We are Not the Future of UO. Hell, We are Barely the Present.

So here’s the video again:

Stratics’ user Tina Small has put together a transcript that was posted on Stratics.

These are some of the things that stood out to me, and that I felt like commenting on.

I’ve already ranted about cheaters and scripters, so this will be a more positive look at the interview.

Focuses, Short-Term Plans, Long-Term Plans
Everything is focused on the 15th Anniversary for now, or rather using it as a kind of a timeline (my words). There is a focus on addressing unfinished systems, long-standing bugs, and revamping old areas. That is good!

New Players – Act like it’s the 15th Anniversary
You know a lot of people are going to show up to your party. If you give them crappy beer in the form of a shitty new user experience, you think they are going to want to come back and party with you in the future? Don’t give them Schlitz or Pabst Blue Ribbon, give them the good stuff that says you are interested in seeing them come back.

And make sure to have at least part of the high resolution artwork update available. A lot of folks are going to be looking at UO, and momma needs a new pair of shoes, or dress or something. You want them to get their foot in the door, but you better give them reasons to keep on coming through that door. 1990s graphics don’t cut it for a lot of potential players. There are people who might be interested in UO who might have still been in diapers when UO was in beta testing. They don’t get excited over the thought of playing Intellivision games and they ain’t going to get excited over UO’s 1990s artwork.

Ultima Franchise
Jeff mentions that there is “Lots of stuff going on”, not just with Ultima Online. At the start of the interview, he mentioned that his job is a lot more than just UO. I know I’m bitching, but we’ve been teased about other Ultima-related stuff for over a year now. I’ve said this before – it’s Ultima-related, and when you play something up for so long without talking specifics, people are going to start thinking that it’s just going to be typical EA – another Ultima project that goes nowhere and is canceled.

Jeff mentions subscriptions have climbed. I’m not sure what to say other than to put some money into more artists and into dedicated community relations.

Publish 75 and future publishes
Sometime this month (March). Upcoming publishes are focusing on the 15th Anniversary content-wise. Jeff discussed town loyalty, including obtaining city banners that declare who you’re loyal to.

Updating UO to “current” MMO styles
Jeff says no. I agree completely. If I want to play World of Warcraft or Rift, I will do so. UO does need to support modern computers though, namely higher resolution artwork.

A question was asked about advertising. From a long-term UO player and MMO player point-of-view, UO is not worth advertising at this point. It needs a new website (UO.com), high resolution artwork, and a better new player experience.

I see this question come up a lot on Stratics and elsewhere. Look, UO gets plenty of free exposure from some very high profile MMORPG websites. Many people who have never played UO are aware of UO. The problem is they take one look at UO and flee in terror, or they go through the trial and are hampered by a shitty new player experience.

Merging Shards
Jeff says no plan to merge servers. I don’t know why people bring this up, it’s a ridiculous question, because you are going to destroy the community of whichever shard or shards are closed or merged. The fairest way to merge shards would be to set up a brand-new shard, and allow everybody from the shards that would be merging an equal chance at house placement, etc., on that new shard which to Jeff’s credit, he brought up.

Jeff understands how disruptive shard mergers is, but it’s a damn shame that some people don’t give a shit about their fellow UO players who are happy on their low-population shards. I would bet a large sum of UO gold that the players who push for shard mergers are not advocating their shards be closed, they probably want other shards closed and those players moved to their shard.

That leads me to this:

We are Not the Future of UO. Hell, We are Barely the Present.
You can’t continue down the road of catering to us older players while ignoring potential new players. I think it was JC the Builder who said that UO producers can never compete with real life. Players are constantly leaving UO, and we are lucky that so many are able to come back and that so many want to come back, but many will never come back. Real life issues such as children, illness, jobs, finances, all contribute to UO players leaving and never returning.

At some point, you have to decide that new players are more important than a lot of what’s going on with UO. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with trying to keep existing players around or bringing older players back, but the resources don’t seem to be there for accommodating everybody. I know that many hundreds of thousands of people have tried UO over the years and then left, but that pool of players who might come back is not as deep as we’d like to think it is.

I leave you with this thought:
We were all new players at one time. It’s time to say that you want to give a new generation of players a chance to walk in our shoes and experience UO. Right now, new players are screwed unless they find a kind soul to help them out.

Cheaters, Scripters, Hackers, Exploiters, and Scammers in UO

Let me start out by making this clear: We are 6 months away from UO’s 15th Anniversary – putting resources into accommodating people who are cheating/exploiting rather than banning their asses is not the way to go between now and then.

Let’s talk about Cheaters, Scripters, Hackers, Exploiters, and Scam Artists in the wonderful world of Ultima Online, shall we?

If you don’t have 5-10 minutes to read this, then read Stratics’ Petra Fyde comment about the scripters, because it boils this entirely too long post down into an simple, yet elegant statement: They don’t want to play with the other hackers, they want to have an advantage over legit players.

