as fascinating as the game itself.

That's why I on an almost daily basis surf through the hardly-known blogs that past UO team members put out there. Sometimes they go without an update for months, sometimes they disappear in the night, but sometimes, very rarely, they offer revelations about things that were going on behind the scenes that the players had no idea about.

Such has been the case recently with former UO engineer and server programmer Joshua "Speedman" Kriegshauser, who in a series of posts on his own blog, told the tale I've been after for two years, the tale of the third attempt at another UO. At the time, I thought it was simply another new UO3D client, but I was wrong. It was something far more ambitious and unique.

Let's start at the beginning, though. I was complaining around the time of UO's tenth anniversary back in September that so few former team members bothered to comment. I had tried to get interviews with some of them myself around that time, and of course was shut down, perhaps because I don't have the clout of a site like IGN.

Two months after the anniversary, they post an amazing article where they look back at ten years (ten years and two months at that time) of UO, with comments from many past team members. Including Speedman, who was then so inspired that he in turn wrote two lenghty blog entries about UO's tenth.

The sheer amount of UO history poured into those articles is staggering, from his viewpoint both as a team member and a veteran player. I recommend reading it thoroughly, as Speedman has been involved in some of the most critical bug fixes in UO's history, including the Age of Shadows lag, the insurance bug, and several others.

But the part that caught my eye was this little snippet...

Unannounced game revamp. This isn't a 'great memory' so I don't know why I'm mentioning it. Yes, we were working on UO2 for the third time. We had a 3D client and were doing awesome things with breaking the skills into specialization and quest-based learning. The server technology was mostly staying the same, but we had finer-granularity movement actually working that allowed you to move within a tile. The scope of the project grew huge and we didn't have time to finish it nor wherewithal to cut part of it. Everything was scrapped and the idea eventually became Kingdom Reborn

What did I know at the time? Just that, shortly after the cancellation of Ultima X Odyssey in the summer of 2004, designer Vex had stated publically that he was working on "something else", and it was rumored at the time that it was a new UO 3D client based on an existing game engine. Speedman's post, though, stated that it was a third attempt at an all-out sequel!

I had to ask for clarification, about this project and how much of an impact its cancellation had on the dev team at the time:

This is the most we've heard about the cancelled third attempt at UO2, ever.

From what little I'd heard at the time, I thought it was just another attempt at UO3D, using an existing game engine that shall remain nameless. From what you're saying it sure sounds like it was going to be something bigger.

Was its cancellation the catalyst for the Mass UO Team Exodus of 2005? Vex, Oaks, Hanse, Fertbert, you, Leurocian, Toes, then later SunSword, and Binky?

And Speedman was kind enough to elaborate:

The UO2.3 started at Origin and was originally using a custom engine, then we evaluated several different EA engines and eventually went with the Sims 2 Engine (which is actually Maxis' engine, called the Gonzo-Rizzo Framework [yeah, no idea]). It was big and bloated and I hated working on it.

We were toying around with being able to play several of your characters at the same time (on one account) and actually had a concept video made up for it. In the end we were going to call it "Kingdoms" (probably the 'Kingdom' in the Kingdom Reborn name) and it was going to have an RTS element where your house was actually a much larger estate and you had workers, fighters, etc.

In the end, Design went overboard, Production didn't hold the reigns very tightly, we had no budget to redo all of the Art as 3D models and Code had two different methodologies between the Origin folks and the EA folks that joined us. Friction abounded.

The cancellation of it certainly was a factor, but there were many things to consider: The Origin team didn't see eye-to-eye with our then -producer and people's housing subsidies from the TX->CA move started running out. NoCal is expensive :)

Personally, I think EA figured that we'd all leave when our 1- or 2- year contracts ran out. They were pretty much right. In fact, some theories say that they intended to drive us away.

Anyways, it is as it is.


Started at Origin? That seems to indicate that it was begun back in Austin. The closing of Origin in Austin came in January of 2004, which lead to (or was a major factor in) the cancellation of Ultima X Odyssey in June of 2004. Vex first mentioned his mystery project (Kingdoms)in August of 2004. In spring of 2005, just before the release of the Mondain's Legacy expansion to UO, the huge exodus of team members (including Speedman) commences. The "Our then -producer" Speedman mentions was none other than Jessica "LadyLu" Lewis, who came over from the Sims Online and generally rubbed players the wrong way, too. But that's a mystery for another time.

It therefore seems likely, then, that at one point in late 2003, Origin had three projects in the works - Ultima Online, Ultima X:Odyssey, and Ultima Online : Kingdoms. It was also during this period that the decision was made to nix the idea of a High Seas Adventure expansion to UO, which SunSword had told me about back in August of 2003.

Now that I see more of the picture of those turbulent years, I find myself with more questions. Who greenlit all these side projects and why? Did EA see Origin as sort of an out-of-control renegade development house that needed brought into closer scrutiny, or was it EA that pushed for more Ultima-related projects and the teams were just caught up in the mess?

As the years progress, hopefully we'll see more former UO team members like Mr. Kriegshauser willing to go on the record candidly and tell the real story. Usually, they've all kept pretty quiet about the past, no doubt as a professional courtesy to each other and to avoid any issue with their current employers regarding loyalty.

As always, I remain inexplicably fascinated. Ultima Online : Kingdoms sure seems like it would have been, well, interesting, and as with both Ultima Online 2 and Ultima X Odyssey, pieces of its crumbled development wound up in Ultima Online. Kingdoms became Kingdom Reborn, and the people who worked on it moved on. Thanks to Speedman, we now know something of the story of the third failed attempt to make a sequel to Ultima Online.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ultima Online - Who's Making the Move?

This week the answers finally came about the upcoming transfer of the Ultima Online team to EA Mythic's Fairfax, Virginia studios. Before we get to the names, let me present this:

Publicallly-known team members that are making the move include my good friend Patrick Malott, known as Leurocian, as well as Tim "Draconi" Cotten, lead artist GrimmOmen, and according to community coordinator Jeremy (who has said neither way whether or not she's staying), SupreemEA the Master of Code and Prince of UI, Mesanna the Infinitely Wise, Stormwind the Ancient and Undying, and Serado, Lord of the Bugs.

I assume that the legendary Jason "Stormwind" Spangler is still being allowed to work remotely from Austin, as Jeremy apparently does. This is a good portion of the current team and the best talent that is making the move, so this is good news. But there are losses.

John "Wilki" Wilkinson is not making the move, which is understandable since I remember him being from the bay area there in California. I got to meet him in person at the 2004 Community Day event there in Redwood Shores, when he was Binky's assistant community coordinator. In fact, he was there to meet us at the airport and shuttle us to the hotel. Since then he rose through the ranks and became a designer. He plans to return to college and complete his degree, and you can tell from his farewell that this was a very tough decision for him.

CatHat is one of three members of the art team that are leaving. Known for his high level of communication with the players and his message board posts where he and everyone else would post funny cat pictures, his loss is also a tough one. In fact losing three artists puts some more doubt on the release of the Stygian Abyss expansion, the fate of which remains in limbo.

While it's always sad to see the UO team lose good people, it seems that most of them are making the move, and hopefully after they get settled in January we'll start to see some overall direction take place for the game.

Oh, and Jeremy, if you're reading this, please hire me. I'm willing to make the move, too, since it's not that far from Ohio and I have family in the Fairfaz area. I'd be a great assistant community coordinator, PR guy, or visionary designer.