Ultima Online and MUDs

Matt Barton's picture

Okay, everyone. Now is the time to sound off about your experiences with MMOs and MUDs! I'm probably about 70% done with the chapter at this point, which focuses on Ultima Online, but I must admit that I'm very limited when it comes to this era. I have tons of experience with MUDs, playing them extensively around 1995-1997, but didn't touch another online game until World of Warcraft last year. I also played the crap out of that. However, I didn't ever play the original Neverwinter Nights, Habitat, The Shadow of Yserbius. I also haven't played Everquest or any MMORPG besides WOW. I doubt that many of you guys have much experience with them either; I assume if you did, you'd be playing that instead of reading this. :)

Still, I could definitely use any firsthand experience you have with MUDs and MMORPGs, and any thoughts you have on the genre. If you are intimate with one or another of these, tell me what you think is important about them and worth looking at in detail.

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adamantyr
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Ultima Online

I was a UO player. In fact, I was one of the first volunteers for the Counselor program and later was one of the original Seers. (Seer Adamantyr of Pacific.)

I remember the beta of UO very well, I still have the disks too. Every reboot started a mass rush to the towns to pick up supplies before every NPC was depleted. Every animal and monster in the world was slaughtered and skinned within two hours. It was very much like "Harsh Realm". The economy's insanity was the first real sign of cool-sounding ideas in MMO design not turning out well in actual implementation.

Ultima Online was, in some ways, the game that did everything wrong so everyone else knew what to do right. PvP looting and ganking, player housing urban sprawls, spells that hold/paralyze with no limitations... They eventually fixed a lot of this, but they laid the groundwork for the success that you can attribute to World of Warcraft now. Having a real living example of how it can go wrong works wonders in design.

The Seer program is especially an interesting chapter of UO history, and I'm in a unique place to talk about it.

The Counselor program had always been a planned part of the game. The "Counselor Halls" exist in every town map, and were a planned game element. Of course, instead of being a program to allow veteran players to aid and assist starting players, it instead became the first level of customer service and support, with mostly helpless Counselors being forced to deal with difficult angry players while a GM was backlogged to the nines.

Most of the Counselors had heard that the next step in the volunteer program was the "Seer" program, where you would actually help generate interest content in the game. We all dreamed of being a part of it, but it took them several months to get it organized. They initially had us submit applications describing the kinds of activities we'd do, and from that they picked 15 of us... I was one of them.

I was in the Seer program from early '98 to mid '99, when I quit UO. Unfortunately, the early program had a lot of rough going. The first problem was the lack of resources; there was only 1-3 GM's (called Interest GM's, or IGM's) assigned to it, and they were usually kept pretty busy. One of them, GM Twilight, was very savvy with the engine and could do a lot of stuff none of the others could. This meant, unfortunately, he was in the highest demand for setting up events. They tried at one point to have regular GM's involved in it, but this ended up causing a lot of problems.

An example: One of the seers, who knew better, asked for his character to get 2,000 in each ability score. The GM gave him this, not realizing the values were far out of scope. He then proceeded to innocently "walk" towards the West Trinsic gates. As any old UO veteran would tell you, the region around West Trinsic was a ganker's paradise. They would usually camp out near the gates and mass fireball/death bolt any hapless player who came out of the guard zone. Well, they had a surprise that night. The attacks barely singed his uber-character, and when they ran forward to loot the body as usual, he auto-defended and slaughtered the lot of them. The screaming and whining on the forums was quite loud... and after that, much greater care was taken when designing seer characters.

It wasn't all funny, though. One of my friends in the program, who'd always seemed like a nice guy, went completely nuts with his RPC (role-playing character). He started hunting down players and with his superior ability scores and skills easily dispatched them. After awhile there were numerous justified complaints of harassment, and it became clear that the person behind the seer was actually mentally unbalanced and paranoid. The IGM's were forced to remove him from the program.

For myself, I decided early on that one of the missing elements of the online experience was the lack of intelligent conversation from NPC's. Ultima Online NPC's were very cookie-cutter in nature, and one of my chief complaints was the lack of social centers for players to meet and chat. Because of the nature of the game, the bank's were actually the popular hang-out, something that persists to this day even in WoW. Another factor was that many of the seers made strong heroic RPC's, who would lead other players on adventures. I disagreed with this approach; I felt that the Seers should take a back-seat and let the players be the heroes.

So my RPC, Ben Kahns, was not a powerful warrior or mage, but a bartender and chef. I also decided I wanted to bring some life to a little used place in the game, so I chose to make him the bartender of the tavern in Magincia, a little-visited town on an island. My plan was that I could coordinate with other seers on the server who would create rumors and stories for my bartender to pass on to players in the tavern, thus giving RP-minded and quest-minded PC's a place to hang out. I also established a regular schedule for him so that players would always know when and where to find him.

