“We had a lot of fun with the other explosives…” – An Interview with Jason Ely

Ultima Codex: How did you get into the game industry, and how did you end up working in Origin in the first place? How did you end up working on Ultima 8?

Jason Ely: I started programming games when I was an early teen in the 1980s. Ultima was always my inspiration. I actually reversed engineered the Ultima games on the Commodore 64. In fact I fixed a few bugs on the C64 version of Ultima 2 which included reloading your last save point without rebooting and reloading the game. My first serious game project was an Ultima clone and a very sophisticated toolset for map and content generation. I actually sent it as part of my resume to Origin in 1988. I never heard back from them so I decided to contact Lord British himself. After many attempts (about 50 calls/voice mails) he called me back. He told me they were no longer doing C64 games and that I needed to learn DOS, x86 Assembler and C.

Soon after that conversation I joined the Army and was eventually stationed at Ft. Hood Texas, about 60 miles north of Origin’s home base of Austin. I purchased my first PC and began making a modern version of my toolset and game. What I ended up doing was making an engine that used Ultima 6 assets. In fact the game editor could be used to modify the Ultima 6 game world directly. I tried to get Origin to look at my latest work and resume. The programmer manager was the person I needed to talk to, however he didn’t seem too interested. One week he told me he would be out of town so I used that time to go to Origin and in fact tell them I had an interview with him. I ended up having a make-shift interview with an HR person and was able to hand deliver my Resume along with the disk containing my latest work. When the programmer manager returned he finally got me on the phone and looked at my resume and project. Next thing you know I’m invited down to speak with the Ultima 8 development team.

It was very intimidating being in the same room with people whom I considered to be legends ( Mr. Mike McShaffry, Tony Zurovec, Zack Simpson, Herman Miller, Ken Demarest and of course Lord British). I was grilled on a number of topics for some time and did reasonably well. Later in the interview Mr. Mike loaded my “Ultima 6” editor on a PC. Fear exploded in me when he began to laugh. The fear was turned into excitement when he said “I wish we had this when we built Ultima 6!”. So apparently they liked my work.

After the interview I went into an office with Richard where he offered me the position and after my last few weeks in the military I started my dream job at Origin working on Ultima 8 with the most talented programmers, designers, and writers I have ever known.

UC: You worked as a programmer and designer on Ultima 8 — which parts of the game in particular did you work on? And is there a character in the game that is based on you?

JE: I started on Ultima 8 when it was already a number of months into development. When I first came onto the U8 project I was put to work on the editor toolset. I then began working on the game’s UI system (Gumps) and was given the title “Gumpy”, which I proudly wore.

Once on the UI system I learned as much about the lower level graphics primitives and other systems of the game. I wanted to be able to take on any task given to me regardless of where in the technology or design it may be. Some of the UI elements I created were container, menu options, equipment/stats and the book gumps. Beyond the UI I also worked on the low level graphics primitives, original movie player, installer, build system and translations. Later in the project I took on some of the responsibilities of Unk, our internal scripting language.

From a designers point, I worked on the end game elemental maps including the final map with the pentagram and dark obelisk. A fun fact that most do not know is that the pentagram platform at the end of the game is actually a scan of an amulet of mine.

Rather more portable than said platform.

Rather more portable than said platform.

As far as I know there is no character in Ultima 8 based on me. However in Crusader: No Remorse there is a Colonel Ely.

UC: Ultima 8 is notorious for having a lot of cut content — Richard Garriott has stated that the game was cut so severely that the cloth map never matched the game world. Do you have any specific recollection of what ended up in the cutting room floor, and what part(s) of your work ended up being cut?

JE: Ultima 8 originally shipped on floppy disks (prior to the speech pack) so we had very limited space for artwork and content. This was the main reason why cuts had to be made.

One example of a cut that we were quite sad about had to do with combat and death animations for all town npcs. In doing this it was no longer possible to fight and kill every townsfolk in the game. It had always been tradition in Ultima to give you the freedom to wreak havoc on a town if you wanted to let out a bit of frustration.

Also, there was one map in particular that we had to cut. It was an underworld map being worked on by Melanie Green. I do not remember the name or how it fit into the storyline, but I do remember it was a cavernous map with deep blue walls.

