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Has Origin Created the First True Online Game World?

August 19, 1997 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
 

Talk to Origin Systems' Starr Long about ULTIMA ONLINE and one word dominates the conversation: "Cool." Long, the game's associate producer, is justifiably jazzed about ULTIMA ONLINE'S impending release. Few online games can match the scope of ULTIMA'S Britannia, which will include 16 cities, a virtual ecology, a banking system, and just about everything else you'd find in the real world as well as the occasional orc lord, zombie, and dragon.

After an hour-long discussion with Long, we walked away wondering, in the age of the online game, if Origin has finally lived up to its corporate motto: "We create worlds." Anyone who has taken a long look at ULTIMA ONLINE will certainly say "and then some."

Going from Rooms to Worlds

"Most other online role-playing games work on the room mentality," said Long. "You go into a room, something happens, you leave, and the room resets itself so it's the same the next time you go there." Such a scenario can create not only monotony, but staffing problems.

"In order to keep people coming back to a room in a MUD, you constantly need to reedit the room contents, which often means bringing on new designers. Before you know it, the ratio of designers to players is close to 10 to 1."

 

The first thing you notice about ULTIMA ONLINE is that Origin is committed to bringing off-line quality graphical presentation to on-line games.

That wasn't a feasible plan, even for a company with Origin's deep pockets. The only way to give users a dynamically changing world was to build a system that modeled a world and could generate events and dilemmas on its own. "What we decided was not to go with [the room] mentality. We wanted to simulate a real world. Our virtual ecology, for example, is a complex system. The rabbits need grass, the wolves eat the rabbits, and the wolves die without meat. They actually catch and kill rabbits." And of course the wolves are dragon food. Kill too many wolves, and the dragons will look elsewhere for dinner--like the nearest town.

Like the real world, actions have consequences in the world of ULTIMA ONLINE. Cool, indeed.

Call it a simple feature, but Origin has found its "text over the head" chat environment is much more user friendly than other online games.

 

Building and Selling an Online World

While Long is the game's associate producer, Origin didn't spare any of its people in creating ULTIMA ONLINE. Twenty-one team members helped bring the concept of an online world to reality. "We went out and looked at what all the other multiplayer games had done and what makes interaction fun and what makes it stay interesting over time," Long said.

What Long and his colleagues found is that games are more entertaining for many people when others are involved. They call it the "DOOM Phenomenon."

"Storytelling and single-player games are still great, and there are people who aren't social who prefer these types of games," Long concludes. "Single player games are still a significant marketplace, but DOOM taught players more than anything else the fun of playing with each other."

Origin also decided to commit itself to high-quality presentation, a rarity in the multiplayer game industry so far. "One thing that we're committed to that's important to online gaming is providing the presentation value you'd get in a stand-alone game," Long says. "Up to now, you've had to put up with [poor presentation values] to play multiplayer. Graphics are important when they enhance the reality of the experience."

To handle both high quality graphics and the enormity of the ULTIMA ONLINE world, Origin found it necessary to sell the game as a CD-ROM. The original plan was to have ULTIMA ONLINE be downloadable, but Origin discovered the bandwidth wouldn't support it. This creates a distribution problem of sorts because the immediacy of getting online requires a physical retail purchase--something even a 20MB game can avoid. ULTIMA ONLINE, however, is far bigger, weighing in at over 100MB.

There will be a full-price retail version that will be packaged in the traditional Origin manner. It will include trinkets, a manual, and a large map among other goodies. With pricing strategy presently a hot topic among game developers, Long said the nature of the game demands a flat monthly fee. The CD-ROM will include an as-yet unspecified amount of free time. "At some point, you'll need to start an account," Long said. "We're not going to be more expensive than what others are charging, and we're offering a truly unique game." With the average shelf life of CD-ROM games being about 90 days, Origin eventually plans an array of other distribution ideas to continue the retail presence of the product. Of course, the original package version with its manuals, maps, and other bonuses will appeal to the first batch of ULTIMA fans.

One surprise is that, in addition to the flat unlimited account fee, Origin is also planning an hourly option for the casual player "who only wants to put down $5 or $10 a month," Long said. Apparently the market is segmented between the casual and hardcore online player.

The user interface for ULTIMA ONLINE and many of its aspects blend the best of Origin’s boxed ULTIMA products, but make changes necessary for online play. In this example, we see that the standard windowing interface is kept, but the graphic scale is smaller than past ULTIMAS.



ULTIMA ONLINE'S MARKET PROFILE

Debut: Expected to ship sometime in the first half of 1997.
Distribution: At first, a full retail version with loads of free connect time will be offered. Following that, lower-priced retail and mail distribution will be considered, but without lots of free connect time and superior packaging and manuals.
Marketing Campaign: Aggressive ad and extensive public-relations campaigns aimed at nontraditional gamers, focusing on the social aspects of the product.
Competitors: ULTIMA ONLINE is unique, but it does have competitors. Chief among them are MERIDIAN 59 from Studio 3DO, DARK SUN from Mindscape/SSI, and the upcoming DIABLO from Blizzard. MERIDIAN 59 appears to be hitting the scope of world building that Origin is attempting, but it is a 3D, first-person graphical system, unlike ULTIMA'S isometric view. 3DO announced in the early fall of 1996 that it had reached 25,000 beta players, but company executives wondered how many would stay online once they began charging.
Partners: Origin has not signed on any partners such as mPath or T.E.N. and is going it alone on this product. Origin has, however, farmed out customer service and billing to avoid those housekeeping chores, and distribution is handled by its parent company Electronic Arts.
Outlook: Depending on how fast people sign up, the outlook appears strong. ULTIMA hit a setback with ULTIMA VIII, which turned off some of its more hardcore fans, but ULTIMA ONLINE has a look and feel that should draw them back. In addition, the novelty of the game’s social aspects should bring in newer players.

 


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