Longtime reader Banjo is angry with us. He writes: "Cut the [harakh], guys. We all know something's up. I'm so [kass'richak] tired of WCNews and the Ultima sites playing cute and coy about this. Do right by your community instead of sucking up to a corporation that doesn't care what you do and tell us what's going on with Origin and GOG."
Strong words. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that we do not know what is going to happen. There have been times in the past where we were prevented from talking about this or that Wing Commander project because we were under NDA or because Electronic Arts asked us to. I promise you: this is not one of those times. No one on the Combat Information Center staff is under NDA about this project. We have no more information than any of you. But--this is a great opportunity to collect what we do know.
What do we know about Ultima?
1. EA is willing to revisit Ultima. This seems like it should be a given, but it's really not: for all the love that Ultima engenders in classic gamers, one cold fact is that Electronic Arts already has a very similar active AAA franchise: Bioware's Dragon Age. Is EA willing to put money into both an experimental Ultima game in addition to the franchise they are currently building out? That's where last year's Lord of Ultima release is important. Decried by fans as an Ultima in Name Only and a cash grab, Lord of Ultima still proves something very important--just by not being Lord of Dragon Age.
2. EA Louse Revealed an Ultima Facebook Game. In October, a furious former Bioware Mythic employee posted an angry rant under the name "EA Louse". It's a terrible argument in and of itself, mostly furious at his former bosses and desperate to create more drama. But contained in all that anger was a reveal that no one denied: Mythic's Paul Barnett is developing a Facebook game inspired by the classic Ultima games:
Oh yeah, and he needed Paul Barnett. You know him as the crazy British dude that appears in random videos at EA to promote his latest bullshittery. We know him as the crazy British dude who we have no idea of how he still has a job. This man was supposed to be the savior of Warhammer’s vision and design. Now all he can do is promote his strange ideas about his little secret project web Ultima game that’s been almost universally criticized by all of us and focus groups. What’s that? You didn”t know Paul loves one of those old Ultima games sooooo much he’s making a literal copy of it for Facebook? Well, the cats outta the bag. Too bad it sucks ass.
Interesting stuff--but I would immediately write off Louse's criticisms that the game is terrible as simply being part of his angry-young-man-looking-for-attention schtick. We all know that guy.
3. Paul Barnett has made no secret of his "secret project". Mythic Creative Director Paul Barnett has been twittering about an Ultima-seeming project for some time now, sometimes even mentioning the franchise. The wonderful Ultima Aiera site has done a great job of tracking these updates over the past several months (example).
4. Ultima 4Ever is a game with a familiar map. In March, the ever-vigilant Ultima Aiera posted a leaked photograph of Paul Barnett giving a presentation in front of a large map of Britannia, the setting of most classic Ultimas. Most interestingly, the image was labeled 'Ultima4Ever Dungeon Design'. Is Ultima 4Ever the Facebook game? Is it the same as Ultima Forever? Time will tell. Barnett, apparently relishing the hint, went on to Twitter that he had: "Put up a 7 foot by 7 foot map at work, it looks awesome! It's half the size it is in game scale! Great to see the whole world as one image."
5. Ultima Forever has a Twitter. In April, someone registered an UltimaForever Twitter account and labeled it "Official Tweets for UltimaForever!". The account was discovered yesterday, after Paul Barnett started following it... which caused Twitter to suggest it to anyone who follows Barnett.
6. Ultima fans toured Mythic last week. Barnett's twitter and that of another EA employee indicated that Ultima fans and bloggers (not us) were invited to Mythic last week to see the new game. In all likelyhood, webmasters are under NDA right now--but that won't last long.
7. Ultima Forever involves classic Ultima games in some way. Yesterday's leaked website for 'Ultima Forever'--which surely must be related to 'Ultima4Ever'--indicates it will offer a history of the Ultima series and even free downloads of Ultima 4 (something EA has busy been working to remove from "abandonware" sites).
