Monthly Archives: March 2024

Age of Empires (or, How Microsoft Got in on Games)

We don’t have a strategy to do a $200 game console that is a direct competitor to what Nintendo, Sega, and Sony are doing…

— Bill Gates, June 1996

It’s hard to overstate the scale of the real-time-strategy deluge of the late 1990s. For a period of several years, it seemed that every studio and publisher in the industry was convinced that duplicating the gameplay of Blizzard’s Warcraft and Westwood’s Command & Conquer franchises, those two most striking success stories in the business of computer games since Myst and DOOM, must surely be the digital equivalent of printing money. In the fall of 1997, Computer Gaming World magazine counted no fewer than 40 RTS’s slated for release during the coming Christmas season alone, to go along with the “nearly 20” that had already appeared with names other than Warcraft or Command & Conquer on their boxes. With no other obvious way of sorting through the jumble, the magazine chose simply to alphabetize the combatants in this “biggest clone war to hit the PC,” resulting in a list that began with 7th Legion and ended with Waterworld.

If those names don’t ring any bells with you today, you aren’t alone. While many of these games were competently made by genuinely enthusiastic developers, few mass movements in gaming have ever felt quite so anonymous. Although the drill of collecting resources, building up an army, and attacking your computerized or human enemies in real time struck a lot of people as a whole lot of fun — there was, after all, a reason that Warcraft and Command & Conquer had become so popular in the first place — it was hard for the creators of the next RTS generation to figure out what to do to set their games apart, whilst also staying within a strict set of design constraints that were either self-imposed or imposed upon them by their conservative publishers. Adventure games, CRPGs, and first-person shooters had all been the beneficiaries or victims of similar gluts in the past, but they had managed to explore a larger variety of fictional contexts if not always gameplay innovations. When it came to RTS’s, though, they all seemed to follow in the footsteps of either the high-fantasy Warcraft or the techno-futuristic Command & Conquer in their fictions as well as their gameplay. This can make even those members of the RTS Class of 1997 that are most fondly remembered today, such as the fantasy Myth or the science-fictional Total Annihilation, feel just a little generic to the uninitiated.

One game from this group, however, did stand out starkly from the crowd for the editors of Computer Gaming World, as it still does in the memories of gamers to this day. Whilst sticking to the tried and true in many of its mechanics, Age of Empires dared to try something different in terms of theme, mining its fiction from the real cultures of our planet’s ancient past. It played relatively straight with history, with no magic spells or aliens in sight. This alone was enough to make Age of Empires a welcome gust of fresh air in a sub-genre that was already sorely in need of it.

Yet there was also something else that made it stand out from the pack. Although its developer was an unknown outfit called Ensemble Studios — one of many that were springing up like toadstools after a rain to feed the real or perceived hunger among gamers for more, more, more RTS’s — its publisher was, of all companies, Microsoft, that one name in software that even your grandparents knew. The arrival of Age of Empires signaled a new era of interest and engagement with games by the most daunting single corporate power in the broader field of computing in general. If anyone still needed convincing that computer games were becoming mainstream entertainments in every sense of the phrase, this ought to have been enough to do the trick. For, whatever else one could say about Microsoft, it was not in the habit of exploring the nooks and crannies of the software market — not when there was a sprawling middle ground where it could plant its flag.

The man behind Ensemble Studios was one Tony Goodman, whose life’s direction had been set in the sixth grade, when his father, a professor of management science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, brought home a terminal that could be used to connect to the university’s mainframe. “He would give me the same problems that he had given his students,” says Goodman. “My father would say, ‘Tony, I have a puzzle for you.’ Immediately, I was sucked in for the rest of the day. I always looked at the problems as puzzles. I loved puzzles and games, so I just couldn’t get enough. It came to me naturally. I remember saying, ‘This is it. This is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life!'”

In an ironic sense, Goodman’s career path would be the opposite of that of the typical game developer, who joins the world of more plebeian software development only after getting burnt out by the long hours and comparatively low pay in games. Long before starting Ensemble Studios, Goodman made a career for himself in the information-technology departments of the banking industry, specializing, like his father before him, in data-visualization tools and the like that could aid executive-level decision-making. Along the way, he learned much that he would later be able to apply to games — for, he says, good games have much in common with good software of any other stripe: “One of the most valuable things that I learned about developing software was that, for users to be productive, the software had to be fun to use. The key is to keep people entertained long enough to be rewarded. This also happens to be the fundamental dynamic of games and, indeed, all human experiences.”

In 1989, Tony Goodman and three partners formed Ensemble Corporation — not to be confused with Ensemble Studios — in his garage. Two years later, they released Command Center, a user-friendly front-end for Borland’s Paradox database system that could “automate queries, reports, forms, and graphics.” The company exploded from there, becoming a darling of the Forbes and Inc. set.

Throughout his years in business software, Goodman never lost touch with that younger version of himself who had been drawn to computers simply because he found them so wonderfully entertaining. He and his older brother Rick, who joined Ensemble Corporation as a programmer shortly after the release of Command Center, were lifelong board and computer gamers, watching at first-hand the aesthetic and technical evolution of the latter, parallel software industry. They found a kindred soul in another Ensemble programmer named Angelo Laudon, who, like them, could appreciate the higher salaries and profit margins in productivity software but nonetheless felt a longing to engage with his biggest passion. “We would talk about games until the early hours of the morning,” says Tony Goodman. “I loved the business of developing software, but I wanted to create products that everyone would tell their friends about. I wanted to create a pop-culture phenomenon. If you want to create software that people really want, developing videogames places you at the center of the universe.”

He realized that computer games had hit a watershed moment when Microsoft announced Windows 95, and with it DirectX, a software subsystem that would allow people to install and run even cutting-edge games as effortlessly as any other type of software, without the travails of the bespoke IRQ and DMA settings and memory managers that had been such a barrier to entry in the past. If he ever wanted to try to make games of his own, he knew, the time to get started was now, between the market’s expansion and the inevitable market saturation that would follow. Rick Goodman remembers how one day his brother

walks into work, assembles the team of database programmers, and says, “Would any of you guys rather be making games than database applications?”

I think people were caught off-guard. We were looking around the room, like, “Is this a trick question?” But I raised my hand, and Angelo Laudon raised his. Tony was serious. He said, “I’m going to pull you guys aside and we’ll make a game.” I thought that was awesome. I said, “Okay! What kind of game?” None of us had any idea.

For months thereafter, they continued to do their usual jobs during the day, then gathered again in the evening to hash through ideas and plans. During one of these sessions, Rick suddenly brought up a name that Tony hadn’t heard in a long, long time: Bruce Shelley, an older fellow with whom the brothers had played a lot of board games during their pre-teen and teenage years. Shelley worked in computer games now, said Rick — had in fact assisted Sid Meier with the design of Railroad Tycoon and Civilization. “Maybe — maybe —  he’s not busy.”

And lo and behold, it turned out that he wasn’t. After finishing Civilization, Shelley had left Meier and his other colleagues at MicroProse Software in order to follow his new wife, a banking executive, to Chicago, where she’d secured a job that was far more lucrative than any that he’d ever held. He was writing gaming strategy guides out of his home office when Tony Goodman called him up one day out of the blue: “I hadn’t heard from him in fifteen years, and here he is with his own business in Dallas, doing software for banks, and he’s got guys who want to make computer games. We had these long conversations about what it takes to make a game. I told my wife, ‘I think this guy’s going to start a game company.’ And finally he did call me and say, ‘We are going to start a game company, and we want you to be involved.'” Shelley agreed to fly down to Dallas to talk it over.

But they still weren’t sure what kind of game they wanted to make. Then, as Shelley remembers, “One day one of the guys walked in with Warcraft. He said, ‘We’ve got to make this. We’ve got to make one of these. This is blowing the socks off the gaming world right now.'” It all came together quickly after that. Why not combine the hottest current trend in gaming with the last game Shelley had helped to make, which was already widely regarded as a hallowed classic? “The idea was, let’s take the ideas of Civilization — an historical game — and do a Warcraft/Command & Conquer-style RTS.”

