Monday, December 24, 2007

Twenty Six Years Ago Today

It was twenty six years ago today that I got my first videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey 2. I had wanted an Atari, of course, but some slick salesman talked my parents into an Odyssey, no doubt because it seemed so much like a computer with that keyboard and all that.

I made the best of it and found a lot of really great games for it that even my Atari-owning friends seemed to enjoy. Years later, I still have that Odyssey 2 and enjoy new homebrew games for it, including this year's purchase of Mr. Roboto, one of the deepest games ever made for the machine.

Anyway, here's a then-and-now Christmas comparison of me, the Odyssey 2, and Alien Invaders - Plus:

Christmas 1981 :

Christmas 2007 :

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may all your youthful videogaming wishes come true this year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Orcs and Elves

This is what I love portable gaming for. Orcs and Elves, a relatively new title for the Nintendo DS, is an old-school dungeon crawler done so well that it's hard to put down, yet quick and accessable to pick up and play for a few minutes whenever I want to.

The top part of the screen is where the first-person view of the action takes place. Monsters appear as 2D sprites, with only a few frames of attack animation. The graphics remind me of Hexen, another title by the game's makers, the classic Id software.

The bottom touch screen shows the player's feet and tool belt, looking down from the head. Touching items such as a sword or a map gives the player quick access to them, and it's a really unique way to play one of these games. The one spell I've got so far is also cast using the touch screen.

The game has combat, exploration, NPCs, and puzzles, with a few other surprises that show up. The shop is run by a dragon who keeps a small pen of goats around for food. While it's nothing too deep, it's perfect for portable play, and although it came out only a month or two ago, it's already dropped to twenty dollars at Gamestop, which lead me to pick it up.

I highly recommend Orcs and Elves for all you middle-aged gamers who want some old-school action on the DS.

TV : It Was A Great Fall

I'm generally quite easily entertained by television, although I don't watch that much. I find a new show, give it a few episodes to catch my attention, and if I like it I follow it from that point on.

This season there was an unprecedented bumper crop of new shows that did this for me. Monday nights had the awesomeness of Chuck, Heroes, and Journeyman. Tuesdays had the hilarious Reaper, Wednesdays had Back To You, Kitchen Nightmares, and for awhile some new episodes of South Park and the Sarah Silverman Program. Thursdays had 30 Rock, and the week wrapped up on Sundays with the Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, and American Dad, sporadically showing new episodes throughout the fall.

With this being the age of the DVR, it wasn't uncommon for us to be behind all week long in catching up with the new episodes of things to watch, so it was great always having something to look forward to seeing when we got the time to sit in front of the tube.

But then the writers strike hit, and these shows began wrapping up their seasons, or first half of seasons. Heroes, which started of so slow, finished strong. Reaper, the fate of which is still unknown, was gaining momentum. Chuck remained funny and interesting. But one of my favorite new shows, Journeyman, ended just last night with an episode so strong, with acting so well, that it hurt almost as much as the end of Firefly a few years ago.

That Firefly feeling, as I call it, goes like this. These people put together an awesome show. Cool plots, great supporting cast, and excellent performances - all of which catch my viewership and make me yearn for the show to reach its full potential, a feat which can only be done with a few seasons. It's like seeing a small sapling and realizing that, given some time and nuturing, it's going to be the best tree in the forest.

Journeyman will not get that nuturing, as the shortsighted network has pretty much cancelled it already. The same network that was smart enough to give Chuck a full season order (assuming that the strike is settled at some point, of course) is letting Journeyman wither and die. At least the series creators of Journeyman, seeing the writing on the wall with the strike, were able to work last night's episodes to end the series on a high note. There was finally some explanation about the time travel, and the main character's wife has come to peace with his travelling.

Also getting the axe is the 4400, a decent show that had been airing over the last four summers on the USA network. With that show, we've been left hanging, doomed to forever wonder what happened to those characters after the end of last season. The same thing has happened to other shows, Dark Angel and John Doe among them. I hate when they do that.

It was a great fall for new TV, and I'm going to miss getting up early Tuesday mornings and watching Chuck and Journeyman on my DVR over a bowl of cereal. Hopefully the strike can get settled soon, and people can get back to work, so at least some of the new shows that hooked me this fall can return.

But Journeyman, I will miss the most.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Upgrade Time and an Old Pirate's Dream Come True

After years of waiting, I finaly got into the open beta test of Pirates of the Burning Sea a few days ago. Anyone who knows of my old crusade to get ships and sailing fixed in Ultima Online knows how badly I've wanted to play a fully realized, state-of-the-art pirate MMORPG all these years.

After an overnight download session, I was able to play the other morning, trying out a pirate character and going through its tutorial. Character creation was very nice, with plenty of options, but nowhere near that of a game like City of Heroes. I was able to name my character Ruffie Windjammer, the same name as my pirate character in UO.

Once in the tutorial, I was able to move and talk to the NPCs okay, noticing only a few graphical glitches. The controls were standard WASD keyboard movement, with hotkeys on the bottom for sword fighting moves that I used to take out some enemies that had boarded my ship.

Once that part was over, it was time for ship combat, which is done from a zoomed-out view of your boat in the water. The controls here are just amazing. Using WASD again, with W and S raising and lowering the sail. In the upper left corner of the screen is a represntation of the ship with a left-right slider for the rudder, and up-down slider for the sails, and cannon status indicators. I quickly grasped the controls and dispatched my NPC opponents.

After that I was put into a town, and at this point the game became a bit unplayable. My graphics card, it seems, was below even the minimum specifications, and it showed. There was plenty of lag, and my character's avatar was glitchy. He had no jacket or arms. I saw only his upper torso, head, legs, hands, and sword. Any pirate can tell you that it's not a good idea to walk around a pirate port town armless.

And there was unplayable lag. I walked around the town as best I could but finally logged off. Clearly, it was time to upgrade my video card. So, yesterday, I took the plunge and picked up an ATI Radeon HD 2400 Pro. The guys at Best Buy were amazingly helpful. I also picked up a DVI cable for my monitor to get a better picture out of it. And I cannibalized a little additional memory from Monique's recently departed computer.

Well, it didn't help that much with Pirates of the Burning Sea. I'm still armless, and there is still quite a bit of lag when walking around port. I didn't have much time to test it, though, so some improvement may still occur in later sessions. A quick check of the official message board revealed that other players are experiencing similar glitches with their avatars, and yes, the lag too. It wasn't just me.

The upside of all of this is that the new card has made Ultima Online : Kingdom Reborn look and play a hell of a lot better. I'm actually spending a little time now messing with it, and although I'm ready to yet ready to adapt it as my client of choice, I could see myself leaning that way with more improvements forthcoming from the developers.

Upgrading my PC is never a worry-free experience for someone like me, who's not that big of a techie. Although it went well, I didn't get the results I'd hoped for in Pirates of the Burning Sea, but it seems that it's up to the developers now to fix a few things on their side. I've done my part. I can't wait for a chance to really dig into this game, and I anticipate plenty of peril and plunder ahead. Arrrr!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ultima Online : Kingdoms

I now consider myself not just a veteran UO player, but an Ultima Online historian.

I find the development of the game - the directions its taken, the people who've put their work into it, and the many still unsolved mysteries about what the hell was going on behind the scenes - as fascinating as the game itself.

That's why I on an almost daily basis surf through the hardly-known blogs that past UO team members put out there. Sometimes they go without an update for months, sometimes they disappear in the night, but sometimes, very rarely, they offer revelations about things that were going on behind the scenes that the players had no idea about.

Such has been the case recently with former UO engineer and server programmer Joshua "Speedman" Kriegshauser, who in a series of posts on his own blog, told the tale I've been after for two years, the tale of the third attempt at another UO. At the time, I thought it was simply another new UO3D client, but I was wrong. It was something far more ambitious and unique.

Let's start at the beginning, though. I was complaining around the time of UO's tenth anniversary back in September that so few former team members bothered to comment. I had tried to get interviews with some of them myself around that time, and of course was shut down, perhaps because I don't have the clout of a site like IGN.

Two months after the anniversary, they post an amazing article where they look back at ten years (ten years and two months at that time) of UO, with comments from many past team members. Including Speedman, who was then so inspired that he in turn wrote two lenghty blog entries about UO's tenth.

The sheer amount of UO history poured into those articles is staggering, from his viewpoint both as a team member and a veteran player. I recommend reading it thoroughly, as Speedman has been involved in some of the most critical bug fixes in UO's history, including the Age of Shadows lag, the insurance bug, and several others.

But the part that caught my eye was this little snippet...

Unannounced game revamp. This isn't a 'great memory' so I don't know why I'm mentioning it. Yes, we were working on UO2 for the third time. We had a 3D client and were doing awesome things with breaking the skills into specialization and quest-based learning. The server technology was mostly staying the same, but we had finer-granularity movement actually working that allowed you to move within a tile. The scope of the project grew huge and we didn't have time to finish it nor wherewithal to cut part of it. Everything was scrapped and the idea eventually became Kingdom Reborn

What did I know at the time? Just that, shortly after the cancellation of Ultima X Odyssey in the summer of 2004, designer Vex had stated publically that he was working on "something else", and it was rumored at the time that it was a new UO 3D client based on an existing game engine. Speedman's post, though, stated that it was a third attempt at an all-out sequel!

