[future-games] New Yorker article: How an online world survived a social breakdown

  • From: lynette_webb@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • To: future-games@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 14 Aug 2003 18:24:13 +0100

Just so the list isn't *totally* empty...  this is something I sent to the
yahoogroup list yesterday.  It'll give you an idea of the kind of thing to

Now, apologies in advance for spelling mistakes in this...  we couldn't
find it online so Emily scanned it in from my paper copy and converted to
text.  Usually it's fine but sometimes little glitches slip through.  This
is from the New Yorker, May 28 2001 issue.  I *love* the New Yorker, so
much that I have an archive at home going back every issue to 1995!!...
anyway, I stumbled across this issue again when clearing up at home over
the weekend, and thought it was still a fascinating insight into the world
of "massively multiplayer role playing games" written in layman's terms
worth sending round.

One thing that did intrigue me... apparently even back in mid 2001 people
were selling virtual world things on Ebay.  I just checked and there's
currently 17 listings for property in Trammel (which is one of the Ultima
worlds described below).  Prices range from $10 up to $450.   Here's one of
the listings:
"This house is in Trammel, just south of Yew (north of Brigand Camp).
(Sextant Coordinates - 27o 46'N 47o 44'W) This small stone tower has 2
floors and a roof. This home has a storage limit of 580. It may be
increased after the new UO publishes are released. This house has little
spawn near it (maybe a harpy), and its neighbors are on its south side. A
very good location as you can walk to the Brigand Camp, Lich Camp, Yew or
just relax where its peaceful. Good luck!"
There's something so surreal about it that I just love!

Lynette.  :-)



How an online world survived a social breakdown


Maps of Britannia show a boomerang-shaped island with the cities of Minoc
and Vesper at the northern end, Britain and Yew in the middle, and Trinsic
in the south. The kingdom, which is stuck somewhere between the sixth and
the twelfth centuries, has a single unit of currency, a gold piece that
looks a little like a biscuit. A network of servers is supposed to keep
track of all the gold, just as it keeps track of every- thing else on the
island, but in late 1997 bands of counterfeiters found a bug that allowed
them to reproduce gold pieces more or less at will. The fantastic wealth
they produced for themselves as, of course, entirely imaginary, and yet it
led, in textbook fashion, to hyperinflation. At the worst point in the
crisis, Britannia's monetary system virtually collapsed, and players all
over the kingdom were reduced to bartering.

Ever since Pong, at once goofy and mesmerizing, reached the mass market,
back in the mid-seventies, electronic gaming has moved ahead at an
improbable speed. Now, between the sales of consoles and those of software,
it is a business larger than Hollywood. Mean- while, the games themselves
have be- come faster, smarter, meaner, and, in the case of Ultima Online,
more outlandish.

A "massively multi -player online role- playing game," or, only slightly
less awkwardly, an M.M.P.O.R.P.G., Ultima Online is managed and operated by
Origin Systems, a gaming company based in Austin, which charges subscribers
nine ninety-five a month to maintain a character, or "avatar," in
Britannia. Players manipulate tiny two- dimensional figures who move
jerkily through a computer-generated landscape of spells and dragons and
ridable ostriches. The game has no beginning and no end, and there is no
way to win or lose, although it is possible to be killed. Nearly a quarter
of a million people subscribe, and each player logs an average of thirteen
hours a week, meaning that in the course of a year Ultima absorbs more than
a hundred and sixty million man-hours.

Ultima's appeal is clearly that of an escapist fantasy, yet the most
striking feature of the game's brief history is its perversely recurrent
social realism. In its original design, the game gave players a choice of
professions: they could train their avatars in any of some three dozen
fields, ranging from archery and alchemy to animal taming. No sooner was
U.O. up and running than a player introduced a new line of work by
operating two characters, one named Jenny and the other Pimp Daddy. On top
of hyperinflation, Britannia has suffered a wave of extinctions, paralyzing
hoarding, and a crime problem so intractable that at one point the game was
forced to, in effect, split itself in half Considered as an inadvertent and
largely unsupervised experiment, U.O. raises questions about whether people
can manage to coexist peacefully even when they don't really exist.

