In September of 1997 the evolution of role playing games found its catalyst. Role playing games had already been enjoying a long history of success. The video game boom of the late 80 and early 90 saw companies such as Square become household names in the United States with the series Final Fantasy and in Japan, games like Dragon Quest (made by future Square partner Enix) found themselves in similar graces.
RPGs were the thinking man's video game. They catered to the gamer who wanted to feel like a part of the world they were playing in, and established connections to it through meaningful dialogue and memorable characters. Each RPG tells its own story and has its own personality, but quickly becomes shadows of each other with common central beliefs such as a hero rising up to face an extraordinary evil or an epic quest to save the world.
In the early 80s, a man named Richard Garriott and his team created the first game in a series that would change the face of RPGs forever. Ultima was set in the world of Sosaria, where an evil wizard named Mondain uses the Gem of Immortality to rule over the land. The people cry out for a hero, and after being summoned to the realm by Lord British (Garriott's in-game alter ego) you, as the mysterious stranger that would become the avatar in future installments, set out to defeat him and restore peace. Though the series started in classic RPG storytelling roots, later games took on a more unique approach formula. By Ultima IV there was no ultimate villain, only you and the path of virtues that you walked.
The Ultima series became a phenomenal success and a genre favorite amongst fans. Its diversity and mature plots stood out amongst the collection of Japanese influenced RPGs. But in that fateful September of 1997 Garriott unleashed his greatest creation, the online only next game in the Ultima series - Ultima Online. Taking place in an alternate reality where Mondain is killed and the Gem of Immortality has shattered into countless pieces, each shard became another world for people to inhabit, adventure in, and ultimately shape as they saw fit.
Ultima Online was not the first graphical MMORPG, or multi-massive online role playing game, to be created. It was, however, the first one to achieve true success, and paved the way for online RPGs such as Everquest, World of Warcraft, and even new games that borrow heavily from UO, such as EVE Online and Darkfall.
Unlike other RPGs at the time and future MMORPGs to come, you were nothing more than another person living in the massive world of Sosaria. There were no linear quests to follow or boss characters waiting patiently in their set position to defeat, but the absence of set goals didn't hinder the enjoyment of Ultima Online's player base - it gave them the immeasurable freedom to do whatever they wanted. Players could band together to take on the monsters that roamed the countryside, buy a home and live peacefully off the land, or even learn a trade and never have to lift a sword.
Sosaria was truly an interactive world and you felt like one of its citizens. Lord British would appear from time to time in his castle to speak to his subjects. Town criers would shout to brave townsfolk as monsters would declare war and invade cities. Players could take part in real time quests to kill bosses controlled by real people, bosses that would not respawn for the next set of adventurers. The town of Magincia was even burned to the ground recently and has yet to recover. Players molded the world around them, not just by crafting and setting up vendors, but by actually altering storylines for their server through live events.
Adding to the evolving storyline aspect of the game, Ultima has seen many expansions in its long reign as one of the premier online worlds. Everything from steam punk influenced content from one of the two canned sequels to samurai and even elves have found their way into the alternate worlds created inadvertently by the evil wizard Mondain.
With as much content, exploration, and diversity as it has acquired in its long history, one would think Ultima Online would be the most popular online game today. But EA, the game's current holders, claim that UO was the first MMO to reach 100,000 subscribers now pales in comparison to the attention drawn to the genre by industry juggernaut Blizzard and its World of Warcraft franchise.
UO is a different world now than it was a decade ago. Most of the city streets are empty and the spirit that made it so unique seems to be all but lost. But those who count out this MMO survivor might be in for a rude awakening soon. For all of the new MMORPG that are released on a yearly basis, Ultima is the game that will not die.
Recently it benefited from the acquisition of Mythic by EA, and found its graphics overhauled completely in the much talked about Kingdom Reborn campaign. An even newer client will be released along with the newest expansion to the game, Stygian Abyss, which will introduce gargoyles as a playable race along with adding new skills, lands, and what is being touted as the most intricate dungeon to ever grace the world of Sosaria.
Its players, though fewer now than when the gates were first opened, are loyal to the core, and have stood by their fantasy world through all of the changes that have come to it, both popular and despised. It's not a world for everyone, the graphics definitely show their age and the learning curve is quite steep. But for those who have found themselves enamored with Ultima Online, no other game can compare.
Garriott and his alter-ego Lord British may have left behind UO years ago, but it was recently announced that controversial ambassador Casca has been elected king. The land finds itself under the hand of a new ruler, and suddenly the long standing quiet of its stagnant existence seems to be dissipating. This news, along with the new expansion and contributions from event moderators, indicates Ultima Online is poised to make a comeback that would make Mickey Rourke shed a tear!