Ultima Online is fifteen

 Posted by (Visited 27350 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Sep 252012

Today was the fifteenth anniversary of the launch of Ultima Online. For those who would like to read up on some of the stuff I have written in the past, you can do so by clicking here. Warning: rambling ahead…

Here’s something that I think no one has ever seen. My wife and I were driving from Alabama (where we were in grad school) to Austin, to visit friends there — Sherry Menton and Rick Delashmit. All four of us worked together on LegendMUD.

Kristen and I had been talking about making another mud, one with deeper simulation elements. We talked about having abstract properties running behind things, instead of hard-coding every quest. How much cooler would it be, we thought, if the NPCs were simulated entities, rather than merely responding to player actions?

We took notes on a pad of paper, as we drove. We took turns, which is why the handwriting in these images changes:

One of those pages has the old address of Ancient Anguish, a mud we were checking out. It’s still up. As you can see, a lot of the heavy lifting was done by my wife, the economist. 🙂 Some of this stuff ended up making it into LegendMUD — the weather stuff, for example. You also see there the notes on the genesis of the moods system that was first in Legend, then eventually in Star Wars Galaxies. It wasn’t until ’05 that I was able to do the water flowing downhill stuff, as part of an R&D project at SOE that was never used for anything. It worked, though.

Here was born the resource system. When we were asked to submit design samples, the resource system is what we sent in. It was more elaborated than this, much closer to what was eventually built for the game. Then they asked us to submit quest samples. They had sent us some sample code, to ask if we could read and understand it. We could… and we weren’t very impressed by it. I sent in the Beowulf quest from Legend as my sample…

UO jungle artwork

UO jungle artwork

An anecdote: We’re all meeting over the fact that we’re short on artists. It meant that we might lose the entire jungle biome.

I said to Starr, “If I can have a Wacom tablet, I can probably draw plants.”

Starr turned to Rick and said “Is he any good?”

Rick shrugged. “Yeah, he’s not bad.”

I got a Wacom tablet. And I did all of these. They were all drawn from issues of National Geographic that I brought in from home… that’s why there are several specifically Hawaiian plants there. Later, poor Chuck Crist had to go through and painstakingly remove the black edging from them — I hadn’t done them on a transparent layer.

That was far from the only art stuff I did on UO.  All the design materials for UO went off to the lawyers when the lawsuit hit. It was a six foot tall stack of paper. I don’t actually think it ever came back. There was a printed out record of every patch. Design specs for everything. Detailed maps of every section of the world. For all I know, it is sitting in a legal file folder at EA somewhere… But I do have a few things from a sketchbook.

A lot of the time we were trying to solve problems like stairs, or buttresses. For those who recall the Mage Tower in Britain, I created the templates for arches and flying buttresses just for that building. Trinsic was the reason we got sloping walls at all. I also created the templates for how to do stairs, and later, sloping terrain.

The embankments, as we called them, were an interesting challenge. We had experimented with doing height as pure optical illusion… I had worked up a faked set of terrain tiles which just had lighter and darker sides and were impassable, to suggest slopes. The whole thing made the ground look ziggurat-like.

Then Rick Delashmit said he could probably actually give us texture-mapped terrain. But we needed a way to signal ravines and other slopes that were impassable… in particular, along the shorelines.

The result were the embankment texture sets — the fourth image above is presumably where I worked them out…

I used to actually draw isometric versions of structures, and even whole cities (I did for Serpent’s Hold) in order to plan out exactly where everything would go…

Eventually, of course, the game launched. And with it came a lot of press. I would be given faxed-in copies of articles from all over the world by the PR folks. Almost all of the reviews were middling to bad. 6 out of 10 was a pretty common score. (We did also get a pile of awards, including a couple for special achievement. We never got to see any of the trophies. They all went to EA HQ. I hear they are now all at Mythic).

In one of these pics you can see the faxed-in cover of Computer Games magazine… I had been slaving for weeks over a very cool and much more elaborately built environment called Teratha. It was a spider-worshipping culture that built its city around a volcano. It became the cover image for the magazine article — and was cut from the game a little while later. I was devastated… but we had to make a lot of cuts… I mean, three whole continents were the first to go…! I remember sketching stuff out for the cultures of the Lands of the Dark Unknown — I think some of this eventually became stuff used in the Lost Lands and in Elikki and some other locales in Britannia. So if you ever wondered where these extra islands and whatnot came from… like Ocllo… well, now you know.

