I decided to start a blog on the issues of Ultima Online, namely its combat-oriented gameplay mechanism that created a vastly open world PvP environment, which upon today is enjoyed by many online gamers, while also added a stratification between the players which eventually lead to UO’s demise. In part II I will describe what is the role of UO: Quintessence in facilitating player-run economy in the massive online RPG, which regulates in-game social interactions, unlike the strict mechanical regulations, such as the Trammel.
For years, UO has been considered one of the most fascinating MMO’s, which combined both game design simplicity, great social interaction, interesting gameplay and the atmosphere, which no other online world could offer during the time when Ultima Online was released in 1997. It was a brave attempt to introduce a living persistent virtual world, whose history is traced back to the glory of well-known Ultima titles. Upon these days many online players, who previously used to play UO struggle to find anything that is at least somewhat comparable to the great predecessor of online RPG’s. What makes Ultima Online so incomparable to other online games is perhaps its unusual way introduce the phenomenon of online gaming. The classic periods of Ultima Online, such as its release version (UO: Shattered Legacy) and the first expansion (The Second Age) are considered by many fans as the “golden days of UO”. Initially, UO players could (and still can) interact with other actors not merely by the fact of mutual existence within the online community, but also considering certain moral influences, which limited their conduct. Imagine somewhat soulless player-driven activities in such popular titles as the World of Warcraft or the Lineage II. Players gather for a boss raid, take a part in massive fights, farm different monsters, trade, and spend their time in long discussions. This, however, in the most if not all of the cases of popular titles feels trivial in comparison with UO. In fact, in Ultima Online players could be killed by other players or the so-called “player-killers”, who not only could kill you, but also possess all of your hard-earned belongings. This, unlike most of the other MMO’s created a special in-game atmosphere, where players could take different roles, yet also had to pay attention to their behavior as certain ill activities towards other players could easily provoke analogous reaction. The world was anything but safe and for this reason, social interaction became not merely an obvious feature of the virtual environment but a crucial aspect of UO’s online community which at some point almost fascistically dictated the “live by sword, die by the sword” wisdom.
Soon, however, the role of player killing became global while displacing other in-game elements, such as trading, crafting, running a household, or PvM (Player versus Monster) activities. Most of the player base notably participated in the game’s only ‘real fun’ option.
Players gather outside of Minoc (town in UO). (Presumably) player body parts (center), player ghosts (right) and people in “death robes” are seen, indicating a fight, which broke out shortly before the screenshot was captured. Source: Google Search Engine
It somehow became clear that Origins’s promises of the massive persistent world with deep storyline and actions, which have consequences on the rest of the world perished in vain. Direct PvP (Player versus Player) activities, such as player killing, “ganking” (outnumbering), “red hunting” (hunting the ‘red’ or player killers by the “blues”/non player killers) and PvP-based events, as well as indirect PvP, including luring players out of the guard zone, provoking monsters on the players, blocking dungeon entrances, house looting etc. became UO’s main forces which were driving gameplay.
A screenshot presumably portraying the ‘justice’ of killing a player killer by the ‘non-player killers’ after the red character (apparently) tried to kill a miner. Source: Google Search Engine
In fact, most of other game’s features were poorly designed. For instance, crafting did not have much options during the early days of UO. In fact the colored types of metal ore were introduced only years after the game was officially released, and it took even more years to introduce the new types of wood and the new crafting skills. Fishing did not make much sense until the treasure maps were introduced somewhere between the first and the second expansion. Even then, however, T-Map or MiB’s (message in a bottle, sea version of t-map system) were merely mini games, which allowed some players to get quick cash and high-end loot in a little amount of time. Soon players learned to ‘mark’ (with magic runes that can be used for teleporting needs) certain treasure spots, where treasure chests can be found, and the “treasure hunting” became a “recall in>recall out” type of thing.
