Working As Intended: My 25 years of Ultima Online

    
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Twenty-five years ago my boyfriend, Paul, and I walked into a shop to find a new game to play together. He picked up this new thing called Ultima Online that had just launched. I said it looked dumb. (The box did look dumb.) He bought it anyway, and we took it back to his dad’s house. We had only one PC, so our usual plan with games was that one of us played while the other studied, swapping every hour. Instead, I played all night. I was still playing when the sun came up.

I was a teen and mostly a sci-fi strategy player back then, and I had no idea what I was doing in Britannia, but then nobody else did either. I made a character with tailoring and musicianship but none of the actual usable bard skills, so my first character was functionally worthless. To make money, I sold dye jobs to people around Britain bank who hadn’t figured out they could just go buy dyes and a dye tub for less than I was charging. I milled around, gawking at people’s chatter floating over their heads, and watched people summoning ham and eating it and summoning it again.

Over those first few weeks, we made a few friends on Great Lakes: Dex and Abe and Sild. Dex was from Malaysia and was in college just a state away from me. We laughed when we realized we had the same birthday, one year apart. Sild was older and had all the strategy guides memorized. Abe tried to hide it, but he was clearly a little kid. We started venturing into the wilderness together, dying to ettins and hinds. I made money picking up bags left by the side of the road. We pooled our gold and bought a house together, a two-story stone-and-plaster right outside Britain, in an overly trusting way that would seem unthinkable now.

Abe was PKed a week later and lost the keys. There was no way to rekey a house back then, so it just sat there empty. PKs were always a danger. After that, we all decided to become tailors, buying hides from the tanner and crafting them into armor and selling it back. We grew rich and bought a keep in Yew, snagging the last large spot in what would someday be called Felucca.

We did not give Abe keys.

We started venturing into dungeons; Despise was our favorite. I was obsessed with lockpicking the chests and healing newbies and dodging PKs and skilling up magic. Dex started a crafting empire, eventually inspiring my love for trade. We grew richer in gold and skills and friends, and I bumbled into joining the most powerful anti-PK guild on Great Lakes, proving my commitment by wearing orange, standing guard in mIRC, tithing masses of resources, and turning over my account info to the recruiter to prove I wasn’t a spy – more unthinkable things. From them, I learned about cheating and how to stick a rock on my keyboard to macro spirit speak and hiding. I made triangular-prism paper props to remind me of my keybinds. I learned how to bard dance in Hythloth. I even got married in-game, which seems far weirder to me now than it did at the time.

Paul and I bought a second account and started playing together at the college since he had overnight access to the PC labs. On our T3 connections and high-end rigs, we were suddenly gods; we could run circles around the server PKs who used to gank us. I slowly amassed a large collection of PK heads. You all got owned by a teenage girl.

By that point, we were spending what little free time we had outside of class and band in Britannia. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but on Christmas day, after family obligations were done, we trekked back across campus in the snow to play and collect our holiday ranger leather. I had no regrets.

Yes, this was a few years out.

And then all at once it was 1998. The big and powerful guild fell apart; it turned out the noble anti-PKs ran a secret PK guild on the side, and the jig was up. My new friends splintered into half a dozen directions. Within a few months (and a few shady guilds later), I was an officer in one of the nobler spinoffs, and when our leader vanished – his gambling and Zima addictions caught up with him – I found myself in charge. We spent the next year until EverQuest fighting the gankers, defending Kazola’s, building alliances, and recruiting new friends, some of whom I still have to this day. Even after EQ, I kept playing on the side, surviving the Lost Lands and Trammel. Eventually, I joined a player island village and became a crafter and merchant, mostly on my own, as my friends – and the genre – were bending away from sandboxes.

But Dex, Paul, and I admitted defeat and sold most of our accounts in a bundle on Ebay in 2001 for $1800, loaded with rares, capped toons, and grandfathered houses, including our precious keep. (I need to emphasize this: We sold nearly $2000 worth of video game assets and accounts online, legally, before 9/11. That is how long people have been doing this and why veteran MMO players snicker at blockchain P2E clowns.)

Paul’s account, the original one, didn’t have much, so we kept it – and that’s what I started playing on again a year later. I never could quit forever; I went back dozens of times and played UO on the side of whatever our guild’s core MMO was from year to year. I played through the Diabloification of the game with Age of Shadows. I fell in love with Tokuno (still am). I moved from Great Lakes to Lake Austin to Atlantic. I modded the new clients. I leveled almost every skill to fill soulstones. I ran a huge rune library and built homes and opened vendors and provoked thousands of blood elementals and sailed around the world hunting treasure. Even now, just describing how I played, I want to go back and do it again.

Ultima Online deserves credit for MMORPG-izing most of the things we consider staples in the genre, and most people will never know where it all came from. Even most MMO veterans started with EQ or WoW, ignorant of what came before, and I frequently get blank looks from these folks when I point out we owe nearly every core feature in MMOs to UO. It’s a “Simpsons did it” joke, but for MMOs.

But I can understand it because even at the time, I had no idea how my future husband picking up that ugly box in Media Play was going to completely change my life, how thoroughly Ultima Online and the MMORPG genre were going to charm their way into everything I did – my hobbies, my friendships, and eventually, my career, as I’ve now been a professional MMO journalist for 12 years. It opened the world to me with new cultures, new languages, new perspectives, new talents. It was the ’90s promise of the global internet as a bridge across the world, but happening right inside that game. I quite literally wouldn’t be here without it, and I’m glad it’s still around. Here’s to another 25.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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