I also got a dozen or so emails and letters from fellow developers across the game industry — from Meridian 59, from Blizzard, from LucasArts and Bioware, full of praise. I printed them out and tacked them up on my office door. Marketing folks then asked me if they could use them in press materials and I told them no, they were never meant for the public. I still have those print-outs — and I am still not sharing them with you.

And then, of course, came the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was, as I recall, over the fact that the game was advertised as being available 24/7. But it was crashing, and therefore not always available. So a lawyer who went by the game handle “Bunboy” sued us. And his lead plaintiff, amazingly enough, was someone that I already knew: a LegendMUD player who had been a administrative challenge for years. In short, a problem player from one game had followed us to another game!

By then, Kristen was staying home with our second child. We had brought our first born, our daughter, into the offices with us. Every single person on the UO team had either quit, moved back to Ultima IX, or moved over to the already begun UO2. I was the only person left.

Origin asked us for an expansion. We had to use the empty space left on the edge of the map. All that would fit was a small chunk that I sketched out to mimic a portion of Ambrosia from Ultima III. We hired a few new folks — Chris Mayer (Faceless), Runesabre (Kirk Black)… I think it was a team of six, plus some of the folks who had quit working on contract, and we made The Second Age in three months.

The EA lawyers were very unhappy with me over a quote from that newspaper article in the pic. I ended by saying UO was “a grand experiment.”

They said “don’t you realize that’s the sort of thing they will use in court against us?”

But it was. Grand.

  38 Responses to “Ultima Online is fifteen”

  1. Grand doesn’t even begin to cover it 🙂 Thanks for sharing, and as always for the great work you’ve done.

  2. […] excuse to wax nostalgic, so we can’t blame original Ultima Online developer Raph Koster for writing down a few thoughts about the game’s 15th […]

  3. My husband and I met, became friends, and eventually I moved from Canada to the US so we could get married, all because of Ultima Online. That was ten years ago, and we’ve been married for five. So in a way I guess you kind of played matchmaker for us. (And also helped pave the way for me to own a surly, fire-breathing magical hate-horse, which is what every girl wants.) So thanks!

  4. […] enough excuse to wax nostalgic, so we can't blame original Ultima Online developer Raph Koster for writing down a few thoughts about the game's 15th anniversary. His article is a collection of early behind-the-scenes […]

  5. Ultima Online got me into online gaming. It offered years of entertainment but, more importantly, it allowed me to meet and become friends with people from all around the world, many of whom I still keep in contact with today. Thank you for giving us an incredible game and an immersive game world. Damn you for making it such an incredible experience that, for me, it leaves most other MMOs lacking in comparison.

  6. I’m proud of UO. I didn’t build it (though there may be one or two aspects flavored by my suggestions, or so I like to think). But I was part of it. I invested in it. I worked up the idea for the Golden Brew Players with Ursula and Kita Talith, and I was in every production. I served as a Troubador. It wasn’t “just a game”. It was a world, and I felt like it was my world, along with the millions of others that played it and the select few that created it.

    Thank you, Raph. Thank you, Kristen. Thank you to everybody on the dev team who took this crazy idea and made it work, who had big ideas, who took risks and failed and picked themselves up and tried again. You managed to simultaneously create this work of art and also provide us mere players with a canvas to create our own art. And on that score, the rest of the industry is still playing catch-up.

    Rule, Britannia!

  7. UO was my first MMO love, and will always be held in the highest regard for me. Some of my greatest memories came from UO. Whether it was seeing 30 PKs port into the Rat Camp near Yew and slaughter everyone that stood, or baiting thieves to enter our guild house near Crossroads and then slaughtering them with 10 stealthed guild members. It was truly the wild west and did not lack adventure. I still consider the gathering system in UP (especially mining) to be one of the best I have ever seen. Never have been a fan of node based resource gathering.

    I was the first person to figure out that Dr. Twister, when he wasn’t exposing exploits on his website, had a counselor named “Retsiwt”… Yeah, really obvious NOW isn’t it.