I had to ask for clarification, about this project and how much of an impact its cancellation had on the dev team at the time:

This is the most we've heard about the cancelled third attempt at UO2, ever.

From what little I'd heard at the time, I thought it was just another attempt at UO3D, using an existing game engine that shall remain nameless. From what you're saying it sure sounds like it was going to be something bigger.

Was its cancellation the catalyst for the Mass UO Team Exodus of 2005? Vex, Oaks, Hanse, Fertbert, you, Leurocian, Toes, then later SunSword, and Binky?

And Speedman was kind enough to elaborate:

The UO2.3 started at Origin and was originally using a custom engine, then we evaluated several different EA engines and eventually went with the Sims 2 Engine (which is actually Maxis' engine, called the Gonzo-Rizzo Framework [yeah, no idea]). It was big and bloated and I hated working on it.

We were toying around with being able to play several of your characters at the same time (on one account) and actually had a concept video made up for it. In the end we were going to call it "Kingdoms" (probably the 'Kingdom' in the Kingdom Reborn name) and it was going to have an RTS element where your house was actually a much larger estate and you had workers, fighters, etc.

In the end, Design went overboard, Production didn't hold the reigns very tightly, we had no budget to redo all of the Art as 3D models and Code had two different methodologies between the Origin folks and the EA folks that joined us. Friction abounded.

The cancellation of it certainly was a factor, but there were many things to consider: The Origin team didn't see eye-to-eye with our then -producer and people's housing subsidies from the TX->CA move started running out. NoCal is expensive :)

Personally, I think EA figured that we'd all leave when our 1- or 2- year contracts ran out. They were pretty much right. In fact, some theories say that they intended to drive us away.

Anyways, it is as it is.


Started at Origin? That seems to indicate that it was begun back in Austin. The closing of Origin in Austin came in January of 2004, which lead to (or was a major factor in) the cancellation of Ultima X Odyssey in June of 2004. Vex first mentioned his mystery project (Kingdoms)in August of 2004. In spring of 2005, just before the release of the Mondain's Legacy expansion to UO, the huge exodus of team members (including Speedman) commences. The "Our then -producer" Speedman mentions was none other than Jessica "LadyLu" Lewis, who came over from the Sims Online and generally rubbed players the wrong way, too. But that's a mystery for another time.

It therefore seems likely, then, that at one point in late 2003, Origin had three projects in the works - Ultima Online, Ultima X:Odyssey, and Ultima Online : Kingdoms. It was also during this period that the decision was made to nix the idea of a High Seas Adventure expansion to UO, which SunSword had told me about back in August of 2003.

Now that I see more of the picture of those turbulent years, I find myself with more questions. Who greenlit all these side projects and why? Did EA see Origin as sort of an out-of-control renegade development house that needed brought into closer scrutiny, or was it EA that pushed for more Ultima-related projects and the teams were just caught up in the mess?

As the years progress, hopefully we'll see more former UO team members like Mr. Kriegshauser willing to go on the record candidly and tell the real story. Usually, they've all kept pretty quiet about the past, no doubt as a professional courtesy to each other and to avoid any issue with their current employers regarding loyalty.

As always, I remain inexplicably fascinated. Ultima Online : Kingdoms sure seems like it would have been, well, interesting, and as with both Ultima Online 2 and Ultima X Odyssey, pieces of its crumbled development wound up in Ultima Online. Kingdoms became Kingdom Reborn, and the people who worked on it moved on. Thanks to Speedman, we now know something of the story of the third failed attempt to make a sequel to Ultima Online.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ultima Online - Who's Making the Move?

This week the answers finally came about the upcoming transfer of the Ultima Online team to EA Mythic's Fairfax, Virginia studios. Before we get to the names, let me present this:

Publicallly-known team members that are making the move include my good friend Patrick Malott, known as Leurocian, as well as Tim "Draconi" Cotten, lead artist GrimmOmen, and according to community coordinator Jeremy (who has said neither way whether or not she's staying), SupreemEA the Master of Code and Prince of UI, Mesanna the Infinitely Wise, Stormwind the Ancient and Undying, and Serado, Lord of the Bugs.

I assume that the legendary Jason "Stormwind" Spangler is still being allowed to work remotely from Austin, as Jeremy apparently does. This is a good portion of the current team and the best talent that is making the move, so this is good news. But there are losses.

John "Wilki" Wilkinson is not making the move, which is understandable since I remember him being from the bay area there in California. I got to meet him in person at the 2004 Community Day event there in Redwood Shores, when he was Binky's assistant community coordinator. In fact, he was there to meet us at the airport and shuttle us to the hotel. Since then he rose through the ranks and became a designer. He plans to return to college and complete his degree, and you can tell from his farewell that this was a very tough decision for him.

CatHat is one of three members of the art team that are leaving. Known for his high level of communication with the players and his message board posts where he and everyone else would post funny cat pictures, his loss is also a tough one. In fact losing three artists puts some more doubt on the release of the Stygian Abyss expansion, the fate of which remains in limbo.

While it's always sad to see the UO team lose good people, it seems that most of them are making the move, and hopefully after they get settled in January we'll start to see some overall direction take place for the game.

Oh, and Jeremy, if you're reading this, please hire me. I'm willing to make the move, too, since it's not that far from Ohio and I have family in the Fairfaz area. I'd be a great assistant community coordinator, PR guy, or visionary designer.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

As Seen On TV

The television commercials for the Nintendo Wii usually feature two Japanese guys bringing the Wii to people and saying "Wii would like to play", then showing various people enjoying the system. The one that features Wii Sports shows at one point some senior citizens, in their old bowling shirts, playing the bowling game of course.

When I bought a Wii back in March, I mentioned it to my future mother-in-law Arbadella, as she was for many of her years an avid bowler, and a good one, having a shelf full of trophies in her apartment to prove it. It's a hobby she unfortunately had to give up due to arthritis. She is generally disdainful of modern gadgetry, having only recently gotten a cell phone and needing a lot of help just to figure it out.

That's okay, of course, as even I have trouble figuring out all these modern doohickeys. When we told her about Wii Sports bowling, she seemed intrigued, but not to the point that she'd ever try it. We gave up after a few times mentioning it to her.

Recently, though, she was told about it again, but this time from a friend of hers at church who plays it with her family. Where our attempts to introduce her to the game failed, peer pressure from someone her own age suddenly got her interested.

So, on Thanksgiving she came over and tried it before we had to go to the family dinner, and she loved it:

So, yes, with the Nintendo Wii, you can believe the hype. It's as close as she can get to real bowling, and without the arthritis pain she would get with the real thing. She wants to come over again soon and play some more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Wii Zapper and Link's Crossbow Training

It's another great week for owners of the Nintendo Wii system, as the Wii Zapper has been released with the game Link's Crossbow Training. For $25 at my local Gamestop, I got one after work yesterday, and immediately took it home to give it a try.

The Wii remote acts as the barrrel and trigger of the gun, and just behind it sits the nunchuck controller, with the wire between the two conveniently tucked away within the zapper itself. Although it's made of plastic, it's heavier and sturdier than one might think, giving the whole package the kind of weight one associates with a gun.

Link's Crossbow Training is a nice little set of shooting games that comes with the zapper, and it offers a lot of variety. Each level consists of three challenges and at the end of the three a score is tallied. Bronze medals are awarded at 20000 points, with silver and gold following at 40000 and 60000 respectively. The game starts with three levels unlocked with the others opening up when bronze medals are achieved in the first three.

Some shooting is stationary, with targets appearing. Others have Link moving left and right as he's encircled by enemies. The best challenges have Link moving through an area shooting at enemies with a third-person view. I've only played through the first four levels so far, and it's a lot of fun, with a few power-ups like a rapid-fire crossbow available at times.

The game uses locations and enemies from the Legend of Zelda : Twilight Princess, which reminds me that I need to go back and finish that game some time. It's a great pack-in game for the Wii Zapper and a great addition to my Wii collection.

I really wanted the Wii Zapper for Medal of Honor Heroes 2, though, as that game is also compatable with it, and man does the Zapper kick ass with this game. In the review I had read before buying it, the reviewers stated that hardcore gamers would probably prefer playing Medal of Honor Heroes 2 without the zapper, but in the online mode I found it made a big difference for the better in terms of my personal performance.

I played online deathmatch with the Wii Zapper and the Thompson machine gun and was doing much better than I had with just the Wii remote and nunchuck. The weight of the Wii Zapper combined with the rumble feature of the Wii remote to really make it feel like a machine gun. It was just a blast.

I also tried the Wii Zapper with Medal of Honor Heroes 2's arcade mode, which plays like a classic arcade light gun rail shooter, a genre of gaming I had never found all that much fun before, and again I was having a blast. Once I got the rhythm down for shooting and reloading, that is.

I'm loving the Wii Zapper and recommend it just for Link's Crossbow Training alone. With Medal of Honor Heroes 2, though, as an indication, I can clearly see this controller holder getting a lot more use as more games come out for it in the future. Well done, Nintendo.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Nintendo Wii - The Long Dry Spell Is Over

I spent a long summer with growing regret of my decision to get a Nintendo Wii. After I was pretty much done with The Legend of Zelda : Twilight Princess, and after I had beaten Super Paper Mario, all that was left was Wii Sports and Wii Play, usually enjoyed when Monique (my fiancee') and I both had the time to play. I tried several other Wii games over the summer - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Rayman Raving Rabbids to name a few, but none were really any good.

