Saturday, March 20, 2010

The end of the Ultima brand

Once upon a time, in a previous millenium, there was a great series of single-player roleplaying games called Ultima. They were relatively open world compared to their competitors, and so it is not surprising that the series culminated in one of the first mass market MMORPGs, Ultima Online. Unfortunately once they acquired the brand, EA didn't treat it all that well. Ultima Online has the dubious honor of being the only MMORPG for which sequels were announced and cancelled TWICE, in spite of the announcements having caused a lot of hype. But the final nail in the coffin of the Ultima brand is EA's latest use of it: Lord of Ultima.

Lord of Ultima is a Free2Play browser strategy game, which plays exactly like thousands of other Free2Play browser strategy games, for example Travian. You build up a city, collect resources like wood, rock, and iron, build an army, and send those armies out to fight the other cities on the map. Lord of Ultima isn't a bad version of that principle, it is pretty enough, and even has some minor new features like the ability to send out your army to plunder a dungeon for a few resources. But it is far from original, and far from being a triple A game. And it suffers from the same problems that all those browser strategy games suffer from: As you become stronger with time, arriving later in the game means you'll never catch up; and a lot of the strategy revolves around repeatedly plundering players that just gave up. There isn't actually much you can do if a superior army decides to attack your city, they'll destroy stuff faster than you can build it up, and unless you are part of an alliance that can bail you out, you just get wiped out.

I was playing Lord of Ultima in the closed beta, with some success. I had a pesky neighbor who kept sending out small armies to attack me, but they didn't cause enough harm to stop me from building up my city. So once I was far ahead in resource production, I built up a far bigger army, did strike back, and even managed to conquer my neighbors city. That sounds dramatic when told in one paragraph, but in reality the whole story took several weeks. And I suspect the reason I won was that my neighbor got so bored that he just gave up. I haven't seen any action from him since I attacked him back.

Now the closed beta ended, and officially the game is in open beta now. The big change from closed to open beta is that there is now a shop. What EA did was to significantly shorten the build queue, so that you can only have 6 build orders queued up, which for most people means long stretches in which they don't build anything, because they are offline at work or sleeping. But for €1.10 per week, or €2.80 per month you can extend that build queue to 16 slots, and even queue up build orders you don't have the resources for yet, which will make your city grow a lot faster. A similar system exists for the army build queue. And you can buy resources directly from the shop.

In summary, Lord of Ultima is a blatant milking of a once-great brand for a mediocre Free2Play browser game with bad RMT. You wonder whether EA really thinks they will make money with that, or whether they just did it to spite Richard Garriott.

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