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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 Battle.net. 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 Battle.net 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.

 

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The Rise of POMG, Part 3: Competition and Conflict

While the broth of Ultima Online was slowly thickening, not one but two other publishers beat EA and Origin Systems to the punch by releasing graphical persistent virtual worlds of their own. We owe it to them and to ourselves to have a look at these other POMG pioneers before we return to the more widely lauded one that was being built down in Texas. They were known as Meridian 59 and The Realm.


Meridian 59 was inspired by Scepter of Goth,[1]The first word in the name is often spelled Sceptre as well. a rare attempt to commercialize the text-only MUD outside of the walled gardens of online services such as CompuServe and GEnie. After a long gestation period on a mainframe of the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium, it was ported in 1983 to an IBM PC/XT, to which were cabled sixteen modems and sixteen phone lines, one for each of the players who could be online at any given time. A company called InterPlay — no, not that Interplay — franchised the software out to operators in at least seven American cities. These franchisees then charged their customers an hourly fee to roam around inside the world. The business model worked surprisingly well for a couple of years, until InterPlay’s founder was sent to prison for tax evasion and his company went down with him.

During the fairly brief window of time that Scepter of Goth remained a going concern, a pair of brothers named Andrew and Chris Kirmse fell in love with the incarnation of it that was run out of their hometown of Fairfax, Virginia. Not yet teenagers when they discovered it, they never forgot it after it disappeared. In the summer of 1994, when Andrew had just earned his bachelor’s degree from MIT and Chris had just finished his junior year at Virginia Tech, they set about bringing something similar to life, albeit this time with a top-down graphical view of the world rather than scrolling text. By the end of the year, they felt they had “the foundation of a game,” as Andrew puts it.

A very early version of the game that would evolve into Meridian 59. At this point, it was known as Blackstone.

Then, like so many other young men of their generation and disposition, they found their productivity derailed by a little game called DOOM. “I spent the early part of 1995 playing DOOM II to the exclusion of all else,” admits Andrew. As soon as he had finished all of the single-player levels, he and a friend started to make a DOOM-like engine of their own — again, just as about a million other young programmers were doing at the time. But there was a key difference in Andrew’s case: he didn’t want to make a single-player game, nor even one oriented toward the one-and-done online deathmatches that were all the rage at university campuses all over the country. He rather wanted to combine DOOM with the persistent online game which he and his brother had already begun — that is to say, to make a DOOM that took place in a persistent world.

Andrew and Chris Kirmse cleared their schedules so that they could spend the summer of 1995 in their parents’ basement, figuring out whether it was possible and practical to make the unholy union a reality. With the Internet now entering the public consciousness in a big way, it was a no-brainer to move the game there, where it would be able to welcome far more than sixteen players without requiring a warehouse worth of modems. A handful of other young dreamers joined them as partners in a would-be company called Archetype Interactive, contributing art, world designs, and even a modicum of business acumen from locations all over the country. Like Kali and for that matter DOOM itself, it was the very definition of an underground project, springing to life far from the bright lights of the major publishers, with their slick “interactive movies” and their fixed — and, it would turn out, comprehensively wrong — ideas of the direction mainstream gaming was destined to go. At first the Archetypers wanted to call their game Meridian, simply because they thought the word sounded cool. But they found that the name was already trademarked, so they stuck an arbitrary number at the end of it to wind up with Meridian 59.

By December, they had a bare-bones world with, as Andrew Kirmse says, “no character advancement, no spells, no guilds, no ranged weapons, just the novelty of seeing other people walking around in 3D and talking to them.” Nevertheless, they decided they were ready for an alpha test, several months before Ultima Online would reach the same milestone. They fired up the server late one evening and went to bed, and were thrilled to wake up the next morning and find four people — out of a maximum of 35 — poking around in their world at the same time. Andrew still calls the excitement of that moment “the high point of the entire project.” They redoubled their efforts, roping in more interested observers to provide more art and expand upon the world and its systems, pushing out major updates every few weeks.

In an testament to the endearingly ramshackle nature of the whole project, the world of Meridian 59 was built using a hacked DOOM level editor. Likewise, much of the early art was blatantly stolen from DOOM.

The world went into beta testing in April of 1996. The maximum number of concurrent players had by now been raised by an order of magnitude, but Meridian 59 had become popular enough that the Archetypers still had to kick people out when they needed to log on themselves to check out their handiwork. Among the curious tire-kickers who visited was Kevin Hester, a programmer with The 3DO Company. Founded by Trip Hawkins five years earlier with the intention of bringing a “multimedia console” — don’t call it a games console! — to living rooms everywhere, 3DO was rather at loose ends by this point, having banked on a future of digital entertainment that was badly at odds with the encroaching reality. But Hawkins’s latest instincts were sounder than those of a half-decade previous: he had now decided that online play rather than single-player multimedia extravaganzas was the future. He jumped on Meridian 59 as soon as Hester brought it to his attention, putting together in a matter of days a deal to acquire the budding virtual world and its far-flung network of creators for $5 million in 3DO stock. The Archetypers all signed on the dotted line and moved to Silicon Valley, most of them meeting one another face to face for the first time on their first day in their new office, where they were thrilled to find five servers — enough for five separate instances of their virtual world! — just waiting for them to continue with the beta test.

It had started off like a hacker fairy tale, but the shine wore off quickly enough. Inspired by the shareware example of DOOM, the Kirmse brothers had expected to offer the game client as a free download, with the necessity to pay subscription fees kicking in only after players had been given a few hours to try it out. 3DO vetoed all of this, insisting that the client be made available only as a boxed product with a $50 initial price tag, plus a $15 monthly subscription fee. And instead of being given as much time as they needed to make their new world fit for permanent habitation, as they had been promised they would, the Archetypers were now told that they had to begin welcoming paying customers into Meridian 59 in less than three months. Damion Schubert, Meridian 59‘s world-design lead, claims that “3DO was using us to learn about the business of online gaming,” seeing their very first virtual world as a stepping-stone rather than a destination unto itself. Whatever the truth of that assertion, it is a matter of record that, while the Archetypers were trying to meet 3DO’s deadline, the stock they had been given was in free fall, losing 75 percent of its value in those first three months, thereby doing that much more to convince the accountants that Meridian 59 absolutely, positively had to ship before 3DO’s next fiscal year began on October 1.

An aesthetic triumph Meridian 59 was not.

So, the game that was officially released on September 27, 1996, was not quite the one the Kirmses had envisioned when they signed the contract with 3DO. To call it little more than a massively-multiplayer DOOM deathmatch with a chat system grafted on would be unkind but not totally unfair. Its pseudo-3D engine would have looked badly outdated in 1996, the year of Quake, even if the art hadn’t been such a mismatched grab bag of aesthetics and resolutions. Meridian 59 evinced none of the simulational aspirations of Ultima Online; this was not a world in which anyone was going to pass the time baking bread or chopping lumber. For lack of much else to do, people mostly occupied themselves by killing one another. Like Ultima Online, the software permitted player-versus-player combat anywhere and everywhere; unlike Ultima Online, there were no guards patrolling any of the world’s spaces to disincentivize it. A Meridian 59 server was a purely kill-or-be-killed sort of world, host to a new war every single day. Because there was no budget to add much other content to the world, this was just as well with its creators; indeed, they soon learned to lean into it hard. Activities in the world came to revolve around the possession of guild halls, of which each server boasted ten of varying degrees of splendor for the disparate factions to fight over. If you didn’t like to fight with your fellow players more or less constantly, Meridian 59 probably wasn’t the game for you.

Handed the first-ever full-fledged massively-multiplayer online role-playing game, 3DO’s marketers chose to… write non-sequiters about latex. This might be the worst advertisement I’ve ever seen; I literally have no idea what joke it’s trying and failing to land. Something about condoms, I presume?

Luckily, there were plenty of gamers who really, really did like to fight, as the popularity of DOOM deathmatches illustrated. Despite its dated graphics and despite promotional efforts from 3DO that were bizarrely inept when they weren’t nonexistent, Meridian 59 managed to attract 20,000 or more subscribers and to retain them for a good while, keeping all ten of the servers that were given over to it after the beta test humming along at near capacity most of the time. 3DO even approved a couple of boxed expansion packs that added a modicum of additional content.

But then, in late 1997, 3DO all but killed the virtual world dead at a stroke. Deciding it was unjust that casual players who logged on only occasionally paid the same subscription fee as heavy users who spent many hours per day online, they rejiggered the pricing formula into a tangle of numbers that would have baffled an income-tax accountant: $2.49 per day that one logged on, capped at $9.99 per week, with total fees also capped at $29.99 per month. But never mind the details. Since the largest chunk of subscribers by far belonged to the heavy-user category, it boiled down to a doubling of the subscription price, from $15 to $30 per month. The populations on the servers cratered as a result. Meridian 59‘s best days — or at least its most populous ones — thus passed into history.


The other graphical MMORPG to beat Ultima Online to market had a very different personality. Sierra’s The Realm was the direct result of Ken Williams’s musings about what an “online adventure game” might be like, the same ones that I quoted at some length in my last article. After trying and failing to convince Roberta Williams to add a multiplayer option to King’s Quest VII, he went to a programmer named David Slayback, saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do something like our adventure games, that was Medieval themed, and allowed players to swap items with each other, buy weapons, and attack monsters?” Slayback then took the ball and ran with it; as Ken himself acknowledges, that initial conversation was “the limit of my involvement creatively.”

The original plan was for The Realm to become a part of America Online, the great survivor of the pre-Web era of commercial online services. That deal, however, fell through. Meanwhile Sierra was itself acquired by an e-commerce firm called CUC International, and The Realm seemed to fall between two stools amidst the reshuffling of deck chairs that followed. A beta test in the summer of 1996 did lead to the acceptance of the first paying subscribers in December of that year, but Sierra never did any real promotion beyond its own customer magazine, making the client software available only via mail order. Still, by all indications this virtual world attracted a number of players comparable to that of Meridian 59, perhaps not least because in its case buying the boxed client entitled the customer to a full year of free online play.

The Realm stands today as a rather fascinating artifact, being the road largely not taken in the MMORPG space. In presentation, aesthetics, and culture, it has more in common with Habitat, an amazingly early attempt by Lucasfilm Games and America Online’s direct predecessor Quantum Link to build a non-competitive graphical space for online socializing, than it does with either Meridian 59 or Ultima Online. This world was very clear about where its priorities lay: “The Realm offers you a unique environment in which to socialize with online friends (or make some new ones) and also gives you something fun to do while you’re socializing.” It was, in other words, a case of social space first, game second. As such, it might be better read as a progenitor to the likes of Second Life or The Sims Online than something like World of Warcraft.

Each player started in her own house, which she had to fight neither to acquire nor to defend. The interface was set up like one of the point-and-click graphic adventures that had been Sierra’s bread and butter since the mid-1980s, with the player guiding her avatar in the third person across a map made up of “rooms” that filled exactly one screen each. The graphical style too was right out of King’s Quest. None of this is terribly surprising, given that The Realm was built using SCI, Sierra’s venerable adventure-game engine.

Although there were monsters to fight and treasure to collect, player-versus-player combat was impossible. Even profanity was expressly forbidden. (“This includes ‘masking’ by using asterisks as part of the word,” noted the FAQ carefully.) The combat was also unusual in that it was turn-based. This choice, combined with the way that The Realm off-loaded an unusual amount of work to the player’s local client, meant that Sierra didn’t have to spread it across multiple servers; uniquely for this era, there really was just one Realm.

All of this attracted a dramatically different clientele from that of Meridian 59; many more women hung out in The Realm, for one thing. Interior decoration and fashion trumped murder and theft in the typical range of pursuits. Beth Demetrescu wrote in Sierra’s magazine InterAction about her own first days there:

As with all newbies, I started in my house. I was a poor, hungry, fashion faux pas. After I got out of my house, moved about six screens, and was lost in my hometown, I encountered HorseWoman, whose biography said she was an eleven-year-old. She took me to her home, gave me decent clothes, and taught me about basic communication, navigation, and combat. This was my first experience with the warm, welcoming community of The Realm.

I soon found myself outside of the town fighting rats. There are plenty of large, ferocious beasts to fight, but for the time being, all I could handle were rats. I was really worried the first time one of these rats killed me, thinking I was going to get kicked out of the game and would have to log back on. Instead, I lost everything I was carrying, but I was found by wanderers who dragged me home to heal…

I learned of Realm weddings. BlueRose, the Justice of the Peace, often called the Lady of Love, conducts over half of the Realm weddings…

I have picked up several valuable things from the many Realmers I have encountered. Not only did I get important information on The Realm’s features and inhabitants, but I also learned from their example about The Realm’s vast, multinational community. These people are friendly and helpful.

The contrast with Meridian 59, where a bewildered newbie was more likely to be given a broadsword to the back of the neck than navigational and sartorial assistance, could hardly have been greater.

A wedding in The Realm.

All told, then, Meridian 59 and The Realm provided the early MMORPG space with its yang and its yin: the one being a hyper-violent, hyper-competitive free-for-all where pretty much anything went, the other a friendly social space that was kept that way by tight moderation. Nevertheless, the two did have some things in common. Neither ever became more than moderately popular, for one — and that according to a pretty generous interpretation of “moderately” in a fast-expanding games industry. And yet both proved weirdly hard to kill. In fact, both are still alive to this day, abandoned decades ago by their original publishers but kept online by hook or by crook by folks who simply refuse to let them go away — certainly not now, when the aged code that makes their worlds come alive can be run for a pittance on a low-end server tucked away in some back corner of an office or data center somewhere. Their populations on any given evening may now be in the dozens rather than the hundreds or thousands, but these virtual worlds abide. In this too, they’ve set a precedent for their posterity; the Internet of today is fairly littered with online games whose heyday of press notices and mainstream popularity are well behind them, but that seem determined to soldier on until the last grizzled graybeard who cut his teeth on them in his formative years shuffles off this mortal coil. MMORPGs especially are a bit like cockroaches in this respect — with no insult to either the worlds or the insects in question intended. Suffice to say that community can be a disarmingly resilient thing.



