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To close out the final GDC Online in Austin, Ultima Online creators Rich Vogel, Raph Koster and Starr Long recall the early days of forming what was then a brand new idea: A persistent, online world.

Frank Cifaldi, Contributor

October 11, 2012

4 Min Read

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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