It belongs in a museum!

Ultima Online wasn’t the greatest game of all time, and it’s not even my favorite, but because it was first, and because it’s so old, it’s had a long period of time to make mistakes and learn from them (or not). And because it’s a sandbox, it’s made those mistakes across a broad spectrum of MMO design, rather than being limited to just themepark errors. In short, it’s usually got a perfect example for every type of bug, developer decision, and social interaction. That’s why I tap it so often in blog posts and podcasts — it’s a treasure-trove of MMO ideas. It’s a museum in the sense of an historical archive rather than a dusty relic.

Recently, the original designer of Ultima Online, Raph Koster, made waves lamenting the loss of immersion in MMOs. In a way, he’s making the usual sandbox-vs.-themepark argument, but he’s not using those words. I found one of his remarks to be particularly compelling, the idea that color-coded item systems (grey, white, green, blue, purple, orange) are part of the “junk” in modern MMOs that detracts from immersion.

I agree with him. A color-code is a shortcut, an appeal to a common idea shared by the players, akin to stock characters in movies: If you cast the rugged-but-intellectual action star, the vapid and mouthy blonde, and the comic sidekick (oh, let’s just make him a street-wise Asian kid), you can skip all that backstory fluff and get right to car chases, plane crashes, wayward minecarts, and lava. Your viewers understand the code. They understand whom those people represent within 30 seconds of introduction, no additional subtext required.

Of course, such characters are why most movies suck.

My original Massively blip on the subject discussed the item system in Ultima Online as a counterpoint to the WoW-esque color tiers. Here’s how it worked: All items dropped from monsters or found in chests came in a few different varieties. Weapons were named and scaled based on damage (Ruin, Might, Force, Power, Vanquishing), hit-chance increase (Accurate, Surpassingly Accurate, Eminently Accurate, Exceedingly Accurate, Supremely Accurate), and durability (Durable, Substantial, Massive, Fortified, Indestructible). Silver items dealt extra damage to undead monsters. Armor came with an armor rating based on the type of armor (leather, studded leather, bone, ringmail, chainmail, platemail) and was named based on durability (same as weapons) and defense (Defense, Guarding, Hardening, Fortification, Invulnerability). Theoretically, you’d be running around in your Supremely Accurate Katana of Vanquishing wearing all Indestructible Invulnerability Platemail.

But Bree, you say, how is that intrinsically different from a color-coded hierarchy?

It’s not — on the surface. The same shortcuts are communicated. “Vanq” and “Invuln” gear was the best, just like “purps” are superior in WoW-like/Diablo-like games. There are a few differences, though, that root classic UO in old-fashioned D&D-esque RPGs while WoW inches closer to spreadsheets online.

For starters, few UO players actually wore the gear I mentioned. We’re talking pre-Trammel and pre-Age of Shadows, a time early on in the game when there were virtually zero safezones and certainly no item insurance. Players could pop out and kill you and take all your stuff. Even monsters could loot your corpse. No one wears the good stuff in a world like that. You were going to die, often. Most players I knew kept their valuable armor in their bank boxes or their homes; I did occasionally take out some middle-tier weapons, but only when I was hunting in a group. The rest of the time, we all wore crafted armor — specifically, “Grandmaster” armor made by a blacksmith or tailor at the top of her game. Such gear would be printed with the artisan’s name as proof that it was “GM” and exceptional. It was decent and relatively replaceable.

That constant threat of gear loss served to fuel the crafting economy and bring player gear down to roughly the same level, be you poorbie miner or elite player-killer. Magic gear became too good, too rare, and too expensive to use for the vast majority of characters. Very often, players would venture out into the world virtually naked. This is not something that ever happens in World of Warcraft, where everyone’s wearing the very best gear he can get and PvP is dominated almost entirely by gearscore.

The second key difference is all about the numbers. For its weapons, WoW provides all the numbers and statistics and then delivers the color (and gearscore) as a shorthand for quality. Classic UO, by contrast, hid most of those numbers away from players. It’s hard to feel immersed in WoW when you’re hovering over two purple weapons, trying to compare their DPS and socket bonuses and stats. In UO, there were numbers behind your Silver Quarterstaff of Power, but you never saw them, which made the gear a part of the gameworld instead of a slice of the meta.

Ultima Online’s story doesn’t end there, sadly. In 2003, EA launched Age of Shadows, an expansion for UO that radically overhauled the game’s item system. The old tiers were demolished and replaced with dozens of new stats, all visible on the gear. Worse, it transformed what had been a vibrant skill-based game into an item-based one and destroyed a large chunk of the player-run economy for many years, which may sound familiar to Star Wars Galaxies players who suffered through the NGE. Some gamers called AoS the “Diablofication” of the game, and for the first time, UO’s subscription numbers, which had been on the rise since the addition of PvE facet Trammel, fell off dramatically. (The man responsible for Age of Shadows? Tom Chilton. Yes, that Tom Chilton, the one who’s been screwing around with WoW’s borked PvP system for years.)

