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Beyond MUDs: Kate Flack on Designing Ultima Forever

Can moral choices actually teach us about who we are, and can online RPGs ever break the bounds of text-based MUDs? Lead designer Kate Flack hopes that the answers to both of these questions are "yes," as she discusses the latest Ultima game with Gamasutra.

Ultima has gone through many incarnations since the series' 1981 debut. It was also one of the first major series to tackle the idea of the consequences of a player's actions, good or ill, affecting the story. In 1997, the series took a turn for the massively multiplayer, with Ultima Online. In 1999, the world got a polygonal facelift, with Ultima IX: Ascension. In 2010, Ultima went free-to-play, with Lord of Ultima, though that game was only loosely tied to the original Ultima universe. Lord was the first game without the series' creator, Richard Garriott, and reception was mixed thanks to that -- and the player base's skepticism of a free-to-play model.

Now, in 2013, the series takes another stab at free-to-play, with Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar, which takes the world of Ultima IV and adapts it for an action RPG context, with hand-drawn backgrounds and 3D characters. The game is currently in development by BioWare Mythic Entertainment, under the eye of general manager Paul Barnett, and the direction of lead designer Kate Flack.

Flack has a history with MUDs, primarily, and it's this history into which we will now delve, to discuss how early MUDs have influenced MMO design, even today. Beyond that, how do the virtue systems of Ultima work in this new free-to-play space, and with casual players? We spoke at length with Flack about her history, and how that will intertwine with the upcoming Ultima Forever.

Let's talk first about your history, for people who don't know...

Kate Flack: Sure. I've been working in the industry for just over a decade now. I got my start when all this was text, by making MUD games, so I was paid by the word writing quests and creating monsters, that kind of thing.

I then went into pen and paper roleplaying. I did the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying. I wrote Dark Heresy, which was the Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game, with Owen Barnes and Robert Schwalb, and a couple of other really awesome designers, so I kind of got a bit of experience taking a beloved IP and bringing it to a new audience or reimagining it in a way. After I did that, I moved over to Mythic and worked on Warhammer Online. I was also involved in the first Warhammer Online, which was done by Climax Entertainment. Since then, I've been working at BioWare Mythic, building this game.

Did you find it at all difficult to translate from working so heavily with text to this simultaneously more and less interactive arena, where you don't have as much possibility space as you do in a MUD or a tabletop game?

KF: In a MUD, you have a wonderful realm of imagination; there's so much stuff you can get away with. In a way, it's almost a more pure design. You're not having to interface with an art department; you're not having to worry about coders. But the thing with something like Ultima Forever, or Warhammer, or these more graphical MMOs, is that they're much more accessible. It's the way the industry's going. Although personally I enjoy things like Christine Love's Digital: A Love Story, I know there's not a huge audience for those types of games. Of course you have to go with the graphical angle; of course you have to make them look good, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Do you think that there's anything aside from perhaps superior writing ability that you take from that world to bring to this?

KF: Well, the first MUD started -- this is going to get really nerdy and technical, so just bear with me.

That's perfectly acceptable.

KF: If we look at nearly all of the big graphical MMOs out there, they're based on a DikuMUD code base, which has certain inherent principles within it. For example, let's talk about quests, right? In an MMO, we have this idea that you have to be on a quest; it has to be sitting inside your quest log before you can go fulfill it. If a man wants you to go kill five wolves, it doesn't matter that you [already] just killed five wolves; now you're on the quest, you have to go off, and you have to collect the wolf paws, because that's all that DikuMUD can detect at the time.

But the games I was playing and writing on were European MUD engines with completely different basic assumptions within them. For example, Legends of Terris, which is the first MUD I worked on, would log every single thing that you killed just as a matter of course. You could pull up your kill list and inspect what you'd killed and all these different things.

So when you were doing a quest, very often, you'd get to there and the NPC would say, "Hey! Kill me white wolves!" and then it would detect, oh, you've already done that; here's the quest credit. Why should you have to go off and do it all over again? It's just a simple example of how a difference in engine can make a difference in gameplay. It's that experience; it's a way of playing that doesn't necessarily have the same assumptions underlying them. It gives you a breadth of background and heritage that you can pull from. Just because it's always been done that way doesn't mean I have to do it the same way in Ultima Forever.


That has deep ramifications in the world, though, because if you've already killed a bunch of things, and then you meet a bunch of NPCs who give you these quests, and you've already done them.

KF: You'd have to factor it into the XP code, yeah.

And also the perception is that the gameplay becomes shorter -- the length of game becomes shorter. Some people feel that is detrimental to the experience. I wouldn't necessarily agree, but…

KF: Sure. But you've got to kill five wolves anyway, right?

Right. So what is your vision for the changes that you have made? You will obviously have to make some changes to the Ultima world.

