A Year in Ultima Forever and Ultima Online: 2014 in Review

2014 was a year of triumphs and tragedies; Ultima Online began the year languishing in development limbo at Mythic, and ended the year with several new content updates released for it, a revived Counselor program, new staff, and an overall very positive outlook. The game has sprung back to life in some respects; it is healthier now than it has been in some time.

But along the way, both Mythic and Ultima Forever were lost forever. Though at least many of us were able to spend hours upon hours logged in to Ultima Forever on its final day, taking in as much of its story and quests as possible. And fortunately, Joe Garrity of the Origin Museum was able to salvage box after box of Ultima and Origin history from the Mythic offices; former Ultima Forever producer Jeff Skalski arranged to give him access to the studio’s former offices in the weeks prior to when EA would be abandoning the lease on the property.

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January

It was a slow start to the year, overall. Mythic pushed Publish 85.3 to Ultima Online’s TC1 shard toward the end of the month, putting some of the groundwork for the long-anticipated vendor search feature into the game.

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February

BroadswordOf course, Mythic was undergoing something of a shakeup during this time. The Ultima Online team more or less all quit the studio at the same time, and promptly re-emerged as Broadsword Online Games (which was headed up by Mythic co-founder Rob Denton). Development on Ultima Online was transferred to Broadsword, and it has been speculated that the creation of this new studio may have been the result of a last-ditch effort to stave off cancellation of Ultima Online.

Ultima Forever had not seen an update — or even a news post — in a while by then, and at the time I posited that this might have been the result of Mythic diverting effort to their re-imagined-for-mobile version of Dungeon Keeper.

It’s also worth mentioning that, in early February, EA shut down Lord of Ultima. This action proved to be something of a portent of things to come.

And while they’re not exactly news, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two articles that Deckard posted in the early days of this month: Broadsword, Ultima Online, and Dark Age of Camelot – a Commentary and
7 Questions for Broadsword about UO
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Broadsword very quickly began to demonstrate their intent to take a different approach to Ultima Online’s development, posting job openings for a Japanese-fluent associate producer and four Japanese EMs and releasing Publish 85.3 globally. They also patched some bugs related to player housing and game tokens. And, toward the end of the month, they also announced that the long-absent Counselors program would be re-instated; the blue-robed Counselors would be returned to the game.

In late February, Mythic released an update for Ultima Forever, which added little in the way of new content to the game, but which did enable players to complete the Quest of the Avatar and earn the title of Avatar in the game.

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March

In the middle of the month, Broadsword announced that they had hired a new associate producer (Japanese) for Ultima Online, and also announced their intent to overhaul the game’s official website. They also released Publish 85.4, which actually brought the vendor search feature to Ultima Online. (Of course, the search system was not without issues during its first few weeks.)

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April

uo-greenlitIt was early in this month that Broadsword hosted their first State of UO Address, in which they clarified their immediate and longer-term development plans for the game. Enhanced art assets, an improved new player experience, and yearly content updates were all discussed.

Around the middle of the month, Ultima Online appeared on Steam Greenlight, and soon won approval from the community there. Of course, there has been no real follow-up to this success on Greenlight, and it is unknown whether we can expect to see UO released on Steam at any point.

The vendor search feature was patched and re-activated by the end of the month.

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May

Issues with Ultima Online’s character transfer system cropped up at the beginning of the month, prompting Broadsword to temporarily deactivate that feature. (They had it working again a week later.)

The studio also put up a job posting for an engineer.

Later in the month, Publish 85.5 was released, bringing changes to the Governor system in UO. The game was plagued by login system issues as the month drew to a close.

A small update for Ultima Forever was also pushed out toward the end of the month, correcting an issue with the game’s chat system. However, on the 29th of May, Mythic was shut down by EA, and ceased all operations as a studio. The closure seems to have happened rather suddenly — perhaps unexpectedly — and also occurred just as hints were emerging that the studio was ramping up to work on another RPG.

Mythic-real-flame

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June

Mythic co-founder Mark Jacobs shared his thoughts on the closure of his former studio early in the month. A bit of research on my part, primarily focused on LinkedIn profiles, revealed that in their final months, Mythic had put together seven different game prototypes, and had also pitched a mobile reboot of “another classic franchise” (albeit which one remains unknown).

dk-1And EA’s CEO, Andrew Wilson, publicly admitted that the Dungeon Keeper reboot had…not met the expectation of long-time fans of that series of games. (EA Mobile’s Frank Gibeau chipped in his own thoughts on that game’s issues a few weeks later.)

Mythic’s closure also impacted Broadsword’s work on Publish 86 for Ultima Online, delaying the release of that update as the latter studio scrambled to transfer everything UO-related that Mythic was still holding on to over to their control. But in and amidst all the chaos, UO producer Bonnie Armstrong did at least find time to release a new Producer’s Letter.

