So we cornered the game's lead designer, Kate Flack, to try and get some answers. She couldn't tell Joystiq everything yet ("We're in alpha at the moment," she said, "and we'll be leading towards closed beta soon"), but read on for a few more insights into what Ultima Forever will be, ultimately.
To begin, it will be an iPad game. It will eventually move to other platforms (though Flack couldn't say yet how soon that will happen), but at first it'll be specifically a tablet-based title. "All these tablet devices," Flack told us, "there's something very personal about picking up the game, and touching the screen to make things happen in the game."
You'll tap to move and run your character around, and of course tap to navigate the redesigned menus. The game will also take advantage of the iPad's built-in virtual keyboard, Flack told us, "to chat with other players." A virtual joystick or buttons won't be an option at all. "I don't like them," said Flack.
As we've heard previously, the game is a reboot based on Ultima 4, so it will include many of the same situations and quests, but also updated content. Flack said the map is generally the same, though "we've expanded some things, we've moved a couple of things around on the map. We have quite a graphical fidelity now, so we're able to go into more detail on what things look like." The conversation system has changed as well. "You won't sit there and try to get keywords when you're clicking on things," Flack said.
I got to see a few gameplay shots at Comic-Con (though, unfortunately, EA's PR declined to approve those for posting), and the game does look like Ultima 4's flattened isometric view, albeit with the generous additions of next-gen resolutions and models. Some of Sosaria's original landmarks are in there as well, though they look more like later games in the series than Quest for the Avatar specifically.
Making what was previously a single-player RPG into a multiplayer title has other complications as well, Flack told us. In addition to the virtues (a series of moral characteristics the player must follow to live up to Avatar status) imposed on the character by conversations with NPCs and other actions, how players deal with their own kind may have an effect on their status as well. "It's also about how you treat the other players. It's exciting to have a game that deals with, are you going to attempt to steal from your groupmates or not, are you going to share with them, how are you going to play together?" Flask asked. "That's a true test of what you're actually like."
Despite all of the differences, however, Flack is convinced that the game won't "turn off old fans." She said the team behind the game not only has a lot of respect for Richard Garriott and his original game, but even went to look back at old materials to figure out what they wanted to do. "Ultima is very well respected in EA," Flack said. "and we specifically dug out all of the original manuals and all of the old design documents, and all of the interviews we could get our hands on, talking about Ultima IV and why it was created the way it was."
The new game will have some of the trappings of modern day RPGs, Flack said. "We give you a questlog, we give you a map, we give you all those things that modern RPG players expect in a basic entry in the genre." But as Ultima Forever goes through development, it'll be interesting to see if these modern updates, along with the multiplayer elements and the free-to-play business model, change the game too much, or allow the original classic to shine through.
"We've been very dedicated to asking," said Flack, "what was Origin trying to achieve, and what's the parallel in our time?" Ultima was a classic series of PC RPGs, one of the first graphical MMOs, and was even a free-to-play strategy game. "It has been all of these things," said Flack, "but that doesn't mean it has to always be that. Ultima can be multiple things." In creating Ultima Forever, Bioware's goal is "to bring it back, and make it a new entry in the Ultima stable."