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!
SHARE THIS ARTICLE
Code of Conduct | Edit Your Profile | Commenting FAQ | Badge Reclamation | Badge Key

47
LEAVE A COMMENT

Please Login to comment
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Reader
Eliandal

Finally caught up on my backlog (Holidays you know) of reading – and wow – thanks for this. Incredible article, and comments as well! Fascinating reading what the team was going through before launch. What I found more interesting, is the tribulations they were encountering were not unique to them – but the industry was so different back then – that they would have felt alone and pioneering. Excellent read!!!

Reader
kelvar

I have fond memories of UO. I met my BFF friend there just after launch. Was part of my first guild there, PLENTY of drama, and literal tears shed when they shut it down (for the first time :)).

I had to smile at the comments of the different computing/modem power back then… I was one of the rare folks with a cable modem so I could literally outrun horses at the start.

I was a pacifist (in the PK sense of the word at least), but our guild stood against many PK guilds and there was a time, I’m sure, that I could run along our players and heal them with impunity. So I couldn’t attack, nor could I be attacked. With my fast connection I could run along all my mates and just heal them over and over with a huge bag of regents (stack split and covered with other items, of course, to detour the run-by thieves).

I had a beautiful home in the woods far south of trinsic (I think)? that I was just able to squeeze in between some trees, it just barely fit so there were no other structures near by and there never could be.

Fond memories, indeed :)

Reader
Patreon Donor
Kickstarter Donor
agemyth 😩

Thanks Andrew and of course the developers for this wall of text!

Spoiler
Typos 😖 Very simple ones! …Buried in a ~4000 word article 😛 Not a big deal, but my dumb brain wants me to say this even though I know how easily they creep their way into a piece this long. ❤️

Reader
socontrariwise

I find the term “UO post mortem” disturbing here. The game is alive and kicking.

Pepperzine
Reader
Pepperzine

Was thinking the same exact thing.

Reader
Bryan Gregory

I found it pretty fitting, although surprising that they were so bold.

Reader
Raph Koster

It’s actually a talk series at GDC: “Classic Game Postmortem.” Really, it’s a postmortem of the original development process, so no slight is intended to the live service. :)

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Loyal Patron
Jack Pipsam

In film school, we used the term post mortem when talking about a film after, even if it was a hit.

Reader
Raph Koster

Minor notes:

Kristen was credited — in that she’s in the manual, game credits, etc. What I said was she doesn’t get enough credit as the other key designer. She was also responsible for all the original statistics and game balancing.

I guess you left before the Q&A ended, so you missed the debate between my and Richard on whether or not large-scale simulation and AI are feasible — he still comes down on no, and I came down on “totally, tell ya what, my next game will do it.”

Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

Thank you, we’ve amended the part about Kristen. (hi5s for her; without her work and validation, I seriously doubt I’d still be in this genre.)

Reader
Alex Malone

Great read, thanks very much for the write up.

I always love reading about the underlying thought processes behind the way these “old school” MMOs were designed. I love that these guys either learnt or hired people with knowledge about economics, political structures and the like. It’s that kind of attention to detail that I feel is often missing from modern games, or if not missing then just misunderstood, resulting in rubbish features.

With the comments about niche vs for everyone, I think there is room for both. I personally want MMOs that a very large with activities designed for a broad spectrum of players. I believe this sort of design leads to stronger communities – because diversity is good – and also helps with retention as they cater to the changing needs of the playerbase. Personally, there are some days I feel like PvPing, other days I wanna raid, other days I want to chill on an alt, others I just want to craft. But, I do recognise that some players have a very narrow focus, so creating a niche MMO is also worth doing to appeal to those types of people.

Reader
Bryan Gregory

I’ll never agree with the statement that open PVP hurt UO. The #1 reason that UO’s population ever went down, is because it was no longer the only MMO on the market. In fact, despite being an MMO it was actually one of the first few ONLINE games period, so it wasn’t just other MMOs launching that hurt it, it was the overall flourishing of the online gaming industry.

Other reasons: lack of adding content. UO’s “expansions” were hardly that. Compare any UO expansion to any other game’s expansions (at the time, let’s say we compare UO’s The Second Age to Everquest’s Ruins of Kunark… EQ blows UO out of the water). For being one of the oldest MMOs, it’s added some of the least content out of all of them (hate to sound like a broken record, but once again, compare UO today to EQ today). And for being a skill based game, they’ve added very few new skills, while other games get the equivalent: new classes. Also the general functionality of the game, the controls, the UI… just so much better in other MMOs. And lastly… “leveling up” in UO = automating actions while you sleep. It’s really bad. And not fun.

What made people enjoy UO in the first place was the freedom and the chaos, even if those things were generally causing your character pain. Every time you hear someone tell a UO story, it revolves around one of those two things.

Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

What they are saying is that UO lost players in its first year and a half – before there were any MMOs to compete with it. (And then it took off after Trammel.) It’s really hard to argue otherwise with the people who actually have the data to prove what happened.

Reader
Bryan Gregory

Everquest launched about a year and a half after UO. Other online games launching during that year and a half: Starcraft (one of the most popular online games ever made) along with its Brood War expansion, Unreal (another widely successful online game at the time), Rainbow Six, Tribes, Baldur’s Gate, and not to mention the beginning of a culture of games that could be “modded” which birthed a widespread online community. And I believe EQ has a similar beta story as UO’s in this article, so people were playing EQ long before launch. There indeed was plenty of competition.

Also, when you say it took off after Trammel, did you mean a large increase or decline in population?

Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

The existence of non-MMORPGs wasn’t what leaving players cited as their reasons for leaving – the ganking was. The population went up – a lot – after Trammel, in spite of EQ’s growing presence, which is basically the only reason the game was left to stay online, if you believe Walton, and I’ve got no good reason not to.

I have kept up with UO and still sub to it – your characterization of its patch history and current state are honestly unrecognizable to me.

Reader
socontrariwise

Alternative facts I guess.

Reader
Bryan Gregory

The number of people subscribed to an ISP quadrupled from the time UO was launched until Trammel was. EVERYTHING was increasing in population at the time. How many of those were new players, and not returning players? Even in 2000 the internet and online gaming were still relatively new and gaining steam. And of course, any time an expansion launches, a population will always go up for a bit, and it did – and as expected, a year after Trammel launched UO has only seen decline in population since 2001.

Private servers where all these things you claim hurt the population are thriving and have more players than retail has had in a long, long time. Each time I try to play retail, it’s a lonely ghost town. Depressing, and not fun. Private servers have loads of people though, and there’s always excitement.

Do you ever stream UO, Bree?

Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

It’s not my claim – all the devs from back then say this, over and over. Koster above even notes it. ;) And yes, I don’t disagree that the rise of the internet helped. But the internet was already on the rise before then, when UO’s numbers were tanking and not rising.

UO’s population fell sharply after Age of Shadows because people hated Age of Shadows and were mad about the subscription fee hike – all well documented. AOS was basically Chilton rewriting the game from a sandbox into Diablo; it was UO’s NGE. People hated it. Even modern players still grumble.

I don’t really stream, but you can check out my last UO video from the 19th anniversary – it’s the top one on our YouTube, which continues to crack me up, but people love this game.

Reader
Bryan Gregory

I wonder how many of the responses from the page you get when cancelling your account had no answer. People get mad when they are PKed and overreact – psychology tells us that, when filling out the “why are you quitting the game page,” people who have strong emotions (ie anger) are going to be more vocal about it, rather than those who are leaving for another game, who aren’t leaving due to their emotions, and thus don’t care as much about leaving a response.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

There are two other quite telling signs.

One, after Trammel was added the vast majority of the player base moved to it and refused to ever set foot again in Felucca; while people might disagree about how big population discrepancy between the worlds got, everyone agrees that in traditional shards Felucca visibly has far less players, and that situation has been unchanged ever since Trammel was first added.

Two, UO added specific shards that lacked Trammel, in a setting that more closely mimicked the pre-Trammel PvP-heavy game: the Siege Perilous shards. They never got even close to the popularity of the normal (with Trammel) shards.

So, among paying customers, players voted with their actions. If you go by how they behaved, most don’t want anything to do with the kind of PK action that the pre-Trammel shards, and the Siege Perilous shards, forced on people.

And that’s just in UO. Some other games tried similar approaches by providing optional, hardcore PvP servers, such as the Blood and Glory servers for Age of Conan; it was a failed experiment, with the server becoming a ghost town before long.

Reader
Bryan Gregory

Of course the population moved to Trammel – it was new, and there was actually finally housing space! Which was half the point of the game for many. Before Trammel, you either had to pay insane amounts of gold for a house, or pay real money. And housing wasn’t just a fun feature – it was a requirement, because you couldn’t fit all that much into your bank. Therefore, if you wanted to really play UO, you needed a house.

But it didn’t last. Afterwards the population began to drop and private servers started booming. Many people began to believe that Trammel wasn’t actually that great, and was actually a negative. They were wiping entire aspects of gameplay out. I am not at all saying there aren’t people who enjoyed post-Trammel UO. But I will absolutely say those who didn’t, were crapped on and left behind by UO. And that’s why it’s a ghost town today. That’s what happens when you give the finger to a large chunk of your player base, and only cater to the other chunk.

Also, Siege Perilous was NOT the same, you could only have 1 character and you couldn’t sell to NPCs. Fast travel didn’t work, NPCs didn’t sell resources… It was not the same game, at all.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

there was actually finally housing space!

