Development History of Ultima IX
The development history of Ultima IX: Ascension spans the years 1994–1999, and is generally categorized by the four distinct iterations through which the title evolved before its final release. These alterations to the course of the game's creation were brought about by a series of events that catalyzed significant changes to its engine and plot, including the sudden prioritization of Ultima Online and a tumultuous senior personnel upheaval that heralded the final eighteen months of development.
Pre-production and Crusader engine
Unlike its later iterations, there are relatively few known details of the initial conceptual outline for Ultima IX, and no prototypes from its first phase of active development have been publicly unveiled. The game's earliest mention appears in Caroline Spector's 1992 interview with series creator Richard Garriott (conducted for Ultima: The Avatar Adventures prior to the release of Ultima VII), in which he indicates it would take place in Britannia. While Ultima VIII was under development in early 1993, Garriott spoke of his intention to ship its sequel in a white, clouded box with a glassy logo, completing the trilogy's minimalist theme established by the stark black packaging of Ultima VII and blazing orange cover art for Ultima VIII (each so designed to form a "wall of color" when displayed on store shelves). It was also during this period that the game's full title began to be publicized.
In its incipient form, the story of Ultima IX was to follow directly from Pagan and chronicle the Avatar's ascension to immortality as the Titan of Ether, such that the Guardian might finally be vanquished. While the official Ultima VIII clue book, Pentology, suggests this was to have unfolded on the conqueror's own homeworld, the series finale had been slated to return to a ravaged Britannia by the time its predecessor's closing sequence was finalized. An early proposal for Ascension's climax included the revelation of the Guardian and Avatar as correlative entities, with Lord British personally joining his champion in the final campaign to eradicate the red conqueror. Yet, deadlocked in a cataclysmic battle and faced with the prospect of Britannia's collateral destruction, the player (as the Avatar) would have been forced to allow themselves to be fatally struck down by the Guardian, in turn causing the villain's own demise. In this version of events, however, Britannia's king would have then resurrected the fallen Avatar, reverting the hero to an ordinary, powerless mortal and thus bringing the entire series full circle.
The game's earliest design sought to expand upon the Avatar's capacity to jump and climb in Pagan by allowing for other such abilities as swimming, crawling, and swinging. However, with Ultima VIII eliciting a significant number of customer complaints, Origin was prompted to amend its sequel's direction and instead elected to reprise the design formulae of Ultima IV to VII. In the FANS.TXT file included with the final patch for Ultima VIII, Richard Garriott would later write, "The design of Ultima IX (which is still in progress) relies heavily on this feedback and has resulted in a dramatic turnaround back toward classic role playing. Even better, it has resulted in a classic Britannian Ultima."
The Ultima creator also spoke to this effect when interviewed by Julian Schoffel in 1994:
- "To my mind there really were some issues with Ultima VIII that I do want to address in Ultima IX. For example when you point to where you want to jump in Ultima IX, he jumps to exactly that location. You will have a set of attributes, like strength and dexterity that dictate how far and how accurately he (the Avatar) can jump. That gets it out of the ‘arcadey-ness’ that was probably an accurate criticism of Ultima VIII and puts it back into what it was really meant to be: a role-playing game."
- "What I am about to tell you is literally days old. In Ultima IX it's the end of the Guardian, not only that but it's also the end of this whole Avatar business we've been going on about, so Ultima IX is actually the conclusion of Ultimas I through to IX. Ultima X will be a completely fresh start and probably won't even be called Ultima X."
- "In many ways Ultima IX tears down the Avatar philosophy. After going through the gate at the end of Ultima VIII you are in fact back in Britannia, obviously things have changed significantly while you were away and you eventually discover that you and the Guardian are cosmically related. Don't forget that this is the end of Ultima as we know it, so something very profound happens at the end of Ultima IX..."
As most of the Ultima VIII development team had transitioned to Origin's sci-fi action game, Crusader: No Remorse, Ascension began production with the minimal group that remained: director and lead programmer Mike McShaffry; artist Denis Loubet; and writer-designer John Watson. Programmer Jason Ely was also an early participant in the design process, but soon joined his other colleagues on Crusader. Initially developed in parallel, the two games shared a close working relationship between their respective teams, as well as a common codebase. This engine was itself a refined and enhanced derivative of Ultima VIII's, counting a 640×480 Super VGA display resolution among its improvements, and would continue to be iterated upon for Ultima IX until its eventual release. Throughout this period, the ninth chapter in the series featured a world layout akin to Ultima IV and Ultima V, reviving their dual-scale map systems to distinguish the broadly ranged overworld from more intimately explorable cities and dungeons.
After several months on this course, by late 1994 the Ultima IX team desired to expand the project's scope beyond the capabilities of its current engine and, with Richard Garriott taking a more influential role in proceedings, its form was fundamentally overhauled.