After the counterfeiting bug was fixed, members of Origin's staff decided
that they needed to shrink the money supply by retiring gold from the
system. Among the various schemes that they tried was holding an auction
for a special kind of red hair dye. Players-their characters, anyway lined
up for hours, partitions had to be built to keep the crowds in line, and
eventually guards were summoned to prevent a riot. Apart from its
attraction as a status symbol, the red hair dye had, even within the
fiction of the game, no value whatever.

Lord British wears a silver crown and a gray tunic with a silver serpent
emblazoned on the chest. As the ruler of Britannia, he has been a frequent
target of protest; at one point, hundreds of disgruntled citizens stripped
down to their underwear, broke into his case, and stood around shouting
(when, typing) profanities. Lord British has the power to make himself
invulnerable; once, when he forgot to do so, he wound up dead.

Lord British is the handle of Richard Garriott, Origin's founder. Garriott
sold the company to Electronic Arts, the computer-games giant, in 1992, for
thirty million dollars, but he continued to work there until last spring,
when, as a result of what could broadly be described as creative
differences, he and Electronic Arts parted ways. I happened to visit him
one morning just as his year- long non-compete agreement with Electronic
Arts was about to expire, and he was preparing to formally launch yet an-
other computer-gaming company. His phone rang almost continuously.

Garriott, who is thirty-nine, is tall and lanky, with blondish hair and two
very long, very thin braids that hang, like tails, down his back. He
designed his own house, which sits high up on a hill not far from Origin's
offices, in north Austin. It has a network of secret passageways, a rooftop
observatory, a dungeon with a real human skeleton, and a ' scuba-diving
pool equipped with faucets that issue hot and cold running rain. Garriott
collects old toys, and armor, and fossils, and models of the solar system,
and a lot of other things that are not so easily categorized, like a
lunar-soil collector called Lunakod 21, which is still on the moon and
which the Russians sold him, several years ago, for sixty thousand dollars.
It is his dream to make a space voyage himself one day-his father, Owen, is
a retired astronaut-and, to this end, he has travelled to Moscow several
times for weightlessness training. Next spring, he is planning a sub-
marine trip to the ocean floor beneath the ice cap at the North Pole.

Ultima Online grew out of a series of computer games that Garriott began
designing when he was a student at the University of Texas. The first,
which he finished in 1980. was called Akalabeth; it came on a floppy disk
and could be played only on an Apple II. Garriott was selling the game in
Ziploc bags at a computer store he was working at when a software publisher
from California happened upon it. They signed an agreement under which
Garriott was to receive five dollars for every copy of the game that was
sold. By the time he finished his freshman year, he had made a hundred and
fifty thousand dollars. A year later, he dropped out of school.

Like many other computer-driven medieval-fantasy games, Akalabeth drew
heavily on Dungeons & Dragons, which for its part had drawn on "The Lord of
the Rings." Garriott describes himself as deeply influenced by Tolkien,
who, as he points out, took an extremely rigorous view of make-believe.
"It's in- credibly important for me to know much more detail about my
fictional worlds than ever comes out," he told me, once we had settled in
his office, which is appointed with a Japanese cosmonaut's suit. "That's
the only way to give it internal consistency and integrity and build
something that is believable."

Nine successors to Akalabeth followed, called, collectively, the Ultima
Series. In each of the games, a player navigates through various perils to
help Lord British save the world from various evils. In Ultima V, for
example, subsided "Warriors of Destiny," the player encounters a tribe of
nasty-looking aliens who turn out, in the end, to be trying to protect
their kingdom from the destruction that the player himself has wrought.
Finishing a game takes from fifty to a hundred hours, depending on a
player's experience and ability.