This, then, was the guiding ethos of the project, the first line of any pitch document to a potential publisher: to combine the fast action of the typical RTS with at least some of the more expansive scope of Civilization. You would guide a tribe — in time, a full-fledged civilization — through the Paleolithic Age, the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age, and the early stages of the Iron Age (where this particular voyage through history would end, leaving the table set for a sequel). Along the way, you would research a variety of technologies and build ever more impressive structures, some of which would not be strictly military in application, such as granaries and temples. There would even be a version of Wonders of the World, those grandest of all Civilization achievements, waiting to be built. But the whole experience would be compressed down into the typical RTS time frame of an hour or so, as opposed to the dozen or more hours it might take to get through a full game of MicroProse’s Civilization.

Initially titled Dawn of Man, the game evolved slowly but steadily betwixt and between the usual daily routine at Ensemble Corporation. The other Ensemble principals took Tony Goodman’s after-hours vanity project with a shrug. They didn’t really understand it, but he had worked hard for a long time and was entitled to it, they supposed, in the same way that other successful entrepreneurs were entitled to go out and buy themselves a Porsche.

When Tony Goodman started shopping the game to prospective publishers, it already looked and played decently well. He was growing more and more convinced that he had a winner on his hands. Yet even he was surprised at his good fortune when he made a cold call to Stuart Moulder, a middle manager at Microsoft’s relatively little-remarked games division, and captured the interest of the biggest fish in the software sea.

Historically speaking, Microsoft’s relationship to games had long been a tentative one. It was true that, in the very early days of the company, when it was known chiefly as a peddler of 8-bit BASIC implementations, Microsoft had published a fair number of games. (The most important of these was probably its ethically dodgy commercial version of Will Crowther and Don Woods’s classic Adventure, the game that lent its name to a whole genre.) Even after it signed the landmark deal to provide IBM’s first mass-market personal computer with an operating system — a deal that resulted in the ever-evolving PC standard that remains dominant to this day — Microsoft continued to dabble in games for a while. There was a good reason for this; it’s often forgotten today that IBM and Microsoft first envisioned that original IBM PC becoming a fixture in homes as well as offices. But when home users didn’t embrace the platform as rapturously as the partners had hoped, even as Corporate America took it to its bosom more quickly than they had ever dreamed, Microsoft abandoned games, thanks not only to the bigger profits that could be earned in operating systems and business software but out of fear of the stigma that surrounded games and their makers in the more “serious” software circles of the 1980s. The one exception to Microsoft’s no-fun-allowed policy was — at least according to some people’s definition of “fun” — Flight Simulator, an early product for the IBM PC that turned into a minor cash cow for the company; like Microsoft’s operating systems and productivity packages, it was a program that people proved willing to buy all over again every few years, whenever it was updated to take advantage of the latest graphics cards and microprocessors. Its focus on the pedantic details of flying a real civilian airplane — the complications of VOR navigation systems and the insidious threat of carburetor ice were implemented, but absolutely no guns were to hand — presumably made it acceptable in Microsoft’s staid software lineup.

The release in 1990 of the comparatively approachable, user-friendly Windows 3.0 operating environment marked the moment when more conventional games began to become less of an anathema to Microsoft once again. An implementation of the hoary old card game Solitaire was among this latest Windows’s standard suite of software accessories. As easy to pick up as it was to put down, it became the perfect time killer or palate cleanser for hundreds of millions of office workers all over the world, enough to make it quite probably the most popular videogame ever in terms of sheer number of person-hours played. Microsoft went on to release four “Entertainment Packs” of similarly simple games for the Windows 3.x desktop, and to include a clever Battleship variant called Minesweeper in 1992’s Windows 3.1. Microsoft was slowly loosening up; even Bill Gates confessed to a Minesweeper addiction.

The company now began to dabble in more ambitious games, the kind that could stand on their own rather than needing to be packaged a half-dozen to a box. There came a golf game for the corporate set, and then there came Space Simulator, an attempt to do for armchair astronauts what Flight Simulator had for so long been doing for armchair aviators. But the big shift came with Windows 95, the first (and arguably only) Microsoft operating system whose arrival would become a full-fledged pop-culture event. That old dream of the PC as a standard for the home as well as the office was coming true in spades by now; amidst the hype over multimedia and the World Wide Web, ordinary people were buying computers to use in their homes in unprecedented numbers. Microsoft was determined to serve their wishes and needs just as they had for so long been serving those of the corporate world. One result of this determination was DirectX, which allowed Microsoft’s customers to install and play audiovisually rich, immersive games without having to learn the arcane mantras of MS-DOS or memorize every detail of a computer’s hardware configuration. Another, less initially prominent one was a more empowered games division, which was for the first time given permission to blow through the musty vibes of office life or educational value that had clung to Microsoft’s earlier entertainment efforts and give the hardcore gamers what they really wanted.

At the same time, though, it should be understood that even by this point game publishing had not become a major priority at Microsoft. Far from it. There remained plenty of people inside the company who didn’t think getting into that business was a good idea at all, who feared that it would be perceived as a conflict of interest by the very extant game publishers Microsoft was trying to convince to embrace DirectX, or who thought the potential rewards just weren’t worth the distraction; after all, even if Microsoft managed to publish the most popular computer game in the world, those revenues would still pale in comparison to the Windows and Office juggernauts. Among the skeptics who did no more than tolerate the notion of Microsoft peddling games was Bill Gates himself.

The games division was in the keeping of one Tony Garcia at this time. One day a manager a rung below him on the hierarchy, a “talent scout” named Stuart Moulder whom he had explicitly tasked with finding hot “gamer’s games” to sway the naysayers and reinvigorate the division, knocked on his door to say that he’d just seen an RTS work-in-progress by a brand-new studio that was being bootstrapped out of a business-software maker. Yes, Moulder rushed to add, he understood that no part of that sentence sounded overly promising at first blush. But the game itself looked surprisingly good, he said. Really, really good. This could be the Big One they’d been waiting for.

So, Garcia invited the Dawn of Man crew to come up to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and show him what they had. And he too liked what he saw enough to want to put the Microsoft logo on it.

Microsoft was an infamously tough negotiator, but Tony Goodman was no slouch in that department either. “Negotiation is often about compromise,” he says. “However, negotiating with Microsoft is more often about leverage. Microsoft negotiates hard. They don’t respect you unless you do the same.” Goodman gained some of his needed leverage by showing the game to other publishers as well — Electronic Arts, Hasbro, even Discovery Channel Multimedia (who were attracted by the game’s interest in real history) — and showing Microsoft the letters they had sent him to express their very real interest. Meanwhile Microsoft’s marketing department had already come up with the perfect name for a game whose historical time frame extended well beyond the Dawn of Man: Age of Empires. Having invented the name, Microsoft insisted on owning the trademark. Goodman wasn’t able to move the beast from Redmond on this point, but he did secure a royalty rate and other contract terms that he could live with.

In February of 1996, Goodman’s moonlighting venture was transformed from a skunk works inside a business-software maker to a proper games studio at long last, via official articles of incorporation. That said, it wouldn’t do to exaggerate the degree of separation even now: Ensemble Studios was still run out of the office of Ensemble Corporation. It had about ten employees in the beginning. Angelo Laudon was listed as lead programmer and Rick Goodman as lead designer, despite the latter’s complete lack of experience in that field. Fortunately, Bruce Shelley had agreed to join up as well, coming down to Dallas about one week of every month and working from home in Chicago the rest of the time.

Soon after Age of Empires became a real project from a real studio, Tony Garcia left Microsoft. He was replaced by Ed Fries, a veteran member of the Office team who had programmed games for 8-bit Atari computers before starting at Microsoft in 1986. When he agreed to take this new job in games, he was told by his colleagues that he was committing career suicide: “Why would you leave Office, one of the most important parts of this company, to go work on something nobody cares about?”

