Ultima Online Revisited

After writing that last article about first and second generation MMO's I got to wondering how Ultima Online, the great granddaddy of all MMO's, was holding up after all these many years. I picked up a 14 day demo key, downloaded both the old and new game clients and played for a couple of weeks. It has been like having a crystal ball that peers into the past, into the origins of the MMO.

Although there are other contenders for the title I believe Ultima Online was the first real MMO. It was first to be played by a large audience and it established the fundamental concepts adopted or modified by every MMO that has been released since. The experience of looking back and seeing how UO's game mechanics have stood the test of time and how they have evolved has been very educational.

Right off the bat I have to say the game has not fared well. Although people still play the population has dwindled tremendously. At it's peak in 2003/2004 Ultima Online had somewhere around 250k subscribers. Now fewer than half of those remain. It is hard to attribute the game's decline to any specific event. The drop off seems to have started around January of 2004 and continued sharply through June of that year. Some of the loss could be chalked up to the announcement of the Samurai Empire expansion which added ninjas to the game. It may also be no coincidence that both World of Warcraft and Everquest 2 were launched later that year but the events seem too far removed from each other to be directly related. There was also a 30% increase in the subscription fee instituted in June of the previous year that could have been a motivator for people to quit once their existing subscription expired. Whatever the root cause the game has continued to decline steadily for several years despite the continued release of expansions and newly updated graphics.

I played the game briefly when it first came out in 1997 and was not pleased with the game at all. My greatest complaint was the degree of griefing brought about by the unrestricted PvP environment. In my first few days playing the game I was repeatedly murdered and robbed and found it difficult to do anything without being harassed or threatened by other players. It wasn't until 2003 when the renaissance expansion was released that limitations were placed on PvP. This expansion made a duplicate version of the existing world. The original lands were called Trammel and made safe from player killers, while the new copy, called Felucca, remained fully PvP and was given a slightly darker and more foreboding appearance.

Originally the game had a fairly tame equipment system. Magical items and exotic gear were rare and played only a small role in character development or determining individual power. Players could generally create all the equipment they needed themselves through the crafting system. In February 2003 the Age of Shadows expansion was released and changed the situation dramatically. Many new attributes were added to weapons and armor and 4 new types of damage and resistance were introduced where before there had been just one. This greatly altered the nature of the game from one where character development and player skill had the most influence to one where obtaining rare drops and the quality of gear was the dominant factor in a player's fortunes.

Character advancement is still accomplished now as it was when the game was first launched with some minor adjustments. Characters can learna limited number of skills which will improve as they are used. The first improvement is the availability of newcomer quests that grant the character an increased rate of advancement in a selected skill. The advancement is sufficient to hasten the character past the point of being fodder to having a weak but reasonably playable avatar. The second change is a | fee based service that, among other things, allows you to instantly obtain a character that is significantly more advanced than either one that has just started or one who has completed the newcomer quests.

In UO characters are defined by the skills they choose to learn. Every character has 700 skill points that can be used to raise skills from 0 to 100. Skill points are not spent directly but instead are earned through use of the skill. If you want to raise your sword skill for instance, you must fight. Every time you attack there is a chance that your skill will be raised by a fraction of a point. The higher a skill is the less likely it will be raised on any particular use.

This system has a number of flaws. First is the way it encourages players to find somewhere to click a single button to use a skill over and over again as many times per minute as possible. Players often do this so that they can reach a level of skill that they deem desirable in the shortest possible time.

Another problem with the system is that the limited number of skills that can be mastered severely limits the types of play a single character can engage in. For example in the combat section of skills there are 10 abilities listed. Anyone who wants to be a warrior will need to have at least a weapon skill, parry, tactics, focus, and probably anatomy as well. That's 5 skill slots already used up. In order to practice a craft, one of the core facets of the game, a player will need at least two more skills. One for gathering materials and one for crafting those materials into useful items. All seven skill slots are now used up but the player still lacks skills for recognizing magical items or weapons,cannot repair their equipment, has no skill for healing, no fast travel skills, cannot use the treasure maps sometimes found as loot, and has no ranged attack. Beyond these essentials there are a large number of additional skills that will be unavailable such as those related to sneaking, opening locks, disarming traps, taming animals, creating potions, and preparing food.

The system heavily favors magic and nearly every character in the game will learn it. By acquiring just the single skill for casting spells a player will gain access to a variety of abilities that would normally require several skills to perform. Through spells players are able to heal themselves, cure poisons, buff their abilities and debuff their opponents, do both direct and AoE damage, and travel instantly between distant areas of the game world.

The game world has undergone little, if any, change other than being increased in size from time to time. All manner of creatures wander about in a completely disorganized and unstructured manner. It is a common sight to walk outside of a town and see all manner of domesticated and wild animals in a single area along with some assortment of seemingly random monsters. A single screen will commonly display a dozen creatures. Most of them will be mundane and unaggressive creatures with only a small number of actual enemies in any particular place.

