Ultima X: Odyssey Interview

The team at Origin are hard at work on a new MMORPG entitled Ultima X: Odyssey, a game which will allow players to explore an entirely 3D world called Alucinor. The game is not designed to compete with their already immensely popular Ultima Online, but instead provide an alternative place for gamers to find new adventure in the spirit of previous Ultimas.  Being huge fans of Ultima Online, we wanted to learn more about this new endeavor, and luckily were able to track down Jon (Calandryll) Hanna for a lengthy interview about the MMORPG. Our questions and his answers to follow:

GB: First of all, how is development coming along on Ultima X: Odyssey? What aspect of the game is currently being worked on the most?

Jon: Development is moving along really well. Right now we’re working on more combat enhancements, guilds, and NPC shopkeepers. A lot of our systems, like parties, most of chat, inventory, and friends lists are already done and fully operational as well. We have most of the maps completed (although we still plan on polishing them) and we’re building lots of armor, weapon, and monster models.

In addition to the major systems, were also deep in the process of putting in a lot of the content. We just recently built our first pass at combat balance (the effects of character statistics and monster statistics) and we’re populating the maps with monsters and building the quests. Each quest is hand-crafted (there are no generic quests) and heavily story-driven. Luckily we built a very powerful quest editor on top of the Unreal editor that allows us to make these quests relatively quickly while still making sure they have interesting plots and fun gameplay. I’ll talk a bit more about questing later.

From a design standpoint, probably the biggest effort has been literally going over every single design and doing what we call a (design scrub.) Basically this means going through each design document, looking for any holes or issues (both balance and technical) that need clarification, and then making any necessary changes. It’s been a lot of work, but we’ve almost universally improved every design during the process so it’s been well worth it.

GB: What would you say are the most prominent similarities between UXO and Ultima Online? How about the most prominent differences?

Jon: It’s difficult to find similarities between UO and UXO because they are intentionally very different games. Probably the only real similarity is that both games are massively-multiplayer, meaning that just like in UO, you can adventure with your friends as well as with thousands of other players. Ultima Online is still going strong, so it didn’t make a lost of sense to us to build a game that was very similar.

So, to answer the question, UXO diverges from UO in many ways. First, rather than simply being based on the Ultima series, UXO is more like a sequel to the single-player games, picking up right where Ultima IX left off. This may take a bit of explaining, so here goes.

At the end of Ultima IX, the Avatar (the hero in the Ultima games) fights a final battle against the Guardian (his nemesis). The two of them are merged together as the Avatar ascends and vanishes from Britannia. So while Britannia is saved, the Avatar begins a new fight as he battles the Guardian for control of the being they both have become. The Guardian begins to get the upper hand, so the Avatar creates Alucinor as a place for people to adventure and learn about the Virtues just as he did in Britannia. Of course, the Guardian knows of the Avatar’s plan and makes attempts to destroy Alucinor. Only by fighting against the Guardian’s influence and learning the Virtues can players help the Avatar defeat the Guardian.

Other features, like combat, the focus on questing, and of course the 3D graphics based on the Unreal engine will also be noticeably different from UO. I’ll talk about combat and adventuring in later answers so you can understand what makes them different, not only from UO, but from every other MMORPG as well.

GB: Can you give us a few examples of the ideas, environments, or characters you’re using from previous Ultimas?

Jon: Most importantly, UXO is an Ultima game. We don’t want to use the license to just create a game that looks like Ultima, we want to create a game that (feels) like Ultima. That feeling is not easily captured, but we want to make sure we do the series justice and create something that fans of the Ultima series and those new to it will really enjoy. So at every opportunity we went back to the single player games for inspiration.

First and foremost, the biggest concept from the previous Ultimas, the Virtues, is also the biggest aspect of Ultima X: Odyssey. We wanted to go back to Ultima’s roots with UXO and make a game that would hearken back to the single-player games. So even though you’re playing online with thousands of other players, you still get that sense of being a hero that the Ultima games created so well. The Virtues permeate a host of UXO’s systems, including adventuring, items, and character advancement and customization.

