Ultima VIII: The Lost Vale/Arthurian Legends RPG Interview

03 Mar 2013

Somewhere in another universe, there are video games that exist alongside movies we have never seen and books we have never read. And while cancellations occur in the world of media all the time, the ambitious projects that do fall under the axe are not always the most deserving of such a fate. Had circumstances been slightly different, they might be sitting on our shelves, installed on our hard drives, and potentially even regarded as a much-loved installment to our favorite genre. Their stories make up a fascinating part of the history of the medium that we usually do not get to see, but they deserve to be told, and we'd like to do our part in preserving these stories so that the world can come to know them.

Sheri Graner Ray worked at ORIGIN Systems throughout the 1990s, and was instrumental to the core concepts and storylines in Ultima VII: Part Two - Serpent Isle, Ultima VIII: Pagan, and other titles at the highly respected company. Two of these other titles were Ultima VIII: The Lost Vale (an expansion pack that was cancelled between the time it went gold and would have been released to manufacturing) and an intriguing Ultima VII engine-powered RPG based on the legend of King Arthur. What follows is a brief interview she granted both I and new GameBanshee editor James Lacey about both titles:


GB: What circumstances led to Ultima VIII: The Lost Vale being cancelled despite the fact that the expansion pack had actually gone gold? While Ultima VIII hadn't met sales expectations, couldn't it have been packaged in the eventual Gold Edition to make that bundle pack more enticing?

Sheri: Honestly, it was directly due to a lack of sales. Back then you couldn't do anything as DLC, it had to have a box and go on a shelf with all the commensurate marketing dollars added to it. It came down to straight numbers. If the same percentage of U8 players bought the add-on as U7 and U7.5 players bought THOSE add-ons, it simply didn't justify the cost of manufacturing and distributing the U8 add on.

Also at that time Ultima 9 was beginning, as was "behind closed doors" discussions for Ultima Online. Crusader was in full production and so was Wing Commander 3 - complete with live action. On top of all that EA was starting to make noise about a cut back in headcount for ORIGIN.

So it's just safe to say the company's attention had already moved on from Ultima 8, which was seen as a less than successful chapter in Ultima history. Thus, there was no enthusiasm for Lost Vale.



GB: How long was the total development time of The Lost Vale, and wasn’t it apparent earlier on that the sales of Ultima VIII might not justify the cost associated with creating an expansion pack? Also, how did the Speech Pack manage to get past such a justification?

Sheri: Lost Vale was in production about three months. It seemed like a lot longer to us but that's because we were all just exhausted after U8, which was 9 full months of crunch time... 12-18 hour days, seven days a week, dinner provided. The last month they let us have Sunday's off so we could do our laundry!

I really don't know about the Speech Pack. The interesting thing about those things was that they were not done by development. They were done by a different department so we had very little influence on them, at least down in the line level. I'm sure our producers were more involved. So I really don't know how that decision got made!


GB: Beyond a purely sales-driven decision, do you feel that there was anything inherently wrong with the add-on that could have played a role in the cancellation decision? How was the expansion pack received internally prior to going gold?

Sheri: I don't think so. It fit within the theme of U8, added to the story, answered some questions and was met with approval from the QA team.


GB: While you've already blogged about the expansion's premise before, can you please summarize a bit of what the add-on would have brought to the U8 table and provide a couple examples of new quests, items, characters, or monsters that we would have encountered?

Sheri: I've pretty much talked about everything I can remember. The "Tiny-tar" spell being the biggest thing [Ed. from her blog: ...to get to the room where the gods were sealed in amber, you had to use the TinyTar spell.. a spell which shrunk the avatar down to a tiny little miniature version of himself. This started as a joke. John Watson figured out how to do it and showed it to us. We all thought it was really funny.. so decided to make it an important part of the plot for Lost Vale.]. Funny how it doesn't seem like much by today's standards, but it was a huge deal for us and really a lot of fun!

The shield would have been nice as well, though.



GB: Long-time Ultima fans certainly had their fair share of complaints toward Ultima VIII, its more action-heavy approach, and its overall scope in comparison to Ultima VII. In your opinion, would The Lost Vale have turned any such complaints around? Was any part of the add-on's design meant to correct perceived design flaws by fans?

Sheri: Nope. It was more to answer questions, with the big one being "what's behind that door?" We focused on the action-y stuff just like U8 – you had to climb the walls to get to the cloud city, and that was completely an action event. And it was really hard too! Because even we had problems with it!


GB: Is it possible that anyone out there still has a gold copy of Ultima VIII: The Lost Vale? With the popularity of digital download services and classic RPGs, wouldn't it be feasible that a working, "as is" copy could be released and even reasonably profitable in today's market?

Sheri: I know that every Ultima fan out there desperately wants there to be a copy of Lost Vale somewhere, but honestly there just isn't. It was in the early days of the ORIGIN/EA merger and ORIGIN still wasn't doing much archiving. Frankly, I don't even think U8 was archived, so there's no way Lost Vale was. It was a small project with a small team, for a project that was kind of... well... a disappointment for the company. Add to that, the fact the company's attention was on the much bigger and brighter Crusader and Wing 3 titles. Plus the looming overhead cuts that were coming. There just wasn’t thought enough of doing an archive.