I can't claim it for certainty, but I'm pretty certain my RPC was probably the most successful of the program. I hosted guild dinners and had dart contests, gave out little known trinkets in the game like glass mugs and doughnuts (which were in the game art files and item lists but NOT in game), and generally had a good time playing a cheerful happy-go-lucky bartender, always ready to lend an ear. I had a regular crowd who would always show up; I'm still good friends with several of them today. My only vice was I usually would have him make fun of players with weird or silly names, and humored players roleplaying as elves or orcs (there were no races in UO initially, a state I personally think they should have kept). It helped that I can type 85-95 words per minute, so I could quickly and easily respond to questions, without using internet shorthand or leet speak. (Which I despise.) I even ended up doing the services for in-game weddings, both in my green robe (seer disguise) and as Ben.

Another fact I can't claim for certain but it seems likely was I am probably the one responsible for getting player RP venues "decorated" in-game, prior to the customized housing changes added with a later expansion. (Which are very nice, mind you, no online game has equaled UO for the power it offers in housing.) I had visited at a request a small establishment on the Great Lakes shard known as Kazola's. I was impressed with the work they'd done to establish a role-playing social center on the shard, so I petitioned the IGM's to decorate the tavern. They had been considering something like this for awhile, I think, and decided to go ahead with it, and Kazola's became the first of many RP houses to receive decorations. (Usually referred to as "the GM's blessing") On a side-note, Kazola's was also the establishment that Scott Kurtz (of the web comic "PvP") visited when he was playing UO and he got his idea for Skull the troll from UO.

My penultimate triumph, though, was meeting Lord British. I'm pretty certain it WAS Lord British, GM Twilight told me at times they had someone else play him if Richard wasn't about, but he hinted that this visit it was definitely the real guy. I had an inkling it was coming, and had Ben play the fool, thinking that he was one of his regular patrons in disguise. In the real world, my hands were literally shaking on the keys... it's LORD BRITISH, MAN! (I have a transcript of the log of that night, as well as some screen shots, I can dig them up if you like for your book, Matt.)

Eventually, though, I got burned out. Working volunteer work like this is, in many ways, just another job. While I had my account paid for by participating in the program, and even got a bit of a discount on EA products, it wasn't enough to justify the 8-10 hours I was spending a week at it. The player-killer/ganker attacks on Kazola's Keg and Winery on the Great Lakes server also greatly distressed and angered me. The PK/RP battles of that era are, I think, why they thought doing RP-PVP servers in WoW may work out. The hatred and rage on both sides created a LOT of drama and interest... but not the kind I like.

I left the program and the game around May of '99, about the time that the IGM's were finally starting to create in-game tools for the Seers to do their own interest work independently. A good idea, but I disliked the limitations placed upon the powers... I was starting to realize, deep down, that this was real work. And I would be better off focusing on this kind of work in real life than in game. Many of my Counselor and Seer friends actually moved to Austin, Texas to try and get jobs at the company, but I couldn't do this. (One in fact became a map/level designer on U9; her face was used for the barmaid in Buccaneer's Den.)

When I was back in school getting my CS degree some time later, I restarted my account. The volunteer program had come to an abrupt end when the volunteers sued EA some years back; their response was to cancel all volunteer programs anywhere there was legal reason to do so. (Turns out it's illegal to do volunteer work for a profit organization in most of the states.)

Interestingly, I still had my green robe. The account system had been set up to detect accounts flagged as volunteers, but mine pre-dated that system and escaped it. I also still had my RPC and some other interesting NPC's and unique gear. Most of it I was allowed to keep, although the patronizing arrogance of the GM's I encountered was annoying. The other problem was that too much had happened in the five years or so I had been gone; very few players remembered the RPC's at all. And I faced the sad realization that the reason many of them hung around Ben was the hopes that they were talking to a real employee of Origin; many didn't realize the Seers were just volunteers.

So I eventually shut my account down, for good. The actual game play had never really drawn me; the repetitive macro nature of UO's engine was annoying to deal with. And the increasingly empty streets and houses told me it's time wasn't far off. Still, I met some good people, and I had a good time, so I can't say it was a waste.

Rowdy Rob
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Awesome!
adamantyr wrote:

I was a UO player. In fact, I was one of the first volunteers for the Counselor program and later was one of the original Seers. (Seer Adamantyr of Pacific.)

This was an absolutely fascinating and illuminating account of the inner workings of "Ultima Online!" Thank you very much for posting it!

As for me, I have nothing to contribute to this discussion, since I have never played a MMORPG or MUD. The closest I've come to MMORPG's was when I played the demo for "Unreal Tournament," and got my backside seriously kicked by the other players!

I did have Compuserve back in the day, but like Bill said, I was very aware of the "clock" ticking, and it seemed a frivolous waste of hard-earned money to play these games.

I knew a couple whose lives seemed to revolve around "Everquest," which made it difficult to get in touch with them. It was very clear that these MMORPG's were very addictive!

