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The Replay Interviews: Rich Vogel

In the latest interview taken from his book Replay, Tristan Donovan speaks to massively multiplayer game producer Rich Vogel about his work on Meridian 59, Ultima Online, and Star Wars Galaxies.

Tristan Donovan, Blogger

March 7, 2011

21 Min Read

[In his book of the history of the video game industry, Replay, author Tristan Donovan conducted a series of important interviews which were only briefly excerpted in the text. Gamasutra is happy to here present the full text of his interview with pioneering MMO developer Rich Vogel.]

In this, the latest in a series of interviews conducted for his book Replay: The History of Video Games being published for the first time on Gamasutra, Tristan Donovan speaks to massively multiplayer game producer Rich Vogel about his work on Meridian 59, Ultima Online, and Star Wars Galaxies.

Having cut his teeth creating MUDs, he played key roles in the development of Meridian 59 and Ultima Online, two landmark games that helped take massively multiplayer games into the mainstream.

In the interview Vogel talks about his work on those two titles, shares his thoughts on the secret of World of Warcraft's success and explains why Ultima Online was more fun if you lived in the Midwest.

What attracted you to making virtual worlds?

Rich Vogel: Well, I used to play a MUD called Dragon Quest when I was in college, enjoyed it, and became a GM of it. And I ran a galaxy game, basically an email-type galaxy conquest game. I always enjoyed it and then the opportunity came up at 3DO to work on Meridian 59.

At that time 3DO was actually buying the software from a company that had some basic mechanics working. I came out to California to work with them on that. We launched and it wasn't, you know, as big as Ultima Online or anything, but it had a good crew, a good following and we got over 10,000 subscribers. We had 25,000 or so people playing that game. Then I got an interesting call from Electronic Arts who wanted me to come work at Origin to help get Ultima Online out the door.

What attracted you to MUDs? What was it you got out from them?

RV: I used to play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid and then Traveller, which was a sci-fi version of D&D. It was really cool to be able to go on a computer and play with others that you don't know and start getting familiar with. It was very expensive to play at that time -- they charged by the hour back in the early '90s; they didn't have flat rates. So to get rid of my $300 -a-month bill, I became a GM and started building content, which was a lot of fun.

Looking back Meridian 59 was really the place where the modern MMORPG began…

RV: Yes absolutely. Meridian 59 was the first game that was actually internet accessed. It wasn't accessed through a proprietary network like AOL or CompuServe or GEnie. It was the first one that if you had a web browser, you could log in and register and you get a client that would be downloaded or you could ask for the client to be sent to you. It actually worked on the internet.

And it was the first one that charged a flat rate fee and the first that actually sold at retail. You could buy a retail box, go home, connect it and play. So a lot of firsts with that game, for sure. It was really the first 3D visual of a virtual world, if you want to say that.

Was the aim with Meridian 59 to make that type of game accessible to a wider audience?

RV: Basically what we did is a MUD. That's what it was. It was just a visual DikuMUD. You had levels and you had abilities and the advancement where you can kill things and gain experience points and get cool loot and move on from there. And meet people.

One of the cool things about Meridian 59 was you had your avatar in the game that you customized and showed off. That game was such a trailblazer that we were very excited to have as many people as we had on it because it was the first time anybody had done this and the internet was just kind of getting there then.

But no one really knew what this game was outside of hardcore gamers. Ultima Online was the first to introduce this type of game to a lot more people who had never played much like it before.

What was your role on Ultima Online?

RV: I was an associate producer and my job was to get the game together in a shippable state and make sure that it had everything it needed to be an online game. At the time Origin didn't really have the experience of ever making an online game before. So there were lots of things that were not there when I got there and needed to be there, such as all the customer support tools and making sure the game mechanics looked good and forward advancement.

We were kind of pressured on time. I wish we'd had a little bit more time. We could have actually put some of the things we wanted to put in that game. But unfortunately when you have a game like that you have core mechanics that are very difficult to change once launched.

UO is quite famous for the difficulties it had with player killers, etc. How much of a surprise was that stuff?

GP: A total surprise. The problem we had is we didn't have enough tuning time before releasing it, and one of the things that needed tuning was player v player. We had a PvP system that was unchecked and a profession called thief that really turned out to be a way to grief people and steal things. You could do a lot in that world. You could actually place things down and block people in. It developed a whole new world of PvP that no one's ever seen before or dealt with before.

