Ongoing Uru Review: Untìl Uru

Ever since Uru Live was shovelled into the recycling bin, people have been asking "Why don't they give out the server code, and let people run their own servers? And let everyone play for free?"

Which is a superficially reasonable question, but it has a bunch of good answers. Because the server must be a complicated and fussy piece of code, and Cyan can't afford to support random gamers trying to get it working. Because the source code is a Cyan asset, and they aren't likely to give it away. Because the server probably relies on an industrial-strength database back end, which most people won't have at home. Because Cyan can't afford to support client software (which still has unfixed bugs, remember) for a fan-run system that isn't paying their bills. Because you'd need a hacked client that knew where these fan-run servers were. Because Cyan wouldn't want a free version of the Uru content competing with their existing (single-player) Uru products. Because the cool part of Uru is exploring new worlds, and we don't see anybody volunteering to create new worlds for free -- certainly not with the standard of quality which Cyan has set.

I've posted these reasons myself. So I was caught completely off-guard last week, when Cyan posted an announcement:

Uru was built for people - a place for people to meet, grow and wonder.
The deep city came alive with the sounds of life - and then it was silent again.
But the life of Uru is in the people. It will not awaken again until Uru has people again
...Untìl Uru has people again.
This is not Uru, or Uru Live. It's only a breath, a spirit of what Uru was. It's a heartbeat until Uru can slowly grow again.
...Untìl Uru can slowly grow again.


And then they neatly box up my objections and send them home.

(See their Giant Gnarly Disclaimer.)

So -- disappointing on almost all fronts. But it's there. It's obviously the best they can do without spending the development capital that Uru no longer has. And it's made a lot of old Uru players very happy. Including me.

I have a bunch of different opinions on this at once, and they all lead off in different directions. So let me take them one at a time.

The Player's Tale

Wow, it's nice to be back in these places. Even nicer that they're no longer achingly abandoned. People!

Wow, the voice chat system is active! (At least on some servers.) I don't think anyone's been able to use it since the closed beta phase. Which I wasn't in. I can hear people talk! Or, rather, I can hear the German techno music that they're jukeboxing into the City plaza. Heh.

Wow, I remember how frustrating Uru Live was. Sigh. Linking from one Age to another is always slow, and occasionally crashy. Teledahn's power system doesn't work right. You sometimes get stuck trying to walk through a door in the Neighborhoods, even if the door looks open.

It's considerably worse than when Cyan was running the servers. Cyan had big hulking server machines. You ran into trouble occasionally, but it mostly worked. Now servers are whatever machines and whatever bandwidth people can throw together. And they sometimes have to wipe the server database and start over, which means you lose your character.

On the other hand, the project has only been going for a week. People are still figuring out what the system requires, and how to keep it running. I expect it will improve.

(On some more hand, as more people try Untìl Uru, the servers will be more heavily loaded. I don't know where the balance will wind up.)

I like hanging out here. But this is a recreation of the Uru Live Prologue. And as with the Prologue, there isn't a lot to do here. I don't expect I'll be logging on regularly. A few more times for nostalgia's sake, and then I'll put it away.

The Reviewer's Tale

Should you try Untìl Uru?

If you were in the Prologue, then I don't need to answer this question. You know what it was like. It hasn't changed. You get the ABM Ages, plus the City, Neighborhoods, Nexus, and Great Zero. Ayoheek and climbing wall are active. Capture-the-Cone games are up to you.

If you've played through the single-player Uru worlds, but you never got on-line, then try it. You may get a kick out of Untìl Uru. You're visiting familiar territory with friends. It's nifty. However -- like I said -- there isn't a whole lot to do. Once the novelty wears off, it's a very pretty chat system. (Not that there's anything wrong with chat, or with beauty.)

If you haven't even started Uru yet, I'd say play the single-player game first. Save Untìl for a post-adventure treat. The multi-playerness is nifty -- but there are fewer Ages, it's slower, and it's not very reliable. And you can't export a character from the on-line game to the single-player game. So even if you explore a lot in Untìl Uru, you'll just have to repeat it all if you want to progress to the later Uru chapters.

There's also the question of which Uru version to buy. If you want to play all of the (single-player) Uru adventure, clearly it's best to get Complete Chronicles (US$40). But then you won't have the Ages Beyond Myst CD, which is required for Untìl Uru.

