Spam Spam Spam Humbug: Episode 14 – New Project Britannia

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New Patrons

Firstly, I’d like to give a shout-out to Cody, who recently adjusted his Patreon pledge…upward, just to be clear. That was a really cool thing to do; thanks!

Also, a note of thanks to Juliet, who sent in the first topic suggestion we’ve received to date. That’s right: thus far, we’ve thought up all of the things we’ve talked about ourselves. But she had a great suggestion — she wonders if we’d consider doing an episode on how the Ultima series handles the subject(s?) of masculinity and femininity, and how these are explored in different characters and/or the Virtues. (Note that we’re not going to get into that today; it’s a great suggestion, but we need a little more time to prepare.) So thanks for that, Juliet!

(She’s also something of a fan of Linguistic’s writings, by the way.)

Podcast Topic(s)

Some History: Project Britannia is a name that will most likely ring a bell to any Ultima fan that followed the development of the numerous fan projects which emerged during the first decade of the century. It was born from a technological and artistic collaboration between Team Lazarus (Ultima V: Lazarus) and Team Archon (The Ultima 6 Project). Both teams were originally working separately on their respective Ultima remakes, both using the Dungeon Siege engine. Both teams had different strengths, and it became obvious that sharing resources would be the best way to ensure that both projects came to fruition. This led in turn to the birth of Project Britannia: a wonderful endeavor that aimed to offer a complete set of game systems — and a complete map of Britannia — to use as the technical basis for other Ultima fan projects. And while it never achieved wide use beyond the two projects that helped create it, Project Britannia is what allowed for both Lazarus and the Ultima 6 Project to be completed. If there is a lesson to learn from this, it is that as fans we gain strength from unity and collaborative efforts, rather than by slaving away in our own separate ways.

Now, as noted, Project Britannia didn’t go on to serve as the foundation for any other projects. While early plans for Ultima: Return (or, as it was known then, Return to the Serpent Isle) toyed with the idea of using Dungeon Siege and the Project Britannia framework, multiple design issues as well as the engine’s dated feel and controls led to the decision to create Ultima: Return with the Neverwiner Nights 2 engine instead. Oh, and let’s also not forget Dungeon Siege’s significant compatibility issues with newer Windows versions, an issue that would only be exacerbated by the fact that Return would take years to develop.

Another motivating factor in the decision to use NWN2 was the work done by the Realms of Ultima project, the team behind which was able to design a mind-blowing ship travel system for use in Neverwinter Nights 2 modules. Realms of Ultima was intended, from the start, to serve the same purpose as Project Britannia, a sentiment which Team Return shared. This eventually led to the release of the Ultima Return Unified System for NWN2: a set of features and Ultima-like systems for use with Neverwinter Nights 2 modules.

It can’t exactly be said that Ultima fan projects have blossomed around NWN2 either. And that engine, in turn, is beginning to seem a bit dated in its own right, to say nothing of its somewhat user-unfriendly control scheme.

But it also cannot be said that these efforts were all for nothing, especially when collaborations of this nature have led to successfully completed projects in the past. Such collaborative efforts continue to this day, as can be seen in the sharing of art and code between the Savage Empire and Ultima VI remakes for Exult.

In Which I Repudiate Myself: I wrote once that Neverwinter Nights 2 would serve well as the go-to engine for Ultima remakes and other fan projects. At the time, in 2011, it made sense to make that assertion:

The future of Ultima storytelling — whether in the form of remakes, or in the form of fans crafting mods that tell new stories, as is the case with Ultima Return — needs one of two things. Preferably, it needs to see more teams picking up and running with one of the freely available 3D engines, like Unity or the Unreal engine, and using those to craft their works. Failing that, it needs to see teams picking up and running with a game that offers several key features, including:

  • A decent graphics engine that won’t begin to look egregiously dated for a while
  • Preferably, a third-person view during normal gameplay
  • A robust toolkit and scripting interface that allows for modification of almost every aspect of the game
  • A large library of 3D assets, and/or a large and supportive content creation community
  • Availability!
  • Ease of use

I include the last point because I want to draw a distinction here. Games like Morrowind and Oblivion are also definitely contenders for a possible engine to use here. However, my (admittedly limited) experience with their modding environments left me with the impression that these are not the easiest games in the world to edit and reshape into Ultima’s image.

Conversely, Neverwinter Nights 2 meets all the criteria detailed above. Its graphics engine…is certainly more than decent, and will still look nice some years from now.

Four years later, while there’s nothing technically invalid about what I wrote, Neverwinter Nights 2 has largely faded as a viable option for…well…just about anyone with an interest in storytelling via game mods, and not just because the Neverwinter Vault seems to have been taken permanently offline (despite IGN’s assertions to the contrary). Other, newer, and better options have come along; Divinity: Original Sin ships with a powerful editing toolkit, and Sword Coast Legends may also ship with one, as well. And then there’s also a wee little game called Skyrim, which supports truly massive open worlds, and also supports a lot of very Ultima-like features (including object interactivity).

