Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ok, I'm Playing Grand Theft Auto IV Now

After playing Bully : Scholarship Edition on the Wii earlier this year, I wanted another sandbox game. Now in possession of an XBox 360, there was really only one choice. So I'm in Liberty City now, walking through the streets that most of the gaming world passed through four months ago, in Grand Theft Auto IV.

I haven't seen a cityscape this amazing since I was in Paragon City playing City of Heroes. And all the sandbox - style content is a smorgasbord for an explorer like me. I'm really, really good at learning 3D game environments, but Liberty City is so vast that it will take me weeks to know just the first island like the back of my hand.

The missions and gameplay are just what I expected, but the most fun I've had so far is testing the limits of what Nico can do, or more accurately, cannot do. For example, I was giggling gleefully as Nico stole one of those airport golf carts that are used to haul luggage, and tore off into the city with it, police chasing after him angrily. While my attempts to get away all met with failure, it was fun seeing just how dogged the police chase was. The cops in Liberty City are certainly smarter than the ones in Bullworth Town.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about Grand Theft Auto IV later on, most of which was probably said four months ago in other people's blogs. Someday, I'll get a hit game at release and not be so far behind the curve, I hope.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Five Years Later : An Interview With The Ultima X : Odyssey Team

Introduction

There have probably been more videogames that never made it past the development stage than were ever released. Heaps and mounds of design documents shredded, millions of lines of code lost or deleted, and the hopes and dreams of real people trying to bring thier ideas to other gamers dashed by forces beyond their control.

However, when a game series that defined a genre for much of the history of videogaming ends with its tenth installment lost to the dustbins of history, one wonders just what the hell went wrong. Such is the case of Ultima X : Odyssey, a game that was unveiled to the public five years ago today at a lavish and energetic press event, but cancelled less than a year later.

At the time of the cancellation, Electronic Arts issued the usual, cauterized press statement, claiming the same thing that was stated when an earlier Ultima - based MMO, UO2, was cancelled - that the decision was made to focus more attention on Ultima Online. Clearly, though, there was more to that story.

Since many of the UXO team's members were still either with EA at other divisions or out on the job market not wanting to cross any lines of professional courtesy by talking about the freshly-cancelled game so soon - or, even still, dealing with their own understandable disappointment about the project's cancellation - no one was willing to talk.

It's five years later, and the team has long since scattered across the country, and moved on to other jobs and challenges, so I wondered if maybe, just maybe, they were finally willing to talk about Ultima X : Odyssey and its unfortunate end. They were. I came up with fifteen questions and sent them out to some of the team and they were kind enough to answer, painting a picture of a time, merely five years ago, where events lead to the cancellation of Ultima X : Odyssey.

Rick "Stellerex" Hall was the Executive Producer of Ultima X : Odyssey, and is currently the Director of Production at Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, in Orlando, and has written about his fifteen years in the game development business in a book titled Game Development Essentials: Online Game Development.

Jonathan "Calandryll" Hanna was the game's Lead Designer, and is currently moving back to Austin to "work with a start up".

Kevin "Jalek" Saffel was a senior programmer on UXO and is now the Chief Technology Officer of Heatwave Interactive, and cautions us that "none of my statements express the views and/or opinions of Heatwave Interactive, Inc." . That's fair.

Amy "Morgaine" Sage was a Writer and Community Coordinator for UXO and now works as the Marketing Director for Freedom Holdings, Inc. in Austin, Texas.

The Questions

1. When was Ultima X : Odyssey first conceived and when did work on the project begin?

Rick Hall : Originally, just after the UO2 project was cancelled (March 2001) and there were a bunch of layoffs at Origin, maybe 3 or 4 months after that, we started talking about making a "True 3D" version of UO. Over the course of the next few months, that changed into Ultima X Odyssey. If I remember correctly, that was roughly October of 2001 or so when it became "UXO," and that's when the first few developers started working on it.

