Building Britannia (1996)
So now that they had the art style, the funding, and the engine - they needed a direction for the game to head in. Again the idea of “simulating fantasy” set out early by Garriott resurfaced, but they had a slightly different take on the traditional Avatar plot lines of preceding Ultima games.
Inspired by pen and paper gaming; the project wouldn’t focus on the heroics of the individual, but instead the idea of co-existing in a world with others. You could be a hardened fighter, slaying monsters, or instead you might be a simple blacksmith, forging the armour and weaponry for those more courageous sorts – both play styles were catered for, and both equally important: you need the chain of production to get anything done, even in Britannia.
This concept of “playing to bake bread” wasn’t widely lauded as a breakthrough in roleplay, instead it grew derision from certain portions of its audience with Shadowbane's press campaign running slogans of "we don't play games to bake bread, we play to crush" - but for the team the idea of immersing yourself in fantasy was key, warrior or not. Raph Koster, now moved to creative lead, and his wife would also see the completion of the crafting system they had earlier designed - an ingenious system which attached abstract concepts to game objects, explaining further Koster on his blog wrote "for example, any object with the "wood" quality could burn when an object with the fire "fire" quality came into contact with it. Crafting was the act of moving qualities from one object to another."
By early 1996, a lot of the foundations for gameplay were in place, and alpha testing began in May. At this point the visuals were still primitive, with character designs lacking the detail they would later have, and UI also was functional rather than accessible. With the few thousand players participating, the developers were able to see how players functioned in their world, and also how things might not actually go to plan.
Being as most of the team in charge of UO were coming from single-player games, with very few MUD veterans involved in the process, nobody expected how players might exploit the systems, and worse, each other. Rich Vogel would later summarize the behaviour of some players “Its closed identity. You’d be amazed at some people what they would they do if they couldn’t get caught.”
Player killing became prevalent, and would do so long after launch, with gangs of what were essentially bandits marauding through the wilderness, and even kidnapping players, teleporting them to other places, and blocking their exit until enough coin was delivered to them. Extortion, thievery, and murder, these would become synonymous with the game – but as a character study, it was fascinating to watch.
Of course it wasn’t all negative. Players by-and-large took to the rolls of either a fighter or a tradesman very well, and Garriott, travelling around in-game, would note that players would fish compulsively, debating whether “streams or rivers yielded better catches” it didn’t matter either way, but as a result the developers pushed to include a more evolved system of this into the final product.
Another interesting development was in finding out just what elements would not work in less idealistic terms. Long has widely touted the idea of a “virtual ecosystem” that would be present in UO. Boiled to its simple elements, the game would have ecosystems, a rabbit would eat grass, a wolf wood eat the rabbits, and so on, until at some point the chain was broken, and then the radius for whatever creature would widen, meaning a pack of hungry beasts might invade a town looking for a source of food. Something similar was expected of a dragon, that when hoarding treasures might look further afield and terrorise a settlement. It is a groundbreaking concept, and yet unfortunately failed as Garriott explained “the players killed the creatures so fast that there was no way to crank the respawn up high enough to give it any relevance. Sadly we removed it” – proving that you can plan all you want, but players won’t always play in idealistic terms.
Other ideas were batted around, such as a system in which GMs would sometimes take the roles of NPCs, creating a more dynamic setting. Talking to fans, Garriott explained “Starr will play Blackthorn while I will play British – [also] there will Origin people... playing as game masters and key characters periodically”. While it is true that the two head-developers would interact from time to time in the world, the idea of GMs taking an active dynamic role, never materialised as initially intended.
By the time the alpha had ended, the Origin team had collected enough data, were able to fix bugs, glitches and exploits, and finally the home stretch was seen bobbing along the horizon. Showing the game at e3 of the same year, the developer's got an excited reaction, and for the first time starting to believe that maybe they were on to something.
Lord British Must Die & (Mondain's) Legacy (1997-Present)
With the shipping date looming ever nearer, Rich Vogel, former producer for Meridian 59, was brought on board to give more experience to the online-naive Origin team. Putting in place customer support and other important features, UO finally drew closer to its open-beta, but Vogel would later admit “We were pressured on time. I wish we’d have had a little bit more time. We could have actually put some of the things we wanted to out in that game.”
By the time 1997 rolled around, Meridian 59 had been released by 3DO months early, creating a similar experience that Origin Systems were busy working on. Reaching a peak of 25,000 users, Garriott later explained how at the time "EA forecast us at only 30,000 lifetime sales" based on this information: the future of the game wasn't certainly heading for success.
After a couple more months of intensive work, the team behind the game decided that it was finally time for open-beta, regardless of how much more time they actually needed. Opening up a small website, the developers asked players to send $2 to receive a copy of the beta-disc, initially expecting a few thousand to apply: just days later more than 50,000 had stuffed dollars into envelopes.
