GDC 2018: Ultima Online post-mortem with Richard Garriott, Starr Long, Raph Koster, and Rich Vogel


Plenty of panels at GDC are recorded and uploaded to the internet weeks after the event, including this one. It’s not quite the same as being there, as you miss a few things. For example, this year’s Ultima Online Post-Mortem panel was packed. It was international. It was fun, gross, nostalgiac, and sometimes groan-inducing.

And I’d hate to just summarize the talk, especially since some of you vets have heard these stories before, but since ya’ll couldn’t make it, I’ll do it. For you. But for this particular panel, not only will I try to summarize what was said before the panel will be viewable online in a few weeks, but I’ll dish out on the after-panel chat with Richard Garriott, Starr Long, Raph Koster, and Rich Vogel, including comments from the team on bad bans, kingslaying, VR, and the state of the MMORPG.

Doom desires

Let’s set the stage for a moment here. As the UO team pointed out, our current setups are significantly better than whatever “awesome” computer you had at UO’s birth. Our current modems are 2500 times faster than what Ultima launched with. On average, you’ll have 1000 times more RAM, 8k times the video RAM, and your phone probably has 10 times the storage. You’re no longer paying for online games by the minute.

This was the era UO was born in. The internet was still new, subscription systems for gaming wasn’t a thing, and heck, even creating unique registration codes for said games wasn’t a given yet since the online market was so small. Koster notes that due to convergent evolution of tech and ideas, it may be hard to pin down certain genre firsts (except maybe for the term “shard” for servers), but UO certainly was a pioneer and a product of its time.

In fact, UO started not with the Ultima IP, but with Doom and a “rocket to the face” for Starr Long after he found out the hard way that he’d lost the race to a rocket launcher to one of his co-workers. The idea was really simple: Playing with/against other people was really fun, so why not do it with an Ultima? In fact, the early name for the game was Multima (Multiplayer + Ultima).

While this is clearly a celebration of Ultima Online, I want to take the time to bring in a point Koster kept hammering in: There was convergent evolution already going on. In fact, Koster was invited to work on Meridian 59, another Doom inspired MMO, after meeting one of the devs in a MUD, though he was already working on UO at the time.

As Koster, Long, and Vogel noted, in the early days, tons of devs and graphics guys were on the same mailing lists freely sharing ideas (unbeknownst to EA, of course). Not just “old,” “irrelevant” designers some punk in the comments will chime in about but designers newer gamers should know. Besides the fact that all these developers are still in the industry, other moderns include John Hanke (the Google Maps and Pokemon GO guy) who worked on rival project Meridian 59, and Damion Schubert of The SimsShadowbane, and SWTOR fame.

Three strikes, it’s on

The problem was that there weren’t really many MMOs at the time, so when marketing looked at similar games (again, charging by the minute), it looked terrible for profits, even with the Ultima IP. EA didn’t get how big the internet would be, so Long and Garriott tried to explain to the suits that pricing models would change. EA still said no. Six months later, Long and Garriott tried again, but still got a no. They tried a third time a year after their first attempt, still got a no, but three rejections was too much for them. They refused to leave the room this time.

The guys reminded EA that they “only” usually went 25%-50% over budget, so they asked for $250,000 for a prototype. Garriott made it sound like it was quite a scene, and EA finally said yes, even though they thought the lifetime units sold would only be 30,000, twice that of the then top online games.

The problem, now, was that they’d never made a game like this before, so they looked to MOOs and MUDs. Enter Raph Koster and his wife Kristen Koster. They weren’t just granted the jobs, though. Their applications apparently made quite an impression on Garriott and Long. Not only did they have experience with MUDs, but Raph and Kristen had already been forward thinking.

Kristen, in Raph’s words the second major designer for the game and worthy of far more credit, had a background in economics, and the two included ideas of virtual economy in their application. They even included an idea of a resource system for the AI based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Sadly, this didn’t make it into the game because they weren’t sure it would even be possible.

