|Monday Morning Developer - May 24th
Posted Monday, May 24, 2004 by Mr. GBob
The Monday morning developer
In every activity mankind has ever engaged in, there has been the Monday Morning Quarterback. Tens of thousands of years ago this brave individual stood forth and bravely stated that Zug was a knucklehead for making a fire with flint. The dumb bastard should have used two sticks and then he wouldn’t have banged his finger up. Today his spirit lives on in the heart of the teeming masses of gamers who make up the Monday Morning Developer.
Let’s Talk About Sex Baby
Every year at E3 a group of games set the tone for the coming years. Some years have been the year of the online game. Other years have been the year of the first person shooter or the year of the RPG. This year the theme seemed to be sex, and as always the game industry is approaching it in the classy, tasteful manner would one expect.
There are naturally dissenting views on this trend. Some claim that it is the continuing erosion of our society. Others would say that it’s a “bold” and “progressive” evolution. The debate is a bit silly, really. MMD does not buy into either of those views. One can object to sexual content in video games for reasons other than puritanical ones. Games with sexual content are not targeting an “adult” audience as much as they appeal to the somewhat juvenile personality who snickers at the word “boobies” in a Beavis and Butthead like fashion. The real question is how the material is handled. Given the past history of sexual based games we find it hard to look forward to Playboy Mansion or similar titles.
Why aren’t there More Women Developers Again?
Not all women in games are virtually modeled sex objects. Some of them actually make games as well! J points us to a listing for the Woman’s Gaming Conference, to be held at the same time, and in the same place, as the Austin Gaming Conference. We wish that there were more women involved in gaming. Too many games on the market cater to a narrow section of the population. Fresh voices are always a good thing. Still, is it a good idea to segregate developers like this? What of women who might be interested in other events as well? Of course scheduling was a matter of convience, and participants are free to go to both events, but isn’t this a little like the men retreating to the parlor to sip brandy while the women discuss their own issues in the kitchen?
The MMD has no idea why women might feel like their voices aren’t heard in this industry.
Mary Kate and Ashley
Recently Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen sued Acclaim entertainment, claiming that the company had failed to make good enough games to live up to their brand name. The MMD wishes every digital character could sue their developers for making poorly performing games. Lara Croft would have quite the case. In any event, the Monday Morning Developer, for many years a stalker of the Olsen Twins, has discovered that Sony Online Entertainment has made a bid for the next Olsen game. We were fortunate to get a copy of the phone transcript.
Raph Koster: We're very excited about the possibilities of an online Mary Kate and Ashley game. We believe that we can create a virtual world that will scale small group infrastructure and achievement ladders gracefully, creating a harmonious possibility-rich virtual space that will allow for non linear story telling and emergent game play. I also think that there should be dancing in it.
Ashley: We love to dance!
Raph: Everyone does.
Mary Kate: Your big words scare us.
Agent for the Olsen Twins: They scare all of us. His brain is actually five times larger than his head. His idea is to create a game where people can log in, create characters and live in your world. You can live the Olsen experience.
Ashley: But wouldn't everyone want to play us? You can't have a world full of Olsen twins running around! It would be, like, so totally wrong. There won't be thousands of Olsens until that Mary Kate and Ashley DNA sequencing thingie gets released.
Mary Kate: Shh! Remember the NDA!
Raph: We'll make it so that after release it's nearly impossible to become an Olsen. If enough people complain, then we'll do a patch that will make it easy and unsatisfying. Mostly we want to capture the Olsen world by allowing players to mine and craft all day. And milk animals.
Ashley: That is sooo us! The first thing people think about when we bring up the Olsen universe is mining! And driving! Can you drive in the game?
Raph: Not at first. Driving and shopping can be released a year later. Nobody really thinks of vehicles as being at the heart of Mary Kate and Ashley Online.
There is no word on if the agreement has been signed, but if it happens we’ll let you know.
For Only 15 Dollars a Month I’ll Find You A Job In India
Economist Edward Castronova was recently featured in an article about the economies of virtual worlds. His conclusion? That the economy of Everquest creates a per capita income rivaling that of India. Interesting read, but it’s given the Monday Morning Developer an idea. Given the debate about outsourcing, why not create the technical support game? We imagine groups actively banding together to go on a high level raid to teach a woman from Boca Raton how to use her AOL. Start the game by fighting giant rats who want their passwords changed, then level up to defeat giant slime monsters who want to know why their computers run so damn slow.
We acknowledge that technical support jobs are tedious and repetitive, mixed in with more than a small amount of frustration, but then again so are most MMOGs on the market.
More Foolish Wastes of Money.
Ray points us to the release of the Ultima Online anniversary edition. Included in it are all the patches, in-game gifts, a collectors edition fan guide, more character slots, an allegedly working copy of Ultima 9, and on the box the original Hildebrandt artwork that drew so many poor innocent gamers in at the stores.
