It seems like the more I play Skyrim, the more I find myself looking back to Ultima Online. Don’t get me wrong, Skyrim is great and all, but like most games, it pales in comparison to the slice of sheer gaming perfection that was Ultima Online. A bold statement, to be sure, but stay with me here. I’ll explain.
First, let’s roll the clocks back to the mid nineties. I couldn’t even begin to guess when I first caught wind of Ultima Online, but I seem to remember reading about it in the now defunct Next Generation Magazine. As hard as it is to imagine now, back then, gaming news arrived at the pace of your magazine subscriptions, and often time game “previews” barely even consisted of a screenshot and three sentences. I remember this being the case with UO, but this vague snippet was all I needed to get totally amped for the game.
The concept of a persistent virtual world with not only an immersive graphical interface, but also thousands of players playing at once, absolutely blew my mind. I had been involved in various MUDs over the years, and while I still have fond memories of doing my daily activities in Legend of the Red Dragon, they seemed insignificant compared to what Origin was apparently on the verge of releasing.
In fact, I was so hungry for information on Ultima Online that it was also the catalyst to me discovering newsgroups, and I’d go on to spend what must have been the next year endlessly pouring over whatever information someone would leak out to usenet about the progress of the UO beta. This was the game I was waiting for.
I was 14 years old when UO came out, and distinctly remember spending the weeks before release buttering up my parents to never before levels to not only buy it for me, but buy it the day it came out. After a school bus ride that felt like an absolute eternity, we were off to Comp USA where I grabbed the last copy they had on the shelf. I unboxed it as soon as I got in the car, marveled at the inclusion of an actual cloth map of Britannia, and proceeded to affix the UO lapel pin to whatever ill-fitting hypercolor shirt I was wearing at the time.
I can still remember every whizz, beep, and hum that our then state-of-the-art Pentium II-powered HP Pavilion made when it booted along with all the absolutely horrible Hackers-themed quotes and noises I had customized my Windows 95 install with. Following the now-cringe-inducing “Mess with the best, die like the rest” startup sound, I was on my way to installing the game that would redefine the way I think about video games for the rest of my life.
The funny thing about the first launch of Ultima Online was that they felt it necessary to explain the reason why multiple servers existed with a pre-rendered cut scene. These days entirely separate servers segregating groups of players is totally normal, but it was explained by the evil wizard Mondain shattered the gem of immortality it fractured the world into shards. Each shard contained its own independent copy of the world. This needed to be explained. That’s how new every concept Ultima Online introduced was.
After begging my Mom for her credit card details to create my account, which wasn’t an easy sell by any stretch of the imagination, I was well on my way to the land of Sosaria. I chose the Lake Superior server, since it sounded the closest to me of the incredibly small list of available shards. From there, I went through the remarkably primitive character creation process, choosing horribly stupid starting skills (Stealing, Hiding, and Tactics as I recall.), and the equally stupid character name of “GrEEn” Yes, complete with alternating caps. Britain seemed like the most reasonable starting city.
There I was, in town, with no clue where to go from there. This was in a time that was way before quest systems, party systems, or really, any goal aside from just participating in the game world. So, that’s what I did. I wandered around for a while, and eventually stumbled across the Britain Bank, which was filled with people just hanging out, talking, trading, and dumping junk items on the ground. The first thing I did in Ultima Online actually was to pick up after these people. I didn’t know what any of the stuff was that people were dumping on the ground, but I had nothing, and it all seemed appealing.
A little later, I discovered that I could bring up a larger window that showed each of the characters hanging around in town, which I later found out was called the “paperdoll.” In the corner of this window was a backpack. If you were standing close enough to someone, you could double click this and actually see what they had in their inventory. I then spent what must have been hours just looking at what people had in their backpacks.
Eventually I got bored of looking at people’s loot, and decided I needed to set out and get some loot of my own. I made my way west out of town, passing over a bridge, by a guard tower, a stable, a few random houses, and a mountain pass before I was notified I was out of protection of the Britain guards. This meant nothing to me, so I delved deeper into the wild.