Treasure hunting spots in Ultima Online, which players learned to mark so as not to spend additional time of “hunting” the treasure. Source: Ultima Online Stratics
PvM, for the most part, was grind-based, where players had to invest hours in the routine tasks of teleporting to the farming spot, spending time killing monsters, teleporting back to the city bank, storing the gold and repeating the task. In this regard PvP became both as means of having pure fun, building social interaction and the reason to stay in UO. Players who initially were not PvP-oriented had either to “integrate” or accept the tough reality of the harsh online world. Needless to say that characters which produced money, monster loot or other items such as PvM players, craftsmen and miners were in the risk group of being killed once they leave the guard zone. Often player killing happened in the guarded town areas too. This contributed to the rise of PvP-oriented players, which loved the game as it offered them almost never-ending sandbox possibilities, and, at the same time, made non-pvper’s quit, leaving UO community to ‘fun seekers’.
Ultima Online Commercial 1997
Origins early Ultima Online commercial, describing global in-game features, which never existed
At some point, Origins decided to regulate player-killing activity by introducing penalties for murdering other players, including an inability for the ‘reds’ to enter the guarded zones, reds being freely attackable by other players without penalty and the stat-loss system. The stat-loss system was meant to stop an out-of-hand player-killing tradition by introducing a permanent loss of player stats and skills upon the death of a player killer. Depending on how much ‘murder counts’ the PK had, he/she would lose a certain percentage of his/her skills and/or stats upon resurrection. Additionally, players could set bounty on the player’s head and, in case the PK’s head was delivered to the town guard, the one who delivers the head would get a certain amount of gold, depending on the amount of bounty placed. The system of stat-loss and bounty hunting was changing over the years, as well as the custom player-run shards (UO free servers) introducing their own vision of PK regulation. However, the key concept of stat-loss was based on prevention of imbalanced massacre what took place in the online world.
An example of a bounty-based stat-loss system on a custom Ultima Online server, which replicates one the classic UO’s periods. Source: Google Search Engine
However, stat-loss did not lower the PK activity nor did it ever made the ‘reds’ think twice before killing a fellow player, according to my personal UO experience and the overall evidence. In fact, one can argue that the stat-loss system did provoke a greater aggression within the community in response to the overall flawed regulation. For this reason, on most of the UO free servers, which replicate classic Ultima Online mechanics, the shard’s administration purposefully removed or did not add the stat-loss in the first place. However, the main reason why stat-loss system failed has most likely nothing to do with the fact that penalty itself was somewhat trivial and even annoying rather than regulative, but the fact that it was pointless in the first place. There was nothing to substitute PvP as now a key element of UO’s gameplay, given the overall boring and grind-based aspects of the game. Soon the server’s administration, both on the official UO servers and the most notably UO free servers, started promote PvP events including well-known Capture the Flag option just to create fun, which UO veterans enjoyed the most.
Modern custom-based PvP. Highly customized colors of player armor, clothing and pets are interweaved in a promiscuous fight scene. Source: Google Search Engine
PvP in UO turned into type of a sport activity. Upon now there is not much UO can offer it’s players besides it. Most of the custom shards started introducing clothing, armor and even tamable pets of unnatural colors so the players could distinguish themselves. Of course, tamers (PvM oriented players) and crafters did not disappear completely, yet these professions became optional, where PvP’ers could also have additional crafting and PvM-related characters, which they could use to accumulate in-game resources, while their main in-game activity was limited to player versus player combat. The problem of constant irrational (in a sense that PvP had little to no economic value, besides other player’s loot) inter-player combat worsened with the fact that Ultima Online mechanics are close to the arcade genre. It focuses on the mouse-oriented movement, hotkeys and in-game systems, which strongly promotes teamwork unavailable in other in-game elements, such as the economy. Players learned to create various spell combinations which are based on synchronized spell casting that are needed for an effective team-oriented PvP combat. Players also learned to heal each other during the PvP so as to support soccer-like cooperation in “the field” (jargon. outside of town PvP combat). Unlike other popular MMO titles, where PvP is mostly based on the value and properties of one’s gear, in classic Ultima Online one can say that PvP system is purely “skill based”. This, in turn, created an unforgiving segmentation between the players who were ‘good’ at their hotkeys and teamwork and the actors, who seeked a more peaceful gameplay, were not interested in PvP, or were otherwise ‘bad’ at competing with established PvP guilds. The ‘wolf-sheep’ situation lead to many players quitting the game due to the fact that players which could not protect themselves either had to rely on the protection of other players or guilds or accept the reality that they had to share what they have invested their time into (high-end magic items, resources, gold) with others, who did not ask twice. Players could not use NPC’s (Non-Player-Characters) to protect them as the game’s dull artificial intelligence could not compete with its sandbox arcadish PvP system, which allows players to perform all kinds of different tricks, such as hiding in front of a tamed dragon, which then loses his target.
