Criticism of Ultima Online

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In an infamous incident during the Beta, Lord British was assassinated

Ultima Online has seen many major revisions throughout its history. This includes game-play revisions, staff changes, technical revamps, and even fundamental design changes. With few earlier MMORPGs to take lesson from, the staff behind UO was breaking new ground and had to solve complex issues that had never been faced in a commercial game on such a wide scale before. The importance of understanding psychology, social interaction, economy, and such became increasingly important as complex social behavior evolved.

Throughout the pre-release development of the game, a well-balanced, realistic economy and social structure was the goal. While not nearly all of the features planned for incorporation made it into the first release, the developers did manage to put almost all of the control into the hands of players in terms of what they could do to each other and the world as a whole. What ensued caused permanent repercussions still faced in the game today.

Macroing[edit]

Many skills in Ultima Online can be advanced via simple, repetitive mouse clicks and movements. Because of this, and with the help of the in-game macro system, widespread unattended macroing once took place for the purpose of advancing skills or statistics and sometimes wealth. The same effect could sometimes be achieved by simply setting a roll of coins or some other weight on a user-defined hotkey.

On Siege Perilous and Mugen, shards designed to be more difficult than most, a modified skill gain system is in place that only allows small amounts of advancement each day. This was originally set in place to combat macroing on these shards.

Some have urged for Electronic Arts to include more advanced macroing systems in Ultima Online to make it less monotonous and more handicap-accessible. People who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome often find the repetitive clicking painful and even prohibitive, and at least one class action has been threatened.[1]

Unattended macroing is especially punishable, and if a character is found to be macroing (with or without the use of third-party programs), they will often be confronted by a Game Master and asked to respond—failing to do so will at least result in a warning and could even result in suspension or banning of the account.

Griefing[edit]

Originally, there were very few artificial restrictions on how players could interact, and the developers intentionally provided mechanisms for both attacking and stealing from other players. Most types of fraud and other indirect means for creating an advantage via the exploitation of other players were also not restricted, with the exception of when bugs were involved.

Some players saw a "punch in the nose factor" (as Raph Koster, AKA Designer Dragon, one of the original Ultima Online developers, put it) involved, as players were able to harm other players directly with little penalty, which allowed too much griefing. Others saw it as creating a more immersive and complex atmosphere where unpredictable and challenging situations could occur spontaneously between players, but expressed concern over the barrier to entry for new players and the seeming imbalance which favored anti-social behavior.

Gradual shifts in game mechanics and introductions of new systems took place. The developers initially added a system whereby the server categorizes criminals and murderers from the innocent in the form of differently shaded character and name highlighting (blue for innocent, gray for criminals, and red for murderers) on mouse-over. This, however, was not without its problems—many criminal acts could be accidentally performed while trying to do something otherwise legal, and the unfortunate player who suddenly became "gray" would most often be killed by NPCs or other players right away, regardless of the reason behind the criminal status. Players who killed others only because of their status and without regard for reason were often called "noto-PKs" since, at first, the notoriety statistic determined this status—these players, too, were often called griefers. Later, the developers altered an existing feature commonly known as "stat loss" which decreased skills and stats. Before the change, upon death any player could opt to instantly resurrect with penalties, or become a ghost, after which they could be resurrected by a player or healer NPC with no associated penalties. Faced with the option of losing hundreds of hours of character progression or spending a few minutes as a ghost, most chose the latter. Resurrecting with stat loss was rarely ever done. The notoriety change caused any players who had reached "murderer" status incur stat loss even if they became a ghost, if they resurrected within a certain period of time after their offense. Each offense added an additional 8 hours to the period that the player had to wait in game before resurrecting. Stat loss was very controversial and was often cited by PvP minded players as an sign that the developers were siding with players who favored the opposite style of gameplay. Eventually the developers created a separate, mirror world, called Trammel, where only mutually consented PvP and theft could occur, within or between player guilds that were in a state of war with each other. Criticized as going too far in the opposite direction, some players cited the introduction as the downfall of the Ultima tradition of interesting and complex behavior, stating that the server-enforced laws were often too simplified to be appropriate in many situations and did more to harm the long-term health of the game world than it did to help it. Even players who enjoyed open world PvP found that they could not compete economically with a parallel world that faced no such challenges. In Trammel, without the threat of unexpected player interactions, the yield of an hour spent gathering resources could be calculated before even leaving town. Almost all player activity moved to Trammel, and the old world (given the name Felucca) became practically abandoned. Most subsequent MMOs have followed the example of Trammel, and do not allow non-consensual PvP or theft (if there is a mechanism for theft at all).