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Bill Loguidice
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Random thoughts

Well, I played Neverwinter Nights on AOL, and it was very much like a Gold Box game obviously. I think the one big issue I had with it was that was before the time of unlimited access, so I always felt the financial pressure of always being "on the clock", so my play sessions were fleeting and under duress. It was like that actually with a lot of the early online games until we got unlimited Internet and fixed fee games. Obviously the BBS-based MUDs were their own consideration, since those were often accessed via local numbers, though it certainly limited the number of players (usually to the number of phone lines the BBS had and active users - there were also games you sort of played it in a multiplayer way, but the opponent(s) would often log in at different times and order their moves and log off).

Certainly Habitat is important to mention, as that's pretty much the graphical MMOG pioneer, and The Sierra Network, something that I also used for a time, which was kind of like a graphical playground for mostly adults, with games and chat and what-have-you.

I think it's important to mention a few of the console offerings as well, like Phantasy Star on the Dreamcast, though again, not really massively multiplayer in the sense we think of, but certainly worthy of a passing mention.



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Matt Barton
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I agree with Rob, Adamantyr,

I agree with Rob, Adamantyr, fascinating stuff and very useful for the book. I'm definitely going to be quoting from this in my chapter! It's always fun to read personal accounts rather than just the standard "reference" stuff, bleh.

It's been about two or maybe three weeks since I last cranked up WOW, and longer than that since I seriously played it. I lost a lot of interest when I took a 2-week vacation and came back; I realized I hadn't missed the game at all. It had, in fact, become "work" like you describe--logging in, doing the "daily" quests which were really just chores, running bgs over and over just to get the equipment. I realized I had no real reason to continue.

I think there are several reasons why people stop playing MMORPGs or MUDs, but the burnout is inevitable for most of us. I mean, how long can you realistically be expected to play a game like that? The only exception I can think of are people who have real social circles online. This summer was great because one my best friends IRL was also on the game, and we could play together and talk on the headsets. That made it so much fun! However, I was never able to really connect to anyone else in the game, which was very odd for me. When I played MUDs, I had so many friends and quickly got to know everyone in the game-not just "in game," but a lot about their personal lives. WOW just seemed to stick to in-game stuff. That could just be luck of the draw, though. A few times I quested with folks and thought they were really fun and nice, but then never saw them again (or weeks later they'd be back with "REMEMBER ME?" and I'd be like, "No, sorry.")

I never tried the WOW role-playing servers, but maybe that'd be more fun. I always wanted to play my blood elf as an arrogant, self-centered bitch, but nobody "got it" and thought I was personally a jerk. Same thing with my warrior, who I wanted to play as the blustering type who charged into the middle of every conflict. No one seemed to have any patience for that sort of thing, but I thought it'd be fun to be in a dungeon with people who were willing to play their parts realistically. The "social" aspect just wasn't there. I felt more like part of a military unit going in there than a group of friends on a quest.

Looking back, WOW did do an excellent job handling interplayer conflicts. They had the instances and various means of keeping people from stealing kills or corpse squatting, but PVP could be trying at times. "Premades" were a problem; that'd be when a guild or large group from one of the factions would all enter the same BGS. Since they were well organized and probably well equipped, they'd win every time. OR, they'd just stand there doing nothing, perhaps dancing or what-not until the BGS was over. Since you got some honor and points just for participating, you could just keep doing that and quickly get the gear (honor rewards).

My friend Kevin is much more into it, and I think it's because he's got that social dimension. He knows his guild mates very well, and they play almost every night (and all weekend). He's doing the end-game stuff with the huge dungeons. There's lots of content you can't get to unless you're really with a great group. That could be fun, I guess, but my problem is that I started losing interest when I maxed out my level and got mostly great gear. There's a law of diminishing returns in effect, so you can good gear for a little work, slightly better gear for more work, and slightly better gear for even more work, etc. Eventually you're working for days or even weeks to get a piece of gear with only slightly better stats than what you have already. Meh.

I don't regret playing WOW because it was very fun creating different characters and exploring the world. However, I do think there's a point in these games where they start to lose their appeal; it's precisely when they become more like work than fun.

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Bill Loguidice
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Thoughts

Great points, Matt. I think you may want to consider my one caveat for not playing them as well, and that's the sense of "obligation" one feels, which I guess is kind of a parallel to the "work" aspect that you describe. In the MMOG's where you pay a monthly fee, I'd feel obligated to use it because it's a subscription, along with feeling the obligation to keep on improving my character so I don't fall behind others and then along with feeling the obligation to be there when others are if I make friends or play with a particular group or guild. That;s a lot of pressure for a game experience or gaming benefits I can have more or less in other ways with other games. Even if the MMOG is free, the other obligations wouldn't necessarily go away. Perhaps that's why games like Second Life are also successful, as they take away some of the pressures and just create a big online playground of possibilities, with a large focus on social interaction over anything else, which certainly doesn't require leveling or really being somewhere at a certain time or place.



Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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