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Bloody Ethics

As companies try to create the perfect online world, they've come up against a problem: the dark side of human nature

By Lev Grossman

IMAGINE THAT YOU could create a world. A perfect world, made to order in every detail. What would it look like? Would it be a pretty world, with trees and flowers and pure, clean water? A world of total freedom?

Almost three years ago, Origin Systems brought together a team of writers, artists and computer programmers to build such a world, a hyperreal simulation of a country it named Britannia. When it was done, Origin connected its 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 immersing game called Ultima. Players from more than 114 countries pay $9.95 a month for the pleasure.

In April, Origin released an eagerly anticipated update called Ultima Online Renaissance, which has twice the virtual landmass of the original. Subscriber response has far exceeded company expectations. Three other companies are about to issue other versions of the game, which has earned $52 million in subscription revenues alone.

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 eight-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 (multiple user dimension) 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. As some of the game designers have discovered, making Ultima attractive to larger audiences requires changing its essence.

Virtue Reality

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.

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.

Playing for Keeps

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 vacant 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 $1,000.

Players who get conned sometimes beg the game masters to intervene, but so far the folks at Origin have refused to help. As Britannia 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. 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.

Toning it Down

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 Lumiere Brothers stage." As Neal Stephenson describes it 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.

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From the June 1-7, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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