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THE UNBEARABLE DARKNESS OF ULTIMA ONLINE

Kick back, kids, it’s time for a history lesson.

Apparently a previous post made some nostalgic for Ultima Online a touch angry. (Nice format, by the way. Very tasteful.) And the reasons why, I suspect, are illustrative, although not in the way the author thinks.

[Edit: Ultima Online, the MMO, is still quite alive and well, thank you. I’m speaking more in the post below of the mythical “old school UO” where wolves were men and sheep were harvested, circa 1999. More of a state of being than an actual game. Sorry for the confusion. It’s easy to make, reading message board postings of people lost in the past.]

Ultima Online was unique for its time in that it was… well… unique. If you wanted to play an MMO, well, there it was. And because of that, it achieved some very interesting things. Namely, it brought very different people into one world. It’s almost the antithesis both of the thousands of MUDs that predated it, and the dozens of MMOs that followed. It was, well, UO. And thanks to its design, it appealed to a great many people.

And thus the problem. It appealed to many people. And some of those just couldn’t get along. And the game’s mechanics allowed them to not get along in quite a spectacular fashion.

Imagine, if you will, if a game was released today that had a state of the art combat system, an intricate economic system that allowed for an unparalleled depth of business operation, and took place in a game world that was remarkably similar to a renaissance fair.

And imagine that, for whatever reasons, the game’s developers put no limits on player vs. player combat at all. Wanted to take a swing at someone? Go ahead. Knock yourself out. Whoops! We’re in a pretty hardcore PvP niche now. Even Shadowbane gives you safehold areas, right?

But wait – that’s not all. Remember that economic simulation? It extends to the dark side as well. The game’s developers, again, for whatever reason, allowed both for a pretty decent system of player housing – that could be stolen. That’s right, if you are careless and leave a key on you in a dangerous place, your killer could not only take your items (did I mention full item loot of victims on death? Sorry, forgot that detail – a fairly extreme PvP variant you don’t see much of any more) but could repossess your house. Think that one over for a while.

How viable do you think this game would be in today’s MMO marketplace? How many times do you think today’s MMO customer would meekly accept being killed and looted by someone whom they had no chance in fighting against. Losing their house. Abused after being killed verbally for being “carebear” (although that term came into vogue later, when choices began to appear in the market and said “carebears” opted out) and not part of the hard core elite. Entire skill trees devoted to allowing players to steal from each other.

How long do you think someone would pay a monthly fee to be a target?

Amazingly for Ultima Online, and in retrospect thankfully for the health of the industry, many paid for quite a while. Much of this was because it really was the only game in town. And when games began to appear that were not Darwinian full-PvP environments, not only did people began to leave UO, but UO itself changed in consequence. When you see a UO veteran spitting fire about “Trammel” or “Pre-UO:R”, they’re referring to that reaction – the rolling back of some of the more punishing full-PvP rules. No more were players vulnerable anywhere – half the world was now declared off limits to non-consensual PvP. Shortly thereafter, players could “bless” items and make them immune from theft and looting. Somewhat basic stuff in today’s MMOs. To some of UO’s players, this was the apocalypse, that they blamed for the end of their beloved game.

But it wasn’t, not really. No, what killed The Promised Land was growth. Choices. The ability for the “target” class to move from the dangerous neighborhood that was UO.

Take Shadowbane, another game that specifically appealed to the hardcore PvP player. Like UO, you could loot items from those that you killed. Like UO, there’s a Thief class that allows you to sneakily steal from people when they’re not looking. Like UO, you could attack anyone pretty much anywhere. But here is the pivotal point – unlike UO, everyone is playing the same game in Shadowbane. There’s not really such a thing as nonconsensual PvP in Shadowbane, because you signed up for the game knowing that you were going to fight. And if for some reason you weren’t interested in that style of PvP, well, there are other games and you’ll probably leave.

Ultima Online players did not have that luxury. And for some, those on the other side who developed a taste for causing misery, there actually developed a justification for it. You see it glancingly referred to in the article linked above – the “evil player”.

In UO, the “evil player” was not a PvPer (because PvPers crave challenge, something which the grief player assiduously avoids), but someone who indulged in specifically targeted grief. One sterling example would open a “gate” in an area full of new players, lure them through with a promise of gold or other wealth, and then, when they went through the gate to a small island, killed them and closed the gate, stranding their ghost until customer support fished them out. Heh heh heh. Stupid newbie. Should have known better. Heh heh heh.

The “evil player”, when called on this behavior, then claims to be an integral part of the game world. Evil needs to be fought against. It makes the game interesting to have someone to hate, right? I mean, they’re so altruistic! It’s a public service, being an asshole. Hard work and all that. Lost your house? Stupid newbie, everyone knows to carry 30 boxes and 20 furs to hide your key under so it takes a thief at least 10 seconds using a 3rd party macro program to steal it. Killed while hunting? Stupid newbie, suck it up and deal. Learn to fight and maybe someday you can be one of us.

Of course, no one wants to be a “stupid newbie”, and very few people will actually pay for the privilege. Yet, in Ultima Online, people did. Because quite literally, that’s all there was. Ultima Online was the only large-scale MMO on the market. If you wanted to play an MMO, you dealt with the PKs and the bank thiefs and the miner killers and all the other great examples of humanity UO brought out in people. The fact that people actually played in spite of all that actually speaks a great deal to the potential of MMOs.

But, for Surly Bob and the other “old school evil players” nostalgic for the glory days of Ultima Online – it won’t happen again. Ever. That moment in time was unique – and it’s gone. Because there will never again be a time where there is only one MMO. The market has matured to the point where there will always be choices. And in a dog-eat-dog PvP game, there will only be the PvPers, not the targets. Because now people actually have the choice of selecting which game to play, which game suits them best. If a person is targeted for the tender mercies of “evil players” – they simply will cancel and move on. The days of UO’s One World where many mutually exclusive play styles are forced to interact, on the terms of the more socially maladroit, are over. The market has fragmented, and cannot be put back together. People, when forced to play the role of “sheep” or “stupid newbie”, will simply leave.

Sorry, guy. Your time is over. Stupid newb.