When Metroid Prime 3 hit the Wii back in August, I passed on it too. I was still smarting from the frustration of the Gamecube Metroid Prime to trust that franchise again.

This week, however, everything has changed.

Super Mario Galaxy
Nintendo has launched their big gun, their system-seller, and man they got everything right. Mario is back in a whole new star-spanning adventure that has perfect controls, a huge number of levels, mind-bending gravity and vertigo effects and gameplay, and of course lots of those little touches that indicate a level of craftsmanship unparalelled in the game design world.

I've barely scratched the surface of this title, and like a fine bottle of wine, I'm gonna savor every moment of this instant classic.

Medal of Honor Heroes 2
At last, That's all I can say about the arrival of this game.

Not that I've been counting down the months until it's release. On the contrary, I just found about Medal of Honor Heroes 2 last weekend when I was looking for upcoming releases for the Wii on It's the first first person shooter for the Wii to get it right...for me at least. Fans of Metroid will of course disagree.

What it got right are perfect controls, using the Wii remote to aim and shoot and the nunchuck to move. Here's a few other cool examples of the controls on this thing:

Using the bazooka : You flip the Wii remote over your shoulder, pointing behind you, and aim with the nunchuck.

Throwing a grenade : Press B to set the target, and motion with the Wii remote like you were really throwing it.

The Radio : When you encounter a radio in the game, it zooms in to the dial and you turn the Wii remote clockwise and counterclockwise to try to tune into the OSS secret frequency. Sometimes you get real WWII era music or a broadcast. Very cool.

What it really got right is 32 PLAYER ONLINE ! WOOOOHOOOO! Finally, FINALLY, a Wi-Fi enabled Wii First Person Shooter that I can play online. I just got done with a few matches, and while I certainly didn't "pwn", I held my own.

Especially with the sniper rifle.

The game also has a rail-shooter arcade mode, and tons of control customization that will take me weeks to tailor to my own preferences.

Bust A Move Bash
Monique picked up this game used. It actually came out in April or May I think. It's the old Bust A Move game, which she and I used to enjoy on the Playstation until one of our controllers bit the dust, with a whole new bunch of bells and whistles.

We had some fun with this last night, but sadly the controls are not quite that precise. In fact, they can be jumpy at times. Not enough to make the game unplayable, but enough to cause occasional irritation. The game itself has some weird new things going on in terms of powerups - so much so that it often seems unnecessary to shoot one's bubbles at the same color (the normal way to score points and win).

I think I need to spend some more time with this title to understand it better, though, so take my initial impressions of the game as just that - initial impressions.

I'm not going to get much time to do that, though, since Super Mario Galaxy and Medal of Honor Heroes 2 both kick some major ass on the Wii. It's been a long time coming for Wii owners, but this holiday season is off to a great start. These two games might even have enough lasting playability that they could keep me entertained through another such dry spell of titles.

Let's not test that, though. Keep them coming, I say.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Ultima Online - Magincia Invasion Event

I've been having a blast the last week and a half in Ultima Online, as the city of Magincia is under attack by hordes of demons. There's fire everywhere.

There are some cool loot items to get, but the most fun is in just seeing the whole community come to one place to fight together. People are being very cool, helping each other out and sharing the spawns. Not that there is a shortage of demons pouring out of the moongate, of course.

I spend as much ressurrecting other players as I do fighting the demons, and when I need brought back to life I can quickly find a player willing to do the same for me. I've gotten a few of the new items, not as many as those more determined to get them, but most of all I've just had fun with it all.

And it's a progressive event, meaning that it moves along in stages, so every few days it's a little different. All in all, this event has reminded me of why I came back to UO - the community - and it has reaffirmed my faith in the game's designers and programmers to deliver great things to the game. Hats off to the dev team.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Beaten : The Legend of Zelda - Phantom Hourglass

Sunday I finally beat The Legend of Zelda : Phantom Hourglass for the Nintendo DS. The final boss battle was tough, in a sense, because it caused my hand to cramp during the fight. After a few tries, I finally figured out to pause the game and give my hand a rest after each time I landed a hit on him.

There are still a few things I never did in the game, mostly involving the mini-game challenges that come up throughout Link's journey, and the collection of things like ship parts. Usually, after I beat a game I never go back and try to beat it completely like that. There's just too many other games around to linger too long on minor details.

Still, this game kept me playing for most of October and was a real treat, especially with the touch controls. If you have a DS and don't have this game, I highly recommend it for great portable adventuring fun.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ultima Online - Huge Layoffs and Another Forced March Across the Country

I had a feeling another big shakeup was due for UO. I've seen them occur in regular cycles since the early days.

EA is doing the whole corporate restructuring thing due to some profit concerns, it seems, which means a lot of mid-level managers being pressured to bring down the axe on their departments.

Which means that a lot of the UO team has apparently been laid off already, and those that haven't have a choice to move to EA / Mythic's main studio in Fairfax, Virginia, or lose their jobs. It's been only three and a half years since the forced relocation from Austin to San Francisco decimated the team and killed Ultima X Odyssey.

Rumors and unconfirmed inside information are starting to fly around about a harsh and bitter layoff, and who is staying and going. And specuation about the future of Ultima Online is of course mostly bleak.

I have nothing to add to all of that at this point, other than to once again wish those men and women who have been pouring their hard work and passion into UO all the best of luck during these trying times. They are real people with real lives and real families, and should they stay or go they deserve better from me and the rest of the playbase than EA is giving them.

For the players, keep logging in and enjoy it while you can. Everything you know and love inside the game could very well be unaffected by this for many months or years to come. Time will tell.

A Huge Case Load

Yesterday I purchased the third Phoenix Wright game for the DS, called Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney Trials and Tribulations. I won't be playing it anytime soon, becase I have failed to finish the second one yet.

I was making progress in the second one, moving along quite well, until The Legend of Zelda : Phantom Hourglass came out. I haven't been seen in the courtroom in quite awhile. So why did I buy the third Phoenix Wright game now instead of waiting until I'd finished the second one first?

When the first Phoenix Wright game came out at the end of 2005, it was a limited release. I got lucky and found a copy at a store called Media Play during the store's closing-down clearance sale for $17. It was the last copy they had. After that, the game was nowhere to be found for about a year until a second print run made the game available again. I checked on eBay during that time and saw it going for $60.

I wasn't about to take a chance on this new Phoenix Wright game becoming rare, so I went ahead and bought it. I'll get to it eventually. Plus, I got a little plush Phoenix Wright keychain, which is kind of crappy actually. I'm a sucker for pre-order swag, I guess.

The Legend of Zelda : Phantom Hourglass

I'll be brief and spoiler-free. I bought the Legend of Zelda : Phantom Hourglass for my Nintendo DS three weeks ago and have spent almost every free minute of my game time playing the hell out of it. It features stylus - only controls that work exceptionally well, with only a few occurrences where my own fingers holding the stylus blocked my view of the screen at a critical point.

I'm approaching the end of the game. It has lots of exploration, lots of devious puzzles, challenging but beatable bosses, and a cool map system that allows the player to scribble notes directly onto the map.

It's the best DS game, the best portable adventure game, and one of the best Zelda games I've ever enjoyed. And it has an online Wi-Fi mode that is really cool, but I've hardly touched on it because I've been having a blast with the single player adventure.

I give this game my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Some Final Thoughts About Ten Years of UO

The tenth anniversary of the landmark, pioneering Ultima Online has come and gone, a moment in gaming history hardly recogized both in the game and on the internet.

For their part, the developers at EA Mythic gave us gift boxes filled with heritage tokens and a fireworks wand (the tokens I sorely needed to redecorate my lighthouse), new items appearing on monsters in the original dungeons (the 7 anti-virtue dungeons that needed something like this to revitalize them), and some in-game fireworks events for players to attend. A brief blurb about the tenth anniversary appeared on their website here.

Some players of course complained, saying what we got was woefully inadequate, but I thought it was good enough. Especially in light of what has been happening behind the scenes at EA. But we'll get to that in a minute. Let's talk more about the anniversary before we go there.

It was kind of disheartening to see so few of UO's vast development alumni say anything at all about the anniversary. Kirk "Runesabre" Black, from the early days of UO, stopped by the Stratics UHall to wish UO a happy anniversary. Damion Schubert mentioned it briefly on his blog. But that was about it.

Sure, Richard "Lord British" Garriott showed up at a UO Town Hall in Austin earlier in September, but he could have mentioned something. Raph "Designer Dragon" Koster, one of UO's great initial visionaries, said nothing on his site. Neither did the aforementioned (see article below) Jason "Stormwind" Spangler, Anthony "SunSword" Castoro, or even Tim "Mr. Tact" Keating.

The list goes on, of course. Chris "Binky" Lanius didn't mention it on his blog, but I suspect he's got his hands full right now as his new employers, Perpetual Entertainment, have just nixed their upcoming MMORPG Gods and Heroes : Rome Rising completely to (so they say) focus solely on Star Trek Online. Good luck Binky, I hope all is well in your world.

Let's move on, though.

