Interview and excerpt: The ‘Braving Britannia’ book preserves Ultima Online’s oral history

Earlier this week, we wrote about the launch of a new book that’s right up MMORPG fans’ alley. Dubbed Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online, the book gathers together 35 interviews with players and both former and current Ultima Online devs to effectively become the first published oral history of the MMORPG that started it all.

Author Wes Locher was kind enough to answer a bunch of our questions about the book and provide us an excerpt to help you folks understand what you’re getting into if you decide to pick it up. Read on for the whole scoop!

MassivelyOP: First, I’m actually curious about your own history with Ultima Online. To care enough to write a book, you surely played, right? Where and when and who! How did you get your start in Britannia – and what made you leave (if you ever did)?

Author Wes Locher: I played Ultima Online religiously from 1998—just after the release of The Second Age expansion—until 2003, shortly after Age of Shadows was released. I was a high school student when I first braved Britannia and my time in the digital world ended when I started college (where other things suddenly became important… such as going outside, and socializing). I haven’t stepped foot in Britannia in nearly 15 years. The itch is there, though, especially after thinking of UO ever day for the past eight months while I wrote this book!

It looks as if your cast of characters runs the gamut from the launch devs like Raph “Designer Dragon” Koster to the big roleplayers like Kazola to the modern studio boss, Bonnie “Mesanna” Armstrong herself. I haven’t gotten to read the book yet, but I wondered how you approached telling all of those disparate stories – is there a singular takeaway from all of their commentary, some thread that links them through the years?

I wanted to showcase the variety of ways people played UO, whether they were a Player Killer, a roleplayer, or just a merchant struggling each day to get by and survive. To me, that’s part of what made/makes the game so special—the sheer amount of “anything” that a player can do! The main connective tissue that ties the stories of our 35 contributors together is how UO impacted their lives in ways one would never expect… whether it helped to define a person’s moral compass, helped guide them into a career, or allowed them to meet life-long friends and partners, this crazy medieval virtual world rippled through the lives of many people who logged in.

I include myself in that statement. Every experience I had in UO wasn’t about the game’s lore; it was the stories I created adventuring or fighting with friends, strangers, and enemies. Because of those emergent stories that happened each night when I logged in, it had a direct influence on my becoming a professional storyteller for books, comics, and video games. For whatever reason, I guess I assumed I was the only one who felt that way, but it turns out, I wasn’t alone.

Why do you think nobody’s tackled this sort of project for Ultima Online before? I’m wondering because several other classic MMOs, most notably EVE Online, have gorgeous glossy history books, but this seems to be a first for UO, even though UO really laid the groundwork for all the online titles that came after.

That question is exactly why I wrote this book. Even though it’s been more than a decade since I logged into UO, it’s a game I still think about often and like many players, it’s an experience I’d love to one day replicate in a modern day game. I would often search Amazon for books about UO wherein players shared their experiences but nothing existed outside of the occasional article on a gaming website. After waiting for a few years for something to manifest and being constantly disappointed, I decided that I’d just write the exact book I wanted to read. After all, UO is the grandfather of MMOs, so it’s only fair we collect these stories while people can still remember them!

One narrative that seems to wind through the MMORPG industry meta is this idea that old games are old, that nobody plays them but for nostalgia, and that they have nothing left to teach us all these many years later. Obviously, you think that’s bogus, else you’d not have written this book. What do you want people – be they fans of the game or just MMO players or devs – to learn from your attempt to put these ephemeral experiences into print?

Any developer who is designing a game—especially an MMO—should be aware of the responsibility they have for establishing and nurturing online communities. These shared experiences are what bring players together, foster relationships, and make memories that last lifetimes. UO has directly influenced many MMOs that have spawned in the past decade, but few of those games have seen the longevity. I’d love for the next generation of designers to read this book and see exactly what makes people fall in love with an online game and work to provide features that let players live a life in a virtual world, rather than encourage them to spend their time paying to win or grinding experience points.

When I was reading Raph Koster’s new book’s UO chapters, I constantly bumped into things that surprised me – for example, the fact that Hong Kong triads apparently brought their gang warfare into UO (what??). What piece of oral history out of everything your interview subjects told you most blew your mind? What did you just not see coming at all?

I learned something from every interview I conducted, whether it was about the game, a place, a guild, or simply the human condition. A couple of examples: I knew very little about the UO freeshard community that exists outside of the game’s main servers, but my interview with Shane “Abigor” McVey—founder of the freeshard “UO An Corp”—taught me so much about the hard work and dedication that goes into operating them.

