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Almost three years ago, Origin Systems brought together a team of writers, artists, and computer programmers to build a perfect world of their own, a hyperreal simulation of a country they named Britannia. When it was done, they connected their kingdom to the Internet and invited people to come live there.
Today about 150,000 people log on to the world of Britannia, where they play a deeply immersive game called Ultima. Players from more than 114 countries pay $9.95 a month for the pleasure, and soon their game lives will all change.
In April, Origin will release an eagerly anticipated update called Ultima Online Renaissance, which has twice the virtual landmass of the original. Three other companies are about to issue other versions of the game, which has earned $52 million in subscription revenues alone.
This success is due in large part to Ultima's realism and complexity. Its richness has even given rise to something only fully developed social environments have: crime.
Anybody can create a virtual Eden like Myst, or a slaughterhouse for trigger-happy teens like Quake. What makes Ultima revolutionary is that it's neither heaven nor hell, but mirrors the moral ambiguity of life itself. It's not simply that you can kill another playermany games allow murderbut that you have the freedom to slay an innocent, a noncombatant. It can be profitable to kill, but there are also social consequences to doing so. It's the act of weighing these consequences against the rewards that gives Ultima an ethical dimension not found in other games.
ntering Ultima is like stepping into a Brueghel painting in pulsing Technicolor, with infinite levels of detail that open at a mouse click. The sun sets in the evening and rises again in the morning to brighten a landscape dotted with huts and castles. Makeshift paths cut through foreboding forests. You'll meet characters dressed in purple tunics and silver armour and other outlandish garb. They are busy at work, crafting tools and weapons, baking bread, or just relaxing over mead and wine. Chatter fills the air, as does the crash of battle.
It's easy to get lost here. The average "citizen" spends between 17 and 20 hours a week playing Ultima, and more than half log on every single day. "My girlfriend hates it," writes one typical player. "I think she's going to leave me. She thinks it's not 'social.' " The Ultima newsgroups are filled with complaints from game widows. "I am going to chop up the CD if it doesn't get better soon," writes one despondent wife. "Ultima is in the process of ruining an 8 month marriage."
With that kind of potential for addiction, it's no wonder Ultima is such a fast-growing business. It started as a MUD experience for hardcore gamers, but it's now on the radar of some of the world's largest corporations and is poised to enter the mainstream. Sony spent three years developing an Ultima knockoff, EverQuest, which now has over 200,000 subscribers, and Microsoft has brought out a version of its own. Last November, AOL placed an $81 million bet on Origin's parent company. By 2002, industry analysts say the number of gamers will reach 27 million. But they may not be playing the game as it's done today. For as some of the game designers have discovered, making Ultima attractive to larger audiences requires changing its essence.
Soon after Ultima went online, the designers noticed that 10 percent of players did not come to bake bread. Gamers call it "PKing," or player-killing, and it's the game-world equivalent of serial homicide. Mass murder was never part of the plan, but the designers realized that when you build a virtual society, it breeds virtual crime.
Originally, in the pre-Internet versions of the game, virtue was the point. "I was tired of writing kill-the-wizard stories," recalls the game's creator, Richard Garriott, who lives in a custom-built castle in Austin, Texas. "I started writing ethical parables built into the game's structural core. The Ultima games are stories about your personal ethics."
But when the game moved online it went from being a solo adventure to a social experience, and the crime followed.
The basic social unit is a guild, which is something like a tribe, a labor union, and an amateur softball team rolled into one. There are 21,000 guilds; some are devoted to peaceful pursuits like fishing and mining, but many others track down player-killers. The Guardians of Light, an earnest group that boasts 238 members, pledges itself to "the extermination of evil in the world of Britannia." There are also guilds of assassins. Jihad Gehenna Krangath has two golden rules: "Don't kill guildmates" and "Kill everyone else."
For a new player, the temptation of going to the dark side can be great. Consider the Galads, two friends who joined together under the names Evil Galad and Good Galad. Evil Galad is a teacher in his real life, but the game brings out his disobedient streak. "I went out on a PKing/looting binge for a couple of days," says Evil Galad. "I was making a fortune compared to what I used to get as an 'honorable' player. It didn't take me long to figure out that playing an evil character gives you a huge advantage over the good players."
Murder and corpse looting are not the only malfeasance in Ultima. The real profits are in white-collar crime. The architects of the game worked long and hard to supply Britannia with a working economy, and like any other monetary system, it's based on circulating currency. Its success can be measured in the number of players who give up adventuring to spend their lives in urban centers as blacksmiths, fishermen, tinkers, or tailors. But the number of clever scams, grifts, and cons that have sprung up to separate these law-abiding Britannians from their hard-earned gold pieces would make David Mamet proud.