Jonathan Hanna : I’m not really sure when the project was first conceived, but if I recall, work started some time in mid to late 2001. But really, that was mostly exploratory, checking out engines, early designs, etc. The project didn’t really get going until early 2002. Even then the team was very, very small. Maybe 8 people.

Kevin Saffel : A couple of us were tasked by Rick Hall (Executive Producer on UO) to start looking into the next version of UO. We started out as 2 of us programmers digging around and messing with the 3rd Dawn code to make it "cooler". We eventually realized that we didn't want to go down that path and started thinking about a new game. The prototyping was probably started in late 2001. As Rick pulled more people onto our prototype, UX:O began to sprout. Initial "real" development probably started mid to late 2002?

Amy Sage : This is several years back, and I don’t have my old Origin mails anymore to go back and pinpoint it, but I’d say probably late 2002 when the discussions really started. As far as when it was conceived, that’s something Rick Hall would need to answer, since it was his brainchild.

2. When did you join the UXO team and what was your job on the project?

Rick Hall : I was the Exec Producer for Ultima Online, and was the first person on the team for UXO. I held the same title on that project.

Jonathan Hanna : I started in Feb. 2002 and was the Lead Designer for most of the project.

Kevin Saffel : I was on the project before it was a project. There were 2 programmers playing around with ideas and eventually the other programmer left to look into other project possibilities. It was then just an artist (Jeremy Dombroski) and I playing around with Unreal to see what we could do. I was one of the senior programmers on the project. For all intents and purposes I was the lead client engineer (under Clark Janes) but never got (nor wanted) the title :)

Amy Sage : It actually wasn’t too long before the San Francisco event, I don’t think… I remember I was still on UO as late as June of 2003. Jon Hanna (UXO lead designer) and I were good friends, though, and played MMOGs together quite a bit, so even when I was still on UO, there was always discussions going on about game systems and where the design was going. When I joined, it was as a combination community person/writer. Part of the job including writing fiction (for example, where did Gargoyle females suddenly come from, and since when did Gargoyles have tails?). I enjoyed that part because I did a lot of research into Ultima lore back on U:IX, and actually conferred quite a bit back then with Herman Miller, the author of the Gargoyle language. For UXO, I also wrote a lot of in-game text, including editing quest dialogue and design docs, and writing stat and spell descriptions.

3. Considering the stated reason that Ultima Online 2 was cancelled - fear that it would split the UO playerbase - how was UXO approved for development?

Rick Hall : Honestly, I think it was a matter of timing. Consider this: When UO2 was cancelled, it was done by the EA.COM division in March 2001. In that same month, EA acquired Pogo. Within six months, Pogo had displaced the EA.Com people and was effectively running EA's online business. Pogo was a completely different set of people, with a completely different perspective. They saw things differently, and allowed UXO to be undertaken.

Jonathan Hanna : I can’t say for certain, but one of the original designs was more like a big 3D expansion to UO. It’s kind of hard to explain without going into a lot of detail, but your UXO character was heavily connected to your UO character and you’d get benefits to your UO character for playing UXO and vice-versa. The design was changed to a stand-alone product pretty early on though and everyone was on board with that.

Kevin Saffel : I really liked what UO2 could have been. However, it wasn't just killed because of fear of splitting the UO player-base. It had some problems and EA didn't feel it was going to be ready when they needed it to be.

Amy Sage : This is one of those I can’t really answer, since I wasn’t in on the meetings where it was pitched. But if I had to come up with a reason, it would be the focus of UXO on incorporating a more single-player experience into a multiplayer world, something that UO never really had.

4. UXO used the Unreal Warfare engine - how did that come about and how did you feel about that?

Rick Hall : We investigated quite a number of different engines, including Quake, Unreal, NetImmerse, Torque, Blueberry 3d, and the Crytek engine among others. Actually, we liked the Crytek engine the best, but it was prohibitively expensive at the time. Unreal was also a really strong choice. We liked the level editor, the price was right, the graphics capabilities were awesome, and Epic does an absolutely incredible job supporting those developers who use their engine. In the end, it was some interesting surgery making an FPS engine work with a MMOG, but we were pleased with the results.

