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Ultima Online Column: Lessons Learned from a Free Shard

By Garrett Fuller on January 18, 2013

There are many ways to break down MMOs in the game market. Developers, publishers, and players try to define this genre every day. In the years from 2005-2010 we saw MMOs follow the model set forth by World of Warcraft. Every game offered a different themepark to play in. The content push was massive and publishers spent too much time trying to market the games as console-like experiences. The hours to level and reach endgame became ridiculously shorter and shorter. The sheer vastness of these worlds became unthinkable, and what happened? They all are now forced into some kind of free to play model hoping to maintain the player base enough to support their huge maintenance costs.  The money and time needed to create content cannot keep pace.

Back in 1997 I played a game called Ultima Online. There were MUDs and also Meridian 59, but Ultima Online really was the first large scale MMO of its kind. The world was a sandbox with roaming monsters, cities, citizens, and of course the player criminals known as PKers. Now in 2013, I find myself playing on an Ultima Online free shard.  I know… I’m a Freebooter.  But I did it for you! Okay, and because I wanted to revisit the old UO. But I digress. Let's get on with the point of this article. 

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It is the old version of the game and simply gives players the sandbox they have been looking for. The rules for most free shards allow players to buy into some stats and such, but the shard I play on is by the book for Ultima’s Second Age. After playing now for two weeks and using Razor’s Interface there are some valuable lessons I have learned about why players go back to sandbox games and why they stay active. Also, the community is full of hardened veterans who all work together to make the game fun for everyone. Here are a few of the lessons I have taken away from my two weeks in old school Ultima Online.

Lesson 1 – Offline Advancement

In today’s world not everyone has time to be chained to their computer to play online games. In the Ultima free shard universe the Razor interface allows you to do this wonderful thing called Macros. Back in 1997 I can remember training my Hide skill by jamming a penny into my keyboard and going to bed so that the skill would run in a loop. Macros run the code in the game for you. So instead of having to level up your skills in the old system (which would take a while) you can set a Macro, run the game, and go to bed. The next morning your skill will be considerably higher. The lesson here is offline advancement. There is no theme park to level through, no endless zones and quests you have to do, just simply setting up a system to level your skills because you cannot be at your computer playing all the time.

If you were building a sandbox world that was persistent in this day and age, what does it matter how a player advances their skills, as long as they stay in the world? I’ll break away here to talk about the skill system over the class system. Both have benefits, but using a skill-based system allows you to define your character without holding true to a pre-set archtype. If I am a warrior and I love to fight with my axe, maybe I need some minor Mage skills as well; just enough to Recall home is all I need. So I spec out my axe warrior with all the combat skills in the game, but put some points into Magery. I am not casting Lightening Bolts, but I can use basic heals and recall spells so I don’t get caught out in the hostile world. Speaking of all these skills, the other thing it does is encourage players to make alts. By using a smart offline leveling system, you can have your hero, but also have a Blacksmith who makes his armor and an Alchemist who makes his potions. Soon, a single player is hosting his own community of PCs that work together. Imagine being able to play this type of character system all on the time on any device?

Lesson 2 – Persistant World with Lots of Monsters

I am fusing 15 years of MMOs here as I compare Ultima Online to Guild Wars 2. So in Ultima Online there are locations around the world where monsters are known to spawn. The Britannia graveyard hosts all kinds of undead. The Orc Fort is exactly that (the best part is if you wear an Orc Mask the NPC Orcs think you are one of them).  In any of the deep caves in the world you will find nasty dragons and demons. These locations were constant in the game. Many MMOs kept this policy however; the concept of the Group Raid destroyed this idea. In World of Warcraft you had to wait a week to do epic raid runs.

In Ultima if you wanted to fight dragons, you went in every night and risked the depths of a dark cave. Fast-forward 15 years to Guild Wars 2. The world of GW2 can change in different locations if it is left unchecked. Their Dynamic Event system is the perfect fit for a sandbox MMO. So you have a location in the world, say a Dark Elf Tower. On any given night, you will find minions and spawns roaming around. As you venture into the higher levels of the tower, you may find a few dark elf guards and a dark elf mage casting spells on the roof. This location is there every day for players to enjoy. However, each month on the second week the dark elves come up from the depths and begin to spread out further from the tower. Crops are burned the zone expands and players are called to stop the threat. Features like this can be easily added to a sandbox.

The lesson here is instead of going crazy to build zones and quests for players, simply put locations in the game that act as areas of adventure. So what if the bakery doesn’t send you to collect ten mushrooms. Maybe the mushroom fields are just there and you can collect them and turn them in whenever you want. Imagine that scenario with the mushroom fields being overrun by wolves every now and then and you have a place where players can have fun and not follow a linear quest line.

Lesson 3 – Home Ownership? More Like World Ownership.

Houses, towers, and castles where a huge deal in Ultima Online. Many sold for a fortune in real money around the turn of the millennium, which heralded the first online trades for real currency. In a sandbox giving players their own little homestead creates an attachment to the world itself. It is not just about grinding for gear; it is now about having your own location in the world. This is always done simply on the good side of things by having castles and guards. What if, in the sandbox players could choose an alignment like classic D&D? If they were Lawful Evil they could make deals with Vampires?

Now you can build a player based home that becomes a secret lair in a dungeon. A place where monsters would come to serve you, demons would come to make deals with you, and players would come to adventure. Think about that scenario. So many MMOs are based upon players being a Hero. Even games that allow you to play as a villain give you an experience, without a location to feel attached to. Ultimately this type of world brings out the best in every player of the game. There will be challenges across the board for both good and bad. As a player I would absolutely have two characters, one on either side.

With 2013 brining in the return to the sandbox worlds, developers need to look at a lot of what worked back in the original sandbox in the 1990s. Keeping players invested in your world is the real key to MMO success. Not creating endless content that costs a ton of money. Players will go back if the world remains and isn't static. Let’s hope some of the persistent worlds that are coming out this year will follow a few of these lessons. Thanks, Ultima Online for fifteen years of fun. 

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Garrett Fuller
Garrett Fuller has been playing MMOs since 1997. He originally joined MMORPG.com as a writer in 2005. In 2007 Garrett went on to handle Industry Relations for TenTonHammer.com. Then, in July 2009, Garrett happily rejoined his old team at MMORPG.com as the site's News Manager. Garrett lives in Hillsborough, NJ with his wife, son and daughter.

His column appears here every Wednesday.
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