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Vol.32 No.2 May 1998

Real-time Interactive Graphics in Computer Gaming

Scott S.Fisher
Telepresence Research Inc.
Glen Fraser

May 98 Columns
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It is difficult to ignore the excitement in the computer gaming community about real-time 3D graphics. Everywhere, the talk seems to be of faster 3D engines -- of hardware acceleration, texture-mapping and advanced real-time lighting effects. As computer graphics hardware gets more powerful and more accessible, game developers are realizing a wider range of expressive possibilities. And every year, we see progressively more realistic “virtual worlds” packaged in game form.

But the quest for realism and the creation of convincing “worlds” is not only about fancy graphics. Just as important (perhaps even more important) are how the player interacts with the world and shares experiences with its virtual residents. Real-time interaction can take many forms. Perhaps many of us are most inclined to think of high-speed Quake-style shoot-em-ups as the most “advanced” interactive games available today. These games certainly test our split-second reflexes and fast-twitch muscle tissues. Through networked playing modes, these games also provide us with a means of interacting (killing, more often than not) and communicating (“Die, scum!”) with other real people, inside the artificial world.

Of course, not all real-time games that feature strong interaction with other people are of this genre. For many years, text-based virtual worlds -- such as Multi User Dungeons (MUDs) and MUD, Object Oriented (MOOs) -- have been allowing people to role-play and interact with one another via the “interface” of an on-line, virtual persona or “avatar.” Some of these have been essentially chat rooms, while many others take on more game-like qualities, with virtual places to explore and hurdles to overcome. More recently, these elaborate interactive communities have gone graphical.

For this issue’s column, we are glad to welcome Amy Jo Kim. A leading on-line design specialist, Amy has been designing innovative user interfaces for more than 15 years, and her background broadly spans such areas as on-line gaming worlds and multimedia user interfaces.

With the introduction of games such as Origin’s Ultima Online, we are starting to find some really large-scale virtual worlds being built, on top of a rich, graphical, gaming framework. In a section of her upcoming book, Community-Building on the Web (due out in late summer 1998 from PeachPit Press), Amy examines this new generation of highly-responsive, ever-evolving game worlds. In this column, we present an adapted excerpt from her book, which takes Ultima Online as a specific example, and discusses some of the successes and failures of that game.

Ultima Online: An Interactive Virtual World with Multiple Personalities

Amy Jo Kim

During the latter part of 1997, the gaming industry was abuzz with controversy. A long-anticipated Internet game had finally hit the market -- and depending on who you talked to, this game was either “a brilliant breakthrough” or “a dismal failure.” Despite formidable hardware requirements, a steep learning curve and wildly mixed reviews, Ultima Online sold more than 100,000 copies in three months, and became the fastest-selling Internet game of all time.

The unexpected popularity of this game took the industry -- and Origin, the company that created it -- by surprise. Tens of thousands of players logged on daily, often for three to four hours at a time -- all the while complaining vociferously about the ever-growing list of bugs, painfully slow network performance and rampant antisocial behavior. One by one, the major gaming magazines weighed in with their opinions; some were positive, some negative, and every review generated an unprecedented storm of reader letters, arguing passionately both for and against the game.

Industry-watchers shook their heads in sympathy and dismay as they watched Origin struggle with the political, technical and social issues that are familiar to anyone who has run a sizable virtual world. “Unfortunately, Origin seems to have ignored many of the lessons that our industry has learned in the last 10 years of building on-line worlds,” says Randy Farmer, long-time virtual worlds pioneer and Senior Designer at Electric Communities. “They’re making the same mistakes that first-time virtual world-builders always make.”

Yet mistakes and all, Origin managed to create a highly interactive, graphically rich and deeply compelling virtual gameworld. Love it or hate it, everyone is talking about it -- and when the gaming industry sits up and takes notice, pay attention. From NetTrek and Rogue to Doom and Diablo, innovative computer games have a funny habit of showing us how we’ll all soon be playing -- and perhaps learning -- in cyberspace.