In fact, no one has ever done PvP like UO did in the past ever again. It was pure PvP. You were scared to leave the city. No other game's ever done that to me. Policing it was very much a hard thing. We had to try to balance it out, literally had to think of ways to put systems in the game to control PvP, which was the reputation system.

It went through eight or nine iterations before we kind of found a balance of what really worked and what didn't. But it was certainly an experience and many people talk about their experiences in UO. The experience there, no one's ever been able to duplicate today. It was a true PvP game.

When did you realize it was starting to go out of control?

RV: It took about three months until we realized that we had a lot of systems in place that needed to be checked. About four or five months after launch we actually had gangs going around – literally had real gangs in the game going around causing trouble.

We had servers near the Northeast, which were bad servers and then we had servers in the Midwest, which were very calm and nice. It's interesting how they all felt different. In the Midwest we had role players, right, and they loved it, they really took to it and were very proud of their servers.

In the Northeast we had the gangs and in the Pacific we had the gangs. Just unbelievable trouble on both the east and west coasts and it's just literally how they all developed. The Pacific was one of our worst. It was kind of like the broken window syndrome. You just had a whole bunch of bad people in one area and it just grew.

Everything from extorting people for their money to holding them captive to teleporting them to islands to steal their money. It was just an amazing type of environment. We really realized after January 1998 --and we launched in September 1997. We really needed to figure out ways to control this fast.

Were the players doing the killing and griefing a small minority or was it more widespread?

RV: It was a minority. There were a lot of players who just enjoyed playing. Players turned to PvP because they wanted to defend themselves. They actually turned themselves into vigilante gangs going after the PvPers. Their job was actually to stop them.

Some people actually really role-played PvP very well, became very evil, and there are lots of stories on the internet about them. It's fun to watch and from a social point of view. It's really interesting when your identity is not there what you really do, what personality comes out of you.

Online games do seem to bring out the best and worst in players…

RV: Oh yes. It's closed identity, right? You know, if people were invisible what would they do? If they had the ability to do that, what would they do? You would be amazed at some people what they would do if they couldn't get caught.

This didn't seem to happen as much in MUDs. How much of this was caused by the leap in scale from the hamlet-sized MUDs to the small city populations of UO?

RV: Meridian 59 had maybe total 25,000 people. UO had total 250,000 people. It's just a huge difference of how many people are on a particular shard: in Meridian we only ever were able to hold 150, in UO we were able to hold thousands.

So as soon as you got thousands in an area, it's just amazing, the dynamics. And, of course, when things got short supplied and things became valuable what people would do for them. There are people who paid even then $10,000, $20,000, $100,000 for a castle in real money.

Did that surprise you – the amount of real money people were prepared to invest?

RV: Oh yes. MUD people paid money but nothing like that. People were actually offering real money for objects in the game that were not real. Houses and castles were worth a lot of money. And if you had a good house and lots of stuff in an area you paid $10,000-plus for it.

How much ability do you as the developer have to act? In theory you have the powers of a god inside these games, but equally the players can go "We're fed up with these changes and restrictions, we're off and taking our money and maybe our friends with us." How much of a balancing act is it?

RV: It's a huge balancing act. One of the things we want to do is always have a fair playing field. Whatever we do we need to make sure we have a fair playing field and everyone has the opportunity to get where they need to be. If there's anything we do that is unfair we won't do it. So improper conduct is not tolerated. But it happens, right? People get corrupt and GMs get corrupt because they're people and GMs have a lot of power.

Yes, we do have a lot of power in those worlds, we can do what we want, but if you don't listen to your player base and change things radically they'll leave and they will take their friends. This is a huge lesson because this is a connected community, so different from single-player games.

You mentioned the reputation system in UO that you used to try and rein in the chaos. How did that work?

RV: Basically we try to motivate people to do what you want them to do. You don't want motivations in the game that motivate people to do the wrong thing, the opposite to what you wanted. That was the balancing out of putting a reputation system in.

Becoming a dark lord in UO was actually kind of cool, but that's not what we really wanted -- but that's what happened -- and we had to balance it out so there's friction when you become a dark lord, and there are things that will happen to you that make the game harder for you. But the game mechanics really, to be honest with you, in day one should have been where you want to promote the good behavior not the bad behavior, not the griefing behavior.

