Pioneering MMO designer details the hard lessons learned about griefing, skinning pets, and 'time to penis'

Ultima Online key art.
(Image credit: Origin Systems)

At this year's GDC Richard Vogel gave a talk about, essentially, how hard it is to develop systems driven multiplayer games. And if anyone should know, it's this guy. Vogel worked on the groundbreaking Meridian 59, the first 3D MMO, before being headhunted to join Origin Systems as a senior producer on Ultima Online (UO), one of the most important and interesting MMOs ever made. 26 years on from release UO is still going strong, still producing great stories, and still has lessons for those looking to build the virtual worlds of tomorrow.

But it didn't launch like that. UO was rushed out by EA, when the developers felt it needed more time in the oven, and so its launch period turned into a battleground. The developers were both trying to get the game to a more stable place, and dealing with the consequences of how people behaved in the world they'd built. "The biggest problem we realized after we launched was it was an open world PvP sandbox," said Vogel. "What could go wrong? Right? The assassination of Lord British was a telling moment, a really important shadowing of what this game is going to be."

Vogel is referencing an infamous incident where Richard Garriott, Ultima's creator who had a presence in all the games as Lord British, was killed by a player who tossed a fireball at him. Garriott's avatar had a god mode that would prevent him being killed, but he'd forgotten to turn it on, and so Lord British burned to death that day. Admirably, Garriott decided that was that: He'd been killed fair-and-square, and would not be resurrecting himself.

"We learned about player behavior like no one else learned before us," said Vogel. "We learned how toxic players can be when you have no boundaries [...] no consequences. We had the ugly side of human behavior come out big time in this game. We said 'no boundaries' when we launched. There were systems in the game that were designed actually to cause griefing. There were assistants, like pets. You could kill someone's pet, skin it and give it to them. Why would you do that?

"We had a woman call up and her daughter was, you know, an eight year old… She just lost her pet. She's devastated. Right. We gave her a pet back. We gave another back but she was devastated by someone coming up to her, killing her pet, eight years old right, and giving her the meat."

Other discoveries were perhaps less surprising: Like how long it took the average player to type out certain words in chat. "Time to penis is one minute 23 seconds standard in the game," said Vogel. "We actually counted that, we all kind of looked around, okay, how long is it gonna take for someone to do that? Yep, great.

"Well, what we learned is the more power you give players, the harder they are to control: If you're doing a Metaverse pay attention to that. Because that's real. Because this is the ugly side of humans that come out in these virtual worlds. I don't care if it's back then. And I think even today, it's more amplified."

Vogel discussed the horrific crunch conditions the team worked through at the time, and made the remarkable claim that a team of around 64 was, after around three months of the post-launch deathmarch, at one point down to eight people working on an MMO that was generating around $30 million a year in revenue. The turnaround from the unstable launch happened as the team was also working out how to deal with these behaviours that hadn't been predicted. Part of the solution was to bring the rule of law to Britannia.

"When you turn around a game you have to build player trust back," said Vogel. "And the only way you do that is you start changing the game. So we established a police force. Yes, we called GMs a police force because that's exactly what they were. We had to monitor people in the game doing harassment, doing all sorts of evil things. We had real gangs in the game in the Pacific coast and the East Coast. The middle of the country was awesome. They're roleplaying, it was great, harmony, beautiful… The East and West coast was toxic.

"And it blew my mind. But what happened was the East coast guilds got together with the West coast guilds, they invaded the central servers, they heard about it. But all the central people got together and ran them out. But again, that's emergent behavior. And that's awesome with a systems based game."

Vogel's affection for UO is obvious, and after this he would go on to work on yet more classic games including Star Wars Galaxies. But when you look at the longevity of UO it really does seem to come down to how central freedom was from the very start: It's a game that resisted that impulse to try and control and manage what players do, until it became clear certain behaviours simply have to be managed. It's why it remains such a rich source of stories to this day, and the best of them are simply irresistible. Like that time the devs identified every item-duper in the game, and burned everything they owned to ashes: "It felt fantastic." 

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."