[In his book of the history of the video game industry, Replay, author Tristan Donovan conducted a series of important interviews which were only briefly excerpted in the text. Gamasutra is happy to here present the full text of his interview with pioneering MMO developer Rich Vogel.]
In this, the latest in a series of interviews conducted for his book Replay: The History of Video Games being published for the first time on Gamasutra, Tristan Donovan speaks to massively multiplayer game producer Rich Vogel about his work on Meridian 59, Ultima Online, and Star Wars Galaxies.
Having cut his teeth creating MUDs, he played key roles in the development of Meridian 59 and Ultima Online, two landmark games that helped take massively multiplayer games into the mainstream.
In the interview Vogel talks about his work on those two titles, shares his thoughts on the secret of World of Warcraft's success and explains why Ultima Online was more fun if you lived in the Midwest.
What attracted you to making virtual worlds?
Rich Vogel: Well, I used to play a MUD called Dragon Quest when I was in college, enjoyed it, and became a GM of it. And I ran a galaxy game, basically an email-type galaxy conquest game. I always enjoyed it and then the opportunity came up at 3DO to work on Meridian 59.
At that time 3DO was actually buying the software from a company that had some basic mechanics working. I came out to California to work with them on that. We launched and it wasn't, you know, as big as Ultima Online or anything, but it had a good crew, a good following and we got over 10,000 subscribers. We had 25,000 or so people playing that game. Then I got an interesting call from Electronic Arts who wanted me to come work at Origin to help get Ultima Online out the door.
What attracted you to MUDs? What was it you got out from them?
RV: I used to play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid and then Traveller, which was a sci-fi version of D&D. It was really cool to be able to go on a computer and play with others that you don't know and start getting familiar with. It was very expensive to play at that time -- they charged by the hour back in the early '90s; they didn't have flat rates. So to get rid of my $300 -a-month bill, I became a GM and started building content, which was a lot of fun.
Looking back Meridian 59 was really the place where the modern MMORPG began…
RV: Yes absolutely. Meridian 59 was the first game that was actually internet accessed. It wasn't accessed through a proprietary network like AOL or CompuServe or GEnie. It was the first one that if you had a web browser, you could log in and register and you get a client that would be downloaded or you could ask for the client to be sent to you. It actually worked on the internet.
And it was the first one that charged a flat rate fee and the first that actually sold at retail. You could buy a retail box, go home, connect it and play. So a lot of firsts with that game, for sure. It was really the first 3D visual of a virtual world, if you want to say that.
Was the aim with Meridian 59 to make that type of game accessible to a wider audience?
RV: Basically what we did is a MUD. That's what it was. It was just a visual DikuMUD. You had levels and you had abilities and the advancement where you can kill things and gain experience points and get cool loot and move on from there. And meet people.
One of the cool things about Meridian 59 was you had your avatar in the game that you customized and showed off. That game was such a trailblazer that we were very excited to have as many people as we had on it because it was the first time anybody had done this and the internet was just kind of getting there then.
But no one really knew what this game was outside of hardcore gamers. Ultima Online was the first to introduce this type of game to a lot more people who had never played much like it before.
What was your role on Ultima Online?
RV: I was an associate producer and my job was to get the game together in a shippable state and make sure that it had everything it needed to be an online game. At the time Origin didn't really have the experience of ever making an online game before. So there were lots of things that were not there when I got there and needed to be there, such as all the customer support tools and making sure the game mechanics looked good and forward advancement.
We were kind of pressured on time. I wish we'd had a little bit more time. We could have actually put some of the things we wanted to put in that game. But unfortunately when you have a game like that you have core mechanics that are very difficult to change once launched.
UO is quite famous for the difficulties it had with player killers, etc. How much of a surprise was that stuff?
GP: A total surprise. The problem we had is we didn't have enough tuning time before releasing it, and one of the things that needed tuning was player v player. We had a PvP system that was unchecked and a profession called thief that really turned out to be a way to grief people and steal things. You could do a lot in that world. You could actually place things down and block people in. It developed a whole new world of PvP that no one's ever seen before or dealt with before.
In fact, no one has ever done PvP like UO did in the past ever again. It was pure PvP. You were scared to leave the city. No other game's ever done that to me. Policing it was very much a hard thing. We had to try to balance it out, literally had to think of ways to put systems in the game to control PvP, which was the reputation system.
It went through eight or nine iterations before we kind of found a balance of what really worked and what didn't. But it was certainly an experience and many people talk about their experiences in UO. The experience there, no one's ever been able to duplicate today. It was a true PvP game.