From someone impersonating Hulk Hogan and trying to get players into pseudo wrestling matches to the assassination of the character of one of the game's core creators, the story of Ultima Online is full of things that had a huge impact on so many aspects of the the way we make and play games today.
So many of the ideas implemented into Ultima Online have spread throughout the industry 20 years later. Some of the original developers gathered to take a look back at the development process during a talk at this years Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
“We kept debating about whether or not we can justify spending an Ultima sized budget on an online game,” said Richard Garriott, wearing a crown and full king's garb. “Year after year the answer was always no.”
Four original members of the team were present in a conference room filled with fans of the game, many still playing it today. Raph Koster, Starr Long, Rich Vogel, and Garriott all have new projects of their own but were eager to recount the creation of Ultima Online.
Technology has come a long way since 1994. Networks are 2,500 times faster and most PC players probably have 1,000 times the RAM than their counterparts did 20 years ago. Many of the systems and structures that the small team created had never been done before.
“The inspiration was a rocket to the face,” said Starr Long, Ultima Online’s director. “Doom came out and we would have multiplayer sessions where we raced each other to the rocket launcher. Someone would always beat me to it and as soon as a turned a corner I got a rocket to the face.”
The team had always wanted to take their passion for pen and paper role play games online but they never thought it was a possibility until they got into Doom. “It was simple, people were just more fun to play than AI,” Long added. “We wanted to emulate that for Dungeons & Dragons.”
Once they started to see the internet become more commonplace, they decided it was time to try and make their dream a reality. They put together a design document and technology plan and prepared a presentation for Electronic Arts. “They gave us a lifetime projection of 30,000 units and said no,” Garriott said. They tried the pitch four times and got the same answer, “We refused to give up the floor, we literally said we are not leaving,” Garriott continued. “We’re only asking for a fraction of the budget other games get, there was kicking and screaming but they finally signed our little paper and said yes.”
They may have had approval from EA but they did not have support. The team was set up on the 5th floor of one of EA’s buildings that was still under construction. They had to put up plastic to protect their computers from dust and wear gloves due to how cold it was. “We were the bastard stepchild, no one got what we were trying to do,” said Raph Koster, lead designer on Ultima Online. “The corporation was trying to kill it, they didn’t want us to finish the game.”
They started to put together a prototype and gave some risky promises like an expansive world with abstract properties, a player run economy, and a resource system based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs so that AI would actually seek out food and water. “We promised the moon and people liked the promise,” Koster added. “But everything didn’t make it into the game.”
Once the prototype was finished they needed to beta test it, they wanted to host one online but the files were to big for modem connections to download. They couldn’t send out discs since they didn’t have money for manufacturing or distribution. That’s when they decided to charge players $5 for the privilege to test the game for them.
“The projections given to us by marketing were 30,000 for the lifetime of the game,” Garriott said. “But within a few days we had more than 50,000 people that wanted to be beta testers, that’s when EA woke up.”
The production of one of EA’s trademark titles, Ultima IX, was put on pause so the majority of that team could help with Ultima Online. Just like that, the small team behind the game grew to more than 50 people overnight. Over the course of development with this larger team, decisions that the team made would lead to the basis for industry practices 20 years later. Key code access, microtransactions, and multiple server hosts were solutions to the challenges of building a structure to hold one of the first massive multiplayer games
“There is a lot of hidden work to making a game like this,” Vogel said. “30 percent is the game and 70 percent is the support structure that keeps it going.” After launching the game on September 24th, 1997 a whole other world of challenges revealed themselves. They started to see how people were exploiting the game. Players found out ways to farm rare items to sell on eBay and others formed groups of bandits to kill other players - neither part of the games design.
Specific instances cited included how the first operational player-run business in the game was a prostitution ring and the fact that players protested the perceived lack of developer communication by throwing a drunken protest with nudity and vomit. “One year we had Santas spawn with Reindeer to celebrate Christmas,” Long said. “The spawning system went out of control and players found a way to remove the Santas clothes, so we had a bunch of naked Santas running around saying ‘ho ho ho’.”
The team started to realize that they were managing a population the size of San Antonio, they were running a city. They began to consider politics when releasing patch notes and learnt that communication with the community was absolutely key to fix problems and discover new issues.
But as they tried to chase down and stamp out some of these exploits, they noticed that the best experience players were having were when they were breaking the game. “It was one of those joyous emerging moments for us,” Koster said. “This was no longer about control, we realized what we had set free. We were no longer the rulers, the new rulers of the world were the players.”