If you’re a longtime Ultima Online player, you surely know the name Tim “Draconi” Cotten, even if only from seeing his name on holiday reward objects in the game. That’s because he worked for Mythc under EA’s banner back in the late aughts, running the live events team and taking point on the Stygian Abyss expansion. Cotten has penned a blog post full of memories about his time both playing and developing the game, which turned 25 years old a week ago. And as is true of many old-school MMO players, what he remembers is a whole heck of a lot of cheating.
Draconi’s post goes in-depth on how early players exploited server boundary rubberbanding to dupe items as well as slip between the cracks in the world to access non-game areas, both of which I can confirm were rampant in all eras of the game.
“The areaserv code is brilliant. It’s been patched and rewritten many times, but by my later years it had gotten pretty ‘smart’ about the way it anticipated player state and pre-serialized objects before boundary transfers even happened,” he writes. “Yet, no matter how good the code became, we developers had introduced so much complexity into the game that sources of dupes abounded regardless — and more often than not they weren’t just areaserv issues anymore.”
Draconi’s solution was to create a global hash registry that essentially flagged high-value non-stackable items, so if somebody duped them, the devs would know. “It was a lot like stamping the rare items with some sort of invisible ink that only fluoresced under certain conditions,” he says – and if it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically the useful thing blockchain tech offers, and most MMOs deploy similar strategies already. (Caveat here: Draconi is a blockchain promoter now; he clarifies that MMO don’t need blockchains but that this was a use-case for “proof-of-work ledger technology.”)
Using his code, the UO developers would’ve been able to wipe out every duped item and all the accounts associated with them, but of course it quickly became clear that this would’ve banned a “significant portion of the playerbase,” given all the innocent trading that goes on in the game. As Draconi puts it, “To make matters more complicated the Customer Service team started asking us hard questions, like: ‘Exactly how many duped runic valorite hammers should a person have before we ban them?'”
In the end, Draconi’s team had to isolate mere current owners of duped items from the actual duping rings responsible for them. If you played in that era, you probably remember all the burning homes in Luna and elsewhere; that was Draconi’s doing, as the solution was to delete the homes of the dupers and turn the area into flaming rubble.
“It felt fantastic!” he recalls. “And we were told not to do it again. Lol.” That’s because it came a bit too close to identifying cheaters. As a player, I do remember there also being a lot of complaining about the lag from the fire as well as grumpiness over the wasted prime real estate worth many hundreds of dollars as some of these rubble piles were left in place for insanely long lengths of time. Draconi seems to remember this too: “[O]ne of the biggest things we learned was having to deal with the economics after the fire: especially when players wanted to compete for the now available, very premium, housing spots.”
If there’s one takeaway from Draconi’s storytime, it’s that the cheating problem is embedded into the foundation of the genre, and the industry seems doomed to solve it over and over and over again. If there’s two takeaways, though, it’s that setting duper houses on fire is fun as hell.