Sunday, November 20, 2011

What's wrong with the plethora of existing Ultima Online shards? Why make another?

It's another good question, and similar to my last article. We'll focus on player-run shards here, because it's obvious to all that the EA/Mythic 'real' UO is an unplayable mess.

There's options out there to suit most play styles. We'll look at three of the busiest/most successful shards.

1. UOSA (Ultima Online Second Age) - Set in the era that many people consider to be the best in UO history - Post T2A expansion in 1999. Completely 'era accurate' as far as mechanics go. Really quite an impressive achievement. The only features that are missing and preventing a completely accurate representation are the overcrowding and that that 'special time and place' feeling that UO in 1999 had. The naivety of the players and the newness of the world. The sense of wonder.

It's a fantastic server, and I couldn't recommend it highly enough to people looking to revisit those glorious days of UO before it was ruined by Trammel. For me, it's not enough. I built and finished my characters. A tank-mage, a lock-picker, a warrior. I placed my tower - something I could only dream of in real 1999 UO. What's left to achieve beyond that? Back in the day, the achievement cycle of building my characters was a big part of the game and enough fun in itself. Now it's just a means to an end. 'Macroing' isn't fun, but I found when I had finished there was nothing in the game for me. The PvP is stagnant and meaningless. There's nothing to achieve. I found myself missing even a flawed system like factions, but especially a working, shard wide player-justice driven system like champion spawns.

Another problem is the PvP mechanics of this era. One template (swords tank mage) dominates all. That's boring enough in itself, but the way this style has developed over the years is very different to how it played out on OSI shards back in 1999. on UOSA, it's more about big 'hally' hits than spell use, and I personally find it exceptionally boring.

The shard has managed to capture the era almost perfectly, and does have a great community. In my mind it's the best out there at present. It has an active Orc roleplay guild. It has large PvM and PvP guilds. It has between two hundred and five hundred clients on line daily. There's rivalry and conflict. The main thing it's missing is the end-game achievement and goals, and after playing post P16 & AOS UO, I can't enjoy it without that. Playing here is what really set my mind to attempting to create a post-AOS era shard.

2. IPY2 (In Por Ylem 2) - A custom rule set, with 'second age' PvP, but including aspects from many different UO eras plus enhancements. This is the follow up to 2004's In Por Ylem server. The original server attempted to recreate 1999 second age UO. Mostly PvP. It attracted a huge following, with over two thousand clients online at peak for a significant period. Almost without fail these players were the 'Wolves' - the PvPers and the like from all UO shards from many eras. Eventually, as Bartle discussed, the wolves destroyed themselves and the shard died. It was a success though. You can read about it here

On to IPY2. Az, the developer, has spent a lot of time debating and discussing why his first shard failed. The main reason(beyond staff corruption, which is a seperate issue) is that it had only attracted PvPers. The diversity of 'real' UO just wasn't there. IPY1 was an even harsher world than early UO. So he set out to change that with IPY2.

The big issues reared their heads again. Trammel and Statloss. Az decided that neither is the answer, and I would agree. His replacement system includes two 'anti' classes. Paladins and Detectives. Paladins, by forgoing the ability to murder, receive powerful items, and a 'warning' system that enabled to locate and hunt down murderers. Detectives can use the forensic skill to hunt murderers, gathering clues that would send NPC bounty hunters after murderers to jail them. Both are very good systems, and the design should be applauded.

Other features of IPY2 haven't worked so well. There is a very good argument for banning mounts(forcing players to play on foot). Because of the speed of internet connections today, and the prevalence of 'speed hack' type programs, UO PvP often just becomes a marathon race. After playing IPY2, I'd say I prefer that to how UO PvP works when exclusively on foot, however.

IPY2 also attempted to create an 'end-game' system along the lines of Factions & Order/Chaos in 'real' UO. This is the O/C/B/Kings system. It's flawed, doesn't work, and like factions, splits the PvP community in half. Those that take part could almost be playing in a separate world to those that don't. These 'manufactured' systems can only be a success if they are designed well enough, and offer big enough rewards to encourage the entire player base to take part. IPY2 has fallen short in this regard, and in it's current form, the shard would be better without the system at all. Az understood the need for end-game PvP, what he failed to understand is that organic player and guild driven conflict will always be superior to manufactured systems that exclude non-participating players. See the superiority of the champ spawn 'system' (if you can call it that) over Order/Chaos, Factions, and IPY O/C/B.

The other issue for IPY2 is that it uses the same PvP mechanics as UOSA. 't2a' style tank-mages dominate, no template variety, and boring PvP.

It's still a great shard, worth trying, but it wasn't for me, or anyone else I know that tried it. It's fallen to around eight hundred on line at peak(from over two thousand at launch) which is still a very impressive number.

3. UOG (UO Gamers Hybrid) - UO:R based PvP-centric server with enhancements.

So UO:R PvP mechanics(template variety, balance) without Trammel. Sounds good right? If only this was as far as it went. Neon items, donate-for-items & gold system, in game duel arenas(mini trammels, basically). I could go on forever. To me it's a horrible shard. It might have near balanced PvP and no Trammel, but it doesn't have any other positives. I can't say much more for it. I've not played here in years, but I'm told it hasn't changed. I'd rather play EA UO or just login to League of Legends than play this mess. It still has a significant player base and does cater to PvPers that loved the UO:R mechanics, though.

