A bug too far

A bug too far: By Janelle Brown. In Ultima Online, fed-up players carry a crusade from the fantasy world into a real-life courtroom.

Published August 19, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Ultima Online is, by most accounts, full of bugs. This ambitious role-playing game broke new ground in creating a vast online virtual world that thousands of players could inhabit in real time. It also boasted a host of technical problems: network delays and server crashes, mysterious holes and glitches that let evil characters become overly powerful. Hard-earned objects sometimes disappeared, and the murderous rampages of "player killers" sometimes got an assist from programming lapses.

These are, perhaps, the same glitches you might find in many other online games, but with one difference: A group of gamers thinks the Ultima bugs are so egregious that they're suing its publisher, Electronic Arts, for falsely advertising the game's features and releasing a defective product. In the first decision in the case earlier this month, a San Diego judge ruled that most of the plaintiffs' complaints could move forward to trial.

Some see the Ultima Online lawsuit as a frivolous misuse of litigation: If you don't like the game, why don't you just return it? But for other gamers and developers, the lawsuit is indicative of a growing issue in the hotly competitive industry -- whether buggy games are being released due to publisher pressure. Regardless, the lawsuit is churning up an industry that has always cherished the open, if sometimes belligerent, communication between developers and gamers.

"I don't think that the legal arena is the best place to resolve most disputes, especially in a community that has historically been as relatively small and friendly as the gaming community," says Sid Meier, creative director of Firaxis games and an 18-year industry veteran. "This industry has been one where most designers are also gamers, and most gamers feel they could be designers. It's not an 'us and them' kind of industry, so I'm sorry to see that it has come to this."

Gamers had been eagerly awaiting Ultima Online -- the first online game in the hugely successful Ultima series from Origin Systems, which is now owned by Electronic Arts -- when it finally arrived in September 1997. Tens of thousands of players could simultaneously traverse the mythical world of Britannia, conversing in Arthurian dialects, slaying dragons and rescuing princesses. It was -- and still is -- an impressive experiment in community-building. Today, 90,000 people have anted up $59.95 for the CD-ROM and $10 a month to play online.

But the game's problems were also infamous. Reviews said Ultima was a "major disappointment" full of "nasty bugs." The game's beta-testers often popped up in online newsgroups, complaining that Ultima had been released before the bugs they had pointed out were fixed. Fixes, in the form of game patches, came fast and furious -- nearly 40 to date -- along with incessant promises that everything would work properly soon.

"I think that Electronic Arts slipped and thought they could go ahead and start charging money for what thousands of people were playing for free in the open beta test," says Chris Bailey, the editor of the gaming news site Scorched. "I have been playing games for more than 15 years and can say without doubt that when Ultima Online was released, it had more game-play issues and bugs than any other piece of entertainment software I have ever played."

Despite the bugs, the game inspired a devoted audience, who were accordingly passionate about fixing the game's problems. In November the Ultima gaming community launched a series of protests and petitions. A group held a virtual demonstration at the castle of Lord British (Ultima designer Richard Garriott's game persona): Drunk and naked, they demanded that the bugs be fixed and the servers be upgraded. And most daring of all, five gamers and one gaming lawyer decided to file a class-action lawsuit.

Their suit, Ken Hinther, et al., vs. Electronic Arts, filed in March in the San Diego Superior Court, claims that Electronic Arts and Origin had fraudulently advertised the game as being playable "24 hours a day, 7 days a week," when in fact the servers were often down; that the publishers had said the game was in real time, when in fact players often faced significant network lags; that the game box didn't clearly state that players would also have to pay an additional $10 monthly subscription fee; that the publishers had promised bug fixes that were never delivered. Instead of releasing a finished game, they complained, Electronic Arts released Ultima as a beta version that the developers thought they'd be able to complete by adding patches.

Five initial plaintiffs were named in the lawsuit -- most of whom met and coordinated their action via Ultima newsgroups -- and 10 more joined up during the spring. Nine have since dropped out.

"Everybody asks, why would you have a lawsuit over a game? It's not over the game. It's over the issue of consumer rights," says Robert Flipping, a police chief in Atlantic City, N.J., and one of the plaintiffs. "If you're going to sell something to a consumer that's supposed to be working, it better be working. With Ultima Online you're talking about 100,000 people handing over $59.95 for the game, plus $10 a month -- that's a lot of people who are giving Ultima money for something that isn't working. That makes it a big deal to me."

Electronic Arts and Origin won't publicly respond to the lawsuit beyond this statement: "We believe these claims are without merit and have strong defenses in this matter. The best proof about the strength of our position is that we have more than 90,000 registered players -- and even plaintiffs claim that they continue to play Ultima Online regularly."

