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Q&A: Making Ultima Online's Continuing Adventures

Twelve years on from its original launch, Mythic's Ultima Online lead designer Tim Cotten discusses keeping the seminal MMO fresh, design and tech challenges, and how "we still have players playing on Pentium 120s."

Christian Nutt, Contributor

October 27, 2009

12 Min Read

Originally created by Richard Garriott and Origin Systems in 1997, Ultima Online was one of the first successful PC MMO games launched, and still has a sizable enough audience that Electronic Arts maintains and improves the game until this day. Though the team that handles the game is now part of Warhammer Online creator Mythic Entertainment, that wasn't always the case. Tim Cotten, lead designer of the game, was originally an EA employee -- and he says that one of the team members even goes back to the Origin days. Of course, updating an MMO with old tools and a variety of clients -- three are presently supported by the team -- is no small challenge, and Mythic continues to roll out new expansions for UO, with Ultima Online: Stygian Abyss debuting in September. Here, Cotten discusses the title's unique audience expectations and how he and his team address pipeline and tech issues in a game that was originally released in 1997 -- but recently saw its biggest expansion ever. Your game has persisted for a long time, and I think probably over the course of its lifespan it got varying levels of support on a management level. But it did have this core audience. When Mythic came into the picture and better understood the product, how did that change the way you approach the game? TC: I can't speak for all the team and I can't speak for other divisions, but I know on the design side that we suddenly found ourselves wanting to improve the new player experience, wanting to deliver a steady stream of live events. We wanted to formalize many of the little ideas that we thought were important into actual running systems. And so our main focus of course has been is to retain our current loyal subscribers and hopefully, through them, reactivate friends and family who used to play. And see, UO, like you said, it's got a very core player base, and not a small one. Many of the new MMOs that come out never reach our current levels. We have 27-odd servers -- it's still a very healthy MMO. It has occurred to me that with the uprise in things like netbooks, in a weird way, Ultima could become more relevant. Have you guys had any thoughts about that? TC: I have my own personal thoughts; I can't speak for what evil plans might exist or anything cool like that. But our old 2D client is insanely optimized and very low footprint for an MMO. It runs fine on anything. We still have players playing on Pentium 120s. I know that sounds crazy, but you can actually do that with UO. Now, admittedly, the new client, the shiny one that takes a lot more graphics power, you can't even run that on a normal laptop unless it has a dedicated card; integrated chipsets don't work very well. But for netbooks the original client, that we still support completely, is still 100 percent supported, it runs like a dream. Can you tell me about the process of switching to the new client? TC: It's kind of a history lesson, right? There's been several, actually, over UO's lifespan. There was the Third Dawn client, and that was quite a long time ago -- that with an expansion called Third Dawn -- and it was a 2.5D client. And what I mean by that is that it had 3D mobs on a 2D landscape with the 2D artwork and all that sort of stuff. Unfortunately, after they shipped that... UO has a history of entire teams changing hands. The entire team would leave and then they would rebuild and then that client slowly became completely unsupported by the next team, where the code base was old and obfuscated, couldn't be understood, couldn't be well supported. The artwork, we didn't have a pipeline for it. So that one we supported up until, gosh, I want to say 2007. And what had begun though is an initiative to make a completely new client and we called it Kingdom Reborn. And we were very excited about this client; we were pouring tons of resources into it: design, engineering, art. We did ship that one. It wasn't well received by the player base, so we took a step back and we said, "Okay, what is our core focus here? Are we trying to just make new clients and force our players to accept the modern world?" No, we wanted to take what was UO about it, the good things, and try to build a client that would be very useful to the players and not just try to convince them to play their game like other MMOs. So what we've recently done is we've got another client, it's based on the technology for KR, but from the ground up, rebuilt by our engineering and design and art teams to actually be much more faithful to what the UO players actually need. And it's still in beta and it will be an ongoing beta until it is done and done right. The idea of supporting the core gameplay with more than one client at the same time is atypical. TC: It is atypical; we are definitely not the only ones to do it, I'll be honest there. But generally what we find is that it is a minor resource issue for design but a major one for art, and kind of somewhere in the middle for engineering. Artists have to literally figure out how to take this pipeline for all these beautiful mobs that they get and then turn that into a flat, 2D billboard for this one client, and then turn it into old sprites for the oldest client. And that's a challenge, but we have actually made great progress on it. We've effectively solved our pipeline issues so now we can make beautiful things that also make sense in our game, we're not talking about things with two million polygons that look like nothing when you actually render it out. We actually have an art director who is very meticulous in making things aesthetically look UO -- he's very good at it now. As some MMOs persist for a lengthy period of time and develop these user bases that are loyal, there are different ways of tackling it. You guys have this benefit of a really long history and experience. TC: And we've definitely tested the waters, both on the server and the client in many ways. UO has found itself in a very good spot for just keeping our players happy and doing great stuff. We want to grow, we're not accepting of any kind of mentality to just