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Ultima Online creators remember the good and bad of its early days
 Ultima Online  creators remember the good and bad of its early days
October 11, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

October 11, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi
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    17 comments
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Programming, Design, Production, GDC Online



GDC Online 2012 closed on Thursday with a "Classic Postmortem" of seminal RPG Ultima Online, given by creators Rich Vogel, Raph Koster and Starr Long.

It all started when Long and Ultima creator Richard Garriott discussed a simple concept: let's take Ultima and make it multiplayer. The project name was Multima.

"We actually ran this by EA like three times and they were like yeah, we heard about this Internet thing, we don't know if it's going to be a big deal," recalled Long.

Eventually EA's Larry Probst saw the potential and gave the crew $150k to make a prototype that showed promise, and development began. The rest is history.

What follows are some highlights from the animated, well-attended session.

A very open floor plan

EA hadn't planned where to put the Multima team, space-wise, so the small shoestring team was put on the fifth floor, which was being renovated.

The building was literally being torn down around them, to the point where there was, for a time, no outside walls.

Further, this was all in the middle of winter. And the only place to put their very hot prototype server was right under the building's thermostat, meaning the air conditioning kept running.

Killer rabbits

In the alpha, the team had wolves that chased rabbits across the map as part of its emergent gameplay system.

In those early days, the rabbits would actually level up if they got into a fight with a wolf and managed to escape.

"People would wander off in the alpha and try to kill a rabbit, and pretty soon they were playing Monty Python: The MMO," joked Koster.

The game was tweaked to disallow this, though Koster confesses that they left one monster rabbit in the world when the final game shipped.

The hosting facility

Off-site hosting facilities were extremely rare in the 90s, so the team had to build their own. And to keep it secure, they installed a retina scanner...which didn't work so well. Usually at inopportune times.

On the bright side, the exhaust fan was pointed up, and Koster would often go in there and prop a beach ball on top of the air, watching it spin around.

Faking it at E3

A pre-alpha version of the game somehow managed to be playable at E3 in 1996, only 9 months or so after the team was formed!

But one year later, when beta 1 was shown at E3 1997, the game didn't have much in the way of AI. So, to fake it, developers back home were actually playing the NPCs live.

"People were amazed by the AI," joked Koster.

CDs were expensive

The game needed beta testers, but asking players to download the client -- nearly a CD's worth of data -- was just not possible in the mid-90s. They had to send out CDs, but unfortunately that cost money, which just wasn't in the budget.

Their solution was to simply charge interested parties $5 to play the beta, which would cover the cost of shipping them a disk.

EA was only predicting the game would sell 35,000 units lifetime. Within two days of opening the sign-up page, the team had 50,000 paid beta players.

"Which meant we already paid Larry Probst back," said Star.

The first in-game profession

Almost immediately after launching the alpha, online players found ways to...indulge their natural urges, virtually.

"Two days later," says Koster, they found a player named Fly Guy on the docks, wearing a brightly dyed hat and cape, acting as pimp.

"He took over a building in the back alleys of Brittania," says Koster. "We had buildings that had no purpose, so he just...moved in."

"It was the first player-run business in Ultima Online, proving the old adage."

Beware the carpenters

Trinsic is a walled city in Brittania with only two entrances: one big door, and one tiny door, called the trader's gate.

"One day the player killers barricaded the front door, which they did by bringing in their deadly attack team of carpenters," said Koster.

Carpenters built chairs, tables, and wardrobes and piled them up endlessly, preventing anyone from leaving through the main gate. The only way out was through the tiny trader's gate, which of course had mercenaries waiting to murder and loot any player that tried. Anyone who logged out of the game was in Trinsic was stuck there when they logged back in.

The solution, typical of the team's philosophy of "extending the simulation" at the time, was to simply add functionality. The next time players logged in, they were informed via a patch note that axes could now destroy furniture. The hostages of Trinsic were saved.

What we lost

"Players managed their own experience. We just gave them their own tools," Koster recalled, saying modern MMOs control players much more now, though granted "a huge percentage of the time" players made each other miserable.

"But when they pulled something off like the weddings, sporting events... funerals... the player governments that emerged... that's when it was really magic."

"That's kind of the thing we lost."


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Comments


Danny Grein
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Amazing inside view! :)
Hardly we will have something like that again. Most of wanna-be-uo fail miserably, which is sad, due to popular trending MMOs and biased media.

Typo: 2006 should be 1996 here:
> A pre-alpha version of the game somehow managed to be playable at E3 in 2006, only 9 months or so after the team was formed!

Raph Koster
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Also, first paragraph: "It all started when Vogel and Long discussed simple concept" -- actually, we were referencing a different Richard -- Richard Garriott. It was he and Starr who were talking about it... Rich Vogel came along later.