In keeping with Garriott's Tolkienism, Ultima Online is also
extraordinarily detailed, down to its most banal features. Players can
design clothes for their avatars; they can have pets and train them to do
tricks; and they can construct elaborate houses, which, if they have the
wherewithal, they can decorate with paintings and rugs and candelabra and
tchotchkes. They "talk" to one another by typing - the words appear
suspended above the characters' heads-and they tend to use a combination of
pseudo Middle English and computerese, slipping from "thee" and "thou" to
"LOL" (Laughing out loud) and "WTF" (What the fuck?).

Many familiar elements of the Ultima Series, like Lord British, reappear in
Ultima Online, but the logic of the enterprise is inverted. In place of the
goal- driven narratives of the earlier games is an open-endedness that
leaves the player free to do pretty much whatever he pleases--slay dragons,
raise the dead, or make shirts. U.O. features a kind of fishing, which
involves gripping a virtual pole and clicking on some virtual water
(Virtual fish bite according to a fixed algorithm.) The activity has proved
extremely popular.

As Garriott pointed out to me, U.O. is one of the few unambiguously
profitable uses of the Internet, other than pornography. Still, moving the
game online has not been without its costs. In the original Ultima games,
the player might have been all alone but he did get to be the hero. In
U.O., the player has to struggle for recognition. "Playing a virtual-world
game takes some getting used to," Garriott told me. "You have to realize
that the world is what you make of it. Unfortunately, that means most
likely you're going to have a relatively mediocre life."

Britannia has some thirty "game masters," who work in round-the-clock
shifts out of a large room on the third floor of Origin's headquarters. The
room has two rows of carrels, and each carrel is outfitted with two
computers. Three- quarters of the game masters are young men, and they seem
to subsist mainly on cigarettes and litre-sized cups of soda. One day, I
spent several hours in the room, sitting next to the young man who plays
Game Master Quinnly. Game Master Quinnly wears a red robe and tries to
remain courtly even under difficult circumstances. "Hail, I'm GM Quinnly,"
he told one young knight accused of killing a friend and then looting his
corpse. "GMs suck ass," the knight responded.

Queries come into the game masters' queue from all over the world-" Ich
sitze bier in] ail und weiss nicht weiter" was one that I saw-and on every
conceivable topic. Often, players acuse each other of "macroing"--operating
a character on an automatic program, which is against the rules - or of
exploiting bugs in the programming to circumvent the game's limitations.
There were complaints of harassment and stealing and scamming and also
several reports of foul language-for example, "A guy named Sebell called me
a faggot," and "Feodoric is continuing to call me a bedwetter" - which is
another violation of game protocol.

Running the game masters' room is a big expense for Origin and, to a large
degree, an unanticipated one. Britannia was supposed to be self-policing,
but instead it kept veering toward anarchy. Early on, more experienced
players figured out how to identify new characters, or, as they are called,
"newbies." In addition to being unfamiliar with the landscape, newbies
cannot defend themselves against older characters who have had more time to
collect skill points. Some players were luring newbies out into the woods,
beyond the protection of the town guards, and killing them; others were
encouraging newbies to commit crimes, and then letting the guards kill
them. The result was a lot of players whose experience of the game
consisted mostly of being dead, a condition that discouraged them from
continuing to pay their monthly fees.

In response to the slaughter, U.O.'s designers introduced the "notoriety"
system--a version of "Megan's law." The server was reprogrammed to note
when one character killed another and to gradually turn a murderer's
name-characters' names appear above their heads- from very blue to very
red. The problem with the notoriety system was that player-killers, or PKs,
soon figured out a way to foil it. Killing a player-killer was considered
by the servers to be not a bad deed but a good one, so PKs paired up to do
each other in. The more times they did this, the bluer their names became.
"You'd see this person and you'd go, 'Hey; it's Mother Teresa,' and then
he'd stab you in the back, " one of the designers of the system told me.

