2002-06-13: GameSentry's Interview with Alai

GameSentry's Interview with Alai

Alai, as the longest-term member of the UO dev team, how would you say the changes in staff members has affected UO? Would you say that UO is better for it (more hands in the pot) or that it can confuse things at times?

I'd say that the churn on the UO development group has had its good and bad points. On one hand, every time someone new joins the team there is an infusion of new energy to the staff. New ideas and fresh enthusiasm come with every development newbie. The obvious downside is the need to train new people and get them used to how things work. The good usually outweighs the bad there.

Parting ways with talented people is almost always (well, usually ;)) hard on both the staff and the game. Around Renaissance's release, I started collecting the door tags of people who left the company. I miss most of them and think both the game and I benefited from them working here.

How did you start with OSI and when you started did you think you'd be the lead client developer?

I came onto UO after working on Meridian59 for a couple years, which is how I got my foot in the door. My first role at Origin was a summer internship as a world builder while I attended school at the University of Texas. My very first task was putting a wooden fence around a wheat field in T2A. I went on to build Papua and Delucia as well as many other areas. I then took a hiatus from world building to go into scripting, and eventually became a programmer about a year later. I also did a short stint on a Privateer online game that never got off the ground.

When we did Third Dawn, I rewrote the interface and developed a specialty for client side work. I also revisited my world building roots and directed the effort of building Ilshenar, taking a personal hand in the creation of Montor. After Third Dawn, I just sort of fell into the Lead Client position. I always hoped I would climb the ladder to this position, but it's kind of unreal being here. Hopefully, I'll get farther yet. I've been measuring Tajima's office for a desk.

Do you see the influx of new MMOG's in the industry changing the path of UO?

To some degree, I'd expect so. The competition will force us to keep on our toes and keep adding features to the game, as well as continuing to improve the game that is already there. The result will be a continuing effort to make UO a better game. We intend to play a big part in the future of our genre, not just its history.

One of the strongest points of the UO Client is its 'in the game feel'. Player inventory being shown in an actual backpack has been rather popular and at times confusing. Do you think UO's loose GUI benefits a new player?

Ultima Online's GUI has its strengths and its weaknesses. Its best strength is that it provides the user with the freedom to configure their game play environment just the way they like it. But the breadth of the game can be daunting for new players, and I am not convinced that the interface simplifies things for them as much as it could.

Simple additions, like the menu bar, can aid new players, but there is still much for a new player to figure out. As much as I like the paperdoll interface, a beginner might not figure out how to remove clothes very quickly. Imagine not knowing how to make macros or create spell icons. A new player doesn't necessarily know how to do these and other tricks which simplify game play.

A lot has been done lately to make the world of Britannia much more dynamic. What has been your favorite change?

There are a lot of good things we've done to make the world dynamic, and they're all terrific. Just the continuously evolving feel of the world itself intrigues me. A static world gets bland real fast, and continuing change to the game content is important to keeping it interesting. For a long time, we were trapped with a more or less static world map which hamstrung us. The ability to patch out more content as models for 3D players lets us add interesting monsters. Granting players the ability to have a hand in how the world changes also adds to this dynamic feel. My favorite changes are generally new content to discover and explore - be it maps, monsters, equipment or "other." Fortunately, we add those a lot.

The first version of UO3D was a bit ... slow. And was criticized a bit (and praised some too). The recent changes in the client have helped a lot and improved the visual appearance quite a bit. If you had the chance, would you have kept UO3D in the development process longer?

Definitely. We had a very limited time span in which to develop the Third Dawn client, and I still believe that given those constraints it was quite an accomplishment. That isn't to say that the client wouldn't have benefited from more time in development before being released. Business dictates the constraints on development time that we have to work with, and we had a very ambitious project.

Even now, we're still making changes to improve that client, both aesthetically and in terms of performance. The new models coming soon(tm) are a big boost there, as were other adjustments that were recently released. Future patches will yield more and more improvements for the 3D client; I doubt we'll ever be done - there's always more you can do. The wish list for both clients is very long, and more stuff keeps getting appended to the bottom of it.

So, what is your favorite client and why, UO 2D or UO 3D?

Remember, there's a little a bias here, but I like the Third Dawn client. I like the animations, the particle effects, and seeing new monsters with new art. I also really appreciate a lot of the little shortcuts that are in the interface. The 2D client definitely has its place, though. The two clients simply have different aesthetics and overall feel. It's perfectly reasonable to expect someone to like one over the other.

Just how long do you think UO, in its current form, can compete against the likes of Star Wars Galaxies, Everquest 2, Asheron's Call 2, Horizons and the rest of the games out there?

As long as UO has players, it will survive. Ultima Online is easily categorized the same way as the other MUDs (yes, I'm old school enough to call them MUDs - mostly because it's easier to pronounce), but it really is another kind of game. UO's unique game play and community targets a somewhat different market than the games coming up.

Our players have demonstrated through the release of several other similar games that Ultima Online is the game they want to play. As loyal as our players are to UO, we are to them. Origin is committed to bringing our audience the best games we can. We're convinced that Ultima has a glorious future ahead and we've already begun working to realize that future.

Do you think the game will have to change much to stay competitive and continue to grow?