Jonathan Hanna : The engine was picked before I joined the team. I was excited about it as it’s a great engine.

Kevin Saffel : Jeremy Dombroski brought the Warfare engine to our attention initially because his brother (Andy, the eventual Lead World Builder) had been working with it on other projects at another company. We had the Dawn model (from 3rd Dawn) running around throwing fireballs/freezing orcs and everyone began getting excited about the possibilities. We felt good about the Unreal engine; It has a great suite of tools that help you get content up and running very quickly. We felt we could build our own backend and use the power the engine and tools gave us to keep it cutting edge. We gave it a thumbs up to start doing actual technical design and getting server/framework programmers involved.

Amy Sage : I’m all for using already-proven technology… the less work you have to do from scratch, the more time you can put into making a good game. Remember I was also on Ultima Ascension, which was a shining example of the pain you can run into when making your own engine from scratch (by the time the game shipped, much of the code was already outdated and didn’t work well with the newest video cards). In addition, the time it took to work out engine-related problems was time not spent working on game performance and fine-tuning, which ultimately showed in the final product. So back to your question on Unreal… I can’t speak for Rick’s reasons on why he chose to go that route, but I think it was a fine choice.

5. Five years ago, on August 21, 2003, EA held a huge press event in San Francisco to introduce Ultima X : Odyssey to the world. What are your recollections of that event and how the game was received?

Rick Hall : I remember the event vividly. :) Actually, I still have a video of the event to this day on my hard drive. I had a lot of fun. I think the fans really enjoyed it, and if all of the video we collected was any indication, I have to believe the game was received quite well. To this day, I think that was the absolute best way to unveil a MMOG to the world: Instead of talking to the press first, go straight to the players. Let a large gathering of veteran MMOG-ers see what you've got and lay their hands on it, and you'll have a good idea of your chances when you go live.

Jonathan Hanna : I remember being really nervous. We were building something that had almost no resemblance to UO. It was a lot more like the single player games, focused on combat, questing, etc. I wasn’t sure if people would like it. But the response from the press and the players was overwhelmingly positive. So by the end of the event, I was thrilled.

Kevin Saffel : It was surreal. The event was put together really well by Debby Sue Wolfcale and her team. I really enjoyed meeting all the players and seeing their excitement for the game we'd worked so hard on. I remember watching the PvP competition videos and seeing our first class imbalance: The mage casting fireballs would own everyone, even the beloved alchemist! All in all the developers and the players had a great time and I think everyone was looking forward to seeing the game go live.

Amy Sage : That event was awesome. I’d been involved in the game just long enough to really get excited about the design and the innovative systems, and I was truly excited to see the anticipation from the fans. They were all looking forward to it, and it was a thrill to be part of the team.

6. At the time of the event, was there any hint that EA would be closing the Austin studio and attempting to relocate the team to San Francisco?

Rick Hall : No. At that time, I know for a fact that EA wasn't even considering that possibility.

Jonathan Hanna : Not really, although it’s something we talked about almost every year I was at OSI. When it happened, it was surprising, but not shocking.

Kevin Saffel : None at all. In fact, the people that were overseeing UX:O from EA in California were really excited for us and were happy with the reception by the players.

Amy Sage : Not that I had heard, no.

7. When did word first reach the UXO and UO development teams about the closing of Origin's Austin studio and the relocation of those teams to San Francisco?

Rick Hall : It was only a few months before they actually closed the doors. I found out about a week before the rest of the studio. I think it was around mid-February of 2004. They told the rest of the studio a week later that they'd be closing the doors in April and trying to relocate most of the team to San Francisco to complete UXO.

Jonathan Hanna : I want to say in Feb 2004. Don’t recall the exact date.

