The first large-scale success among graphic MMOGs, Ultima Online peaked at 250,000 subscribers in July 2003 before gradually declining to its current 135,000 (of whom half are in Japan).
"I really like my [MMOGs] to embody user creativity. I also dislike cliques, so I have tried to design so people who wouldn't normally hang out together come to realize each other's importance in the world, the value of their roles in the society, that sort of thing. So I try to have interdependence as a key feature - people relying on each other, not in the moment-to-moment sense, but in the sense that our modern lives would fall apart if there weren't people in a zillion jobs doing things we never think twice about, from stocking grocery shelves to manufacturing pens. The heart of UO was in many ways the original ecology system, which I wrote about at some length on my blog. It didn't pan out, but even what we managed to get in there did in fact open up a lot of doors. I think we hit a lot of [our design goals], and were close to having much of it working, but the PK [player killing] problem basically undermined everything."
UO inadvertently popularized several now-familiar online dysfunctions - especially player-versus-player (PvP) griefing. Koster and the Live Team wrestled with UO's escalating problem of high-level player characters killing and looting lower-level characters. Koster argued against a "PK switch," whereby players could select whether to participate in, and be vulnerable to, PvP combat. After Koster left Origin, UO instituted an area-based PK switch, segregating its shards (servers) into two facets (worlds): "Felucca" (unrestrained PvP) and "Trammel" (PvP only by mutual consent). Most players migrated to Trammel.
"A big part of why I fought the PK switch was because it meant we were trading away player self-determination for security - echoes of today's political situation, in some ways! UO often felt like long days of taking out things we had put into the game because players found ways to hurt each other with the toys we gave them. But the goal was still self-determination and freedom. The Ultima series was about learning to live with the Virtues, and I wanted the MMOG to be about the same thing.
"We worked hard to reduce PKing without instituting the switch, and based on what I saw, we did in fact make steady progress. But after I left the team, the introduction of the Trammel and Felucca facets [settled the issue] in a very different way than I would have chosen. I would have kept to the general path we were on. The various systems like stat loss and ping-pong murder counts were having a gradual effect on PK attacks.
"If we had gotten to the natural next step, which was player cities with control over PvP within their territory, I think the real nature of PvP in the game could have emerged.
"On the other hand, in terms of what I expected players to do with it, I think [UO] exceeded every wildest expectation. The players don't care about what you wanted there, about what the dreams were - they only care about what they have in front of them, and then they proceed to do things you never imagined. And in UO's case, a lot of what they managed to come up with was truly amazing and not at all something I had ever pictured.
"I literally have not logged in for several years now. It's changed beyond recognition for me, in some ways. I am still in touch with some of the players, though."