Team Comment - Skills and Stat Gain - September 20, 2001
In today's comments, we would like to discuss an issue that has been a considerable point of contention for some time, and has recently leapt once again to the forefront of player discussion: Skill & Stat Gain. (Note: For the remainder of this essay, we will be using the word "skill" in reference to both stats and skills so we don't have to type skills/stats each time.)

First we'd like to outline where we feel Ultima Online stands right now in regard to skill gain, and the aspects of the system we'd most like to address. So, without further ado...

Skill gain in its current form

When many players think of skill gain, they think of the "power hour" system, which was designed with the intention of helping players gain stats and skills through normal game play. "Normal game play" is defined for these purposes as simply playing the game in whatever manner a player desires, without the intention of tailoring their actions for the purpose of maximizing skill gain (ie: an adventurer might be on a dungeon crawl using various adventuring related skills, or a craftsperson could be fulfilling an order for several pieces of armor).

Unfortunately, the power hour system has suffered a number of problematic side-effects, including:
  • Excessive power gaming potential
    While the power hour system does in fact improve the casual player's chances to gain skill during normal game play, it also creates an environment that is drastically easier for a hardcore player to take to an extreme, resulting in greatly shortened total time in maxing-out a character.
  • Only modest benefit to casual players
    Casual players do not necessarily play on a one-hour daily schedule (something the power hour system practically assumes). For example, many players play several hours at a time, but only one or two days per week, forcing them to cram all their skill gain game play into the first hour of each play session, and denying them the opportunity for significant skill gain at higher levels for the rest of the session.
  • Unintuitive for new players
    The power hour system is unfamiliar to most RPG gamers, and must be actively taught to new UO players in order for them to understand the unique on-again, off-again skill gain results they experience.
Desired elements for UO skill gain system
  • Gains through "normal" game play
    We feel that most gamers want to use most of their play time to do the things they enjoy in an RPG (adventuring alone or with friends, crafting items for sale to other players, etc), without having their game play dictated by the need to maximize skill gain. Players should be essentially guaranteed to gain some amount of skill during any casual play session, provided they use their skills in ways that are at least mildly challenging for their level of expertise.
  • Support for some power gaming
    Hardcore players should be able to take a newly created character to a "maxed-out" state in less real time than a casual player. The assumption here is that the majority of hardcore players feel cheated by a game if there is no measurable advantage to the extra time investment they make beyond that of a casual gamer. At the same time, it's important to see that hardcore players cannot max-out characters in an unreasonably short amount of time, since this can greatly cheapen (for all players) the feeling of accomplishment derived from developing a character.
  • Reasonably long total time investment to "max" a character
    In a persistent world RPG that aims to be easy to get into, but hard to master, we need to work to maintain the integrity of the "hard to master" element. Generally, this is accomplished by enabling players to quickly gain skill at the low end, and progressively increasing the time (sometimes expressed as "difficulty") required as skill levels increase. As mentioned earlier, this total time investment must not be excessively long for casual players, or excessively short for power gamers.
  • Actions performed to gain skill must be reasonably achievable at the player's current skill level
    In order to see that players can effectively gain skill through normal game play, we must ensure that the actions required to gain skill fit the skill level of the player (they should not have to gain skill through the repeated failure of a very difficult task, and they should not be able to easily gain skill through the repetition of overly easy tasks).
A Possible Solution:

Keep in mind that this is only a proposal at this time, and we're not locked into anything just yet! However, we believe that we can address the points listed above by proposing a modification of the current skill gain system. In essence, this modification would eliminate the need for "power hour" by providing opportunities for guaranteed skill gain during normal play.

We're calling this proposal the Guaranteed Gain System (GGS). The core of this system is the guarantee that if you play "normally", you will gain skill. As always, you can only gain skill when you successfully perform an action. The difference under the GGS system is that if you have not gained skill under the current use-based system after a certain time period, the system would recognize this and force a point of skill gain (point meaning a tenth of a point, as in moving from 70.1 to 70.2). The length of the time period, or timer, is based on the level of skill.

To ensure that this would not allow characters to become Grandmasters overnight, players with higher skill would be guaranteed fewer skill points over the same time period. This means it would still take longer to gain skill in the 90's then it did in the 10's or 50's (this is nothing new). The time periods between guaranteed skill gain are based on the server system clock, meaning that you wouldn't have to be logged in for your timers to refresh.

This does not mean that players would be unable to gain skill until the timer refreshes, because the GGS would not be replacing the current use-based system, but it would be implemented in addition to it. You would still be able to gain skill under the current use-based system, but the GGS would now keep track of how long it has been since you had gained a point of skill. If the time period had passed and you had not gained skill through the regular method, you would gain a point through the GGS. The use-based system, though, would not be restricted by time. Even if you had just gained a point through the GGS, the system would still check for skill gain under the use-based system, although admittedly it would still be incredibly difficult to gain skill in this way at the high end range.

