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Has Origin Created the First True Online Game World?
See how Origin has sculpted its massively multiplayer universe, Ulitma Online, into a dynamic, fluid brand of entertainment.
August 19, 1997
17 Min Read
Author: by Dave Greely
Talk to Origin Systems' Starr Long about ULTIMA ONLINE and one word dominates the conversation: "Cool." Long, the game's associate producer, is justifiably jazzed about ULTIMA ONLINE'S impending release. Few online games can match the scope of ULTIMA'S Britannia, which will include 16 cities, a virtual ecology, a banking system, and just about everything else you'd find in the real world as well as the occasional orc lord, zombie, and dragon.
After an hour-long discussion with Long, we walked away wondering, in the age of the online game, if Origin has finally lived up to its corporate motto: "We create worlds." Anyone who has taken a long look at ULTIMA ONLINE will certainly say "and then some."
Going from Rooms to Worlds
"Most other online role-playing games work on the room mentality," said Long. "You go into a room, something happens, you leave, and the room resets itself so it's the same the next time you go there." Such a scenario can create not only monotony, but staffing problems.
"In order to keep people coming back to a room in a MUD, you constantly need to reedit the room contents, which often means bringing on new designers. Before you know it, the ratio of designers to players is close to 10 to 1."
The first thing you notice about ULTIMA ONLINE is that Origin is committed to bringing off-line quality graphical presentation to on-line games.
That wasn't a feasible plan, even for a company with Origin's deep pockets. The only way to give users a dynamically changing world was to build a system that modeled a world and could generate events and dilemmas on its own. "What we decided was not to go with [the room] mentality. We wanted to simulate a real world. Our virtual ecology, for example, is a complex system. The rabbits need grass, the wolves eat the rabbits, and the wolves die without meat. They actually catch and kill rabbits." And of course the wolves are dragon food. Kill too many wolves, and the dragons will look elsewhere for dinner--like the nearest town.
Like the real world, actions have consequences in the world of ULTIMA ONLINE. Cool, indeed.
Call it a simple feature, but Origin has found its "text over the head" chat environment is much more user friendly than other online games.
Building and Selling an Online World
While Long is the game's associate producer, Origin didn't spare any of its people in creating ULTIMA ONLINE. Twenty-one team members helped bring the concept of an online world to reality. "We went out and looked at what all the other multiplayer games had done and what makes interaction fun and what makes it stay interesting over time," Long said.
What Long and his colleagues found is that games are more entertaining for many people when others are involved. They call it the "DOOM Phenomenon."
"Storytelling and single-player games are still great, and there are people who aren't social who prefer these types of games," Long concludes. "Single player games are still a significant marketplace, but DOOM taught players more than anything else the fun of playing with each other."
Origin also decided to commit itself to high-quality presentation, a rarity in the multiplayer game industry so far. "One thing that we're committed to that's important to online gaming is providing the presentation value you'd get in a stand-alone game," Long says. "Up to now, you've had to put up with [poor presentation values] to play multiplayer. Graphics are important when they enhance the reality of the experience."
To handle both high quality graphics and the enormity of the ULTIMA ONLINE world, Origin found it necessary to sell the game as a CD-ROM. The original plan was to have ULTIMA ONLINE be downloadable, but Origin discovered the bandwidth wouldn't support it. This creates a distribution problem of sorts because the immediacy of getting online requires a physical retail purchase--something even a 20MB game can avoid. ULTIMA ONLINE, however, is far bigger, weighing in at over 100MB.
There will be a full-price retail version that will be packaged in the traditional Origin manner. It will include trinkets, a manual, and a large map among other goodies. With pricing strategy presently a hot topic among game developers, Long said the nature of the game demands a flat monthly fee. The CD-ROM will include an as-yet unspecified amount of free time. "At some point, you'll need to start an account," Long said. "We're not going to be more expensive than what others are charging, and we're offering a truly unique game." With the average shelf life of CD-ROM games being about 90 days, Origin eventually plans an array of other distribution ideas to continue the retail presence of the product. Of course, the original package version with its manuals, maps, and other bonuses will appeal to the first batch of ULTIMA fans.