For all their apparent differences in size and clout, Microsoft and Ensemble Corporation were in an oddly similar boat; both were specialists in other kinds of software who were trying to break into games. Or rather, a handful of passionate individuals within each of the companies was, while everyone else looked on with bemused indifference. In an odd sort of way, though, said indifference was the passionate individuals’ superpower. If the new RTS failed utterly, it wouldn’t show up on the ledgers of Microsoft or Ensemble Corporation as anything more than a slight blip on an otherwise healthy bottom line. This lack of existential stakes — an extreme rarity in an industry whose instability is legendary — was greatly to the game’s benefit. With no pressure to have it finished by such-and-such a date or else, the developers could fuss over it until they got every detail just exactly perfect. Sticking close to the RTS playbook even in his choice of metaphors, Rick Goodman describes time in game development as “a resource, like collecting wood. The more of it you have, the better off you are. We took a lot of time. A lot of time. Most companies would not have survived that length of time.”

During that time, the game got played. Over and over and over and over again, it got played, not only by the Ensemble crew but by lots of folks at Microsoft, including the experts at that company’s “usability laboratory.” Microsoft brought in people from the street who had never played an RTS before, who didn’t even know what those initials stood for, and had them run through the early tutorial missions to see if they communicated what they were supposed to. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. Age of Empires was tested and tweaked no differently than it would have been if it was a $1000 mission-critical software application destined to be the fodder of corporate purchasing departments all over the world.

For this was to be a broad-spectrum computer game, beamed straight at the center of the mass market but wide and diffuse enough to capture an unusual variety of playing styles and priorities. Bruce Shelley has spoken often since of the value of putting “multiple gaming experiences within one box.”

To reach a broad audience, include a variety of game types and adjustable game parameters that combine in different ways to create a range of quite different gaming experiences, all within the same game. Examples of different gaming experiences with the Age of Empires games are multiplayer death matches, single-player campaigns, random-map games, cooperative-play games, and Wonder races. Victory conditions, map types, and level-of-difficulty settings are examples of parameters that can be adjusted to create different gaming experiences.

We want the smartest kid in junior-high school (a hardcore gamer) telling his or her friends that our game is his or her favorite right now. When those friends buy our game, they probably won’t be able to compete with the star, but by adjusting those parameters they can still find a type of game that suits them and have fun. The average kids and the smart kids can both enjoy our game, although they play quite different parts of it.

When we provide a variety of gaming experiences within the single box, we increase the number of people who can buy our game and be happy with it. Each of these satisfied customers becomes in turn a potential evangelist.

Although I wouldn’t directly equate being “hardcore” when it comes to games with being “smarter” than those who are not in the way that Shelley (perhaps inadvertently) does here, the larger point is well-taken. This was something that the industry in general was finally coming to realize by the latter 1990s, probably more belatedly than it ought to have done. By making it possible to play the same game in a variety of different ways, you could dramatically expand the size of that game’s audience. You did so by including varying difficulty levels and speed settings, to make the game as easy or hard, as relaxing or frenetic, as any particular player wished. And you did so by including different modes of play: story-driven campaigns, a single-player skirmish mode, online multiplayer contests. It might take additional time and money to make all of these things, especially if you were determined, as you ought to be, to make them all well, but it remained vastly cheaper than making a whole new game. Most older games dictate to you how you must play them; newer ones ask you how you would like to play them. And this has been, it seems to me, an immensely positive development on the whole, broadening immeasurably the quantity and types of people who are able to enjoy games — both each individual game that appears and gaming in the aggregate.

Certainly Age of Empires understood all of this; in addition to selectable difficulty levels and speed settings, it includes campaigns, pre-crafted singleton maps for single- or multiplayer sessions, randomly generated maps, even a scenario and campaign editor for those who want to turn their hobby into a truly creative pursuit. Anyone who has been reading these histories of mine for a while will surely know that the RTS is far from my favorite sub-genre of games. Yet even I found Age of Empires surprisingly easy to get along with. I turned the difficulty and speed down and approached the campaigns as an interactive whirlwind tour of the ancient world; as readers of this site’s companion The Analog Antiquarian are well aware, that is a subject I can never get enough of. I have a friend, on the other hand, who tells me that he can’t remember ever even starting a campaign back in the day, that he jumped right into multiplayer on Day One to engage in ferocious zero-sum contests with his friends and never looked back. And that’s fine too. Different strokes for different folks.

But since I am the person I am, I just have to say a bit more about the campaigns. There are actually four of them in all, chronicling the evolution of ancient Egypt, Greece, Babylon, and Japan. (An expansion pack that appeared about a year after the base game includes three more campaigns that deal exclusively with the rise and fall of Rome.) The campaigns were a labor of love for the lifetime history buff Bruce Shelley, as were the 40-plus pages in the manual dedicated to the twelve different playable civilizations, whose ranks include not only the aforementioned but also such comparatively obscure cultures as the Minoans, the Phoenicians, and even the Shang Chinese, all with strengths and weaknesses that stem from what we know — in some cases, what little we know — of their real-world inspirations.

“We really only needed one grand theme for a civilization that was historical enough to make people believe,” says Rick Goodman. “Like, they know Rome was good at X and the Greeks were good at Y.” For all that Age of Empires is no one’s idea of a studious exploration of history, it does have a little bit more on its mind than the likes of Warcraft or Command & Conquer. At its best, it can make you ponder where and how human civilization came to be, starting as it does with the bedrock resources, the food and wood and, yes, stone out of which everything that followed was built. I’m sure it must have sent at least a few of its young players scurrying to the library to learn a little more about our shared heritage. Perhaps it managed to spark an enduring passion for history in some of them.

The graphics style was an additional key to Age of Empires’s appeal. Bruce Shelley:

The sun is always shining in Age of Empires. It was always a bright, inviting world that you wanted to know more about. I’ve always had problems with dark, forbidding games. You’re crushing your audience — you’re really narrowing who is going to consider buying a game when you make it ugly, dark, and forbidding. Maybe it appeals to a certain audience, but…

When you set out to develop a PC game, the potential market is everyone on Earth who owns a PC. Once you begin making decisions about your game (gory, sci-fi, RTS, shooter), you begin losing potential customers who are not interested in your topic, genre, or style. Commercially successful games hold onto [a] significant share of that market because they choose a topic, genre, and style that connect with a broad audience. The acceptance of the PC into more world communities, different age groups, and by women means that games do not need to be targeted, and perhaps should not be targeted, solely to the traditional gaming audience of young males.

Age of Empires inevitably comes down to war in the end, as do most computerized depictions of history. But the violence is kept low-key in comparison to many another RTS bloodbath, and there is at least a nod in the direction of a non-conquest victory, an equivalent to sending a spaceship off to Alpha Centauri as a capstone to a game of Civilization: if you can build yourself a Wonder of the World in Age of Empires, then defend it for a period of time against all comers, you are declared the victor then and there. A “religious” victory can also be achieved, by collecting all of the religious artifacts on the map or holding all of its sacred sites for a period of 2000 years — about ten minutes in game time. There’s even some nods toward diplomacy, although in practice becoming allies usually just means you’ve agreed not to fight each other quite yet.

I don’t want to overstate the scale of the game’s innovations. At the end of the day, Age of Empires remains an RTS in the classic mold, with far more in common with Warcraft and Command & Conquer than it has with Civilization. It’s an extremely well-made derivative work with a handful of fresh ideas, not a revolution from whole cloth. Its nods in the direction of Civilization are no more than that; it’s not, that is to say, the full-blown fusion that may have been Bruce Shelley’s original vision for it. Compressing into just one hour the first 10,000 to 12,000 years of human civilization, from the dawn of sedentary farming to the splendors of high antiquity, means that lots of the detail and texture that make the game called Civilization so compelling must get lost. Even if you’re a story guy like me, you’ll no longer be marveling that you’ve brought writing, irrigation, or religion to your little group of meeples after you’ve played your first map or two; those things will have become mere rungs on the ladder to the victory screen, the real point of the endeavor. In a rare lukewarm review, GameSpot‘s T. Liam MacDonald put his finger on some of the places where Age of Empires’s aspirations toward Civilization don’t live up to the reality of its well-worn RTS template.