As far as characters, we have the Avatar and the Guardian at the forefront of our cast. The Avatar will play a prominent role in the game, visiting your character often to send you on quests and offer guidance. While the Guardian will remain mostly out of sight, his influence will be felt throughout the world of Alucinor in the form of the obstacles the characters must overcome to advance in the game. In addition to the Avatar and Guardian, the Gypsy is also a focal character. In the single player games, the Gypsy was often the character who helped players decide their course through the Virtues. In UXO, she serves a similar purpose, as players can visit her to continue questing. We want to make a concerted effort to include as many Ultima characters as possible, whether it be in the world of Alucinor or in the fiction. Already, classic Ultima characters like Sherry the Mouse and Raven have played important roles in our fiction.

Although the game takes place in Alucinor instead of Britannia, we used some of the areas from previous Ultimas as inspiration for many of our maps. For example, we’ve included Buccaneer’s Den, Empath Abby, Serpent’s Hold, and a host of other areas fans of the Ultima series will instantly recognize. In fact, some maps, like Serpent’s Hold, even have the same layout as they did in the single player games. Many of the points of interest on the maps are also themed or named after Ultima locations, even if the entire map isn’t. At the same time, we wanted to create some new areas unique to Alucinor, so there is a good mix of recognizable areas and new areas.

GB: Other than quests, how else will players “fluctuate” between different Virtues in the game?

Jon: Quests are the only way players can gain Virtue. We wanted to avoid creating systems that tracked player’s behavior in the game and then tried to assign a Virtue to your character based on that behavior. For example, let’s say we added a system (remember, this is a hypothetical example) that rewarded characters with Valor for never running away during a fight. While that may sound logical, sometimes it makes sense to run during a fight. For instance, if you are the only character that can resurrect others, and your party is being killed, it makes complete sense for you to escape and come back later to resurrect your friends. You shouldn’t be penalized for essentially doing the right thing! On the flip side, if we said that you gained Honor for helping another player fight a monster, there would be no way of knowing whether you were truly being helpful or you were trying to steal their kill. Not to mention, trying to determine whether someone is (Honest) or (Humble) would be nearly impossible!

So instead, we again looked back to the single-player Ultima games. One of the coolest things about the Ultima games was that during character creation, you could answer moral questions based on the Virtues to determine what Virtues your character most connected with. These questions would ask you to make a choice between two Virtues, such as deciding whether to show Justice by slaying a bandit lord or show Compassion by trying to help him see the error of his ways.

In UXO, however, instead of just answering a question, you’ll make these kinds of decisions while playing the game. While adventuring, you could meet the bandit lord himself, allowing you to not only decide whether to demonstrate Justice or Compassion, but actually act on that decision in the game! Depending on what choices you make, your character will grow in the appropriate Virtues and gain abilities based on the Virtues you demonstrate. Just like the Ultima gypsy questions, there are no wrong answers, so players can feel comfortable making whatever choices they feel best fit their character. This not only creates a unique character advancement system, but also provides a valuable tool for role-playing, something that has been sorely missing in MMORPGs.

GB: We’ve read that you don’t intend on allowing player-killing, but instead support dueling and possibly other PvP formats. Will this be true for all server shards? Will there be any way to play an evil character in the game, even if it doesn’t include PKing?

Jon: We don’t have any plans to create (open) PvP servers at launch. That said, we do have a very robust PvP system.

First, players can challenge each other to consensual duels at any time. These duels take place on the public maps, but nobody else can interfere. Players can fight each other just for fun, or raise the stakes by fighting a rated duel and/or placing a wager on the fight. Each character starts out with a rating of 1,000. That rating is adjusted (up for a win, down for a loss) whenever characters fight in a rated duel. The amount of adjustment depends on the relative rating of your opponent. So if you fight characters with equal or higher ratings, you’ll gain more if you win. The great thing about this kind of system over a straight win/loss ratio or tracking (total kills) is that you can’t just keep killing low level or low rated characters to move up the ladder, and at the same time, anyone can become a top rated duelist. Even if you only play a few hours a week, you can earn a respectable (or even very high) rating.

Now if you really want to up the ante, you can also place a wager on your duel. If two players agree to a wagered duel, a trade window will open up before the fight, allowing the players to select the items they want to wager. Once the wager is agreed upon, the items are stored in a safe location and the duel starts. The winner of the duel gets the items automatically, so there is no way for someone to renege on the bet.

For those that prefer more group-oriented combat, we also have a guild battle system. Guild officers can challenge other guilds to battles, setting parameters such as battle type, location, and participant limits. These battles take place on private instances of the maps, so nobody but the guild members involved in the battle can participate. Like duels, these battles can also be rated (meaning your guild has a PvP rating too) and can have a wager associated with them. Imagine a 20 character vs. 20 character guild battle where each guild member puts up an item and some gold as a wager before the battle starts. No doubt the winning guild would haul in quite a bounty! Keep an eye on the uxo.ea.com site for more details on guild battles.

