Ultima Online Turns 20: An Appreciation
About a 1000 years ago when I was in high school, my friend Bob and I would travel all over New England in search of places to SCUBA dive. Both being geeks, we often passed the travel time talking about cool ideas for video games that we’d like to see. One of the ideas we kept returning to was an online game (back in the day when 28.8k modems were top of the line) which required players to purchase a “class pack” from their local retailer in order to make a character that they would play. Everyone in the game would be another player, and as the players could affect the world around them, actions had permanence. One situation I remember us talking about was if a necromancer character finds and inhabits an abandoned tower, he could take it over (unofficially), and raise an army of undead to defend it against other players, who could plow through the skeletal army and “liberate” the tower by killing the necromancer. This was the kind of game we wanted to play, and as incredible as it might seem, we weren’t aware of MUDs or MOOs at the time. We knew of BBS door games, and the games we saw advertised on AOL and CompuServe which charged exorbitant fees that we couldn’t afford. We were left to just talk about it and marvel at our ignorant assumption that if we only had the money and the talent…
When I graduated from college, though, I heard about an upcoming game called Ultima Online, probably from a magazine because back then there weren’t as many gaming-themed websites as there are now; hell, there weren’t that many websites at all. I grew up with Ultima games and was familiar with their lore and gameplay. Based on what articles were saying about UO, everything seemed to promise the kind of game that Bob and I had always wanted. I spent $5 to enroll in their beta program because let’s face it: there’s no way they’d allow the download of an entire MMO client on 28.8k speeds, so the $5 was to cover shipping and handling and probably some other fees.
The game was…nigh unplayable. The main reason was simply the speeds. If you think rubber-banding in an MMO these days is bad, you ain’t seen nothin’, buddy. Nevermind if the place got crowded somehow. But as patches came down and the game improved, things started looking up. I bought both a 56k and my first broadband modems specifically so I could improve my MMO performance, and so began my foray into the world of MMOs.
Ultima Online is still my all-time #1 favorite MMO not necessarily because it outperforms all other MMOs I’ve played in every way…just in ways that matter. A lot of people credit World of Warcraft‘s success — and other games inability to duplicate it — by saying that it was the right game at the right time. The same can be said for UO for me. It was the right game at the right time for me, and for me it was the first MMO I played. I consider myself to be amazingly lucky in that regard because UO tried to set the bar so high that I feel subsequent MMOs let players down in ways that they’ll never know if they haven’t played UO.
My friends and I rolled on the Atlantic server, being as how we could spit into the Atlantic from where we live. I spent most of my game time in and around the town of Vesper. I was a miner and blacksmith, so the mountains to the north of the city and out past Minoc, as well as the range to the west, served as my stomping grounds. I was so focused on my craft that I never left the Northeast for the first year or two that I played the game, and the first time I did venture forth — heading to Britannia, of course — was almost terrifying because this was in the days before the Trammel-Felucca split and PKs and griefers were everywhere on the roads, and monsters were in the woods. After finally arriving at my destination and making it back home again, I vowed never to travel overland again. So I started using rune books, specifically to our little neighborhood along the coast south of Covetous.
I remember the thickly settled area to the north of Vesper, and the shops I’d frequent there (and which I’d avoid because they never had any stock). At some point, we had joined a guild which owned a castle, because back then I was apparently OK joining up with strangers. We used external applications that were sanctioned by EA that helped us with reagent and material management. We watched elaborate player-run ceremonies like plays and weddings. I remember RPing with a stranger in the streets of Vesper, them a confused refugee trying to find their friend and me a well-meaning bystander who was trying to help. My friends and I ran from PKs and sometimes fought back, except against that jerk who stood in the entrance of the portal to Felucca in the Vesper cemetery, because players physically blocked players, and he was demanding a toll to use the gate or wanted us to get pissed and attack him so we’d take the criminal penalty. We just turned and left and came back later.
We spent all of our discovery time on the Stratics UO site, which — to my utter amazement — is still in operation, although now in message board/wiki form. Since I worked a day job with friends who also played, we spent a good chunk of our days (behind closed doors) planning our in-game operations for buying property, exploration, and mercantile aspirations that probably never became as grand as we’d hoped they’d be.
I can’t remember why we stopped playing UO. It was a little while after they introduced the “Renaissance” and the graphical client that was nice, but…wasn’t UO. I suspect we followed Raph Koster from UO to Star Wars: Galaxies, which is probably my #3 MMO of all time and is a reflection for another post.
I’ve tried going back to UO not a few times but the adage “you can’t go home again” is true because it’s true. The game retains a lot of what it launched with, but it hasn’t stood entirely still. It now has quests of a sort, whereas at launch it was a pure sandbox. Real estate is near impossible to find, even after 20 years, and I suspect most of the housing on Atlantic is owned by The Syndicate, one of the oldest and original UO guilds that still has an active presence in the game. I get the pangs of nostalgia whenever I see images of the game or read the almost-annual recollections that Raph Koster posts to his website. UO hasn’t stood still, and neither has my experience in the genre, which informs what I’m willing to accept these days. Themepark games are a bit too simple, but the “heirs” to UO‘s openness — the survivalbox games like Citadel or ARK — are too focused on achievement over adversity. Even WURM in either of its incarnations is too brutal, but probably captures the spirit of UO the best out of anything these days.
I’m not sure how much longer UO has. Management of the game was offloaded to Broadsword a few years ago, along with Dark Age of Camelot, but EA still has their hand on the tiller to some degree. It was recently announced that UO would be offering a “kinda free” account with severe limitations, which is either because they’re secure enough to let it ride, or they’re fishing for gimmicks to bring in much-needed new blood. I will be legitimately sad when UO eventually goes dark. I hope that EA understands the impact that the game has had on the industry and allows the game to roam free in the public domain so that the “grey servers” can transition into unofficial “white servers”. Public run servers are always contentions due to licensing and all that, but I wouldn’t want UO‘s influence to vanish forever. Someone, somewhere who is just getting into the games industry should be allowed to find UO and be amazed enough to grab the opportunity by the horns and really extend its influence out to its rightful place in the industry so that everything old can be new again. I know I’d play that game.