But we return now to the story of Ultima Online, whose makers viewed the less than overwhelming commercial acceptance of Meridian 59 and The Realm with some ambivalence. On the one hand, Ultima Online had avoided having its own thunder stolen by another MMORPG sensation. On the other, these other virtual worlds’ middling trajectories gave no obvious reason to feel hugely confident in Ultima Online‘s own commercial prospects.

This was a problem not least because, as 1996 turned the corner into 1997, the project’s financial well had just about run dry, just as this virtual Britannia was ready to go from the alpha to the beta stage of testing, with ten to twenty times the number of participants of earlier testing rounds. It wasn’t clear how this next step could be managed under the circumstances; the client software was by now too big to ask prospective testers to download it in its entirety in this era of dial-up connections, yet there simply wasn’t sufficient money in the budget to stamp and ship 20,000 or more CDs out to them. The team decided there was only one option, cheeky though it seemed: to ask each participant in effect to pay Origin for the privilege of testing their game for them, by sending in $5 to cover the cost of the CD. The principals claim today that 50,000 people did so as soon as the test was announced online, burying Origin in incoming mail; I suspect this number may be inflated somewhat, as many of those associated with Ultima Online tend to be in the memories of those who made it. But regardless of the exact figure, the response definitely was considerable, not to mention gratifying for the little team of ex-MUDders who had been laboring in disrespected obscurity up there on a gutted fifth floor. It was the first piece of incontrovertible evidence that there were significant numbers of people out there who were really, really excited by the idea of living out an Ultima game with thousands of others.

The original Ultima Online beta CDs have become coveted collectors’ items.

As the creators tell the story, the massive popular reaction to the call for beta testers was solely responsible for changing the hearts and minds of their managers at EA and Origin. Realizing suddenly that Ultima Online had serious moneymaking potential, they went overnight from passive-aggressively trying to kill it to being all-in with bells on. In March of 1997, they moved the MUDders from their barren exile down to the scene of the most important action at Origin, where a much larger team had been working on Ultima IX, the latest iteration in the single-player series. Yet it was the latter project that was now to go on hiatus, not Ultima Online. This new amalgamation of developers, five or six times the size of the team of the day before, had but one mandate: get the virtual world done already. After two years of living hand to mouth, the original world-builders had merely to state their wishes in terms of resources in order to see them granted.

Most of the conceptual work of building this new online world had already been done by the time the team was so dramatically expanded. Still, we shouldn’t dismiss the importance of this sudden influx of sometimes unwilling bandwagon jumpers. For they made Ultima Online look like at least a passable imitation of a AAA prestige project, in a way that Meridian 59 and The Realm did not. A high design standard combined with a relatively high audiovisual one would prove a potent combination.

With its isometric perspective, Ultima Online most resembled Ultima VII in terms of presentation. The graphics were by no means cutting-edge — Ultima VII had come out back in 1992, after all — but they were bright and attractive, without going full-on cartoon like The Realm.

Did all of this really happen simply because the response to the call for beta testers was better than expected? I have no smoking gun either way, but I must say that I tend to doubt it. Just about everyone loves a good creatives-versus-suits story, such that we seldom question them. Yet the reasoning that went on in the executive suites prior to this turnaround in Ultima Online‘s fortunes was perhaps a little more complex than that of a pack of ravenous wolves chasing a tasty rabbit that had finally been revealed to their unimaginative minds. Whatever else one can say about them, most of the suits didn’t get where they were by being stupid. So, maybe we should try to see the situation from their perspective — try to see what Origin looked like to the outsiders at EA’s California headquarters.

Throughout the 1990s, Origin lived on two franchises: Richard Garriott’s Ultima and Chris Roberts’s Wing Commander. To be sure, there were other games here and there, some of which even turned modest profits, but it was these two series that kept the lights on. When EA acquired Origin in September of 1992, both franchises were by all indications in rude health. Wing Commander I and II and a string of mission packs for each were doing tremendous numbers. Ultima VII, the latest release in Richard Garriott’s mainline series, had put up more middling sales figures, but it had been rescued by the spinoff Ultima Underworld, which had come out of nowhere — or more specifically out of the Boston-based studio Blue Sky Productions, soon to be rebranded as Looking Glass — to become another of the year’s biggest hits.

Understandably under the circumstances, EA overlooked what a dysfunctional workplace Origin was already becoming by the time of the acquisition, divided as it was between two camps: the “Friends of Richard” and the “Friends of Chris.” Those two personifications of Origin’s split identity were equally mercurial and equally prone to unrealistic flights of fancy; one can’t help but sense that both of their perceptions of the real world and their place in it had been to one degree or another warped by their having become icons of worship for a cult of adoring gamers at an improbably young age. Small wonder that EA grew concerned that there weren’t enough grounded adults in the room down in Austin, and, after first promising a hands-off approach, showed more and more of a tendency to micro-manage as time went on — so much so that, as we learned in the last article, Garriott was soon reduced to begging for money to start his online passion project.

Wing Commander maintained its momentum for quite some time after the acquisition, even after DOOM came along to upend much of the industry’s conventional wisdom with its focus on pure action at the expense of story and world-building, the things for which both Garriott and Roberts were most known. Wing Commander III was released almost a year after DOOM in late 1994 with a cast of real actors headed by Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, and became another huge success. Ultima, however, started to lose its way almost as soon as the ink was dry on the acquisition contract. Ultima VIII, which was also released in 1994, chased the latest trends by introducing a strong action element and simplifying most other aspects of its gameplay. This was not done, as some fan narratives wish to state, at the behest of EA’s management, but rather at that of Richard Garriott himself, who feared that his signature franchise was at risk of becoming irrelevant. That said, EA can and should largely take the blame for the game being released too early, in a woefully buggy and unpolished state. The critical and commercial response was nothing short of disastrous, leaving plenty of blame to go around. Fans complained that Ultima VIII had more in common with Super Mario Bros. than the storied Ultima games of the past, bestowing upon it the nickname Super Avatar Bros. in a backhanded homage to the series’s most hallowed incarnation, 1985’s Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, whose unabashed idealism now seemed like something from a lifetime ago in a parallel universe.

Then, in early 1996, Origin’s other franchise went squishy as well. As the studio’s own press releases breathlessly trumpeted, Wing Commander IV was the most expensive digital game ever made to that date, with a claimed production budget of $12 million. The vast majority of that money went into a real Hollywood film shoot, directed by Chris Roberts himself and starring a returning Mark Hamill among a number of other recognizable faces from the silver screen. Wing Commander IV wound up costing four times as much as its predecessor and selling half as many copies, taking months of huffing and puffing to just about reach the break-even point. The interactive-movie era had reached the phase of diminishing returns; under no circumstances was EA going to let Origin make a game like this one again.

But what kinds of games should Origin be making? That was the million-dollar question in the aftermath of Wing Commander IV. After Chris Roberts left the studio to pursue his dream of becoming the latest George Lucas in Hollywood, Origin announced that his series was to be continued on a less grandiose scale, moving some of the focus away from the cut scenes and back to the gameplay. Yet there was no reason to believe such games would make many inroads beyond the hardcore Wing Commander faithful. Meanwhile Richard Garriott had pledged to repair the damage done by Ultima VIII, by making the next single-player Ultima the biggest, best one ever. But epic CRPGs in general had been in the doldrums for years, and the Ultima IX project was already showing signs of becoming another over-hyped, over-expensive boondoggle like Wing Commander IV. Exacerbating the situation was the loss of two of the only people at Origin who had shown themselves to be capable of restraining and channeling Garriott’s flights of fancy. Origin and EA alike felt keenly the loss of the diplomatic and self-effacing designer and producer Warren Spector, the first everyday project lead on Ultima IX, who decamped to Looking Glass in 1995 when that project was still in its infancy. Ditto the production manager Dallas Snell, a less cuddly character whose talent for Just Getting Things Done — by cracking heads if necessary — was almost equally invaluable.

Of course, one can still ding EA for failing to see that Richard Garriott was onto something with Ultima Online long before they did. In their partial defense, though, Garriott tended to propose a lot of crazy stuff. As his checkered post-millennial career in game development illustrates all too clearly, he has not been a detail-oriented creator since his days of conceiving and coding the early Ultima games all by himself. This has made his ideas — even his good ones, which Ultima Online certainly was — all too easy to dismiss.

Nonetheless, the potential of persistent online multiplayer gaming was becoming impossible to deny by early 1997, what with the vibrant virtual communities being built on the likes of Kali and Battle.net, in addition to the smaller but no less dedicated ones that had sprung up in Meridian 59 and The Realm. You’d have to be a fool not to be intrigued by the potential of Ultima Online in a milieu such as this one — and, again, EA’s executives most definitely weren’t fools. They wanted to keep Origin alive and viable and relevant as badly as anyone else. Suddenly this seemed the best way to do so. Thus the mass personnel transfer from Ultima IX, which was increasingly smelling like gaming’s past, into Ultima Online, which had the distinct whiff of its future.

It was a difficult transition for everyone, made that much more difficult by the fact that most of the people involved were still in their twenties, with all of the arrogant absolutism of youth. Both the project’s old-timers and its newcomers had plenty of perfectly valid complaints to hurl at their counterparts. Raph Koster, who had been told that he was the design lead, was ignored by more experienced developers who thought they knew better. And yet he did little for his cause by, as he admits today, “sulking and being very rude” and “behaving badly and improperly” even to Richard Garriott himself. From his point of view, the newcomers showed that they fundamentally didn’t understand online games when they wasted their time on fluff that players who needed to be captured for months or years would burn through in a matter of hours, such as lengthy, single-player-Ultima-style conversation trees for the non-player characters. Yet the newcomers were right to express shock and horror when they found that, amidst all the loving attention that had been given to simulating Britannia’s ecology and the like, no one on the original team had thought up a consistent system for casting spells, a bedrock of Ultima‘s appeal since the very beginning. Even today, one Ultima IX refugee accuses the MUDders of being “focused on minutia, what I would call silly little details that really added nothing to the game.”

When the two-month-long beta test finally began after repeated delays in June of 1997, the dogged simulation-first mentality of Koster and company faced a harsh reckoning with reality. Many of the systems that had seemed wonderful in theory didn’t work in practice, or displayed side effects that they’d never anticipated. Here as in many digital games, attempting to push the simulation too far just plunged the whole thing into a sort of uncanny valley, making it feel more rather than less artificial. For instance, the MUDders had made it possible for you to learn or improve skills simply by standing in close proximity to someone who was using the skill in question at a high level, on the assumption that your character was observing and internalizing this example of a master at work. But they’d also instituted a cap on the total pool of skill points a character could possess across all disciplines, on the assumption that no Jack of all trades could be a master of them all; just as is the case for most of us in real life, in Ultima Online you could be really good at a few things, or fair at a lot of them, but not really good at a lot of them. When a character hit her skill-point cap, learning new things would cause some of her other skills to decline to stay under it. In practice, this caused players to desperately try to avoid seeing what that baker or weaver was doing, for fear of losing their ability to hunt or cast spells as a result. Problems like these hammered home again and again the fact that any digital simulation is only the crudest approximation of a lived existence; in the real world, matters are not quite so zero-sum as instantly losing the ability to catch a fish because one has learned to cook a fish.

But the most extreme case of unforeseen consequences involved the aforementioned lovingly crafted ecology of virtual Britannia. To put it bluntly, the players destroyed it — all of it, within days if not hours. The population of deer and rabbits, the food sources of apex predators like dragons, were slaughtered to extinction by players instead. This was not done out of sheer bloody-mindedness alone, although that was undoubtedly a part of the equation. The truth was that deer and rabbits had value, in the form of meat and pelts. In a sense, then, virtual Britannia was becoming a real economy, just as its creators had always hoped it would. But it was an economy without real-world limits or controls, unimpeded by consequences which were themselves only virtual, never real; no one was going to go hungry in real life for over-hunting the forests and fields of Britannia. The same went for trees and fish and a hundred other precious resources that we of the real world usually make some effort to conserve, however imperfectly. With the simulation spinning wildly out of control, Origin had to start putting its thumb on the scales, applying external remedies such as magically re-spawning rabbits and trees, lest the world degenerate into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a deserted moonscape where roving bands of starving players were chased hither and yon by equally hungry dragons. People came to an Ultima game expecting a Renaissance Faire version of Merry Olde England, not a Harlan Ellison story.

Of course, the external corrections themselves had further knock-on consequences. By creating an endless supply of animals to hunt and trees to fell, Origin was in effect giving the economy a massive, perpetual external stimulus. The overseers were therefore always on the lookout for ways to suck gold back out of the world. Ironically, one of the best was to let players get killed a lot, since between death and resurrection they lost whatever money they’d been carrying with them. Thus Origin had a perverse incentive not to try too hard to make Britannia a safer, more friendly place.

Such collisions between idealism and reality were scarring for the MUDders. “This was a wake-up call for me,” says Raph Koster. “The limits on what we can get an audience to go along with, and how much we can affect the bottom line. A lot of people [on the development team] were emotionally hurt by the player killing. Many of the tactics we would use on MUDs just didn’t work at a large scale. Players behaved differently. They were ruder to one another.” All of which is to say that Richard Garriott’s fondly expressed wish that the persistent quality of Ultima Online would serve to put a brake on the more toxic ways of acting out on the anonymous Internet did not come to pass to anything like the extent he had imagined.

At the same time, though, it wasn’t all destruction a nd disillusionment during that summer of the beta test. Some players proved less interested in killing than they were in crafting, becoming armorers and blacksmiths, jewelers and merchants, chefs and bankers and real-estate agents. Players cooked food and sold it from booths in the center of the cities or earned a (virtual) living as tour guides, leading groups of people on treks to scenic but dangerous corners of the world. Enterprising wizards set up a sort of long-distance bus service, opening up magical portals to shuttle their fellow players instantly from one side of the world to another for a fee. Many of the surprises of the beta period were just the kind the MUDders had been hoping to see, emerging from the raw simulational affordances of the environment. “[Players] used the ability to dye clothing to make uniforms for their guilds,” says Raph Koster, “and they [held] weddings with coordinated bridesmaids dresses. They started holding sporting events. They founded theater troupes and taverns and police forces.” The agents of chaos may have been perpetually beating at the door, but there was a measure of civilization appearing in virtual Britannia as well.

