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Getting busted by Lord British while chasing bugs in Ultima Online

The new book Braving Britannia: Tales of Melancholy, Malice, and Peril in Ultima Online is a “sequel” to 2018’s Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online, collects 30 additional interviews with players and developers of the grandfather of massively multiplayer online PC games Ultima Online, and explores how their lives were forever shaped and changed by their experiences. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Jason Spangler, a former software engineer at Origin Systems, Inc.

Wondrous things

In 1997, Ultima Online was close to shipping, and the development team at Origin Systems was deep in the throes of crunch. As the devs worked to squash bugs and add in those last-minute bells and whistles from their wish lists, deep within the Austin, Texas-based studio, software engineer Jason “Stormwind” Spangler was working late.

Entranced by the soft glow of his computer monitor, Spangler almost didn’t notice when his office door opened and Richard Garriott poked his head in.

“What are you working on?” Garriott asked, trying to keep up with the latest to-do lists.

“Umm,” Spangler started nervously. “Ships.”

Glancing over at Spangler’s computer screen, Garriott’s eyebrows raised slightly.

“The ship on my screen was on land and had a door and a sign on it,” Spangler laughed. “I think I [got] busted.”

The feature for player-owned housing had been cut from the schedule weeks before, but Spangler had been working on it in his free time.

Spangler was determined to get the rumored housing system working, especially since, from a programming perspective, houses wouldn’t be much different than the boats and ships that the design team had already implemented successfully.

“I had a gut feeling that player housing could be a killer feature,” Spangler said. “And with UO being a virtual world, I thought it would be important for players to feel some ownership in the world by having their own home there.”

But before Spangler would come to implement one of Ultima Online’s most iconic features, he was a fresh college grad desperate to carve a path into the video game industry.

Having grown up with games, Spangler’s first setup was an Atari 2600 his grandfather gave him after winning the console through a McDonald’s-sponsored contest in 1980. Seeing his enthusiasm for the system, Spangler’s parents surprised him with a Commodore 64 with a tape drive the following year.

The teenager was hooked.

Throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, Spangler visited countless fantastic worlds through gaming. Among his favorite games were the Ultima series, the sci-fi space flight simulator Wing Commander, and the first-person action-adventure System Shock. Spangler noticed that all the games had one thing in common … they were either developed or published by a company called Origin Systems.

“These games had great depth of gameplay, great storylines and atmosphere, good music, and pushed the boundaries of what games could do on available hardware,” Spangler said.

Inspired by his early experiences, Spangler began working on his own games, building a foundational knowledge for himself on how they went from initial idea to finished product.

“I had made a clone of Gyruss for Linux that used dynamic bitmap scaling and rotation—like what was used in Wing Commander to emulate 3D graphics,” Spangler said. “I had also made a 3D wireframe graphics demo that actually explained the linear algebra used as it showed samples of each transformation.”

Wanting to walk a path that might one day put his new knowledge to use, Spangler sent a letter to Origin cofounder Dallas Snell—who served as producer for more than 30 original games at the studio—seeking advice on what skills and experience one should have in order to obtain an entry-level developer position at the company. Snell kindly replied to the letter, offering insight meant to keep the youngster motivated.

While still in high school, Spangler started taking classes at nearby Kent State University, enrolling full-time at Youngstown State University after graduation. Using Snell’s wisdom as his guide, Spangler completed a double major in computer science and mathematics. After all, computers were changing, and he wanted to be at the forefront.

“I was also very interested in the internet, network programming, world simulation, and game development,” Spangler explained. “Back then, there were very few internet-experienced programmers, but I had done a good amount of network programming in college and got to see the web really start, evolving from the text-based Gopher to the first web browsers. I remember the excitement of downloading the first version of Mosaic—an early GUI web browser—and showing it to everyone in the Unix lab.”

Months prior to his college commencement in 1995, Spangler did what all soon-to-be college graduates do—he sent out his resume to every software company he could think of and hoped for the best. While Spangler made sure that Origin Systems was one of the first recipients of his résumé and cover letter, his application didn’t garner so much as a phone call. He instead landed a job with an information science nonprofit, and dove headfirst into his career.

When Spangler’s phone rang the following year, on the other end of the receiver was a representative from Origin Systems. They’d found Spangler’s resume languishing in a filing cabinet, and thought he’d be a fit for an available software engineer role. Provided he was interested, of course.

He was very interested, as it turned out.

Hopping on a flight to Austin for a face-to-face interview, Spangler said he talked with the hiring committee for so long that he missed his return flight to Ohio. Spangler was officially offered the job and was amazed to see his childhood dreams manifesting before his eyes.

“I was nervous since it would involve moving to Texas,” he said. “And I had some bad vibes about game developer treatment and Electronic Arts’ corporate management.”

While Spangler’s premonitions would come to fruition down the line, he and his wife, Lisa, packed up their Ohio home on a Friday, and Spangler walked through the doors of Origin Systems as an employee the following Monday in November 1996.

But Spangler’s early days at Origin weren’t just intoxicating possibilities that came with contributing to one of the first large-scale digital worlds. It was hard work.

“The server and client were unstable, the game server could handle fewer people than desired, and the codebase had issues,” he said. “It looked like a bad mix of C and C++, and the C++ code looked more like C code. The tools the designers, artists, and other non-programmers used were hard to use and inefficient.”

Spangler went to work developing technologies and systems that would provide a smoother experience for everyone who used them. His creations included an auto-patching system for the game’s client and server, interprocess script communication systems, boats, a global hint system, tools for the Game Masters, communication crystals, a magic item creation system, and an object decay system to prevent Britannia from filling with players’ trash.

