UO Stratics was recently able to touch bases with Rick "Stellerex" Hall, the Senior Producer for Ultima Online, on a number of issues regarding UO in general, on the soon-to-be-released update of Lord Blackthorn's Revenge, and even about his personal background. The following are the highlights of that discussion:
Many of the UO Vets feel the game has been curbed more towards newer, less experienced players. While that will help people starting you feel it will help increase sales and keep people playing longer?
I donít know if an improved newbie experience will help sales, but it will absolutely make the game simpler to learn. In the long run, we think this will help keep people playing longer. UO is really a game about socialization and community. Helping people to get into the game faster allows them to meet new people and make new friends faster, and itís establishing those bonds that keeps people in the game longer. I think itís important to note that this also adds value for the veterans. Keeping a strong, diverse community helps to keep the world interesting and alive.

What incentive will there be for current 3D players now that Ilshenar will be 2D compatible as well?
The 3D client is still more easily updateable, has better spell effects, better animations, a zoom feature, etc. There are reasons why some players like 3D, just as there are reasons why some like 2D. Allowing players to access Ilshenar from the 2D client wonít change the things that some players really like about Third Dawn.

Now that the 2D client will be allowed in the not-so-new lands of Ilshenar, are there any plans to make a Felucca facet of it as well, or will it keep the Trammel-only rule set?
At present, we have no plans to make a Felucca version of Ilshenar. Ilshenar is a facet unto itself. We chose the Trammel rule set for it, because that is the rule set that is currently most popular among the players.

Before the closure of the volunteer program, rewards in the form of unique items for completing quests were stopped due to certain less reputable players pretending to be Seers and taking advantage of other players. Since the Seer program no longer exists, will unique quest rewards be reinstituted?
No, but the ongoing content team will continue to add new items to the game.

Are scenarios completely replacing quests, if so, why?
Oh, Calandryll could probably write a whole book in answer to this question. Scenarios are very different from quests in that they require far less direct development interaction, and yet can affect far more players than most quests. They can also have greater-reaching and more permanent and meaningful results in the world of Sosaria.

After the crafting overhaul is implemented, will crafting skills continue to be developed and expanded?
This is highly likely. The dev team has traditionally tried to improve and enhance the game over the years. As youíve seen, weíve made numerous changes to nearly every skill, in the attempt to achieve better balance, respond to player requests, and just plain optimize our engine. I see no reason to believe that this pattern wonít be continued.

Are there any plans to implement new skills, such as Masonry and Glassblowing?
Possibly. Thatís not a question we can answer with any accuracy at this point.

Will Ilshenar remain no recall/mark/gate when it is converted to 2D? (please say yes, oh please oh please...)
This is still being discussed, so I canít answer the question just yet.

What costumes did the Staff wear for Halloween? Is it true that Calandryll really dressed up like a Pixie?
Interestingly, we did have quite a number of staff members dress up as pimps, for some inexplicable reason. We had the expected number of cloak wearing mages, axe-weilding psychos, and even one person dressed as a Federal Express package. And no, Cal did not dress as a pixie.

Will gifts ever be given out on real and UO holidays again?
This is very likely. Just donít ask me when.

Will current subscribers get a discount on upgrading second/third/etc accounts to UO:LBR? No. That issue was pretty well explained in the FAQ on the web site.

Are there any plans to make new housing areas available?
This is under discussion right now. There are a number of technical hurdles that would have to be overcome in order to accomplish it, so we have to determine the technical feasibility before committing to a plan.

Will there ever be any in game aid for those who wish to roleplay evil? For instance, Calandryll is planning a full Virtue System for the Good Guys, but leaves nothing for those who like to delve into the darker side of things. For instance, have you ever considered adding Pagan Magic into the game?
We donít have any plans for that at this time. Giving rewards for evil acts is a rather difficult design challenge. How can you differentiate between a role-played evil act and a random grief tactic (with the sole purpose of, say, simply wanting to destroy your gaming experience)?

