Specific Issues and Topics

Ideas for Play-Balance and New Paradigms (Dec 11, 1997)

In every game I play, I tend to analyze the details of how the game was constructed, not only in a technical sense, but also in terms of play balance, visual and auditory aesthetics, ease of play, entertainment value, you name it. I have a long history of playing computer and role playing games, and it has always been interesting to me to understand what it is that makes one game good and another bad. And being a shareware game designer/programmer, I'm faced with putting that understanding to use (even though it may be on a vastly reduced scale). (and of course, I'm a perfectionist so I tend not to be satisfied with my finished products) :-)

UO is no different. And given the fact that I've spent more time playing it than any other game I can think of (Doom included), I've had ample opportunity to make a wide range of observations about the game. I have also discussed some issues of the game with some of my friends, and we even thought of a few ideas for things that could have been done differently.

UO is not as balanced as we would like it to be. We all know this, and we hear it often. However, we must remember that it is a huge project, a vastly complex system, and it has never been done before. Balancing will take a long time, especially since there are so many people playing from all walks of life with different ideas about how it should work.

Some of the ideas I have will never be done in UO, simply because they would require a complete paradigm shift in the design. However, I think some of these ideas are at least interesting, and if I ever develop my own game as such (or end up in charge of such a project), I may put them to use. Also, some of the ideas may not be readily accepted by other players and designers.

One of the greatest ideas put into UO is that it is totally classless. However, this is also one of it's greatest downfalls too. What I mean by "classless" is the lack of character classes. No one is confined into any one thing. Those of us who used to play AD&D will remember those days when you were strictly a mage OR a warrior OR a ranger.. etc. The ability to progress in multiple skills and "create your own class" is a good idea, and helps to alleviate the limitations placed on character development and role-playing.

However the down-side to this paradigm is that all sorts of unreasonable skill combinations can be acheived. It also allows for a single "ultimate character", a set of "100%" skills that makes the character the absolute best and most efficient/effective character possible in the game (the only difference between one such high-end character and another is the selection of a few secondary money-making skills). Since there is technically only one "ultimate form", most players tend to gravitate towards it, having a homogenizing effect on the populace in the game. Since the original idea was to have a wide range of diversity in the game, with characters in a variety of fields of expertise, this is obviously an unintentional side-effect.

Part of the problem is that OSI is dead-set on creating a simulation of the real world. This is admirable, and I would try to do that as much as possible too, but unfortunately sometimes modelling the process doesn't work as well as approximating the results of those natural processes. And on top of that (and they've done a decent but not complete job at this) it is always better to sacrifice realism in favor of entertainment value, rather than the other way around.

One possible paradigm that "might" allow for more diversity would be to head slightly back towards having classes. No, I don't mean like in AD&D where there were only half a dozen or so major classes. What I mean is to have classes based on the existing skills, and mixtures thereof.

In this design model, when creating the character, a player would choose a primary, a secondary, and a third "minor" skill. These would define the fate of the character in terms of skill and stat advancement. The current floating cap on, and atrophy of skills would be obsolete and thus removed. This is because the choices made on starting skills would define how far you could possibly advance in various groupings of skills.

Let's say you were to choose magery as your primary, and swordsmanship as your secondary, and blacksmithing as your third. In this case, you would be capable of becoming a "grandmaster" (100% skill) in all things magical, including magery, inscription, and resisting spells (and possibly alchemy). However, all combat skills would be capped at 75% (expert level). Any and all other skills (including the "third" skill) would not be able to increase past 50% (apprentice level). More specifically, the primary group of skills that is chosen are allowed to advance all the way to 100%, the secondary group is capped at a maximum of 75%, and all other skills can only progress to 50%.

Now, before you start steaming about this, take a moment to think about it. What this means is that in your chosen field, you can truly master what you do, and even become an expert at something else in addition. And a 50% maximum in all "minor" skills is not bad either. 50% tailoring, for instance, can still earn you money even though you might be a warrior/mage. This also means that a warrior will never be as good of a mage as a true mage, and vice versa.

The biggest problem with this system is how to deal with changes in profession. Perhaps the simplest solution is to only allow one change a week, and any skill that is now illegally high will just gradually atrophy down to it's new cap. The reason that the changes would have to be made restricted temporally is that a potential loophole would be to change profession, practice for an hour, change again, etc, to keep several skills above their caps. Besides, how often do people change professions anyway? However, I also think profession changes should *not* be limited in time if *all* your skills are 50% or less, or if none of the current skills are affected by the cap changes. This allows newbies to think about what they're doing shortly after beginning and have a chance to make a change quickly.

Skill groupings would vary significantly depending on which skill you choose to represent the grouping. For instance, choosing lumberjacking as the primary skill would allow you to master carpentry too, however if you chose tinkering as your primary you could master lumberjacking *and* mining along with it (since both types of materials are used), but not carpentry. Or, if you think that resource harvesting and crafting should be seperated, then perhaps carpentry and tinkering would go together. Archery and bowyering/fletching would be linked too. Choosing any weapon skill (except for archery) or tactics or parrying would allow you to master all of those within that group. Animal taming, animal lore, and veterinary would be grouped together. Choosing tracking would also allow you to master hiding, however choosing stealing might also allow you hiding plus snooping.

