Developer: Origin Systems
Release Year: 1997
Stephen's Rating: 10/10
Richard Garriott's Ultima Online was the first hugely successful MMORPG game in history, set in the world of Britannia.
Origin did create a plot device to explain the fact that there were multiple online servers each with a complete instance of the world. Anyone who knows the history of the Ultima series knows that in Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness the hero defeats Mondain the Wizard and shatters the Gem of Immortality. According to the game lore, each of the shattered remnants of the Gem of Immortality contained within it a completely parallel universe. Game servers were naturally called "shards" which was a nice touch.
This game set the tone for all MMORPG's that followed. When you started the game you got to choose which shard you wanted to connect to, and then customise your character including their gender and appearance, clothing, and you also got to choose two skills to raise up to apprentice level. Each player could create (from memory) five characters per shard.
Unlike modern MMORPG's such as World of Warcraft players had quite a different method of advancing their character. Instead of gaining levels and assigning skill points, the player gained skill by actually completing the activity you wanted to improve in. If you wanted to get better at swordsmanship you had to equip a sword and start whacking enemies. The stronger the enemy you took on, the faster your swordsmanship skill would rise. In fact as you progressed higher you needed to hit powerful creatures to get any benefit at all. Likewise if you wanted to become a grandmaster blacksmith you had to start making armour and weapons. You could pay an NPC trainer to gain skills up to 30/100, but from then on you had to increase them through action.
The Britain Bank was the most popular place in the game. It's where all trading happened.
Every skill went up from 0.0 to 100.0. Getting any skill to 100 meant that you were a "Grandmaster" in that skill which sometimes had benefits. For example; I was a Grandmaster carpenter. As a result, whenever I created a piece of furniture or a wooden shield my name would be attached to that item forever; "A wooden shield created by Scoot".
Any character had 700 skill points to work with in total, that meant each player could become grandmaster in 7 skills and no more. This became a quick way of describing how powerful your character was. I believe the best my brother or I ever got was "5x grandmaster". As you gained skills you also had strength, dexterity, and intelligence. You originally had 225 points to split between them, meaning generally if you were a warrior character you'd go for 100 strength and dexterity, 25 intellect. Likewise for a casting character you'd go for 100 intelligence and strength, 25 dexterity.
Originally skills were independent of each other. This led to the dreaded "tank mage" which in my mind was summed up by guys running around riding on their llama's with a wizards robe on and a massive halberd in hand. They would cast spells to incapacitate you while occasionally walking close to clobber you over the head with their halberd.
Later they introduced a synergy system which I really liked and is something that Diablo II: Lord of Destruction also introduced. As a warrior you could now get "anatomy" skill to improve your critical strikes. A mage who learnt "poisoning" actually had stronger poison spells. What it removed was the tank mage, because you had to sacrifice too much power to be both a mage and a warrior without the synergies. There were many other synergies I haven't mentioned which essentially meant you needed 5 or more skills to become a maximally powerful fighter or mage.
Attacking a Ratman.
In the original game there was only one world. How it worked was that you were safe in town. If another player attacked you in the territory of a town, the AI town guards would teleport from thin air and kill them with 1 shot. It was a nice touch and helped new players survive a while as well as allowing merchant characters to get on with what they wanted to do. Outside of the city walls, anything was possible. There was a colour code system for players. Anyone with their name in "blue" was friendly and not aggressive (yet). Someone whose name was "grey" had just committed a crime and was temporarily a criminal. This meant that you could attack them on sight even in town without any implications (going grey yourself or guards coming). If you saw someone whose name was "red" then that was a "murderer", that is someone who had killed > 5 people in recent times. Some people spent their entire game life as murderers and would hang out with their murderer friends attacking anyone that was unfortunate enough to get near them.
A lot of people played the game quite differently. There were many merchant skills such as blacksmithing, mining, carpentry, lumberjack, tailoring, etc. Some people became very successful in the game simply by selling their goods. You could buy houses. Each shard had some areas which were open plains and you could buy a house deed (for a LOT of gold) and place it. There were all kinds of houses going right up to a castle - which cost so much money it still blows my mind that people even got them. I had a small tower which was small but had 3 stories. There was limited space for placing houses and this quickly ran out, so having a house was a privilege. Merchants could also sell their wares using NPC Vendor's which they could place outside their houses. This was fantastic and meant you didn't have to be online to sell your goods.
One of the other skills worth mentioning is animal taming. Mounts were a bit of a commodity in the game, the most famous for me being the Nightmare - a black horse that can shoot fireballs. You could even tame dragons and often outside the Britain bank there would be huge white wyverns and red dragons with their masters. There was begging - a pretty useless skill in the long run but you could "beg" off NPC characters for pretty much limitless money. There was also the bard class which I'll talk about later.
