Friday, December 28, 2012

Redux webpage, boards and myUO down

Should have it fixed soon - hosting company decided to just move everything we had hosted without telling us. Nice!

Join us in IRC

Also, although the server is paid for up until April 2013, donations are always appreciated and all funds will go towards the future of this server. The plan is to build up a back up fund of roughly $2000 to cover any unexpected problems. Remember this shard is paid for almost entirely by a group of seven friends, none of which actually get to play this server. The plan is for this server to be around for years and years, but there is no way we can support it forever without the help of players.

Help us with a donation, please! Details are on the webpage (When it's back up!)

Friday, October 19, 2012

State of Redux, Part 3

Redux is over a month old. It's been an interesting experience so far.

As noted in the previous update, the highlight has been the amazing maturity and cameraderie of the community. Old friends and enemies from OSI as well as newer people from Legacy 25 and beyond.

An increasing feature over the past few weeks has been the gradual realisation that RunUO isn'tvery accurate to OSI. The more people play, the more they test, the more errors they discover. This isn't a criticism of RunUO or it's designers - it's still a magnificient emulator, just a note on our realisation that this is a much bigger job than we ever realised before release!

Because of this, Oz's already very limited coding time has been stretched to the limit. Just keeping on top of the new bugs emerging has been a full time job. Please give us time to get everything right. We realise there are a lot of things that need fixing, and a lot of features people would like added to the shard. The problem is, we all have full time jobs aside from Redux. I spend at least 2 hours a day dealing with player issues via IRC and the forums. Oz spends at least 2 hours a day in the code. The same goes for KLOR in game working as a GM, and Benn and Night dealing with the server. We realise it can be frustrating if you don't get a reply, or things don't always move as quickly as you like.

We've also suffered under another wave of DDOS attacks. It's been a bit of a shocking wake up call to us - none of us ever really considered the possibility of someone being so malicious or prepared to spend so much time doing something like that over a game. We've ended up almost doubling our server costs to try and make ourselves less vulnerable. Unfortunately there is no guaranteed defence against this - not one within the budgetary constraints of a bunch of guys running a UO shard, anyway! We're just going to have to hope that our new hardware can do the job until our 'friend' gets bored.

Negatives aside, the shard is absolutely thriving. There is constant PvP action. Old guilds have reformed, new guilds have emerged. The economy appears to be stable. It's absolutely fascinating to watch.

Once (hopefully) the initial wave of bugs are fixed, we can begin looking at adding actual content soon. In the longer term we want to get an improved factions/player town system in place, as our major goal.

Friday, September 21, 2012

State of Redux, Part 2

Earlier in the week I discussed some initial impressions post launch. Now almost a week into the live server we're in a better position to evaluate how things are going.

If there's one thing playing and theorising Ultima Online over 15 years should have made me appreciate, it's the stunning ingenuity of players. We've seen everything pushed to the max. We're having to make adjustments to spawns and loot on a daily basis to compensate for every clever thing our player base comes up with. It's great!

Although players may not always be happy to see their favourite 'mob' toned down, or favourite spot changed, hopefully it's understood that it's for the good of the shard economy and the longevity of the project. We really didn't anticipate the level of power gaming that would take place. Hopefully our gradual adjustments will help us find the correct equilibrium.

Feedback has generally been very positive. I regularly check back to IRC to see excited discussion about in game happenings, or PM's praising or congratulating our very good work on the shard. My favourite comments so far have related to the 'Adventurer' class. A pet project of mine was restoring this to some kind of real role on our shard. Making adventure pay. It seems with the hundreds of new rares, the stealable artifacts and ancient chests we have hidden across the shard, the profession is back. A number of people have noted to me that it is now a real alternative to PvM or Crafting as regards money making and fun. I'm delighted.

Activity appears to be picking up as well. Although we've peaked at around 180 online clients every day this week, we have roughly 10-20 more accounts created per day, and the shard feels busier as I move around spying on everyone. Earlier on tonight there were three seperate PvP battles going on at once! I couldn't keep up. Very encouraging. It's the kind of action that breeds excitement and convinces more people to come and play here.

I'd also like to praise the (mostly) positive attitude of our player base. People have been helpful and understanding when we've not been able to fix things right away, and I've had more more bugs reported to me than I have seen being exploited in game. It's also been encouraging seeing experienced players making an effort to help the newer members of our community. Having said all this, there have been a few cases of frankly dissapointing and disgusting ingratitude and selfishness from a few people. We won't tolerate it and we don't need you, so shape up. This shouldn't take away from the generally very positive attitude of our player base, however.

As regards future development, we will continue to tweak gold and loot from spawns to keep the economy in check - any areas that appear 'too easy' will be toned down, and some currently 'worthless' spawns may be improved. Long term we will be looking at adding further end game content and gold sinks. Improvements for crafters is high on the agenda, and if releasing an 'expansion' ever becomes a possibility with our limited time, an improved faction system would be what we will work towards.

I will be making a start on the shard 'evolving storyline' shortly, and will be seeking the involvement of RP-friendly and positive members of the community to play not only their own character but potentially some GM-created NPCs and take a lead role in the events.

I'd just like to assure you all that we are in this project for the long term. The people involved in running and funding it are all absolutely in love with UO and this shard in particular. We're desperate for it to succeed and devoted to ensuring nothing happens to ruin the experience for ourselves and our player base. Imagine if we can make a real success and this thing snowballs? That UO replacement we've all been chasing? This could be it, UO itself. Only this time managed by people with the best intentions of the players and the game at heart.

Some stats:
Accounts created: 593
Concurrent login peak: 183
Accounts banned: 5

Expect another update next week.

Monday, September 17, 2012

State of Redux, Part 1

It's been an interesting few days! I'll keep this brief, expect a follow up in a week.

In June 2011, I first started thinking about putting together a plan for a 'perfect' UO shard. Here we are not much more than a year later, and we've actually got a pretty good approximation of what I would consider perfect, launched and well populated. A real credit to all the ex-Europa people from various guilds that have been involved, and especially to Oz for taking on 95% of the coding burden.

We released on Saturday the 15th, and peaked at 178 clients online earlier tonight. With our 2 clients per IP limit, that's an impressive number to have online at once. 457 accounts have been created - again with a maximum of 2 per player. The shard looks busy and alive, people at every bank, and in all the dungeons.