As you can see, the groupings would be somewhat confusing at first, so there would need to be a detailed chart allowing you to choose wisely. If you end up with a combination that has a skill in both the primary *and* secondary groupings you chose, the higher one would prevail. (and to help keep the confusion down, your skill window should also display the maximum next to the actual skill value)

Overall, I think this would allow for not only great diversity in characters, but it would also limit the number of "tank mages" (since they would have to choose one side of the fence or the other, master mage or master warrior, but possibly "expert" in the other if they so choose). And this system is not heavily limiting. If you think of the professions available in terms of the combinations of primary and secondary skills together, nearly two thousand different classes become available.

As with any new paradigm, you never know just how well it will work until you try it.

Another idea I have is for the spell system. Once again, this will likely *not* be done in UO, because it is vastly different than what is already present. Because there are only 64 spells available (8 spells in each of 8 circles), it is once again possible to have the "ultimate configuration". Every mage sets out to get a full spellbook, and once they have it there's no more room for improvement or specialization (in the case of specialization, in UO there is no reason at all not to get any given spell).

What *I* would do is this. I would create a complex spell system in that there would be hundreds of spells in the game, most of which are unknown to the players at first. The spellbook might still only hold 64 spells (or some other limiting number, perhaps based on intelligence or the kind of book the mage has purchased (hehe, just think, mages buying book upgrades :-) )). That way, each mage is forced to choose what his selection of spells are, either by what he wants, by what he finds, or by what he can afford. All of the spells would need to be carefully balanced of course, so that there is no one spell that makes the mages who have it any more powerful than another mage of the same ability with a different preference of spell style.

This would allow for having different types of mages. Perhaps necromancers, illusionists, battle mages, elementalists, demonologists, naturalists, clerics, etc, and any mix in between that you can think of. And to promote some diversification (instead of people just having a random mix) perhaps within each of those types of magic there might be some limitations (like level 8 spells only being acheivable if you've cast certain collections of lower-level spells of similar type). For insance, a "summon liche" spell might only work for you if you have successfully cast "summon skeleton", "summon skeletons" (note that this one is plural, the other is not) and "summon ghouls" first, and if you have found certain special reagents that only this spell uses (like perhaps human skulls). Such a limitation would ensure that someone casting necromantic spells must have experience in necromancy, and is therefore moving into the direction of specializing as a necromancer. It would be silly for someone to have practically nothing but fire spells, except for one 8th-circle "summon liche" spell. :-)

I think also that the mana cost for casting spells should have the curve lowered from what it is now, but add mana penalties for casting while wearing armor (slight ones, perhaps 5 per spell while wearing full plate). Perhaps the mana cost curve should even be replaced altogether with something more linear (like having 8th circle spells use 8 times the mana of a 1st circle, rather than something like 20 times like it is now). All of the spell effects would have to be balanced to their mana usage of course. The spell costs could even be difined by the individual spells, rather than what circle it is in (this may be the best way of doing it).

Also, as I hinted at above, more types of reagents would be used. I like the idea of having 8 or so "common" reagents used by most spells. However, the various specialty spells should also have special reagents, most of which should be easily attainable, but may require going to certain places or doing certain things (like in the example above, you may need to carve up human corpses to get bones and skulls for your necromantic spells, and perhaps a human heart would be necessary for summoning a greater daemon). There could also be some simple spells that don't require any reagents at all, only mana. However these would be slightly less efficient per mana point used than those that use reagents.

These changes would also help eliminate the "warrior/mage" as being the ultimate form, and promote diversity. It would also allow a wide range of different types of mages, fully customizable as such, and not have a single ultimate configuration for the spellbook.

These ideas could be expanded further, like having different types of specializations within the other professions too, like having a smith that specializes in plate armor. However, I will stop here, since I have made my point. :-)

As I stated above, I don't expect to see these changes, or anything close to them added to UO, though you can never be too sure! But I hope that you find these ideas interesting, and I hope to do something like this myself at some time in the future.

** Addendum **

I just wanted to clarify. In the case of the specializations, either in magery or any crafting skill, I don't mean that the player would be restricted to those particular things, or less-skilled at similar things, but merely that they would be particularly good in their chosen area of specialization. For instance, in the case of a smith specialized in platemail, he would still be able to make decent swords and chainmail, just that his platemail would be of particularly exceptional quality relative to those other items he could make. Likewise, a mage specializing in demonology would merely be a mage with a lot of demonic spells and is a little better at casting those than the equivelant spells of other types.

Also, I'm not sure if I would use these ideas precisely as they are if I were to create a CRPG. However, I would certainly like to use them as a starting point. Heck, one of the first games I ever made was a text game written in Basic in which there were a whole buch of spells, all but the first 2 being unknown to the player at first, and the player wouldn't even know how many existed, not likely even finding them all in one play-through. So in a sense I've done it before, even back when I first was learning to program.