Buoyed by this interest in the game, Origin finally opened the doors to Britannia in June 1997, allowing in thousands of players, stress testing the servers: the first few days were crippled by lag. The developers spent hours slaving over player feedback, fixing bugs, and listening to player feedback, until finally the allocated time had ended, and it was time to head back to the grindstone ready to make the September 24th release date.
Just after midnight on the 9th of August 1997, Origin were preparing to shut down the open-beta once and for all. Teleporting from town to town, both Long and Garriott in their respective Blackthorn and British guises, were thanking players throughout Britannia for their participation in the play-tests, when they finally appeared in Trinsic to bid farewell to the assembled players. Among the crowd was Ali Shahrooz, an Internet consultant from Indianapolis, roleplaying his thief character Rainz.
Up to no good, the cut-purse was mingling with the crowd, searching people's backpacks, and making a general nuisance of himself until he finally happened upon a "Fire Field Scroll". Explaining events later, Rainz describes "I just cast the scroll on the bridge and waited to see what would happen. Someone made the comment ‘hehe nice try’, I expected to be struck down, instead I heard a loud death grunt as British slumped to his death". Accidentally, this Internet consultant has just committed the most infamous act in gaming history.
The following events would mirror the end of the alpha-beta, as Long cast every spell at his disposal, causing demons to run amuck slaughtering everyone in sight - Rainz himself managed to slip away unharmed. "Normally my character wasn't PKable but after each server wipe [I had to] reset the immortality flag on Lord British" Garriott remembers. Initially the reaction of the developer's was one of anger towards the player responsible, banning him from all future OS games, but in the end their resolve softened, coming to the realisation that in-fact this was the type of organic event that made UO so special.
After the assassination, the game finally trundled along to its September release date, and on the 24th the eager public finally got their hands on the finished product. Interestingly UO garnered an initial negative response from the press, Gamespot giving the game 49% and many citing reasons of player killing to be the game's biggest downfall (a problem the developers would struggle with for a long time) but with audiences, the game was a resounding hit. Quickly subscriptions hit 100,000 obliterating EA's expectations, and gave rise to online-gaming addiction, real-cash purchases, and all manner of MMO ills we all know of today.
As time progressed Origin patched, refined, and grew the game in ways they saw fit, adding in a reputation system to calm down the rampant PKing, but things would continue in a similar vein. In an odd way, the studio, nor the community, ever understood that this rogue-element of their world is what made it so fantastical, so real, and by continually trying to address the issue, it was a detriment to the experience rather than anything else.
Origin Systems managed to capture a setting that was both immersive and brutal; a haven for role-players, and a boon for those that wished to indulge their darker tendencies. Guilds would form to take down PK-ers, usually became corrupted by their power and turned to banditry themselves. It was a scary, paranoid, but warm world in which all elements of fantasy played out. Whether you owned a simple shop, frequented an opulent palace of splendour, or simply enjoy enjoyed stabbing people in tricky situations, Ultima Online was your game; however you wished to play it.
By 1999, the game was at an all time high, with 250,000 subscribers, surpassing all expectations by its publishers and creators - but things wouldn't last for long. With several competitors in various forms of development, and with EA still convinced the game would be a short lived success, they pushed for the Origin to split the production teams, concentrating more effort on the development of a sequel, rather than building on the existing UO, as was Garriott's wishes "When we did UO we said that the game was a living, breathing entity that would grow. Our advice [to EA] at the time was to do Wing Commander Online or Crusader Online, but not Ultima Online 2. Ultima Online was a moving target in development, on UO2 we knew that it was going to be bigger and take longer, and require more money - as we predicted people eventually got tired of the ever-expanding scope, and ultimately cancelled it."
The publisher would try a number of times to push out a sequel to their MMORPG, the closest attempts being Ultima Worlds Online: Origin, a time-hopping overhaul of its predecessor with elements of high fantasy and steam punk. The other near-miss was Ultima X: Odyssey - part sequel to the main series, and part successor to UO. This game was completed enough to show at e3 (our own coverage from 2004 makes for an interesting read) but as EA finally closed Origin Systems and relocated the staff to the Bay Area in San Francisco, most developers opted not to move away from Texas, and EA finally decided to cancel the project rather than bring in new staff. An awkward way to bring to an end the, once, biggest RPG-series gaming had seen.
Development of Ultima Online would continue, with expansions periodically released, but with the torn focus of a sequel and with the eventual dissolution of its founding studio, UO would never capture the type of audience that it could have if it was handled with a little more foresight.
Now almost 15 years on from its release, 7 expansions later, and despite never seeing a sequel, regardless of which direction the genre has taken, Ultima Online still remains the most important title to grace the online realm. It wasn't the first, but it brought to the mainstream the idea of a virtual reality, in which anything was possible. It is the longest concurrent running MMORPG, and for many a misty-eyed veteran, the best. Salute the past champion, Starr Long, Raph Koster, Richard Garriott, and the other unsung heroes that had a hand in creating such a fantastic experience.