[MUD-Dev] WIRED: Kilers have more fun

J C Lawrence claw at under.engr.sgi.com
Mon Jun 22 14:46:36 New Zealand Standard Time 1998


Killers Have More Fun

Games like Ultima Online are grand social experiments in community

There's just one little problem. 

By Amy Jo Kim 

Tonight, like every night for the past eight months, tens of thousands
of players will log on to Britannia, a fictional online
universe. They'll come to embroider upon make-believe lives as
healers, fighters, mages, and rogues. And they'll stay - up to four
hours each - because of the seductive quality of pure
immersion. Zooming in from around the world, this nightly legion has
made Origin's Ultima Online the fastest-growing networked game in the
genre's short history. Despite formidable hardware requirements, a
steep learning curve, and wildly mixed reviews, more than 100,000
copies of UO were sold in its first three months.

So what's going on here? Something out of the ordinary, beginning with
the sheer dimensions of the playing field. UO is massive: Each of its
10 servers can hold 2,500 simultaneous players. (In contrast, the
graphical chat environment PalaceServer can support 1,000 users in one
location at the same time, and id Software's famed Quake II can handle
only 200 players.) As demand grows, Origin can launch new "shards" -
servers holding parallel worlds - to support even more players.On some
nights, more than 14,000 players are logged on at once. More than half
of them log on every day.

Ultima Online is not the first multiplayer networked role-playing game
- an honor generally given to Diabloor Meridian 59. And other
developers have since leaped into the multiplayer arena. With
impressive visuals and a true 3-D engine, Sony's upcoming EverQuestis
widely expected to give UO a run for its money. A similar game,
Asheron's Call,will enjoy the benefit of Microsoft's marketing
muscle. A buzz is building around Kaon Interactive's Terra: Battle for
the Outland,developed by former BBN employees including Albert Stevens
and Joshua Smith, who created military-training sims for the
Department of Defense. 10six,due out this summer, raises the stakes
even further, with a virtual economy based on real dollars and hosting
up to 1 million players at a time.

UO, for its part, was introduced last September with a blockbuster
marketing campaign of Hollywood proportions. And the game delivers the
visual goods. The towns, forests, and dungeons of Britannia are more
than just intricately rendered; details are meaningful - you can pick
up and read a book on the library shelf or play a game of checkers in
the tavern. The people and creatures are charmingly animated; sound
effects and music cues are used sparingly yet effectively. You hear
hoofbeats as you watch three knights ride by on horseback, their capes
flowing in the breeze, followed by a lumbering bear and a bedraggled

Equally important, Ultima Online's territories are the most expansive
yet in the online gaming world. Britannia occupies some 32,000
screens, with 15 major cities, 9 shrines, 7 dungeons, and vast
stretches of uncharted wilderness. As more and more players put down
roots, the landscape in each of the parallel Britannias changes
accordingly. A citizen of this vast land, meanwhile, is born naked and
accumulates clothing and possessions, whether by making, buying, or
stealing them. With practice, players become progressively more
powerful and skillful - and it's reflected in their outfits.  Indeed,
seniority and in-game savvy is expressed in an immediate, graphic way:
The clothes make the man or woman. The visual correspondence between
what things look like and what they can do is exhilarating.

And let us not forget Britannia's emergent economy, another
distinctive characteristic and the source of an extraordinary amount
of strategizing, not to mention wardrobe acquiring, day in and day
out. Players can develop many skills and myriad ways to exploit them
for cash. The result - a community that rewards obsessive dedication
and reveals inner characteristics through worldly trappings in
hyperreal-time - is something compelling. In fact, it's nearly

So what's the problem? A few weeks after UO's release, a player named
Mohdri Dragon initiated one of the game's first public displays of
civil disobedience, to call attention to Origin's lax response to
numerous unfixed bugs while it built new features.  Hundreds of
players gathered together in the capital, stripped their characters
naked, and stormed the castle of Lord British - aka Richard Garriott,
the real-life creator of the Ultima series. Once inside the castle,
the players drank themselves silly, trashed Lord British's throne
room, and protested loudly, much to the amusement and consternation of
the game's developers. "Everyone had a strong opinion, and many
players were expressing opposite sides of the same issue," says Lord
British, who watched the event from behind an invisible cloak. The
players, in other words, started to behave like citizens anywhere.