I wish that Age of Empires was what it claimed to be: Civilization with a Warcraft twist. Instead, it is Warcraft with a hint of Civilization. That’s all well and good, but it places it firmly in the action-oriented real-time combat camp, rather than in the high-minded empire-building [camp] of Civilization. The result is Warcraft in togas, with slightly more depth but a familiar feel.

I too must confess that I did eventually get bored with the standard RTS drill of collect, build, and attack that is the basis of almost every scenario. As the scenarios got harder, I gradually lost the will to put in the effort it would take to beat them; I wound up quitting without regrets about halfway through the second campaign, satisfied that I’d had my measure of fun and certain that life is too short to continue with entertainments of any type that you no longer find entertaining. Still, I won’t soon forget Age of Empires, and not just because its theme and atmosphere make it stand out so from the crowd. I would be the last person to deny that it’s an incredibly polished product from top to bottom, a game that was clearly fussed over and thought about to the nth degree. It exudes quality from its every virtual pore.

The Age of Empire intro movie displays some of the game’s contradictory impulses. The scenes of combat are no better nor worse than those of any other game that attempts to make war seem glorious rather than terrible. Yet the weathered ancient stone raises other, more poignant thoughts about the cycles of life, time, and civilization. “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

Each campaign follows the historical development of the civilization in question to whatever extent the demands of gameplay allow.

In commercial terms, Age of Empires was a perfect storm, a great game with wide appeal combined with a lot of marketing savvy and the international distributional muscle of the biggest software publisher in the world. The principals from Ensemble remember a pivotal demonstration to Bill Gates, whose reservations about Microsoft’s recent push into games were well-known to all of them. He emerged from his first first-hand encounter with Age of Empires calling it “amazing,” assuring it the full support of the Microsoft machine.

While Microsoft’s marketing department prepared an advertising campaign whose slick sophistication would make it the envy of the industry, Tony Goodman deployed a more personal touch, working the phones at the big gaming magazines. He wasn’t above using some psychological sleight-of-hand to inculcate a herd mentality.

I built relationships with the most recognized gaming magazines. I invested a lot of time with key editors, seeding the idea that Age of Empires was “revolutionary” and would become a “phenomenon.” They may not have believed me at first, but my goal wasn’t to convince them. My goal was to plant wondrous possibilities in their brains and create anticipation, like Christmas for kids.

When the early previews began appearing, they were using the terms that we seeded: “revolutionary” and “phenomenon.” These early opinions were then picked up and echoed by other publications, creating a snowball effect. Eventually, all the publications would get on board with this message, just so they didn’t look out of touch.

Sure enough, in the Computer Gaming World RTS roundup with which I opened this article, Age of Empires was given pride of place at the top of the otherwise alphabetized pile, alongside just one august companion: Starcraft, Blizzard’s long-awaited follow-up to Warcraft II, which was to try the science-fiction side of the usual RTS fantasy/science-fiction dichotomy on for size. As it happened, Starcraft would wind up slipping several months into 1998, leaving the coming yuletide season free to become the Christmas of Age of Empires.

So, while Age of Empires may not have quite lived up to its “revolutionary” billing in gameplay terms, it definitely did become a marketplace phenomenon after its release in October of 1997, demonstrating to everyone what good things can happen when a fun game with broad appeal is combined with equally broad and smart marketing. It doubled Microsoft’s own lifetime sales projections of about 400,000 units in its first three months; it would probably have sold considerably more than that, but Microsoft had under-produced based on those same sales predictions, leaving the game out of stock on many store shelves for weeks on end while the factories scrambled to take up the slack. Age of Empires recovered from those early travails well enough to sell 3 million units by 1999, grossing a cool $120 million. It left far behind even those other members of the RTS Class of 1997 that did very well for themselves by the conventional standards of the industry, such as Myth and Total Annihilation. In fact, Age of Empires and the franchise that it spawned came to overshadow even Command & Conquer, taking the latter’s place as the only RTS series capable of going toe-to-toe with Blizzard’s Warcraft and Starcraft.

And yet that is only a part of Age of Empires’s legacy — in a way, the smaller part. In the process of single-handedly accounting for half or more of the Microsoft games division’s revenue during the last couple of years of the 1990s, Age of Empires changed Microsoft’s attitude about games forever. The direct result of that shift in attitude would be a little product called the Xbox. “I believe there were two successes that had to happen at Microsoft in order for the Xbox console to happen,” says Stuart Moulder. “One was DirectX, which showed that we had the chops on the operating-system side to deliver technology that made it possible to build great games. Then, on the other side, we had to show that we had the ability as a first-party publisher to deliver a hit game aimed at core gamers — because that’s [the] people who buy and play console games.” Thanks to Age of Empires, gaming would be overlooked no more at Microsoft.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

Sources: The book Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay; Computer Gaming World of October 1997, November 1997, and January 1998; Next Generation of June 1996; InfoWorld of April 22 1991.

Online sources include Soren Johnson’s interview with Bruce Shelley, Scott Stilphen’s interview with Ed Fries, David L. Craddock’s long ShackNews series on Microsoft’s gaming history (especially the chapter dealing directly with Age of Empires), Thomas Wilde’s profile of Ed Fries for GeekWire, Richard C. Moss’s history of Age of Empires for Ars Technica, a Microsoft press release from February of 1998, T. Liam MacDonald’s vintage review of Age of Empires for GameSpot.

Finally, the box of documents that Bruce Shelley donated to the Strong Museum of Play were a valuable resource.

A “Definitive Edition” of the original Age of Empires is available as a digital purchase on Steam.


Tags: , , ,

The Rise of POMG, Part 4: A World for the Taking

Just as the Ultima Online beta test was beginning, Electronic Arts was initiating the final phase of its slow-motion takeover of Origin Systems. In June of 1997, the mother ship in California sent down two Vice Presidents to take over completely in Texas, integrate Origin well and truly into the EA machine, and end once and for all any semblance of independence for the studio. Neil Young became Origin’s new General Manager on behalf of EA, while Chris Yates became Chief Technical Officer. Both men were industry veterans.

Appropriately enough given that he was about to become the last word on virtual Britannia, Neil Young was himself British. He attributes his career choice to the infamously awful English weather. “There are a lot of people in the games industry that come from the UK,” he says. “I think it’s because the weather is so bad that you don’t have a lot to do, so you either go into a band or teach yourself to program.” He chose the latter course at a time when computer games in Britain were still being sold on cassette tape for a couple of quid. After deciding to forgo university in favor of a programming job at a tiny studio called Imagitec Design in 1988, he “quickly realized there were more gifted engineers,” as he puts it, and “moved into producing.” Having made a name for himself in that role, he was lured to the United States by Virgin Interactive in 1992, then moved on to EA five years later, which organization had hand-picked him for the task of whipping its sometimes wayward and lackadaisical stepchild Origin into fighting shape.

Chris Yates had grown up amidst the opposite of English rain, hailing as he did from the desert gambler’s paradise Las Vegas. He was hired by the hometown studio Westwood Associates in 1988, where he worked as a programmer on games like Eye of the Beholder, Dune II, and Lands of Lore. In 1994, two years after Virgin acquired Westwood, he moved to Los Angeles to join the parent company. There he and Young became close friends as well as colleagues, such that they chose to go to EA together as a unit.

