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.

SimCity Review

SimCity has long been one of those games that defined who I was as a gamer very early in life. It was not the first game I played, that title belongs to either Pong or Pitfall depending on timing of it. It is however one of the first games that totally engrossed me. That I could sit down with it and literally lose hours figuring out how to best place all my buildings and zones in order to get the highest population possible. Continue reading “SimCity Review”

Troubled Times in AC2

It’s been a difficult week in Asheron’s Call 2. And not just issues with AC2’s beta, though that hasn’t been helping. I’ve been having character troubles, allegiance troubles, and general burn out. When I only get to play for a week all day, I tend to do it!

First off, early in the week I discussed with my allegiance leader that I like to play characters the guild needs generally. He mentioned that they needed a tank and a sage. As it happens one of the classes I was considering playing was sage anyway, so off I went leveling that character. I sat and actually xp’d instead of explored, got rid of my crafting habit and ended up with a level 31 sage in just a couple of days. Not bad.

During this time, the guild leader had convinced someone else to create a Sage. This really disheartened me quite a bit and made me switch my mind back to a Tumerok and untrained my Zealot stuff in favor of going Feral Intendent. Again, went and got myself up to 29 in about a day, not bad but still annoyed that I had to.

And then one day when logging in, I noticed that my sage was completely naked in the login screen. I gave a wtf and went and logged him in and sure enough, completely naked, nothing in his bags or anything. I heard this happening to other people in server crashes, musta happened to me the last time I logged in with him.

Now one thing that this last experience has taught me is that Asheron’s Call 2 is NOT a game that was designed for the player to not have any items whatsoever. You can’t recall without items, you can’t fight (I actually tried to fight some little stuff with my bare hands and that doesn’t work) and there is no ability to craft starter items for free. (Though to be fair, I could have gone and found silver and crafted a scepter but that would have taken time). There are NPCs in Cragstone and Ikaris that let you buy weapons and so I traveled there and bought a moderately priced weapon to allow me to at least cast stuff and fight!

This led to another frustration… I am broke. That scepter cost me a full third of the money I had and no it wasn’t very good either. See the thing is, because he is a sage, he spends all his time healing. And I have found that many groups don’t like rotational loot. So it is a Free For All to try to get loot and people often sit and grab stuff before fights are done just to get stuff. Even if they wait for the fight, it usually takes me a couple minutes to make sure everyone is healed and by that time we are onto the next fight and I am healing again. No time for me to loot. So I am broke.

Which led me to whining to my allegiance about my woes and only one person in the entire lot (and the monarch was on) to offer to help me find more loot. I probably did actually whine a bit more than I should have but it was disconcerting that no one besides one of my better friends in the game offered to help. I mean what is the purpose of an allegiance if not to help when times are tough? And honestly I don’t think these guys help a lot, so now I am contemplating leaving the allegiance completely.

All in all, by the end of this debacle, I’ve been playing more of my third character and staying away from the power leveling. I like playing the game but I don’t see a huge reason why to power level and my current allegiance makes me feel like I have to given that they won’t play with anyone not doing it.

So if anyone is playing AC2 and has an allegiance that they think would suit me, I’m listening to options. To be honest, I’m not needy, I just like guildies to play together. I don’t feel like that is too much to ask for…

Expectations of a Game in Beta

Asheron’s Call 2 is in beta. It seems this is hard for many in the game to actually stop and remember. Maybe it’s the fact that the game actually launched 10 years ago and was already in live for 3 years. But do stop and consider, 7 years is a long time for a game to be gone. The team members who were on the game previously (both in development and live team) are gone. The servers? Completely different. My wager is that the AC2 servers are actually somehow sharing with the AC1 servers, which means there are a lot of modifications being done on a game that has been gone for almost a decade by people who never worked on it previously.

Yet people don’t seem to get it. I’ve seen people say “I can’t believe you have to pay to access a beta.” Well you don’t. It is not unheard of for MMO companies to offer beta access to current subscribers. I remember being in a couple of betas for EQ2 expansions that was available only to subscribers. That is exactly what Turbine did, they gave access to all current AC1 subscribers to a beta of their game. It is an added value to their current subscription base, if you didn’t want to pay for it, don’t. Easy as that.

Turbine didn’t even really advertise that they were bringing back AC2. They made a post on the AC forums stating that they are putting it back into beta. That info hit the MMO world like wildfire and before they knew it they had tons of sites advertising it and tons of people buying subs. I bet Turbine was slightly taken aback by the popularity of this choice considering 7 years ago they couldn’t even keep enough subscribers around to keep the servers up in the first place.

People also complain about the constant crashing of the game. And I agree, it can be frustrating. I did the Drudge Citadel 3 times before I got credit. And yes I mean I completed it fully. Every time i stepped out, the server crashed and I was out of a glyph and out of luck. The most recent time I tried with a second character, got the credit for the quest, not the xp, but I did end up with 87% vitae instead. No idea why or even how I came about that strange number.

Lastly is expectations on the future. People are wanting this feature and that. I have seen them from small things like “hey can we fix text in skill descriptions that were never fixed when they changed it in an update.” I have seen big things like “This game needs player housing!” I Have also seen ridiculous things like “You know that thing that was completely unbalanced and was fixed while the game was lived? Well now the game isn’t easy enough for people who have exploit it, could we please re-break the game? After all it’s people like me who pay for AC1!”

I gotta say, it is fine to have hopes and dreams of what is to come. In fact, I’m liable to make my own post of what I’d like to see come out of AC2 in the future. But is it right to expect this of a game in beta? I honestly can’t recall a time in previous betas where instead of fixing issues with the game, players were instead insistent on the future. It may be that it is different because the game has already been live, I kinda get it. Or it may be that the nature of beta testers is different. These days beta doesn’t mean testing. Usually the game is ready for live and everyone is let in in order to load test which means there is little for the players to actually do. But I think this is an actual beta going on here. Not just a stress test that also acts as advertising.

To be honest, I don’t even think that Turbine quite knows what to do with this in the future. I think they have a base purpose in mind. But I don’t know if they have an exact plan. The reason is that they likely don’t know how many people are going to be active players in AC2 and how many new subscriptions they will draw from it, and won’t for quite some time. They may gain enough additional subs to pay for 2 additional people on the AC live team, they may have enough for 10, or they might not have enough for any. Depending on how many people stick around we could end up with 1 content update a year, 1 ever 3 months, or just bug fixes from time to time and the capability to keep both AC2 and AC1 going.1

At this point guys, let’s concentrate on fixing the real issues to get the server up and going and stable. Let’s give Turbine a little breathing room to figure out how to handle this thing. And most importantly, let’s be happy that we are helping contribute to the continued of both Asheron’s Call 1 AND 2.

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?”