But the true dilemma goes way beyond the bugs. Johnny Wilson, a huge
fan of the Ultima series from which UO springs, sees role-playing
games as interactive ethical parables. "The best Ultima games made
people realize that there were consequences to their actions," he
says, "and that life is not black-and-white." A deceptively jolly
person with a disarming manner and a nose for bullshit, Wilson is
editor in chief of Computer Gaming Worldand a recovering biblical
scholar with a PhD in Old Testament studies. He went into gaming
believing that "role-playing games will be the true religion of the
21st century."

Now, Wilson resorts to the classics to express his deep unhappiness
with UO: "Ultima Online begins with hubris and ends in Greek
tragedy. The hubris is a result of being unwilling to learn from
others' mistakes. The tragedy is that it could have been so much

Wilson's assessment is typical of the gaming-industry élite. Randy
Farmer, virtual-worlds pioneer and senior designer at Electric
Communities, says, "Unfortunately, Origin seems to have ignored many
of the lessons that our industry has learned in the last 10 years of
building online worlds. They're making the same mistakes that
first-time virtual-world builders always make."

What he means is that the people behind UO neglected, in their
obsession with realism, to create a meaningful moral experience for
players - dramatic story lines or quests guided by noble purposes or
even a system of civic rewards. There's no shortage of realism in this
game - the trouble is, many of the nonviolent activities in UO are
realistic to the point of numbingly lifelike boredom: If you choose to
be a tailor, you can make a passable living at it, but only after
untold hours of repetitive sewing. And there's no moral incentive for
choosing tailoring - or any honorable, upstanding vocation, for that
matter. So why be a tailor? In fact, why not prey on the tailors?

True, Ultima Online is many things to many people. Habitués of online
salons come looking for intellectual sparring and verbal
repartee. Some other people log on in search of intimate but anonymous
social relationships. Still others play the game with cunning yet also
a discernible amount of self-restraint, getting rich while staying
pretty honest.  But there's no avoiding where the real action is: An
ever-growing number are playing UO to kill everything that moves.

The white magic of the avatar 

Ultima Online, Richard Garriott originally promised, would be "a
living breathing magical place, where people could forge true
alternative lives." More than 2.5 million copies of Ultima's first
eight installments sold worldwide, and fans eagerly awaited the
arrival of the online version of their beloved alternative universe.

Garriott had published his first role-playing game, Akalabeth,in 1979,
when he was 19.  It was an early graphic adventure game for the Apple
IIe, heavily influenced by his experiences playing Dungeons &
Dragonswith friends. The game did reasonably well, and Garriott
dropped out of college to pursue his dream of creating computer games
full-time. He quickly published several more games, under the name

After completing Ultima III, Garriott, still in his early 20s, became
troubled by the lack of moral context in his games - a criticism
widely levied against his first gaming love, D&D. He even received
letters accusing him of being "the Satanic perverter of America's
youth." The criticism hit home. Garriott decided to use his creations
to explore the ethical and spiritual issues that he was wrestling with
in his own life. With Ultima IV, he created a game that you would win
only by upholding what he called the Eight Britannian Virtues:
compassion, valor, honor, honesty, spirituality, sacrifice, justice,
and humility. The player who met the challenges of the game within
this moral code became not just a hero, but the Avatar, savior of
Britannia. Yet Garriott had moments of doubting the value of
virtue. "While I was writing Ultima IV," he remembers, "I was sure
that nobody would get it, people would hate it, and it would be the
end of my career."

