“Making of UO” articles at MMORPG.com

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Feb 172012

Read them here: Ultima Online UO General Article: The Making of a Classic Part 1 and part two.

I wasn’t able to really sit down with Adam Tingle, the author, but he did run around the blog archives a fair amount. There’s some inaccuracies here and there, but it’s a decent overview.

Some things I spotted:

Throughout 1979 Garriott would design his computer role-playing game, revising it, adding to it, showing his friends, and finally when “D&D 28b” was finished, he renamed it Aklabeth…

It’s “Akalabeth” not “Aklabeth” — you can actually play it on your iOS device these days.

Together [Starr and Richard] started to knock ideas back and forth, based upon these new experiences, and came up with the premise of a multiplayer Ultima, or “Multima” as they affectionately termed it.

My understanding is that talk of “Multima” had been going on for quite some time, including discussions with Sierra (back when they ran the ImagiNation Network). This also leaves out the role of Ken Demarest, who was a moving force in getting the project started.

1996: So now that they had the art style, the funding, and the engine – they needed a direction for the game to head in…

Technically, we didn’t have the engine at the point the article states; the client was basically rewritten in 1995-96. Rick Delashmit had been there for a few months when my wife and I joined the project on Sept 1st 1995; other key early folks such as Scott “Grimli” Phillips and Edmond Meinfelder also joined in August to September of 95. That’s also around when Ken Demarest left, and Jim Greer — best known today for founding Kongregate.

I think I have told this story before, but the whole “dragons eating deer” example came from the design samples that my wife and I sent in as part of our job applications. We showed up on the first day and were taken aback when we were told that was how the game was going to work… So at least that much of the notion of “what the game was going to be” was set in 1995…

That crazy resource system stuff, particularly some of the AI, did in fact work in the alpha test. It led to rabbits that had levelled up and were capable of taking out wolves — or advanced players. We found this intensely amusing, and quoted Monty Python at each other whenever it came up.

Being as most of the team in charge of UO were coming from single-player games, with very few MUD veterans involved in the process…

This is just not really right. At least on the game dev team. From that September team, Kristen and Rick and I came from DikuMUDs. Edmond came from MUSH and MOO backgrounds. Scott and a tad later Jeff Posey came from LPMUDs. We had Andrew Morris, who was the original lead designer, who was a veteran of U7 and U8. And of course, our first artist, Micael Priest (most famous for his amazing poster art for bands in the 70s) wasn’t an online gamer either.

Later, as the team grew and absorbed a lot of folks from U9 (which was suspended for a while) there were plenty of non-online folks on the team. But the basic premises of UO were definitely set by folks from MUDs.

…the idea of GMs taking an active dynamic role, never materialised as initially intended…

The article says that the idea of having GMs take active roles in running events never panned out… but those who recall the Seer program and the many phenomenal live events that were run know that in fact, this did happen quite a lot.

By the time the alpha had ended, the Origin team had collected enough data, were able to fix bugs, glitches and exploits, and finally the home stretch was seen bobbing along the horizon…

This leaves out one dramatic and important step in UO’s history. The alpha was not an MMO in the “really massive” sense of the word. It supported the same sort of concurrency as Meridian 59 did — 250 or so. In between the alpha and the beta, the server was rewritten to allow for 2500-3000 concurrent players per shard. In order to do this, a whole bunch of new technology had to be invented for creating seamless borders between adjacent maps. These borders would prove to be a source of bugs for years (most dupe bugs made use of race conditions when moving across server lines).

Vogel would later admit β€œWe were pressured on time. I wish we’d have had a little bit more time.”

All game dev teams say that, right? πŸ™‚ In UO’s case, the time pressure was fairly extreme towards the end. After the huge reaction to the beta, all the eyes of the press were on us. A big meeting was scheduled to decide whether to ship — on a date that would make the all-important Christmas holiday sales. Nobody thought the game was ready to ship, but some higher-ups came around and helpfully told us that saying so in a meeting might be a career-limiting move. When the big “go-no-go” meeting was held, everyone voted yes except the QA guy.