Or rather in the virtual Britannias. One of the most frustrating compromises the creators had to make was necessitated by, as compromises usually are in game development, the practical limitations of the technology they had to hand. There was no way that any one of the servers they possessed could contain the number of players the beta test had attracted. So, there had to be two virtual Britannias rather than just one, the precursors to many more that would follow. Both Garriott and Koster have claimed to be the one who came up with the word “shards” as a name for these separate servers, each housing its own initially identical but quickly diverging version of Britannia. The name was grounded in the lore of the very early days of Ultima. In Ultima I back in 1981, the player had shattered the Gem of Immortality, the key to the power of that game’s villain, the evil wizard Mondain. It was claimed now that each of the jewel’s shards had contained a copy of the world of Britannia, and that these were the duplicate worlds inhabited by the players of Ultima Online. Rather amusingly, the word “shard” has since become a generalized term for separate but equal server instances, co-opted not only by other MMORPGs but by administrators of large de-centralized online databases of many stripes, most of which have nothing to do with games.

Each shard could host about 2500 players at once. In these days when the nation’s Internet infrastructure was still in a relatively unrefined state, such that latency tended to increase almost linearly with distance, the shards were named after their real-world locations — there was one on each coast in the beginning, named “Atlantic” and “Pacific” — and players were encouraged to choose the server closest to them if at all possible. (Such concerns would become less pressing as the years went by, but to this day Ultima Online has continued the practice of naming its virtual Britannias after the locations of the servers in the real world.)

On the last day of the beta test, there occurred one of the more famous events in the history of Ultima Online, one with the flavor of a Biblical allegory if not a premonition. Richard Garriott, playing in-character as Lord British, made a farewell tour of the shards in the final hours, to thank everyone for participating before the servers were shut down, not to be booted up again until Ultima Online went live as a paid commercial service. Among fans of the single-player Ultima games, there was a longstanding tradition of finding ways to kill Lord British, who always appeared as a character in them as well. People had transplanted the tradition into Ultima Online with a vengeance, but to no avail; acknowledging that even the most stalwart commitment to simulation must have its limits when it comes to the person who signs your paycheck, the MUDders had agreed to provide Lord British with an “invulnerability” flag. As he stood up now before a crowd on the Pacific shard to deliver his valediction, someone threw a fireball spell at him. No matter; Lord British stepped confidently right into the flames. Whereupon he fell over and died. Someone had forgotten to set the invulnerability flag.

If Lord British couldn’t be protected, decided the folks at Origin on the spur of the moment, he must be avenged; in so deciding, they demonstrated how alluring virtual violence could be even to those most dedicated to creating a virtual civilization. Garriott:

It’s amazing how quickly the cloak of civilization can disappear. The word spread verbally throughout the office: let us unleash hell! My staff summoned demons and devils and dragons and all of the nightmarish creatures of the game, and they cast spells and created dark clouds and lightning that struck and killed people. The gamemasters had special powers, and once they realized I had been killed, they were able to almost instantly resurrect Lord British. And I gleefully joined in the revelry. Kill me, will you? Be gone, mortals! It was a slaughter of thousands of players in the courtyard.

It definitely was not the noble ending we had intended.

And while some players enjoyed the spontaneity of this event, others were saddened or hurt by it. When most characters die they turn into a ghost and are transported to a distant place on the map. Then they have to go find their body. So the cost of being killed is a temporary existence as a ghost. In the last three minutes of these characters’ existence, they suddenly found themselves alone, deep in the woods, unable to speak or interact with anyone else. The net result of this mass killing in retaliation for the assassination of Lord British was that not only were all of these innocent people slaughtered, they were also cast out of the presence of the creators at the final moment. As the final seconds trickled down, they desperately tried to get back, but most often failed. The fact that all of us, the creators and the players, were able to turn the last few moments of the beta test into this completely unplanned and even unimagined chaos was proof that we had built something unique, a platform that would allow players to do pretty much whatever they pleased, and that it was about to take on a life — and many deaths — of its own.

After more than two and a half years, during which the face of the games industry around it had changed dramatically and its own importance to its parent company had been elevated incalculably, Ultima Online was about to greet the real world as a commercial product. Whether the last minutes of its existence while it was still officially an experiment boded well or ill for its future depended on your point of view. But, as Richard Garriott says, the one certain thing was uncertainty: nobody knew quite what would happen next. Would Ultima Online be another Meridian 59 or The Realm, or would this be the virtual world that finally broke through? And what would it mean for gaming — and, for that matter, for the real world beyond gaming — if it did?



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, MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle, and Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams; Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction of Spring 1996, Summer 1996, Spring 1997, Summer 1997, Fall 1997, Summer 1998, and Fall 1998; PC Powerplay of November 1996; Next Generation of March 1997.

Web sources include a 2018 Game Developers Conference talk by some of the Ultima Online principals, an Ultima Online timeline at UOGuide, “How Scepter of Goth Shaped the MMO Industry” by Justin Olivetti at Massively Overpowered, David A. Wheeler’s history of Scepter of Goth, “How the World’s Oldest 3D MMO Keeps Cheating Death” by Samuel Axon at Vice, Andrew Kirmse’s own early history of Meridian 59, Damion Schubert’s Meridian 59 postmortem and its accompanying slides from the 2012 Game Developers Conference, and Gavin Annand’s video interview with the Kirmse brothers.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The first word in the name is often spelled Sceptre as well.
 
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Posted by on February 16, 2024 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Rise of POMG, Part 2: Multima

This sign, executed in throwback 1980s Ultima iconography, hung on the wall outside the elevator on the fifth floor of Origin Systems’s office building, pointing the way to the Multima team. If you neglected to follow the sign’s advice and turned left instead of right here, you would plunge five stories to your doom.

To carry our story forward into the next phase of persistent online multiplayer gaming, we first need to go backward again — all the way back to the days when tabletop Dungeons & Dragons was new on the scene and people were first beginning to imagine how computers might make it more accessible. Some dreamed of eliminating the pesky need for other humans to play with entirely; others wondered whether it might be possible to use networked computers in place of the tabletop, so that you could get together and play with your friends without all of the logistical complications of meeting up in person. Still others dreamed bigger, dreamed of things that would never be possible even with a tabletop big enough to make King Arthur blush. What if you could use computers to make a living virtual world with thousands of human inhabitants? In a column in a 1983 issue of Starlog magazine, Lenny Kaye mused about just such a thing.

When played among groups of people, [tabletop] RPGs foster a sense of cooperation toward a common goal, something videogames have hardly approached.

But with the computer’s aid, the idea of the game network can expand outward, interfacing with all sorts of societal drifts. The technology for both video[games] and RPGs is still in its infancy — one with graphics and memory far from ideal, the other still attached to its boards and figurines — and yet, it’s not hard to imagine a nationwide game, in which all citizens play their part. Perhaps it becomes an arena in which to exercise and exorcise ourselves, releasing our animal instincts through the power of the mind, understanding the uses and misuses of our humanity.

While they waited for the technology which could make that dream a reality to appear, people did what they could with what they had. The ones who came closest to the ideal of a “nationwide game” were those running MUDs, those “multi-user dungeons” that allowed up to 100 players to interact with one another by typing commands into a textual parser, with teletype-style streaming text as their eyes and ears into the world they all shared.

Island of Kesmai did soon come along on the big online service CompuServe, with an interface that looked more like Rogue than the original game of Adventure. But again, only 100 people could play together simultaneously there, about the same number as on the biggest MUDs. And in this case, each of them had to pay by the minute for the privilege. For all that it was amazing that it could exist at all in its time and place, Island of Kesmai was more like a wealthy gated village than a teeming virtual world.

Still, it must be acknowledged that the sellers of traditional boxed computer games were even farther away from that aspiration, being content to offer up single-player CRPGs where combat — that being the aspect of tabletop RPGs that was easiest to implement on a computer — tended to overwhelm everything else. The one obvious exception to this norm was Origin Systems of Austin, Texas. Especially after 1985’s landmark Ultima IV, Origin’s Ultima series became not only the commercial standard bearer for CRPGs but the best argument for the genre’s potential to be about something more than statistics and combat tactics. These games were rather about world-building and about the Virtues of the (player’s) Avatar, daring to introduce an ethical philosophy that was applicable to the real world — and then, in later installments, to muddy the waters by mercilessly probing the practical limitations and blind spots inherent in any such rigid ethical code.

Richard Garriott — “Lord British” to his legion of fans, the creator of Ultima and co-founder of Origin — had first conceived of the games as a re-creation of the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons sessions that had made him a minor celebrity in his Houston neighborhood well before he got his hands on his first Apple II. The setting of computerized Ultima was the world of Britannia, the same one he had invented for his high-school friends. The idea of adventuring together with others through the medium of the computer thus made a lot of sense to him. Throughout the 1980s and beyond, he repeatedly brought up the hypothetical game that he called Multima, a multiplayer version of Ultima. In 1987, an Origin programmer was actually assigned to work on it for a while. Garriott, from a contemporary interview:

James Van Artsdalen, who does our IBM and Macintosh translations, is working on a program that lets several people participate in the game. Two people can do this with different computers directly connected via modems, or even more can play via a system with multiple modems. We don’t know if we’ll be able to support packet networks like CompuServe because they may be too slow for this application. We’ll do it if we can.

What you’ll buy in the store will be a package containing all the core graphics routines and the game-development stuff (all the commands and so on), which you could even plug into your computer and play as a standalone. But with a modem you could tie a friend into the game, or up to somewhere between eight and sixteen other players, all within the same game.

We will most likely run a game of this out of our office. Basically, we can almost gamemaster it. There could be a similar setup in each town, and anybody could run one. Our intention is to let anyone capable of having multiple modems on their system have the network software. Anybody can be a node: two people can play if they each own a package, just by calling each other. But to be a base, a multiplayer node, you’ve got to have multiple modems and may need additional software. If the additional software is needed, we’ll let anyone who wants it have it, since we’re just supporting sales of our own products anyway.

Should be a lot of fun, we think. We hope to have it out by next summer [the summer of 1988], and it should cost between $30 and $60. This will be able to tie different kinds of computers together, since the information being sent back and forth doesn’t include any graphics. I could play on my Apple while you’re on your IBM, for instance. The graphics will be full state-of-the-art Ultima graphics, but they’ll already be on your computer.

Alas, this Multima was quietly abandoned soon after the interview, having been judged just too uncertain a project to invest significant resources into when there was guaranteed money to be made from each new single-player Ultima. As we’ll soon see, it was not the last time that argument was made against a Multima.

Circa 1990, Multima was revived for a time, this time as a three-way partnership among Origin, the commercial online service GEnie, and Kesmai, the maker of Island of Kesmai. The last would be given the source code to Ultima VI, the latest iteration of the single-player series, and would adapt it for online play, after which GEnie would deploy it on its central mainframe. As it happened, a similar deal was already taking SSI’s Gold Box engine for licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs through the same process of transformation. It would result in something called Neverwinter Nights[1]Not the same game as the 2002 Bioware CRPG of the same name. going up on America Online in 1991 with an initial capacity of 100 simultaneous players, eventually to be raised by popular demand to 500, making it the most massively multiplayer online game of the early 1990s. But Multima was not so lucky; the deal fell through before it had gotten beyond the planning stages, perchance having proved a simple case of too many cooks in the kitchen.

Richard Garriott had largely ceased to involve himself in the day-to-day work of making new Ultima games by this point, but he continued to set the overall trajectory of the franchise. And as he did so, he never forgot those old hopes for a Multima. Not long after Electronic Arts (EA) purchased Origin Systems in 1992, he thought he saw the stars aligning at long last. For 1993 brought with it NCSA Mosaic, the first broadly popular multimedia Web browser, the harbinger of the home Internet boom. This newly accessible public Internet could replace fragile peer-to-peer modems connections as easily as it could the bespoke private networks of CompuServe and GEnie, making the likes of Multima seem far more practical, both to implement and to offer to customers at an affordable price.

Richard Garriott in 1995.

For better or for worse, though, Origin was now a part of EA, who had the final say on which projects got funded. Garriott tried repeatedly over a period of a year and a half or more to interest EA’s CEO Larry Probst in his Multima schemes, without success. As he tells the story, he and a couple of other true believers from Origin resorted to guerrilla tactics at the third formal pitch meeting.

We literally just refused to give up the floor. They said, “No. Get out.” And we stomped our feet and held our breath. “We are not leaving until you guys get a clue. As a developer, we go over-budget by 25 to 50 percent every year. We’re only asking for $250,000 to build a prototype.” I already had a piece of paper prepared: “You approve of us going $250,000 over-budget to prove that this can work.” And finally, after heated yelling and screaming, they signed the piece of paper and kicked us in the ass as we left the room.

It must be said here that Garriott is generally not one to let an overly fussy allegiance to pedantic truth get in the way of a good story. Thus I suspect that the decision to green-light a Multima prototype may not have been arrived at in quite so dramatic a fashion as the tale above. (Garriott has in fact told a number of versions of the story over the years; in another of them, he’s alone in Larry Probst’s office, hectoring him one-and-one into signing the note granting him $250,000 to investigate the possibility.) Most important for our purposes, however, is that the decision was definitely made by early 1995.

The answer to another question is even more murky: that of just when the change was made from an Ultima that you could play online with a few of your buddies — a feature that would be seen well before the end of the 1990s in a number of otherwise more conceptually conventional CRPGs, such as Diablo and Baldur’s Gate — to a persistent virtual Britannia inhabited by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of other players. The acronym by which we refer to such worlds today would be coined by Richard Garriott in 1997: the “massively multiplayer online role-playing game,” or MMORPG. (And you thought POMG was a mouthful!) Yet it appears that Multima may not have become an MMORPG in the minds of its creators until after Garriott secured his funding, and that that hugely important conceptual shift may not have originated with Garriott himself. One alternative candidate is the man to whom Garriott turned to become the nuts-and-bolts administrator of the project: Starr Long, a quality-assurance lead who had been one of his few Multima allies inside the company for quite some time. (“The original idea,” Long said in a 1996 interview — i.e., close to the events in question — “was to take an Ultima and just make it so you could have a party of people travel together.”) A third candidate is Rick Delashmit, the first and for a long time the only programmer assigned to the project, who unlike Garriott and Long had deep connections to the MUD scene, gaming’s closest extant equivalent to what Multima would become. In fact, Delashmit had actually co-founded a MUD of his own: LegendMUD, which was still running on a single 80486-based personal computer humming away under a desk in an Austin data center.

