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How Ultima VII Created TownCraft

With the launch of our first indie title, TownCraft, I decided to look back on the major (and somewhat bizarre) inspiration for this citybuilder: the classic DOS RPG Ultima VII.

Rohan Harris, Blogger

November 11, 2013

7 Min Read

As we do promotion for TownCraft, I've gotten used to being asked certain questions. There are often curve-balls, but there are also a few questions that are pretty standard - those which you expect to be asked and can pretty much answer by muscle memory. That's not a bad thing - some of these are the most interesting questions, such as "Would you guys like some coffee?"

But one of those is almost always "which games inspired you to make TownCraft?"

A perfectly reasonable question - and a very understandable one to ask.

My answers have generally included: Stronghold, The Settlers, Sim City, Minecraft and Knights & Merchants.

This answer, while truthful, is also answering not so much the actual question, but the implied question of "if someone's skimming this interview and want to know what kind of game TownCraft is, can you give us a few things it's kinda sorta like?"

Because the biggest influence is one I don't mention very often in these sorts of situations: Ultima VII, the 1992 DOS-based RPG (and pretty much the best game ever made).

For context: Ultima VII next to TownCraft

On the surface, you could either think this makes perfect sense or that we're entirely mad. Both are (sort of) isometric games, but their genres are entirely different. TownCraft is a citybuilder with a heavy emphasis on crafting, and Ultima VII is a real-time, heavily story-driven RPG.

And yet, both the basic seed of the concept for TownCraft and many superficial or structural aspects of the design came out of Ultima... and here's how.

Ultima VII is a fascinating game in that unlike most RPGs before and since, it's a story running atop a combat and world simulation. Not a real simulation, to be sure - the general townsfolk don't require food and crops don't die. However, the citizens of Britannia do a very good impression of living. Day in and day out they wake up, potter about, go to work, go home, visit friends - perhaps even go to the pub.

They often throw snippets of dialogue out there as they do these things, too. Go to the Blue Boar tavern at night and you can see people having what often seem like full conversations. Like the GTA series, these are actually just snippets that get repeated, but enough detail was there to make the world feel alive.

Adding to this was the fact that the entire world was accessible - and at a 1 to 1 scale. Doors didn't magically teleport you to a space which was larger on the inside like in most games - if you saw a small 4x4 metre hut, that's precisely how large it was.

If you saw someone baking bread? You could go do that. You may have to hike down to the mill in the nearby village of Paws to get some flour, but you could still do it.

Often I'd find an abandoned house, ditch my adventuring gear and just set up shop. I'd find what little paid work I could that didn't involve fighting monsters. To me, just being a regular citizen of this fantastic world was the goal.

And one day, while exploring this fantastic world, I came across a clearing north-west of the main city of Britain.

It was empty, lush and near some farms.

A farm in Ultima VII

It made me think: why couldn't I start my own village here? Maybe find some money, hire a few people to come with me, chop down some trees and make a few wood huts? Wouldn't that be a blast?

The way the engine worked was such that it was very nearly possible, too - I'd imagine that if it was a more modern game with support for mods in the traditional sense, I could have probably coded it in. As it was, I could 'cheat' a bit and use the debug mode to move disused bits of wall around to build my own house in the area... but it would never be a town.

So, years later, I thought back to that idea and began to imagine an isometric game much like Ultima VII, but instead of a huge, sprawling RPG it would be just that element - the explorer travelling into a valley and making a little village from scratch.

And so TownCraft was born.

When I ran into design problems, one of our 'bibles' to go to in time of need became Ultima VII. "How did Ultima VII do it?" Not because Ultima VII was 'perfect', but because if Ultima had succeeded in generating a certain feeling that I wanted to also create for a player, analysing how it did it for me was a good logical place to start.

In fact, if anything TownCraft was originally much more like Ultima. When I first began to imagine the game, it wasn't even proper isometric in style - it was a top-down view like Ultima VII where everything skewed up at an angle so you could see detail. It was only when I began to consider the difficulty of artists creating assets in this bizarre form that we reverted to the more conventional isometric style which Ultima itself even took on within a few games of VII.

So many aspects of TownCraft were then etched into my mind.

NPCs in your town needed to have daily cycles. They needed to congregate in the tavern at night. Why? Because that's one of the things that drew me into the world of Ultima VII.

A small farm in TownCraft

While many of these things proved impractical and had to be left on the cutting room floor, even my current wish list of new features to add in future updates would read to many of you like an itemised list of features from Ultima VII.

It may be an entirely different genre and have a more complex crafting system and a different visual style, but TownCraft is, to me, an almost direct result of a dream I once had of wanting to live in the marvellous word of Britannia. It may be a peaceful game without monsters or dragons, and it may have a dry sense of humour (injected by my brother) instead of a deadly serious world... but it remains the game I've wanted to play for years - and I don't think there's better way to motivate yourself to do something.

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