“Anything but Ultima Online”: Keeping the role-playing classic running | Gaming News
The new book Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online collects 35 interviews with players, volunteers, and developers of the grandfather of massively multiplayer online PC games Ultima Online, exploring how their lives were shaped, changed, or altered by their experiences. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 6, “The View from 10,000 Feet,” featuring an interview with the game’s former producer Rick “Stellerex” Hall.
Anything but Ultima Online
Over his prior 18 months at Paragon Software, Rick “Stellerex” Hall had found working in the video game industry enjoyable and when the company rebooted as Take-Two Interactive in 1993, he added some extra responsibility to his plate. By 1999, he’d been promoted to designer/producer, running day-to-day operations for the 40-person studio.
Behind the scenes, Hall was on the hunt for new opportunities where he could expand his skill set. He made a shortlist of game companies he’d like to work with, among them staples such as Activision, Blizzard, Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Interactive, id Software, Maxis, and a studio in Austin, Texas, called Origin Systems — a company that Hall thought was doing some cool things with MMO games.
Applying at numerous companies, Hall put in a résumé with Origin for an open content lead position, and quickly received a call from Jeff Anderson — the studio’s vice president in charge of production — with a job offer.
Uprooting himself from Latrobe, Hall left Take-Two in 1999 and headed to Austin.
“My first day in Austin, the temperature was 112 degrees, and it stayed about 100 for something like 30 straight days,” Hall remembers. “It was a bit of a shock, coming from the cooler foothills of Pennsylvania to the middle of the desert.”
Struggling to acclimate to his new surroundings and volatile weather, Hall said he made the mistake of walking to his Austin mailbox barefoot. By the time he’d returned to his house, the driveway’s magmatic asphalt had left second-degree burns on the bottoms of his feet.
Upon starting at Origin Systems, Hall was amazed at the sheer number of projects being developed by the studio, and his interest was piqued by Wing Commander Online, Ultima IX: Ascension, and several flight sims, as well as Ultima Worlds Online: Origin (better known as UO2), which had been in development for some time, but wouldn’t be announced to the public until the following month. While it wasn’t clear to Hall which project he’d be assigned to, there was one game he secretly hoped he didn’t land with: Ultima Online.
“UO was low on my priority list,” Hall said. “It was old technology, and the UO Live team was looked upon as something of a red-headed stepchild at Origin. The game had been live for a couple of years, the code was a bit buggy, and it looked like a job where you spent all your time solving bugs and exploits.”
Hall was relieved to find out he’d instead be working on UO2, the 3D sequel to the company’s flagship online game. UO2 provided Hall an avenue to better understand the next generation of MMOs. In fact, everything was coming up roses until several months later, when the need arose for someone to lead Ultima Online’s Live team.
Hall drew the figurative short straw.
“My knee-jerk reaction was frustration,” he said. “I wanted any other project in the company except Ultima Online. But I took a deep breath and decided to just do my job, and give it a chance.”
While UO was built by a large team, many of the programmers were distributed amongst Origin’s other titles, or has left the company entirely upon the game’s launch. Since UO functioned as a service, a team made up of a dozen or so employees — half programmers, another 40 percent designers, and several artists — were left to keep the lights on in Britannia.
As more and more players dropped into the virtual world, bugs appeared, exploits were discovered, balances to the game’s many systems had to be made, and new content needed to be developed to keep the players happy. The Live team was the first, and in many cases the only, line of defense.
As producer, Hall’s job was to coordinate with network operations, the marketing department, and community relations in order to keep the UO train on schedule while he and his Live team worked on a tight, six-week publishing schedule. At the beginning of each cycle, the team chose the bugs and exploits they wanted to solve, which features they wanted to add or adjust, and made key decisions that informed upcoming expansions to the game.
“Usually critical bugs took priority over everything,” Hall explained. “Anything that could crash the server had to be fixed within 24 hours, if at all possible.