The aftermath of some horrible battle.
After a few years Origin did something I disagree with. They buckled under the pressure for players to make the game safer. What they did was on every shard they created two worlds - Trammel; a world in which no player could attack another player, and Felucca; PvP could still occur. They even styled Felucca differently - the trees were all burnt and falling. You could travel between worlds via moongate. I think Felucca was actually the original game world, and Trammel became a new space. I remember I had no house because there was no room, but when Trammel came online I immediately went and found a great spot near Britain in the new space available in Trammel. So why did it suck? Everyone went to Trammel. There was no risk anymore. It ruined the game. There would be a circle of murderers outside the moongate leading into Felucca waiting. If you went through the gate you died in about 0.007 seconds.
There was also a karma and fame system. Depending on your deeds you were given a title attached to your name. If your fame was high enough, other players could see that title. Maximum karma and fame gave the title "The Glorious Lord..." and maximum fame but minimal karma gave "The Dread Lord...". If you had minimal karma and fame you became "The Outcast..." and NPC characters wouldn't even trade with you.
Finally, Origin introduced game events. They would progress a kind of story that sometimes followed that of the original Ultima series. There were in-game events where you could fight alongside the great characters such as Dupre.
This game was groundbreaking. It was addictive, it was fun, and I am really fascinated by the psychological and sociological structures which occurred within the realms of this game. There was something wonderful about it which games like World of Warcraft just can't compete with. In WoW you "grind" your way through quests or dungeons to get XP, to level up and choose skills. It's linear. In Ultima Online it was more open and free. There was no overriding quest that had to be followed, you could simply explore, make friends or enemies, pick up a tool and start a trade - it was just... better.
I like the skill system. When you did something, you got better at it. It's more intuitive and satisfying than gaining "levels" and assigning points into skills.
The infamous Nightmare - a fire breathing death horse you could tame and ride.
Firstly, the story and the game world were not consistent with the original Ultima series from which they came from. For one thing, the story theoretically takes place between the events of Ultima I and Ultima II (at least on release) back when there was no "Britannia" as it was still part of the larger world of Sosaria. Yet the game world was called Britannia, and geologically it was similar to the world map from Ultima 4-6. Although it was nice because to me this world was familiar, it doesn't make sense in the wider context of the series and I disagree with it.
The other thing that I object to was the splitting up of the game world into Trammel and Felucca. Have a PvP free world was... boring. It took the risk away from the game, and it also made Felucca a desolate wasteland where no-one except a hardy band of murderers and thieves would hang out waiting by the moongate to pounce on anyone who was foolish to cross the barrier between the worlds. Creating two worlds like this also doesn't make any sense in the wider context of the story, as these are the names of the moons of Britannia... There was nothing more exciting than mining when you knew someone might try and kill you at any moment. It was a thrill, and I would hotkey my recall scrolls and runes in preparation.
At the time I was on very slow broadband or dial up, so the game was very laggy. I think a similar game with modern internet speeds would be much nicer.
I started off on an American shard called Catskills because there were no Australasian servers at the time. I had a character who did mining and blacksmithing, and knew some magery. I joined this guild called the Miners of Minoc (MoM) who had this little guild house right outside Minoc right next to the mine. It was a pretty sweet location and I had some laughs. For some reason our guild attracted a lot of negative attention. I remember murderers attacking the guild house and slaying all of our members. The guild master went and got his mage character and came back. I remember him summoning a daemon and charging into battle to protect us. I owned a boat in that game because there were no spots for a house. It all came to a bad end though when my brother "accidentally" deleted my character...
A PvP tournament.
Luckily the new Oceania shard was up so I took the opportunity to join that. My main character "Scoot" was a lumberjack/miner/carpenter. Sounds boring, but I loved it. I also had a fighter called "Scooter" and a mage/tamer called "Thrash". Before the Trammel/Felucca split I would mine a lot which was exciting because often murderers would come and kill you, take all your ore, and split. I would always have a recall scroll ready to teleport to town if I saw a red name coming.
I found a really good way to make money before they patched against it. There were these NPC nobles who would offer to give you money if you took them from one location to another. Instead, I would entice them out of the city of Skara Brae using the bard skill "entice". They would sort of follow you out of town like zombies. Then once I was outside of the protection of the town guard I'd kill them. It was risky business because I'd go "grey" afterwards. If someone saw me they'd generally attack, so I had to use invisibility spells to hide after each kill. The rewards was worth it, 500 gold or more for each noble plus I'd sell their sword and clothes.
I'd love to hear you stories about Ultima Online. People still play this game and it has a loyal following, even though Richard Garriott hasn't been involved with it for many years.