Ideas for guilds/events (Dec 10, 1997)

After having recently participated in two events in a short span of time (the ghost con, and the orc fort), I thought maybe it would be interesting to throw together a few ideas for player events, many of which would work well as guild ideas too.

So here is a list of some interesting ideas, some serious, some comical. Unfortunately I can only claim the credit for a few of them (some were suggested to me ages ago, and some are already being done). These need not have 100+ people involved to be fun. In fact, with only 4 or 5 people you can have a grand time doing these things (ideally you would want about a dozen or so participants). Think of them as ideas for role-playing.

  • Orcs: Dress up like orcs, talk like orcs, act like orcs, defend the orc fort (been done)
  • Ghosts: Engage in mass-hauntings (been done)
  • Amazon women: Create a whole bunch of female characters decked out in female armor, using only spears or bows. Claim a section of the road as your new base of operations, and give any males that come through a hard time (taunts and the like).
  • Circus geeks: Create male characters with no hair, a sickly yellow pale skin color (color selector all the way to the right, shade all the way left), and go around eating anything you find, including carving up human corpses in the streets.
  • WWF Wrestling: Create your favorite wrestling characters (already being done to some extent, check out the Hulkster). Perhaps even take bets on the winners of wrestling matches.
  • Election day: Have a whole bunch of characters pretending to be politicians running for office, including parodies on various past or present presidents of the US. Obviously, they would all be clamoring over each other for attention from the citizens. White shirts and dark pants would probably be the closest thing to a suit you could do.
  • Wandering gypsies: Dress the whole group in blue and purple, and maybe some reds or yellows. Males in facy shirts and pants, females in plain dresses or fancy shirts with skirts. Ear-rings are a plus for both sexes, as are skullcaps. Wander into town and tell people their future, offer to read palms, and maybe even place "curses" on those who give you a hard time. Spirit Speak would be a good idea too (you could hold seances).
  • Jungle pygmies: Create characters with 50% fencing, and perhaps some tactics, hiding, tracking, or poisoning. Walk around totally nude except for a spear, and wear tribals masks or antlers or something along those lines if you can. Viciously defend your "sacred tree".
  • Pirates: Dress up in fancy shirts, thigh boots, wear skullcaps and earrings, carry a scimitar or cutlass, and speak like a pirate. "Arrr... I got me a fine ship!" (being done on a small scale already, usually just as individuals.. perhaps a ship full of pirates that goes ashore for supplies would be interesting)
  • Monks: Dress up in white or brown robes, or even a bright color as long as the group is consistent. Go on a pilgrimage. Bless people and animals along the way. (been done)
  • Jesters: Dress up as jesters by getting jester suits and jester hats, dye them and your pants bright colors. As a group, come wandering into Britain and start performing in the streets, saying that you hope to land permanent jobs in Lord British's court.

Please feel free to use these ideas, either as they are or in a modified form. I'd love to see some of these things happen!

If you have any other ideas, go ahead and e-mail me. I'd like to hear!


Configuration Options (Dec 4, 1997) (last revised June 14, 1998)

As you may recall, a while ago my hard drive became rather defunct. I had to reinstall and reconfigure evreything. However, I could not remember all of the options that you can add to UO.CFG, and they aren't that easy to find on the web, so I thought I'd reiterate them here now. Here are those optional lines as they appear in my UO.CFG, and what they mean:

