Ongoing Uru Review: Episode 6: "A New Light"

And there's Episode Two. Which is actually Episode 6, because Cyan is still numbering them based on their monthly release cycle. (So "Episode 1" through "4" were not labelled as such. They covered the months from January to April, more or less, and were visible to the public only as bumps in the client version number.) I wasn't sure last month which numbering system would win out, but the game startup says "Welcome to Episode 6!" so I'm sticking with that.


The episode kicked off a bit early, with a major new feature appearing on Thursday: player-created marker hunts. This has been in the Uru documentation forever, but it was never turned on in 2003-4. (Die-hards saw it in Untìl Uru.) The mechanism is rather nice, and has some flexibility for creative use. You can place a set of markers in any Age or Ages. You can also associate a line of text with each marker; the text appears when the players touches that marker. That allows for riddle sequences and scavenger hunts, where each marker clues the next. When your quest is complete, you can pass it to friends in-game, for them to try.

(And since players always exploit every corner of an interaction, other uses are turning up already. I saw lines of markers used as directional guides in Minkata. I saw patterns of markers used as landscaping art. Me, I created a reverse marker quest -- you try to get through without hitting any of the marker obstacles. I also made a quest which is only completable by Uru newbies, but you'll have to try it to find out why...)

Friday kicked off something else that would stick around through the episode: bugs. The doors in the City and Neighborhood areas, which had been slightly flaky back in the early part of the year, started getting horribly stuck -- broken more often than not. And many, many players had trouble downloading the Age data for the Aegura (City) region. For most people the problem resolved after a few tries, but some got seriously stuck. (You could work around it by installing some files into your game directory by hand; this was good for the web-forum community, but I don't know how widely known it was among Uru players in general.)

More obnoxiously, the game servers died several times during the week. From the outside, it's hard to get a sense for why. The system went down at a couple of the most usage-heavy moments, such as the opening of Ercana. But outages also occurred during low-population times, like Sunday morning. Downtimes ranged from several hours for the first occurrence, down to half an hour or less. (I suppose Cyan got a routine down for restarting everything.)

Overall, Uru crashed less than once a day during the episode, and it was certainly up far more than it was down. My sense of the Cavern mood was that people griped when the game was down, but swung back in after it returned; I don't think there was a lot of lingering resentment. That doesn't mean Cyan gets a pass on it, of course. Everybody will be walking nervously in the game next month, until we have some evidence that the server problems have been fixed -- or not fixed.

The good news is that Cyan has turned up the population limit in the common City. A hundred players can now hang out there at once; up from fifty last month, or forty before that. And while a hundred avatars in an area will still drag down your frame rate, it doesn't feel worse than fifty did last month.

Again, it's hard to say what changes allowed this. The release notes connect the improvement to the removal of most of the City's traffic cones; that presumably saves a lot of CPU time on object physics. Cyan may also have improved the way the client deals with updates about other avatars.

Of course, it's possible -- likely -- that these performance improvements are entangled with the month's bugs. Particularly the stuck doors, and other Age state flaws. A big concurrent software system; you remove delays in the nodes; you see new concurrency bugs. Sound familiar? Well, it does if you've ever written a big concurrent software system. It's possible to make these things both fast and correct, but it usually takes some hammering. As I said, everybody will be watching carefully next month.


As for the episode itself... last month's episode was a mix of drama, long-term plot development, and a new Age. This month, Cyan dropped the drama. Some things happened in the Cavern -- notably the long-awaited activation of the Great Zero -- but most of the story events were things we heard about, not things we watched happen. Sharper showed up and told us about his idiot plan to hunt Bahro. Cate Alexander showed up and told us that the DRC were considering in-Cavern advertising. Marie Sutherland showed up and got yelled at by Cate. Laxman showed up and talked about players guilds.

And you may think it odd that I draw a distinction between "things we watch" and "things we hear about." All of May's events were off-screen! With the exception of a few fallen rocks and added barriers, everything we saw was chat messages scrolling by.

And yet, those events felt very immediate -- even though I wasn't in the City for any of them; even though I wasn't even logged in for some of them. I still felt like events were unfolding in present tense. This month, events happened in past tense, and got set up for the future. (With the exception, as I said, of the Great Zero. And I guess the argument between Marie and Cate; that was very immediate. Just not very exciting, compared to last month. I mean, office politics, woo.)

