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Opinion:  Myst Online: Uru  - Beyond Cancellation
Opinion: Myst Online: Uru - Beyond Cancellation
March 5, 2008 | By Andrew Plotkin

March 5, 2008 | By Andrew Plotkin
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[Following the recent shuttering of Myst Online: Uru Live, game developer and Uru chronicler Andrew Plotkin looks back on the history of Cyan's 'alternative' MMO, examining fan-run resurrection efforts and suggesting: "The 2007 Uru was vastly better than the 2003 model, but not enough better."]

The truth is, I've been writing notes about this game for more than four years. So I have a notion I oughta say something about its end. But it's a silly notion.

I haven't even been here for the whole run. I only logged into Untěl Uru a few times. The community was playing UU; history piled up; things happened. But new worlds were what I was interested in, so I didn't hang out.

You want to hear something funny? Untěl Uru -- the fan-run, fan-hacked servers -- lasted longer than any other phase of Uru. Nearly two years. Some players had more attachment to UU than to the "real" run of the game. It was buggy, inconsistent, devoid of plot, prone to half-assed extensions and updates... it wasn't a game, by any definition. But players felt they had a stake in UU, in a way that never gelled for Uru Live.

And I say this without having been there. I'm reading the tone of the community. In the days since the cancellation post, people have been all over the idea of bringing back UU.

It's Cyan's decision, mind you, and Cyan hasn't said anything about it. (They haven't said anything at all about their plans, except that they will continue making games.) But people remember what it was like to be the ones who kept the City open.

People liked that. I will return to this point.

You know what? I'm not even going to talk about the final cancellation of Uru Live. I'll give the thirty-second summary: Gametap funded Cyan for a couple of years. Whatever deal they made, it didn't work out. Cyan spent some time updating their 2003 code, some time fixing bugs, some time updating old material from Path of the Shell, and some time creating new material.

None of these really happened fast enough to build a stable, enticing game experience. Maybe if Gametap had pumped the money faster, or for another year, or if Cyan had built something else, or run their game differently, it would have worked. It didn't, so it's done.

(I must address one point specifically: I am not blaming the POTS material for killing Uru Live. It was old hat to a lot of old players, including me. But Uru failed because the growth rate was insufficient. Growth is defined as new players, meaning people who (mostly) haven't played the 2004 expansion packs. 2007 was all new to them. And it still didn't bring them in fast enough. So now you know.)

The real question is: Do I see Uru coming back?

Not in its original form. The plan for Uru was a commercial, online, massively multiplayer adventure game, with new adventure material constantly being produced by Cyan and consumed by players.

This plan now has several fatal holes. Cyan is smaller than it was in 2003. It has not managed to produce a stream of great adventure material in the online mode. The Uru codebase has scaling issues on multiple axes.

I'm not just talking about frame rate. The player-to-player message system is nearly useless for a large community; the world state model has synch problems in crowded Ages; the physics system is a millstone in several ways; the avatar and clothing system can't make a crowd of people look distinct.

None of those are unbreakable obstacles -- but breaking any of them would take a pile of time and money. Another pile, I should say. Cyan spent all of 2006 working on these problems, using Gametap's money. The 2007 Uru was vastly better than the 2003 model, but not enough better.

Which brings up the real fatal hole in Uru's plan, which is that it's failed twice now. Only a crazy person would fund it again. By "crazy person", I mean someone who would be willing to throw tens of millions of dollars into a hole and never see it again. And even if you found such a person, would Cyan want to exhume the project? I cannot remotely imagine the burnout, the pain that those coders and admins and artists must associate with Uru right now.

So that's a dumb question: Uru is not coming back as a commercial Cyan enterprise, not anytime soon. The real question is, will Uru return as a player-supported project?

It could, as I've said. If Cyan opens up exactly the same server system that they did in 2004-2006, people will run servers and hang out. It would not be a blip in the gaming universe, mind you. It would be some people sharing a virtual space. Maybe several hundred, maybe as few as fifty, on a regular basis.

Or maybe more than that. If new areas begin opening up, it's more than a chat room. And players have been working on new Uruareas, using homegrown tools, for years. Those efforts went into high gear in mid-2007, when Cyan announced that Uru's social model would grow to include Guilds, modeled after the Guilds of D'ni history -- including the Guild of Writers, the creators of Ages. (In December, Cyan slipped a hint that their intended arc for 2008 was "Rise of the Guilds".)

