Look through any corner of the internet and you'll find ex-UO players. Ex-UO players that are still pining for their 'glory days' in this game.
I've discussed previously what was so special about this game, and how it was destroyed by short-sighted and misguided design decisions. Today I want to talk about the failure of free shards to recruit a substantial player base, despite tens of thousands of Ultima Online disciples still out there, hoping to one day recapture that feeling.
The first, and probably most important reason is something the developers of these shards/servers can do very little about. Time has just moved on. People have changed, the internet has changed, UO has aged. Ultima Online released in an innocent age, by today's standards.
When I remember my own feelings about the game and the importance I attached to my actions in it, I realise it will never be like that again. I really did consider my small-time actions to be of the utmost significance. I wanted to hunt 'evil' players. I was utterly terrified of places like Dungeon Deceit and the 'reds' that dwelt there. Because UO was really the first of it's kind, it had that advantage. Even a new game based on UO's original goals and principles would struggle to achieve that level of power and control over it's players. The innocence has been lost.
It's also very hard to draw people back to a game that still has graphics from the mid-90's. I'm one of the people that still love the look of the game, and appreciate small things such as the isometric viewpoint, the text-over-head speech - but I realise I'm one of a dwindling number with that view. The better newer games look, the poorer UO appears. The user 'interface' (if you can call it that) is also very clunky, in comparison to newer games.
Another big reason is that shards simply cannot recreate that same mix of players that OSI shards has back in the day. Role-players, monster bashers, PvPers, explorers, merchants, and most importantly - newbies. The players that enjoyed the aspects of UO that have yet to be improved on by other MMO's tend to be the people that make up free shard communities. That is for the most part PvPers, with a smattering of collectors, house decorators and designers, as well as very small amounts of the other types listed above. On OSI, PvPers made up perhaps 10-20% of a servers population. on free shards it's more like 75%. The balance isn't right and it shows. Refer to the overused Wolves/Sheep analogy.
Despite all this, there's still enough interest in the game to draw a significant number of players to a new shard. IPY2 opened just last year with over 2000 clients on-line at peak.
So what are the current (and past) crop of player-run shards doing wrong?
Unarguably the most successful server is UOSA (www.uosecondage.com). Running for over 4 years now, it rarely drops below 500 clients at peak, an amazing success. Achieved through a combination of professionalism, organisation, perseverance and holding true to a singular aim - the imitation and recreation of a certain era. Era Accuracy is a term you'll hear often on their message boards. Despite all this, the server has perhaps a quarter of the players that every OSI server had during t2a (1999, the era UOSA is emulating). Why? It's certainly not due to a lack of trying. The shard is so professionally run and corruption free that is has even OSI servers beat, as far as that goes.
There's two reasons. Firstly, the t2a era may be considered by a high percentage of ex-UO'ers to be the pinnacle - but now, thirteen years later, it doesn't actually play so well. The PvP is limited and predictable. There is no end-game content. People have learnt to exploit the mechanics to such a level that despite being 'era accurate' the server plays very little like t2a did on OSI.
Secondly, the era that the shard is imitating lasted for less than a year on OSI - people would have eventually become bored with it, as many have done on UOSA. Guilds and players come and go, but unlike on OSI in 1999, there is not a steady stream of newbies to replace those that leave. There is only the diminishing pool of ex players to draw upon. Very few people will be discovering UO for the first time in 2012.
So what about other shards that have implemented new designs that in theory should have improved upon the t2a(or whatever) era, and be steadily introducing new content to keep players interested?
None of them have managed to match UOSA for professionalism, for a start. Be it in staff behaviour, web presence or whatever. UOSA is run almost like you would expect for a successful business, other shards seem very amateur. This includes IPY2 (www.inporylem.com). Az deserves a lot of credit for the server and the innovations he has introduced. I can't deny that I've learnt a lot from watching the successes and failures of the ideas he has implemented and discussed. He's something of a 'father' to the free shard development community (if such a community really exists), even if he or many others would reject that. IPY1 was the first very successful (if short lived) player-run server, and IPY2 is the first shard to attempt to address the 'PK Problem' adequately.
Despite this, Az doesn't present himself well to the community. He only engages with his players sporadically, and even then it is in a strange way. I can't put my finger on it exactly, but he has a certain 'attitude' that isn't quite right, almost that of an angry player. Certainly not that of a developer. I know I'm not the only one that feels it. On top of this, you have the (possibly unfair) association with the corruption and closure of IPY1. I wouldn't be surprised to head to the IPY2 webpage one day just to see a message saying it has closed. This would never happen with UOSA.
As well as this, many of the innovations discussed above have been failures, including the Paladin and Detective systems, probably the two bravest changes of all, as well as the O/C/B system, a much improved version of OSI factions. This is simply because they are scripted systems. They only truly affect players that choose to be involved, the mechanics can be abused, and players consistently finds bugs and work-arounds to exploit.
As I have discussed before, the basic mechanics of UO provide all you need for conflict and community without artificial systems to promote them. This has worked twice in UO's history. Pre UO:R, all players were developing their characters and wealth, slowly. They all needed the same things; money, housing, items, skills. To gain these, they had to go out and compete with other players. Through this, rivalries developed - battles over territory, resources, pride. These simple goals aren't enough any more, because we've all done it all before, if not on OSI, then on a free shard years ago. OSI finally replaced these goals with some new - power scrolls - in p16. Despite the overwhelming hatred of the player base for these items, they actually recreated what old UO had, player conflict over territory and resources. An all inclusive system that worked. The same goes for the items introduced by AOS. It opened up a whole new game, almost. Building your 'item suit' became just as important as building your character. Imagine this extra layer to play, without Trammel? 'Scrolling up' and 'Suiting up' were potentially limitless goals that could keep people occupied and promote conflict for years. I talk about the early AOS era and how well many aspects of it worked here, for anyone interested.
So, how is a Ultima Online shard to be successful, in brief?
I believe a server that can match the professionalism of UOSA, the innovative approach of IPY2 and the upcoming Rel Por, combined with goals for players that promote both conflict and community without resorting to artificial systems, has the best chance. Those goals are offered in abundance by both the Champion Spawn system and the Age of Shadows item changes. Convincing sceptical old-school UO'ers - who are almost religiously opposed to scrolls and items - as to the merits of both will be the biggest problem.