I'm stretching here.
In a recent franchise producer's letter, Mythic's Jeff Skalski gave fans of Ultima Online a teeny tiny glimmer of hope that Ultima Online 2 might one day be a reality. Depending on your read of it, it could've just been a "stop asking about UO2 already" plea, a shameless way to promote Ultima Forever, or one fan talking to another about something that could happen if both parties work toward a common goal.
Considering the troubled past of Ultima Online's sequels, we have to wonder: Is this more false hope than real hope? Is there any conceivable way that this 15-year-old MMO could one day be granted the same honor as EverQuest, Asheron's Call, Guild Wars, and PlanetSide by getting a sequel that actually launches? I have some thoughts on all this, which is good because otherwise there would be a whole lot of white space after the jump.
During the course of writing this column, I've become quite familiar with the trials and tribulations of several dev teams attempting to get an Ultima Online 2 off the ground. Back in the early 2000s, it even made financial sense. Here you have one of the very few popular and active MMOs around that's suddenly facing a lot of competition from better-looking (well, at least three-dimensional) titles. Ultima Online had to surrender its top dog title once EverQuest hit the scene, and its owners must've been livid at the turn of events. Ultima had stronger name recognition among gamers at the time, and a well-done sequel could've given SOE a run for its money.
But as it sometimes is, UO2's worst enemy was from within, not without. EA gave the go-ahead for the development of Ultima Worlds Online: Origin but then yanked the plug on the project in 2001 because the company didn't want to compete with itself. Then the much better-looking Ultima X: Odyssey reared its head in 2003, only to be felled by the same corporate axe for the same reason a year later.
Two aborted sequels sent to a very early grave -- was the whole notion of an Ultima Online sequel doomed?
To its credit, Ultima Online's team kept trucking along and did an admirable job within the limitations it was given. While UO never did compete on the same level as the big boys ever again, hey, it's 15 years after its launch and that game is still going.
But the dream of UO2 persisted because whether they're realistic or not, dreams captivate the imaginations of players, particularly if that dream is a sequel to something that was immensely enjoyable in the past.
Every so often, a rumor would pop up of an Ultima Online 2 project, only to be squashed by the following silence. People never did stop asking about UO2, but as time went on, it seemed more and more unlikely. There was a possibility that EA had authorized such a project in Ultima Forever, but it turned out not to be an MMO at all. Then there's always Richard Garriott, who claims that his "Ultimate RPG" will one day be the spiritual successor to UO.
Plus, as usually happens when there's a shared dream around the subject of a sequel, it's hard to get any general consensus on what an Ultima Online 2 would look like. Would it be a sandbox just like Ultima Online, only improved? Would it hew to the classic single-player RPG series and take its cues from there? Did either of the canceled UO2 projects have the right idea?
Personally, I don't think there's much hope at all for a proper Ultima Online 2 to be made as the type of MMO it deserves to be, at least not without a lot of things going EA Mythic's way. As of this past half-decade, that hasn't been the case.
The problem is that the fanbase of Ultima Online -- and Ultima in general -- is dwindling. I know there are passionate fans out there, and perhaps you are one, but if you take a moment to be objective, I'd think you'd agree with this read. Ultima certainly was a hot franchise in the '80s and '90s. It is not today. Heck, the last single-player Ultima came out in 1999! And while I have no doubt that the faithful who enjoy UO today carry the torch for it, I can't imagine that their numbers are enough to swamp EA's lobby, let alone convince the company to greenlight a sequel.
But we have to possible avenues for redemption, right? Let's say that EA's Ultima Forever makes a lot of money and rekindles interest in the franchise, prompting Mythic's parent company to reconsider a UO2 (or possibly Pinocchio Ultima Forever into a real MMO). From what I've seen of Ultima Forever, it's definitely paying more tribute to the series' roots with the Avatar and virtues (yay) but certainly isn't touching sandbox elements with a 10-foot pole (um... boo?). If this path is pursued, then the end result certainly won't make UO purists happy. However, it might be the only way to see the franchise continue.
Richard Garriott... I don't know. That's a real crapshoot right there. I pick on the guy, but I love him too, and while I admire his gamer spirit and return to his indie roots, I'm not going to stay up nights wishing on stars that he'll bring back the greatness of his past efforts either.
According to Garriott's website, he defines the Ultimate RPG as thus:
"Here is what I feel is safe to say: Lord British's Ultimate Role Playing Game, which may be called 'Akalabeth' or may be called 'New Britannia' or may be called 'a name I cannot yet say as it describes the setting I am considering and think I should keep secret at least until I know if it's likely true,' will be an Ultimate RPG. You will have customized Avatar homesteads and real roles to play in a deep, beautifully realized highly interactive virtual world. It will have virtues and the hero's journey reflected back to the player. It will have the best of synchronous and asynchronous features in use. Fiction will support your arrival from earth into this new world. I even hope to make maps, coins and other trinkets available to players of the game."It is encouraging that he still has some affection for the series and vocal aspirations to revive it, even as a so-called "spiritual successor." It is less encouraging that we've heard no solid details to suggest that his "Ultimate RPG" is anything more than an idea at present.
I've called in our resident Ultima Online lover, Bree, to give us a second opinion and some final thoughts. What does a long-time UO fan think about the prospect of a sequel at this juncture?
I'm not so sure I agree with Captain Justin that the Ultima franchise is a ghost on whom no one's going to cast An Corp (that's the resurrection spell in Ultima lore, of course). The IP has lain dormant a long time, but in my mind, that makes it ripe for revival among older gamers who, like the baby boomers before them, will soon be looking for nostalgic media and toys to fill their newly empty nests. Video games fit the bill.
But the genre has moved on from the mechanics that would have defined UO2 and UXO, and while Ultima Forever might be a nice diversion on a tablet, "forever" is probably an overstatement. I'd sooner believe we'll see a true single-player Ultima title to bring back classic gamers than a new MMO, which is probably good news for UO's fans, who can't get enough of their isometric, pixelly sandbox. Fifteen years later, I'm still one of them. Bree out!
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.