The game’s first iteration was on the Ultima 6 engine for its prototype. All players could do was run, pick up an item, and drop that item if you bumped into another player. The team would show others what they were doing and communicate via telephone conference calls, and people were interested.

The problem was, they didn’t want to make it. In fact, EA really didn’t like anyone working on UO, shoving the team into a part of the building that was under construction, reminding me of the sort of “explusion rooms” Japanese companies may use to coerce employees into quitting. For EA, the new Wing Commander was deemed more promising. It wanted a new main series Ultima title, something it felt would print money.

The team was young, though, with a median age of 22 years old. Since no other “graphical MUD” existed to inspire the team’s work on what would become one of the first MMOs, no one yet knew the limitations. The team felt it was doing “the impossible,” in that it could at least try to do anything and everything. In fact, the team built its own website before EA had a company one up and running. It even had a huge FAQ of promised features that obviously didn’t all make it to launch.

However, by the time the team was ready for beta, it’d run out of money. In what may be one of the first examples of an early access game (take note on this price point, devs!), the team asked people for $5 to beta test for them. This had more to do with the cost of actually making the CDs and sending them out than making a profit.

Within days, 50,000 people had offered cash to test to project. Remember, the projected estimate for lifetime unit sales was only 30,000. Finally, EA woke up. Work on Ultima IX was put on hold, with the team being reassigned to UO, plus more middle management “help.”

Awakening the slumbering giant

The small, nimble team now had a glut. The new people were not happy since they were from a canceled project. Designers were being used as programmers for the most part, which actually led to many bugs since programmers know tend to code better than designers. Pulling it all together was difficult.

It wasn’t all bad, though. This is when Rich Vogel was brought onto the team. He found out the hard way that the UO team didn’t have an account system, so he had to make a code system program that created codes by waving a mouse around to generate a keycode for each product. By hand. Worse, EA didn’t have a billing system in place to collect all that money it was hoping for, so Vogel used a third-party company. As credit cards weren’t widely used in Europe yet, the team decided to sell game time in boxes. As the internet was still very new, usernames and other “normal” login requirements and methods didn’t exist for games yet. In short, UO was pioneering solutions and industry staples for EA and in many cases for the rest of the gaming industry too.

With the new units sold projections, the dream of a single-server world for all players was shattered. The team came up with a lore reason for the split servers: In Ultima 1, when the players destroyed the Gem of Immortality, it fractured reality.  Each of the shards was a different world, and the idea was to recombine them to make a singular reality, though clearly that never happened.

Launch was, of course, messy. The team was learning on the job. For example, environmental items weren’t always properly flagged, so people could grab stuff like pools of water and fish in their backpack. When the servers reset, these would be back in the world and up for grabs. These were the rares Koster’s talked about before. People would then sell them on eBay.

Garriott notes that this led to a serious discussion about how to handle the buying and selling of virtual good for real money and whether or not to get involved. How would it affect the game? How would it affect the community? Did these things have real value?

At the end of the day, they decided not get involved since if people were working for their virtual goods and people were willing to pay for them, why intervene? The team had to tell EA not to fight it because EA probably thought it might make or lose money. That being said, maybe we can blame gold selling and RMTs on UO and the devs, as people set up companies to farm these items, then realized they could just get the game currency to allow people to do that, and then the game companies stepped in to sell both the currencies and the items themselves in other games.

It was a rough situation. A small agile team basically made UO in two years. EA moved that number up to 50, and while it solved some issues, it created many more. While the dust was still settling, EA then shifted people to new projects, including the ill-fated Ultima Onine sequel. Vogel came in one day to find that all the programmers had left to make their own project too.

And still, EA ruled with an iron fist and short sight. When Koster first went to China in around 2004, tons of developers a thet China Joy festival knew not just him, but UO, even though the game never launched there. Apparently, in 1999, half a million people were playing UO on grey shards in China. That was a figure the game hadn’t reached in the west by that point, so it shocked him.