Suddenly, Spangler found himself as the point of contact for just about everyone in the studio. His desk became a hotspot of activity as producers and department heads looked to him to understand what the programmers were working on, what was next in the queue, and what the schedule looked like for tool development and bug fixes. Since he was already handling the additional responsibilities without being asked, Spangler was given the title of lead programmer.

Above: Ultima Online is a seminal online game.

Image Credit: Museum of Computer Adventure Game History

As Ultima Online continued to grow, Spangler spent time as director of technology, overseeing multiple projects at the studio—one of which was the ill-fated MMO Ultima X: Odyssey.

“Back then, I even got to do the game design on those systems,” Spangler noted. “The designers were too busy on other parts of the game. Then, I ended up fixing lots of other systems and tech … fixing crashes, optimizing code that was too slow, reducing network traffic, and making systems more scalable. UO had many code-quality and scaling problems, so I spent a lot of time fixing, refactoring, rewriting systems and profiling, optimizing, and scaling systems to handle the larger player counts, additional servers, and more intense features that were added as time went on.

“I was proud when UO became much more stable, and the development team could spend more time working on the future, rather than plugging holes in the dam about to burst.”

Understanding everything on Spangler’s plate gives you a newfound respect for how he sacrificed his personal time in order to add housing to UO. It became a labor of love.

“I think I had already worked some on the ship tech and the underlying multi-object tech that I planned to use for both features, but not the housing tech itself,” Spangler explained. “None of UO’s systems or scripts could deal with objects larger than a single tile, so I had to make the large objects consist of many individual tiles so the large objects would work in all the other systems.

“I originally tried to make the house security function in-world using an actual key object, but players figured how to break into houses by stacking items into a staircase or using teleportation bugs. The creative means players discovered to break into houses always amazed me. I really enjoyed seeing the awesome houses people created and decorated, and how later developers extended the housing system to add more to it.”

But soon, Spangler’s stark premonitions came to pass when the Origin team started butting heads with EA’s corporate managers.

“There was a big divide between the developers and management,” Spangler said. “Most of the developers knew UO could be something special and cared about making a great game. EA didn’t understand online games—especially large online games, and what was involved in designing, developing, and operating them—but then again, very few people and companies did back then.

“I really miss the camaraderie and cooperation of the development team in those early days. We were all in it together, and it was obvious that UO was much more than just a game or a job to us. It was really a jelled team.”

The game’s three programmers were responsible not only for providing live support to keep the game online, but the group was also tasked with developing expansion content. It was a tall order for such a small team. When Spangler’s request for an additional programmer fell on management’s deaf ears, he quit on the spot, though he later returned to Origin when he caught wind that management had changed for the better.

Despite all the behind the scenes drama, Spangler said he has fond memories of the final night of UO’s beta test—a crazy evening where Lord British was assassinated, the servers hit max capacity, and the world came to an end. Those players who managed to be in the capital city of Britain might remember one other thing about that particular night—the city streets were overrun by vicious daemons.

You can thank Spangler for that one.

“Watching the daemon spawn I made slowly take over the world at the end of the beta test, I wondered if everything was going to crash before the end!” he laughed.

Noting a mostly positive change in management, Spangler stuck with the studio through 2009. In addition to shipping the main title, he also had his hands in numerous expansions, including The Second Age, Third Dawn, Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge, Age of Shadows, Seventh Anniversary Edition, Samurai Empire, Mondain’s Legacy, The 8th Age, and Kingdom Reborn.

Above: The original team.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

During these years, Spangler split his time between developing content and eradicating bugs that were exploited by players to make the game perform in a way other than what was intended. Among the challenges and hurdles Spangler and his fellow programmers overcame was tracking down a bug where, when turning while aboard a ship, a player stood a chance at being flung across the world. Of course, the ship problem was small potatoes compared to a yearly holiday celebration where Santas spawned across Britannia to bring festive cheer … except they wouldn’t stop spawning, and soon risked taking over the entire continent. And then there was that little hiccup where time itself stopped in the game.

In 2008, Electronic Arts shifted UO’s development to its Virginia-based studio, Mythic Entertainment. Just days before employees were told they’d need to relocate to keep their jobs, Spangler says he was promised by management that no relocation would be required. Not wanting to uproot himself and his wife, Spangler said his final goodbyes to Ultima Online.

Rather than leave the company entirely, Spangler stayed “in the family,” transferring to EA’s other Austin studio, BioWare. There, he served as a software engineer and technical director for the MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Since departing the UO team, Spangler has filled engineer and chief technical officer roles working on properties such as The Ville from Zynga, Star Citizen from Cloud Imperium Games, and Descent: Underground from Descendent Studios.

Despite UO’s often turbulent waters, Spangler is thankful for the experience of working with Origin Systems and its many talented developers. He said the lessons he learned will stay with him for the rest of his life.

“We can create wondrous things that others will enjoy and make our lives happier,” Spangler said. “But don’t let a company, or others, take advantage of you or your dedication to a project or goal.

“I’m very happy and satisfied about what we made, and how many people enjoyed it, and sad about the ignored potential of an even greater experience it and sequels could have become. I’m very happy to see the friendships, families, and marriages formed by the players. It’s one of the most satisfying things about working on UO, and I’ll always remember it.”

Wes Locher is a writer of journalism, prose, video games, and comic books, and is baffled that he gets to create such nonsense for a living. His books Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online and Braving Britannia: Tales of Melancholy, Malice, and Peril in Ultima Online are out now in paperback and Kindle formats.


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