Regardless of who decided to do what, Long and Delashmit soon had cause to wonder whether signing onto Multima had been their worst career move ever. “We were kind of the bastard stepchild,” Long says. “No one got it and no one was really interested, because everyone wanted to build the next [single-player] Ultima or Wing Commander. Those were the sexy projects.” They found themselves relegated to the fifth floor of Origin’s Austin, Texas, headquarters, jammed into one corner of a space that was mostly being leased out to an unaffiliated advertising agency.

Making the best of it, Long and Delashmit hacked together a sort of prototype of a prototype. Stealing a trick and possibly some code from the last attempt at a Multima, they started with the now-archaic Ultima VI engine. “All you could do was run around and pick up a single object off of the ground,” says Long. “And then if another player ran into you, you would drop it. We had a scavenger hunt, where we hid a few objects around the map and then let the whole company loose to find them. Whoever was still holding them after an hour won.”

It was a start, but it still left a million questions unanswered. A game like this one — or rather a virtual world — must have a fundamentally different structure than a single-player Ultima, even for that matter than the tabletop RPG sessions that had inspired Richard Garriott’s most famous creations. Those games had all been predicated on you — or at most on you and a few of your best mates — being the unchallenged heroes of the piece, the sun around which everything else orbited. But you couldn’t fill an entire world with such heroes; somebody had to accept supporting roles. Some might even have to play evil rather than virtuous characters, upending the core message of Ultima since Ultima IV.

Garriott, Long, and Delashmit weren’t the only ones pondering these questions. In a 1993 issue of Sierra On-Line’s newsletter InterAction, that company’s head Ken Williams — a man who bore some surface similarities to Garriott, being another industry old-timer who had given up the details of game development for the big-picture view by this point in his career — asked how massively multi-player adventuring could possibly be made to function. He had good reason to ask: his own company’s Sierra Network was doing pioneering work in multiplayer gaming at the time, albeit as a closed dial-up service rather than on the open Internet.

I think a multiplayer adventure game is the next major step. Imagine a version of Police Quest, looking like it does now, except that your partner in the patrol car and the people in the street around you are real people. I think this would be cool.

For three months, Roberta [Williams, Ken’s wife], Chris [Williams, the couple’s son], and I have been arguing over how this would work. The problem is that most adventure games have some central quest story. Generally speaking, once you’ve solved the quest the game is over. You are there as the central character, and all of the other characters are there primarily to help move you towards completing your quest (or to get in your way).

A multiplayer adventure game would be a completely different animal. If 500 people were playing multiplayer King’s Quest at the same time, would there have to be 500 separate quests? There are also problems having to do with the fact that people aren’t always connected to the network. If my goal is to save you from an evil wizard, what do I do if neither you nor the evil wizard happen to sign on?

Here’s the thoughts we’ve had so far. What if we create a world that just contains nothing but forest as far as you can see? When you enter the game, you can do things like explore, or even build yourself a house. There’ll be stores where you can buy supplies. Soon, cities will form. People may want to build walls around their cities. Cities may want to bargain with each other for food. Or, for protection against common enemies. There needs to be some sense of purpose to the game. What if, after some amount of time in the land, the game “promotes” you to some status where your goals become to create the problems which affect the city, such as plagues, war, rampaging dragons, etc. In other words, some of the players are solving quests while others are creating them. Sooner or later, it becomes your turn to complicate the lives of others.

Either this is a remarkable case of parallel invention or someone was whispering in Ken Williams’s ear about MUDs. For the last paragraph above is an uncannily accurate description of how many of the latter were run, right down to dedicated and accomplished players being elevated to “wizard” status, with powers over the very nature of the virtual world itself. The general MUD design philosophy, which had been thoroughly tested and proven solid over the years, held that the creators of multiplayer worlds didn’t have to worry overmuch about the stories and quests and goals that were needed for compelling single-player games. It was enough simply to put a bunch of people together in an environment that contained the raw building blocks of such things. They’d do the rest for themselves; they’d find their own ways to have fun.

In our next article, we’ll see what resulted from Ken Williams’s ideas about massively-multiplayer adventure. For now, though, let us return to our friends at Origin Systems and find out how they attempted to resolve the quandary of what people should actually be doing in their virtual world.



In the immediate aftermath of that first online scavenger hunt, nobody there knew precisely what they ought to do next. It was at this point that Rick Delashmit offered up the best idea anyone had yet had. Multima would share many commonalities with textual MUDs, he said. So why not hire some more folks who knew those virtual worlds really, really well to help the Origin folks make theirs? He had two friends in mind in particular: a young couple named Raph and Kristen Koster, who had taken over the running of LegendMUD after he had stepped down.

The Kosters were graduate students in Alabama, meaning that much of the negotiation had to be conducted by telephone and computer. Raph was finishing up his program in poetry at the University of Alabama, while Kristen studied economics — a perfect pair of perspectives from which to tackle the art and science of building a new virtual world, as it happened. Raph Koster:

We started to get interview questions remotely as they worked to figure out whether we were qualified. All of the questions came from what was very much a single-player slant. We were sent examples of code and asked if we could write code like that and find the bugs that had been intentionally inserted into the code. It was something like a misplaced closing brace.

Finally, we were asked for a sample quest. I sent them the entire code and text of my quest for the Beowulf zone in LegendMUD, but then also said, “But we wouldn’t do quests this way at all now.” Kristen and I had been working on a simulation system based on artificial life and economic theory. We basically sent in a description of our design work on that. It was a system that was supposed to simulate the behavior of creatures and NPCs [non-player characters] using a simplistic version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with abstract properties behind everything.

The Kosters were hired already in the spring of 1995, but couldn’t start on a full-time basis until September 1. Over the course of several drives between Tuscaloosa and Austin and back in the interim, they hashed out their vision for Multima.

They wanted to lean heavily into simulation, trusting that, if they did it right, quests and all the rest would arise organically from the state of the world rather than needing to be hard-coded. Objects in the world would be bundles of abstract qualities which interacted with one another in pre-defined ways; take an object with the quality of “wood” and touch it to one with the quality of “fire,” and exactly what you expected to happen would occur. This reliance on qualities would make it quick and easy for people — designers or just ordinary players — to create new objects on the fly and have them act believably.

But the system could go much further. The non-player creatures which populated the world would have different sorts of qualities attached, derived, as Raph Koster notes above, from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Each creature would have its own types of Food and Shelter that it sought to attain and retain, alongside a more elevated set of Desires to pursue and Aversions to avoid once it had served for its most basic needs.

An early preview of the game, written by Paul Schuytema for Computer Gaming World magazine, describes how the system would ideally work in action, how it would obviate the need for a human designer to generate thousands of set-piece quests to keep players busy.

Designing a dynamic world is a tricky business. How do you create enough quests to interest 2000 people? Origin’s solution: don’t. Create a world with enough logical conditions that it will generate its own quests. For example, consider a cave in the virtual world. Any self-respecting cave needs a monster, so you assign the cave a “need for monster” request of the game-world engine. Poof! A monster, let’s say a dragon, is then spontaneously created in the cave. Dragons are big eaters, so the dragon sends out a “need for meat” request. Meat, in the form of deer, roams the forest outside the cave, so the dragon’s life consists of leaving the cave to consume deer. If something happens that lowers the deer population (bad weather, over-hunting, or a game administrator strategically killing off deer), the dragon will have to widen its search for meat, which might lead it to the sheep pastures outside town.

At this point, NPCs can be useful to tell real players about a ravenous dragon roaming the countryside. NPCs can also sweeten the pot by offering rewards to anyone who can slay it. But what are they going to say?

“All of the [NPCs’] conversations come from a dynamic conversation pool which is linked to the world state,” explains Long. This means that if you, as a player, were to walk into this town, any one of the villagers will say something like, “Hey, we need your help. This dragon is eating all our sheep.” Thus, the “Kill the Dragon” quest is underway — succeed, and the villagers will handsomely reward you.

If you put it all together correctly, you would end up with a living world, to an extent that even the most ambitious textual MUDs had barely approached to that point. Everything that was needed to make it a game as well as a virtual space would come about of its own accord once you let real humans start to run around in it and interfere with the lives of the algorithmically guided dragons and guards and shopkeepers. It would be all the more fun for being true to itself, a complex dynamic system responding to itself as well as to thousands of human inputs that were all happening at once, a far cry from the typical single-player Ultima where nothing much happened unless you made it happen. Incidentally but not insignificantly, it would also be a sociologist’s dream, a fascinating study in mass human psychology, perhaps even a laboratory for insights into the evolution of real-world human civilizations.

When they arrived for their first day on the job, the Kosters were rather shocked to find that their new colleagues had already begun to implement the concepts which the couple had informally shared with them during the interview process and afterward. It was disconcerting on the one hand — “It freaked us out because we had assumed there was already a game design,” says Raph — but bracing on the other. This pair of unproven industry neophytes, with little on their résumés in games beyond hobbyist experimentation in the obscure culture of MUDs, was in a position to decide exactly what Multima would become. It would take a year or more for Raph Koster to be given the official title of “Creative Lead”; when he arrived, that title belonged to one Andrew Morris, a veteran of Ultima VII and VIII who had recently been transferred to the project, where he would struggle, like so many others at Origin, to wrap his head around the paradigm shift from single-player to multiplayer gaming. But for all intents and purposes, Raph and Kristen Koster filled that role from the start. Each was paid $25,000 per year for building this brave new world. They wouldn’t have traded it for a job that paid ten times the salary. At their urging, Origin hired several other MUDders to work with them on what was now to be called Ultima On-Line; the game would soon loose the hyphen to arrive at its final name.

I can’t emphasize enough what a leap into uncharted territory this was for Origin, as indeed it would have been for any other games studio of the time. To put matters in perspective, consider that Origin began working on Ultima Online before it even had a static website up on the Internet. The company had always been in the business of making packaged goods, games on disc that were sold once for a one-time price. Barring a patch or two in the worst cases, these games’ developers could wash their hands of them and move on once they were finished. But Ultima Online was to be something entirely different, a “game” — if that word even still applied — that was run as a service. How should people pay for the privilege of playing it? (Origin had no experience with billing its customers monthly.) And how much should they pay? (While everyone on the team could agree that Ultima Online needed to be appreciably cheaper than the games on CompuServe and its ilk, no one could say for sure where the sweet spot lay.) In short, the practical logistics of Ultima Online would have been a major challenge even if the core team of less than a dozen mostly green youngsters — median age about 22 — hadn’t also been trying to create a new world out of whole cloth, with only partially applicable precedents.

The early Multima team, or the “MUDders of Invention,” as they sometimes liked to call themselves. Clockwise from top left: Rick Delashmit, Edmond Mainfelder, Clay Hoffman, Starr Long, Micael Priest, Andrew Morris, Scott Phillips, Kristen Koster, and Raph Koster.

When the advertising agency that had been the team’s neighbor moved out, Origin decided to gut the now almost empty fifth floor where the latter was still ensconced. “They literally knocked out all the walls and the windows,” says Raph Koster. “So, the elevator surfaced to bare concrete. If you turned right, you went to see our team in a converted hallway, the only part left standing. If you turned left, you fell five floors to your death.” It was freezing cold up there in the winter, and the dust was thick in the air all year round, such that they learned to wrap their computers in plastic when they left for the day. “This team was given the least possible support you can imagine,” says Richard Garriott.

Undaunted, the little group did what the best game developers have always done when cast onto uncharted waters: they made something to start with, then tested it, then iterated, then tested some more, ad nauseum. Garriott came by “once a month or so,” in the recollection of Raph Koster, to observe and comment on their progress. Otherwise, their ostensible colleagues at Origin seemed hardly to know that they existed. “We were punk kids doing stuff in the attic,” says Raph, “and our parents had no idea what we were up to.”

In January of 1996, they put a message up on the Origin Systems website (yes, one had been built by this point): “Ultima Online (working title, subject to change) is now taking applications from people interested in play-testing a pre-alpha version, starting on March 1, 1996.” Almost 1500 people asked to take part in a test which only had space for a few dozen.

The test began a month behind schedule, but it proved that the core technology could work when it was finally run from April 1 until April 8. “This will be damn awesome when it comes!” enthused one breathless participant over chat. Richard Garriott thrilled the group by appearing in the world as his alter ego one evening. “We ran into LB! The REAL THING!” crowed a starstruck tester. “So what? I went adventuring with him to kill monsters!” scoffed another.

A more ambitious alpha test began about a month later, with participants logging in from as far away as Brazil and Taiwan. The developers waited with bated breath to see what they would do in this latest, far more feature-complete version of the virtual world. What they actually did do was an eye-opener, an early warning about some of the problems that would continue to dog the game and eventually, in the estimation of Raph Koster, cost it half its user base. Koster:

On the very first day of the alpha, players appeared in the tavern in Britain [the capital city of Ultima’s world of Britannia]. They waited for other newbies to walk out the doors, then they stood at the windows and shot arrows at them until they died. The newbies couldn’t shoot back because the archers were hidden behind the wall inside the building. This is, of course, exactly what archery slits were invented for, but it made for a truly lousy first impression of the game.

That was the first time that players took something inherent in the simulation and turned it against their fellow players. Not long after, someone spelled out “fuck” on the main bridge into Britain using fish. Not long after that, players figured out that explosive potions detonated other potions. It was illegal to kill someone in town; it would get you instantly killed by the guards. But if you ran a chain of potions a long distance, like a fuse, you could avoid that.