8. Lord British isn't going to take this sitting down. In April, Richard Garriott answered a question on Twitter revealing a harsh stance against modern EA-developed Ultimas: "I can't control EA plans for the word Ultima. But we all know that only my team can create the true heir to my previous work." Since returning to Earth, Garriott has founded his own social gaming called Portalarium with other xOrigin notables and has spoken of plans to develop a spiritual successor to Ultima ostensibly called New Britannia. Making matters more interesting, Garriott retains exclusive ownership of the 'Lord British' character, meaning he can theoretically deposit one of Ultima's most beloved inhabitants in his own new world.
9. E3 is Coming. The E3 Expo, where companies traditionally announce new games and other initiatives, runs from June 6 to 9 next week. If EA plans to announce a new Ultima title any time soon then it's very likely that it will be next week.
All indications are that there's a concerted effort to relaunch the Ultima IP that isn't like something we've seen before. Electronic Arts seems willing to celebrate the classic Ultimas and almost certainly has a new Ultima game (likely for Facebook) in the works. But other than the historical connection, what does this have to do with Wing Commander... and why do we think it has anything to do with GOG?
What do we know about Wing Commander?
In short, Paul Barnett said it was in the works. Back in September, during Wing Commander's 20th anniversary, Paul Barnett posted a series of tweets about his plans to release Wing Commander I in DOSBox:
Talking to the dosbox people, so far they have been awesome, gives me hope for releasing old old origin product to the faithful!
Wing commander Turns 20, I am hard at work seeing if we can dosbox and release it! Come on ea legal... Now is the time to shine!
Wing commander in dos box and re~released , retweet it for the win!
now have a dosbox'ed version of Wing Commander plus secret missions.
Tech guys removed the copy protection question from the Wing commander build!
Now having the Wing commander game data compared to our original source code, we need a clean bill of health at this stage!
My plan is wing commander one , drm free and security bypassed. For FREE ( fingers crossed)
Today we get data compare sign off for wing commander, dr Ray will be hearing the pitch, from there only legal can stop us!
These tweets briefly set the gaming press on fire and made it as far as earning the project a short article in the print version of PC Gamer (which certainly hasn't said much about Wing Commander in recent years). Then, he went silent.
Now, at the time we were actually the ones who actually put together the Wing Commander I DOSBox mockup. Some of these tweets actually seem a little strange from that perspective--Mythic doesn't have the Wing Commander I source code, for instance... and the 'tech guys' who removed the copy protection from the game were us, looking up ancient hex editing tricks on a prehistoric Usenet archive. We did Wing Commander I and II with all their addons, with a neat menu system and had elaborate plans for 'extras' that could be included from material we have archived in the future... but communication stopped. I have tried to contact Paul Barnett several times since that first rush of work and haven't heard a thing.
But I know he's a good guy who is absolutely dedicated to this stuff. If there's a way to get Wing Commander out there, I'm absolutely sure he's doing his best. Which is where we get to GOG...
What do we know about GOG?
GOG is announcing something tomorrow, maybe. Good Old Games, a digital-distribution site originally created to license and sell classic PC games, is counting down to a 'major announcement' scheduled for tomorrow at 3 PM EDT. Is this a coincidence?
Here's where it gets interesting: EA employee Jeff Skalski's Twitter feed, previously associated with Ultima Forever leaks, posted this seemingly knowing message last night: "Wonder what's up with this countdown on GOG.com? #soexcited" When asked about the announcement he replied with only an emoticon wink.
GOG develops their own DOSBox bundles (which does seem incongruous with the Ultima 4 package mentioned at the EA site demo). Their announcement tomorrow is said to cover 25 games from a major publisher which at this point is known to be either Electronic Arts or Lucasarts. The smart money had been on LA-- they have been willing to digitally distribute classic games in the past (through Steam) while EA hasn't (with limited exceptions, such as their disastrous brief deal with the GameTap service). But the indications are that this may be EA, and Origin's back-catalog specifically. Interestingly, Mythic's own Origin page lists Origin's games as 25 titles (it's an odd list, which counts Cybermage as the same number of games as Wing Commander... but it's an interesting match to what GOG has promised).
So... what do we know? Nothing for sure--but at the very least Ultima games offered through GOG seems increasingly likely... and, we truly hope, Wing Commander with them. We'll find out tomorrow!