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A brief history of murder in Ultima Online

POSTMORTEMS is a new book of selected design essays by Raph Koster, covering a quarter-century of online game design from MUDs through major MMOs like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. Here is an exclusive excerpt.
Cover of POSTMORTEMS nookOver the years, I’ve written an awful lot of stuff. A fairly large amount of it has been retrospective analysis of what went right and what went wrong with various projects I’ve worked on. Sometimes these articles, like "A Jedi Saga," have gotten a lot of attention. Most of the time, they haven't. But I do it anyway, because it helps me think about how to approach whatever I do next, and it helps capture lessons for others who might not want to step on the same landmines.
Back when I got started working in online games, I avidly sought out anything I could find that would help be get better at what I was trying to do. Now that I have written hundreds of thousands of words about games I have worked on, describing their design guts, the mistakes we made, and the core principles that I took away, it felt like time to collect all that material together so others could more easily find it.
The result is a (really large) book called POSTMORTEMS, which covers a quarter-century of working on online games. One third of it is new material written specifically for the book, and the rest gathers together design essays and historical documents on games such as Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Metaplace, and even the old text MUD days.
Here's some excerpts from some of the new writing, describing some of the many gyrations we went through to try to manage the problems with bad behavior on Ultima Online. Apologies for the loss of all the footnotes.
POSTMORTEMS can be found at any bookstore, such as Amazon, and here's a link with more description of the book.

A brief history of murder

When Ultima Online opened, there were no policing systems in the game except for town guards. In fact, we even had a thievery skill set that was basically designed to allow players to be bad to one another; you could do a skill check and try to do a few illegal actions.

  • “Snooping,” which was an ability that thieves had, to rifle through another player’s backpack and see what they had.
  • “Stealing,” which was the attempt to drag something out of someone else’s backpack.

And of course, you could simply attack someone.

When you did any of these, a “criminal flag” was placed on you which expired after a few minutes. If a town guard saw you while you were flagged, they slew you. Instantly. Town guards were really strong.

If another player caught you while you were criminal flagged, they could shout “Guards!” (which most players put on a macro so they could do it with just hitting one key). As long as you were within a town, this resulted in guards teleporting to their locations… and then they’d see the miscreant and kill them.

Death meant your corpse fell right there where it was, and would likely be utterly stripped of everything you had carried within seconds; anyone could loot your corpse. You would stand there watching, as a ghost — a gray-robed spectre — unable to protest in any way that others could understand, your every word transformed into “OoOoooOoOoo.” To be revived, you had to find your way to a shrine, where you would return to life — wearing nothing much. Your spare gear was probably in a bank vault in town, but shrines themselves were outside of towns, so once you died, you were quite likely to get killed several times in a row.

Until Ultima Online the terms “PvP,” “PvE,” and “Pking” were not in widespread currency among gamers, because online gaming had been confined to a relatively small audience. (Neither were many other terms, including “nerfing,” “powerlevelling,” and many others). The section on Pkilling in the original strategy guide for the game led with an explanation of the unfamiliar term:

Player killing (AKA “pkilling” or “PK”) is the killing of one player-character in a multi-player game by another.

It then went on to argue that

If Harry the Dashing accosts travelers on the open read with, “Your pardon, Sirrah, but I will have either your money or your life,” that is far less objectionable than Basha, who likes to to train bears and sic them on unsuspecting travelers… [or] Lord of D’eth, who thinks it is just hilarious to try out his new Firewall scroll in the smithy in Britain — D’eth is basically inexcusable. All three actions, however, are completely legal in the game…

It also offered helpful tips such as “travel in groups and avoid dangerous areas” for dodging playerkillers:

In the wilderness, the things that will protect you against pkillers are the same things that will protect you against monsters. Travel in groups, and if traveling alone keep to the main roads. Pkillers and monsters occupy different regions, however — the worst monsters tend to congregate in the deepest wilderness, while pkillers haunt approaches to congested areas, like towns and dungeons. While shrines and moongates are guarded areas, PKs will haunt the approaches.

And this commonly followed but still ludicrous advice for avoiding theft:

Keep your really valuable possessions in bags — or even keep the bags in bags, layered three or four deep. This not only conceals your valuables, but each container requires a separate Snooping check, increasing the chance a thief will be caught. A similar strategy is putting valuables under a stack of hides or something equally bulky and innocuous in your pack…

And this was the official guide! The player-written Ultima Online: Unofficial Strategy and Secrets was far blunter, with an entire chapter entitled “Staying Alive” with headings such as “Traveling in Groups” and “Trust No One.”