Figure 1: The liches at home Figure 1: The liches at home, concocting potions and planning mischief.

A Magical Universe That Unfolds Over Time

Ultima Online (UO) takes place in Britannia, an immersive fictional universe. There are vast territories to explore, gruesome monsters to slay, wild animals to tame and mysterious spirits to communicate with. Every night, tens of thousands of players log on and live out make-believe lives as healers, fighters, mages and rogues. There are currently 10 parallel UO servers; each contains an identical copy of the Britannian landscape, and can hold up to 2,500 simultaneous players.

In terms of size, UO is the largest on-line gaming world yet. Britannia occupies some 32,000 different screens. There are 15 cities, nine shrines, seven dungeons and acres of uncharted wilderness -- which is quickly getting settled by the more adventurous players. Britannia is a persistent, evolving world -- i.e. your character develops over time in response to your actions, and you can build, furnish and protect your own homestead. You can even rent a storefront, hang out your shingle and open an in-game business in one of the many towns.

Graphically, Britannia is a visually pleasurable place to hang out. The towns, forests and dungeons are intricately realized. Although it’s not as photorealistic as Myst or Riven, the production values are unusually high for a 2D isometric-projection game. The details are meaningful -- you can pick up and read that book on the library shelf, or play that game of checkers in the Tavern. The people and creatures are charmingly animated; you hear hoofbeats, and watch as three knights on horseback ride by, their capes flowing in the breeze, followed by a lumbering bear and a bedraggled-looking dog. Sound effects (such as approaching footsteps) and music cues (that accompany meaningful events) are used sparingly yet effectively. A mind-boggling variety of clothing options allows each participating character to develop a truly unique look.

But more importantly, Britannia is a highly interactive place to be. You can develop your skills in a wide variety of ways -- all of which involve meaningful (and graphical) object transformations. You can harvest wheat, take it to a mill and watch it be ground into grain. You can purchase a bolt of cloth and a sewing kit, and create several skullcaps, which you then sell to a vendor in town. You can mine ore from the mountains, which you take to a blacksmith to be smelt into armor. You can catch a fish in the river, build a campfire, cook the fish steaks and eat them to build up your stamina.

There are 27 different types of animals, and 30 types of monsters -- and each of these automated creatures has an appropriate set of (beautifully animated) behaviors for reacting to events. UO includes a powerful and flexible scripting system for responding to events -- which can be generated by the player, the environment or even the creature’s own internal monitoring systems. Suppose you encounter a wild bear in the woods. It might attack you -- but if you have the right skills, you can feed it, tame it, name it and coax it into following you around. Other players may try to attack your bear, or lure it away -- so if you want a loyal pet, you’ll need to hunt for food to keep your bear happy and well-fed.

Even more to the point, it’s the power of “interactivity in context” that makes UO feel so alive. Whenever a player performs an action (i.e. generates an event), the environment responds within a complex contextual framework, which can include data from a variety of dynamic systems. For instance, if your pet bear gets too hungry, he might disregard your commands, and wander off in search of food -- but his chances of finding food will depend on whether the woods have been over-hunted.

Because Britannia and its inhabitants are persistent, this interactivity extends over repeat visits. As you play the game, your character becomes progressively more proficient at whichever skills you practice -- be they fishing, fighting, tailoring or magic. As your skills improve, new experiences open up to you -- such as discovering a glowing teleportation device that takes you to Wind, the secret city that only expert mages can enter, or vanquishing a particularly fierce monster, who is guarding a treasure chest that will give you a nice down payment on that castle you’ve been lusting after.

As you become more familiar with the environment, fashion options open up to you as well. In Britannia, you are born naked, but as you become a more sophisticated player, you get to wear progressively more impressive clothes -- which you have to make, steal or purchase. The better you get at playing the game, the more fully accessorized your outfits become -- which means that seniority and in-game savvy are clearly expressed in an immediate graphic way. And the shopping in Britannia is to dye for, literally -- you can color your outfits any way that you want, and denote your affiliation by dressing in a coordinated fashion with your Gaming Tribe. All of these clothing options help newcomers to quickly assess who the influential people are -- and add considerable visual interest to the environment.