Chalk it up as another lesson, one to which the team perhaps should have paid more attention. The hope was always that the community would learn to police itself much like those of the real world, that the risks and the stigma of being a troublemaker would come to outweigh the gains and the jollies for all but the most hardened members of the criminal element. Richard Garriott seems to have been in an unusually candid mood when he expressed the hope in a contemporary interview:

One of the unfortunate side effects of computer gaming is that we have a whole generation of kids who have no social graces whatsoever. And this is exemplified in my mind by how much I hate going online for discussions I am invited to do once a month or so. And I truly abhor going to do that for a variety of reasons, one because it’s such a slow experience, but also because everyone has a level of anonymity behind their online persona, [and] they lose their normal and proper etiquette. So you have people screaming over each other to get their questions in, people screaming expletives, people popping in a chat room and making some dumb comment and then popping out again — the kind of behavior that you would never get away with in the real world. So one of the things that I’m really keen to introduce with Ultima Online is making people responsible for their actions, and this will happen as people are recognized by their online persona within the game. They won’t be so anonymous anymore.

This hope would be imperfectly realized at best. “I used to think that you could reform bad apples and argue with hard cases,” says an older and presumably wiser Raph Koster. “I’m more cynical these days.”

So, the alpha testers ran around breaking stuff and making stuff, while the gods of the new fantasy world watched closely from their perch on a gutted floor of an anonymous-looking office building in flesh-and-blood late-twentieth-century Texas to see what it was they had wrought. A bug in the game caused killed characters to respawn naked. (No, not even these simulation-committed developers were cruel enough to make death permanent…) Some players decided they liked it that way, leading to much of Britannia looking like a nudist colony. The guards in the cities had to be instructed to crack down on these victimless criminals as well as thieves and murderers.

But the most important finding was that most of the players loved it. All of it. “We had people who literally did not log off for a week,” says Starr Long. “Groups of players formed tribes, and at the end of the test there was a huge battle between the two largest tribes. None of that we set up. We gave them the world to play in, and human nature took over.” From one of the first substantial previews of the work-in-progress, published in Next Generation magazine:

In a very real sense, the world is what you make of it. One of the more interesting results of Ultima’s alpha testing is that when you have several hundred people in one place at one time, they tend to form their own micro-societies. There are already some two dozen player-created “guilds.” For example, when Richard Garriott signed on as his alter-ego Lord British, two groups sprang up: the Dragon Liberation Front, which pledged itself to destroying him, and the aptly named Protectors of Virtue & Lord British. Threats were made, battles were joined, and a fine time was had by all.

Just as gratifyingly, reports of the alpha test, in the form of previews like the above in many of the glossy gaming magazines, were received very positively by ordinary gamers who hadn’t known that a massively multiplayer Ultima was in the offing prior to this point. Some went so far as to form and run guilds through email, so that they would be ready to go when the day came that they could actually log in. There was still much work to be done before Ultima Online would be ready to welcome the unwashed masses inside, but the MUDders who were making it believed that all of the arrows were pointing in the right direction.

Until, that is, September 27, 1996, when it suddenly seemed that its thunder might have been well and truly stolen. On that date, The 3DO Company published something called Meridian 59, which purported to already be what Ultima Online intended to be: a massively-multiplayer persistent virtual fantasy world. Its box copy trumpeted that hundreds of people would be able to adventure together at the same time, killing monsters and occasionally each other, whilst also chatting and socializing. It sounded great — or terrible, if you happened to be working on Ultima Online.



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; Questbusters of July 1987; Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction of Summer 1993; Computer Gaming World of October 1995 and October 1996; Starlog of December 1983; PC Powerplay of November 1996; Next Generation of June 1996, September 1996, and March 1997; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of November 3 1995, January 12 1996, and April 5 1996.

Web sources include a 2018 Game Developers Conference talk by some of the Ultima Online principals, an Ultima Online timeline at UOGuide, and some details about LegendMUD, the winner of MUD Connector‘s coveted “MUD of the Month” prize for October 1995.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Not the same game as the 2002 Bioware CRPG of the same name.
 
 

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Wing Commander IV

It’s tough to put a neat label on Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. On the one hand, it was a colossally ambitious and expensive project — in fact, the first computer game in history with a budget exceeding $10 million. On the other, it was a somewhat rushed, workmanlike game, developed in half the time of Wing Commander III using the same engine and tools. That these two things can simultaneously be true is down to the strange economics of mid-1990s interactive movies.



Origin Systems and Chris Roberts, the Wing Commander franchise’s development studio and mastermind respectively, wasted very little time embarking on the fourth numbered game in the series after finishing up the third one in the fall of 1994. Within two weeks, Roberts was hard at work on his next story outline. Not long after the holiday season was over and it was clear that Wing Commander III had done very well indeed for itself, his managers gave him the green light to start production in earnest, on a scale of which even a dreamer like him could hardly have imagined a few years earlier.

Like its predecessor, Wing Commander IV was destined to be an oddly bifurcated project. The “game” part of the game — the missions you actually fly from the cockpit of a spaceborne fighter — was to be created in Origin’s Austin, Texas, offices by a self-contained and largely self-sufficient team of programmers and mission designers, using the existing flight engine with only modest tweaks, without a great deal of day-to-day communication with Roberts himself. Meanwhile the latter would spend the bulk of 1995 in Southern California, continuing his career as Hollywood’s most unlikely and under-qualified movie director, shooting a script created by Frank DePalma and Terry Borst from his own story outline. It was this endeavor that absorbed the vast majority of a vastly increased budget.

For there were two big, expensive changes on this side of the house. One was a shift away from the green-screen approach of filming real actors on empty sound stages, with the scenery painted in during post-production by pixel artists; instead Origin had its Hollywood partners Crocodille Productions build traditional sets, no fewer than 37 of them in all. The other was the decision to abandon videotape in favor of 35-millimeter stock, the same medium on which feature films were shot. This was a dubiously defensible decision on practical grounds, what with the sharply limited size and resolution of the computer-monitor screens on which Roberts’s movie would be seen, but it says much about where the young would-be auteur’s inspirations and aspirations lay. “My goal is to bring the superior production values of Hollywood movies to the interactive realm,” he said in an interview. Origin would wind up paying Crocodile $7.7 million in all in the pursuit of that lofty goal.

The hall of the Terran Assembly was one of the more elaborate of the Wing Commander IV sets, showing how far the series had come but also in a way how far it still had to go, what with its distinctly plastic, stage-like appearance. It will be seen on film in a clip later on in this article.

These changes served only to distance the movie part of Wing Commander from the game part that much more; now the folks in Austin didn’t even have to paint backgrounds for Roberts’s film shoot. More than ever, the two halves of the whole were water and oil rather than water and wine. All told, it’s doubtful whether the flying-and-shooting part of Wing Commander IV absorbed much more than 10 percent of the total budget.

Origin was able to hire most of the featured actors from last time out to return for Wing Commander IV. Once again, Mark Hamill, one of the most sensible people in Hollywood, agreed to head up the cast as Colonel Blair, the protagonist and the player’s avatar, for a salary of $419,100 for the 43-day shoot. (“A lot of actors spend their whole lives wanting to be known as anything,” he said when delicately asked if he ever dwelt upon his gradual, decade-long slide down through the ranks of the acting profession, from starring as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars blockbusters to starring in videogames. “I always thought I should be happy for what I have instead of being unhappy for what I don’t have. So, you know, if things are going alright with your family… I don’t know, not really. I think it’s good.”) Likewise, Tom Wilson ($117,300) returned to play Blair’s fellow pilot and frenemy Maniac; Malcolm McDowell ($285,500) again played the stiffly starched Admiral Tolwyn; and John Rhys-Davies ($52,100) came back as the fighter jock turned statesman Paladin. After the rest of the cast and incidental expenses were factored in, the total bill for the actors came to just under $1.4 million.

Far from being taken aback by the numbers involved, Origin made them a point of pride. If anything, it inflated them; the total development cost of $12 million which was given to magazines like Computer Gaming World over the course of one of the most extensive pre-release hype campaigns the industry had ever seen would appear to be a million or two over the real figure, based on what I’ve been able to glean from the company’s internal budgeting documents. Intentionally or not, the new game’s subtitle made the journalists’ headlines almost too easy to write: clearly, the true “price of freedom” was $12 million. The award for the most impassioned preview must go to the British edition of PC Gamer, which proclaimed that the game’s eventual release would be “one of the most important events of the twentieth century.” On an only slightly more subdued note, Computer Gaming World noted that “if Wing Commander III was like Hollywood, this game is Hollywood.” The mainstream media got in on the excitement as well: CNN ran a segment on the work in progress, Newsweek wrote it up, and Daily Variety was correct in calling it “the most expensive CD-ROM production ever” — never mind a million or two here or there. Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell earned some more money by traveling the morning-radio and local-television circuit in the final weeks before the big release.


Wing Commander IV was advertised on television at a time when that was still a rarity for computer games. The advertisements blatantly spoiled what was intended to be a major revelation about the real villain of the story. (You have been warned!)


The game was launched on February 8, 1996, in a gala affair at the Beverly Hills Planet Hollywood, with most of the important cast members in attendance to donate their costumes — “the first memorabilia from a CD-ROM game to be donated to the internationally famous restaurant,” as Origin announced proudly. (The restaurant itself appears to have been less enthused; the costumes were never put on display after the party, and seem to be lost now.) The assembled press included representatives of CNN, The Today Show, HBO, Delta Airlines’s in-flight magazine, and the Associated Press among others. In the weeks that followed, Chris Roberts and Mark Hamill did a box-signing tour in conjunction with Incredible Universe, a major big-box electronics chain of the time.

Tom Wilson, Malcolm McDowell, and Mark Hamill at the launch party.

The early reviews were positive, and not just those in the nerdy media. “The game skillfully integrates live-action video with computer-generated graphics and sophisticated gameplay. Has saving the universe ever been this much fun?” asked Newsweek, presumably rhetorically. Entertainment Weekly called Wing Commander IV “a movie game that takes CD-ROM warfare into the next generation,” giving it an A- on its final report card. The Salt Lake City Tribune said that it had “a cast that would make any TV-movie director jealous — and more than a few feature-film directors as well. While many games tout themselves as interactive movies, Wing Commander IV is truly deserving of the title — a pure joy to watch and play.” The Detroit Free Press said that “at times, it was like watching an episode of a science-fiction show.”

The organs of hardcore gaming were equally fulsome. Australia’s Hyper magazine lived up to its name (Hyperventilate? Hyperbole?) with the epistemologically questionable assertion that “if you don’t play this then you really don’t own a computer.” Computer Gaming World, still the United States’s journal of record, was almost as effusive, writing that “as good as the previous installment was, it served only as a rough prototype for the polished chrome that adorns Wing Commander IV. This truly is the vanguard of the next generation of electronic entertainment.”

Surprisingly, it was left to PC Gamer, the number-two periodical in the American market, normally more rather than less hype-prone than its older and somewhat stodgier competitor, to inject a note of caution into the critical discourse, by acknowledging how borderline absurd it was on the face of it to release a game in which 90 percent of the budget had gone into the cut scenes.

How you feel about Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom is going to depend a lot on how you felt about Wing Commander III and the direction the series seems to be headed in.

When the original Wing Commander came out, it was a series of incredible, state-of-the-art space-combat sequences, tied together with occasional animated cut scenes. Today, Wing Commander IV seems more like a series of incredible, full-motion-video cut scenes tied together with occasional space-combat sequences. You can see the shift away from gameplay and toward multimedia flash in one of the ads for Wing Commander IV; seven of the eight little “bullet points” that list the game’s impressive new features are devoted to improvements in the quality of the video. Only the last point says anything about actual gameplay. If the tail’s not wagging the dog yet, it’s getting close.

For all its cosmetic improvements, Wing Commander IV feels just a little hollow. I can’t help thinking about what the fourth Wing Commander game might be like if the series had moved in the opposite direction, making huge improvements in the actual gameplay, rather than spending more and more time and effort on the stuff in between.

Still, these concerns were only raised parenthetically; even PC Gamer‘s reviewer saw fit to give the game a rating of 90 percent after unfurrowing his brow.



Today, however, the imbalance described above has become even more difficult to overlook, and seems even more absurd. As my regular readers know, narrative-oriented games are the ones I tend to be most passionate about; I’m the farthest thing from a Chris Crawford, insisting that the inclusion of any set-piece story line is a betrayal of interactive entertainment’s potential. My academic background is largely in literary studies, which perhaps explains why I tend to want to read games like others do books. And yet, with all that said, I also recognize that a game needs to give its player something interesting to do.

I’m reminded of an anecdote from Steve Diggle, a guitarist for the 1970s punk band Buzzcocks. He tells of seeing the keyboardist for the progressive-rock band Yes performing with “a telephone exchange of electronic things that nobody could afford or relate to. At the end, he brought an alpine horn out — because he was Swiss. It was a long way from Little Richard. I thought, ‘Something’s got to change.'” There’s some of the same quality to Wing Commander IV. Matters have gone so far out on a limb that one begins to suspect the only thing left to be done is just to burn it all down and start over.

But we do strive to be fair around here, so let’s try to evaluate the movie and the game of Wing Commander IV on their own merits before we address their imperfect union.

Chris Roberts is not a subtle storyteller; his influences are always close to the surface. The first three Wing Commander games were essentially a retelling of World War II in the Pacific, with the Terran Confederation for which Blair flies in the role of the United States and its allies and the evil feline Kilrathi in that of Japan. Now, with the alien space cats defeated once and for all, Roberts has moved on to the murkier ethical terrain of the Cold War, where battles are fought in the shadows and friend and foe are not so easy to distinguish. Instead of being lauded like the returning Greatest Generation were in the United States after World War II, Blair and his comrades who fought the good fight against the Kilrathi are treated more like the soldiers who came back from Vietnam. We learn that we’ve gone from rah-rah patriotism to something else the very first time we see Blair, when he meets a down-on-his-luck fellow veteran in a bar and can, at you the player’s discretion, give him a few coins to help him out. Shades of gray are not really Roberts’s forte; earnest guy that he is, he prefers the primary-color emotions. Still, he’s staked out his dramatic territory and now we have to go with it.