Criminal flagging quickly proved woefully inadequate. Thieves learned to simply steal while basically naked, so they risked little but time. They would choose targets who were close to the edge of town, so they could dodge the guards. Playerkillers who murdered indiscriminately only a few screens away would then waltz into town and be under the protection of the guards; a victim who came back for them could then be goaded into attacking back, which meant the guards would kill them instead. And, of course, all forms of indirect assistance in performing bad deeds went unpunished, leading to healers standing next to playerkillers and taking care of their wounds while they murdered freely. These healers weren’t doing anything that the game detected, at first, though later on criminal flags were spread by helpful actions. Which then led to its own forms of entrapment!

These problems were quite evident even during the beta test period for the game, and thus the beta testing introduced the first major revision to playerkilling in Ultima Online.

The notoriety system

This system used a single axis — indeed, a single byte — to track a player’s reputation. Players began at zero, or “neutral,” and a variety of actions in the game could move it up and down. Your notoriety was shown to you via a title on your paperdoll: Great Lord or Lady for those at the top of the scale, and Dread Lord or Lady at the bottom. In between were Noble, Dishonorable, Infamous, and more.

Non-player characters in the game were already marked as Good, Neutral, Evil, or Chaotic. This mostly affected whether they would attack one another or help out players in a fight; for example, Evil characters would automatically attack Good or Neutral characters on sight, and so on. Players started out as neutral on this scale too.

Killing Evil NPCs raised your notoriety; killing Good ones lowered it. Generosity — giving items to NPCs with less goods than you had — also raised it (you could give gold to beggars, for example). Healing the Good raised it. Stealing lowered it, as did healing the Evil. And the passage of mere time trended it back towards neutral.

But notoriety’s effects were purely cosmetic. Oh, an innkeeper might say to you “I suppose I shall have to place a sign ‘pon my inn, declaring that the Great and Vile, Killer of Infants and Slayer of Guards, the Monstrous Zenkoh, slept here once.” But they wouldn’t deny you service. “It is a measure of fame, not a moral judgement,” states the strategy guide.

Worse, it was hard to tell what would happen exactly. Bear in mind that in UO, it could be hard to tell a player apart from an NPC, even! You couldn’t necessarily tell what was Good, Evil, or Chaotic at a glance, particularly in the heat of a fight. A patch note in October of 1997, shortly after the game launched, adds some very basic UX design:

When clicking on someone, their name appears red, gray, or blue, depending on the following:

  • if performing a bad action such as theft, attack, or snooping would lower your notoriety, they show in blue
  • if performing such an action on them would improve your notoriety, the name shows in red
  • if it would have no effect on your notoriety, it shows in gray

We fixed a problem whereby you could never regain good standing after crossing a threshold of being evil.

We corrected a problem whereby attacking untame but tamable animals affected your notoriety and could result in guards being called.

The 1/100 chance of notoriety increase has been removed, since there is now a notoriety time cap on improvement.

We regularized the notoriety title scale; this may result in your title having changed by one stage from what it was previously.

In fact, the early patch notes seem like an litany of notoriety tweaks. If October 10th added the color-coded names, by October 16th we see notes like “The problems with notoriety not being affected by spellcasting are fixed” alongside five more changes to the system. A week after that, we see the addition of criminal flagging to all actions that lower notoriety. And just one week later, we see “All offensive spells now affect notoriety and call guards, including non-damaging ones.”

Worse, we see things scattered throughout the updates that are clearly attempts to fix emergent loopholes that allowed players to screw one another over. When you transferred a pet to another player, it originally didn’t make them stop following or guarding the original seller. So they would transfer the pet, then run away, and the pet would leave with them! A hotkey had to be added to bring up names all at once on the screen, rather than mousing over each person, because you’d be dead before you got the chance. And so on. In fact, one of the biggest issues was simply that people would do things, lose notoriety, and not know why.

It all caused so many problems that two months and five patches after launch, there were feature additions like

A new UO.CFG toggle has been added called NotorietyQuery. If you set this to on by editing your UO.CFG file to include the following line:


you will have a yes/no window pop up when you attack someone that would cause your notoriety to fall. Note that this applies only to regular attacks at the moment, not to spells, and not to ordering :pets, hirelings, or summoned creatures to attack!

That same month, shrines began to refuse resurrection to players who were below a certain level of notoriety, forcing everyone who was below “Dastardly” to funnel through only one resurrection point.

Virtue guards

The philosophical conflict between freedom to play however you liked in a rich simulated world and the desire to maintain order and civil society wasn’t just one engaged in on the forums. It was also a deeply personal conflict for me; I didn’t want to surrender the freedoms in order to provide the safety. This internal conflict was mirrored out to the playerbase via essays posted on the website, and via short stories that accompanied some patches, as we tried to make the changes to the game rules be reflected in the game fiction.

The launch of a new system intended to curb playerkilling by layering more rules atop notoriety was therefore accompanied by a new short story I wrote: “The Founding of the Guards of Virtue.”

