Rolling Stone attended this year's Game Developers Conference, and is offering up a variety of commentary that Richard Garriott, Starr Long, Raph Koster, and Rich Vogel all offered during a fascinating session about the inception, development, and launch of Ultima Online. This was the MMORPG that first hooked a lot of people (including me), so I think many of us will always have a soft spot for it:
The team had always wanted to take their passion for pen and paper role play games online but they never thought it was a possibility until they got into Doom. “It was simple, people were just more fun to play than AI,” Long added. “We wanted to emulate that for Dungeons & Dragons.”
Once they started to see the internet become more commonplace, they decided it was time to try and make their dream a reality. They put together a design document and technology plan and prepared a presentation for Electronic Arts. “They gave us a lifetime projection of 30,000 units and said no,” Garriott said. They tried the pitch four times and got the same answer, “We refused to give up the floor, we literally said we are not leaving,” Garriott continued. “We’re only asking for a fraction of the budget other games get, there was kicking and screaming but they finally signed our little paper and said yes.”
They may have had approval from EA but they did not have support. The team was set up on the 5th floor of one of EA’s buildings that was still under construction. They had to put up plastic to protect their computers from dust and wear gloves due to how cold it was. “We were the bastard stepchild, no one got what we were trying to do,” said Raph Koster, lead designer on Ultima Online. “The corporation was trying to kill it, they didn’t want us to finish the game.”
They started to put together a prototype and gave some risky promises like an expansive world with abstract properties, a player run economy, and a resource system based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs so that AI would actually seek out food and water. “We promised the moon and people liked the promise,” Koster added. “But everything didn’t make it into the game.”
Once the prototype was finished they needed to beta test it, they wanted to host one online but the files were to big for modem connections to download. They couldn’t send out discs since they didn’t have money for manufacturing or distribution. That’s when they decided to charge players $5 for the privilege to test the game for them.
“The projections given to us by marketing were 30,000 for the lifetime of the game,” Garriott said. “But within a few days we had more than 50,000 people that wanted to be beta testers, that’s when EA woke up.”