Dev Diary #001 – The Birth of a New Ultima

In 1999, Ultima IX was released and brought the Ultima series to an end -– and while Electronic Arts has just announced the upcoming Lord of Ultima, it doesn’t seem that they intend to release a new Ultima RPG for the time being. Thankfully, many Ultima fans have tried their best to keep the legacy alive — and while some of these projects died away, others prevailed for our pleasure, and most notably the excellent Ultima V: Lazarus and Ultima VI Project.

One thing I have noticed however is that most Ultima projects (whether alive or dead) have essentially focused on remaking or enhancing the existing games. This is a wonderful endeavor in itself and allows us to experience these classics in a new way — but I’ve always felt that to continue to keep the Ultima legacy alive, it is also important to expend the Ultima world beyond what the nine core games and their spin off have brought us, by crafting new stories and new adventures.

But what is Return to the Serpent Isle, one might ask?

Return to the Serpent Isle is a new Ultima adventure created by fans, and that aims to create a whole new game faithful to everything Ultima ever stood for, while at the same time trying to modernize it. Thus we hope to give to every Ultima and CRPG fans the chance to enjoy a new story in the Ultima universe that is very much tied to “Ultima VII Part Two – The Serpent Isle,” which was released in 1993.

But even before all that, Return to the Serpent Isle is pretty much at the core — a fanboy’s dream.

When Ultima VII Part Two came out in 1993, it was pretty much an unique episode in the Ultima series. While you could trace back its root to the Worlds of Ultima series, it was the first time that a core Ultima game brought the Avatar to a vastly different world from Britannia. It was also admittedly a departure from the traditional Ultima design… with a more linear approach, but at the same time providing one of the most developed and compelling story that Ultima has ever offered. The result was one of the most beloved episodes of the Ultima series — which really happens to be my favorite episode as well.

Unfortunately we never got the chance to revisit the Serpent Isle. Of course it probably wasn’t ever planned as far as Origin was concerned -– but while I enjoyed Ultima IX, its cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned has always been how the game basically and blatantly ignored the events of Serpent Isle, essentially relegating it to rank of a forgettable Spin-Off, much like the Ultima Underworlds and the Worlds of Ultima games.

And this is how the idea of a new Serpent Isle story gradually began to form in my mind. I began to imagine what would be my idea of the “ultimate” Ultima game and how I would continue the franchise if I had the chance… and the idea of using the Serpent Isle immediately came to me… soon followed by a setting, characters, a plot… Of course at this time the idea of actually doing a game about it felt like a fool’s dream –- which eventually brought me to start this story as a fan-fiction, though it never got past the first chapters.

Over the years as I followed the development of Lazarus and U6P, it eventually hit me –- why wouldn’t it be possible? If these two remakes have proved us something, it’s that with enough dedication anything is possible. So gradually, I started writing a more detailed story and background, and a pretty extensive development doc. I immediately settled for the Dungeon Siege engine –- because it somehow felt obvious after Lazarus: what better way to craft a new Ultima game? And thus after announcing the project, I began what is probably one the hardest part: finding a team.

Things have proven to be difficult, and slow –- real life also getting in the way most often than not, and while the project never really got to a halt I have no doubt that many believed it to be dead. Return to the Serpent Isle never died… but it mutated. As months went by, I gradually came to rethink it. Some progress had been made, but it was mostly work done on paper, with no actual production having started in Dungeon Siege. So the solution became somewhat obvious.

And the end result being of course the decision to drop the Dungeon Siege engine.

In term of versatility, I still feel the Dungeon Siege Engine is the most suited to create a traditional seamless Ultima –- but it brings a whole lot of other issues with it. Nevermind the fact that it is becoming very dated (it is a 2001 game after all), but Dungeon Siege is already having issues running with Windows Vista and 7, so who knows what will happen in a few years time. Indeed the DS community in itself is basically dead and buried and consists solely of the talented and dedicated U6P Team. And the more I thought of it, the more it felt to me that U6P would really be the DS engine’s swan song… and that a Dungeon Siege Siegelet no matter how ambitious it was, would probably not hold much interest for gamers or fans in a few years time. And the idea of spending what was probably going to be many years on a project that nobody would end up playing was just terrifying.

Another reason that drove this change of engine is the desire to offer a sense of novelty. After two epic Ultima games with the Dungeon Siege engine, I’ve began to apprehend the fact that another game might just end up feeling “more of the same.” Ultima has always been about pushing technology forward, so there was also a logic in going forward with a more modern engine and I felt this would also be an opportunity to offer a slightly different approach and gameplay –- but one that we felt would still be very Ultima-ish.

Thus I began looking at other engines, other choices –- knowing it would mean some compromise –- but also (with agreement from the rest of the team) that it would be in the project’s best interest. It has not been an easy prospect because CRPGs have greatly changed since the days of Ultima, and the design philosophy of modern games has little in common with Ultima games.

But after careful consideration, I’ve finally noticed an engine with a very interesting and promising feature: an overland map. It is not a very common feature nowadays –- most game would basically just offer you a bland world map with a few locations to click and where you are instantly transported. And there was this overland map where you can move around, that you can freely explore between two towns… Indeed it reminded me of a very old game, a game which focused on a similar approach for five legendary episodes. A game called Ultima.

So this is why I decided to settle on the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine, with the obvious additions of its two add-ons, and particularly Storm of Zehir’s overland map.

Now I know what some of you might be thinking: “A Dungeon&Dragons Ultima game?!” It is a valid concern, but I believe that Ultima has always been much much more than its ruleset and you can rest assured that everything will be done to diminish the D&D feel of the engine and create a game with many of the features you would expect of an Ultima game. And trust me when I say that you might be surprised, as Neverwinter Nights 2 is far more moddable than one might suspect.

Of course –- Return to the Serpent Isle will not be a traditional seamless Ultima game in the vein of Ultima VII, but it will still be an Ultima –- more old school in its approach perhaps, but can’t you just begin to picture exploring our Serpent Isle while an overland musical theme rings inside your ears?

So this is it: Serpent Isle is returning at last – and we all vow to make everything in our power to craft a new Ultima worthy of this legendary legacy.

Marc “Sergorn” Charlot
Project Leader