Ultima Online: The first, and best MMORPG
I’ve always been of the opinion that Ultima Online is the greatest game there has ever been - and while I realize this is a gross overstatement, I am confident that it is the best MMORPG in the short history of the genre. UO is the grandfather of MMOs, and was the first game to bring an RPG into a massively multiplayer setting.
Being 11 years old, Ultima Online has gone through many a change - some for the better, most for the worse. However, I wanted the focus of this article to be about UO at it’s peak - how it reached it, what it did best, and what it continues to do better than any other MMORPG on the market. For this, I have to take you on a short trip through time, back to the year 2000…
Ultima Online pretty much peaked with the release of UO: Renaissance in 2000 - the second expansion to the original game - which updated a lot of elements, and brought the game to a playable (finally!) state. Now, the hardcore UO players would argue that Renaissance ruined their game, but coming from someone who has played the game in both forms I have to disagree wholeheartedly. The biggest change with this expansion was that it added a second world called Trammel - an identical world to the original Felucca, the difference being that in Trammel there was no PvP. Now, before you start screaming “lame!” and “carebear!” let me explain why this was needed.
UO had a lot of problems at launch, and as such, the subscriber base never really took off. The biggest issue it had, was that it was too hardcore to attract casual and moderate players. Aside from the main cities (which had guards), you could attack and kill anyone at any time in the outside world. There were no consequences, and as such griefing and ganking were commonplace. This is all fine and dandy if you only want to attract the angst-filled teenage crowd, but if you really want to grow your audience, you have to appeal to a larger group. World of Warcraft is a great example of this mechanic at work. While I think the game doesn’t hold a candle to UO, at least Blizzard knew from the start that in order for the game to be a success it had to have appeal to a wide audience of players. So in order for Ultima to really grow, Origin (the game’s developer, now owned by EA) decided to add Trammel, which became a safe haven to the less hardcore players, and really helped to stabilize and make the game’s economy viable. In order to appease the true hardcore players, they launched a separate shard (UO’s name for their servers) called “Siege Perilous” which allowed players to stick with the older, more hardcore Felucca ruleset.
Although I consider myself a more hardcore style player when it comes to these games, and have played on free shards that use the older pre-Renaissance rulesets, I really only experienced UO after the expansion had already been released, and that is the way I prefer the game. It added a lot to it, without getting rid of the things the truly made the game great.
So now that I’ve given you a little background on the state of the game when I played, let’s get into some of the things that are right and wrong with this game.
What They Did Right: Player versus Player
Well, for starters, the PvP was hardcore. In games like World of Warcraft PvP feels lifeless to me in comparison to PvP in Ultima. Let me put it into a context that people who have never played the game can understand:
If someone attacked you in real life, chances are your gut reaction would be to fight or run for your life. You have a reason to fight back, because the consequences of not fighting back are dire. Now, let’s take death and physical harm out of the equation. Someone attacks you, but you have no real reason to fight back because you’re not going to lose anything from it. If the worst thing that could happen is annoyance for a couple of minutes, what’s the real problem?
That’s kind of like the differences between PvP in a game like UO and a game like WoW. In UO, when you’re attacked you fight back (or run) because whoever is attacking you is going to take everything you have from you. While death isn’t permanent, it’s not always as easy as clicking on the spirit healer and having to spend a few gold to repair your shit. In UO, you lose everything. If you’re walking around with 10,000 gold, you’re on a mount, you’ve got a great set of armor, whatever - and you die… you lose it. Not only is it great for the hardcore players who want to PK (player kill) and grief people, but it’s also great for the economy because you can make an “honest” living out of killing other people and robbing their corpses. Murdering is a viable source of income.
Instead of making PvP something worthwhile and full of consequences, WoW decided to nerf PvP and turn it into a regulated in-game sport of sorts. You don’t lose anything if you die, and there’s no point to PvP outside of an arena or battleground because you won’t get anything out of it. For a game that’s all about the epic conflict of two struggling factions, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot going on unless I’m farming honor for PvP “rewards”… gear. Yeah, that’s right… PvP in WoW is nothing more than an alternative grind to raiding, with the same type of rewards. You don’t lose anything when you lose, and you only gain “honor” when you win. It’s a carebear system that really takes all the fun out of PvP.
