One shot: an interview with Az(aroth)
Posted by Randolph Carter on January 7, 2011
Azaroth, or Az as he tends to go by these days, is what you might call a champion of Ultima Online. Playing the game since launch, he eventually became disenchanted with the state of the game and decided to do something about it–mainly to create his own independent rules server, In Por Ylem, and make a go of that. Here he discusses a bit about his gaming background, his thoughts on UO, and what he’s strived to accomplish with In Por Ylem.
* * *
Please take a minute and describe what your blog is about.
Ultima Online, Ultima Online and only Ultima Online. I think people get angry when I talk about anything else. I’ve attempted to talk about sports, politics, even just other MMOs. They don’t like that.
Perhaps I’d try to describe it as “game design”, which I feel is much more respectable than just “UO greyshards and why I feel they’re really neat.”
Would you mind talking a little bit about your gaming background?
I started with the old consoles. Atari and NES, Sega Gensis, Super Nintendo and so on. During the early console wars I sided squarely with Nintendo until they betrayed me with the N64.
I played a lot of PC games as well. Specifically I remember my true introduction to RPGs on the PC as the early King’s Quest series. My first LAN party shooter experience was Duke Nukem 3D – also very awesome.
Is this too much detail?
Not at all.
We haven’t even gotten to my years playing AD&D yet, or my foray into Warhammer that was extremely expensive but never really took.
Though I did find quite a bit of enjoyment in painting the miniatures.
…. and I just realized I’m a massive nerd.
I’d say then you’re in pretty good company here. What happened to be your introduction to MMOs and what was that experience like?
After waiting a short six to eight weeks for my box to arrive, plus about forty five minutes to get past the “Verifying Account…” screen, then another few seconds between each step (which I had no cause to think was anything but completely normal)… I was greeted by a more experienced player who gave me two pieces of magical leather armour. Unsure of what these did exactly, but quite certain they made me something near (if not totally) invincible – I trotted out of town and was promptly attacked by a naked fellow wielding a dagger and sporting a fashionable bone helm and cape combination.
Luckily, I killed him. Unluckily this only served to further the notion that I was quite likely one of the strongest players in the game. I was later slain by a deer.
Since those first unexplainably magical (and unimaginably laggy) first few steps into Ultima Online, I’ve been in love for well over a decade now.
Can you recall that first MMO “wow!” moment?
There’s no doubt it was the simple fact that the other dudes running around my screen in this online world were all real people. It was 1997 and, believe it or not, that was very impressive at the time by itself.
Do you tend to supplement your MMO gaming with other PC, console, or tabletop games?
At the moment – rarely. I try to find a little time for PC and console gaming, but tabletop gaming is unfortunately a thing of the past for me.
When I’m busy with something, I typically can’t rationalize too much gaming. I’m very likely to try out the new Star Wars MMO when it launches, however.
Of course I said that about Star Trek Online and never followed through. So who knows.
Ultima Online is a game I would imagine the majority of current MMO players have probably never heard of, let alone experienced. What are they missing out on? And perhaps, what are current MMOs not providing that UO once did?
Is this my chance to sell Ultima Online to people? Yikes, that’s a big job.
I couldn’t possibly gush enough over what UO is in a paragraph or two.
I think a lot of people get stuck on its age. I’d say to them that age isn’t really relevant in MMORPGs … especially not right now. When I did IPY, UO was as old as World of Warcraft is today, and people thought UO was a fossil.
I don’t see 10+ million people being too concerned about how dusty and awful WoW is just because of its age, or even because the graphics are a bit dated. If it’s good, if it’s fun, then age can very easily be disregarded in this genre.
Ultima Online is also 2D, sure, but so are many popular web and Facebook games with millions of users. I’d argue that UO’s 2D graphics are incredibly classic and far more enjoyable and carefully crafted than those of most 2D games nowadays.
So yeah, it’s a fantastic game and while there are some things that could be done to bring it into the present, good MMOs are good MMOs. In fact, I think a 3D game will probably always age worse than a quality 2D one.
As far as what UO is?
