Mistakes in Virtual Ecologies

I have been playing a bit of Guild Wars 2 of late. The game isn’t great but it is also not the worst game I have played, and the lack of a subscription fee makes it perfect for a situation where I can’t afford one. Playing an MMO inevitably makes me start thinking about the design of the genre and my own past ideas on how to build an MMO and I eventually returned to thinking about Ultima Online’s Virtual Ecology.

For those who do not know, since it has been so long… Originally, Ultima Online had a Virtual Ecology where each animal and monster had a set of desires in which controlled its AI. Deer wanted to eat grass and  have a bushy hide out, Wolves wanted to eat Deer, Lizardmen wanted to attain gold. If a Wolf, could not find a deer to eat, they would start looking for other things to eat, like players. This actually created a system where a Bear would not be aggressive to players unless it was starving and to some degree it actually worked. The problem with the system though was it really only worked with the absence of players. Once players were introduced into the ecosystem, they would kill everything en masse, bears would starve because food would be scarce and players would get attacked by bears. This culminated in a famous event during beta where dragons began attacking Britain because they were so hungry. An event that essentially caused the devs to remove the ecology totally, even though to this day I consider this event to be one of the most fun occasions that I have had in an MMO ever as I remember the calls going out to save Britain and players returning from across the globe to help out!

I think one of the main problems that this virtual ecology had was that the predator to prey aspect was completely wrong. I believe I have talked about this in previous blog entries years ago, but it needs restatement. I don’t know what the ratio that Origin used initially, but my guess would be 2 to 3 prey for every predator. I mean this was a fantasy universe and it was a game, you need decent amount of predators in the world to ensure players can feel like heroes. However, I do feel like the ratio should be in the range of 10 prey per predator. What this means is that for every 1 wolf in the world, there should be 10 deer at any given time. If not more, the number may actually need to be 15:1 or 20:1 or 25:1. It should be so high that the prey should be overpopulated in the absence of the player.

On top of this  previously thought of issue, I had another realization or two last night while thinking about the ecology. The way that players killed deer in UO was spectacularly odd.  You see deer, and other creatures in UO, weren’t actually  very fast. So players would take their swords and start hacking away at a deer. The deer would turn and run, but from memory it always seemed like the deer would take a step, pause, step pause step pause. Players could completely outrun a deer and this fact is backwards. In real life, a Red Deer (which I am pretty sure deer in UO were modeled after) can run around 40 mph. Have you ever heard of a human running that fast? The fastest recorded speed of a human is 28 mph on a 100 yard dash, meaning a short distance run for someone who trains for running fast, wearing light clothing not medieval armor. A human might be able to leap upon that dear unawares and stab at it once, but if you didn’t get a killing shot on the deer in the first blow, you can kiss the deer good bye. Even with say a magic potion that might double your speed, it would be a pretty tough race. I also would wager that trying to stab a deer to death with a sword is not entirely as easy as one might think, however I’ve never tried so I can’t entirely comment on this concept. My overall point here is that in real life, animals tend to run when they get attacked. It is the best defense they have against anything trying to attack them, human or predator. In Ultima Online, this didn’t happen all that much. Animals more often than  not just kind of stood there and took it.

Conversely, predators probably wouldn’t outright run if you attacked them. They’d probably attack back, or at least it seems logical enough that they might and thus not lose a realistic feel by programming that in. If injured enough, they probably too would run and if they run, unless seriously injured the player probably would be out of luck. However, a human attacking a bear is no easy thing. They kinda hurt, and they can take a beating as well. I imagine even a warrior in full plate would get a bit beaten up by such a fight and it might not be worth it overall.

This whole idea that when animals get attacked, they generally flee lends itself to attacking with bows and crossbows instead of swords. Thinking back on my experiences with Ultima Online, I certainly never used a bow and can’t think of anyone who did (though admittedly it has been 15 ish years!). Everyone used Halberds and Viking Swords and Magic because those weapons did the most damage. But in a combat system where flight was an option…. Rangers wielding bows might be more useful. Thinking of Rangers, it seems like a natural addition that maybe traps could have been a thing as well in this game. Traps are a slower way to capture all the animals you want, and it works in a more natural progression and could have required a completely new skill. It also creates a new play pattern which I think would have suited UO quite well. Granted, this is yet another mechanic to add to a game that was already way behind schedule and still too buggy to launch but it might have made for a nice expansion addition.