Now I know I’m going to get a lot of people who are going to argue you, but let me tell you one thing: until you have felt the rush of adrenaline you can get from PvP in Ultima don’t even bother to argue your point. You think you know PvP, but you really don’t.
What They Did Wrong: Risk vs. Reward
So I know I said earlier that I felt Trammel was a good addition to the game, but the one thing they did wrong with it was balance the risk vs. reward aspect of the game. In games, just like IRL, most things are a balance of risk vs. reward. Is the reward of what I’m doing worth the risk of what could happen if I fail? That’s a question people ask themselves all the time. Well, in UO, the answer was “no”. As such, instead of making Felucca a land worth adventuring in for the sheer rewards you could get, Trammel turned it into a deserted wasteland. With no one venturing to Felucca any more, the in-game housing market crashed, with prices in Felucca plummeting while prices in Trammel skyrocketed. Certain game mechanics later remedied some of these issues, one of which was allowing players to warp between the two lands at will. However, the issue was always there, and really crippled the better half of the game.
What They Did Right: I Come From My House
Speaking of the in-game housing market, did I mention in the first place that UO allowed player housing? While a few games have done this, most modern-day MMORPGs don’t even try. I know many of the WoW players I’ve talked to don’t feel like it’s a big deal, but let me tell you from experience that nothing is as satisfying as owning your own piece of virtual real estate.
I think the greatest thing about player housing is that it gives you another whole aspect of the game. Not only is it something to save money for, but it’s a place to store your loot, display it to the world, and gives you a completely different experience. In WoW - and many other MMOs for that matter - your gameplay is fairly linear. I quest, I raid dungeons, I PvP. There’s occasional crafting or auction house thrown into the mix, but you can only spend so much time on either one before you have to go back to the basic game mechanics. In UO, I spent countless hours just collecting artifacts and rarities to put on display in my house. Nothing proved you were cooler than having that really rare item on a table in the middle of your pad for all the world to see.
On top of being a museum to your character’s awesomeness, housing also gives you a place to truly organize your inventory. I’ve always felt that I never really could get truly organized the way I wanted to in games like WoW. You’re really limited to what you can carry on you and what you can fit in your bank, and most people have to resort to creating a “bank” character, whose sole purpose is to store things. Housing eliminates this entirely. UO’s housing system was really in-depth, allowing you to stack chests and other forms of storage container all throughout your house. It really allows you to know exactly what you have, and keep it in a manner that it is always ready in case you need it. Maybe not as big of a deal with the mechanics of WoW, but crucial in Ultima. If someone was griefing me and took all my shit off my corpse, I’d rez, head home and grab a pre-made “PvP kit” which was essentially a pouch with everything I needed to get back into the game so I could go hunt the fucker down.
I could go on about housing for hours, and why I think it’s so important, but my point again is that if it’s not something you’ve experienced then you’re lucky - because you’d never look at MMOs the same way again.
What They Did Wrong: Hello? Is anybody home?
There’s so many little things wrong with UO that could be so easily fixed, I think that’s always been one of the biggest drawbacks to the game. For one thing, Ultima has never implemented an in-game communication system that works. There’s no tells or whispers in the same way that newer games have, and I think one of the reasons for that is the fact that characters do not need to have unique names. If you want to name all 5 of your characters “Giuseppe” (I know a guy who did this, spanning several accounts), you can do that. I would assume that while it seemed like a great idea at the time, the lack of a unique identifier probably made it difficult to have any semblance of an in-game social network (like a “general chat” or tell system). The lack of communication really does give the game an aspect of emptiness that could be easily solved.
What They Did Right: It Pays to Play
One thing I think is great is when companies show loyalty to early adopters and long-time members. Ultima implemented a veteran rewards system that allowed you to choose from several different exclusive items that were only available to players who had accounts active for a certain amount of time. Not only was this a nice gesture, but a lot of those items also became status symbols, and were a testament to how long the player had been around. They also helped to greatly increase resale value of accounts.
What They Did Wrong: Make Me Believe
One thing WoW does that UO never could was immerse you in a world that doesn’t exist. WoW has strong ties to lore, and you really feel like you’re playing through a story. I guess a lot of it has to do with how open UO was, but you never really get that feeling from the game. The option to really immerse yourself in the world and lore of the game could’ve added a lot to it, but it was just never implemented. They tried later to add events in the form of “scenarios” to the game, but they were entirely optional, and in most cases just annoying.
