As I write this, I can’t help but be conscious about bias. I’ve been a fan of the Ultima series of games since childhood. In 2001, I joined the Ultima Dragons Internet Chapter (UDIC) – an online fanclub dedicated to the series – and I’ve been a part of this community longer than I haven’t. In July 2002, I launched my first website, Dino’s Ultima Page, which was a leading site in the Ultima community for about a decade, and it will turn 16 years old in less than two weeks from now.
Last year, that same UDIC fanclub turned 25 years old, and a big party took place in Disneyland, Anaheim. I travelled all the way to California to be part of it, and like the rest of the people there, I was thrilled that several of the people who worked on the game – essentially our childhood heroes – were present to hang out with their fans.
There was similar enthusiasm a few years before that party, in March 2013, when Richard Garriott’s latest company, Portalarium, set up a Kickstarter campaign to fund a spiritual successor of Ultima called Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. The fans, starved for years of the creativity and entertainment by Electronic Arts (who currently owns the rights to the Ultima intellectual property), and sick of the failures it produced in an attempt to make money off its existing fanbase, readily poured their coin into a new game that would be made by some of the same people behind Ultima. The Kickstarter alone raised $1.9m, with additional funding secured after that.
Faced with this exciting prospect, what do you think a long-standing fan such as myself did?
I simply ignored it.
One reason was that I seldom had time to play games any more. But more importantly, it felt like madness to put money into a game even before it had started development, no matter who was involved. Coming from a country where customer service is abysmal, the last thing I’m going to do is give people my money to do whatever they want with it, without even being able to check some reviews first.
In hindsight, I’m glad I did that. A recent lengthy review by taxalot at RPG Codex (with additional post-mortem insight by the author in the article’s comments) exposes the game as unfinished, buggy, and all round underwhelming in just about every aspect.
Most notable is that Portalarium tried to appeal to both the existing Ultima fanbase by promising a single player experience, while also going the MMORPG direction for those who wanted that.
“And sold they did. The first consequence of this was that if you backed the game for the single player experience… well, you probably gave up hope the moment your bank account was debited. To someone who was looking for a great single player adventure, the monthly emails focused solely on player housing were utterly depressing, an obvious sign that Portalarium had taken your money and were doing whatever the hell they wanted with it. Month after month, the studio unveiled new kinds of houses that you could buy with real money. But why stop at a house? Why not buy a castle? Or a whole town? You could do that too, as a solo player or as a guild to have your own place to regroup. The emphasis on this aspect of the game was truly puzzling. Between that and the monthly dance parties thrown by “DJ Darkstarr” (executive producer Starr Long’s alter ego), one might wonder whether the point was to have exciting adventures or just to create some sort of virtual renaissance fair for everyone to LARP in. In many ways, it felt like Portalarium were increasingly less interested in selling a game than a medieval Second Life service.” — RPG Codex Review: Shroud of the Avatar
Even more maddening is the concept of buying virtual houses with real money, and have to pay regular taxes on them. As if real-life housing weren’t bad enough – all we needed was to have the same problems in our games.
As you can imagine, this enraged several fans who backed the game based on the promise of Richard Garriott going back to his roots. One of these, who pledged $1500 for the game, was permanently banned from Shroud of the Avatar forums for questioning the direction of the project in this regard. He recently published the comments he was banned for, along with all the email correspondence that ensued, exposing what seems to be blatant abuse of power and excessive censorship.
The Future of Portalarium
While this whole mess is still unfolding, Portalarium laid off half their team just a few weeks ago, mainly laying off people in their art and design department. Which is ironic, because seeing that review on RPG Codex, it appears that these are the areas where help is most needed.
Meanwhile, in reaction to same review, Ultima Dragons have been discussing whether the resulting game is the fault of incompetent developers or incompetent management. While this is difficult to ascertain without having inside information, one may take a hint from the single Glassdoor review about the company (to be sure, a single review isn’t a very good sample, but it gives an idea):
The email correspondence about the aforementioned banning incident also rings alarm bells.
“It can also be hard to be confronted with your own misbehavior. In fact it can be so hard that many people, like yourself, cannot even face it and instead choose to focus on everything but your own actions.” — Starr Long, email correspondence
Given that this whole incident was a result of trying to stifle criticism, let’s just say I wouldn’t have been too happy to get this kind of response myself, especially from an Executive Producer.
History Repeats Itself
Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues was fully released in March 2018 (even if in the pitiful state that the aforementioned review shows). That means it’s taken five years of development, and a whole lot of money. If you’ve been following the history of Ultima, you’ll find that it’s strangely reminiscent of Ultima 9, the last Ultima game that was released in 1999. Ultima fans generally consider the game to be a disaster, and often blame EA for the turnout.
Another thing EA is blamed for is the general fate of the Ultima intellectual property. After Ultima 9, there was pretty much no activity whatsoever for years. In more recent years, EA decided to reuse the Ultima intellectual property, resulting in a series of failures that were cancelled either even before being launched, or afterwards.
Ultima fans, for instance, generally agree that Lords of Ultima had nothing to do with Ultima other than the name. Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar similarly has a few names that fans will remember (including “Lady British”), but little else that feels familiar in terms of story or gameplay. This practice is called name-dropping, and guess what other game does this? That’s right. Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues.
One would think that veteran game developers would learn from past blunders (theirs or otherwise), but after all this, the advice to management from that earlier Glassdoor review seems to hit the nail on the head.
Forsaken Virtues Indeed
Ultima 4 received critical acclaim because it brought ethics into an RPG genre that was principally dominated by “kill the bad villain” storylines. The virtues, conceived by Richard Garriott, would be central to all the mainstream Ultima games after that, except for a couple set on different words. Ultima 5, for instance, showed what happens when virtues are taken to the extreme.
“Thou shalt not lie, or thou shalt lose thy tongue.” — Ultima 5
If Shroud of the Avatar got nothing right, it has a great name. Forsaken Virtues very much reflects its overall direction. Honesty, for instance, was thrown out the window along with the Kickstarter promises. Compassion is shot down once you read the aforementioned email correspondence. Sacrifice is done by Portalarium only insofar as other people’s money and their own staff are involved.
As for humility, there are multiple aspects to this. One is that the game tried to be everything (scope creep anyone?), and thus failed to be stand out (or even be decent) in any one department. Another is that the top people behind the game need to get off their pedestal and start listening to their fans.