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Ultima Online Looked Good Off

by Jeff Freeman


Ultima Online is a great idea. It is an idea worth $59.95, plus $9.95 per month.

No surprise there. The original Ultima was good. Ultima II was better, Ultima III was even better than that. And so on, through Ultima VII or X or XXXII or whatever they got up to. Ultima Online is essentially the next one in the series and, just as before, it is bigger and better than its predecessors.

In theory, anyway.

Which is to say that as a stand-alone, play-by-yourself, off-line sort of game, it would be. In practice, Ultima Online plays like a weird combination of Quake, SimAnt and Barbie Fashion Designer.

Before I go on, let me define a term that I'm going to use in an abnormal way: Realism. Anytime one talks about realism in a fantasy RPG they are instantly refuted with "Well, it isn't supposed to be realistic, it's fantasy." So I'll counter that before I even get started by defining the context in which I'm to use the term.

I'm not talking about 'realism' relative to the laws of nature in the real world, I'm talking about being true to the genre. I'm speaking of what is 'realistic' within the imaginary reality of fantasy adventure games. Magic and monsters and absurdly powerful warriors are 'realistic' within that 'reality', nuclear warheads (or even bb-guns or plastic straws) are probably not.

For a handy example, look at AD&D. A lot of people complain that the ban on wizards wielding swords is 'not realistic'. If a wizard can pickup a sword and be fairly inept with it, do as little damage with it as they could do with a dagger or a staff, but still manage to wield it, then that might be more 'realistic'. But when the answer to the question of "Why can't I use a sword?" is a flat "Because you can't. Because it says so in the rules" then the player is justified in invoking the "Well, that's not realistic" complaint.

Even though he's talking about someone that casts magic spells for a living.

Casting magic spells is realistic within the imaginary 'reality' of AD&D. "You can't use swords because it says so in the rules" is not at all realistic.

Sometimes what is realistic in a fantasy game just comes down to rationalizations. If you can come up with a decent rationale for why wizards cannot wield swords at all then maybe it'll be realistic. You can define 'reality' so that things in the game are 'realistic', pretty much no matter what they are, but if you don't then they aren't and that is that.

I've played Ultima Online for a while. The game has gotten more enjoyable since the initial, frustrating first few days. There is still a whole mighty ton of room for improvement.

My first impression:

You pay $59.95 for the game and one 'free month' of access to the game's servers. You cannot play the game off-line, so that's a flat $59.95 for one month. You'll need an internet provider, which you most certainly already have. Otherwise chock-up another $19.95 for that, of course (a bargain-buy internet provider, or America Online, isn't going to cut it, either).

You'll begin the game with a very weak character, 100 gold coins and maybe a sewing kit or a hatchet or some smithing tools (like a hammer and tongs, etc.). The 100 gold isn't enough to buy anything, so basically you're beginning the game weak and poor.

And when I say 'weak', I mean weak. As in, "Don't attack a chicken, it might kill you"-weak. Pathetically, ridiculously weak. Unrealistically weak.

The first thing you'll want to do is to get your character powerful enough to defeat the bunnies and birds that roam the countryside. You do this by 'practicing' with your weapons. You'll spend many hours online double-clicking a practice dummy. You hear a thumping noise and sometimes your skill in whatever weapon you're using increases one-tenth of a point. After a very long boring while, you'll be proficient enough with your weapons to defeat not only the bunnies and chickens, but dogs and cats, too. It's as if 'character creation' takes not minutes, but hours. Hours and hours and hours. Long, boring hours. Weeks and months of them, even.

Now you'll want to get some money so that you can buy armor and weapons. You'll spend the next several days or weeks practicing your trade - be it making bows, furniture, shields, clothes or whatever. It doesn't matter that you wanted to be a warrior, in order to afford the equipment you're going to have to be something else. A cook, maybe.

Like the previous step, this one consists of doing the same thing, over and over and over.

For example, if you play a bower then you'll walk through the woods chopping trees to get wood, then carving the wood into bows or arrow shafts. Every time you see a chicken or a bunny, you'll want to attack it, so that your Swordsmanship skill is also gradually increasing (and also because you're bored out of your skull). Then you sell the bows and arrows to the shop in town and spend the gold on armor.

That's just double-clicking an ax, then clicking a tree. Chop, chop, chop. Then double-clicking an ax and clicking the wood that you got from the tree. Carve, carve, carve. Then walking into town, which judging by the lag is up a very steep hill, typing 'Vendor Sell' and hoping that he'll buy the whole lot. If he won't, and probably he won't because he's up to his ears in bows that other players are making, you'll have to stand around for a while and keep bothering him until he finally does. Then, remarkably, you discover that the walk between the forest and the town is uphill both ways.

