Social Space: Do Facebook games owe everything to Ultima Online?

Ultima Online
During the postmortem session for the venerable, storied MMO at GDC Online 2012 in Austin, Tex., Ultima Online co-creator (and Playdom VP of creative design) of Raph Koster (pictured below right) made one helluva claim. To make a long story short (that I'll make long again later), Koster holds Ultima Online at least partially responsible for the free-to-play MMO movement.

Raph KosterConsidering Ultima Online was, and will be until Ultima Forever sees the light, a subscription-based online game, it's quite the statement to make. But Koster had an anecdotal--and, judging from the lack of resistance by co-panelists Rich Vogel Starr Long, accurate--explanation. His argument lies in a bug within the early days of Ultima Online: rares.

Flashing way back to 1997, rares were items that appeared to due server glitches in the game, Koster said during his panel. As soon as a server maintenance period was over, artifacts were created in the game world, such as blocks of water that players were able to pick up and place into their bags, for instance. Given the laws of supply and demand, these items were highly sought after.

Hey, if you were a denizen of Felucca or Trammel and could get your hands on a chunk of water that you could fish from within your backpack, you'd want a piece of that too. Soon enough, a sort of meta-economy sprouted up around these rare items through eBay. By extension, similar things happened in Asian communities based around the MMO that were unbeknown to Koster at the time.

Paraphrasing from Koster's summary, companies like Nexon in Korea soon opted to offer such "rare" in-game items to players directly, cutting out the middle men like eBay and similar e-commerce services. Thus, the free-to-play games market was born. The Asian gaming scene had quite a time with free-to-play games, with releases like MapleStory and Ragnorok Online acting as poster children for the free-to-play scene not only in Asia, but abroad as well.
Of course, as these companies tried their hands at free-to-play in the Western world, so did Western companies, like Sony Online Entertainment and Jagex. Years later, Facebook games hit the scene, employing similar business models (ableit more obvious and shameless) and game design tactics as Asian free-to-play MMOs, but with decidedly more casual play hooks. Facebook soon became the birthplace of the largest Western gaming company since Electronic Arts and Activision: Zynga.

So, do Facebook game giants like Zynga and Wooga have Ultima Online to thank for their existence? It's certainly possible. You could easily argue that social games would have never happened if Asian gamers in the late '90s didn't latch onto Ultima Online and its rares, which arguably inspired companies like Nexon that later encroached on the West.
But given the onset of issues that are still rampant in the Eastern games market today, like piracy, and the downturn economy arguably influencing purchasers' decisions in the U.S. and abroad for the past five years, it's entirely possible that free-to-play games would have simply happened on their own. It's the direction that new intellectual property in the online games market needed to go in order to survive.
But if you ask one of the mighty minds behind one of the greatest, forward-thinking online games ever created, Ultima Online at least sparked the number one trend in gaming today. And for that, Origin Systems, we thank you.

Do you believe that Ultima Online is partly responsible for the social games revolution? If not, what or who is? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.
Joe Osborne is associate editor at News. Weekly in Social Space, Joe shares opinions and observations on the intersection of social gaming and traditional games. Follow him on Twitter here.
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