Engineering at midstream is very, very hard to do because things start to get solidified in people's minds, and if you change the game too much people feel have to relearn things and people leave. I think the biggest thing that Blizzard did before they launched World of Warcraft was have a solid core game that didn't change much after launch. Additions happen, but the base game, the core mechanic didn't, whereas other online games changed drastically from when they first started.

When you decided to address the problems in UO were you comfortable with the idea of going in and starting to restrict player activity? It seemed like the whole game was designed around the idea of giving people as much freedom as they wanted.

RV: It's very bad to start taking things away from players. It's really bad. You should do that before launch. Whatever rules you have that's what you should launch with. Restricting players and causing things to change drastically is not a good thing. It does cause friction and players leave.

Virtual worlds have also had problems with economic systems that are prone to inflation and deflation. How do you manage the economies?

RV: Managing economics in a game is very hard, especially as a game ages and older people stay and new people come and go. You have to think about inflation and deflation.

Obviously that isn't an issue in single player games so few developers had to spend time thinking about this before. How did you get the necessary understanding?

RV: We have economists. On UO we had a couple of people with economics degrees working on it. And we constantly look at graphs on the game, we know what the flow of gold and silver are and what the exchange rate of the game is. We look at everyone's inventory. Anything that looks out of place, such as an exploit, we can tell.

We look at guilds or how much gold or platinum they're carrying. You can just see usually where holes open up because of exploits people find or gold farming. We can look and see and readjust. That's constantly something we monitor because you don't want deflation and you certainly try to avoid inflation. Deflation just happens because items always reduce in value the more you have in the world.

Is the tendency towards inflation or deflation?

RV: A lot of times you have deflation because as you get older more items that used to be of value are no longer as scare as people are still making them right so the supply and demand basically happens. Then there is inflation and it really depends on how you balance it – it does happen and that has to be about your item drops, because that's really based on rarity: how many items are in a world at a certain time and how they're selling.

Now, in order for a player economy to happen it has to be the players that run it, not us. We just kind of give a base price for stuff NPCs are selling. The players are the ones that determine what the cost and price of each one is. That's basically based on supply and demand – what's rare versus what's common.

Do gold farmers affect this?

RV: They do and that's why you try to look out for those people and ban them when you find them.

What kind of impact do they have?

RV: It depends on what they're mining. They don't want to have deflation, what they want to do is get the most money they can for their items or a character that levels right so they can sell. Most people who buy from the gold farmers buy money. Most of them want currency versus characters and some do buy characters because it's really about time.

Gold farmers cut the time equation out and that's why people buy from them. If you have a lot of repetitive tasks, just grinding, you have a pretty good economy for gold farmers because people don't like to grind and so there's a demand for their stuff.

Is the existence of gold farmers, therefore, a design flaw?

GP: It is, but you also don't want to prevent it. Grind is sometimes good; there's nothing wrong with that. Downtime is good in a game. Downtime causes socialization, right? It gives people the ability to sell stuff at a market and gets people to go socialize and get stuff from other people. There's actually nothing wrong with that. In fact, when you go too far away from it you hurt your game.

Another trait of online worlds is the level of gender swapping -- male players playing as female players and vice versa. I was speaking to Richard Bartle, the co-creator of MUD, about this. He argued that part of the reason it is so common is that MUD was invented in the UK rather than a U.S. state such as Alabama where homosexuality is less tolerated. What do you think of that argument?

RV: I don't think that's the case. I think people play women because it's easier to get loot, easier to advance – people give you things. It's easier to socialize if you're a woman. It is. And it's fun to role-play, right? The game is about getting out of your day to day life and go role-playing something wholly unique in another place, but I do think a lot of people play women because it's easier to get stuff.

Another interesting social aspect of massively multiplayer games are the player protests held inside the game. Some companies see it as inappropriate to protest about real world events or a problem players have within the game. What's your stance on it?

RV: I think they're great. It's a great expression right? I try not to stop those things. The funnest time we had in UO was when we had all the GMs around Lord British to protect him and someone threw a fireball and he didn't have his invulnerability on.

Of course, he thought he did and he jumped into the fire and died. It's like shooting the president; we all ganged around him and we started teleporting everyone out of the area, you know, to control the area. But everyone just had a blast and it made news everywhere when that happened.

And it's the same thing about protesting about UO. People came out dressed down to the underwear and protested the lag and things like that that were happening in the first year. You know what, we went out there and talked to them. There's nothing wrong with that. The thing we don't like in a game is when we have racism in a game, which we do encounter and other things like that. Sexual harassment, we don't tolerate. Those things are bannable offences. We don't take those lightly at all.