Modern official expansion-based PvP. Source: Google Search Engine
It is hard to conclude which factors contributed the most to the rise of PvP and its complete domination in UO, whether it was the ‘arcadish’ game mechanics, the lack of other fun elements or the absence of any more or less appropriate sanctions to regulate the mass combat. It nonetheless became clear even during the ‘golden Utlima Online days’ that players that are interested in rather mindless PvP (in a sense that it was not backed by any real economic value) constituted the majority of UO-sphere, while others had either search for less hardcore alternatives or continue playing the role of victims.
Behavior within the Ultima Online community was transformed into the non-regulative factor, where players would often be carriers of anti-social patterns, given the overall simplicity of in-game mechanics and the lack of social moral mechanism, which could possibly regulate it.
A screenshot depicting typical attitude among the players in UO community. Source: Google Search Engine
Often aggressive behavioral patterns in UO (as well as other MMO’s) from my point of view are related to the common lawlessness of UO’s PvP system, which, as explained above, forms a lion’s share of gameplay. Another reason for the popularity of player’s ill attitude might include the overall online anonymity of Internet-based platform.
Rage video (NB! Explicit content)
Video record of in-game ‘rage’ session by PvP players in UO
However, the simplicity of gameplay, an open world/full loot PvP and Internet anonymity, while obviously remain biggest factors of UO decline, I can also see the destructive social influence in the very beginning of the title. Even before Ultima Online was released, it had already set certain moral boundaries, which were based on the values of power, competition and egocentrism. At some point one can argue that the very human nature did play a major role in establishment of this gameplay transition. The systems mentioned in UO developer’s blogs, including the ecology system, the merchant guilds and better economy, political factions and the persistent world became forgotten, first 1) due to technical issues and limitations of the time when Ultima Online was released; 2) necessity to regulate a multi-thousand player population; 3) complexity of the systems which needed to be introduced and 4) the lack of previous experience in the online gaming design. For instance, the ecology system did work at some point during the early UO days, yet, the lowered performance in the form of lags it created by it did not allow it develop into a more-or-less stable system. Therefore, initial UO gameplay ideas soon transitioned from a fully persistent sandbox open world towards a more casual open world PvP alternative, which, while had an interesting sandbox open world PvP system paid little attention to the overall gameplay. For example, the map of UO is static with not so much to do and most players remember every tile of it. The cities, castles and houses designed by original developers are abandoned with little purpose besides decorative, UO’s economy is limited to the buy/sell option with resources being randomly generated and most items can be bought or sold to the NPC’s with static prices. Player-based trade is limited to artifacts, handouts and player vendors. Player vendor system, on the other hand, is an interesting sandbox feature, however, the overall world’s economy is still poor.
A historical screenshot portraying the assassination of Lord British during the late Beta phase of Ultima Online (1997). Source: Wikipedia
PvP did not just influence regular players. The role-players who liked to…play a role of certain characters mostly executed player versus player combat as well.
