[MUD-Dev] UO rants

Koster Koster
Mon Aug 21 18:47:13 New Zealand Standard Time 2000


> From: Matthew Mihaly <the_logos at achaea.com>
> Sent: Tuesday, August 15, 2000 12:59 PM
>
> > Slightly amusing UO rant at www.mpog.com/kos/

> -----Original Message-----
> From: mud-dev-admin at kanga.nu 
> [mailto:mud-dev-admin at kanga.nu]On Behalf Of
> Norman Short
> Sent: Monday, August 21, 2000 3:19 PM
>
> I hate to say it...but he's right.  I wrote much the same thing to Raph
long
> ago when he was lead designer of UO.  For an Ultima fan this dark,
> gangsta-ized "Outer Limits" version of Britannia could rightfully be
called
> "hell".  It's too bad they wasted the Ultima name and license on a game
that
> had no intention of being one.

Well, it's worth exploring why some decisions were made, because they are
equally applicable to any sort of license (which is something that even
hobbyist muds deal with fairly frequently when doing muds themed around
popular books, for example).

The very first question one should ask about tackling something like this is
"can I possibly be faithful to the original property?" The answer will, in
many cases, be no. For example, a heavily narrative property may well not be
suitable for being made into a mud of any sort. A property which is driven
primarily by characters will likewise translate poorly.

The best way (to my mind) to approach this will remind one of high school:
thinking thematically, "what was that (movie/book/whatever) about?" Meaning,
thematically. So for example, if you tackle making a mud out of Robert
Jordan, you can ask what the books are about. By and large they are epic
fantasy, with the theme being good vs evil in a vast and slow political and
magical battle. It's not really a series primarily about a single
character's development as a person. If you were trying to make a mud out
of, say, Huck Finn, you'd have a much harder time because of the difficulty
of representing the thematic underpinnings of the book in a mud's game
mechanics.

The absolute best properties/settings to develop for a mud will be the ones
where

a) it's easy to imagine the main protagonist getting replaced
b) the central themes in the property are not about personal development but
about the setting itself

To get back to the specific case: Ultima thematically is about ethics,
indubitably. It is also about a single individual in a heavily narrative
environment. These latter factors make it very very hard to adapt to any
sort of multiplayer setting.

The central dilemma we ran up against in UO was that Ultima takes the ethics
very seriously. In fact, there was an entire single player game devoted to
the notion that following what look like good ethical rules on the surface
may in fact be a mistake (as they may be used in service of a bad ideal).
There was another arguing for the validity of alternate ethical systems that
can serve equally as well as the foundation of a society.

In other words, the LEAST Ultima-like thing to do would be to put in a
simple action-feedback ethics system that was playable by rote. Players
would (rightly) denounce it as a travesty of the spirit of Ultima. It would
cause outrage the very first time they saw a given player "game" the ethics
system.

To this end, we chose not to put in such a system. Instead, we sought to put
it in the hands of players as much as possible, to not make the game the
judge and arbiter of ethical behavior. We did it via very crude means,
really.

And in the end, we got that same player outrage when, for example, the
initial version of the player reputation system (called "notoriety") turned
out to be "gameable." The greatest gripe players had was the fact that the
bad guys could get themselves labelled as "great lords," while players who
were in fact acting nobly were labelled as criminals and outcasts.

The right choice? Probably to not use Ultima, frankly. It's not a thematic
approach that is easily represented in massively multiplayer. Trying to
satisfy the thematic desires of the playerbase was one of the greatest
challenges we faced--it was hard enough trying to make player policing work
without also having to make it be "Ultima." It's both the biggest boon and
the biggest albatross around your neck.

Another example of how a property can be limiting: the geography of the
Ultima series is really not laid out well for a multiplayer environment.
Cities built in recondite locations which are not only off the beaten path,
but clearly only inhabited because the plot demanded it, for example.

"In the end, though, market forces proved to be far more important than
vision or virtue."

Nah--if anything, the dev team's insistence on trying not to put in a
travesty of a gameable ethics system was a fight against market forces. It
would have been easy to let you go to each shrine, do a little quest, and
gain "Virtue Points." But it was felt that this was contrary to the spirit
of the franchise.

"When the backstory for Ultima Online was written, it was as if the people
writing it either had no experience with the Ultima series, and were playing
catch up.  The result is that the timeline gets extremely muddled."

Again, the issue was with the constraints of the franchise... let's say that
you are making a Narnia game. You really really want to have all the cool
stuff that you find on the voyage of the Dawn Treader, and you want to see
Calormene at its height, and you also want to have the talking animals and
the silver chair and Puddleglum and... you get the idea. The problem is that
these things are, within the plotline of the books, set very far apart in
chronological time. The best time to set UO in terms of things that
maximized massively multiplayer gaming potential was early--four continents,
a less settled world with less utter dominance by a lawful ruler, etc. But
that actually  predates the Virtues, which are what make Ultima Ultima. What
do you choose? You tyr to maximize the benefits as much as you can. Later
on, small inconsistencies creep in as you go further in trying to develop
plot and narrative. Soon you have an inconsistent storyline.

"There were lots of other careless mistakes:   "French" bread, katanas
despite there not being an "oriental" culture, bronze ore, NPC quests which
consisted of every shopkeeper wanting his co-worker dead, wrist watches, and
many others which, in isolation, would have been very easy to forget.
What's disturbing about them, however, is that they represent a consistent
track record of just throwing stuff in without any regards as to how it
affects or clashes with the context of the game.... [snip] You have the lead
designer of Ultima Online telling players that the context isn't important
because Ultima Online is a 'virtual community'.  You have OSI creating
seasonal events based on Earth and not Britannian holidays"

The simple fact is that those real world holidays have meaning. And the
Britannian ones don't. We actually launched with a fairly full calendar of
Britannia-specific holidays. You can actually go back and read old news
archives about our attempts at celebrating things like the day on which you
hunt walrus, and other such things. Nobody cared emotionally. The real
holidays had emotional resonance to players--and the first thing that people
did when the servers opened in Japan was start celebrating Japanese
holidays. Much as it will disturb the full-immersion roleplayer types, that
is what people like and what they want. 

Likewise, things like French bread are there in part because the Britannian
setting was frankly poor in variation in many ways. Lastly, things were put
in, like katanas, because of player desires to have a wide array of
weaponry. When you start doing a mud based on a setting, you find out all
the things that have always been glossed over or are plain missing, because
ina single-player environment, or in a novel, or in a movie, you are trapped
on a linear path, and it's easy to build stage sets that surround the path,
and not actually have anything behind them.

"you even have OSI using the already-irritating parlance used by some
players to signify GM-assisted locale decoration:  'blessing'."

Heh. Fighting the battle for nomenclature against players is a futile act.
:)

Consider a great example where using Ultima caused major problems with the
game design. Has anyone ever noticed that the Avatar, hero of Ultimas 4
through 9, is a tank mage? We HAD to have a game system that supported tank
mages--it was actually imposed as a requirement on me as I designed the
system. We tried to curb the tendency, and in the end our curbing was
insufficient (and in hindsight, it's easy to see why). But by the time it
was apparent, it was too late to change established player expectation.

The final conclusion of the article is that things that break the
expectation set up by the fiction are easier to tolerate in a setting where
there aren't any expectations beyond the most basic. Which is exactly true.
Which is why I stand by my comment that a setting/franchise/property is one
of the heaviest burdens to bear for a mud.

It's also the greatest boon, but I don't think I need to go into why. I've
found that in general, people understand all the upside, and don't think
about the downsides. :)

-Raph








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