In 1997, Origin Systems launched an ambitious project called Ultima Online (UO for short). UO is a massive-multiplayer roleplaying game (MMORPG or MMO), which is an intimidating mouthful that refers to a computer game that is played in a shared setting with thousands of other players.
Among those playing the game at launch were three friends who had adopted the character names Joshua Rowan, Robert the Red, and Sir Lancelot. They formed a guild that they called The Golden Knights, Guardians of the Way, and set themselves the task of defending a chokepoint called The Crossroads against other players who had taken on the roles of killers and thieves.
Shortly after launch, one of Joshua’s real-life friends expressed an interest in the game, and soon created a character on the same server as the Golden Knights; Ursula. Her husband at the time, watching over her shoulder, soon got an account and created a character of his own; Thorin Ironbeard. That’s me.
My return to Ultima Online has left me thinking about why this antique game resonates with me when so many newer and flashier titles have left me feeling flat.
One draw that UO has that so many others don’t is a dedicated contingent of contract staff (Event Managers) that run events and scenarios, playing characters in the game and interacting with players and player communities. It’s an extension of the successful and popular volunteer program of the early days of UO (which was derailed by a lawsuit).
Advice to developers: in-game staff is critical. Obviously out-of-character support is vital (and just as obviously most companies short-staff support — when your accountants start tearing their hair out and screaming that you have far too many GMs, then you probably have about half of what you need).
But it’s just as important to have staff in the world that are part of the world. Your NPC queen should stand up from her throne now and again, stretch, and stroll down to the nearest player-run village to borrow a cup of sugar. Or something.
Last December, The Golden Brew Tavern, a virtual player-run alehouse on the Baja shard of Ultima Online, decayed away into memory after nearly 12 years in continuous existence. The Brew is mentioned in books on community building and the history of MMOs, academic symposiums, and other places that we never expected to end up.
Retrospectives were composed, memorials were planned. The event coordinators on the Baja Shard named things after us (including their website). It was a touching tribute, the best funeral we could hope for.
So naturally, we decided to spoil it by not being dead after all.
The one million account figure I reported in the previous post is for all people with registered Cryptic accounts, not Star Trek Online alone. This may or may not include people who don’t play either Champions Online or Star Trek Online (details are still fuzzy).
While the exact figure hasn’t been published, there’s little doubt in the minds of most industry observers that this is far and away the most successful launch since WoW, surpassing all expectations, and I believe that the bottom line will reveal that it was double or triple the numbers of the World of Warcraft launch.
If (and this is a big if) they keep the content flowing freely and expand the game frequently and aggressively, they have the capability to steal the crown from WoW. On the other hand, if they drag their feet on expanding the main game while diverting too many resources to premium content or get bogged down in the quagmire of PvP balance, well, the race is theirs to lose.
At the end of the launch day, Star Trek Online had registered over a million player accounts.
That’s an incredible achievement by any measure. But I’ve seen some commentators responding with, “yeah, but World of Warcraft has 11 million active accounts”, as if to relegate STO to some niche beneath the notice of a WoW loyalist.
Let’s set the record straight. WoW has over 11 million active accounts AFTER six continuous years in operation. How many accounts had it registered on launch day, back in 2004? It took a bit of digging, but the answer is: somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000.
And THAT was an incredible achievement at the time for a massive multiplayer game. Give WoW its props; it didn’t just dominate the market, it expanded it into new territory and brought in legions of people who would never have considered an MMO prior to that time. It earned its place as king of the mountain.
STO is doing the same; bringing in a fresh horde of non-MMO gamers into the MMO fold. It’s not competing with WoW as much as it is helping draw fresh meat into the mix… something all the subscription titles ought to be applauding.
Only time will tell if Cryptic can hold onto and expand upon that remarkable start. But of all the games launched in recent years, I think Star Trek Online has the greatest potential to not only surpass the WoW peak, but to push the “Massive” in MMO to a new quantum state.
I’m tired of predictable games.
I logged into Champions Online the other night with one of my low-level alts, and stood atop a building and considered my mission log. I could go fight one of the Millenium City gangs for bandanas… but I’ve done that with my other characters, the gangsters always spawn in the same spots and once you’ve learned the standard powers of the four or five thug types in each gang, there are few surprises. I could go confront Foxbat over his theft of a shipment of ping-pong balls… but again, I know that when I get to the warehouse where he’s stored his stash, all I’ll find is a few of his robotic henchmen and I won’t confront the zany supervillain himself until the battle at the television station where the same lame Network jokes will play out in sequence. All of my missions were the same old rides.
So I logged off and went and played Second Life instead.
I’m not bashing the Cryptic development team. This is an industry-wide issue. Once you complete a quest, there may be some replayability in doing it with another character with a different set of abilities… but in general, once you’ve got the patterns memorized it’s just a rote grind.
What I would love to see is more randomness. Unpredictable spawn points. Henchmen with a wide range of possible configurations. Quests that offer mutally-exclusive branches. Crafting systems where the same recipe can render hundreds or thousands of permutations of the same item, depending on luck, skill and player choices. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.
I don’t want quests to go away. I like the roller-coaster. But a roller-coaster that rebuilds itself continuously so it’s never the same ride twice? Now THAT would be cool.
I’m a Trekker (or Trekkie, I’m not getting into the terminology debate). I’ve followed the show since its first run, and while it may take me a second to recall the name of Admiral Archer’s prize beagle, I can still give you a data dump of information on a fictional universe that I love.
Star Trek Online filled me with a certain degree of trepidation, though. My hopes for Champions Online (produced by the same company, Cryptic) were… tarnished. I LIKE Champions Online, but I don’t love it. I see the skin of the RPG I used to love stretched over the skeleton of the defunct Marvel Universe MMO and I don’t think it really does justice to either.
I’m happy to report that Star Trek Online is a different kettle of fish. I still don’t LOVE it, but I definitely like like it. Let me hit some highlights. (more…)