GDCOnline: Ultima Online postmortem

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Aug 172012

Game Developers Conference | Check out the origin of Ultima Online at GDC Online 2012.

This is one of three things that I’ll be doing at GDCO in Austin this October. I’ll let you know what the other two are as they get announced. 🙂 Have you registered yet? Why not?

Speaker/s: Rich Vogel (Independent)Raph Koster (Playdom, San Diego) and Starr M. Long (The Walt Disney Company)
Track / Duration / Format / Audience Level: Design , Production / 60-Minute / Lecture / All
GDC Vault Recording: TBD

Description: At first, it was mostly a team of newbies. For a while, the office space was a few rooms on a floor that was gutted for construction — you could literally walk off the 5th floor of building and plunge to your death if you weren’t careful. The artists sat in the hallway. And the team was out to change everything. Ultima Online was not only one of the first graphical MMORPGs, it also set the standard for player vs player combat and sandbox/emergent gameplay in online titles for many years to come. Three of the UO team’s chief members — Raph Koster, Rich Vogel, and Starr Long (all of whom went on to shape the online gaming landscape) — will deliver a postmortem on the landmark title, reflecting on the challenges they faced from early development to maintaining the game well after its launch. Come learn how a combination of insane ambition and idealistic cluelessness can sometimes result in creating something that changes people’s lives and the course of an industry.

Takeaway: Skunkworks development can actually work! Learn about the challenges in spinning up a service organization from scratch. And what exactly happened with that crazy dragons eating deer thing?

  9 Responses to “GDCOnline: Ultima Online postmortem”

  1. I know what happened to the crazy dragons eating deer. I won’t spoil your solution, though. 🙂

    I later discovered parts of the system still running, when I was trying to fix the spawn system (hundreds of spawns at the tips of peninsulas). These were caused by the resource manager existing in the ocean, but barely overlapped a jutting tip of land. When I tried to make a new resource region, the system automatically generated a new resource regions file. However, when rendering the new regions in a graphical app I made, the automatic generation algorithm had shattered all the regions into tiny regions to fit the change in.

    We eventually had to rewrite the resource manager. If you remember, it took a long time for some creatures to respawn and others were very short to respawn. This is because the resource manager checked spawn regions from the top left of a server to the bottom right. So, dungeons further down in the map spawned slower than dungeons near the top of the map (overland landmass, as well). This is why it the forest near Yew had the best hunting grounds (more often spawns) than land further south in the server’s geography. Once we rewrote the manager, the system was much more optimized, but caused another problem. Spawns were too fast… Ugh! 🙂

    Anyway, some time later, I remember talking to Raph about the resource system. I’m sure we could have updated it to include elements of an ecosystem, but our producers at the time were not interested in large, unscheduled side projects.

  2. “Come learn how a combination of insane ambition and idealistic cluelessness can sometimes result in creating something that changes people’s lives and the course of an industry.”

    There’s not enough of this in the mainstream MMO business these days. The whole industry has lost its way and stumbles around wondering why nothing they put out can get the numbers that WoW grabbed. It’s because the games are only incrementally more interesting. Add a pile more idealistic cluelessness and some bold insanely stupid ambition and you might just beat WoW before it beats itself.

    More than a few of the ex-WoW players (growing by millions per quarter) are looking across the landscape of upcoming MMOs and saying Meh. The whole genre needs a reboot from some disruptive startup company.

  3. Ok, THIS should be good.

  4. Good times and educational as both a player and later a developer.

  5. No time, no money. You won’t miss me. I’m very quiet in person (unless you give me a mic and a spotlight, then all bets are off).

  6. I want to hear more about the spawn system stuff! Because a big part of why it was all turned off was performance.

  7. The changes in overland spawn created some unique challenges if all you wanted to do was put on a play or other event without the audience getting butchered. Fortunately our audiences were usually heavily armed and dangerous.

  8. Dan Buckler was the one that rewrote the spawn system. He mentioned that the spawn system had a cycle timeout that would keep it from slowing down the server. However, the cycle timeout did not save where it left off, so it would restart at the top left of a server. That meant that it could only process spawn regions near the top left corner of each server.

    Heavy farming of creatures in the dungeons meant that some dungeons would not spawn any creatures, due to players near the top of the server’s coordinates farming.

    Once we rewrote the spawn system, we made a very simple addition to make sure that each spawn cycle saved where it left off. This meant that the spawn system would evenly distribute across an entire server.

    However, the players had become used to the old system and it was a shock to them that monsters would respawn quickly. Fast respawns are just as bad as no respawns. Before, players could “clear” some dungeons and have some leeway to retreat back from monsters. I have not been in UO in some time, but I bet that individual spawn timers per region hasn’t been implemented.

  9. Can’t wait for the slides, though I have a feeling I have read a ton of postmortems on UO 😉

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