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.

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