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.

To Those Who Have Inspired and Saved Me…

Video Games are an extremely important part of my life. I mean, as regular of a blogger I may not be, I do blog about them and that sort of proves the point of just how much they mean to me. I picked up on video games at a very early age and though I would never admit it at the time, and still have a hard time doing so, games offered me something that the world could not in so many ways… interactivity. This is extremely ironic to be sure, games do nothing but to try to emulate the real world in many different fashions. But for me, I could not be in the real world like others could physically due to my hemophilia. I take pride in my ability to conquer my disease and not let it stop me from doing what I want to. But the reality is, that I cannot do what others do in the same way that others do. This becomes painfully more clear to me with each passing year. I become less and less able to do what others do, but video games offer me an out. I can do what others do in games. I can be who I want to be without the pain that follows suit.

And maybe because of hemophilia, maybe because I’m too smart for my own damn good… but I have not been able to interact with other people in the same way that I know other people interact with each other. I feel very little empathy and it makes it difficult for me to go and reach out to friends or family when I maybe should have in the past. It makes it difficult for me to know when or how to help others who have needed my help in the past. But yet in games, I can helps others without issue. I mean I get to rescue princesses, rule an empire, or even start a family. Yeah, all these experiences are extremely simple compared to real life interactions, but they offer me an ability to interact in a way that I can’t in real life all the same. Even in MMO settings, I  have the ability to interact with people on the other side of the screen in a much more “normal” way than I can in real life. Maybe it is because games are MY world, when people play with me, they are playing in my home turf. Maybe without being face to face I don’t feel as judged, even if I am.

I was reminded of all this over the last few days as I lay ill, not from hemophilia, but just a random virus that has been going around our office. I laid down on my couch and picked up FInal Fantasy 1 to play again for the first time in some time. And was reminded of how ground breaking this was to my feeble 12 year old self. It caused me a great many fines from the local rental store but I just had to play it more. Or how, my grandfather was the first one to give me a console and really introduce me to games at home. Though for the rest of his life he never seemed to understand my obsession with video games, for one glimmering moment he changed my life for better or worse with a pong machine that he likely picked up at a garage sale. Or at Christmas at my Aunt and Uncle’s house while everyone else was socializing, I would leave the chaos of the party behind in order to go play Pitfall on my cousin’s Atari, thinking how amazing it was because we didn’t have one at home… one of those cousins recently gave me his PS2, somehow seemed very fitting but I don’t think he understands why.  Or after bowling, me and a whole bunch of kids would sit and play the TMNT arcade cabinet as we waited for our parents… though we bowled with each other, I didn’t entirely feel like one of them until we started playing games together. Or when I was hospitalized in second grade, it was an Apple II that comforted me with Carmen Sandiego, Oregon Trail, and some weird game where you hunted monsters that got loose in the town based on clues about the monsters… if someone knows what game I speak, please for the love tell me, haven’t been able to figure it out. And all of the people that I have met over the 20+ years of playing MMOs, every which of one I wish I was still in contact with on a daily basis but life has torn us a part.

And my mother, whom somehow for some reason understood what video games meant to me without saying a word and would bring home her work computer with Karateka so that I could play with it, enrolled me in summer school to learn how to program a Commodre 64, and bought our family a Radio Shack Computer for similar purposes. And honestly never minded a whole god damn much that I sat downstairs playing video games. A lot of people may have called her a bad mother, and am sure she didn’t like me playing that much either. But she dealt with it. Ya know what? I never once have killed a single person, never stole anything of greater value than baseball cards, never done drugs or cigarettes, didn’t have any alcohol in my life until 23 and even still have never binged. All thank you to my mother and video games. I am 36 and I grew up on video games and a better man for it.

For all that and more. Thank you mom, grandpa, Nolan Bushnell, Richard Garriott, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Shigeru Miyamoto, Sid Meier, Chris Sawyer, Will Wright, Satoshi Tajiri, Notch, Yuji Horii and the thousands of other video game developers that have created video games over the last 4 decades. Without you, I would not still be here. Don’t stop doing what you do. Thank you.

AC2: Two Months Later

It has been a full two months since I picked up Asheron’s Call 2 for a second time, so I thought I would make a post rounding up what I am up to and what I continue to think about this game. Overall, I’m still loving it and still fairly addicted to it. I go home every night after work, log in and look for a group. Every morning before work I try to go kill a few simple tasks that I need to get done. It is a good MMO. A lot of the early issues have been fixed. The servers are stable. You can get past level 50. The whole nine yards. Continue reading “AC2: Two Months Later”

Dereth, Here I come… Again!

I really wanted to be able to go and put the old AC2 disks into my computer and do a fresh install of the game. I don’t know why. Maybe just some sort of justification for why I kept those disks for a decade. Maybe just to get that special feeling that i had 10 years ago when Asheron’s Call 2 first launched… that initial excitement. I openly admit for that to be too much to ask for though as much has changed from those days and thus I found myself downloading a 2+ gigabyte file from Turbine for 20 minutes. Continue reading “Dereth, Here I come… Again!”

Asheron’s Call 2 is Back?

Over the last few days, I’ve been trying to think of something decent to write about in my usual beginning of weekend blog entry. I had a couple of ideas, but then Thursday, Turbine decided to blow up the MMO world and announce that they are returning AC2 back into action. Wha-What? This makes Asheron’s Call 2 only the second MMORPG to return from the grave, the first being Meridian 59 obviously. How could I not make a post about this game!!! Continue reading “Asheron’s Call 2 is Back?”

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?