Roleplaying guild the Shadow Clan Orcs, one of the earliest roleplaying guilds in Ultima Online – combined PvM and PvP gameplay aspects but was mostly PvP oriented. Source: Google Search Engine
The Undead guild fighting Yew Militia -two UO roleplaying PvP-oriented guilds. Source: Google Search Engine
From the 1997 Google Groups archives I managed to find a chat by former UO players, which discussed different types of player-killing in game:
As one can see, many players did not agree with the UO’s policy of an open full world PvP, while the majority of PvPer’s choose between the primary non-RP pvp and roleplay-based PK-oriented characters. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for the minority that wanted the game to introduce “tools to effectively control” player-killing, including the ‘two-universe’ solution, which was fulfilled three years after the release of the game, none of the actual social regulations were ever created.
By the end of the Second Age era, Origins decided to radically change the course of how PvP was established. The introduction of Trammel, which is an alternative world facet where none of the basic criminal actions, such as stealing or attacking another player work, is considered by many to be the end of the end of Ultima Online. Another facet, which preserved original open world PvP, Felucca, was now only meant for PvP-oriented players, who purposely entered Felucca for the fights, while craftsmen and most of the “farming player base” remained in the peaceful Trammel, where none of the previous dangers could harm them anymore. This stratification has created even more problems. Many veterans started leaving UO or moving on the private servers due to the fact that PvP did not offer them the “wolf versus sheep” model anymore. The world did not feel as live as previously, player population started to diminish and the game has finally lost its sense of community. Lowered population was now spread between several facets, which turned the lands of Britannia into a desert with static decorations.
An abandoned castle of Lord British in Britain (city in UO), which did not find any purpose beside decoration in the final game. Source: Google Search Engine
Trammel was not an attempt to change UO. Rather, I would argue that it was a logical outcome of UO’s gameplay, which was directed towards sandbox open world PvP, excluding or limiting social interaction and moral values. After the core UO ideas were let go, UO’s development was mostly focused on creating a balanced PvP game, and the Trammel was its climax. While UO has yet seen several other expansions since Trammel was introduced, however, the core idea, which UO follows upon this day has been fulfilled in the year 2000, when players could freely choose between an open world PvP setting and an open world casual environment.
The role of UO: Quintessence in introducing an alternative to common online open world gaming
At the UO: Quintessence we believe that both approaches represent the core gameplay flaws, which were made for the most part unintentionally by the original developers. Both, the open world PvP with the lack of social regulation and a complete mechanical prohibition of certain illegal actions are two radical opposites, which turned the game into a ‘wrong’ direction, at the same time, did dictate other modern MMO’s the ‘formula’ of gameplay. We strongly believe that the main flaw of game design, which lead to the creation of the analyzed situation, was the lack of a good economic system, which would regulate and simultaneously provide reason for player’s actions. The project UO: Quintessence is opposing the idea that mechanical restrictions of certain actions must take place. This, in our opinion, is against the idea of a UO remake and a new approach to online gaming, as that would not distinguish Quintessence from many other MMO titles out there. Mechanical restrictions limit player’s possibilities, which would be unforgiving for a sandbox setting. At the same time, giving full freedom the players would inevitable lead to the situation described above.
In order to introduce a “golden middle” in designing the PvP aspect of an open world game it is not enough to merely provide the tools, which would ensure player’s security. The core gameplay concept must be changed, and that is to include specific economic mechanism which would form the social system in many of its aspects, including crime and justice, feud and friendship, egocentric seek of benefits and altruistic support et cetera.
Part II of this piece will discuss specific mechanisms the development of UO: Quintessence will undertake in order to introduce a new approach to the open world online gaming to formulate a way in which Ultima Online Remake can be both tremendously fun while preserve the UO’s intial hardcore gameplay.
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Google Groups. rec.games.computer.ultima-dragons. 1997 archived posts. Retrieved from https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.games.computer.ultima-dragons/Ef2X7MaQejc%5B1-25%5D
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