Lastly, and perhaps most distinctively, UO is a world with an emergent economy. To live out a rich and satisfying gaming life, you need to generate some cash. Fortunately, there are a variety of skills to acquire, and myriad ways to exploit these skills for cash. As you accumulate experiences and wealth, your character acquires a title and reputation that is visible to others from the clothing, tools and accessories you wear.

The interrelatedness of these social, economic and ecological systems are ultimately what makes Britannia so immersive and involving -- but this complexity can also cause unforeseen social problems, and result in hard-to-fix bugs. This point was driven home a few weeks after UO’s release, when a player named Mohdri Dragon initiated an in-game display of civil disobedience to call attention to Origin’s lax response to numerous unfixed bugs while it built new features. Hundreds of players gathered together in the capital city of Britain, stripped their characters naked and stormed the castle of Lord British (the in-game ruler of Britannia). Once inside the castle, the players drank themselves silly, trashed Lord British’s throne room and loudly expressed their feelings about how Britannia was being run, much to the amusement and consternation of the game’s creators. “Everyone had a strong, passionate opinion,” said Lord British (a.k.a. Richard Garriott, the Executive Producer of UO), who was watching the event from behind an invisible cloak, “and many players were expressing exactly opposite sides of the same issue.” In other words, the players were starting to behave like true citizens of Britannia.

Figure 2: Sage Humbolt kicks some lich butt Figure 2: The good wise Sage Humbolt battles the evil liches.

An Evolving Testbed for Cyber-Community

When was the last time that you heard of gamers initiating a naked, drunken on-line brawl, with the express intention of influencing policy changes within their virtual gaming world? Through some magical combination of backstory features, production values and scale, Origin created an environment that evokes enough “suspension of disbelief” for players to care deeply about the political and social future of Britannia, and take steps to make it better. A nascent civil government is emerging, and some citizens are organizing themselves into groups that have goals, values and a clearly articulated moral stance.

But Britannia does not evoke a sense of civic pride in every player. An environment as flexible and open-ended as this can look very different to different people. To Quake and Doom aficionados, Britannia looks like a place to shoot everything that moves. Others want to “get rich quick” by any means necessary. The role-players are out there, clamoring for quests and a story. Habitués of on-line salons are looking for intellectual sparring and verbal repartee. Chat room devotees are logging in, searching for intimate, anonymous social relationships.

All of these people are finding their way to Britannia, and trying to figure out if this brave new world is a place they want to call home. It’s a testament to the imaginative power and Utopian allure of this fantasy environment that so many people see the possibilities, and want to make Britannia their own.

So what’s so compelling about life in Britannia? What made this game an unexpected hit?

Looks Count

To succeed in gaming these days, you gotta have the visual goods -- and UO delivers. The towns and forests and dungeons of Britannia are beautifully realized, and the wide variety of clothing options allows each character to develop a truly unique look. The people and creatures are delightfully animated; sound effects and music are used sparingly yet effectively. UO is essentially a graphic MUD on steroids -- and even though it’s lacking some important features, UO has what it takes to attract kids who grew up with fast-action videogames and big-bucks special effects movies.

Size Matters

In terms of virtual territory, UO is the biggest on-line gameworld to date. The vast landscape is always changing and evolving; people are purchasing and furnishing homes, and leaving valuable objects scattered throughout the world. Up to 2,500 players can be on-line together in each world -- and on a recent night, there were 14,000 players logged on simultaneously to Britannia’s 10 servers. The sense of wide-open exploration is tangible. There’s always something new to see -- and someone new to meet.

Figure 3: The Shrine of Humility Figure 3: An army of Orcs attacks the sacred Shrine of Humility.