It should shock EA too. Prior to this, Koster had known about reverse engineered grey shards, which didn’t affect his game but clearly had an audience. He’d suggested to Gordon Walton (who’s worked on not only UO but The Sims Online, Star Wars Galaxies, The Old Republic, and now Crowfall) that the company could sell servers with documentation to help people out while turning a profit. In addition, they could place a red moon gate in people’s houses so they could move off of the official shards and on to grey shards if they wanted to (never back into the official servers). EA wouldn’t do it then, but Minecraft has since adopted something like this. Clearly, EA didn’t understand the market then, and history seems to be repeating itself.

Non-consensual PvP was a mistake

Naturally, PvP came up during the panels and the Q&A afterward. As painful as it may sound, one thing all the developers agreed on was that non-consensual PvP was a mistake. It’s a bit painful for me to write that, as most of my best MMO experiences took place in FFA PvP worlds, but Garriott noted that they had the metrics to back it up. People were buying up UO, but they were returning the game very often as well.

As veterans of the game probably know, the team worked on around seven redesigns: bounties, flagging systems, notoriety system, and more. Bounties and notoriety became high-score bragging rights, peer pressure didn’t work, and flagging systems created their own issues. Addressing the PvP issues was huge. Looking back, Koster was worried that if they didn’t give players the tools to deal with PKs themselves, they “might end up with something like Twitter!” In a sense, I get that: Non-consensual PvP is a very public system where the weak get preyed on in a very public way, often with no official help.

Again, I’m an open PvP fan. I’ve seen communities manage and fix themselves. That being said, I was also part of groups that did “4 a.m.” raids to try to teach people a lesson about the dangers of stabbing allies from another time zone in the back. Players need stronger tools to police themselves, and part of that involves making sure everyone understands what they’re getting into. While you know an FFA PvP game is going to be harsh, the social nature of MMOs also means you’ll get people who are just playing for their friends.

One idea everyone seemed to agree on was the idea of progressive danger. Badlands. Tons of warnings going from a nice, safe newbie zone to the blackened fields of war so you know what you’re getting into. In fact, Koster and the others praised former co-worker Tom Chilton’s work on World of Warcraft, noting that if you look at the way people describe PvE and PvP games, WoW is a PvP game, even though it’s seen as safe. Why? It has pre-set factions at war and a flagging system even on PvE servers. That being said, Koster also feels the wording looks a lot like his work on the SWG flagging system.

People behaving badly

That being said, Garriott noted that people’s best memories of UO involve “bad behavior.” Many developers, since GDC is largely made up of them, would preface their questions with anecdotes about their PvP experiences in UO, from siblings ganking each other to getting banned for “power playing.”

And it’s not all PvP: One of the first successful businesses in UO was actually a prostitution ring. In game, it just bowing with NSFW talk, but cybersex clearly sells.

During a holiday season, the team put together a Christmas event. However, Santa’s clothes could be stolen. People collected these outfits and would go around killing people. Eventually, one of the developers came forward to Vogel and admitted that he was the leader of the Santa PK guild.

There was also something called “The Siege of Trinsic.” A PvP carpenter guild formed and blocked the main gate with furniture. The siege lasted until the next patch since the developers didn’t want to be heavy-handed. Again, the idea was to give people the tools to rules themselves. For this issues, they gave people the ability to hack apart furniture, allowing people to continue to use barricading as a mechanic but giving people’s opponents a counter.

Obviously though, people would get mad with the developers from time to time. When they’d get upset, their in game protests caused lag. When people wanted bugs fixed, creating a massive lag problem would certainly grab the developers’ attention, even though bug reports often already held them, but the team chose to work on said problems rather than communicate with every single player reporting the issue. Angry players would enter a major castle developers were known to frequent, get drunk, get nude, barf everywhere, use vulgar language, and even moon the devs in unison.

