“It’s actually a bit embarrassing how seriously I took the philosophy of those games.” – An Interview With Ian Frazier

“It’s actually a bit embarrassing how seriously I took the philosophy of those games.” – An Interview With Ian Frazier

It has been seven years since Ultima V: Lazarus version 1.20 was released. What an accomplishment that was. Even though it wasn’t an official entry into the series, I still think Lazarus is the greatest Ultima produced. It had an exciting world to explore, and some of the most engrossing characters I have seen in a video game. Kudos!

What was your initial experience with the Ultima series? How has the series influenced you as a game designer? As a person?

I actually came very late to the Ultima series. In 1995, I was looking through a bargain bin for some games to run on my already-ancient 486 PC, and I came across the Complete Ultima VII Collection and both Underworlds. I played the crap out of those games, and immediately fell in love—so much so that I had to go back and play the entire series leading up to that point. After that I was completely hooked, and I went on to play Pagan, Ascension, and the two Worlds of Ultima games.

Professionally, I’d say the biggest influences that Ultima has had on me are a love of “living world” game design (which unfortunately I’ve not gotten to do yet on a retail game) and the incredible possibility space for morality systems in games. I was fascinated by what Ultima did with tracking virtue, and most of the best times I’ve had in gaming since then have been with games that track and respond to morality/personality in some way, from Planescape: Torment to Mass Effect. I think there’s a ton of room for evolution on that front, actually, and I’d very much like to push forward the evolution of game morality/personality systems in the future.

As far as the influence the Ultima series has had on me as a person, it’s actually a bit embarrassing how seriously I took the philosophy of those games. I got into the series in 8th grade, and I can remember being fascinated by the whole idea of the virtues and actually pondering how to better myself along those eight vectors. I wasn’t raised in a particularly religious home, and I think Ultima was my first real exposure to any form of structured morality, so I suppose it makes sense that it captivated me like it did. In any case, I have to tip my hat to the folks at Origin for making a video game series that got a nerdy kid to seriously consider how he could be a better person in real life!

What was your original inspiration for Lazarus? How did the project initially get off the ground, and how did it progress through the years of development?

There were really three main inspirations: First, after Ultima IX came out, I simply hated the thought of the series coming to an end and I wanted to somehow prolong its lifespan a bit. Second, because I came to the Ultimas so late, most of them were already technologically ancient by the time I experienced them, and I really wanted to combine all the amazing aspects of the old Ultimas with all the advantages of modern tech and art. And third, I knew that I wanted to get into the game industry and that I’d need some way of proving that I had what it takes to make games. So with these reasons in mind, I decided to start the Lazarus project.

Initially getting the project off the ground consisted of making a simple website to describe what I wanted to do and recruiting people from both the student body at Purdue University (where I was a freshman at the time) and the Ultima fan community online. Trying to convince people to work for free isn’t easy, but fortunately the love of Ultima and excitement about getting into game development were enough to get several very talented people on board for the project.

As for how development played out: In the early days of the project, I decided I wanted to use the Dungeon Siege engine for development (it was more flexible and suited to the game’s goals than the other options at the time). Unfortunately, Dungeon Siege wasn’t out yet, and its release was delayed shortly after we started the project. So the first 9 months or so of the project were spent sketching out concept art and maps for different areas, planning out the game’s design on paper, and writing sample dialogue to try and nail the right tone for the game. I’m happy to say that I still have the big ol’ 3-ring binder with the original Lazarus design documentation in it!

LazDoc01 LazDoc02

After Dungeon Siege finally came out, we spent a lot of time learning the tools and technology and figuring out what new systems would be necessary to truly make the game feel like an Ultima. Next we had to start building some tools of our own, like the LDE (Lazarus Dialogue Editor) which enabled us to craft the vast amounts of dialogue trees needed for our 350+ unique NPCs. Dungeon Siege didn’t support dialogue trees at all out of the box, so this was quite an undertaking. We also started building our own assets and systems around this time, from new terrain nodes for places like the Lycaeum to the reagent-based spellcasting system and the crazy dynamic-terrain-node system we used to allow for freeform ship travel. Next, we started building the world in earnest, writing dialogue for NPCs and crafting dungeons and cities, implementing and balancing weapons and spells, creating new monsters and UI elements, and so forth. After enough of the game came together, we created an open alpha that covered the Verity Isle region, got a lot of great feedback (and new recruits!) from the fanbase, and we want on to complete production on the game as a whole. After a significant QA/debugging effort, we finally released the game in December 2005. A few patches later, you had the final version.

