Ultima Online Retrospective
Looking back over the Ultima Online Phenomenon, we can see some interesting things that have happened. Origin Systems Incorporated, affectionately called OSI, has established an online website at www.owo.com. Many of the originally envisioned features of the website have not lived up to their potential. (Editor: Many people playing the game do not even know what OSI means, I had one avid player ask me today what the name meant, and this is not a rare occurance.)
On the face of the product, Utima Online, called by many UO, has been a success. Origin has sold over 109,000 copies of the game, many in Europe and Japan, Origin reports over 5,000 copies sold in Japan in a short period of time. The game originally started with one public server, Atlantic and one Test Center or private server. Now the game has nine public servers (Atlantic, Baja, Catskills, Chesapeake, Great Lakes, Lake Superior, Napa Valley, Pacific, and Sonoma) spread out over the United States and can support amost 24,000 simultaneous players.
But behind the scenes, lurking in the alleys and streets of Brittania which is a vast map of that takes over 10 hours to scroll through, the human citizens are grumbling and complaing, and OSI does not seem interested in listening to these citizens. There is discontent in Brittania.
The web site does not have a working paper that reports on the news and goings on in the game as originally intended. Many writers have volunteered to report the news, myself included, but OSI refuses to print what we submitt. The website is barely responsive to the players needs, in fact many players are of the opinion that OSI does not care what they think, and have become discouraged from making suggestions and recommendations. Many feel that OSI has not lived up to their end of the bargain in keeping the game interesting.
In most areas of the game, Ultima has deteriorated to player versus player interaction, called PvP by the online players. PvP is not bad in itself, but the game has become boring and most PvP players have turned to PvP because the game is boring.
Killing monsters and gaining experience reaches a point, set by the game designers, where your character can do nothing but decay. Many game players, play the game because they enjoy building the skills to a very high level. But once the skills are built, the game designers limit their effectiveness and employ a decay factor that causes you to lose those skills if you do not constantly practice them.
Another discouraging feature is the skill and attribute limits. The attributes of strength, agility, and intelligence are limited at about 225 points. Once you reach about 66 in each skill, the game starts trading one point of strength for one of agility, and your character begins to decay... If you are really persistant you can get certain attributes up above the cap and may actually achieve the 78 attribute point level. A skill of 78 in intelligence is needed to cast the highest level spells. But again as you play the game other attributes will naturally increase driving the 78 down. This all has the effect of making the game player feel like they are not progressing past a certain level of attributes. Some become afraid to play their characters for fear they will lose these precious and needed points.
The Skill Cap is Red and Blue and Has a Spinner on Top
Another problem is the skill cap. The game limits the amount of points you can have in the over 60 skills in the game. You need over 90 points to be a master in any endeavor and 100 points to be a grand master, so that many players have 90-100 points in sword, mace or fencing and 100 in tactics. Parry, which is use of the shield, is very hard to get over 50, in my experience.
Everyone needs a profession that can be used to make money, since killing monsters can be expensive in equipment and spells. Many people develop their tailoring skills, because the game designers have made it almost impossible to use smithing to make money, since in order to be a smith you must also be a miner, and mining tends to be a dangerous and time consuming affair. OSI eliminated the items in smithing that allowed you to make a profit, since they claimed smithing was too easy.
Another area essential to survival is the ability to throw spells. If you can recall and have a rune to a safe area, you can survive the bands of roving characters who do nothing but kill other characters to steal their gold and possessions for sale or just for the fun of killing and hurting others. In any case many people have magic skill above 80 skill points with all of the spells, because pks cannot take your spell book.
OSI has a skill cap of about 1000 skill points total. This causes problems because you cannot walk around in the game without somehow observing other skills being used. If you observe those skills, you develop them. Many players are walking around the game with 40 points in camping, who have never lit a campfire. Others have 30 or more in cooking who have never attempted to cook food on a fire or in an oven.