In watching Stratics interview with Jeff, a lot of things struck me. I was going to comment on all of them, but something jumped out at me. Well it jumped out at a couple of people I know who sent me lengthy rants and raves in emails, and one even corned me in-game about it. So I’m going to comment here so that it doesn’t distract from my main commentary on Jeff’s video, which will be posted sometime this week, I promise.

I’ve been busy on another UO project hosted elsewhere and haven’t had time to comment on a lot of stuff, but I will get to it. It actually covers a topic where I was greatly disappointed to see Jeff Skalski’s stance. I thought the interview was great except for this and for the continued secrecy and vagueness that permeates every fiber of UO’s future these days.

Most of what I say below has been covered in Stratics UHall (nice new forums by the way!), but I feel I have to say something about it.

Stratics’ user Tina Small has put together a transcript that was posted on Stratics.

First, let’s quote Jeff from the relevant part of the interview:

Watchertoo [23:26]: Well, along those lines, with the new publish coming out, is there the ongoing discussion of third-party programs and cheats, is there anything going on with that in this publish?

Jeff [23:38]: We are taking a more active approach to the hacking stuff that’s going on. Some of our players may have noticed GMs pulling them aside. I don’t want to get too much into the details of it. We don’t condone hackers. We feel that they devalue the game experience. And those players who are not, are on unfair grounds because they’re not hacking the system like the [hackers] are. So it unbalances things greatly. The bottom line is, we know when people are hacking, and we’re going to be taking a more aggressive approach against [them]: warning them and then, if need be, getting them out of the game and off those shards.

Now, speaking of hackers, though, there’s definitely…there’s some stuff that the team and I are in discussion about. We understand that some players just want to play that way, and [we’re] trying to figure out a way where we can give them a place to play like that. So, we’ll see. Maybe we’ll talk more about that towards the summer.

And by the way, I don’t place any importance on Jeff’s use of the word “hackers” as some on Stratics are doing. Jeff is an art guy and may see them as hackers. I don’t think Jeff is trying to cover up what they do or trying to confuse the issue and pretend they are something they are not.

So Jeff says they devalue the game, and they are identifying them, and the GMs are pulling them aside and they are looking at giving them the heave-ho from the game. That’s good. Most of us don’t like them. Jeff then goes on to say they are considering accommodating them with their own area. That’s bad. Really bad. It’s bad for five reasons.

You are already warning them and it undermines your GMs.
If you are pulling them aside and warning them, then there should be no need to accommodate their ways. You don’t warn somebody, threaten to kick them out, then turn around and give them their own area. It undermines the authority of your GMs. Don’t undermine your GMs Jeff. They have to put up with enough shit as it is.

Siege and Mugen players, and others
You have Siege (and Mugen!) players who aren’t happy and who are getting ignored and not getting EM events, etc. If you put resources into a new shard for the scripters, while your Siege Perilous players are not happy, you’re not inspiring confidence in them. Thanks to Siege’s one-character rule, a lot of Siege players have multiple accounts. This is not an area where you should be playing the game of pissing off or continuing to ignore one group of players in the hopes of trying to keep another group of players, because you’re liable to find yourself weighing how many accounts this group of players has versus how many accounts this other group of players has and that’s a game that you will always lose, because no UO producer has ever mastered it. And it’s not just Siege players, it’s players that may never even consider giving you subscription money because they find themselves totally fucking confused for reasons explained below.

New Players
You have a new player experience (NPE) that is horrible. The NPE is very important in light of the fact that UO will be celebrating a major milestone in September, namely that of the 15th Anniversary – a milestone that no other mainstream MMO has ever reached (Meridian 59 players: Go fuck yourselves and stop sending me hate mail because you think your MMO has been around the longest – 3DO shut your asses down for a while back in 2000, you lost your chance at having a continous 15 year Anniversary milestone). New players are going to be coming in. If you are wasting resources on the scripters while you have a lot of new and returning players coming in who are confused as fuck, it really calls into question your priorities and whether you have a handle on UO’s future.

I still don’t see any tutorials prominently mentioned on the UO Herald about returning players reactivating their accounts. And “Support” on Accounts.EAMythic.com takes you to fucking Warhammer help. Remember that “_uo” stuff? Where is it?

You’re trying to herd cats that want to defeat your measures
The scripters are by their very nature going to push boundaries. They already know they run a very tiny risk of getting banned. As Stratics’ own Petra Fyde said best: They don’t want to play with the other hackers, they want to have an advantage over legit players.

The scripters are not going to let you confine them to a shard where they have no advantage. Telling them they have to play only with other scripters, you might as well tell them to save their $12.95 and go play on a free shard, because either they get bored and leave, or they are going to wait for the next release of their scripts or scripting software that does a better job of covering up their scripting, so that they can continue playing on the regular shards, where they have an upper hand over non-scripting players.