The two were so attractive to EA thanks not least to an unusual project which had occupied some of their time during their last year and a half or so at Virgin. Inspired by Air Warrior, the pioneering massively-multiplayer online flight simulator that had been running on the GEnie commercial online service since the late 1980s, a Virgin programmer named Rod Humble proposed in 1995 that his company invest in something similar, but also a bit simpler and more accessible: a massively-multiplayer version of Asteroids, the 1979 arcade classic whose roots stretched all the way back to Spacewar!, that urtext of videogaming. Neil Young and his friend Chris Yates went to bat for the project: Young making the business case for it as an important experiment that could lead to big windfalls later on, Yates pitching in to offer his exceptional technical expertise whenever necessary. Humble and a colleague named Jeff Paterson completed an alpha version of the game they called SubSpace in time to put it up on the Internet for an invitation-only testing round in December of 1995. Three months later, the server was opened to anyone who cared to download the client — still officially described as a beta version — and have at it.

SubSpace was obviously a very different proposition from the likes of Ultima Online, but it fits in perfectly with this series’s broader interest in persistent online multiplayer gaming (or POMG as I’ve perhaps not so helpfully shortened it). For, make no mistake, the quality of persistence was as key to its appeal as it was to that of such earlier featured players in this series as Kali or SubSpace spawned squads and leagues and zones; it became an entire subculture unto itself, one that lived in and around the actual battles in space. The distinction between it and the games of Kali and was that SubSpace was massively — or at least bigly — multiplayer. Whereas an online Diablo session was limited to four participants, SubSpace supported battles involving up to 250 players, sometimes indulging in crazy free-for-alls, more often sorted into two or more teams, each of them flying and fighting in close coordination. It thus quickly transcended Asteroids in its tactical dimensions as well as its social aspects — transcended even other deceptively complex games with the same roots, such as Toys for Bobs’s cult classic Star Control. That it was playable at all over dial-up modem connections was remarkable; that it was so much fun to play and then to hang out in afterward, talking shop and taking stock, struck many of the thousands of players who stumbled across it as miraculous; that it was completely free for a good long time was the icing on the cake.

It remained that way because Virgin didn’t really know what else to do with it. When the few months that had been allocated to the beta test were about to run out, the fans raised such a hue and cry that Virgin gave in and left it up. And so the alleged beta test continued for more than a year, the happy beneficiary of corporate indecision. In one of his last acts before leaving Virgin, Neil Young managed to broker a sponsorship deal with Pepsi Cola, which gave SubSpace some actual advertising and another lease on life as a free-to-play game. During that memorable summer of the Ultima Online beta test, SubSpace was enjoying what one fan history calls its “greatest days” of all: “The population tripled in three months, and now there were easily 1500-plus people playing during peak times.”

With the Pepsi deal about to run out, Virgin finally took SubSpace fully commercial in October of 1997, again just as Ultima Online was doing the same. Alas, it didn’t go so well for SubSpace. Virgin released it as a boxed retail game, with the promise that, once customers had plunked down the cash to buy it, access would be free in perpetuity. This didn’t prevent half or more of the existing user base from leaving the community, even as nowhere near enough new players joined to replace them. Virgin shut down the server in November of 1998; “in perpetuity” had turned out to be a much shorter span of time than anyone had anticipated.

As we’ve seen before in this series, however, the remaining hardcore SubSpace fans simply refused to let their community die. They put up their own servers — Virgin had made the mistake of putting all the code you needed to do so on the same disc as the client — and kept right on space-warring. You can still play SubSpace today, just as you can Meridian 59 and The Realm. A website dedicated to tracking the game’s “population statistics” estimated in 2015 that the community still had between 2000 and 3000 active members, of whom around 300 might be online at any given time; assuming these numbers are to be trusted, a bit of math reveals that those who like the game must really like it, spending 10 percent or more of their lives in it. That same year, fans put their latest version of the game, now known as Subspace Continuum, onto Steam for free. Meanwhile its original father Rod Humble has gone on to a long and fruitful career in POMG, working on Everquest, The Sims Online, and Second Life among other projects.

But we should return now to the summer of 1997 and to Origin Systems, to which Neil Young and Chris Yates came as some of the few people in existence who could boast not only of ideas about POMG but of genuine commercial experience in the field, thanks to SubSpace. EA hoped this experience would serve them well when it came to Ultima Online.

Which isn’t to say that the latter was the only thing they had on their plates: the sheer diversity of Young’s portfolio as an EA general manager reflects the confusion about what Origin’s identity as a studio should be going forward. There were of course the two perennials, Ultima — meaning for the moment at least Ultima Online — and Wing Commander, which was, as Young says today, “a little lost as a product.” Wing Commander, the franchise in computer gaming during the years immediately prior to DOOM, was becoming a monstrous anachronism by 1997. Shortly after the arrival of Young and Yates, Origin would release Wing Commander: Prophecy, whose lack of the Roman numeral “V” that one expected to see in its name reflected a desire for a fresh start on a more sustainable model in this post-Chris Roberts era, with a more modest budget to go along with more modest cinematic ambitions. But instead of heralding the dawn of a new era, it would prove the franchise’s swan song; it and its 1998 expansion pack would be the last new Wing Commander computer games ever. Their intended follow-up, a third game in the Wing Commander: Privateer spinoff series of more free-form outer-space adventures, would be cancelled.

In addition to Ultima and Wing Commander, EA had chosen to bring under the Origin umbrella two product lines that were nothing like the games for which the studio had always been known. One was a line of military simulations that bore the imprimatur of “Jane’s,” a print publisher which had been the source since the turn of the twentieth century of the definitive encyclopedias of military hardware of all types. The Jane’s simulations were overseen by one Andy Hollis, who had begun making games of this type for MicroProse back in the early 1980s. The other line involved another MicroProse alum — in fact, none other than Sid Meier, whose name had entered the lexicon of many a gaming household by serving as the prefix before such titles as Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, and Colonization. Meier and two other MicroProse veterans had just set up a studio of their own, known as Firaxis Games, with a substantial investment from EA, who planned to release their products under the Origin Systems label. Origin was becoming, in other words, EA’s home for all of its games that were made first and usually exclusively for computers rather than for the consoles that now provided the large majority of EA’s revenues; the studio had, it seemed, more value in the eyes of the EA executive suite as a brand than as a working collective.

Still, this final stage of the transition from independent subsidiary to branch office certainly could have been even more painful than it was. Neil Young and Chris Yates were fully aware of how their arrival would be seen down in Austin, and did everything they could to be good sports and fit into the office culture. Brit-in-Texas Young was the first to come with the fish-out-of-water jokes at his own expense — “I was expecting a flat terrain with lots of cowboys, cacti, and horses, so I was pleasantly surprised,” he said of Austin — and both men rolled up their sleeves alongside Richard Garriott to serve the rest of the company a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, a longtime Origin tradition.

Neil Young and Chris Yates on the Thanksgiving chow line.

Young and Yates had received instructions from above that Ultima Online absolutely had to ship by the end of September. Rather than cracking the whip, they tried to cajole and josh their way to that milestone as much as possible. They agreed to attend the release party in drag if the deadline was met; then Young went one step farther, promising Starr Long a kiss on the lips. Yates didn’t go that far, but he did agree to grow a beard to commemorate the occasion, even as Richard Garriott, whose upper lip hadn’t seen the sun since he’d graduated from high school, agreed to shave his.

Young and Yates got it done, earning for themselves the status of, if not the unsung heroes of Ultima Online, two among a larger group of same. The core group of ex-MUDders whose dream and love Ultima Online had always been could probably have kept running beta tests for years to come, had not these outsiders stepped in to set the technical agenda. “That meant trading off features with technology choices and decisions every minute of the day,” says Young. He brought in one Rich Vogel, who had set up and run the server infrastructure for Meridian 59 at The 3DO Company, to do the same for Ultima Online. In transforming Origin Systems into a maintainer of servers and a seller of subscriptions, he foreshadowed a transition that would eventually come to the games industry in general, from games as boxed products to gaming as a service. These tasks did not involve the sexy, philosophically stimulating ideas about virtual worlds and societies with which Raph Koster and his closest colleagues spent their time and which will always capture the lion’s share of the attention in articles like this one, but the work was no less essential for all that, and no less of a paradigm shift in its way.

