The editors over at Ultima Codex managed to corner Ian Frazier of Titan Quest, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and the-next-Mass-Effect-installment fame to conduct a retrospective interview about the first major project that led him into game development, Ultima V: Lazarus. A sampling:
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.
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!
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.