With profound and humble thanks to Tina Small who took the time and trouble to produce this for us
Watchertoo of TGN Stratics Interview with Jeff Skalski, Ultima Franchise Producer, February 29, 2012
Watchertoo [00:11]:Good morning, Jeff! Welcome to our first video conference and welcome to our viewers/readers. This is Watchertoo from Sosaria Reels and we are with Jeff Skalski. He’s the Ultima Franchise Producer.
Jeff, the first question is what is an Ultima Franchise Producer?
Jeff Skalski [00:32]: Oh, wow. Well, pretty much I am the caretaker for Ultima for BioWare, and it’s my responsibility to groom and nurture the Ultima IP. Obviously, there’s lots of different things going on with Ultima, especially probably to people watching this feed. Of course, we have Ultima Online, such a big important product, not just for us but in our industry in general, coming up on its 15th anniversary, which we’re super-psyched about. And we have other Ultima stuff going on with the re-releases of the classics that we’ve done through Good Old Games and we’ll soon will be doing through Origin. And then some of our readers probably know about the site we pushed out last year on UltimaForever.com, where we’re kind of celebrating all things Ultima, as the IP continues to age and grow. So that’s pretty much what I do. With that, I have a couple of teams that I work with. I just try to make great teams, and normally when that happens, there’s great results at the end of it and it makes our community happy and it makes my executive team happy.
Watchertoo [01:45]: Have you always been involved with gaming? Is that the childhood fantasy, i.e., to grow up and be involved in the gaming industry?
Jeff [01:54]: Gaming for me has been an important part of my life since pretty much I was born. Going as far back as to looking at and playing on my father’s television, and then upgrading to an Atari, and then my first Nintendo entertainment system, and continuing on. When I was in school, I actually didn’t think I was going to get into the game industry, as much as I looked at it as a hobby. I was actually in art school, where my major was illustration, and I was really eyeing getting into a company like Disney or Pixar. In my freshman year of college, I ended up going to a talk by a local video game company called MicroProse ( fellow PC users out there probably recognize that name) and I ended up scoring an internship with them after my freshman year, and honestly I haven’t looked back. I’ve been in the industry for actually the age of Ultima Online, for 15 years, as I started in ’97, a few months before Ultima Online shipped. So, yeah, it’s something I didn’t intend to do, but now I’m so happy that I do it. I honestly consider myself very lucky and fortunate and I’ve always looked forward to Mondays. I’m very happy.
Watchertoo [03:16]: That’s nice to be able to say, looking forward to Mondays.
Jeff [03:20]: Yes, working with great people who challenge me every day, and that’s what I look forward to doing.
Watchertoo [03:26]: Speaking of Ultima being 15, have you played Ultima Online?
Jeff [03:31]: Yeah. Originally I was in the beta, back when I was in college. I used to play, back then I was playing on, I believe it was Chesapeake. I had a lot of fun. That game really was my first true online experience. Playing Doom and X-Wing with multiple people on a network was one thing, but logging into UO for the first time and realizing how open the world was and just getting excited over the fact that I could pick up a book and read what somebody wrote was enough actually for me even back then. Then, over time, I probably stuck around and played UO (when my roommate wasn’t hogging my machine playing it for himself) for a couple of years, I think it was about three years. Then I took a break. Honestly, I got swept up into working and trying to wrap up school and I just couldn’t dedicate the hours like I was in the earlier days.
Now with coming back to Ultima Online as the franchise owner, it’s been interesting since August to come back and look at the product, because I really hadn’t been playing it at all for the last 10+ years, and just seeing all the changes that have been occurring and try to understand why certain things were done and just making sure I get a better, up-to-date pulse on the community and where people are at with the projects and where we want to go with it.
I’ve been doing a lot of listening since August, sneaking into the game every now and then. I was actually playing on Baja last night. And yeah, trying to get myself reintroduced to the game and the journey it’s been through.
Watchertoo [05:27]: Do you have a favorite template?
Jeff [05:30]: Sorry, say again? I didn’t–
Watchertoo [05:32]: Do you have a favorite template? Is there a character type that you prefer to play?