ChestOpening=offTurns off the animation of the menu-chest, which on some computerscan be very slow and painful to watch.
ShowintroAnim=offThis is automatically set after you've watched the intro movie the first time, but if you're just reinstalling the game, you can put it in right away.
NotorietyQuery=on A useful feature that will ask you "are you sure?" before doing something that will lower your notoriety. Right now it does not protect you from notoriety losses due to spells or ordering pets, hirelings, or summoned creatures to attack.
UseCircleTrans=yesThis creates a "circle of transparency" around your character, so that you can click on people/items that are obscured by walls, etc.
JournalSaveFile=d:\uo-text.txtThis allows you to save all of the text that appears on your screen for later viewing. This includes system messages, dialogue, etc. If you use it, just remember to delete it every once in a while, or else it will get huge and eat up your drive space. In my case it is saving the journal into a file called "uo-text.txt" in the root-directory on my D: partition.
ObscenityFilter=offUsually this line exists in the UO.CFG file anyway, and it can be set from the options menu in-game, but people tend to forget about it too. Do you want to see what people are actually saying? If so, turn the filter to "off".
Footsteps=offThis turns off those footstep sound effects in the game. You may want to do this for a variety of reasons, whether it be because they annoy you, or because they interfere with other sound effects (by cutting them off or drowning them out), or to save a slight amount of lag (on some computers).
BarkTimeModifier=300This parameter allows you to adjust the duration of people's "barked" text. Some people feel it stays too long or goes away too quickly. Here's your chance to adjust it.
ScaleBarkTimes=noNormally the time that text stays on the screen is adjusted based on the length of the text such that long sentences stay up longer than one or two word comments. This parameter will make all text stay up for the same duration regardless of length.
CombatHueColor=31This parameter lets you adjust the combat color cursor (helps those of you who may be color-blind). 31 is bright blue . 992 would give you a bright green. The number is a 15-bit (5x5x5 bit) RGB value. Meaning, you choose a brightness for each of Red Green and Blue on a scale of 0-31, and put it together like this: C = (R*1024) + (G*32) + B. An example would be that if you wanted bright purple, you would need bright red + bright blue and thus would use (31*1024) + (0*32) + 31 = 31744 + 31 = 31775.
FrameSkipping=onThis will allow UO to skip animation frames if it is taking too long. What this means is that the slowness of your video card will not limit how fast you can walk and do things in the game. The downside is that the game may appear to become jerky/choppy in nature when using this. So basically, unless you have a fast computer, the trade-off is between performance and appearance.
AllowPathfind=no This will turn off that annoying pathfinding thing. Personally, the *only* times I've ever found pathfinding useful is when the lag has been so bad that you get frozen in place, and I wish to have my character continue walking while the game is minimized, so that I can read a web page while lagged. The rest of the time pathfinding is more of an annoyance, IMHO.
HoldTabForCombat=(yes|on|no|off) This option allows you to choose how the "TAB" key will work. When off/no, it will work the way it always has, as a toggle. When set to on/yes, you will be in combat mode while holding down the tab key, and when you let go you will return to peace mode. Some people find may find this preferable, since it may help you to avoid accidentally attacking people just because you wanted to see their paperdoll while forgetting you're in war mode.
offsetGumps=yes|no|on|off "Gumps" refers to all interface windows in the game such as paperdolls, containers, etc. Setting this to "on" makes all windows you open appear in a position offset from the last, sort of like a "cascade" in ms-windows terms. By setting it to "off" or by omiting this option, "gumps" will continue to work the same way they always did.
AutoArrangeMinimized=yes|no|on|off This option, when turned on, will automatically arrange minimized gumps rather than making them all coincide with each other by default. When off, minimized gumps work the same way they always did.
These options allow you to adjust the colors for combat highlighting. You probably will only want to change these if you are either color-blind, or don't particularly care for the colors used for guild affiliations or something. the color numbers work the same way as with other color options for the CFG file.
AssumePlayAsGhost=yes This option will make resurrection always choose to be a ghost, so as not to accidentally insta-res with penalties.

Another item of interest for game configuration is the game music. There are 5 midi music files that are inculded on the CD for the game, but the installer doesn't copy them to your hard drive (they were added after the start of the beta, and the installer program was not updated accordingly). You can correct this by copying them from the music directory on the CD to UO's music directory on the HD. If you just copy all of them, you'll be ok. As an example, on my computer UO is installed on E:, and the CD-ROM drive is F:. From the DOS prompt, on my computer you would type:

Of course, you can do this within windows too by selecting all the files and dragging them to the target directory. The names of the specific music files that are missing I believe are MOONGLOW.MID, NUJELM.MID, COVE.MID, DUNGEON2.MID, and BTCASTLE.MID.

Since all of the music in the game are standard midi-format music files, just like what is often used on the web, you can change the game music to suit your tastes. For instance, I prefer this version of Stones over the one that the game uses by default. To use it instead, just download it, and put it into UO's music directory as "Stones2.mid" (after making a backup of the original, in case you change your mind).


The Breakdown of Common Courtesy (Nov 26, 1997)

Something which has always disappointed me greatly in the on-line world is how people tend to treat one another, particularly verbally. I used to run a small single-line dial-in free-access BBS for a number of years, and I ran a tight ship. Anyone caught being verbally abusive to another was suspended from access for a day or two. Doing it again resulted in deletion of the person's account. Of course, I had to draw a line though. Being "abusive" included racial slurs, targetted insults, and the like. Cussing that was not directed at another person was tolerated, but only within reasonable quantities. In the end I had a much smaller group of people who frequented my system compared to other similar BBS's in the area. However, those that stayed considered my board a safe-haven, a calm and rational island in a sea of turmoil, a place where intelligent discussion and constructive communication reigned.

One reason for the abusive behaviour is the anonimity that comes with electronic communication. When people don't have to see the person they're communicating with face-to-face, they tend to feel that they can say or do whatever they want without hurting anyone. And since getting on-line is what many people do for entertainment and to relax, they feel that it is a great forum for venting steam.

The problem is that the screaming and shouting and cursing can have a very negative impact on the environment in which it is done. It tends to drown out the positive communication that may be sharing that same space. All the negativity that people vent can also be absorbed by everyone else as well, merely spreading the anger and frustration.

Unfortunately Ultima Online is not immune to this. I noticed early on the the chat boards were becoming much like the unregulated BBS's where the sysop just sat back and did nothing. Eventually the board would degenerate into a cuss fest and everyone who had something intelligent to say would leave out of frustration. How can you combat it when it is uncontrolled? That's hard to say, since it could be considered "censorship" to block what people want to say. However it is clear that trusting people to be decent and courteous on their own simply does not work.

Within the game itself, this is a particularly touchy issue. Where do you draw the line? How far must one go to be considered abusive?

