GDCO 2010: Rich Vogel and Calvin Crowner on 13 years of Ultima Online

Shawn Schuster
S. Schuster|10.11.10

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GDCO 2010: Rich Vogel and Calvin Crowner on 13 years of Ultima Online
At this year's GDC Online in Austin, Ultima Online was the first game inducted into the Game Developer's Choice Hall of Fame. Massively had a chance to look back at UO's thirteen years of history with its original senior producer, Richard Vogel, and its current one, Calvin Crowner. Follow along after the jump to read more on their impressions of those 13 years.

Massively: Let's go back to 1997. I take it the marketing and PR were a bit different than today.

Rich Vogel: Actually, I thought the marketing campaign of "what do you want to be" was way ahead of its time. "We create worlds" was Origin's big theme. I think at that time, most of the press never understood MMOs. It took a long time -- in fact, it really wasn't until Everquest came out that they really started getting what an MMO was.

What were the most difficult issues you had to deal with in the early years of UO?

Rich: We were a seamless world, which no one had done before either. But there were a lot of things, technically, to make that happen. Because of that, when you go from one server box to another server box, there's a transition period. People found out where our borders were, even though we would change them up once in a while. This caused a lot of dupes in our world.

Housing was the other big issue. We had ghosts in our game, which World of Warcraft has. The whole ghost mechanic we loved -- you die, you go back, you go resurrect. The problem is that it allowed players to get inside a house and steal things, and it took a lot of work to secure it.

"Someone put an unmarked letter on my doorstep that said, 'How would you like your house broken into?' That was the first time I ever really got scared."

I remember one time saying to the players, "Housing's not secure, just like a bank." Well, that wasn't a very good thing to say to our community. Actually, it was the first time I realized how interesting our community was and that you had to protect yourself. Someone put an unmarked letter on my doorstep that said, "How would you like your house broken into?" That was the first time I ever really got scared; I realized what kind of community we had. We had security, all sorts of things put into the place because he also came by our place. But that's just because they're rabid fans, and every game has those, even to date. And the positive thing with all the technical issues we had, we still had a good community that put up with it.

You alluded to UO's marketing campaign and how the emphasis was on freedom. Later games like WoW added a lot more structure. On the spectrum between the two, where would you say is the "sweet spot"?

Rich: We used to draw a triangle out on the board, showing gameplay, simulation, and action/adventure as the three points. UO was somewhat centered but really more of a simulation than a game. EQ was more of a game-directed experience. Our biggest problem was PKing. If you give players all of the freedom and none of the controls, you're going to have problems. We had a true PK system that no one's ever had. And most memorable stories that people tell of UO were of the first year, because of PKing.

Calvin Crowner: Going back to the whole open world thing -- we were talking about this last week. I'm a little bit left of his right in terms of the open game world vs directed experience. I think it's possible to teach folks how to eat and walk, and then open them up to a larger world without putting them on rails. From what the players are telling us, they appreciate that freedom. It's like the rooftop theory - if you're on a 30 story building, with no railing, how close would you go to the edge? It's that concept where UO is the building without rails, so it's a little off putting.

Currently in UO there have been a lot of exciting changes recently, and more due very soon. Could you first talk about UO's new booster, Adventures on the High Seas?

Calvin: One of the things that was a legacy of former developers were ships. And there are lots of stories of going from one place to the next by actually putting ships together and jumping across from ship to ship.

Oh yeah, it was one of those exploits in the game that was our bane for a long time.

Calvin: The problem is that it's a tile-based game, so moving could be somewhat choppy. We've actually fixed that now so that it's smooth. We also have cannons that can actually do damage to ships and players. We're hoping that players will get on and do ship-to-ship battles. With Felucca you can PvP and do ship-to-ship battles on an island. We also have PvE, so you can go up against NPC pirates and merchants. It's sandbox type stuff, where you put the tools in place to allow people to do what they want, but you give them a little direction. It goes back to, "what do you want to be."

Could you talk a bit about the return of player events? I know those were also very popular earlier on, and UO seems to be bringing that back with a new focus.

What we have right now are called Event Moderators, which are similar to Seers from years before. About three years ago, players said, "We want Event Moderators back because we want that interaction when the developers can't produce something." So there are two groups: One is to take care of the shard, so when they get bored, they can have gambling events, or do yard sales, or... actually I was in a dunking booth on one of the shards. But then also they can roleplay for our live arc events as well, so the moderators handle both of those.

You also unveiled the re-enlist program recently with a very funny video...

Calvin: Actually the outtakes are a lot funnier than the actual video. With re-enlistment, what happens is that we make all accounts active, and what we see is that users beget users. So the more folks you see active and playing, the more you see returning, and the good part about that is that the folks who used to play so long ago come back to play for free, and then all of a sudden you have a flood of -- not players -- you have a flood of friends and family that you're playing with again.

Ultima Online has won many accolades, including several awards in the Guinness Book of World Records. Also, 10 years ago, in Austin, was the first player gathering at Ultima Online's World Faire. With all of these things that UO has accomplished, did you ever anticipate the bonds that would develop or the achievements that the game would attain starting out back in 1997?

Rich: We knew what we had about three months after launch. We were really a hot product; it was the fastest selling product in EA's history when we launched. We knew if we could just get the bugs out and some of the technical issues solved, we knew we could be on a great trajectory -- which we were. What we found surprising is that people were using it in ways we never imagined. I'd run around in UO and find this family where the husband is in Germany, and the family is in the United States, and they'd meet in their little house and sit down and have dinner and talk. They were connecting through the game. When I realized what was going on there, I said, "Wow, we have something a lot bigger than what we thought we had."

People were also using it to teach English as a foreign language in Japan. The global reach of the game is amazing. And because we had a babel-like translator in the game after the first expansion, people could talk in broken English, so to speak, but could communicate in different languages. That was very, very cool, and really brought the community together.

Any final thoughts?

I think the biggest moment I had was at our first UO community get-together. We had a paraplegic player that came -- a lot of people didn't know he was paraplegic. He was very introverted. And when he came there he said, "I want to thank UO, because in UO I could run, where I can't in real life. And it made me an extrovert versus an introvert." And he had tons of friends -- tons. So many people married in UO, met in UO. So many people got divorced -- but it's all part of life. It was interesting to run UO. The closest thing to the wild, wild west that we had was the first two years -- the craziness, the social behavior, all the things you realized people would do they did. And dealing with it was a lot of fun actually.

Thanks for your time and congrats on the award!
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