From the reports I’ve seen this lasted what, a week? A month? In short order it became the opposite, Trammel never had any housing space, while in Felucca you could choose the best spots nearly uncontested.

And this despite Felucca offering double the rewards for gathering actions and having some nice, exclusive loot, like the Skill Scrolls of Mastery that are essential to min-maxers.

If the open PvP aspect of the game was popular among most of the player base, more players would have remained on Felucca, instead of turning it into a ghost town. More so because the dev team added bonuses to Felucca that made progressing there faster, on average, than in Trammel.

Reader
Bryan Gregory

They did remain in Felucca. On private servers. Why would they give money to a company who’s slapping them in the face? It’s the equivalent of having your class deleted from the game.

Also those Felucca bonuses were a joke, lol.

Reader
Toy Clown

You definitely have a different set of memories than the developers and others that played it back then had. I’ll leave you to that!

Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

It’s not a ghost town today. It’s just a small MMO condensed onto a handful of larger shards, which makes sense since it’s over 20 years old. You can’t find a big house plot on Atlantic because it’s so full, and that’s with just one per account across all the shards (except SP).

Again, you’re not wrong that gankers left UO after victims fled the ganklands (although there is still a PvP crowd left, as Schmidt notes, thanks to multiple PvP updates and lucrative resources/scroll farms over there). But so many more people showed up to replace the problem players – and that’s how they were viewed – that EA really didn’t care. And the downturn didn’t happen until 2003, and it wasn’t related to PvP but to the sub hike and the item stat NGE. I’ve always suspected that the release of an even better sandbox a few months after (SWG) that didn’t help UO either.

Reader
David Goodman

It went up after Trammel; I was there and the world exploded. You couldn’t find a square inch of space to put a basic house anywhere in the world, and the PVP landscape dried up and withered away. Huge expanses of land available for the taking – castle-sized plots – were ignored, dried up.

Almost nobody played in the PVP areas. It became almost as safe as the PVE areas because of that (i ended up with a house there because, like I said, there was tons of room and almost no danger any more. You could even have a dungeon to yourself or group!)

Reader
Raph Koster

It doubled.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
thalendor

From Wikipedia: “the Renaissance expansion created large areas of the game in which it was not possible to harm other players. A significant spike in account reactivation was attributed to this aspect of Renaissance.” I’d look for a better source if felt like spending more time looking, because I’ve read this in multiple places, but suffice it to say this not the only place I’ve read about UO’s population increasing after the Trammel/Felucca split.

Anecdotally, I was extremely interested in UO, having been a fan of the single-player Ultima games, up until I heard about the open PvP aspect, at which point all my interest evaporated. Instead, I didn’t jump into MMOs until EverQuest, with one of the most important features of that game, for me, being PvE servers.

Reader
Toy Clown

Definitely doubled. I played through the horrible mess of PKers and Thieves everywhere and was on the verge of quitting when the Trammel split happened. The population of the Pacific shard, at least, bounced back again, and I went on to play for a couple more years.

Before the split, most people were PKs, or “cons” that preyed on trusting people to get them out of town limits, to get invited to houses, boats, etc so they could PK, loot keys and loot, thus making housing and boats worthless since you couldn’t use them again. I felt horrible after losing everything I worked hard for in the game.

The split started a turn around and we also were able to change locks on boats and houses soon thereafter too.

Reader
Raph Koster

We lost an enormous number of players to PKing. There’s no just no way around it.

We also got amazing stories and memories that were driven by that freedom. Both things can be true at the same time.

Personally, I would have preferred to keep working on it until we arrived at a solution that kept the freedom without the losses.

As far as expansions — we talked about this in the postmortem Q&A, but one month after UO launched, I was the only dev team member left! (We also had Rich Vogel on the production side). We had to hire a whole new team out of the community. Hence why something like Second Age was small — we built it in two months with a brand new team.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

Personally, I would have preferred to keep working on it until we arrived at a solution that kept the freedom without the losses.

I’m not sure that is even possible. Not for common PvE players, at least; there is a certain kind of PvE player that prefers to play on PvP-enabled games and servers, and those would likely love a game that went for the kind of PvP-PvE balance you want, but for most other PvE players I believe they will always choose whichever option guarantees no one will ever be allowed to attack them, even if that option involves changing games.

But then, I’m biased. Ever since I tried to play EVE, it doesn’t matter how good the game is or how much I would otherwise want to play it, if another player can attack me without first securing my explicit consent then I won’t even give the game a chance.

BTW, I never played Ultima Online. It wasn’t exactly because of the PvP, though; at the time I still accepted the idea of non-consensual PvP, despite already disliking it. Rather, it was because there was player looting (and stealing from players), so after keeping tabs on the game for a year after launch, and not seeing any movement towards removing those mechanics, I gave up and stopped following UO at all (which means I only got to learn about Trammel years after the fact, when I was already deeply involved with WoW).