    I actually got the opportunity to talk in PM with you Raph, although for the life of me I can’t remember what feature I was convinced we desperately needed. Those IRC chats were fun though.

    I remember the player run government in Skara Brae on Pacific, and “The Spoon of Skara Brae” lore that developed from that.

    It is crazy to think that my adventure started 15 years ago with my walking into my brothers bedroom and having him point at the screen and announce “That is a real person. And that is a real person. And that is a…”

    And 15 years later I am still swimming in the MMO waters, having new adventures and hanging with game friends I have known for years and years but never met in person, aside from my wife perhaps!

    In the words of a wise man:


  8. […] I’m just going to tell you now that you should skip everything I say below and just head over and read Raph Koster’s Website. […]

  9. I first played UO when I was 14. Even today, no game can beat it. No game has come even close to it. Long live UO!

  10. UO was more epic than anything that passed over my 25 years old filled life. i played the game for a bunch of year and even so while I play other games I always say :- – Why they don’t do it like UO used to do?

    The best MMO to me was UO, and even with amazing up to date graphics and new combat system engines, none of the recent title could surpress the rich enviroment that UO offered us. It was brilliant and exciting, and gave us a fanstastic world that was so real we could almost touch it. Let the koreans with their housing system and pet brewing features try, they keep failing one after the other.

    UO was my first MMORPG experience and i doubt i would still be a player of this genre if i had started with any other title. A lot of other games try to grab the amazing and fun PK experience that UO offered us and they fail badly alongside with the koreans “thousand of features” poor games.

    Thank you for beig part of my existence because it was a hell of an amazing ride 😀

  11. […] and Ultima Online turned 15 today.  Imagine that. [Link fixed] Share this:TwitterRedditFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  12. Great times, Raph! I remember hex editing one of the raw data files that was consistently crashing the game literally days (maybe even hours) before goldmaster was supposed to be delivered for UOT2A. For whatever reason, the source data wasn’t available to debug/re-create the data file (forget what the file was even for now… color data I think) but I figured out how to hex edit the existing processed data to stop the crashing. After T2A launched I remember spending all weekend dealing with a random crash whenever someone typed in a specific chat text sequence that inadvertently caused the system to believe it was a network packet intended for something else.

  13. 15 years later and I’m still trying to program my own UO…

    I’d give various body parts to be at the post-mortem at GDC; I have a torso, a leg and “the head of Michael”, which is a rare…

  14. I spent many years making UO movies which are all on Stratics. You gave me a great place to create a alter ego to myself! Long Live Lord Ed McManus!

  15. […] read from Raph about the early days of UO, which recently turned 15 years old. Which is likely older than the average age of today’s WoW […]

  16. Grand write-up. Grand read.

  17. I remember playing UO in beta. Getting the very generic cardboard CD mailer with the disc, and then messing with it. I also remember trying to play at launch, but the combo of a slow modem and launch craziness prevented me from doing a ton. I also remember stealing some poor guy’s house key and then ebaying the house. And then some GM/Dev (Guys name started with Sun or Star) yelled at me for it, basically told me I wasn’t welcome, and that while he didn’t have the power to ban me, he would have if he had that power. I then remember the whole trammel launch and the housing debacle some months after the launch.

    I guess the point I’m making is that UO had its high and low points. I did love the game. I went back and played it a few months ago, and at least to me it hasn’t aged all that well. Still all in all, the fact that EA has kept it going 15 years later is amazing.

  18. Thank you for giving myself, my fellow players and everyone else who plays a large online game the chance to do what we did. Without your thoughts and actions nothing would be what it is and I enjoy it still to this day all these years later.

  19. I was able to find a copy of the game 2 days after the release. It was a Saturday and ended up playing the entire weekend. I have never enjoyed a game as much as I did Ultima Online. The first few days, weeks were simply magical when everything was still new and there was so much to explore. UO is simply unique, we haven’t seen anything remotely like it since.