But Should We Even Be Using Other Games’ Engines: The core issue with developing a framework for Ultima and Shroud of the Avatar fans to use in developing their own projects, really, is that over the years (and out of necessity), Ultima fan projects have opportunistically made use of extant games and their engines. These decisions, in turn, have been based on the both the needs of these teams for specific game features, and on the availability of editing tools for the chosen games and engines.

But, as anyone who has worked on such a project can attest, even the use of a pre-existing engine with a pre-existing set of assets can be a grueling process. There is no such thing as a perfect Ultima Game Maker, so we have all had to build our games using existing engines, using existing toolsets, and accepting all the limitations that come bundled with these. This, in turn, has led to compromises and, in essence, cheating with these engines and their existing systems to make them seem as Ultima-like as possible, while also trying to hide other, related issues (and not-as-Ultima-like features) from the players.

And while the engines of existing games are often more versatile that one would assume based on the game they initially powered (who would ever have imagined that a working ship system could be implemented in Dungeon Siege? Or that a proper gypsy character creation sequence with its own ruleset could be implemented in NWN2?), this in turn can lead to — heck, has led to — issues as well, most notably the instabilities of Lazarus and U6P. Game engines, especially older engines, begin to break down when pushed to their limits. And Ultima fan projects have a tendency to push game engines to their limits.

There are other considerations as well:

  • With fan projects split between multiple game engines, almost every form of collaborative effort between project teams is prevented. And yet, the history of Project Britannia shows us that this sort of collaborative work is the best means of ensuring that fan projects reach completion.
  • There really is no proper engine and toolkit which is perfectly — or even ideally — suited to making Ultima game. No matter what ‘form’ of Ultima one favours, development based upon an existing game’s engine is basically all about compromising and cheating your way around the chosen engine’s limitations…to say nothing of the fact that what is being used is the engine used by another game, which in turn requires project teams to ask fans to buy a game they might not be interested in otherwise just to play an Ultima fan project.
  • Oh, and: the game in question may or may not even work well with modern operating systems!

Of course, there’s an obvious objection, too: “We don’t really have any other choice.”

But is that really true? We here would say it WAS true for a long time. But not anymore; since the days of Lazarus, one game engine in particular has become the go-to engine for both professional and amateur projects alike: Unity. Which, you’ll recall, I mentioned a little while ago. Back in 2011, Unity was basically an engine for making mobile games. Since that time, and especially since about 2013, it has really come to the fore as a powerful, versatile engine for making desktop PC games, as well, and in fact has been used by a number of game development companies, both independent and publisher-owned, to create a variety of titles (including RPGs).

Why Unity: There are a lot of good reasons for the choice, which we will look at presently…but we should also not be blind to the potential downsides of using the Unity engine either. We should certainly understand one thing in particular: using Unity is not going to be a walk in the park, and the early days of creating a Project Britannia-like framework are probably going to be the hardest ones.

Why? Primarily, it is because — although there are existing assets and systems available through Unity and its Asset Store that could help us get a head start — in many respects we will be starting from scratch. We won’t have the vast quantity of pre-made content that a pre-existing game engine/toolkit would include out of the box available to us at the outset. A lot of systems will have to be coded from scratch, and a lot of art will need to be created as well.

Still, while the early days of the framework will likely be long and difficult, it will be worthwhile in the long run and would enable, more than ever before, the creation of fan projects.

So why should we Strive for Unity ?

  • No cost. The basic version of the engine is free, allowing any developer to just jump in.
  • The Asset Store. While Unity is free it also has its assets store which could prove useful for projects. There is a strong argument to be made that it is better for a project team to spend $100 now on a large collection of terrain and building assets that would work for their project, rather than struggling for a year or more to find a 3D artist to make each asset anew in his spare time. To say nothing of the fact that the Asset Store does have collections of free assets available as well…and that many asset packs are regularly discounted at different times of the year.
  • No game purchases required. By using Unity, project teams free fans from the need to buy a dated game they won’t care about and/or will struggle to find or make work on modern operating systems. Instead, fans will be able to just download the finished project and play it directly.
  • Cross-platform. Out of the box, Unity allows for projects to be released on Windows, OS X and Linux. Porting fan projects to mobile is also a possibility.
  • Modernity. Dungeon Siege and Morrowind are ancient. Neverwinter Nights 2 is getting long in the tooth as well. Most of these games are not being updated anymore. Unity is future proof: it’s constantly being improved and updated, lessening the risks of spending years on a game that most modern computers will have issues running because of a dated engine.
  • Versatility. Unity allows for the creation of all kind of RPGs, from simple 2D adventures to complex, fully-3D worlds. Our framework will allow collaborative efforts between different projects even though aim to create different kinds of Ultima experience. With existing toolsets, fan projects were limited and had to compromise, at every turn. With Unity, the fan community will be able to create the perfect Ultima game maker.
  • Shroud of the Avatar. With Richard Garriott himself using the Unity engine for his spiritual successor to the Ultima series, a fan development community with an Ultima-minded vision is already forming around the engine. And while Ultima and SotA are different properties, they share more than enough of a common fanbase that this framework should appeal to both. Indeed, it would need to. And by using Unity — the technology underpinning SotA — our framework serves in pursuit of this goal, especially since Portalarium have already begun releasing Shroud of the Avatar assets to their Developer-level backers (for free), and to the wider Unity community (for purchase).
  • Portalarium. Lord British is on the record as saying that a Unity-based Ultima framework for fan projects is a “brilliant idea”, and is excited at the prospect of sharing SotA assets or systems that the community could use in their projects.
  • Community. Even outside of SotA, Unity has an already strong existing community of talented developers.