Earlier in September, UO Producer Aaron "Marketing Guy / Darkscribe" Cohen left for another position at EA. Chris Rabideau, also the producer of EA Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot, took the reigns, and his plans remain shrouded in mystery, as he's only seen fit so far to barely introduce himself on the occasion of the anniversary. His similar public posting about the sixth anniversary of Dark Age of Camelot, however, is gushing with pride and promises of upcoming improvements.

Further behind the scenes, Walter Yarbrough, who was until recently what was called the "Group Producer for DAoC and UO", left for Turbine. So it looks like Chris Rabideau has taken over his role. Walt had just introduced himself to the UO Community over at the Stratics UHall back on July 5th, in what turned out to be a long message thread where he officially announced the delay of the Stygian Abyss expansion.

I pulled up that thread the other day when I first read of his departure from EA and UO, which he did without any goodbye to the community. I felt it odd that someone would, just a few months ago, take some time to introduce himself and extend a listening ear to the community then sneak away in the night like an Enron executive.

To my amazement, he responded to my post at the end of that long thread where I had taken it on myself to inform the community of his departure. While other posters of course started nibbling at him like a pack of piranhas, I asked some tough questions about the management structure behind UO and what was going on.

I asked him this:

In the ranks above the UO producer, who makes the calls about expansion themes, dev team size, allocation of resources, budgets, marketing, and so forth?

And he responded by saying:

Well, Admiral, as a Group Producer at EA Mythic, I didn't get to make those calls - Mark Jacobs ultimately retained that authority.

The authority to decide allocation of resources and dev team sizes versus UO budget - this was on the list of changes Mark could have made to keep me.

His response clearly indicates some level of dissatisfaction with Mark Jacobs and EA, if only in terms of what Walt Yarbrough deemed was needed for the game. So now we know that it's Mark Jacobs, far behind the scenes in the UO world, that's calling the shots, with dual UO / DAoC producer Chris Rabideau running both games.

In his last post in the thread, and most likely his last word on UO ever, Walt give us some hope:

Chris is a good guy - and UO still has good solid leads and developers. They can still provide you solid support and service.

And this jibes with the attitude I've had on this tenth anniversary about UO. Basically, in ten years I've seen insane amounts of employee turnover on the UO team, from producers to programmers. I've seen their stated vision and direction for the game proclaim itself boldly and then slip away in the night, leaving the community the next morning wondering what the hell happened. I've seen all sorts of shifts in the game's implementation and boundaries, so much so that none of this recent rumbling shocks me at all.

UO seems to be tough enough to survive all of this, and the players keep logging in, chugging along and weathering these storms. Sure, UO deserves better - full EA support, a producer that loves the game and gets what he or she wants to make the game better - but it probably won't get it anytime soon.

Also on the EA front, it should be noted, is the pausing of the beta test for EA Mythic's big hope for the future, Warhammer Online. They apparently need some out-of-beta time to implement some major fixes to the game before returning it to beta stage. It's purported spring 2008 release date is still on, as far as I can tell.

I suspect that we'll see some more rumblings at EA Mythic in the coming months, and that UO will survive but development will continue to slow down. Hopefully, come spring, there will be some positive changes and an idea of where we're all headed together. Until then, I'll join the masses of UO players who log in and do their things without an awareness of the shifting at the top tiers of EA Mythic.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Three Years Ago - The Community That Was

Three years ago, this very night, the day after the UO Community Day of 2004 in San Francisco, I wound up leading a small group of community members through the downtown areas of that city.

EA had us all out there for the Community Day on Friday, September 25th, a day we got to hang out at EA's amazing Redwood Shores studios with the developers and everyone else at UO. At night, they took us downtown for dinner.

Saturday was ours to do with as we pleased, and I had a personal itenerary for the day all planned out. The other members of the community that had attended, I can safely say, had not planned the day to the extent I had, so a bunch of them followed me into the city.

It was a sixteen hour odyssey only for the strong. Those who weren't strong, well, whined a bit. But all bitching aside, it was a great time and I hope that they had fun too. From downtown to Chinatown to Fisherman's Wharf, and back to the Caltrain Station for the last train out, with folks coming and going from the group.

A highlight of the day was when we picked up some cheap plastic neon-colored weapons at a tourist shop and did some good old UO banksitting:

From left to right are Yukon Jack (of Stratics?)and his wife Partice, me in the back with the shades, a woman named Karen (I think, affiliation unknown), Crazy Joe (Stratics), Fizban (FCB), Trinity X(Ianstorm), Trinity's boyfriend or husband, whose UO name I forget, Fizban's friend, and Nieves of UO Powergamers. Taking the picture was Talanithus Tarant of UOLS

I could write a book on those four days of my life, and the impact it all had on me. But what strikes me the most when I think about it is this - at that time, the UO community representatives that we were said to be were tighter than ever, and Chris "Binky" Lanius had vowed to keep it tight after the event.

Within a year after that event, most of those people were gone from UO and its community, as were most of the developers (and the producer) that we had hung out with there.

Gone from the team were Hanse, Oaks, Vex, Fertbert, Speedman, Toes, Leurocian, and producer SunSword, who had promised at the event to take UO from being the grandfather of MMORPGs to the godfather of them. Mr. Tact held on until recently, and Leurocian returned last year. At the event were new members of the team Lady Lu, who became producer after SunSword left, and Darkscribe, who took over after Lady Lu and departed a few weeks ago.

Almost all of us community people had stopped playing within that time, too, and over at Stratics, the only person who was at the event and as far as I can tell still posts is Sarsmi.

If EA had held such an event this year, it would have been an almost completely different lineup. That event brought the UO fansite community together with the team in such a strong way, with such promise for the future, that it's still hard for me to get my mind around how quickly things turned from that energized feeling of hope we all shared.

Still, I have the pictures and the memories, and I'll never forget those days. In honor of the attendees (the ones that I remember, sorry to those I forget), here's a listing of all of them:

Admiral Ruffie Windjammer (me)
Fizban (FCB)
Fizban's non-UO playing friend
Lady Malynn (Stratics)
Lady Malynn's non-UO playing husband
Lady Beth (Stratics)
Lady Beth's husband (plays UO)
Crazy Joe (Stratics)
Sarsmi (Stratics)
Bella Noire (Stratics)
Yukon Jack (Stratics)
Patrice (Yukon Jack's wife?)
Swamp Thing ? (Stratics)
Trinity X (Ianstorm)
Trinity X's (husband or boyfriend?)
Delilah Jones (Ianstorm)
Nieves (UO Powergamers)
Nevyn (UO Powergamers)
Markee Dragon (Markee Dragon)
Merkere ? (Markee Dragon's wife)
Lady Alexandra (Markee Dragon)
Talanithus Tarant (UOLS)
Dragons (The Syndicate)
Greg Dean (Real Life Comics, and very rude to me at the event when I tried to talk to him)
Liz ? (Greg Dean's wife? in both the comic and reality - I think)
Karen (she was with my group all day in downtown San Francisco, but I cannot for the life of me remember her UO name or affiliation)

That's honestly all I can remember at this point. Wherever you all are, I hope you all look back on those days as fondly as I do.

What? All That And No Article On The Actual Anniversary Day of UO?

No. I was playing.

I spent a few hours hunting in Covetous for one of the new items, and got the Arms of Compassion, one of eight pieces of the virtue armor set.

I then found out that all closed accounts were reactivated for free to give old players a chance to come back for a short period of time, so I looted the heritage tokens off of my long-defunct second account and the account of an old friend that had been closed back in 2001.

What was cool was that my old friend's account had 2 veteran rewards sitting on it ready to be claimed. Sweet.

I think the best tribute I can give to the greatness of Ultima Online on its tenth anniversary is that it was still so engrossing that it kept me from working on this very blog.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain

On the tenth anniversary of Ultima Online, there can be only one. One person, who was there before the game began, on release day, and even today. Huge development teams have come and gone, sequels and side projects have code that has been consigned to the silicon dustbins of online gaming history, but he is still there.

Jason "Stormwind" Spangler

I really, really, really wanted an interview with him on UO's tenth anniversary. No one, not some new producer fresh off of Dark Age of Camelot, not the current UO Community Coordinator Jeremy, not the visionary Raph "Designer Dragon" Koster, not even Lord Freaking British himself could offer the sort of insight of someone who has had their hands in the code since before the O was even in UO.

I contacted Mr. Spangler through his personal blog and website, where he only mentions UO in his resume', about an interview. He replied that he was denied permission. I contacted Jeremy who told me he was just too swamped with work to be able to answer questions, and that is certianly believable in light of the state of the game right now.

But sometimes you have to weigh the value of public relations and what such an interview would add to the community on this momentous occasion over the short term coding needs of whatever mess they're in with Kingdom Reborn or 10th anniversary items, and come to the conclusion that time could be alloted for such an interview. I mean, I first contacted Stormwind about an interview nearly a month ago, hoping to publish it today, figuring it was plenty of time.

Jeremy thought differently, or perhaps the real story is that Mr. Spangler really, truly doesn't want to do the interview, preferring to stay out of the spotlight. He's only been at one community event I've attended, and that was the Ultima X Odyssey unveiling. I suspect that he very much had to be there to support team unity or something.

You certainly cannot fault the guy for that, if general anonymity is his personal desire. Indeed you have to respect that. But damn, this man is Ultima Online. One would think he'd have something to say on its tenth anniversary.

