The development history of Ultima IX is long and often tumultuous. The controversial final product is the result of many events that altered the course of the game's creation, of which the various stages of development are as follows:
The First Draft
The original plans for Ultima IX remain mostly unknown. Richard Garriott had said that he planned to ship Ascension in a sky blue box, progressing the trend established by Ultima VII's box being black and that of Ultima VIII predominantly awash with orange flames. The game's design apparently called for a greater presence of its predecessor's arcade-style jump puzzles and a story that took place on the Guardian's homeworld. This setting was initially hinted at in the Ultima VIII Clue Book. Ascension was originally meant to feature an enhanced Super VGA version of the Crusader engine, which in turn was a modified build of Ultima VIII's.
Little is known about the plot content of this first version of the game, although some early interviews with Richard Garriott prior to Ultima VIII's release suggested that it would focus on the ascension of the Avatar, having to gain enough power to fight the Guardian on his own ground without becoming a second such being. This premise is also consistent with the overview Garriott gave at the time he began this third trilogy, which was supposed to be about the Avatar "returning to the dark side."
However, public feedback following Ultima VIII was poor, prompting Origin to make a sharp turn in development. Included in the last patch for Ultima VIII was the FANS.TXT file, in which Richard Garriott wrote, "The design of Ultima IX (which is still in progress) relies heavily on this feedback and has resulted in a dramatic turnaround back toward classic role playing. Even better, it has resulted in a classic Britannian Ultima." Also mentioned was a plan to return to the dual-scale map system of earlier entries in the series.
Garriott himself was reportedly very unhappy with this first iteration of Ultima IX and in light of these developments, the game was started from scratch.
3D Version 1
The engine was altered yet again to what would come to be its final form. In 1997, 3dfx Interactive, with its Voodoo series, was the only major manufacturer of 3D chipsets. As such, Ultima IX was optimized to run on exactly that hardware. Previews slowly appeared and were met by fans with skepticism, especially once some of the more drastic changes started to make news and appeared to show a strong emphasis on action-oriented gameplay.
The game was no longer to have a party of companions for the Avatar and was once again a single-character experience. To compensate for the lack of a party, the plan was to give the player the opportunity to inhabit other characters such as Shamino, Raven, and even Lord British. This concept was ultimately scrapped after being met with an unfavorable reception by fans of the series.
In the now hardware accelerated 3D engine it was decided that a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective made for a more immersive gaming experience—something that provoked mixed reactions. The amount of art and voice recording work required also meant that there would not be a female Avatar option. The story of the game was mostly unchanged, although tweaked to have Britannia more firmly under the Guardian's control.
Again, numerous screenshots appeared over time in 1998 from the game engine itself and from the pre-rendered cutscenes, showing steady progress. However, the game suffered this time under an enormous personnel fluctuation. Dan Rubenfield and Marshall Andrews, two of the designers for Ultima IX, left Origin in May 1998. Their departure was not a peaceful one, with the two ex-employees blaming the company for sacrificing gameplay for the sake of an easy profit. Only one month later, lead designer Bob White followed the two to Ion Storm, although this time the split was amicable. Project leader Ed del Castillo resigned in July of the same year, attracting blame for many of the controversial changes in gameplay. After arguments with Richard Garriott he left Origin, citing "philosophical differences."
Garriott then decided to take charge over development personally, marking his first return to a director's role since Ultima VII. He felt the game was going in the wrong direction and wished to reduce the focus on action, later admitting this first fully 3D iteration was a mistake and that he let himself be influenced by the wrong people. As such, he decided to return to the roots of the Britannian series by writing a fresh story with new lead designer Seth Mendelson, the focus of which was primarily to be the Virtues and less about the war against the Guardian.
3D Version 2
Following the development team upheaval, work resumed on the one final revision of Ultima IX that would find its way to retail.
Shortly after the beginning of 1999, Electronic Arts gave Origin a mandate that the game had to be shipped in time for Christmas business. However, the title was still markedly bug-ridden and it was found to be impossible to implement the ambitious scale of the world and story in the given timeframe. In an effort to salvage what material they could, the team drastically shrunk Britannia, rewrote the plot into a more simplistic form and used every means to make it cohere with the work they had already completed, requiring certain gameplay areas and cutscenes to be used in contexts for which they were not originally intended. Due to a lack of time to properly fix them, several major features were also eventually removed, such as traditional NPC schedules (which, as well as taking a toll on overall engine performance, reportedly sometimes caused NPCs to fall through the ground) and the concept of having some NPCs follow the Avatar for specific quests (designed to compensate in part for the lack of an actual party).
By 1999, the environment for 3D accelerator cards had changed considerably from its infancy: 3Dfx had lost its absolute supremacy and the Nvidia Riva TNT chip, with its Direct3D support, had gained substantial market share. Ultima IX was not prepared for this situation; the game ran perfectly well on a Voodoo board under the Glide API, but suffered from major performance issues under Direct3D. Development time to rectify this problem had expired, however, and the game was shipped to retailers.
The end result proved to be notoriously controversial, being almost unplayable under Direct3D and still ridden with bugs. Many players were also disappointed with the size of the game world and lack of interactivity, but perhaps most infamous of all were grievances with the plot, with long-time Ultima fans citing multitudes of inconsistencies within the game itself and with its predecessors. While Origin did later address the technical Direct3D issues and the worst bugs by releasing a series of patches, the fundamental design of Ultima IX itself remained unchanged.
Due to the hasty re-tailoring of the game, old plot remnants can be found in numerous places.