Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Some Final Thoughts About Ten Years of UO

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's move on, though.

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

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

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

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

I asked him this:

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

And he responded by saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Binky said...

Hey Buddy, yeah, things are always tough when you have to put a game on hold. But I am holding my own as bes t I can.

Just so you know, I was also at the 10th anniversary town hall meeting in Austin... Garriott showed me up I guess...

And yeah, I plan on posting a little something, but just haven't had the time or mental wherewithal to do so.

Take care my friend.

Abby said...

Hail, Admiral Ruffie!

Runesabre sent me a link to this blog post - good stuff, well said. I hope some of the folks that love the game are still working on it (Silvani comes to mind). It's pretty easy to see that the folks in control for the past couple years don't play the game, let alone love it.

I'll hit my 10 year player mark on December 7. Sometimes I don't play for months on end, but I always come back. Nothing else compares for me.

Fare thee well!

(Former) GM Bodak