By some standards, there is a huge amount of "abusive" behaviour in the game. And even if not considered abusive as such, it is at least impolite. For a good sample of this, try hanging out at the Britain Bank during peak hours when it is not only crowded, but the lag is at a high. Instead of asking politely for someone to step out of the doorway, it is not uncommon for people to start screaming obsceneties at one another. Usually the target of their comments is someone who is also trying to get through the door. At other times, the person may actually be conducting business in the doorway, which in a way is also completely discourteous.

Of course, if the character you are trying to portray is a scoundrel, then go for it. But what gets me is that none of this seems to be "in character". Since when was "fuck" and "shit" in common parlance in Britannia, even more so than "thee" and "thou"? If someone spoke to me like that outside the city limits I'd be inclined to toast him with a few lightning bolts, newbie or not.

Within the game, there are *some* limits already imposed. If a person is being overly abusive in certain ways, OSI has reserved the right to consider it a breach of user agreement and may jail or delete the offending character. However, general discourtesy does not fall into that range, nor should it. You can't stamp out free will and free speech. In an ideal society/environment, everyone would have the freedom to say and do as they please, but would impose controls on themselves and hold themselves to a set of standards out of courtesy to others, and as an effort to improve themselves and be an enlightened individual.

But the world is not perfect. So what is one to do? One can always use the obscenity filter, but I for one prefer to leave it off because sometimes people actually have something interesting to say with their cusses. :-)

In an uncontrolled environment as such, the only thing that can be done is to not give up. We have to try to teach through example. All we can do is behave they way we would want those around us to behave, and speak the way we would want to be spoken to. The old familiar cliche comes to mind: "do unto others as you would have done to you". This is a universal truth. You all have probably heard that from your mothers at one time or another. I wish I didn't need to rant about such things, but until people stop acting like children they may have to continue to be treated as children.

So for heaven's sake, please be good! :-)


Ambience in Ultima (Nov 25, 1997)

Over the years I've played quite a few games, some good, some not so good, and many that were easily forgotten because they were neither good nor bad. One of the things that makes a good game particularly memorable is when it had that "special something" that drew you into it and held you there. This effect can be acheived in a game through a variety of means, and is not completely seperable from the state of mind of the player.

One of the first games to ever grab me in this way was a game put out through Electronic Arts in the early 80's called StarFlight. In today's market it probably would not do to well, even if the graphics and sound were improved to the current standards. This is not due to any lack of detail mind you, for it was far more detailed than many of the games available now. In fact, it is the attention to detail in the design process that helped turn it into a believable world with it's own history, politics, and economy. By the standards of the day, even the sound effects that were used for every action in the game were appropriate without being overkilled or under-utilized. This game was truly ahead of its time, and several new technologies were used in new ways in the creation of this game, such as the fractal-generated universe.

I mention StarFlight to bring perspective to how games often compare in these areas. There were several reasons why Ultima grabbed me so completely the first time I played it. I had not played any Ultima previous to Ultima 7, but after finishing the little "quest" in Trinsic at the beginning of the game, and after reading the history of Ultima thus far, I was hooked. (Actually, the first "Ultima" I played was "Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss", which I played a few weeks before I got my hands on Ultima 7, but it grabbed me for the same reasons as Ultima 7)

One reason I was hooked was how closely it matched my own ideas about how I would construct the "perfect CRPG" (CRPG = Computer Role-Playing Game), not only in the level of detail, but also the portrayal of the system of virtues and the use of the ankh to symbolize it. For many years before I ever played an Ultima game, I had been wearing an ankh pendant as a "symbol of my effort to lead a virtuous life". And those were the words I used to describe it too. I was so taken by this coincidence, and by how mind-bogglingly fun the game was, that I simply could not resist.

But the point I'm really trying to make is about the other reasons that I was drawn into Ultima 7. First of all there was an epic plot, with an evil force that was seemingly unbeatable (The Gaurdian), who worked in very subtle ways (influencing the citizens of Britannia with "the voice", which makes for a very erie scenario), and the ever elusive agents of the "fellowship" (which also made my skin crawl because of how they disguised corruption behind apparent goodness).

But of a more obvious and visible nature is the environment. There were simulated weather patterns, including rain, day/night cycles, cloud shadows, lightning and thunder, and even that brightness fade you see from high altitude clouds passing overhead. Not only that, but you could hear the birds chirping, and the wind blowing through the trees in shifting breezes. I had never seen a game with so much "ambience" before. I was astounded (despite the bugs in the program, and there were some serious ones at that).

When I first heard about UO and signed up long ago to be a beta tester, I had some doubts because of how disappointed I was in Ultima 8 (which also had good ambience, but other issues made the game unreasonably frustrating to me). However, I felt that this was what we were all dreaming of and waiting for. In fact, a friend and I used to discuss how we could go about making a massively multi-player game back before such things were ever a reality.

