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.

Ultima Online 10th Anniversary Week !

Next Tuesday, September 25, is the landmark 10th anniversary of the greatest game ever made, Ultima Online. For my part in the celebration, I'm declaring this Ultima Online Week here at Middle - Aged Gamer. Every day, this week, barring unforeseen circumstances, I'll have a different article about UO.

I'm sure there will be a few surprises - the UO development team has announced absolutely nothing yet as to their own plans. All that is known is that they've been working on something since about a month ago.

Love it or hate it (or altogether indifferent to it), one can hardly argue that Ultima Online is not only a completely unique MMORPG in today's market, but it was the pioneering game 10 years ago that paved the way for all that has come since.

Thus, the party begins NOW!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

UO Producer Aaron "Darkscribe / Marketing Guy" Cohen Steps Down

In an announcement posted today on UO Herald, UO Producer Aaron Cohen, currently known as Darkscribe, has stepped away from the helm to move onto an "unannounced project" at EA. Here is the text of the announcement:

To The Citizens of Britannia,

It has been my great pleasure and honor to serve you these past years. Now, with a heavy heart, I must announce that I am moving on to a new adventure, a new challenge that has called me to service.

I have begun work on a currently “unannounced project” with a new EA team and will no longer be the producer of Ultima Online. I’m turning over the reigns of this magnificent game to Chris Rabideau and my friends at EA Mythic. You are in good hands.

And while I’ll be leaving you as a member of development team, I’ll be rejoining you as a player. My house for too long has gone unattended and my red friends outside of Yew gate have for too long gone untested. I will be back among you soon.

I wish you good fortune and prosperity.

See you in Britannia!

Aaron “Darkscribe” Cohen

It seems from the wording of this announcement that Chris Rabideau, one of the people behind Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot long before it was gobbled up by EA and became EA Mythic, may either be the new producer or that he is in a more general oversight position at EA Mythic and that no new producer has been named yet.

This announcement comes just before the 10th anniversary of Ultima Online, with the much - touted Kingdom Reborn client failing to live up to many fans' expectations, and at a time when the next expansion for UO, Stygian Abyss, has been pushed back until spring of 2008.

Aaron Cohen began his public work on UO from behind the scenes at EA known as "Marketing Guy", a name he certainly seemed to fit when I first met him at the UO Community Day back in 2004, where he spoke about the game's future under the direction of SunSword.

Since then, he remained largely behind the scenes during the tenure of Jessica "Lady Lu" Lewis, a very dark time in UO development history that saw the unprecedented exodus of many of UO's top developers and designers. Mr. Cohen emerged after Lady Lu stepped down as UO's producer, first making his mark by unveiling the promising early screenshots of Kingdom Reborn last year. During his tenure he has presented himself as someone who "gets it" about UO and has stated on several occasions that he was a long - time player.

Since he has moved onto another project at EA, it seems unlikely that this move is anything but voluntary. However, any real speculation is pointless until it is known exactly what it is he is working on (another Ultima spin-off MMORPG along the lines of UO2 and Ultima X : Odysssey perhaps?), and until a new producer is named and presents his or her vision about the future of the game.

Ultima Online has seen many producers come and go, from Ultima creator Richard "Lord British" Garriott (who, in spite of having long ago left EA and Ultima behind, made an appearance last weekend at the UO Town Hall meeting in Austin), Rich Vogel, Rick "Stellerex" Hall (who went on to helm the doomed Ultima X : Odyssey), Anthony "SunSword" Castoro, and finally the aforementioned Jessica "Lady Lu" Lewis.

Standard operating procedure now is for a new producer to step forward and introduce themselves, offer a fond farewell and good luck to Darkscribe, and state how great UO's future looks and that there's a bunch of special stuff coming up that they of course cannot talk about.

The problem is this. With UO producers coming and going every year or two, and with all of them saying so little about their own vision of what UO is and where it should go other than through what they actually release for the game in terms of expansions and other content, it's very very hard for those of us who invest our valuable playtime in it to feel at all at ease with any of this.

We never know what's going on behind the scenes at EA, and with every shakeup jitters are sent through the community. In addition, it's harder and harder to trust that anyone who is a producer for UO even has any vision of where to take the game, and the haphazard themes we've seen in UO's expansions - steampunk, Asian, elf - seem to testify to this wandering vision issue.