Last month I complained that the "episode" didn't feel like a story; there was rising tension, but it didn't resolve into anything which bound the week together. This month, I'm afraid, wasn't even an anecdote. No tension; nothing to tie the events together. Oh, everything fit into the long-term Uru story arc, so they were tied together in that sense -- Sharper, the Bahro, the course of Restoration. And long-term story is great; it's necessary and I'm glad it's there. But there was no story of June, no story that was called "A New Light."

The worst and most obvious symptom: we couldn't tell when the episode was over. "Scars" was traumatic, but by darn there was a climax, and then we knew the rest would be wind-up. In "A New Light," we all wandered around on Thursday, waiting for the next bit... gradually coming to the conclusion that there was no next bit. Then there were querulous forum posts. Eventually one of the Cyan reps posted to say "It ended Wednesday."

That's not good soup.


On the positive side, we got two juicy new areas. (Both were seen in Path of the Shell, but both have changed slightly since then.)

The Watcher's Sanctuary is -- for the moment -- a purely social zone. It's the only area in Uru which is completely uninstanced. There's just one Sanctuary, and if you go, you're hanging out with everybody else who's there.

I was startled by how nice that felt. The common City instance was always supposed to be the social hub; but it was long crippled by a low population limit. The limit is much relieved now (it's up to 100, as I noted). But I think the City still carries a social taint. The City is also, I'd say, impersonal because of its size. You can go, and you may find a lot of players present, but most of them are out of sight and out of your chat range. Small conversations form in the City, but most players ignore each other.

The Sanctuary, in contrast, is cozy. It's one large room, with some alcoves and a balcony. So you can pretty much see everybody. And if there's a discussion going on, you're immediately involved in it. I'm very pleased that Uru now has this kind of space.

The Age of Ercana is the big fancy puzzle Age which seems to be the heart of Uru's monthly cycle. (Two is a pattern, right? Although I figure the player community is pretty set on them, by now. If Cyan tried to do an episode with no puzzles, there would be a lot of screaming.)

Again, if you played Path of the Shell, you'll recognize Ercana. I solved it in a couple of hours -- not because the puzzles are trivial, but because I remembered how they all worked.


But unlike in Path of the Shell, Ercana now ties into a long-term, communal challenge: illuminating the lake. Basically, at the end of the Age you find a big machine. Twiddling settings on the machine (and waiting) produces pellets. Dropping pellets into the water will (so we are told) slowly feed the luminescent algae, and brighten the Cavern.

The machine settings are complicated (and the old solution from POTS is not the optimal one!), so players immediately jumped in to gather data. It's looking like a good community project. Some web sites went up (I diffidently point at my own), and some good settings have been found. However, we don't yet have a clear idea what the overall graph looks like. I don't know how much momentum the research will have long-term, but it's kept people's attention for the past several days.

The pellet puzzle is very well-balanced on the individual level, as well. Cranking out pellets is, of course, a classically CRPG-like task. (Think of it as crafting, rather than clubbing rats, if you like -- but it's the same thing in the end. You spend time and your score goes up. And yes, Uru does track your pellet score totals.)

But it's not a Warcraft-like life-sucking task. (Or even Tale-in-the-Desert-like.) The better pellet recipes take two to four hours to cook. If you want to log on once a day and do some pellets, it works out great. If you want to spend an afternoon in Uru and maybe do a couple of batches, that works too; but you won't spend most of the afternoon slaving over a hot pellet machine. You'll wander around, chat with people, maybe try a marker quest. Come back to Ercana when the timer rings.

Oh, sure, if you're desperate to spend an entire day working on pellets, you can. Cycle through five avatars, running five machines in staggered parallel. But you have to really want to put in that much work. (And then you're dividing your points among five avatars.)

The real question will be, how will the lake illumination react in the coming months. Let me compare with one of the big disappointments of the past two months: the Great Zero. This was the previous big communal challenge. Everybody did marker quests (predefined ones, not the player-created kind) and that was supposed to accumulate "Great Zero points" (as it were). However, the big GZ calibration display never budged. Everyone sat around for two months, trying to figure out if it was broken, or if it wasn't updating often enough, or if we just weren't making a dent in the problem.

Then a message from the DRC: "There was a big spurt of calibrations last week. It's done!" And everyone replied, "Yeah, right." True or not, the player community (I included) figure that Cyan got impatient -- and they didn't trust us to be patient either. So, this past Sunday, the Great Zero was switched on. Which was very pretty, and we all appreciate it; but it rather kills the buzz of all the marker work we did.

(The server crash, moments after the GZ activation, killed the rest of the buzz.)

