Late last night, as I was attempting to adjust en masse the scaling I had applied to some trees on a map I was working on for Return to the Serpent Isle, I suddenly found my thoughts straying back to something someone had said in an Ultima-related discussion on the Good Old Games forums. I had just finished mentioning that Ultima 5 and Ultima 6 had been remade using Dungeon Siege, which prompted one Ultima fan to quip:
So a game that we can’t play, because it can’t be bought online, due to a competition-unfriendly IP owner has been remade… in a game that we can’t play, because it can’t be bought online, due to a competition-unfriendly IP owner.
And it got me thinking…because he’s right. There’s a problem with these two remakes.
Don’t get me wrong; Lazarus and U6P are phenomenal efforts on the part of their development teams, and more than enjoyable in their own right. Either would do well as a standalone game (although, to be fair, both would definitely appeal to the hardcore RPG gamer market more than any other).
But both remakes, as good as they are, suffer from one cold, hard fact of reality that is illustrated above: where, these days, can you pick up a copy of Dungeon Siege? Used copies are sometimes available for sale on Amazon or eBay, but none of the digital distribution retailers carry the game. And increasingly, digital distribution is where game sales are happening; EA CEO John Riccitiello, for example, “expects digital sales to exceed sales made in the retail space [in 2011]“.
(Update: Although, just in case it sounds like I’m arguing that physical media retail will disappear entirely, let me be clear that I — like Riccitiello — don’t think that will happen. Not for a good long while, at any rate.)
In other words, it’s already hard to come by a copy of Dungeon Siege, as the game is only available on physical media. But look at the size of the “PC Games” rack at Gamestop the next time you are in there, good Dragons and Dragonettes; it’s probably pathetically small, and is likely going to shrink even more in the coming years. Unless Dungeon Siege suddenly becomes available for online purchase, obtaining a copy to play Lazarus is only going to get more difficult. It was great in its day, but its day seems to have ended.
Now on Steam!
Conversely, the catalogues of sites like Good Old Games (GOG), Impulse/Stardock, and (of course) Steam are only going to grow, as those sites add both new and old games to their inventories (mostly old games, in GOG’s case). And, indeed, Steam recently added Obsidian’s Neverwinter Nights 2 to its list of available games.
Now, obviously, Team Return (of which I am a member) is using Neverwinter Nights 2 to create Return to the Serpent Isle, and I re-iterate that point here in the interests of full disclosure. It’s possible, certainly, that what I am about to say next comes from my own enjoyment of and affinity for NWN2, its engine, and its toolkit, and that it is not entirely unbiased.
But here’s the rub: if Ultima fans want to produce playable Ultima content, it has to be something most people can pick up and play easily. As phenomenal as Lazarus and U6P are, and as cool an effort as Project Britannia is, these projects are only going to get more difficult for people to get into, as Dungeon Siege fades away into the digital history books.
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
- Ease of use
NWN2 certainly looks great...
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, as can be seen to the left (and in any of the other screenshots in this article) is certainly more than decent, and will still look nice some years from now.
NWN2 characters look great...
Even facial details on the characters look quite acceptable, as can be seen to the right.
NWNW2 offers a fairly standard third-person interface, with three different camera modes catering to different situations in the game, and to different player styles.
Electron, the Neverwinter Nights 2 toolkit, is indeed as robust as I suggest is required, but is also fairly easy to use. Detailed, good-looking areas can be created fairly rapidly (in as little as an hour or two, depending on the number of assets one needs to place in the scene), and a reliable battery of tools is made available to place objects, modify and texture terrain, and then smoothly join the two aspects of an area.
The library of 3D assets — buildings, trees, scenery objects, and creatures — that NWN2 boasts “out of the box” is pretty large, as well. You would need a little more than the game offers in order to create a mod with a complete Ultima bestiary, but the game starts you off with more than enough to get going with.
NWN2 has a robust toolset...