A few things we're happy with:

  1. Increased insurance costs for murderers. This has been a big success so far. Only four players have dared to go red, and doing so has set them back hugely once they have suffered expensive early deaths. It'll be a while before mass PKing is a problem here. Has AoS, the hated era of UO purists, provided the best cure so far for the age-old "PK Problem" ?
  2. Increased mount costs. With NPC vendors charging 3000 per mount, it's been great to see Tamers in Moonglow selling mounts, often under-cutting each other in a bid to make sales. I've not seen this on any other free shards, and not on OSI UO since maybe 1999, it's great!
  3. A diverse range of skills and templates being developed. Someone is training almost every skill in UO currently, including the supposedly "useless in AOS" Stealing. Made relevant again by it's use on Redux in opening Ancient Chests and retrieving stealable artifacts.
  4. A really good mix of old friends and enemies of ours from Europa and Drach, as well as representatives of both the European and North American free shard communities, and even some players new to UO entirely.

A big thanks to everyone involved, and even more so to the players who have pointed out bugs and problems instead of exploiting them - Scolt especially. More updates to come.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Some insight on AoS:R, staff and the future

Things have come on a long way since I first started dreaming of making the perfect AoS shard in summer 2011. I never believed we'd get so close, or attract so much interest before we even launched.

We've not had more than 15 people logged into the test shard at any one time, but I don't think that's anything to go on, if Rel Por is any guide. After an average of 10-20 logged in during their beta stage, they shot straight to 400-500 after launch. Amazing really. We don't have their advantages (replacing a fading shard like IPY2), but I'm still hopeful we can match those numbers after a few months, once word spreads that we have a stable, well run and corruption free server.

We recently made the biggest decision - shard/server host and location. We've gone with OVH, based in Northern France. We didn't plan to go back on our promise to find East Coast USA hosting, but the practicalities prevented it. Our server specification is great, but to find something similar in the US would have cost us at least twice as much. When you also factor in that at least two-thirds of our prospective player base so far are based in Europe, the decision became obvious. We have perhaps given up the chance of attracting any players from the West Coast USA with this decision, but it seemed the lesser of two evils. Pings should still be sub-100 from the most of the Eastern US, and below 130 from central. Europeans can expect sub-50 from all but the most remote locations. The game is very playable for all but PvP right up to 200ms.

As far as development goes, things are moving along quickly. The list of bugs has been small, and although there are probably many yet to emerge, feedback has been encouragingly positive. One thing players should note is that development may at times move slowly. All the developers have full-time jobs, and despite absolute dedication to this project, it will and does take second place to our actual lives. We are paying for this server, not getting paid. We will seek to fix problems and bugs as quickly as possible, but please give us 2-3 days for non-critical issues.

We are committed to this project for years into the future. I personally have been in love with UO since my first day in 1998. Despite not playing consistently since 2007, it really is the only game that has ever captured by attention fully. The guys are all the same. If the players still want it, Redux will be here in 10 years time. On the same lines, we are absolutely dedicated to ensuring no corruption occurs. No favours to friends, no inside info. A completely even playing field for all. We are very fortunate in that the shard owners have known each other for a decade and consider each other very good friends. We can trust each other absolutely, a huge advantage over other shards that are forced to rely on hired help, with no attachment or established commitment to the shard.

There are no more features planned for shard opening beyond those set out on the webpage, but we do have some exciting plans for the future. A possible player government system, allowing guilds full control over their own and NPC towns, a vastly improved factions system, and many other smaller ideas. Nothing is set in stone however, and we are always conscious of not becoming too customised, moving far away from the era we wish to recreate. I am confident that just our starting ruleset and customisations are enough to hold the interest of a significant player base for years to come.

I know many of you are familiar with the staff of this shard from our shared background in UO, but here is a run down of the people involved:

Chris/Calix. Shard figurehead and decision maker. Game Master.
Steve/Oz. Chief coder. Game Master.
Mike/Ashikata. Lead Game Master.
Neil/Ingo. Coder.
Mike/Night. Server administrator.

It is possible that more staff will be added in the future, if the need arises. This will only happen if they earn our absolute trust beforehand, however. We would rather run a server without sufficient staff than take the risk of offering power to someone that may abuse it.

On that subject, I'd like to take the chance to point out to players that we will be taking a very hands-off approach to running the shard. I will change stupid character names, I will respond to legitimate player pages, and we will rectify bugs and issues. What we won't do is respond to GM pages that could be dealt with on the forums, get involved in player disputes, or any other trivial matter. Players should remember that the time of the GM's is limited - when we are in game dealing with issues, we aren't out of game fixing code problems, advertising the shard, or helping players on the forums. I'd also like to reiterate how serious we are about banning for breaking our rules. We can detect speedhacking with ease, and will ban instantly for it. Including all accounts you have logged into, even if they do not belong to you. EasyUO use isn't as easy to detect, but I will be making it my personal crusade to catch people using it, and will take pleasure in banning every account you are associated with.

To finish, I'd like to thank our first donors and subscribers:


Cheers guys, very much appreciated!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Some brief thoughts on shard design and AoS:R

We've been working on AoS:R for over a year now. The first account created is 370 days old! Granted we've had some big breaks and periods of inactivity, but we've been consistently developing, brainstorming and improving, and I think we're getting very close to being able to release a shard that is actually ready, not just a beta disguised as a proper release. I'm hopeful we can get something that actually works, long term. I'd love the shard to be something that's still running in 5-10 years. I've enjoyed the process of designing the shard immensely, and I know the guys all feel the same about the aspects they've taken control of.

I recently came across this post, by the designer of a shard that didn't come to fruition. It's very relevant, and I feel we have - inadvertently - addressed most of the issues it discusses.

"Quick skill gain, tends to equate to the following characteristics and trends:

Low attachment to the created character, most people value things they work for, either by spending cash to purchase said thing, or investing personal time and energy into obtaining, creating, or cultivating the desired thing. When you're no longer paying out cash which most invest time and energy to obtain, and you aren't spending personal time and energy instead, you simply have a character that you often have no or little attachment to.

This of course also means your attachment to the world in which your character exists tends to be much weaker. Simply put people that invest, don't like to generally lose their investments so they stick around. Quick skill gain creates an often continual roller coaster of less invested players, coming and going, and also tends to even have your veterans skipping around from offer to offer. (This can be prevented some what by creating very demanding end game systems which require heavy investment, and thus attachment, to utilize/advance in, but these tend to also be optional, and thus usually effect only a small subset of players.)"