All in all, if you go from when a team was put on the game (as opposed to just Rick & Starr), it was around Sept 95 to Sept 97 to make UO. Except that everything made up to the alpha test was thrown away and started over. So it’s really more like May 1996 to September 1997…

Vogel also often doesn’t get enough credit for putting in place all the vital things that simply were outside of the dev team’s scope, like, oh, billing and customer service.

Explaining events later, Rainz describes “I just cast the scroll on the bridge and waited to see what would happen. Someone made the comment β€˜hehe nice try’, I expected to be struck down, instead I heard a loud death grunt as British slumped to his death”. Accidentally, this Internet consultant has just committed the most infamous act in gaming history.

I was busy coding something and missed this altogether. Scott rushed into my office and said “Did you see? They killed Lord British!” At first I wasn’t sure if he meant in the game or not…

Interestingly UO garnered an initial negative response from the press, Gamespot giving the game 49%

Both UO and SWG had the mixed blessing of being Coaster of the Year from Computer Gaming World… and also winning a variety of “best of” awards.

As time progressed Origin patched, refined, and grew the game in ways they saw fit, adding in a reputation system to calm down the rampant PKing

Somehow the article manages to then skip ahead to 1999, thereby missing out on discussing the great Trammel/Felucca split.

Anyway, a nice walk down memory lane, and perhaps the articles have stuff in them people have not heard before. πŸ™‚

  21 Responses to ““Making of UO” articles at MMORPG.com”

  1. Perhaps he should’ve come to you first hehe! Really I just wanted to chime in and deeply thank you and the rest of the team that created Ultima Online for some of my very best ‘magic circle’ memories =D

  2. Jonathan, he did actually approach me, I just couldn’t make time for any sort of in-depth interview. So he made do without me… πŸ™‚

  3. Thanks for adding more details about the creative talents behind UO’s development. I am really enjoying using these tidbits of info (including books you reference in your talks) to learn more about gaming. I’m just a layperson, but it provides fascinating insights and provides for a lot of inspired/whimsical daydreaming and fond recollections.

    Best wishes and enjoy your weekend!

  4. Can you talk a bit about the Trammel/Felucca split? Did it ‘save’ UO in terms of subscribers and retention? Who was the driving force behind that, and how much agreement was there on the team about it?

    And in your opinion, did the split do more good or more harm to the enjoyment of the game for the ‘average’ player?

  5. How I would have killed for this kind of factual gold when writing the article!

    I do have to thank Raph immensely for his help and exstensive blogging to aid the research. Of course being 8 at the time of its release I have neglected a few aspects that seem obvious to players but my intentions were to simply give an overview of a game that changed an industry.

    I would say that my article does credit Demarest clearly but for the slight mistakes it is good that Mr Koster is here to fully account for some of the iffy facts. I did collect over 100 pages of interviews etc, but sometimes you just need to sit and pick te brains of guys who were there, hopefully in future this can happen as I plan on returning to this topic for a book.

  6. I opposed the split. It doubled the subscriber base and definitely made the game more enjoyable to the average player. If it hadn’t happened, EQ would have crushed UO even more than it did.

    But it did so at the cost of a lot of magical stuff that outright stopped happening. I kept trying to find solutions that would have worked while maintaining the magic. I didn’t mabage it while with UO, and really, the method I ended up arriving at, Outcasting, was never tried in SWG either.

    I actually think the TEF stuff in SWG also worked pretty well. But it was revised until it kind of stopped working, IMHO. Ironically, WoW basically uses the same TEF system design crossed with DAOC style realms. A Wow vanilla regular server is a “PvP server” based on the terminology of 1998-2002. So it kind of demonstrates that mixed-in PvP CAN work just fine for a broad audience.

  7. The first attempt at a “Multima” was a side-project by James Van Artsdalen, who did PC versions of earlier Ultimas (3 and 4 I think). He used the company’s 3B2 Unix system as a server to toy around with trying to make a Multima prototype, but he never got far with it.