But his gamble paid off - big time. Released in 1985, Ultima IV sold
180,000 units on the Apple IIe - a big hit for that machine. Garriott
developed his next two Ultima game worlds around his concept of the
Avatar and the Virtues and extended the in-game philosophy to address
an even broader range of social and moral issues - paying particular
attention to the murky territory between good and evil. Ultima VI,
released in 1990, was a thoughtful treatise on prejudice that caused
people to see their own social assumptions in a new light. Ultima
VIIexplored the dangers of fundamentalism, with its rigid adherence to
moral strictures; 1994's Ultima VIII further deepened the conflict
between darkness and light.

The series was heralded as a welcome alternative to the mindless
violence of many computer games; Ultima hatched thousands of
dedicated, participatory fans and several online clubs. And within the
fan pantheon, no one was more revered than Lord British, ruler of

Lord British is an idealized father figure - strong and brave, patient
and loving, wise and powerful - a suitable mien for the alter ego of
the games' creator. Garriott lives in a custom-built castle in Austin,
Texas, where he collects medieval armor, ancient astronomical devices,
and ritualistic African masks. He regularly attends fantasy-gaming
conventions as Lord British, dressed in full medieval regalia and
proclaiming the gospel of Ultima to his loyal subjects. Garriott is
known for his friendly and accessible manner and for taking the time
to mingle with fans. "A couple of years ago," remembers one Lord
British admirer, Lady Whisper, "we held a barbecue at our house for
the Ultima fans attending GenCon, a fantasy convention here in
Milwaukee. I invited Richard to join us, and he brought along several
Origin employees and friends and stayed more than three hours." On her
Web page, Lady Whisper proudly displays a cherished photograph from
this event: her son, Adam Dupre (named for an Ultima character),
seated happily in the lap of Lord British.

The black magic of player-killers 

Garriott sees Ultima Online as a natural extension of the Ultima
legacy, but virtuous role-playing fans had better check their utopian
visions at the door. In the Ultima Online of today, many of the
thousands of players who slide in nightly appear never to have heard
of the Eight Virtues. Britannia is overrun with maniacal, brutal,
twitchy-fingered Quakekillers who are ready to murder anyone on
sight. Whether this development was intentional or inevitable - or
both - is an enduring question, but it is certainly a salient fact of
Britannian life.

Garriott wanted to highlight the Virtues, yet he created an online
world in which it's easy, tempting, and lucrative to commit lethal
crimes. In fact, it is so simple to off a fellow traveler in Britannia
that the widespread gaming phenomenon of PKing, or player-killing, has
traumatized the realm. Much of UO's evolving culture, in fact, now
revolves around simply trying to stay out of harm's way.

Far from a place where virtue is rewarded, the kingdom is ruled by
intimidation, power dynamics, and conspicuous consumption. PKing to
acquire worldly goods is the most lucrative career choice around. But
that's not all. Denizens who live in accordance with the Eight Virtues
often find themselves not only poor, bored, and frustrated, but
inadvertently punished by the laws of the land. These high-minded
players toil in small-time professions, while players with highly
developed combat skills reign supreme: They terrorize newcomers, kill
for money, and broadcast their wealth and power by building huge
castles. It's a tough place to be a noble avatar.

It should be noted, however, that there is life after death in
Britannia. When players die, they become ghosts and must follow one of
several paths to resurrection, from visiting a shrine to receiving a
high-level spell from a traveling companion or a healer, one of a
handful of nonplayer characters programmed into the game.

But the low road remains far too tempting. Chris Hawley is a high
school student who's logged many hours playing UO and even more
playing Quake II."The biggest problem with UO," he observes, "is that
playing a good guy gets really boring. The bad guys are having much
more fun."

Hawley bought Ultima Online when it first came out. "In the old days,"
he said (referring to a time only months ago), "I had a lot of fun
playing. I started off as a lumberjack and quickly progressed in the
game." He enjoyed killing monsters - from lowly mongbats to marauding
orcs to dungeon-dwelling liches - making and selling crossbows, and
helping other players. But within a few weeks, the monster population
had dwindled due to excessive hunting, and the shopkeepers no longer
wanted to purchase crossbows, because there was a glut on the market.