Notice that I'm not really complaining about what Cyan did. The problem was how we perceived it. It doesn't actually matter whether players finished a given number of markers. The counter felt like it was dead at first, and then yanked implausibly to "done". In other words, Cyan fell down in creating the illusion of involvement. (Or "perception," if you like. But there's nothing wrong with illusion in game design. An adventure game is an illusion of a world, after all.)

So now we have another community challenge. And another progress counter, which has not yet budged. (But it's only been a week, of course.) I am trusting Cyan to handle this one better. The easiest path for them, of course, is to trust us, the players -- trust us to play the game and accept a slow rate of progress.

And if Cyan decides to fudge the counter again, for heavens' sakes, fudge it subtly.

Community Service

The most interesting game elements to emerge this month were not puzzles or crank-turning. Cyan is visibly, if cautiously, picking up community ideas about player involvement.

A memorial appeared in the City. It named the NPCs who died in last month's events. But it also listed some of the prominent Uru fans who have passed away in the four years since players started to gather. That's an idea which has circulated in the forums for quite a while.

And some of the DRC folks talked about guilds. The Guilds have always been a major element of the D'ni history that we've learned. Uru players, naturally, have frequently discussed organizing "guilds" of players to fulfil the same functions; or similar functions, or maybe completely different functions. It's an obvious direction for Uru role-playing (in the classical RPG sense, not rat-clubbing).

I'm ambivalent about the notion -- at least, the notion of formal (recognized) player guilds in Uru. We already have one, the Greeters; it organized itself in the early days of Uru, as a group of players who wanted to help orient newcomers. Cyan recognized the Greeters and gave them special privileges (recognizable shirts, an easily-accessible Neighborhood) which supported their efforts. Other player groups, like the Cartographers, have organized and undertaken work entirely on their own.

I worry that formalities will get in the way of doing stuff. (Right now, starting a "guild" -- or call it what you will -- is as fast as putting up a web page.) I also worry that privilege will turn to exclusion. A lot of the forum discussion on any given guild idea has focussed not on what the guild would do, but on the rules for who to allow in. (Always a danger sign.) And I worry that players will try to set up the "historic" D'ni guild roles, when nothing that players can do in Uru fits those roles. Players can draw maps, so a Guild of Cartographers makes sense. But what would players do in a Guild of Miners or Maintainers? People have tried to play those roles in the past, and it's generally fallen flat.

However -- and, really, the point that I ought to stick to -- Cyan is paying attention to what the community thinks. Not with big public debates, mind you. (Those have been tried, but the Uru chat system is terrible for that, and they generally devolve into mob scenes.) But they're clearly watching the forums, and they occasionally grab someone for a private chat. We even had a case of a player sending a private message to a DRC rep, and getting into a brief but illuminating discussion.

So there is some Guild plan in motion. Most of us don't know the details of the plan, but the planners are aware of the concerns I mentioned above. On the whole, Cyan seems to be on the right tightrope between isolationism and having all their ideas strewn around the barnyard.


And how is Uru holding up, at the end of two episodes? I find myself surprised by how poorly, and how well, it's doing.

Bugs appear, and go (apparently) untreated. (The doors are still broken, and I think the City download problem is still present. And I could name any number of other problems which go back months, and which garner complaints on the forums.)

Ages appear, and accumulate. There's far more in Uru today than on the launch day in February. I can no longer imagine what it's like for newcomers, who find all of Uru's Ages served to them at once.

I see a lot of people getting into various aspects of Uru. Players stood around in the City and argued about Sharper, about the Guilds, about the DRC. The forums went full blast. People had opinions. It's slowed down now, but it'll start up again soon enough.

I see a lot of regulars hanging around, and I see some newcomers. I see a lot of people who show up only during the episodes, and I see some who have stuck around afterwards, lured back by the marker quests and the pellet machines. I have no possible way to judge how many people are one, or the other, or the other. I certainly can't tell if it's enough for Uru Live to be viable. That's Cyan's job to figure out.

(I mentioned the possibility of advertising. That's just about all Cyan has said: it's a possibility. We infer that the player subscription fees aren't growing as fast as Cyan had hoped. We presume they are looking for alternative revenue sources. We dream about what Cyan could do if they could hire more personnel; we hope that if ads appear, they're not too nauseatingly intrusive and ugly.)

My sense is that the Cavern is a little more active this week than it was a month ago, after Episode 5 ended. There's a little more to do, and a few more people to do it with. If not enough story happened this month, there's plenty of potential for next month: blood, gunnery, stained glass windows, and a new Age which I didn't solve in 2004.

So there you go. Four pages of review, and I'm still an optimist. See you next episode.

Last updated July 4, 2007.

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