The modern massively multiplayer game can trace its roots back a good ways - as far as text-based MUDs and even pen and paper RPGs for the purists out there. But in reality, the MMORPG genre is less than a decade old.
Although there are dissenters who may point to other titles, most agree that the first massively multiplayer online role playing game, the one that set in motion the genre as we know it today, is Ultima Online.
Ultima Online (or UO as it is more commonly known) turned seven this year. Very few games, online or other, can make a similar boast. A loyal player base, a solid community, and a robust economy have contributed to the
longevity as much as anything, but the seven year run is most certainly a testament to the quality of gameplay in UO.
As Britannia begins its eighth year of existence, the development team has released a new expansion. Based on feudal Japanese lore, Ultima Online: Samurai Empire takes the game in a new direction. However, as lead
designer Jonathan LeCraft explains, the expansion's Far Eastern theme melds with the existing game's Western flavor to produce a nice cultural melange. We spoke with Jonathan and he was kind enough to share his thoughts
on UO, the Samurai Empire expansion, and the future of the granddaddy of modern MMORPGs.
Ultima Online recently marked its seventh year. Are you pleased with the current state of the game? Do you see the Ultima Online community growing or staying steady?
Jonathan LeCraft, Electronic Arts:
I am very pleased with what we've accomplished in Samurai Empire and previous expansions and publishes. I can't reveal what our future plans are, but I see our community growing in size
and commitment as we continue development.
With Samurai Empire, Ultima Online will have seen its sixth expansion. Has it been difficult maintaining the original feel and intent of the game through its various growth phases?
Given the breadth and variety of Ultima fiction created by its past titles, we have a lot of flexibility for creating new content with the Ultima feel. That same rich history can make it difficult
as well, because it's important to get the details right. But even with a theme as unique as "Feudal Japan" we've managed to keep the "Ultima" quality of the game intact.
What was the reasoning behind choosing a permutation of feudal Japan as the setting for the newest expansion?
There were a variety of reasons, not the least of which were the hints of Japanese culture already present in the game, like the katana. Going back all the way to Ultima I, the Land of the Feudal
Lords existed and eventually disappeared...
We also did focus tests with many groups of gamers, both Ultima Online players and not, to see what themes and professions resonated best for our next expansion. The Japanese theme was only one of several
possible choices. Overwhelmingly, the Samurai was the most popular, and just felt right as an addition to medieval Europe.
How does the Japanese theme of Samurai Empire mesh with the existing Anglo-centric theme of Ultima Online? Were there any cultural barriers that had to be overcome during development to create a good fit?
We felt the two cultures meshed well from the beginning, and now that they are in the game together, our suspicions are confirmed: it works!
Because we introduced our new content through a rediscovered land mass, we were able to integrate the content naturally. All of the new "theme" originates from a remote group of islands, so items and creatures
introduced to Britannia occur entirely through players - it just feels right that an adventurer would bring back something exotic and mysterious to show off to their fellow players.
The introduction of the Ninja and the Samurai classes is highly anticipated. Will these characters be able to use traditional weapons and armor, or will they be limited to class-specific items (i.e. will Samurai
be allowed to wield a rapier in addition to a samurai sword)?
In the UO tradition, you are only limited by your imagination when it comes to creating characters. Only Samurai and Ninja can take full advantage of the new weapons, like the No-Dachi, but they are able to use
any other kind of armor or weapon.
One of my favorite characters is the Ronin Vampire. By combining Necromancy and Bushido, you can become one seriously evil killing machine.
Samurai Empire introduces a new virtue, that of Honor. How will the new virtue enhance the new classes and how will it affect those existing?
The Honor virtue is meant to embrace the riskiest form of melee combat, where you engage your enemy in close quarters. Only in this situation are you both able to use every attack at your disposal,
and as such is considered honorable combat. Many players already fight this way, and they can now be rewarded for their decisions. Any character can use the Honor virtue, although some can take advantage
of it more than others.
What sort of impact will the new expansion have on rares within the game? Will players see new rares? Will some existing rares be negated?
The new rares will be hot as players rush in to scoop them up. Of course, as more of them enter the world, their value diminishes. The upside is that more people will find them affordable in the long
run, and can use them to decorate their houses or add to their collections. No existing rares will become negated, but they won't look as shiny compared to the new ones.
Are there other cultures that may get an Ultima Online treatment in time, such as Norse folklore or Central American mythology?
We would definitely like to do more cultural expansions, especially if they make sense and appeal to our player base.
What do you see as the future of Ultima Online? Will Britannia see further game expansions?
We see Ultima Online continuing to introduce and enhance features that make it unique among games of its genre, while respecting the
investment of our longstanding community. You will most definitely see expansions for Ultima Online in the future.
There have been two sequels to Ultima Online that have been canceled in production over the past few years. Will players ever see an Ultima Online 2 (for lack of a better name)?
We've already begun work on the next major product for UO. You could say that Samurai Empire was just a warm up for the new team (we just moved from Texas to EA's headquarters in
California.) This is one of the finest teams I've had the pleasure of working with during my four and a half years on UO - I'm already looking forward to what I know we'll accomplish.
We would like to thank Jonathan for taking the time to answer our questions and give us his take on Ultima Online: Samurai Empire. For more information on this new expansion to Ultima Online, visit the
official UO site at http://www.uo.com.