A UO postmortem of sorts

The following was written on the Ultima Online newsgroup in late June of 2000 as part of a lengthy thread where much about the development of UO was debated. A few paragraphs of it have come to be widely quoted, so I am reproducing it here, despite some hesitancy in that the post makes UO out to be much worse than it actually was–chalk that up to my harsh self-criticism, if you like.

So this (really long) thread really made me think tonight (and not just because Zaphkiel made me look like a math-impaired idiot, either. 🙂 It made me question a lot of assumptions. Forgive this rambling post as I dissect what my thinking is on all this–I welcome the feedback.

First off, I have no patience for harassers, assholes, etc. They make my physically very angry when I see them, and during my whole time at OSI I was continually frustrated by the lack of action against them. I know many of you will not believe this statement, or will think it hypocritical, but I ask you to take it at face value.

When we started up UO, we were very naive about some things. For one thing, the game design was originally for a MUCH smaller world. We were asked to change it from a 300 player game to a 3000 player game around nine months before ship. All of our expectations were for not only a smaller simulatenous population, but also for a smaller playerbase in general–forecasts for sales were not very high, and the most successful online game to date at that time was Meridian 59. We expected to do better, but not by an order of magnitude.

A lot of the things we wanted to do were different from how muds had done things. We had both played and worked on muds with switches, and our experiences were universally lousy. Loopholes, ways to ‘pk’ without actually pk’ing, artificial restrictions on grouping and equipment use–all sorts of things that damaged immersion and physics and led to a lot of special-case code. We wanted to make a game that was more immersive, and that meant putting in a lot more freedoms into the game. We wanted to challenge players to act ethically, in the spirit of the Ultimas previous, without making it a set of quests that would be ‘gamed’ and up on a cheat website within a couple of weeks–and we didn’t want that to happen not because it meant extra work making new quests all the time, but because it meant that ethics themselves were being “gamed” and were therefore meaningless. We were not prepared for the audience we got–this was evident not only in the game design, but if you recall, in the hardware infrastructure we had at launch.

We also wanted to get away from levels, believing that levels were a) an addictive but shallow game mechanic and therefore not good for overall game longevity, b) divisive of players in that you have to create level restrictions on stuff all over the place, c) poorly suited for other forms of gameplay, such as questing, social achievement, etc, and therefore restrictive of player experimentation with other things to do. There were other things we wanted to do to change things from the typical mud pattern (which is today best exemplified for all of you by EverQuest, since its design is *extremely* close to that of a standard well-evolved Diku mud).

Things that I have changed my mind on:

  • I used to think that a richer, more challenging game would be rewarded. I am no longer sure that is the case. I think that had we just made the same game we had made previously, only bigger, that UO would probably have done much better. The market, and more particularly the players, don’t reward experimentation very much. More people are willing to do the same repetitive activity over and over again for the sake of getting a red polkadotted item to replace the green striped one, than are willing to engage in a broader range of activity. This is evident industry-wide, to my mind, and I am not saying to slam on EQ (especially not given that I work for Verant now). More as a comment on the audience in general–most people want mere entertainment, stuff that is easy to cope with. Stuff that doesn’t make them ask questions of themselves. Witness TV and movies and books, all of which are mostly affirmations that “you’re doing the right thing” or “whatever you do is normal compared to THIS.”
  • I like safe and wild zoning now. I really, really didn’t. I have never seen an arena embedded in an otherwise safe game that was at all popular after three months, and the boundary conditions are truly a pain in the ass to deal with, leading to tons of exploits and problems. On top of that, safe zones tend to be way the heck more profitable for everyone including the people who really ought to be playing in the danger zones, so the danger zones tend to tank, just like separate PvP servers do.
  • I used to think that you could reform bad apples, and argue with hard cases. I’m more cynical these days.
  • Closed economies can’t work.
  • A sandbox is not enough.
  • I used to think that people were willing to act communally for the good of the community. Now I know more about the Tragedy of the Commons and the Prisoner’s Dilemma and think that people are mostly selfish. This isn’t Ivory Tower theory gone looking for empirical evidence. It’s experience gone looking for explanations.

