John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · Tuesday 13 January 2004
MMORPGs Go Personal
MMORPG is the longest acronym I know and it's not even military. It stands for massive multi-player online role-playing game. If this is not your cup of tea you may not be aware these things even exist, but for literally millions of people living a virtual fantasy life has become a reality that many are willing to pay for. Romance sites are the biggest non-news portals, bigger even than porn believe or not. Now that allure has drifted into the MMORPGs.

In case you don't know what an MMORPG is you can check out an interest site like Basically the idea is you download software (or an applet) which allows you to logon to a server. The software displays maps and scenes of the action in which your character image, technically called an 'avatar', moves around and does things along with avatars of thousands of other players. MMORPGs have different genres. The bulk are fantasy, but many are science fiction or real world also.

The inventor of the concept was Richard Garriott, aka Lord British. Around 1980 Garriott founded a software company, Origin, that produced a game called Ultima which allowed the player to do a graphical adventure. Ultima was popular and Origin succeeded but everything was small scale. By the 1990s most players thought Ultima was a little stilted and old-fashioned. Garriott then had the insight of marrying his game with the MUD (multi-user dungeon) concept. In a MUD multiple players could play an adventure on-line but everything was text-based. By creating a MUD with graphics called Ultima Online Garriott had created a monster. Within a few years his company had tens of thousands of subscribers all paying $100 per year. Origin was making millions and the old standalone Ultima was forgotten.

What drove Garriott and still does was his belief in the original Gary Gygax concept of role-playing, getting into the fantasy like a method actor and pretending that it is real. For example, in UO system administrative emails address their recipients by their character's name. Everything has a make-believe aura.

This role-playing aspect of his creation and the graphics succeeded wildly where MUDs had drifted along without success. Soon competitors appeared. The first major competitor was EverQuest. EverQuest, and virtually all other major competitors differ from UO by using 3D rendered images instead of UO's 2D cartoonish animations. They also dropped the role-playing pretence and went for basic hack-and-slash. EverQuest grew and UO shrunk. It was so addictive many players called it "EverCrack". Then other competitors appeared, especially those with tie-ins to big marquee single-player games like Age of Empires and Warcraft. Another biggie is Final Fantasy which even spawned its own movie.

UO has struggled to regain its luster. Its latest attempt harkens back to the role-playing elements of yesteryear with a new twist: personals for purchase. UO calls this new product Magic Moments. For a magic moment you pay $40 and get a ceremony (wedding, birthday, or funeral) plus most important of all unique items. In the case of a wedding the unique items are two inscribed wedding rings, a marriage certificate and up to fifteen invitations. Now you may think this is the height of silliness but you have not yet grasped the mentality of the serious UO player. Let me clue you in. I played Ultima for a couple of weeks two winters ago--purely for research purposes, of course. During hours of play I scraped together a few hundred gold pieces by activities that could be described as highly repetitive and uninteresting like whittling wood and cooking chickens. When Christmas rolled around the system awarded me (and every other subscriber) a special gift, a snow globe. On screen it appeared like a little blue ball with a base. You could barely even see it. Other than that it was totally inanimate. I would have chucked it then and there but I am a pack rat by nature so I stuck it in my pack. You have to understand that in Ultima there are a myriad of worthless objects. Everything from rolling pins to handkerchiefs to gopher skins. What's the difference? The snow globe was a unique item. When I reached town there were players milling around the bank/market shouting "10,000 for snow globes", "15,000 for snow globes". They were offering more money than I could make in months of play for this worthless chunk of glass. Why? As I later found out players would decorate their houses (yes you can buy your own house in UO) with unique items. For people with this kind of mentality items like a marriage certificate are worth literally millions or $40 in real money, especially to the female players.

In UO the vast majority are teen-aged boys but there are some young women and girls who play. I distinctly remember seeing a house on UO gallery (kind of like UO Town & Country) which a girl kept. It had a bar upstairs complete with piano and candelabra among other things. It was painted muave with mood lighting. On her personal profile she listed, Greatest Desire: to have an on-line wedding. Now you see what the company is trying to tap into. It's like the Sims online, except the graphics are better, there a LOT more objects and you can kill people.

So far, the other hack and slash competitors are gawking at it like a poodle in a biker bar but I predict it's not long before mood lighting starts showing up in EverCrack.

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