Kevin Saffel : It started out as a rumor maybe 2 weeks before the actual announcement. It really put a damper on the team's spirit. Eventually, they announced it to us that they were shutting down the studio and moving select people to California. It was very sad to watch as the company slowly disintegrated over the next few weeks.

Amy Sage : Official word? The day before it happened in Feb. of ‘04. There had been a few uneasy signs though, for about a week… someone’s temporary contract not getting renewed when we thought it would, a couple strange design documents found in a shared folder, a cessation of meetings shortly before, all combined with the fact that a part of the design had just been handed to a team from California a couple weeks before. I definitely had the feeling a major shift was coming for UXO, but until I got the official word, I didn’t know it was the whole studio. That news was rough - definitely one of those ‘knock the wind out of you’ moments, since I‘d been there for 6 years.

8. What was your reaction to that announcement - did you even consider the move?

Rick Hall : Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed. No, I didn't consider moving to San Francisco. Mostly, that was because I was absolutely positive that almost no one else would go either. People who live in Austin really love it, and there are plenty of other game companies. Everyone would have preferred to finish the game, but it wasn't worth it to them to move a thousand miles away and double their cost of living.

Jonathan Hanna : I was disappointed obviously, and to some degree still am, but at this point I can understand the decision given the landscape at the time. I never really considered the move. Most didn’t.

Kevin Saffel : Honestly, I was shocked. I loved working at Origin and on UO/UX:O so much that it was a HUGE emotional blow to me. I did seriously consider the move to California. The offer was great and my fiancée (now my wife) and I talked about it at length. In the end, we realized that we had too many ties to Texas and Austin and just couldn't bring ourselves to leave.

Amy Sage : We’d just watched Westwood get shut down, and then Maxis, so the writing was definitely on the wall. In boldface, and underlined. The option of moving was never really there for me, though… my husband at the time was working on a new project at NCSoft, and there was a lot of promise there, so there was no way we were picking up and moving to California.

9. While Ultima X : Odyssey wasn't officially cancelled until June 30, 2004, was development of the game pretty much over when most of the team decided to leave EA earlier in the year?

Rick Hall : Yes. Although EA extended offers to 35 members of the Austin dev team to move to San Francisco, only 2 artists and 2 level builders accepted their offers. EA tried to find people in California to finish the project, but that was close to impossible. It was a huge project, and there would have been no one to get new people ramped up. Very little was done with the game between April 2004 and the end of June.

Jonathan Hanna : I wouldn’t say that. Most of the team didn’t make the move so obviously that slowed things down, but the game was handed over to a new team and there was a transition period. People were working on it after we all left.

Kevin Saffel : No, the game was a few months from beta. We were working very hard to ensure it was ready for beta so that everyone could enjoy testing it and really just get into load-testing and such from a production/development standpoint.

Amy Sage : This is one I really can’t answer, since after the studio closed, I changed my focus to other things, like finishing my college degree. Whatever happened in California beyond that point was pretty much out of my circle.

10. Why was Ultima X : Odyssey cancelled? We know the official reason given, of course, but after so much time, money, talent, and even publicity was put into it, it seems so unbelievable that EA was willing to just drop it and take the loss.

Rick Hall : EA had no desire to drop the project. Remember, they made offers to most of the dev team to try to relocate them to California. They absolutely wanted to finish the game. The whole issue was driven by investor relations. Wall Street demands efficiency. At the time, EA had studios all over the world and each studio requires money to operate. It was making EA less efficient than it could have been. Investor pressure caused EA to attempt to consolidate their satellite studios into "hubs".

That's one of the reasons why Westwood was shut down, and many of those developers moved to EA's San Francisco office. Shortly thereafter, EA attempted further consolidation with both Maxis and the Origin studio. I think the EA execs truly expected a higher percentage of people to accept their offers to relocate the Austin guys to San Francisco. After all, they had success in Las Vegas with Westwood (around 85% accepted the relocation offers), and EA expected to repeat that success with Origin.