One particularly nasty con involves real estate. Most transactions in Britannia are managed by a special interface designed to prevent false advertising and other classic hustles, but when players purchase buildings there is no such barrier. House scams involve someone taking the money and running, or even faking another player's identity. It's a serious problem when you consider how important houses are in Britannia: They're expensive, and land is rare. Says veteran player Stuart Kovinsky, "The house scam is the most painful to the victim, since it often results in the loss of the victim's life savings." And it's not just play money at stake. Online auction sites do a brisk trade in Britannian gold pieces, which people buy with real dollars. Also for sale are real estate and high-level characters, both of which can take years to develop. Price tags run past $1000.
Players who get conned sometimes beg the gamemasters to intervene, but the folks at Origin have thus far refused to help. As Britannia's chief designer Raph Koster puts it, "We're trying to build a world, not a game." Jason Bell, Ultima's senior producer, agrees. "Part of the wonder of the medium, and also the difficulty, is that we in essence have to act as local, state, and federal government, and God," he says. "From our years of experience, our ethic has really evolved to a light hand."
The hand is so light it doesn't even come down on organized crime. Like most countries, Britannia has its own mafia. Early on in the game's history, players discovered a programming bug that allowed them to manufacture counterfeit gold pieces, and the scam became so widespread that Britannia's economy almost collapsed from hyperinflation. Later, a group of players attempted to corner the market on reagents, a valuable magic ingredient. In the past year, a guild calling itself SiNister, under the leadership of one Bone Dancer, attempted to extort protection money from local businesses.
"I guess a society is mature when organized crime shows up." explains Koster, who is 28 years old and has an M.F.A. in creative writing. "As long as it's not impossible to resist them, it's an interesting dynamic." Koster's goal is to provide an accurate simulation of a mythological world, complete with lasting consequences and random outcomes. He shares the belief of some of Ultima's fanatic devotees that the ability to execute another player makes the game vital, exciting, and more like real life.
"Philosophically, what we wished for, and didn't get, was to leave it in the hands of the people to shape the society," Koster says. "As it turned out, a virtual society doesn't give you enough tools." But one tool the designers did introduce was the Reputation System, which color codes characters who commit crimes. Players start out blue, but if they attack another citizen they become gray. Anyone who kills five times is branded red. While the system has made it easier to avoid serial killers, as Bell readily admits, "anybody who plays a lot of Ultima has had unpleasant things happen to them."
Players have taken matters into their own hands by forming in-game consumer protection agencies to guard against fraud. Of course, criminals are never far behind. Last fall, the Ultima Online Players Association Bank was forced to post warning notices about a scammer who heisted more than a million gold pieces. "It's impossible to predict everything that tens of thousands of people will do," Koster explains. "Cumulatively, they're smarter than you. It's a chaotic system."
Like Jurassic Park, the world Origin created is so complicated that designers have to be careful that their modifications don't destroy the integrity of the original vision. But that may soon be lost, as corporations rebuild the game for mainstream audiences.
For Sony and Microsoft, the underworld needs to be sanitized if it's going to turn a profit. In the new versions of the game, sport killing is no longer an option. Sony's EverQuest only allows one player to murder another if both have formally declared themselves player-killers. "We believe that most people want to play in a cooperative environment," says John Smedley, president of Verant Interactive, which developed EverQuest for Sony. "An environment that is free from player-killers and people who want to ruin the gameplay of others."
Next to the rough-and-tumble world of Ultima, EverQuest looks as plastic and contrived as Disneyland. But even Britannia is dumbing down its act in a bid for broader success. In the next release, Origin has decided to set up a separate area where player-killing is impossible.
Maybe it's inevitable. What's at stake is not simply the profits of a few corporate gaming divisions. Crossbreed Ultima with a suite of productivity applications, and the world's financial infrastructure, and you're looking at the business medium of the new millennium. "It's not even going to be a decade away," predicts senior producer Bell. "We are sort of at the Lumière Brothers stage." As Neal Stephenson describes in his sci-fi cult classic Snow Crash, executives will have avatars that meet in virtual boardrooms, much like players meet in Ultima today. These alter egos of the future will be wearing suits from Armani Digital, and when they shake hands to close a deal, the cash will transfer automatically.
Now imagine if these transactions were interrupted by someone like Evil Galad, and you can see how important it is for this medium to be safe and secure. Ultima has to be tamed if it's going to merge with Wall Street. That may take a while, but the malling has already begun.