Things that I still believe today:

  • Related to the last one–what I now know more about regarding how the Tragedy of the Commons and the Prisoner’s Dilemma are reflected in the lack of communal action, has just reinforced my thoughts on the importance of the Other and so on. Simply put, I think that the things that drive community are: shared interest to get everyone in the same place; limited resources that you need to cooperate over so everyone gets enough; and an enemy you have to fight to keep out (and often, I think that I have served the role of said enemy in this newsgroup). Yes, communities form without the enemy, but they seem to fragment into cliques and manufacture an enemy within themselves (again, like this ng many times!). Shared interest by itself doesn’t really drive community. It drives acquaintanceships. And acquaintanceships are easy to come by, there’s no need to make a whole honkin’ game for them. As far as limited resources–we were stumbling about in the dark on this issue when we set up the game economy, when we did the size map we did… none of the games out there limit resources enough because they are all hung up on “having enough for everybody.” Well, a game with enough for everybody is a game where you don’t need other people very much. But on top of that, even though UO did limit resources more than most, it didn’t provide any benefit for sharing them or working together to extract them. Miners were penalized for working near each other, for example, rather than encouraged to do so.
  • Switches still suck. They damage immersion badly by requiring either the exclusion of or the fictional incoherence of all area-based effects; they do not handle many of the indirect forms of possible conflict (often fatal things, like blocking for example), leading to ways to get around the switch; they don’t work very well as a way of mixing PvP and -PvP styles within one game because the grief players will just move on to alternate forms of causing grief while the PvPers will feel forced out of the game by all the restrictions…
  • Levels still suck. I don’t know what the complete replacement is, but I am troubled by how addictive the experiences we’re making are (like, seriously addictive, ruin-your-life addictive) and I think levels are a large part of that. Plus I still find them divisive of players and a forced limit on interaction, however convenient they may be for advancement ladders. They are a bad model in terms of adding ongoing content to your game, in that you always have to add at the top end, and you have database deflation problems. Lastly, I have trouble fitting in many of the mechanics we were successful in putting into UO, such as crafting, onto standard level systems.
  • There are a substantial amount of people out there who enjoy player vs player conflict of all sorts, who get crowded out of a game when it is completely safe, and go play elsewhere. And these people aren’t necessarily assholes. But it is easy for them to become assholes if they feel put upon enough or if they think they can get away with it. I’m gonna disergard Bartle’s Four, gonna ignore all statistics–this is just my opinion and my sense of things based on everything I have seen.
  • I still believe that running servers themed around PvP or not is also a bit of a waste of time. The amount of wolves who want to play on a wolf-only server is way smaller than the total amount of wolves, and generally speaking, wolf-only servers are extremely underpopulated. You might as well devote those resources elsewhere.
  • Someday we WILL be able to hand over the reins of policing to players. It will be seen as just a meta-game for those who are interested in it (and what’s more, I bet the cops will be the same people we’re currently turning into grief players with our limited mechanics). But right now, neither players nor developers are ready. I can’t tell you how much I wish that in UO we had found a way to make the players able to do this, actually able to win against the bad guys–because I do regard those grief players and those rampant PKers (be they the “good” ones or the griefy ones) as the bad guys in this virtual world, far more so than the monsters. One of my biggest disappointments in UO is that we never found a way to have the good guys win.
  • Thinking crazily into the future–the above point matters a lot to me because I do think that we will have virtual spaces where there’s no admins to call. And it’s a good idea to tackle the problems of not having admins while we still have admins to fall back on. As it is, the FBI can’t do diddlysquat about most hacking cases, and it’s gonna get worse when you do, say, remote medical monitoring via a virtual environment, and you get the future equivalent of PKed somehow. I can’t even predict what shape this will take, but it will happen… I also know that a lot of players might even agree that this is something that needs tackled, just not in their backyard.
  • Lastly, and feel free to call me a stupid idealist on this: I still believe we need to get all kinds of people into one game. That niche products are all well and good, but we already KNOW how to make those, and they aren’t going to teach us anything interesting about ourselves. It’s so easy to fall into ruts and niches in our real lives, and I want online worlds to offer us exotic experiences and interaction with people we wouldn’t interact with otherwise, and a chance to try out lifestyles and worldviews we otherwise wouldn’t have, a chance to try to solve problems that we find difficult to tackle in the real world. Otherwise, why bother making them? I am not that interested in them solely as games–games are all over the place, and there are plenty of narrowly focused communities out there. You can find a support group or hobbyist club for just about anything you want, but you’re mostly going to find other people like you there. And I am not nearly as interested in how people interact with likeminded souls as I am in how to bridge gaps between people.

