Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

How UO Changed The Culture of MMOs

There are those who think that perhaps Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian are lying about the campaigns of terror, hacking, and bullying that they are currently encountering (and thanks to Tadhg Kelly for inventing the term Gamergate Truthers to describe them – it’s easier to say in polite company than fuckwads).  I daresay that anybody who has ever set foot in the Customer Service department of a major MMO for more than five minutes has pretty much no doubts whatsoever.  Because those guys see it all.  Every day.

It used to be worse.  Much worse.  My first MUD, CarnageMUD, had to ban several players for attempting to hack, bully or keylog other players.  Meridian 59 was worse, but it wasn’t until Ultima Online that we really saw how dark things could be.

Early days UO was chaotic for a lot of reasons.  The game was much more successful than they anticipated, and they had to scale up very quickly.  It was also very, very buggy, which created all manners of headaches for players and developers, and some incredibly novel ways to exploit and abuse your fellow players.  It also was, bluntly, a social cesspool.

MMOs always vary wildly in tone from game to game and server to server, but early UO was a place where it seemed that everywhere I went, you’d encounter the most awful crude sexist, racist, homophobic, juvenile crap that you can imagine, both on the boards and in the game.  And early UO was birthed on what was somewhat of a libertarian vibe — Origin let way too much of that crap slide, with the idea that you could always just kill the jerks.  The problem was that no one was as good at PVP as the jerks were, and even more problematic, the jerks didn’t really feel all that traumatized when they died.  It was the cost of doing business, where business was being a jerk.

At the time, there was serious concerns in the budding MMO industry.  UO was not a very nice place.  There were not a lot of women players – hell, there were not a lot of players who had thin skin.  But our visions in those days wasn’t just for a couple hundred thousand players – we wanted the genre to see millions, or even tens of millions of players.  But you were never going to get there if you were being called a ‘faggot’ every ten seconds.  I remember in those days actually feeling despondent.  Maybe the vision of an MMO just couldn’t scale above a certain size.  Maybe the dream was dead.

You should not need thick skin to play a video game.

With all due respect to Raph, in my mind there is no person who has been more important to the development of MMOs as a viable consumer product, historically, than Gordon Walton.  He came to Origin from Kesmai, one of the few companies that dabbled with large-scale multiplayer gaming before Ultima Online and Meridian 59.  And he had the scars to prove it.  His contribution was simple: he was able to convince every level of the organization that change was necessary – and possible.  He did so with the single most succinct definition of a griefer I’ve ever heard: A griefer is someone who, through his social actions, costs you more money than he gives you.

Well, when you say it like that, we all felt pretty stupid for letting these jackasses hang around for so long.

Ultimately, his message was that the culture of the game had to change.  Community services were beefed up.  The team developed tools that allowed players to report abusive behavior and allowed CS to review the chat logs of trouble incidents (fun fact: in a not-insignificant number of cases, CS would ban the person who filed the complaint, as it was clear the player was attempting to goad his target).  Origin also built what may have been the industry’s first community relations department, in order to rescue the tone on the boards.  And the team did the Felucca/Trammel split, creating a safer adventuring space in order to attract a less cutthroat brand of audience.  And then they began working on a Zero Tolerance policy for general assholish behavior.

Which was tough, because in those early days, the CS tools were still roughly akin to rocks and twigs.

But it worked.  UO was, most assuredly, saved by changing its culture more than any other change it ever made.

EverQuest managed to learn from UO’s mistakes and corrections, and had a zero tolerance policy from the start.  They had some rough patches — early MMO developers were continually astounded at the ingenuity of griefers determined to ruin each other’s good times.  By the time WoW came around, the formula was pretty pat.  Sure some MMOs have struggled with fuckwads, but these struggles have tended to be brief, because now MMO developers know that it’s just not worth keeping their $10 bucks a month.