Jeff [05:36]: You know, I’m trying out a couple of different things right now. When I was playing, there was no concept of this sampire, and I’ve been taking a look at that. Right now, I’m just rolling up a paladin and just running around. Mesanna keeps saying she’ll throw me advanced character tokens, but I’d rather not. I want to just start over from the beginning and see what’s out there. I’m just kinda dabbling in different things.
Watchertoo [06:04]: You’re returning because it’s part of your job, but our staff has noticed quite a few returning players of late. Especially in the world of PvP, I’ve noticed a lot. What do you think keeps bring people back to Ultima Online? They play, then they leave, then they come back, then they leave, and then they come back.
Jeff [06:22]: Definitely. We’ve noticed our subscriptions actually climb as people are starting to come back into the game, which is great. It definitely excites and motivates the team, and the hard work that they’re putting into the game. The first MMO that I actually developed was Dark Age of Camelot and looking and playing, I definitely still continue to play MMOs to this day, whether it was Everquest, Everquest II, WoW, Eve, the list goes on and on and on. There’s nothing else that can replicate the experience that is in Ultima Online. It’s such a community-driven game. The way I look at it is that as developers, we are just building a sandbox and we gave the players (you guys) a sandbox and we’re constantly just throwing new toys into the sandbox. And what you guys are doing with them is just unbelievable. I’m just constantly amazed, on almost a day-to-day basis, with the creativity of the community. It’s amazing, especially [given] the age of the product, [how] people have helped us mold Britannia in a whole bunch of directions that originally we never thought we would do. You can’t find that anywhere else. I can’t find it anywhere else. Some games start to scratch at it a little bit, but nobody has ever been really able to replicate the way the systems are designed in UO and how the game was built. I think a lot of it is because developers are maybe a little frightened with looking at where the mass market is going and feeling that “Oh, we need to really carry the player and show them what to click on next and make it very obvious.” Whereas with UO, you have to work to really get into the game and take advantage of everything that’s there and all the content.
Watchertoo [08:20]: Wow! You touched on a ton more questions I have, so I’m going to try to get to them without losing some of them.
Jeff [08:28]: Sure! We’ve got time.
Watchertoo [08:29]: I know, I’m getting excited now, so you’ll have to tell me to slow down.
Do you guys try to keep track of the percentages of active player base that are reds, and PvPing, and crafting, and even bank-sitting? (This is one of the questions that came from staff.)
Jeff [08:49]: I wish we did a better job. The answer is that actually I can’t pull that data about our players. We don’t have those telemetry hooks in the game. A big reason for that is that when Ultima Online was built, the underlying architecture wasn’t really built with that in mind. What we need to do now, in order to get that data accurately, is we’d have to spend the time… I’d have to invest my engineers’ [time] to go back in and build that. It’s a tough choice. Sure, that would be very useful information to have, but then I’d have to sacrifice other stuff getting built for an upcoming publish. It is on the list of things that we want to focus on, definitely over the…we have this mega-list–I can talk more about it later, we don’t need to get it now, because I’m sure there will be another question– of what our plan is, what are the things we want to focus on for the years to come. And telemetry is definitely one of those things that needs to be addressed. So yes, that’s really kind of a tough number for us to pull.
Watchertoo [09:59]: Speaking of development, obviously you’ve got a challenge because you have to develop for two clients, the classic client and the enhanced client. A lot of people probably don’t understand what that entails. Do you have a brief overview of what it’s like to develop for two clients?
Jeff [10:17]: It’s very tough. I wasn’t part of the team when that decision got made to do a new client. I’m sure back then there was probably a much bigger push to acquire new users and build a better client, the enhanced client, to really pull them in. It is tough. It does cause us to make sure that we continue to maintain both. And there are still areas with stability in the enhanced client, where we’re constantly looking at high-level fixes that we want to address. We’re completely aware of them. I actually play in the enhanced client and there’s a good portion, a good mix among the team here and with our team based out in Tokyo, that play enhanced and play classic. But we definitely understand that a majority of our users are still playing in the classic, but there’s a good healthy number of our users playing in enhanced. We want to continue to support both of them. There are no real plans to phase one out. We’re not going to force everybody to go to enhanced. But it does require a little more effort and work for us to keep both going.
