Lord British returns to Ultima

March 11th, 2013 9:02 AM
by
Filed under Game trail;
1 comment.

Kickstarter has been a boon not only for indie developers, but for established game designers looking to return to the virtual worlds upon which their careers were founded. Shadowgate, Space Quest, Wasteland, and Leisure Suit Larry are just a few of the franchises that got their start on the Apple II and are now slated for a well-funded modern resurrection.

But none of these games carry the impact, the longevity, or the fame as the Ultima series. Lord British has heeded the call of the fans and is turning to Kickstarter to return to Britannia.

On Friday, March 6, at 10 AM CST, Richard Garriott joined fellow Austin gaming company Rooster Teeth to host a live announcement:

The punchline was Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, a new computer role-playing game that lacks the Ultima brand that Garriott can no longer claim, but which only his team owns the legacy to.

The announcement didn't need the full hour that the above video runs, but the extra time gave Garriott and hosts Burnie Burns and Gus Sorola time to reflect on how Garriott built this empire. Working in a computer store at the age of 19, Garriott began selling Akalabeth, making twice as much money in one year as his astronaut father. Garriott brought along several artifacts from those early days, including the Apple II Plus on which he developed Akalabeth. Highlights from that interview are in this gallery of screen captures from the above video.

As much fun as the reminiscing was, it wasn't hard to forget that it was a thinly veiled sales pitch. Garriott wants one million of our dollars via Kickstarter:

Donation levels include the $10 "Guilt Pledge" ("If you ever pirated an Ultima game or used an exploit to grief other players in Ultima Online, here's your chance to repent! For your $10 donation, you will receive a clear conscience and Lord British's undying gratitude") to the $10,000 "Lord of the Manor", which comes with one of 12 known copies of Akalabeth. For those of us with humbler wallets, $40 gets you early access (December 2013) to the final game (October 2014), while $125 will also get you a cloth map feelie — just like the old Ultimas!

It's been a long time since I've been a role-playing gamer, and even longer since I've done so on a computer instead of a video game console. Yet I didn't hesitate to fork over my money to Lord British. Some folks may not be sold on this heir to the Ultima empire:

But there's no denying that Garriott has earned a chance to return to his world. As Benj Edwards tweeted:

Wasteland 2's successful Kickstarter

March 22nd, 2012 6:09 PM
by
Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage, Software showcase;
Comments Off on Wasteland 2's successful Kickstarter

Earlier this month, Tim Shafer and Ron Gilbert, the team behind the sequel to the Apple II classic Maniac Mansion, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to create an original adventure game. That they raised $3.3 million on a requested $400,000 is mind-boggling. That's like selling 87,142 tickets to "a Steven Spielberg movie" before the plot, genre, actors, length, or rating have been published or even decided.

Inspired by this success, Brian Fargo, formerly of Interplay and now of inXile Entertainment, promised to launch his own Kickstarter campaign to create a PC sequel to the Apple II game Wasteland, which already has its own spiritual successor with the Fallout series. True to his word, the same day Schafer closed his project, Fargo launched his. And like Schafer, Fargo's video offers a humorous demonstration of the challenges faced by retro game designers in the modern publishing environment.

Success was swift: within two days, Fargo met his $800,000 goal. At the time of this writing and with 25 days to go, the project has earned $1,493,522; just $6,478 more, and the development team will add Mac and Linux editions.

But why stop there when you could get even more money? As Schafer discovered, Kickstarter processes pledges via Amazon Payments, which may not be very friendly to international customers or those without credit cards. inXile has created an elegant solution: now that the project has met its goal and pledges are guaranteed to be converted to charges, customers can skip the grace period and hand over their money directly via PayPal.

Just $15 will get you your copy, with additional exclusive rewards all the way up to $10,000. I haven't forked over my money yet, and it's a bit frustrating to do so when there are plenty of indie developers on Kickstarter trying to make a career like the one Fargo already has behind him. Still, how can we not support furthering the Apple II's legacy? Kickstarter offers a reminder feature that will send you an email 48 hours before the project's closure, so if you're unsure, you have time to think it over. Chances are I'll find a spare $15 necessary to guarantee my copy of Wasteland 2 when it ships in October 2013.

UPDATE (Mar 22): Fargo has created the "Kicking It Forward" campaign, in which developers promise to put 5% of profits from their successful Kickstarter projects toward other people's Kickstarter projects. How cool is that?

Wizardry comes to iOS

November 7th, 2011 12:14 PM
by
Filed under Software showcase;
3 comments.