Bored, Hawley started to explore other aspects of the game. While
practicing magic, he mistakenly cast some spells in town, which left
him marked as an evil player. The next day, defending himself against
an attack, he mistakenly targeted the wrong player, further darkening
his reputation.

Within the span of a few days, he had fully embraced the dark side and
quickly earned the title of Dread Lord. He could no longer enter the
towns, and newcomers ran in fear when he approached. But much to his
surprise, he started having a really great time.  "Being a bad guy is
loads of fun - there's more to do, more options to explore. You still
get to hang out with lots of great people and help them out, but
you're helping out other Dread Lords like yourself. And many of them
are more interesting than the good-guy players I used to hang out

As it happens, this is consistent with Garriott's original vision for
online gaming.  "When we first launched UO, we set out to create a
world that supported the evil player as a legitimate role," he
says. Outlaws and monsters are simply two different types of
carnivores, all part of one continuous organic system. "Players who
choose the life of an outlaw," he explains, "essentially become
powerful and intelligent monsters - akin to other monsters in the
world, but even more sophisticated and interesting, because they're
real human players."

This dynamic works, as long as everyone is playing the same game. But
what happens when players who think they're attending an online
Renaissance Faire find themselves at the mercy of a violent, abusive
gang of thugs? In today's Britannia, it's not uncommon to stumble
across groups of evil players who talk like Snoop Doggy Dogg, dress
like gangstas, and act like rampaging punks.

When Garriott was asked to respond to disillusioned Ultima fans, it
was Lord British who answered. Perhaps he was talking as much about
all of cyberspace as about Ultima when he gravely proclaimed: "Those
who have truly learned the lessons of the Ultima games should cease
their complaining, rise to the challenge, and make Britannia into the
place they want it to be."

Very monarchial, you might say. But this regal perspective is harder
to maintain outside the castle walls, where PKing has become almost as
ubiquitous as it is in Quake. Indeed, virtually as soon as Britannia
was launched commercially, it became obvious that PKing was going to
be a big problem. In one of many efforts to stem this rising epidemic,
Origin created a bounty system, whereby "good" players who showed
proof of killing a PKer could earn financial rewards and status. In
short, it instituted vigilante justice. Before long, the streets of
Britannia were buzzing with conversations about how to best hunt down
the PKers. Players now had a quest, and they eagerly set about
refining their hunting strategy and moral stance. The good guys were
behaving more like the bad guys - and having loads of fun themselves
in the process.

The anti-PK backlash resulted in an epiphany of sorts: The paradox of
violence in online worlds is that while it generates moral outrage, it
also encourages players to band together into tightly knit groups of
trusted comrades. These groups - tribes, clans, families, or guilds -
are what Britannian culture, and perhaps online culture in general, is
really all about.

The tribes 

There are already more than 420 member-created guilds in Britannia,
and the number is rising. Not surprisingly, guild wars are becoming a
popular pastime.

Guilds are not unique to UO - they spring up whenever an online game
allows player-killing. They're also a familiar phenomenon in Doom,
Quake,and Diablo; the similar apprenticeship program in Asheron's Call
gives mentors a percentage of the new player's experience points,
serving as a kind of protection racket for newbies.

But the guilds of Britannia, which range in size from 3 to 300, are
more numerous and varied than those of other games. The Yew Town
Council is a nascent civil society reminiscent of the Knights of the
Round Table, formed in direct response to PKing. A powerful adventurer
donated 50,000 gold pieces (a sum that would, incidentally, take a
tailor weeks to earn) and a warship, which was recently christened in
a formal ceremony that also instituted an initial code of honor. The
Britannian Thespians League, on the other hand, is preparing to
introduce a new kind of play to Britannia: It is building sets,
holding auditions for actors, and writing a script that's loosely
based on "The Emperor's New Clothes."