Having been relegated to the reserves after the end of the war with the Kilrathi, Blair has lately been running a planetside farm, but he’s called back to active duty to deal with a new problem on the frontiers of the Terran Confederation: a series of pirate raids in the region of the Border Worlds, a group of planets that is allied with the Confederation but has always preferred not to join it formally. Because the attacks are all against Confederation vessels rather than those of the Border Worlds, it is assumed that the free-spirited inhabitants of the latter are behind them. I trust that it won’t be too much a spoiler if I reveal here that the reality is far more sinister.

By all means, we should give props to Roberts for not just finding some way to bring the Kilrathi back as humanity’s existential threat. They are still around, and even make an appearance in Wing Commander IV, but they’ve seen the error of their ways with Confederation guidance and are busily rebuilding their society on more peaceful lines. (The parallels with World War II-era — and now postwar — Japan, in other words, still hold true.)

For all the improved production values, the Kilrathi in Wing Commander IV still look as ridiculous as ever, more cuddly than threatening.

The returns from Origin’s $9 million investment in the movie are front and center. An advantage of working with real sets instead of green screens is the way that the camera is suddenly allowed to move, making the end result look less like something filmed during the very earliest days of cinema and more like a product of the post-Citizen Kane era. One of the very first scenes is arguably the most impressive of them all. The camera starts on the ceiling of a meeting hall, looking directly down at the assembled dignitaries, then slowly sweeps to ground level, shifting as it moves from a vertical to a horizontal orientation. I’d set this scene up beside the opening of Activision’s Spycraft — released at almost the same time as Wing Commander IV, as it happens — as the most sophisticated that this generation of interactive movies ever got by the purely technical standards of film-making. (I do suspect that Wing Commander IV‘s relative adroitness is not so much down to Chris Roberts as to its cinematographer, a 21-year Hollywood veteran named Eric Goldstein.)


The acting, by contrast, is on about the same level as Wing Commander III: professional if not quite passionate. Mark Hamill’s dour performance is actually among the least engaging. (This is made doubly odd by the fact that he had recently been reinventing himself as a voice actor, through a series of portrayals — including a memorable one in the game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers — that are as giddy and uninhibited as his Colonel Blair isn’t.) On the other hand, it’s a pleasure to hear Malcolm McDowell and John Rhys-Davies deploy their dulcet Shakespearian-trained voices on even pedestrian (at best) dialog like this. But the happiest member of the cast must be Tom Wilson, whose agent’s phone hadn’t exactly been ringing off the hook in recent years; his traditional-cinema career had peaked with his role as the cretinous villain Biff in the Back to the Future films. Here he takes on the similarly over-the-top role of Maniac, a character who had become a surprise hit with the fans in Wing Commander III, and sees his screen time increased considerably in the fourth game as a result. As comic-relief sidekicks go, he’s no Sancho Panza, but he does provide a welcome respite from Blair’s always prattling on, a little listlessly and sleepy-eyed at times, about duty and honor and what hell war is (such hell that Chris Roberts can’t stop making games about it).

That said, the best humor in Wing Commander IV is of the unintentional kind. There’s a sort of Uncanny Valley in the midst of this business of interactive movies, as there is in so many creative fields. When the term was applied to games that merely took some inspiration from cinema, perhaps with a few (bad) actors mouthing some lines in front of green screens, it was easier to accept fairly uncritically. But the closer games like this one come to being real movies, the more their remaining shortcomings seem to stand out, and, paradoxically, the farther from their goal they seem to be. The reality is that 37 sets isn’t many by Hollywood standards — and most of these are cheap, sparse, painfully plastic-looking sets at that. Like in those old 1960s episodes of Star Trek, everybody onscreen visibly jumps — not in any particular unison, mind you — when the camera shakes to indicate an explosion and the party-supply-store smoke machines start up. The ray guns they shoot each other with look like gaudy plastic toys that Wal Mart would be ashamed to stock, while the accompanying sound effects would have been rejected as too cheesy by half by the producers of Battlestar Galactica.

All of this is understandable, even forgivable. A shooting budget of $9 million may have been enormous in game terms, but it was nothing by the standards of a Hollywood popcorn flick. (The 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact, for example, had five times the budget of Wing Commander IV, and it was not even an especially expensive example of its breed.) In the long run, interactive movies would find their Uncanny Valley impossible to bridge. Those who made them believed that they were uniquely capable of attracting a wider, more diverse audience than the people who typically played games in the mid-1990s. That proposition may have been debatable, but we’ll take it at face value. The problem was that, in order to attract these folks, they had to look like more than C-movies with aspirations of reaching B status. And the games industry’s current revenues simply didn’t give them any way to get from here to there. Wing Commander IV is a prime case in point: the most expensive game ever made still looked like a cheap joke by Hollywood standards.

The spaceships of the far future are controlled by a plastic steering wheel that looks like something you’d find hanging off of a Nintendo console. Pity the poor crew member whose only purpose in life seems to be to standing there holding on to it and fending off the advances of Major Todd “Maniac” “Sexual Harassment is Hilarious!” Marshall.

Other failings of Wing Commander IV, however, are less understandable and perchance less forgivable. It’s sometimes hard to believe that this script was the product of professional screenwriters, given the quantity of dialog which seems lifted from a Saturday Night Live sketch, which often had my wife and I rolling on the floor when we played the game together recently. (Or rather, when I played and she watched and laughed.) “Just because we operate in the void of space, is loyalty equally weightless?” Malcolm McDowell somehow manages to intone in that gorgeously honed accent of his without smirking. A young woman mourning the loss of her beau — as soon as you saw that these two had a thing going, you knew he was doomed, by the timeless logic of war movies — chooses the wrong horse as her metaphor and then just keeps on riding it out into the rhetorical sagebrush: “He’s out there along with my heart. Both no more than space dust. People fly through him every day and don’t even know it.”

Then there’s the way that everyone, excepting only Blair, is constantly referred to only by his or her call sign. This doesn’t do much to enhance the stateliness of a formal military funeral: “Some may think that Catscratch will be forgotten. They’re wrong. He’ll stay in our hearts always.” There’s the way that all of the men are constantly saluting each other at random moments, as if they’re channeling all of the feelings they don’t know how to express into that act — saluting to keep from crying, saluting as a way to avoid saying, “I love you, man!,” saluting whenever the screenwriters don’t know what the hell else to have them do. (Of course, they all do it so sloppily that anyone who really was in the military will be itching to jump through the monitor and smack them into shape.) And then there’s the ranks and titles, which sound like something children on a playground — or perhaps (ahem!) someone else? — came up with: Admiral Tolwyn gets promoted to “Space Marshal,” for Pete’s sake.

I do feel just a little bad to make fun of all this so much because Chris Roberts’s heart is clearly in the right place. As a time when an increasing number of games were appealing only to the worst sides of their players, Wing Commander IV at least gave lip service to the ties that bind, the thing things we owe to one another. It’s not precisely wrong in anything it says, even if it does become a bit one-note in that tedious John Wayne kind of way. Deep into the game, you discover that the sinister conspiracy you’ve been pursuing involves a new spin on the loathsome old arguments of eugenics, those beliefs that some of us have better genes than others and are thus more useful, valuable human beings, entitled to things that their inferior counterparts are not. Wing Commander IV knows precisely where it stands on this issue — on the right side. But boy, can its delivery be clumsy. And its handling of a more complex social issue like the plight of war veterans trying to integrate back into civilian society is about as nuanced as the old episodes of Magnum, P.I. that probably inspired it.

But betwixt and between all of the speechifying and saluting, there is still a game to play, consisting of about 25 to 30 missions worth of space-combat action, depending on the choices you make from the interactive movie’s occasional menus and how well you fly the missions themselves. The unsung hero of Wing Commander IV must surely be one Anthony Morone, who bore the thankless title of “Game Director,” meaning that he was the one who oversaw the creation of the far less glamorous game part of the game back in Austin while Chris Roberts was off in Hollywood shooting his movie. He did what he could with the limited time and resources at his disposal.

I noted above how the very way that this fourth game was made tended to pull the two halves of its personality even farther apart. That’s true on one level, but it’s also true that Morone made some not entirely unsuccessful efforts to push back against that centrifugal drift. Some of the storytelling now happens inside the missions themselves — something Wing Commander II, the first heavily plot-based entry in the series, did notably well, only to have Wing Commander III forget about it almost completely. Now, though, it’s back, such that your actions during the missions have a much greater impact on the direction of the movie. For example, at one point you’re sent to intercept some Confederation personnel who have apparently turned traitor. In the course of this mission, you learn what their real motivations are, and, if you think they’re good ones, you can change sides and become their escort rather than their attacker.

Indeed, there are quite a few possible paths through the story line and a handful of different endings, based on both the choices you take from those menus that pop up from time to time during the movie portions and your actions in the heat of battle. In this respect too, Wing Commander IV is more ambitious and more sophisticated than Wing Commander III.

A change in Wing Commander IV that feels very symbolic is the removal of any cockpit graphics. In the first game, seeing your pilot avatar manipulate the controls and seeing evidence of damage in your physical surroundings was extraordinarily verisimilitudious. Now, all that has been discarded without a second thought by a game with other priorities.

But it is enough? It’s hard to escape a creeping sense of ennui as you play this game. The flight engine and mission design still lag well behind LucasArts’s 1994 release TIE Fighter, a game that has aged much better than this one in all of its particulars. Roughly two out of every three missions here still don’t have much to do with the plot and aren’t much more than the usual “fly between these way points and shoot whatever you find there” — a product of the need to turn Roberts’s movie into a game that lasts longer than a few hours, in order to be sure that players feel like they have gotten their $50 worth. Worse, the missions are poorly balanced, being much more difficult than those in the previous game; enemy missiles are brutally overpowered, being now virtually guaranteed to kill you with one hit. The sharply increased difficulty feels more accidental than intentional, a product of the compressed development schedule and a resultant lack of play-testing. However it came about, it pulls directly against Origin’s urgent need to attract more — read, more casual — gamers to the series in order to justify its escalating budgets. Here as in so many other places in this game, the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, to the detriment of both.

In the end, then, neither the movie nor the game of Wing Commander IV can fully stand up on its own, and in combination they tend to clash more than they create any scintillating synergy. One senses when playing through the complete package that Origin’s explorations in this direction have indeed reached a sort of natural limit akin to that alpine-horn-playing keyboard player, that the only thing left to do now is to back up and try something else.


The magazines may have been carried away by the hype around Wing Commander IV, but not all ordinary gamers were. For example, one by the name of Robert Fletcher sent Origin the following letter:

I have noticed that the game design used by Origin has stayed basically the same. Wing Commander IV is a good example of a game design that has shown little growth. If one were to strip away the film clips, there would be a bare-bones game. The game would look and play like a game from the early 1980s. A very simple branching story line, with a little arcade action.

With all the muscle and talent at Origin’s command, it makes me wonder if Origin is really trying to push the frontier of game design. I know a little of what it takes to develop a game, from all the articles I have read (and I have read many). Many writers and developers are calling for their peers to get back to pushing the frontier of game design, over the development of better graphics.

Wing Commander IV has the best graphics I have seen, and it will be a while before anyone will match this work of art. But as a game, Wing Commander IV makes a better movie.

In its April 1996 issue — notice that date! — Computer Gaming World published an alleged preview of Origin’s plans for Wing Commander V. Silly though the article is, it says something about the reputation that Chris Roberts and his franchise were garnering among gamers like our Mr. Fletcher for pushing the envelope of money and technology past the boundaries of common sense, traveling far out on a limb that was in serious danger of being cut off behind them.

With Wing Commander IV barely a month old, Origin has already announced incredible plans for the next game in the highly successful series. In another first for a computer-game company, Origin says it will design small working models of highly maneuverable drones which can be launched into space, piloted remotely, and filmed. The craft will enable Wing V to have “unprecedented spaceflight realism and true ‘star appeal,'” said a company spokesman.

Although the next game in the science-fiction series sounds more like fiction than science, Origin’s Chris Roberts says it’s the next logical step for his six-year-old creation. “If you think about it,” he says, “Wing Commander [I] was the game where we learned the mechanics of space fighting. We made lots of changes and improvements in Wing II. With Wing III, we raised the bar considerably with better graphics, more realistic action, full-motion video, and big-name stars in video segments. In Wing IV, we upped the ante again with real sets, more video, and, in my opinion, a much better story. We’ve reached the point of using real stars and real sets — now it’s time to take our act on location: real space.”

Analysts say it’s nearly impossible to estimate the cost of such an undertaking. Some put figures at between $100 million and $10 billion, just to deploy a small number of remotely pilotable vehicles beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Despite this, Origin’s Lord British (Richard Garriott) claims that he has much of the necessary financial support from investors. Says Garriott, “When we told [investors] what we wanted to do for Wing Commander V, they were amazed. We’re talking about one of man’s deepest desires — to break free of the bonds of Earth. We know it seems costly in comparison with other games, but this is unlike anything that’s ever been done. I don’t see any problem getting the financial backing for this project, and we expect to recoup the investment in the first week. You’re going to see a worldwide release on eight platforms in 36 countries. It’s going to be a huge event. It’ll dwarf even Windows 95.”

Tellingly, some fans believed the announcement was real, writing Origin concerned letters about whether this was really such a good use of its resources.

Still, the sense of unease about Origin’s direction was far from universal. In a sidebar that accompanied its glowing review of Wing Commander IV in that same April 1996 issue, Computer Gaming World asked on a less satirical note, “Is it time to take interactive movies seriously?” The answer according to the magazine was yes: “Some will continue to mock the concept of ‘Siliwood,’ but the marriage of Hollywood and Silicon Valley is definitely real and here to stay. In this regard, no current game charts a more optimistic path to the future of multimedia entertainment than Wing Commander IV.” Alas, the magazine’s satire would prove more prescient than this straightforward opinion piece. Rather than the end of the beginning of the era of interactive movies, Wing Commander IV would go down in history as the beginning of the end, a limit of grandiosity beyond which further progress was impossible.

