‘Magic through serendipity’: Raph Koster on the glorious mess that was Ultima Online


I was a wide-eyed, naive kid when I first stepped into Ultima Online in 1997, and as it turns out, the developers were too.

That’s my takeaway from reading through the Ultima Online chunk of Raph Koster’s new book, Postmortems. Koster, as any dedicated MMORPG fan will recall, went by “Designer Dragon” back then as the creative lead on the game. Having come from a MUD background, he and his wife Kristin Koster were instrumental in shaping Richard Garriott’s seminal MMORPG and therefore the genre as we know it.

Koster kindly sent us a preprint of the book, unwittingly robbing himself of $35, as I was going to buy it anyway, and it’s massive, folks: over 700 pages spanning three decades and the majority of the online games Koster’s worked on during his long tenure in the gaming industry. Some of those games are definitely of more interest to our readers on Massively OP, in particular Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. It’s the Ultima Online chapters I aim to cover today.

I should note here that the book is essentially a long string of essays, talks, and scanned images, some previously published on Koster’s blog and around the internet, so it doesn’t exactly read like a complete narrative of the games’ development histories. Rather, the chapters wind their way through some of the most interesting and significant moments of the game’s development and everything he and his team learned along the way. I’ve plucked out a few that floated up and said, “OoooOoOoooOooooOO” at me.

The skunkworks

Lack of funding and staff even drove Koster to whip up some much-needed art assets for the Trinsic jungle, which I am amused to note I loved so much that I ported them into the original Sims in a mod that’s been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times – more people probably saw those trees in The Sims than in UO itself. Please don’t sue me, Raph.

Koster’s descriptions of the working conditions for those working on the “Multima” game back in the ’90s are grim no matter where in time you stand, especially for anybody keeping an eye on modern causes like unionization efforts and the fight against abusive crunch. The game wasn’t built in a garage, but it sounds like the next closest thing: Origin effectively stashed them in a freezing corner of a building that was literally missing a wall, with little communication but lots of tension between teams. “You could literally WALK OFF THE BUILDING AND FALL TO YOUR DEATH,” he deadpans (I choose to hear the caps as mirth). Other Origin staff warned him against taking a job on the game, telling him it was a “sweatshop.” It sounds like a clownshow; the team built its own marketing website, logo, and pay-to-play beta on its own, flying under the radar. The devs cut three whole continents ahead of launch (and large swathes of the game’s dialogue) to make a release date exactly nobody believed was justified, earning reviews that were basically “middling to bad” in spite of praise from other developers who knew innovation when they saw it.

The interesting bit is that he’s not actually bashing the studio or the experience; if anything, being neglected and isolated probably kept Ultima Online alive.

“To me, the takeaway (which has only been reinforced for me over the years) is that skunkworks really works. UO was a skunkworks project, through and through. I am fairly sure that if we had not been stuck in the ‘closet’ on the top floor, it would not have been made. I should emphasize that this also means we were lucky it worked at all, and it was held together with chewing gum. I don’t mean to paint the team as heroes. We were young, arrogant, and blinkered to consequences of our choices.”

Koster’s anecdotes also include confirmation that the term “shard” very much originated with UO, if you ever wondered about that; in fact, he and Richard Garriott came up with it in fleshing out UO’s lore (each “shard” of Mondain’s crystal was, once shattered, a copy of the world, operating as alternate universes in tandem).

Ecology vs. the tech monster

If you’ve followed Koster for any length of time on Twitter, you surely know that he alternates between extolling the virtues of simulation AI and warning against its inevitable misuses by human interlopers. That superficial contradiction is no contradiction at all: He’s been trying to simulate a virtual world for decades and understands possibly better than anyone what can go wrong.

Ultima Online was essentially the Kosters’ grand ecology and economy experiment. Everything from the animals and monsters to the shopkeepers’ inventories was intended to be programmed according to a modification of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Each mobile had a hierarchical list of wants and activities based on those wants, like a dragon wanting to protect its hoard of gold when sated but risking that hoard by chasing down random adventurers to eat when hungry.

But the technology of the mid ’90s was insufficient to actually make most of that happen. Even had Origin been willing to fund the team’s wildest ambitions, the servers simply couldn’t handle the scripting underpinning – for example – NPC beggars who searched for and then followed around only rich players. The sheer expense of massive radial searching and pathfinding was just too much to process. And if you’re currently wondering whether players would even be able to tell the difference between a dragon whose AI had cycled it through 500 need queries and a dragon that simply spawns and tries to kill randomly, then you’re asking the right question – Koster asks it too.