With the addition of NPC context-sensitive menus, will players still be able to use speech to interact with NPCs? For instance, for use in a Quest System?
Weíre not disabling any of the old methods of interacting with NPCs. All of that will still function as it always has. Context-sensitive menus will be an added way of interacting with NPCs. Players who prefer speech triggers for their immersion value will still have that option.

Will archery be re-balanced or extended (e.g., new bows, bolt types, etc)?
Itís always possible that we could add something for archers as part of a scenario.

Have all the virtues got rough ideas for their implementation?
Yes. However, we are releasing them a few at a time so we can focus on player feedback and evaluate each one carefully before the designs are set in stone.

Do you think the scenarios are proving popular, and why?
Yes, I do. Have you seen any of the screen shots and fansite sections specifically devoted to the scenarios?

Any plans on getting Felucca repopulated?
We have a couple of experiments underway to try to give players more incentive to visit Felucca. However, in the end players must always have the right to choose where and how they want to play.

Will North America or Europe be getting any new shards?
Obviously, thatís a question of subscriptions. I can say with certainty that if the subscriber numbers warrant a new shard anywhere, then a new shard will be installed. For example, recently the subscriber numbers in Japan have increased to the point that it was necessary to install the Mugen shard there. Shards are fairly expensive to put in place, so they need to be justified financially.

Where you an Ultima fan before you got the job at OSI? Did you play Ultima Online before joining the team or do you now?
I was only playing UO for about a month before coming to OSI. Since then, however, I have gotten into the game and I have characters on Lake Superior, Napa, and Catskills.

What type of characters in RPGís do you enjoy playing most?
It must be some after-effect from all of my days playing AD&D when I was younger, but I always prefer to play mages.

What did you go to school for?
I got my degree in Electronic Engineering from Penn State in 1986, with a minor in computer programming.

What did you do before being hired at OSI? Where did you previously work?
Directly out of college I was involved in circuit board design for automated test equipment with the Navy. We were building equipment to test avionics and weapons systems on F-14s. I did that for about 4 years before getting into the gaming industry in 1990. I worked for a little independent developer called Paragon software, which was eventually bought up by an investor from New York and became Take 2 Interactive Software. I started off as a programmer, the later moved into game design, and finally became a producer.

Tell us how you got hired on at OSI? How did you make it into this position?
I went through a game recruiter. With about 9 years of experience in the industry on several different platforms and numerous different game genres, I guess they liked my qualifications.

How interactive is a Senior Producer in the daily designs and programming of the game?
I think different people handle this sort of position in different ways. While I really enjoy contributing creatively, I donít want to smother my team. I think itís extremely important for them to feel like they have some ownership over the game systems they work on. What I try to do is provide overall direction and focus. And while I enjoy discussing system concepts with both the programmers and the designers, I try to let the do their jobs without feeling micro-managed.

How in touch are you with the players and their wants and needs for the game?
I think we at OSI make a very substantial effort to stay Ďtuned iní to what the players are talking about. We really do listen. I make a point to read the message boards and chat individually with a number of different players on a daily basis. While we arenít in a position to implement every one of the thousands of suggestions that are made, we try hard to listen to them all and evaluate them objectively.

Team Comment - A Word from Stellerex - November 7, 2001
Posted by Joshua Rowan on the Ultima mailing list 10/31/01, reprinted with permission:
ďThis latest Press Release from Electronic Arts prompted me to head back to Stellerex's Comments from the Team from September 5, 2001. Remember, the one where he kept saying that he was providing us hints of things to come if we just looked closely enough? Well, I'm happy to say that his code has finally been broken. It was so obvious, yet also so elusive. What was the code? Simple - The first letter of each sentence pulled out to create 3 separate phrases, as follows:



And best of all ----

First of all, hatís off to Joshua Rowan concerning the hidden message in my last comments from the team. I thought it would be a fun way to tell people what the dev team is up to these days. Iím glad someone managed to figure it out. And to answer the next obvious question, no there are no hidden messages in this CFT. It gets dull doing the same thing twice.

