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Ultimate Misstep
“Chaos and order combined equal balance.” - Richard Garriott

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Ultima Online—released September 24th, 1997—is unquestionably one of the greatest video games ever created. While its graphics don’t hold a candle to the popular games of today, it defined the genre of MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), leading to staples such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft. Additionally, its design was so profound that traces of its influence can be found in nearly every game in existence today.

Ultima’s rising popularity in the late ‘90s can be explained by several factors, with the most widely cited being that it allowed huge numbers of people to play, in real-time, within the same environment—the massively multiplayer aspect. But its true brilliance stems from two key elements, the first being that it was an ‘open world’ with no main storyline to linearly take you through the game, and the second being that there were no defined class archetypes for you to play. Instead, players could mix and match a wide variety of skills and train them to mastery through repetition. The end result was a vast world, seemingly without limits, in which your experience would be somewhere between struggling to survive and becoming a legend. It was up to you.
Many players took the common routes of playing as swordsmen, archers, or mages, exploring the dungeons of the world to earn their living and fame, slaying intimidatingly large monsters, such as dragons and demons. Others went a more nefarious route: killing other players and looting their corpses for anything of value.

All of the fighting meant endless demand for gears and supplies—a void to be filled by crafters. An immense opportunity. You could be a tailor, blacksmith, or fletcher to craft a variety of weapons and armor, an alchemist to craft much-needed potions, or even a scribe to craft special spell scrolls and other utility-centric items. You also had the option to be a gatherer, sourcing the woods, leathers, and metals needed to craft. Unbeknownst to those skipping school to log a few extra hours of game time, they’d still be in class—receiving a crash course in finance. Few could precisely define concepts such as working capital, sales velocity, capital intensity, or contribution margin, but these were all intuitively learned within the game.

The greatest lesson provided by Ultima Online is one less known, even by those who have played the game, and it pertains to the game’s development. Ultima’s development team, led by Richard Garriott, spent three years on a feature to enhance the natural game environment. Along with fictitious monsters such as dragons, liches, and ogres, the game featured unassuming animals, like rabbits and deer. These herbivores would graze on growing wild grasses and flowers, multiplying over time. To keep these populations in check, carnivores such as bears and wolves were programmed to eat them, and by doing so, would also multiply. If there were too many bears and wolves relative to the number of animals available for them to eat, their populations would thin back out. The system was designed for equilibrium.

To ensure stability, the ecological system had also been designed with human players in mind. It was assumed that players would ignore the herbivores and would attack the carnivores, since carnivores provided a greater amount of value, mostly in the form of fur pelts. It was a logical assumption. It was also completely wrong.

Richard Garriott recounted that when the game launched:

"Players ran over the world like a swarm of ants that consumed every living thing as fast as it was possible to spawn it. They killed every creature. As soon as a deer or rabbit or wolf showed up on the map, the nearest person to it killed it, skinned it, took its meat, and took its hide—instantaneously. And the fact that the wolf was worth more than the deer or the rabbit was irrelevant. Just the fact that it was fun to kill would have been enough for them to eradicate all living things on the surface."

As shared in the linked video above, the development team worked to modify the system to find balance but eventually was forced to remove it from the game entirely. Garriott stated:

"The lesson of the virtual ecology was, to us, that testing the game in-house is an entirely inadequate test in contrast to the reality of being in the hands of players. Not only are players going to face the experience differently, they will think about it differently than we do in-house, but also by sheer numbers, they will crush, or test, things in a very different way"

This takeaway surely extends far beyond game development. It’s no surprise that our designs often foster unintended consequences. Ultima, designed to be an ‘open world’, was (and still is) a dreadfully simple closed system compared to the real world, yet could still not calibrate for the human variable. That’s worth remembering the next time you start to feel completely certain about the future.

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Ultimate Misstep
The 26th anniversary of a timeless lesson.

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