GB: How will the leveling system work in UXO, and how many levels do you anticipate allowing characters to gain?

Jon: UXO’s advancement system is a hybrid between what most players recognize as a level system and a skill-based system. We have twelve character classes (called Disciplines), broken into four groups called (Paths). The four Paths are: the Path of the Blade, the Path of the Arcane, the Path of Nature, and the Path of Balance. Each Path has three Disciplines. When creating a character, players choose a Path and can choose abilities from any Discipline within that Path. For example, if you chose the Path of Nature, you could select abilities from the Druid, Ranger, or Shepherd disciplines. So you will have a great deal of flexibility within your Path.

Fans of the Ultima series will also be happy to hear that all of the eight traditional Ultima classes (Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Bard, Druid, Shepherd, Tinker, and Mage), are Disciplines in UXO. We’ve rounded out the choices with the other four Disciplines: Barbarian, Sorcerer, Knight, and Necromancer.

As far as leveling goes, UXO differs from traditional leveling games as well. In most games, you have to wait until you level before you earn points to increase your character’s effectiveness. At high levels, this creates long periods of time where your character doesn’t change or advance. In UXO you earn these points over time, in-between levels. Your level is really just a numerical indication of how powerful your character is, rather than something you have to wait for before you can advance your character.

Characters earn experience, which in turn earns them (stat points) and (ability points.) Stat points can be spent to increase your character’s four basic statistics (strength, intelligence, dexterity, and constitution), while ability points allow you to learn abilities (skills). Abilities can be anything from a fireball spell for a mage to a powerful (war quake) melee attack for a barbarian. You can spend ability points to either learn a new ability or to raise the effectiveness of an ability your character already knows. Each discipline has 18 abilities, giving characters a choice of 54 abilities per Path. Each ability in a Path is unique, meaning you’ll never gain an ability later in your character’s advancement that makes a previous ability obsolete. Even at the highest levels, you’ll still want to use the very first ability your character ever learned.

At first, characters can achieve a maximum level of 100. However, characters can break beyond this cap through the ascension system. Ascension is a reward for creating multiple characters, called (Disciples,) which allow your main character (who we call the (Hero)) to progress beyond level 100. So not only is making new characters and trying out new Paths and Disciplines fun, but you’ll also get a reward for your Hero character as well. Eventually, once you have enough Disciples, your Hero can ascend and become an Avatar. Avatars are extremely powerful characters who have mastered all eight virtues, giving them incredible powers. We’ll be releasing more information on Ascension and Avatars in the future on the uxo.ea.com site.

GB: Tell us a bit about how private questing will work. Will there be a limit to how many private “sessions” a server can handle?

Jon: Private areas is what will really make adventuring in UXO shine. In most games, if you are given the task to slay a dragon, you may travel all the way to the dragon’s cave only to find that someone else just killed him. On top of that, there are 15 other groups all waiting in line for him to respawn. Not only is it annoying to have to wait hours (or even days in some cases!) for your (turn,) but it also greatly detracts from the feeling of being a hero if you literally have to watch as 15 other groups all complete the same quest you are attempting.

Instead, we create a private version of the dragon’s cave just for you and your party. When you enter the cave, the system automatically creates a private instance of the map and builds the quest components. The adventure system can even scale the monsters on the map according to your party size and level. Having the quest take place in a private area also allows us to create much more interesting quests. For example, you could get a quest to kill all of the skeletons in the catacombs. Again, in other games this would be impossible, because if the skeletons didn’t respawn, other players in the catacombs who just want to kill skeletons for XP or loot would quickly run out of things to fight.

When you arrive at the catacombs in UXO, we create a private instance of the map that doesn’t interfere with those players fighting in the public catacombs. Now we can turn off the skeletons’ respawn and literally allow you to (clean out) the dungeon. Of course, the real strength of the adventure system is that the quests are highly story-driven. So along the way, you might speak with a Necromancer and decide whether to continue killing the skeletons or perhaps perform some other task instead. Again, since the map is private, you don’t have to worry about anyone else killing your quest NPC before you have a chance to make a decision.

