Dev Diary #002 – World Simulation – the hardcore lives of adventurers!

If there is one aspect that has been considerably streamlined in RPGs over the years – it’s the world simulation aspect of the games. This account of course to things like NPCs schedules and interactivity, but also to more peculiar aspect that would now feel more at home in a “survival” kind of game such as feeding your characters and sleeping. Indeed: a lot of games have basically removed these aspects altogether!

As Ultima: Return aims to uphold the tradition of the Ultima series; we place great value in the world simulation aspect of the game. While our project is being crafted using a modern game engine, it is important to stress that we tend to see Return as an old school game at heart, so we definitely intend to push the world simulations aspects as much as possible, and in some case even farther than they have ever been in the Ultima series.

Of course we mentioned before that we have NPC schedules, but today we want to focus more on a different aspect of world simulation that we’d call the “Survivalism” features, so this article will focus on three gameplay aspects related indeed to the very survival of your characters: Feeding, Sleeping and Injuries.

Keep your stomach full!

For a long time, Food had been an important aspect of Computer Role Playing Games. Your characters had to eat to survive (and even in some cases like Dungeon Master: drink!), thus making survival an integral part of the gameplay. This aspect has also been a part of Ultima since its inception, though the specifics have varied from game to game.

While there are still many games that offer food items, the survival aspect has gradually been phased out and it has come to a point where eating has no other effects that offering some healing to your characters. Basically, food has turned into peculiar looking potions. Ironically, back when Ultima IX announced in 1998 that Food consumption would have no other effect that healing, it caused real controversies amongst fans who felt this was just downright silly – because indeed, how could food be a healing item? And yet it has now become the norm and I can’t remember the last time I played a RPG which required actual food consumption that wasn’t an Ultima remake.

So as you would expect: the main purpose of food in Ultima: Return… is to feed your character. No more, no less. While we are considering adding down the roads special crafting recipes that would allows to create food items that would heal your characters in addition of feeding them – these would only be a secondary purpose.

The way we handle food consumption in Ultima:Return is that each character has an Endurance bar, represented by the yellow bar next to the character portrait.

While we call it Endurance, in essence it really is a Food bar though and has no other purpose as giving a direct visual indication of how hungry your characters are. As you would expect, the bar will decrease over time, indicating the status of your character’s hunger.
However rather that going with the most common effect which lead your characters of losing hit points (or even dying) when your food reach zero, we aimed for a more subtle effect. Basically the hunger will have multiple levels, each one having gradually more effects leading first to a decrease of your character’s health regeneration rate (both during gameplay and while sleeping, kind of like in Ultima Underworld) and later by lowering the main stats of your characters. So if you want to remain efficient: keep your stomach filled!

So obviously, to regain Endurance you will need to consume food, which is quite simply done in Ultima VII fashion: by using various kinds of food items that will offer more or less endurance depending on their nature. You’ll of course be able to buy food, but also to harvest it from trees, plants and dead animals.

We are considering implementing a more automatic way of consuming food modeled after Ultima VI, so that whenever you sleep, party members will feed automatically depending on what they have in their inventory since if of course makes sense for the characters to eat while camping.

But sleeping is not without its dangers too…

Sleep comfortably… or not?

Sleeping in RPGs usually has one single purpose, and it hasn’t really changed over the years – it’s about healing your characters. But it tends to have a downside because it often leads to a point where sleeping become the magical solution to heal all your woes. So you combat, get hurt in the process… and then sleep, leaving you most of the times with a completely healthy party. While there is always the risks of stumbling upon random encounters while sleeping, it is rather minimal compared to the benefits and a lot of gamers will usually save before sleeping anyway, just in case!

So this basically creates what we’d name the “sleep/heal” cheat, which is actually a basic feature in Neverwinter Nights 2 and most of the RPGs that allows sleeping.

This lad us to some careful thinking on how to make theses aspects more realistic and interesting. And of course: harder.
So we decided to implement two factors to sleeping: dangerosity and comfortability.

Dangerosity as you would expect determine the chances of an enemy encounter happening while you sleep – which goes from never to almost every time.