In those areas where monsters are found they occur in vast numbers on relatively short respawn cycles. It is not at all uncommon to either fight three or four creatures at once or be forced to flee. When creatures are found they often span large ranges of difficulty. A single graveyard area may contain a large number of skeletons and zombies (low level creatures) a handful of ghouls (mid level creatures) and a number of ghost, wraiths, spectres (high level creatures) or even a lich (extremely high level creature). In one area I came across a region with a large number of orcs outside a cave. They were relatively easy to kill and even facing two or three at a time I could expect to win. Going inside however I was immediately attacked by 4 exceedingly high level orcs. Defeating even one of those would have been challenging much less trying to face four of them at once. The game has no structure to guide players to content appropriate for their skills nor does it make any attempt to segregate creatures into reasonable tiers of difficulty. At any location in the game you are almost as likely to run into something trivial as you are to find something that can kill you in an instant.

Beyond the haphazard creature population the structure of the world is equally bad. I do not mean that the graphics are of poor quality (though without using the Kingdom Reborn client they unarguably are) but that the scenery actually impedes game play. There are seemingly only two types of terrain: densely forested regions and suburban housing areas.

In the forested areas the trees are so thick that they make it difficult to see the players or creatures that may be nearby. Items that are randomly placed throughout the game world for players to discover often appear on top of trees where they cannot be reached. More than once I encountered a maple or elm that had a chest nestled in its canopy well beyond my grasp. A number of times I fought and killed an enemy in the woods but was unable to loot the body because it fell behind a tree where it could not be reached.

Wherever the land was once open and free of the arboreal menace players have erected houses. They have placed them in the middle of orc camps and along the edges of reptile infested swamps. Forlorn ettins and giants can be found walking the narrow alleys between buildings just as lost and confused by the endless sea of housing as I am. There is no wilderness out there, it is wall to wall brick, mortar and boards from one sea to the other broken up only by stretches of forest and the occasional impassable river or mountain range.

Player housing is an important part of the game but the designers should have had sufficient foresight to realize that their world was far too small to accommodate housing for even a fraction of the playerbase. Accommodations should have been made from the very beginning to ensure that the wilderness remained wild, that the feeling of exploration and discovery would not be washed away by the brutal intrusion of land development.

The rest of the game is equally as primitive as what I have already described. Combat is the worst example of the old mechanics. A player starts attacking a creature then watches passively as blows are exchanged until someone dies or runs away. There are few quests and most of those are of the crudest imaginable variety. While adventuring the player is rarely more than a stone's throw away from some lost NPC that wants to be escorted to a remote location. There is no guidance for players new to the game. Little direction on where to go or what to do. Many of the mechanics make no sense and some of the simplest interactions such as buying and selling items or purchasing training from an NPC are unreasonably complex and unintuitive.

One of the games original design goals was to create lifelike NPC's. To that end there were no menu's or UI elements involved when dealing with them. Instead players were expected to type phrases directly into the chat area and speak to them as if they were living people. The system, even for it's day, was terribly primitive, error prone and confusing. Among the most recent changes to the game's interface has been the implementation of menu system which can be opened by holding down the shift key while right clicking on an NPC that gives the player access to some, but not all, of their services.

The inventory system is still very crude. Bags do not stay organized. Items placed inside will randomly change position. Player's are limited by the amount of weight they can carry and even gold has weight. Because gold is difficult to carry in large amounts and rather easy to obtain the majority of a player's wealth must be stored in the bank. Changes have been made so that some vendors and all player shops will take money directly from the bank but others still require the player to have money for purchases on their person.

There is no centralized auction house or trade area. Instead players set up vendors at their houses all around the world. Those who were fortunate to capture easily accessible and heavily trafficked areas do well while those who have residences in more remote regions are greatly restricted in the amount of trade they can conduct. Shoppers are equally stymied by the situation as they wander from vendor. The system forces purchasers to wade through pages and pages of store inventory to find the things they need. Many vendors have little or nothing for sale and there is no way of telling at a glance if a vendor is newly stocked with a wide variety of goods or has been languishing unattended long after any items they had for sale were purchased or removed.

The game has changed somewhat over the years but those changes have not kept up with the advances in the genre. The crude graphics and deplorable user interface are hurdle enough to dissuade most potential players from subscribing to the game. If those are not deterrent enough then surely the lack of structure or guidance will leave those who persevere beyond the first few days of play wondering what exactly they are doing in the game. The dwindling population and lack of global or regional chat channels will leave most players feeling very much alone.

I think it is worth noting that, not once, but twice has EA undertaken the creation of a sequel. The first, Ultima Worlds Online was canceled in 2001 while the second, Ultima X: Odessey was canceled in 2004. Both successors were killed because the studio feared it would take players away from the original UO. So now, after nearly ten years, EA has no viable successor to a rapidly fading game that never captured a significant percentage of the MMO player base to begin with. If you put it in terms of a man fearing to plant seeds because it would leave him with nothing to feed the birds it becomes the stuff of parable. No game can last forever and UO is long overdue for the grave.

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