Back in March, I wrote that Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls, a new entry in the classic RPG series, was coming exclusively to the PlayStation 3's PlayStation Network (or the PS3 PSN). But in this age of multiple gaming platforms, it is rarely economically feasible to dedicate one's product to a single audience. It therefore is only mildly surprising that Wizardry is now available for iOS (though, oddly enough, not optimized for iPad). Behold the opening sequence and 15 minutes of gameplay:

The game, released on November 3, is a free download, but the press release states a caveat: "While players will initially be able to level their characters up to level five and explore the entire first floor of the 'Dungeon of Trials,' brave adventurers who want to dig deeper into the depths of Labyrinth of Lost Souls will be able to unlock the full Wizardry experience for $9.99 via In-App Purchase."

A bit too expensive for you? Then kick it old school for just $1.99 with Akalabeth, an iOS version of the precursor to Ultima. Though not the same series as Wizardry, they share a common history as predominantly first-person RPGs. Or go the free route on classic hardware with similar to Silvern Castle for the Apple II. Sounds like the best of all fantasy worlds to me.

(Hat tip to Eli Milchman)

The history and future of Wizardry

March 24th, 2011 5:08 PM
by
Filed under History, Software showcase;
Comments Off on The history and future of Wizardry

The Magic Candle is one of my all-time favorite role-playing games — though on the computer platform, it doesn't have much competition for that title: I honestly can't recall any other RPG I've played for the Apple II or Mac. All other games in that genre were either console exclusives, such as Final Fantasy, or ports from the computer, like Ultima.

One such port was Wizardry, which you wouldn't think would work on a two-button controller, but with no basis for comparison, I enjoyed the Nintendo version just fine. There was little the interface could do to strengthen or soften what was already a punishing experience. As Wizardry's adventurers explored the labyrinthine dungeon of despair from a first-person perspective, developer Sir-Tech made sure they encountered wave after wave of more powerful foes. It was only by playing it safe, not venturing far past the dungeon entrance, and fighting only minor foes before escaping to the safety of camp — a process eventually known as "grinding" that players could slowly prepare themselves to pursue more tempting treasures.

At the dawn of electronic entertainment, "challenge" and "gameplay" were practically interchangeable, so for the reasons above, I found myself drawn to Wizardry. Unlike with the more narrative Final Fantasy, I was not locked to a specific party but could design my own, encouraging endless experimentation. In fact, by some fluke, the very first character I ever rolled up was given enough discretionary building points that I could've created a ninja, right off the bat. But I'd never played the game before and didn't know what a high number I'd rolled; I must've hit "reset" to see if I could do better, as I never did get that ninja.

Bitmob recently published a history of Wizardry, detailing its origins, successes, and anime adaptations (the game was even bigger in Japan than in the USA). The article ends with the series' ultimate demise in North America — or ultimate, up until recently. Announced yesterday was the return of this franchise for a new generation of gamers, marking the first Wizardry title in a decade. But unlike with the series debut, where players could choose between the console or computer versions, this time, there is no choice: Labyrinth of Lost Souls will be exclusive to the PlayStation Network, an online "app store" for the Sony PlayStation 3 video game console. If that weren't change enough, the game will have a distinct Eastern flair, as seen in this screenshot of the character creation process.

Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls

Photo courtesy RPGFan

It's too soon to tell how this spring 2011 release will be received, and whether it'll be too modern for retrogamers or too hard for PS3 players. In the meantime, if you'd rather return to the age of classic Wizardry, I highly recommend Jeff Fink's Silvern Castle. This ridiculously comprehensive RPG offers everything Wizardry did on the Apple II and more, all while running from Applesoft BASIC on any 8- or 16-bit Apple II.

The Magic Candle

February 24th, 2011 10:16 AM
by
Filed under Game trail, Software showcase;
3 comments.

I grew up with both an Apple II and a Nintendo, and both captivated me with their games. Although over time, I grew to become primarily a console gamer, there are some genres that computers are inherently superior for, such as role-playing games.

Perhaps that's why, two decades later, after having played a dozen Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games on Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and PlayStation, one of my favorite RPGs of all time is The Magic Candle, for the Apple II.

When I first played The Magic Candle sometime after its 1989 release, I was overwhelmed by its scope and complexity. Dragon Warrior on the NES, which I once rented for three weeks straight, had only two buttons and simplistic menus by which to guide a lone hero through a series of one-on-one battles in his linear exploration of the land of Alefgard. By contrast, The Magic Candle used the full keyboard and a large party of adventurers, and the manual suggested five directions from which to strike out from the first town. I was utterly dismayed, but I stuck with it — I'd spent my birthday money on this game, and I was not going to let that investment go to waste!