The reason came down to the cold, hard logic of dollars and cents, working off of a single data point: Wing Commander IV sold less than half as many copies as Wing Commander III. Despite the increased budget and improved production values, despite all the mainstream press coverage, despite the gala premiere at Planet Hollywood, it just barely managed to break even, long after its initial release. I believe the reason why had everything to with that Uncanny Valley I described for you. Those excited enough by the potential of the medium to give these interactive movies the benefit of the doubt had already done so, and even many of these folks were now losing interest. Meanwhile the rest of the world was, at best, waiting for such productions to mature enough that they could sit comfortably beside real movies, or even television. But this was a leap that even Origin Systems, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, the biggest game publisher in the country, was financially incapable of making. And as things currently stood, the return on investment on productions even the size of Wing Commander IV — much less still larger — simply wasn’t there.

During this period, a group of enterprising Netizens took it upon themselves to compile a weekly “Internet PC Games Chart” by polling thousands of their fellow gamers on what they were playing just at that moment. Wing Commander IV is present on the lists they published during the spring of 1996, rising as high as number four for a couple of weeks. But the list of games that consistently place above it is telling: Command & Conquer, Warcraft II, DOOM II, Descent, Civilization II. Although some of them do have some elements of story to bind their campaigns together and deliver a long-form single-player experience, none of them aspires to full-blown interactive movie-dom (not even Command & Conquer, which does feature real human actors onscreen giving its mission briefings). In fact, no games meeting that description are ever to be found anywhere in the top ten at the same time as Wing Commander IV.

Thanks to data like this, it was slowly beginning to dawn on the industry’s movers and shakers that the existing hardcore gamers — the people actually buying games today, and thereby sustaining their companies — were less interested in a merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood than they were. “I don’t think it’s necessary to spend that much money to suspend disbelief and entertain the gamer,” said Jim Namestka of Dreamforge Intertainment by way of articulating the emerging new conventional wisdom. “It’s alright to spend a lot of money on enhancing the game experience, but a large portion spent instead on huge salaries for big-name actors… I question whether that’s really necessary.”

I’ve written quite a lot in recent articles about 1996 as the year that essentially erased the point-and-click adventure game as one of the industry’s marquee genres. Wing Commander IV isn’t one of those, of course, even if it does look a bit like one at times, when you’re wandering around a ship talking to your crew mates. Still, the Venn diagram of the interactive movie does encompass games like Wing Commander IV, just as it does games like, say, Phantasmagoria, the biggest adventure hit of 1995, which sold even more copies than Wing Commander III. In 1996, however, no game inside that Venn diagram became a million-selling breakout hit. The best any could manage was a middling performance relative to expectations, as was the case for Wing Commander IV. And so the retrenchment began.

It would have been financially foolish to do anything else. The titles that accompanied and often bested Wing Commander IV on those Internet PC Games Charts had all cost vastly less money to make and yet sold as well or better. id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, the games that had started the shift away from overblown storytelling and extended multimedia cut scenes and back to the nuts and bolts of gameplay, had been built by a tiny team of scruffy outsiders working on a shoestring; call this the games industry’s own version of Buzzcocks versus Yes.

The shift away from interactive movies didn’t happen overnight. At Origin, the process of bargaining with financial realities would lead to one more Wing Commander game before the franchise was put out to pasture, still incorporating real actors in live-action cut scenes, but on a less lavish, more sustainable — read, cheaper — scale. The proof was right there in the box: Wing Commander: Prophecy, which but for a last-minute decision by marketing would have been known as Wing Commander V, shipped on three CDs in early 1997 rather than the six of Wing Commander IV. By that time, the whole franchise was looking hopelessly passé in a sea of real-time strategy and first-person shooters whose ethic was to get you into the action fast and keep you there, without any clichéd meditations about the hell that is war. Wing Commander IV had proved to be the peak of the interactive-movie mountain rather than the next base camp which Chris Roberts had imagined it to be.

This is not to say that digital interactive storytelling as a whole died in 1996. It just needed to find other, more practical and ultimately more satisfying ways to move forward. Some of those would take shape in the long-moribund CRPG genre, which enjoyed an unexpected revival close to the decade’s end. Adventure games too would soldier on, but on a smaller scale more appropriate to their reduced commercial circumstances, driven now by passion for the medium rather than hype, painted once again in lovely pixel art instead of grainy digitized video. For that matter, even space simulators would enjoy a golden twilight before falling out of fashion for good, thanks to several titles that kicked against what Wing Commander had become by returning the focus to what happened in the cockpit.

All of these development have left Wing Commander IV standing alone and exposed, its obvious faults only magnified that much more by its splendid isolation. It isn’t a great game, nor even all that good a game, but it isn’t a cynical or unlikable one either. Call it a true child of Chris Roberts: a gawky chip off the old block, with too much money and talent and yet not quite enough.



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 Origin’s Official Guide to Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom by Melissa Tyler; Computer Gaming World of February 1995, May 1995, December 1995, April 1996, and July 1997; Strategy Plus of December 1995; the American PC Gamer of September 1995 and May 1996; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of September 8 1995, January 12 1996, February 12 1996, April 5 1996, and May 17 1996; Retro Gamer 59. Online sources include the various other internal Origin documents, video clips, pictures, and more hosted at Wing Commander News and Mark Asher’s CNET GameCenter columns from March 24 1999 and October 29 1999. And, for something completely different, Buzzcocks being interview at the British Library in 2016. RIP Pete Shelley.

Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom is available from GOG.com as a digital purchase.)

 

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System Shock

We approached games as immersive simulations. We wanted to build game environments that reacted to player’s decisions, that behaved in natural ways, and where players had more verbs than simply “shoot.” DOOM was not an influence on System Shock. We were trying something more difficult and nuanced, [although] we still had a lot of respect for the simplicity and focus of [the id] games. There was, to my recollection, a vague sense of fatalism about the parallel tracks the two companies were taking, since it was clear early on that id’s approach, which needed much less player education and which ran on adrenaline rather than planning and immersion, was more likely to be commercially successful. But we all believed very strongly in Looking Glass’s direction, and were proud that we were taking games to a more cerebral and story-rich place.

— Dorian Hart

We hope that our toiling now to make things work when it is still very hard to do effectively will mean that when it is easier to do, we can concentrate on the parts of the game that are less ephemeral than polygons per second, and distinguish ourselves by designing detailed and immersive environments which are about more than just the technology.

— Doug Church

In late 1992, two separate studios began working on two separate games whose descriptions sound weirdly identical to one another. Each was to make you the last human survivor on a besieged space station. You would roam its corridors in real time in an embodied first-person view; both studios prided themselves on their cutting-edge 3D graphics technology. As you explored, you would have to kill or be killed by the monsters swarming the complex. Yet wresting back control of the station would demand more than raw firepower: in the end, you would have to outwit the malevolent intelligence behind it all. Both games were envisioned as unprecedentedly rich interactive experiences, as a visceral new way of living through an interactive story.

But in the months that followed, these two projects that had started out so conceptually similar diverged dramatically. The team that was working on DOOM at id Software down in Dallas, Texas, decided that all of the elaborate plotting and puzzles were just getting in the way of the simpler, purer joys of blowing away demons with a shotgun. Lead programmer John Carmack summed up id’s attitude: “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” id discovered that they weren’t really interested in making an immersive virtual world; they were interested in making an exciting game, one whose “gameyness” they felt no shame in foregrounding.

Meanwhile the folks at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based studio Looking Glass Technologies stuck obstinately to their original vision. They made exactly the uncompromising experience they had first discussed, refusing to trade psychological horror in for cheaper thrills. System Shock would demand far more of its players than DOOM, but would prove in its way an even more rewarding game for those willing to follow it down the moody, disturbing path it unfolded.

It was in this moment, then, that the differences between id and Looking Glass, the yin and the yang of 1990s 3D-graphics pioneers, became abundantly clear.



Looking Glass arrived at their crossroads moment just as they were completing their second game, Ultima Underworld II. Both it and its predecessor were first-person fantasy dungeon crawls set in and around Britannia, the venerable world of the Ultima CRPG series to which their games served as spinoffs. And both were very successful, so much so that they almost overshadowed Ultima VII, the latest entry in the mainline series. Looking Glass’s publisher Origin Systems would have been happy to let them continue making games in this vein for as long as their customers kept buying them.

But Looking Glass, evincing the creative restlessness that would define them throughout their existence, was ready to move on to other challenges. In the months immediately after Ultima Underworld II was completed, the studio’s head Paul Neurath allowed his charges to start three wildly diverse projects on the back of the proceeds from the Underworld games, projects which were unified only by their heavy reliance on 3D graphics. One was a game of squad-level tactical combat called Terra Nova, another a civilian flight simulator called Flight Unlimited. And the third — actually, the first of the trio to be officially initiated — was System Shock.

Doug Church, the driving creative force behind Ultima Underworld, longed to create seamless interactive experiences, where you didn’t so much play a game as enter into its world. The Underworld games had been a big step in that direction within the constraints of the CRPG form, thanks to their first-person, free-scrolling perspective, their real-time gameplay, and, not least, the way they cast you in the role of a single embodied dungeon delver rather than that of the disembodied manager of a whole party of them. But Church believed that there was still too much that pulled you out of their worlds. Although the games were played entirely from a single screen, which itself put them far ahead of most CRPGs in terms of immediacy, you were still switching constantly from mode to mode within that screen. “I felt that Underworld was sort of [four] different games that you played in parallel,” says Church. “There was the stats-based game with the experience points, the inventory-collecting-and-managing game, the 3D-moving-around game, and there was the talking game — the conversation-branch game.” What had seemed so fresh and innovative a couple of years earlier now struck Church as clunky.

Ironically, much of what he was objecting to is inherent to the CRPG form itself. Aficionados of the genre find it endlessly enjoyable to pore over their characters’ statistics at level-up time, to min-max their equipment and skills. And this is fine: the genre is as legitimate as any other. Yet Church himself found its cool intellectual appeal, derived from its antecedents on the tabletop which had no choice but to reveal all of their numbers to their players, to be antithetical to the sort of game that he wanted to make next:

In Underworld, there was all this dice rolling going on off-screen basically, and I’ve always felt it was kind of silly. Dice were invented as a way to simulate swinging your sword to see if you hit or miss. So everyone builds computer games where you move around in 3D and swing your sword and hit or miss, and then if you hit you roll some dice to simulate swinging a sword to decide if you hit or miss. How is anyone supposed to understand unless you print the numbers? Which is why, I think, most of the games that really try to be hardcore RPGs actually print out, “You rolled a 17!” In [the tabletop game of] Warhammer when you get a five-percent increase and the next time you roll your attack you make it by three percent, you’re all excited because you know that five-percent increase is why you hit. In a computer game you have absolutely no idea. And so we really wanted to get rid of all that super opaque, “I have no idea what’s going on” stuff. We wanted to make it so you can watch and play and it’s all happening.

So, there would be no numbers in his next game — no character levels, no character statistics, not even quantifiable hit points. There would just be you, right there in the world, without any intervening layers of abstraction.

Over the course of extensive discussions involving Doug Church himself, Paul Neurath, Looking Glass designer and writer Austin Grossman, and their Origin Systems producer Warren Spector, it was decided to make a first-person science-fiction game with distinct cyberpunk overtones, pitting you against an insane computer known as SHODAN. Cyberpunk was anything but a novelty in the games of the 1990s, a time when authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson all occupied prominent places on the genre-fiction bestseller charts and the game developers who read their novels rushed to bring their visions to life on monitor screens. Still, cyberpunk would suit Looking Glass’s purposes unusually perfectly by presenting a credible explanation for the diegetic interface Church was envisioning. You would play a character with a neural implant that let you “see” a heads-up display sporting a life bar for yourself, an energy bar for your weapons and other hardware, etc. — all of it a part of the virtual world rather than external to it. When you switched between “modes,” such as when bringing up the auto-map or your inventory display, it would be the embodied you who did so in the virtual world, not that other you who sat in front of the computer telling a puppet what to do next.

System Shock‘s commitment to its diegetic presentation is complete. As you discover new software and gadgets, they’re added to the heads-up display provided by your in-world neural implant. This serves the same purpose that leveling up did in Ultima Underworld, but in a more natural, realistic way.

Dissatisfied with what he saw as the immersion-killing conversation trees of Ultima Underworld, Church decided to get rid of two-way conversation altogether. When the game began, there would be enticing signs that other humans were still alive somewhere on the space station, but you would be consistently too late to reach them; you would encounter them only as the zombies SHODAN turned them into after death. Of course, all of this too was highly derivative, and on multiple levels at that. Science-fiction fans had been watching their heroes take down out-of-control computers since the original Star Trek television series if not before; “I don’t think if you wrote the novel [of System Shock] it would fly off the shelves,” admits Church. Likewise, computer games had been contriving ways to place you in deserted worlds, or in worlds inhabited only by simple-minded creatures out for your blood, for as long as said games had existed, always in order to avoid the complications of character interaction; the stately isolation of the mega-hit adventure game Myst was only the most recent notable example of the longstanding tradition at the time System Shock was in development.

But often it’s not what you do in any form of media, it’s how well you do it. And System Shock does what it sets out to do very, very well indeed. It tells a story of considerable complexity and nuance through the artifacts you find lying about as you explore the station and the emails you receive from time to time, allowing you to piece it all together for yourself in nonlinear fashion. “We wanted to make the plot and story development of System Shock be an exploration as well,” says Church, “and that’s why it’s all in the logs and data, so then it’s very tied into movement through the spaces.”

Reading a log entry. The story is conveyed entirely through epistolary means like these, along with occasional direct addresses from SHODAN herself that come booming through the station’s public-address system.

Moving through said spaces, picking up bits and pieces of the horrible events which have unfolded there, quickly becomes highly unnerving. The sense of embodied realism that clings to every aspect of the game is key to the sense of genuine, oppressive fear it creates in its player. Tellingly, Looking Glass liked to call System Shock a “simulation,” even though it simulates nothing that has ever existed in the real world. The word is rather shorthand for its absolute commitment to the truth — fictional truth, yes, but truth nevertheless — of the world it drops you into.