You repeat this again and again. Hour after hour after painfully boring, excruciatingly repetitive hour. With only the occasional battle with a bunny or a bird to break-up the monotony.

Finally, modestly equipped and still pathetically weak (if no longer unrealistically so), you have a character that is powerful enough not only to defeat the chickens and bunnies, but also cows and pigs. Wolves and bears are still a bit out of your league. So you spend a good long while wandering just outside of town attacking animals. You can even attack the wolves, if you stick close enough to town to run back to safety before the critter can kill you. You do this again and again and again.

With countless mind-numbing hours or weeks invested in the game (although I recommend trying to count those countless hours, it might help pass the time), you're ready for real adventure. So you find some other suckers and head for the nearest dungeon. The journey there is fairly uneventful (if you ignore the wolves and bears then they usually won't attack you), because there isn't a living monster anywhere in the wilderness. You step inside the dungeon... and are instantly amazed...

...all the lag is gone.

Origin Systems, Inc. claims that there is no server-side lag. They claim the lag experienced when playing the game is caused by internet traffic and they cannot do anything about it. During off-peak times, your character will take three steps and stop, three steps and stop, in a most irritating fashion. It's even worse during peak times (more commonly known as 'the time you want to play'). Your character will take one step and freeze for quite a long while, then maybe take a half-step before freezing again.

Origin says there is nothing they can do about this because it's caused by internet traffic, not overloaded servers. But inside the dungeons, where there are relatively fewer players, there's almost no lag at all.

I'm no network guru, but the dungeons are accessed via the same internet as the rest of the game, right?

To correct this problem, which they claim is not server-side, but rather is caused by internet traffic, they're limiting the number of items that can be placed into a single container to 100.

Hopefully all online games will do this since, they seem to be saying, it has an impact on the speed of the internet itself and not just their server load.

Truly, technology can be baffling.

Anyway, you also might see a monster in the dungeon. If you're alone, it'll kill you. Otherwise, your team of intrepid adventures will smash it into dust and collect the gold from the corpse. Pay day! Finally, after weeks and weeks of boring repetition and frustrating lag, you're doing something fun!

Then you and your companions will be mobbed by a large group of other players that hang around near the entrance of dungeons with no purpose in mind beyond killing you.

They are known within the game as Player Killers or PKers. And there's no escaping them, unless you can find a group of PKers to hang around with yourself, and ruin the game for other people.

If you still want to play the game, you can go to a healer to be resurrected, repeat the long and boring exercise of making bows or armor or cabinets or whatever in order to fund the purchase of replacement equipment, then head back up the steep hill to the dungeon to be killed by the PKers again.

And you can repeat that process over and over and over for as long as you want to pay $9.95 per month to not play Ultima Online.

Now, it would be 'unrealistic' to simply ban player-killing and Origin refuses to even admit there is much of a problem. The Player Killers likewise claim there is no problem, that this is just part of the game (circular logic: it's part of the game because, thanks to them, it's the only thing in the game you can do).

So first, let me point out that it is a problem, and why. If I fail to convince you, then stop reading after the next couple paragraphs, and go play Duke Nukem.

Ask yourself a couple of questions: Why aren't all the most powerful creatures in the dungeon right near the entrance? When GMing an off-line RPG, why not have the PCs attacked by another party of humans that is much larger and stronger than they are, continuously, again and again? The answer is pretty obvious, isn't it? The weaker creatures are near the entrance and the tougher beasties are deeper in the dungeon and you almost never hit the party with more than they can handle - and even when you do, give them a way to escape. And we all know why.

Because otherwise the game would suck.

Now if you still think that PKing is not a problem then you just need to go play Quake and leave the rest of us alone. Due to PKing, all you can do in Ultima Online, apart from Player Killing, is to wander in the woods, close to town, repeating the same boring exercise of making cabinets, bows or shields while fighting the occasional bunny, and sometimes a cow.

The really sad part is that the PKers do this because it is fun. Kill the monster, get the gold, kill the next monster, and so on again and again and again just doesn't appeal to them anymore. What else is there to do in the game? Where are the miniquests (or for that matter, the major quests?).

I can't go without mentioning all the times that NPCs in the game have said things like, "I need a . All I can trade you for it is a ." That's right, blanks. One NPC even said, "I can offer you entrails of test in exchange."