I'm glad I persisted, as the adventure that followed was one of the most diverse and rewarding experiences I've ever had. The balance between freedom and necessity was unparalleled: Parties could be divided, with some members taking jobs to earn money or apprenticing themselves to earn valuable skills. Citizens would not talk to you unless you had sufficient charisma or were of a particular race. Time passed realistically, with towns having day and night sequences, during which certain taverns or people would present themselves. Weapons wore down, and warriors got hungry.

I could continue to wax whimsical about this grand journey, but my musings would be based on decades-old memories. A fresher and more accurate perspective is provided by JJ Sonick, who has thus far blogged a twopart tour as he rediscovers this game for himself.

Alas, the story of The Magic Candle on the Apple II ends with its first chapter. The end of the game let players save their characters to be imported into the sequel, The Magic Candle II: The Four and Forty, which came out three years later, though seemingly not for the Apple II.

More disappointing is the current lack of availability of the original game: a search on eBay for a used copy produces no hits. Around 15 years ago, I called Interplay, the then-employer of the game's creator, Ali N. Atabek, to ask about reclassifying his work as a Lost Classic, but I never got through. I'm hopeful that someday, someone will be able to legally publish this classic game for all to enjoy.

Academic Ultima

October 7th, 2010 12:20 PM
by
Filed under Game trail, Musings, Software showcase;
7 comments.

Before my current job at Computerworld, I taught 11th grade tech writing at a math and science charter school. My fellow teachers had an open door policy that allowed me to observe their classes, and I developed a rapport with the computer science teacher. When an emergency called her away from class one day, she asked me to fill in but left me no lesson plan. Fortunately, I'd already installed both Adventure and VisiCalc for just such an emergency. The resulting lesson in computer history was reported in Juiced.GS, though I never did get the opportunity to explore Adventure with my students.

But other educators have had the opportunity to use electronic entertainment as a learning tool. Besides the use of interactive fiction in a classroom setting, as detailed in Get Lamp, Michael Abbott has taken a more ambitious approach to virtual adventuring by introducing his students to Richard Garriott's seminal role-playing game, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

In his blog, the teacher doesn't outline his learning objectives, other than puzzle-solving and note-taking. I hope his goals were not much loftier than that, because it seems these students disappointed him:

It mostly came down to issues of user-interface, navigation, combat, and a general lack of clarity about what to do and how to do it. … it [wa]sn't much fun for them. They want a radar in the corner of the screen. They want mission logs. They want fun combat. They want an in-game tutorial. They want a game that doesn't feel like so much work.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

That looks like a lot of reading!
Photo courtesy Blake Patterson.

I'm unsure how many of these obstacles were inherent to the game, and how many were symbolic of a generational gap. Today, I often want a game that immerses me within the first five minutes, and which I can put down after ten. That means either simple gameplay (in the case of classics like Pac-Man or Qix) or familiar gameplay (like Dragon Quest VIII, an RPG I played hours on end for a total of 80, but whose mechanics had remained largely unchanged since the franchise's origin in 1986).

I was not always predisposed against learning curves. I grew up playing and enjoying Ultima, but not on the Apple II. I was and am primarily a console gamer, and I played these games' Nintendo adaptations, which vexed me with none of the issues that these students encountered. I wondered how dramatically different the NES version had been that maybe it had eased my entry into Britannia. Sure enough, one blog commenter wrote:

… have you considered giving people the NES port of Ultima IV? It faithfully retains the ethical systems design of Garriott's original while reimagining the visual aesthetics and interface design according to the conventions of JRPGs. It was how I played Ultima IV back in the day, and it's still probably a lot more in line with modern RPG convention than the original PC Ultima IV.

But I'd wager that most alumni of Ultima IV experienced it on the computer, which apparently did not preclude its success, so surely its original interface was not insurmountable. More likely is the change in gaming mores over the decades. In the book Dungeons & Dreamers, authors Brad King and John Borland relate the detail and intricacy with which the developers of Ultima Online imbued their world. Ecology, economy, and more were devised to create a world that lived and breathed along with the players. When it finally launched — the world was shot to hell. Gamers traveled into the countryside, burning trees and killing animals. No plane could long host such chaos, so the developers had to go back to the drawing board. I suspect Mr. Abbott's students would likely have contributed to that headache.

Nonetheless, I hope the blog's conclusion does not spell the end of this exercise: "I love great old games like Ultima IV, but I can no longer assume the game will make its case for greatness all by itself." Just as we have courses in art and music appreciation, it's important to understand and appreciate the origin of Ultima and other video game hallmarks. Today's gaming industry was not born in a vacuum, and just as the bold experiments of yesteryear determined the future of the genre, they still have much to teach today's gamers and programmers about what works, what doesn't, and why things are the way they are. Finding a context in which to teach that lesson is, much like the games themselves, worth the effort.

(Hat tip to Richard Garriott)