Then the fateful day came. The beta CD arrived, and I could hardly contain myself while getting it set up. Of course, it took me the better part of the day to get it working, because I didn't have Windows configured quite right (driver conflict with the Zip drive forcing it into "dos compatibility mode"), and 500 megs was a lot of space to devote to one game. However, I calmly and carefully did what needed to be done, for I was sure that UO would be everything I had hoped it would be. At least, I knew that it would have everything designed, even if buggy. After all, this was a beta test.

I was hooked, but not quite so instantly. It took a few days of trying various skills combinations and different approaches before I started to understand what would work best for me. By the end of the week, I was not only hooked, but hopelessly addicted! I couldn't help but feel that this was, by far, one of the best games on the planet. However, after some careful thought I realized that in some respects I was also disappointed.

I figured that, being an Ultima game, that it would improve upon all previous Ultimas before it. I realized that since it was a beta, the story wasn't going to be in place yet, so that wasn't weighing upon me. What I felt was missing, first and foremost, was the environmental ambience that made Ultima 7 so life-like.

Where were the birds? The wind? I thought I'd at least hear the water flowing when I walked up to a river bank. And when I walked to the swamp, I was surprised to find that I could walk right over it, without sinking in, or splashing, or even being restricted to some narrow paths (which is how Ultima 7 dealt with it). And of course, there was no rain, snow, or lightning.

I'm glad to see that rain and snow, and even simulated weather patterns are being added to UO, but I'm saddened at the lack of ambient sound effects. Sure, the game has a few, most notably the ones used in the swamps, jungles, and on the open sea. But those sounds never cease. My first exposure to such an endless sound pattern was after taking a boat trip. How odd to continue to hear the waves crashing even though you have long since landed, and have ventured into the mountains. So even though there are *some* background ambient sound effects, the appropriateness is lost in the fact that they never seem to turn off (at least not on *my* computer!).

Another thing that I was surprised about was that there was a seeming lack of puzzles in the game. So far, quests all seem to be about murder, or fighting monsters. What ever happened to good-old lever-pulling? Puzzles could keep people guessing because they could be designed to randomly re-arrange the levers and switches after each completion of the puzzle. Not all of us play from the standpoint of killing.

However, not all is bad. One of the things that made for great ambience in Ultima 7 was how the music was played only a little at a time, in the appropriate situations and places. I was very pleased to see this done again in UO, rather than having constant background music, or worse yet no music at all. In an on-going long-term RPG game, this system of music works best. I was also happy to see that many of the musical selections are from previous Ultimas, bringing a certain sense of familiarity into the game for those of us who have played the other Ultimas before hand.

Overall, I think UO is a smashing success (though many would have chosen the word "crashing" instead of "smashing"). However, I feel that the ambience could be improved. So I beg anyone on the design team who may be reading this to at least discuss these issues with the team, for I hope it isn't too late to work some of these issues out.


  • Ambient sound effects should turn off after leaving the area that they are designed for
  • Ambient sound effects should be added for more of the normal forest land as well
  • Sound for water flowing and breezes blowing through trees
  • Brightness shifts for high-altitude clouds passing overhead
  • A more gradual shift into day/night, perhaps as a single step per minute over 10 minutes or so as a phase change
  • Lightning/thunder storms combined with the rain/snow in the new weather system.
  • More non-combat puzzles
  • And of course, *more plot*! :-)


Losses from Death (Nov 23, 1997)

I just noticed today that the following was added to the Update Center:

Stat loss across the board for death of around 1-3%, scaled based on your notoriety.
As part of a large campaign waged by OSI to curb player-killing (not remove it, just reduce it to a reasonable level), something similar was already implemented in which death would result in a loss of 3 to 7% based on notoriety. A large number of people complained, and it was removed within a day or two. Yet it is making a reappearance, although with a greatly reduced "bite" (average loss of 2%).

Personally, this particular change makes me uneasy. When it was first implemented, I had mixed feelings. I felt that it was a good idea, because it added a real reason to stay alive, and added a real effect that could make killing those nasty PK's actually hurt them. However, I also thought that it could be a very bad idea in the sense that those who are most likely to die are those who aren't "powergamers" and don't take advantage of every bug and loophole in the game. Sure these losses are incurred only on the points "above newbie level", so someone who just started 5 minutes ago won't lose anything, but that is not the point.

It takes a long time to achieve the stats and skills that you would wish for your character if you play "normally" without using and abusing the system. Also note that you tend to learn more than just your 3 starting skills, and those too count towards what gets chopped down. The end result is that several deaths can indeed lower your 3 starting skills below the point at which they actually started (because you may have points distributed elsewhere). And, even if you don't drop down near to newbie level, you may lose hours, if not days worth of progress.

And I don't think I need to remind everyone that death is already painful to most due to the loss of posessions. I may think that we get too attached to our belongings, but it is still perceived as a punishment for death never-the-less. The ones who are not quite so affected by such a loss are the ones who get rich in the game, usually (once again) by using and abusing the system.

So I would like to ask one thing: Just who are we trying to punish?

Note though, that in that statement from the update center, it says "stats" and not "stats & skills". This could either be an error of omission, or it could be simply that the characters will be weakened physically but skills will remain the same.