"Notoriety" was subsequently modified to "reputation," a system similar to
that used on eBay, by which victims could rate their murderers. The problem
with this system was that everyone handed out murder counts, no matter what
the circumstances of the killing (Dead characters can be resurrected by
characters skilled in healing). The counts eroded over time, so PKs were
keeping their characters logged on, doing nothing, as a form of
self-imposed jail time. Eventually, a bounty system was introduced, but
this, too, proved vulnerable to manipulation: PKs would have their friends
kill them and split the bounty.

Finally, last year, U.O. gave up on the notion of self-policing. Britannia
these days exists in two parallel versions, or "facets"-Felucca, where
killing other players is O.K., and Trammel, where, except under very
limited circumstances, it is not. Four-fifths of all players choose

The facet system has succeeded in reducing unwanted player-versus-player
violence, but, if the time I spent with the game masters is any indication,
it has certainly not eliminated it. One complaint received by Game Master
Quinnly concerned a character named Gaudemus, who, it was reported, was
sicking his dragon on other characters (Dragons can be tamed and kept as
pets.) Quinnly hastened to the scene:

GM QUlNNLY: Let's discuss your releasing dragons to kill other players.
GAUDEMUS: That's illegal.
GAUD EMUS: I released it because I don't' want it. It was a crappy dragon.
GM QUlNNLY: I am releasing you on this warning.

One night in Austin, I went out to dinner with Raph Koster, U.O.'s former
lead designer, and Rich Vogel, , the game's former producer. Both now work
for Verant, which is owned by Sony and produces EverQuest, U.O.'s main
rival. The two are on the development team for a game based on the "Star
Wars" fiction, which is scheduled to ' launch next year. Vogel, who is
thirty-two, is tall and fair and reticent; Koster, who is twenty-nine, is
short and dark' and voluble. The restaurant that we went: to served
American cuisine, and was decorated, somewhat incongruously, as a ski
lodge, with snowshoes on the wall and a fire roaring in the hearth.

Austin these days is a major high-tech center - the direct flight between
the city and San Jose, California, is referred to as the "nerd bird" - and
it has become a hub of electronic gaming. The city's gaming: world is a
close one, whose inhabitants all seem to have one another's numbers
programmed into their cell phones.

Like almost everyone else I met who had been associated with U.O., Vogel
and Koster referred to themselves as "gamers," by which they seemed to mean
not just that they liked to play computer games but that they didn't really
see them as games. Koster was an aficionado of MUDs, or multi-user
dungeons, while Vogel had been an early addict of a game called Dragon's
Gate, which operated on the computer service Genie and was billed on a
per-hour basis. When his habit was at its height, Vogel told me, he had run
up bills of several hundred dollars a month.

U.O. took more than two years to de- sign, and, according to Koster, who
joined the development team in 1995, a great deal of that time went into
trying to perfect what was known as the "resource system." Under this
system, both natural and man-made objects were coded according to the
imaginary resources that went into them--a sheep, for example, was a couple
of units of meat and a couple of units of wool--and the total pool of each
resource was fixed, so that there would always be a certain amount of meat
in the world and a certain amount of wool. One of the goals of the system
was to produce a naturalistic and therefore dynamic environment: the sheep
would get eaten by wolves, and as the wolf population grew the sheep would

The resource system had many features that participants in the early tests
of the game found cool. "Players really liked seeing the wolves attack the
sheep," Koster said. "If wolves stayed alive a long time, they got cannier
and stronger and smarter and deadlier, so you'd run into these old grizzled
wolves that had been around the block. These wolves would eat sheep even if
there were no players nearby. They were actually living out their little
artificial lives out there."

Even as experienced garners, Koster and Vogel were taken aback by what
happened next. U.O. went live in late September of 1997, and by early
October Britannia was on the brink of environmental collapse. "The
creatures had all gone extinct, because people had hunted them out
completely," Koster recalled. "The land was completely deforested, so no
more wood was growing anywhere. And all the mines had been mined out."
Players even assembled teams to hunt down some particularly cunning wolves.
"These wolves got to be so deadly that a single player had no chance
against them, because we didn't put an upper cap on how smart they could
get," Koster said.