The Basic Concept: The main idea behind this project is that it should be based on a free and shared codebase, which multiple teams and projects (or even people solely interested in expanding the framework) would contribute to.

In essence, as each Ultima or Shroud of the Avatar fan project team worked on their game and the specific systems required thereby, those developments would be added to the framework, making them available to be used freely by other teams of fans on their projects.

Unity is nothing if not versatile; just look at the list of games and RPGs being crafted with this engine! The explosion of Unity-based titles across numerous platforms handily demonstrates the utility of the engine for creating almost any kind of game…including RPGs, of course. Thus, in theory, any form of Ultima-inspired (or Shroud of the Avatar-inspired) game could potentially be crafted with Unity. If Team A wants a more old-school overhead approach with a separate overland map, Unity can suit their needs. If Team B wants a fully-3D seamless world with a 3rd or 1st person view, Unity can suit their needs as well.

But most importantly, as both Team A and Team B (and other teams too) would be using the same codebase, any system developed by one team could be shared easily with the other teams and projects through the Unity package framework. If Team A creates an effective and complex NPC scheduling system, they can release it as a Unity package, and Team B can take it and use it for their project. If Team B creates a streamlined, stat-affecting Virtue system with specific tracking for gains and losses in each virtue, they can release it as a Unity package, and Team A could adapt it to the Ophidian Virtues while Team C could rework it for the New Britannian Virtues. Each team, by sharing their updated system with the core framework, bolsters the development efforts of the other teams as well.

This project would also, ideally, offer blank slate maps of Britannia, Serpent Isle, Novia, and possibly the other Sosarian continents for fan project teams to use. And these could exist in both overland and seamless incarnations! This would be one of the larger undertakings for the framework, but it would be well worth the effort if it went on to save future fan projects the effort of developing a beautiful 3D incarnation of their setting(s).

And like the Ultima Return Unified System for NWN2, the framework would have specific core features built in. Want a Virtue-based character creation system? There you go. NPC Schedules? Guard AI? We’ve got them! And this would apply to art as well, as teams could share Ultima — and Shroud of the Avatar — creatures and designs with each other. One team needs a Gazer? Well, what if there was already one designed by the community? Another team needs Gargoyles, winged and wingless? Here’s a set of rigged models! Likewise, we could create tools to use specifically within Unity that all teams could share. What about an easy-to-use dialogue editor that doesn’t require any coding? This has been done before…could it be done for Unity?

So essentially, each fan project’s features and tools will be added into our central framework, allowing it grow over the months and years, until it becomes the long-desired Ultima Game Maker that many have wished for, which in turn could enable Ultima and Shroud of the Avatar fans to build their own games and projects using pre-made systems and assets. Eliminating as much of the grunt work of asset and system development (and world-building) as possible leaves these teams with more time to craft meaningful stories.

This is Crazy: Yes.

This is a crazy and enormous endeavor. But we are at a crossroads, some might say…an historic time for our community. With SotA reawakening the passions and Ultima memories of so many, the Ultima and Shroud of the Avatar communities are now presented with a chance of growing still larger, and fostering anew a spirit of creativity that in recent years has been dwindling.

It will be long. It will be difficult. But in the end, this is an endeavor that will help many projects bloom, and many more stories and adventures to be told, in both the Ultima and Shroud of the Avatar universes.

I’m In! Where Can I Find More? We’ve launched a New Project Britannia website at the Ultima Codex; check it out at NPB.ultimacodex.com. For now, it’s basically just an information portal; everything I’ve discussed in the podcast is echoed there. However, it’s something we hope to grow in time, in partnership with The Digital Lycaeum (which is already a bit of an asset repository, albeit one which could certainly stand to grow and expand) and the Ultima and Shroud of the Avatar fandoms.

If you’re interested, get in touch. We’ll make it work from there.

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Music

Ultima VI Gates of Creation by OC ReMix