In an odd sort of summary… Being safe from evil is, in my mind, an uneven tradeoff for the fact that you don’t get to be heroes anymore, in that you can just opt out of fighting evil. It may be nobody wants to be heroes except when it doesn’t count, when it isn’t challenging, that people would rather fight “pretend evil” than the real thing, but I don’t personally believe that. I still think people are better than that. I know this is an odd and probably controversial (perhaps even stupid) position to take, but it’s how I feel. I think that the greatest value of interactive entertainment is when it engages you for real, and teaches you things for real. It is what made the Ultima series great. For me, the struggle to be good, to be one of the good guys, is where people were really challenged in UO, and it’s not really a challenge that exists elsewhere. Sure, you can choose not to use ShowEQ, or choose not to auction spawn points in AC on eBay, but these are not as immediate and direct as dealing with people “virtually” face to face. Being safe from the only real evil in the game, and choosing not to fight it is, well, just fine, but it’s also nothing that is going to teach you about where you stand. It’s the difference between living the Virtues and, well, playing them in a computer game.It kinda saddens me and scares me to write the above paragraph, because I know that many will misread my intent in writing it, will take bits out of context, will feel insulted. But I don’t mean any of that by it. The failure was ours in setting up the game, for not making it possible enough to live the Virtues and establish by consensus a better place, a better society. This is why I proposed elsewhere in the thread letting people fall back on the code crutch of a safe zone once they had done it once, at least. You still get the experience of actually building a society, but after that the hard part (keeping it going) is handled for you. (Yes, townstones are at the top of my “wish we had gotten it into the game” list).

I can’t think of any better experience to have in ANY game of ANY sort than for real people to work together against antisocial activity, selfish people, and other forms of creeping insidious evil, and WIN, and build something lasting and good. To work together and have fun together with types of people they never would have considered worth speaking to otherwise. And yes, to convert a few selfish jerks into better people along the way. If having this experience in a game means that they are more likely to dare to do it in real life instead of living in passivity, then I’ll feel like something really important has been accomplished.

My greatest worry is that instead, we’ve inadvertantly taught people to be bad as far as they can get away with. Or, far more troublesome, that Daddy will solve it for you and you can feel free to just complain about the problem from time to time, and ignore it. Right now, I have to believe that enough people learned the right lesson, because I DO see it every day in players of these games, and *especially* in players of UO, whom I have watched grow to a much greater awareness of social issues and community formation issues over the years, and become far better able to engage in high level discourse about the tough questions in MMORPGs.

But there’s no doubt that it can be done better, and though giving up and just entertaining the “good people” may be better business or may be enough to bring in the money, it’s not enough to make me feel like this is a field worth being in. It’s about the other people. Dani Berry said, “At the end of the day, nobody ever regrets not having spent more time on the computer.” That’s why she made multiplayer games, so that the computers would be other people. That’s why I want to make this sort of game too.

Hopefully this lengthy post puts some of my replies in this thread into context. Flame away.

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