In the latter case it may be a little easier to accept, but in general I think a lot of people will be angered once again. I can't say exactly how this is going to affect the game until it is attempted, but perhaps the issue is not how it will affect the balance of the game itself, but the perceived shift in balance by the players. After all, in the end what matters most in a virtual world is what is perceived, and not that which is actual.

I for one will be careful not to die, and I will be watching closely. :-)


Materialism in Britannia (Nov 19, 1997)

I've played a lot of role-playing games, and a lot of computer games over the years. Lately, I've also been playing a lot of UO. Ultima Online is very different than most other games by virtue of it's status of a "massively multiplayer" game. The fact that it is an on-going RPG (role-playing game) *and* it has a large number of simultaneous players that are free to help or hinder each other makes for a unique gaming experience, frought with its own advantages and disadvantages, perhaps the least obvious, but also perhaps the most important, being the mindset of the players.

How easily/completely a player gets immersed in the game environment is influenced by a great many factors. Of these, we can draw two major groupings: The Game, and The Player. Both are equally responsible for how well a player can get sucked into the game and feel like he/she is participating in a complete fantasy world.

So what exactly is my point? Well, for now it is a particular point about the players, as I will address the immersion issues of the game itself in other articles at another times.

It's rare that you find someone who is willing to seriously role-play. On the occasion that you do find someone who is truly making an effort to do so, you tend to run off because you have "more pressing matters to deal with" (I say "you" in the generic sense. However I do this too, unfortunately). What exactly are those important matters anyway? And why are people so afraid to take risks by leaving towns (ultimately getting bored with the city life)? And why are people enormously angered by getting killed even when they incur no stat/skill loss from death?


It's amazing just how attached we all get to our virtual posessions. I can understand the need to preserve a certain "look" for your character, but why is it that we all feel the need to have large amounts of "stuff" in order to feel like we can do anything in the game? Perhaps it is merely an extension of a societal value in the real world, where people tend to want to have the loudest stereo amplifier, the largest speakers, the fastest computer processor, the most powerful car, or in general the best of whatever it is that you can get.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you should give up everything, run through the streets naked, and take up the life of a monk. In fact, far be it from me to tell you how to play the game (or live your life in RL ("Real Life")). Everyone should play in the way that they feel will be the most fun for them.

However, I would like to present some ideas here for enhancing your travels within the world of Britannia. Believe it or not (and I don't just speak for myself), on some of the occasions where I've lost a lot, I had a lot of fun. It's certainly very annoying to lose everything, and it can be hard to recover, but with a little planning ahead (an extra weapon and some gold in the bank) getting killed isn't so bad.

I would suggest trying to refine your role-playing style. Think about who your character is, where he comes from, what his beliefs are, and why he does what he does. Don't choose a halberd as a weapon just because it's one of the most potent available. Are you trying to be more of a wilderness-oriented character, such as a ranger? If so, try archery, or even use a staff. Are you trying to be an old jaded smith/warrior? Then how about a mace or a warhammer?

The point is not to equip yourself with things just because they're "cool" or because they make you powerful. Try to outfit yourself appropriately to the role you want to portray. And if you get killed and lose it, then play the part!

I've been trying to take my own advice as of late, and not rely on "things". For the most part, I don't care how much or how little I have, as long as I can wear the right color clothes, so I have a stash of dyes and money that I keep in the bank for emergencies. If I can wear a blue robe, I'm happy. Since resurrecting gives you a white one, all I need are the dyes. :-)

I realize that it is very difficult to let go of your dependence on material things, especially if you are a mage and just left your "crack bag" behind, or you are a warrior and just lost your favorite kick-butt magical halberd. We've all been there. We've all taken a hit so hard that we threatened never to play again. But when that happens, we are forgetting ourselves. The point of role-playing is to play the role, wherever that role may lead, and whatever challenges may present themselves. In the long run, you get to keep that which is truly important: your stats and skills. A lack of weapons, armor, and reagents is merely a challenge that requires you to use different tactics. And come to think of it, it sure would be nice to see the taverns used for socializing, rather than just taking up space.

So all I ask is that you "stop and smell the roses" so to speak. Talk to your fellow players in character as much as you can, and not worry so much about becoming the most powerful mage, or the richest tradesman, or having the fanciest weapons and armor. Just enjoy portraying the role you have chosen, and meet new people. You may find yourself awakening to a whole world within the game that you may only have been vaguely aware of previously.


Player killing & role-playing evil (Nov 18, 1997)

One issue that may be haunting us for quite some time to come is that of PK'ing, or "player killing". I've watched the debates rage forth on the various chat boards and web pages. These wars of opinions not only cover the issue of player killing itself, but also extend to OSI's attempt to curb and control this aspect of the game.

While every side of the argument tends to bring good points to the debate, most people are very single-minded in their view, or at least somewhat short-sighted.

One side says that player killing tends to ruin the game for the more peaceful role-players. The other says that the game would be boring without it (after all, what would "good" do without "evil"?).

But the issue doesn't stop there.

It is certainly the case that the ability to negatively impact the other players, whether it be by attacking, killing, or stealing, is a very important aspect of the game; one which the removal of would greatly diminish the game. The real issue at hand is not whether to have player killing in the game, but how to balance it.