So, the big day came and the deadline was met: Ultima Online shipped on September 24, 1997, three days before Meridian 59 would celebrate its first anniversary. The sleek black box was an end and a beginning at the same time. Young and Yates did their drag show, Starr Long got his kiss, and, most shockingly of all, Richard Garriott revealed his naked upper lip to all and sundry. (Opinions were divided as to whether the mangy stubble which Chris Yates deigned to grow before picking up his razor again really qualified as a beard or not.) And then everyone waited to see what would happen next.

A (semi-)bearded Chris Yates and a rare sight indeed: a clean-shaven Richard Garriott.

EA made and shipped to stores all over the country 50,000 copies of Ultima Online, accompanying it with a marketing campaign that was, as Wired magazine described it, of “Hollywood proportions.” The virtual world garnered attention everywhere, from CNN to The New York Times. These mainstream organs covered it breathlessly as the latest harbinger of humanity’s inevitable cyber-future, simultaneously bracing and unnerving. Flailing about for a way to convey some sense of the virtual world’s scope, The New York Times noted that it would take 38,000 computer monitors — enough to fill a football field — to display it in its entirety at one time. Needless to say, the William Gibson quotes, all “collective hallucinations” and the like, flew thick and fast, as they always did to mark events like this one.

Three weeks after the launch, 38,000 copies of Ultima Online had been sold and EA was spooling up the production line again to make another 65,000. Sales would hit the 100,000 mark within three months of the release. Such numbers were more than gratifying. EA knew that 100,000 copies sold of this game ought to be worth far more to its bottom line than 100,000 copies of any other game would have been, given that each retail sale hopefully represented only the down payment on a long-running subscription at $10 per month. For its publisher, Ultima Online would be the gift that kept on giving.

In another sense, however, the sales figures were a problem. When Ultima Online went officially live, it did so on just three shards: the Atlantic and Pacific shards from the beta test, plus a new Great Lakes one to handle the middle of the country. Origin was left scrambling to open more to meet the deluge of subscribers. Lake Superior came up on October 3, Baja on October 10, Chesapeake on October 16,  Napa Valley on November 14, Sonoma on December 13, Catskills on December 22. And still it wasn’t enough.

Origin’s estimates of how many players a single server could reliably support proved predictably overoptimistic. But rather than dial back on the number of players they allowed inside, thereby ensuring that each of them who did get in could have a reasonably enjoyable experience, they kept trying to cover the gap between technical theory and reality by hacking their code on the fly. As a result, Ultima Online became simultaneously the most loved and most hated game in the country. When it all came together, it was magic for many of its players. But truth be told, that didn’t happen anywhere near as often as one might have wished in that first year or so. Extreme lag, inexplicable glitches, dropped connections, and even total server crashes were the more typical order of the day. Of course, with almost everyone who surfed the Web still relying on dial-up modems running over wires that had been designed to carry voices rather than computer data, slowdowns and dropped connections were a reality of daily online life even for those who weren’t attempting to log onto virtual worlds. This created a veneer of plausible deniability, which Origin’s tech-support people, for lack of any other suggestions or excuses to offer, leaned on perhaps a bit too heavily. After all, who could say for sure that the problem any individual player might be having wasn’t downstream from Origin’s poor overtaxed server?

Weaselly excuses like these led to the first great act of civil disobedience by the residents of Britannia, just a few weeks after the launch, when hundreds of players gathered outside Lord British’s castle, stripped themselves naked, broke into the throne room, drank gallons of wine, and proceeded to disgorge all of it onto Richard Garriott’s virtual furniture, whilst chanting in unison their demands for a better, stabler virtual world. The world’s makers were appalled, but also weirdly gratified. What better sign of a budding civic life could there be than a full-on political protest? “We were all watching and thinking it was a grand statement about the project,” says Richard Garriott. “As unhappy as they were about the game, they voiced their unhappiness in the context of the game.” Much of what happened inside Ultima Online during the first year especially had the same quality of being amazing for philosophers of virtual worlds to witness, but stressful for the practical administrators who were trying to turn this one into a sustainable money tree. The rub was that the two categories were combined in the very same people, who were left feeling conflicted to say the least.

The journals of hardcore gaming, hardly known for their stoicism in the face of hype on most days, were ironically more reserved and skeptical than the mainstream press on the subject of Ultima Online, perchance because they were viewing the virtual world less as a harbinger of some collective cyber-future and more as a game that their readers might wish to, you know, actually play. Computer Gaming World wittily titled its scathing review, buried on page 162 and completely unmentioned on the cover of the issue in question, simply “Uh-Oh.” Among the litany of complaints were “numerous and never-ending bugs, horrible lag time, design issues [that] lead to repetitive and time-consuming activities, and [an] unbalanced economy.” The magazine did admit that “Ultima Online could become a truly great game. But we can’t review potential, we can only review concrete product.” Editor-in-chief Johnny L. Wilson, for his part, held out little hope for improvement. “Ultima Online begins with hubris and ends in Greek tragedy,” he said. “The hubris is a result of being unwilling to learn from others’ mistakes. The tragedy is that it could have been so much more.” Randy Farmer, co-creator of the earlier would-be virtual world Habitat, expressed a similar sentiment, saying that “Origin seems to have ignored many of the lessons that our industry has learned in the last ten years of building online worlds. They’re making the same mistakes that first-time virtual-world builders always make.”

The constant crashes and long periods of unexplained down time associated with a service for which people were paying good money constituted a corporate lawyer’s worst nightmare — or a different sort of lawyer’s wet dream. One of these latter named George Schultz began collecting signatures from Origin’s most disgruntled customers within weeks, filing a class-action lawsuit in San Diego at the beginning of March of 1998. Exhibit A was the copy right there on the back of the box, promising “a living, growing world where thousands of real people discover real fantasy and adventure, 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” with all of it taking place “in real time.” This was, claimed Schultz, a blatant case of false advertising. “We’re not trying to tell anyone how to design a good or a bad game,” he said. “What it’s about is holding Origin and EA to the promises they made on the box, in their advertising, and [in] the manual. It’s about the misrepresentations they’ve made. A big problem with the gaming industry is that they think there are some special rules that only apply to them.”

Whatever the truth of that last claim, there was no denying that just about half of the learning curve of Ultima Online was learning to navigate around the countless bugs and technical quirks. For example, Origin took down each shard once per day for a backup and a “therapeutic” reboot that was itself a testament to just what a shaky edifice the software and hardware were. When the server came back up again, it restored the state of the world from the last backup. But said state was a snapshot in time from one hour before the server went down. There was, in other words, an hour every day during which everything you did in virtual Britannia was doomed to be lost; this was obviously not a time to go on any epic, treasure- and experience-point-rich adventures. Yet such things were documented nowhere; one learned them only through the proverbial school of hard knocks.

In their defense, Origin was sailing into completely uncharted waters with Ultima Online. Although there had been online virtual worlds before, dating all the way back to that first MUD of 1978 or 1979, none of them — no, not even Meridian 59 and The Realm — had been as expansive, sophisticated, and most of all popular as these shards of Britannia. Most of the hardware technologies that would give rise to the era of Web 2.0, from DSL in homes to VPS’s in data centers, existed only as blueprints; ditto most of the software. No one had ever made a computer game before that required this much care and feeding after the initial sale. And it wasn’t as if the group entrusted with maintaining the beast was a large one. Almost the entirety of the Ultima IX team which had been parachuted in six months before the launch to just get the world done already was pulled out just as abruptly as soon as it started accepting paying subscribers, leaving behind a crew of maintainers that was little bigger than the original team of ex-MUDders who had labored in obscurity for so long before catching the eye of EA’s management. The idea that maintaining a virtual world might require almost as much manpower and ongoing creative effort as making it in the first place was too high a mental hurdle for even otherwise clever folks like Neil Young and Chris Yates to clear at this point.