“Next in the priority queue were seriously game unbalancing things — where players figured out emergent ways to use the game’s systems that the original designers hadn’t thought of, and the result gave them significant advantages over others—and also exploits, like dupe bugs.”
Throughout UO’s history, exploiters have regularly searched out or found loopholes in the game’s code, allowing them to illegally manipulate the system for personal gain.
Hall recalled some of the game’s more clever exploiters including the “Second Story Men,” who discovered that if they created ramps made out of gold coins, they could drop into player’s homes through the roof, stealing the contents within.
When programmers and designers added player-owned homes to UO, the thought of a player scaling the walls never came to mind. Roofs were designed as non-collidable textures that someone could easily pass through, provided they could get high enough off the ground.
Hall also remembers the “Infinite Container” bug, discovered by a sailor who filled wooden chests to max capacity and then stashed them inside of other chests, repeating the process ad infinitum. In the process, the player created a stack of chests that went thousands upon thousands deep.
“It was like some crazy infinite Russian nesting doll,” Hall laughed. “He created such a massive cluster of concentrated objects on his houseboat that all he had to do to crash the server was open the hatch. The ingenuity of the players was astonishing.
“I loved seeing our programmers do battle with the hackers and exploiters. The players were incredibly inventive. You never learn as much about architecture as having to pit six programmers against 1,500 evil geniuses.”
Once the major issues of each publish cycle were fixed, the Live team focused on smaller bugs and creating new tools for the Game Masters, who were interfacing directly with the player community.
“It was a lot of firefighting,” Hall said. “You had to point the resource hose at the biggest infernos, and rescue all the trapped children before anything else. If there was any time left over, you added a few things where you could.”
Hall pointed out that the Live team’s to-do list wasn’t strictly made up of changes they believed would take UO to the next level; Players provided suggestions, feature wishlists, or sometimes just complaints. While Hall was willing to consider anything, he also sought solutions.
“Players gave us ideas, fought with us, challenged us, and cheered us on,” Hall said. “In many ways, it was like living with a massive, extended family, both within the building and across the world.
“We were in a scrum with a hundred thousand friends, frenemies, coworkers, and occasional lunatics. We dealt with thousands of fans, backseat drivers, designer wannabes, antagonists, hackers, cult leaders, opinion makers, hardcore players, casual players, rubberneckers, and competitors. How could anyone not love that?”
After completing several of these publishing cycles, Hall came to a realization: he enjoyed the work he was doing. In fact, despite his initial trepidations, he actually liked Ultima Online.
“We weren’t the glamorous star developers working on the next great title,” Hall said. “We were huddled in a muddy trench, under fire. But when you’re in a foxhole with people, they become your best friends pretty fast.
We all depended on each other. We learned to not only deal with the pressure, but in a crazy sort of way, to revel in it.”
Over the remainder of his five-year tenure with Origin, Hall worked with the Live team to develop content for the expansions Renaissance in 2000, Third Dawn in 2001, and Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge in 2002. While he cites Third Dawn as a difficult technical challenge, and credits Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge for providing him with the opportunity to meet famed artist Todd McFarlane (who designed the characters for the expansion), it’s the launch of Renaissance that Hall recalls most fondly.
Behind the scenes, the team was preparing to shake Ultima Online to its very foundation, as the release of Renaissance meant splitting the world into the facets of Trammel and Felucca. But before the team could divide the lands into PvP and PvP-free zones, some fiction was needed to explain such a monumental shift.
In this case, developers called on the dark mistress Minax to lead her undead army on a mission of world domination. In the planned storyline, the city of Trinsic would fall beneath Minax’s armies and in turn, Britannia’s King Lord British would appear to lead players to safety and salvation in Trammel.
In the weeks leading up to the expansion’s launch, undead creatures found their way into the city of Trinsic, and on the eve of the release, Minax led a full-scale assault. A call to arms was broadcast through the game’s many town criers, urging players to defend Trinsic from evil.
