Monday, June 18, 2012

Why Age of Shadows?


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

5 comments:

  1. Accidently removed previous comments, sorry people!

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. Very interesting analysis of the expansions. What happened to your AOS shard?

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  4. Hi Victor. Unfortunately it suffered the usual fate - Ddos attacks. From Donetsk in Ukraine. I wasn't too disatisfied to see the city reduced to rubble..

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  5. Great write up. I'm one of those players who left either right as AOS was implemented or before. My idea of the "good old days" was when I started, a couple months before T2A was released. I spent many hours wandering the Yew woods for prey to either pickpocket their house key or kill them. The first house I looted was something i'll never forget, although I ended up giving their keys back and befriending them. It was Greywolf and Illusion on Lake Superior.

    Anyhow as much as I hated UO:R I did switch over to Napa Valley and had some really amazing experiences there during that era due to a massive active PVP scene with some really good guilds such as Byz and DoK, both of which I played in. I also played on Siege from open til AoS or so, can't quite remember when I sold my account.

    I'm... 35 now I think? I was born in '81 but I started about the same time as you and I have the same feelings for UO as you do except I never knew about AoS and what it actually did for the game. That's actually pretty interesting, I had no idea there was such a resurgence.

    "It has ninjas!" *cringe*

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