Casual Play: World vs. Game and the Worst Casual MOG Ever By: Steve Wilson
Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Steve Wilson. The column is called "Casual Play" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Wilson. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.
From a casual play perspective it’s hard to imagine a worse game than what Ultima Online delivered a decade ago. It’s also surprising that from that terrible genesis we have some of the great games we do today, along with the promise of more to come. Even games touted as being by and for the hardcore player, like Vanguard, have moved far away from the horrible experience that was UO.
My time spent in UO lasted exactly two days. At $50 per game that was also the shortest amount of time I’ve ever spent with any video game. It would be several years until Master of Orion 3 would come along and steal away the title of worst computer game ever, but that still left UO as my very worst MMO.
It wasn’t just that the game was unfriendly to casual players, it was downright hostile. In every areana possible, it had chosen to be a simulation rather than a game. Right out of the gates the very first thing I noticed was that Ultima Online had absolutely no content. From the moment the player was dumped in the starting city, there was no indication of where they should go or what should do. The developers simply threw the players into their world without so much as a starting quest to guide players to where the fun was. This concept alone was antithical to what every other game in the world did. All of the old RPGs gave the player an immediate goal which, at the very least, start them on their path. As a newcomer to this world, I wasn’t sure what the possibilities were. There were some randomly chosen skills from character creation that hinted at things that might be fun to pusue, but I had no hint as to how to start any of them.
On the first day of the game I wandered aimlessly; desperate to find something fun do. Figuring that fighting things might be fun, I set out to find some beasties with which to do combat. There were none. For some reason, the developers chose to create a world as their primary goal. In a world, the ecosystem might run out of monsters. This happens because, as a simulation, the environment can sustain only so many monsters. When they are hunted to extinction there are no more. A game is more lenient. If players need monsters, it makes them out of thin air since its goal is to entertain. The developers of UO for some reason didn’t care that players were paying subscription fees to be entertained. They chose to simulate a world and therefore deny players any new monster to enjoy killing if the simulation mandated that there should not be any. It’s an interesting concept for a university or environmental agency, but as a game it missed the key point that players want fun things to do.
I did however find out almost immediately what a PK was. Faster than I could blink, a couple of other players riddled me with arrows and fireballs and looted the few crummy coppers I had in my bags. In a world the week are victims in the game of survival of the fittest. That game is a lot of fun if you’re the one doing the surviving, not so much when you’re the one constantly dirtnapping. And ever worse when it's dirtnapping coupled with item loss. As a simulation, it was a great experiment in observing the social trends in psychopaths. After all, simulations don’t care about fairness. Players of a game however become frustrated when the situation encountered is grossly imbalanced against them. As a newbie, just looking for something fun and interesting to do, being repeatedly killed was not making the experience any fonder.
On my second day I decided to try out crafting. I’d picked some crafting skills because the thought of being able to get away from combat and create items useful to other players sounded very interesting. Again the lack of content and starting missions really hurt the game once again. While I wanted to try out this crafting business I had literally no idea how to get started. Asking for help in chat only opened me up to insults from a mostly hostile audience. Just before giving up in complete frustration however an experienced player from the beta came to my aid. Other players I was beginning to discover could be a great resource but having to rely on the mercy of strangers made me feel more like a victim than I had during my PK encounters. Mining, I found out, required venturing out of the city and exposing myself to victimization yet again. I was also told cruel players would let me mine happily away only to gank me on the way back to town and then steal the labors of my virtual work. So I decided to give tailoring a shot. In no time at all I’d spent all of my cash on materials, improved some skills and made some items. Of course no one wanted those crummy newbie items, so I’d be forced to sell them to a vendor. Only once again, the specter of world over game reared its ugly head. The NPCs didn’t want my crummy crated items either, see they were simulated as well. Rather than be rewarded for the somewhat boring tasks of combining items in a virtual sweatshop of my own creation, I was stuck with items that were pretty much useless to everyone.
I’d had enough of the developers being wrong at every turn. Where they could have fudged the systems to reward players for partaking in the game, they instead chose to create a simulation of a real world. In the real world, there are ugly things like car wrecks and species extinction, I seriously doubt either are much fun. This was my first taste with the world versus game debate and it had left me firmly entrenched in the game camp. I knew that I wanted to enjoy myself more than marvel at the complexities of an ecosystem that would kill me through ennui.
Furious that I’d blown $50 on what Computer Gaming World would go on to call “Coaster of the Year” I swore never to play another multiplayer game ever again. My only previous experience had been a couple of yawn inducing hours of The Realm. But then EverQuest eventually came along and showed that with a little game thrown in even playing a virtual rat catcher could be fun.