The other side of this is that the main reason that players felt the need for over-hunting the predator’s food supply is that deer offered up leather which  you needed to make armor. I believe deer in particular was one of the better sources for leather as well. But here’s the thing. In real life, we can get leather from deer. We tend to get it from cows though. Now you could kill a cow and get it’s leather as well, but cows weren’t as common as deer and I don’t think they gave as much leather (I know not why). I believe all animals dropped leather, but deer was one of the better sources. So if you, as a player, needed leather, it didn’t pay to go get wolves, it paid to get deer. I think overall they needed to give wolves and other predators some sort of drop in order to make it desirable for a player to hunt them down. That could have been one solution. Another solution would have been the inclusion of yet another skill type for a farmer which could raise sheep, cows, and even llamas which could produce leather and cotton. The farming aspect, coupled with deer that ran when they were attacked would make it so that if you wanted to get leather, it might be more efficient to get a cow off a farmer than it would be to go find a deer and convince it to die for you.

Of course, this has the problem of requiring land to start a farm. More than one developer at Origin has since stated that they never intended Ultima Online to house 10,000 players per server. I think the number I heard was they initially intended between 500 and 1000. Space was sparse in the game, and sooner than you knew, the server was packed with houses everywhere. Even if you wanted a house it was difficult to find a location that wasn’t already taken.

The reality is that Origin tried to do too much with Ultima Online. A lot of the issues that they had really just came down to they didn’t have enough time to truly develop the idea.  It’s too bad, but at the same time I applaud them for trying to do too much. i remember beta in UO fondly. The world seemed natural and real. I lament all the time about modern MMOs no longer feeling real, I hate the genre much more now than I used to.  There doesn’t seem to be a game in the genre going for the Virtual World feel that UO began.

As a parting shot on this idea. Another thing I remember in UO early days that I am not entirely sure was due to the ecology or not… When you left a city in UO, what you found immediately near the city tended to be more naturalistic animals… deer, rabbits, mice, the occasional bear or wolf, maybe a llama or an eagle. It was extremely rare to find a lizard man. In today’s UO, you leave town and you can find lizard men, skeletons, and ogres right outside town. And that concept is really mirrored across the genre unfortunately. Anyway, I remember going out with a friend in beta days and we stumbled upon a lizard man camp. We were amazed. Had never seen such things. We killed a lizard man on the outskirts and he wasn’t the easiest kill, we were used to the animals which were a lot easier to terminate. But we did kill him and were entreated to a weapon, some money and reagents! Reagents were actually quite difficult to find in those days and we felt like  we found the mother load if every lizard man had one because there were maybe a dozen right in front of us. However, we soon discovered the danger of trying to take on lizard men and soon found ourselves fleeing. I assure you, we were not taking the same step-pause technique in running that deer in the game practiced.

Cartographer’s Annual 2008

I am REALLY behind on this. Over the last few years, my ability to find time to really sit down and map with Campaign Cartographer has been very little. I was able to do the 2007 review and I liked it so much that I’ve been continuing to get the annual even though I haven’t any time or ability to really use them. More recently, I’ve decided to take some time to sit down and go through them, I do think these annuals in general are very good at helping you learn how to map and develop your own styles, if nothing else.  Continue reading “Cartographer’s Annual 2008”

Meaningful PvP?

I was playing a little bit of Ultima Online over the past few weeks. I downloaded and started playing on a free shard that tried to stick to the olden days of UO, meaning they had a lot of PvP. I was playing well by myself and I went into the Blood dungeon several times, when one day it seemed very busy. At first people were helping me out, but eventually the inevitable happened… someone PK’d me. And this got me to thinking about PvP.

This experience exemplified the continued issue with PvP. The guy didn’t even actually kill me, he demanded some trinket off me (my robe) and then let me go. That’s it, but it still did what he needed it to. It ruined my otherwise fine day, and actually I haven’t even returned since then.

