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Aaron Cohen, Producer

Dana Massey Posted:
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The Producer of Ultima Online answers questions on the game's past, present and future and EA Mythic's role

Aaron Cohen is the Producer of Ultima Online. With the announcement of Electronic Arts buying Mythic, the MMO vets have been lending experience to the grand-father of all games, and the young development team at EA is hard at work putting their stamp on this game. We spoke to Cohen about it.

MMORPG.com: Ultima Online is approaching a decade old, yet it still seems to be going strong. Can you talk to us a bit about the health of the game over the last few years?
Aaron Cohen:

Ultima Online is still quite a healthy game with a very passionate community. It's out-lived quite a number of newer MMORPGs, most of which launched with bigger budgets, better graphics, and long lists of world-changing features that never quite changed the world.

It is amazing to read emails and old message board archives from six or seven years ago because it seems like almost every year of UO's existence there were predictions of doom. With each new MMORPG, experts tried to set an end date for the Ultima franchise. Yet every time the experts were wrong.

And yes, the subscriber base has grown smaller over the past three years, as have many MMORPGs. I am proud to say that UO maintains a spot on the top-10 list in North America and the top-3 list in Japan.

I also think that concerns for UO's health will soon become a thing of the past. If the early responses to Kindom Reborn are any measure, I think it's safe to say that 2007 will be a good year for UO.

MMORPG.com: UO was many people's - including my own - first MMO. With so many people being ex-players, what efforts are underway to convince them to return?
Aaron Cohen:

That effort would be Kingdom Reborn, a complete re-building of Ultima Online with a new graphics engine, a new UI, an overhauled new player experience and some much needed gameplay and balance tweaks.

Over time, UO has remained a deep, satisfying RPG, but it has grown more inaccessible with age. Mostly, the graphics began to look more and more dated, and the UI more and more obtuse.

Also, veteran players began to lose hope that UO had a future. With newer MMORPGs coming out, and with EA announcing, and then canceling, plans to launch Ultima X: Odyssey, the message to fans may have appeared to be: "UO isn't important to us."

The message today should be: "UO is quite important to EA, so much so that we are making a significant investment in it."

To the folks who left, and who still remember how much they loved their first MMORPG, I'd ask them to stop by and give UO a try after the kingdom is reborn.

MMORPG.com: A day does not pass without a thread on our boards about "old-school UO PvP". How does PvP in Ultima Online work today?
Aaron Cohen:

PvP is still very much a part of UO but it has evolved over the years and offers players several options. On almost all shards (servers) there is a land called Trammel, where there is no PvP, and a land called Felucca, where there is wide open non-consensual PvP. On Felucca, you can take part in a faction war (four sides in conflict over territory), or engage in red vs. blue fighting. Red players are murderers who attack others without provocation, while blue players tend to think of themselves as more noble and will only attack reds. There is also a full guild war system that many players take part in, with wars and alliances beginning and ending all the time.

However, for those who miss the good old days of full non-consensual PvP with no safe haven, you can play on Siege Perilous, which has a rule set similar to the original UO. This means you can kill anyone, anywhere, at any time and take their stuff. That style of gameplay isn't for everyone, but for some of our most dedicated players, it's the only way to play.

MMORPG.com: In Kingdom Reborn, UO is making a high profile return to the market. What are some of the high level goals of this expansion?
Aaron Cohen:

Ultima Online represents nine years of features and content. There have been seven expansion packs and dozens of updates that have been added to the game. There is simply a massive amount of things to do and see in UO. We'll call that "the good stuff."

Players new and old have a hard time getting to "the good stuff" because of two big barriers: the aging UI and the dated graphics. The first two goals of Kindom Reborn are to eliminate those barriers while keeping everything the makes UO fun. If we can get players to the good stuff faster, it makes for a better game play experience for all. By creating eye-pleasing graphics and a new UI you can easily navigate within seconds of logging in, we'll have achieved those goals.

The third goal of Kindom Reborn is to make the new player experience much more friendly and fun. UO today presents new players with so many options that it can be confusing. If you don't have a friend showing you how to play and what your options are, you probably aren't going to be with us for very long. The revamped experience is designed to ease new players into UO thereby decreasing the learning curve so you are getting to the good stuff in the game before you know it.