One surprise is that, in addition to the flat unlimited account fee, Origin is also planning an hourly option for the casual player "who only wants to put down $5 or $10 a month," Long said. Apparently the market is segmented between the casual and hardcore online player.
The user interface for ULTIMA ONLINE and many of its aspects blend the best of Origin’s boxed ULTIMA products, but make changes necessary for online play. In this example, we see that the standard windowing interface is kept, but the graphic scale is smaller than past ULTIMAS.
|ULTIMA ONLINE'S MARKET PROFILE
Enjoy Your Stay--Watch Your Back
ULTIMA ONLINE takes the finest aspects of ULTIMA and expands them. Everything a player gets in ULTIMA, he or she earns. Everything in the ULTIMA world is interactive. You can harvest wheat, take it to the mill, use the flour to make bread, and sell the bread. You can write a book and sell it to other players. You can learn a map-making skill, explore the ULTIMA world and sell your maps to other players. Hardcore fans of ULTIMA will recognize some of these features because the world system featured in ULTIMA VI was used a jumping-off point by the ULTIMA ONLINE team. To test the feasibility of ULTIMA ONLINE, Long and a programmer started by first creating a prototype that turned ULTIMA VI into a multiplayer network version. ULTIMA ONLINE was given its own history and thus a unique identity from the packaged series.
One exciting new feature of ULTIMA ONLINE is that players can actually stake a virtual claim in the game, with sections of the world zoned for housing. Keep in mind, this is a realistic world. "Nothing can 100% prevent a break-in," reminds Long. "But you can hire guards and have guard dogs, and you can leave your money in the bank." The immense amount of work just in creating the database for all this information seems daunting enough. To cope, Origin has built a unique server setup to handle all the data.
After an initial alpha test and the usual array of shows and trade articles, Origin is excited. After just one prealpha test more than 30 player guilds formed without any active encouragement by Origin. "We don't need to foster teaming, they're just doing it," Long said. "We've been overwhelmed by the response." (There was even a war between two opposing factions as the Alpha test came to a close.) One thing the designers did was institute some small features that encourage players to band together. If, during a group adventure, one person in a party kills something, his or her cohorts share the benefits. Players can also start "buddy lists" to alert them when fellow adventurers are online.
Long feels that computer users who haven't caught the gaming bug will get hooked on ULTIMA ONLINE if they give it a shot. Toward that end, Long highlighted a few simple features that help make ULTIMA ONLINE work.
One apparently simple detail that makes ULTIMA ONLINE so user-friendly is the conversation interface--an Origin wrinkle that has Long excited. "The text appears above your head instead of in a separate text window at the bottom of the screen," he said. "With a text window, you can't follow the graphics and the text at the same time--you have to keep looking down. In ours you can do both.... I think it's one of the best features." Another interesting idea is the ability to hire henchmen--sometimes it's hard even in a multiplayer environment to find good help.
One of the things America Online (AOL) loves to toss around the game development community (especially to those potentially pitching products to them) is that AOL makes 70% of its revenue from online chat--something the folks at Origin seem keenly aware of. "If you just want to have a character online and be the local shopkeep and not an adventurer, then you can do that.... If you want to kill orcs in the deepest dungeons, then by all means--we're not just a game, we're a social environment."
"We're trying to make it friendly and easy," Long said. "ULTIMA has been straightforward. We're going to show as much on the screen as possible.... We've had people who never play (computer games) sit down with ULTIMA ONLINE , and they can't stop." Origin is planning to send demo CDs to the nontraditional gaming, breakthrough, and nongame-intensive consumer press.
One quickly hooked novice was Teresa Potts, a media relations associate at Origin. "Working at a place like Origin can be intimidating because you have all these guys who have been gaming since they were 10," said Potts. "ULTIMA ONLINE isn't overwhelming, but it's incredibly engrossing. Some people might want to go on a great adventure, but if you don't want to do that, you can go to the pub and just talk to people."
ULTIMA ONLINE is huge, many times bigger than tradition off-line game worlds. A critical component of online game worlds will be their size. With its depth of play, Origin can provide a sizable game world with impact.
