Pimps and Dragons: Ultima Online Profiled in The New Yorker, Circa 2001


One could say more for its formatting, but there’s no doubt that this lengthy look at the development history and in-game culture of Ultima Online, which was featured in The New Yorker’s “Department of Gaming” feature back in May of 2001, is anything other than fascinating, and a riveting read as well.

Much of the article covers facts that have now become “long known” about the game, although at the time the piece was written, I’m sure that things like this were still new and novel:

A “massively multi-player online role-playing game,” or, only slightly less awkwardly, an M.M.P.O.R.P.G., Ultima Online is managed and operated by Origin Systems, a gaming company based in Austin, which charges subscribers nine ninety-five a month to maintain a character, or “avatar,” in Britannia. Players manipulate tiny two-dimensional figures who move jerkily through a computer-generated landscape of spells and dragons and ridable ostriches. The game has no beginning and no end, and there is no way to win or lose, although it is possible to be killed. Nearly a quarter of a million people subscribe, and each player logs an average of thirteen hours a week, meaning that in the course of a year Ultima absorbs more than a hundred and sixty million man-hours.

Ultima’s appeal is clearly that of an escapist fantasy, yet the most striking feature of the game’s brief history is its perversely recurrent social realism. In its original design, the game gave players a choice of professions: they could train their avatars in any of some three dozen fields, ranging from archery and alchemy to animal taming. No sooner was U.O. up and running than a player introduced a new line of work by operating two characters, one named Jenny and the other Pimp Daddy. On top of hyperinflation, Britannia has suffered a wave of extinctions, paralyzing hoarding, and a crime problem so intractable that at one point the game was forced to, in effect, split itself in half. Considered as an inadvertent and largely unsupervised experiment, U.O. raises questions about whether people can manage to coexist peacefully even when they don’t really exist.

And just to give a sense of the time frame in which this article was composed, here’s what the author, one Elizabeth Kolbert (who, since 2001, has gone on to write primarily about environmental issues), had to say about Richard Garriott:

Lord British is the handle of Richard Garriott, Origin’s founder. Garriott sold the company to Electronic Arts, the computer-games giant, in 1992, for thirty million dollars, but he continued to work there until last spring, when, as a result of what could broadly be described as creative differences, he and Electronic Arts parted ways. I happened to visit him one morning just as his yearlong non-compete agreement with Electronic Arts was about to expire, and he was preparing to formally launch yet another computer-gaming company. His phone rang almost continuously.

Garriott, who is thirty-nine, is tall and lanky, with blondish hair and two very long, very thin braids that hang, like tails, down his back. He designed his own house, which sits high up on a hill not far from Origin’s offices, in north Austin. It has a network of secret passageways, a rooftop observatory, a dungeon with a real human skeleton, and a scuba-diving pool equipped with faucets that issue hot and cold running rain. Garriott collects old toys, and armor, and fossils, and models of the solar system, and a lot of other things that are not so easily categorized, like a lunar-soil collector called Lunakod 21, which is still on the moon and which the Russians sold him, several years ago, for sixty thousand dollars. It is his dream to make a space voyage himself one day—his father, Owen, is a retired astronaut—and, to this end, he has travelled to Moscow several times for weightlessness training.

Much of the article is a history of the Ultima series and of Ultima Online’s early years, with a particular focus on the game’s early issues (griefing, gold counterfeiting, hyperinflation, and suchlike).

Toward the end of the piece, however, the author discusses a meeting with Raph Koster and Rich Vogel, in which Koster spoke at length of the function of the “Artificial Life” engine that had once been operative in the game. I think we’re all familiar enough with Starr Long’s lament about what caused that engine to ultimately be removed from the game, that “all the players went in and just killed everything; so fast that the game couldn’t spawn them fast enough to make the simulation even begin.”.

But Koster’s explanation of the affair, as chronicled by Kolbert, is rather more detailed:

U.O. took more than two years to design, and, according to Koster, who joined the development team in 1995, a great deal of that time went into trying to perfect what was known as the “resource system.” Under this system, both natural and man-made objects were coded according to the imaginary resources that went into them—a sheep, for example, was a couple of units of meat and a couple of units of wool—and the total pool of each resource was fixed, so that there would always be a certain amount of meat in the world and a certain amount of wool. One of the goals of the system was to produce a naturalistic and therefore dynamic environment: the sheep would get eaten by wolves, and as the wolf population grew the sheep would decline.

The resource system had many features that participants in the early tests of the game found cool. “Players really liked seeing the wolves attack the sheep,” Koster said. “If wolves stayed alive a long time, they got cannier and stronger and smarter and deadlier, so you’d run into these old grizzled wolves that had been around the block. These wolves would eat sheep even if there were no players nearby. They were actually living out their little artificial lives out there.”

Even as experienced gamers, Koster and Vogel were taken aback by what happened next. U.O. went live in late September of 1997, and by early October Britannia was on the brink of environmental collapse. “The creatures had all gone extinct, because people had hunted them out completely,” Koster recalled. “The land was completely deforested, so no more wood was growing anywhere. And all the mines had been mined out.” Players even assembled teams to hunt down some particularly cunning wolves. “These wolves got to be so deadly that a single player had no chance against them, because we didn’t put an upper cap on how smart they could get,” Koster said.

Under the resource system, players could gather raw materials, like ore, and make them into finished goods, like armor, which, once used, would begin to break down and reënter the pool as raw materials. Players, it turned out, liked to make things—they were turning out hundreds, and even thousands, of swords and shields and gauntlets—but instead of using them, or throwing them out, which would have had the same effect, they hoarded them. One player reportedly had a collection of ten thousand identical shirts. The result was that there were hardly any materials available to replenish the pool, which deepened the environmental crisis.

At first, the design team tried to deal with the situation by funnelling in more resources, but these, too, were quickly grabbed and hoarded. No one could figure out how to keep the game going without giving up on the system: in the virtual world, as in the real one, economic growth and ecological stability can be tragically difficult to reconcile.

Now the game is programmed so that the servers continually add more ore and sheep and wolves to the landscape. This largesse has solved the mass-extinction problem, but not the hoarding, which continues, contributing to server lag. Why players hold on to so many essentially useless items remains a mystery. When I asked Koster about it, he said, “Why do you have all the junk you have?”

These bits of history may be widely known to the Ultima fan community, but they’re new to me.

There’s still yet more to the article beyond this, so do click on through and give it a read. The author creates a character and attempts to play Ultima Online for a spell. And it would appear she was also on hand for the start of the big bonfire that Richard Garriott held after UO2 was shuttered, so that gets a mention as well.