Alternatively, find an ABM (probably $30 at this point), plus the Path of the Shell expansion ($20, and it includes the To D'ni material). Then you'll be able to play online if you also pay the $6 Untìl registration fee. More expensive? Obviously. Worth it? Beats me. That's why I write these essays. Read and decide.

Update: As of August 18, there is an Untìl patch for Complete Chronicles. So the purchase question is moot: you can buy either CC or ABM, and get access to Untìl Uru either way. This does not add any new Ages to Untìl Uru, however.

The Newcomer's Tale

When you get Untìl running, you'll see a list of "shards" or servers. At the moment, there are about eight. The "Guild of Greeters" is the most popular, but that makes it the most crowded, which leads to more client hangs and disconnection problems. Like I said, this will evolve over the next few weeks, as fans get heftier servers set up and figure out the configuration system.

After you pick a shard and log in, you'll be asked to create a player. This works the same way as single-player Uru. Note that you have to create a different player on each server. That's just the way it works -- each server has its own separate avatar database. (You can have multiple avatars on each server, in fact.)

Then you get to solve the Desert Cleft level, same as at the beginning of the single-player Uru game. After that you'll be in your Relto Age, and you'll have access to the wider world of Uru. Have fun. (Hint: get a KI device first. It's more important in the on-line game.)

If you have trouble getting started, I humbly proffer my Uru Newcomer's Guide. I wrote it back during the Uru Live Prologue days, but most of it applies to Untìl Uru as well.

A warning: the Untìl Uru client requires that you install, or reinstall, a totally fresh setup from your original Ages Beyond Myst CD. Don't apply any patches except the Untìl Uru client patch. And don't try to import your (single-player-game) character from a patched Uru installation. Nor should you import a character from a version of Uru that includes To D'ni, Path of the Shell, or Complete Chronicles. The changes made by the expansions will not work with the fan-run Untìl servers. In fact, you may corrupt the server database, which will annoy a lot of people.

The safest course is to not import characters at all -- start with fresh ones. Although that's kind of a nuisance. You have to create a new character for each server, which means going through the whole avatar-creation dance, as well as solving the Desert Cleft level. I've done that about eight times in the past three days.

(Apparently there are filled-out, Untìl-safe avatar files which you can import, to avoid re-solving the Cleft and other Age puzzles. I haven't tried these. Look around on the Cyan forums. Free forum registration required, sorry.)

The Designer's Tale

The first question everyone asked was, "Can we build our own worlds?"

For Uru Live, the answer was "no". For Untìl Uru, the answer is still "no". That doesn't stop people from asking. And now that the server is available, I'm sure someone is trying to figure out how to hack it. Many someones.

I'm not optimistic about it. (Warning: entering geek mode.) A new world would have two components: the server-side data (including world state and the scripts which define its behavior), and the client-side data (3D models, textures, sounds, images, and the messages that get sent to the server as you move around the world).

The server binaries that Cyan has provided contain the server-side data for the Ages of Untìl Uru. They don't contain the client-side data; that comes from your ABM CD. In Uru Live, the client could download new data from Cyan. But there's no indication that the new Untìl client can do that -- or that it can download new data from fan-run servers. Cyan would have to put all those pieces in place to make it possible.

Really, if you want to create Myst-like worlds, I don't think Uru is your best bet. There are more easily-customized systems out there. What about an Unreal Tournament total conversion? It can do Arkanoid; it must be able to do Myst puzzles.

I figure that the hard part -- to the tune of 95 percent -- is art and 3D modelling. Maybe I'm biased, being better at coding than at art. But I'm pretty sure that if the engine was available, people would sit around staring at it and never create much. Whereas if someone had a great idea for a world, and actually built it in a 3D modeller... artwork and sounds and all... then it wouldn't be a vast leap to make it playable.

Okay, now I know I'm being biased. Creating an Uru-style adventure engine sounds like a fun little project. I'd just have to grab one of the amateur-licensable cross-platform 3D engines out there -- several exist. Design a model for the database... shared world components... distributed servers... versioning... event message system... scriptability...

Okay, it's a fun large project. Fine. I admit this. Let me know if you want to pay me to work on it. The point is, world creation is a larger task -- particularly if you plan to keep people interested by constantly adding new worlds.

(And if you're not, how are you planning to keep people interested? Cyan never did answer that question, you know.)