Bob White and isometric 3-D
To spearhead the game's new direction and lend it momentum, Richard Garriott brought on-board a childhood friend, Bob White, to assume the position of lead designer. While the setting remained a Britannia invaded by the Guardian during the Avatar's absence, the first draft of a comprehensive plot treatment—in which the Columns appear and a populace on the brink of civil war must be united against their conqueror—was collaborated upon by Garriott, John Watson, and Brian Martin, the three of whom had previously worked together designing Ultima VII and Ultima VIII. White, along with Chuck Zoch, joined this trio of writers to assist with revisions and polishing, and the story was tested in advance of implementation by members of the group playing it through as a tabletop role-playing game.
The two-dimensional, bitmapped graphics engine of Ultima IX also received a major alteration to instead display software-rendered, three-dimensional polygons. With its camera locked in an overhead viewpoint, the game world—four times the size of Ultima VII and comprised of 256×256 screens —was displayed via parallel projection. In addition to preserving the isometric view of Ultima VIII, bypassing true perspective calculation in a 3D environment was also less computationally taxing and allowed for a smoother frame rate. Unlike its predecessors, however, the camera could be freely rotated about its vertical axis and zoomed in or out (much like another Electronic Arts game of the era, Syndicate Wars); while it was at the behest of Richard Garriott that the design of Ascension return to the seamless, single-scale world previously seen in Ultima VI and Ultima VII, he nevertheless indicated this variable zoom level could simulate multiple scales for conversations, towns, and wilderness travel.
The revised game allowed for a party system and pre-rendered cutscenes, as well as a skill system through which the player could develop proficiency—and certain niches of specialty—in up to twenty abilities, such as magic and swordplay. Although the plot treatment called for various companions to accompany the Avatar, this soon became problematic, as the engine's performance was found to struggle when rendering multiple on-screen characters.
Richard Garriott had marginally revised his previous box art design by early 1996, and now planned for Ascension's cover to depict a blue, lightly clouded sky. At this time, the first glimpses of concept sketches and preliminary cutscenes for Ultima IX began to surface through various magazines; in the following months, screenshots of the gameplay itself became public, with Garriott previewing the title to the gaming press in May at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), as well as Origin's own offices.
It was considered for a time to port the game to the Sony Playstation console, with several Sony-related magazines even featuring previews.
By September, dialogue recording sessions for major characters were completed at Magnolia Studios in Burbank, California. The cast included Kay Kuter as Lord British, Keith Szarabajka as the Avatar, Clive Revill as Iolo, Maurice LaMarche as Shamino, Cree Summer as Raven, Scott Bullock as Samhayne, Scott Cleverdon as Lord Blackthorn, and Michael Dorn as the Guardian. Owing to later recasting, none of these performances would appear in the final release.
Ultima IX had progressed to a relatively advanced state before Ultima Online drew an unexpectedly popular public response to its alpha test. Seizing upon this burgeoning opportunity with an influx of extra resources to hasten its completion, Electronic Arts had Origin transfer the entire Ascension team to the groundbreaking MMORPG in December 1996. The cardinal Ultima was on the verge of its own alpha phase at this time, with the world map approximately 80% complete—albeit in need of fine-tuning—and many fundamental game systems, such as conversations, inventory, and combat, either fully implemented or in the process of such. Nevertheless, the integrated team was able to push Ultima Online to release less than nine months later; Ultima IX was largely neglected throughout this effort as a consequence, and with tensions over the reassignment mounting, it eventuated that many of its original team members either did not return to the project or left Origin entirely.
By mid-1997, the game had been effectively canceled, lacking both a functioning team and corporate support from Electronic Arts. During the shift to Ultima Online, however, Mike McShaffry secretly experimented at his home with porting Ultima IX to 3dfx Interactive's hardware-accelerated Glide API and, upon a demonstration of the considerable increase in performance this facilitated, Origin was inspired to resume development with an exclusively hardware-rendered engine.
Ed Del Castillo's Ultima: Ascension
The conversion to Glide opened avenues for experimentation with new camera angles, and a trailing third-person point of view was settled upon to foster a more immersive gaming experience. While many at Origin were excited by this, several team members—including lead designer Bob White—lobbied unsuccessfully to retain the bird's-eye perspective used previously, fearing contemporary computing power would not be sufficient to viably accommodate the game in its new form.
On the heels of this development, it was decided that Mike McShaffry would not continue with the project, and Westwood Studios programmer Bill Randolph was hired to oversee coding responsibilities in his stead. Upon joining, Randolph recommended his former Westwood colleague, designer Ed Del Castillo (Command & Conquer) be appointed as the project's producer, and the rest of the team was rebuilt with new hires. Electronic Arts encouraged this renewed crew to do their utmost to deliver an exceptional finale to the series, for which they planned accordingly.
Unable to overcome technical challenges with performance and pathfinding for non-playable characters (NPCs), it was resolved to omit the party system from the game and instead reprise the solitary experience of Ultima VIII. To compensate for this, it was intended to provide the player with opportunities to take control of other characters as required, such as Shamino, Raven, and even Lord British; this gameplay mechanic was also ultimately scrapped, however, out of concern that it could disorient the player. Space requirements demanded by the game's voice acting and pre-rendered cutscenes also necessitated that the option to play as a female Avatar could not be realized.
