Ultima Forever: From Alpha to iOS

Observant players may have taken note of the special note of thanks that appears near the end of the in-game credits list in Ultima Forever:

Well done, Dragons!

Well done, Dragons!

As was previously mentioned, I first became aware of Ultima Forever — or the project that became Ultima Forever — almost three years ago to the day. The game underwent a lot of changes during its development; this is nowhere more apparent than in looking at screenshots from the earliest developmental stages of the game, or at its graphical evolution (as revealed in a GDC presentation given by Paul Barnett).

A little over a year ago — in July of 2012, actually — certain members of the Ultima Dragons were invited to alpha test Ultima Forever in its then-present state. This took place over a year after a smaller collection of Dragons had the opportunity to visit the Mythic studio in Fairfax, Virginia, and see the game as it existed then. Over the course of the fourteen or so months between the studio visit and the alpha test, Ultima Forever moved from being a browser-based game that would have targeted multiple social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Google+) to a standalone, client-based PC game.

As you can see, the alpha test required a simple login against the game’s servers; Facebook integration came later (I would assume around the same time the development team shifted their focus to the iOS version).

In the alpha version of the game, the player was summoned to Britannia by Celest, and was very quickly transported out of the arrival area (via airship) to Castle Britannia. The main plot, as I’ll get into slightly more detail about below, concerned the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom at the time, and the arrival area served to do little more than introduce the player to the conversation and chest/loot systems in the game. NPC portraits, at the time, were simply close-up views of the NPC 3D models; as development on the game continued, these were shifted to (vastly better-looking) painted portraits (as can be seen below).

The release version of the game significantly expands this section; players must now navigate a short dungeon, which introduces the mechanics of combat, the dialogue system, and the Virtue Quandaries via the dying thief, James. The airship still makes an appearance, but only in a field on the far side of the dungeon.



And now, it is the mage (and Companion of the Avatar) Mariah that summons the player to Britannia.

Oh, and Celest was moved to the main temple in Britain:

Celest's new home

Celest’s new home

Character “creation” in the alpha build of the game was really character “selection”; you could pick a Fighter or a Mage, and had little control over the character’s appearance. At the time, the Mage class was still all-male, and the all-female Druid class was listed as “coming soon”.

This part of the game also saw significant overhaul between the alpha and the iOS release; female mages were added as playable characters, and the Virtue Arcana were implemented. The Arcana are kind of like an initial personality test that the game gives you the option of taking, presented by way of the Gypsy casting tarot cards. They are also an expansion on the idea of a specific character class being associated with a specific Virtue; each Arcana is associated with a unique combination of four Virtues.

The role of the Shrines of Virtue also saw a significant shift between the alpha version of the game and the final version:

At first, each Shrine was to be used to level up in its respective Virtue. After completing the introductory dungeon quest, Shamino would meet the player in Castle Britannia and tell them to visit the Shrine of Compassion, so as to introduce this system of leveling up. This was before the experience system of the game was overhauled to treat the accrual of Virtue as a character’s experience accrual as well, and in Ultima Forever as it exists today, there is no need to visit a Shrine to level up. Meditating at a Shrine now boosts the rate at which a player gains points in its respective Virtue, making it somewhat easier to level up overall.

Speaking of Shamino, the role of the Companions of the Avatar also saw significant revision between the alpha test and the release version of Ultima Forever:

Before, Companions were typically found in their associated cities (Dupre was in Trinsic, for example…), although Shamino was present in Castle Britannia to serve as an initial guide for the player. Now, the main Companions can all be found in Britain, in the guild halls associated with their respective classes (Dupre is thus in the Paladin’s Guild). Companions like Gwenno and Sentri can also be found in or near Britain (Gwenno is in the Bard’s Guild, while Sentri can be found in Castle Britannia…apparently in charge of Lady British’s security).

It’s also worth noting that the setting of the first dungeon romp after the encounter with Lady British changed somewhat. In the alpha test, it was set in Britain’s sewers, whereas in the release version it is set in the sewers underneat Castle Britannia. A small change, but it’s worth noting that the sewers of Britain are now a high-level dungeon.

No sewers for you, n00b!

No sewers for you, n00b!

And, of course, the UI got an overhaul:

What remained more or less the same, of course, was the amazing game world artwork. The hand-painted backdrops of Britannia and her cities are easily one of the stand-out features of Ultima Forever, now as much as during the alpha. Mythic’s artists worked wonders in crafting a vibrant, visually appealing setting for players to inhabit.

The most significant change, however, concerned the plot of the game.

As noted above, in the alpha test, the plot concerned the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, which had been stolen and needed to be recovered. In the introductory quest, players were tasked with following the trail of the thief to the sewers of Britain, there to discover that the bandit king of nearby Luckless Keep had somehow become involved in the plot to steal the book.

It is this area in which the most noticeable changes to Ultima Forever seem to have been made…in part (I suspect) because several of the Ultima Dragons who participated in the alpha test ripped into the plot as implemented (I know for a fact that Shadow of Light Dragon certainly had a lot to say about it). In Ultima Forever, the Codex is…entirely safe. It hasn’t been stolen, and its absence thus poses no danger to Britannia. Instead, Britannia is threatened — and in danger of being consumed — by the Black Weep, an apparently demonic plague that pollutes the land, renders buildings uninhabitable, and twists the people of Britannia into Weepers and other headless, Weep-infected undead.

And instead of sending you to find the Codex, Lady British tasks you to find the source of the Weep:

Certain core themes from the alpha version of the game were preserved: Britannia is facing a dire threat, and Strangers from Earth are being summoned in the hopes that they will ascend to the status of Avatar and save the world from the Black Weep. Becoming an Avatar is still very much an object of the game. But it would seem that at some time post-alpha, the subject matter of the game’s plot, rather than being tweaked here and there, was ripped out and largely rewritten. I can’t say for certain whether the Ultima Dragons were principally responsible for this, or whether they were responsible for it at all, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if in some way they were.

It can be said, if nothing else, that the Dragons did have an impact on the game’s development. Though I was never privy to the specific details, I was told after the completion of the alpha test that quite literally hundreds of changes were being made to the game as a result of feedback submitted by the Ultima Dragons. And I think this comment on the UDIC Facebook group is particularly relevant here:

I played through the tutorial this morning and it was pretty fun. It didn’t feel like a classic Ultima in play style, but it felt like Britannia, and I’m grateful for that. Sounds like the dev team are all Ultima fans, and it shows.

I almost wonder if it isn’t more important that we feel as though we’re in Britannia, than that we feel we’re playing a classic Ultima title. Especially toward the end of the series, the style of each successive Ultima varied wildly from its predecessors, so much so that I’d question whether any individual game in the series can be singled out as the definitive “Ultima style” game. But whether we were playing Ultima 5, Ultima 6, Ultima 7, or Ultima 9, we were certainly in Britannia, and (more importantly) it felt like we were. In games like Serpent Isle and Ultima 8, where we weren’t in Britannia, there was this uncomfortable feeling of being somewhere alien, even when it was somewhere vaguely familiar (as in the case of the Serpent Isle proper). We weren’t in Britannia; we weren’t home.

And I think, more than anything, the major difference between the alpha version of Ultima Forever and the version of the game that is now available worldwide is that the latter feels much more like Britannia. It feels like a return to Britannia, a return home. And the Ultima Dragons (you all know who you are) played a part in that.