The player-organized Guild of Writers is using the Uru software of the 2004-6 era. Several showcase Ages are already shaping up. So there's an obvious route: fan-run servers, connected through Cyan but not under Cyan's direct management, with fan-created content posted as it appears. Anarchic and vital, as I've been pushing for all along.

I am glossing over an entire sub-argument: how much oversight Cyan should have over player Ages and storylines. Do they review designs before implementation? Do they accept some as "official" after release? Will there be such a thing as an official constellation of Ages, an official storyline?

I've discussed all these arguments before, in the pre-cancellation era. There wasn't any community consensus then either, but of course all the goalposts are shifted now. (And will continue to shift, since Cyan's plans are still unannounced.) The past week has seen dozens of posts about the "obvious" plan of bringing back Untěl Uru with fan-created Ages. Each of them has an "obvious" notion of Cyan's role in this plan. No two such notions quite agree.

If you dig even a few inches down, I suspect, you'll uncover the real relic of contention: was Cyan's plan for Uru a work of genius, murdered by insufficient funding? Or was it clueless blundering devoid of story, immersion, and interest? (Both sides add a twist of the shallowness of our corrupt society, chill and serve with bitter aperitif.)

I am condensing these points of view, not exaggerating them. Forum threads are going on right now on both themes, and both have been stated in about so many words. (And, I admit, many more judicious and less extreme.) The valuable question is not which is right. (Both are self-evidently true, to an extent. You already knew that.)

The real question is, can you criticize Cyan's handling of story, interactivity, and game design -- all of which I've done, intelligently, I hope -- without also criticizing Cyan's role as the ultimate arbiter of Uru fan work? That is: who says they're so smart? Look at all the mistakes they've made.

Cue wild disagreement on just what mistakes those are. Which is precisely my point.

One might argue someone has to be in charge, if the universe is to have any consistency, and it might as well be Cyan. To which I say: Cyan hasn't been that big on consistency either. Look at any discussion of linking-book logic, or Age instances. Or, don't. Every such discussion descends into pages of detailed minutiae, precisely because Cyan has fudged their rules again and again in their quest for better gameplay. I don't hold this against them -- gameplay should come first.

Since Uru invites us to design gameplay on an Age-by-Age basis, the argument for a Grand Master of Consistency vanishes. This is massively-collaborative art, not a single game. We've had the era of rigid central control. Look how well it worked. Next!

The whole debate assumes that Cyan wants to be overseer of Uru; it assumes they'll have that power. In the UU era, Cyan ran a central authentication server. So they had no real power except the power to shut all the servers down (which they did, when Uru Live launched). But nothing says Cyan even has to go that far. If they release server binaries without that authentication hook, Uru moves entirely into the hands of the players.

Or, for all I know, we could do that hack ourselves.

To some degree, the Uru code -- venerable and scary as it must be -- is not the heart of Uru. I mentioned scaling issues. Who says Uru should continue on Cyan's client and server architecture? Certainly, if I had fifty million dollars to refloat the project, the first thing I'd want is to rewrite a whole lot of code.

Yes, we have reasons to lean towards continuity. Dozens of Age models using the current codebase. The Guild of Writers tools are geared for... well, a three-year-old version of that codebase. If Cyan restarts UU, just as it was three years ago, everyone will go there by default.

But virtual world platforms are becoming a commodity. From a quick web search:

* Second Life. Okay, everyone knows it. And I can't mention it without using the phrase "rain of genitalia". But it's big, well-tested, and you can fence off areas for your own community. Or, heck, run your own Second Life server -- the code is open-source, and I hear it's not expensive to run if you turn off all the server-side physics.

* Metaplace. Not open yet; don't know much about it. It doesn't seem to be open-source, but the goal seems to be to let people create and script game environments.

* Project Darkstar. Sun offers MMO-specialized server hosting. Open-source, but you have to like Java.

* Croquet. Open-source software system. Looks low-level, but therefore powerful.

* Multiverse. Software system for MMO creation. Not open-source, but free for non-commercial use.

This is not intended to be a complete list. (See this post for a much better one.) I'm pointing out that a lot of people are working on this. Multiplayer world hosting is going to be an off-the-shelf solution soon, if it isn't already. Uru is not a perfect system today; it's tempting to ditch its bugs, and equally tempting to ditch the effort of writing our own Age creation tool.

So the real question is: what do we want? And what's stopping us?


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