WORDS FROM YOUR SOVEREIGN LORD [Author: lum]

Taken from a multipart interview at http://www.cdmag.com/ – these are just the bits that relate to MMRPGs, you might also want to check the full detail for information on U9 and Ultima history.

On the state of UO: It’s a huge success. But I look at it and think it’s a baby-step. There are a lot of things that are brilliant about the game, but a lot of its edges are coarse. We can do a much better game.

Origin has found itself in a unique market-leadership position. But there are a bunch of people who have realized this, and there are tons of fantasy role-playing games on the way. We keep track of them on our [internal] Ultima Online II website, and there are like over 100 massively multiplayer games coming. The vast majority are enthusiast projects that won’t probably amount to much, but Sony [with EverQuest] and Microsoft [with Asheron’s Call] are pretty damn big companies.

I think EverQuest is a great game, and it’s doing very well, but it came out almost two years after Ultima Online, so there are some things that they’ve learned from us or invented on their own and done better. But I still think we measure up pretty well. Asheron’s Call will be almost three years post Ultima Online, and I think it’s a strong game too.

We are the majority of the market at this stage, and that obviously can’t last; however, EA Sports has to work really hard to stay as the top sports line, and Origin will have to work just as hard to be the top massively multiplayer company. There’s a really unusual opportunity that’s not unlike us getting into the business in the first place 20 years ago. Eventually we needed to consolidate as part of Electronic Arts, but we’re one of the rare survivors of getting on top early and staying there. And we’re in the same situation with massively multiplayer games, and we owe it to ourselves to stay there.

On PKing and life lessons: For example, in Ultima Online one of the big debates how to handle player killers. It would be easy for us to stop them—we could turn it off. And by the way, I’ve been tempted many times, because it’s such a political issue.

However, rather than turn it off, I actually think it’s better to make it have realistic repercussions. Going back to the bank robber example, you don’t go murder people, and while there may be a lot of reasons, one is because there are serious, serious downsides. So I think it’s better to make a game where you make those repercussions realistic. But I don’t think every game needs to be made like this. I think it’s fine to go play Diablo and waste everything in your path. But I think it’s an opportunity missed, for me, to not make it such that killing another person is a bad thing not just because of the moral issues but because of the ethical issues involved with living in a society with other people.

On the infamous lawsuit that took place during UO’s first year: Ultima Online did have problems, but even if didn’t people would have had opinions about every feature we put into it. It’s like the real world. You have opinions about the laws of the country, and you can democratically vote. Most people don’t think their vote counts, but even if they don’t believe this they know they have the ability. They also know they can go to their neighborhood association to get the trash pickup changed. So on the smallest micro local level, people know they can affect change. The community leader can affect the city, the city leaders affect the country, etc. So there’s this continuum of bureaucracy between an individual and the government that lets both entities communicate with each other.

Well, we created this virtual world and had hundreds of thousands of people come to live there, and there was no bureaucracy. They all knew Lord British—he’s the creator, he’s responsible—so a funny thing happened. Since there was no organization, people started sending me their opinions. But of course it’s impossible to respond to hundreds of thousands of people, so people would hear nothing back. So they presumed we didn’t care, were doing nothing, weren’t listening, were unaware of problems that were causing them great strife.

Which of course was not true. We had the entire double team [of Ultima Online and Ascension members] working on the game for the year after it was released. Now we’re down to a normal team. But until the infrastructure and bureaucracy evolved—game masters, counselors, senior players—people were extremely angry.

So it was an interesting sociological experiment, but I really believe we were doing everything we could do in our power to keep the game as high quality as possible.

On what Garriott learned from UO: You never really know how hard it is to launch a virtual world until you do it, and now that we know how hard it is, we’ll be more cautious.

Interviewer: Even EverQuest, which was able to learn from your mistakes, had a problematic launch.

Right. And, by the way, we thought we were in a race to the market with those guys, and they took nearly two more years. I had Electronic Arts breathing down my neck, saying “Oh my god, you’re gonna lose it. They’re going to get out first and be the market leader and the race will be over.” So the pressure to get out because we had to was high. In hindsight, never ship a game until we’re done with it. I learned the lesson with Ultima VIII, you’d think I would have learned it for Ultima Online.

Interviewer: What about the people that claimed there were problems in the betas that were carried over to the final product?

I don’t think we thought we were shipping with fatal bugs. However, there were pretty good odds we’d ship with things people didn’t like or we’d discover balance problems.

There is clearly a huge volume of bug complaints that are really just design issues. And we might agree, and change them over time. And as with reality, any new law can be exploited. Things emerge that were utterly unforeseen, and every time you change a law, someone finds a way to use it to their advantage.