(Of course, getting fans to create new worlds is one answer -- a road that Cyan never planned on taking.)

The Endless Tale

Where is Uru going?

In just a couple of days of playing Untìl Uru, and reading the forums, I have heard so many rumors. The hope which flows around -- it's astonishing. Cyan will be adding new content? Cyan has finished Ages ready which didn't make it into POTS? Cyan is using Untìl Uru to gauge interest, and attract new players, so that Uru Live can make a comeback?

You can believe what you want. Call me the pessimist: I don't believe any of this... yet. (I didn't believe in fan-run servers until I saw them.) It's all possible, of course.

Certainly Cyan wants to bring back Uru Live. (I can say that without ever having met a Cyan employee. Of course they want it back. We all do.)

The question is, what can they do. We can't see their planning -- but we can see that Untìl Uru is a best-value-for-minimum-effort project. It is not, right now, Cyan's biggest priority. Their next (unnamed) project must be taking that spotlight, and the majority of their labor.

It's hard to imagine that Untìl Uru will demonstrate more popular interest than the Prologue did. It's still buggy and there's still nothing new. Crowding in the City will still cause intolerable lag. Untìl doesn't have anything the Prologue didn't have.

...Except, I admit, more servers -- which spread out the crowding and allow more people into City areas. And more time, with no angry investors breathing down the administrators' necks. "Untìl Uru can slowly grow again"? It is possible. If I could predict these things, I'd be rich.

What will Uru fans do? I have heard rumors of fanac. There will certainly be Uru get-togethers and in-game social events. Some server maintainers may create in-game storylines, using actor-avatars, the way Cyan did in December 2003. One can imagine interactive theater, allowing many players to involve themselves and advance the story in their own way. Computer-mediated live-action role-playing?

(LARPs have evolved into a vibrant game form, which has nothing to do with the rat-whapping and needle-threading of modern computer "role-playing". Perhaps Uru can provide a venue to import LARP ideas into the on-line gaming world.)

Can fans satisfy the hunger for more Ages? Create new worlds for each other? I said above that it can't happen without Cyan's help. But that dodges the question -- I have no idea if Cyan will help.

On the down side, it could be technically difficult, and it would be hard to support. Releasing a pre-built server with a fixed set of Ages is one thing. Teaching the public to create new Ages -- with all their art and modelling, scripts and data structures -- is quite something else. Just coordinating the release of new Ages is a tricky problem, one which Uru was never intended to solve. (Cyan ran three different server-shards in January of 2004, but all three had exactly the same Ages in them. Uru clients could receive updates without worrying about non-parallel servers.)

On the up side, the fan-run servers have gone nuts tweaking the Ages that exist in Untìl Uru. These are minor tweaks -- setting doors to be open or closed, posting KI messages, turning Neighborhood variations on and off -- nothing that exceeds the limits of the Ages as they were originally designed. But every available data field has been twiddled. (See the server configuration wiki.) And it's only been a week. I half-believe that if Age-building software was released, with no documentation whatsoever, the fans of Uru would strip its secrets bare within a month.

(I only half-believe that, because I've seen badly-documented in-house software. I've written some of it. It can be a bloody nightmare. Sorry -- sometimes I'm a fan, and sometimes I'm a programmer. The programmer isn't optimistic about software usability.)


So I'm not saying no and I'm not saying yes. All I can do is repeat what everybody else is repeating: the ending is not yet written, and who the heck knows what will happen.

It is assuredly excellent that Cyan has put forth the effort to keep on-line Uru alive. They didn't need to do it and it's not making them a profit. It probably isn't costing them much either... but no-one reasonably expects them to funnel money down a hole.

I'll say this. Start up any of the commercial Uru products, and you'll see two splash animations: Ubisoft and Cyan Worlds. Ubi is the publisher -- meaning the wallet. Cyan and Ubi maintained a united front when the Uru Live cancellation came out, but it's not hard to guess the back-room dynamic: Cyan didn't want to kill Uru Live, and Ubi didn't want to risk more money.

Start up the Untìl Uru client, and you'll see one splash: Cyan Worlds. Ubisoft is not involved in this project. Untìl Uru is run by the fans -- outside and inside Cyan.

A fat wallet is nice. It speeds things up and it allows fast growth. But games have long been made without a big-name publisher, and they will continue to be made.


Untìl Uru web site at Cyan Worlds.

Last updated September 9, 2004.

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