In those subsequent MMOs that have allowed consented or non-consensual player combat, usually the items that may be taken from a player's corpse are limited (in some cases nothing may be taken). Ultima Online originally had no such distinction and all items a player had at the time of death stayed with the corpse, and every item was removable by anyone. This gave an incentive to PK because it was more lucrative to kill and rob other players than a monster. An average troll may have yielded 200 or 300 gold. However, a player would often yield a full suit of armor, magic items, and consumables (e.g. potions, magic components, bandages, etc.) plus whatever gold he or she may have collected from fighting. Although the risk was much higher, successful player killers could make ten times more than what they would fighting monsters.

Some still question the methods used to deal with the griefer issue. Raph Koster has said:[2]

Being safe from evil is, in my mind, an uneven tradeoff for the fact that you don't get to be heroes anymore, in that you can just opt out of fighting evil. It may be nobody wants to be heroes except when it doesn't count, when it isn't challenging, that people would rather fight "pretend evil" than the real thing, but I don't personally believe that. I still think people are better than that.

Housing[edit]

Ultima Online has always allowed players to purchase houses and build them on flat pieces of land. For the first few months, the primary issues with housing were that losing the key meant losing the house (often to another player who stole it or killed the owner), and if someone managed to get inside the house (either by exploitation of a bug or by simply waiting until someone opened/unlocked the door), they could steal everything inside. These issues were later addressed by making house keys “blessed” (non-stealable, non-droppable upon death) items, and by giving special commands to “lock down” items, so that even those who got in the house could not pick them up. Ownership of a house was also eventually defined separately from mere key possession.

After a few months, when some players and guilds had enough money to buy many houses, there came the problem of using tents and other cheap houses to wall off huge sections of the world as private areas. It was a common solution to the above problems (before they were fixed), if you owned a large house like a tower, to build three smaller houses around the entrance, walling you in, and then using the recall or gate spell to get inside that artificial courtyard. Since some players abused that tactic to create gigantic “courtyards”, the developers eventually opened up all of the major ones by deleting selected houses and by putting the additional restraint on house placement rules requiring that there be empty space around a building before it may be placed.

By the time Trammel was introduced, there was little land for housing. Vast amounts of wilderness were covered, making places intended to be “wild” into cities. When housing was enabled on Trammel, tens of thousands of players simultaneously competed for favored locations for various types of houses, resulting in telestorming, where players were transferred amongst the sub-servers of a given shard, causing random teleportation and lag. For many years, housing space was scarce, due in part to rising numbers of subscribers and only slowly increasing limitations on the number of houses each account could own. Several worlds were created without the ability to have houses built within them to protect their atmosphere from becoming another city. Almost all house transactions during this time were of currently-owned houses being sold, or people waiting outside houses that are about to “decay” (disappear from lack of use). In recent years, additional housing areas have been made available for all players. Many subsequent MMORPGs used instancing for housing or simply did not provide it at all.

Customizable housing was introduced with Ultima Online: Age of Shadows. Originally, the concept was prototyped by Vex (a designer on the Ultima Online team).

Economy[edit]

Throughout the game's history, complaints of the in-game economy have been documented.

Inflation[edit]

The game has witnessed a devaluation of the primary currency (gold). Many MMOs experience this same problem with inflation. In Ultima Online, inflation is and was due, in part, to the introduction of new players into the game and veteran players running out of choices to spend their money on. This is termed Demand Pull Inflation in economic jargon. Gold duping (duplicating) was another cause of inflation. To mitigate inflation, various gold sinks have been provided, but inflation's effects on the price level are still felt. The primary cause of inflation in Ultima Online was the inexhaustible availability of wealth; new gold was constantly being created by players killing NPC monsters, and raw materials regenerated regularly and rapidly.

Arbitrary Redistribution and Dictation of Wealth[edit]

As the game's balance has been reworked over the years, the relative value of specific items and skills has changed. For example, in the early history of the game, items enchanted as Invulnerable or Vanquishing could sell for hundreds of thousands or even millions of gold, but these same items are now reportedly nearly worthless. Though, over the years, outrage over this issue was relatively muted, as it was concentrated within the few wealthy gamers who had a lot to lose with little to gain with respect to this phenomenon, it was still considered a significant issue among many. To understand this significance, consider that game accounts could sell on eBay (though illegally) for multiple thousands of dollars depending on the relative value of in-game items and skills.

Player vendors[edit]

In the very early days of Ultima Online, players could use a musical provocation skill to provoke a player vendor away from his or her home. Once taken far enough away, the player vendor could be killed and all the items looted. This was quickly changed, as very few were even aware that this was possible, and the risk vs. reward in engaging in this was heavily skewed in favor of the thief.