What were some of the difficulties managing and organizing such a large volunteer project? How did you find talented artists, composers, writers, and worldbuilders?

Fortunately, there are a LOT of Ultima fans out there, so although the recruiting effort was very difficult, it wasn’t downright impossible, as it otherwise probably would have been. Most of Team Lazarus came from that very passionate fanbase.

During the early stages of the project, I spent a lot of time scouring various Ultima fan forums and sites online, looking for people who had both the talents I needed and a love of the series. I read pretty much all Ultima fanfiction in existence (some of which has left lingering psychological scars) in pursuit of good writers, and fortunately found two–Mike Hilborn and Laura Campbell—who were excellent, and convinced them to join the project and write dialogue for the game. More writers followed. A web developer named Aaron Martone volunteered to make a much nicer website for us, which in turn helped recruiting efforts. Our composers came from the Ultima fan community as well.

Meanwhile I also recruited fellow students from my university—I was working on a degree in Computer Graphics Technology, so fortunately I spent a lot of time around both artists and programmers with an interest in game development, so I found some great people there who helped in everything from tool development to level design.

As for organization, we used a combination of instant messaging and a private discussion forum for communication, and a combination of Microsoft Excel and Project for planning/scheduling. I had read several books on game development by this time, as I was very interested in getting into the industry, so I pretty much just took what I read and did my best to apply it to the mod—we had milestones with explicit deliverables, a waterfall production schedule, specific roles and responsibilities for everyone on the team, and even content reviews from the team leads. I think the degree of seriousness and professionalism with which we approached the project was a large part of its success.

As for difficulties, I think the biggest challenge was just getting work out of people when this was all done on a volunteer basis. It can be very hard to motivate yourself—let alone others—to put in insane amounts of effort into a mod project when you know you’ll never see a dime from it, and that the odds of finishing it at all are against you.

I fought the challenges of motivation in two major ways: first, I made a point of regularly talking with each member of the team about what they were working on and doing my best to make sure they were excited about both the project as a whole and their specific part of it. As an added bonus, “cheerleading” in this way tended to get me re-energized about the game as well, which helped tremendously in keeping my nose to the grindstone. Second, I started posting regular deadlines and removing people who couldn’t make deadlines from the team (after warnings, of course). It feels terrible to “fire” someone from a volunteer project, but we found that having unproductive team members has a huge negative impact on the morale of the people who were contributing, ultimately
making progress grind to a halt.

What are you most proud of with Lazarus?

There’s a lot I’m proud of with Lazarus, from the sheer size of the world to the depth of some of the characters. The biggest thing, though, is that I believe we truly captured the “spirit” of Ultima. We set out to combine the core thematic message of Ultima V with the living, breathing open world and narrative richness of Ultima VII, and based on what players have told us over the years, I think we succeeded. I’ve been told the game feels like an Ultima, and that’s about the best compliment I can think of.

Any regrets about the project?

Honestly, I have very few regrets about Lazarus. The only one that really springs to mind is about the tech for teleportation, which we used for both the Blink spell and the grappling hook. I was hell-bent on getting both Blink and the grappling hook into the game (since they’d been in the original Ultima V), and when our lead programmer (Shaddock Heath) figured out how to make it happen, I was overjoyed.

He warned me of several potential problems with this tech, but I chose to move forward with it regardless, and although part of me is happy that Blink and grapple made it into the game, I probably should have cut them both early on. I feel that in the end, the value they added to the game simply wasn’t great enough to justify all the bugs that they caused—some of which we were never able to
completely fix.

When Lazarus was released in 2006, Ultima was in a lull with nothing new since Ascension in 1999. Do you feel fan projects have played a role in the resurgence of interest in the series lately? Have your feelings toward Ultima or Lazarus changed since 2006?

I doubt they’ve caused the recent resurgence of interest, but I DO think that they helped keep the memory of Ultima alive with a great many gamers over the last several years, until such time as the series could garner more official support once again (I’m thinking about Ultima Forever here).

As for my feelings toward Ultima and Lazarus, I wouldn’t say they’ve changed all that much since 2006. I still love Ultima and the wall of my office remains decorated with cloth maps to this day! Of course, I’ve learned a lot more about game development since the Lazarus days, but if anything that’s just given me a greater appreciation for what the fine folks on our team accomplished—seven
years later, it still boggles my mind a bit that we actually got such a large game out the door without a budget!

Since finishing Lazarus, you’ve gone on to a career in professional video game design. How did Lazarus help you with this?