GB: Do you plan on supporting player housing at launch? If so, can you tell us any development goals you might have for such a feature? If not, is it your intention to eventually add housing?

Jon: We don’t plan on shipping the game with housing. At the start of this project, we wanted to create a focused set of really deep systems, rather than have a bunch of systems without the same amount of depth. So, we decided to really hone in on features like combat and adventuring, making sure those systems are fully fleshed out before thinking about systems like housing.

Right now we are focusing on creating a game that is fun, with or without housing.

GB: Any plans on what transportation options will be available to characters (horses, boats, teleportation, etc)? Will you offer a Recall spell similar to Ultima Online?

Jon: Generally, transportation systems in MMORPGs are nothing more than clever ways of disguising forced downtime. So whether it’s making you take a (taxi) mount or sail on a ship to get from one place to another, you often have to waste a lot of time to get from where you are to where you want to be. While transportation systems like these can be neat the first few times you use them, as soon as their (newness) wears off, they become tedious.

We decided not to include mounts that you can control, mostly because putting the character on a mount greatly reduces how impressive combat can look. Our combat (which I’ll discuss more in the next question) involves a lot of cool animation and exaggerated motions, such as flips and jumps. The moment you put your character on a mount, you lose all of that. So instead of creating mounts (which in most games are nothing more than a visual speed buff), we decided on different ways to get you around the world.

In UXO, we have two major forms of travel (aside from running, of course) that players can use to quickly get where they want to be. First, we have a moongate system. For those unfamiliar with the Ultima games, moongates are magical portals that allow you to travel from one map to another very quickly. About half of the outdoor maps have moongates on them, and you can use a moongate to travel to any other moongate that you have access to.

In addition to moongates, we also have a system that allows you to instantly teleport your friends to your location or have them teleport you to their location. This greatly reduces downtime and makes it very easy for friends to quickly group together even if they start out on opposite sides of the world. So if you can only play for 30 minutes on a certain night, you don’t have to waste 15 of those minutes using a slow transportation system. You can log in, ask your friend to teleport you, and within seconds you’re adventuring with your friends!

GB: To conclude, what do you feel is the most important aspect of UXO that will set it apart from other MMORPGs?

Jon: Well aside from the story-driven, virtue based questing, the feature that will set UXO apart from other MMORPGs is our combat. Combat in UXO really is like nothing you have ever experienced in a massively-multiplayer game.

In previous interviews and message board posts we’ve talked a lot about what we call (sandwich combat.) In other words, the kind of combat where your character goes into some kind of (war mode) and then proceeds to automatically fight half the battle for you. Aside from the occasional macro-key to cast a spell or use a skill, the control of the fight is largely out of your hands. You can practically leave your computer and go get a sandwich during the fight and check back later to see if you won. We wanted to change that. So, we didn’t just give you some control over your character’s combat actions.we gave you total control.

Every sword swing, every block, and every spell cast is controlled by you. Not only do you initiate every attack, but you can also control the pacing of the attacks. The longer you wait between attacks, the better your chance to hit. You can also choose to make your character actively defend, giving you a chance to actually block an attack. Hitting with an attack or blocking an opponent’s attack does a lot more than just damage your opponent or help you avoid being damaged too.

Every time you hit an opponent or block an attack, your character gains momentum. Momentum can be spent to either (charge up) one of your special abilities (making it more powerful) or to create (combos,) allowing you to string different abilities together in rapid succession. Whether you choose to spend momentum to charge up one ability or to string together abilities is up to you, and will depend on the situation. UXO’s combat is designed to give you a core group of options and then let you create strategies for using those options. Attack speed, active defense, momentum, charging-up, and combos are just some of the aspects you’ll be able to use to influence a battle. But whatever your strategy, it will be your actions that will always directly determine every part of the fight.

Between our premier event in August and a few focus groups, we’ve had over 100 players try out UXO’s combat already (and it’s not even done yet). Many of them have compared it to console fighting games and other single-player games, instead of other MMORPGs. While UXO’s combat doesn’t require the (twitch) reaction of a fighting game, it is meant to give you the same sense of control and adrenaline rush. So we take those kinds of comments to mean we’re definitely onto something with this kind of active combat!

If you are interested in learning more about combat, the uxo.ea.com site has an extensive update. Don’t forget to check out the videos and the music while you’re there!

We’d like to issue our thanks to everyone at EA and Origin, especially Jon, for taking the time to answer our questions!

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