Market for Certain Consumable Goods[edit]

Casting of magical spells requires consumable items known as reagents. Reagents could be found naturally occurring in small quantities in the wild. However, the main source of reagents were non-player controlled vendors, which would stock a limited supply of the item and then restock after a period of time. As a result, demand was much higher than supply, and thus players would purchase a vendor's entire stock and then resell through their own vendor for many times the original cost. In this way, player vendors became a primary distributor for reagents. As the resellability that vendors provided increased, and the overall market value of reagents, magic use became economically prohibitive to many players. The financial investment to become a master magic user quickly swelled into ranges unfathomable by many gamers.

In addition to reagents used for magery, other consumables, used for skills such as alchemy, mining, tinkering, tailoring and others, were occasionally subjected to the same problem, although to a much lesser degree.

Additionally, a research paper [3] examined the Ultima Online economy in some detail, and concluded that the 'duping' bug, along with overabundant in-game resources and high vendor prices (coupled with 'price fixing' and 'hoarding' tactics employed by some players) caused great damage to the in-game economic system.


Bugs and exploits[edit]

Ultima Online has suffered from numerous bugs throughout its long history that differ in both origins and complexity from those seen in most previous games. Many systems employed in Ultima Online could be seen in previous Ultima games, and much of the mechanics remained the same, but the employment of a persistent client-server infrastructure had radical repercussions that have changed the ways developers have designed Massively multiplayer online games since.

Unlike most prior commercial games, once a bug was found and exploited in Ultima Online, the effects of that bug were usually a permanent part of the game world. Customers would be lost if a complete reset of the game world was done, and many of the repercussions of bugs exploited were either too complex or affected otherwise innocent players, such as a player unknowingly buying an item created through exploitation. To remove the item would be offensive to the innocent player who bought it in good faith and to reverse the transaction would be impractical.

A key individual in revealing bugs to the UO community was Dr.Twister who ran a website specifically to bring public criticism to the issues. Dr.Twister's philosophy was to identify and share bugs with the public to set a level playing field and force Origin to resolve bugs faster. Most of the major bugs throughout Ultima Online's history were originally revealed by Dr.Twister.

Many of the exploited bugs arose out the trust that was given to the client. Much of the restriction placed on the players was initially done so by the client, and programs were developed that effectively send packets to the server that would not be possible to generate in the client itself.

Black dye tubs[edit]

Black dye tubs were created by sending an invalid packet when a color was supposed to be chosen. A third-party program overrode the color packet generated by the client, and changed the color chosen to a color that would not be possible from within the client, in this case a darker shade of black. Black dye tubs became so prevalent and in-demand that EA eventually made them a gift to players when certain criteria are met by the player.

Speed walking[edit]

Speed walking was accomplished via a program called UO Extreme. It sent player movement packets to the server without waiting for the server to send "successful movement" packets back. Because the client would only allow you to move a few steps without receiving these success packets from the server, players with high latencies (dial up users, Europeans playing on servers located in North America) were faced with a noticeable pause every few steps when attempting to move. Speed hack allowed these users to play the game normally. However a downside existed, as the server did still check if movement was allowed, and if it turned out not to be allowed (due to a player or creature moving in the way) the server would send back a "movement rejected" packet, and the client would suddenly "rubber band" you back to where the failed movement had occurred.

Seeing Invisible People[edit]

Seeing invisible people was possible using UO Extreme. During the first few years of the game's release, all player information was transmitted to client. It was possible for UO Extreme to intercept this data and turn off the hidden flag. Origin eventually changed the implementation and only transmitted information about non-hidden players.

Walking through walls[edit]

The ability to walk through walls and other usually obstructive objects was accomplished by giving the client false information about those objects. Originally, the client was responsible for all collision detection with non-dynamic objects, and changing how it behaved could be accomplished in a number of ways. The "statics" files that contain all of the static objects in the world could be edited to remove all of the objects a player might want to walk through (in essence, deleting the walls outright). The obstructiveness of those objects themselves could be changed by either editing the clients item information files directly, or by using the clients patch file, called "verdata" to patch in false information about the obstructiveness of objects (leaving the walls in place, but making it possible to walk through them). Eventually, a verdata that did exactly that, began to circulate around the internet. Initially the more important areas, such as Britain and the other major cities, had all of their walls duplicated as dynamic objects on the server. Eventually, all collision detection was checked by both the client and the server, which led to a "rubber banding" effect later, when the server would deny movement that was allowed by the client (even traditionally legitimate movement).