First of all, Lazarus was the main “portfolio piece” that helped me get my foot in the door as a level designer at Iron Lore Entertainment. But in a more long-term sense, Lazarus has helped me in innumerable ways since I started working in the games industry—often in ways that have surprised me. Through Lazarus I learned a ton about how games are made, how to schedule a project, how to motivate a team, the importance of QA, the value of strong design documentation, and so forth. Above all, Lazarus taught me about the obscene amount of hard work necessary to make a game, which both gave me a greater appreciation for game developers and better prepared me to become one.

Lazarus had a very detailed backstory and fleshed out characters. What was the writing process like for such a complicated game? How did the story change through the game’s development?

It all started with a single statement: “Virtue only has meaning when practiced by people free to walk their own paths.” We believed this to be the central theme to Ultima V, and so we made an effort to weave it into all of our quest design and dialogue writing.

Beyond that, the writing process had many components: first, our lead writer (Mike Hilborn) wrote up an extensive back story document to give depth to Lord Blackthorn’s character, as well as a general style guide for how our dialogue should be written. We had all new writers read those docs, as well as a primer on how to use Ultima’s pseudo-Elizabethan grammar. Then each writer took ownership of one or more geographic regions in the game, and (using examples created by Mike and myself as a guideline) wrote up region profile documents which outlined all the characters and plotlines in each region. Mike and I worked with the writers to refine these docs and make sure all the connections between regions and characters made sense, then the team started working on actually writing and implementing the dialogue for all the NPCs. We did a few rounds of editing and review on each one, and slowly but surely the world filled with cool characters.

As for the story changing, it never really did! The beauty of working on a remake is that your story is pretty much set in stone from the outset. So although every game I’ve worked on professionally has had numerous plot changes during development, Lazarus did not!

My favourite Lazarus NPC was Blackthorn, and Lazarus’ focus on his tragic past and corruption by the Shadowlords. He was a wonderfully non-traditional, multifaceted antagonist. Do you have a favourite character or plot-line?

Glad you liked Blackthorn! I think Mike “New Breed” Hilborn did a spectacular job with him, both in terms of his back story and his actual in-game dialogue.

As for me, I think my favorite plot-line in the game would be the raid on Bordermarch. The idea of having a direct clash between the Resistance and the Oppression was the very first thing that popped into my head when brainstorming for the project, and I always felt it was core to the vision of the game.  John “J the Yellow” Henderson did an excellent job bringing that whole scenario to life, with some great character interactions and an interesting ethical dilemma to touch the whole thing off.

What is the story behind the young ranger in Skara Brae named Hazael, and the somewhat unique means of causing his death?

Ha! Ah, Hazael

So, as you probably know, it’s long been a tradition in the Ultima series to create characters based loosely off of the developers, obviously starting with Richard “Lord British” Garriott himself. Being the narcissistic people we are, we loved this idea and decided to keep it going, haha. Various characters in the game had their portraits based on photos of team members, from Archmage Temme in Farthing to crazy old Sutek.

Hazael’s portrait was based on a photo of me, and his unique means of death was something of a nod to another weird Ultima tradition: most of the Ultimas included some secret method for killing Lord British (who was otherwise invincible), and since on the Lazarus team, I was the loose equivalent of Richard Garriott, we thought it would be fun to do the same with a character based on me.

As for the specifics of how you kill Hazael, well, let’s just say that he and I share the same weaknesses.

Any words of advice for other would-be game developers?

I think the biggest suggestion I’d give is to learn everything you can about every aspect of game development, not just the specific craft (art, programming, etc.) that you want to dive into. A holistic understanding of what it takes to make a game and how all the pieces fit together will make you better at your job, but more importantly, it’ll teach you to better appreciate what your peers do.

As it turns out, art is hard. Programming is hard. Design is hard. Writing is hard. Pretty much every aspect of game development is challenging, despite how it may sometimes appear from the outside, and the best developers I’ve worked with tend to be people who understand this. Putting an effort into understanding the basics of each development discipline will help you to understand and respect your coworkers’ contributions to the project, and ultimately to view game development as what it is: a truly collaborative endeavor where every single piece of the game is important.

Any final thoughts on Lazarus, Ultima, or game development in general?

As for Lazarus, I just want to say THANKS for all the support the fans have shown toward the project over the years! The team and I remain awed and humbled by all the kind things that players have had to say about the game.

As for Ultima and game development in general, I’d say just say that I think a great many exciting things are in store for us in the future. With both old-school RPGs on the rise via Kickstarter and some incredible next-gen AAA RPGs coming down the pipe, this is a great time to be a gamer!