Watchertoo [11:35]: Right. Is there any plan in place or any talk, I should say, maybe not specifically a plan, for updating to compete with the more current MMORPG styles?
Jeff [11:47]: It’s funny that because of how unique UO is, I almost don’t consider that there’s really any competition. I personally don’t have a desire to. You know this as an active, passionate player, the learning curve to get into UO is very steep actually, especially for someone whose definition of an MMORPG, their first introduction to that was a game like, let’s just take World of Warcraft. That’s a really hard thing to do, and honestly that’s just as much work for us on the development side to do it as well as for the help we would need from the community to do it. I’m really focused right now, my attention is on, all the players who used to play UO and the current players who are playing UO, and looking at how massive of a game we have and how it’s grown organically over the last 15 years, and addressing the systems that were left unfinished, where we didn’t follow all the way through or that conflict with other systems and we have a pile of bugs that are honestly just long overdue to be addressed and fixed, and revamping old areas. I really want to focus there. Now there are some things that we’re doing that we have ideas that will make the initial journey into the game a little bit easier for new players, but that’s not where we’re going to put a lot of our focus at this time.
Watchertoo [13:24]: That’s interesting. So is there going to be any focus or eventually some focus on trying to bring in new players, putting out promotions, putting some resources behind, for lack of a better word because I’m going into brain-freeze here, advertising for UO, trying to bring it back to life for new people?
Jeff [13:49]: This year is a big year for UO. The 15th anniversary is a big time, and there’s definitely going to be a lot of PR messaging throughout this year as we approach September on that. My hope is that we’ll put a bug in the ear of previous UO players, to draw them back into the strong community that we have today of active players. Along that, there’s definitely, whether through forums or through trade shows or people that I talk to or friends of friends, who know what Ultima Online is but have never played it. I think there is an opportunity there for us to gain their attention and get them back in. We’re going to look at how we’re doing our trial and some other things to help make that a little bit smoother experience. But beyond that, we’re not going to do like a whole new user experience. To do it right would take so much time and effort, where I think we could have some bigger wins with some other stuff we’re excited about doing that we’re currently working on or planning to work on later this year.
Watchertoo [15:03]: With [regard to] the population, trying to bring back players and trying to keep the current players interested and hopefully picking up new players, right now we have a lot of shards with low populations.
Jeff [15:16]: Right.
Watchertoo [15:16]: One of the questions came out is there any consideration [given] to combining shards to increase population?
Jeff [15:21]: We talk about it. We’ve talked it out from the one side where having that healthier population is a greater user experience for our players. And then on the other side, of course, we look at the cost too, because we have to maintain the hardware and all that.
Right now I don’t have plans on merging any servers. For UO specifically, compared to any other MMO that I’ve worked on, it’s very complicated just because of the housing component. It’s real “real estate” and it’s one of those things, honestly if I had to write the four pillars of UO that make it stand out and unique, our housing system is definitely one of the strong pillars, and also for what that does for the community. So I’m personally not comfortable with going through and saying okay we’re going to take this shard and this shard, and I’m going to merge these together, because my options would be either I tell one shard, “I’m sorry, you’re going to lose all your real estate, we’ll pack your stuff up and you’ll have to find somewhere else to put it,” which would be a cruel message. The other one would be I merge two and I just wipe everybody’s [house] and all the land and do a fresh reboot and there would be like a land rush for property. I don’t want to do that either. It’s so disruptive. So, I’m not planning on merging the shards right now. I know players are looking at migrating. Maybe we can possibly do something where we incentivize a little bit, because it is a lot to ask our players to do. But right now there are no plans, definitely in the near term, to do a server merge.
Watchertoo [16:58]: Along the same lines as the population on shards, recently you guys, well recent to me within the last couple years, introduced being able to shard transfer, which has been great, particularly for this reporter because I have to get a good character to another shard for a big event. Is there any consideration or ever been a thought to allowing people to pay to clone a character over to another shard, and keep–
Jeff [17:25]: Thought about it, yes. But I don’t really see us doing it and actually offering that, allowing players to clone themselves across multiple [shards]. Right now, it’s not something that we actually want to do. We put that system in place to allow people to move from shard to shard. We know some people like to follow the EM events and go around, or have friends scattered across different shards. But right now there are no plans for doing a cloning system.