Unfortunately, Las Vegas is very different than Austin. There aren't many game developers in Las Vegas, so the Westwood guys were going to have to move anyway. They had no other viable options, so they just took up EA's relocation offers out of convenience. In Austin, there were 20 other game developers right there in town, and practically everyone in Austin knows everyone else. It wasn't hard for a lot of people to find jobs right there. The end result was definitely not what EA expected. The UXO project died simply because of logistics, not because EA wanted to shut it down.

At Origin, we were just casualties of war in business. I don't blame EA. I understand why they did what they did, and it makes business sense. Even commenting about the amount of money that was spent on UXO is a bit misleading. UXO cost around $10 million over 2 years when it was cancelled. In the face of EA's $3 billion annual budget, that's really not even a blip on the radar.

Jonathan Hanna : No idea really. It was 4 or 5 months after I left, and I’ve heard lots of different reasons, but never got enough information to determine which was the most accurate. I’m sure the original team not making the move contributed to that, but there were probably other factors.

Kevin Saffel : I honestly believe they had no intention on killing it at the time Origin was shut down. EA thought about 80% of the people (from Austin) that were offered the move to California would go. There were a handful of developers out in California that had been helping the Austin team for a little while. However, with just 2 people (artist and world builder) from the Austin UX:O team moving to California, there really wasn’t enough people to continue developing the game. None of the engineers that designed the technical pieces of the game and none of the designers went. Eventually most of the programmers in California moved projects or left EA leaving very few people on the UX:O team. They attempted to revive it as a single player game, but, EA eventually decided that was a bad idea (wouldn't be a big enough game) and it was finally killed.

Amy Sage : Again… I wish I knew. I can’t say it was a major surprise after the recent cancellations of Earth and Beyond, Motor City Online, and UO2, but as for the real reasons, those were meetings I wasn’t in on.

11. Did the impending release of (and unbelievable hype for) World of Warcraft affect the development of UXO or its cancellation?


Rick Hall : Not at all.

Jonathan Hanna : No, I don’t think so. It definitely didn’t affect our development although obviously we were paying attention to them. As far as UXO’s cancellation, I’ve never heard WoW mentioned specifically as a reason.

Kevin Saffel : It did put some pressure on us to figure out when UX:O should be released. There were beliefs that it should be released prior to WoW to embed our player-base into the game so we wouldn't lose them. There were concerns that when WoW was out, that you'd have a rough time pulling people from it if you waited too long. However, from what I knew internally, none of that was a deciding factor to kill UX:O.

Amy Sage : The development, not necessarily. We paid attention to what they released about their design for sure, but I honestly don’t think they influenced our design all that much. The cancellation? Entirely possible. EA already had one swords-and-sorcery game turning a profit (Ultima Online), and WoW was looking to be bigger by the day. Not to mention Blizzard has a well-earned reputation for releasing great games, so they had to have known it would be major competition.

12. Do you believe that, if UXO had been finished and released as originally planned, it would have been successful?

Rick Hall : I believe UXO would have been successful, but I don't hold any illusions that it would have reached 10 million subscribers, like W.O.W. Keep in mind, before W.O.W. a successful MMOG was anything over 200,000 subscribers. I think UXO would probably have reached somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 subs. It would have been a good, solid, successful business, but nothing like the runaway success of W.O.W. It's important to understand here that UXO was running on a budget that was a tiny fraction of the development costs of W.O.W., and our development schedule was somewhere around 1/3rd the duration. When you spend a lot less time and money developing a game, it's reasonable to assume you'll get less out of it when it hits the shelves.

Jonathan Hanna : Yes, but that’s a tricky question to answer. If we had made the new ship date, we would have run smack into WoW’s launch. It think it would have been very difficult to compete with them even with UXO’s unique designs. UXO was a relatively low budget title though, so I think it would have been profitable and would have found a base from which to grow.