I found some random animals, got beat up pretty bad by a deer, and then came across some armor clad human in the woods. I attacked, not really sure what would happen, and then realized that this was another player I was fighting. Some random dude who must have either disconnected, stepped away from their computer, or who knows what else. I wanted to see what would happen, so I killed him, and then was able to take absolutely everything he was wearing and carrying.
So, now I had armor.
Each step of the discovery of this online universe came with an entirely renewed sense of wonder that I’m really just not sure is possible to experience anymore. Each step was pushing what I even knew was possible in video games. Everything from realizing that the few dozen characters milling about the bank were actually controlled by people to killing a real person and taking their stuff. It was all fresh, new, and I felt like I was barely even scraping the tip of the iceberg.
I took a turn to the north, and came to the intersection of three roads. The Britain Crossroads, which affectionately be referred to as the “brit xroads” and would serve as my home for as long as I played the game. I stood there, trying to figure out which direction I was going to go next, at which point some guy in a white robe came running up, stopped briefly, said “Corp Por,” and a few seconds later I was dead.
I popped up as a ghost, and watched all of my belongings slowly being transferred to the character that killed me. I had no clue where to go from there, so I eventually figured I’d run back to town because at least people there seemed helpful. What seemed like an eternity later I finally figured out I needed to visit a healer to be resurrected. I returned to the world of the living wearing nothing but a white robe, just like the guy who killed me. All of my possessions were gone, so I figured I’d run out and ask for them back.
Crossing through the same mountain pass, and once again leaving the protection of the town guards, I came across another guy running the opposite direction who only stopped long enough to say “pks.” I had no idea what that meant, so I went back to the crossroads, where, once again, I was killed- This time, after being made fun of for being so easy to kill.
I hatched a plan, which mostly involved trying to become friends with these guys hanging around the crossroads, figuring worst case they stop killing me, best case, they give me my stuff back. I got resurrected, ran back again, and offered a bargain of sorts. See, if you attack someone inside of the protection of the town guards, all they have to do is say “guards,” and a guard will instantly teleport to kill you. So, these guys needed someone to lure people outside the invisible line of guard protection.
And that’s exactly what I did.
I spun the craziest stories to lure people out to the crossroads. “You’ve got to come see this dragon,” things like that. It seemed like there was a never-ending stream of people to trick into being murdered. Even after playing the game for months my main character was never really that proficient in any skills, but the game was open enough that you didn’t have to be. You could play a true rogue, lying, cheating, and stealing from people.
But, with all the reward, which eventually lead to my own little house off to the side of the crossroads, came tons of risk. I could never really defend myself, so if someone wanted to kill me, they often did. This threat of real danger, and potentially losing everything on your character created an air of excitement that no game has ever come close to offering since, and I really don’t believe there ever will be a game that does.
These days, players are rarely punished, and if you are, the only thing you often lose is a bit of time. Single player, multiplayer, even MMO’s offer absolutely no sense of danger. Die in Skyrim? You automatically reload to your last save like nothing happened. Die in MW3, and depending on the game mode the absolute worst thing that can happen is you wait for the round to be over. Die in World of Warcraft and you might be out an insignificant amount of gold in equipment repairs.
In Ultima Online, you lost everything, and there was more often than not no way of getting it back. I’m really not even sure if I can accurately explain how much this shifted how you’d play the game. Absolutely every move you made had to be calculated, from things as simple to watching who you stood next to at the bank (You never know who is a thief!) to who you aligned yourself with, to what you’d even carry on your character. It could all be gone in an instant, and there never was a point where you weren’t on your toes.
I’m not sure how game developers can ever offer anything similar. Gamers as a whole seem to resist games with any kind of consequence. Really, I think the only thing that even comes close would be Demon’s Souls and maybe Dark Souls. Those aren’t multiplayer though, and without the social component, it just isn’t anywhere near as appealing.
Maybe I can’t explain why Ultima Online is so great for people who weren’t there for it. Re-reading this, all I’ve described is a game where people can be huge assholes, when really, that isn’t even the point I’m trying to get to. Ultima Online was an open world game in ever sense that a game can be. Without any rigid progression system, or any goal aside from just existing, you created your own niche in the world. Whether that was killing people, tricking people, playing as the valiant knight that hunted in-game murderers, staying in town and crafting, or a zillion other things. They were all totally valid, and came with very real risk and reward.
I miss that.