Watchertoo [18:01]: There are a lot of questions out there still about developing the drops and the loot for the new peerless and so forth. Is there more development work going on?
Jeff [18:20]: Yeah, I’ll just call it out. We messed up definitely with some of our loot drops and we recognize it. We definitely have plans in upcoming publishes to be addressing that. We just don’t have proper loot dropping for the difficulty of the encounters. That is something that we have a designer now going through and combing through all that. So players will definitely see improvements of that over the upcoming publishes.
Watchertoo [18:47]. Great. And speaking of the development and what players would like to see, if a player has an enhancement, obviously there’s a bug reporting system, but if a player has an enhancement or a question about that, how should they report that to you guys? How should they contact you guys?
Jeff [19:09]: Are you just referring that they are coming across a bug, or–
Watchertoo [19:16]: Well, for bug reporting we have a pretty good system for that. But if they find something where they go, “Well, you know, this could possibly be tweaked and made better,” or “We would like to see this.” We used to have the dev forum and there hasn’t been much activity in it of late, so I guess what I’m asking is how would you like players…go back to using the dev forum or is there a better contact for them?
Jeff [19:40]: Right. I understand your question now. Communicating feedback to us…. The dev forum definitely has been pretty dead in the sense of us replying to some of the stuff, although we do read. Personally, for me, and I get a lot of flack on this, specifically from multiple UO forums, about tweeting, but it’s just something that is very easy for me to do. I run around so much between, because I’m managing more than just Ultima Online, so there’s lots of stuff going on. And I want to communicate, so forcing myself to get something out within 140 characters makes it kind of quick and plus I can read stuff as it comes in, rather than search through forums for it. I do put a time slot every week on my calendar. If you saw my calendar, you’d see where I allot time to read the forums on multiple sites. Sure, there are times I don’t reply, but I’m definitely there reading and definitely there are things that we read and we pull out. And whether it’s Mesanna or me or various other members on the team, we’ll discuss “maybe we should change this,” or “we’re hearing this from a lot of different people,” and definitely what we read and hear does impact things in the game. So maybe we need to have offline or after this interview, talk a little bit more about the dev forums and what we need to do with that and if we can repurpose them in a better way. In general, the team is scrubbing through forums. Sometimes they reply, sometimes they don’t. But they are definitely making notes of various different things. We try to see if it’s something we can work in or not.
Watchertoo [21:31]: Before we get to the big question that I’m sure everybody wants to know is if you can give us any spoiler or if you can give us any ideas of what’s coming, I’m going to take an opportunity to ask a couple of my questions. I’m well known as a rabid faction player and you probably have seen the forum responses to the wiping of the faction points. Can you give us not necessarily what’s going to happen, but a timeline for wiping those points and a little bit more on why it’s necessary to wipe them in order to make the repair to the deterioration of points?
Jeff [22:07]: There was, and I won’t go into details on the exploit (you probably know it), but it was honestly long overdue. We should have done this actually a long time ago. When we made the decision that we need to wipe all of the faction ratings, there was an exploit that honestly just tainted the whole system and devalued it in our eyes. So we needed to go back to zero and I know why we’re doing it of course adjusted the k rate and that’s honestly what it is. We identified an issue with the system, it was long overdue, and we just felt like now was the time to do that.
Watchertoo [22:54]: Do you have a rapid timeline for when it might hit production shards?
Jeff [22:59]: When it will hit?
Watchertoo [23:01]: Yeah.
Jeff [23:03]: Uh…no comment.
Watchertoo [23:04]: Okay. [Laughs].
Jeff [23:05]: Soon! Soon! I don’t want to commit to when. Our next publish, we’re shooting for March, so we’re coming up. Pub 75. So assuming all the testing goes well and things work out on Origin and all that, we’ll roll it out world-wide, but we’re looking at Pub 75 in March.
Watchertoo [23:26]: Well, along those lines, with the new publish coming out, is there the ongoing discussion of third-party programs and cheats, is there anything going on with that in this publish?