He's been active in the community before. He was there at the very first UO House of Commons developer chat on Stratics, and subsequent chats up until he left later that year. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's look at the guy's resume'.

Jason Spangler graduated as Valedictorian from Beaver Local High School in Lisbon, Ohio (another Ohio guy like me) in 1993. At the same time, apparently, he was already attending Kent State University where he maintained a 4.o average. Oh yeah, this guy is smart.

From there he finished college at Youngstown State University, graduating "Summa Cum Laude with an Honors Bachelor of Science degree, with a double major in Computer Science and Mathematics" according to his resume', just three years later in 1996. That very fall, he had hooked up with Origin Systems Inc, to work as a programmer, with the title he has today - senior software engineer.

The resume lists him as a programmer, and he is credited with working on "most systems in the game", but lists the auto patching system, multiobj system, boats, houses (the story goes that if it wasn't for his extra at-home efforts, houses and boats would not have made release), global hint system, game master tools, and more. Impressed yet?

Stormwind apparently became lead programmer in 1998 of the first expansion to UO, The Second Age. It was on this project that he became a manager, directing other programmers and coming up with ways to make things more efficient. One interesting tidbit in his resume states:

Initiated effort to replace Sun servers with Intel based servers (which offered the same performance and reliability for almost 1/10th the cost), resulting in savings of over $1 million per year in hardware leasing costs.

Really, if you're not impressed yet, you have no soul. But wait, there's more.

In a surprise twist, he left Origin shortly before the release of The Second Age to found Wombat Games, where he was principal software engineer and president. He managed a small staff and ran a business there, but was still involved in UO, in what appears to be sort of an outsourcing deal.

Wombat also worked on Klingon Academy for Interplay, and had begun work on their own MMORPG called Dark Zion. Another reason I wanted an interview with him was to explain all of this, especially what happened to that game.

Whatever happened, he returned to Origin as an independent contractor in August of 2000, officially rejoining in January of 2001 where he was not only a part of UO : Third Dawn, but was responsible for changing the way the servers saved, a behind the scenes change with the lasting impact of shortening the daily server maintenance. The daily timewarp that was so pronounced that players would break out stuff they were not afraid to lose for "server wars" were a thing of the past, as were the losses players experienced at unscheduled crashes due to those timewarps.

In June of 2001 he got a new title - Director of Technology, and wore many hats. He was not only involved with further optimization of the UO code, but was doing everything from helping with hiring new personnel to coming up with all sorts of development of processes and standards that I suspect are still with the development teams to this very day. In addition, it was at this point that he began work on Ultima X Odyssey, leading the architectural and engineering design of the game, almost two years before it was even announced to the public.

It is unknown how he reacted to the forced closing of OSI's Austin studio and relocation of those willing to do so to EA's Redwood Shores offices. While it was stated at the time that everyone had to move or quit, Jason Spangler, perhaps because of his invaluable expertise, managed to stay in Austin and keep working on UO. This poor decision on the part of EA wrecked the UXO team, as most of them were not willing to leave Austin. Within a few months, UXO was officially cancelled.

At which point, he went back to his duties as Senior Software Engineer, which he maintains to this day. He's been involved in every expansion and anniversary pack for UO, has done a bunch of behind the scenes stuff, including the fixing a major item dupe exploit involving boats.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Tim "Mr. Tact" Keating was also working out of an office in Austin, and later that Jeremy herself was there. Basically, EA was now no longer against them working on UO remotely. Whether or not they were working in the same building together is unknown, though.

Mr. Spangler does make some public appearances, just not at the fan events. He spoke on a panel at the recent Austin Game Developers Conference about "Taming Online Scaling Issues", and has listed five other such speaking engagements over the last four years.

In addition, he does some admirable volunteer work as a treasurer and board member of the Native Praries Association of Texas, a group that seeks the preservation of tallgrass prarie land in Texas and other places.

One wonders what Jason "Stormwind" Spangler thinks of his life's work with Ultima Online. I'd love to hear his thoughts on the game itself, the community, the history, the changing teams he's seen come and go, and what he really thinks of EA's handling of the game throughout the years. Does he actually play UO for fun and enjoyment, or does he sneer with contempt at us little addicts running around his maze of code? And of course, I'd like to thank him for all his hard work and his unparalelled genius in keeping UO chugging along for ten years.

I tried following the digital yellow brick road to Oztin, to see the man behind the curtain, but the Wicked Community Coordinator of The West stopped me along the way.

Oooh, sorry Jeremy, about that bad Wizard of Oz analogy. You should have gotten me that interview and saved us all from seeing it.

Ten Great Pieces of UO Swag I've Acquired

While I've never been an intended collector of UO - related items, I've acquired quite a few things over the years in addition to the six expansion boxes that sit on my shelf next to the original UO box. For this top ten, please allow me the indulgence to show off these items:

10. UO Necklace
I acquired this at the UO Community Day in 2004 (Look for an article about that tomorrow).

9. Ultima X Odyssey Autographed Player Races Poster
Ok, this is not technically UO swag, but it's damn close and all that I have left of that game is swag. I got this at the UXO Event in August of 2003. Even though SunSword was not a part of the UXO team, I got his autograph on it too.

8. Prima UO Guide
I have a rule about game guides and cheat books - I don't get them. They are a violation of everything that gaming should mean. Having said that, Ultima Online was, well, just a bit intimidating in those days, so a few days after getting the game, I got this guide, mostly for the awesome town maps that were included in it. There were also a lot of in-character stories and a list of some of the early easter eggs. Also, it had a great poster.

7. Ultima X Odyssey Pouch
Ok, I swear this is the last UXO item in this list. It was just too cool to pass on, though. This pouch was assigned to all attendees and was our identification pass throughout the event. Note the tiny virtue pin (mine was Valor) that holds my nametag to the pouch itself. Inside was a hologram card, a pendant with a big X carved on a slim stone, and some other swag.

6. Ultima Online Embroidered Sweatwhirt
I won this sweatshirt at the 2004 GenCon UO Townhall during a contest. Designer Leurocian posed the question "Who was the Shadowlord of Hate?". My Ultima 5 experience paid off here, and I got the right answer (Astaroth, I think it was). It's a really high quality item.

5. UO Community Day 2004 Pass
Without this pass on my person, I would have been shot on sight by EA security at the UO Community Day back in 2004.

4. The Original Ultima Online Box
Everything but the pin, still in great shape.

3. UO Community Day 2004 Hoodie
This is my favorite UO wearable, although the hood really shrunk and is now very tight.

2. UO Third Dawn Alpha Disk
I have no idea who sent it to me, but one day it just arrived in my mailbox. It was the first time that I got to alpha (or even beta) test anything. Someone at OSI at the time must have felt that my work with the Turbulent Waters warranted my inclusion in the testing process. I was, and still am, honored by all that.

1. UO Samurai Empire Autographed Edition
Those of us fortunate enough to attend that 2004 Community Day event got these a few weeks later. Autographed by the entire team at the time. It's amazing that of all the names I can make out on that box, only Leurocian is with the current dev team.

And there you have it. Thanks to all the community people - Binky, you especially - who made most of this all possible.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

10 Things That Are Gone From UO That I Miss

Ultima Online has seen many changs over its ten year history, and many things that were a part of the game have been removed as well. It's the nature of an evolving MMORPG, but on this tenth anniversary I'd like to take the time to remember ten things that are gone from the game that I miss very much.

10. Tillerman Stories
Just three month after the release of UO, the stories that tillermen used to tell from time to time were removed from the game, apparently the first victims of localization. I had started playing a month later, so I never knew about them, until I had read about it online.

Years later, in an interview with my friends at the Fishing Council of Britannia, Designer Hanse talked about the tillermen stories and listed them all. They were usually humorous little anecdotes about life in Britannia. And for a brief period in 2004, when all the server boundaries had to be closed for a few weeks, Fertbert put the stories back in the game, adding a few of his own about ferrets, of course.

Life at sea is very, very dull these days, and I wish the tillermen would break the silence from time to time.

9. Seahorses
Okay, they were never actually put into the game, but the player-rideable seahorse, a sort of jet-ski water transport that was promised with the UO:Third Dawn expansion, would have been extremely cool.

They were intended to be the only way for players to navigate the hidden waterways of the Ilshenar facet, but were delayed from the release of UO:3D and promised later. As the months passed, and I bugged the developers about the missing seahaorse, the promises continued.

Finally, a year or so later, they scrapped the idea, with Hanse calling them "an exploiter's dream", and too difficult to implement. Only one screenshot of someone from the dev team testing them on a test server ever was shown, and it looked like he was having a blast with it. It's hard to miss something you never had, but in this case, looking at the screenshot, it's actually easy.

8. 8 x 8
The way players gain skill in UO has always been tedious, so players used to macro unattended in their homes to work up skills. Realizing this, the developers made it so players had to move around to get the gains, and the next gain was always to be had about eight tiles away, within an invisible grid across the world of 8 x 8 squares.

Once players realized this, they set out to sea and unattended macroed there. It's not the skill gaining system of 8 x 8 I miss, though - it's the fact that it populated the Feluccan seas with easy (albeit boring ) loot for my pirate after the Trammel facet had drawn away everyone else.