Overwhelmed as they were, the maintainers began to rely heavily on unpaid volunteers from the community of players to do much of the day-to-day work of administrating the world, just as was the practice on MUDs. But Ultima Online ran on a vastly larger scale than even the most elaborate MUDs, making it hard to keep tabs on these volunteer overseers. While some were godsends, putting in hours of labor every week to make Britannia a better place for their fellow players, others were corrupted by their powers, manipulating the levers they had to hand to benefit their friends and punish their enemies. Then, too, the volunteer system was another legal quagmire, one that would doubtless have sent EA’s lawyers running screaming from the room if anyone had bothered to ask them about it before it was rolled out; sure enough, it would eventually lead to another lawsuit, this one more extended, serious, and damaging than the first.

In the meanwhile, though, most players did not rally behind the first lawsuit to anything like the degree that George Schultz might have been hoping. The fact was that even the ones who had vomited all over Lord British’s throne had done so because they loved their virtual Britannia and wanted to see it fixed rather than destroyed, as it would likely be if Schultz won the day. The suit concluded in a settlement at the end of 1998. The biggest concession on the part of the defendants was a rather weird one that gave no recompense to any individual inhabitant of virtual Britannia: EA agreed to donate $15,000 to the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation. Perhaps Schultz thought that it would be able to innovate up a more reliable virtual world.

While many of the technical problems that beset Ultima Online were only to be expected in the context of the times, some of the other obstacles to enjoying the virtual world were more puzzling. First and foremost among these was the ever-present issue of players killing other players, which created so much frustration that George Schultz felt compelled to explicitly wall it off from the breach-of-trust claims that were the basis of his lawsuit: “We’re not getting into whether there should be player-killing.” Given that it had been such a constant theme of life (and death) in virtual Britannia going all the way back to the alpha-testing phase, the MUDders might have taken more steps to address it before the launch. As it was, though, one senses that, having seen so many of their ideas about a virtual ecology and the like not survive contact with real players, having been forced to give up in so many ways on virtual Britannia as a truly self-sustaining, living world, they were determined to make this the scene of their last stand, the hill that they would either hold onto or die trying.

Their great white hope was still the one that Richard Garriott had been voicing in interviews since well before the world’s commercial debut: that purely social pressures would act as a constraint on player-killing — that, in short, their world would learn to police itself. In fact, the presence of player-killing might act as a spur to civilization — for, as Raph Koster said, “cultures define and refine themselves through conflict.” They kept trying to implement systems that would nudge this particular culture in the right direction. They decided that, after committing murder five times, a player would be branded with literal scarlet letters: the color of his onscreen name would change from blue to red. Hopefully this would make him a pariah among his peers, while also making it very dangerous for him to enter a town, whose invulnerable computer-controlled guards would attack him on sight. The designers didn’t reckon with the fact that a virtual life is, no matter how much they might wish otherwise, simply not the same as a real life. Some percentage of players, presumably perfectly mild-mannered and law-abiding in the real world, reveled in the role of murderous outlaws online, taking the red letters of their name as a badge of honor rather than shame, the dangers of the cities as a challenge rather than a deterrent. To sneak past the city gates, creep up behind an unsuspecting newbie and stab her in the back, then get out of Dodge before the city watch appeared… now, that was good times. The most-wanted rolls posted outside the guard stations of Britannia became, says Raph Koster, “a high-score table for player killers.”

The MUDders’ stubborn inflexibility on this issue — an issue that was by all indications soon costing Ultima Online large numbers of customers — was made all the more inexplicable in the opinion of many players by the fact that it was, in marked contrast to so many of the other problems, almost trivial to address in programming terms. An “invulnerability” flag had long existed, to be applied not only to computer-controlled city guards but to special human-controlled personages such as Lord British to whom the normal laws of virtual time and space did not apply. All Origin had to do was add a few lines of code to automatically turn the flag on when a player walked into designated “safe” spaces. That way, you could have places where those who had signed up mostly in order to socialize could hang out without having to constantly look over their backs, along with other places where the hardcore pugilists could pummel one another to their heart’s content. Everyone would be catered to. Problem solved.

But Raph Koster and company refused to take this blindingly obvious step, having gotten it into their heads that to do so would be to betray their most cherished ideals. They kept tinkering around the edges of the problem, looking for a subtler solution that would preserve their world’s simulational autonomy. For example, they implemented a sort of karmic justice system, which dictated that players who had been evil during life would be resurrected after death only after losing a portion of their stats and skills. Inevitably, the player killers just took this as another challenge. Just don’t get killed, and you would never have to worry about it.

The end result was to leave the experience of tens of thousands of players in the unworthy hands of a relatively small minority of “griefers,” people who thrived on causing others pain and distress. Like all bullies, they preyed on the weak; their typical victims were the newbies, unschooled in the ways of defense, guiding characters with underwhelming statistics and no arms or armor to speak of. Such new players were, of course, the ones whose level of engagement with the game was most tentative, who were the mostly likely to just throw up their hands and go find something else to play after they’d been victimized once or twice, depriving Origin of potentially hundreds of dollars in future subscription revenue.

In light of this, it’s strange that no one from EA or Origin overrode the MUDders on this point. For his part, Richard Garriott was adamantly on their side, insisting that Ultima Online simply had to allow player-killing if it wasn’t to become a mockery of itself. It was up to the dissatisfied and victimized residents themselves to band together and turn Britannia into the type of world they wanted to live in; it wasn’t up to Origin to step in and fix their problems for them with a deus ex machina. “When we first launched Ultima Online, we set out to create a world that supported the evil player as a legitimate role,” said Garriott in his rather high-handed way. “Those who have truly learned the lessons of the [single-player] Ultima games should cease their complaining, rise to the challenge, and make Britannia into the place they want it to be.” He liked to tell a story on this subject. (Knowing Garriott’s penchant for embellishment, it probably didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen quite like this. But that’s not relevant to its importance as allegory.)

One evening, he was wandering the streets of the capital in his Lord British persona, when he heard a woman screaming. Rushing over to her, he was told that a thief had stolen all of her possessions. His spirit of chivalry was awoken; he told her that he would get her things back for her. Together they tracked down the thief and cornered him in a back alley. Lord British demanded that the thief return the stolen goods, and the thief complied. They all went their separate ways. A moment later, the woman cried out again; the thief had done it again.

This time, Lord British froze the thief with a spell before he could leave the scene of the crime. “I told you not to do that,” he scolded. “What are you doing?”

“Sorry, I won’t do it again,” said the thief as he turned over the goods for a second time.

“If you do that again, I’m going to ban you from the game,” said Lord British.

You might be able to guess what happened next: the thief did it yet again. “I said I was going to ban you, and now I have to,” shouted Lord British, now well and truly incensed. “What’s wrong with you? I told you not to steal from this woman!”

The thief’s answer stopped Garriott in his tracks. “Listen. You created this world, and I’m a thief,” he said, breaking character for the first time. “I steal. That’s what I do. And now you’re going to ban me from the game for playing the role I’m supposed to play? I lied to you before because I’m a thief. The king caught me and told me not to steal. What am I going to do, tell you that as soon as you turn around I’m going to steal again? No! I’m going to lie.”

And Garriott realized that the thief was right. Garriott could do whatever he wished to him as Lord British, the reigning monarch of this world. But if he wished to stay true to all the things he had said in the past about what virtual Britannia was and ought to be, he couldn’t go outside the world to punish him as Richard Garriott, the god of the server looking down from on-high.

Some of the questions with which Origin was wrestling resonate all too well today: questions involving the appropriate limits of online free speech — or rather free action, in this case. They are questions with which everyone who has ever opened an Internet discussion up to the public, myself included, have had to engage. When does strongly felt disagreement spill over into bad faith, counterpoint into disruption for the sake of it? And what should we do about it when it does? In Origin’s case, the pivotal philosophical question at hand was where the boundary lay between playing an evil character in good faith in a fantasy world and purposely, willfully trying to cause real pain to other real people sitting behind other real computers. Origin had chosen to embrace a position close to the ground staked out by our self-described “free-speech maximalists” of today. And like them, Origin was learning that the issue is more dangerously nuanced than they had wished to believe.