Kevin Saffel : I do. It was still a little rough around the edges but there were a LOT of great things in the game. Item leveling, ascension, spell system, cutting edge art and many others. I was actually looking forward to playing it myself. I believe it would have really hooked old Ultima fans because it really pushed hard on what made Ultima what it was.

Amy Sage : Part of that might have depended on whether we got it out before World of Warcraft, since people tend to stick with a good game once they start it, and we knew that coming out before them, and having a good and sticky initial experience, would be a major plus. Even if we had come out after them though, I do think we had a good chance. Our goals were really sound… solid game performance, wide variety of environments and characters, guided quests and stories that led you into the game world at a steady pace, but yet enough to see and explore to keep you entertained for a really long time.

13. What did you take away, or chalk up to experience, from your time working on UXO - both in terms of game design and how the games business works?

Rick Hall : That's a longer answer than I can provide here. I wound up publishing a book earlier this year on MMOG development, and it contains a lot of what I learned on the UXO project, both from the design perspective and the business.

Jonathan Hanna : Mostly that you should always remember this is a business. People will make decisions you don’t agree with and you can’t take it personally.

Kevin Saffel : 1) Just because it's realistic, doesn't mean it's fun.
2) Leave time to iterate on design. We went through 7 or 8 iterations of combat (in code) before it felt fun. It's worth it.
3) Any game can be cancelled any time for any reason.
4) Beta for MMOs is as much of a marketing tool as it is a development tool.
Don't EVER forget it.

Amy Sage : I came away with a healthy appreciation for being a hardcore gamer who happens to be female, since as one of only a few female gamers on the team, I had the opportunity to pipe in with advice to keep the audience wider, or the occasional “No way, those breasts are WAY too big.” (Yeah, I know, the guys are cursing my name now.) As far as the game business in general… it didn’t really change much. In the six years I’d spent at Origin, I’d watched major layoffs almost every spring. I’d seen two entire teams laid off practically out from under me, in U:IX and UO2. I’d seen half a dozen games in development get cancelled, and several other EA studios consolidated before ours. UXO was really no different in terms of how the game industry works… it changes fast, and it’s hard to really feel a sense of security. I’d go back into it in a second, though, as the ability to be creative and be around creative people is something really special.

14. At the event where Ultima X : Odyssey was unveiled, the team seemed energetic, confident, and enthusiastic about the game - is that common among development teams in your experience?

Rick Hall : I think we had a pretty tight team, but that's not exactly rare in game development. We all liked working together and loved what we were working on. If I had to guess in my experience how often that happens, I'd say maybe 10% - 20% of the projects I've been associated with have had that level of positive feel on the team.

Jonathan Hanna : Yea it is, but this team was especially so. It really was a great team.

Kevin Saffel : Usually the excitement is in the beginning and then again in the very end when you're about to ship. The UX:O team seemed to carry the excitement through most of the development. I do believe, however, that the event did help to get the team even more jazzed about UX:O. Seeing it up in lights and watching the excitement on the players' faces was great for the team.

Amy Sage : I think so, yes, when the team feels good about the game, and we did.

15. Do you have any other thoughts or experiences about working on Ultima X : Odyssey that you'd like to share on the fifth anniversary of the game's unveiling?

Rick Hall : There are tons of old war stories I have from those days, and I always enjoy telling them. I think if there's one thing I should add it's that I bear EA no ill will over the whole thing. It was very disappointing, but it made a kind of business sense. And since I no longer work for EA, I have no reason to be a "company man" and spin things to make them look better. I responded to your questions the way I really feel about it all. It was a great experience. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It was disappointing how it ended, but these things happen.

Jonathan Hanna : It’s one of those times in my life that I will always remember fondly. My entire time at OSI, even before UXO, will always be like that. I am sure I’ll get to work with some of those guys and gals again. Hopefully anyway. They were a fantastic group of people who despite a lot of obstacles, built something very special, even if most games will never see it.