slowly let the game fade away or anything. We just released a major expansion and I'll be honest, I know I'm a little proud daddy here, but it's one of the largest the game has ever had. It has shipped and it's been received very well. Our players really want this game and they want to see it succeed, and they make that possible for us. Considering you have to support old clients, and especially from a design perspective, does that really limit what you guys can actually implement, or is it robust enough? TC: Oh dear, it's pretty robust. Gosh, I'll be honest, I have probably abused the old client too much because it is so robust. In 2D everything is really optimized. And when I say that I mean it's a sprite based, 2D tile based game... it's not even quite really isometric. But the engine itself is just really solid and it has been for a very long time, which means designers would have a tendency to say, "Oh, I want to build a new special effect. Oh, but the artists are busy and they don't have time. I know, I'll take these various effects and using our server code we'll play them at various spots on the screen at the same time, and in various pulses and things. And we can make crazy awesome stuff out of that." Oh, but when we generated the new client that used particle effects, oh no. Particle effects are not sprites, and when you play, with 200 particle effects at once on one screen, that's not going to work out so that well. So we've had to learn lessons back and forth on what we can do that looks good in both clients. And with new expansion Stygian Abyss, I think we pretty much nailed that; we figured out ways to make it look good in the one client and then have a special version just for 2D. What about the design tools? Do they evolve a lot? Tools have a tendency to really be one of the things that don't get as much attention as I think a lot of developers would like to see. TC: Oh, I think you're right. I'll be honest -- darn, and I'm on the record too. I just did a debate with some other good guys who have long experience working with scripting languages and designer tools. And we were talking about this very subject, and one [issue] is the powerfulness [of the tools]. We have a scripting language that runs UO, that the designers are very familiar with and we actively program in, that's no replacement for tools. And UO's tool set for designers, for instance making mobs, making things, they're very limited. We have to find very creative solutions around it. Although it is a problem we hope to solve in the near future, just going forward saying, "Hey look, we just need some cool little UI, some interfaces to just generate quests and generate mobs, instead of essentially hand writing them." So I will admit that the overall design implementation pipeline hasn't necessarily evolved much, except for the scripting language, over the last 12 years. After 12 years are you guys sort of running out of things you feel like you can do with the world of Ultima Online? TC: Are you kidding? [laughs] No. So, UO itself, if you want to go for a historical timeline, we're only around Ultima VI; we've got tons more of content left to play with. It's a good and bad thing. We've never felt constrained to stick purely with the story line. No, in fact it was built as an alternative Britannia in the first place, but we have paid homage to it. The city of Magencia, we actually turned it into a fully destructible city two years ago and let loose a demon invasion that could tear open the city if the players didn't stop it. And it was innovative in the UO sense because you don't really see that a lot and the players ate it up, and there was all sorts of fun with it. But we literally have the power as designers on UO to -- if we have a great idea -- implement it. If it's too complex the engineers get involved; otherwise we are very good at prototyping and just implementing interesting game play. People throw out the word "sandbox" with UO; I don't know if they really get that. It's more than just being able to do anything you want, that's Second Life. UO is about having a world that feels like it's alive, and so we have all sorts of stuff we could still be adding to it. I think a lot of people reach the conclusion at some point that advancements in art and stuff in games is the way to make games feel more alive and more real, but in the end it's more about your creative intent. TC: I agree. It's about the creative intent. You can improve the art to be photorealistic, that doesn't mean you have a great game. It will certainly be visually impressive, the fireballs will look amazing, but it doesn't mean that I want to have fun in that game or that I can have fun in that game. UO, in many ways, we want to improve the original art. It was built for a 640 x 480 window. Stylistically, it is beautiful, but it's very low res. There's nothing wrong with us taking that low res art, paying homage to it correctly, and actually building high res versions of it. Not throwing a bunch of 3D models in it, but actually getting some great artists, putting that together, and of course we'd like to explore that. And I think what also makes something feel realistic is the amount of thought that goes into it. When you sit down and really think about what makes a world tick, what makes the characters, what motivates them, that's going to be more evocative in this kind of context than building a really cool looking character model and having him spout a bunch of hackneyed garbage. TC: Yup, exactly. And I'm a big fan of interaction, a huge one. My design team is very good at adding very interactive elements. With the new expansion we added not just the usual new dungeon, new mobs, new AIs for them, new rewards. We did everything that we felt was important and I believe we did that very well. But we also had fun things on the side that just get players involved. There's a little chicken breeding system now, so you can get them together and have some fights and there's a -- they're not actually chickens, they're chicken lizards, it's a special little mob in the Stygian Abyss. But yeah, we've got all sorts of cool things like that. And as far as your original question of, "Are you ever going to run out of things?" Probably not, no more than anyone has run out of things to do in the real world.

About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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