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Austin Chronicle Dungeons and Draggin's

By Jon Lebkowsky

MARCH 9, 1998:  Gary Gattis and some of his friends met me in a way technicolor virtual world called Brittania, where we were a band of rogue swordsmen looking for adventure. We met and destroyed a blood-red wraith. We met with a guild member or two and listened to complaints about God... er, Origin, that is, the company that built the virtual world we were sitting in. We popped through interdimensional gates, hopped into a dungeon filled with a mean bunch of harpies, saw some player killing along the way. When I was killed, finally, by a harpy, I came back as a ghost. All color flushed from the world. Gary, as Khalil, cast a spell that brought me back to life. Wow, I thought, I've had life, death, and resurrection, all in one night. No wonder people keep coming back to Brittania. This is Origin's Ultima Online, rated Mature, 17+, for animated blood, gore, and violence. Origin calls it a "persistent" " simulated" world. Origin's slogan, "We create worlds," is validated by Ultima's compelling simuverse, though like most places real and virtual, it has critics... lots and lots of 'em. Funny thing, though, is that while they complain, they just keep coming back.

Why do they keep coming back? According to author and multiplayer game designer Amy Jo Kim, who's writing about UO for Wired magazine, they keep coming back because it's addictive... almost like they wish they could quit, but can't. It's just too compelling. UO's got some bad press because some folks within the industry don't like it... probably an envy thing. Imagine how tough to get programming this complex finished, packaged, and out the door. So what if they made mistakes? So what if players have to use the ICQ messaging system because the communications within the game are functionally deficient? So what if the servers tend to lag, stilting player movement? Hell, it's a big deal to be this real, and to be moving at all in this kind of alternate reality.

Says my guide Gary Gattis, "There have been many complaints, ranging from technical problems to unbalanced game play. Whenever a game of this magnitude is released, however, such things can be expected. Some rather, um, inventive players have found ways to exploit the game. For example, a bug existed that allows you to duplicate items by going through a series of actions. This can, of course, wreak havoc on a closed economy when the resource bank doubles overnight. Origin continually releases patches to try to fix existing bugs as well as correct some initial design flaws. Some complaints are arising from players who like the established balance. The lag that exists, which Origin repeatedly denies is their fault, can sometimes make the game near unplayable, especially during peak hours. But obviously they must be doing something right, or I would not have logged the hundreds of hours I have into the game so far."

There it is again... they complain, but they keep coming back!

illustration by Json Stout
Clomping around alone in Brittania was boring, but when I got with Gattis and friends, I found an immediate, very real sense of community. Kim relates formation of community in Brittania to violence: "Player-killing and violence means that people band together for protection. When there's a crisis, people form into groups, so player-killing facilitates group formation. Bible-belt parent groups are freaked out about player-killing, but it brings community." In fact, I didn't really get it until I'd been to the dungeon/cave called Lor, where I was stumbling around in the dark, having to type odd phrases so I could see where I was on the screen by placement of my words. The guys I was with were helping me along, warning me when there was potential danger, trying to keep me from getting killed. When I was dead, a ghost, Gary resurrected me. There was a real bond forming, though I'd never seen Gary or the other guys, Mike Ryan, Mike De Leon, and Kevin Welsh. I knew them as Khalil, Malakai, Von Rickenbacker, and Rache. Three-dimensional images on the screen, crazy bits of dialogue, the ICQ chat session to reinforce the reality we were in... I got the community aspect here faster than I ever got it on any of the text-based BBSs and conferencing systems I've been on. And it's not because the reality is graphical, I don't think. It's because it's challenging, and the challenges are shared.

You can be any character you want to be in this reality, any gender. You can do magic, wear special outfits, dye your clothing, adopt special armor, accessories, etc. "Outfits can communicate a lot about who you are and how sophisticated you are. You can spot the newbies, and the big bad dudes you can tell by how they're dressed, by what weapons and objects they're carrying. It's like a graphic MUD on steroids," says Kim. Cultures vary, too. "All these people used to playing Doom and Quake came on and treated it like Doom and Quake, but others were trying to have interesting conversations. Some treat it like a traditional role-playing game, or like a renaissance game."

In fact, a plurality of cultures is spinning off from Ultima. You can find 'em on highly interactive webpages all over the Net. Example: The Mage Tower http://www.game-link.com/magetower/, an online BBS for "a loosely affiliated group of mages." Another is The UO Vault http://www.uovault.com, where players post news about UO happenings.

I feel weird when I talk about playing the game. I'm not a gamer, but it's clear to me that role-playing games are not the same experience as other kinds of games where you play 'til you reach a clearly defined endpoint where you know who's won and who's lost. A role-playing game is a specification for an alternate reality where the question of winning vs. losing is a whole lot like real life... you can play for the prize or you can be less ambitious and just play for the sake of playing. When I dropped into Ultima's world, Brittania, I didn't have any particular sense of competition... just a sense of place and a sense of relationship to my cohorts.

I've read early posts about Ultima Online's beta and early release versions. Some folks said the game was unplayable... too many bugs, too little sense of the game. Coming late to the Ultima reality, I didn't experience so many bugs. The experience of registering and obtaining a login was a bit mystifying, but nothing I couldn't handle. I wasn't sure how to set up my character to optimize my experience, but the more experienced players were more than willing to help. I did notice that, when I first used Ultima, there was a long download of patches created since the game was released. Once I was in Brittania, I had the famous problems with lag (intermittent slowdowns and freezes), but no worse than the lag problems I've experienced with The Palace, a cartoonish chat environment the functionality of which is way less robust than Ultima's. I tend to think graphical, virtual-reality environments are developments ahead of the network curve, that they won't really be right until everyone's got fatter connections to the network, at least the equivalent of ISDN. I lost my connection at one point, but because the game is persistent, it brought me back intact to the same point where I froze out.

My own specialty is online community, so I was less interested in the rules or possibilities of the game, and more interested in the ways it supports and biases interactions among players. I've read reports that the developers at Origin, though experienced with role-playing games, didn't quite understand the dynamics of community that would necessarily come into play when they facilitated the interactions of several thousand folks in a simulation of community. Thing is, this is where you draw the line between the real and the unreal: Community in this context is not a simulation, it's real. The participants, though playing roles, are still real people creating real-life social dynamics. The controversy over player-killing is an example where this is relevant.

According to Kim, player-killing was inadvertently reinforced by Origin. In the complex capitalist economy of Brittania, you could earn a lot of money player-killing, and sure enough, some players on board to have a good time fishing and hunting monsters found that they were being killed, sometimes several times a day. Even with easy resurrection, for some people dying is simply uncool. Now Origin is discouraging player-killings and learning how features of the game universe reinforce behaviors. Says Kim, "Whatever the game reinforces will shape the culture and the emerging value system." This is the stuff of real community.

Online role-playing games with emergent communities and cultures are no way new. MUDS (Multi-user Dungeons) and MOOS (Multi-user Object-Oriented Systems) are text-based forerunners of Ultima Online, and some would prefer the text-based virtual realities to the rich graphical interface. As San Marcos MUD enthusiast Jeff Kramer says, "Until they're completely rendered systems, where you can actually have facial expressions, make movements, sit down, lounge, yawn, etc, text-based MUDs will still have a place. There's something about the bareness of text, and the $0 development budget that brings out the most creative in people."

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