Happy 20th birthday, Ultima Online! Here’s how to get caught up on the OG MMORPG


Just about 20 years ago, my boyfriend and I were wandering through Media Play (heh) when he picked up this box for some new online subscription video game with a cheesy Hildebrandt cover. I was skeptical. He bought it anyway. The next morning, after I’d played all night and totally bogarted his new game, we figured we should probably get a second account. And so we did, in spite of being clueless teenagers who could barely afford one sub, let alone two.

That game was Ultima Online, and it’s the game that birthed the term MMORPG and quite literally dragged me into the realm of virtual worlds. Without it, I wouldn’t be right here where I am talking to you today, having married that dude in the interim. And as of yesterday, that game is 20 years old.

Last autumn, when the game was turning 19, I did a fairly in-depth video on the coolest parts of UO, the parts you can still play today, as I do frequently dive back in and am playing this month too! It’s Massively OP’s best-performing video to date, proving that the game is very much not dead and done. Pretty much everything in the video is still accurate, except for the part on the business model (spoiler: UO is kinda going free-to-play), so I’m going to include it below, but then I’ll recap some of the important bits from the last year and answer a few questions anybody reading is sure to have.

So what’s this about a business model change? Broadsword announced this past weekend that Ultima Online is going free-to-play with a (rather punishing) hybrid endless trial model that blockades free players from housing and banking properly; to access housing or your real bank, you’ll still need to sub up at a rate of about $10-$13 per month, depending on how many months you pay at a time. It appears players will still have to pay for at least future expansions (at least up to 2015’s Stygian Abyss), but we recommend you not buy the existing expansions since you’re about to get them all for free when the model changes to F2P. As the F2P plans stand, I suspect this one will see a lot of lookie-loos, but most players will find the game far too challenging without subbing. We don’t know when this is all going down, but rumor has it spring of next year.

What’s going in the game right now? The 20th anniversary events have been underway since August. They’re not just anniversary gifts slapped into your backpack (although expect those too); these events include new locations, quests, puzzles, and both solo- and group-oriented content. Earlier this year, the game saw a big patch to the dungeon Doom, new wedding content, and an animal taming overhaul, with enhanced client updates on the way.

Should I go back or try it for the first time? Maybe. With the game going free-to-play soonish, you may want to hold out for that, but you can also check out a free trial account right now if you like. I fully admit that the game can be outrageously obtuse and tedious for a newcomer to try to pick up long-term unless that newcomer is extremely dedicated to the idea of living in a virtual world where he’ll have to put in serious effort to learn arcane mechanics, grind skills, and compete in an economy where most people have a decade or more of play on him. Like a lot of older games, it does not make any attempt to hand-hold; you’ll spend a lot of time on websites trying to figure things out. If you give it a go, join a newbie-friendly guild that’ll dump gear and resources on you.

Yep, that’s the cover art from 1997.

Will I get ganked? Not unless you go to Felucca or the Siege Perilous server, no. Stick to Trammel on a production shard and nobody can hurt or rob you but the NPC monsters. On the other hand, there are champ spawns and double resources in Felucca…

What server should I play on? Atlantic. Trust me on this one, as someone who left Great Lakes for Lake Austin and had to pay through the nose to vacate that dying shard a few years later. It’ll be harder for you to grab a house on Atlantic, though not impossible if you’re content with a small-to-medium one, and the economy is inflated, but there’s little for sale on the smaller shards because of the lower population and lopsidedly high vendor fees, making starting out a difficult challenge.

How does it look nowadays? That depends on what you’re used to. It’s not Destiny 2, but if you’re using the enhanced client, it’s somewhere between Diablo II and Diablo III on the prettiness scale, and in my opinion, it’s held up fairly well thanks to the progression of new clients (about half the population reportedly still plays on the original 2D client, however – de gustibus non disputandum est). I do recommend playing with Pinco’s UI mod if you go the modern, eye-friendly route. My video above should give a pretty good overview of how it looks when properly modded.

What’s the deal with housing? Traditionally, with a paid account, you can place one house on the production shards — that’s one per account, not one per shard, so pick your shard wisely. Specialty shards have other rules. Be warned, however, that the housing system is currently disabled, in spite of player pushback, ostensibly in support of Harvey and Irma victims. Maintenance is disabled, as is house placement, so if you return, don’t expect to plunk down a home for at least a month. It’s not fully clear what impact F2P will have on the housing market; if it brings in a ton of new players who decide to sub, or if existing players with multiple accounts decide to keep subbing more consistently, housing could become even harder to come by on the largest shards.

Will it ever come to Steam? After Broadsword took over development of the game from EA and Mythic was dissolved, the company put effort into preparing a new tutorial with intent to launch on Steam. Unfortunately, last year, EA, which technically owns the game and handles its publishing and billing, reportedly put the kibosh on those plans, most likely because of EA Origin, and there is currently no estimate for when or whether it might happen. Developers have strongly hinted that it’s off the table. Then again, the devs strongly hinted F2P was off the table until literally two days ago. Still, best guess is it’s probably never happening.

Where can I go to read more about Ultima Online in the old days? UO’s original lead designer, Raph “Designer Dragon” Koster, put up a blog piece this past weekend offering to answer questions about the game and posting a few of his older articles about the game, all worth a look if you’re curious about the history and inner-workings of the game that pioneered a genre.

If I liked UO but want something new, what should I play in 2017? If you’re mainly into the wild west gang PvP of Felucca, I’d recommend Albion Online. Roleplay? Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar. Intricate skills and breadth of gameplay? Project Gorgon. Sandbox housing? Wurm Online. Isometric sandboxiness with old-school appeal? RuneScape. Economy plus PvP? Maybe Crowfall – that’s where Raph Koster’s consulting now.

No, I want something even more like UO. Full-scale virtual worlds aren’t en vogue right now, unfortunately, unless you’re into emulators, and we don’t generally cover UO emulators since the real game is still very much alive. But maybe these videos of something fun will tide you over: Ubisoft artist Andrea “Malena” Fryer has been rebuilding the whole of Ultima Online in Wurm Unlimited. It’s a stunner.

Happy birthday, UO!

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