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Lord Blackthorn's Revenge

EA size up the competition as they plot revamp for Ultima Online

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Last year's cancellation of Ultima Online 2 was something of a shock for most people, as EA unexpectedly decided to focus on supporting their original four year old online world instead of developing a fully 3D sequel to the game. Rather than waste all of the hard work that had gone into the abortive sequel, including a set of bizarre new monsters created by comic book artist Todd McFarlane, EA have managed to recycle some of the artwork and characters for their new Ultima Online add-on pack, Lord Blackthorn's Revenge. As the pack's website confirms, "we are using some assets that were created previously for [the sequel], but this will not be associated with any of the fiction created in the past for UO2". This means that, for example, the Meer and Juka races which were planned for UO2 and featured in many of the game's early screenshots will now find their way into Ultima Online, but only as non-playable monsters, and with a somewhat reduced polygon count judging from the batch of character renders released by the publisher just before Christmas. EA are quick to point out that this isn't just a rehash of left-overs from the UO2 fiasco though, as "there will also be quite a few additions to the world of Britannia that were created exclusively for this new incarnation of Ultima Online". Perhaps more interesting though is the lengthy product sheet that came with the latest batch of screenshots. Unusually (and quite possibly accidentally) this includes not only the familiar PR spiel and feature lists you would expect to find in a press release, but also frank assessments of the challenges facing EA in marketing an add-on pack for a game which is somewhat past its prime, as well as a brief look at some of the game's main competitors. "In the US [Ultima Online] is a well-known brand and stands for innovation, realism, fantasy roleplay and intriguing adventures", according to the product sheet. "In Europe, it is not as well known for the Ultima brand and much better known as an online game that was surpassed technologically by EverQuest and subsequent online worlds. This needs addressing." EA seem to think that the way to accomplish this is to "focus considerably on the title 'Lord Blackthorn's Revenge' and less on the Ultima Online logo and brand", concentrating on "cool monsters, gameplay features, and gaming experience" instead of letting it be portrayed as an "old timer online world". As EA themselves point out, Ultima Online is "perceived as neither the biggest nor the best" and to correct this "there needs to be a style change in order to provoke more consumer interest". This means attracting new players into the game, which has around 200,000 subscribers at the moment. Younger players in particular "want immediate results" and are "impatient"; they "need persuading that the UO brand is new, exciting, full of potential and [offers] online experiences they don't see in other products". Luckily then Lord Blackthorn's Revenge will add an innovative new Virtue system and a range of features designed to make "joining the world of Britannia .. better, easier and a lot more fun", as well as some odd cyborg creatures that really look out of place amongst the more traditional dragons and trolls of Britannia. Whether this will be enough to revive flagging interest in the game in the face of increasing competition remains to be seen, and interestingly the Blackthorn product sheet includes an overview of some of Ultima Online's rivals. Dark Age of Camelot seems to be a favourite at EA, described as having "lots of advance awareness" here in Europe and "impressive technology support and design". Asheron's Call is "classified as one of the steadiest and [most] 'roleplay friendly'" massively multiplayer games on the market, although it has a relatively small subscriber base. At the other end of the scale, Anarchy Online is blasted for suffering an "outrageously bad launch" which caused "a lot of players [to] leave the game very early on". EA see the game as a triumph of style over substance, saying that it "looks great [and] gained interest for it's style and subject, if not it's design and playability". World War II Online also gets a brief mention, described as having had a "disastrous launch [which] left this product with very little respect in the online gaming internet circles". Finally there's the big one - Evercrack, which currently has twice as many subscribers as Ultima Online. "EQ is very strong", EA admit. "Its players have a reasonably unique tendency to be friends out of game. Common in the UK for EQ players to all drink together and then meet in game once they all get home." So if you see a bunch of elves down the pub drinking lager and lime, they're probably Everquest fans... Related Feature - Blackthorn gets revenge on Ultima Online

Source - product sheet

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