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When did you realize it was starting to go out of control?
RV: It took about three months until we realized that we had a lot of systems in place that needed to be checked. About four or five months after launch we actually had gangs going around – literally had real gangs in the game going around causing trouble.
We had servers near the Northeast, which were bad servers and then we had servers in the Midwest, which were very calm and nice. It's interesting how they all felt different. In the Midwest we had role players, right, and they loved it, they really took to it and were very proud of their servers.
In the Northeast we had the gangs and in the Pacific we had the gangs. Just unbelievable trouble on both the east and west coasts and it's just literally how they all developed. The Pacific was one of our worst. It was kind of like the broken window syndrome. You just had a whole bunch of bad people in one area and it just grew.
Everything from extorting people for their money to holding them captive to teleporting them to islands to steal their money. It was just an amazing type of environment. We really realized after January 1998 --and we launched in September 1997. We really needed to figure out ways to control this fast.
Were the players doing the killing and griefing a small minority or was it more widespread?
RV: It was a minority. There were a lot of players who just enjoyed playing. Players turned to PvP because they wanted to defend themselves. They actually turned themselves into vigilante gangs going after the PvPers. Their job was actually to stop them.
Some people actually really role-played PvP very well, became very evil, and there are lots of stories on the internet about them. It's fun to watch and from a social point of view. It's really interesting when your identity is not there what you really do, what personality comes out of you.
Online games do seem to bring out the best and worst in players…
RV: Oh yes. It's closed identity, right? You know, if people were invisible what would they do? If they had the ability to do that, what would they do? You would be amazed at some people what they would do if they couldn't get caught.
This didn't seem to happen as much in MUDs. How much of this was caused by the leap in scale from the hamlet-sized MUDs to the small city populations of UO?
RV: Meridian 59 had maybe total 25,000 people. UO had total 250,000 people. It's just a huge difference of how many people are on a particular shard: in Meridian we only ever were able to hold 150, in UO we were able to hold thousands.
So as soon as you got thousands in an area, it's just amazing, the dynamics. And, of course, when things got short supplied and things became valuable what people would do for them. There are people who paid even then $10,000, $20,000, $100,000 for a castle in real money.
Did that surprise you – the amount of real money people were prepared to invest?
RV: Oh yes. MUD people paid money but nothing like that. People were actually offering real money for objects in the game that were not real. Houses and castles were worth a lot of money. And if you had a good house and lots of stuff in an area you paid $10,000-plus for it.
How much ability do you as the developer have to act? In theory you have the powers of a god inside these games, but equally the players can go "We're fed up with these changes and restrictions, we're off and taking our money and maybe our friends with us." How much of a balancing act is it?
RV: It's a huge balancing act. One of the things we want to do is always have a fair playing field. Whatever we do we need to make sure we have a fair playing field and everyone has the opportunity to get where they need to be. If there's anything we do that is unfair we won't do it. So improper conduct is not tolerated. But it happens, right? People get corrupt and GMs get corrupt because they're people and GMs have a lot of power.
Yes, we do have a lot of power in those worlds, we can do what we want, but if you don't listen to your player base and change things radically they'll leave and they will take their friends. This is a huge lesson because this is a connected community, so different from single-player games.
You mentioned the reputation system in UO that you used to try and rein in the chaos. How did that work?
RV: Basically we try to motivate people to do what you want them to do. You don't want motivations in the game that motivate people to do the wrong thing, the opposite to what you wanted. That was the balancing out of putting a reputation system in.
Becoming a dark lord in UO was actually kind of cool, but that's not what we really wanted -- but that's what happened -- and we had to balance it out so there's friction when you become a dark lord, and there are things that will happen to you that make the game harder for you. But the game mechanics really, to be honest with you, in day one should have been where you want to promote the good behavior not the bad behavior, not the griefing behavior.
Engineering at midstream is very, very hard to do because things start to get solidified in people's minds, and if you change the game too much people feel have to relearn things and people leave. I think the biggest thing that Blizzard did before they launched World of Warcraft was have a solid core game that didn't change much after launch. Additions happen, but the base game, the core mechanic didn't, whereas other online games changed drastically from when they first started.