Sunday, 11 December 2005

Archive: Looking back at... Ultima Online

First released: 1997

Category: MMORPG

Publisher: Origin ( )

It's often easy to forget the founding father titles of many, now well established, categories of computer game. Ultima Online was the very first true MMORPG and arguably set the frameworks for the future in this complex, often groundbreaking, area of programming knowledge and technology. It became the biggest networked roleplaying game in the world and by 2000 had been entered into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest "parallel" World. In it's peak over 2,500 players would log in during a busy part of the day on one of the countless International servers. Players would roleplay characters ranging from anything from a "Gandalf" Mage to a Blacksmith to an Innkeeper.

The game's World was the sum of many previous Origin Ultima titles that go way back to the mid 80s. Britannia consisted of dozens of separate towns, caves, dungeons, oceans, and inhospitable woodlands. It truly was a realised reality. The lands were covered with quests to complete and monsters to slay but the core of it became the PvP (player-versus-player) combat. The Guild element became one of the main reasons to build up your character to the coveted GM (Grand Master) title. However UO wasn't all about the combat, or even the char building. It was the fact you could roleplay to such extremes in it as to buy a house, become a well known trader, sell signature items, and even get married with another like-minded character!

So, why the nostalgia? I first played this game in around early 1999, which was probably around the peak period of this games popularity. I played it religiously for years right up until around the time it was taken over by EA back in 2003. Somehow it lost the magic once Origin, who ultimately went under, had given up the driving seat.

UO was the kind of game that had a special quality to it. To those that weren't around at the time, or were simply unaware of the community, it may seem odd reflecting on this title with such fetishistic detail. The fact is it was a feeling that had to felt to be understood. The visuals were hardly impressive, the game was merely a 2D ariel view, nor was the sound. But both the visuals of little figures moving around and the noises of thuddish knocks and other countless random sound effects had an awe to it that kept you locked in the tiny 2D realm. Even to this day I have never felt as immersed in an RPG, on or offline, as I did in UO.

There was an element of customisation in this game that enabled you to perfect your player. The endless catalogue of clothing, armour, accessories, and gadgets allowed you to design all sorts of unique and wacky looks. Fashions even developed as players copied each others "l33t" looks and realised that unwritten conventions were beginning to apply to how you were to dress as an "established" player. Of course the noobs tended to just run around naked, holding spell books and spamming bizarre messages out to all around them.

There was a neat and simple way of communication in this game. Unlike all these new, 3D, MMORPGs where we have a mass of "chat channels" and talk-bar based messaging amongst the players UO incorporated the messages you typed into the world in a much more integral way. What you typed (what you said) would appear above the head of your little cute character model. You could even customise the text colour. This completely basic aspect somehow added a personal feel to messages you typed. The alienation of the "talk bar" was not a factor. I suspect to most hardcore RPG players this is all pretty irrelevant. They play for the stats, PvP, char building. However for us roleplayers who marveled at the actual interaction in this world UO just felt so right.

One of the key ingredients to UO was the fact that it felt uncharted. To begin it was a land to be explored. You could discover some novel trick or even an innocent exploit (such as "see-sawing" your stats once capped to gain faster) and feel like a king. Of course this was hardly the point to the game, finding bugs, but somehow it was all just part of the game to discuss such naughty secrets. In reality none of them really did that much to aid you if you were a player aiming for max stats, and more often than not the people spreading the rumours of hidden tricks were as guilty to being gullible as you were for believing them! It was all just part of the UO experience.

With the more modern MMORPGs there is a polished feel. I am not suggesting this is a bad thing, it's a must! The point I am making is just that UO was around in that time when games were still relatively primitive mediums of technology and where titles were cutting edge it was okay for them to cut that edge via a bumpy ride.

What separated UO from any other in it's field was the way you could portray a specific type of character. As has already been stated clothing etc played a big part in this but there were also yet more simple features that added to the ability. One of these and perhaps the most unique was the way you could type your characters very own profile on a scroll that any other player could access by inspecting your "paper doll" - see image to left. Many players simply used this as a means to advertise items for sale but even this had a neat, heart warming, feel about it. Other players used the scroll to promote websites, political movements, and their music tastes. Some of us even typed a quick bio of our beloved char!

Guilds grew in numbers and players became well known local identities. In the early years Origin even used to employ people to professionally roleplay certain key characters in the UO Universe. Lord British, the king of the lands, could often be seen walking around newly founded player-run castles surrounded by armour clad guards. As well as this there were also in-game helpers who wore unique coloured robes and could often be seen walking around towns ready to help you with any game (and sometimes non-game!) query. I remember fondly first experiencing the help of a GM (Game Master) who helped me overcome a strange bug. I also digged the first time a game seer (a volunteer player helper) watched me kill my first zombie whilst healing from afar.

It was always going to be a feeling that would ultimately fade. The fix became weaker the more you played until you lost the need to play. UOs limits became more and more apparent as the progression of computer games took more and more momentum. Once EA took over in 2003 due to Origin's financial problems it felt like UO had died. GMs were less "happy to help", seers were no more, and the sweet little non-polished aspects were soon given a shiny gloss.

You may notice I have talked about UO through this in the past tense. It's because of this fact. To me, and vast amounts of former original players, the glory days of this legendary title came and went. It had a good streak of limelight and great amount of love but the world evolved. Nowadays UO is only half as inhabited as it once was, with once busy player hot spots now dormant rest stops for "AFKers". The monthly charges seemed less and less worth the cost of admission as newer, more breathtaking, rivals entered the fray. But even with this thought in mind many, including myself, still hold that this is the best MMORPG of all time. To the Everquest school of gamers this claim would hold little ground, the fact is it's a taste thing and a gaming preference. UO was for the extroverts... the others for the introverts maybe? Whatever way you call it UO was the alternative game, the hidden hit, and still remains to this very day the Grandfather of the online RPG world.

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