by Azaroth | October 29th, 2012
Ever since an ages old (in Internet time, of course – and don’t look for it, it’s a ridiculous ramble) discussion about a “Highlander” MMORPG, the concept of “permadeath” in online roleplaying games has interested me to no end.
Before that, not so much. What merits could permadeath possibly have when you’re trying to get people to CONTINUE playing your game? It’s insanity, right? I mean, I thought so. I dismissed the idea as regularly as it was brought up on MMO design blogs and forums.
The Zombie craze in online gaming right now got me thinking about an event we did last year. It was, at its core, rather simple. You find yourself in a large city, you’ve got some ragged clothes to call your own, and.. oh, right – there are throngs of flesh-eating zombies everywhere. If you die, after a period of becoming a zombie yourself and eating human brains for various types of powerups, that’s it. You’re toast. Start again.
It worked well. It’s certainly the most fondly remembered of our events, and some players have even publicly called it the greatest UO event of all time. Now, perhaps that’s a stretch… Ultima Online has a long, rich, and storied history – but from what I’ve seen of it (and that’s quite a lot), they’re not out of line in saying that.
The other night, things were at a point where we could play our own game without difficulties and a preoccupation with insect cataloguing. So Tilly and I logged on and two-manned the scenario.
We started in the forest outside of Cove. Of course randomly, so we had to meet in town. Luckily, the guards took care of the shuffling ‘walkers’ we attracted on the way.
Tilly started out as a mage, myself a warrior. Obviously, I had a much easier time early on (as a protip, I have to strongly recommend swordsmanship as a main combat skill because of the usefulness of axes and skinning knives).
I became her burly protector while she hacked at trees with an axe and skinning knife that I found for her. We required, in the immediate sense, kindling for a fire to cook our game meat on so we wouldn’t starve to death. Unfortunately, I had no cooking skill – but I did have a rusty old skillet I purchased from the scrap vendor in town using gold I had gathered killing many zombies.
After I burned ALL of our food, I turned in my feathers for bandages at one of the starting quests near Cove and we began to gather food again. Unfortunately, I found a green potion at one point. I attempted to poison my broadsword, and, well… ended up running around and screaming until I died horrible death in the middle of a pack of zombies. With our bandages, skillet, and food now belonging to the zombies, we were sort of shafted and were forced to start over.
During this time, we analyzed the earliest game play and skill gain rates. After about an hour of play, with no special interest in raising my skill as fast as I possibly could, my swordsmanship went from 35.0 to around 65. That hour includes killing birds for meat, cooking, gathering various supplies, and a lot of running. So I don’t think we’re too far off the mark skill gain wise, but faster is always better here (to a point).
The most important thing to look at, though, was permadeath. It was important to look at the experience and how dying affected us early on. Did we get plain angry, or was our reaction more along the lines of “Okay, shit… yeah, but that was REALLY fun. Let’s do that again!” – and it was. No doubt, that’s one of the most important things.
I think whether you’re playing as part of a small or large group, putting various survival skills together and living off the land as a team, or as a solo player scavenging and surviving on your own as a jack of all trades, this game is fun. Hands down. It’s fun, and that’s the important part to get right.
We’re different than other zombie apocalypse games. We’re not a shooter. UOZombies is certainly different. It’s deeper. It’s more than picking up guns and running around. It’s building your skills to become a better fighter and to be able to survive better, to support others in surviving better in an interactive world where you’re going to be picking cabbage and chopping trees and mining ore and fishing and shearing sheep and cooking meat over fires that you chopped your own kindling for, finding and setting up your own tent, even finding an elusive horse to ride (zombies love horsemeat, right?)…
… and this is why Ultima Online is absolutely perfect as a zombie apocalypse survival game. I really, honestly just can’t think of anything better. While it’s still very much a game, and one set against a medieval backdrop of course, it’s very much more a true survival simulation game than a bunch of guns and zombies in an situation that really amounts more to a zombie arena than a zombie survival simulation. Four hundred quatloos on the newcomer.
UO veterans know very well where the game falls short, of course. “ENDGAME!” they’ll shout at you enthusiastically when asked. Yeah, of course. Ultima Online is an experiment from the early first generation of MMORPGs. It’s a game that tried to be everything for everyone, instead of the be all and end all for a certain type of player. In that way, it could never deliver enough content to the 50 different types of people it was catering to once 50 games came out each delivering one type of deep content for every possible type of player. Of course, early on though, it was the absolute perfect game for the scene. Since there was one really big game, and it was UO, we got a melting pot of players and playstyles that was… magic. Even since then, we’ve been trying to recreate that magic somehow. We’ve all been searching for it.
