The game is coming to both PC and iPad platforms courtesy of a thin-client download. The full title is Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar, and gameplay consists primarily of four-person parties and various dungeon crawls set in the world of Britannia.
"We're doing what BioWare does well, and we're doing it on an iPad, and the PC, for a more casual player," Barnett said.
Did we mention that the game is free? Barnett told us that EA-BioWare is committed to thoroughly exploring the industry's new business model darling. "Here we are: We're going to give you all this stuff, it costs a lot of money to make, and it's really beautiful, so how the hell do we make any money out of it?"
Most of the game's content is free, Barnett says, and it will be supplemented by the sale of fluff like golden galleons, bigger hot air balloons, and so on. "It's sort of like Kickstarter," he explained. "The more people who back it, the more stuff we can put into it."
And what about the gameplay? Is Ultima Forever an MMO?
No, though Barnett says it has "a lot" of players in it. "It's very tribal in the way we're building it," he explained. The game is a small-group affair, with "tactical, positional" combat that is less about hotbar abilities and more about where your characters stand, what kind of equipment they have, and how you use your abilities together.
"It's very much a classic RPG adventure. It's more in Dragon Age's territory than that of an MMO."
And how does BioWare think classic Ultima fans will respond to a new, casual-focused take on their favorite universe? "We've kept in close contact with a group of hardcore Ultima fans; they're in the alpha, actually," Barnett said. "We can't replicate the original game, and I don't think they want us to. The original game is lauded as very important, and it is, but if you give it to a modern gamer, it's sort of like trying to read Chaucer. You're told it's worthy, but it's sort of incomprehensible."
So what's the impetus behind the project? It's basically BioWare's attempt to reboot the franchise. "You would put it on a mass media console -- that's what the iPad is," Barnett explained. "You would make it free-to-play and allow people from any age group to play it. You wouldn't need to be an RPG-head or remember 27 different combat controls, and we've made those adjustments."
Is it still about the virtues? Is it still about Britannia? Does it still have the towns, NPCs, the core story about being the avatar? "The answer to all these questions is yes. We look at it like how Peter Jackson had to re-imagine Lord of the Rings for the screen, or how Christopher Nolan had to imagine Batman. We're not going to please everyone, but hopefully when players finish kicking the tires, they'll come back and go, 'OK, that's pretty cool,'" Barnett said.
Ultima Forever is currently being prepped for closed beta testing. You can register at the official site.