We do have quick skill gain, and we do allow macroing. However, we're lucky in that we are basing our design on the P25 ruleset, which means we have something else to create attachment to character and shard - powerscrolls. The need to aquire these, after GMing skills requires significant effort, especially as we have reduced the frequency of +20 scroll drops, and have added a cumulative scroll use requirement - meaning players cannot use a +20 scroll until they have used both a +10, and a +15.

I believe this is giving us the best of both worlds. We have the easy skill gain, removing the requirement of the 'grind', whilst still hopefully creating the attachment to character and shard via the difficult 'finishing touches' of hard to achieve champion scrolls.

"The rise of mules and alts, in a world with quick gains, multiple characters become the quick norm, whether legally allowed, or illegally acquired, they quickly lead to most people being self sufficient, which harms the economy, and the community at large."

With players only being allowed two characters, we've addressed this issue in a way unrelated to skill gain and character progression.

"The next major path of advancement found within almost all MMORPGs, is of course the wealth grind, earning gold, and obtaining items and resources, and well that is about where that ends. In item based games like WoW this can of course be stretched to infinite scales, but within UO which is primarily by default a crafting oriented game with very few levels of actual item advancement, wealth ends up having usually little real reward.

For many it is but a stepping stone to obtain a base level of supplies, and perhaps to purchase a house, after this, there is almost zero reason to have gold or wealth. Obviously there is such things as rare collecting, but this is a very small niche in general as well, and doesn't touch on usually the bulk of the player base."

 In part, this is a problem that can never be addressed in UO - there simply isn't any real use for large amounts of gold once players are established - unless you constantly add content which then poses problems for balance and a risk of moving too far from the actual era being replicated.

I think a few of our changes will make a huge difference, though. The main one being the removal of BODs, and the repositioning of Runic Tools as an NPC vendor purchase. The high costs make them a great gold sink, and they are something players will never have enough of.  Players will always be looking to improve their items, or just create great items to sell. Players will wish to invest excess gold in these, even if it is just in a desire to 'speculate to accumulate'

We've also added other gold sinks. Warhorses are no longer faction mounts, as factions do not exist on AoS:R. Instead the four-colour warhorses are available as prestige mounts, to all players. For a still to be decided sum (at least 5 million gold) players can purchase faction warhorses for themselves.
Other NPC gold sinks include the 8th and 9th anniversary (as well as some shard unique) decoration items.

"When you combine the general lack of meaning of wealth in UO, combined with finished character creation, or limited character advancement such as ROT, what paths of advancement are actually left in the game?

Usually the answer is very little to none, and this of course is why commercial mmorpgs now adays, often choose to itemize their games, as they can continually have you working to obtain new wealth and items. They also tend to continually up the level cap, so that character advancement can continue marching along at the same time.

Historically UO also went down both of these paths, with actually quite some success, power scrolls which were a means to extend character advancement, became extremely popular as they were also needed by pvpers in order to compete. Likewise AOS re-wrote UO to be item based, and continued to extend this leaps and bounds with things like artifact drops. Ultimately much of this destroyed the UO that many of us loved, but it was never the less successful for them as AOS did see the highest subscription rate ever for UO at 250k accounts active."

As we've already decided that power scrolls and 'itemisation' are good for our vision of UO, there's not a great deal to discuss in relation to the above, other than it provides some more confirmation of our belief that we've picked the 'best' era - or at least the one that offers the best long term possibilities for a succesful server if done right.

It's a very interesting, well written and relevant post, and if I felt we hadn't already addressed the issues discussed, I'd want to try to.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why haven't free/player shards been more of a success?

Look through any corner of the internet and you'll find ex-UO players. Ex-UO players that are still pining for their 'glory days' in this game.

I've discussed previously what was so special about this game, and how it was destroyed by short-sighted and misguided design decisions. Today I want to talk about the failure of free shards to recruit a substantial player base, despite tens of thousands of Ultima Online disciples still out there,  hoping to one day recapture that feeling.

The first, and probably most important reason is something the developers of these shards/servers can do very little about. Time has just moved on. People have changed, the internet has changed, UO has aged. Ultima Online released in an innocent age, by today's standards.

When I remember my own feelings about the game and the importance I attached to my actions in it, I realise it will never be like that again. I really did consider my small-time actions to be of the utmost significance. I wanted to hunt 'evil' players. I was utterly terrified of places like Dungeon Deceit and the 'reds' that dwelt there. Because UO was really the first of it's kind, it had that advantage. Even a new game based on UO's original goals and principles would struggle to achieve that level of power and control over it's players. The innocence has been lost.

It's also very hard to draw people back to a game that still has graphics from the mid-90's. I'm one of the people that still love the look of the game, and appreciate small things such as the isometric viewpoint, the text-over-head speech - but I realise I'm one of a dwindling number with that view. The better newer games look, the poorer UO appears. The user 'interface' (if you can call it that) is also very clunky, in comparison to newer games.

Another big reason is that shards simply cannot recreate that same mix of players that OSI shards has back in the day. Role-players, monster bashers, PvPers, explorers, merchants, and most importantly - newbies. The players that enjoyed the aspects of UO that have yet to be improved on by other MMO's tend to be the people that make up free shard communities. That is for the most part PvPers, with a smattering of collectors, house decorators and designers, as well as very small amounts of the other types listed above. On OSI, PvPers made up perhaps 10-20% of a servers population. on free shards it's more like 75%. The balance isn't right and it shows. Refer to the overused Wolves/Sheep analogy.

Despite all this, there's still enough interest in the game to draw a significant number of players to a new shard. IPY2 opened just last year with over 2000 clients on-line at peak.

So what are the current (and past) crop of player-run shards doing wrong?

Unarguably the most successful server is UOSA ( Running for over 4 years now, it rarely drops below 500 clients at peak, an amazing success. Achieved through a combination of professionalism, organisation, perseverance and holding true to a singular aim - the imitation and recreation of a certain era. Era Accuracy is a term you'll hear often on their message boards. Despite all this, the server has perhaps a quarter of the players that every OSI server had during t2a (1999, the era UOSA is emulating). Why? It's certainly not due to a lack of trying. The shard is so professionally run and corruption free that is has even OSI servers beat, as far as that goes.