UC: In spite of its controversies, Ultima 8 was also known for its very dark and mature themes, for its very atmospheric tone and violent world (and, indeed, its depiction of violence too). What led to the decision for U8 to have such a tone, which contrasts strongly with the tone of other games in the series?

JE: I was not present for initial design meetings so I cannot say for certain what the reason was for the change in theme.

UC: On a related note, what led to the incorporation of a more action-based game play style, which was also a significant departure from the style of earlier games in the series?

JE: I’m not sure of the exact reason for going to a more action oriented game play style. I do know that Richard wanted to try something different with this Ultima and appeal to a wider audience. I know the climbing and jumping were inspired from some other adventure games that were in the market at that time. Other than the original jumping mechanics I personally enjoyed the more action oriented play.

UC: Do you know if there ever were plans to have a party in Ultima 8, or was the game always conceived as a solo adventure with the Avatar alone against the World? If the former, what led to the change in design?

JE: I do not believe parties were ever in the plans. I never heard any discussion of it and nowhere in the code does it reflect that parties were ever considered. The game engine was designed to be ‘Avatar-centric’.

UC: Would you have liked to work on another Ultima game?

JE: After Ultima 8 I was offered positions on Ultima 9 and Ultima Online. I really enjoyed working on Ultima 8 a great deal. The only downside to working on a game that you also love to play is that some of the magic and mystery is lost as a developer. You know pretty much every secret and you know how it is going to end. So I guess you can say I enjoy playing them more than making them. I chose to go with Tony Zurovec and start the Crusader series.

Turning down a position on Ultima Online (At the time we called it Multima) was particularly difficult for me. I had created a prototype two-player version of my Ultima clone back in the 80s that worked over a modem. Since then I had thought a great deal about creating a multiplayer RPG.

UC: You wouldn’t have a copy of the Lost Vale laying around, just in case? 😛

JE: Sadly I do not have a copy. I have many versions of Ultima 8 but Lost Vale is not one of them.

UC: While my understanding is that you moved to Crusader after Ultima 8 shipped, you seemed — based on Usenet posts — to have some knowledge about the first iteration of Ultima 9, which was supposedly using the same engine. Do you have specific recollection about the content of this game, what its world and story would be kind? Was this chapter of the series meant to be as arcade-like as Ultima 8?

JE: Originally Ultima 9 and Crusader were using the same code which was a more refined Ultima 8 engine. I was busy upgrading the old U8 engine to support higher resolutions (640×800, 800×600, 1024×768) and trimming off some of the fat. We made sure that the engine worked for both projects, and it did.

A few months into the development John Watson showed me the Britannia map and he was exploring the map with what we called “Tiny tar”. The game was looking like an isometric version of Ultima 3, 4 or 5 where you had a zoomed out version of the world and a smaller avatar. When you came to a town, castle or cave you were teleported to a new map with a normal sized avatar.

At some point they took a very different direction and decided to go with a full 3D game and abandoned the bitmapped version. I am not sure of the reason behind that decision. I have to say I was looking forward to Tinytar.

UC: Who put all those exploding mushrooms behind trees?

JE: I would have to say that many of us are guilty of that. Can you blame us? It is the world of Pagan, a place where you can end up massacring the Children of the Mushrooms.

UC: How much time was spent on modifying the engine versus creating the game content?

JE: The U8 engine was a new engine from the ground up. It was constantly evolving. The programming staff was always working on the engine and tools. The design team was constantly generating content. I’d have to say it was evenly split in time.

UC: Regarding the patch that fixed up the jumping problems: was that done in someone’s spare time or was a team assigned to it?

JE: The original jumping mechanics were a pain. After the original release of Ultima 8 Mr. Mike took up the glorious task of redefining those mechanics. And thank goodness he did. In my opinion even though it is still difficult to gauge perspective in some of the puzzles, the new mechanics reduced the player rage factor by an order of magnitude.

UC: Is there anything you can recall about the crunch-time near the end of Ultima 8‘s development? Any really odd/unusual bugs that drove the team mad?

JE: Crunch time…When I tell stories about Ultima 8 crunch I feel like an old man telling his grandchildren how he’d walk 20 miles in the snow, up-hill both ways to go to school. Crunch was hard but at the same time some of my most memorable times of U8 development.

For me, I was/am a workaholic. My officemate and I purchased a leather couch for our office. I often slept there and would go home only to shower (I lived across the street from Origin).

