Raph Koster Reminisces on Ultima Online For Its 15-Year Anniversary

25 Sep 2012

Ultima Online lead designer and A Theory of Fun for Game Design author Raphael "Raph" Koster has taken some time to reminisce about the development of Ultima Online now that the game has just turned 15.

I'm not sure if there's any way I can do justice to the memories of the lead designer of such a seminal title, who goes on to describe how the ideas for systems such as the resource one came out, the lawsuit over the game that Origin had to face and more, so I'm just going to quote him and hope it suffices:
An anecdote: We’re all meeting over the fact that we’re short on artists. It meant that we might lose the entire jungle biome.

I said to Starr, “If I can have a Wacom tablet, I can probably draw plants.”

Starr turned to Rick and said “Is he any good?”

Rick shrugged. “Yeah, he’s not bad.”

I got a Wacom tablet. And I did all of these. They were all drawn from issues of National Geographic that I brought in from home… that’s why there are several specifically Hawaiian plants there. Later, poor Chuck Crist had to go through and painstakingly remove the black edging from them — I hadn’t done them on a transparent layer.

That was far from the only art stuff I did on UO. All the design materials for UO went off to the lawyers when the lawsuit hit. It was a six foot tall stack of paper. I don’t actually think it ever came back. There was a printed out record of every patch. Design specs for everything. Detailed maps of every section of the world. For all I know, it is sitting in a legal file folder at EA somewhere… But I do have a few things from a sketchbook.

A lot of the time we were trying to solve problems like stairs, or buttresses. For those who recall the Mage Tower in Britain, I created the templates for arches and flying buttresses just for that building. Trinsic was the reason we got sloping walls at all. I also created the templates for how to do stairs, and later, sloping terrain.


Eventually, of course, the game launched. And with it came a lot of press. I would be given faxed-in copies of articles from all over the world by the PR folks. Almost all of the reviews were middling to bad. 6 out of 10 was a pretty common score. (We did also get a pile of awards, including a couple for special achievement. We never got to see any of the trophies. They all went to EA HQ. I hear they are now all at Mythic).

In one of these pics you can see the faxed-in cover of Computer Games magazine… I had been slaving for weeks over a very cool and much more elaborately built environment called Teratha. It was a spider-worshipping culture that built its city around a volcano. It became the cover image for the magazine article — and was cut from the game a little while later. I was devastated… but we had to make a lot of cuts… I mean, three whole continents were the first to go…! I remember sketching stuff out for the cultures of the Lands of the Dark Unknown — I think some of this eventually became stuff used in the Lost Lands and in Elikki and some other locales in Britannia. So if you ever wondered where these extra islands and whatnot came from… like Ocllo… well, now you know.

I also got a dozen or so emails and letters from fellow developers across the game industry — from Meridian 59, from Blizzard, from LucasArts and Bioware, full of praise. I printed them out and tacked them up on my office door. Marketing folks then asked me if they could use them in press materials and I told them no, they were never meant for the public. I still have those print-outs — and I am still not sharing them with you.