“There were a fair amount of team members who saw the whole system as a boondoggle, and not worth pursuing,” Koster writes, and so most of the plans were discarded before the game ever got to beta.

“At some point, reality will catch up to our designs from 1995.” -Raph Koster
That wasn’t the only problem. As originally designed, Koster admits, the closed economic system of UO wouldn’t have worked perfectly either; he calls it a “mistake,” with mechanics that ended up gutted because they just weren’t fun. And that’s chiefly because of the players. Players are incurable hoarders, which means a large amount of resources in the game will just sit around in someone’s bank (or a shopkeep’s bloated inventory) rather than keep moving through the world, at least if there are insufficient drains or uses for the item. Another fascinating bit: He reminds the reader that while in the real world, we find it acceptable that making wooden foozles may not make money, but in a virtual world, players will literally file bug reports when there’s no market for their craftables. After all, why would a dev put it in the game to be made if it was worthless?

That doesn’t mean Koster has given up on the dream; he’s just waiting for the tech to catch up. “I’d much rather be burning CPU on this sort of thing, frankly, than on 3-D collision,” he says, essentially arguing that scripted AI ecology and economy matter more than whether you can jump or whether every tile has been hand-placed. “The kinds of immersive power that a simulation like this can bring opens a lot more doors. In the long run, I believe that all the pressures are towards simulationist environments, rather than handcrafted ones. CPU power continues to outpace the cost of human capability to design static scenarios. At some point, reality will catch up to our designs from 1995.”

Ultima Online

You red, you dead

Easily the most amusing – and horrifyingly frustrating – chapters of Koster’s Ultima Online reminiscing revolve around the game’s infamous early PvP mechanics. It’s clear the Origin team struggled with a naive sort of libertarian mindset when developing – or more accurately, not developing – the PvP at launch. As Koster’s now-ancient blog posts relate, the developers truly believed that their laissez faire “let the community police itself” philosophy was the best approach. You don’t even need to read Koster’s account; you can hear it repeated in the plaintive appeals of FFA PvP players even here in 2018, as the wolves desperately try to convince the sheep to come play victim in the service of the simulation.

“We must have playerkillers in UO because the world would suffer if we did not have them,” he once wrote. “But they also must be channeled so that their effect is beneficial and not detrimental. […] We don’t want to exterminate them completely anymore than we want to make rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, and sharks extinct because they fill a valuable role in the virtual ecology.”

Of course, we all know the story of how the rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, and sharks played out in practice: Rampant ganking and griefing and PKing drove players out of the 1997 sandbox by the thousands – “a truly distressing number of our new player acquisitions,” Koster laments – until the developers engineered countermeasures, patch by patch. They tried flagging. They tried a notoriety system. They tried reputation. They tried bounties. They tried a faction system. They tried guild wars. They tried newbie protection mechanics. But for every attempt to curb the PKs the devs put in, the reds invented some fresh hell for their victims, exploiting every ruleset change. It’s hard not to chuckle as Koster rattles off each new idea and how the players thwarted it (especially when I remember it happening!).

And that’s a theme Koster riffs on over and over – that “no matter what you do, players will decode every formula, statistic, and algorithm in your world via experimentation.” In fact, he argues, you don’t even need combat in your game for griefplay to be present (as anyone who’s read any comments anywhere can attest).

Eventually, the team, by then absent Koster, implemented Trammel, effectively creating mirror worlds safe from player-killers. “I wouldn’t have done it, personally, but there is no question that the userbase doubled once this went in,” he says.

“The result [of UO’s PK environment] was an exodus driven not only by the more modern 3-D graphics of [EverQuest] but by the safety. Everything I had thought about the impossible admin load of having a PK switch with a large-scale game was disproven in short order, and players wasted no time in telling me bluntly that I had been drastically and painfully wrong. In the name of player freedoms, I had put them through the slow-drip torture of two years of experiments with slowly tightening behavior rules, trying to save the emergence while tamping down the bad behavior. The cost was the loss of many hundreds of thousands of players. Ultima Online had churned through more than twice as many players who quit than EverQuest even got as subscribers that year.”

