Yesterday’s reminiscing about Ultima Online and the uncertain future of the MMORPG industry had me reflecting on this question: “What made Ultima Online, the oft-referred grandfather of MMORPGs, successful?”
UO had roughly 100,000 paying subscribers around 6 months after it released in September of 1997. Most people would agree it was an amazing game — it was “the next best thing” of its time.
Have you seen the list of games that released in 1997? Go ahead and Google it. On that list are some of the widely acknowledged best games of all times. Many of them outsold UO. Many of them are far better remembered — probably most of them. And a great many of them sure looked and played a heck of a lot more advanced than UO.
So it wasn’t the prettiest or most complicated game and it didn’t have the widest appeal. What then?
I submit that Ultima Online was a game designed for the right audience at the right time.
What does that mean?
I’m willing to bet no one sat around in a conference room talking about making the game to compete with Final Fantasy VII, Fallout, or GoldenEye 007. They made a niche game. The kind of game they wanted to play. The king of game people playing other graphical MUDs like The Realm would want to play. The type of game that MUD players would want. Those were not large communities — The Realm had less than a thousand people online.
When I see developers and/or players today talking about “the next big thing” or a game to “compete with WoW” or even a “really popular” game, I feel like shaking my head. If you try to make a MMORPG to compete with Fortnite, WoW, or whatever else is the most popular game today, then you have already failed.
Design for the niche. Design for the 100,000. Heck, find a group 100 people and make a game specifically for them. That’s where we will see the next Ultima Online come from. It’ll never be from a AAA studio or a game with investors. The spark of magic and life a game needs can’t come from an audience that large. The truly next best MMORPG won’t earn that title until its being shared with other people by a small niche of dedicated people who found their world to put down roots.