Jeff [23:38]: We are taking a more active approach to the hacking stuff that’s going on. Some of our players may have noticed GMs pulling them aside. I don’t want to get too much into the details of it. We don’t condone hackers. We feel that they devalue the game experience. And those players who are not, are on unfair grounds because they’re not hacking the system like the [hackers] are. So it unbalances things greatly. The bottom line is, we know when people are hacking, and we’re going to be taking a more aggressive approach against [them]: warning them and then, if need be, getting them out of the game and off those shards.
Now, speaking of hackers, though, there’s definitely…there’s some stuff that the team and I are in discussion about. We understand that some players just want to play that way, and [we’re] trying to figure out a way where we can give them a place to play like that. So, we’ll see. Maybe we’ll talk more about that towards the summer.
Watchertoo [24:58]: Also along with the 15 year anniversary and all of the story arc that’s going on right now, I was out filming an event and in order to put music behind it, I got into the music folder. One of the things I found is there’s some incredible music with Ultima Online. I’ve played quite a few other MMORPGs and personally the music that I have been finding and using is far and away the best I’ve found. Who’s responsible for coming up with this great music in Ultima Online?
Jeff [25:34]: We have an audio director here, Nick LaMartina. I can’t give all the credit to him, because I’m not sure exactly which track you’re referring to. If it’s something that we’ve added within the last couple years, it probably came from him. He’s a brilliant composer. If it’s something prior to that, those are from the previous various audio directors that have had the experience of actually touching and working on Ultima Online. I can’t recall them off the top of my head, I wouldn’t know who those composers were.
Watchertoo [26:08]: There’s some great stuff there. So now let’s get to the question everybody wants to know. What’s going to happen this year for the 15th anniversary, and of course, can you give us any spoilers?
Jeff [26:20]: Ah, yes, the spoiler ones. Okay, I will give you spoilers. I’ll give two!
Talking about the 15th anniversary, obviously I’m not going to tell you where we’re taking the story arc to, but I’m excited about it, if that helps. It’s a big thing and we’re theming all of our publishes around it. Just keep with it, enjoy the events and all the little bits of lore that we’re releasing on the Herald. That will be a cool event come September.
Two spoilers: One–I would say keep an eye on the wild dragons. And another one I would say, let’s see… Actually, this one gets brought up a lot on the forums, so I’ll talk a little bit about town loyalty because a lot of people are like, “What is this for?” Town loyalty is actually going to be used for a couple of things. I’ll give away the first one, there’s some bigger stuff though afterwards. Town loyalty will allow you to buy a city banner for where you’re loyal to. So that’s kind of near term. In the longer term, there’s actually something much bigger than that we’re going to do with town loyalty, but I’ll save that surprise for later.
Watchertoo [27:38]: Oh, interesting stuff coming along! Is there anything else you’d like to take a moment to relay to our readers/watchers?
Jeff [27:49]: Actually, yes I do. This is something else I get tweeted about or I read on the forums quite often. People want to know, especially when I release a producer letter, they’re like, “Well tell me everything that’s going to happen over the next two to three years. List it all out.”
Honestly, I can’t. I can’t list it all out. From a planning standpoint, I meet with everybody on the UO team and we discuss on a weekly basis where we want to take UO. We actually went through, over last fall, we scrubbed through all aspects of the game, from whether it’s art, to content, to servers, just every piece and component, some of it’s very forward-facing and the community interacts with it, some of it’s back-end underlying systems in terms of our hardware and how things are connected, our pipelines, how we build content, so we can be more efficient and build more in each publish. So we’ve done that and we have it broken down in very high-level, 50,000 foot, imagine looking at UO and what’s the roadmap for UO for the next 3+ years. We have that and areas that we want to focus on, and a lot of this I start touching on in my last two producer letters, because we’re acting on it now: Revamping old content; taking a hard look at and trying to crack down on hackers a little bit more; looking at really doing an aggressive push on fixing many bugs across the board, whether that’s content-related bugs or whether that’s stability with the enhanced client, making sure that we continue to support both of those. We’re putting a lot of focus there. And of course this year with the 15th anniversary, there’s this mega story arc that runs through all of our publishes, so there’s a lot of stuff that we need to do for each one of those chapters in the story arc. So that’s the reason I don’t list all that stuff out, because it’s kind of like big buckets, like “big idea” stuff. You know, what can we do with hackers and such.