Then there are the guilds reminiscent of the Elks Club in its
heyday. Mohdri Dragon is a longtime member of the Talons of Justice,
which migrated to UO from another online game, Diablo. One night
recently, he offered to take my character, DarkStarr, on a tour of the
Talons' newly purchased Guild Tower. Upon arrival, the place was
bustling with activity. The tour ended in a waiting room designed for
those wishing to have an audience with Lord William, the guild's
leader, who promotes the Eight Britannian Virtues.

After a few moments, three powerful-looking characters emerged from Lord
William's chambers. They were dressed alike, in full-body armor with matching
dark-green robes and sashes. "You can go in now," one of them said. "The transaction is

Mohdri and DarkStarr entered the room and bowed before Lord William,
who was sitting behind an imposing desk. After chatting for a few
moments, Lord William said, "Unfortunately, I must take your leave. We
have just formed an alliance with the Guardians of the Sacred Order,
and they have invited us to attend a swearing-in ceremony for their
newest members." He paused for a moment, assessing DarkStarr's
trustworthiness. "You are welcome to join us, Milady, for this
auspicious occasion."

Lord William led the group to the meeting with the Guardians of the
Sacred Order, but he didn't have far to go. Lord Randolph, the order's
chief, created a magical moongate that teleported all of us to the
Throne Room, deep inside the gated castle of Lord British.

The ritual unfolded with dignified solemnity. The members of each
guild, looking quite splendid in their matching outfits, lined up for
inspection. Lord Randolph took the stage and made a heartfelt
speech. One by one, the new recruits came up to be sworn into the
brotherhood. They bowed, drank a sip of ceremonial wine, and each
received a dark-green sash to signify their new status.

Then the partying began. Someone had brought a cake, and even
DarkStarr added two hams, which she brought in her backpack, to the
feast. Bottles of champagne were passed around, causing some new
members to speak loudly and bump into each other.  The two clans
intermingled, discussing how they could help each other defend their
homesteads. It was late when Lord William graciously thanked DarkStarr
for coming, and Mohdri kindly escorted her back to town.

The next evening Britannia taught DarkStarr another lesson - one
without the formality of the preceding exchange. The Insidious
Brotherhood is a group of bloodthirsty player-killers and dangerous
religious fanatics. Rumor has it that the guild worships the evil
Guardian, a character from Ultima VII, and performs pagan rituals over
its hapless victims. Xavori, infamous rogue and consummate
role-player, invited DarkStarr to join the Brotherhood for an evening
of merriment and senseless violence. (Well, it seemed like a good idea
at the time.) The two made their way to Elegant Chaos, the guild's
headquarters. When they arrived, the brethren were hanging out,
casually hurling fireballs at each other. They crowded around
DarkStarr - "Who's the newcomer? It's a female!" - and made crude
jokes. To entertain DarkStarr, they killed a wandering healer, ate
some of the victim's body parts, and prayed together over the corpse,
offering it as a sacrifice to the evil Guardian.

The head of the Insidious Brotherhood, Magical Bubba, was adept at
building consensus among his rowdy comrades - a skill that enabled him
to turn this small band of evil characters into a lean, mean fighting
machine. In the guild wars, the Brotherhood oft vanquished guilds many
times its size.

At one point, things turned really ugly. In a display of brute force,
Bubba turned himself into a gorilla and threatened to sodomize Xavori
with a thigh bone taken from one of the victims. Unintimidated, Xavori
cast a blazing firewall at Bubba - but because of server lag (or
perhaps bad aim) it hit DarkStarr instead, killing her instantly.

The hosts gathered around, staring down at the corpse in momentary
dismay. One of them cried out, "You've killed the reporter from Wired,
you moron!"

Roadkill. A fitting end, it would seem, for a journey through
Britannia these days. Now, what about those Eight Virtues?

Amy Jo Kim (amyjo at naima.com) designs online social environments. She
is writing a book about Web community-building, due out this summer
from PeachPit Press.

J C Lawrence                               Internet: claw at null.net
(Contractor)                               Internet: coder at ibm.net
---------(*)                     Internet: claw at under.engr.sgi.com
...Honourary Member of Clan McFud -- Teamer's Avenging Monolith...

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