his section presents fan art I have either enhanced or created for Ultima Online. But before we go into the images themselves, let me just briefly share my analysis of Ultima art - something which will enlighten most of you on understanding what drove me to do all this!
I've always adored the style used in Ultima art, especially in U8 The Pagan upon which Ultima Online's art was largely based on. So what are these qualities that make it so special?
Dark stroked edge: Up until UOKR, this has always been a signature quality of UO art. Alot of game art used this trick in the old days, to make items stand out better. They had no choice due to the low resolutions. But not only did they do this in Ultima art, but even emphasized it with thick black edges, giving the art a delightfully murky, packaged look. This was not only visually stunning, but enhanced playability and usability as well, making objects feel precise to pick up and move around.
Earthy shades of color: In a lot of todays games you will see companies go all out on saturation and contrast of the art - believing that this will impress and lure buyers. Whilst this may be true when the game is on the store rack, it backlashes at the player once they sit down to play. Bright saturated colors as you see in WoW are nice at first, but there is so much lustre everywhere you look, that you soon become numb to it. High contrast, as seen in games like Neverwinter nights may look "cool" at first, but for the player it can get exhausting to watch after a while. Ultima art never had this problem due to the artists understanding the beauty and long term playability of subtle, earthy shades.
The beauty of the pixel
There are many who believe 3d art to be far superior to 2d, thinking pixel art is outdated, primitive and limiting. But consider for a moment, that each and every pixel on your screen is colored in with a certain shade of color, so at the end of the day - even 3d is converted to become pixel art when the image is still. The only difference being, that 3d art is constructed of a polygon shape which has been mapped with pixel graphics and looks different as the object/creature rotates around. How the 3d graphics are rendered on different systems also can create huge variations in the output. Thus, the art is never in perfect control of the artist and a high quality output cannot be guaranteed. Pixel art on the other hand has each and every pixel lovingly filled with the color of the artist's choice - the complete image in control and can never look bad, no matter what type of system.
The developers of Ultima Online have now made several attempts at converting UO into a 3d game, but each time has ended with failure due to inability to keep the above mentioned qualities intact.
The cuteness factor: Ultima creatures have a quality which awakens affection for beloved pets, yet prevails even in the fiercest of monsters without dampening the fear they will instill in you.
n December of 2004, I launched a rant of a thread in the U-Hall forum of Stratics.com which generated so much interest that it eventually became the most viewed and commented thread ever. Not only was it huge but it also managed to stay active for over two years, eventually reaching it's goal - which was to gain the attention of EA so that something would be done about the issues I was concerned with.
For years I'd watched as the quality of UO's art deteriorated, but had never complained, assuming that the UO team was aware of the issues and would fix them in time. That day never came though, and if anything, things only got worse. UO artists came and went, sometimes the art was outsourced, sometimes there were no in-house artists and the game designers had to create assets! The beautiful legacy art was being slowly smothered by a plathora of jumbled art styles. For me, the last straw was when I layed eyes on the bonsais which were introduced with the Samurai Empire expansion. I knew I had to do something.
I decided I would write a provocative post in the Stratics U-Hall - notorious for it's sharp tongued members and exclusive culture. It was here that people would complain and debate about issues that needed fixing but any time someone mentioned anything art related, the immediate response was to shush it away based on the fact that there were "more important issues to fix" and "what could you expect seeing as the original artists have left". But I knew there would never be a time for art, the list of bugs and game play issues would be never ending. As for lowering expectations just because the original legacy artists were no longer doing UO, I found that unacceptable. I knew that any seasoned artist would be able to take the original ingredients and create new art pieces based on that reference.
But how would I gain the respect and attention of this demanding crowd? I'd never posted in U-Hall before, so I knew that if I entered the arena politely and meekly, I'd be bludgeoned. So I decided to make my post so arrogant, so dramatic that it would shake things up, arouse reaction, gain attention and eventually produce results.
I challenged my fellow players to come forth with the ugliest post-legacy artwork they could find, and by creating a remake of it, I would prove that new art additions were perfectly capable of being better quality and faithful to the original art style.
At first, the readers were dumbfounded, not quite knowing how to react. Who did this outsider think she was? Should she be received with contempt for such outragous behaviour or with admiration for the bravery she displayed. Luckilly, the majority reacted exactly like I'd hoped they would: they were infuriated once they realized just how bad the art had become and just how easily it could have been done well.
Soon other artists joined in and eventually there was a whole flock of us producing sample after sample of artwork which surpassed the post legacy assets with ease. It was concrete, in-your-face evidence of what should be, but was not. The ongoing flow of art submissions and discussions effectively lifted the status of art in UO to be one of the highest priority topics. What a change from before! Eventually the UO art devs joined in as well and we worked with them to identify the assets which most desperately needed renovating. They were great! Many many things were fixed and seeing all of this progress before my eyes was a joy to watch.
ue to my disappointment in how UOKR had turned out, I pondered the "what-could-have-beens" of the UO art. One of the ideas floating in my head was a curiousity to see what the legacy UO art could have looked like, had it been simply doubled in size and polished. There were many benefits to this type of solution: most likely, the graphics would be 100% compatable with the code (unless dimensions were hard coded), alignment and positioning of items in the game itself would be 100% compatable and everything would work automatically. People's paperdolls, houses and decorations would all look like they should. I'm a firm believer, that the last thing you should mess with, are people's creations - be they real or virtual. And lastly: it would look exactly like UO, only bigger and better! I mean, the only reason people ranted about the art being outdated, was simply because screen resolutions have roughly doubled in 10 years and now you have to squint to see the game world and tiny objects. This in turn, makes playing the game much less immersive. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with the art itself, it had simply become too small. This was the perfect solution. So, mimicking the style of the first challenge, I asked people to give me resize tasks, and I would scale them up, polish and show how nice UO could have been.
've been worried, watching how UOKR is moving UO into a different direction visually. Like myself, many believe the new style has lost some of the classic Ultima characteristics and has become much more generic. Mainly due to the new UI, the look now resembles that which can be seen in many of the current MMOs. This is a good thing in a way, since it makes learning the game more familiar for new players. But if UO is trying to get a part of the Big League action, it needs to have a look which is stunning and at least comparable, if not superior to other current games. But does it succeed in that? Or does the quality leave much to be desired? Many fear the latter - which means that taking that brave step into the boxing ring with the heavy weights will only result in ridicule, humiliation and failure. If there is one thing that has kept Ultima Online afloat for ten years despite it's outdated engine and look, it is the unique and special character - a game like no other. We shall see in the coming years, what the fate of this game is as they continue their journey in melting this into the rest of the crowd.