Those three are the biggest and best options for those looking to relive their UO glory days.

So why make another shard?

For a start, none of these cover the AOS release to SE release era that I and many others so enjoyed, and as far as I'm aware, there isn't a single shard out there that does. Secondly none have managed to completely recapture all of the essential elements that made UO great. UOSA has proven to me that just recapturing the mechanics of classic UO isn't enough. Most of us want more from the game. I really feel that lifting all of the essential ingredients from old UO and combining them with many of the AOS mechanics can provide that. See my previous posts regarding the merits of the AOS system.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The greatest game of all time

What other game could produce stories and moments like these?

More to follow!

My first UO essay - from 2003

The current state of the ‘real’ Ultima Online – Felucca and PvP.

With Ultima Online, things always seem better in retrospect. I’ve had good and bad times in all era’s in the game since mid-1998, but when I look back on them, they all have that golden glow of the good times, the friends, the fights. The opposite has always applied when looking at the present. We think of the overpowered dexxers, tamers, para-blow, scrollwhores, items, axxers. Rarely do we acknowledge that UO is fun in the midst of our bitching. Six months later, we’re all looking back saying how great it was. I’ve seen it time and time again.

So, I’m about to shock you all with an essay in praise of the UO Development team and Age of Shadows. I’m not joking.
I’ll make it simple. The easiest way to judge whether a period in UO can be classed as ‘good’ for PvP oriented types is to is to measure if it provided the elements required to make it ‘enjoyable’, for want of a better word.

What are these elements? For me, and also for almost everyone I know (Although most don’t realise it), they are:

An active Feluccan Community – To thrive, this needs to involve more than just PvPers. You need Sheep as well as Wolves.

A purpose – Everyone gets bored eventually of logging in to fight for no reason other than to fight. OSI realised this a long while ago. Factions were created as an attempt at ‘purposeful PvP’ 

Balanced PvP – How wide is the gap between the veteran and the newbie? The rich and the poor? The 24/7 player and the casual? The Mage and the Warrior?

My study is based mainly upon what I witness/have witnessed upon the Europa shard where I actively play and also from guilds page, as well as Fel based message boards from other shards.

Europa has an active Feluccan Community. Fights are easy to find, there’s interesting guild politics and rivalries, a healthy population of PvPers and PvMers, and even some RPers.
Two of the top ten Europa guilds for veteran members are exclusively Felucca-based. Many of the other top ten guilds visit Fel on a regular basis.
If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time this has been the case since Trammel was implemented. The biggest guild in UO (BC of Great Lakes) is Felucca based. The 5th biggest guild in UO (FL of Pacific) is Fel based. Most shards have at least 2 Fel guilds in the top ten for members. This is unprecedented in this post-UO:R UO.

Felucca is alive and well. But why is this? It’s simply due to the dev team finding a way to give purpose to combat. Factions tried and failed, Champion Spawns coupled with Statloss removal has worked.

Publish 16 was genius. Parts of it were horrid, but it achieved its objective: The revitalisation of Felucca. People that had never dreamed of entering Felucca before now found themselves daring to enter its spiritual homes, Shame, Deceit, Covetous. They got a taste for PvP, risk, and the money that could be earned. Many of these people are now prominent AOS PvPers. At the time I didn't like the idea of skill and stat scrolls, but in hindsight, what else could have motivated and energised the player-base like they have? 

Resource control and player justice is at the very heart of purpose, and are concepts that were key to the original UO development team’s dream. Evocare and Adrick know this. Factions attempted resource control with town finances, etc, but it failed. It only ever affected those players involved in the system (A tiny %). Factions had no impact on the ‘lives’ of most UO players.

Champion spawns and their rewards affect every UO player. Everyone wants scrolls. You either go out to fight for them, or you buy them from those that fight for and win them.
The people that control these spawns control a major part of the UO economy, including prices and availability. This is player justice resource control and purpose.

Now we come to the negative. PvP Balance. What there was is gone. If UO:R was the most balanced period, AOS is the least. I can’t begin to list the problems (Another article maybe^^), but however bad they are, they don’t outweigh the positives I’ve listed above. I’m not convinced that balance will be restored, as this Dev team realises that a good percentage of UO players will simply cease PvPing if you take their advantages away. I’m certain a lot of the imbalances of AOS have been brought in intentionally for this reason, similar to the 'special move' additions of UO:R perhaps.
It may just be something we have to suffer to have the thriving Fel we’re now witnessing. The same goes for insurance and private housing.

In conclusion, I believe we have an ally at the head of that Dev team. Using the ‘trammelised’ Felucca dungeons of p16, he tempted a new generation of potential Feluccans. With AOS, he then took away statloss, gave us back our dungeons and set us loose on them. In some cases, these new Feluccan's were the ones being "set loose" - so far had they come.

Necromancer and Paladin are good additions to the game, if unbalanced at present. Customised housing is great, although private housing is horrid. Statloss removal is orgasmic. Removal of p16 dungeon rules is great. Upcoming p19 changes look good.

If they can balance PvP some, we have the best UO I’ve been a part of.