Characters Evolve

In Britannia, the look of your character is largely determined by your clothing -- and as you become a more sophisticated player, you get to wear progressively more impressive clothes. Your health, strength and skills also change over time, in response to your actions in the world. Although the current in-game notoriety system is woefully inadequate, the basic idea of tracking and visually representing each player’s cumulative experiences and accomplishments over time is sound. When you combine this feature with a persistent, buildable world and a wide variety of synergistic activities, you’ve got a powerful and addictive combination.

But Britannia also has its share of problems. It’s clear from the number and severity of bugs, and the continuing changes to the underlying game mechanics, that the team at Origin bit off way more than it could chew. Then again, if they’d known what they were getting into, they never would have created a world with the scale, complexity and production values of Britannia. What lessons can we learn from this grand experiment?

You Can’t Play a Game When The Rules Keep Changing

Ultima Online is both a role-playing game, and a complex virtual world. This dual nature is what makes Britannia such a compelling -- and confusing -- place to be. On the one hand, it’s a game -- with rules to learn, roles to play and status to track. On the other hand, it’s a virtual world -- with complex social, economic and ecological systems that affect the gaming experience of each and every player. When bright, creative, opportunistic people enter this gameworld, they’ll inevitably find the stress fractures in the complex, interlocking systems -- which will force the game designers to patch the systems, and rewrite the rules. That’s to be expected in an evolving on-line world -- but you can’t play a game when the rules keep changing. By creating an overly complex system, Origin made it difficult for role-playing fans in particular to get beyond the rules, and immerse themselves in the game.

Those Who Ignore the Past are Doomed to Repeat It

The UO team made some new and interesting mistakes -- but they also made some old and boring ones, such as the classic first-time-world-builder mistake of falling in love with realism at the expense of functionality. For example, in the interest of “realism,” the in-game communication facilities in UO are badly crippled; they don’t even offer what the most casual AOL user has come to expect. As a result, the majority of players communicate outside of the game while they’re playing it, using a popular Internet tool called ICQ (I seek you). After observing this very public player behavior, it’s unlikely that UO’s competitors will make the same mistake.

Societies Cannot Grow Without Effective Leadership

One of the most basic lessons of UO is that when you create a flexible fantasy environment, and fill it quickly with different kinds of people, some of them will behave very badly -- and the misdeeds of the few can have an unfortunate impact on the experiences of the many. All on-line worlds encounter this problem; some handle it better than others. One of the most successful tactics is to provide strong, proactive leadership and positive role models -- both of which are sorely lacking in Britannia. There are ostensibly two great leaders, Lords British and Blackthorn -- but their on-line presence is sporadic and reactive. There are numerous game masters -- but they’re overworked and harassed, and often abuse their powers. When people enter a new society, they look around for role models -- and Britannia could all too easily turn into Lord of the Flies.

Problems and all, Ultima Online gives us a tantalizing glimpse of how cyberspace could be. It’s the largest, most complex and most ambitious virtual world yet -- and it’s widely acknowledged within the gaming industry as the on-line role-playing game to beat. During 1998, industry powerhouses like Sony, Microsoft and SegaSoft will be releasing major games within this genre. Although these gaming worlds may turn out to be more technically and graphically advanced than UO, they will all have to struggle with the same difficult social issues -- in particular, the thorny and controversial issue of violence in on-line gaming worlds.

A Classroom for 21st-Century Skills

Player-killing (or PK-ing for short) is not unique to UO -- it has long been a popular activity in successful multiplayer games like Doom, Quake and Diablo. Arguments over violence in computer games have been raging for decades -- but what’s often missing from this debate is the relationship between player-on-player violence, and the emergence of tightly-knit groups of trusted comrades who band together for mutual aid. These groups -- known as Clans, Guilds, Tribes or Families -- are what Britannian culture, and perhaps on-line culture in general, is really all about.