What They Did Right: I’ll Do What I Want!
In an MMO, the last thing I want is linear gameplay. If I want linear, I’ll play a traditional RPG. Don’t tell me what to do or how to do it. Don’t force me down one path. UO literally dumps you in the middle of town with no explanation, and says “Hey - have fun figuring all this shit out”. While this is frustrating at first, it really makes you learn the game mechanics all on your own which undoubtedly will give you a better experience. It also gives an air of mystery to the game. I managed to learn things I had never known, and go places I had never gone years after I started playing. I can safely say that pre-Burning Crusade, I had trekked every inch of Azeroth, including all the places you’re not supposed to be able to go… and I wasn’t missing much.
Ultima is also open ended with skills, which I’ll get into in a bit. Essentially, you’re not locked into a “class”, and can really build the type of character that suits your playstyle. Don’t like your skills? No need to re-roll, my friend. Simply drop the skills you don’t like, and work the ones you want in their place. It truly leaves everything open-ended, and up to the player.
Ultima also has a crafting system. I know every game has some sort of crafting, but UO really, really has a crafting system. Ultima is a game in which, if done right, you can be entirely self-sufficient. You can make all your own items, farm all of your own materials, and not be bored doing it. That isn’t to say there’s no economy, however - quite the opposite. Not only was player-to-player trading commonplace, but the game also allowed you to sell items through player-run vendors that you could set up in your home.
You can also customize the shit out of pretty much everything. You can dye hair, clothing, furniture, armor, pretty much any color you want (within the 256 color spectrum). In the Age of Shadows they added customizable housing. As if the options for your house weren’t already endless enough, they decided to literally let you build your dream house from the ground up, which was very, very cool. It truly is an open world with infinite options.
What They Did Wrong: Too Little, Too Late
Origin was lucky that UO didn’t have a ton of competition when it was first on the market, otherwise the game probably never would’ve been a success at all. Just like Blizzard releases expansion upon expansion without addressing any of the areas WoW is really lacking in, Ultima Online suffered from the same issues. Every expansion added more content, but never really fixed key problems with the game. Age of Shadows, the expansion released in 2003, really attempted to fix things - but much like the Star Wars Galaxies “New Game Experience”, all it really did was drive the final nail in the coffin for many of the game’s longtime players, including me.
What They Did Right: Girls Only Want Guys Who Have Skills!
I wanted to save the best part of Ultima for last. I want anyone who is a World of Warcraft player who hasn’t played in a skill-based system to read this part with an open mind.
Skill-point based systems make level based systems their bitch. There is no question. Normally, when I talk to people about my gripes with World of Warcraft and most other MMORPGs, I always say “Any time you introduce leveling into a game you nerf it and make it a grind”. Most of the time, I get dumb looks that clearly read “But Justin, if you don’t have levels, how do you know how far you are in the game? How do you know who’s better and who you’re more leet than?” Patience - I’ll answer all of that, and more!
First off, let me explain to the uneducated exactly what a skill-point based system is, and what flexibility it allows. To date, the only games I’ve played that use this system are Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies (pre-New Game Experience). In a skill-point system, you are presented with several different skills with which your character can have points invested in. The more points you invest in a certain skill, the better your character becomes in that particular area. The skills in Ultima had a cap of 100 points when I played, and Star Wars Galaxies used a much more complicated multi-tier system which I won’t get into.
The easiest way to grasp this is to present you with a couple of templates that might have been used. Let’s say you start a character and you want him to be a warrior (or as they would’ve been referred to in UO, a dexxer). You would want to work skills related to that type of character. So the first skill I would invest in would be a skill called Tactics, which was something you would gain in through fighting. Tactics increased damage dealt by weapons by a certain percentage. I would also need to invest in a weapon skill, depending on what kinds of weapons I would be using. I could invest in Swordsmanship if I wanted to fight well with a sword, or Marksmanship if I wanted to fight with a bow. You’d also normally invest in support skills like Healing (for obvious reasons) and you might invest in Anatomy as well, which not only gave a bonus to your healing, but also a bonus to your damage because you were more educated on the best locations to strike enemies.
