The Game Archaeologist: The legacy of Ultima Online


Last week in The Game Archaeologist, we traced the history of Ultima Online’s origin, development, and testing — not to mention one pesky in-game assassination of its lead figure. But making a game is only half the story; the other half is its live operation.

After receiving effusive advance praise at media events and seeing a strong response to the alpha and beta tests, Origin figured that Ultima Online was sufficient to go live — even though the devs knew it was not perfect or complete. In the last few months, the team cut significant swaths of content including three entire continents. But after two years and $2.5 million invested in the project, this wide-open graphical MMORPG went live in September 1997.

Welcome to the skunkworks

“[Ultima Online] was a skunkworks project, through and through,” Koster later recalled in his book Postmortems. “I am fairly sure that if we had not been stuck in the ‘closet’ on the top floor, that it would not have been made. I should emphasize that this also means we were lucky it worked at all, and it was held together with chewing gum.”

Much like most MMOs that would follow, Ultima Online experienced a messy launch full of server instability, lag, numerous bugs, and too many dang players trying to get into the door at the same time. One funny early bug allowed players to grab environmental objects like ponds and throw them into their backpacks. The team went from being angry about it to embracing the spirit of these “rare” collectables that got traded and sold.

The team had to struggle with other player-created issues from Day One. Giving players such a wide range of freedom also meant that the door was open for griefing and exploits. Macroing and player killing ran unchecked for a long time as the team tried to figure out the best way to deal with them. And because of the crowds coming in, available land for housing and needed resources were depleted faster than anticipated.

To top it off, a frustrated player even levied a lawsuit against Origin for claiming that the game would be available all of the time.


A mighty middling MMO

Critics were not lining up to gush about Ultima Online; as Koster noted in his book Postmortems, “Almost all of the reviews were middling to bad. Six out of 10 was a pretty common score.“ He did note that the team received several letters of praise from fellow industry members.

Even so, CNN would later call this launch “a watershed event in the industry… the first that could be termed a breakaway success.” Origin figured that it would see players in the tens of thousands and became overwhelmed when 87K copies were sold by year’s end and over 100,000 players subbed before Ultima Online was six months old.

These were substantial numbers at the time, marking UO as the first MMO to ever cross a six-digit population. And that’s not even counting the alleged half-million or so Chinese players who were flooding onto Ultima Online’s reverse-engineered emulators and rogue servers by 1999.

Ultima Online’s popularity and profitability turned quite a few heads in the video games industry, prompting the greenlight for many other studio MMOs to go into development. By 2003, Ultima Online’s numbers had climbed to a quarter-million paying subscribers who were filling the studio’s coffers every month, a high water mark for the title’s lifespan.

There are lots of different defintions of penalty.

A world split in twain

Ultima Online didn’t have time to rest after its launch. Even though most of the development team had quit or moved on to other projects, EA demanded an expansion. “We hired a few new folks — Chris Mayer (Faceless), Runesabre (Kirk Black),” wrote Koster in his book Postmortems. “I think it was a team of six, plus some of the folks who had quit working on contract, and we made The Second Age in three months.”

The MMO’s first expansion, The Second Age, debuted in October 1998 with a much-needed in-game chat system. EA then rolled out the game to other global markets in 1999, reaching Japan, Korea, and Europe with Australia to follow.

But at the turn of the century, two important events would send shockwaves throughout the UO community and shape the game for years to come. Richard Garriott, who had been helming the Ultima franchise for two decades, resigned (or was fired, depending on different versions of the story) from Origin. This effectively killed several other follow-up projects he was involved with, including Ultima Online 2.

Then the game’s second expansion, Renaissance, arrived in May and literally split the community in two. You see, up until that point, non-consensual PvP defined the landscape of Ultima Online, with packs of “wolves” hunting down defenseless “sheep.” But with Renaissance, Origin created for each server a duplicate version game world called Trammel that featured PvE with only consensual PvP. Unsurprisingly, a large portion of the community — up to 90% by some reports — who were sick of being griefed fled to Trammel, leaving behind a vocal minority that complained about the change.