So as you play other skills will creep up on you making it difficult to impossible to maintain high levels of the essential skills of melee (parry, tactics and sword, mace, or fencing), occupational skills (tailroing, alchemy, or mining and smithing), and magery. This forces further decay of your character, which discourages people from playing, since their characters age and get worse with time. Player Killers are Boring
Player Killing, called PK by game players, or PvP has become a problem. New players and players who are not interested in player killing cannot even play the game, since roving bands of player killers will steal from them all the progress they make in character development. Utima was never a game of player killing in the single player mode. The designers had enough imagination to make the game one of skill development where you could cook, sew, smith, and mix a variety of items and sell them to make a profit or use them for your character. But player killing makes it virtually impossible to pursue the economic path in the game.
Many claim that the PvP or PK has made the game interesting. If the game is only interesting when played as a substitute for Doom or even Diablo where the main impetus is the conflict with other players, the UO design team has missed the point. They need to go back and play some of the original Ultima Games from the First Age of Darkness up to Ultima 8: Pagan.
In point of fact PvP becomes boring after a while. After you have killed your third dozen of PKs you lose interest and you begin to stop playing the game. Why play, your character has become the best it can ever be and will soon decay.
Most players who pk, called pkers in the game, are cowards and bullies, who attack in packs, and run at the first sign of being hurt in battle. They kill quickly gather up all the oponents stuff they can carry and go sell it or stuff it in their vaults. Pkers tend to attack lone characters adventuring. If their prey is travelling in a group they leave them alone. When confronted by a superior force they simply recall out, and rarely stand and fight even if evenly matched.
Online games are particularly suited to help the pker not to hinder him. More experience is gained from fighting and killing player characters than monsters or non player characters. When you strike against someone you can always go offline and not play for a while, leaving your prey searching for you in vain to get back what they have lost. PKs can pop in and out of differnent shard servers, ambush the weak and unsuspecting and run with their loot only to return to play with another character or on another server shard. Those that fight the good fight, who refuse to prey on fellow players, and help to hunt the pks, have it very hard finding and killing the pks.
My son played UO for a time, but does not play anymore, because he was tired of a particular player who relentlessly pursued him, taunted him, and harassed him every time he got on the game. This person would kill him if he went anywhere the bad player was. Since my son played infrequently, and often not with my character who was better able to deal with this person, he was prevented from playing the game unmolested, so he quit. Is this what OSI really wants, for young children to be bullied and harrassed by other players? I have asked OSI to answer and they say that is part of the game.
To discourage PvP, and to make it more like role-playing and less a bunch of cowards and bullies picking on the weaker characters, Origin instituted bounties on players who repeatedly killed other players. If you killed the player killer and took his head to a town guard, you would not only be rewarded with the reward, but the contents of his safe deposit box.
The problem with the bounty system was that it never worked, people who had player killer heads quickly found out that they could not turn them in, anywhere, and could not collect the bounty. But furthermore, the entire system was illogical, because these same player killers if not at the most evil level, could walk with impunity through the towns and thumb their noses at the guards. Why didn't the guards kill those with bounties?
Others have turned to thieving to make the game more interesting. They run in and out of the metropolitan areas stealing and stealing from others, dropping the gold on the items stolen on the ground and laughing at other players. Those that turn to stealing, like those who turn to pking, are protesting in their small way the unrealized potential of a game that could be the best game in the history of online gaming. These thieves are so bored they want to cause trouble. How can OSI turn the tide and save UO?
One player I talked with wanted a roving army of bad monsters to move across the map, taking over towns as they moved and the town guards powerless to stop them. The army would make camp in various areas and adventuring bands could pick away at the army and eventually destroy them and be decorated by Lord Brittish. Another option would be for Lord Brittish to recruit an army of players to deal with the invading horde, with planned campaigns.
Another area where OSI has missed the boat, is the nobility. OSI rewards players who kill evil monsters and successfully complete quests with the titles of Noble, Lord, Noble Lord and Great Lord. Those who reach Great Lord can collect either a chaos shield or a virtue shield from Lord Brittish or Lord Blackthorne's castle guards. These virtue or chaos guards can kill one another without penalty, thus furthuring more PvP which many players do not want to participate in.