UO’s reputation has suffered enough over the years when it comes to exploits and scripters. Giving them a place to play, and we are all just pretending that they would allow themselves to be confined to such a place, is in fact condoning their behavior. It’s labeling UO as a game that accommodates the script kiddies. Does UO deserve that in its 15th Year?

Jeff, do you want to be the producer who came out and said you’re going to accommodate the scripters?

In Conclusion
Perhaps Jeff does not have a say in the matter and the accountants at BioWare believe the scripters have to be kept around for financial reasons. I can understand that. Well I can’t, but given that UO probably has to stay profitable to stop EA from pulling the plug, and given that we don’t know how well UO is doing, somebody has clearly decided they have to keep the scripters.

We are six months away from UO’s 15th Anniversary. This is not the time to be thinking about putting limited resources into accommodating cheaters. If you want to build some exile shard for the script kiddies, fine, but do it after you fix the new player experience and do it after you take care of some other folks like the Siege/Mugen players, and maybe even the PvP/Factions players. Plenty of them do not script, and they deserve to see their areas or shards improved, more than the script kiddies.

35 Minute Interview with Jeff Skalski, Ultima Franchise Producer

Stratics has posted a 35 minute interview with Jeff Skalski, Ultima Franchise Producer.

I haven’t watched the whole thing yet, but I noted one error in the interview – Jeff mentioned upgraded from an Intellivision to an Atari as a kid. That is actually a downgrade. Intellivision was clearly superior to Atari.

Thanks to Airmid for keeping me informed about this.

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.

Apology to Mesanna, I Read Fan (Hate) Mail, Furries, and a Correction on my Critique of the Producer’s Letter

A Correction on my Critique of the Producer’s Letter
In my Thoughts on the Producer’s Letter: The Top Secret Edition, I said there were only three new things or ideas that we learned about UO from Jeff Skalski in his January 2012 producer’s letter:
#1 Increasing champ spawn difficulty
#2 Adding value back to plate armor
#3 Addition of reincarnation tokens.

I’m not wrong in saying that all three of those could be accomplished in one or two publishes and don’t tell us anything about UO’s future. But I was wrong in stating that two of those are new, and somebody I know in-game and somewhat out of game pointed out my mistake. It’s really bad since I had written articles that covered both of those things.

#1 Increasing champ spawn difficulty: this was mentioned back in the May 2011 Developers Video, that mobs/spawns would be updated.

#2 Adding value back to plate armor: This was an idea also discussed back in the May 2011 Developer’s Video. No firm plans at the times, but they wanted to do something in the future. There were also references to ideas revolving around changing the mobs/spawn difficulties and wearables in other developer discussions both prior to and after May of 2011.

So that leaves us with really only one new idea out of Jeff’s entire producer’s letter – the reincarnation tokens.

Apology to Mesanna
Also in my thoughts about the producer’s letter, I made a comment about how everything UO producers do seems to have to go through Mesanna and that she has the power to silence her bosses. There was a bit of humor intended in that, which is why I left it out of the summary of things we learned from the producer’s letter. Producers and Associate Producers do have to work pretty close and let’s face it, you don’t want an associate producer who agrees 100% with you, aka a “yes man” or “yes woman” as it were, otherwise you could find something yourself in a bad situation that would have been avoidable if you weren’t surrounded by people who agree with you. Steve Jobs was famous for surrounding himself with people who would argue with him, and it seemed to have worked out okay for him.

However, I did phrase it rather tartly. I have no problem with Mesanna, she is critical to the team, because she’s one of a very small group of people who have a decade or nearly a decade of working with UO, and I believe that is very important. If you lose those people, you end up with a lot of people who have no attachment to UO lore and history. I like Mesanna a lot in fact.

Anyways, Mesanna, I apologize for giving people the impression that you pull the strings.

Non-Apology to Furries
I really pissed off more than a few people over my comments about how Blizzard should be ashamed of adding pandas to World of Warcraft. I never knew that there were so many WOW fans who read UO Journal, and I never knew how many of you have unhealthy attitudes about relationships with animals. Hey, if your friends on Facebook encourage you to think about such relationships with animals, or in this case moving images on a computer display since we aren’t even talking about real pandas, you should just delete your Facebook account, get rid of your computer, and move to Australia. At least in Australia, most of the animals can not only fight off your advances, but probably do you the kind of harm that would seriously discourage your views on human/animal relationships in the future. I’m just going to leave it at that.

On to the fan/hate mail. The three that I’m answering, I just picked a few highlights because either they were as long-winded as I am, very explicit, or were just better off being paraphrased.

Email #1: “Jeff is new and still finding his way around UO”
He’s been around long enough to push out the same fluffy producer’s letters that are chock-full of vagueness that have been a staple of Mythic producers for many years now. Now in Jeff’s defense, he hasn’t played UO continuously since the early days and so maybe he doesn’t realize how many broken dreams and promises and vague comments that have been thrown at us to make us shut up and stop demanding more, but he’s been a part of other Mythic MMOs for several years prior to his stint at UO. On some level he has to know how the players feel.

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