But now that the catís out of the bag, I thought Iíd take a few minutes to try to clarify the specifics for you. Weíve been working on a new addition to UO for the past couple of months, and itís getting ready to go into QA pretty soon. So whatís in it for you, you ask? Well, let me tell you:

First of all, this new addition will contain both the 3D and the 2D clients. I know a lot of you have been concerned that weíre going to abandon one or the other. Nope. Sorry. Not going to happen. There are plenty of players who enjoy each client, so weíre continuing to support both, full steam.

Secondly, we are indeed going to provide access to Ilshenar for both clients. This new CD will contain the Ilshenar map, and it will be accessible to everyone who purchases the CD once it hits the shelves. We know itís something players have been asking for since Third Dawn shipped, so it was an absolute Ďmustí on our feature list.

Third, youíve all heard by now that we have an arrangement with Todd MacFarlane for monster concept art. Weíve collaborated with him to come up with a herd of new creatures, which will be released through the ongoing content team over the next 8-10 months. Some of the monsters will be shown in sneak previews in gaming magazines when the game launches, and weíre trying hard to make each monster different and interesting. And yes, this new CD will provide all of these monsters in both 3D and 2D formats. And while we were at it, we went ahead and made 2D versions of many of the monsters that have been released since T2A that are currently shown with placeholder art. You wonít see any more Orange horses standing in for Ki-rins or pea-soup green Ostards acting as stunt doubles for Ridgebacks. Even creatures like ghosts and demons will now have their very own 2D representations, rather than being hued versions of something else.

Not enough for you? Well, how about MP3 support? We thought it was about time we dusted off all of those old MIDI music files and remixed them as high quality audio files instead. And while we were at it, the thought came to mind that we could arrange it so that if you want your own MP3 files to be playing during combat, wandering through town, or wherever, why not provide that as a feature as well?

The end result is that weíre trying to send a message, and the message is important enough that itís worth repeating: Weíre committed to supporting both the 2D and the 3D clients going forward. Theyíre both doing very well now, and showing no signs of slowing down at all.

Senior Producer
Ultima Online

Team Comment - Comments from Stellerex - September 5, 2001
Most residents of Britannia would really like to know what OSI has planned for the future of the kingdom. Chances are if they got their wish, though, it would spoil the fun of discovery and anticipation that comes with any good mystery. For those folks, I would like to take this opportunity to give some assurances that we are indeed working on some very significant features that I believe will return the real flavor of Ultima to Britannia.

Although the core people on the dev team will continue to address continuous content, system improvements, and GM support, Iíve mentioned a couple of times in the past that the team is bigger than it has ever been before. Real expansion of the world and the game is within our grasp. Life Ė well, virtual life - has really only just begun.

And before anybody asks, no Iím not going to give specific details. Not that some folks wonít read into my comments and figure out a lot anyway. Every once in a while, I like to turn a phrase just the right way to give a clue, and see if anybody can figure it out. Chances are Iím too obscure in my presentation, but itís fun to give it a whirl anyway.

Regardless of that, there are plenty of obvious improvements that have recently been released as well. Everybody should have noticed by now that itís more fun to create a starting character and work your way upward. A first circle spell is actually useful for something besides skill improvement, for instance. Though many veterans get upset when we make changes specifically for new players, they do have to realize that improving the learning experience helps to grow the community and make the world more vibrant. Unpopular as that idea may sound at first, hopefully most of you can see the long-term benefits to keeping the population of the world strong.

