Game Reviews,  The Lazy Designer

A Sense of Wonder

I do not like massively multi-player games.
But one of my favorite games of all times was Ultima Online.
If you are scratching your head and wondering at this contradiction, bear with me and prepare yourself for a ramble.

New Experiences

I grew up in the 80-90s and witnessed the birth and development of the videogame industry. I went from playing simple, yet fun, games on my Adam (and learning to code my own games) to playing less simple but still fun games on a couple different Tandy computers.

And what did I play? Everything I could get my hands on. Every game was a experience, offering a new style of gameplay and new methods of user interaction. I still remember my shock hearing music and voice in The Dagger of Amon Ra! I actually thought there was something wrong with my ears when I heard the monks in that game chanting for the first time.

And then playing the Wing Commander games and the later Sierra titles, feeling like I was being involved in interactive cartoons. To today’s generation of gamers the production values of these games would probably be laughable but I felt I was watching miracle after miracle unfold.

Multi-player, not so much

The few games I played that had multi-player components were initially exciting but never really thrilled me the way the single player games did. The one exception I can still recall would be Trade Wars, which we played on a local BBS. There were only a handful of players and the game quickly went out of balance but I still remember having fun building an empire that others could interact with.

For me the novelty of the experience was the most exciting part as the games I played continued to surprise me.

Ultima Online

I was a big fan of the Ultima series and when Ultima Online was announced I was ecstatic. I joined the beta test (still have the pin and cd from that!) and was mesmerized by the game.

So, why does Ultima Online resonate with me and newer games do not? Probably because it was the first experience I had with engaging in real-time (and chatting) with people from other parts of the world. But more importantly it was the ability to change the world. I could buy a building and place it and when I logged off for the night that building would STILL BE THERE for other players to see. That was mind boggling to me. Sure there was combat and experience and progression but actually building and selling things and creating a tangible presence in a virtual world was fascinating. I could talk for hours about the millions of little experiences I had in Ultima Online (but I won’t).

And World of Warcraft? I was given a copy of it to play while I was with BioWare. It is a great game, a well crafted game. But it is a game I had played already. There was nothing new to it for me. And lots had been taken away, specifically being able to create buildings.

What I did like about WOW was exploring the world and I think I would have been more hooked if I hadn’t been able to do that exploration as a ghost. One of the first things I did after dying for the second or third time was travel the entire world as a spirit and check out all the environments. After that there was little exploration remaining for me.

But not being able to change the world prevented me from really engaging with World of Warcraft (and the other games like it).

Where to now?

Are there still surprises left to be had? What is it about the more popular games that attracts so much attention? Clearly multi-player is important for many — World of Warcraft is really a social experience.

Or is novelty/new experiences even needed or important or possible now?

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • Shawn

    after the first week of it ringing every hour I turned the modem sounds off. I play MMO every once in a while, but usually not for long. i go through a honeymoon period where i really like it then it just get boring. One that i do keep going back to is Eve. WOW i never played very long. Ultima Online and Asheron’s call were the first 2 I played and the ones i played the most.

  • Brent N

    Not having a computer at home until I was 13 or 14 really cut into my exposure to early computer games. We always had the latest consoles, for which I can be grateful, but multiplayer games were typically limited to 4 people, with extra equipment required.

    The day we got a computer, I vividly remember picking up Warcraft: Orcs & Humans off the shelf and checking the back. I thought, “WoW”…now, clairvoyance doesn’t run in my family, but I knew I’d be playing this game for awhile. And so I did…every expansion of every Warcraft game. I held off from the World of Warcraft for three years, but now I play it often.

    My first true MMO was Everquest. I never got far into it…I enjoyed the graphics, when my computer could handle them, but I was forever lost when it came to the storyline, and poor PvP skills assured me countless corpse runs.

    I have never tried Ultima Online – I’ve heard many people comment on it, but I’m not even sure if a person could still play it. Same goes for the Eve, Age of Conan, Star Wars and Star Trek MMO’s. I never bothered with the Everquest sequels.

    I really enjoy World of Warcraft…long-arcing storylines, rich characters, and so on. I should also mention I read the novels and the graphic novels, which definitely flush out the lore. I see so often in-game people playing for the hack-and-slash without a clue as to what’s going on. Not that there’s anything wrong with their playstyle, per se; I personally like to know why I’m crashing into some guy’s stomping grounds and beating the shit out of him.

    Executed properly, I think MMO’s are able to offer just about everything to everyone; WoW seems to have given it their best college try, anyhow. The game’s certainly not perfect, but it does offer many paths. Raids and dungeons for the glory-seekers; achievements for the “Look at what I did, ma!” type…umm, guilty as charged; collectable items for the OCD-prone players; guilds for social-minded toons; and a global channel to wave your epeen around.

    Fresh from the launch of another WoW expansion, the world of Azeroth has changed! Somewhat, anyhow. Some zones were revamped; a handful were introduced. Tons of new quests, but a laddered (parallel) levelling system almost makes half of the new zones redundant, experience-wise. I’ll be headed back to one I bypassed just for content exposure, but I know many players won’t.

    I think the beauty of it is that my game is not necessarily your game, but we can play both in World of Warcraft. Just watch out, ’cause my PvP skills have improved. And as soon as I run back to my corpse, I’ll show you them.

  • Brent Knowles

    Brent – thanks for your perspective on this! Loads of folks at BioWare played WOW regularly (and I imagine they still do) and were always telling me fascinating stories about what happened while playing.

    I think for me it was just timing, because I had played so much Ultima Online and such I never really got hooked into WOW. I *did* appreciate the opportunity to play solo (as a Hunter) in WOW… without that I probably wouldn’t even have played it as much as I did.

    You are definitely right in that they allow for a wide range of player types, which is wise move.

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