It was always more about an experience in a virtual world than it was about hacking and slashing foozles. Sure, it had that… but it certainly wasn’t what made the game special.
UO was designed as a place that everyone could find a home. The great part of UO became the community, because it was a melting pot of players and play styles. You could bash monsters, you could PvP, build a house, sail the ocean, search for treasure sunken or buried, collect rare items, learn to cook, blacksmith, be a carpenter, a thief that steals from other players. You can walk into a dungeon, tame a dragon, and walk out using it to slay your enemies. Set up your own shop in your own house on a road outside of town, or… whatever.
The possibilities presented are nearly endless, and that’s the special part. You’re aren’t locked in to a specific path of advancement through the game that millions have followed almost exactly before you. Out of the massive list of skills presented, you can build your character how you want, progress how you want, and play however you want, and really leave a mark on a world that’s truly open and endlessly enjoyable.
Even now, but most especially when MMORPGs were brand new… UO was fertile ground for fun and whacky adventures of any kind. With so much freedom, the content is the world and the players – not just the quest line and the scripted raid boss.
Really, the game is just fun if you’re into online RPGs and you want something a little different. It provides meaningful, unique experiences in a living, breathing world. And that’s what it provides that other MMORPGs don’t.
You’ve provided your thoughts on the final days of UO and your own project In Por Ylem, but it appears there is a new IPY project in the works. Would you mind talking a little bit about that and your own blog, Azaroth?
In Por Ylem was a free UO server I ran back in 2003/2004. The goal was to recreate the “good old days” of UO, and I’d say that we succeeded. We were by several leaps and bounds the largest free UO shard in history. We even got featured in real, honest to goodness print magazines.
The server was as large and as active as any EA shard at the time, and probably larger and more active than any of them these days.
… and really, it was created only with spare time, a disregard for profit, and a love of the game. This was small, amateur operation that simply made a few changes to modernize the classic ruleset a bit, and succeeded wildly because of the love that exists in the gaming community for oldschool UO.
Of course online games must evolve – even though they typically go down paths that aren’t going to please everyone. UO was a game for everyone (I always say that the design of the game was absolute genius for the time period – truly the only time period in MMO gaming that your players WERE the MMO market, no matter what type of player they were – it was broad, and it appealed a little bit to everyone), so people are understandably extremely divided by the changes that have been made in the last ten years.
Change is always necessary though. Classic UO, as fantastic as it is or was, needs to be brought into the present somehow if it is to be revived. As much as everyone loves UO circa 1997-2000 or so, if nothing had changed in all this time, EA would have a population of about fifteen or sixteen paying customers.
Even the most hardcore of classic ruleset advocates would have likely stopped playing out of boredom by now. As fantastic as any online game is, it always needs to move forward or people will drift away out of boredom. What we’re trying to do is move forward with IPY in a way that fixes the big problems, adds some fun where the game lacks it, and in the end create a sustainable version of the classic ruleset.
While running the first incarnation of IPY, you can imagine I learned quite a few things about why and where a classic UO ruleset fails. The main problem is that it does… and in today’s environment, somewhat spectacularly.
Obviously I’m not a huge fan of the changes made to EA’s version of the game. That’s probably clear. So while player killing and griefing were very large problems on IPY (probably bigger problems than they ever were in the early days of UO), our solution isn’t a PK switch or Trammel or any of that nonsense. What we’re doing is putting the power to police the game world in the hands of the players.
Yes, that rascally old “Player Justice” that nobody ever seemed to get right. You might of course laugh at this – but we’re of the opinion that if you take the power to police player killing and concentrate it in the hands of a minority of power users, providing incentives for them to focus on hunting down evil doers and good tools to do the job, it really just might work.
So what we’d like to do with this new version of IPY is fix those problems to the best of our abilities so as to prevent classic UO from kerploding (as it tends to do) while also keeping the oldschool experience intact. The world, the gameplay, the skills, the spells… everything is the same. But we’ve added an expansion pack worth of new game systems that address old problems without being in your face or intruding on your experience with classic UO, which is of course the main draw and main feature.