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.

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