2002-09-16: Stratics Interview with Bryan "Tajima" Walker

Stratics Interview with Bryan "Tajima" Walker

We've heard that you were an important contributor to a couple other addictive games, Civilization and Alpha Centauri. How about telling us a bit about your background before coming to Ultima.

So while I'd love to be able to claim involvement with Civilization, unfortunately I can't! However, I did serve as Producer for Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, and greatly enjoyed working with Sid, Brian, and the team at Firaxis on such a rewarding project. As far as my background goes, I began my "professional" career in gaming way back in the early '80s doing freelance design and testing work for a few pen-and-paper game companies. Computer gaming was a natural progression, and I began breaking into the industry as a reviewer in the late '80s. I took a Producer/Designer position with Eidos (then Domark) in the early '90s, and cut my development teeth on a number of titles across several genres there. I joined Origin in early '98, and have been working on UO for nearly 3 years.

Please tell us about your responsibilities on the OSI team. What is your role?

As Producer, my job is to coordinate the efforts of our development team and synch them up with our QA, Community Relations, Engineering, Operations, and Customer Support groups. I'm very, very fortunate to be working with great people in all regards, and that makes what can be a very difficult job much, much easier.

I know you've responded to player questions late at times, even on weekends. Do you have a "real" life?? j/k! Seriously though, how many hours a week do you normally work, and how much of that is spent interacting with the players, especially on the Tech Forum that you have become so famous for?

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to post as much as I'd like these past couple of weeks due to a number of reasons, but I'd say I average about 15 hours a week on the boards, mostly in the evenings. I take pride in being the #27 poster of all time!

Can you tell us a bit about your life, such as what college you went to, what your degree is in, military experience, your hobbies outside of work, etc?

After graduating from the University of Tennessee with an engineering degree, I served in the Army as an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter pilot and fought in Desert Storm.

My hobbies include games of all kinds (of course), reading, weight lifting and fitness, mountain biking, building speakers, stunt kites, and training my dogs for agility competitions. I also take credit for as much as humanly possible regarding the positive aspects of UO's development, while blaming the fundamental failings of Evocare and MrTact for any deficiencies.

Publish 16 was a huge mid-year change, and a big risk. Please tell us why the OSI team decided to implement such a large change that significantly affected many aspects of our game. Why do so much at once, and why do it now?

From a scheduling standpoint, we had a window of opportunity with Publish 16 that allowed us to address a number of long-standing issues at once. The bug-fixing efforts from last year laid the foundation, and the dependencies of the Age of Shadows expansion dictated much of what went into the publish.

Why so much all of a sudden? Well, the biggest risk, in fact, is not to take any. The easiest way to kill a PSW is to let it stagnate. Publish 16 was just the first step in a concerted effort to revitalize UO and ensure it stays vibrant for many years to come. Yes, change is scary at times, but the feedback we've gotten since the publish has been truly gratifying.

One of the most significant changes contained in Publish 16 is the ability to have players increase their skills over grandmaster and stats over 225. Why did OSI decide to implement such a profound change?

It's a logical evolution, particularly given how many veteran players and advanced characters are currently in the game. This also ties into some of our plans with Age of Shadows.

The original bard change proposals in Publish 16 caused major discontent among veteran players. You and the OSI team took the unusual approach to involve a focus group of veteran bards to come up with final recommendations. How did you come up with that approach? How did you choose the focus group participants (Stratics reporter, Lady Malynn, had the honor of being a part of that focus team). What is your assessment of the results? Will you consider using focus groups again, and under what circumstances?

This approach has worked well on several projects I've been involved with, and was part of our plan from the beginning of the Publish 16 effort. We chose the participants based on a number of criteria, particularly their ability to review the changes objectively and provide clear, concise feedback.

A few months ago, we heard a lot about new human art for 3D. Those of us who use or want to use 3D are excited about seeing improvements. The OSI team had stated that UO would have 3d human art second to none. We haven't heard anything recently. Why haven't we seen the human art improvement yet? When can we hope to see the improvements?

In all honesty, it would be virtually impossible for an isometric-view PSW like UO to provide the graphics detail of a first-person game without requiring everyone to upgrade their PCs to the very, very latest hardware. There are simply too many technical limitations to overcome in this regard. However, we've been constantly working on the new avatar art, and just today showed it to a small group during a focus test. It was well received, and we're confident users of the 3D client will simply love the improvements.

In your leadership position, what do you consider UO's strengths and weaknesses compared to the competition? And why should a player choose to play UO over any other game out there?

UO could really be considered a classic adventure novel. It's an experience of purity and courage, cowardice and corruption, power and passion that combines to form a very real, if imaginary, place of being.

Given our old-school graphics look, why would someone play UO? The same reason they read a great book. No rendering system ever invented can challenge the imagination, and UO's unrivaled scope and depth can immerse a player like no competitor can.

If this last year is any indication of the future of UO, we are in for lots of exciting changes. Can you give us your perspective on the future direction of UO? What other major changes do you see in our future? Come on… give us some hints!

The progress that Age of Shadows is making is simply thrilling, and as we enter fall you can expect a lot of information on some features we haven't even disclosed yet. There's never been a better time to be a UO player, and the next six months are only going to be more so.

Any other cool things that will be part of AoS that haven't been revealed yet?

Yes, and we'll be discussing them starting in October. ;)

If you were able to wave a magic wand one day and add three new things to UO without needing to worry about resources, development time, etc, what would you add and why?

They'd be very similar to some of the features we're putting into Age of Shadows. I've been a fan of Paladin character classes since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons, the Necromancer has tremendous potential, and the ability to customize a house starting with a bare foundation really expands one of UO's most popular features. AoS neatly summarizes what we've wanted to do with UO for years.

In our opinion, one of the most incredible systems to be introduced into the game in years was the Gardening System. What is your opinion of that system and do you see it's basic structure (long term development of a finished product, intricate detail and puzzle-like system) being used for other aspects of the game?

With the introduction of the Bulk Order Deed and Gardening systems, we're excited about the additional play opportunities that have been introduced into UO over the past year. We've been consistently improving our engineering processes, and now have a number of new systems in place now that can be leveraged to create more exciting content for our players.

Three words - Star Wars Galaxies. Concerned? Excited?

There's a common misconception that the arrival of a new game somehow hurts existing games. In reality, UO's subscriptions have risen consistently following the launch of other PSWs, proving that there's still a great deal of growth potential in the market. If a major game has a clean launch and good content, the PSW industry as a whole benefits.

How are subscriptions to UO doing since LBR's release? Is the game still above 200,000?

Yes, indeed. UO has well over 200,000 subscribers, and we're gearing up for more growth!

The Sims Online is another MMG being put out by EA in the next year or so. Many people have commented that the changes in housing coming out with Age of Shadows are VERY much like The Sims. Has this game influenced the development of UO at all? How closely do you work with Gordon Walton and the rest of the TSO Dev Team?

These were actually completely different development efforts. We've known for a long time that UO players love to customize their houses, and we wanted to build on that.

Which Dev Team member always ends up taking the last piece of pizza during the late-night work sessions?

That would be me.

Do you see the need for players to upgrade their Video Cards, etc once Age of Shadows comes out? What would be your recommendations at this point?

There will be no significant increase in the hardware requirements for Age of Shadows. In fact, we're doing a great deal of optimization to the client code, and are confident the game will perform better on the very same hardware players are using now.