The modern MMO has a full-time staff, usually of dozens of people, hopefully working 24 hours in order to identify problem behavior — including not just harassment like this, but also issues like gold spamming, botting, cheating, etc — and escort those people out the door as quickly as humanly possible.  It’s kind of like being a bouncer at a strip club.  You may get your hands on a dancer’s ass, but you’ll likely be out in the parking lot within 2 minutes.

We spend MILLIONS of dollars doing this.  Millions that as a designer, I’d sure like to spend on more game content or features.  But it is the cost of doing business.  And its working – there is probably no online, synchronous, co-ed gaming place that feels as protected and as safe for women and other minorities.  Everquest 2 reportedly has a 60%/40% gender split.  Same for WoW.  Compare that to the 85/15 split playing GTA IV.  Or the 90/10% split playing League of Legends.  Or the 92%/8% that call themselves Call of Duty fans on Facebook.

The walled garden MMO is a uniquely safe place for female gamers to play with male gamers.  Which is something to be concerned about, given publishers seem to be losing appetites for making MMOs in the wake of no one being able to replicate World of Warcraft’s lightning in a bottle.

Make no mistake – MMOs have strong advantages in controlling their cultures.  We house the servers and pay for the bandwidth.  We frequently have subscription plans to help pay the costs of a CS crew.  Most communications in these games between strangers is done in text chat, which is cheap to store and easy to search.  And the generally long lifespans of the character arc in these games means that getting kicked out of the game will lose a ton of character progress and rare items – sure, that level grind sucks, but perversely, it also creates an investment of time in that character that most people are loathe to lose.   MMOs changed the culture from the top down.  And that was easier.  Doing this for the larger gaming culture will be inestimably harder.

But the most important step was realizing that the culture had to change.


  1. It’s interesting to read this type of article from someone who has been in the MMO industry from the earlier days.

    It seems that while MMO populations can reach quite staggering numbers, much of the social systems for supporting player behaviour stems from the unit of Guilds rather than the population as a whole.

    Of course I have no hard numbers for this it’s just a personal observation.

    It may take you some time and effort to find a Guild that fits your needs (I suspect there are many more poor guilds out there than good ones), but once you do it can be a game changer. Thankfully I am in a good Guild that deals with aggressive anti-social behaviour quickly and effectively. While solving the issue at a Guild level it only moves the problem player back out into the larger population as a whole.

    The down side to this is that there are those sort of Guilds that just gather up all the scum and villainy that exist on the server. Once you hit a critical mass there is a tendency for them to feed off each others vitriol, and in many cases that critical mass is as low as two. Stumble into one of these Guilds by accident and it may put you off joining Guilds for life.

    So, while I have a nice safe inclusive environment to game in there are many out in the non-Guild or wrong-Guild environment having to bear the brunt of the anti-social.

    In this day and age Guilds tend to transcend individual games instead providing a resource base (forums, communication servers, established groups) that provides a shared social arena across many games.

    • Damion Schubert

      September 2, 2014 at 3:46 pm

      You are correct in that people in guilds tend to require less protecting. They have a social circle to console and defend them if things go off the rails. And generally, MMO designers don’t care if you’re being vile in guild chat and no one in guild chat is complaining.

      The problem for designers are the ‘non-guild’ people, as you described them. These players are usually fresh arrivals who are trying to decide if the game is right for them. It’s an incredibly vulnerable time – your game could cure cancer, and people would walk away from it if they have a vile enough early community encounter.

      • Within the confines of the MMO I realise there are greater tools available to the moderation of abuse.

        I guess I’d tagged the guilds as one of the bottom-up controls due to the effects of peer pressure.
        The hardest part for a new player is navigating that segregated part of the community to find a guild that matches their needs, if indeed they want to join a guild at all.

        Prior to launch SWTOR had a system for registering guilds so that players could make sure they were allocated to the same server. It had a handy search function that allowed you to filter for faction, style, times, and seriousness of play. It would of been a handy tool to maintain for the new comer to try to find an acceptable guild.

