'It felt fantastic'—The day MMO devs identified item-dupers and burned everything they owned to ash

A close-up of a fire.
(Image credit: Nitat Termmee via Getty images.)

Ultima Online is one of the longest-running and most influential MMOGs out there, and is currently celebrating 25 years. (There's even a special shield to mark the occasion.) Such a prestigious anniversary has inspired some of the talent behind the game to reminisce about their time on the game, including programmer and game designer Tim Cotten. His story is an absolute doozy.

Cotten writes about an omnipresent gremlin for gaming, and particularly massively multiplayer games like Ultima Online: item duplicating, or duping. He first encountered the problem as a player of the game, way back in the heady launch year of 1997, when he witnessed two players dropping chests at a particular area of the map and excitedly jabbering "“it worked! omgz!”

"Yup," writes Cotten, "they had managed to, as they excitedly bragged, figure out a trick to drop a chest on one side of the 'laggy patch' while trying to pick-it-up/hand-it-over to the other player as they were both crossing from one side to the other and now each of them had a copy of the same chest: and its contents."

The post is titled 'That Time We Burned Down Players’ Houses in Ultima Online' and chronicles part of Cotten's personal journey from poacher to gamekeeper, as what he'd once witnessed from the outside he later, as a member of the dev team, decided to combat.

The whole thing is worth a read, but I'm going to skip over Cotten's technical explanation of how Ultima Online generated its map and kept track of player movements (the tl; dr version is 'ingeniously'), and how he eventually worked out a way to identify duped items and the players who had them. You can read the full post here.

The important point is that Cotten implemented a global hash registry on Ultima Online's rarest items, which he compares to "invisible dye" that would stain the duped items in a way only the developers could see. This code was allowed to run for a few weeks and then, with the gathered data, Cotten and his fellow devs could set about eradicating the dupes.

Except… management didn't want them to clean house. In fact, management had a pretty good point to make about this. Cotten says the reaction was something along the lines of: “Mmm, I don’t think deleting them all [the duped items] is a good idea, you’ll hurt too many players.”

"We identified the dupers themselves and their storage depots: they had homes full of their duped items and NPC vendors selling them to the players."

Tim Cotten

"I hadn’t considered that, actually," writes Cotten. "At all. I was too excited about having accomplished my long held goal to 'catch some dupers.'" Cotten bit his tongue, told the team they would not be auto-deleting all the dupes, then spoke to Ultima Online's customer service folks.

They agreed that deleting the items was a terrible idea. "The dupes spread so quickly once they were created that if we just deleted them all out from under all the players who had bought them (with their hard-earned gold) from the dupers we would be affecting a significant portion of the playerbase," writes Cotten. "Sure, some of them would be fine with the 'morality' of our action—but on the scale of hundreds or thousands of affected players (per shard) we were just asking for the frustration to cause a wave of quiet quitting."

Catching the dupers had raised questions of community management as much as game management, and Cotten realised that answering them was tougher than he'd expected. The customer service team, for example, asked how many duped items a player should have before they banned them. Bearing in mind that the whole point of duping is to sell these items to innocent players, how do you begin calculating a figure like that?

Nevertheless, Cotten and his team did come up with a target. While any kind of blanket action would inevitably affect innocent players, the devs had managed to identify those players who were making use of the exploit in a systematic way. These individuals were definitely going to be banned anyway: so it was decided to make an event of it.

"We identified the dupers themselves and their storage depots: they had homes full of their duped items and NPC vendors selling them to the players," writes Cotten. "The 'duping ring' stretched across multiple servers, comprised of distinct groups not necessarily working together. They had all evolved the same behaviors though: making tons of UO gold from selling dupes and then selling the UO gold on secondary markets for hard cash."

Cotten and community manager Adida wrote a script that, when 'attached' to an in-game house, would in his words do the following:

  • Delete the house and all of its contents. All of it. Instantly. Recursively. *poof*
  • Spawn a bunch of immovable 'housing rubble' in a predetermined rectangular area that fit the same dimensions the house existed in. It was colored dark black to look like it had soot all over it.
  • Spawn a bunch of eternal 'fire fields' amongst the rubble.
  • Create a straw dummy labeled 'An Effigy of a Traitor' to place in the middle of the burning rubble.

In Britannia they certainly don't do things by halves. The dev team readied, picked a day, and then launched the attack. The dupers were mass-banned on a timer right before their chosen server was due to come back online after maintenance, while Cotten and Adida teleported from house-to-house, "attached the script, watched the fires erupt with joy, and moved on."

The duping rings had no warning and, because of the way the developers timed their attack across different servers, didn't have time to try things like logging in as alts to save their goods.

"Dozens of homes had been destroyed across the entire multiverse of Ultima Online, and the flames licking the sooty rubble were a visible testimony to our team’s determination to deal with cheaters," writes Cotten.

"It felt fantastic! And we were told not to do it again."

The problem wasn't with players, even though there was some flak for doing something so "daringly public" to cheaters, but Cotten says the team's actions "just barely skated by with upper-upper-upper management."

It was clear they wouldn't be allowed to do something like this again. Customer Service was given discretion to deal with dupers using the tools built for this. And no matter how good it felt at the time, problems did come from the economics after the great fire of Britannia: "especially when players wanted to compete for the now available, very premium, housing spots."

There's something irresistible about this story, not the least part of which is Cotten himself: because you can still tell, even as he fondly recalls something from decades ago, that this is a man who hates dupers. When Cotten writes about burning down the houses, stopping at each one to watch "flames licking the sooty rubble", you can almost imagine him licking his lips at the thought of such sweet justice.

Setting dupers ablaze en masse is yet another in the pile of fabulous stories to come from Ultima Online: the all-time classic is how the invincible avatar of the game's creator, Richard Garriott, met his own fiery end.

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."