Of the handful of amazing developers I interviewed, I had an absolute blast talking with the game’s former producer Rick “Stellerex” Hall. When he was hired at Origin Systems, he was hoping and praying that he wouldn’t be assigned to Ultima Online. Of course, he eventually was, and to see how he completely fell in love with the game because of its community is one of my favorite stories in the book.

Finally, are you planning a sequel, or a trip into another game’s history in the future? And are you taking suggestions? Hah!

Yes! I’ve had hundreds of people reach out to share their stories and I’m hoping reading this book will inspire others to do the same. In fact, because we’ve only tipped the iceberg, the plan is to do a series of companion books that spotlight different groups, such as guilds, merchants, treasure hunters, thieves, etc. Plus, I’d love to continue chatting with the game’s developers and those who were inspired by UO to tackle games of their own. Those interested in sharing their stories (or their book topic ideas) can do so here.

Now let’s dig into the excerpt!

Killing Time – Excerpt from Braving Britannia, Chapter 2: The Digital Garden of Good and Evil

Canadian Player Killer Ryan “Evil M” Bruns, who killed an estimated 600 players during his time on the Hokuto shard, he traces his murderous roots back to another game in the Ultima series.

Released for the PC in 1994, Ultima VIII: Pagan was a single-player experience, utilizing what became UO’s trademark 2D isometric view.

“As a kid, to me this game was absolutely mind-blowing,” Bruns said. “It was life-changing. I spent days figuring out ways not only to solve the puzzles, but also ways to screw with the world, mess the NPCS up, kill them, and loot their houses, all without being captured by the guards.”

Years later, Bruns would follow news about Ultima Online’s development, eagerly anticipating another life-changing experience. Though this time, the experience could be shared with others.

“I had been reading about Ultima Online in PC Gamer magazine for a few years prior,” Bruns said. “I would stare at the pictures over and over, trying and visualize how the game was going to be. My mind would go wild! [The magazine] painted a very good picture of the game, and it was better than I ever even thought a game could be.”

Bruns began playing Ultima Online shortly after its launch, but before he could become a legend in PvP (player versus player) gameplay and an infamous murderer, he first had to overcome a poor internet connection.

“I’ve made it sound like I started off as a badass or something,” Bruns said. “I didn’t. When I was 14 and started playing the Atlantic server, I was a complete scrub with a bad internet connection. I learned from my guild leader most of the things I needed in order to somewhat understand the game and make things come together for me.”

Trying to make a living in the game’s player-run economy, Bruns threw himself into mining, hoping to save up enough gold to purchase a home. After weeks of hard work, Bruns was finally able to purchase a housing deed that would allow him to build one, providing both additional storage and safety in the wilderness.

Empty land on which to place a house, even a small one, was difficult to find and often located in dangerous places in the wilds. But when a fellow adventurer offered Bruns a magic gate to where space was available, he happily hopped through, housing deed in hand.

“I was gated to Deceit Island where I was lured by a PK and killed,” Bruns said. “I watched the [house] deed fly off my body.”

In the process of trying to make his housing dreams come true, Bruns lost everything.

And that’s right about the time he broke bad.

“I decided that I would no longer be the kind player I was trying to be,” he said.

As Bruns saw it, the monotonous act of mining ore, smelting it into ingots, and selling them at the local bank wasn’t what paid. Killing and looting players on the other hand? That’s where fortunes could be made.

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Wes! You can snag the book on Amazon right now for a cool 20 bucks.

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Kevin Flanagan

Kazola! That is awesome. The Great Lakes Yew government community was amazing while I was around to see it, and Kazola was a great cornerstone of that. I used to chat with her on ICQ too, and it was really weird once she started showing up in Scott Kurtz’s webcomics.?
Good for her!

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Schmidt.Capela

Knowing that the kind of experience described in the excerpt could happen is exactly why I never gave UO a try. Back then I wasn’t as adamantly against PvP as I’m now, but stealing from or looting another player? That has always been a bright red line for me, because I consider someone that does that in-game to be no better than a real world thief. Heck, I would sooner accept complete and total gear destruction on death than I would any kind of player looting.

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wieland

Ahh, UO and the Atlantic Shard. All those nice memories.

François Verret
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François Verret

Cool stuff, Bree!

We witnessed the birth of a player killer… by PK! Who woulda thunk?

Minimalistway
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Minimalistway

So Koster’s book, SWG book and now this … i’m hoping there are more books coming, i’m hungry for more.