The morning of May 9, 2001 seemed no different than any other. I spent the morning tweaking Eastbot, an IRC bot I had inherited that east counselors used to grab data that would help them with their calls. Some smurfs, as us Ultima Online Counselors were lovingly referred to, were on the shards, taking player calls and using my bot. Others were going about their daily lives. Sometime around 11am my time things began to change.
We were told that there was going to be an important meeting that we all had to attend with the big smurf himself, Scorch. My boss didn't have any information about the meeting. It was all last minute. A sense of foreboding came upon us. And then it happened. Without warning, smurfs on duty found themselves in jail, some in the middle of calls. Powers and robes removed. All accounts locked. What?!
Word spread quickly. Were seers and elders affected? Yes. Even the Seer Coordinator, Nikademus, had the same fate. Tons of private messages all saying "Hammy, what's going on?" hit me. It was as if we were all watching ourselves in some bizarre abstract painting in the middle of some insane world we once called "home."
We soon discovered that Origin Systems, Inc., Ultima Online's developer, had pulled the plug on most of the volunteer programs without warning.
Scorch was the bearer of the bad news. Emotions ran high. The poor man, a former smurf himself and really a great guy, was ripped to shreds by rabid, angry smurfs of all colors. An email was sent out. It read as follows:
In recent months we have been reviewing our goals and the direction we are headed with Ultima Online. One of the aspects that we evaluated was the Counselor volunteer program, which is closing its doors after more than three years of existence. This was a difficult decision for us that was not made lightly. It was one that was made based on the reassessment of our online business structure. The volunteer programs in Japan are unaffected by this decision.
I will say that it has been a true pleasure to have had the opportunity to be the Counselor Coordinator for such an excellent group of volunteer Counselors. I applaud each and every one of you for your efforts. You have never ceased to amaze me with your knowledge, talent, and spirit. Most of all, you have formed a bond with each other as Counselors, as well as the players whom you have touched.
Going forward, I hope that each of you retains the spirit of the Counselor program in your heart. Take with you the memories of each and every "thank you" that you have received from a player that you helped. Look back at the satisfaction you got by helping a brand new player learn how to make gold by slaying bunnies. And, remember the friends that you have made along the way.
Each of you is very talented, and I wish you the very best in the future. Hopefully, our paths will cross again some day. It has been an honor to serve you all.
Mike "Scorch" Zupan
The public announcement by Origin Systems was met with the same level of anger and deceit:
In the coming weeks and months, Ultima Online players will begin to see changes to the UO experience that will affect and impact the game in many ways as we update systems, introduce new content, and continue to grow and expand the world of Britannia.
In addition to systems and design changes, we will address how Origin supports Volunteer programs. Effective today, May 9th, Ultima Online will no longer host Interest, Quality Assurance, and Counselor Volunteer programs in North America and Europe. Though it's a difficult decision for us, it is based on the reassessment of our online, company-wide business structure as we address growth and changes in the online entertainment industry. As a result, volunteer programs throughout all of Electronic Arts have been affected by this reassessment. This decision does not affect the existing volunteer programs in Japan, nor does it currently affect the Companion program.
Whether answering questions, creating intriguing and amusing events, or aiding their fellow players in any number of ways, these volunteers have enriched their own Ultima Online experience and helped fulfill the Ultima Online experience for so many other members of the UO community. A permanent acknowledgement to these volunteers will be placed on both facets of each affected shard, located near the Britain Counselor Hall.
Over the last several years, players volunteering in Ultima Online have assisted their fellow players with great creativity, aptitude, and grace, and our thanks go out to all who have participated in these programs since their inception. This commitment to UO, as well as the commitment of hundreds of thousands of players worldwide, is the foundation on which we hope to grow and support the game far into the future.
Immediately, many counselors began to lay the blame on what's commonly called the "Smurf 'suit," a class action lawsuit in Colorado brought to the courts by a former Shard Lead Counselor that was similar in scope to the one brought about by AOL's volunteers. However, this lawsuit was neither the beginning of the end nor the final straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. It all started with that very AOL lawsuit.
You remember it? A bunch of AOL volunteers saying that they did the same work that a paid employee would do, and whatnot. When that lawsuit started to grow in strength and publicity, Origin began making extreme changes to the volunteer programs. Volunteer accounts were no longer comped, replaced, instead, with an account that was specific for the volunteer role. Counselor shard teams were consolidated into "regions" and the "global queue" was brought to the Counselor program.* The account change was of little significance in the wider scope of the program. The switch to regions, however, was debilitating. Morale was beyond low. Tons of smurfs resigned. Senior Counselors and Leads were disenchanted. The "saving grace" of volunteer support turned out to be one of the worst support designs ever implemented, from the Counselors point of view, of course.
When Asheron's Call closed their volunteer Advocate program earlier in the year, Counselor concerns ran high. "Would we be next?" we all thought. Scorch assured us otherwise. Publicly. This revelation was even reprinted on Ultima Online Stratics. A sigh of relief. We didn't know that plans were under way that would prove otherwise.
The West region counselor team had been training a "special" team of what they thought were smurfs. These "counselors" were not familiar with the game. The story goes that none of them even played Ultima Online before. In fact, time would tell us who they really were. They were our replacements. Yes, we were training our replacements, paid employees of a customer support contractor located outside of the country.
We discovered this, of course, after the fact. Shortly after Origin closed the volunteer support program, they announced the arrival of Advisors, commonly referred to as "peaches." Word spread quickly from the remnants of the West team. Justified anger flared. To this day, I'm sure, any former counselor would rip off the heads of anyone asking why this was such a "bad thing." I dare you to ask me that question. I hope you value your head.
Was the counselor program, or any volunteer program, worth it? Most of us will tell you "absolutely." The vast majority of us counselors, seers, elders and volunteer quality assurance staffers will tell you that there was no greater joy for us than assisting our community. We willingly gave our time and energies towards helping players, trying to make Britannia a better place for everyone. I think that if you took a poll you'd find the vast majority of former volunteers would do it all over again. I know I would.
So, to all the former Ultima Online volunteers, East, West, Central, no matter what color your robe or what type of powers you may have had, this one's for you. Thank you. Thank you for making Britannia a better place.
I'm damn proud to have worked with a fine team of dedicated counselors who did their best to help the community of Ultima Online. And while it pains me greatly to see such a great program go, and a lot of good people no longer in robes, I'll never regret the work that we've done.
- Former Senior Counselor Hamlet, Atlantic, East Region, May 9, 2001
*How's this for irony: one of the chief architects of the regional changes was the very Shard Lead who filed the class action lawsuit, or so she claimed. Another irony: she was a paid contractor to Origin and was fired before the programs were closed. The world is filled with ironies, isn't it?
Originally published on Stratics 5/4/02