Duping[edit]

A duping (duplication) bug exploit started soon after the game's release and was not resolved for over a year.[citation needed] It was accomplished by placing items on the ground (most often gold and reagents), teleporting far away, and shutting down the client before arriving at the destination. The virtual world had many computers (servers) controlling the different regions, and by moving a long distance, the character would be transferred between two computers, but by shutting down the client, the character would be lost in the transfer. When the player logged back in, the server would use its last backup of the character, which included the now-duplicated items.

Another duping (duplication) bug exploit started after the release of The Second Age expansion. It worked taking items you had on your character at the time of a server save and after the server save was completed, placing them into your bank or home where they could stay safely for the next server restart. Going into T2A through the alter in the Moonglow mage shop and continually saying "recdu recsu" on a standard 56k dial up connection would result in lag that would cause the server to disconnect you. It would keep your character on the account logged in, so it made the account unplayable until the server was shut down, and restarted. Subsequently, all the items that were in the characters backpack at the original server save reappeared upon logging in after the daily server restart, along with the items you had placed in your house or bank resulting in duplicating whatever items you had chosen to have in your backpack at the time.

The massive counterfeiting of gold and reagents that took place contributed to the massively unbalanced economy. Bartering began to take place, especially since many of the goods players wanted could not be bought from NPCs using gold. After fixing the bug, the developers attempted to drain much of the extra gold out of the system via special auctions (such as a one-time-only red hair dye auction), as well as by providing special items that could only be bought for large amounts of money (gold sinks). In the end, though, everything they attempted made little impact, and it is questionable how much of an impact such measures made in the first place.

Abuse of guard zones[edit]

Shortly after the game's initial release, players became aware of how to manipulate guard zones. If a player was attacked outside of a guard zone by either an NPC or a PC the person being attacked could run into a guard zone, if it was within a distance of about one screen length, and call guards, causing a guard to teleport outside of their jurisdiction and kill the offender. This exploit was most well known for being used in the Britain graveyard allowing a thief to steal from other players, be attacked by said players, and then run into the nearby town and call for the guards to finish off the attacker and allowing the thief to loot the same person they originally stole from. This exploit was eventually snuffed out by OSI with the addition of the criminal system by which a thief would be flagged and therefore able to be attacked without repercussion by the town guards. Players could also use guards to kill monsters for them, by having the monster cross a gate previously cast with the gate travel spell, which would lead the monster in a city guarded, and then the guards would kill it. Players could use this exploit to get loots from the hardest creatures found within the dungeons, thus generating more "fake" items. This exploitation occurred before AOS and was fixed by making monsters' corpse disappear upon being killed by the city guards.

Players could also use a spell to make themselves look like a lizardman or other monster, to trick other players into attacking them while within a guard zone, they then calling the guards to kill the person, so they could loot them.

Child controversy[edit]

Ultima Online was originally intended to ship with artwork depicting human children. This artwork appeared in the beta version, but was removed before the final version was released over concerns that the game might not get acceptable ratings if players found ways to abuse the children, even though they had no fighting animations. The artwork has continued to circulate in the form of a patch and is sometimes used on emulated servers.

Player dispersion[edit]

Ultima Online debuted with three game servers and a much smaller amount of playable space than is currently available in the game. This caused a higher density of players and subsequently more interaction between them.

To cope with Internet latency, additional servers were quickly added to distribute the load. New servers were occasionally added with the additional intent of allowing players to start over in an unspoiled world, where the long-term effects of bugs could not be felt, and where there were few high-level players with whom to compete. This was even done as a marketing tactic with the introduction of Asian servers, where only Asian players could connect for the first few months of their existence. Rarely, additional servers were added to allow for different play styles, such as "Siege Perilous", some being temporary like "Abyss". The number of servers is now in the dozens.

In addition, with every expansion came additional land to be explored, in the form of additional worlds. These greatly added to the amount of land, and thus dispersed players further. The addition of Trammel also further dispersed players, though most migrated to Trammel exclusively. When you multiply the number of worlds per server by the number of servers, it is clear to see that the amount of landmass available per active player is much higher than at initial launch, making the likelihood of meeting other players, even in traditionally popular areas (which isn't always the same area per server), unlikely and most of the unpredicted player interaction has been lost.[original research?] As players bought houses, that also removed their need to be in towns, and so further dispersed player populations.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Philip Ferreira. "Ultima Online Problems". Reviewboard.com. Archived from the original on 2006-10-17. Retrieved 2008-09-23. 
  2. ^ Raph Koster. "Postmortem". Raph Koster's Website. Retrieved 2006-08-09. 
  3. ^ Zachary Booth Simpson (1999-04-07). "The In-game Economics of Ultima Online". ZBS. Retrieved 2008-09-23.