All we as players can do is hold on tight and keep logging in. Stability and leadership at EA have never been the coin of the realm, and with the departure of Darkscribe the future of Ultima Online, at its historic 10th anniversary, is once again very very uncertain.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Fifteen Years Ago...Operation Full Tilt

Another anniversary passed almost unnoticed for me last week, as fifteen years ago, on September 4, 1992, I purchased the Super Nintendo Entertainment System during a time in my life I called "Operation Full Tilt".

Full Tilt refers to the pace I was working in order to catch up with the state of the art in gaming at the time. I had owned a Turbografx 16 for almost two years at that point, but couldn't find the cash in my budget to get either a Sega Genesis or a SNES. So, I took on a second job, three days a week, until I could.

It didn't take long. By December of 1992 I had both of those systems, some great games for them, as well as some of the handheld systems of the time. The conundrum was, of course, that working 16 hour days three days a week left little time to enjoy them all.

The Super Nintendo was first because its library of games was really starting to blossom. It came with the incredible Super Mario World, and every two weeks after that it was another great game for the system. The Legend of Zelda : A Link To The Past was first, followed by Contra III : The Alien Wars, Street Fighter 2, and then the legendary Super Mario Kart.

After the first of the year I was as caught up as I was going to get, and having a blast with all these games, so I ended Operation Full Tilt and thus restored my sanity. Ironically enough, recent events have me contemplating another two job operation - this time, however, to help fund my upcoming wedding rather than catching up with state of the art in videogaming.

It's funny how geek priorities change as we get older.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Ivory Tower Mentality Continues at EA (Updated)

A recent attempt by myself to get an interview with a particular UO team member (who shall remain nameless) has apparently been shot down by someone at EA. I traded emails with this person over the last few weeks, and their last response was this:

"I asked but permission was declined, sorry."

I have attempted to privately contact Jeremy, EA/Mythic's current UO community coordinator, but she has no listed email that I can find and is not accepting private messages over at Stratics. Her post on this very blog back in July leads to another dead-end, as she has kept her profile private here, too.

I also tried the only official channel I could find at, under "Fansite Links" , where an email address was given for those seeking interviews and other similar forms of contact. I never got a response.

It's a shame as UO approaches its 10th anniversary that I could not get the interview I wanted with the person whose perpective on the anniversary would far outshine anyone else's. Through all the teams that UO has had, and through all the promises made by community coordinators to make things better, the ivory tower mentality has persisted.

I may try to get in contact with Jeremy publically about this, over at Stratics, and push the issue a little. If I fail, on UO's anniversary later this month, I will post the questions here and smart readers may be able to figure out who was not allowed to be interviewed.

UPDATE : Jeremy responded to my email saying that the person I want to interview is to busy. While she offered me an interview with someone else, I am still disappointed, but may take whatever I can get at this point.

SunSword's Heatwave Interactive Misses Its First Deadline

They don't even have a game yet, not in beta, not in alpha, not in development, as far as anyone knows, but former UO producer SunSword's new company, Heatwave Interactive, has already missed its first promised deadline.

In an article on his blog dated August 1st, SunSword announces that his fledgling Austin, Texas company is seeking a "gamer's advisory committee", and to "pay attention to the Heatwave Interactive Website during the month of August for official details about how YOU could have serious input on Heatwave projects."

Well, it's September 3rd and I can find no reference to such official details. Like many (or more likely, several) gamers who remember SunSword's years of work on Ultima Online, I am watching the development of Heatwave with great interest.

A missed deadline, this soon, may be a bad omen. More likely than not, SunSword and his team have simply been too busy to follow through on such a community - building endeavor. Nonetheless, any clean slate they had with this startup is now officially very slightly smudged.

I will endeavor to contact SunSword about this issue and see what I can dig up. Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Ultima Online - Why I'm Back and Having a Blast

I reactivated my Ultima Online account a few months ago to help test their new Kingdom Reborn client, knowing that I could contribute in my old area of expertise, ships and sailing, and I did just that - giving the development team ideas for boat macro icons that they later put into the game.