Kevin Saffel : I really wish it would have hit the world. I would have loved to talk to players about it and see how people received the game. It was a bit different than anything out at the time and still would be. There is still part of me that misses Origin and everyone that worked there on UX:O and other projects. I would like to see EA possibly try to reboot it and see if they could kick-start the Ultima franchise again.

Amy Sage : I’m just bummed I never got to play a Gargoyle. Thanks for contacting me, and I look forward to seeing your story. :)

Conclusion


And now you know the rest of the story (my apologies to Paul Harvey, but I've always wanted to say that). Ultima X : Odyssey, set to be the tenth installment in the classic Ultima series, a sequel to Ultima Online, and a true 3D Ultima MMO all at the same time, was unveiled to the gaming public five years ago today.

Less than a year later, the game was cancelled by EA, but not necessarily due to some cold, number-crunching executive in a shadowy office, as many of us had always assumed. Sure, the economic realities of the business end of game making were a factor, but revealed in the answers above was an even stronger force at work.

Austin, Texas, must be one hell of a great city. I mean, I've heard that before, but damn. Five years ago EA flew me to San Francisco, which, due to my own economic realities, was a first for me, and I fell in love with that place the second I got off the plane. Even with the cost of living factored in, to deny oneself a chance to live and work there means that life in Austin is damn good, and fosters some serious loyalty.

So, no one's to blame here, five years later. EA did what they had to do, with the full intention to finish and release Ultima X : Odyssey. Their miscalculation about the UXO team's loyalty to their home and indeed, to each other, meant the game was doomed the second the decision was made to close Origin down in Austin.

But we all lost that day. EA, the UXO team, and those of us who were very much looking forward to playing it. One of the greatest game series of all time, which started back in the fall of 1980 with Ultima I and defined the role-playing game genre for much of its run, ended with the one game that just might have brought it back to its glory. It certainly had me excited about the future of Ultima again.

My warmest thanks to Rick Hall, Jonathan Hanna, Kevin Saffel, and Amy Sage for taking the time to answer my questions about Ultima X : Odyssey and for, at long last, giving many of us closure on the events of that time.

To them and everyone else on the team, and those who planned and ran that incredible event five years ago, you have the gratitude of at least one would - be Ultima X : Odyssey player, on this, the five year anniversary of the event. Alucinor awaits the brave...let virtue be your guide.

Five Years Ago Today : The EA-X Event

On August 21, 2003, game maker Electronic Arts invited over a hundred people from the gaming community to San Francisco, all expenses paid, to unveil Ultima X : Odyssey to the world. I've written about that day extensively, so rather than rehash every little detail about it, I have decided to commemorate that day five years ago with embedded movies.

First, there was the email inviting us to go to the event. It contained a link to this flash movie, after which a registration page would appear. That page is long gone, but the movie lives on.

At the event, when we walked into the great hall at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, were were greeted with this movie:
video

Later, EA released a movie highlighting the event itself:
video

And, a video was released of a fly-through of the game's environments, accompanied by that epic music score:
video

Finally, here's the movie I made a few years back as a tribute to that game and event:
video

And if you're looking to find out even more about what an incredible game Ultima X: Odyssey could have been, look no further than the extensive UXO Stratics Archive, which they've been kind enough to keep alive on the net all these years.

On this day, all Ultima fans should look back with fond rememberance for Ultima X : Odyssey and all that it could have been.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

BioShock....Meh.

After all the praise lauded on the game, the great reviews, and several friends telling me how amazing it was, I was looking forward to playing BioShock once I got the XBox 360. A co-worker loaned me his copy awhile back, but it sat idle while I fought my way through all the Half-Life 2 episodes on the Orange Box (which, I must say, were just incredible).

So I started on BioShock recently, and, well, I'm not really enjoying it that much. And I just can't really put my finger on it. The story, characters, and retro-design environments are all pretty cool. The mix of weapons and super-powers (called plasmids) are fun. So what don't I like?