My friend Crazy Joe called it the sea trance - players at sea who would not respond to roleplayed pirate threats and just stand there repeatedly doing whatever skill they were training with the 8 x 8. When 8 x 8 was finally removed, the last vestige of any real activity on the Feluccan seaways was gone as well. That's why I miss 8 x 8.

7. The Room Under The Lake

In January of 2002, vast changes took place on the newbie island of Haven in the Trammel facet, including the addition of an all-new island off the south coast. There were all sorts of little monuments to the developers around the island and curious little landmarks.

During my exploration of it, I found a small pond and decided to see if I could place a boat on it. I was successful, and when I went to get off the boat, I walked off the plank and fell through the lake into a secret, easter - egg room under it. It had some stone walls, some dirt, and the remains of a partially buried boat. I was able to mark runes there, and soon announced my discovery to the world at large.

A few weeks later, access was cut off by the gamemasters for reasons that were never made clear. Also, most runes were blocked, including my own, but I later found someone on Atlantic who had one that still worked and regained access to the secret room. I kept visiting the room, just for fun, and when I quit I logged off most of my characters in that room.

The room, and the entire southern island, was removed earlier this year with another sweeping change to Haven. I miss the one spot in the game I could go to get away from it all.

6. Summoned Ham Buoys
Long ago, the summon food spell summoned only one thing - hams. In addition, it gave the caster a targeting cursor so they could summon the hams exactly where they wanted to, for some odd reason.

This lead to my pirate's early discovery that they could be summoned onto the surface of the water, and when they did, they blocked ship movement. With my small pirate crew, it became our opening shot against those we encountered at sea, blocking them from sailing away.

Imagine that - you're sailing along and suddenly a boat a PKs sails up to you and instead of seeing Corp Por (energy bolt) you see In Many Ylem (summon food). Ah, the fun we had with that, creating confusion of that sort. The summon food spell was later changed to summon random food into one's backpack, and that ended the era of the ham buoy tactic. I sure miss it.

5. My Old Murder Counts
There was a bug a few years back that accidentally gave out some murder counts to the wrong players. Instead of fixing just those players, they took the easy way out and wiped everyone's accumulated murder counts.

I only lost a hundred or so, but others lost many more. For me, it really took the wind out of my sails, and I never approached playing my pirate PK with as much zeal. This came at a time when the number of potential victims was dwindling rapidly, so I never came close to achieving my old murder count.

The last time I checked, my pirate was at 17 long term murder counts, with only one kill since I returned to the game. If I had those old counts behind me again, I might be more enthusiastic about the long hunt at sea for potential victims again.

4. Moonstones
Back when Trammel was opened up, a new item appeared in the game called a moonstone. By placing it on the ground, a gateway to the other facet would appear. You needed a Felucca moonstone to go to Felucca and likewise a Trammel moonstone to go there.

It was a very covenient way to get around, and offered a way to go the exact same point in the opposite facet (Trammel was a mirror copy of Felucca in most respects). It was particluarly useful for treasure map hunting, as one could go to the spot in Trammel and use a moonstone to get to the exact map spot in Felucca.

In the aforementioned room under the lake, if you used one, you actually ended up under the sea in Felucca, since there was no island there, in total blackness unable to move. Moonstones were removed when all the moongates gained cross-facet funtionality, but I sort of miss using them myself. I'm not really sure why.

3. The Scenario Team
In May of 2001, a small team of desingers headed by Calandryll unleashed the Orc Scenario on us, introducting new items and new enemies for players to enjoy, and providing some much-needed fictional backstory to UO. Each week, there were new things to discover and new items to figure out, and the players, myself included, just ate it up.

The scenarios keep coming, with some breaks here and there, until the fall of 2002, as the team geared up for the Age of Shadows expansion. UO during that time felt really alive, and the accomplishments of the scenario team live on to this very day. The current team seemed to be doing a lot of things along those lines up until recently (about the time I returned to UO, of course), and it is hoped that they resume that sort of work soon.

Still, I miss those old scenario days when one would log on and never know what town was being invaded, or what new item would appear as loot.

2. Vanquishing Anything
Before the Age of Shadows expansion turned all the game's items into lists of stats and percentages, there were words like might, invulnerability, and the best, vanquishing.

A vanquishing sword (now called damage increase 35%) was the best sword in the game, and so rare that you almost never used it if you had one. In the five years I played before the Age of Shadows expansion, I had probably acquired about 5 actual vanquishing weapons - that's how rare they were. Keep in mind that this was also before item insurance, too, so using it was risking it's loss.

Ooooh, risk. I miss that too. Because these highest-of-the-high-end-items spawned so damned infrequently, and it was a risk without insurance, and because they wore down if you did use them, it was all a very different game in the days of vanquishing. Now, with each new expansion or in-game event, items far superior to my old vanquishing scimitar come raining down like mongbat dung, instantly getting insured and dusted with powder of fortification (sort of an item-decay prevention version of Armor-All).

I'll never know the thrill of opening a shipwreck chest and seeing that long sought-after halberd of vanquishing again. Back in those days, with every chest, you hoped to see those words. I miss it.

1. Felucca's Population
Contrary to what some say, Felucca in not deserted. On any populated shard, all the good housing locations are still taken. Champion spawns are still popular and hunted for their powerscrolls. The Feluccan cities, however, are pretty much toast.

Mirrors of each of these cities (except for Ocllo) exist in Trammel, and even most of those are deserted. There are simply too many cities, and not enough players. I wish they would do something unique with Felucca's towns to draw people there again, but I admit to having no ideas myself.

But it's so odd - to go to the West Britain Bank in Felucca, once swarming with players going about thier business, and see it totally deserted. It's the same feeling one would have returning to a deserted, run-down theater years after starring in a show there. Empty and hollow.

I miss the days of a bustling Felucca, especially the towns. Back then all of them had some activity in them, but now it's over.

You can't turn back the clock on UO, but it's never a bad idea to stop and remember some of the things we've lost along the way. These are mine.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

10 Members of the UO Community I Wish Were With Us For The 10th Anniversary

Yeah, I said I would do a blog entry about UO every day leading up to the tenth anniversary date, but I was tired last night. So here's an early morning entry.

Like the band Boston once sang, "So many people have come and gone, their faces fade as the years go by...", Ultima Online has had its share of people from all walks of life and all playstyles come through, leaving their mark on the game and the community. In fact, I'm sure I'm forgetting one or two people right now who should be on this list of ten members of the UO community who I wish were with us to celebrate the tenth anniversary.

10. snakeplissken
A week after I purchased UO in January of 1998, my real-life good friend Chris, haved been dazzled by my tales of the game, went out and got it and joined me on the Atlantic shard. We got fought and ran from PKs, scraping together the money first for a boat, which we had parked in Britain Bay along with half the shard, and after that our first house.

We terrorized the seas together for a year or so, but snake lost interest once Trammel was opened. Can't blame him. I still see him at work a few times a week and have been telling him about how I'm playing again, but like those halcyon glory days before Trammel, I doubt he'll ever return.

9. Hanse
During a dark time when the fishing skill was horribly nerfed, Hanse talked to us publically about it. When resource changes were made to the game, Hanse made sure to include the fishers. His presence on the boards showed his passion for the game and his design skills were legendary.

He might still be playing, for all I know, anonymously. But he left the UO team along with so many other during the Great Developer Exodus of 2005, and was last seen working on EA's Godfather game. The UO team of today could always use his expertise and his style should he ever choose to return.

8. Nieves
Sam Nieves of UO Powergamers fame left a mark on the UO community for a long time with his biting commentary and his take-no-prisoners personality. When he saw bullshit, he called it just that. Right or wrong, you just had to admire his style and colorful language.

I got to meet Nieves in person at the UO Community Day in 2004, at a time when the community coordinator Binky had been fostering the UO community to come together, including Nieves. It was said at the time that Nieves was going to tone down his harsher rhetoric, leaving out personal insults, as a part of being welcomed into that community.

Whatever happened after Binky's promises of a closer UO fansite community did little to impress Nieves, and his farewell to UO less than a year later had some unpleasant things to say about the situation. I'll never really know the true story, of course, but at least I can still read occasional commentary from Nieves over at the Markee Dragon site. Maybe he'll make some comments about UO's 10th anniversary, and hopefully they'll be classic Nieves.

7. Lyria
Joining me in my long fight to get the UO developers to fix boats and add content to the seas of UO was Lyria, another proponent of those changes. Out on the front lines she (I assume here she was a she, but now that I think of it I never knew) was vocal and positive in her efforts to get attention to our favorite part of the game.

Like me she left and came back a few times, sometimes just to post on the Fishing Council's boards and not actually play UO, and her wisdom was always welcomed. Her greatest contribution, in my own mind anyway, was pointing out that the seas are empty of players because there is no development of them, and there is no development of them because there is no player interest, and so forth in a sad moebius loop of neglect, which I later referenced as Lyria's Conundrum.

Maybe she'll post again over at the FCB for the tenth anniverary of UO.

6. Fertbert
Designer Peter Phillips moved quickly up the UO ladder, starting in early 2003 as a programmer and becoming (I think) lead designer by the time I first met him in person at the Indianapolis UO GenCon Meetup in 2004. While a strong proponent of putting ferrets in the game, he also spoke to me often about the Serpent Pillars, broken oceanic gateways that I was crusading at the time for a fix.

