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Ultima Online Column: Venerable IP Ultima-tely to Fly Again?

By Richard Aihoshi on May 09, 2011

While I’m not certain which massively multiplayer game was the first about which I wrote something that was actually published, the best bet would probably be Ultima Online.  What’s more, since I had gotten into standalone RPGS long before then, my personal connection with the underlying IP began well before that, and is now in its fourth decade.  One consequence of this is that I’m somewhat more prone than usual to perk up whenever a rumor arises about the possibility of a new game, which seems to happen around once or twice a year.

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The last one that turned out to have substance was about a free to play title.  Do you know the one I mean?  It has been around for just over a year now, but since it has never seemed to attain much visibility, either before or since launch, I’m never shocked when people aren’t aware of it.  Even a few whom I regard as quite knowledgeable about the MMOG space have been unable to answer correctly without additional hints, so give yourself a little pat on the back if you knew I was referring to Lord of Ultima.

I’ll state right up front that I haven’t played it at all.  This isn’t attributable to a single cause.  Frankly, one factor is that it’s a strategy MMOG, which just doesn’t fully fit with my long-standing association of Ultima with its canonical genre, role-playing.  The idea of a city-building game simply doesn’t feel like natural alongside my image of the franchise.  But that alone hasn’t deterred me.  As a simplification, it has been more the case of always having something else that was a higher priority to check out.  In addition, both the small amount of feedback that came my way and the few reviews I’ve found have been positive but not gushing.

Perhaps I’ll still get around to it.  There are certainly reasons to keep it on my list of possibles.  A key one is that it comes from a known developer.  Before becoming part of EA a few years ago, Phenomic created the interesting SpellForce series of strategy games with RPG elements.  I played both of the full games, and rather enjoyed them.   Prior to that, the studio’s principal, Volker Wertich, was behind the successful Settlers property.  If it happens that I do decide to take a city- or empire-building MMOG for a spin any time soon, Lord of Ultima is still in the running.

In any case, a rumor came my way recently that has me hoping it will prove substantially accurate.  It’s that a new Ultima MMORPG is under consideration.  Unfortunately, since I don’t know the original source, I can’t begin to assign this possibility a level of credibility.  But would I like to see it happen?  You bet.

What’s more, a couple of scenarios spring to mind that don’t immediately seem outside the realm of possibility.  One is that Phenomic, now that it has dipped its toe into Sosarian waters, will shift genres.  This wouldn’t be a completely blind leap since SpellForce did incorporate some RPG-like elements, albeit they were on the light side.  If parent EA is leaning toward F2P, the studio’s experience in that area also includes a card-based strategy release, BattleForge.

And did I mention potential accessibility for a wider audience?  EA has been looking toward non-core gamers for years now, witness acquisitions such as Pogo and Playfish.  Lord of Ultima just happens to be browser-based, so the team also already has a technology base to build on.  The IP may have little or no meaning for such an audience, but it wouldn’t be a liability either.  It might even stir the memories of old-time players whose lifestyles have changed over the years, and who are now casual gamers rather than the hardcores they were a decade or two ago.

So, that’s my best guess as to the nature of a project I have no solid reason to believe is in the works, but that I’d very much like to see.  For what it’s worth, the same goes for a new single-player canonical RPG, Ultima X.  I believe that EA has thought about making it more than once since Ascension shipped, and have even heard some seemingly credible opinions as to why it never came to fruition.

One possible factor mentioned multiple times was not wanting to use an outside developer.  That was before BioWare became an in-house studio.  And coincidentally enough, that division has a second location where a sizable team is currently working to get an MMOG out the door.  Will that game still need as many people after it launches?  Or will there be a large pool of staff whose contributions end then or soon after?  So is it just possible that we might see both an RPG and an MMORPG from BioWare?  Admittedly, it seems pretty unlikely.  However, I learned long ago not to rule out longshots automatically since every once in a while, they do come in.

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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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