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July

Early in the month, a brief Producer’s Note was released, giving UO fans an update on the status of Publish 86. The Publish was released on the Test Center shard a week or two later. It was patched later in the month, but didn’t see wider release in July.

Broadsword Online Games also updated the Ultima Online Facebook page with a look at their offices, and all of the various UO-related treasures salvaged from Mythic held therein.

On the 31st of the month, it was announced that EA would be shutting down online services for Ultima Forever, and thus shutting down the game as a whole, on August 29th.

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August

The pending shutdown of Ultima Forever galvanized us here at the Codex somewhat; it forced us to prioritize various side projects related to the game that we had been putting aside for a while. So, for example, I was able to extract some game data — mostly art assets — from the archive files of the PC alpha of the game. And Fenyx4 busied himself with implementing a zoomable map of Britannia as it appeared in the game.

A downed Dralthi

A downed Dralthi

Oh, and if you were wondering whether there was a Kilrathi-related Easter egg in Ultima Foreverthere was. Not that it could be seen or reached in-game, but…it was there.

At the beginning of the month, Broadsword released a small Publish and patch for Ultima Online, to correct a few issues that had cropped up in the game. Bonnie Armstrong also published another Producer Letter, and Publish 86.2 was pushed to the Test Center shard.

In late August, an issue with the Yamato shard required it to be reverted 7.5 hours. And a second Producer’s Update gave some details about the Vice vs. Virtue event that Publish 86 kicked off.

As the shutdown date for Ultima Forever approached, I pitched the idea of “Play Ultima Forever Day”. Essentially, everyone who was able to was encouraged to log back in to the game for as long as possible, to give it one last solid play session before it was taken offline. The day was a great success; I spent several hours in-game adventuring through Britannia with Fenyx4. And during breaks in gameplay, I posted a few galleries of salvage Ultima Forever world art, including its take on the Stygian Abyss, the unused (and prototypical) Guardian’s Hollow dungeon, and the fortress of Vesper.

Ultima Forever was taken offline, permanently, at 9:08AM (Mountain Time) on August 29th. For what it’s worth, you can still grab the excellent Ultima Forever soundtrack on Google Play (and on iTunes and Amazon, actually).

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September

Broadsword began ramping up for the 17th anniversary of Ultima Online early in the month, beginning with the sale of a series of commemorative t-shirts. They also announced their need for another ten in-game Advisors.

A week or so later, another Producer’s Letter was released, and a job opening for a web designer was posted. Broadsword also released a few “how-to” videos to help new and returning players understand changes to the game’s account management system. Soon thereafter, Publish 86.3 was pushed to the Test Center shard, and it was announced that the Factions system would be removed from the game. A UI overhaul was also formally announced.

After a brief delay, Publish 86 was released on the Origin and Izumo shards, and Advisors (the re-named version of Counselors) were officially brought back to the game. As well, with Richard Garriott’s permission, Lord British popped up in some of the written lore for UO. This was followed up by the in-game reappearance of Lord British.

Quite a bit else went on during Ultima Online’s 17th anniversary; be sure to check out Deckard’s write-up about it.

The Ultima Forever forums were taken offline on or about September 23rd.

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October

October 1st saw the kickoff of Ultima Online’s Return to Britannia promotion, a yearly effort to entice former players to return to the game. Publish 86.1 was also released, adding various bits of Halloween-themed content to the game. And Publish 87 followed hot on its heels…initially to the Test Center, Origin, and Izumo shards, and then to all shards about a week later.

It was about at this time, by the way, that the Classic Client stopped being mentioned in the lists of client updates that Broadsword released with every set of Publish notes. The Enhanced Client was still mentioned in these, and was still receiving lots of work…but if any effort was being put into the Classic Client, it went unmentioned.

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To promote the Vice vs. Virtue event, the Ultima Online team borrowed some art from Ultima Forever; it was nice to see this (wonderful) artwork find a second life in another Ultima game. And to the delight of many UO players, MyUO was resurrected at the official Ultima Online website, bringing back long-missed player and guild search features.

It was also revealed, toward the end of the month, that Mythic had reached out to, and worked with, key Dungeon Keeper fans during their production of the mobile re-imagining of that game. Say what you will about the games themselves; I don’t think it can be denied that the people at Mythic had genuine love for the properties they were attempting to work with, and desired to do right by the fandoms for each.

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November

In about the middle of the month, Publish 88 for Ultima Online was released; Broadsword were indeed making good on their stated goal of releasing regular content updates for the game. Publish 88.3 was released a week or so later, to address various bugs.

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And that, Dragons and Dragonettes, is all the news that the Codex was able to print about Ultima Online and Ultima Foreverin 2014. Here’s looking forward to seeing more development and content additions for Ultima Online in 2015. And hopefully Joe is able to find some treasures we haven’t seen in amongst the things he was able to salvage from Mythic, so that we might all get a look at them.