Story is very important to System Shock — and yet, in marked contrast to works in the more traditionally narrative-oriented genre of the adventure game, its engine also offers heaps and heaps of emergent possibility as you move through the station discovering what has gone wrong here and, finally, how you might be able to fix it. “It wasn’t just, ‘Go do this sequence of four things,'” says Church. “It was, ‘Well, there are going to be twelve cameras here and you gotta take out eight of them. Figure it out.’ We [also] gave you the option [of saying], ‘I don’t want to fight that guy. Okay, maybe I can find another way…'”

Thus System Shock manages the neat trick of combining a compelling narrative with a completely coherent environment that never reduces you to choosing from a menu of options, one where just about any solution for any given problem that seems like it ought to work really does work. Just how did Looking Glass achieve this when so many others before and since have failed, or been so daunted by the challenges involved that they never even bothered to try? They did so by combining technical excellence with an aesthetic sophistication to which few of their peers could even imagine aspiring.

Just as the 3D engine that powers Ultima Underworld is more advanced than the pseudo-3D of id’s contemporaneous Wolfenstein 3D, the System Shock engine outdoes DOOM in a number of important respects. The enormous environments of System Shock curve over and under and around one another, complete with sloping floors everywhere; lighting is realistically simulated; you can jump and crouch and look up and down and lean around corners; you can take advantage of its surprisingly advanced level of physics simulation in countless ingenious ways. System Shock even boasts perspective-correct texture mapping, a huge advance over Ultima Underworld, and no easy thing to combine with the aforementioned slopes.

Each of the ten “levels” of System Shock is really multiple levels in the physical sense, as the corridors often curve over and under one another. Just as in Ultima Underworld, you can annotate the auto-map for yourself. But even with this aid, just finding your way around in these huge, confusing spaces can be a challenge in itself.

That said, it’s also abundantly true that a more advanced engine doesn’t automatically make for a better game. Any such comparison must always carry an implied addendum: better for whom? Certainly DOOM succeeded beautifully in realizing its makers’ ambitions, even as its more streamlined engine could run well on many more of the typical computers of the mid-1990s than System Shock‘s could. By no means do the engines’ respective advantages all run one way: in addition to being much faster than the System Shock engine, the DOOM engine allows rooms of arbitrary sizes and non-orthogonal walls, neither of which is true of its counterpart from Looking Glass.

In the end, System Shock wants to be a very different experience than DOOM, catering to a different style of play, and its own engine is designed to allow it to realize its own ambitions. It demands a more careful approach from its player, where you must constantly use light and shadow, walls and obstacles, to aid you in your desperate struggle. For you are not a superhuman outer-space marine in System Shock; you’re just, well, you, scared and alone in a space station filled with rampaging monsters.

A fine example of the lengths to which Looking Glass’s technologists were willing to go in the service of immersion is provided by the mini-games you can play. Inspired by, of all things, the similarly plot-irrelevant mini-games found in the LucasArts graphic adventure Sam and Max Hit the Road, they contribute much more to the fiction in this case than in that other one. As with everything in System Shock, the mini-games are not external to the world of the main game. It’s rather you playing them through your neural implant right there in the world; it’s you who cowers in a safe corner somewhere, trying to soothe your soul with a quick session of Breakout or Missile Command. You get the chance to collect more and better games as you infiltrate the station’s computer network using the cyberspace jacks you find scattered about — a reward of sorts for a forlorn hacker trying to survive against an all-powerful entity and her horrifying minions.

Taking the edge off with a quick game of Pong (in the window at lower left).

Sean Barret, a programmer who came to Looking Glass and to the System Shock project well into the game’s development, implemented the most elaborate by far of the mini-games, a gentle satire of Origin Systems’s Wing Commander that goes under the name of Wing 0. The story of its creation is a classic tale of Looking Glass, a demonstration both of the employees’ technical brilliance and their insane levels of commitment to the premises of their games. Newly arrived on the team and wishing to make a good impression, Barrett saw a list of mini-game ideas on a whiteboard; a “Wing Commander clone” was among them. So, he set to work, and some days later presented his creation to his colleagues. They were as shocked as they were delighted; it turned out that the Wing Commander clone had been a joke rather than a serious proposal. In the end, however, System Shock got its very own Wing Commander after all.

Still, there were many other technically excellent and crazily dedicated games studios in the 1990s, just as there are today. What truly set Looking Glass apart was their interest in combining the one sort of intelligence with another kind that has not always been in quite so great a supply in the games industry.

As Looking Glass grew, Paul Neurath brought some very atypical characters into the fold. Already in late 1991, he placed an advertisement in the Boston Globe for a writer with an English degree. He eventually hired Austin Grossman, who would do a masterful job of scattering the puzzle pieces of Doug Church’s story outline around the System Shock space station. There soon followed another writer with an English degree, this one by the name of Dorian Hart, who would construct some of the station’s more devious internal spaces using the flair for drama which he had picked up from all of the books he had read. He was, as he puts it, “a liberal-arts nobody with no coding skills or direct industry experience, thrown onto arguably the most accomplished and leading-edge videogame production team ever assembled. It’s hard to explain how unlikely that was, and how fish-out-of-water I felt.” Nevertheless, there he was — and System Shock was all the better for his presence.

Another, even more unlikely set of game developers arrived in the persons of Greg LoPiccolo and Eric and Terri Brosius, all members of a popular Boston rock band known as Tribe, who had been signed to a major label amidst the Nirvana-fueled indie-rock boom of the early 1990s, only to see the two albums they recorded fail to duplicate their local success on a national scale. They were facing a decidedly uncertain future when Doug Church and Dan Schmidt — the latter being another Looking Glass programmer, designer, and writer — showed up in the audience at a Tribe show. They loved the band’s angular, foreboding songs and arrangements, they explained afterward, and wanted to know if they’d be interested in doing the music for a science-fiction computer game that would have much the same atmosphere. Three members of the band quickly agreed, despite knowing next to nothing about computers or the games they played. “Being young, not knowing what would happen next, that was part of the magic,” remembers Eric Brosius. “We were willing to learn because it was just an exciting time.”

Terri Brosius became the voice of SHODAN, a role that fell to her by default: artificial intelligences in science fiction typically spoke in a female voice, and she was the only woman to be found among the Looking Glass creative staff. But however she got the part, she most definitely made it her own. She laughs that “people tend to get freaked out” when they hear her speak today in real life. And small wonder: her glitchy voice ringing through the empty corridors of the station, dripping with sarcastic malice, is one of the indelible memories that every player of System Shock takes away with her. Simply put, SHODAN creeps you the hell out. “You had a recurring, consistent, palpable enemy who mattered to you,” notes Doug Church — all thanks to Austin Grossman’s SHODAN script and Terri Brosius’s unforgettable portrayal of her.


As I think about the combination of technical excellence and aesthetic sophistication that was Looking Glass, I find one metaphor all but unavoidable: that of Looking Glass as the Infocom of the 1990s. Certainly Infocom, their predecessors of the previous decade on the Boston-area game-development scene, evinced much the same combination — the same thoroughgoing commitment to excellence and innovation in all of their forms — during their own heyday. If the 3D-graphics engines of Looking Glass seem a long way from the text and parsers of Infocom, let that merely be a sign of just how much gaming itself had changed in a short span of time. Even when we turn to more plebeian matters, there are connections to be found beyond a shared zip code. Both studios were intimately bound up with MIT, sharing in the ideas, personnel, and, perhaps most of all, the culture of the university; both had their offices on the same block of CambridgePark Drive; two of Looking Glass’s programmers, Dan Schmidt and Sean Barrett, later wrote well-received textual interactive fictions of their own. The metaphor isn’t ironclad by any means; Legend Entertainment, founded as it was by former Infocom author Bob Bates and employing the talents of Steve Meretzky, is another, more traditionalist answer to the question of the Infocom of the 1990s. Still, the metaphor does do much to highlight the nature of Looking Glass’s achievements, and their importance to the emerging art form of interactive narrative. Few if any studios were as determined to advance that art form as these two were.

But Looking Glass’s ambitions could occasionally outrun even their impressive abilities to implement them, just as could Infocom’s at times. In System Shock, this overreach comes in the form of the sequences that begin when you utilize one of those aforementioned cyberspace jacks that you find scattered about the station. System Shock‘s cyberspace is an unattractive, unwelcoming place — and not in a good way. It’s plagued by clunky controls and graphics that manage to be both too minimalist and too garish, that are in fact almost impossible to make head or tail of. The whole thing is more frustrating than fun, not a patch on the cyberspace sequences to be found in Interplay’s much earlier computer-game adaption of William Gibson’s breakthrough novel Neuromancer. So, it turns out that even the collection of brilliant talent that was assembled at Looking Glass could have one idea too many. Doug Church:

We thought [that] it fit from a conceptual standpoint. You’re a hacker; shouldn’t you hack something? We thought it would be fun to throw in a different movement mode that was more free-form, more action. In retrospect, we probably should have either cut it or spent more time on it. There is some fun stuff in it, but it’s not as polished as it should be. But even so, it was nice because it at least reinforced the idea that you were the hacker, in a totally random, arcadey, broken kind of way. But at least it suggested that you’re something other than a guy with a gun. We were looking at ourselves and saying, “Oh, of course we should have cyberspace! We’re a cyberpunk game, we gotta have cyberspace! Well, what can we do without too much time? What if we do this crazy thing?” Off we went…

By way of compounding the problem, the final confrontation with SHODAN takes place… in cyberspace. This tortuously difficult and thoroughly unfun finale has proven to be too much for many a player, leaving her to walk away on the verge of victory with a terrible last taste of the game lingering in her mouth.

Cyberspace was a nice idea, but its implementation leaves much to be desired.

Luckily, it’s possible to work around even this weakness to a large extent, thanks to another of the generous affordances which Looking Glass built into the game. You can decide for yourself how complex and thus how difficult you wish the game to be along four different axes: Combat (the part of the game that is most like DOOM); Mission (the non-combat tasks you have to accomplish to free the station from SHODAN’s grip); Puzzle (the occasional spatial puzzles that crop up when you try to jigger a lock or the like); and Cyber (the cyberspace implementation). All of these can be set to a value between zero and three, allowing you to play System Shock as anything from a straight-up shooter where all you have to do is run and gun to an unusually immersive and emergent pure adventure game populated only by “feeble” enemies who “never attack first.” The default experience sees all of these values set at two, and this is indeed the optimal choice in my opinion for those who don’t have a complete aversion to any one of the game’s aspects — with one exception: I would recommend setting Cyber to one or even zero in order to save yourself at lot of pain, especially at the very end. (The ultimate challenge for System Shock veterans, on the other hand, comes by setting the Mission value to three; this imposes a time limit on the whole game of about seven hours.)

If you really, really want to play System Shock as a DOOM clone, that’s okay with Looking Glass.

System Shock was released in late 1994, almost two full years after Ultima Underworld II, Looking Glass’s last game. It sold acceptably but not spectacularly well for a studio that was already becoming well-acquainted with the financial worries that would continue to dog them for the rest of their existence. Reviews were quite positive, yet many of the authors of same seemed barely to have noticed the game’s subtler qualities, choosing to lump it in instead with the so-called “DOOM clones” that were beginning to flood the market by this point, almost a year after the original DOOM‘s release. (One advantage of id Software’s more limited ambitions for their game was the fact that it was finished much, much quicker than System Shock; in fact, a DOOM II was already on store shelves by the time System Shock made it there.)

Although everyone at Looking Glass took the high road when asked about the DOOM connection, the press and public’s tendency to diminish their own accomplishment in 3D virtual-world-building had to rankle at some level; former employees insist to this day that DOOM had no influence whatsoever on their own creation, that System Shock would have turned out the same even had DOOM never existed. The fact is, Looking Glass’s own claim to the title of 3D-graphics pioneers is every bit as valid as that of id, and their System Shock engine actually was, as we’ve seen, more advanced than that of DOOM in a number of ways. No games studio in history has ever deserved less to be treated as imitators rather than innovators.

Alas, mainstream appreciation would be tough to come by throughout the remaining years of Looking Glass’s existence, just as it had sometimes been for Infocom before them. A market that favored the direct, visceral pleasures of id’s DOOM and, soon, Quake didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Looking Glass’s more nuanced 3D worlds. And so, yet again as with Infocom, it would not be until after Looking Glass was no more that the world of gaming would come to fully appreciate everything they had achieved. When asked pointedly about the sales charts which his games so consistently failed to top, Doug Church showed wisdom beyond his years in insisting that the important thing was just to earn enough back to make the next game.

id did a great job with [DOOM]. And more power to them. I think you want to do things that connect with the market and you want to do things that people like and you want to do things that get seen. But you also want to do things you actually believe in and you personally want to do. Hey, if you’re going to work twenty hours a day and not get paid much money, you might as well do something you like. We were building the games we were interested in; we had that luxury. We didn’t have spectacular success and a huge win, but we had enough success that we got to do some more. And at some level, at least for me, sure, I’d love to have huge, huge success. But if I get to do another game, that’s pretty hard to complain about.

Today, free of the vicissitudes of an inhospitable marketplace, System Shock more than speaks for itself. Few games, past or present, combine so many diverse ideas into such a worthy whole, and few demonstrate such uncompromising commitment to their premise and their fiction. In a catalog filled with remarkable achievements, System Shock still stands out as one of Looking Glass’s most remarkable games of all, an example of what magical things can happen when technical wizardry is placed in the service of real aesthetic sophistication. By all means, go play it now if you haven’t already. Or, perhaps better said, go live it now.

(Sources: the books Game Design Theory and Practice, second edition, by Richard Rouse III and System Shock: Strategies and Secrets by Bernie Yee; Origin’s official System Shock hint book; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from June 3 1994, November 23 1994, January 13 1995, February 10 1995, March 14 1995, and May 5 1995; Electronic Entertainment of December 1994; Computer Gaming World of December 1994; Next Generation of February 1995; Game Developer of April/May 1995. Online sources include “Ahead of Its Time: The History of Looking Glass” and “From Looking Glass to Harmonix: The Tribe,” both by Mike Mahardy of Polygon. Most of all, huge thanks to Dorian Hart, Sean Barrett, and Dan Schmidt for talking with me about their time at Looking Glass.

System Shock is available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 
 

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