    It was really interesting reading about the artwork as a spent a few years playing around on UO modding projects. The lego like quality to how the static artwork gets assembled provides an incredible amount of variation. Slopping terrain was a brilliant to add the extra depth to a flat isometric view. I had a lot of fun creating maps for my UO mod projects, pushing the client to the limit in creating new types of environments and settings. I have a series of screenshots in an old online demo if anyone is curious : http://red-nine.com/mapdemo/index.html

  20. Yes what a journey it has been for us players. I am loving reading about the development. I was an early user of Stratics and remember ranting at the RANTERS who complained about downtimes, bugs, exploits. I just told them to go play [fill in the blank of any other game at any given time] and leave the devs alone because they were creating something that never has existed before, so there is no WAY there won’t be problems. Never before or since has there been a “game” that has allowed so much to explore, adventure, experience, learn, enjoy. I have belly laughed in my chair and I’ve cried. I’ve made friends, I’ve literally lost them from both worlds. There’s something special about all that and you were a huge part of it. Thank you, Ralph, for all the memories that I will carry with me always.

  21. Great read. I’ve enjoyed the game since beta, hard to believe I’ve spent 15 years playing the same game. No other game out there provides the “sandbox” experience that UO does. I remember meeting you years ago at the Park Ave. meetup in Manhattan that was put together by Todd Pratt, my first but not last such meetup. I’ll be attending the get together in Fairfax this coming weekend and look forward to seeing many friends that have stayed with the game all this years. Thanks for all you and all other dev’s have done to provide an excellent form of entertainment for all these years

  22. UO fascinated me on several levels. It was a world, not just a game. And it had emotion and feeling to it, not just because of PKers but also for the many things involved. Players could really take pride in things they did even if they seemed fruitless to others, although often they were quite fruitful. UO was a world alive.

    The biggest thing for me was the lore and how it was being done in the game. History in the making, not just a story to play through. The biggest thing to me was a pet project. Someone informed me that the GM played Juo’Nar carried a Black Necklace, a one of a kind item. And while those who knew about it were trying to get it for themselves as perhaps the best “rare” the game could offer, I was off on a different trail. I wanted to know about it, what exactly it was about, where it came from, it’s history and secrets. I worked on that necklace for years, delving into the archives of the game’s lore, that of the Ultima series, questioning others for info, and documenting everything. I played as much UO searching the internet as I did in-game.

    I never knew, still don’t, how much I might have got right. Or if it all was a wild goose chase. But it was by far the most interesting game experience I ever had.

    I’ll post the link to what I wrote and sent to stratics as a story, which they published. Very few people check it out though, in the times I’ve done so in the past. I was pretty proud that the forum posts linked to this article, while it had few comments, had a huge number of views to read those comments.


  23. still the best times i’ve ever had in an mmo

  24. Thank you for this insight. I was a latecomer to this glorious world, not starting playing till late 2000. I do not exaggerate when I say it has changed my life over the years I’ve played, and for the better. I hope to continue to play for many more years yet.

  25. […] the opportunity to reflect on this, Raph Koster gives us nice, personal insight to the game that makes all of this possible. Note that on this event that we have the opportunity […]

  26. Chalk me up as another who’d rather play UO, even in 2012, than yet another EQ/WoW clone.

  27. […] of the first major MMO; Ultima Online.That game turns fifteen this year, and to celebrate; Koster has updated his site with a pretty awesome history lesson on the game. Aside from lots of cool scans of documents, he […]

  28. Thanks for making UO. What fond and fun memories I have of playing that game. Best times in my gaming life.

  29. I played UO quite a bit and started on its launch day. I went to the launch party in Austin with some friends. One of them won an autographed copy of the game, which I somehow inherited from him. I also went to meetups in Austin for a bit and met Raph and a few others on the team. I had a huge interest in the game and from my MUD development background I knew I would be a perfect fit to join the team. I applied as a designer to Origin to work on UO in May of 2000. However, I did not know that most of the team had moved on from the company. Once I was hired on in late April of 2000, much of the team had moved on to other projects. I worked on UO for five years and had a blast working on it.

    Cheers to Ultima Online for fifteen years of service! 🙂

    – Hanse

  30. I’m feeling a comeback tour!

  31. I started playing UO, I think it was Sept 1997 until 2007 when i lost my job at that time. Started off learning about Pks, anti pks. Joined guilds, created friendships, got robbed or scammed. Then I found the rp community on Great Lakes, hadnt even known it existed. With a few friends we hunted the FoA, developed the town and militia of Yew. Then I moved to Europa and played in Dreamstone.

