JC the Builder’s “UO is a sunk ship” post and my response

Update: TheGrimmOmen, an artist on the UO team, and one of the few bright spots in UO’s community relations these days, had this to say in the thread:

I have a different opinion, and it’s not something I’m interested on posting to Stratics, but I will say this about UO: It’s still here when a LOT of MMOs that came after it are gone. It stays that way because of the people who dedicate themselves to it, devs and players alike.

Update #2: 3 Things to Start Fixing Ultima Online – my own stand-alone thoughts on the matter.

I’d hate to lose players like JC. But I don’t have any plans on going anywhere.

I have been missing in action when it comes to my own site, but rest assured, I’ve not abandoned it, real-life priorities (paying jobs) have tied me up a bit. It’s unfortunate because there is a lot I’d like to do, both with my site, and with stuff I’d like to add to UO Guide.

UO Guide is one of the cornerstones of the Ultima Online community. JC the Builder who runs UO Guide has made this post on Stratics which talks about his views on UO. Normally I wouldn’t mention threads from other forums critical of UO – I’ve posted enough critical posts about UO here, but this one deserves to be disseminated because of who is writing it. JC the Builder is one of those people who have went above and beyond and put a lot of effort into supporting UO and its community, more than most ever will. It’s time spent assembling and maintaining the UO Guide and it’s money spent assembling and maintaining the UO Guide.

The thread is titled “UO is a sunk ship” and here is the first post:

Today I laid it all out for the UOGuide staff and I thought that I might as well make a similar post on U Hall. This is perhaps my last.

Ultima Online is not a sinking ship, it is already on the bottom of the ocean. Subscribers are at an all time low, the UO producer heads up 2 other MMOs, there hasn’t been an expansion 3 years, there hasn’t been a booster expansion in 1 year despite them being every 6 months, game additions are few and far between, etc.

I haven’t “played UO” since about Stygian Abyss. My logins mostly consist of checking houses to see if I need to activate accounts. The thing I loved most about UO was PVP. But you can only love something so unbalanced, buggy, and unchanged for so long. I managed to stick it out longer than most people, saw them come back and leave again.

I attribute UO’s leaks to a few main culprits.

Electronic Arts – If it wasn’t for Richard Garriott fighting so hard for this brand new genre of game, we wouldn’t be here today. It is unfortunate that he ended up leaving the UO team and left everything in charge of a company who has no idea what they are doing when it comes to games other than Madden. EA never expanded the UO team or reinvested its insane profits back into the game. Only 21 people programmed and designed Renaissance expansion. The entire salary of the UO team was paid in less than 1 month of subscription fees at that time.

Producer Chaos – I don’t presume to know all the facts about how UO was developed. I can only go by the results we have seen. From Renaissance “it won’t be a mirror” to Age of Shadows being a hugely dividing and buggy expansion, to Samurai Empire “ninjas are cool” to nothing for 3 years to the hugely disappointing High Seas, we just haven’t had good luck. Draconi was perhaps the best UO producer since Garriott and he apparently was laid off one month after finally launching the 3 year albatross that became Stygian Abyss. Our most recent producer seemed like a cool guy but leaves without a word. I don’t blame him for jumping ship to a new opportunity if one presented itself.

New Client Drain – The quest to make a better client for our 16 year old game has been a failure. It first began with Third Dawn, a resource hogging, bug ridden, motion sickness inducing experience. About the only thing they got right was requiring it to visit the new facet. But it was just so bad that they had to systematically revert features back to 2D. It finally died when Kingdom Reborn came around. Unfortunately all the mistakes were repeated with uncanny accuracy. All this led to a drain on an already sparse development team who had to develop, support, and test for 2 game clients. Then there are the game clients we weren’t told about, of which there is at least one. And the UX:O game which obviously took resources away from UO. Now we share resources with 2 other games.

Developer Anxiety – Since Age of Shadows, there have been very few major additions to the game. By major I mean core changes or sweeping updates. To me it appears that after creating such a divide and driving away so many players, the developers decided that all changes must be kosher and acceptable to at least 90% of the players. No matter if it is slowly killing the game or leads to stale expansions. One blatant example I can give is how monsters are so vastly underpowered compared to players. I can sit with my unarmed mage and let an Ettin or Troll or a dozen other things hit me and my life will never drop. In fact I can punch it to death. I remember when you could die to a Headless One and a Troll was an 8 out of 10 difficulty according to Stratics. UO needs major additions and changes to make it fresh and fun again. Even Blizzard realizes this with their controversial Cataclysm expansion. They have a game with 10 million players and can do that, yet we can’t manage to balance combat because PvE might be a little more difficult?

