In Which I Visit Mythic and Meet With Tibby
I was faced, last week, with the prospect of spending the weekend with nothing much at all to do in New Jersey. Not that I am not in a nice enough part of the state; the Edison/Somerset/New Brunswick area is a little ocean of relative calm and pleasantness that is close — but not too close — to the more heavily industrialized areas to both the north and the south. Still…I felt a bit like getting out on the road. Being not terribly far from Baltimore, and with exclusive access to the car for the weekend (as my co-worker was visiting and staying with family in the area), I reached out to Ian Frazier (whom we all know, affectionately, as Tibby), and we made plans to meet for dinner on Sunday.
I’d also been chatting with Jimmy Acevedo, the associate producer for Ultima Forever at Mythic, about a couple of things related to the Ultima Forever trailer and release information, and the subject of my weekend plans came up…as well as my proximity to the studio. Ian lives in Baltimore, after all, and Mythic’s studio is only another hour or so of driving past there. And within the span of a couple of days, plans were set: I would visit the Mythic studio on Saturday (since a significant portion of the Ultima Forever team would be there anyway, working feverishly on the game, spend the night in a guest room that Jimmy conveniently had available, and then trek north to Baltimore on Sunday to meet with Tibby.
So I set my alarm for an early wake-up on Saturday morning and went to bed a bit early on Friday evening. I quickly ate breakfast on Saturday, and got on the road a bit earlier than expected. The drive from the Edison area down to Virginia, as both Google and Magellan route it, avoids Trenton and Philadelphia, passes through Baltimore, and then skirts around Washington, D.C., before ending up in Fairfax. Travel time can vary by over an hour, depending on traffic, although in the morning traffic was about as moderate as can be expected for the New Jersey Turnpike and busy capital region freeways and highways.
On the way there, in what I like to think was to the consternation of the GPS unit in the car, I skipped the exit to Mythic’s studio at first, and took the exit for a nearby shopping centre instead…predicting (correctly) that I might find the traditional meal of the Ultima Dragons for sale there.
And, indeed, I was right: Cinnabons were procured.
A few more minutes of driving and I was parked in front of Mythic’s building.
I made my way to Mythic’s floor of the building, and nabbed a picture of the full-size Ultima Forever ASCII banner that came to light a while ago.
The elevator was also done up pretty nicely too. Mythic are proud to be just Mythic again, and to have a swanky new spin on their old logo.
After loitering around for a few minutes, I was met by Ultima Forever producer Carrie Gouskos, and shown my way through the doorway behind which the Ultma Forever team now works. As you can see, it is fairly obvious in its markings.
Carrie very kindly showed me where to get a cup of coffee, and I settled in to wait. Jimmy arrived after a few minutes, and the Cinnabons were formally presented to the team. As luck would have it, a cabinet next to Jimmy’s desk serves as the spot on which food offerings are placed.
As we ate of Cinnabon, Jimmy gave me a quick tour of the floor, showcasing all of what has changed at Mythic since my last visit there. And to be fair, quite a lot has changed. The Ultima Forever team occupy a significant chunk of real estate on the floor, rather than being confined to a smallish little hovel at the back of an area. Design documentation, printouts of screenshots from various Ultima games, and other materials line the walls and are plastered all over cubicles, and more than a few Ultima game boxes can be seen peeking out of bookshelves and various alcoves.
Paul Barnett even, I gather, managed to coax Oliver Frey out of semi-retirement to do portraits of the Ultima Forever development team…which, I must say, is a lot bigger than it was two years ago.
And, of course, the chainmail Mythic logo is prominently displayed.
The coffee table in the reception area is also nothing short of awesome.
The brief tour completed, we settled in at Jimmy’s desk. It was a working day for him and the rest of the team, which kept things fairly informal. I got to have a look at the game on one of the team’s iPads, and was impressed at how much had changed since the alpha test. I can’t say too much, of course, but I will say that the game looks really good — and very crisp — on a Retina display. More importantly, it also controls very well. There were other improvements I took note of, things which the alpha had either lacked or which had been significantly overhauled since that point in time. And when he had some time, Jimmy jumped into the game on a second iPad so that we could tackle a couple of the more difficult dungeons.
And, as I noted in this round-up of news coverage, I got tripped up on at least one Virtue quandry (that quest ended badly), and found myself having to pause to muse over a range of equally good choices in other quandries. The choices that Ultima Forever throws your way aren’t just cookie-cutter questions; the team at Mythic have done a pretty good job at parsing the Virtues out into scenarios that require more than just a half-second’s thought to resolve.
Later in the afternoon, lead designer Kate Flack popped into the office, and we had a chance to discuss some of the things that were being worked on, especially character classes and deeper explorations of the Virtues. I asked her if there were any more cloth maps available, for a purpose that will become clear presently. As it happens, Mythic did in fact have a few maps to spare, and Jimmy went away to procure one. Kate and I were joined, soon thereafter, by Paul Barnett (who is now the studio GM at Mythic), who showed off a very beautiful tabletop figurine that he had ordered made for Ultima Forever:
He also, very generously, gave me a much-appreciated gift:
He then led me into the “map room”, and spread various iterations of the Ultima Forever map — some obviously based on Ultima 4, others closer in nature to what the final map of the game looks like — for me to take pictures of.