    I loved UO. The community worked alot out of game to make ingame more interesting. I met and made alot of friends in UO, it was a grest time.
    Uo player houses were works of art, People using common items if stacked correctly would look like another item was a work of art in UO. People had imagination, I have never played a game like it since.

  32. Eldirarr! How many times we roamed the Valley to defend it against murderers and thieves.

    Yes, the roleplay community of Great Lakes were hard workers that brought the world to a new level. The finest roleplay moment I’ve ever been a part of was when Blitz Phoenix the rares collector (who provided many of the images of one of a kind items for the Stratics archives) was running for mayor of Yew against Mythra. And they decided to “secretly” fall in love (in roleplay only as far as I know). And one day Trebr Drab’s father, Drab Mintr, at the Yew bank “overheard” Blitz mention it to another. Where my character’s persona as an old warrior full of good humor and bluster had to laugh at the thought of Blitz, who was quite the ladies charmer over the years, could fall in love. So the teasing commenced, and the blushing and “hush, hush” by Blitz, and in the end he cut up some valuable Ranger’s Armor (which you could sell on EBay at the time for around $20 a piece) and made a cloak and boots and then gave them to Drab as a bribe to keep quiet. So they showed as “a cloak made of Ranger’s Armor” and same for the boots. Quite a generous move in the name of roleplay, and spur of the moment roleplay to boot.

    Some other great moments that were made greater by the players…

    In the very early days in the capital city of Britain, the GMs were going to set out the Relics of Mondain for viewing. But evidently before he could lock them down, one or more Relics were stolen by a player. I was running around the city looking for Regs to buy, and it was very crowded. All of a sudden the new spread like wildfire that some relics were stolen, and everyone was running around looking for the thief. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I suppose the GMs tracked them down on their end and removed them from the player. It was just interesting how something like that could happen in an MMORPG.

    The funniest thing I’ve ever witnessed in an MMO was this. To set the scene, Spectre was the board Mod at the Vault for the Mage Tower forum, which is where the idea was born to build the first towers in UO after release and call them “The Mage Tower”. One on each server (shard). Spectre led the effort on Great Lakes and they built the first Mage Tower. So his name was well known. But then he turned evil, and took a faltering PK guild known as the Shadows of Britannia and rebuilt them into one of the most powerful guilds on Great Lakes. And the SoB claimed the dungeon Covetous and would run through it PKing and looting everyone in it. Well, I was still a weak character and spent time in a room full of crates in Covetous waiting for them to respawn loot to take, and at the same time practicing my “Hide” skill. This room usually had a dozen or so players in it, some others also using “Hide” the same as me. And one day a Gate popped up in the middle of the room, and through it comes Spectre and a few other Shadows. I was luckily in hiding at the time, so I kept still. They proceeded to kill some while everyone else ran, then all of the Shadows but Spectre ran in chase of the escapees. Here I was hiding in a room with Spectre standing there. I was sure he was using “Detect Hidden” skill to find hiders, and while I was considering if his friends were close outside the room or not, to break for it or not, Spectre “Revealed” another player. I knew this guy (though I’ve forgotten the name now). So it went like this…
    Player revealed
    Spectre casts “Paralize” and targets him to freezes him
    Spectre casts Explosion and targets him (a delay timer on it, since the damage would unfreeze him)
    Spectre casts Paralize again but holds off of targeting him
    Explosion goes off and Spectre immediately targets him with the Paralize he’s holding to re-freeze him
    Player: “Lets…”
    Spectre casting Lightning
    Player: “Be reasonable.”
    Spectre targets him with Lightning and kills him.

    “Lets be reasonable”, I laughed so hard my side was splitting.
    I did make my break then and got away, only to let curiosity get me soon after.

    So many memories, and the best ones were not scripted. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

  33. […] Ultima Online is fifteen by Ralph Koster:  https://www.raphkoster.com/2012/09/25/ultima-online-is-fifteen/ Concept Artist Spotlight: Jamie Ro: […]

  34. […] was reading Raph Koster’s notes on the launch of Ultimate Online back in 1997, and it made me realize that the online world that I programmed also launched just over 15 years […]

  35. […] I have been using Tablet PCs for a decade now. Back in the UO days, I always walked around with a paper notebook full of doodles, and I often sketch out design ideas as diagrams and quickie cartoons. With a pressure sensitive […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.