MMORPG.com: Since your company Electronic Arts purchased Mythic, the way MMOs are run at EA has changed. Can you talk about the new command structure and what that changes about the development of Ultima Online? How has Mythic been to work with?
Aaron Cohen:

The UO team is now part of the EA Mythic studio and working with them has been nothing short of awesome. It's great to work with a team that gets the genre, that understands the importance of bringing new people into the game and keeping existing players happy (and how the two are very closely tied to each other), and that understands the need for quality customer service and constant QA. UO is a very different beast from the other games EA creates and we think about gaming in a different way. EA Mythic gets MMOs, and I really appreciate that. They have helped to raise the profile of the game within EA because they believe that a nine year old game can still play an important part in shaping the future of the company.

MMORPG.com: The 9th Anniversary Edition of Ultima Online can be found in stores. Can you talk a bit about what you were trying to accomplish with it and how it has been received on your servers?
Aaron Cohen:

Our anniversary products are meant to do two things: 1) Keep UO on store shelves so new players can easily get into the game, and 2) Give existing UO fans a commemorative edition with lots of in-game value, but which isn't a "mandatory to play" purchase like an expansion pack.

So far, the response has been great. We've seen trial subs go up and players who bought the pack seem very happy with the more than 50 gift items they could choose from.

MMORPG.com: As they age, many MMOs get cheaper to play. UO has not done that. Are there any plans for a reevaluation of UO's subscription fees?
Aaron Cohen:

Not in the near future. There is nine years of outstanding content in the game for players to experience, and it's about to get a nice "shot in the arm" with the release of Kingdom Reborn. Plus, we are constantly adding new content, new storylines, and new in-game events to keep the game fresh. We believe players are having as rich and rewarding an experience in our game as offered by any of the current MMORPGs. Thus, a sub fee change is not in the plan.

MMORPG.com: Over nine years of release and many more of production, it's safe to say there has been a lot of staff turnover on Ultima Online. Are any original developers still on the project and what is it like to be a custodian of such a storied game, especially if you did not work on its earlier incarnations?
Aaron Cohen:

We do actually have one programmer who worked on the UO launch, and that guy is worth his weight in gold. We are dealing with nine years of code, and he's the one guy who knows pretty much where the land mines have been buried. We also have a programmer who has been around for eight years, and he's also worth his weight in some precious metal. Silver maybe.

As for me, it's an honor to work on this game. When I started working on UO as the marketing manager about four years ago, I'll admit I wasn't crazy about it. I kept running into those barriers I mentioned earlier, the graphics and the UI.

And then I had some kind of epiphany. Suddenly I couldn't stop playing. Somehow, the graphics began to look better and I realized that the interface, while not initially intuitive, was supremely flexible and surprisingly powerful.

Since then, I've been on a UO crusade. If I could become a convert (and I played every MMORPG worth mentioning and many that weren't), then surely there were others out there who were ready to discover UO. It was just a matter of getting them to "the good stuff" faster. This led to the idea of Kingdom Reborn, and now here we are, actually working on it, with me as the producer. Crazy how this industry works!

MMORPG.com: For someone who has never heard of UO, how would you compare it to the current crop of MMORPGs?
Aaron Cohen:

A lot of other MMORPGs are theme parks, with clear lines you need to stand in and clear rules you need to follow in order to have a good time. They are lots of fun, but after a while, you might feel a limited in what you can actually do.

UO is meant to be much more like a "real" living world with lots of options, lots of things to do, lots of ways to build you character and a real chance to put your mark on the world.

We have a robust, customizable housing system that is arguably the best outside of Second Life. We have more than 55 different skills to build, letting you choose between many combat styles, crafting specialties, taming, barding, thieving, treasure hunting and more.

All that choice and all that complexity might seem a little intimidating and frustrating at first, but once you find your place in the world, it's tough to leave. Just ask the people you have been playing for nine years now.

MMORPG.com: Ultima started as a single-player RPG franchise, any plans to go back to that route with a new Ultima game? What about Ultima Online 2?
Aaron Cohen:

Right now, our focus is on Kingdom Reborn. We plan to keep UO going with new features and content that will thrill fans for the next nine years.


Dana Massey