Real life always has a way of creeping back into our plans, though, so weíve also been making strides to listen more closely to our veteran players. Everything from the Scenario program to upcoming changes for the Siege Perilous shard has been a consistent effort to attend to that. Siege Perilous is being modified by members of the design team who really enjoy that style of play, so Iím confident itís moving in the right direction. Veteranís Rewards are finally having the final kinks worked out, after much ado, and that system will be active on all shards soon. I have to admit, itís taken us quite a bit of work, but itís a system that can be adapted for other uses in the future, so hopefully all of the work will pay off in the long run.

Running just a little behind that, weíre working on two very significant undertakings that youíll be able to find out more about at this yearís World Faire. Technically, I canít go into specific detail on that, but Iíve given a couple of clues already. Until the end of October rolls around, youíll just have to watch carefully for little foreshadowing and hints of whatís to come.

Even thatís not the whole picture! Several more publishes are on the horizon to address even more client optimizations (for both the 2D and 3D clients), new game art, improved user interfaces, new creatures, and even new craftables. Yes, it sounds like a lot, but thatís one of the benefits of having such a large dev team. Simultaneous development paths are wonderful things.

Tomorrow isnít that far off, but until then Iíd like to leave you with a few key concepts that should give you a feel for what weíre trying to aim at now and in the future. Environment and personality. Mechanics that are simple, but provide depth. Intuitive UI. Less tedium. Systems instead of features. Harder quests. Easier learning curves. NPCs and monsters that have some intelligence. Action and pacing in combat. Return to the Ultima tradition. Fighting with a purpose. Originality. Role playing. Attention to community. Logical, thematic enhancements. Let me know if you have suggestions, because Iím always happy to chat.

Senior Producer
Ultima Online

Team Comment - Stellerex On Spring - June 11, 2001
They tell me that Spring is often the season for change. Maybe this was just wishful thinking on my part, but Iíd always assumed this was more of a poetic metaphor than a part of everyday life. Change means we sometimes have to say goodbye to things that we've grown accustomed to.

A few weeks ago, I got a dose of Spring. Two of our friends and colleagues here at OSI stopped into my office with those little envelopes in their hands and a look that told me even before they spoke that spring was not yet over. Yes, it's true: Runesabre and Sage have moved on from our development team.

Over the past two years, both of these very talented individuals have become more to me than just co-workers and fellow comrades in the foxhole of game development. They've become friends. We've worked together through the long Autumn of Renaissance, and the demanding Winter that was Third Dawn. And while Spring heralded the fledgling birth of a new 3D era for UO, Kirk and Paul have made a tough decision to follow some other friends into a new venture and new challenges. Those of us who remain here to carry the banner of UO into the future salute their enormous effort and dedication. We will truly miss them.

But Spring also symbolizes new life, and this is certainly true of UO. Spring has brought us Third Dawn, distributed backups, and the new global events program. It's brought us new optimizations, better stability, new hardware, more headway against exploits, and much more is just over the horizon. The current Dev team has incredible talent and resources, and contrary to what some people might assume, is larger than ever. For the first time since Ultima Onlineís creation, we have a dedicated art staff creating new art for the game, and thanks to the enhancements to the client that Third Dawn brought about, we can add this new art without having to ship a new CD! Along with the artists, we have more than 20 people in product development, a proportionate amount of QA testers, many with extensive programming knowledge and experience, and our community and studio management folks - all dedicated to Ultima Online. And that doesnít even include the customer support and network operations groups here! So, while Spring had its bumps in the road, Summer is here, and itís time to look ahead. Publish 12 will be released by the end of June, and anyone whoís read our posts on the boards knows that that includes the long-awaited release of veteran rewards!

So what else do we have planned? Well, the global events are being extremely well received by the players, so we're going to proceed ahead with making this a perpetual effort. Thanks to our artists and our new event designers, youíll see continuing global events, new and fresh magical and non-magical items, and bizarre and exciting monsters added to the world of Sosaria on a much more frequent and systematic basis. Weíre also focusing closely on the Third Dawn client, which has improved by leaps and bounds since its release - and weíre certainly not stopping yet.

