Ultima IX: Ascension Retrospective Interview

Ultima Codex continues providing good content for fans of the seminal RPG series, this time by offering a fairly lengthy interview with the lead programmer of Ultima IX: Ascension, Bill Randolph. Considering Randolph's role on the title, it should come as no surprise that a good chunk of the interview deals with pretty technical matters, though it doesn't make for a less interesting read (or watch, if you're so inclined). Here's a couple of interesting excerpts:

Over the years, a lot of cut content has come to light about the game; this is actually true of a lot of different Ultimas. But.systems and features that were removed from Ultima 9 during its development. And the assumption has kind of always been that this has been because of.whether it was difficult to implement those things, or there was just not enough time to implement them. To take one example: there's a glitch in the game where I believe it's just after you get rescued from the dungeon Wrong Raven, the pirate lady, gives you your equipment back. But sometimes, your sword.it's actually in her hand; it's equipped on her character model, as though she had an inventory slot there. It was rumoured that there was supposed to be a party system, with inventory management, at one point. Do you recall this feature at all? Was it cut before your time, or was that one of the things that got the axe during your tenure?

BR: Well, I can speak to the party system. I don't know if the inventory glitch you're describing is related to that or not. It's entirely possible; when it comes to that codebase, I will just say that anything could be in there. Anything. In terms of party inventory management, I don't recall there being a specific system for that, so I don't know why she would have had it equipped in her hand; it could have easily just been a bug.

The party system was cut.I remember the meeting we had when that decision was made. And looking back, I regret that; I wish that we had not done that. At the time, we were so overwhelmed with technology and problems, and trying to keep the game moving forward. There were a lot of technical issues with having a party. There was performance having that many NPCs always with you was going to be a performance problem. There was pathfinding we had enormous problems with pathfinding, because our game.it was a free-form 3D world. It was a polygon soup; we didn't have any kind of sorting of, or structural containers or quadtrees to help us sort through the polygon soup. We didn't.I don't think any game at that time had invented the concept of having a walkable surface, which is where you simply flag certain polygons as: (your feet go here!) That would have solved so much, if we had only thought of that. That would have been a huge amount of work to do, but if we had thought of that, that would have solved so much.

So, we just had enormous problems getting NPCs to pathfind, even around their tavern. (Can you walk around this counter and go to this table?) Sometimes they would walk over it; you'd walk into the bar and see the guy standing on top of the bar, and it's like: (what are you doing up there?) And I remember I had an idea for pathfinding for parties, that I threw out there as kind of a joke. And it was just.maybe they can pathfind by just trying their best, and if you lose them, maybe when your camera looks away, and you look back, they'll just be there; we'll just teleport them to be with you. And everyone laughed and.you know what? There were games that shipped way after we did that did that exact thing, you know? Your NPC companions get stuck and then just.boop!.just teleport to you. That's okay! It would have been okay. We just could not solve these problems, and so I think it was Richard who was just kind of on board with.)well, let's just cut the party; we don't really need it.)


UC: We were talking about things that got cut for artistic differences.

BR: Right, conversations.we were so short on time and resource, and we were doing voice acting for the conversations, right? So it was literally.one of the designers would script out a conversation, hand it to the voice acting director, who would get the actor to read the lines in that day. It was that tight of an iteration; there was no time for polish, and no time for iteration. So I think.you can't really say that was a cut feature, but I would identify that what was cut there was polish, and iteration on the conversations. It was sacrificed because of the schedule time.

UC: That's unfortunate. And that's one of the things that has consistently come up in criticisms. I alluded to this when we chatted just recently, but.there's a game reviewer who goes by the handle Spoony, he does really.esoteric game reviews, is the word I'm going to choose to use there. There's a lot of ranting and raving, a lot of emotionally-driven discussions of the titles. And Ultima 9 earned his ire in a very special way, unfortunately; he devoted this three-part video rant to tearing it down some. And one of the things that has unfortunately become popularized as a meme on the Internet is the phrase (What's a paladin?)

He kept hammering that again, and again, and again during the game. And I think it really tied into that. I mean, the line in and of itself.the inclusion of an option, in a conversation, so that a new player who's never played any other Ultima can learn what a paladin was, and get exposed to that part of the lore, shouldn't have been controversial in and of itself. But certainly the dialogue quality left something to be desired.

BR: Yes. Now, the specific line you're referring to, and the property of having introductory material in a game like that.I think it's important to do. And one of the concerns that EA kept re-iterating to use was that the Ultima fanbase was an ever-shrinking fanbase. And they didn't want us to cater only to that fanbase; they wanted us to try and broaden the interest. And Richard was all about that; he was like: (yeah, we want more people to have fun with our game.) And so we were putting in material to introduce people more to the Virtues and the universe and so forth. But you're right: the lack of polish probably emphasized that as something that stuck out. And there were conversations that I really feel fell short, and I know that.especially when you encounter the Companions near the end of the game, they're not treated with the dignity that they should have been.

That was just.we didn't have the time. And that's a shame. We really.every step of the way, on Ultima 9, the next thing we did was what we had to do. It was always driven by: (we have to do this next, we have to do this next.) And we never really got the chance to strategize and go: (let's get our head above water here and see where we're trying to go.) It was always do this or die, do this or die; that was the way the development went.

Spotted on RPG Codex.