After that work was essentially done (even though the released-to-the-public Kingdom Reborn client is far, far from done), I decided to stick around for awhile. The tenth anniversary of UO is next month, and I'm sure it will be a special event. Indeed, it is a milestone for all of online gaming, even if the millions of World of Warcraft players have no idea what they owe UO on that day.

I built a few houses, did some wandering around to all my favorite spots. On one of those nights I was wandering I noticed that the plot of land that I had previously owned, and had given up when I quit, was about to become available. It was a site east of the Lycaeum in Moonglow, Felucca facet, Atlantic shard, where my old lighthouse was.

The sign on the house plot indicating its decay state also gave me the name of its owner - a player named Halister Marner. Nearby, the same player had taken possession of a historic plot of land once the site of the Atlantic Mage Tower, and the sign he had on that plot stated his intention to rebuilt that legendary edifice. I watched that plot on and off for a few days until I encountered him there.

When I asked him about his old plot that was about to decay, the one where my old lighhouse was, he said that he was indeed giving it up, but had offered it to a guildmate, with whom he was kind enough to put me in contact. The guildmate took me a few days to reach with ICQ, but replied that he had to check with another person who may have wanted the plot.

Eventually all parties declined the plot and Halister Marner turned it over to me - for free. In Ultima Online such a player and such acts of generosity are extremely rare, and I thanked him and wished him luck and pledged whatever support I could muster for his effort to rebuilt the Atlantic Mage Tower.

Once the plot was mine, I gleefully spent the next few nights rebuilding my lighthouse, complete with its small boat dock. The construction is quite difficult. In UO, player houses can only be four stories. Using some tricky optical illusions, though, that take advantage of the perspective of the three-quarters overhead view of the game, I was able to make it appear as if the lighthouse tower was actually eight stories. The boat dock, too, is an illusion and actually exists on the third story, as it is impossible to build houses over the water.

The icing on the cake, which came on the day I was done with my principal construction, was the 96th month anniversary of my account being active (it's cumulative, so the months it was deactivated do not count, otherwise it would be much more), which meant I was entitled to two veteran rewards. I choose the banner deed, which I needed to contstuct my pirate flag, and the cannon, which fit prefectly into the design.

Here it is:

But getting my amazing lighthouse back with some new veteran rewards was not the only thing driving me back to UO. All the time I was testing KR, I got to listen in to my guild chat. Three of my characters were still guilded to the greatest guild on Atlantic, the Runic Knights and the guild had grown dramatically in my absence. Way to go, Lilyth, you rock and thanks for holding onto some of my possessions during my time away.

All these new people that I did not know from before were talking about their various activities, including a bunch of new dungeons that were included in the Mondain's Legacy expansion back in 2005. I had not yet upgraded to that expansion, but after getting back up and running with my lighthouse I did, through the purchase of the 9th anniversary collection.

Mondain's Legacy, coming less than a year after the Samurai Empire expansion, was a content dump of unprecedented magnitude. So many new items were added to the game, from weapons and armor to furnitire and other oddities, that it will take me a very long time to figure them out. Hell, I still haven't figured out all the Samurai Empire stuff, and am still a bit confused and behind from 2003's Age of Shadows expansion.

In the past few weeks, I've been playing my old characters, getting a feel for them again, hoping to get up to speed so I can join them on those weird new hunts that they do. The world of Ultima Online is so full of content, so rich and varied, that the hard choice each time I log in is deciding what I should try to accomplish that day, from a list of mundane tasks to dangerous monster hunts.

The point is that I've got that Ultima feeling again. It's like the early days, when I can't wait to get home and log in again. I used to get all worked up and bitter about the endless parade of issues that the game has, and how the game's makers, EA, dealt with them so poorly. I used to get very bitter by the decisions made at the top that took the game in directions that most people agreed were very bad.

Now, I have come to a place where I can accept that they do their best, but the overall direction of the game's development is controlled by forces at EA which tragically do not "get it". None of that effects my day-to-day gameplay, nor the whole community of players that continue on with their virtual lives in Sosaria, adventuring, crafting, building communities, and socializing each and every day.

Ultima Online is my home MMORPG. I'll continue to try other ones from time to time, but I suspect that none of them will ever be UO. The fact that it's a virtual world rather than a game, and the long and storied history I have with it, and the fact that I got that awesome lighthouse back, make it very, very hard for me to leave.

See you in Sosaria!