"Entrails of test"? Who is testing crap in a production environment and why wasn't he fired ages ago? This isn't a beta-test, we're all paying real money for this absurdity!

Shall we talk about the vendors in town that are selling 'null' for zero gold coins (you can't buy them and couldn't do anything with them anyway), or all the packs I've discovered with a "No Draw" in them (that you cannot even select to get out of the pack)?

Buggy. Lagged. Ridiculously weak starting characters so that you run macros for hours on end in order to get your stats up to a decent score (which contributes to the lag problem, I might add - at least give people the ability to train off-line, or use a method of advancement that doesn't involve running macros for hours on end, or start them out properly so that it isn't necessary). Hoards of PKers roaming the countryside and lurking in the dungeon so that you dare not ever venture far from town to actually play the game.

That was my first impression of it, at any rate, after playing for 'only' a few days.

I wonder how many people give up at that point? I certainly would have, if I hadn't spent $59.95 on the thing. I seemed stuck with it, and gave my best effort to make it fun.

So I combed the web for help. For that $59.95, you get zilch. There is no rulebook. There's an online manual at Origin's web site, but it isn't at all helpful. The game comes with a cloth map, which is useless. It also comes with a pendant that you can throw into a drawer, or you can try to commit suicide by jabbing it into your forehead, when the frustrating lag-fest pushes you to your breaking point (just a quick word of advice: Don't try it.  It hurts, but unless you are extremely lucky, it almost certainly won't kill you).

On the fan-created web sites, you can get info. Lots of it. Maps, directions, instructions, hints, tips, tricks of the trade (whichever trade you prefer), guilds that you can join to find other players with which to actually roleplay (who might also help you get started, reasonably well-equipped, etc.)... in short, everything that should have come with the game, and great help to overcome the things that should not be part of the game. It is all out there in one form or another (usually in more than one form) somewhere on the net.

Now things are a bit more fun. I can interact with the other characters I meet and ignore the ones that aren't roleplaying as best I can. They run by shouting "PK! PK!", which is meant as a helpful warning but can really kill the mood. Or they ask questions like "How many hit points you got?"

There are quite a few other people trying to roleplay and if they see you doing it then you'll likely become fast friends, because it's hard to roleplay with yourself.


There are invulnerable NPCs called vendors standing all over the place, out in the wilderness, generally next to tents and houses that are likewise unprotected and every bit as indestructible.

The invulnerable houses, by the way, are too often sitting on a spot where monsters spawn (making for a house full of monsters and darn few roaming the countryside) or else it's been plopped right in the middle of a road.

Not just unrealistic, but also silly. If the vendors are invulnerable, then why are they standing there hawking someone else's loot? Why don't they haul all the gold out of the nearest dungeon (or for that matter the nearest town) themselves?

Also, having all those vendors (hundreds of them!) hold all those objects (hundreds of them!) means there are less system resources available to make wandering beasties. Eliminating all those extra 'objects' might also help with the lag problem and more critters might give the PKers something to attack besides the other players.

Speaking of which, If...

1. There aren't enough monsters...


2. Hoards of players want nothing more out of the game than the opportunity to kill other players...

Then why wouldn't you allow players to be monsters to begin with? Guild Wars are fine (and are coming), but the game would benefit by allowing the monstrous PKers to just be monsters.

The game would have benefited tremendously by having a 'human' culture in a constant war with a 'humanoid' culture (Orc, Lizardman, or whatever) and allowing players to pick which sort of character they wanted to be - this along with all of the side-quests (that don't work) and dungeon-stomping (that can't be done due to the PKers) and guild-wars (that haven't been implemented yet) and so on.

Finally, they need to have the characters start out reasonably well-equipped and somewhat competent so that you don't have to spend so very many hours repeating the same stupid macro again and again. Character creation that takes months and months of real-time? The only thing comparable in off-line, traditional RPGs would be character-creation that consisted of rolling five-thousand dice, one at a time. Or character creation in Champions, maybe.

After playing initially (if you can call that 'playing'), my recommendation to you would have been this: The game sucks. Save your money. Don't buy it. And don't try to play it because you can't. Play something else instead. There is no roleplaying. It's a buggy, lagged and frequently boring, medieval fantasy hack-and-stomp. I am one unhappy customer.