"I fear this is a mistake, my lord," Lord Blackthorn said, shaking his head sadly. "Surely the problem cannot be as bad as thou describest it."

"But it is!" Lord British said forcefully, pushing away from the table, and turning around to look out the casement at the gently drifting snowfall. As Blackthorn bowed his head in acquiescence, the ruler continued in a lower voice, "The dead this year, Blackthorn. All those people whose families live without joy this winter. The food that shall not be brought to table, the shops that shall not open. This children without parents and the parents without children. Think of the dead, and think of the funeral processions we have seen. Look you!"

Blackthorn came to stand beside his liege at the window, squinting out past the white snowflakes, over the moat, to the small blacksmithy on the northern side of Britain. Just as every day of late, a funeral procession wended its dark way across the cobblestones, figures hunched against the cold and the vagaries of fate. He rested a hand on his friend's shoulder.

    "This will not bring back their dead, my lord," he said softly.

This bit of fiction announced two new systems, a carrot and a stick. The carrot was a system intended to displace the constant random playerkilling into something more constructive, what today we might term a faction system. Players were able to sign up with either Lord British or Lord Blackthorn, be handed a shield with the appropriate insignia, and then they could kill one another freely, with no interference from the guards. The system required players to have maximum notoriety before they could even join, and if you did anything that lowered your notoriety whilst you were wearing the shield of one side or the other, the shield would explode and kill you (!) on the spot. Upon dying to a member of the opposite team, the shield vanished, so you could actually have victories of a sort as the other team suffered attrition and had to go sign up all over again.

Lord British ducked his head as if something pained him. "Do we? So be it. Tomorrow I shall proclaim that any who have the required character may apply to join the Virtue Guards. They shall be given a shield with mine own emblem, the silver serpent, so that they may stand for what is good and honorable in this world. Any who shame the emblem shall have it stripped on the spot. And I shall also proclaim the law on bounty hunting."

Blackthorn stormed away from the table. At the heavy door he stopped, and turned back. Lord British did not even raise his head.

"Tomorrow then shall I announce that those same folk whom thou mightest take for thy new guard may choose instead to wear my emblem, and server as guards of the virtue of Chaos."

British looked up at him, eyes afire. "Be careful where thou treadest, Blackthorn. A private army..."

"Nay, my lord," Blackthorn said unctuously. "Merely so they may serve as an example of my beliefs, and of the beliefs of those who feel grown up enough to make their own decisions about right and wrong. Those who are sick of overzealous guards who slaughter the petty criminal at the slightest provocation, and sick of the paternalism in thy government."

Lord British glared at him, and there they stood, caught between free will and civilization.

Talk about on the nose!

Murderers and bounties

The stick was something else entirely: a bounty system on murderers. And it was quite complex!

If a player was killed by another player (and wasn’t a criminal at the time, and was of good notoriety, and so on), a window would pop up letting them report the crime. A player could choose to not report it, if they felt it was an accident or the incident was an instance of good roleplaying, but honestly, this just about never happened. People always reported.

Once the killer got too many reports, everything in their bank was instantly confiscated. Any gold they had became a bounty on their head. They instantly became a Dread Lord along with all the penalties that accrued thereto. And their name, description (hair color, skin tone, and so on) went on the local bulletin board, along with the bounty on their head.

Reports could age out, so you could avoid a bounty by spacing out your kills, but bounties never went away. And if you kept getting reported, your bank account would be repeatedly confiscated and the gold added on. Eventually, victims were able to add their own gold to the reward as well.

If a murderer was killed by a player who had less murders than they and who was neutral or better in notoriety, they suffered an immediate loss of 10% of all of their advancement. And their head was chopped off and put in the backpack of their killer. Returning the head to a city guard near wherever the bounty was posted resulted in the reward being given to the bounty hunter.

The update notes cheerfully noted,

Bounties may remain posted in other cities even though the reward has been claimed, but a given bounty can only be claimed once in the world, unless the killer returns to their ways. This will likely result in a killer who has bounties in multiple cities getting killed over and over again by eager reward claimants, for no gain. Our advice is, don't end up with lots of bounties on your head. :)

Ah, frontier justice. And there were indeed high hopes that these penalties, which seemed extravagant at the time, would do the trick.

Spoiler: they didn’t.

Murderers quickly figured out the threshold number of reports and how quickly they aged out, to dance along the line. Then they started making a point of storing all their valuables in their houses instead of in a bank, so that there was no reward or confiscation to worry about. When players started supplying their own money for the rewards, the murderers simply began treating the bounty boards as a twisted form of high score table. They would coordinate with another player who would create a new character with a spotless record, allow the murderer to be slain, swallow the stat loss death penalty, and split the money!