There's two reasons. Firstly, the t2a era may be considered by a high percentage of ex-UO'ers to be the pinnacle - but now, thirteen years later, it doesn't actually play so well. The PvP is limited and predictable. There is no end-game content. People have learnt to exploit the mechanics to such a level that despite being 'era accurate' the server plays very little like t2a did on OSI.

Secondly, the era that the shard is imitating lasted for less than a year on OSI - people would have eventually become bored with it, as many have done on UOSA. Guilds and players come and go, but unlike on OSI in 1999, there is not a steady stream of newbies to replace those that leave. There is only the diminishing pool of ex players to draw upon. Very few people will be discovering UO for the first time in 2012.

So what about other shards that have implemented new designs that in theory should have improved upon the t2a(or whatever) era, and be steadily introducing new content to keep players interested?

None of them have managed to match UOSA for professionalism, for a start. Be it in staff behaviour, web presence or whatever. UOSA is run almost like you would expect for a successful business, other shards seem very amateur. This includes IPY2 ( Az deserves a lot of credit for the server and the innovations he has introduced. I can't deny that I've learnt a lot from watching the successes and failures of the ideas he has implemented and discussed. He's something of a 'father' to the free shard development community (if such a community really exists), even if he or many others would reject that. IPY1 was the first very successful (if short lived) player-run server, and IPY2 is the first shard to attempt to address the 'PK Problem' adequately.

Despite this, Az doesn't present himself well to the community. He only engages with his players sporadically, and even then it is in a strange way. I can't put my finger on it exactly, but he has a certain 'attitude' that isn't quite right, almost that of an angry player. Certainly not that of a developer. I know I'm not the only one that feels it. On top of this, you have the (possibly unfair) association with the corruption and closure of IPY1. I wouldn't be surprised to head to the IPY2 webpage one day just to see a message saying it has closed. This would never happen with UOSA.

As well as this, many of the innovations discussed above have been failures, including the Paladin and Detective systems, probably the two bravest changes of all, as well as the O/C/B system, a much improved version of OSI factions. This is simply because they are scripted systems. They only truly affect players that choose to be involved, the mechanics can be abused, and players consistently finds bugs and work-arounds to exploit.

As I have discussed before, the basic mechanics of UO provide all you need for conflict and community without artificial systems to promote them. This has worked twice in UO's history. Pre UO:R, all players were developing their characters and wealth, slowly. They all needed the same things; money, housing, items, skills. To gain these, they had to go out and compete with other players. Through this, rivalries developed - battles over territory, resources, pride. These simple goals aren't enough any more, because we've all done it all before, if not on OSI, then on a free shard years ago. OSI finally replaced these goals with some new - power scrolls - in p16. Despite the overwhelming hatred of the player base for these items, they actually recreated what old UO had, player conflict over territory and resources. An all inclusive system that worked. The same goes for the items introduced by AOS. It opened up a whole new game, almost. Building your 'item suit' became just as important as building your character. Imagine this extra layer to play, without Trammel? 'Scrolling up' and 'Suiting up' were potentially limitless goals that could keep people occupied and promote conflict for years. I talk about the early AOS era and how well many aspects of it worked here, for anyone interested.

So, how is a Ultima Online shard to be successful, in brief?

I believe a server that can match the professionalism of UOSA, the innovative approach of IPY2 and the upcoming Rel Por, combined with goals for players that promote both conflict and community without resorting to artificial systems,  has the best chance. Those goals are offered in abundance by both the Champion Spawn system and the Age of Shadows item changes. Convincing sceptical old-school UO'ers - who are almost religiously opposed to scrolls and items - as to the merits of both will be the biggest problem.

Yes, UO:R was terrible

Seems as I've been 'out and about' on the internet lately, talking about AOS:R and UO in general, I've been coming across more and more of the 'UO:R old-school' - as I like to term them.

What does this mean? Basically, someone that started UO after UO:R release (summer 2000), got heavily into PvP, and believes that UO:R PvP was the pinnacle of the game and that UO:R could actually qualify as old UO. These tend to be the same people that are so rabidly anti-AOS. Seems as I've discussed many times previously why UO:R was in fact terrible, I'll let someone else do the talking.

I'm quoting a post dated June 25, 2000. From here:

I'm still looking around desparately for a needle to shove into my eye. With absolute shock and disbelief I watched the housing patch fail miserably. As Osi had to predict what its consumers would do on patch day . . . it was clear they were going to fail miserably. They've never once shown even a miniscule understanding of the mechanics of their consumer's thinkng processes, so why should they start now? For god's sakes, even *I* thought about placing a house (translation castle/keep) in Trammel. That could only mean at least 99.9% of the shard wanted to place, since everyone who knows anything knows I quit this stupid ass, fucked up, idiot-coded piece-of-shit game months ago and could give a flying fucking ass about housing. It's always beautiful when you see a game-wide duping frenzy sweep the shard right before a house placing patch. Although with Trammel farming and people earning 20-25k an hour with no risk whatsoever it's hard to know what rich means anymore. Anyone remember hanging out for hours in Covetous corpser room at 75gp a shot, eyes peeled for the next group of dreadlords sweeping through the dungeons, killing everything in sight? When a giant snake on your ass meant it was time to high-tail it out of Dodge? Of course not. When did anyone have to worry about danger in dungeons? But I digress . . fuck osi. I been trying to get started up a bit on The Damned. If anyone's been keeping score . . . that's Seige, Asheron's Call, and The Damned I've tried in the last few months. I sure seem like a flighty guy, eh? Nope, sorry. Played UO almost every day of my life since Dec 97 and then stopped 100% cold-turkey one day about 3 months ago. Wasn't me, was fucking OSI. Of course, people will continue to tell me the dread lord days were bullshit, no matter how much I wanted to relive them, and stat-loss was a necessary evil. But I seem to remember Covetous in the old days. Walking through the first level . . . 6 people in the harpy room, 3 in the gazer room, 4 in the corpser room and 4 or 5 hunting in between the halls from one area to the other. That's not mentioning the 7 or 8 that were hanging out directly outside of the dungeon and down by Vesper X-road. And then every 15 minutes, like a damn stopwatch, a group of at least 6-10 reds would come through attacking everything in sight. Go to Covetous level 1 nowadays and you'll be butt-fucking lucky if you find 1 guy there. Remember when you used to go to Covetous, see the 7-8 guys hanging around outside and you'd ask, "Any Pk's come through lately?" Inevitably the answer would be . . "about 5 minutes ago there were about 8 mages . . . we're waiting for them to come back now, you want to join?" THAT was a community. And no matter what time of the day or night it was, there were ALWAYS 7-8 people there that otherwise would've never talked to each other if it hadn't been for pk's. Now the game is a bunch of isolated irc channels with 50 different groups of people who all think they're too cool to talk to anyone else, waiting inside their houses for a good opportunity to gang-bang some enemy that was stupid enough to hang at a bank while only 1 or 2 members strong ...BUT OSI HAS 170K ACCOUNTS NOW MAN!!!! Um, where the fuck are they? I haven't seen more than 1/5th the population I used to see every god damn day in YEARS. I don't give a shit if they have more accounts now than they ever had. NO ONE FUCKING PLAYS. You remember the dread days? EVERY DUNGEON WAS PACKED TO THE GILLS! People actually used to play then. Now it's a power hour a day if you're lucky and then the rest of the time its bullshitting on message boards. And anyone that thinks its the player's fault, and not the codes, is a fool. Playstyles are a result of the code. There's enough accounts in UO where the law of large numbers definately applies, and anyone hoping to change human nature is kidding themselves. All I can say is they fucked up one great game. I died 70% of the time to the dreads that came through and I loved every second of it. When's Shadowbane come out again? My GERD is acting up again . . . Ugh, I guess I just have a little Old School Fever. I'm sorry, but 1000 newbies CAN be wrong.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Why Age of Shadows?

