The Ultima Codex Presents an Interview With The Ultima 6 Project (Updated!)
Akalaupdate: Alfie was so kind as to contribute to this interview as well.
This is the second part of what I hope will be a continuing series of interviews with fans who are keeping the Ultima spirit alive through remakes or other projects. The previous interview with Eric Fry of Nuvie can be found here.
Dungy: Why don’t you take the opportunity to tell us a bit about yourselves, and blow you own horn about some of the great work you’ve done on this project over the years.
Zephyr: Well, I’m Zephyr, and I’ve been with the project for something like 11 years; I’ve done a lot of work, from world-building to 3d modeling to development in Skrit (the programming language for Dungeon Siege). I’ve also done a little bit of writing. I’ve worked with every aspect of the game in one way or another.
Aletys: I’m a retired engineer who worked in aerospace for most of my career, although, I was not retired when I joined the team five years ago. I’ve done a little bit of almost everything on this project except the heavy duty coding, world building, and the 3-D art work. My biggest efforts were the shrubbing (decorating the world space) of a lot of the Gargoyle regions, the compilation of the Compendium (including generating many of the graphics that go with the entries), and the recent reworking of the graphics for the in-game dungeon maps.
I shrubbed all the Gargoyle city and farm regions, the Gargoyle jungles, the Human Ruins Isle in the Gargoyle region, the Shrine of Passion dungeon, and selected areas in the Britannian overworld. My favorite areas that I shrubbed are the Gargoyle jungles, the main Gargoyle city, and the Adventurer’s Guild in Britain.
Ged: Niko Mäkelä, a 3D generalist working in the games industry. Got a mixed bag of studies and work history, but the last 8 years or so I’ve had a definite 3D focus. Since 2010, I’ve worked at Supercell (http://www.supercell.net) where I do 2D/3D animations and character/asset creation.
I’ve been on U6P since 2006, and made assets like misc items, weapons and structures, and focused on characters, namely the gargoyles and some others like hydra, giant ants, cats, silver serpent, a few others, and the game outro animation. You can view some of them here: http://www.cgmascot.com/misc/ultima6project-lowpoly/
I share 3D and related knowledge on a computer graphics learning blog. Feel free to read more about The Ultima 6 Project at: http://www.cgmascot.com.
Alfie: I’m a presales engineer. I started in 2008 as a QA tester in the team, and because I had some free time, I became Lead Worldbuilder on the project. I created most of the dungeons in the game, placed some NPCs and monsters camp, and also had ideas for some of the easter eggs. I also built some 3D objects (cannon, harp, lyre…) and nodes. I also managed the translation team and worked on the French localization. I’m also in charge of bug fixing and bug reporting for the 1.1 version.
Dungy: I know you’ve been asked this question many times, but what is your personal connection to the original Ultima VI? Why did you choose to remake this game?
Zephyr: That’s a better question to ask of Matt Hutaff (Sliding Dragon) who founded the project. I personally was looking to get involved in a fan remake of an Ultima because I had enjoyed things like Exult and the fan rewrite of Ultima IX, and the U6 Project was in its infancy when I found it. It seemed like a good opportunity for me to get involved.
Aletys: I actually had no connection whatsoever to the original Ultima VI. I started gaming rather later than most folks, and I had never even heard of it before I stumbled upon The Ultima 6 Project while looking for another Dungeon Siege mod to play (yes, I had played nearly all of them including Lazarus). I found the M3 release lots of fun, and got roped into play testing after asking a question on the forums. The next thing I knew, I was learning how do the actual game building; everything from conversation scripting, to shrubbing, to NPC’s.
I’m not completely sure on this, but I believe I’m the only member of the team who had not played any of the original Ultimas. As a result, I’ve also been the person who ends up asking, “But how is the player supposed to know this if they never played the original?”. I think in a few cases at least, that led to some changes in how things were presented.
Ged: Completed Ultima VI a few times way back on my dad’s work computer (a 286) with a hercules monitor (glorious 2+1 colours) and a beeper for sound. Loved it! A long time later played Ultima V: Lazarus and figured I could work on these things too.
Alfie: I never played the original Ultima VI. I started with VII when I was 16 or 17. When I saw the Lazarus project, I ran to buy Dungeon Siege. I finally ended up on the U6 Project web page, and played Milestone 4. I reported a lot of bugs, and was ‘hired’ as a tester.
Dungy: I was a huge fan of the original 1.01 release of The Ultima 6 Project,but unfortunately due to a catastrophic hard-drive failure I lost all of my saved games when I was about 90% finished my quest. What improvements and bugfixes should we be looking forward to in version 1.1?
Zephyr: The main improvements are the new moongate system, which is much more scalable and stable, and the dungeon maps, which are much easier to read and better placed in the game. We also made the sextant work much better in the overworld, so you can really see where you are on the world map.
Alfie: The moongates were fully optimized and the game will have far fewer chances to crash now. We also reviewed conversations a lot. A lot of work was also done on dungeons and in-game maps. I also reworked slow FPS places a lot to avoid performances issues.