More than that (and we are doing this with Return to the Serpent Isle), Neverwinter Nights 2′s powerful scripting interface allows for the addition of new systems to the vanilla game, and even allows extant game systems to be modified. Team Return’s talented lead coder has replaced the game’s native Dungeons & Dragons-based stats with a more Ultima-appropriate system, has added food consumption/hunger monitoring to the game’s UI, redesigned the spellcasting system, and even figured out how to present custom game menu graphics to players.
And finally, Neverwinter Nights 2 is available, and then rather easily. It can be yours, this very afternoon, including its two major expansion packs, for the reasonable sum of $19.99, thanks to Steam. You could be cracking into the toolset by this evening; you could be messing around with my pre-release version of Ultima Return.
And barring Obsidian suddenly going belly-up and removing all of its games from Steam, you will be able to download and install NWN2 for…the foreseeable future.
Now, the major objection one could raise against Neverwinter Nights 2 — an objection which cannot be raised against Dungeon Siege, Morrowind, or Oblivion — is that its world is not continuous. That is to say, areas in NWN2 are of a finite size, and must be transitioned between. It’s possible to make “edge details” in consistent between joined areas, but that is not the same as a continuous world…you, the player, are presented with a loading screen between areas.
The single-scale, continuous world design has been a fixture of the Ultima games from Ultima 6 onward (with the exception of Ultima 8). However, it’s worth noting that previous Ultima titles employed the use of a dual-scale map; there was a map for the wilderness, and separate maps for towns, castles, and dungeons. Town, castle, and dungeon maps were of a different scale than the wilderness map. (And technically, dungeons in Ultima 6 were on a separate map, albeit of the same scale as the main map).
The new NWN2 Overland Map feature...
And in a most interesting way, the latest full expansion pack for NWN2 — Storm of Zehir — hearkens back to these early Ultima titles by introducing its workaround to the finite size of areas in the game: the Overland Map.
The Overland Map works by adjusting the scaling of various objects, including the player-character. Scaling of scenery and creatures is adjusted to give the whole world a kind of surreal look. The interface changes a bit, and the camera becomes locked into a fixed position and bearing. The idea behind all this is that modders can create a map of a larger region (e.g. an island or a continent) that players can traverse and locate points of interest (POI) on; entering these POIs returns the player to a map where everything is properly scaled, the camera is again free, and which can contain additional detail that wasn’t necessarily shown on the Overland Map.
The neatest feature of the Overland Map, however, is that you don’t necessarily need to use the default NWN2 terrain to create the map. You could use a sufficiently large, custom-placed bitmap image as a background instead:
Yes, those mountains are placeable NWN2 assets...
Of course, you can still place assets on top of the bitmap, which has been done here with an Ultima game map serving as the background. The mountains, in particular, have a kind of odd aspect to them, as though they aren’t entirely 3D…and the scene as a whole reminds one of the airplane sequences from any of the Indiana Jones movies.
(And indeed, it could be argued that the role of the Overland Map in NWN2 is similar to that of the map/plane flight sequences in Indy’s big screen adventures.)
So yes, Neverwinter Nights 2 doesn’t allow for the creation of a fully continuous world, a hallmark of the later Ultima games. But it does allow for the creation of a very fine-looking dual-scale world, a hallmark of the earlier Ultima games. I’d say that’s an entirely reasonable trade.
Remember: if Ultima fans want to produce playable Ultima content, it has to be something most people can pick up and play easily. That was Dungeon Siege at one point, because it was once a very popular and widely sold game. It was, for various reasons, the go-to engine for would-be Ultima remakers, and even for a few Ultima-inspired modders who wanted to tell a spin-off story.
But that day, I think, has ended. I would also contend that the era of the remake is also coming to a close, but that is the subject for a different article.
What the Ultima fandom needs to do — what Ultima needs its fans to do — is to create new stories, to demonstrate that there is still life and inspiration left in Britannia. We need modders telling new Ultima stories, and we need modders willing to tell short, succinct stories situated in smaller subsets of Britannian locales (e.g. a city, or a town and a nearby dungeon).
And I, for one, think that Neverwinter Nights 2 is the ideal vehicle for those kinds of projects.