    When Ken Williams spun off a new multiplayer online gaming business at Sierra (publisher of Ultima 2), The ImagiNation Network, he wanted to see if Richard would do a Multima for that. So he sent a pre-release beta, it was called something like “Constant Companion” before it was renamed to ImagiNation. (Initially they thought a lot of senior citizens would play cards and chat on it to fill their large amounts of free time.) Richard wasn’t interested but I was glad to get to see it early. One of the programmers on ImagiNation, Stephen Nichols, is now working with Richard at Portalarium.

    Jessica Mulligan was still at Genie in 1990 when she talked to Jeff Johannigman about setting up a Multima to run on Genie, using Ultima 6 as the base of the client code. John and Kelton at Kesmai (still a 2 man company then, I think?) would modify U6 and write a server to go with it, with me coordinating from Origin’s end. Origin would pay for the development costs.

    Then America Online offered the same deal, same royalty rate, except with AOL paying development costs instead of Origin. I’ve heard rumors they never really wanted a multiplayer Ultima, they just wanted to derail competitor Genie for free by making an offer and not following through. (Please don’t sue me, AOL, I don’t have enough money to be worth it. Really!)

    DragonSpires was pitched to Origin by me, ‘Manda, and Jeff Dee, shortly before Ultima Online started to gather steam. Initially they were eager to sign a deal and do it, but then they saw Rick had gotten the first UO prototype working, and they decided to go with that instead.

    UO was listed in the Guiness Book of World Records for a while as the longest continuously running MMORPG, but that’s since been corrected. I guess it’s still 2nd or 3rd longest, not sure if The Realm is still going.

  8. Adam: I was bothered by the fact that the screenshots used are from the new client we started a few years ago with the Kingdom Reborn project, and really don’t represent UO as it was back then. I can see some of the NPCs I made, and UI elements I helped design in 2007, which definitely weren’t around in the 90s. I feel that it would serve the record better for a historical article like this to have accurate screenshots to show what the game looked like at the time, rather than the new client built on the Gamebryo engine.

    If you do some Google searching, you’ll find examples from the alpha and beta periods which are pretty sweet, as well as thousands of screenshots from UO after it was released.

    Also, Raph, I hope you keep these old UO blog posts coming! I read a lot of your stuff here, but the UO related ones are always special. In fact, there were a few you wrote years ago detailing the production system that ended up being some of the best documentation that we had on that system. So, besides being inherently cool to read about “how things were” back in the day, they were also pretty useful guides to figuring out how things worked. Oh, and it was cool to read about go/no-go meetings origination at Origin. (Slight pun intended) I sat in a lot of those, and signed off on quite a few, but never knew that they had roots going back to the beginning!

    So, yeah, I absolutely love these blog posts!

  9. I am pretty sure there were go/no-go meetings long before I got there. πŸ™‚ But that one sticks in my memory because of how political it was.

    A lot of my memories of UO are fading, honestly, John! After all, it has been fifteen+ years now since some of what I describe. I mostly moved off of it in late ’98, maybe ’99?

    That said, if there are particular aspects of UO that I can illuminate, let me know. πŸ™‚

    I remember having to solve stairs… the art director couldn’t quite figure out how to make them work in iso. I also developed the embankment texture sets we used for 3d terrain… and the little worldbuilding script tool (used for T2A) that backended onto escript (horrible horrible thing) so that you could do large-scale procedural worldbuilding things… stuff like the automatic placement of blending tiles, placement of trees on textures, etc…

  10. Well, I haven’t worked on UO since early 2010, so it’s not really work-related to me now, but it’s still fun to read the old stories! I like to see them recorded, so they don’t get lost to time. Even though my own experiences don’t seem as important to record as the older ones, maybe I should write them down now while they’re still pretty fresh. Something to think about πŸ™‚

    In any case, I mostly just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to write what you have written already. I know there are quite a few of us out here who enjoy reading them, and who knows, maybe some current or future MMO designer will read them and be inspired too!

  11. You know, I was in the vanguard of the player push to limit PK in UO almost from launch, I take a tiny share of credit for the success of that effort (not just in UO but industry-wide) and it was absolutely the right thing to do.