A year later, WoW launched, having learned very little from UO’s mistakes.

The third and final point of divergence between the item systems in WoW and UO is this: Purps are all WoW’s got. Sure, WoW has consumables and quest items and stuff you can stick into your purps, but the “extra” items are offered strictly in the pursuit of more purps. That’s just how themeparks work. Sandboxes like UO, on the other hand, consider combat to be just one element of gameplay. I would wager that if the devs counted up all the zillions of items on all the shards of UO, the vast majority would be decorative items adorning player houses. Containers, furniture, knick-knacks. UO is stuffed full of stuff. Players have their fair share of artifacts and imbued gear, but clutter — and affording more clutter because it’s pretty or because it’s a status symbol — is why people keep playing.

If you walk around the busier shards of UO, you’re eventually going to stumble across a museum amidst all those bizarre player homes. In the 14+ years UO’s been online, the devs and gamemasters have been busy hosting live events, and at many of those live events, rare and custom items have been created and given away to player participants. The wealthiest players collect these priceless items together, often paying hard cash for transfer tokens to shuttle the most desirable items across the shards. Some of these baubles are flat out unique; there was only one created, ever, anywhere.

You’re never going to see an item museum in World of Warcraft, not because there’s no player housing but because there’s nothing unique to showcase.

Once in a blue moon, one of these museum curators turns out to be some sort of miscreant and is banned. For several years, EA turned such bannings into a massive auto da fe, setting homes permanently ablaze. Several museums and thousands of priceless, unique artifacts have been lost to such events, which makes me eternally sad. We can’t ever get those trinkets back; the stories they told are now lost to us forever. Those things belonged in a museum. I wish the current keepers of UO took the game and its history more seriously because these items and what they represent are precisely what makes Britannia so special. More than most MMOs, UO is about those old things and the creativity and history and yes, immersion, they engender.

WoW? WoW is about purps.


  1. Zax19 says:

    I can agree with the idea of a sandbox with unique or simply decorative items and hiding the stats. In Neverwinter Nights most servers made it so that upon inspecting a player you can see only the description written by the player. I also remember that at one wedding aside from a sum of money I gifted my old sword (other people couldn’t use it but could manipulate it) to a friend from the time I served under him in the city militia. Or coming back to the game after a few years and going though the library where some of the good stories found their way and then meeting up in a pub named after one important player is a nice sentiment. Yet I’ve also seen cases of people somehow making copies of expensive items or simply “smuggling” overpowered items into the game.

    As to the point of being afraid to carry anything expensive, my experience is that the systems (not just the RP or IC rules) have to protect people because griefing will happen and who has the time to settle all the arguments. I’ve always had issues with the idea of dying and resurrecting so I’m against the “running back to your corpse before somebody loots it”. In a fantasy setting you wear your best (meaning you leave your saving at the bank) because:
    A) You’re a hero, you should be able to defeat a group of petty thugs and a piece of rotting wood won’t help you with that.
    B) Fantasy should be about intimidation (when it comes to groups of adventurers) and intimidation is about numbers and perceived strength. To cite a scene from a Robin Hobb book, a pair of young villagers were harassing seemingly homeless man until they noticed he was carrying a sword. Just a simple sword, nothing fancy. The same goes for magic, mage’s staff and outfit help him exude wisdom, social standing, even strength when necessary. Just remember Gandalf and his use of voice, posture and appearance.

    In my ideal sandbox, you die once, maybe twice (if the DMs allow you to come back to life for the purpose of a story). The rest is “the down state”, being injured, incapacitated, tied up and so on. Either way, I feel your pain, the sandbox seems to lack some fresh and clean sand.

    • Bree says:

      I love that: “the sandbox seems to lack some fresh and clean sand.” :D

      Yeah, the duping in UO has been terrible, all the way back to the beginning of the game. Interestingly, I rarely hear about duping exploits in themeparks, so +1 for them.

      You could write a whole *novel* on death/resurrection/looting systems in MMOs. I’m not even sure I have a dog in the fight, really. I know it’s a good thing for crafting and player-economies, but… losing your corpse sucked in UO, even when you knew you were just carrying some regs and bandies and a suit of junk armor. It still sucked… the re-equipping process always felt like a walk of shame, and I get the same feeling when I die in WoW or TOR even though the technical penalty isn’t the same.

      During the first year or so of SWG, I was in an RP coalition that had all kinds of rules for regulating what happened after you died (since the cloning thing really trivialized death). We had to wear the equivalent of “shrouds” and change our titles to AFK to show that we were not available to kill or be killed. Getting people to follow that system was rough — people just didn’t like a long delay after death, even self-proclaimed RPers in a sandbox. I wonder whether it would work today.

      Thanks for commenting! :D

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