Misguided Development – UO’s development history is littered with unfinished, abandoned and wasted projects. From the much maligned virtue system, to a complete Faction revamp that was universally hated and didn’t solve the core Faction issue (rewards for owning towns) to fish tanks, it has been a rocky road. There are just so many things that could have been better if only development time was allocated correctly. Before you work months on a major game addition, maybe you should run it by the players first. Developers can develop blinders and think what they are creating is so great that players will love it. EVE Online’s CCP games had a severe case of this recently, releasing an “expansion” which did absolutely nothing. It was so bad they just announced a 20% layoff and have refocused everything back to making spaceships instead of Sims Online. What part of UO screams gladiator combat? They should be focusing on something more game changing than Arenas in my opinion. Currently there is no expansion/booster/major publish planned besides something you can already replicate in a Felucca house.

About the only thing UO has going for it is the community. It has been absolutely outstanding. Every time I see a website (Ianstorm, UOPowergamers, UO Weddings, UORadio, Tradespot, UOLS) go offline or become a ghost town it makes me sad. Most of the people left actually playing UO are going to be here until the servers shut down. I believe they would accept drastic changes if it meant an attempt to make the game great again.

This topic isn’t meant as a doom and gloom prediction of UO’s future. I make this to simply outline the current state of UO in hopes that it will change direction in the future. There are so many people out there who want to play UO again and now I find myself being one of them.

I don’t have a Stratics account, but I’d like to say a few things. We are waiting Publish 73 which is supposed to have the first signs of the new high resolution artwork update. When that will be, it’s anybody’s guess. We are also awaiting a letter from Jeff Skalski about UO sometime this week, so JC’s letter to the community is very timely. I would like to add my own comments to the general topics he raised.

Electronic Arts
I don’t blame EA. According to a Eurogamer.net article, what goes on in BioWare is due to BioWare decisions, not EA decisions. Eugene Evans, BioWare Mythic Vice President, has stated in interviews that he’s “proud” to be “running the studio that’s run Ultima Online for as long as it has – 14 years.” As somebody who plays the game a lot more than I do these days told me in a conversation a few days ago, Eugene is probably not that proud of UO, otherwise he would have been engaging the UO community and talking about its future instead of ignoring us for all this time. I believe the DAoC and WAR communities feel the same way UO players do. If so-called game journalists actually did their homework, they would not have let him make that statement without challenging him on it. The timing of him talking about all of this is also suspect – I tend to agree with those who believe he was doing some kind of damage control.

Producer Chaos
There is chaos, of that there is no question. I’d point out that Draconi was never UO’s producer. People, for one reason or another, seem to act like Cal Crowner wasn’t producer during Stygian Abyss and that’s a disservice to Cal. There is chaos and there is clearly a lack of direction for UO. I hope that Jeff Skalski’s letter will address some of that chaos.

New Client Drain
I agree completely that the multiple client fiascos have contributed greatly to UO’s problems. I’m going to wait until I see the new high resolution artwork to make a call on the current client issues. I’ve heard some good rumors and some bad rumors about it. I want to see it with my own eyes before making a judgement call.

Developer Anxiety
As for things not happening with UO’s development, I made a post about Ultima Online in 2011 and while it doesn’t list the recent arenas addition, and a few other things, it’s clear that a lot is being done for UO, in relation to the resources available. However, I agree completely with JC, a lot of work needs to be done on the existing game world. World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm was a good example, but let’s look a bit closer to home – Dark Age of Camelot is getting work done on several areas to make them more friendly to new players as well as to change them up a bit.

Misguided Development
I will only say that I think the development issues stem from two things: Lack of resources and public communication. Lately it seems like we are getting things added to the game, but without a proper context of why they are being added. That’s a big mistake to make with an MMO. Arenas is one example, but there are others.

In General
As a fansite operator, I see exactly where JC the Builder is coming from. I think in some ways we fansite operators are more keenly aware of the problems than a player, because we clearly see the community shrinking when we see other fansite operators dropping out of the community. As a player, while I’ve known friends to come and go over the years, the gradual drop in subscriptions was never felt at any one specific moment. As a fansite operator on the other hand, when I see a fansite stop being supported, that’s a sharp blow to the community.

Others have ranted and raged about how Star Wars: The Old Republic is being treated, claiming that they have more on their community relations team than all three BioWare Mythic MMORPGs have on their development teams. Is it relevant? Yes and no. Yes, because it’s clear that money and resources are available for BioWare. No, because this was a BioWare project before they took over Mythic, and because there is much more at stake for BioWare.

The only ray of sunshine is that something is happening with the Ultima franchise, but that’s not even being communicated clearly to us.

I do believe that UO is at a crossroads in its life. There are a half a dozen major MMORPGs and RPGs rolling out in a very short period starting in December with Star Wars, November if you count Elder Scrolls V. All of them treat their communities well. If you wait to engage the players until after that time, the BioWare fantasy MMOs will not survive.

Update: I’ve cleaned up my thoughts and put them in a more coherent form: 3 Things to Start Fixing Ultima Online

If you have any thoughts on this, join the discussion at the Stratics thread or leave a comment here.