Under the resource system, players could gather raw materials, like ore,
and make them into finished goods, like armor, which, once used, would
begin to break down and reenter the pool as raw materials. Players, it
turned out, liked to make things - they were turning out hundreds, and even
thousands, of swords and shields and gauntlets - but instead of using them,
or throwing them out, which would have had the same effect, they hoarded
them. One player reportedly had a collection of ten thousand identical
shirts. The result was that there were hardly any materials available to
replenish the pool, which deepened the environmental crisis.

At first, the design team tried to deal with the situation by funnelling in
more resources, but these, too, were quickly grabbed and hoarded. No one
could figure out how to keep the game going without giving up on the
system: in the virtual world, as in the real one, economic growth and
ecological stability can be tragically difficult to reconcile.

Now the game is programmed so that the servers continually add more ore and
sheep and wolves to the landscape. This largesse has solved the
mass-extinction problem, but not the hoarding, which continues,
contributing to server lag. Why players hold on to so many essentially
useless items remains a mystery: When I asked Koster about it, he said,
"Why do you have all the junk you have?"

The first time I visited Britannia, I went as Gudrun, a young archer. Like
all players, I got to choose many of my avatar's features upon creating
her. I gave her a peaches-and-cream complexion, blond pigtails, and a not
very medieval miniskirt. Not long after Gudrun arrived in the kingdom, she
met Dark Wolf
Dark Wolf was wearing a red robe and carrying a long sword. He bought
Gudrun some shoes, and also a suit of leather armor, which, when she put it
on, turned out to be a tight-fitting affair halfway between a cuirass and a
bustier. It was unclear to me whether Dark Wolf was expressing simple
fellow-feeling for Gudrun or something harder to satisfy. Because Gudrun
was an archer, she came I equipped with a bow and a bunch of arrows. Being
young, she was not a very good archer; nevertheless, with Dark Wolf's
assistance she managed to kill some poor hapless hart. "U were great," Dark
Wolf told her.

Britannia operates on the principle that doing is improving, and so the
most skillful characters are, almost by definition, the ones who have been
playing the longest. On the island of Moon- glow, Gudrun met a knight named
Roy, who seemed to have a lot of experience but claimed to have just
started playing earlier that week. She asked him how he had been able to
become so skilled in so short a time. "In the last couple of days, I've
been sick, heh, heh, heh," he replied.

As Gudrun, I never managed to lose my newbie status, and I spent a lot of
time wandering around, trying to figure out what I was supposed to be
doing. Other characters were constantly offering to trade things with
me--every character starts out with a thousand gold pieces-or inviting me
home with them, or asking me to join their "party," which meant that I
could communicate with them through special channels, and also, somewhat
less appealingly, that they could loot my corpse if the opportunity arose.
But being a member of a party often just seemed to mean not knowing what to
do as a member of a group. I found the game at once mildly addictive and
boring, like the dances I used to go to in high school.

Ever since electronic multi-player role-playing games first appeared, in
the form of multi-user dungeons, back in the late seventies, there has been
much speculation about what draws people to them. Richard Bartle, an
Englishman who might be described as the Claude Levi-Strauss of the MUD
world, once proposed a four-part typology, dividing players into
"socializers," "achievers," "explorers," and "killers." Even though U.O.,
with a quarter of a million sub- scribers, is two or three orders of
magnitude larger than even the most populous MUD, Bartle's scheme fits the
game pretty well.

As time has passed, community- oriented players have introduced into
Britannia a wide variety of ordinary, not to say humdrum, social rituals.
They organize pet shows and comedy nights, put on amateur theatricals, and
regularly hold disco parties in the dungeons. Marriages are commonplace in
the game, and when a player dies in real life a funeral is usually held for
his avatar; players leave virtual flowers on the virtual grave. In Austin,
over and over again I was told stories of friends who meet in the taverns
of Vesper and Trinsic to do nothing more remarkable than pretend to drink
beer and pretend to play chess.