Additionally, we're doing some behind-the-scenes prototype work for an even more revolutionary enhancement for Ultima Online. These are the very early stages, but expect to see details revealed in the coming months as we get further along. We're still discussing a few different concepts, but our underlying goal is to make the game more exciting and engaging, with more possibilities than ever - and without halting the momentum weíre creating with our systematic bug fixes and our popular new content.

As I mentioned in a previous letter, we're also handling a number of infrastructure and service-related issues as well. It may not sound as exciting as adding new monsters or magic items, but these changes will help the servers with performance and latency as we continue to grow our subscriber base.

So for now, Spring is over. We've planted some new seeds, and it's going to be an energetic and vibrant summer as we help them grow into an exciting Fall harvest.

Senior Producer
Ultima Online

Team Comment - Comments from Stellerex - April 20, 2001
Stellerex? Who the heck is this guy? Oh. Another producer on UO, right?

I donít expect many of you to know who I am, since Iím not much for stepping into the limelight. Most of you probably donít even realize that I was a UO Live team producer last year for a while. And better yet, most of you had no idea Iíd been a producer on UWO:ORIGIN last year, and had just returned to that project before the big shake-up at Origin a few weeks ago. But now Iíve returned to the UO team, this time as senior producer. Still donít have any clue who I am? Thatís okay. Like I said, I donít really crave the attention. I just like to do my job and try to help the team make the best games I can.

But with the aforementioned shake-up in EA World, the inevitable rumors and speculations have started to surface. So I thought it was only prudent to speak out for a few minutes to clarify things a bit.

Yes, there was a big layoff here at Origin last month. And yes, a couple of projects got cancelled. After having just rejoined the UWO:ORIGIN team, I can tell you it was hard to hear. But as much as people want answers, the Ďwhyí and Ďwhoí and Ďhow muchí questions arenít really what's important. What it comes down to is that the decisions were made. And as I said before, I like to do my job and try to make the best games I can. So before I continue, let me state for the record that the vast majority of the UO Dev team remains intact. In fact, quite a number of folks from other projects have rolled onto the team. Weíve made a lot of statements since last month's events about putting more focus into UO. So why should anyone believe us? Well, I know actions speak louder than words, but here you go anyway.

First of all, we decided to make some adjustments to our organization. At this point, the UO Dev team is larger than at any time since the game shipped, so we needed to expand our team management a little. Let me be the first to publicly congratulate our own Kirk Black, a.k.a. Runesabre, on his promotion to producer. Heís done such a great job for us over the past couple of years that it was really inevitable anyway.

Next, we decided to sit down and take a look at everything. And I do mean everything. Weíve got more resources than at any time in the history of the game, and we have a responsibility to get the most we can out of them. We're starting some really big initiatives right now, and this yearís efforts will help to position UO to get constantly bigger and better for the very long haul.

Over the course of the next twelve months, weíre going to be pulling out all the stops to make the game more stable and efficient. Youíve already seen a big part of this with the distributed backups that have just been implemented. Additionally, weíre going to make a concerted effort to try to locate and eliminate problems, improve performance on the 3D client, and continue to improve server stability.

And now youíre probably thinking, ďYeah, thatís great. Big deal.Ē Well, if thatís all we had planned, you might be right. But like I said, with our expanded team size, weíre going to be doing something completely new for us - we're devoting a segment of the team to focus on nothing but Live Content. Thatís one of the efforts that Runesabre will be heading up, and personally I think it looks pretty exciting.

And just because we have the manpower, weíre also going to be working on lots of boring-but-critical infrastructure stuff, and a couple of things that are far enough off that we arenít quite ready to reveal details about them yet. But suffice it to say, the UO Live Dev team is alive and well, and weíve got an ambitious future ahead of us.

Rick "Stellerex" Hall
Senior Producer
Ultima Online