        You suggest a significant paradox that lies at the heart of the Massively Multiplayer experience, that is new comers need to have their initial exposure limited to almost solitary play until they have learnt some of the tools to defend themselves. Tools such as ‘/ignore’ are invaluable (specifically with regards to SWTOR a legacy ignore would deal with the problem player behind the keyboard rather than individual characters).

        However that focuses on the MMO environment and I’ve not lost track that the original point of the blog was to encourage greater acceptance of diversity across gaming as a whole.

        I always thought anonymity was one of the greatest factors. I’m starting to see the isolation of a person when they make their comments, usually sat alone at a keyboard, can induce a level of detachment from the effect those comments will eventually have. Not having to look someone in the eye when you insult them can elevate the abuse to horrific levels. Couple this to the sort of mob mentality that niches within the community can encourage and the fact that the lexicon of ‘trash talk’ and ‘banter’ focus on easily identifiable markers (nationality, gender, race, etc), and it is easy to see how this abusive environment is perpetuated.

        In the UK there are some legal ramifications from the 2003 communications act that has allowed for prosecution of trolls for their abusive content on social media sites.

        When you look at the seeming need for humanity to place labels on others and then use that as a means to dehumanise them, I can only think that the gaming community as it expands to include an ever more diverse group has a serious challenge on its hands.

  2. It’s been distressing to learn just how much time, money, and personnel are devoted to keeping online gaming communities a modicum more civil than the cesspool you describe for the early MMOs. While I think that advances in natural language processing might obviate some of the need to police these communities manually, I’m more interested in and encouraged by efforts to create games and game systems that foster positive interactions. Other early MMO efforts like A Tale in the Desert, more recent multiplayer-light games like Journey, and research by Riot and others about the often powerful effects of subtle changes to design on player behavior, all suggest we can create games where decency and civility is the norm not the exception.

    • Damion Schubert

      September 2, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      A lot of that has to do with culture, and with being sure that either you have the means for top-down policing (i.e. customer service agents), bottom-up policing (i.e. player cops keep the peace) or a game that doesn’t need policing (Hearthstone and Wizard 101, for example, harshly limit player interaction to some canned messages).

      The big problem with top-down policing is teaching players to press the panic button and use whatever other tools you have instead of quit.

      The big problem with bottom-up policing is that (a) being a robber is a fun job, but being a security guard is a lousy one and (b) your policing methodology needs to not be hijackable and abusable by bad players.

      And, of course, the big problem with limiting interactions is that you’re killing a lot of social glue in order to get rid of the bad stuff.

  3. I strongly believe that by revamping your working title from “How UO Changed The Culture of MMOs” and expand it to a more voraciously handsome “How Ultimate Online Changed The Culture of MMOs”. Well I will put it this way: you no longer disparage those of us geeks whom associate UO to a fantastic Final Fantasy XI encounter by the name “Under Observation” and make it very clear that UO stands for a game titled “Ultima Online” (something remarkably less enjoyable and not an encounter in Final Fantasy XI online.)

    I do add, in all seriousness, the usage of acronyms (chiefly those which are not explicitly defined early into the first sentence of the article) really does rustle my jimmies- in the worst way.

    I could be wrong about this whole acronym thing. But Unforunately Observation is Universally Ostentatious and Ultimately Ostriches could dictate that simply using the letters “UO” is tragically ambiguous.

    Yes. I realize that we are treated to the explanation of the acronym in the second paragraph. Also. Yes. I realize I am clinically insane.

    I do hope that future titles of your pieces deliberately kick more ass. It was an enjoyable read and kudos to thought involved.

  4. I would like to see the same gender statistics for Nexon’s Mabinogi. A game that tends to be overlooked because of its Korean origin, but that for some strange reason seems to have lots of women inside, at least compared with the average MMO. If the statistics are more balanced, I would like to know what are they doing good.

  5. People aren’t denying those two receive harassment. They’re just pointing out it happens to tons of other people too, including men, and that it is done by some of the people who scream the loudest about social justice. Including journalists.

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