The game's achievers, for their part, have managed to produce an
overheated, almost Hamptonsesque real-estate market. Buildable lots are
scarce - in some areas unobtainable-and such is the demand for mansionettes
that it has spilled out of Britannia. On any given day, eBay has a couple
of thousand auctions running of V. O. homes and other paraphernalia.
Recently, I saw on the auction site an enormous castle for sale in Trammel
that had received twenty- two bids and was going for eight hundred dollars.

The killers, meanwhile, have not confined themselves to killing. They've
organized themselves into murderous factions and extortion rackets. Origin
discourages those under thirteen from playing the game, but one
eight-year-old girl found a way in and, as the company learned later from
her irate mother, took as a pet a cat, which another player skinned.

To the extent that Bartle's typology is clarifying bout U.O., however, it
reveals how peculiarly conflicted the enterprise is. If conventional games
have an over- arching ambition, it is to define the com- petition in such a
way as to avoid the sort of messy, emotional uncertainties that
characterize life on the outside. U.O. and other role-playing games have
the reverse effect, forcing players to fight again and again over what the
game is really about. "The hatred that some socializers bear for killers
admits no bounds," Bartle once observed.

In this sense, U.0. is, for all its evident silliness, essentially serious:
a game with inherent moral complexity. And it is this, perhaps, that keeps
the socializers, the achievers, the explorers, and the killers all engaged.
In U.O., you never know whether the other players you encounter are there
for the fun of making friends or for the fun of murdering them.
U.O. has been in operation for nearly four years now, which makes it the
oldest surviving game of its type. Its rivals were still in the production
phase during its worst moments and, not surprisingly, profited from its
mistakes. EverQuest, for example, which takes place in a similar
ersatz-medieval set- ting, has clearer rules about violence, offers players
a sharper sense of purpose, and now has a hundred thousand more
Certainly hyperinflation and mass extinction are not, while they are
happening, a lot of fun, and U.O.'s designers ac- knowledge the commercial
costs of the game's many crises. At the same time, they seem as a group
proud, in a Jurassic Park sort of way, of what has gone wrong. Starr Long,
the co-creator of U.O., remembered his own reaction when he learned
prostitution had been introduced: 'Awesome!"

On all Origin business cards and stationery appears the slogan "We Create
Worlds." One possible justification for this self-important claim is the
way so many people live through their avatars, getting married and putting
on pet shows and hanging out in bars online rather than in real life. But
what makes the game's social dysfunction so compelling is that it cannot be
explained by anything as simple as the desire for a happier world. The mark
of a true simulation is that it produces something un- wanted, yet
recognizable, which is why to lose control has to be, finally, the creative
goal of any project like U.O.

On the last night that I was in Austin, Garriott held a party on an
enormous piece of land that he owns just down the hill from his house, on
the banks of the Colorado River. He is planning' to build a new home on the
property, which is going to be at least five times the size of the old one
and will have a moat. By the time I got to the party, it was dark, and
there was a sliver of a moon hanging over the river. Somebody had built a
bonfire that was sending sparks in all directions.

The party was billed as a "wake" for Origin, which is not actually
disappearing but is being absorbed ever more completely into Electronic
Arts. Just a week earlier, the parent company had cancelled a game known
informally at Origin as U.O.2, citing fears that the new game would end up
competing with the original U.O. Electronic Arts had laid off U.O.'s
development staff of more than fifty people, and most of them, it seemed,
were at the party. I couldn't tell whether the event was an expression of
morbid fun or another reflection of the gaming world's perverse optimism,
but, whichever it was, the mood was upbeat. No one I spoke to appeared
terribly concerned about finding a new job, and perhaps with good reason. I
hung around for a while listening to Garriott theorize about the future of
the gaming industry, and then I headed back up the hill to my rental car,
past the bonfire, now cheerfully consuming a seven-foot-high stack of use-
less U.O. documents.

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