“This signaled the beginning of UO’s decline,” declared Dr. Richard Bartle in his book MMOs from the Inside Out. “It lost the exhilarating, Wild West atmosphere which was central to its design and along with it part of its soul.”

But even Koster, who was then no longer working on the project, noted that while the attempt to rescue the game from griefers may have marred the simulation’s verisimilitude, “there is no question that the userbase doubled once this went in.” That sentiment was echoed by Gordon Walton, who oversaw Trammel’s implementation; he’s written that the PK environment was driving away 70% of the game’s new players and that Origin had asked him for a “shutdown plan for the game” thanks to the bleed.

“After the change which broke the game space into PvP and PvE worlds, the player base and income nearly doubled (we went from 125k to 245k subs),” he says. “So from a fiscal responsibility standpoint it was a totally winning move. The bad: Without the ‘sheep to shear’ the hard core PvP’ers were disenfranchised” – and the company couldn’t change the “brand” fast enough to recapture former players who’d left in disgust. “But we did keep more of the new players that came in by a large margin, significantly more than than the PvP players we lost.”

Not this.

Expansion after expansion

Even as Ultima Online did well for itself through the 2000s, it continually lost ground to newer titles with fancier 3-D graphics, such as EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, and World of Warcraft. It also lost its studio identity, as Origin Systems as an entity closed up shop in 2004 and the game was folded into EA’s portfolio. EA would later snap up Mythic Entertainment in 2006 and task Mark Jacobs’ studio with overseeing Ultima Online.

Eight more expansions and booster packs would follow. Third Dawn introduced 3-D models in 2001 to compete with EverQuest, Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge (2002) added a Todd McFarlane-created storyline, Age of Shadows (2003) ushered in the new Paladin and Necromancer classes, and Samurai Empire (2004) focused on eastern folklore with the Ninja and Samurai.

The good times kept going deeper into the decade. Elves arrived with 2005’s Mondain’s Legacy, followed by the Gargoyles with 2009’s Stygian Abyss. Pirates and a nautical focus were the centerpiece of High Seas (2010).

But one of the biggest changes that came during the first decade of Ultima Online’s life were the changes to the client itself. In 2007, players had the option to switch from the classic launch client or the 2001 3-D Third Dawn client to a new (and as it proved unpopular) “2.5-D” Kingdom Reborn (KR) client. This proved to be a short-lived run, as 2009’s Stygian Abyss replaced that with a so-called Enhanced Client with tweaked graphics, which reportedly has a 50% buy-in from the current population.


An exercise in surrendering control

With the dissolution of Mythic, the stewardship of Ultima Online was carried forward by the same group of devs who formed a new studio in 2014 called Broadsword. This studio took up the development and operation of both Ultima Online and Mythic’s old Dark Age of Camelot.

Since then, Broadsword faithfully has kept Ultima Online moving forward with a modest expansion called Time of Legends in 2015, the Endless Journey free-to-play option in 2018, and the New Legacy ruleset (which is supposed to be coming this year, though we haven’t had an update on its progress in a while).

Throughout all of Ultima Online’s lifespan, it were the player stories — aided by a world that they could indeed shape — that ended up being the game’s greatest legacy. From tales of the wild PK days to virtual prostitution rings to a guild that used its carpentry skills to wall off the town of Trinsic and create a siege, Ultima Online’s players were more creative and strange than the game’s devs ever envisioned.

In 2012, Time honored Ultima Online in a list of the 100 greatest video games ever made, saying that subsequent MMOs “owed a debt to the lessons learned” from this game.

In his book Postmortems, Koster noted of the Ultima Online project, “Our wisdom was not in inventing an awesome cool collectible feature. It was in surrendering control to the awesome power of emergent behavior.”

And that is what truly made Ultima Online unique: An MMO that deliberately surrendered a lot of control to players so that the community, rather than the developers, would take ownership and agency of the game.

Messy? Imperfect? Buggy? Yes.

But glorious too? Most definitely.

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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