Yes, this is going to come in as the shortest Choose My Adventure series, but I feel it’s got a good reason to be so. I went into Ultima Online with a very simple question: Is the game worth playing now as a free-to-play title for the curious? I very quickly got the answer to that question: No. Definitely not. And writing a whole lot more on it is just going to continue to harp on that point.
That’s not to say that there aren’t at least a few more words to be spared on the subject, of course. There are a lot of games with a free-to-play option that players have said don’t feel like free-to-play titles; you can technically play without paying, yes, but the game doesn’t seem to want you there and keeps hitting you with paywalls. That wasn’t the problem I ran into with Ultima Online, though. If anything, it seemed like the game didn’t want me there at all. Not as a free player, but as a new player.
When I was at PAX East this year, I had an interview about The Elder Scrolls Online covering Summerset and the new tutorial, and one of the things I asked about was whether or not the developers were worried about new players knowing that they could dash off in other directions. The response was interesting to me; essentially, the sentiment was that new players would see content right there, so why go dashing off elsewhere? Veteran players would know that they could dash off, and thus would make choices accordingly.
The fact that UO has actually removed its tutorial experience feels like it’s actually more acrimonious toward non-veteran players. A veteran player (such as MOP’s editor-in-chief Bree) knows how the game’s systems work and would likely be less floored by things than I was; it’s not hard to put together where to go next. But someone totally new will be left in complete befuddlement, with the added element that the game is not exactly big on top-level direction anyhow.
“Well, who says that the game has to be open for new players?” In this case, the game itself did. The free-to-play option is so restrictive that it’s hard to imagine an existing player flipping over to the free option. This is the sort of thing that attracts new players, at least ideally.
Or, perhaps, it’s meant to attract existing veterans to see how the old girl is doing. Which is a valid approach, but it seems like it might be better-served through more explicit means, like just offering veteran players a chance to come back on the cheap. You know, something that doesn’t involve a whole bunch of development time.
All of the work done in prepping the game for free-to-play has taken the place of any real content updates for the game for quite some time. (Granted, content updates in UO take a different form than in other games such as the aforementioned ESO, but content updates are still content.) With that much work going into it, you’d hope to see that the experience was polished and fun for everyone, or at the very least that it didn’t contain enormous holes like, say, a lack of any tutorial, even an outdated and not-very-good tutorial.
Add to that the mess of technical problems that I ran into, the general difficulty of acclimating to the game’s UI and design flow, and all the quirks you’d expect from a game that was launched in 1997, and it’s pretty much impossible to recommend it to someone truly new to just try it out.
It’s a real shame because I am absolutely certain there’s stuff to like here, and it is the original of the species. The fact that anyone with a will and a vaguely recent computer can pick it up and give it a shot is a good thing, and it should be cause for celebration and excitement. My usual feeling is that when you get a classic like this, people should at least give it a spin.
But the game is old. And while there are parts of it that are arguably before its time (which is a weird argument to make when it basically invented “its time” and the genre), those aren’t the parts you’re going to see as a free player. At best, you might hear people talking about them and get invited on a tour.
You can never go back to a game’s glory days, obviously. But this doesn’t even really seem like it lets you check out the game’s current days very reliably. If I hadn’t been doing this for work, I’d have bounced off of the irritation hard and fast, and then I’d have gone back to not remembering that it was an option. Which is really unfortunate.
So, yeah. This isn’t an evaluation of UO as a whole, but if you’re wondering “should I check it out as a free-to-play title,” the answer is no. If you’re wondering if it’s worth it to stop back in… well, that one’s a little harder to say. Depends on how much you miss the game and how much you miss the people, I’d say.
And now, more antiquated nonsense
It seems only fair at this point to head over into a different game full of antiquated nonsense when that’s been a sticking point here; it’s just that this time, it’s antiquated nonsense that I am at least familiar with. And while Final Fantasy XI is not going free-to-play, it is having a major promotion wherein you can get the full game on the cheap and transfer characters, also on the cheap.
This isn’t to say that the game is better with tutorials than the last three games that I’ve played. It’s actually terrible with them, to the point that the tutorial was substantially revised… and is still awful, and is bad enough that you can completely miss that it exists. Seriously, you could just head on your merry way without ever realizing that there’s a full tutorial to at least guide you through some of the basics of the game (badly) because the game is so lackadaisical about it.
The advantage, though, is that I do realize that. I realize a bunch of stuff! So this will be an exercise in guidance as well as an exercise in analyzing the experience. But I’ll be going legit, without any boosting from my main whatsoever. For more on that, tune in next week (same bat-time and channel); until then, feel free to leave your feedback in the comments down below or mail it along to firstname.lastname@example.org.