As Electronic Arts and BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic struggles to find and retain an audience of Jedi and space pirates willing to pay $15 per month for massively multiplayer online adventures, both publisher and studio are also searching for their roots. Are galaxy-spanning melodramas really what MMOs need? Weren’t things better once upon a time? Just as the middle-aged hipster breaks out his cargo shorts, skateboard, and that copy of REM’s Automatic for the People in an attempt to rediscover the simplicity of youth, EA and BioWare are plumbing the online role-playing genre’s past for inspiration. Their next project: Ultima Forever, a free-to-play online action-RPG for iPad and PC.
A remake of Richard Garriot and Origin System’s 1985 classic Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, Ultima Forever is both an attempt to revitalize a seminal but antiquated game as well as cement BioWare and EA’s position in the burgeoning free-to-play market.
The studio creating Ultima Forever actually has a richer history in the online space than BioWare proper. BioWare Mythic, formerly Mythic Entertainment, is making the game. Its resume includes Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning and, most significantly, Dark Age of Camelot, a foundational MMO released in 2001.
BioWare Mythic’s Paul Barnett, on of the key designers on Warhammer, spoke to GameSpot on Thursday about the game. “[Playing Ultima IV] is like reading Chaucer. The controls are deeply inadequate, the graphics are horrible, the input system is byzantine at best,” said the designer.
His team is updating the game in more than just mechanical ways though. The original RPG’s central system was Virtues. The game included eight Virtues which defined class, but in order to succeed in the game, you had to become enlightened in all Virtues and the only way to do that was through your actions in the game. It’s very much in BioWare’s wheelhouse of games about ethical dilemmas. Ultima Forever will transform these virtuous interactions though into something that takes place between players and not non-player characters. “Virtue is how you treat other people, in lots of games that’s how you treat NPCs,” said lead designer Kate Flack, “We want to take that same idea of how you treat other people and then apply it to the players.”
How will free-to-play work in Ultima Forever? BioWare Mythic says most transactions will be for transportation through the world. Pretty tricky way of milking cash money from players looking to squeeze as much game time in as possible.
Ultima Forever will be out later this year.