The Game Archaeologist: How Ultima Online got made


You know how there’s that yokel in every global chat channel that likes to troll players by claiming that World of Warcraft was the first MMO? If you’re me and you sense even a whiff of sincerity behind that statement, you kind of want to smack them with a thick history book.

Yet as we’ve covered in this column, it’s not quite as easy to point to clearly defined moments when a new genre was born. There are predecessors, innovators, and transitional titles. But I can comfortably say that MUD1 was the first true MMO, as I can point to Ultima Online as the first “massive” graphical MMO.

Avatar, you are needed once more

In any case, Ultima Online’s place in the MMORPG history textbooks is undeniably important. I’ve procrastinated on writing on this title for so long because it’s a daunting prospect to try to do it justice. But it needs to be covered because if not for Ultima Online’s pioneering spirit, online gaming might look a lot different today.

As the MMO is a sort-of sequel, we’ll need to go all the way back to the beginning to set the stage. In 1981, amateur game designer Richard “Lord British” Garriott programmed the very first Ultima title for the Apple II. This first-on-the-scene open-world RPG took players on a journey through a fantasy realm (and a bit of sci-fi because why not).

A palpable hit for Garriott, Ultima was followed up by eight official sequels (and numerous spin-offs) over the next two decades. Out of these, Ultima VII became the most famous and critically acclaimed, with “Avatars” of virtues investigating a murder mystery across Britannia. By then, the graphic style of the series had settled into this colorful top-down isometric look that allowed for a lot of detail while retaining a 2-D design.

“Ultima” was a recognizable and respectable name in computer gaming circles with a long and storied history by the mid-1990s. With the series exploring 3-D, other genres, and different platforms (including consoles), taking it from single player to multiplayer — massively multiplayer — fit the profile of a pioneering franchise.

Yes, this was a few years out.

An idea from hell

So how did it all begin for this title? Starr Long claimed that the inspiration for an MMO version of Ultima Online came while playing DOOM and realizing how much fun competitive online play could be.

In any case, considering the rapidly connecting online world of the mid-1990s, Garriott leaped at the thought of taking Ultima to the next level. His studio, Origin Systems, was eager to start development on what would be called Ultima Online: Shattered Legacy (and, before that, Multima — as in, “Multiplayer Ultima”). To pull off this feat, he assembled a team of hotshot young developers, including Long, Raph Koster, Kristen Koster, Scott Phillips, Rick Delashmit, and Rich Vogel.

The project hit several snags from the very beginning, the biggest of which was that Origin’s parent company EA didn’t see any profit potential in MMOs. The company was also worried that a risky flop would tarnish the Ultima brand. After several rejections, the small dev team finally convinced the execs and got the go-ahead to make their massively multiplayer game.

But they weren’t treated like rock stars: The tiny team had to make do with office space on a floor of a building that was still under construction and had holes that could plunge a careless person to their death. (Fortunately, no one was actually killed.)

“At that time, we were punk kids doing stuff in the attic, and our parents had no idea what we were up to,” recalled Raph Koster in his book Postmortems, which we’ve quoted extensively in the past. He noted that all of the core programmers and designers came from text MUD backgrounds.

“Stumbling in the dark”

The first prototype for the MMO ran off of the Ultima 6 game engine and could be used to do only a very limited number of activities. With few examples in the space as to what graphical MMOs were capable of doing, the small team pioneered its own ideas and made up the game as it went along.

And the team’s hard work paid off. At E3 1996, Ultima Online was a sleeper hit at the show. Garriott promoted the MMO for all it was worth, saying, “No one has done what we’re trying to do with online gaming. We’re still stumbling in the dark here. I do think that this will be a major title.”

That year, testing was already underway, with 3,000 alpha subjects probing this virtual world for its fun and faults. This eventually graduated to the beta, with 50,000 eager players signing up to actually pay for discs to test the game. This tsunami of interest finally convinced EA that Ultima Online had real potential, and the company started to shift significant resources toward the MMO.

The team calculated that at least 20,000 players would be needed after launch to help the game break even, with quiet hopes that as many as 40,000 might appear. In his book MMOs from the Inside Out, MUD1 creator Richard Bartle said that people scoffed when he publicly predicted a playerbase for Ultima Online in the 60,000 range.

As testing started to wind down a month before the launch, Lord British — Garriott’s own in-game character — was assassinated in a moment so famous that it’s gone down in MMO lore (and if you want to read more about it, I have a completely separate piece on it).


A failed ecology experiment

When it came to features in this new MMO, Ultima Online was as ambitious — and as crazy — as they came. The idea was to give players a world that they could shape and roleplay as they saw fit. And it was a wild frontier indeed, with full player killing (PKing) and looting), houses that could be placed almost anywhere, skill-based progression, a complex economy, and even an interconnected “virtual ecology” that would create connections between the landscape animals.

Unfortunately, this last feature ended up backfiring in testing, as players ravaged the landscape’s animal population faster than the poor critters could breed. [Here’s Koster’s clarification: “This is often advanced as the reason the ecology failed, but it’s a huge oversimplification. The closed economy failed due to player hoarding, which slowed spawns, which resulted in no monsters; but the ecology failed because of the cost of pathfinding and radial searches.”]

“We’d spent an enormous amount of time and effort on it,” Garriott later said. “But what happened was all the players went in and just killed everything so fast that the game couldn’t spawn them fast enough to make the simulation even begin. And so, this thing that we’d spent all this time on, literally no-one ever noticed — ever — and we eventually just ripped it out of the game, you know, with some sadness.” [Koster says Garriott is incorrect here and that the “stats were literally printed in the strategy guide.]

But the failure of the virtual ecology system wasn’t the only thing that Garriott’s team failed to predict. When we come back next week, we’ll look at how Ultima Online’s launch took everyone off-guard — including its creators.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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