KF: First of all, obviously, it's a great privilege to get to work on Ultima. It's a huge IP; it's had millions of people play it and some very talented designers work on it. It's a huge pair of shoes to fill. When I came to thinking about the game and I thought about the creative brief that I'd been given to fulfill, I ended up thinking, "Well, I don't want to replace anyone's memories."

We're not here to overwrite the canon; we're not here to change things and say, "Oh, all these memories that you have aren't important." So what we did with Ultima Forever is we set it 21 years after the events of Ultima IV -- so V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX haven't happened yet. We kind of created our own Ultima time stream; we kind of cordoned it off and said, "Okay, this is where we're working, and this is what we're doing."

We did things like -- obviously, the technology is a little bit more sophisticated -- so we can do things like a quest log. We can do things like 3D graphics. We can do maps. All the kinds of things that your modern player expects: more sophisticated UI, not having to remember 27 different function keys, and all those kinds of things.

But from a creative point of view, I think that games reflect the time that they were made, so when you go back and you look at the original interviews with Richard, he talked about it being a reaction to Mothers Against Dungeons & Dragons, a way of saying, "Hey, games can be good."

I think we're at a point now in the game industry where games can be sophisticated, and they can ask sophisticated questions about ethics, because the audience is mature, and is willing to think about more than just killing five wolves.

So I wanted to dig into the interactions between players. You have a multiplayer game, and you have virtues. [With this] you have some really interesting design possibilities that come out. Very often in roleplaying games, when you have the choice to be nice or nasty or whatever, it's about how you treat NPCs, whether you save NPC A or NPC B. Well, we've got that. Our NPCs do ask you for help. You can take quests and make choices; they branch out and all that. But you also have interactions between players.

For example, we have a thing called an honesty box, which is just the Prisoner's Dilemma, where you're adventuring in a dungeon and there's a chest. You open it up, and you have a choice; I can either share this with the group, which means we all have five gold, or I can take it all for myself. Am I willing to steal from my party? My party's not going to know, but what we do is we take away your honesty because you stole. So it's interesting to figure out whether players will on average steal from each other or whether they will on average share. I don't know how it's going to work out, but we will have that metric; we will know.


Is that going to affect the world in any way for that player?

KF: Yeah, it'll affect your virtue score. As you're playing through the game, everything you're doing earns you virtue points. For example, if you bother to go off and mentor someone, you're giving up your time, so we give you sacrifice points for that. The person who's being mentored gets humility, kind of admitting that they need help. You can already see that there's a virtual circle there, a healthy relationship between two people, which is good for them; they're both leveling up their virtues, but it's also good for the game and good for the community as a whole, because this game is built around playing together and helping each other out. I think that's really exciting.

I'm curious to know whether you think positive or negative reinforcement is more effective when it comes to making people be good versus evil, or whatever, in games.

KF: Well, I don't know about good and evil...

Sure, I didn't mean for it to be so black and white -- let's say more virtuous or less virtuous.

KF: We very much go for positive. I'm interested in that pause on the keyboard when the player decides, "Do I want to be kind, or do I want to be fair?" That's a really interesting question that only you can answer about yourself. That's all I want to do; I want to make you stop, think, and go, "Huh!" and then learn about yourself, because games can do that.

Right -- I have never experienced that, but I have always thought it would be possible to have a moment where I really have to make a choice that I care about. But for me it's never occurred. I guess my brain has always just defaulted to whatever good path is offered.

I always presume that the game is created in such a way that I'm not going to be punished for a good deed; I'm not going to lose a whole bunch of stuff. I will eventually be able to beat the game anyway. So, for me, it doesn't become much of a choice. I feel like, eventually, there's got to be something; like, who do I save, my mom or my dad? [editor's note: this interview was done prior to the release of The Walking Dead, which does this kind of choice very well.] But I don't want to have to make that choice! It makes me uncomfortable. Do you have any thoughts about that kind of space?

KF: Yeah, absolutely. What we try and do when we give you a quandary is we give you three options that are equally valid. It's not up to us to judge a player; we're just there to make you think. So NPCs will come up to you and say, "Hey! What should I do in this situation?"

One of the classic situations is there's this beggar who's been beaten within an inch of his life. What do you do about that? Do you go for justice and say, "Right; I'm going to track down the people who beat this guy up, or do I sacrifice and get myself in debt in order to pay for magical healing for the guy to bring him back to life? Or do I go for compassion and go off and buy some medicine to give him a good, peaceful, painless death?" They're all equally valid, but which one do you think is the right thing?

Somewhat more complex choices like that are interesting. I think the iPad and free-to-play tend to try to address a somewhat more casual audience -- if not directly, at least they try to include them -- so I think it will be interesting to see how you can try to bring those players into the idea of these choices being something that you make.

KF: It's not that different to a personality test. Those have always been massively popular because people love finding out about themselves; we're our own favorite subject. I try and present it and think of it, if you're a more casual player, as being more like a personality test; you end up with the character you deserve or who reflects who you are.

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