Even so, he frets over the loss to the verisimilitude of the virtual world. The griefer environment may not have been realistic, but it did create “endless stories and excitement, the stories that people tell and retell to this day,” as players were forced to work together to overcome the true evil in the game: the PK players themselves. That, he argues, was “empowering” in a way that “casual” post-Trammel player towns never were. Remember Kazola’s Tavern and the multiple PK guilds that ravaged Great Lakes, and the anti-PK guilds that rose up to fight them? I do; I was there, I defended Kazola’s, and I was once guilded with folks from one of the groups he mentions (SIN – I’ve written about that before). How many games have that sort of meaningful history? I can count them on one hand, and it’s no accident they’re all sandboxes. And what if participating in a genuine struggle against evil players – or figuring out ways to deal with the worst elements of society – “means [we] are more likely to dare to do it in real life instead of living in passivity”? In eschewing free-for-all games, are we just “giving up on the hard problem of freedom co-existing with civility”?

It’s intoxicating. But still maybe too idealistic. And Koster admits as much in essays written years after he’d moved on to new “experiments,” clearly having re-examined his ideas under the light of implementation and disaster.

“I like safe and wild zoning now. I really, really didn’t,” he pens. “I used to think that you could reform bad apples, and argue with hard cases. I’m more cynical these days. […] I used to think that people were willing to act communally for the good of the community. Now I know more about the Tragedy of the Commons and the Prisoner’s Dilemma and think that people are mostly selfish. This isn’t Ivory Tower theory gone looking for empirical evidence. It’s experience gone looking for explanation.”

When I spoke to Koster about this part of his book to get his most current take on MMO PvP, he explained that the massive shifts in the modern gaming landscape have changed his outlook even further.

“Now there are so many worlds and so many gamers that you can actually have a pure PvP game and it can survive. That wasn’t the case back then. I think we’ve even conditioned players to it over the years, and now we have stuff like Fortnite and PUBG. There are a lot of things in the survival genre which are reminiscent of UO, to me. Crowfall [the in-production PvP MMORPG on which Koster has consulted] is, of course, Todd [Coleman]’s game, not mine; I just advise on it. But if I were making my own game now, it’d still have wild PvP areas in it. Just, I’d find a way for Kazola to actually win, so to speak, by using the sorts of town mechanics we later developed in [Star Wars Galaxies].”

Yep, I’d play that.

My expectations weren't that I would be jumping into this right away, but...

Why we should bother making MMORPGs

All that said, the idea of mixing fundamentally different people in a truly virtual simulated world isn’t something Koster is willing to set aside for the next flavor-of-the-month online murder sim or social media platform – and we shouldn’t either. He refuses to believe that it was all a “doomed experiment” and that the future of games is nothing more than “little amusement park rides.”

“Niche products are all well and good, but we already know how to make those, and they aren’t going to teach us anything interesting about ourselves. It’s so easy to fall into ruts and niches in our real lives, and I want online worlds to offer us exotic experiences and interaction with people we wouldn’t interact with otherwise, and a chance to try out lifestyles and worldviews we otherwise wouldn’t have, a chance to try to solve problems that we find difficult to tackle in the real world. Otherwise, why bother making them? I am not that interested in them solely as games – games are all over the place, and there are plenty of narrowly focused communities out there. You can find a support group or hobbyist club for just about anything you want, but you’re mostly going to find other people like you there. And I am not nearly as interested in how people interact with likeminded souls as I am in how to bridge gaps between people.”

“Our wisdom,” he writes, “was in surrendering control to the awesome power of emergent behavior. The credit we can take is only for having created a fertile and dynamic enough environment where [emergent concepts like rares markets] can happen. Environments like this also produce house break-ins [and other things] that can be incredibly pernicious. But far more often than you would think, you get magic through serendipity. Your other choice, of course, is to assume that you are going to produce magic on demand.”

And when was the last game that could honestly do that?

I’d like to thank Koster for providing us a copy of his book to dig through; you can pick up your own on Amazon in digital or paperback format. We’re not finished yet, of course – I mentioned it was 700 pages, right? and that this is just the first volume? – and I’ll be tackling the Star Wars Galaxies sections next, so stay tuned for that.

Wondering how the game looks in the modern era? I put together a video for the game’s 19th anniversary that shows off some of its best features, and yes, it discusses the evolution of FFA PvP in the game too. UO turns 21 this fall, but I think the video still holds up!

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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