You may think me as a carebear or what not, and I guess to a certain degree I am. However, I have played many PvP games in the past. I played Shadowbane, Dark Age of Camelot, and when AC2 came out I went to the RvR server. Truth be told, I really do enjoy PvP every now and then and think it offers and extremely fun dynamic to a game that the developers just cannot design if they wanted to.

So I want PvP around. But doing an all out PvP game, like Ultima Online, is just too off-putting to too many people. And so far there have been few games to implement the RvR system well. The best has been DAoC and everyone else seems to be a “meh” experience.

PvP needs to mean something first and foremost. Developers can’t just throw it in and hope it works. Or even throw it in with a couple minor prizes for those who partake. There needs to be real purpose in it. To me, the best PvP game thus far that I have played was Shadowbane and this was largely because it involved warfare and city building. When you fought someone, it was usually under the context of war with that country, honestly I don’t remember too many instances in that game where I was actually killed just to be killed. It always in the context of nation vs nation instead.

You need to give the player something to fight for. In my mind, I think that the best idea is to make the PvP aspect incorporate both city building and resource control. City building helps cover a secondary thing that players have wanted in an MMO since the inception of the genre, and resource control just makes sense.

People need to be able to have the control to build their own cities, and then turn around take control of other people’s cities via war. It shouldn’t be an easy thing or even something that every player and/or guild should be allowed to do. It should take great effort to build a new city, and then even more effort to turn that city into a nation of cities. This needs to be something that does’t happen often, and because of this might be something that works as an expansion as great wealth would be need to do it.

Once cities and nations are built, armies and guards are needed to defend it. This is where PvP comes in. Players should be able to choose to join these armies and guard units. The rulers of the nations would have the ability to reward these troops as they see fit, be it from salaries, lower dues, bonuses that the nation can buy into, or access to special smiths that can help the troops improve themselves.

Now the troops could only attack other nations armies they are at war with. So this isn’t full out PvP. Not only do you have to choose to be PvP orientated, but there is another level of control that says you have to choose to be at war. War doesn’t need to be consensual, there should always be the danger that you are going to be attacked if you are a nation, but I don’t think it is in the best interest of the game to let anyone declare war, I think just leaders should have that capability.

Of course there needs to be a prize still besides just building the city for countries and pvp to exist, and that is the resource control. The country would have control over various mines in its sphere of influence. They can do with those mines as they want, leave them open and free, charge a levy for any who enter, or shut them down to a select few people. Perhaps other countries might raid the mines promoting a need for a guard or two at the entrance, but by and large the leaders would have control over it. If resources are done right in the first place, this in itself is a big enough prize without the need to throw up arbitrary prizes to the player like a special suit of armor for any who PvPs enough…

Would this system even work? I don’t know. It isn’t perfect, far from it. For all its trying to leave non-pvp’ers alone while having a strong pvp end game, it still begs the question… If one nation takes over a lowly crafter’s nation over, and doesn’t want lowly crafter in that nation… How is that not affecting the crafter who wants nothing to do with PvP?

10 Things We Can Learn From Minecraft

I’ve been the latest victim of the Minecraft bug of late. I must admit this game is pretty amazing in its simplicity. It’s so very basic yet very addictive. I could totally see modern gamers passing it up because of the graphics or the playstyle, as I almost did myself. But the reality is that it is worth a try. I’ve learned a lot from the game, here’s just a few things: Continue reading “10 Things We Can Learn From Minecraft”

The Need for a New Map

When I started working on server emulation for Ultima Online, it took no time at all before I started yearning to start over with a completely new map. Creating a completely new map from scratch is actually quite a difficult thing, and to be honest, if I were to suggest server emulation to a newbie, I’d suggest against a new map. Yet here I am.

Continue reading “The Need for a New Map”

Player vs. Player in MMOs

PvP is kind of a touchy subject in MMORPGs. Most MMOs have it in some format or another, but more often than not, it is left behind in the wayside. This is largely due to the mistakes that were made in early Ultima Online history where it was more profitable to kill other players than it was to kill creatures. This made it a prohibitive game to join if you were a newer player on your own. You would likely find yourself dead quite often and then just give up and go to a different game that didn’t have PvP. Continue reading “Player vs. Player in MMOs”