2004-06-17: Ten Questions with Anthony "SunSword" Castoro
TEN QUESTIONS WITH ANTHONY "SUNSWORD" CASTORO
Posted Thursday, June 17, 2004 by Mr. Ray
This interview was originally posted at The Corporation (Corpnews.com). 
We recently had the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with Ultima Online’s Producer, Anthony "SunSword" Castoro. Sunsword was the Lead Designer for Ultima Online a few years back, took a job with SOE to work on the then forthcoming Star Wars Galaxies, and returned back to Ultima Online to take up the reigns as Producer for UO Live back in the latter half of 2002. He’s guided UO through the tumultuous Age of Shadows expansion, and is now overseeing the forthcoming Seventh Anniversary box and the Asian-themed expansion.
Returning to UO for former subscribers can be a traumatic event. The gameplay has changed significantly over the years, and any material wealth they might have had is either gone or not worth very much compared to today's UO economy. Do you have any specific plans to help ease returning players back into the game?
Well, It depends on the specific case (how long you’ve been gone and how well off you were when you left), but I personally didn’t find it economically difficult to return to the game after 2+ years of being away. But you are right about the gameplay. In some ways, UO can feel very much like a new game because of the new skills, areas, and systems such as “item properties.” We don’t have specific plans to help ease the return of veteran players other than to focus on what makes UO fundamentally good.
It's been mentioned a few times that about half of UO's subscriber base is non-US and that most of the non-US subscriptions are in Japan. How are you balancing the different needs of the two cultures? Are there designers in Japan to deal specifically with their needs?
There are no game designers in Japan for UO. UO’s popularity is pretty universal, and most of the time we dedicate to Japanese-specific concerns are centered around language localization, customer support, and coordination of launches and promotions. Of course, the up-coming expansion has a theme inspired by feudal Japan, but the design work is being done here in the US (by some of the same people that worked on AoS, and of course many new team members). We certainly interact regularly with the EA Japan publishing and support organization on a regular basis, and incorporate them in the feedback process for design.
UO has been showing its age for some time now, most notably in the graphics and chat department. Are there plans to update the graphics engine to a newer, prettier, more robust one? What have you learned from the less-than-stellar reception the Third Dawn client has received from the gaming public? Any plans to implement standard MMOG chat features such as guild channels and private messaging?
We agree that UO cannot lean on gameplay alone as the competition gets stronger. We certainly have plans to make sure that the game remains competitive for many years to come. Probably the best lesson learned by Third Dawn is that when you introduce a new “version” of the client, you have to make sure that it is a significant step up from the current offering, or people will not be motivated to use it. This is the case for both visuals AND performance. “Standard” chat options are a given for future competitiveness.
New players to the game are faced with a significant advancement curve. The stat gain mechanics guarantee that a new character will not be "complete" for almost a month - and that they must either play the game for a lengthy period of time per day or use an external (illegal) macro program to achieve said completeness in that month. Is this a concern of the development team and, if so, are there any plans to adjust this particular feature?
I think that stat gain is less of a concern than skill gain. Getting to the maximum stats on a new character should take some time investment, and in most cases, stat-gain is regular and frequent enough to be satisfying. However, for new players, skill gain is another story. Knowing what to do to gain in a particular skill can be a lot like a research project. This is an area I think we can do a much better job of providing a satisfying RPG experience.
When the 7th anniversary box is released, it will have been almost a year since the monthly subscription fee has been raised. In that year, there has been zero new retail boxes, and five content publishes (we're ignoring the for-pay only character transfer publish) at about one every two and a half months. Are there any specific changes being enacted to prove to your subscribers and any potential subscribers that the new fee has been and will be worth it?
The increased service fee was a business reality. We didn’t increase the cost of running the service because we intended to provide “X” new features. We increased the service fee because over the 7 years of operating the service, it’s gotten more expensive. That said, the UO development team is currently bigger than it was during the Age of Shadows development cycle, the live service has a separate team dedicated to updates and up-keep, and there are now more GM’s on staff than there were a year ago. We certainly have plans that when announced will reinforce our commitment to UO in the public’s eye.
Having worked on Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, the two MMOGs most recognized as "virtual worlds" and player-driven gameplay, how do you respond to the opinion in the MMOG community that UO has turned away from it's roots and is now another version of the "phat lewt" style of online game?
Well, I’d say that opinion has some validity. When UO launched it was more virtual world than an online fantasy adventure game. That had some significant advantages but it also had drawbacks. The advantages were that it provided depth, open-endedness, immersion, a sense of ownership, and at the time, novelty. The drawbacks were that it tended to be complicated, mundane and perhaps intimidating. The best solution for UO is to focus on balancing the “living” parts of a virtual world with the “fun” parts of a traditional RPG. Admittedly, there are cases where this balancing act could have been done better. I think the current team possesses a unique focus and determination to retain UO’s virtual world feel.
UO has historically looked kindly on out of game sales, even going so far as to offer a secure account transfer service and to issue press releases boasting of sales on EBay. Independent of company policy, how do you personally feel about Ebay and it's ilk's impact on MMOGs?
I find it fascinating. Eventually, we are going to have to address this issue more directly. Until then, it remains a useful tool to judge the success of the game, and also to better understand the in-game economy.
Origin representatives have consistently shot down requests for classic shards over the past few years with the generic “we are moving forward, not backwards” statement. With the demand demonstrated by (albeit free) player-run emulator shards, has there been any reconsideration by the management team? Barring that, are there any specific plans to lure back cancelled subscribers?
No and yes. The real reason for not considering “classic” shards is that it’s too difficult to juggle multiple code-bases for play-styles that appeal to smaller audiences. Rather, it is our goal to re-incorporate some of the elements that some players so fondly remember.
What are you personal gameplay preferences? Virtual world or Game? PvP or PvE? Loot-centric or Crafter-centric? Feel free to elaborate.
Most recently, I haven’t had the time to commit to MMOs, but when I did, I usually bounced back between solo-adventuring and crafting. Now that we’ve introduced Character Transfer, I’m going to move my GM blacksmith from LS to Baja, where I have a few friends that play. I did PvP some in UO, mostly the typical retribution hunting that players did in the early days.
When I do have time to game, I generally play shooters. I prefer to “own” people directly. When my first daughter was born, I’d play games like Counter-strike and then Battlefield as “A man holding a baby.” Nothing beats the following message: “leetb0y was assassinated by a man holding a baby.”
The Corpnews.com staff would like to thank EA for the interview, Anthony for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer the questions, and Aaron Cohen for coordinating it all. EA may be an Evil (TM) corporation, but these two are stand up guys and made me question my opinions about Electronic Arts. Thanks Aaron and Anthony!