1999-09-22: A brief restrospective

A brief restrospective

Sep 22 1999 4:21PM

This was originally posted to Development at [1]


Welcome to this latest installment of the “Comments from the Team” column. I suppose the first order of business is to introduce myself. Many of you may know me as “SunSword”. My real name is Anthony Castoro, and I’m one of two Lead Designers working on the project. I’ve been a designer on Ultima Online for a full year now and it has been the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. I was recently promoted to Lead Designer along with Todd Bailey (tOAD) to take up the reins after Raph Koster (Designer Dragon) moved on. Previously, I had worked at several technology companies, founded my own game company, and most recently worked as a Unix consultant at Motorola and IBM.

I’m excited about the future of Ultima Online, but I think it would be best to take a moment and reflect on the history of UO. There is a great deal to learn from this project’s past, and before I begin discussing where we’re going, I think it may be valuable to examine how we got here and what we’ve learned along the way.

As many of you know, September 24th marks the second birthday of Ultima Online. This is a significant milestone in many aspects, perhaps not the least of which is the affirmation of the “100k+ Player Massively Multiplayer Online Game” as a viable long-term enterprise. The UO community continues to grow, and even as we approach the third year of service, our players have much to look forward to.

I attribute much of the game’s success to its flexible nature. From a designer’s standpoint, this game is a dream come true. The ability to modify, expand, and develop the systems within UO is unmatched by any other online game. This flexibility combined with the depth of fiction and player interaction found on each shard is a potent formula for long lasting entertainment. So let us take a look at how it all started…

The Past

In its infancy, UO was chartered as a large, multiplayer, graphical MUD firmly grounded in the fiction of Ultima. Code-named “Multima”, Ultima Online began with the lofty ambition of supporting up to 300 simultaneous users. With these goals in mind, a small group of developers began a technology test that eventually became the prototype for the hugely successful title, “Ultima Online”.

The project developed in fits and starts as debates raged over issues such as character advancement, Ultima lore, target audience size, player killing, etc. At this stage of its development, the knowledge of “Online” was reserved to a small number of developers who, in turn, had experienced only limited commercial success. The knowledge of “Online” was an arcane art, known only to select few and carefully protected. Those who had already tasted the power of this genre could foresee the future. The question wasn’t if an online game would be commercially successful, it was when.

The UO team continued to grow and develop and by the time it entered the Public Beta Testing phase, Origin and EA realized they had something unique and compelling on their hands. The public demand for the game was overwhelming. The challenges were massive. This little technology experiment had gained a life of its own and, in doing so, it had raised a thousand questions: Could Ultima Online pay for itself? What would it take to support 10 thousand players? What about 50 thousand? Was the Internet reliable enough? How did one setup a customer service department for a subscription service? How many admins (game masters) would it need? What kind of tools would those admins need? How could the game be changed and extended once it went “live?”

Some of these questions took longer to answer than others. Some issues arose that couldn’t have been anticipated. Who knew recall would become such a hot topic? And just what IS the value of leather dyed green?

So, what did we learn? Well, it’s an ongoing process. Here are some of the most important things I’ve learned:

  • Above all else, the integrity of the service must be maintained. If you can’t play the game, nothing else matters. Server uptime and connectivity are by far the most vital considerations for any online game. Keep in mind, this is no small task. There are literally thousands of factors that can affect whether you can connect to the service and, no matter who is responsible, if we can’t find a solution you can’t play.
  • Time is money. Some people seem to be surprised by the fact that there are those willing to pay money for “digital property.” I’m not. All of the items in UO that have developed real world value represent time and/or effort, and to many people that’s worth paying for. It’s a testament to the power of the game that “virtual” characters and property have become so precious.
  • Changes cannot be made whimsically. An online world develops a life of its own and as developers we cannot take that life for granted. An observer looking in from the outside may not see it immediately, but the value and meaning of items in the virtual community develop based on the experiences of the players within. Once those characteristics are set, we must be extremely careful to take them into consideration while making alterations to the game.
  • Clear communication is imperative. It is a requirement that we keep you abreast of major changes/issues in a timely manner. In addition, constructive dialogue must be a significant segment of this communication. Posting information on the website and leaving it at that will not suffice. Your input is an important part in the overall evolution of the game. Making an effort to understand what you think is important allows us to make informed decisions about changes to the game. I would like to get more detailed about this “holistic” approach to online game development in a later column.

There are many more lessons to be learned, but I believe the above rank as the most important. Next week, I’ll talk about how the new development team plans to take these lessons from the past and apply them to the here and now. Have fun!

Next week: “The Recent Past”