The most nerve-wrenching thing for me was doing builds. The game took over 30 minutes to build on my 486 build machine. I then had to pack everything onto 8 floppy disks. It was never a fun night when that 7th or 8th disk was bad and we had to restart the floppy loading process.

UC: Is there any particular aspect of the engine or game that you remember being particularly proud of? Is there anything in the game that you’re particularly proud of, or something you put in that people didn’t notice when playing it?

JE: I added the ability to jump on and squish the bugs. I wrote that code when I had a little downtime. I never meant for it to stay in the game.

I liked the endgame elemental plane maps. I enjoyed making them. Two things in particular I had fun with in the end maps were on the Fire and Air maps. I created the scene where you face Pyros on the Fire map he reanimates the two demon statues. In the final Air map I felt like being an evil bastard and wanted to punish those players who were greedy. The floating island with all the visible shiny items in the Air map that collapsed as you jumped on it and causing you to fall to your death, that was me. *sinister laugh*

Two things that I was actually quite surprised that made it into the game were two of my books. When I was developing the Book gump I needed to test single and multi-page books. The first book I wrote was a parody of the Beverly Hillbilly theme song and was based on a demon named Fred. I hid it somewhere in the world in a chest. Sadly I forgot where in the world it is, but it is in the game. I don’t believe anybody ever found that one. The second book was the Book of Cheese. I wrote that while testing multi-page books. I didn’t give any thought to what I was writing. I simply started typing. The final line in the book is “Eat Cheese and Perspire”. That book was originally placed in a chest that was easy to come by early in the game. From what I was told Richard Garriott and John Watson were playing the game and came across it. They thought it would be funny to move it to the Ethereal map behind one of the sinister columns with only a single column of pixels exposed. The Book of Cheese was quickly found.

UC: Can you give us any details about the internal tools that were created in order to make the levels, artwork, animations, etc.?

JE: The game toolset was actually the game itself. The editor was compiled in with the game. So you would run the game in editor mode where you’d see the maps, the artwork, chunks and so on. You could place objects into the game then hit a key and play it from that location. It was very nice.

One very impressive tool that was in the game was Zack Simpson’s Unk debugger. It was an integrated debugger which allowed us to debug scripts at runtime. It looked virtually identical to Borland’s Turbo Debugger that we used for debugging the C++ code. The animation system and editor, designed by Tony Zurovec, was another very impressive tool.

UC: Does somebody have the source code, 3D models, bitmaps, etc.? What happens to all the source files once a game is shipped and the team disperses?

JE: There are some of us who still have archives of the source code and imported art assets. I have no idea if anybody has original models for the creatures

Back then we didn’t have a real standard way of dealing with the source code after a project shipped. Many of us archived the source ourselves. These days, code and assets would be stored, archived and locked in a source control repository such as Git or Perforce. Companies have much better process than they did in the early 90s.

UC: So, why are ALL chests trapped (with explosives), even the empty ones?

JE: The people of Pagan are paranoid and love their stuff. And those were not empty chests; they were filled with extremely rare air from the Lost Vale.

UC: Why are the death disks so tempting to use yet so utterly pointless to pick up?

JE: I cannot say much about the Death Disks. I do know we had a lot of fun with the other explosives, especially while they were in your backpack. John Watson drew the exploding Avatar that you see when you light a Fire Flask or Oil Bomb and were foolish enough to put it into your pack.

UC: Have you ever gone back and played Ultima 8 again?

JE: Yes, I have gone back to play Ultima 8. I have not had the amount of time I’d like to play it more in-depth. My schedule is rather full these days.

UC: Were you aware of the rumored “Ultima 9 preview chest”? Or what the blue vial detailed here was intended to be, if anything?

JE: To my knowledge there was no Ultima 9 preview chest and if there is one I never knew about it. Nobody knew exactly what the theme of Ultima 9 would be during U8 development. We had some ideas and planned some things later on in the project, though they changed when U9 development began.

UC: Who came up with the somewhat weird attack animation?

JE: Denis Loubet created all the animations for the Avatar. You would see him walking through the hallway at work imitating the motions for the Avatar. A few days later you saw those same animation frames ready for import into the game.

UC: Were there more Crusader games planned, provided Origin hadn’t closed down?

JE: There were actually two more Crusader games planned — Crusader: No Mercy and Crusader: No Survivors.