Guilds are not unique to UO -- they’re also a popular phenomenon in Doom, Quake and Diablo. Curiously, they’re notably absent from non-violent multiplayer games like Scrabble or Checkers. For some reason, Guilds and Clans seem to spring up in on-line games that allow player-killing. Ultima Online offers many features that facilitate Guilds and Clans, such as being able to dress alike, develop synergistic team-oriented skills and pool resources to purchase and furnish a shared Guild House. Interestingly, player demand for Guild-oriented features has been so strong that Origin has recently added some major new features to the game that enhance the internal organization within Guilds, and promote friendly competition between Guilds.

What’s fascinating and important about these bottom-up, self-organizing, member-created groups is what people are learning about how to build and manage an effective distributed team. To form a Guild in UO, people who are geographically scattered must come together, organize themselves, define their shared values and goals and decide how to best move forward to achieve those goals. And the Guilds that thrive are usually built around a strong, effective leader.

Amy Jo Kim is the Founder and Creative Director of NAIMA, a design studio specializing in on-line social environments.

Amy Jo Kim
P. O. Box 2499
El Granada, CA 94018

Scott S.Fisher is a media artist and producer whose work focuses primarily on stereoscopic imaging, immersive first-person display environments and 3D books. Currently, he is Managing Director of Telepresence Research, Inc., a production company focusing on the art and design of virtual environment and remote presence experiences, and Visiting Professor in the School of the Arts and Architecture at UCLA.

Glen Fraser is a computer engineer with a passion for virtual reality and other forms of real-time visual computing. He currently works at SOFTIMAGE, developing interactive viewing and animation tools.

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

Shareese, for example, is a powerful and headstrong mage, with advanced healing skills and a small band of intensely loyal followers. She’s the supreme leader of the Guardians of the Glen, a tightly knit gaming clan that migrated to Britannia from Meridian 59, an earlier on-line role-playing game. Shareese is an avid gamer, who has founded and participated in several different Guilds. Through her gaming experiences, she has discovered that she can be a compelling and compassionate leader -- which has empowered her to become more effective and outspoken in her non-gaming life.

She also learned about the perils of bureaucracy. Back on Meridian, she was known as Shandra, and was the co-founder of a 75-member Guild known as the Enforcers (which was originally formed in response to rampant player-killing). The Enforcers were led by a seven-member Council of Elders, who tried to share leadership equally. But like any committee, they had trouble making decisions. “It seemed like we spent 99 percent of our time discussing what to do,” she remembers, “and hardly any time at all adventuring or questing.” So she started a splinter group called the Avengers, with herself as the absolute leader, aided and abetted by Wracru and Mezric, two loyal gaming friends. They found that this hierarchical structure and smaller guild size gave them much more time for adventuring and fun, and involved considerably less negotiation and politics.

Another Britannian Guild, known as the Insidious Brotherhood, likes to portray themselves as a group of bloodthirsty player killers and dangerous religious fanatics. Rumor has it that they worship the evil Guardian (a character from an earlier Ultima game) and perform strange pagan rituals over their hapless victims.

The leader of the Insidious Brotherhood is known as Magical Bubba -- a name chosen specifically to mislead the gullible. Bubba is a deceptively charming character, whose playful and friendly nature belies his often sinister intent. Bubba is not the strongest fighter, or the best strategic thinker, in his Clan. Bubba’s key leadership skill is his ability to build consensus among his opinionated and rowdy comrades -- a skill that has enabled him to turn this small band of role-playing evil characters into a lean, mean fighting machine. Guild Wars are a common pastime in UO -- and the Brotherhood has vanquished Guilds many times its size.

Something about this new generation of highly responsive, ever-evolving game worlds is triggering that age-old impulse to bond together into groups. You could look at UO, and similar game worlds, as on-line training environments for team-building; places where small, synergistic, geographically-distant teams are learning how to work together effectively, and develop the leadership and role-playing skills that are necessary for surviving in an increasingly networked world. As more and more people inhabit cyberspace, multiplayer gameworlds like Ultima Online will proliferate -- because they offer experiences that people are hungry for, and because their responsive and open-ended nature leverages the basic power and potential of the Internet as a real-time interactive medium.