Ultima is one of those franchises that is incredibly near and dear to many gamers' hearts. Created by Richard Garriott back in 1980, the series has spawned over ten games in its 30 year lifespan. The latest of which, a browser-based strategy game called Lord of Ultima, isn't exactly what players have come to expect from the intellectual property. Noted blogger Tobold has called the game the final nail in the coffin of the series, but I'm not so sure. With striking similarities to another cult favorite (Travian), Lord of Ultima may be the closest thing fans of the Ultima series get to a sequel for years to come. Or if they're lucky, maybe the browser-based game is just the tip of a larger and more exciting iceberg.
Free to play and powered by the inevitable presence of RMT in such offerings, Lord of Ultima places you as the leader of a tiny walled village (which you can rename at will) and sets you out to build your town and plunder those of the other players. Fans of the aforementioned Travian are probably already raising an eyebrow at this description, as it is so very much akin to the award winning pioneer. Like in so many strategy games of this nature, you collect resources, build your army, and level up each and every building you have plotted out through the expenditure of said resources.
Where does money come in? Unlike Travian, Lord of Ultima doesn't seem to receive any funding from web banner ads, and instead EA is looking to gain any revenue from the purchase of in-game items. Being that the most important action a player can take in the game is the queuing of different buildings, troops, and things of that nature, it only makes sense for EA to provide a rather small queue for free and charge for the ability to increase the size of this queue. The short six-at-a-time queue leaves players with long stretches of time where they're not working on anything in their village, and thus the attraction to paying for a longer queue becomes hard to resist.
There are monthly plans which allow up to sixteen actions to be queued at once, and being that the game focuses on the competition between players, increasing your queue size becomes almost a necessity. And since the size of your army is directly proportional to your success in attacking other players' cities, you'll also soon find yourself wishing to increase the size of your army build queue... which is separate from your other queue. See where I'm heading with this? And of course you can also buy actual resources for building directly from the shop.
EA receives a lot of flak for their business practices, but one can hardly fault them for trying to make money from the rising success of browser-based gaming. I expect Lord of Ultima to have a Facebook page sooner or later, and make its way to smartphones before long. Admittedly, Lord of Ultima isn't even a bad representation of the Travian gameplay model. It's flawed inherently by the fact that players who have been playing the longest ultimately have the upper hand so that when your village comes out of its seven day initial safe-period, you just might find yourself on the losing end of an uphill battle. But like most time-based and RMT driven browser games it is addictive to a point, has fairly decent production levels, and I'll admit that it's certainly fun attacking and razing other players' villages.
It's just not Ultima.
Lord of Ultima is little more than EA's attempt at leveraging the popularity of a beloved IP to make a quick cash-grab on the coattails of a rising internet trend. And yet the optimist in me sees it as something else: they're acknowledging that they still own the IP. Ultima isn't dead. It's not being buried. Lord of Ultima isn't an MMORPG and it's certainly not a real continuation of the fabled franchise. But it is a sign that Electronic Arts hasn't forgotten about one of PC gaming's most treasured and historical properties.
For that reason and that reason only, I am going to keep playing Lord of Ultima for a little while longer. I may never actually buy anything, and I'm not saying you should either, but I do urge any fan of Ultima to register and play the open beta. Richard Garriott may have moved on and we may never see another title in the series from Lord British himself, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of developers in EA's stable capable of handling the IP and bringing it back to its former glory.
Lord of Ultima isn't nearly what we all had hoped would be the continuation of the series. It's a spinoff product and likely an experiment by EA to find how much power the three-decades old IP still carries. If you want to see more Ultima beyond the release of the MMORPG and Ultima IX in 1999, I suggest sucking up your pride and at least registering for an account to be a Lord of Ultima. I almost hate to write this, because I know how bad of a joke it is but...
Play now, my lord.