In the near term, we have a much clearer idea. We know exactly where we want to go with this publish, where we want to go with the next publish, and continuing out through this calendar year now that we have these key beats around the anniversary and all of the little bits of stuff that we want to release to players and let the players participate in. So that’s the reason why we don’t go too much into it. I don’t want to promise something and then watch us not deliver on it or pull it back. There are times we will build something and realize when we put it out there that it’s not doing what we want it to do or we get feedback back that it’s not that great. And then we kind of cut it and we’ll revisit it later. We just have so many systems that I want to finish wrapping up that were kind of left undone: Getting the rest of the virtues in, going back and revamping these dungeons, we have tons of champ spawns we have to redo. So lots of little things. Lots of things we need to do around the economy of the game, as you guys already know. I’m almost preaching to the choir. We need to make some adjustments.
Watchertoo [31:22]: It sounds like you guys have in the near timeline a more detailed idea, and then it looks maybe you’re looking years down the road on big picture?
Jeff [31:33]: That’s correct. When it goes past that, just how we do production, it’s much more bigger picture. What we do on a week-by-week basis is we revisit those things, we challenge them, we reprioritize things all the time. We have to constantly reprioritize, look at the resources we have on the teams, and seeing how everyone’s timeline is and what they can get done. So we’re constantly adjusting, and then of course, keeping an ear out to the community and “what’s going on, what are people saying.” We triangulate all that against itself and then when we go into our planning session, like an actual publish planning, we convene and we pull all of that together. We figure out and we pull all of the pieces out of this mega-list of what we’re really going to focus on and break those out and really design out, if they’re new systems, and allocate the time that it’s going to take to do it. It’s a lot of effort. It’s not just a “here’s everything that we’re going to do,” because we may change some things.
Watchertoo [32:37]: Well, Jeff, I can’t thank you enough for spending time with us this morning. I’m going to ask you one last question and then of course you’re welcome to add anything you’d like to.
When you’re all done here, for whatever reason you move on to another job or whatever, what do you want people to remember about you personally and professionally?
Jeff [32:56]: Talking of Ultima Online?
Watchertoo [33:00]: Yes.
Jeff [33:02]: Speaking specifically just for Ultima Online, I hope I’m remembered for reigniting the core consumer for the game. I hope I’m remembered for taking a game that honestly has influenced so many other games and really kind of birthed the genre, in my opinion, and showing people and setting a benchmark where “wow, this game is 15 years old and look it’s still has got another 15 years easily.” And showing that it’s not just going on its own course and it will just do whatever it wants to do, like really showing how important and how big of a celebration this year is going to be for the game. I’m hoping for UO that’s what I’m remembered for, really trying to have a more active approach with the community, trying to celebrate not just what we’re doing, because that’s not actually what I care the most about. I actually care about celebrating all the stuff that you guys are doing, because I’m just so impressed and inspired by it. And then for Ultima, on a bigger picture, I’m hoping I’m remembered for bringing back this IP that’s just long overdue. UO has been kind of keeping the Ultima IP above water, but to me Ultima is so much bigger and it can do so much more for the game industry in general.
There’s lots of stuff in my head for where we can take the IP. Every generation deserves an Ultima game and I hope we can do some really cool stuff with Ultima moving forward.
Watchertoo [34:51]: Well, I would like to thank Jeff Skalski for joining us today. He’s the Ultima Franchise Producer. And to our readers and viewers, keep watching. We’re going to try to twist his arm and get him to come back as often as we can!
Jeff [35:02]: Hey, we made it happen!
Watchertoo [35:04]: Yes, we did.
Jeff [35:07]: It took a little longer, but we made it happen.
Watchertoo [35:09]: Yes, Murphy didn’t get in our way this time.
Jeff [35:12]: Yeah, just a little bit.
Watchertoo [35:12]: Just a little bit. Okay, thank you very much, Jeff.