    Yes, there were some interesting things to emerge from the crucible, but those were far, far outweighed by what we lost. Players were hemmoraging from the game because of PKing, and the ones that were leaving were some of the best and brightest. The ones who survived were hardened and coursened, and not in a good way. Open PvP made every group a defacto PvP group, and you couldn’t hold any sort of event without executing a few griefers (assuming some anarchist warband didn’t take your security as a challenge and mount a full-scale attack).

    The reputation system accomplished little but the creation of quick and easy workaround macros.

    The only regret I have about the implementation of Trammel was that the players disinterested in PvP (the vast majority of the population) were forced to relocate, rather than making the existing world non-PvP and the new facet PvP. The resulting land rush and “warp storm” was a cluster of epic FUBAR.

    As a direct result of my experiences in UO, I remain constantly and vocally opposed to any system in any MMORPG that imposes PvP without full and informed consent of all parties before each engagement.

  12. Raph, nice followup to the article.

    You are the man!!!

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  14. Raph, everyone knows that even with the trammel split UO pvp as with its population saw a peak. My question is why split the world when you could of just made the whole world “trammel” since anyway it did not affect pvp. Player killing was done anyway as 99% of the population was now on the trammel side.

  15. Hector, I wasn’t on the UO team at that point… that was Anthony Castoro aka Sunsword.

  16. Fun things the article doesn’t mention: server rollbacks (Britain graveyard!); house exploits (mushrooms, z-index fun with towers); exploits in general – Dr.TwisTer!; the housing sprawl, and the patch that deleted old houses causing people to run around grabbing all of the items that were inside said deleted houses; UO AutoMap and UOAssist and UOExtreme (I have the source to UOE, but it’s in a password protected zip file πŸ™ ) and the third party program policy. Macroing and the system and policy changes around it. Siege Perilous and its predecessor The Abyss. The creation of an actual dedicated Australian server – the first and only time that a major MMO has had one (before that we had fastwalk, thankfully).


  17. […] Raph Koster links to a pair of articles published at MMORPG.com — the first one is here, and the second here — and offers some comments and corrections based on his recollections of Ultima Online’s development process. […]

  18. Yukon Sam, I’m not so sure I subscribe to that viewpoint. While it may have chased some players away, removing that dynamic from the game made other leave. Which one would have had the most success? While you can certainly argue that point, I don’t think we’ll ever know. One only has to look at Eve Online to see that there is room for a cutthroat PvP sandbox MMO.

    Looking back on my UO time, my best memories are fighting murderers and locals areound the Chaos Shrine in Fel. I can’t say I have all that many great stories to tell about Tram, but I still tell one story in particular about a hapless soul I encountered in the Jhelom fighting pits. Long story short, he kept attacking me, with me killing him on my mage/bard three times in a row. Then I sold his power hammer back to him each time using another character, commiserating with him about his bad luck, taking screenshots the entire time. I still remember his name: Iceflamestrike. And then there were all the epic battles with GUL on Napa Valley, headed by Adam Ant. Or the time I teamed up with a roleplayer while he lived in a cave and attacked all who entered, to tell a story.

    There is something special for having actual villains, with real people behind them. Sure, it was frustrating a lot of the time, but not much else in gaming compared to finally beating another human being who has been torturing you repeatedly. That sense of achievement can’t be matched by beating dumb AI.

    Though, I do find it somewhat amusing that I’m still having this argument over a decade later. πŸ™‚

  19. Blast from the Past – the Making of UO…

    Ultima Online gets mentioned quite often by the gaming media, sometimes in the past tense, sometimes in the tradition of “wouldn’t it be nice if somebody did this like it was done in UO”. Last week, MMORPG ran a two-part article: – Ul…

  20. Maybe there’s a dilution of passion that comes with having so many options in the market. When UO came out, I fought like hell to get it right because it was the only game in town. Today… meh, I cancel my sub and move on. I know, that contradicts what I said a couple days ago. So sue me.

  21. Also, here, if I can have the mic a moment…



    …because old UO discussions just aren’t the same without that. ;D

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