Aaron Cohen, the Producer of Ultima Online, spoke to WarCry Network recently about Ultima Online. The aging grandfather of the modern MMO genre is still chugging along, now under the direction of EA Mythic. Find out what they’re up to in advance of their big event this week.
Answers by Aaron Cohen, Producer, Ultima Online
Questions by Dana Massey
WarCry Network: Ultima Online has been a staple of the industry for years. From a developer perspective, how has time treated the game?
Aaron Cohen: Being around for nine years does two things, one positive, one negative. The negative is that your graphics, UI and overall production values look more dated every year. Looking old clearly hurts your chances of attracting new players, which leads to your game getting smaller. That’s a pretty big negative, and it’s the reason we are putting so much effort into Kingdom Reborn.
On the other hand, the positive of being around for close to a decade is a pretty big positive. You get nine years of content, features and depth. Every dev team to work on UO has lift two or three significant features, giving UO an extremely wide variety of things to see and do. It’s a big game, which is one the reasons why it’s still around and thriving.
Our goal with Kingdom Reborn is to make that nine years of development much more accessible to new players and elder players alike.
WarCry Network: The graphics are not going to compete with the latest games on the market, but given you’re one of the few mainstream games still using an isometric point of view, what advantages do you feel that affords you in terms of gameplay?
Aaron Cohen: Isometric view is fun! You can see a lot of the battlefield, what’s behind you, places to hide, places where you can peel off pursuers, places to put down area of effect spells or wall spells. It’s a different style of play, and fans of it find it to be more tactical than first-person style combat, a little more like an RTS game and less like a shooter.
Also, in a game where customized housing is important, an isometric view gives a better view of your home and what you’ve built. One of the most interesting things to do in UO is to walk through neighborhoods of player-built housing, each one unique and creative in its own way.
WarCry Network: Many MMOs have tried different twists on combat since UO first hit stores. Can you talk to us about how combat plays in UO now and if you’ve ever thought of doing a complete overhaul to update it?
Aaron Cohen: Combat in UO is actually not so unlike combat in most other games. There are some basic mechanics having to do with targeting that the new UI in UOKR will fix, but otherwise, it feels about the same as other RPGs.
For instance, when you want to attack something, you go into “war mode” which is pretty much like auto-attack in every other MMORPG. You then can choose from weapon abilities, spells, skills and items as you fight. Also, you’ll want to use different movement and defensive techniques depending on what you’re fighting.
I think the fun of UO combat comes from the fact that if you know what you’re doing, you can take down a monster that several times more powerful than you. Being clever counts in UO counts for a lot, and as we add new content, we want to enhance that.
WarCry Network: What is the progression curve like on UO at this time? Back in the day, people could get to some decent skill levels rather quickly. Is that still the case?
Aaron Cohen: Yes, you can get to 700 skill points and max out several skills in a few weeks to a month or so. The fun of UO isn’t about working your character up to the highest level, it’s choosing what skills you want to perfect and how to spend those 700 skill points across more than 50 different skills. Tweaking your character and finding the right mix for your style of play is what makes UO different from level-based games where the point is to get the highest rank.
WarCry Network: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that it takes some time to get into UO. How long would you say a new player should give it before they make up their mind and what are you doing to make UO easier to enjoy for new players?
Aaron Cohen: The best thing a new player can do in UO as it is today is explore, experiment and realize that there is no set path or set of hand-holding quests that leads you through the first 10-20 hours. It’s less like a theme park and much more like a world. You need to set your own goals, decide your own direction. You get a lot of freedom in UO, and for many new players, that much freedom leads to simply not knowing what to do. Too much choice feels like no choice.
With UOKR, we are building on a concept we call “bright paths,” meaning we want to present clear career paths to a new player so he can make educated choices about what he wants to do and be. The nice thing about UO is that once you choose a path, you can leave it and start another without having to begin a new character. If you are on the Mage path and decide its time to learn some Warrior skills, you can do that. You want your Necromancer to pick up a few Ninja lessons, he can do that.
The idea is to still give players the huge array of choices UO presents, but provide enough direction so players can make informed choices and know what to do next.
WarCry Network: The economy of Ultima Online has been the subject of much debate and even academic study. How has it evened out over time and what are some of the challenges you face dealing with a nine-year-old economy?
Aaron Cohen: That’s a deep, deep question and you truly could write a book about in-game economies. I’ll try and keep the answer as short as I can.
Over the last nine years, the biggest problem facing the economy is inflation. Gold pieces are becoming worth less because there are simply too many of them in the game. This drives prices higher and higher for high-end items and real estate.
It’s also a tough problem to handle because you can’t simply wave a wand and erase half the money in game. (Well, you could, but that wouldn’t be a popular move.)
We are looking at a few different ways to create money synchs and control the flow of gold without being punitive to young players.
All that being said, the economy game in UO is fun for lots of players. We have a robust player vendor system and entrepreneurship can be seen everywhere. I’m also impressed by the creativity players show in building and marketing in-game businesses.
WarCry Network: With the Ultima Online team paradoxically being a younger one than those at the EA Mythic studio, of which you are now a part, what specifically have they taught you and how have they improved or altered UO?
Aaron Cohen: Younger? You think? Our team ranges from folks in the early 20s to folks in their early 50s, with plenty in between. In many ways, our dev team looks a lot like our player base, which also has a surprising range of younger to older.
As for working with Mythic, it great working with those folks. We face a lot of the same problems, have made some of the same mistakes, and have traded some shockingly similar war stories.
What I’m excited by is the opportunity to get feedback on UOKR from an experienced MMORPG team before we give it to the public, and we’ll be giving some feedback on WAR and how its shaping up (which is spectacular if I might say). It’s rare in this industry to get feedback from experts with fresh eyes, because most of the time, the only experts you know of happen to be working on the game or are competitors.
WarCry Network: If I left UO five years ago, what would surprise or impress me most upon returning?
Aaron Cohen: Probably that there is so much activity and so much going on. In the last year, we’ve tried to make UO an active world with something new going on almost every week, a range of small events to full blown multi-week invasions. Our goal moving forward will be to build on that, making logging in every week an absolute must.
WarCry Network: Kingdom Reborn is the next expansion. While there will be many more details later this month, the name implies a new take or lease on life. What do you hope to accomplish with KR?
Aaron Cohen: Just what you said, we want to give UO a new lease on life by making its many strengths more accessible to new players and by eliminating many of its weaknesses, many of them caused simply by the passing of time.
We don’t want to go head-to-head with the monsters of the genre or the new games that seem designed to make your graphics card melt. We want to create a game with charm and appeal all its own, where you can do and be whatever it is you want, all within a world that feels alive with new changes and challenges. We want the devoted UO community, who have been with us for years and years, to know that their world has bright future, and for new players, we want to offer an experience that is unlike anything else.
WarCry Network: From a broad view, where do you see UO going over the next several years?
Aaron Cohen: I see a tight-knit growing community playing in a virtual world that they increasingly have the power to shape. We have a sketch of the next five years of UO, with major developments and expansion packs mapped out. The plan is built around the idea of leveraging UOs strengths (for instance, the isometric view and deep skill system, among others) and giving players more and more ways to be creative and leave their mark on the world. In five years, I think the world of UO will be more their creation than ours.
But first, we’ve got to ship Kingdom Reborn and deliver a few more surprises later this year.
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