Dungy: I certainly understand that a project like this takes a significant investment of time and energy, and all of it in your free time. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced during the last 18 months as you worked towards this new release?
Zephyr: Mainly just staying motivated has been a challenge. It’s really easy to just sit back and rest on our laurels, for me personally, since 1.0.1 was so successful. But as a team, we looked at the problems that the moongate system caused, and the complaints about the design of the dungeon, and we just felt like we weren’t quite finished yet. So, remembering that has kept us going.
Aletys: Just keeping the work going has been a big challenge. We’ve lost a lot of team members (we’re down to four core members at this point), which means we’re trying to cover a lot of bases, and things just don’t get done as quickly as we would like.
Ged: Finding any time for The Ultima 6 Project. Starting on U6P I was semi-surviving as an entrepreneur and a student, and had free time. Lately, with active working life and a family, my contribution has been miniscule.
Dungy: I hate to ask, but how about character portraits? Will we be seeing many new portraits in this version?
Zephyr: Sorry, there is no work being done on that. We just don’t have anyone on the team that does that kind of work. Once again we’re going to put it out there – if a fan wants to take a crack at a portrait mod, we’ll be happy to help with that. The technical side is trivial; someone just has to take on the artwork.
Dungy: How has your association with team Lazarus helped the project? How did this inter-team communication benefit both groups?
Zephyr: It’s helped in both directions, certainly. Our boat system and a lot of the elements of our conversation system made it into Lazarus, and we’ve integrated a lot of their 3D models, world building, and textures. For the most part we’ve remained pretty separate, but we’ve shared a lot of resources.
Dungy: I like the new Gargoyle models. Were there any special challenges creating them? Are there any other 3D creations your team is especially proud of? Will we see any new critters like some of the interesting denizens of Destard?
Zephyr: There are no new critters in 1.1. We were focused on getting the game more stable and playable for this release. As for the 3D models, that’s a question for Niko (Ged) our 3d modeler.
Ged: The first challenge was just doing proper work, as I was learning about low-poly.
A later challenge was all about troubleshooting what kind of character rigs and setups does the Dungeon Siege engine accept. As an example, we wanted interchangeable heads for gargoyles. Finally, getting them working forced scrapping almost all the previous gargoyle rigs and animations, and redoing them with a far less animator-friendly setup – a lot of work.
Other 3D creations I’m happy with are the hydra and the drawbridge.
Dungy: The world of the U6Project is huge, and some of the dungeons like Destard are mind-bogglingly large and convoluted. What special thoughts and challenges went into developing a seamless world of this magnitude? What changes did you have to make from the original Ultima VIto fit your new vision?
Zephyr: We needed a game engine that could handle a large world, and could load areas without endless load screens. Dungeon Siege was one of the few that could support something like that. There were significant challenges in terms of performance; our world is something like 25X the size of the original Dungeon Siege (honestly, that’s a conservative estimate), and of course the game engine was simply not designed to handle this sort of thing. So, we had to do a lot of “node-counting” and make sure we didn’t go over a certain number of “things” for each “region” as we were building the world.
The main changes we had to make from the original were things like – you can’t ride horses in our remake, and there’s another certain vehicle (won’t say more than that – spoilers!) that we had to mostly cut due to game engine constraints.
Aletys: Quality assurance was a very big challenge in a world this big, especially in some of the dungeon regions. In something this big, you sometimes don’t notice that there is a tree floating in mid-air in the middle of the forest, or that a dungeon path is a bit too narrow and difficult to navigate, or that the fades aren’t working quite right in one area and that you can see multiple levels at the same time. Also, having the same folks trying to do both the development and the in-game testing can be very challenging. Especially with an all volunteer team where everyone has other commitments, trying to fit it all in can get pretty interesting.
Alfie: For the dungeons, we wanted something new, so I barely respected the original Ultima VI maps. The 3D engine gave us some possibilities you don’t have in 2D, like paths crossing in the air. My preferred one, even if it doesn’t really look like a dungeon, is the Lycaeum library.
Dungy: I enjoyed some of the new content introduced in the U6Project, such as the more dynamic siege of Trinsic. How difficult was it to program such content, and how do you feel it improves upon the original Ultima VI?
Zephyr: I believe Frilly Wumpus did most of the coding for that. I think it gives a much greater sense of imminent threat; Britannia definitely feels more threatened in our remake than it has in any of the other original games.
Dungy: Any features you really wish you could have introduced to the U6Project that you had to cut due to time or engine issues?
Zephyr: If had infinite time, we probably could have made it so you could ride horses. There was a mod made for the now-defunct project Adventures of Blackthorn that allowed for it, and we did acquire those assets. However, I’m not sure it would have really served much of a purpose in terms of the gameplay itself. And of course, the previously-mentioned “vehicle” had to be cut due to the game engine constraints. There were other quests and plot points that were in the original design document that were quite grandiose (battles at sea!) and just weren’t going to be possible. There were some quite hilarious ideas that were rejected as well, such as special class-specific powers.