No Mercy would have been the first Crusader to be launched under Windows 95. I was lead programmer on that. The graphics technology was all new and had a beautiful dynamic lighting system. We were also exploring a concept where we would embed 3d information into the bitmaps so we could calculate accurate lighting on 2d objects. Each pixel basically had a 3d point and a normal. A silencer, when lit, would look 3d with specular highlights and shadows and when drawn into another bitmap would have a proper per pixel-Z sort. For the time it was amazing.

No Survivors was a multiplayer only version of Crusader. It was a death-match game that would put up to 8 Silencers into a map and let them blow the heck out of each other. We had a working version with two or three maps. This version was running under a 32bit DOS extender.

UC: It was hinted in Ultima 8 that the Avatar was becoming a new titan of Ether, which in turn led many fans to believe he would have new powers that would help in the final standoff against the Guardian. So at the end of Ultima 8, the Avatar was the powerful, helmeted Titan of Ether…but in Ultima 9 he was some powerless blond dude. Why the disconnect? What was your understanding of how Ultima 8‘s events would affect the rest of the series?

JE: I’m not sure why things changed. But I took part in the Ultima 8 finale brainstorming meetings. The ending for Ultima 8 and start of Ultima 9 began over a crunch dinner. We talked about how U8 would end with activation of the Obelisk and the Avatar passing through and transforming, and ascending. That was the reason he was ended up looking like a Spartan dressed in a white Sun-God Robe.

The Avatar, as in the endgame flic of U8, appears in a hellish fiery land of ruin. To his surprise he sees a large monument of the Guardian. Ultima 9 would have picked up where the player would realize this devastated land was Britannia after the Guardian had conquered it. The endgame of U8 was a cliff hanger moment designed to leave players gasping and hopefully dying to get their hands on the next chapter of this story.

I cannot say why he fell from grace and ended up a weaponless, powerless blonde dude with a much less stylish outfit.

UC: Ultima 8 is a game that leaves you feeling pretty terrible at the end. From the tempest duel to the genocide with the Titan of Fire, from passing the game by stealing the most powerful healing artifact in the world to freeing the destructive Titan of Water…the game has a very different feel than Ultima 7. Did you expect any pushback for this kind of plot?

JE: As with every Ultima, there had always been some level of pushback. From Ultima 7 to Ultima 8 the theme and feel were very different. It wasn’t your shrines and virtues anymore. We did expect more of a pushback than in other Ultima games. We went from a wholesome and virtuous hero to a fiery box with a pentagram on it. There were those who wanted this dark and gritty Avatar and those who wanted the hero that fought so hard in Ultima 4 to become the beacon of hope for a world.

UC: And finally…you’re currently working on an old-school, tile-based MMORPG called Elderlands. Does it draw any inspiration from the Ultima series? Is there anything you’d like to tell the Ultima fandom about the game?

JE: Ultima is the reason I became interested in game development and it is very much an inspiration for Elderlands. I’ve been working on it in my spare time for quite some time now. It is built on my own technology base which includes a custom scripting language and very powerful toolset.

At first glance Ultima fans will see a lot of similarities between Elderlands and Ultima. It looks like Ultima 3 – 5 with fancier graphics.

Albeit the characters are a bit bigger. And probably some of the monsters.

Albeit the characters are a bit bigger. And probably some of the monsters.


More screenshots, from a few months ago.


If you jump into the game you’ll quickly see the game is very different and far more elaborate. We have a very large and ever growing world filled with adventure and intriguing lore. It has game play features one would expect from modern MMOs such as quests, magical items, vicious monsters and dark creepy dungeons to explore. We also have a very hard core pvp system where players can fight in guild vs guild combat for domination over an entire continent.

We, Asylumsoft, are preparing to launch a Kickstarter project to help us bring the game to launch by the end of this year. We recently concluded our open Alpha test with much success and a lot of great feedback from a very dedicated player base. During our Kickstarter project we’ll have a few open play weekends and allow the public into the game and give it a try. I invite all fans of Ultima to join in and see for yourself how we are keeping the spirit of classic Ultima alive.

You can follow the progress of Elderlands on our Facebook page or on Twitter.

UC: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions! I was surprised at just how many questions the Ultima fandom had concerning the game, given its less-than-stellar reception thereby. But, maybe it isn’t such a surprise that a controversial game like Ultima 8 would inspire a lot of inquiry.