Ultima VIII: The Lost Vale/Arthurian Legends RPG Interview

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.
GB: Let's switch gears to the Arthurian legend RPG. Based on what we could dig up, it's unclear as to whether or not it was supposed to be an Ultima game. Did ORIGIN have the intention of creating more games in the "Worlds of Ultima" series? Or was there just an idea for an independent Arthurian RPG? In essence, how did the game evolve into and out of the "Worlds of Ultima" spin-off series?

Sheri: The most interesting thing about Arthurian Legends is it was a completely employee driven idea. It was the brainchild of Brian Martin, a designer on several of the Ultimas and a major player in the Brittania Manor haunted houses. He came up with the initial idea and sold it (upstairs) as a way to reuse the Ultima engine. He convinced Richard that it could be made with fewer people than a traditional Ultima, faster than a traditional Ultima and that it would be different enough from Ultimas to not compete with them. At the same time it could still draw on the popularity of the (ORIGIN) name.

Although (Worlds of Ultima) was mentioned a time or two in the early phases of the game, I don't think it was ever intended to be a (Worlds of Ultima.) It was always an independent, stand-alone, idea.

GB: If "Worlds of Ultima" was meant to be a continuing thing, were there any ideas (even vague one-sentence descriptions) for installments after Arthurian Legends?

Sheri: Actually, Worlds of Ultima was kind of dead by the time Arthurian Legends was dreamt up. Savage Empire and Martian Dreams had not done what they wanted them to and so that was where that ended. The Arthurian title, it was never considered to be of that line, and there was never even a whisper of doing more than one. Heck, we were just holding our breath every day hoping we could get the first one done!

GB: As the Arthurian title was to use the Ultima engine, would it have been a party-based game with an isometric or top-down viewpoint? What can you tell us about how the interface was coming along, how navigation throughout the game was accomplished, and how the viewpoint shifted when traveling between overland and subterranean areas?

Sheri: It was a traditional isometric Ultima style game. There wasn't any difference between viewpoint in overland or subterranean. The navigation worked just like U7, as did the mapping. The fun was that the maps were actually of ancient England!

GB: You've previously stated that "it was to be set in the world of King Arthur, the REAL King Arthur legends, not the Disney 'Sword in the Stone' legends". You go on to reference the medieval romances of DeTroyes and Malory. Can you elaborate on these statements?

Sheri: I guess by this I meant that it was not candy coated. There were not always happy endings and we didn't whitewash any of the legends. For instance, in true Ultima fashion, you did encounter a giant cannibal who had been preying on the local children. You could kill the giant, but you could not save the children.

GB: DeTroyes definitely marks the shift of Arthur from a Celtic legend to a Romance one and that strain became increasingly Christianized, for example in the search for the Holy Grail. While Ultima is well-known for making moral and spiritual statements, it did so without invoking well-known religions. Real-world religion seems to be something of a taboo for Western developers. How was the search for the Holy Grail approached? Would have it been included, and if so, how would it have been represented?

Sheri: We actually did not involve the search for the Grail. Instead we concentrated on all the other legends. We thought the search for the Grail had been played out, entertainment-wise. We wanted to reach beyond that; to show that there were more to the tales of the Knights of the Round Table than the Grail quest or Excalibur in the stone.

And, I think, that was probably our underlying story. The legends were not all happy, but if you hold true to your quest, you will win in the end. It just may not be the victory you intended.

GB: You've also previously mentioned Melora. Her story comes from an Irish source, correct? Some presentations of Arthur involve a struggle between the old way of paganism and the spread of the Church. Was this going to play a part in the story or was religion going to be studiously avoided?

Sheri: Melora was a (must have) for me, because she was a female knight. Even back then I was big on making sure our female players had something they could relate to. In fact, it was on this project that I began my infamous question of (but what if the player is female?)

As for religion, interestingly enough we really didn't have much problem dealing with the concepts. As I said above we stayed away from the Grail stories, and not because of the religion, but because those are the most common ones dealt with in modern literature. Instead we dealt with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the cannibal giant, the questing beast and things like that.

GB: If you had to pick any previous or modern adaptation of Arthur (book, film, play, etc.), what was closest to the spirit you were trying to capture in the RPG?

Sheri: The movie Excalibur was one we talked about a lot when we were designing... and if you talked to my partner in this, Brian Martin, who was a medieval scholar and very active member of the SCA, he would tell you Malory WAS a modern adaptation!

GB: You stated that the main character would be trying to put Camelot back together and you would help the various knights with their quests. How did the team approach the challenge of injecting a new character into the story of any particular knight? Did you try to organically change the story to fit another participant?

Sheri: So, when this project started, it was just going to be a Knights of the Round Table game. The initial idea was the player would be presented with a round table around which were seated the knights. You selected a Knight and then you played that Knight's story.

(But what if the player is female?) I asked. I knew there were almost no female knights and I knew that I wanted to play female characters. So I pushed very hard for, rather than playing Sir Gawain or Sir Lancelot, the player would be their own avatar on a quest of their own and would be involved with the knights along the way.

This would do two things 1. It would allow minorities to play the character that they wanted and 2. It allowed us to build our own story, rather than play stories that had known endings.

After many long hard battles, this was the way we did finally agreed to do it. As a player you were trying to solve the big mystery of finding Arthur and bringing peace back to Camelot and along the way you would encounter the various knights and would help them on their own quests.

For instance, you would encounter Sir Pellinore who was, of course, on his own quest to slay the questing beast. However when you encounter him, you find that he has been blinded by an evil enchanter. He obviously cannot continue his quest if he is blind so it is up to the player to find out how to cure his blindness. Once he is cured he tells the player what he knows about the missing King.

GB: What sort of approach were you taking in regard to NPC dialogue, equipment, and character progression? Were there any Ultima games in particular that you were basing a lot of the primary design decisions off of?

We were amping up the use of "thee" and "thou", but we were making sure is was properly done (a pet peeve of Brian and mine was/is the incorrect usage of those word forms).

As for design, no. Other than the fact it was the U7 engine and we were making sure to take every point of that into consideration, there wasn't anything specific we were basing it off of.

GB: We realize it's been quite a few years since you were working on the Arthurian RPG, but are there any examples you can give us in regard to specific quests, items, monsters, or dungeons we would have experienced?

Sheri: Sure. I have the entire design doc. You would have met Sir Gwain and dealt with the Green Knight, you would have dealt with the cannibal giant, Sir Pellinore, and the questing beast. You would have had to deal with Mordred and a maze made of moving thorn hedges, Morgaine, the Lady of the Lake, Sir Melora, Prince Orlando, Sir Gareth, Sir Percival... and many others... it was a fully designed game.

GB: Given your time designing the game, was there anything that stood out as your favorite element prior to its cancellation?

Sheri: I liked that fact that it actually was set in England, we actually were using Arthurian tales and the fact that the design still holds up today!

GB: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Sheri!

Sheri: Thanks for still caring! :)