Reader
Raph Koster

Some gray shards managed to strike very good balances, among them the ones run by Jeff Freeman aka Dundee; that’s part of why I hired him on SWG.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

Are the PvE players in those shards representative of the average, typical PvE player, though, or are they drawn mostly from the kind of PvE player that from the start enjoyed playing among PvPers?

That is the point I’m trying to make. Some people seem to think you can turn a typical PvE player into someone that can enjoy an environment where non-consensual PvP is possible, if only you can make PvP rare enough and somehow keep PvP-based griefing under control; I, on the other hand, don’t think “converting” players like that is feasible.

If I’m right, by attempting to strike a balance (without giving players an outright way to opt out of PvP) you are attracting a minority of PvE players that already liked playing among PvPers (and the PvPers themselves) while driving away the rest of the PvE players.

Reader
Raph Koster

Good questions. We can’t judge that from the gray shards. On the other hand, WoW had non-consensual PvP triggered by attacking flagged mobs, and it didn’t seem to hurt it in terms of PvE acceptance… so *shrug* hard to tell.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
thalendor

Except I would argue attacking that flagged mob was an indication of consent. It’s why I almost never attacked those mobs. And I doubt many other PvE players did that very often either.

Reader
Raph Koster

The exact same mechanic in Star Wars setting was considered non-consent by a lot of people — likely because everyone expects to shoot Stormtroopers! I just say that to illustrate how much it can depend on player perception.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
thalendor

I never played SWG, so I can’t comment much on that. In WoW, as you surely know, mobs are clearly marked as PvP and are generally quite uncommon, unless you walk into an enemy capitol or some such, at which point I expect you want some PvP. So it’s pretty easy to avoid. If all Stormtroopers are marked as PvP flagged in SWG (or worse, such a flag is hidden) and if they’re very common like I would expect in a SW game so that people feel like they’re missing out if they can’t fight Stormtroopers in a PvE-only capacity, then I can see where they’re coming from. If every Orc, Troll, etc. flagged me as PvP while playing Alliance side in WoW, I expect I would have a different view on this as well.

Reader
socontrariwise

I’ve seen it working very well at a larger freeshard (gray shard??) many years ago where you had a PvP flag. You could flag as peaceful and be done with it except theft. Or you could switch to PvP enabled but that could not be reset within 2 or so hours ingame time – and extended if you were attacking someone as far as I recall.

Reader
Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor
Kickstarter Donor
Paragon Lost

Good read. As an aside, I long ago grew tired of the repeated nasty comments aimed at most of these developers. It’s always been apparent to me as someone whose been in the hobby pushing 30 years that these guys share my and others passion and love of the genre/hobby.

I might not always agree with them and their views but I damn well respect their passion and time spent invested in our mutual hobby. Thanks for talking to them Andrew. :)

Siphaed
Reader
Siphaed

Shroud of the Avatar, for example, takes all the worst aspects of the older games and made them into Shroud of the Avatar. Then they mixed it with the worst aspect of newer games: Pay2Win/giant whaling cash shop.

People comment against these developers because they won’t evolve with the genre, staying stuck in the past. At the same time, they won’t retire in good standing and bury their own name with bad karma against the modern player.

Garriot made anger out of a lot of people when he decided to dedicate most of his Tabula Rasa post-launch time to a space vacation. He lauded his name and reputation about when making that game based on his previous Ultima exploits. Yet he took complete advantage of that and ignored the needs of his consumer base. Ignored his own game.

Reader
Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor
Kickstarter Donor
Paragon Lost

You did read this statement made by me…

” as someone whose been in the hobby pushing 30 years”

correct? Let me translate, that means that I’m well informed overall about most everything that they’ve done or not done. Which means I stand by my post above. Thanks for sharing though.

Siphaed
Reader
Siphaed

Sorry to say, but your comment is flat out wrong. Maybe SOME of them have a passion for the genre…but Richard Garriot is not one of those that does. His laissez faire take on Tabula Rasa was a flat out point of that just leading up to the launch, let alone the post-launch fiasco.

And then there’s his push for excessive Cash Shop items, horrible combat, badly created over-world maps, and other things so wrong in SotA that there is a complete disconnect between what people of the genre like and dislike that there is clearly no care at all. Instead Garriot opts to push as many items into a “buy with cash” set up, while having as few items into the actual game as possible. Caring more about photo -and ingame character- ops as well as any chance to do interviews about UO and his past work as much as possible. There’s no pride in his current work and it shows.

Theryl
Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
Theryl

Thanks for the write up. It’s amazing that the project ever got off the ground, much less stayed online and successful for all these years. But you can probably say that about any pioneering idea.