There were also a lot of neat uses for secondary skills aside from their primary purpose. For instance, Lumberjacking was a skill that allowed you to - you guessed it - cut down trees. It’s normally something you would use on a crafter, however, if you leveled it on a warrior you’d also find that fighting with an axe would do some pretty severe damage. If you had leveled mining, you’d know that fighting Earth elementals with a pickaxe was where it’s at. Occasionally there were also some neat bugs, like one that allowed you to equip a fishing rod at the same time as a sword, and your fishing skill was figured into your damage bonus. How people figured that one out is beyond me.
So the general idea was that you were given a cap of 700 skill points, able to invest a maximum of 100 in any skills you desired. Most people just invested in 7 skills, however there were some character templates where it was beneficial to split one or two of those up, and maybe invest 600 points in 6 skills, and 50 points each in your final two skills. This kind of a system really allows for endless character customization, and makes it so you’re not locked into a shitty class that you decide 2 months down the road you hate playing.
On top of the fact that it eliminates the class system, it also eliminates leveling. While you’re still “leveling” skills up, it’s something that’s done seamlessly. Skills are leveled as you use them, and it was possible to master them in a matter of days instead of the weeks (or months) you could spend leveling in a game. It really takes any grind out of the game, and allows you go anywhere and do anything you want at any time. Of course there were always areas you wouldn’t want to venture into until you had mastered all your skills and decked your character out, and even then you wouldn’t want to go it alone. But it doesn’t force you to grind quests or just endlessly slaughter mobs.
Leveling really kills games and sucks the fun out of them. Anyone who has played a skill-point based game will tell you that it is a far superior system.
Why did I leave?
As I said in the beginning, I still to this day think that the version of Ultima Online I played is the greatest MMORPG to date. So why did I leave? Well, aside from the many flaws of the game, the MMO market was in a state of constant expansion. I left to pursue other games, namely Final Fantasy XI. FFXI suffered from horrible controls, a lackluster battle system, no PvP, a horrible economy, and an endless grind - all things common amongst Asian developed MMORPGs. After a short bout with that, I went to Star Wars Galaxies for a while. The game, at the time, was skill-points based, but I think the biggest downfall for me was that my PC at the time didn’t run it very well. By the time I got around to getting a PC that could handle it, it was time to move on. It also lacked the social interaction for me. I never really made friends in the game, and I’ve always enjoyed playing with friends and family. Ever since my start in UO, I’ve always played with my cousin, and when he said he was going to give Lineage II a whirl, I jumped on board. Suffering from all the same things that FFXI did, L2 did little more than hold me over until I was accepted into the World of Warcraft closed beta. The rest, as they say, is history…
Will there ever be another?
So if UO is so great, why hasn’t there been another game like it? I don’t have a good answer. There should be. I know Origin won’t develop it because they don’t exist any more. Their remnants are dispersed amongst EA, and I’m sure quite a few of them are working on Warhammer Online.
I will tell you though that a UO player’s love has no bounds. Ultima is the most widely played free MMO to date, with players hosting their own “shards” all over the internet. Some of them stick true to the game you would normally pay to play, while others are set in eras past, and others still customized to a completely different means.
One of the greatest things I’ve seen is a project being worked on by a team in Germany called “Iris 2″. It is essentially a brand new Ultima Online client that renders the world in 3D. Origin/EA has released a couple of “3D” clients before - the first being Third Dawn which was essentially 3D (poorly) rendered sprites running around in a 2D world. The second attempt, Kingdom Reborn, rendered the game in what was dubbed 2.5D - 3D on an isometric plane, similar to the Diablo franchise. While it was an impressive endeavor, it really only brings the graphics of the game to a 2001/2002 level. What the Iris 2 team is doing, however, is a complete revamp of the client using the OGRE3D engine. The result is pretty impressive for an independent team of developers not making any money off the project. While the graphics are still not on par with today’s games, it renders the world in a brand new perspective, and really makes you think “What if…”.
Sadly, I don’t think a proper sequel to UO will ever be developed. Aside from no one being able to compete with the monster that is World of Warcraft, I think people are scared to stick with formulas that have already been used. Will there ever be another? I can only hope, but I don’t see anything coming close to the good old days of Ultima Online for quite some time.