Unknown to players, Hall had gathered his team at the Origin Systems offices to watch Trinsic fall around the world.
“Being a global game, the main event took place at local server time,” Hall said. “We started in the U.S., and things went roughly the way we planned. The monsters burst onto the scene. The players were ready and waiting.
“Lower-powered players ran like roaches when the lights turned on. The more powerful players waded into the sea of monsters, gleefully slaughtering things in small circles around them. Eventually, the weight of the monsters pulled them down, and Trinsic fell, just like it was supposed to.”
Armed with a pot of coffee, Hall and his team made the event an all-nighter. Within hours, the sun was setting on Japan, and Minax was preparing her siege on the eastern world. The battle Hall witnessed there caught him completely off guard.
“The Americans were all achievement-oriented individualists,” Hall said. “They’re individually extremely powerful, but they didn’t act like a cohesive unit. In Japan, they did.
“The Japanese formed a huge picket line around the city. They had reserves, clustered behind the defensive lines, and generals on horseback, issuing orders, shoring up defenses, filling the gaps. The troops obeyed unquestioningly.”
Behind the reserves, the Japanese had staged healers and crafters, all poised to patch up players, weapons, and armor to combat the undead army. Unable to spawn additional monsters without risking a server crash, Hall and his team couldn’t crack the Japanese defenses.
When the monsters ended their assault, Hall said he was astonished to see that three of the Japanese servers had actually held Trinsic.
Following the planned storyline, Lord British showed up, leading the defeated warriors to the new lands. This presented a problem on the servers that had successfully staved off the invasion. After all, those players hadn’t actually lost and they weren’t too happy with the king’s believing they had.
Hall admits that the team had never written a version of the story where the players came out on top.
Soon, it was time for the European servers to come under attack and once more, Hall watched with bated breath.
“The Europeans weren’t bragging powerhouses like the Americans, or the extremely well-organized machine like Japan,” Hall remembers. “They were roleplayers. They sat in their virtual houses and drank virtual coffee, calmly watching out the windows as the monsters swamped Trinsic in about five minutes.”
For Hall, the experience not only provided hours of entertainment, it gave him the ability to think globally when it came to the game’s future design.
“The entire experience was eye opening in a wonderful way,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything that quite matched it.”
Following the release of Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge in 2002, Electronic Arts shook up the studio with layoffs and Hall found himself the victim of restructuring. He was transitioned to lead product development and removed from his position on the UO team.
Just years prior, working with the UO Live team had been at the bottom of Hall’s bucket list, but now that it was time to go, he was having some serious feelings about it.
“It turned out to be the best five years of my life,” Hall said. “I learned a lot, worked for—and with—some amazing people, and came to love Ultima Online. Looking back fondly, I wouldn’t trade that five years for any other five years of my life.”
Hall used the 2004 closing of Origin to once again explore new opportunities. He landed at EA’s Tiburon Studio just outside Orlando, Florida, where he worked as a senior producer on the popular Madden football series for handheld products.
In 2006, Hall was recruited by the University of Central Florida to assist in the creation of a Master’s degree program in game programming for the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy.
While Hall said his career took him places he never expected to go, he credits his time working with the UO Live team as the highlight…even though didn’t really want to work on Ultima Online.
“I did want to learn more about the world of MMORPGs when I joined Origin,” Hall said. “I wanted to understand what it was like to work in this—at the time—global, emerging market. I learned far more than I expected. I grew as a producer, as a developer, and as a person.
“We were pioneers in the early 2000s. We were doing something that hadn’t been done before, and none of us knew what to expect. We’d dove headfirst into an unknown sea, and once submerged, had to learn how to swim. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.”
Wes Locher is a writer of journalism, prose, video games, and comic books, and is baffled that he gets to create such nonsense for a living. His latest book, Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online is out now in paperback and Kindle formats.