I've been asked recently why I'm basing my UO shard design on such a controversial era. Here's why.

It's a good question. It's an era reviled by most 'old-school' UO players. They're right as well. AOS is synonymous with all that went wrong with UO. Fractured communities, garish hues, unbalanced PvP, over-itemisation. The list is endless.

AOS release came at a tumultuous time in UO history. Just following on from Publish 16(Powerscrolls, Statloss removal in dungeons), it completely changed many aspects of the game. A lot of veteran players, already demoralised at changes they didn't like in Publish 16 quit before AOS released, or very soon after. Despite that, subscription numbers were at least holding steady, if not increasing. The game still had a thriving community on all shards.

The release was far from perfect. It was obviously rushed out. The new skills, Necromancy and Chivalry were something players had been asking for insistently ever since a developer mentioned that they were being considered for inclusion back in 1999. As expected, they hadn't been tested and were very overpowered, both for PvP and PvM. It's also possible this was done intentionally, to help sell more copies of the game, because obviously players could not use these skills without buying the AOS box. Regardless, they weren't anything close to balanced. 

The new item system was a massive change to the game. The biggest upheaval since the Trammel-as-a-mirror fiasco almost three years previously. Item properties were changed to a more 'Diablo-like' system, with multiple individual properties as opposed to the simplistic and beloved approach of old UO. Players could also 'insure' their worn items, so that they would only lose a value in gold of their items, instead of the items themselves.

Another huge change was to introduce a 'resistances' section. Previously, melee damage was calculated on a simple armour level vs damage calculation. Armour gave a simple 'AR' number as a defense. Magic damage was defended solely by the Magic Resist skill, which at high levels had a good chance of resisting much of the damage inflicted by spells. The new system divided resistances into five categories. Physical, Fire, Poison, Cold, Energy. All attacks in the game, whether melee or magical, would now inflict damage through one(or more) of those classifications. Players needed to build 'suits' of armour that incorporated all of these different resist types, to defend against any kind of attack. Many things about this system were positive, but it was very complicated - too much for players to process over night. Lots hated it. Those that fully endorsed it thrived, whilst others were left behind, creating bigger imbalances between players than ever seen before in UO.

There were other changes. Statloss was removed for murderers across the entire Felucca facet. This is one of the few AOS changed that were looked upon enthusiastically by most Feluccan players. The Magic Resist skill also began to function differently. As the new elemental resistances system had replaced it's old function, it was given new abilities. It would now resist paralyse and certain 'field' spells directly, and it retained it's ability to resist the poison spell. It also gave a 'base' level of elemental resistances without items, although this was almost worthless. Weapon 'special moves' became player controlled rather than random, a big change.

As you can see, huge changes that did not meet with the approval of the majority of players. Especially not PvPers and Feluccans. Which is very funny when you see how it panned out, with Felucca becoming the hub of every shard for the first time since before Trammel. Why was this?

The main reason is something completely unrelated to AOS - Powerscrolls from publish 16. Items so desirable and important that all players desired them. They were only available in Felucca. Immediately the players of all facets were united in their need for these items. Players that wouldn't have thought to venture into Felucca before began to do it regularly. Many became prominent Feluccans and PvPers as time went on. Some other players didn't grow to love the Feluccan way quite so much - but still they came, and formed strong guilds to defend themselves against those that sought to prey upon them. The community had something to fight for again, something meaningful. The kind of thing that creates strong bonds and great memories. This obviously continued well into AOS. The desire for power scrolls hadn't been anywhere close to sated by the time AOS released, and the massive guild vs guild, red vs blue battles that raged across every shard, with hundreds of players involved in the fighting on each have to be one of the highlights and crowning achievements of the Champ Spawn system. Felucca hadn't seen such numbers of people since before Trammel implementation. Players from all backgrounds in the game were involved. It was a return to the old days of players fighting for territory, resource control and player justice. Guilds took ownership of dungeons and spawns and defended them from interlopers. A far cry from the UO:R wasteland of shards fractured down the middle - an insular PvP community and a few hold-outs in Felucca, and a Trammel community struggling to justify it's existence with nothing to fight for, defend or feel passionately about. The players of all facets were united again where it all began. In Felucca. Even those that didn't venture to Felucca themselves were involved economically. Purchasing the scrolls from those that took the risk to earn them. Risk vs reward at play.

Another non-AOS change was the introduction of bulk-order deeds and runic tools, also in p16. By making the items gained through these so much more powerful than 'normal' items, the stage was being set for a huge divide in player wealth, as well as the near redundancy of the traditional craft skills without these new items.