Players don't just want to be chaos guards, they want to be able to own houses in town, and to have positions in the town guards or on the town council. Players want to earn ranks in the defending militia and actually have some structure to the nobility. Others want to be able to vote to determine how the town guard will act and who they will kill. Some want to eliminate all evil from their towns making them off limits for any "red names." Red names are the really evil characters such as dark lords, evil lords, and dread lords. Currrently, only the most evil characters are killed by the town guards.
Why not allow a player to earn the title of Baron of Jhelom or become a mage of the royal house with access to Lord British's castle grounds. Other official OSI guilds should be awarded the full access and control of town guild houses with private guild member only areas and public areas. While I am sure many feel that PvP is the only way to go, many guilds want secure private areas to conduct their business, practice spells, and generally be safe and unmolested for a time. OSI has failed to provide these areas for guilds and game players.
Another player idea that OSI has not implemented was the idea for an evil town where evil players could go and trade, sew, smith, sell items. A town peopled and guarded by orcs, and goblins where only the evil characters would be safe. An evil town with evil shops. Another great idea that OSI will not do. OSI is down on thieves
The treatment of thieves in the game is illogical. Theiving in and of itself is an evil act like killing. Killing an evil character is good. But stealing is always an evil action. Which is worse killing or thieving? Clearly killing is the worse action, but if a player kills an evil character he receives a boost in notriety. A "good" thief who steals from an evil character or only from "red names", the most evil characters in the game, reduces their noteriety when caught. These good thieves should get a boost in noteriety when stealing from evil characters.
A good aspect of thieving is that you cannot get worse than dishonorable by stealing. The bad part is that the game designers and players do not understand the concept of good thieves who pray on the evil denizens of the game world. Anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons or other fantasy role playing games knows and understands the concept of good thieves or at least neutral thieves who pray only on the evil characters. This concept has escaped the OSI designers.
A real positive change in the game would be to impliment the increase in notoriety gained by stealing from evil players and non-player characters.
UO Near Misses or We Tried and Failed
Many of the best ideas in other games are poorly implemented in UO. For example hirelings, when first implemented hirelings were no more than someone you hired and took out of town and killed. Also you could use them to train your friends then order them to drop the money your friends spent on training. In short , hirelings were no more than bug exploitation devices.
Hirelings walk slow and repeatedly hang up on terrain or simply get lost. They cannot fight very well since a mage or an archer can stand off and pummel them to death or easily run away if in trouble. If the hireling has a bow, they often cannot use arrows, so they cannot fight at all. The summoned monsters and trained or purchsed animals are equally stupid and poorly implemented. While I was talking to a friend with a pack horse just east of Trinsic, a character walked up and killed his pack horse with no change in noteriety and no option for my friend to attack him. Many
Another area where UO could be improved is the scripted plot line related missions. One of the most fun games of all time was the Strategic Simulations Incoroporated (SSI) Pool of Radiance set in the Forgotten Realms game setting town of Phlan. Phlan has over the centuries deteriorated from a booming trade center to a rotting monster infested land. The descendents of Plan nobility and a group of adventurers decided to reclaim Phlan from the denizens of evil. You as a protagonist take the role of an adventurerer who will help the town council to reclaim the town from the monsters.
You return to the council clerk who gives you and your band of adventurers another quest. The clerk would give you the job to go and clear out a cathedral to one of the good gods infested by ors or kobalds and you would take along a cleric as a companion non player character. When the quest was finished you would gain experience, notoriety, skills, and the cleric companion would remain behind to start rebuilding the church and clean up the mess. Other quests involved rescuing specific characters from a band of evil characters.
All the adventures were scripted with good writers providing the dialog from a set cast of non player characters. Random adventures, litter the landscape with Santa Claus characters that slow down game play and make areas of the game inaccessable. Why does OSI insist on sticking with these unsatisfying random encounters?
I hope this missive is instructive, because of all the online games that I have seen, UO has the greatest potential to become one of the greatest online games of all time. Wouldn't it be tragic if OSI did not realize that potential. There is hope, OSI announced recently that they would be implementing the plot line in the game, perhaps that means scripted encounters, but only time will tell.
Please send us your comments and suggestions.