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Interview: Ultima Online In A World Of Warcraft

Ultima Online's original and current producers Rich Vogel and Chris Crowner discuss the MMO's 13-year existence, and ask World of Warcraft players, "What's your purpose?" for playing Blizzard's "ding"-heavy game.

Kris Graft

November 10, 2010

11 Min Read

Developed by Origin Systems and originally released in September 1997, Ultima Online continues to operate today, 13 years after its inception. It's a long run for an online game; Electronic Arts' UO producer Calvin Crowner calls the seminal MMORPG the "M*A*S*H of MMOs." But that's not really giving the MMO's staying power adequate credit -- the M*A*S*H television series only had an 11-year run. Last month, the Gamasutra-affiliated GDC Online Awards Hall of Fame recognized UO for its contributions to the gaming industry as part of the full ceremony. (A tribute video was shown alongside the honor.) Sure, it's not as if UO is pulling in anywhere remotely close to the amount of subscribers and revenue that Blizzard's market-leading World of Warcraft pulls in. The continued support of UO isn't about competing with that juggernaut or any more modern whippersnapper MMOs. But Ultima Online seems to soldier on because it still offers something unique in the space, and after all these years, people are still discovering that. EA's Crowner and UO's original senior producer Rich Vogel -- currently VP at Electronic Arts and co-GM at BioWare Austin -- reflect on the game's unique attributes. They also examine UO in the context of an MMO landscape dominated by World of Warcraft. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have plenty of praise as well as criticism for Blizzard's MMO. Ultima Online -- it's been around for a while. Calvin Crowner: I call it the M*A*S*H of MMOs. It's that classic kind of fantasy-themed game. How can you stand out and attract more people or a newer audience? Rich Vogel: Well, it's interesting because UO, when that first came out, a lot of younger players were playing it at that time. In fact, UO was such a groundbreaking game, nothing was out there like it ever. I mean, it allowed you to do things that you wanted to do. You saw people riding horses, you saw people in combat, you saw creatures running around, you saw the dragons. And yes, it was a 2.5D type game... CC: And still is. [laughs] RV: When we had community events, there were families, there were people in their teens. It was a very young audience playing the game. And when I say that, I'm talking about teenagers and 20-year-olds. The average age at that time was about 28 when UO came out. And also, a lot of people were in there 30s or 40s playing the game, too, surprisingly. CC: Actually, our demographic is still pretty broad. We had a town hall event at the end of August, and I had guys who all showed up in 80's prom outfits. I mean, they were wearing suits, not prom dresses. Prom suits, just to be clear. But they were still fanboys, and I think they were not over 25 years old. We still have the spectrum of players actually coming to the game, and the appeal is that I'm not on rails, that I can do what I want, that if I want to go play in a felucca and essentially PK all day long, or if I just want to be a rogue or a highway man or whatever, if I just want to go in dungeons all day, I can do that. The first time you go into an online game, when UO first came out, and realize you can do these new things in a game that you never did before, and with real people -- how can you possibly recapture that initial sense of wonderment with gamers? How can you do that again? RV: It's hard. ... UO was very magical at the time. The internet was just starting to become a viable means of making money at that time, and then people were just learning about the internet and what it meant. So, UO made people say, "Wow. This is really cool. This is what the internet is all about." And connectivity, a worldwide connectivity, right? So, people were playing this game, you'd see them running around from Germany or France or Japan. They were running around in the game with you. That was just unheard of. Calvin, you mentioned UO not being on rails. What would you have to say to that then -- on rails versus no rails? CC: I'm a staunch open-worlder. [laughs] I mean, I'll just go ahead and say it right now, one of the reasons I quit [World of Warcraft] is that I didn't care. I went through whatever levels, 60 or whatever, and then I was done in about a week and a half. Well, let's say two or three weeks. It's like, I don't care. In UO, you don't have the classes and levels, you have the templates, right? So essentially, you have a framework of skills and attributes that you essentially assign to yourself. So, essentially, you are creating your future, your destiny, where it's like, I don't have to say, "I'm a fighter. This is what I need and this is what I need to enhance." In UO, you just show up and go. ... I remember the time I actually stepped into the game, I just walked. I started walking, and I saw an eagle, and I right-clicked, and it said, "Tame." I was like, "What does this mean?" And so, I tried to tame an eagle, and it didn't let me. And then so I was like, "Okay, this is the last thing that I'm going to do today. I will get my taming skill to this." And then I found out, well, tamers are kind of lame. So, I was like, "Fine. I'll be mage PVP." And so that's the thing. It's like I can switch on a dime to anything that I want to, so as far as the rails versus open, yeah, I'm all for open world. But we were talking about that before, it's very difficult to have what I would call the contemporary attention span of today's gamer that one, wants to build it but also wants to be around to learn how to actually be a part of the world. But