The current problem with player killing is not that it exists, but that it is not properly balanced with the rest of the game. Ultima has always been about difficult moral choices, and the triumph of virtue and good over evil. However, UO has been plagued by bands of players who attack newbies just because they are there, without any fear of reprisal.

But let me back up a step and make an important distinction here. There is a difference between a truly "evil character" that is role-played, and someone who is just a pure PKer. Someone who plays an evil character may in fact rarely kill anyone. And even if they do, it is for a reason that is within the context of the game (such as having just received insults against his offspring, or in reference to his verility). Someone who PK's as part of the problem is someone who has starting killing players because, so they claim, there are not enough challenging monsters or interesting things to do.

While that may certainly be the case, the players boredom is usually due to their own lack of imagination. It's amazing how much time can slip past when you are playing in character, just talking with your fellow Britannians. You can have a grand time without even going into combat mode. Most of the PKers I've seen just attack (after taking a moment to size you up by looking at your paperdoll), without saying a word. But also, it should be noted that after the PKers make these claims about a lack of challenges, they attack defenseless newbies, and just run away if someone near to their own level of ability challenges them. Likewise, they are also the ones who yell the loudest about being looted when they die, even though most of what they own may have been looted from those that they killed. The hipocracy can be quite nauseating at times.

But my point here is not to insult the PKers, or even to beat-to-death the issue of PKing by reiterating the points for or against it, but rather to discuss some of the recent attempts made by OSI to sanction the PKers, and keep the situation under control and within reason.

Many of the PK arguments on the chat boards lately have switched away from complaints of being killed, and more towards the patches that have been implemented. As you would expect, it's the PKers that are complaining this time, rather than their victims. For those not fully up to date on the recent changes, here are just a few notable points of interest:

  • It's a lot harder to get positive notoriety now.
  • Newbie belongings, and practice weapons now go with the ghost instead of remaining on the corpse.
  • Some other randomly chosen belongings will also stay with the dead player. The amount of which is based on the notoriety of the player.
  • Bounty-hunting with rewards will soon be implemented.
  • Evil ghosts can only be resurrected by evil healers.
  • (not sure if this is implemented yet) Killing an evil murderer results in his belongings, including that which is in the bank, being transferred to the person that defeated him.
  • Death results in skill/stat loss even when ghosting; the amount lost determined by notoriety. (removed again, at least for now)
  • Characters that are evil enough are killed on-sight by the guards if spotted in town.
These and other changes that have been added are making it extremely difficult to be an evil character. Of course, those who are out murdering left and right are complaining about these changes, but lets take a look at some of the merits of the patches.

While I have had mixed feelings about some of these changes, my overall opinion is that OSI is taking steps in the right direction. Most of the players I know in the game have been killed at one time or another by other players who did not even make an attempt to role-play (often this is evident just in the PKer's choice of names). I too have been nailed like this. I too complained, but not at having been killed. I have been killed by nearly every possible means, but what bothered me in these cases were the fact that these people had it so easy, and we had it so hard, and we were the ones who were really trying to fully utilize this world in front of us.

So the real problem has been in the fact that there were too many rewards for being evil, and not enough for being good... A problem that these patches have started to remedy. If it were a perfect world, such rewards and punishments would not need to be designed into the game, but rather the society would have a self-imposed system of controls. But this tends not to be the case in virtuals worlds (which I may get into further in other articles). If you look closely at some of the points I noted from the patches above, you will see that the issue of belongings has been dealt with to a degree. I think OSI couldn't have done a better job with that aspect of player killing, considering the circumstances and what the players have been insisting be done to try to get things under control. For instance, if all of the belongings were left behind, the ones hurt the most are the innocent victims. If all of them went with the ghost, there would be no reward at all for killing someone, and no loss incurred for dying, making death meaningless. Making it shifted in favor of being "good" was a great idea. All of these changes add to the challenge of playing a scoundrel. Being evil should be a challenge.

Note that I used the word "challenge", which is one word that the PKers have often used to explain why they PK in the first place. They should be happy, since they are finally getting a challenge, the lack of which, so they claim, is what drove them to hunting humans.

Making it difficult for people to play evil characters will greatly enhance the role-playing atmosphere, IMHO. Basically, my reasoning for this is that those who try to be evil out of boredom will find other things to do, and those who are truly vested in having a challenge, and in role-playing an evil character will probably have the time of their lives. :-) This will make evil a rare but formidable force, as one would expect it to be in a fantasy role-playing environment.

It's true that without evil, the world of Britannia would stagnate. However, allowing chaos to rule over order, or vice versa could be detrimental to the game. It's just unfortunate that balance sometimes needs to be imposed rather than developing on its own. However, this is a necessary evil in virtual worlds. A balance is beginning to emerge, so let's keep our fingers crossed that it will continue to grow into the rich and diverse role-playing environment that we all would like it to be.


= Ed T. Toton III / NecroBones Enterprises / Contact
(Copyright 1997, All Rights Reserved)