He was the one who managed to get the pillars fixed, and a lot of other great things along the way, until his departure during the aforementioned Great Developer Exodus of 2005. He managed to get his ferrets in the game with the Mondain's Legacy expansion before heading out the door and over to Linden Labs to work on the hugely successful Second Life.

Fertbert is another former of the UO development team who I'd personally love to see return, and there is no doubt he could add a lot to the game and the community if he did.

5. ImaNewbie
The first UO comic I remember, ImaNewbie detailed the exploits of a hopeless newbie plodding through the dread lord days of early UO. His misadventures captured the innocence and naivete' of many early players and struck a chord throughout the UO community.

Long since gone, his comic archive is still available for reading here. Check it out for some early UO laughs.

4. Crazy Joe
Thief, Pirate, and Stratics Moderator Crazy Joe wore a number of hats in his time with UO. He took screenshots and wrote about his humorous experiences in the game, playing on Atlantic as one of my pirate contmeporaries and on Lake Austin. He kept a running display of all the boats he had captured and was always glad to embarrass players publically with the stupid things they said or did in the game.

I got to meet Joe at both the Ultima X Odyssey event and the 2004 Community Day, where we talked about the dwindling amount of prey for pirates in UO and other things. He left, like so many others, not long after that, but his crazy works live on, aptly enough, at his asylum.
UO could use more people like Crazy Joe these days.

3. Lum The Mad
Scott Jennings, the man behind the mad, created the Lum The Mad site in the early days of UO and offered perhaps the most hilarious and biting commentary about the game ever seen. Not just the things wrong with the game and its systems, but the thing wrong with the players and community themselves.

In those early days it was refeshing to read such a site. I had no idea how messed up things could be with the game and its players until I had read that site. Lum moved on, securing the dream all fansite operators secretly have, including myself - to get a job in the game business and leave all the bitching behind. According to Wikipedia, in response to criticism by some of his readers, Jennings coined the phrase: "Please direct all complaints about me being a sell-out corporate whore to www.I Don't See You Paying For My Health".

He still offers a great read with his newer Broken Toys blog, though, and one hopes he'll take the time to mention UO for its 10th anniversary.

2. Midas
In 2000, the bard called Midas graced the UO community with hilarious UO parody songs, from "Don't Bank So Close To Me" to "Don't Worry, Be Laggy" and so many more. He captured much of the early spirit in those songs of player killing and looting, ironically at a time when such activities were in decline with the introduction of Trammel.

It seemed that every few weeks that year he was churning out a new song, each one hilarious and well - crafted. Midas even made a song for the doomed UO2 project at one point. His last post on his site shortly after 9/11 hinted of non-related personal tragedies but promised more songs on the way. Sadly he never returned, and the songs stopped coming.

I really wish he had kept going with his songs, and hope that everything worked out okay for him on a personal level. And I wish he was here for the 10th anniversary.

1. Lord British
A land without a king and an empty throne is what we've had for most of the time UO has been live. He made quite a few appearances in those early days, but would disappear for long periods.

When the man behind the king, Richard Garriott, left EA for good he took his character with him, only returning briefly to sort of wrap up his disappearance and leave the land in the care of others. At one point, also, the developers seemed to be prepping a character named Dawn to take over, but that idea was apparently scrapped.

Garriott made a recent appearance at the Austin Town Hall UO meetup, giving us hope that perhaps he'll make an appearance for the anniversary in the game. It's too bad that he and EA couldn't have worked out a deal where he would get to keep playing the game as Lord British and making appearances from time to time. I mean if I created a whole game universe and a MMORPG from it where I was king, I'd want to stay no matter what.

On this tenth anniversary of UO it's a good idea to take a look back at those who have moved on to other lands. With a bit of regret and sadness, of course, but to counter that we can all note that every day, new players join the game and the community, and who can say what mark they'll leave on us all?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Stratics UO House of Commons Chat

Tonight I once again participated in , and had a few questions answered at, the Stratics UO House of Commons live chat with the developers. It was great to participate in what is the most enduring tradition of the Ultima Online community over the last ten years, and the sense of history I felt tonight was indeed heavy.

The archived logs of these semi-regular chats on Stratics date back to February 12, 1998, which was only a few weeks after I personally had begun playing UO. That first chat was attended by 2 Gamemasters (Beast and Grond), HellBoyEC (the game's events coordinator), Stormwind (lead programmer, who is the only member of the team still with UO to this very day), and of course the visionary behind the game, DesignerD, a.k.a. Raph Koster.

Hot topics at that first chat were such things as trash cans for player homes, Asian and Australian servers, lag, hackers, house security, necromancy, Seers, PKs, and even the dungeon Doom. Odd that necromancy and Doom didn't make it into the game for another five years after that chat.

Usually, these chats were directed to a topic which was "General Discussion". At times, though, they focused on what was in testing or development, or the current expansion. My first question answered was in the chat on July 5, 2001, back when I was bugging Vex about boat fixes. It was quite a thrill to get an honest and direct answer to my question.

Those logs are arguably one of the best treasure troves for those who seek an inside look at UO's development, what the players were talking about at the time, and who was working on the game all those years ago.

Tonight, I got some questions answered about the recent change in producers, and the support at EA for UO, and the thrill was back. Here's what I got out of them:

Admiral Ruffie : Jeremy, how would you characterize EA management's support for UO in light of Darkscribe's departure?

Jeremy EAMythic : While we were all sad to see Darkscribe go - he's been an incredible asset to the team - both EA's overall support, and the EA Mythic studio's support, has not wavered a bit. Chris Rabideau (who is shy, but will poke his head out soon) is a competent, experienced producer who continues to help the team do great things for UO.

Admiral Ruffie : Is Chris Rabideau the new producer of UO, and if so, what is his vision for the development of the game?

Jeremy EA Mythic : He is, and you should see an interview with him coming out in the near future, courtesy of our friends at UOForums.

It's great to see that this tradition has lived on over the years. I highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of Ultima Online to spend a few hours reading the old UO House of Commons chat logs, found at the Stratics site here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

10 Things Ultima Online Got Completely Right

Ten years of Ultima Online has created a lot of bitching, whining, complaining, and general negativity about all the things that have gone wrong. I've certainly done my own share. In fact, a recent study at a prominent univerity which shall remain nameless has shown that UO is the third most-complained-about thing in human history right behind lack of sex and that awesome Sopranos series ending finale.

Since it's the tenth anniversary, though, I'd like to focus on ten things that UO does completely right. Things that, indeed, UO has pretty much done completely right from day one and still does to this very day. Maybe this will get me back in UO Community Coordinator Jeremy's good graces after my "Ivory Tower" and "Kingdom Stillborn" articles posted previously on this very blog.

In order, top - ten list style, so that number one is the best of the best, here we go:

10. Player Crafting
Blacksmithing, Carpentry, Tailoring, Bowcraft/Fletching, Alchemy, Inscription, Tinkering - these crafting skills in Ultima Online offer players the ability to make things from everyday items such as clocks and tunics to awesome weapons. When UO was released, some players threw themselves right into these skills and were the first in their communities to become Grandmasters at them, a sight that was impressive at the time.

Sometimes these skills (and those proficient in them) were sought after because of the items they could make. Sometimes it was because players could make a profit with these characters, selling their basic crafted goods to the NPCs for starting gold. Sometimes, there were interesting character templates that these skills offered, such as the time the player-killer tinkerers ruled the land with their trapped, exploding chests.

There was also a time that the blacksmith shop in Britain was always manned by a player blacksmith, who would repair adventuring players' armor and weapons, sometimes for free but usually for tips. It was often quite a task to find a qualified carpenter selling furniture back then when one wanted to decorate one's house. A really good crafter was hard to find, and well - appreciated when found.

As the game progressed, though, players began making crafting "mule" characters so that they could save themselves the costs of seeking out others for their crafting needs. This was the unfortunate side-effect of allowing multiple characters on each shard, but in all fairness it also allowed more players to explore these skills on their own and come up with their own applications for them.

With so many crafters, as the game expanded, so did crafting, with a variety of systems introduced to keep them all busy. Blacksmithing and tailoring got bulk order deeds, a sort-of lottery system with some awesome high-end rewards that are still sought-after to this day. Other skills got new items to make, either through simply adding them to their crafting menus or by seeking out "recipes" for new things to make through questing.

There have been a lot of low points for crafters in recent years. That blacksmith shop in Britain is long-vacated, and the best items in the game come solely from monster loot drops now instead of from a hard-working tailor. But there is hope on the horizon as the Stygian Abyss expansion approaches - the development team has hinted that crafting will be playing some part in it, and that they are aware of the current crafter's woes. Player crafting has had a huge impact on UO, adding so much to the world of Sosaria, and will continue to do so with a hopefully bright future.

9. Guilds
Right from the start, the player guild system was a hit, and is hugely responsible for creating the community that has endured all these years. One of the overall strengths of UO is the game's initial design giving the players the tools and letting them run with it, and boy oh boy did they run with the guild.

Player-killer guilds. Anti player-killer guilds. Serious roleplay guilds. Silly casual guilds. Skill-based guilds. Town-based guilds. Pirate guilds. Huge guilds with so many members that drama was inevitable. Small guilds of friends helping each other out. Faction guilds.

They gave guildmasters tools such as granting titles to players, which added to the customization of those guilds. Some had strict regimental titles, while others granted titles based on the character's own role in the guild or personal idiosyncracies.