Much of the legal maneuvering has focused on the antics of plaintiff attorney George Schultz, a boisterous and self-assured lawyer whose Ultima persona is "Bunboy" -- the signature on many antagonistic and often indecipherable posts in the rec.games.computer.ultima.online forum. Based on these critical posts, Electronic Arts labeled the lawsuit a "personal vendetta" and moved to dismiss the case on that basis. But on Aug. 7, the judge denied that motion.

Schultz, in turn, is happy to play the part of indignant gamers' rights advocate. "This doesn't have anything to do with not liking the game -- I believe there's a God-given right to make a shitty game," he says. "There's a huge problem in the gaming industry where the non-development people are the ones deciding when a product goes out. And I think the answer is to make the industry just like every other business -- they have to make something that works, or don't put it out at all."

Despite Schultz's somewhat abrasive personality, many in the industry agree with him.

The gaming industry has grown to gargantuan proportions, and is now a $5.1 billion a year business, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association. Much of the profits are ending up in the hands of a few big publishing companies that have snatched up smaller developers -- and Electronic Arts is the biggest of them all, with $909 million in revenues last year.

With those kinds of sums at stake, and technology advancements changing every few months, the ship date of a game can make or break it. So big corporate publishers put more and more pressure on creative teams, developers say, to make an earth-shattering game and to get it out now.

"Games are becoming a bigger investment, and revenues are bigger -- suddenly there's someone that has 2 million bucks invested in your game, instead of just a couple hundred thousand. There's real pressure, and especially at a company like Origin," says Mike Wilson, CEO of the independent game developer group Gathering of Developers. "If they were independent, they probably wouldn't have released the game when they did. That's one of the dangers of a developer getting bought: Their integrity goes way down, because they're just employees at that point. And what do they care if the game is buggy? It's just EA's new game."

It's difficult to determine whether games truly are more buggy than ever before -- you can find people on either side of the debate. Recently, prominent games like Quake 2 and Unreal have been under fire for annoying networking bugs. But according to Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, "I'd argue that, given the increasing complexity and technological sophistication of games, the growth of multiplayer and Internet functionality and the steady march of new hardware advances on the PC, it's quite extraordinary how bug-free most games are."

Even if the bugs aren't actually more numerous, the gaming community has become more vocal about the bugs they find. The vast number of fan sites, newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat and ICQ clubs and gaming forums has given gamers a place to gripe, plus access to copious amounts of gaming information. Best of all, they have a line to the developers who before were only accessible at conferences. And, as Wilson puts it, "when they feel shafted, they don't mumble -- they let the world know."

Because they can now compare notes online, gamers' bug discoveries are more visible. "In the old days, you knew about the bugs you found; now you know about every bug that everyone has found around the world," says Meier. "Perhaps that creates the illusion that there's more bugs out there."

But while roasting the game developers for glitchy games, the online community has also helped developers understand what gamers actually want. In the case of Ultima Online, the head designer even implemented patches based on player suggestions. In turn, the developers often tell their fans what they're working on via plan files, daily work updates that they place in their personal directories.

If the gamers win their case against Electronic Arts, some gaming community veterans fear this open dialogue will be lost. Wilson explains, "I hope that it doesn't end in developers' losing touch with their consumers -- they are really in touch with their audience, something you don't find in any other art form. If you are being held to every promise you make online, you're going to have to be more careful about what you say."

Within the Ultima community itself, the plaintiffs have received support -- and also some derision from fellow players who feel their game is being hijacked by a few maverick whiners.

"There are many forms of entertainment that fail to deliver the promised deliverables -- ranging from psychic hot lines to network coverage of the Olympics," says Hal Reed, an Ultima gamer. "This lawsuit attempts to provide legal definitions of what is 'acceptable' vs. 'unacceptable' delivery of gaming content -- to apply an arbitrary legal construct to what is ultimately a matter of personal preference."

The next court date, on Sept. 18, will determine whether the case can become a class-action lawsuit. But even if the gamers don't win, the case has certainly made people in the industry sit up and pay attention. The simple existence of this lawsuit, the plaintiffs hope, will make game publishers more careful about what they box up and sell.

"In that regard, I think we've already won -- I think that publishers of software product who have pretty much done whatever they've wanted to do, up to the fruition of this lawsuit, are now saying that they can't put anything on the market or the consumers will revolt," says Flipping. And if gaming companies think before they ship, he adds, "It's probably going to be good for the gamers."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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