Death in the game is just a very minor inconvenience, and nothing resets when you die. Instead, you are revived in the nearest Vita-Chamber booth, with everything you had on you when you died, and yourself at half health. This means you can go right back to what you were fighting and keep hammering away at it, dying and returning repeatedly until it's dead. I literally have had a few of those "Big Daddy" guys right outside the Vita-Chamber, killing me seconds after leaving it but not before I got a few shots in.

Maybe it's the overly-noir environments which hide any graphic details of those crazed "splicers" that attack me wherever I go. Every place in the game is dark and shadowy, and while what lighting there is never fails to impress in creating those shadows, the cumulative effect is just an irritating hodgepodge of nooks and crannies that often make it hard to see enemies and objects in the morass.

Or perhaps it's just that, if I wanted to play Pipe Dream again, I'd break out my Game Boy version. Dozens of different objects in BioShock can be hacked, from vending machines to security cameras, by playing a mini-game that is, quite simply, Pipe Dream. While certain powers can assist in this so-called hacking, or shortcut it altogether, I've still ended up playing more Pipe Dream than I have in years.

BioShock is nonetheless a decent game, but for me personally - and I admit my gaming tastes are a little out there - It's just not living up to the hype. I've made it to the area called Arcadia, though, and will probably finish it soon. Maybe the ending will make me a believer.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My Evolving Videogaming Setup

I've done some digging through old photographs and come up with this gallery of various videogame setups I've had over the years. Enjoy!

1983


I was a junior in high school, and in my room I had my Odyssey 2 set up. Behind the games I had for the system was my collection of Electronic Games magazines. To the right I kept my handhelds and other gadgets, including a TEAMMATE Game Computer, a primitive but fun little toy, and below that I had an original Magnavox Odyssey, acquired from a friend of the family, that unfortunately didn't work.

1994

At the height of the 16-bit era, I had four systems hooked up in my living room. Below the TV was the Turbografx 16 and the NES, and to the right I had the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. I also had the Sega Master System converter for the Genesis and some Master System games.

On the other side of the room from all that, I kept my portable systems, including a GameBoy, an Atari Lynx, a TurboExpress (which rocked), and a Sega Game Gear. Not pictured and set up in my spare bedroom was my Commodore 64 and the vast library of games I had built for it.

2004


At this point, I wanted to have as many systems from my immense collection of games hooked up a the same time. Below the TV are my Playstation, SNES, Gamecube, and Nintendo 64. Wires leading forward from that setup went under a throw rug to my coffee table, where I had the Atari 2600, Odyssey 2, and NES all hooked up. It was quite a mess, but looked impressive.

Also in my living room were my portables - with my fledgling Game Boy Advance collection - and stand-alones, as well as two Vectrex units (what's the plural of Vectrex, anyway? Vectrexes? Vectrices?), and a Tempest arcade game, which I never could get fully functional. The sound and controls were fine, but the screen was distorted. I sold it off, as well as most of the games pictured here, during my eBay purge that started in 2005. So 2004 was my last hurrah for batshit crazy-ass videogame collecting.


And finally, in my bedroom in 2004, were my Commodore 64 and PC game libraries. As I reported last year, the Commodore 64 stuff was also - quite tragically - eBayed off too. It was like cutting out a piece of my own soul, but at the time the market was hot for C64, and it helped pay for my wedding.

2008

Today, accompanying our new 32-inch flatscreen TV, my wife and I have an XBox 360, a Wii, a Gamecube, and a PS2, along with their respective game libraries. Also on the shelf with those games is our collection of Nintendo DS, GameBoy Advance, GameBoy Color, and GameBoy games.

In our office, I have the Odyssey 2 set up, which I showcased in a blog entry last year, as well as the PC, the twin Vectrex units, and some stand-alones.

I wish I had taken more pictures over the years of my gaming setups as they evolved. But life moves fast, and with so many great systems and games coming and going over the decades, it's not always easy to hit pause and reflect on what you've got.