And let’s not forget the infamous assassination of Lord British. At Origin, the QA people were panicking, asking, “How do we get him back to life?” Long looked right at Garriott and proceeded to make ghost sound effect. However, he also spawned a bunch of distraction demons to help his forgetful friend, then GMs and protected the corpse so people couldn’t loot him.

In hindsight, Long and Garriott admitted that they shouldn’t have banned Rainz, Lord British’s killer. Long said, “[Rainz] didn’t do anything wrong. There was no exploit involved. He didn’t cheat. If anyone is to blame, it’s this guy [Richard Garriott].” When someone in the crowd asked why Rainz didn’t get to loot Lord British, Long says it’s because, again, they felt at the time it was “wrong.” Rainz had disrupted an event meant for everyone, but in hindsight, everyone agrees it was Garriott’s fault. It was at this point the team started to realize that the players would be the ones to rule the game, not the developers.

The value of community management

While there were a lot of technical issues, one thing the team learned early was that were was a big need to communicate with its fanbase. After all, with the internet and a chat system, they were now all connected and could form in-game gangs. The problem was that community management is completely different from PR. They needed someone on their side to connect the players with the developers, but it was hard to define it in a way that made business sense at the time.

It wasn’t just that there wasn’t an official person to handle the job (which, when Koster started doing it later, took up to 20 hours a week). The team had been silenced by a 1998 lawsuit about false advertising, based on the fact that server crashing meant the game wasn’t available 24/7. EA didn’t want the Origin team talking to anyone. In fact, Koster had to turn in a lot of original designs about the game, and still talks about his missing documents). Eventually, though, the team disobeyed their overlords. They couldn’t afford not to communicate, and with help, things improved, for awhile.

The same volunteers that helped UO run eventually led to problems. Volunteer Game Masters, especially with god powers, could abuse the system. This was what got Koster to really start reading about politics and government. UO had a population the size of San Antonio, Texas, complete with “corrupt cops.” Beyond dealing with the volunteer GMs, they needed a kind of counsel to get players involved in their own community. Enter the patch notes and test shard idea. This gave people a way to see what the developers wanted to do, test them, and then give feedback.

But managing the community wasn’t all drama. It was promoting fans too. Vogel called in the guys behind the Crossroads of Britannia message boards because they couldn’t handle the hits and looked like they were going to go under. There was a budding comic, Samwise, that eventually led to a rather famous PvP comic. And there were countless developers, from EverQuest to SWTOR talking about how even just reading about UO inspired them. Giving people a place to show off their work, manage their fan passion, and be recognized by the developers helped the game both in the short and long run.

Lessons learned and hopes for the future

Remember when you could drop items on the ground? Raph Koster remembers. And he’s kind of unhappy about its disappearance (so are we!). While no one said the MMO genre is dying, all voiced frustrations with the current environment. For example, these days, their motto is, “Don’t launch until you’re ready,” not “You only get one launch.” Clearly people are taking the word “launch” too literally in the latter quote, so what the developers said was don’t release your product in the wild until it’s ready for public consumption.

As odd as it may sound, chat bubbles were a very conscious design decision that sadly still aren’t be properly utilized according to Koster and Vogel. In fact, Koster wanted people to have different fonts but they couldn’t afford it. Everyone agreed that bubbles made chat more personable, but it wasn’t an original idea: Habitat was the inspiration for the system. In Habitat, the chat window was at the top, but it was built from players’ chat bubbles, and was traced back to the players. Koster loved it, which is why SWG’s chat system was parsed to help your character emote based on what you typed.

Talking about other projects (namely Shroud of the Avatar), Garriott wanted to bring back the idea that not every character needs to be a combatant. You can’t even explore most game worlds without being a combatant. Think of a tutorial that lets you move through it without fighting. Short list, huh? Well, going back to Koster’s post about trust spectrums and the need for interdependence (really, read that some time), Garriott wanted a game where the combatants needed to rely on non-combatants and vice versa. We’re still very rarely seeing this. Every other game makes economic stuff a side game for combatants, and the Kosters’ ideas to support this still stand out to Long and Garriott.