If all of this sounds hilarious, consider that it’s basically the same patterns that are used today on sites like Reddit and Twitter. Only there are no admins who actually answer when you call for help.

Fighting the losing battle

Even whilst putting in features like this, designed to reduce the incidence of playerkilling, the team was busily adding new simulation features that increased it. I mean, just one week later we tried to curb thievery by allowing players to add traps to locked containers. A tinker could use metal and crossbow bolts or potions to make explosive, dart, or poison traps. The intent was to let players defend their possessions from theft in their homes or in their bags by letting them put them inside locked containers.

But what happened instead? Locked chests blew up inside backpacks, killing you, when thieves opened them. We left in the ability for thieves to disarm the traps, so they weren’t always effective. People made chain reactions of explosives, so that they could light a fuse outside town and cause a death inside town. People sold trapped locked containers to shopkeepers, who then resold the booby trap to unsuspecting victims. Leaving trapped chests at crossroads was a common ambush tactic. Yes, of course there were skills for detecting traps and disarming them… but you had to be a canny player to know of, and use, these tools. When we ran some metrics that year, the number one killer in the game was named TinkerBoy and had personally been responsible for more than 3,000 deaths.

The victims were disproportionately new players who didn’t know the ropes. And we were losing a truly distressing number of our new player acquisitions — Ultima Online was the fastest selling Electronic Arts game in history, well on its way to being a massive massive hit. But our subscriber numbers, while stratospheric for the day, weren’t keeping up because the losses were so high.

We had a world where a bard could entice an NPC shopkeeper out of town safety, kill them, and steal everything. Or provoke them to anger, get them to attack a random passerby, then call the guards on the shopkeeper for illegal behavior. Where you could die while polymorphed into a deer, resurrect still in that body that resembled a deer in every way, and therefore be able to wander into a player’s house without them suspecting a thing — and rob it blind. Where people would find already locked chests in a house, and leave a trap for the unsuspecting actual owner! Even the “good guys” took part, luring guards out of town and leaving them near Blackthorn’s shrine, where murderers resurrected.

That Christmas, we spawned Santa Clauses in every town, and put a gift in every player’s backpack. Players stole the clothes off of Santa, leaving naked men chanting “Ho ho ho!” right where new players logged in. Then they formed roving bands of Santa Clauses and roamed around slaughtering everyone with chilling war cries wishing people Happy Holidays.

The worst of all these exploits were around player housing. UO allowed players to build houses anywhere in the world that they fit. The patch notes for the six months are a litany of exceptions: no houses on tilled fields. No houses on roads. No houses inside dungeons.

Houses had tilted thatch or tile roofs, which were accomplished with an optical illusion, rather than being a solid floor (like all the flat roofs in the game). This meant that if you could get up to the roof, you could simply fall in, steal whatever you liked, and walk out the front door. Ultima Online didn’t simulate gravity, so players would place a chair next to the house, stack a second chair on top of it, stand on top of the upper chair, remove the lower chair, and repeat until they stood in midair floating atop suspended chairs, and simply walk onto the roof. They found ways of sneaking past doors, of teleporting in by exploiting minor collision bugs when dropping items, and worst of all, of obtaining player keys.

You see, there wasn’t much of a concept of “ownership” in early UO. It existed for actions, as we have seen in the case of notoriety, and it existed for pets, but it did not exist for objects. Locked items, including houses, were tied to keys. Keys could be duplicated, and critically, stolen. Lose your key, and you effectively lost the house and all its contents: potentially months and months worth of character investment.

Guild warfare

One of the first freeform guild systems in games went in as another attempt to work with the behaviors players were already exhibiting. Players had used the ability to tailor any clothing they liked and dye it any color to build uniforms. The relative disposability of characters in Ultima Online meant that it wasn’t utterly unreasonable for an informal guild to ask that you start your character over with the guild abbreviation tacked onto the end of your name, as in

Buffy [LLTS]

Guilds promptly staked out territory and went to war, forming towns with their houses and in general trying to form their own little governments. In order to support this in a way that didn’t wreak havoc on everyone else, I designed and implemented a system over a weekend that allowed players to place a guildstone in a house or on a ship. The first person to use the stone was automatically named the guildmaster.

Prior to this, most online games, including most MUDs, required admin intervention to form guilds, or simply placed players into pre-built ones more like factions.

Many of the tropes of guilds today come from that system: the ability to propose members to the guild; a system of tiered titles for the guildmaster, officers, and rank and file; the ability to set tags on your name; and of course, the ability to declare war on other guilds, which came along in tandem with a whole new system that replaced the old bounty system, known as the Reputation System.

But guild warfare didn’t solve anything. Rolling the older Order and Chaos system of virtue guards into the guild system and allowing guilds to choose larger factions didn’t either. Weird effects around criminal flagging persisted, and if a

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