Comfortability is where it gets interesting. Because indeed: why should sleeping in a comfy bed have the same effect as sleeping into a dungeon?

So basically we implemented multiple levels of comfortability. The highest, who only applies to inns and beds, allows you to sleep and recover all your health and mana. The others… not so much. So basically the point is the kill the “sleep/heal” aspect common to many RPGs. The less comfortable an area is, the more difficult it will be for your characters to sleep properly – which means in a word that this will limit the maximum health and mana you character can regain while sleeping. In other words if you sleep in a very comfortable area – you will not be able to regain your entire health or mana by sleeping. Ever.

Another goal is to give back a bigger role to potions and healing magic; because again the sleep/heal cheat tend to render them useless outside of a potential quick-use during combat. By limiting the amount of healing you can get by sleeping however, this will render the use (and crafting!) of healing potions important again, ditto for mana potions and magic. In other words: one will not want to crawl inside a dungeon without a good amount of potions or reagents!

Basically we want to get back to the roots of the RPGs. You won’t be able to just crawl through your dungeon, with just a bit of sleeping after each combat – and you’ll need to prepare carefully before considering risking going into a dungeon.

Injuries are a pain…

This last is something that never existed in Ultima and is indeed rather new, since I believe it was introduced in this form by Dragon Age Origins. The point is that whenever a character is “downed” in battle, he will receive an injury level. Each of these will diminish all your stats, and your max HP/MP.

You’ll of course be able to heal the injuries in different ways, healers being the obvious ones.

Now the reason we decided to implement this… is because Return will not offer party member death.

This is something which I guess will not please everyone, but allow me to share the logic behind it and let me ask you first to think back to Serpent Isle.

The main reason I decided against party member actual death is basically for plot. The plan is for the companions to have actual roles in the game and story, and participation in dialogues. Now this could indeed be implemented even with party death through careful triggers, but the truth is: this makes development easier in that respect and anything we can do to make things a tad easier for our small team is welcome.
There is also a plot rationale behind this, because fact is that resurrection on the Serpent Isle is not the commodity that it is in Britannia: it is rare – you can’t just go to a healer and get back from the dead, and this is good like this, because really… common resurrection tends to get silly in term of narrative: I mean how can you really fear and believe the death of a character if all you’d need is to get to a healer ? (Sorry Inamo, the people of Trinsic really were bastards). This is an aspect rarely used well in fiction and that is indeed glossed over most of the time (though as far as Ultima goes, Austen Andrews’ Technocrat Wars showed a good use of it).

Also when you think back at Serpent Isle, it wasn’t really that different: sure companions could die, but the Hourglass of Fate was here as the way to make sure they’d always be there because most of us would do just that: resurrect any fallen companion as soon as they died. Basically we follow a similar logic in Return, but we drop the intermediary of the Hourglass. Indeed the original plan was to have the Hourglass of Fate basically resurrect people automatically upon combat’s end with no consequences. Basically the way it now works in NWN2.
But playing Dragon Age made me felt the injury system would be a good alternative: so instead of resurrecting your characters when they get out cold: you get an injury level.

Note however that if your party is wiped out, then you ARE dead… But then of course you get a party resurrection by a third party with a reasonable XP Loss in traditional Ultima fashion.


Now I know what some of you must me thinking. This is crazy. If you end up in a dungeon, injured, with no potions and no food… Well geez, you’re fraked.

And indeed: this is the point. We want planning to be very important. We want our players to be careful and think. This is old school! And indeed this is very hardcore. And this will indeed require very careful balancing (which is why we’re not sharing any specific numbers at this point).

Of course we will point that there will be some ways to diminish the consequences (for instance the Naturalist skill will diminish the effect of sleeping outdoor), so again this is all about properly developing your characters and planning things.

However, we don’t want to scare people away and theses feature will be optional and you’ll be able to deactivate seem if you wish it. Basically you will be able to play the game as it is meant to be with a hardcore old school style, or with a more laid back approach, focusing more on the plot and exploration.