The guild system also added various war and peace functions, allowing group player-versus-player combat within the confines of the guilds themselves, preventing interference from those outside the guild. Alliances were added later for even more depth.

It's a system that has been copied into every other MMORPG since UO, and is considered probably the most essential system in any new game's release. UO did it first, and did it right.

8. A Virtual World Unto Itself
The original designers of UO really wanted to make a living, breathing world, but some of the ecosystem designs had to be scrapped early on. Still, they captured the feel of such a world, and for those who can appreciate it, it was amazing. Animal and monster behavior stood out right away for me when during my first week I paused on my way to the bank in Skara Brae for a few minutes to watch a stray cat fight a bird.

Seeing dolphins flipping in the water, NPC shepherds out in the wild with their sheep, NPC beggars in the streets - all of it reminded me of previous Ultima games while drawing me in to this massive virtual one. So many things were in UO that added texture to the world that I often found myself stopping to take the time to smell the roses a bit too long - long enough for a player-killer to get the drop on me.

Not everyone can appreciate the depth of UO's virtual world design, but to those who can, it still stands up as a masterpiece to this day.

7. Communities
While I'm sure it's not necessarily an inteded part of the design of UO, the game has nonetheless spawned a huge offline community over the years, with more passion and drive than any other game ever made. From the message board communities of Crossroads of Britannia, UO Vault, or the ever-enduring UO Stratics, to the seedy cheat site and playerkiller dens of iniquity, for every preference, playstyle, and passion there is within the UO community, there is an out-of-game presence online about it somewhere.

Guilds have their sites, traders have theirs, and then there are those that are not quantifiable, such as the web comics, the flash movies, and the parody songs about the game. Community breeds creativity, it seems, and overall through the years the UO Team has widely encouraged all of it, so while none of it was an intended side-effect of the game design, the fostering of it was a wise decision on their part.

Many of these communities come and go, but there are always new ones developing, and such it will be thoughout UO's future.

6. Surprises
With UO, you never know for sure what's going to happen sometimes.

A simple day of hunting some harpies for feathers may be interrupted by an unexpected dragon someone lured to the area. Wandering though the remote wilderness might reveal a newly-collapsed player house full of loot. An unlocked boat discovered at sea might mean a treasure trove of goodies.

Even doing something you've done a hundred times might suddenly be different. You might come back after a long absence from the game and recall to your favorite town only to find it overrun from a monster invasion. Just the other day, I was boat mining near a monster spawn and a reaper spawned on my boat deck, instead of on the shore.

Suddenly in these situations you're forced to play a different game than you intended - to seek a quick resurrection or the quick securing of some unexpected loot before someone else comes along.

Sometimes the surprises are silly - such as that easter egg that makes energy vortices appear as purple llamas. Sometimes they are really great, such as getting a kick-ass artifact after your 200th time though the gauntlet in Doom. Either way, UO has and continues to churn out the surprises on a regular basis, just to keep anyone from getting too comfortable.

5. Roleplay Tools
Starting from the design and dress of one's character in UO, there are so many options that allow for characters to roleplay that it's almost mind-boggling. Again with the initial design of UO they had hoped that the players would run with it, and they sure did.

Those that wanted to roleplay orcs foung orc helmets and later orc masks that allowed them to wander among the indigenous orcs unmolested. Forms of dress included platemail for knights, tricorner hats for pirates, robes for mages, and even jester hats and suits for some clowning around.

But the tools provided for roleplay didn't stop there. Player-written books, guild titles, a personal profile page in the character's paperdoll that anyone can read, bulletin boards, and custom player housing have all added to the roleplay toolkit.

From there it's up to the players, and like I mentioned before, they ran with it. There really is only a small percentage of players who roleplay to varying degrees, but UO holds a big attraction for them for the tools it provides and the community that supports it.

4. Variety
Every day I log in to UO there are things that I need to do, things that I want to do, and things that I just end up doing anyway. I can work character skills, go on a hunt with my guildmates, do some resource gathering, do some exploring, decorate my house, check my vendors, or just hang out at the bank and watch the world go by.

UO's vast variety is sometimes overwhelming. There are skills I've never tried, and dungeons I've never delved very deep into. I often have to prioritize my UO time to make the most of it - if I've got an hour to play, which skill can I get the most gains on? Have I checked my aquarium today? Should I recall into town and pick up a bulk order deed?

This variety means that no matter what mood I'm in, there's something to do to answer it. If I'm up for action, there's plenty of things to hunt. For relaxing, the open sea offers peaceful fishing. If I want to feel like I've achieved something productive, I'll go mining.

This sort of variety keeps me playing, and is hard to find in the MMORPGs that have come since. UO got it right from the beginning and has only built on it ever since.

3. Accomodating Playstyles
By design, UO was supposed to be a player-policed virtual world. Most of us know how well that worked out when it turned out that half the playerbase in the early days came from Quake, and the other half from traditional RPGs. The culture clash was catastrophic, and the outcry to answer it was incessant.

The answer was Trammel, which allowed those who didn't want anything to do with PvP to enjoy the game their way, and those who wanted all-out PvP theirs. While I'd certainly be one to join the chorus of players ever since who've said that Trammel was the wrong answer to the issue, it was nonetheless the answer they gave us, and ever since those of us who were in the middle of the debate of consentual versus non-consentual player combat have done alright with it, enjoying both as we see fit.

In spite of the rough patches, though, ever since, it can hardly be argued that the many developer teams ever since have tried to shut down either side of the debate. Felucca, while its cities are deserted (but housing is still in demand), still enjoys unrestricted PvP and playerkilling, and even got its own special reward to match its risk with the introduction of powerscrolls in Publish 16.

To its credit, the UO team has resisted the call of the "Trammies" to convert Felucca into another Trammel and end non-consentual player combat altogether. Even though Felucca needs some serious attention, it is still allowed to thrive, and its minority community of PvPers carry on the fight to this very day.

This accomodating of playstyles, evolving over the years even as it has, is certainly one of UO's strengths and the developers deserve much credit for carrying the torch this far.

2. Fear
I've never known, in any videogame at any time in my life, the heart-racing, hand-shaking fear I have felt and sometimes still feel in Ultima Online. From that first death to a PK, to the first escape from a PK, to the first time I stood my ground against one and won, to the many years I spent as one, facing a human opponent when so much is on the line (mostly before insurance) was a thrill like none other.

I still marvel at it to this very day and occasionally relive it. Just last week, out there in the Felucca wilderness, I jumped when I ran into a clearing outside of town when four red names were standing. They chased me, attacked, but I recalled away with the sort of dreadful fear that would make Brave Sir Robin look like Rambo.

There are other such moments in UO, such as an untimely death far away from a healer when one has to scramble to get back to one's corpse, still being watched over by the monster that dispatched it.

Fear of losing loot was always the big one for me in those early days, when spawns were few and camped by PKs and every gold piece was precious beyond comapre. One time I was hiding in the dungeon Wrong when PKs were sweeping the place. They had killed a few other people and had seen me before I hid, and were using tracking in an attempt to find me. Just as one of them was about to walk right into me, another innocent player wandered onto the screen and diverted their attention, at which point I was able to make a successful run for it and deposit my 2000 gold into my first housing fund.

While in these days of insurance and easy wealth, moments of fear are few and far between, UO has provided me with many moments on the edge over the years, and always has the potential to give me more.

1. Player Housing
The legend goes that housing was facing a major crunch nearing UO's release. It was an intended feature, but it looked like it was going to be left out, along with boats, but for the extra work of one designer (I think - and I apologize if I get this wrong - that it was either Jalek or Stormwind) who finished the features in his spare time.

That dedication paid off big time, as the lands filled up with housing in less than a year after the release of the game. There were only pre-designed housing models to choose from in those early days, from the enormous castles which to this day still hold unspeakable value to cheap and tiny tents which were later removed from the game entirely.

The housing crunch was very tough in those days, and players begged for release. When the first expansion, the Second Age, was released in 1998 it was originally supposed to have housing, but the nature of the subserver ended up prohibiting it. It wasn't until the Great Trammel Land Rush of the summer of 2000 that the unbelievable thirst for player housing was partially quenched.

More housing was made available again with the Malas facet in 2003's Age of Shadows expansion, but the big change in that one was the option for player-designed customized housing. With an amazing custom housing tool, players were free to build their own domiciles tile by tile, utilizing almost every pre-existing style already seen in the various towns throughout the game.

This resulted in a vast change to the landscape of Sosaria as the houses became as unique as the players themselves. Many simply built huge cubes as big and tall as their house plots allowed. Others built amazing, in-character structures that looked as good as anything the designers could come up with. It was an amazing revelation into the player psyche as one could tell that the majority of players saw their houses as only the place they stored their stuff, while only a few got into their characters enough to make their houses their homes.

I can safely say that housing is one of my favorite features of the game, and no other game has even come close to doing what UO has done with the feature. With the house I have now, it will be very, very hard for me to ever quit again. That's the power that that feature of the game has over me. I own land in this virtual world, and I have made my mark on the land with it, and all of that puts a deeper emotional investment in this game that I have had in any other.

So there you have it - 10 things Ultima Online, in my humble opinion, has gotten completely right from the start. Feel free to tell me I'm wrong or add your own in my comments section.