Raph Koster on Ultima Online’s Influence

Raph Koster — the original systems designer for Ultima Online — offered, you’ll hopefully recall, to answer questions about that game as a way of marking its 20th anniversary, which milestone was reached last month. True to his word, Koster has now answered the first of the questions he received…and, true to form, he has written quite a lot in so doing.

This is the first question I’m answering from the ones I got for UO’s 20th anniversary.

I never played UO, so not knowledgeable. Maybe a routine question, but how do you think #UltimaOnline pushed the genre forward?

This is a big question.

Indeed, the question is so big, it’s basically impossible to choose what to excerpt from Koster’s response (which, as noted, runs to a considerable length). So perhaps I’ll just highlight his conclusion:

Just to launch UO, we had to invent early forms of database sharding (the term likely comes from UO), pioneer the large-scale use of VPNs, pioneer character customization, invent seamless multiserver clusters, basically invent modern community management, invent the now-ubiquitous codes on cards for accounts or payment… many were simultaneous inventions, but we basically had to do a whole bunch of new things. You see that pic of the core team up there? The average person in that picture was in their mid or early twenties, on their first game industry job.

No doubt as a consequence of that: many of the things that were tried in UO didn’t work. They broke under unforeseen player stresses – no one had ever designed for thousands of people playing at once in a simulated economy; or they collapsed when the (puny by today’s standards) computers we used as servers couldn’t handle the load. Many were simply bad ideas, as our understanding of player psychology and behaviors evolved. UO chased the industry away from player-vs-player combat for years. To this day, Richard warns people away from trying to tackle a simulated ecology (not me, though, I’m still determined and stubborn). It’s important to realize that UO was a profoundly broken experience in many many ways.

And of course, since players managed to reverse-engineer most of the game in short order, just about everything that worked, or didn’t work, was worked over, redesigned, and recreated by players in the hundreds upon hundreds of “gray shards” created since 1998. At least three server codebases, complete with scripting languages, compatibility with the official client, and, at peak, hundreds of thousands of players, outstripping the official servers. When I got to China for the first time, I learned that UO was well-known there, despite never having launched officially in the country; it was because so many gray shards were run there that it helped create a generation of MMO developers. For a while, UO was probably the world’s most popular user-run virtual world codebase, and thus a true heir to the MUD tradition.

But in the end, if you ask how it pushed the genre forward, I think the answer is that it did so by offering a dream, a dream that even today people compromise on and don’t offer. This idea of a true parallel world with its own life, its own ongoing history, one that doesn’t pander or make concessions for tutorials, bolted-on quests, pay-to-win gear schemes, or any of the other niceties of the business of games… the idea that “what if you just actually modeled another world, in as much detail as possible, and let players loose?”

That’s something that frankly, still isn’t really on offer.

Click on through to read the whole thing. As you might expect, Koster goes into great detail about the development, technology, economics, culture, and community of Ultima Online.