But now I'll amend that: Make friends in the game and it's a whole different game. Roleplay - and you can only do this by refusing to not roleplay, which is harder than it sounds - ignore out-of-character and game-mechanics chatter, and eventually you'll meet others will not only roleplay with you (which is fun in itself), but they'll most likely also help you get your character started (although it will still take an inordinate amount of time to get a decent character). It also helps, when you see someone yell something out-of-character, to just translate it in your head to something more appropriate. "PK! PK!" should read, "Be warned! There is a murderous band of scoundrels afoot!"

Get the maps from uoss.stomped.com, you'll need them. They should have been built-into the 500 megabyte Ultima-client. While you're at uoss.stomped.com, read every web page they have to offer. It's all valuable information that should have been included with the $60 Ultima Online CD.

Find an active player-guild. Join it. This is a bit of a challenge, too. A search for guilds on Yahoo recovers scores of defunct web-pages (the remnants of players that have quit the game, already) and OSI's 'Guild Hall' doesn't tell you on which server any particular guild is active (and a number of those guilds are defunct as well).

Above all else, have patience.

But not too much patience. Otherwise you'll be willing to wait for something playable.

More recently, I've played during 'peak times' when lag on one server was unbearable but the lag on another server was not too terribly bad. Then too, I've received "Connection Lost" three times in the span of an hour, once during combat with an Ettin (this is a bad thing to happen) and have even lagged through an entire fight (take a swing, freeze for several minutes... then finally, 'Oh look, we won.').

As said, Origin is addressing that issue by limiting the number of objects that can be placed into a container, and they're also modifying the server-list to let you know both the lag-time between you and each server as well as the number of people currently online. A lot of the problems seem to be design issues, though. Not just the volume of people and objects on the server, in other words, but the very structure of the database and design of the program itself. Not easy to solve, that.

They are also addressing the PK issue, which is not simply 'player-versus-player combat', but refers to the idiot-children (or perhaps they are bored adults) that have no interest in the game at all beyond running around killing other players. That whole system is too complicated to go into here, but it might help. The built-in guild system should also help, since hopefully the PKers will then limit most of their wanton destruction to guild-wars (as opposed to random acts of murder).

The game is constantly being updated, so my gripes and the bugs detailed here may be entirely different by the time you read this. Each new patch seems to resolve some problems and introduce others. For example, one patch 'fixed' a problem that was causing stats to drop a few points, but introduced a bug that allowed players to cheat their way to having god-like abilities.

The "What's New" and "Coming Soon" sections of Origin's web site look very promising. The creature-spawning rate has increased so you can actually encounter a wandering baddie out in the wilderness now (which you won't be able to handle on your own, because the characters still begin the game so ridiculously weak), and the situation in dungeons is much better.

Since I joined a guild, I can actually go to dungeons and not get slaughtered by a pack of other players.

Finally, I'm having fun sometimes and enjoying a bit of the game now, though I didn't at all at first, and still quite often am utterly frustrated with it. I'm eagerly anticipating the next wave of modifications to the game system. All those promises...

And yes, I am still playing.  In spite of all the above. Me and thousands of other people just like me. We hate the game and play the heck out of it. We deal with all the things we hate in hopes of salvaging some fun out of an evening's frustration.

I mean, come on... this is Ultima we're talking about here.

Fans of Ultima Online (and they do have fans - people willing to overlook anything short of all the servers crashing simultaneously) wonder why the anti-fans bother to post derogatory messages in rec.games.computer.ultima.online - instead of just not playing. One Fan in that newsgroup signs every post, "Don't Pay, Don't Play, Go Away" because he's sick of hearing people gripe about it.

But I can sympathize with those people. I love the game and I play it for hours on end, and I hate it so very much.

Comments? Feel free to email them to ack@rpg.net.

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What do you think?

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All of Jeff Freeman's Acks

  • The One True Way to Roleplay, Online: July 20, 1999
  • What Were We Thinking? September 8, 1998
  • Random Thoughts August 9, 1998
  • Run With It! July 14, 1998
  • Background: I'm Evil! June 9, 1998
  • Who Wants to Role-Play? May 12, 1998
  • Playing Without Brains Apr 8, 1998
  • Ultima Online Looked Good Off March 10, 1998
  • The Perfect Game February 10, 1998
  • "INTRO TO RPGs" January 6, 1998
  • "Do I Have A Point?"
  • "LOOK BEFORE YOU LARP" November 11, 1997
  • "RPGs: Then and Now" October 7, 1997
  • Chicks in Gaming", September 9, 1997 (and its Danish translation)
  • The FUDGE review that inspired it.

    Other columns at RPGnet

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