Other contributing factors obviously came into play. Statloss removal. Uneducated UO players look upon statloss just as a necessary tool to reign in ruthless murderers. There's obviously some truth to that, but there is a lot more to it. When statloss was introduced, Trammel didn't exist. Bands of murderers made even stepping outside of town a thoroughly terrifying experience for most players. Few dared do it without a group to help defend themselves. Plainly statloss(or an alternative) was necessary. Because of statloss introduction - players that enjoyed PvP, who had mostly played red murderer characters before - were 'given' the guild war and order/chaos systems. Consensual PvP only. Murder was still possible, but only at grave risk. This worked well, despite the flaws in the systems(blue healers in guild wars, etc). PvP still raged across the shards, and the innocent and weak were protected.

Then Trammel released. We'll come to the ridiculousness of the decision to make it a precise mirror of Felucca later, but for now lets just mention that it created a completely new shard within a shard. Naturally, the majority of players moved there. They had goals they wished to achieve in the game, and they could achieve them much easier in a land where they couldn't be murdered or 'griefed' whilst trying to earn money and develop their characters to achieve said goals. What many of these players didn't realise was they were leaving behind the very game they loved - but that's another point entirely. This change left Felucca as something of a wasteland. Statloss was no longer required, because anyone that wasn't prepared to take the risk of being murdered didn't have to. Statloss removal would have made sense now. Open PvP would have occured between Felucca's remaining residents, who were 90% PvPers. Instead OSI attempted to keep them happy with flawed systems such as O/C and Factions. AOS finally allowed Feluccan's to fight each other as they pleased without the risk of the destruction of their character. Player justice reigned again. If a guild or person caused trouble or tried to 'grief' their neighbours, the neighbours could decide to terminate these people without risk. The original principles of UO. Guilds could actively defend their territory against all comers. No more would they have to worry about blue 'griefers' and 'noto's'.

Achievement isn't something that should be forgotten either. p16 & AOS combined gave players a lot to strive for. More than ever before in UO. You needed power scrolls. You could work tirelessly to improve your suit. UO by AOS release was almost six years old, and really didn't have any form of end game content beyond PvP. If you had your dream house, had fought all the toughest monsters in the game and didn't like PvP, there was nothing left for you beyond the social aspect prior to AOS. AOS gave players years worth of goals. The sheer variety of templates available for both PvM and PvP were astounding, without even considering issues like the new custom housing.

Because of these things, Felucca thrived. Most shards had between three and eight guilds in their top ten for members based in Felucca. Prior to AOS it had been zero. Thousands of players had been introduced to Felucca, PvP and fun that they would never have experienced otherwise.

As you can see, AOS itself was a real mixed bag. A lot of positives, a lot of negatives. Before going onto discuss how AOS evolved over the years from this starting point, lets have a look at the UO that had developed in the years proceeding it.

Trammel & UO:Renaissance; The game-changer. The patch that took UO away from being a 'grand social experiment' into just another monster-bash and wealth-aquisition MMO. Most UO players then and now would agree that some form of 'Safe Zone' was necessary. The griefers and murderers were too strong. Statloss didn't stop blue looters, noto pk's, griefers. Players were being hounded out of the game and their experience ruined. A new land - with consensual PvP only - had been discussed for a while. A place for players with no desire to take the every day risks of Felucca.

I'll never understand the reasoning behind making it an exact mirror of the old lands, though. Immediately, player communities developed over years were shattered. Many player-towns had been thriving since 1997. They had developed and grown despite the threats of murderers and griefers. Some had been blessed with special enhancements by game masters, a few even by Lord British himself. When the announcement of the 'mirror' was made, these players and communities faced an agonising decision. Many of course wanted to go to the new 'easy' lands, where they could be free of those that tried to harass them. Others felt too much of an attachment to the towns they had build over the years, the land they felt was theirs. The old lands were destined to die though - because by making the new lands a mirror(and making all new players start in the new lands) there was absolutely no reason for anyone to visit the old lands. There was nothing there except a barely inhabited wasteland. Nothing unique except the few player communities that struggled on, denied any chance of new blood. UO was divided right down the middle. The essential ingredients that had made the game great were diluted beyond repair. There was no enemy, no cause to feel passionately about. No town to defend. No battle between good and evil.

To quote Raph Koster, who was in turn quoting an essay by Richard Bartle:

The fascinating part of the essay, however, is where Bartle discusses the interactions between these groups. Killers are like wolves, in his model. And therefore they eat sheep, not other wolves. And the sheep are the socializers, with some occasional Achievers for spice. Why? Because killers are about the exercise of power, and you do not get the satisfaction of exercising power unless the victim complains vocally about it. Which socializers will tend to do.
Further, Bartle pointed out that eliminating the killers from the mix of the population results in a stagnant society. The socializers become cliquish, and without adversity to bring communities together, they fragment and eventually go away. Similarly, achievers, who are always looking for the biggest and baddest monster to kill, will find a world without killers to be lacking in risk and danger, and will grow bored and move on.
Yet at the same time, too many killers will quite successfully chase away everyone else. And after feeding on themselves for a little while, they will move on too.

Certainly many Feluccans bemoaned the loss of the majority of their 'victims'. More still mourned the ending of the game they loved. The 'old ways' still existed for them of course - just with 1/5th of the players. Many soldiered on in a near deserted land, but most left. What was there for them to remain for? They were cut off from the majority of the populace, who would never want or need to enter their lands, and scorned and forgotten by the developers. These Feluccan's didn't just play to murder and grief - if they did at all - they played to be part of a community in a supposed RPG game. This had been taken away from them.

Trammel brought many other problems beyond the break-up of the community. The economy was a major one. Dungeons had always been the major source of income. The toughest monsters could be found there, and obviously the toughest monsters gave the best loot. Because of this, conflict centred on these finite resources. PvM players flocked there, which drew in Bartle's 'Wolves' - The PKers, thieves, and griefers. No one could 'farm' the best spots for long, and the UO economy worked. Not many people got rich. With Trammel, the same dungeons existed, just in easy mode. No PKs. You could walk through multiple monsters with no stamina hit - you'd never be stuck or trapped and die, as often happened before. Which meant these dungeons and hotspots were farmed 24/7 by players that didn't have to worry about things like dying. UO had no 'gold sinks' to account for this massive influx of gold into the economy. Whereas before Trammel a player felt rich if he could afford his own home and enough supplies - now a player was only rich if they had millions in the bank. Obviously inflation ensued.

