Blast from the Past – the Making of UO

Ultima Online gets mentioned quite often by the gaming media, sometimes in the past tense, sometimes in the tradition of “wouldn’t it be nice if somebody did this like it was done in UO”.

Last week, MMORPG ran a two-part article:
Ultima Online: The Making of a Classic Part 1
Ultima Online: The Making of a Classic Part 2

For those of you who have been following UO for a long time, there won’t be any major revelations, although a lot of nostalgic feelings, as well as a mention of the sequels or successors, depending on your view of Ultima X: Odyssey:

The publisher would try a number of times to push out a sequel to their MMORPG, the closest attempts being Ultima Worlds Online: Origin, a time-hopping overhaul of its predecessor with elements of high fantasy and steam punk. The other near-miss was Ultima X: Odyssey – part sequel to the main series, and part successor to UO. This game was completed enough to show at e3 (our own coverage from 2004 makes for an interesting read) but as EA finally closed Origin Systems and relocated the staff to the Bay Area in San Francisco, most developers opted not to move away from Texas, and EA finally decided to cancel the project rather than bring in new staff. An awkward way to bring to an end the, once, biggest RPG-series gaming had seen.

Development of Ultima Online would continue, with expansions periodically released, but with the torn focus of a sequel and with the eventual dissolution of its founding studio, UO would never capture the type of audience that it could have if it was handled with a little more foresight.

MMORPG.com goes on to call it the most important title among the online games.

What interested me more than MMORPG.com’s two articles, is a follow-up by Raph Koster, where he he offers a few comments and corrections:

Technically, we didn’t have the engine at the point the article states; the client was basically rewritten in 1995-96. Rick Delashmit had been there for a few months when my wife and I joined the project on Sept 1st 1995; other key early folks such as Scott “Grimli” Phillips and Edmond Meinfelder also joined in August to September of 95.

I have to admit I love the idea of rabbits and deer that level up and can take on what would normally be their “natural” predators in UO:

I think I have told this story before, but the whole “dragons eating deer” example came from the design samples that my wife and I sent in as part of our job applications. We showed up on the first day and were taken aback when we were told that was how the game was going to work… So at least that much of the notion of “what the game was going to be” was set in 1995…

That crazy resource system stuff, particularly some of the AI, did in fact work in the alpha test. It led to rabbits that had levelled up and were capable of taking out wolves — or advanced players. We found this intensely amusing, and quoted Monty Python at each other whenever it came up.

Raph clarified one important bit – UO was not created by a bunch of single-player designers/developers, there was actually a lot of online experience on the team:

This is just not really right. At least on the game dev team. From that September team, Kristen and Rick and I came from DikuMUDs. Edmond came from MUSH and MOO backgrounds. Scott and a tad later Jeff Posey came from LPMUDs. We had Andrew Morris, who was the original lead designer, who was a veteran of U7 and U8. And of course, our first artist, Micael Priest (most famous for his amazing poster art for bands in the 70s) wasn’t an online gamer either.

Later, as the team grew and absorbed a lot of folks from U9 (which was suspended for a while) there were plenty of non-online folks on the team. But the basic premises of UO were definitely set by folks from MUDs.

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