But there were others sorts of disconnect at play here as well. Garriott’s stern commandment that his world’s inhabitants should “cease their complaining, rise to the challenge, and make Britannia into the place they want it to be” becomes more than a bit rich when we remember that it was being directed toward Origin’s paying customers. Many of them might have replied that it was up to Origin rather than they themselves to make Britannia a place they wanted to be, lest they choose to spend their $10 per month on something else. The living-world dynamic held “as long as everyone is playing the same game,” wrote Amy Jo Kim in an article about Ultima Online and its increasingly vocalized discontents that appeared in Wired magazine in the spring of 1998. “But what happens when players who think they’re attending an online Renaissance Faire find themselves at the mercy of a violent, abusive gang of thugs? In today’s Britannia, it’s not uncommon to stumble across groups of evil players who talk like Snoop Doggy Dogg, dress like gangstas, and act like rampaging punks.” To be sure, some players were fully onboard with the “living-world” policy of (non-)administration. Others, however, had thought, reasonably enough given what they had read on the back of the game’s box, that they were just buying an entertainment product, a place to hang out in a few hours per day or week and have fun, chatting and exploring and killing monsters. They hadn’t signed up to organize police forces or lead political rallies. Nor had they signed up to be the guinea pigs in some highfalutin social experiment. No; they had signed up to play a game.

As it was, Ultima Online was all but impossible to play casually, thanks not only to the murderers skulking in its every nook and cranny but to core systems of the simulation itself. For example, if you saved up until you could afford to build yourself a nice little house, made it just like you wanted it, then failed to log on for a few days, when you did return you’d find that your home had disappeared, razed to make room for some other, more active player to build something. Systems like these pushed players to spend more time online as a prerequisite to having fun when they were there. Some left when the demands of the game conflicted with those of real life, which was certainly the wisest choice. But some others began to spend far more time in virtual Britannia than was really good for them, raising the specter of gaming addiction, a psychological and sociological problem that would only become more prevalent in the post-millennial age.

Origin estimated that the median hardcore player spent a stunning if not vaguely horrifying total of six hours per day in the virtual world. And if the truth be told, many of the non-murderous things with which they were expected to fill those hours do seem kind of boring on the face of it. This is the flip side of making a virtual world that is more “realistic”: most people play games to escape from reality for a while, not to reenact it. With all due respect to our dedicated and talented real-world tailors and bakers, most people don’t dream of spending their free time doing such jobs online. Small wonder so many became player killers instead; at least doing that was exciting and, for some people at any rate, fun. From Amy Jo Kim’s article:

There’s no shortage of realism in this game — the trouble is, many of the nonviolent activities in Ultima Online are realistic to the point of numbingly lifelike boredom. If you choose to be a tailor, you can make a passable living at it, but only after untold hours of repetitive sewing. And there’s no moral incentive for choosing tailoring — or any honorable, upstanding vocation, for that matter. So why be a tailor? In fact, why not prey on the tailors?

True, Ultima Online is many things to many people. Habitués of online salons come looking for intellectual sparring and verbal repartee. Some other people log on in search of intimate but anonymous social relationships. Still others play the game with cunning yet also a discernible amount of self-restraint, getting rich while staying pretty honest. But there’s no avoiding where the real action is: an ever-growing number are playing Ultima Online to kill everything that moves.

All of this had an effect: all signs are that, after the first rush of sales and subscriptions, Ultima Online began to stagnate, mired in bad reviews, ongoing technical problems, and a growing disenchantment with the player-killing and the other barriers to casual fun. Raph Koster admits that “our subscriber numbers, while stratospheric for the day, weren’t keeping up” with sales of the boxed game, because “the losses [of frustrated newbies] were so high.”

Although Origin and EA never published official sales or subscriber numbers, I have found one useful data point from the early days of Ultima Online, in an internal Origin newsletter dated October 30, 1998. As of this date, just after its first anniversary, the game had 90,000 registered users, of whom approximately half logged on on any given day. These numbers are depicted in the article in question as very impressive, as indeed they were in comparison to the likes of Meridian 59 and The Realm. Still, a bit of context never hurts. Ultima Online had sold 100,000 boxed copies in its first three months, yet it didn’t have even that many subscribers after thirteen months, when its total boxed sales were rounding the 200,000 mark. The subscriber-retention rate, in other words, was not great; a lot of those purchased CDs had become coasters in fairly short order.

Nine shards were up in North America at this time, a number that had stayed the same since the previous December. And it’s this number that may be the most telling one of all. It’s true that, since demand was concentrated at certain times of day, Ultima Online was hosting just about all the players it could handle with its current server infrastructure as of October of 1998. But then again, this was by no means all the players it should be able to handle in the abstract: new shards were generally brought into being in response to increasing numbers of subscribers rather than vice versa. The fact that no new North American shards had been opened since December of 1997 becomes very interesting in this light.

I don’t want to overstate my case here: Ultima Online was extremely successful on its own, somewhat experimental terms. We just need to be sure that we understand what those terms were. By no means were its numbers up there with the industry’s biggest hits. As a point of comparison, let’s take Riven, the long-awaited sequel to the mega-hit adventure game Myst. It was released two months after Ultima Online and went on to sell 1 million units in its first year — at least five times the number of boxed entrées to Origin’s virtual world over the same time period, despite being in a genre that was in marked decline in commercial terms. Another, arguably more pertinent point of comparison is Age of Empires, a new entry in the red-hot real-time-strategy genre. Released just one month after Ultima Online, it outsold Origin’s virtual world by more than ten to one over its first year. Judged as a boxed retail game, Ultima Online was a middling performer at best.

Of course, Ultima Online was not just another boxed retail game; the unique thing about it was that each of the 90,000 subscribers it had retained was paying $10 every month, yielding a steady revenue of almost $11 million per year, with none of it having to be shared with any distributor or retailer. That was really, really nice — nice enough to keep Origin’s head above water at a time when the studio didn’t have a whole lot else to point to by way of justifying its ongoing existence to EA. And yet the reality remained that Ultima Online was a niche obsession rather than a mass-market sensation. As so often happens in life, taking the next step forward in commercial terms, not to mention fending off the competition that was soon to appear with budgets and publisher support of which Meridian 59 and The Realm couldn’t have dreamed, would require a degree of compromise with its founding ideals.

Be that as it may, however, one thing at least was now clear: there was real money to be made in the MMORPG space. Shared virtual worlds would soon learn to prioritize entertainment over experimentation. Going forward, there would be less talk about virtual ecologies and societies, and more focus on delivering slickly packaged fun, of the sort that would keep all kinds of players coming back for more — and, most importantly of all, get those subscriber counts rising once more.

I’ll continue to follow the evolution of PMOG, MMORPGs, and Ultima Online in future articles, and maybe see if I can’t invent some more confusing acronyms while I’m at it. But not right away… other subjects beg for attention in the more immediate future.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

Sources: the books Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online by Wes Locher, Postmortems: Selected Essays, Volume One by Raph Koster, Online Game Pioneers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Through the Moongate, Part II by Andrea Contato, Explore/Create by Richard Garriott, and MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle, and Dungeons and Dreamers by Bard King and John Borland. Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of February 20 1998 and October 30 1998; Computer Gaming World of February 1998 and November 1998; New York Times of October 20 1997; Wired of May 1998.

Web sources include a 2018 Game Developers Conference talk by some of the Ultima Online principals, an Ultima Online timeline at UOGuide, and GameSpot‘s vintage reviews of Ultima Online and its first expansion, The Second Age. On the subject of SubSpace, we have histories by Rod Humble and Epinephrine, another vintage GameSpot review, and a Vice article by Emanuel Maiberg.


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,