The Trials of UnSub: Ultima Online (Stygian Abyss)

One thing I did back when I was blogging on MMORPG.com was challenge myself to trial 12 MMOs in 12 months. I failed in terms of quantity – I only trialled 8 games in 2008 – but the experience was overall positive, even if I played a game I didn’t like. It let me see a wide range of titles (some of whom are no longer with us) and also let me go back and try out some ‘old’ MMOs that I’d probably otherwise never play. The great thing about playing older MMOs is that it gives you the ability to maybe see what people were talking about when the forum warrior talks about how Asheron’s Call was so much better than MMOs today and also provides the perspective about how much nostalgia colours their vision.

Given recent restructurings at EA Mythic (the ‘EA’ may be gone from the official Mythic name, but it is clear who calls the shots) I thought it was a case of now or maybe never to try out UO, the great granddaddy of the mainstream MMO and alleged BEST GAME EVAH according to a myriad of MMO forum posts. As with all of my trials, I try to just play the trial – I’m not out to read special short-cuts to max level or to get handouts from others. If I can, I avoid reading about how to play on websites.

Unfortunately I couldn’t avoid reading up on how to play UO because the tutorial doesn’t teach you how to talk to vendors. For a while there I thought that trial accounts couldn’t talk to vendors since right clicking and double clicking on a vendor didn’t achieve what I wanted, but a search pulled up the fact you have to type “<vendorname> vendor buy” or something similar to buy from vendors. Strike one in the negative for UO’s tutorial.

Samurai UnSub in Ultima Online

The black samurai has a long and proud tradition...

I created my character – a Samurai on the Oceanic server, since that is the server the game recommended – and did the tutorial, which was light on for the some of the reasons explained above. Leaving behind the Black Knight and now with some kind of stone, I wandered out in the world to find that I could only escort one NPC at a time and that NPC escorts had a 5 minute timer between repeats. “That’s fine,” I went. “UO is the home of the player created experience. King of the Sandbox. I’m sure it won’t be too long before I’ll be doing something interesting.”

I was wrong. UO might be King of the Sandbox MMOs, but it is Arch-Duke of the Skill-Grind MMOs as well. The basic quests – the ones given to every newbie who wanders in – is to get specific skills to lvl 50. Some are very easy – Focus skills almost every time you move or use another ability, for instance. If you fight enough minor undead who hang around the area, your weapon skill will go up to 50 – takes a little while though – and if you hang around even longer, your Parry will hit 50 too. Turn in the quest and you get some items. Neat.

But it was after I’d gotten to this point that I’d found that my Samurai quest giver required a skill level of 50 in Bushido and the only way to get that was to go back out and fight another heap of undead, this time using particular skills I had no idea the character possessed. So, another graveyard slaughtered and back I go for a sword that was inferior to the one the swordsmaster gave me. Plus I still only had access to the basic Bushido skills, so it was a lot of repetition for what felt like very little reward.

And then came the fishing. Oh, the fishing.

Down on the docks is a fisherman who lost his rod and wants you to catch some fish for him. It took me a while to work out I had to buy a fishing rod and fish for him (the lack of instruction on buying and selling to vendors strikes again!) but when I worked it out, I got to it.

The fishing experience in UO.

All the realism of fishing with no return. So exactly like fishing.

And very quickly it turned into one of the most boring game experiences I can remember in a long time. Players often complain to devs that drop quests – where you have to kill a certain type of creature to get a certain item from them, with the item received potentially being randomly allocated so you have to kill an awful lot of Giant Boars to get 10 Giant Boar Hooves – are boring wastes of time. And often they are. But here was a drop quest where all I was doing was waiting for the skill to refresh without even the diversion of slaughtering some innocent woodland creature to pass the time.

It was a very dull experience catching five green fish (sometimes you caught fish that weren’t green, so they didn’t help). And then I tried to turn the fish in (through the annoying “Set Quest Item” process that was another roadblock to fun) and it turns out that either I read the flavour text wrong or the quest text needs to be updated because he actually wanted 20 fish, or something. Fortunately my newfound ability to speak to vendors let me buy those fish off another fisherman and turn them in instead.