I think we can have that back with this shard, with UOZombies. It might sound silly, but I have the highest hopes for this as a UO project – and as a person that loves, lives and breathes UO.
With permadeath, a backyard above-ground pool can be an ocean. Without it, an ocean can be a puddle. If UO has no endgame without permadeath, it’s got plenty with it. How scared are you of a Lich Lord when you play a regular UO server? Not very, right?
Now what if you’re in hardcore mode? What if your character is GONE when you die? That same Lich Lord becomes pretty serious business, you have to admit. You might even get a little nervous. Your heart might even beat a little faster.
That’s what we’re all looking for. Tangible, visceral experiences in our virtual realities. Emotion. Excitement. Meaning. These things are one and the same in an online world.
For instance, the path to Grandmaster Chef isn’t the longest or deepest, there are no real cooking quests or rare recipes, ultra difficult to obtain ingredients located in small ponds at the edge of a level 900 zone. Becoming a Grandmaster Swordsman in UO doesn’t constantly unlock flashy new abilities and there’s no triple skill tree for the class where I can apply points and customize myself into a Grandmaster IceFire Combustion Swordsman. There is no endless treadmill progression of endgame dungeons and boss fights – and there’s no budget to do all of those things the way the biggest games do them. Never will be.
But what Ultima Online has, and has always had, over all of the World of Warcraft type games out there – is breadth. The world is more interactive in all kinds of ways, there are more things you can do, and there are more ways you can build your character. It’s the Renaissance Man of MMORPGs. It appeals to everyone… we just need a way to make the puddle into an ocean somehow.
Permadeath as a mechanic unlocks all of those avenues of play to shine again. A cook or a craftsman is someone who is genuinely important to his group, and losing him to permadeath really sucks. We don’t need fourty thousand scripted boss encounters in a hundred different dungeons, because let’s face it… you’re not going to live long enough to ever see it all.
Getting a silver sword will make you an integral of a group and a powerful player, allowing you to slice and dice zombies with incredible ease… but it’s not soulbound – and you get no continues, spud.
Because of that, it’s not necessary that we make you grind for six months to get it… and those who don’t have it are not forever behind you, condemned to that same six month grind to catch up.
Content will be replayed much more than in a regular MMORPG. There will never need to be mudflation, and you’ll never be “behind” – because everyone is going to die, and everyone is going to start over. Continuously.
The puddle becomes the ocean.
Ultima Online is made for this.
If I can throw in a personal comment about my own gaming, it’d be this:
In the summer, I decided to play Guild Wars 2. I wanted to learn what could be taught by the “latest and greatest”. I liked so much about it, but they tried to exist largely without an endgame – sort of like Ultima Online. So while I loved the gameplay and … wow, so much about the game while I played… I quickly lost sight of my goal. I didn’t really have an ultimate goal.
So by the time I took a couple of weeks off and wandered back (and allowing this is the point of having no subscription fee, of course), absolutely everyone was level 80. I was surrounded by them. The time I put in was meaningless. I was ahead, now I was behind. Frustrated, I logged out.
It strikes me that one of the best things about permadeath is that this will never happen. It’s the best of both worlds, truly. We can have characters that are quick to build, skills that increase in a fast and tangible way when you log in for a short period to have some fun.. but you’ll never be that guy that wasted his time because you fell behind or didn’t play enough for a little while. The turnover of characters will be constant. The guy that has a completely finished, top of the line, 700 point Grandmaster character might not have that character tomorrow. And when he gets pissed off and quits for a week and comes back… he won’t be “behind” either, because progression is more like a circle than a straight line. Or perhaps it’s a little more like playing that jet bike level in Battletoads. Either way.
After about a week, everyone on the server will always be in the same position relative to everyone else because of the inherent nature of permadeath and the constant turnover of characters. Yes, some of you will become exceedingly efficient at keeping your advanced characters alive… but you’ve got a hundred hitpoints, baby, and that goes away fast – any time, and for any reason.
Now there’s new meaning to everything about Ultima Online. Now it’s a true melting pot again, with people from all types of backgrounds playing on a server with a setting that has a mass appeal, and with a ruleset that brings new life and old meaning the beautiful, wide, breadthy, wonderful, inspiring world of Britannia.
And I’m so happy to bring it to you.
I really hope you’re as excited as I am.
Let’s have a great time.