Ged: Gargoyle armor, new rabbits, more monsters.
Alfie: Like Zephyr said, the special vehicle would have been nice to have been available everywhere.
Dungy: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced adapting Ultima VI to the Dungeon Siege Engine?
Zephyr: The game engine was not terribly well documented; we actually had to go through the API and document it ourselves for the most part. I think we’ve got the authoritative API documentation now for the skrit programming language over on the Project Britannia website. There are a lot of things that you’d think they (Gas Powered Games) would have implemented that they simply left out because the original Dungeon Siege just didn’t need it. For example, there are certain properties of things that you can read, but not write, so you can’t control certain things through code. Little things like that. Things like not being able to dynamically arrange items in your backpack through code. There are also general stability issues with the game engine once you reach certain limitations; we ran into that with the moongate system in 1.0, which was the main impetus for our work on the 1.1 release.
Dungy: What features have you managed to get into the final product are you proudest of? What have you accomplished with Dungeon Siege that you at first never thought was possible?
Zephyr: Personally, I’m most proud of the conversation system. Our original design was relatively simple, but with the addition of “usecode,” we’ve been able to transform it into a highly dynamic, fully-programmable system that for the most part can still be used by writers without much programming experience. Frilly Wumpus did an amazing job putting together that library, and WyrdWeb was incredible at learning how to use it to make things truly dynamic and somewhat realistic. I’d put our conversation engine up against any commercially-available engines out there. As for a thing we never thought possible, two things come to mind – boats, and the moongates. There are no vehicles in Dungeon Siege. We had to be really creative with the elevator system in order to make that work. And the moongates – there is no way to “teleport” in Dungeon Siege; we had to really stretch the code a lot to make that work.
Dungy: What about the future? Are there plans for any further releases of the U6Project? Is your team considering putting their talent and time into any future projects?
Zephyr: At this point, we feel like we’re done with the U6 Project. Personally, I think the fans would agree; we’ve taken it about as far as it can go. The Dungeon Siege game engine is really showing its age, and at some point you have to move on.
Aletys: I think I’d be open to working on another project, depending on the project, of course, but would like to take a break first. The last five years have been a lot of fun, but also very intense.
Ged: Don’t have plans to continue now, but might work with team members professionally should something like that come up.
Alfie: I just had an interview with a big game editor for a job in localization. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. If I don’t make it, maybe I’ll join Sergorn in his project after a break. It depends on my free time. Working on such a project really takes a huge amount of time.
Dungy: What can you tell us about the music in the game? Will we get a soundtrack to download?
Zephyr: We can put the MP3s somewhere at some point and do that for the fans, or you can just extract them from the files easily enough. The problem is that a lot of the composers for these tracks have scattered to the four winds, and a lot of the master files have been lost, so if you’re talking about a high-quality remastering of the tracks, no, that’s not in the cards unfortunately. But yes, we could certainly just put the sound files somewhere and come up with a nice playlist.
Dungy:How has fan feedback been towards the game so far?
Zephyr: Last time I sat down and counted, there were well over 25,000 downloads of 1.0, which is just mind-blowing. We also got a nice email from Lord British himself asking where he could download the game. The reviews have been mostly positive, with a few dings for the buggy nature of the game and some complaints about the complexity of the dungeons. We’ve tried to address these concerns with the 1.1 release, so hopefully we’re going from a 90% positive rating to something like 95%. The game will never be perfect, but we really want this to be as good as it can be out of respect for the Ultima name and everything that Origin Systems was able to achieve originally.
Dungy: If you were to do it all again, how would you do things differently?
Zephyr: A lot of people ask – why Dungeon Siege? It turns out that the Dungeon Siege game engine is the only engine out there that is fully customizable, supports regions without load screens, and most importantly supports eight playable characters at one time. The only other contender out there was Neverwinter Nights, and at first glance it seemed like that engine had a lot more limitations. Even today, there has not been a game engine released that supports all of the things that the original Dungeon Siege does. However, given 11 years to do it all over again, I’d probably consider using an open-source game engine of some sort, and doing a bit more from scratch. That way we could implement our own customizations, rather than relying on the somewhat incomplete and limiting APIs that Gas Powered Games provided.
Dungy: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
Zephyr: I personally would just like to thank everyone for sticking with us over the years. It’s been a labor of love for us, really, and while at times it’s been frustrating, the most rewarding thing is knowing that people are out there playing and enjoying our game. As many hours as we’ve put into this, we know that in some cases, fans have put hundreds of their own hours into playing and exploring our game, and that makes it all worth it.
Thank you so much to The Ultima 6 Project team for taking the time out of their busy schedules to let us interview them. I’m sure I speak for everyone, when I say we’re looking forward to seeing the final release of their incredible project, and I wish them well in all future endeavours.