For example, we thought towns would be safe. The first thing that happened was we had roving bands of carpenters who’d go around and build immovable chest-of-drawers that would surround people in the streets. They’d run off laughing, and the person in the middle, who wasn’t a carpenter, was stuck.

On Everquest: One of the things they did better is their combat and magic has a more visceral quality, which is a big plus. However, it isn’t really a massively multiplayer persistent world. It’s more of a fantasy Quake with a persistent character.

While there are some things we can learn from them, Ultima Online got slammed by the press for things that at least we attempted, and no one faults [EverQuest] for omitting it from their virtual world. It’s really just a level-up game, and as fun and successful as that may be, it’s not what I’m trying to build.

On Century 11 opening up a real estate office in Arirang: I was in Korea last week watching a bunch of people playing Ultima Online in a gaming hall, they spend all of their time amassing real estate. That’s their whole point in the game. I look at that and say, “I never intended for that to be in the game.” That’s an emergent behavior that I never foresaw. Those people could care less about the philosophical underpinnings of the world.

On Richard Garriott’s next online game: Starting over from scratch, that’s a scary thing, and until I started getting into it, I wasn’t sure I could do it. However, I have a game design over there in that folder [points across the room] that I’ve been working on for about two months now, and I now have regained confidence, so to speak, in myself. It’s another big research problem, but I’m a devout believer that through intelligence and hard work, you can craft extremely strong fiction and content.

Interviewer: Is it an Ultima, or is it a different franchise?

What I know how to do is Ultima, so in its heart it’s Ultima. In its clothing, we haven’t decided what it is. It does not involve a character that’s named the Avatar, it does not involve a fundamental planet called Britannia, but it is a virtual world you can explore thoroughly with lots of interactive objects, NPCs you can interact with in great detail, but it is fictionally not related. The virtues are not in it; however, it has an extremely strong commentary. So fundamentally it is an Ultima, but with a new angle.

Interviewer: But it probably wouldn’t be an Ultima?

Well, what’s interesting is my code name for it right now is the Roman numeral ten, or X. There are a variety of reasons in the fiction why that is relevant, but another reason I like it is because it comes after Ultima IX. That in my mind is a clear message to the people that are playing Ultimas that this is the tenth game.

Interviewer: With Origin’s new role in Electronic Arts being focused on online play, and Ultima Online being a non-narrative, massively multiplayer game, can you do a story-based game online?

It’s hard, but I have the answer, I believe. Let me give a description of the problem, and then my answer. By the way, I’m not going to give away some of the specific mechanics because it’s an easy answer that we obviously want to be first to market with.

As I look at the strengths and weaknesses of solo play and massive multiplayer, the greatest thing about the solo game is it’s a story for you. You get to be the hero, and every feature we put in the game you experience as if it were created for you and you alone.

On the other hand you do it alone, and few people that play an Ultima don’t wish they could take a buddy with them. We debated whether to have Ultima IX allow up to four real players on the whole quest in a full cooperative game through the story. Marketing was all over it, players wanted it, but it just became an impractical technical impossibility, so we didn’t do it. But most people want that kind of experience; however, they don’t want 10,000 other people racing to the same goal. BR>
On the other hand, the real strength of an Ultima Online is those other people. You can trade with them, you can build a house, the world is constantly evolving and changing. It’s a fabulous world. But it’s a terrible way to deliver a story. Even if we try to generate quests, everybody knows about it once five people have done it. We couldn’t even invent enough quests for every thousand people. So it’s a practical impossibility to create the same story experience in an Ultima Online-type setting.

So with X, I’ve put these two types of games together. For example, you start the game in what I call a homestead—a place to build your house, hang the head of the dragon you just killed, or meet up with friends and trade. When you want an adventure, instead of doing it like Ultima Online, where a thousand people are ahead of you and a thousand people are behind you waiting to do the same adventure, imagine that the adventures are individual Ultima games with multiple people. You go on these adventures that are custom-crafted from anywhere from solo player to massively multiplayer and everything between. The adventures could be like Quake Arena, where it’s every man for himself. Or they could literally be solo-player Ultima IV, where you go on that adventure alone.

Interviewer: So in a sense, it would almost be like the chat room meeting area linking to a series of varied full games?

Exactly. I believe you can do all of this at once. The setting I want to use as a wrapper is not like “here’s the chat room, now we enter the holodecks.” I’m creating a reality into which each adventure actually fits.

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Again, this is only a small part of the full, multipart interview at http://www.cdmag.com/.

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