The most noticeable difference from the current system is that skill gains in the 90's while playing normally would not only be possible, they would be guaranteed (provided you are performing your skill in or around your current skill level). For example, casting Magic Arrow with a magery skill of 90 would provide no chance whatsoever to gain skill in magery, even with GGS. You would need to cast higher level spells to see guaranteed skill gain. Similarly, crafting daggers with a blacksmithy of 80 would provide no chance to gain skill in blacksmithy. Skills that are not difficulty based, however, would always have a chance to gain.

When we compare this proposed system to the our desired elements for our skill system we find that they match up very well:
  • Gains through "normal" game play
    GGS is designed to see that players who use their skills when needed will gain skill from time to time, without being required to repeat actions for hours or monitor their play time to maximize skills.
  • Support for some power gaming
    With the retention of the use-based system as a backup to the GGS, power gamers would still have the opportunity to raise skill faster by using the skills more often, thus "maxing out" a character faster than through GGS alone.
  • Reasonably long total time investment to "max" a character
    This is harder to determine, and would require tweaking during the system's test phase. Certainly with the GGS, if not properly balanced, it may be possible to GM a character easily. We would balance the system as best we can to prevent this from happening.
  • Actions performed to gain skill must be reasonably achievable at the player's current skill level
    This is exactly in line with the first point. In a normal game play session, players will not be attempting to perform skills well outside their achievable area on a regular basis.
The advantages of this solution would be threefold. First, casual players would not need to learn about "power hour" and how to tailor their play style to conform to its schedule. Casual players would be able to remain casual, while power gamers would be able to continue to push the envelope in attempting to get the most gains possible. Second, players would not be limited to 1 hour a day for maximum gain. In fact, just playing the game would be the best way to not only maximize your skill gain, but your enjoyment as well. Third, there would be no bookkeeping, timing or memorization necessary to determine when your character was last on, whether he/she is currently in power hour or when your next power hour begins. While it might likely take longer to "max" out a character, we believe that this is in fact what a large portion of our player base in fact wants: a system that gives real value to having high skills, but still allows players to reach those high skills through playing the game normally.

We strongly believe that the Guaranteed Gain System would address the concerns we are reading on the current power hour system, and we invite you to read the In Concept section of the UO site here for more detail on the workings of the Guaranteed Gain System. Let us know what you think on the boards!

Tom "Evocare" Chilton, Lead Designer
Chris "Prophet" Lassonde, Lead Programmer
Ultima Online

Team Comment - Comments from Evocare - April 23, 2001

As you likely know from the team comments heading, I go by the name of Evocare and I am a designer for Ultima Online. In my time at Origin, I’ve had the pleasure of working on a variety of game systems for both Ultima Online and the game formerly known as Ultima Online 2, and as a result I’d like to take some time to bore you with some game system theory. ;]

One of my primary goals here at Origin is to take a holistic approach the design of game systems. In order to deliver the best possible play experience, it’s crucial that we have a keen understanding of how each game system relates to other game systems. The idea is to create and maintain a web of essentially symbiotic game system relationships so that the combination of systems becomes dramatically more interesting and compelling than the sum of the value of each individually. Beyond creating an interesting and deep game world, one of the greatest benefits of this approach is the ability to deliver the aforementioned experience with a minimum of complexity and clutter when compared to a game of equal depth that is comprised of largely unrelated game systems.

Now that you’ve been given a mouthful of buzzwords, I’ll attempt to turn it into some tangible and useful information. Currently, Ultima Online has a foundation of basic game systems that establish the groundwork for your play experience. Although these systems are reasonably interesting on their own, they become considerably more interesting when meaningful relationships between them are developed. You can see this kind of relationship between the guild and housing systems, in that a guildstone must be located within a house. A result of this interaction is that the value of the guild system is compounded by the interesting qualities of the housing system (and vice versa), since players must work with the elements of attempting to establish a guild while balancing those desires with their housing needs. An example of one of the housing system’s effects on the guild system hinges on the ability of the players to (among other things) declare houses as public or private buildings, since it creates a meaningful meta-game in which a guild can make use of the “public” feature in order to have an open gathering environment, or the “private” feature in order to use the guild house as a sort of retreat from the outside world (all the while balancing the needs of the guild against the challenges of obtaining the best possible house type).

At this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with the future of Ultima Online, how it is that we can expect to see this type of approach provide benefits to the existing game world, and why it isn’t like that already! Without giving away too much detail, we’d like to see Ultima Online evolve its current system design into a more cohesive whole, where the distinctions between systems blur as their interactions are built upon and encouraged to grow! Although this has been an elusive goal due in large part to the realities of live game maintenance and changing faces among the development team, I believe that as time goes on, you (the players) will see a gradual and noticeable refinement of the game systems within Ultima Online. Hopefully, this will translate into a more cohesive and fun game.

Take care!

Tom “Evocare” Chilton
Designer, Ultima Online