The MMD has no desire to play Ultima Online again, and logically should have no interest in this news. Needless to say, we will be buying this as soon as it hits the shelf.
We will always be Origin’s bitch.
The MMD wonders, however, if it wouldn’t have been a better reward to NOT have Ultima 9 in the box. Frankly, never talking of that game again has been one our long standing goals.
Time to Pick Apart The Game of the Week
While we’re on the subject of Ultima 9, let us talk about how the game went wrong. Damn it, we were never supposed to mention this game again! Still, what point is there in being a Monday Morning Developer if you can’t use the powerful 20/20 glasses of hindsight and look at a game that went tragically awry. Each week we'll take a look at another game that just plain didn't work.
MMD believes that we are in the Iron Age of Computer Gaming. The Golden Age began nearly two decades ago with the release of Ultima 3 (others may disagree). In the Golden Age, games were a personal expression of the developer. Games were made one or two designers and experimentation flourished. With small budgets and quick development cycles, people like Richard Garriot or Ken and Roberta Williams could make a game in their free time and build an empire out of it. More games were released back in those days than today, and developers were free to experiment with new ideas, making the games they wanted to play rather than making games for what the market demanded. A game like M.U.L.E could sit on the shelf beside Maniac Mansion or Zork. With the demise of Commodore, Atari and others, computer gaming would enter a 5 year period of self doubt until the birth of the Silver Age. The Silver Age began with the release of Wolfenstien 3D, but it was also marked with the release of Ultima 7. In the Silver Age, developers were able to push the limits of computer technology. The games were larger and forced hardware manufacturers to create new products. Sound cards would be purchased by gamers looking to get the most out of Ultima 7, Wing Commander or Kings Quest V. CD-ROMs would be purchased to play Myst. Video Cards to get the most out of Quake. In the Silver Age, development costs spiraled. Where once you would have 5 people working on your game, now you needed 20. Where once your development cycle was measured in months, now took years. Developers were still independent, but they needed the distribution help of publishers.
Why bring this up? Because in understanding where Ultima 9 went wrong it is important to know the environment in which it was developed. Ultima 9 represented the dying gasp of the Silver Age. Origin had been sold at the point when the game began to Electronic Arts. The deal would be one that looked great on paper. EA would get a team of highly talented developers and valuable intellectual property. Origin would get large amounts of capital and the ability to worry about making games rather than sell them.
Ultima 8 was not the most well received game. It took players from the game world they knew, stripped away the party system that had been a part of the Ultima franchise and added a series of jumping puzzles. Aspects of the game were directly inspired by Prince of Persia and left Ultima fans cold. In retrospect it was a good game on it’s own, but one Ultima fans never enjoyed.
Ultima 9 spent years in development. Richard Garriot sent a letter to his fans telling them that he heard their complaints and took them to heart. He promised that Ultima 9 would return to the roots of the series and provide a fitting conclusion to the saga of the Avatar.
It didn’t. Ultima 9, like Ultima 8, featured linear game play and jumping puzzles. There was no party system, and the heart of the game was little more than “collect pieces of a puzzle and bring to a different destination”. The game environment was more like Tomb Raider than a classic Ultima game and only seemed to magnify everything that was wrong with Ultima 8. The game would also be shipped out too soon. Major portions were not completed, the world was empty of content, and the game itself was unplayable on many systems for technical reasons.
How did this happen?
Your humble Monday Morning Developer believes the game failed because the business of gaming had changed…and Origin was not ready for that. Technology had changed by that point. Players expect a high level of graphics in their games. This is one of the reasons why most games use graphics engines or build upon pre-existing technologies they had developed in house. Ultima 9 did not do either. They were making a game the same way they always had. A new Ultima game had always meant developing new code and technologies from scratch. By the end of the Silver Age, this wasn’t really an option. Not if you believe that your game must have the best graphics on the market. An Ultima with average technology was not what Origin would have settled for.
What else went wrong? Well, U9 had a 5 year development cycle, with every dollar spent on the game watched closely by Electronic Arts. EA had to be convinced the game was worth continued funding. That meant that there were milestones that had to be met and achieved. You had to have the graphics and the flash to please EA. This would mean sacrificing game play for the sake of a good demonstration. More open ended game play, such as in Ultima 7, is more difficult to demonstrate successfully than a “level” with clear objectives that can be shown to your publisher. This kind of decision making is not something that a developer thinks too much about, but it does happen. Too many games are being written for publisher milestone presentations than as a whole.
The final nail in the coffin for Ultima 9 was the curse of the deadline. EA made the decision that the game would ship, no matter what, in time for the holiday season. Origin had no leverage in the matter. This was the end of the Silver Age, and developers are forced to dance to the tune of the Publisher. Bugs or no, the game had to go out the door.
The game sold so far below expectations that Origin as a company was doomed. Ultima Online would keep it kicking for a few more years, but the game would represent the end of both the company and the Silver Age of computer gaming.