And then there was the carpentry quest that required me to produce a factory line of footstools before I could make a chair. And in order to get wood for the carpentry, I needed to build up my Lumberjack skill to successfully harvest wood from trees.  Or the ninja quests that required me to hide enough times to get my Hide skill to lvl 50, but not every hide attempt was successful, so it was another exercise in waiting for skill timers to refresh. And their stealth quest that requires you to be in hide mode in order to use stealth, which you can’t do until Hide is skill lvl 20 (or something) and then you can start trying to grind out Stealth in 0.1% increment lots during the occasional times you successfully hide.

It was at this point my interest in UO didn’t so much die as it took my ego hostage and threatened to do bad things unless I stopped playing.

I’m sure there are people out there who will say that I’m not doing it right, or that UO wasn’t about the massive skill grinding but about what you could do after you’d completed all that massive skill grinding. They might be right. But having experienced UO, I completely understand why skill grinding macros were common in-game. It’s a huge barrier that will stop UO ever coming back into mainstream popularity.

The early UO players may have had access to a unique and special wonderland that may never be repeated, a world where almost anything was possible, but time has moved on. UO doesn’t offer anything to the new player to encourage them to stay and the grind is an active barrier to play. There might be hugely sophisticated systems waiting for those who understand the game, but the majority of players are never going to get there having quit after failing to catch a fish after the hundredth attempt.

(Author’s note: I may have got the name of some of the skills wrong, or the colour of the fish. I don’t really care since those are minor points to the main issue of UO’s trial not being fun.)

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4 thoughts on “The Trials of UnSub: Ultima Online (Stygian Abyss)

  1. Yes, UO’s new player experience sucks… but UO’s endgame is extremely rich and fun.

    Also… fishing is a skill, just like any other. Some people find it very fun. Some people find carpentry really fun. Some people find bashing monster’s heads in fun. Some people find blowing up monsters with spells fun.
    The good thing about UO… you can pick and choose, and ignore the skills you don’t find fun (as long as you find at least one template you enjoy). Almost all the drops you get for using skills you don’t enjoy would only benefit those skills, so you don’t feel like you’re losing out on anything (and for the few that would benefit you, you can almost always find somebody else who would be happy to complete the quest and sell you the reward).
    You shouldn’t bash a game for giving a non-required experience that some people enjoy just because you don’t.

    But yes… the new player experience (especially the tutorial), and new character skill grind is boring in UO, and something the game has always needed to work on. Right now, for UO to get new players to stay, it basically relies on new players knowing/meeting existing players to help them get started.

    • If someone else finds fishing in UO thrilling, more power to them. More likely they’ll use a fishing macro and go off to make a sandwich.

  2. As a new player just coming into UO I can totally understand where you are coming from. However I do think you came in with a mindset from games like WoW. You took all the quest that was in town and set out to do them. These quest you was working on was specific to what you wanted your character to do. So basically they was part of the tutorial. If you wanted to be a Samurai why would you do the quest for a lumberjack unless of course you wanted to be one bad ass Samurai who could have a 2nd job on the side. Why fish? Your a Samurai. Go kill stuff. You dont gain any extra experince by doing these quest except in that profession. You had a well wrote article but I do believe you went into the game with a preconceived notion of how MMOs work. Where UO is not these other games. The best part of UO is the freedom you have with your character, game play, and the social aspect that is no where near what it used to be. In wow or most games if you pick a warrior that is what you are in UO you can be anything. You want to be the meanest cook in town you can take up those skills. Like all games you get what you put into it.

    • I understand – the review of the trial should always be taken as just my experience.

      However, despite the apparent depth of UO, the trial does nothing to actually suggest that. Instead, it just drops you off, shows the bare basics and lets the player go. The trial does not really teach you the heights you can reach, especially if even the first Samurai quest is, “Go over there, hit undead until you skill-up enough, come back, here’s a sword, bye!”.

      A little bit of hand-holding through early play – especially for a title as complex as UO – would have gone a long way.

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