For a time, there was pressure from Origin's marketing department and corporate executives to implement multiplayer support, which was flatly rejected by Garriott and Del Castillo.
The story of the game was amended further by Del Castillo but remained largely similar to its previous version, albeit with modifications to accommodate the lack of a party and the short-lived ability to inhabit other characters. Perhaps the most significant change came to the plot's penultimate moments, which forwent Britannia's immolation by way of a desperate casting of Armageddon–present throughout Bob White's revisions–in favor of a conclusion resembling the first and final iterations of the storyline, in which the Avatar instead sacrifices himself to destroy the Guardian.
February 1998 saw the first previews of the game's new visuals appear to the public, as well as a simplified title: Ultima: Ascension. In the following months, statements given by Del Castillo indicated a shift in emphasis toward action-oriented gameplay and visual impact, at odds with the return to classic Ultima hallmarks championed in previous years. Substantiating this in late April was the sudden and vocal departure from Origin of two Ascension designers, Marshall Andrews and Dan Rubenfield, who alleged and denounced a conscious move by the company to abandon Ultima traditions in favor of garnering mass market appeal and profit; Richard Garriott countered this in response, claiming rather the duo's resignations eventuated from their reluctance to adopt his design ethic. Three weeks later, lead designer Bob White followed Rubenfield and Andrews to Ion Storm, albeit on more amicable terms.
Upon the game's first public demonstration at E3 in late May, suggestions of an increasingly mainstream focus continued to be fueled by various reports from the show floor, as well as a modernized teaser trailer—predominantly a showcase of special effects and frenetic combat scenes set to heavy metal music—briefly made available by Origin during the event. Furthermore, concurrent promotional material debuted a logo radically different from previous installments, and an official press release rebranded the title as "an action-adventure game set in the Ultima universe." Concerns over this dramatic change of direction were expressed to the point that Del Castillo was moved to appeal for the fanbase's support.
The unfolding controversy ultimately came to a head in July when Ed Del Castillo—already a contentious figure at Origin—was asked to resign, an outcome publicly attributed to philosophical differences. Garriott would later clarify that he felt Del Castillo, although a capable designer, lacked a deeper understanding of the Ultima series required to deliver a worthy entry.
Faced with a leadership vacuum, Richard Garriott himself took charge of development in his first director's role since Ultima VII. Remaining designer Seth Mendelsohn was promoted to the vacant lead position, and the two embarked on a broadly simplified rewrite of Ultima IX's storyline, shifting its primary focus to restoring the desecrated Virtues and downplaying the war against the Guardian. Garriott also called for Britannia's surface area to be downsized for ease of building and playability, and legacy assets created for earlier drafts of the plot were made to cohere with its recent overhaul; this would require that certain gameplay areas and cutscenes be used in contexts for which they were not originally intended. Of symbolical note, the numerical IX suffix was returned to the game's official title.
As well, another major code rewrite was undertaken throughout the latter half of 1998, remaining markedly defective when the build was due for a progress demonstration to Electronic Arts in November. Balking at its lackluster performance, the corporation issued an immediate cancelation before being persuaded by Garriott to relent. Nevertheless, while having previously pledged its full backing to ensure the greatest possible result, Electronic Arts significantly reduced the troubled project's budget and available resources, and, eager to prioritize work on Ultima Online 2, mandated a release by Christmas 1999.
Adapting Ascension's design specification to this suddenly austere financing and time frame saw the removal of several features, including traditional NPC schedules—beset by pathfinding problems as well as impracticable data storage requirements—and the ability of certain NPCs to follow the Avatar for specific quests, which had substituted for a structured party of companions. Time constraints also prevented character dialogue from undergoing a rigorous editorial process, such that lines would be recorded by their respective voice actors within hours of being written.
Exacerbating its predicament, Ultima IX was also ill-prepared for a GPU market that had evolved considerably from its infancy, with 3dfx no longer dominating and cards supporting Direct3D—particularly Nvidia's Riva TNT—gaining widespread adoption. While the game was optimized to run on 3dfx's Voodoo boards under the Glide API, it suffered from debilitating performance issues with Direct3D.
Although a grueling last-ditch effort was pursued to rectify this and the game's other remaining glitches—extending to 24-hour work cycles in some cases—the development team's deadline expired and Ultima IX was shipped in suboptimal condition. The series' final installment drew frequent and pointed criticism for its technical state at retail, and in the months following its late-November release, Origin concluded development by issuing a series of patches that improved Direct3D support and addressed many other glaring software bugs.
Isometric Engine (1995–1997)
Del Castillo Version (1997–1998)
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- Early Ultima IX design documents, circa May 1995
- Vested Interest Productions, 1995-96 (Showcase of several Origin games, including Ultima IX)
- Richard Garriott presents Ultima IX at E3, May 1996
- PC Games previews Ultima IX, May 1996 (German narration)
- "Bob White plot" ending video, dated January 19, 1998
- A shortened overview of development at Hacki's Ultima Page
- A gallery of pictures from old Ultima IX versions