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.

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