Christian Nutt
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We're fixing it up - thanks.

Jakub Majewski
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Also, doesn't it seem a little weird to be referring to Richard Garriott as "another Ultima pioneer"? He's kind of *the* Ultima pioneer :).

Robert Ling
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Thanks for the inside view. Ultima Online really was the dawn of a new era in games. I miss the old days of UO very, very much.

Danny Grein
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I was wondering where was Garriott at that time.. 0.o now it makes sense.

Jonathan Rush
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Excellent read! The first couple years of Ultima Online had been my favorite, and most memorable gaming experience to this day. Very cool to get some insight into the initial development...

nicholas ralabate
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Good stuff, just finished "Dungeons and Dreamers" and the best chapters pertained to Garriott and the Ultimas.

Bruno Skvorc
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Very interesting and related insight into the technology stack of the original Ultima Online: http://www.quora.com/Ultima-Online/What-was-the-technology-stack-
driving-the-original-Ultima-Online-servers

Regine Abel
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Ultima Online remains to this day the best MMO I have ever played. I will always have a soft spot for it, in no small part because it also provided me with my first job in the industry. Giving players the necessary tools to impact the world and create their own content was absolutely brilliant. It allowed each server to be unique, with their own RP towns, sagas and notorious players and guilds. A player could gain fame for his crafting/merchanting skills, for a running a lively tavern, or being the best librarian of the realm. UO took emergent gameplay to a new height. An axe destroying furniture did way more than free Trinsic's captives. Combined with "I wish to lock this down" it also opened an amazing new world for the most ingenious interior decorators.

Matthew Collins
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Aw I really miss this kind of gameplay. So rare nowadays...

Andrew Grapsas
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I was 11 when I started playing Ultima. Without a doubt, it had the most influence on my career. I started coding around then and, eventually, after a few years, was writing tools for server emulators (account management, god tools, etc.).

Now I build game servers, clients, and official tools on a daily basis.

Maurício Gomes
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I used to play on UO private servers (or as we called "Free shards"), because here in Brazil that is the only thing a kid without a really expensive international credit card could do... (and without broadband... I used to play UO with dial-up, so local servers was a must unless you liked teleporting halfway across the city every 3 seconds as the lag was too big to properly calculate anything).

I remember that on early days, when the most popular server emulator was "sphere" (that emulated UO accuarately up to The Second Age expansion), when things were much more open, and we spent a whole time doing lots of fun things as player.

When AOS (and RunUO to emulate it) was released, the game had lots of broken skills (that are still broken by the way, EA never fixed pre-T2A skills that they broke on AOS), lots of other broken stuff, and controlled the players much more than the players controlled the game... We saw players slowly going away in many servers, and I became a GM of a popular server, so I could run things the way I wanted and dabble in game design and level design... Also I started to code in C# to modify the server too (usually I coded items that I was going to use in quests that I created, quests that needed me running them manually like a classic RPG human game master).

We became more and more sad as each expansion only introduced more warmongering stuff (artifacts, more artifacts, artifacts crafting, more offensive magic...), while never fixing cool old stuff that allowed players to run a more peaceful economy.

When the game became just a combat simulator of sorts, I abandoned it (along with many other people).

The sole reason I don't play any MMO anymore is that I don't find a early-UO style MMO anymore, where I could enjoy myself being whatever I wanted, without caring about grinding (it took me 3 years to reach the skill and stat caps... plainly because I don't cared about grinding, I cared about the stories).

Jonathan Rush
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'...because I don't cared about grinding, I cared about the stories.'

What I thought was really interesting about UO is how players genuinely made their own stories. These were built through developing strong interpersonal relationships with other members of your shard. Friendship went much deeper than simply sporting the same guild badge (oh, we have the same guild badge- I guess we have to be friends)- actually called 'clans' back then, but rather developed by playing the game day to day with people you recognized and came to know.

Lots of strong memories from this game. I could go on and on with some pretty funny stories. :)

Dean Boytor
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I was very late to the UO community(2002-2004 Metropolis shard pre Ren) but strange enough that's far enough in the past to be "back in the day"

But I appreciate the design that Richard Garriott put together when he brought his creation to life. I loved all of the quirks that were left in for the sake of tradition.

Truly was the 'choose your own adventure' of MMO's of its time and still holds true today. I draw a lot of found memories and inspiration from this game.

I'd start playing again if it were not for other aspirations such as my own game dev work and my day job.

Greatly appreciated article! ^_^

Steven Christian
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I liked the way they fixed the exploit; instead of nerfing furniture, they buffed axes.
Brilliant.
Nowadays there would be bans, nerfs and rollbacks.

Youn Lee
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Yeah the magic we lost, which was my favorite part of MMORPG's


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