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Ultima Codex Interview: Ultima IX Lead Programmer Bill Randolph
Interview - posted by Infinitron on Fri 5 December 2014, 22:21:49Tags: Origin Systems; Ultima IX: Ascension
Last month was the 15th anniversary of the release of Ultima IX: Ascension, the last game in the Ultima series and one of the most disappointing RPGs of all time. Kenneth Kully of the Ultima Codex is one of the few fans who disagree with that assessment, which is why he's more eager than most to commemorate the occasion of its anniversary with a series of interviews with the game's developers. The first interview in the series is with Bill Randolph, Ultima IX's lead programmer. As in Kenneth's previous interview, there's a video and a transcript, of which I'll quote a portion:
UC: That’s unfortunate. And that’s one of the things that has consistently come up in criticisms. I alluded to this when we chatted just recently, but…there’s a game reviewer who goes by the handle Spoony, he does really…esoteric game reviews, is the word I’m going to choose to use there. There’s a lot of ranting and raving, a lot of emotionally-driven discussions of the titles. And Ultima 9 earned his ire in a very special way, unfortunately; he devoted this three-part video rant to tearing it down some. And one of the things that has unfortunately become popularized as a meme on the Internet is the phrase “What’s a paladin?”
He kept hammering that again, and again, and again during the game. And I think it really tied into that. I mean, the line in and of itself…the inclusion of an option, in a conversation, so that a new player who’s never played any other Ultima can learn what a paladin was, and get exposed to that part of the lore, shouldn’t have been controversial in and of itself. But certainly the dialogue quality left something to be desired.
BR: Yes. Now, the specific line you’re referring to, and the property of having introductory material in a game like that…I think it’s important to do. And one of the concerns that EA kept re-iterating to use was that the Ultima fanbase was an ever-shrinking fanbase. And they didn’t want us to cater only to that fanbase; they wanted us to try and broaden the interest. And Richard was all about that; he was like: “yeah, we want more people to have fun with our game.” And so we were putting in material to introduce people more to the Virtues and the universe and so forth. But you’re right: the lack of polish probably emphasized that as something that stuck out. And there were conversations that I really feel fell short, and I know that…especially when you encounter the Companions near the end of the game, they’re not treated with the dignity that they should have been.
That was just…we didn’t have the time. And that’s a shame. We really…every step of the way, on Ultima 9, the next thing we did was what we had to do. It was always driven by: “we have to do this next, we have to do this next.” And we never really got the chance to strategize and go: “let’s get our head above water here and see where we’re trying to go.” It was always do this or die, do this or die; that was the way the development went.
UC: Is there any part of the game — a plot twist or gameplay element, something…if you’ve already discussed your favourite thing, then, you know, just mention it again and people can refer back. But…something that had to be cut that you really wish could have made it in.
BR: I’m sure that there is, but I can’t think of any one, specific, major thing. There were just…I think the party was a mistake to cut, and I think the NPC…the RPG detail of the game itself was something that we overlooked and sacrificed. So I think I would say that is probably…even above the party, just that sort of RPGness of that game we missed, and we omitted too much. There was…if I may go into another little bit of a story here about the culture at the time?
BR: I think a lot of the fans have picked up on that omission of RPG elements. At that time in Ultima 9’s development, and in Richard’s career, he was less interested in a pure, D20, Dungeons and Dragons-style RPG. He was trying to do something different, trying to do something new. And he had vocalized this to us several times that he didn’t want stats to be visible, and he didn’t want levels and progression to be what the game was about. And that was such a different and weird concept at the time that we didn’t really get it, and we felt a little lost at sea trying to make this game. Like: “how do we do this?”
And so there was a de-emphasis on things like…one example is to build a fire. In a classic Ultima, you would need a tinder box, and a flint, and a steel, and then you could build a fire. Well, that was viewed as tedium…and there is a degree of that that could be tedious. But there’s a degree of it that’s fun, and so you gotta find that balance. We just swung too far the other way.
And if I may say, I don’t think I’ve ever confirmed this with Richard, but…the modern-day incarnation of his idea, I think, is more fully realized in Skyrim. Skyrim is a game that…your character doesn’t really have stats. The stats are transitioned into the skill tree, but it’s really…you become what you do. And I remember he was really trying to do that in Ultima 9; he was trying to hide the traditional classes. You weren’t a Mage, you weren’t a Warrior; you did stuff and got experience based on that. But it would have taken considerably more iteration and time to bring that to life. I wish we had, because it was certainly a revolutionary idea.