I don't think that Ultima Online itself has to change much. I think that some of the things in Ultima Online need to work better, and we need to continue to keep the content fresh. I personally feel that the place UO needs to grow the most is in its production value. The clients should look better and be more responsive. Interfaces should be more intuitive and help should be more readily available. A lot of the game play systems are terribly obfuscated, and we need to clarify those things. We're working to improve these aspects of the game, but development projects like these are lengthened because there's the service to maintain as well.

As far as growth -- I feel the market for MUDs is pretty well saturated with competitors at this point, and a lot of companies are creating even more new games under the assumption that we have a huge market with millions of players. The market we're currently addressing is, in fact, not as big as most people believe. The way to grow now is by finding new markets where people are not yet playing these games. This is one reason Ultima Online went international and EA is making "The Sims Online."

What do you think has been the largest and most impacting change to UO since you've been with OSI?

Oh my, that's a toughie. There have been a lot of key turning points to the game. The ability to add facets with Renaissance and the Third Dawn client revolutionized our ability to add new content. The split of Felucca and Trammel, combined with Factions, changed the way people play together. Going international revitalized our business. The creation of a content team, instead of running smaller events, has gone a long way to make sure more people can get involved in ongoing events. When I started at OSI, we didn't even have an OCR department to keep players up-to-date on the goings-on in the game. And of course, there's the long history of game balance changes we've made over the years...

I think that the most significant change since I've been here is in the company more than the game. We have weathered the years and gained unique experience. We know how this kind of game works, how the audience behaves, and how to operate the business better than ever before. The process of learning has been long and often painful, and sometimes we succeeded with an initiative and other times not, but we always came away having learned something. I think that has had the greatest impact on UO.

Either that or cow tipping.

UO currently has three different clients that have to be maintained (Old UO2D, UO3D, and UO2D LBR). How does this affect client design changes?

Oh, yes. The 2D clients are virtually identical, so we don't have it that bad. We generally think of it in terms of code bases: one for the 2D clients and another for 3D. This means that there is some amount of redundant development for new features. We try to share as much code between the two clients as is feasible to reduce workload, but there's still some inefficiency there. This duplicate development can easily sap some of the enthusiasm out of adding new features to the clients, but we push through it. This is the cost of providing the option of using either of the two clients to players - but it's worth it.

Care to share any future changes for UO3D that you think will be well accepted?

The most obvious change for the 3D client is the new character art and clothing. The new art simply looks fantastic, and we're dying to release it. Other development initiatives, and the need to carefully tweak the art, have caused it to be delayed quite a bit longer than we would like. It is still in progress, and you have my guarantee that it'll be released just as soon as it can be. There's other stuff coming, but you'll have to wait a bit longer to get the skinny on that.

Given the opportunity, would you ever want to develop a fully 3D client for UO?

Who wouldn't? A 3D conversion for a game with such loyal fans and deep game play would be a great project. The question is whether or not the game would benefit from being fully 3D and whether or not it makes sense from a pragmatic (read: business) perspective. Given the opportunity to do a fully 3D client, I'd jump all over it.

UO has changed quite a bit in the fact that it's becoming less and less of a 'solo' game. It seems to me that there is a move to force more and more group play -- is this true?

Our game is inherently multiplayer, and for a long time it didn't provide as much multiplayer content as we wanted. Solo-play is always welcome (I tend to go solo a lot, myself), but multi-play is supposed to be what our game is about. We are trying to make sure there's stuff to do in groups, as well as provide a plus side to taking advantage of that content. When people play together, it results in the positive consequence of a more tight-knit community. And since this is one of the greater strengths of UO, it's true to say we do what we can to encourage communities to develop and grow.

Has there ever been thought of adding voice communications into the game, specifically to enhance groups and communication?

Every now and then this idea comes up. As far back as T2A, there were rumblings of doing something like this. Voice communication and UO would probably not get along very well, though. Voice chat requires a lot of system resources to process the sound streams and a lot of bandwidth. Many of our players don't have the computer power or Internet connectivity it takes to use this feature. Additionally, the bandwidth cost for us would be prohibitive; unlike other chat tools like Roger Wilco, which are peer-to-peer, the UO chat system would have to go through our servers. If you want to use voice chat, I suggest you look into some of these other programs, or get a really good long distance plan!

OSI has made it obvious that you can now drastically change the map (Haven and Yew). Instead of adding new facets (T2A and Ilshenar), are there any plans to just enlarge current areas?

There are some plans to make changes to the existing world map, but we don't have any intention to drastically do so. Britannia is a nice map and I don't think it needs much work. I rather like the divide between Britannia (where people live) and the other facets (where people adventure). And of course, when it's a different facet, we have free license to build the world with different styles and themes.

There are also feasibility issues with massively changing the map. Technically, there is the problem of patching out the changes. World map patches can get pretty big, pretty fast, so we have to exercise some moderation. And of course, in a game like this, changing anything is always going to upset somebody. I don't believe there is a need to greatly alter a world map people have grown so accustomed to.

Any comments or statements you wish to add?

Ultima Online has a deeper, longer history than any other game out there. We're coming up on our fifth birthday pretty soon, which is pretty amazing. I've been here for over four of those years and can tell you that it has been a hell of a ride. The amazing part is we're still growing and improving the game. I'm looking forward to the future of Ultima, the forecast is good.