The knock-on effects of this ruined economy were disastrous. NPC vendor prices had not increased to match this inflated amount of gold in the economy. Everyone could afford to develop as many characters as they pleased. The Blacksmith at Brit Forge, that lynchpin of the UO economy and community, became an irrelevance. Everyone trained up their own Blacksmith(and every other craft skill). They didn't need the trustworthy guy at the forge to repair their armour any more. They could do it themselves, without ever leaving their house. Or they wouldn't even bother to repair it, they'd just make more armour. Basic items were no longer scarce or valuable. A suit of armour, once of utmost importance to UO players became almost throwaway.

UO survived this massive upheaval on the strengths of the original game. Lots of things. The remnants of community. The sheer playability. Player housing. Fantastic PvP. Where was the game heading after UO:R, though?

We'd entered an age where UO's success had brought many competitors to the table. Some had bettered it in some areas, but none had matched the elements mentioned above. Even still, the success of these games began to influence the direction of UO - as if the people in charge had forgotten the unique elements that had kept UO at the top. Ultima Online 2 was cancelled, the people at EA had belately seen the folly in creating a game to compete with your already existing title. Unfortunately UO wasn't unaffected by this. The art and ideas paid for by EA ready to go into UO2 made their way into UO. Creatures that had no place in the Ultima World. Items with garish neon hues gradually seeped into the game. Nothing was done to staunch the massive flow of gold into the economy. Patches and publishes came and went without scratching the surface of the massive issues facing the game. The game, for most, had just become about 'pixel crack' and wealth aquisition. What other goals did it offer? PvPers could still enjoy themselves in their isolation, others could do their thing - but it wasn't an RPG game any more. Some roleplay communities tried to continue the traditions in Trammel. Good vs Evil. It didn't mean anything though. Who can really feel passionately and care one way or the other about an enemy that you know cannot hurt your character or take your items unless you allow them to?

The Feluccans and PvPers did get the odd bone tossed to them by the developers. Factions was an improved, but still massively flawed PvP system designed to replace guild wars and order vs chaos. Lots of people look back on these times as the 'good days' of UO. Those of us that had witnessed how much more it was before knew better. The game was stagnating, divided communities and cliques that barely interacted with each other. The game was so easy in Trammel it could almost be played entirely without interaction with other players if you wished. An impossible concept in pre-Trammel UO, something that had been the major contributing factor in the establishment of such strong communities. Players needed each other. That was gone.

It was into this situation that Evocare(Tom Chilton of World of Warcraft fame) and Adrick stepped. Prominent Feluccans/PvPers from the Napa Valley and later Siege Perilous shard, where I encountered them. They immediately looked at PvP. Publish 15 was developed with the help of a focus group of PvPers from various shards(LS mostly if I remember correctly). It brought positive changes to PvP, but Felucca was still near deserted and PvP a tiny niche, cut off from the rest of the community.

Their next steps were publish 16 and AOS - as discussed above, which brought Felucca and PvP back into relevance and as an integral part of each shard. The really sad aspect of this is that many of the harshest critics of these two publishes were the very people with the most to gain from them - the PvPers themselves. PvP communities had become strange places through the years of UO:R. Very insular, and not many new players broke into them. By the time of p16 and AOS, most of the 'old school' pre-UO:R players were gone from the game. What was left was a product of their time, people with no understanding of how UO used to and should be - one united community interacting with each other. Instead they saw massive, sweeping changes that affected their play styles hugely. They only saw the negatives. Jackal of the OPP guild wrote an excellent article on this at the time, I have it here. A lot of these players couldn't and wouldn't adapt to the changes and drifted away from the game. These are the vocal PvPers you see claiming AOS ruined UO on every message board you can find. Those of us that had been around before UO:R knew better. Trammel ruined UO. AOS just changed it profoundly.

Lets move onto how AOS developed from it's early days.

PvP activity picked up massively on all shards after P16, and even more after AOS. Players that wouldn't have even considered PvP before were lured to Felucca by power scrolls and champion spawns, and many found that they were actually successful at PvP, whether due to their newly found unbalanced items, player skill, or a combination of both. Felucca became probably the busiest facet of all. It wasn't just PvP either. Merchants and player ran shops began to reappear back because customers existed on the facet again. The remaining Feluccan RP communities saw an influx of people to interact with, and new blood for their towns and guilds, after years of struggling on a deserted facet. My own guild(a PK guild at this time, I had been an Anti-PK previously), had many very satisfying encounters with roleplay guilds. A commission to defend a meeting of evil-RP guilds at their Feluccan HQ. A no-mounts-allowed mass brawl with a well known good 'Militia' RP guild. Many other great memories.

The problems mentioned at the beginning of this article remained, however. PvP was active, but it wasn't balanced. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a very few, and in this age of the importance of items as much as character and player skill, this caused issues for all players, not just PvPers. The broken economy from UO:R hadn't been fixed either.

'Dungeon Doom'(in the new Trammel-ruleset facet, Malas), produced the new most powerful and important items, Artifacts. Even more important than Power Scrolls, some of these items fetched over 50 million UO gold in trade, a fortune at the time. The players that had these items were at a massive advantage over those that didn't. The problem was that the new attributes introduced by AOS. Things like SDI(spell damage increase), HCI(hit chance increase) and LMC(lower mana cost) were not capped. Those that could afford it could stack together massive amounts of these attributes, giving them an almost impossible to overcome advantage. It created nearly as much of a disparity in PvM terms as PvP. I wrote about the PvP situation in this era at the time(2003), you can see it on my blog.

Beyond these PvP imbalances, the game I loved was thriving again. It wasn't like the old days, we still had the divide in the community, but it had been mended somewhat. Shards were whole again.

I've tried not to include too much of a personal slant in this article, but it's rather unavoidable at this point.. During the first year of AOS, a new 'test shard' was established. Test Sosaria. Billed as a place for the developers to experiment with their new ideas, and for players to try them out and critique. A member of my guild, Noxin, spent a great deal of time on the shard, and became friendly with the developer, Hanse. Slowly but surely Noxin began to explain the problems in the game to Hanse, the non-PvPer. This obviously sounded very promising to me, and I began to spend time on the shard too. Frequently we had an audience with Hanse to explain our ideas. Suddenly the things I'd been suggesting on my guild message board had a developer for an audience. Quite unbelievable. To cut the story as short as possible, our ideas(along with those of few others) became what was to be known as Publish 25. The AOS PvP patch. Whilst it didn't fix any of the years-old problems inherent in the game(the economy especially), it did fix the one thing that was really broken in AOS. PvP balance. This was done mostly through attribute capping. Notably SDI, LMC and FC(faster casting). Capped to levels obtainable by all established players without the ultra-expensive artifacts, everyone, or near everyone was now on a level playing field.