do you really think that it's a situation where gamers' attention spans are too short, or are game designers just assuming that, and creating games that babysit gamers and lead them by the hand through the experience? I guess my question is, do players want to be told what to do, or are game makers just not giving them the opportunity to do what they want to do in games? RV: I gave a couple lectures about five years ago on this aspect. One of the things I learned is players don't know how to entertain other players. It's very small, like less than 2 percent really know how to entertain players well. And players are lazy, right? They like to go do things and experience things, but have it kind of brought to them. The class-system and level-based system that exists in the broader-based games that are on-rails are easier to understand, easier to get, and easier to get the "ding" and satisfaction faster than in the skill-based games. So, it's all about the ding. It's about the reward cycle. It's a lot faster in a level-based game that's guided than it is on an open-world. CC: Yeah. I think, though, that once you figure out how to get past that first entrance, the rewards a lot bigger, RV: Oh yeah, so stickiness is a lot higher in open world games, much higher than in level-based games because you have level caps, where in skill-based games, you can kind of move around and do what you want to do. There's no such thing as a level. There are skill points and things like that, which are sort of like levels. The reality is you're tied to what you build. CC: And actually, I would say that the open world is a bit better for folks with ADD than those on-the-rails experiences. It's like, "I don't want to do this today. I want to do something else." But there's a lot of stuff to do in World of Warcraft too, whether you regard that as "on rails" or not. I never really got hardcore into WoW, but I have friends that are, and, you know, I have a friend and he's like, "Now I need to fish..." CC: Exactly. Little things like that. But he's leveling up his fishing, that's what he's saying. CC: Well, that's sweet. I would take it from the Japanese perspective. When players are fishing, they are fishing as part of a community, right? It's like, "I'm going to do this. And then I might catch something I can use in crafting." Whereas in WoW, I'm fishing to fish, right. That's like running to be a runner. It's kind of like when I used to run, I run because I play rugby. I run because I want to be better at cardio to go do something else. That's what UO is, where WoW is like I run because one day I might need to run to get my kids from crossing the street. What's your purpose? I'm sensing some frustration with where WoW is leading, you know, the industry. I'm now thinking about my inflammatory, hit-grabbing headline about "UO devs hating WoW." CC: [laughs] No, that's fine. The point is, though, everyone should cater to their strengths. They did it, and they knocked it out of the park. UO did what it did, and if you looked at what WoW did, they took a lot of things that worked really well, and also they built on all their past experiences and did it just amazingly. UO was the first, so it didn't have any predecessors, right, and it also knocked it out of the park. So, what is the greater achievement? To build on the success of what other folks did or to take something that's from sand, alright, and build castles? So, that's the difference. RV: Basically, Blizzard looked around and took the best of UO, the best of [EverQuest], and the best of other games out there, mixed it all together, and made their own design on top of that and those systems, and built something that was incredible, that appealed to a large base audience that's never been seen in an MMO. I felt it was really about the quality of the experience they developed. And the design philosophies that they had were so different at that time they launched from what was out there. The thing that they did was believe in their philosophies and stick to them, so it was a clean game in a sense that Blizzard didn't have to change drastically the mechanic of the game after it launched, which wasn't the case of other MMOs that launched before. And the other thing they launched was they refined the ding -- the ability to get the reward very quickly was fast in WoW. That helped immediately because everyone likes to achieve. A lot of the things you are talking about just relate to different ways to present progress to the player. RV: Yes. It is. [UO] is a different way. One, UO is a skill-based system open world, where you have things in the world that help you advance, but you also can take it and built it yourself and do your own things. And in WoW and in other games, it's a very directed experience where you go through an experience, and you do what you need to do to advance. That's directed by the design of the game. CC: Right. I would say that the difference between the two also is WoW is like, I always wanted [to have] what I saw on somebody else. RV: Yes, yes. CC: Where in UO, it's like I want to get better so I can survive. [laughs] Yeah. But is there anything wrong with seeing a guy on an awesome horse, and working towards earning that? CC: No, not at all. But, what are you trying to achieve? So, for example, if you're playing, let's say SimCity. What are you trying to achieve? Do you just want to make a lot of money for your city? Or do you want to build parks and have an education? What is your role or your focus for your place? What does your heart tell you, and what does your mind tell you that you want to do while you're sitting seven to 12 hours a day away from the screen?

About the Author(s)

Kris Graft


Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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