Rogue Players, Preventing Super Powers, and Newbie Ghettos
For online games to be successful, they need to maintain order in a player community comprised of experienced players, rogue players, newbies, and longtime fanatics. Upset the balance, and a company could lose business; for example, if rogue players kill all the newbies, renewed subscriptions plummet. Keep players from feeling their work results in superior player performance, and they'll drop the service.
Origin's manner of dealing with these potential problems is different from previous online systems. Origin decided to create a world that allowed people to be evil as well as good, and if you've played any of the ULTIMA series, you know that evil is not exactly an Avatar virtue. The Avatar, which first appeared in ULTIMA IV, has been the focal character for players of past ULTIMAS, and the virtue system the character had to adhere to kept him on the path of good--something that online players wouldn't all go for. Therefore, in ULTIMA ONLINE , the Avatar system was dropped.
The heart of the system Origin has developed drops the traditional experience points for level gain and substitutes a rigorous system of skill proficiencies. No player can be a master of all skills and even previously learned skills erode over time if not used.
"The system of character development encourages new players," Long said. "They can have fun without being overwhelmed by more experienced players. It's a skill-based system, but you can only know a certain amount of skills. Skills get better with use and get worse with lack of use. You can't become a god. You can't sneeze and kill somebody; that's no fun for anyone."
Even the most powerful player can be killed by two or three others of a lower skill level. But don't worry. Unlike the real world, death is not permanent, and it is more difficult to be a criminal in the cities.
"It's really difficult to be a jerk in the cities," Long said. "You can't walk around with your weapon drawn. You can gag people if they're bothering you... The cities will feel safe."
Should death visit, however, players will find themselves in a netherworld. If they have enough money they can get healed by journeying to a healer. If they are out of gold, the healer might send them on a ghostly quest to earn their resurrection. During this time, a player's possessions are vulnerable. But between henchmen, houses, and banks, you can prevent total loss. Finally, there is only a slight degradation in skills from death. This is an important feature because large setbacks could turn into canceled accounts.
Origin has purposely designed its game--and especially its combat system--to encourage cooperation among players, which is a key online game design feature. Players traveling alone (even experienced ones) would do best to take along a few friends.
Gaining Online Success
In the end though, for all the cool stuff Origin is doing, ULTIMA ONLINE needs to be successful. Origin has committed to that by forming Origin Worlds Online (http://www.owo.com), and should ULTIMA ONLINE prove successful, the Origin Worlds Online division plans to go online with WING COMMANDER, CRUSADER, NO REMORSE, and some JANE'S DEFENCE titles. Long has said Origin isn't planning crossover play for its online customers, but it is a possibility Origin is investigating.
The key to success is the terrific brand recognition Origin has with ULTIMA. Arguably no other role-playing game has higher brand recognition than ULTIMA. To get there, ULTIMA has had numerous retail products, stories, and characters, all of which had to be lived up to in the online version. The development of the online product doesn't take a story track as the traditional packaged product would. Instead, the designers concentrated on the rich world that the nine installments of the ULTIMA series have created. This seems to be the course many online games are--and will be--taking.
With its huge world, excellent simulation and focus on interaction between players, Origin has created a game that itself creates stories and, most importantly, allows the players to create their own.
"I wanted to create a game that people are going to enjoy longer than a normal game. Games are about other people, and the gaming industry lost that for a while. One of the greatest things during the pre-alpha test was meeting people from England and other parts of the world." By creating their own virtual world, Starr Long and Origin have shown that game interactivity as determined by the players will be taken to a new level--one that only the emerging online world could provide. The synergy of online has brought Starr and Origin back to the roots of gaming. That just may be their greatest success of all.
|ULTIMA ONLINE'S DEVELOPMENT PROFILE
Dave Greely is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine, who does double duty covering Maine sports for The Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper. Ben Sawyer is an independent author living in Maine and consultant focusing on interactive technologies and games. He is author of The Ultimate Game Developer's Sourcebook and The Ultimate Web Developer's Sourcebook (Coriolis Group, 1996).
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