Paul and Kate took turns explaining the rough sequence in which the maps had been developed, as well as some of the design ideas that they had been tossed around at each stage. When I had snapped my last picture, Paul led us out of the room again, stopping to collect Jimmy’s keys and access fob before leading Kate and myself down a few floors to Mythic’s other office. Indeed, this lower-floor office was where I had last visited the Ultima Forever team at Mythic, although they have since all moved upstairs to the main studio. The area on the lower floor is mostly being used for storage at the moment, and Paul in fact made a beeline for one of the storage rooms, wherein he started removing a set of posters and display boards from a shelf. The three of us spread these out in an open area of the office with lots of light, and I again took pictures.
This resulted in two separate additions to the Origin Gallery: a set of Ultima Online: Age of Shadows concept posters and the first images we’ve ever had of something called Ultima Online: Spirit of Virtue.
Paul and Kate took their leave at that point, sending me back to Mythic’s main offices with Jimmy’s keys and fob in hand. I let myself back in to the office and sat down at Jimmy’s desk again. In addition to playing a fresh build of Ultima Forever, I got to make a few suggestions regarding something Jimmy was working on, which I hope will make it into the final game. I can dream, can’t I? This very informal nature was, I think, what made the trip to the studio such a joy; it was nice to just sit in the room, explore Ultima Forever a little more closely, and hear people around me talk about the game and what needed to be worked on next. Not that focused studio tours aren’t a treasure and a privilege, because they are…but it’s awesome to be able to see and hear the developers directly, going about their business, discussing the game and making abundantly clear their appreciation for Ultima and their desire to bring it to a new generation of players.
Members of the team came and went over the next couple of hours. Paul returned and stayed around for a few hours, although I saw him infrequently even so. And I kept poking away at Ultima Forever, exploring pieces of the world that I hadn’t had the chance to check out during the alpha test.
At some point, Jimmy and myself to the lunchroom where we were joined by a few others, who broke out what might just be the most complicated board game I have ever witnessed anyone play.
I elected not to play, mostly because I was expecting a Skype call from my wife at some point and didn’t want to put myself in a position where I had to step away from the game for a few turns. So instead I watched, amused, as the game designers at the table started picking apart the game’s mechanics, trying to figure out which of its many complex systems could be jettisoned or toned down to make it more friendly to new players. And after a lengthy call with my wife and kids, I grabbed an iPad and played a bit more of Ultima Forever as well. I also wandered around the studio a bit, taking a picture of the Mythic logo in the main foyer, and grabbing a picture of this framed, fan-made map of Britannia:
The Merchants and Marauders session ended around 10:30 PM, after which Jimmy insisted on a four-person game of Spaceteam…which is honestly the most fun I’ve had whilst flipping switches and yelling at people. Soon thereafter, Jimmy and I left the studio and headed for his place, stopping briefly at Wegmans to pick up some groceries and ingredients for a late dinner…and breakfast. We were probably up until about 1:00 AM or so, enjoying a tasty dinner and a quite excellent wine as we discussed Ultima Forever, philosophy, game design in general, music, and a handful of other topics.
Sleep came easily that night, and I awoke at 9:30 AM to the sound of my iPhone’s alarm. As much to say thanks as because it was an old habit re-asserting itself, I prepared omelettes for both Jimmy and myself (his roommates politely declined the same offer). And, after another round of Spaceteam, I said my goodbyes and made my way to Mass, followed in turn by a lengthy stopover at a nearby Starbucks for a much-needed coffee and a few hours of sorting through photos. And come the middle of the afternoon, I got back in my car and made my way north, into the middle of Baltimore.
I got lucky, finding parking just outside the pizza place that Ian had suggested as our meeting place. He arrived a few minutes later, at which point I was able to give him…
…which he was quite delighted with:
— Ian S. Frazier (@tibermoon) February 18, 2013
We sat and talked, over pizza and a really tasty root beer that he suggested, about various subjects that were, for the most part, in the orbit of RPGs and game development. He’s a very engaging conversationalist and just a generally nice guy, Tibby, and while he is still looking for work, he has a couple of very interesting opportunities ahead of him, and a head full of ideas about morality systems in games. Whatever he ends up working on next will, I suspect and hope, feature some of the concepts he has sketched out.
Ian is also very focused on others, and cares deeply about those who have been affected by the same events that have affected him in recent months. At one point, I praised the artwork and detail of the Teeth of Naros DLC for Reckoning, prompting him to record me praising it a second time so that he could forward the clip to a friend of his who had worked on that particular expansion, and who was feeling a bit down. At another point, he stopped to take a picture of the arcade machine in the restaurant, for another friend who had inadvertently become a huge fan of the Fast and Furious film franchise.
We parted company after a couple of hours, each making his way to his respective vehicle. I didn’t get to toast him with a proper pint, but…that’s okay. Here’s hoping that whichever of the opportunities before him he opts to pursue, the good Mr. Frazier is able to succeed at it handily.
It was a long drive back to the hotel. Strangely, though, I failed to notice.
So: A big “thank you” to Jimmy Acevedo for his impeccable hospitality, and his willingness to put me up for the night and invite me into the Mythic studio one more time. And another big “thank you” to Kate Flack, Paul Barnett, and Carrie Gouskos of Mythic, for letting me in to the studio, letting me stay there at some length, and sharing some great pieces of Ultima Online and Ultima Forever history with all of us.
Too, a big “thank you” and “cheers” to Ian Frazier, for agreeing to meet me for dinner on cold and blustery Baltimore evening. All the best, Ian, and with luck I’ll get to meet up with you again and raise a proper pint to you.
And lastly, a “thank you ever so much” goes out to my wife, who graciously puts up with the travel my work requires of me, and smiles at the opportunities it occasionally affords me.