On the killing of Lord British – were you all together in Origin's offices at the time?

GP: Yes we were. We were trying to protect him. We had, like, 15 GMs surrounding him just like the secret service.

Was it ever discussed whether Lord British should have stayed dead?

RV: I mean we laughed, we thought it was the funniest thing in the world, right? I mean, you're not supposed to die! Luckily it happened during the beta so when we launched the product, it started clean. We made sure after that that he was invulnerable and we had protection for him if anything happened. It never happened again.

You must have learned quite a lot from the troubles UO had. Did that make it easier when doing Star Wars Galaxies, to prepare for that kind of outcome?

RV: Yes. We had restrictions on Star Wars Galaxies when we launched. Star Wars Galaxies was kind of a good simulator, but it had lots of bugs at launch. Lots of systems but not very polished and that hurt it a lot.

It wasn't finished to the point where it needed to be and that was really bad because again if you don't finish the game to your core set before launch, changing it drastically during live is very hard on the player base.

Since UO there's obviously been the huge success of World of Warcraft. What do you make of the way that MMORPGs have developed since UO?

RV: World of Warcraft set the standard to follow. They put out a very polished experience, which had never really happened before. They didn't really evolutionize or revolutionize, so to speak, the online world. What they did was make a very polished experience, taking what they learned from UO and EverQuest and made a great game. It doesn't have as much freedom as UO did, or EQ.

They also had systems in the game that motivated people to the right behavior instead of the wrong behavior. Their design was pretty well thought out and, again, their advancement level is far faster than anyone's ever before seen. Their progression was awesome. And because of all that it went to a broader audience and it was an inviting world – a very pretty world. And it could be played on base machines – you didn't have to have this huge honking PC to play it and to me that was the reason that it just went everywhere. It's a lot of fun and still is today.

The open-ended freedom of UO is something of the past in a way. EverQuest and World of Warcraft were more controlled experiences. Do you think developers looked at what happened in UO and thought "We've got to avoid that"?

RV: Yes, absolutely. It is a little bit of scariness about that because frankly when you give people a simulator and the ability to do anything in the world you have to have limits, you have to have constraints that they understand.

Where do you see massively multiplayer games going next? What would you say are the big trends?

RV: What I see is more free-to-play with micro-transaction based games. I definitely see it heading toward the web, like it is in Germany. Subscription-based games are very premium. There will be premium games – I think they're great entertainment value – but I think you're starting to see the MapleStorys of the world and the Free Realms and others pop up.

Kids are now getting trained on these games and they go to their local Target or 7-Eleven to get their game cards and their micro-transaction cards for cash and go play the games. That's training a whole new audience. Audiences today are a lot more connected than they were before, just in the past five years with Twitter and Facebook and other social networking applications.

It's going to be interesting in the next generation what they're going to ask for and expect in an online world. And I see connectivity to your phone and other apps as huge. Basically I see it where you're communicating with your people who are in the game outside of the game more in the future such as through Twitter or Facebook. Your content will start to become portable.

We've talked a lot about the problems of player behavior. Are there examples of something very nice or surprisingly good that you've come across from players?

RV: Oh yes. One of my best stories is when I was in UO I used to go around just to see how people are doing. I met this woman onsite and she invited me into her house for dinner. She was making dinner, she had her virtual kid, which was her kid, with her and her husband was there.

Her husband was in the army and she was in Alabama and they met every night to talk in the game. And she would make dinner and they would sit down and just talk and sort of virtually eat. It inspired me. As I say this is a lot more than a game that we've built here. That was the first time it kind of really hit me what we had made.

That must feel good…

RV: Yes it does. One of the other stories I have is a paraplegic player who was very shy about his situation and played a lot of UO. When we met him at a show – we did these big consumer shows for UO -- he came up to us and thanked us because he says 'you know, in UO I can run, whereas I can't in real life'.

And that just blew me away and he had a lot of friends that he actually talked to for the first time in his life instead of being a shut-in. It had made him more outgoing. There are lots of stories of this -- people who are shut-ins that became more outgoing and actually met people that they married eventually online.

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About the Author(s)

Tristan Donovan


Tristan Donovan is the UK-based author of the book Replay: The History of Video Games and a freelance games journalist who regularly writes for The Times and Stuff. He has also written about games for Game Developer, Edge, The Guardian, Kotaku, The Gadget Show, GamesTM and many others.

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