While on the topic of SOTA, Garriott wanted to emphasize why he uses the word avatar. He doesn’t just want it to be your “character.” The idea is that, similar to how the word originally means something like the tangible form of a god, your avatar should represent you in game. For example, Garriott said that in a Conan game, the game would be judging you based on your ability to uphold the virtues of Conan’s world. If you play however you like (as opposed to roleplaying something in particular), that would mean the character is your tangible (for the game world) representative, and hence, avatar.

It’s also why he wants a classless system. We jump from game to game already. You go through a character creator getting your character just right, only to find that maybe you don’t like it, or maybe you “messed up.” An open system allows you to more easily migrate your skills towards your new goal, kind of like real life. Garriott emphasized that he feels he’s finally found a way to do a single server experience, so with any luck, SOTA should be doing things UO originally set out to do.

When asked what the guys would do if they could do anything different about UO’s launch, Long says he’d have fixed stability more. While the game got a lot of praise at the time, Long gave some props to Johnny Wilson (the guy the JWilson Slime is based on because Long asked Wilson for UO‘s “Coaster of the Year Award” and Wilson took offense) because the game really did need to bake a little longer. It was a buggy mess, but hey, EA Games, right? But Long also mentions open PvP was a problem. As painful as it might be to hear for some readers, Long would have had consent play a stronger role in PvP, and much sooner so people could at least log in safely. Garriot agrees that this would have been his pick.

In fact, when asked what they learned and wanted to apply to SOTA, it’s consensual PvP. All agree that PvP as it was originally implemented hurt UO financially. The metrics are there, and neither Long nor Garriott would backdown from hardcore PvP players trying to argue pro-FFA PvP. The also learned that “retro” design choices aren’t always the best. They wanted SOTA to be more old school, like having people take notes on paper. However, “Modern innovation actually makes games more fun, and going that old school doesn’t make games more fun.”

Before I had to leave for another appointment, Long said something we should all consider: You don’t need “massive” worlds anymore. As Ship of Heroes’ Casey McGeever argued in another interview, chasing the next World of Warcraft is folly, so developers should aim for a niche. The problem with modern MMO design is that everyone is trying to “out content” each other when, really, you should aim to give content to those who will consume it.

However, you don’t need to go out and get a million people. 10,000 is fine. Their advice is to take small MMOs and that we don’t need giant MMOs, which is interesting since the MOP writers recently talked about how much size matters to us. Look to EVE. The EVE we have today isn’t the EVE we originally had since it’s been picking up its community as it rolled along.

Sharing advice McGeever also said, Garriott once again warned people, “Don’t go head to head” with WoW since you’ll be forced to make something “cookie cutter.” If you say you’re making the next WoW, “You’re in for trouble.” Pick a niche.

On the opposite side of this, however, was Vogel, who loves the idea of a huge virtual world everyone is in on. Garriott cut in and talked about how the Ultima team had experimented with VR long before the current Rift/Vive generation, and Garriott had even said Ultima would be one of the first VR games. In fact, Garriott notes the main protagonist in Ready Player One was inspired by his own character, Lord British. That being said, he feels VR wasn’t ready 40 years ago, and he thinks it still needs 5-10 more years.

Vogel seems to think it’ll be sooner, but both agree that when VR hits critical mass, it’ll be when we see another gaming revolution. As someone who’s adopted VR but is still critical of its use in the game world, I agree and disagree. Especially after what I’ve seen at GDC, what scares the core gamer in me is that the revolution might not be on PC or even console, but maybe on mobile.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in San Francisco for GDC 2018, bringing you expert MMO coverage on everything (and everyone!) on display at the latest Game Developers Conference!
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