Anyone that played through this era will remember it as a fantastic time. The great things about early AOS were still in effect - a thriving Felucca, new-found goals and interests in items(building 'suits') and scrolls. Massive wars raged across all shards. Guilds of hundreds of players fought it out nightly for control of Champion Spawns and Harrowers. UO hadn't seen anything like it before. It was certainly the most active PvP era I remember from 1998 onwards. I can honestly say I enjoyed myself more in this era than at any other time, including pre-Trammel. That's how good it was. Some of the elements that made 'old' UO great were still missing - but most had returned.

The items, the new systems, the new skills - all fell into place with this new found balance and limits and added hugely to an ageing and tired game. I'm sure I wouldn't have enjoyed the era as much without them.

The problem is: It only lasted six months. Samurai Empire released. Second behind only UO:R in my list of 'things that ruined UO'. I don't consider SE onwards to be 'AOS' - it's a new era.

New skills, new items. Not necessarily a bad thing, you'd imagine. Especially after my comments above. Unfortunately nothing about SE suited UO. Obviously released to satisfy the huge Japanese player base, Ninjitsu and Bushido were developed as new skills. In UO? The RPG based on the Ultima series, based loosely on medieval Europe? By this point the developers I had faith in - Hanse, Adrick and Evocare - were all gone. I'm not sure who was in charge, but one developer was jumping up and down on the message boards shouting "IT HAS NINJAS" constantly, as if it was a good thing. Not only were these skills out of keeping with UO and Ultima, they also completely destroyed the p25 balance patch. Both skills had ways to kill people in one hit. One hit.

Hundreds other changes were brought in, I can't think of more than a couple that added anything I liked to the game. More worthless and ugly new lands were added. Something else also happened in this era that affected UO greatly. World of Warcraft released. I don't think it would be a stretch to say the majority of UO players at least tried this new game. Suffice to say UO shards seemed a lot less populated after the double whammy of SE and WoW.

Beyond there - what has happened to the game? Elves? New item slots? The system worked well to a point but they've just over-complicated it. Instanced dungeons? Why are they trying to make UO into WOW? UO was a success because it was UO, a ten year old game was never going to be able to compete with WoW at WoW's strengths. Some ridiculously short sighted changes, shredding the legacy of UO and it's original ideals at every turn. Was there anyone involved with the development side of the game at this point in time that had ever played UO, or any of the Ultima's?

It seems recent developers have tried to move more in keeping with UO's traditions - new dungeons based on Ultima lore, expansions that use the existing lands rather than spreading the player base out more and more as all previous expansions had done. It's too late though, it's all over. Years of mismanagement have driven too many people away. I was even involved in the focus group for another PvP balance patch in 2007, destroyed by the next expansion, just like p25. The game was too far gone even by then though. The player base was falling away with ever increasing rapidity. Nothing had been added to the game since AOS except more 'bloat'. Still no end game beyond PvP, and PvP was broken again. Felucca has faded from relevance, and the Trammel facets are nothing more than a glorified version of the Sims, where people compete to collect the newest rubbish and pixel crack released. The game couldn't be any further from how it started. As Richard Garriott has said lately, UO was supposed to be an RPG, not an MMO. The only 'role' you can play in UO now is disillusioned subscriber, one of a rapidly shrinking number.

I know this article is very PvP and Felucca centric. I can't help that. That's how I played the game for all those years. Hopefully I've managed to explain that while PvPers need others, others need PvPers too. Without us there's no bad guy, no risk, no cause to fight for or against. UO became great because we cared. In my early days I remember my first trip to Deceit with my friends. My palms were sweating. A red came through and killed most of us and I was completely exhilarated. Later on the braver members of my guild did a sweep of the dungeons and killed the very same PK, and took his head to display in our Tower. I looked forward to getting home from school each day and immersing myself in this world that seemed real, where I had to defend the lands of my guild against evil players. It's things like that that hooked me on UO. You may as well go play WoW if that's not the kind of game you are looking for. It does everything else much better than UO.

I was seventeen when I started playing this game. I'm thirty now and I still feel strongly enough about it to spend a few hours writing this. Hopefully I've not just rambled and have actually made some kind of coherent point.

So why AOS? I really feel the best possible Ultima Online would be one to combine the essentials of early UO, pre-trammel - The community, the risk, the excitement, the adventure. Player justice, together with the more advanced ideas of AOS, almost perfected in Publish 25. My ideal UO would be a one-faceted shard, Felucca only, including Champion Spawns, AOS mechanics, support for player communities and towns, and the thriving community this would create. I'd even consider a Trammel. Just not a mirror!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The 'PK' Problem

Probably the issue that drove discussion the most during the first few years of the games existence, and the cause of the expansion that created the great schism known as Trammel.

The issue hasn't gone away. Countless free/player shards now face the same dilemma that confronted the UO dev team in the late 90's. Namely, how do you discourage Player Killing without destroying it and the unique nature that it's existence gives to Ultima Online?

Why not just destroy it? Because it is an essential element of what many of these shards are trying to recreate. The danger, the risk vs reward, the player justice that made old UO great.

So how do you find the balance? It's difficult. The most bold attempt so far has been the effort of the IPY2 staff, with the introduction of the player driven Detective and Paladin systems. You have to applaud the ideas(as well as the coding) that resulted in two very polished and interesting systems being introduced on the shard. Ultimately, they have failed due to the usual nature of UO players - the systems have been exploited to the point where they are much more of a problem than the thing they were designed to address!

The AOS rule set provides the easiest option I believe - insurance. On AOS:R we have introduced increased insurance costs for red/murderer characters. Currently set at 4x the normal rate. The theory is that this amount presents a serious barrier to people intent on ruthlessly murdering - the chances of it being a profitable profession are greatly diminished, meaning many players will simply choose to forgo that play style. Those that do continue on this path will presumably be the most skilled and dedicated of players.

Obviously, it remain to see in play how this will work. We may need to adjust the cost ratio. We may also need to introduce other methods if this becomes insufficient deterrent alone.

The AOS:Redux Shard

What if AOS had been designed to right all the wrongs of UO:R and Trammel, whilst providing meaningful player driven conflict?