Rise and Shiny revisit: Ultima Online

Ultima Online anniversary celebration screenshot
What can I say about Ultima Online that hasn't been said before? This week, the grandparent of MMOs turns 15 years old. In MMO terms, that's a long, long time. In fact, Ultima Online is the measuring stick for resilience. Think about it: Does any of us believe that many modern MMOs will last even half that long? While it's very possible, it's also very hard to imagine. For many different reasons, Ultima Online still maintains a playerbase, continues to be developed, and even attracts new players. It also runs on a subscription model and will likely continue to do so. If you read the transcript of my recent livestream with the UO devs that was so generously typed out by Ultima Codex, you know that I asked about a free-to-play or freemium Ultima Online and received this as an answer:
Actually, there's no use to do free-to-play. We have a good number of key players. So, at this time it's not really something we're looking at doing.
That was Producer Bonnie Armstrong. Oddly, I received some form of the free-to-play question from people who are not playing the game currently. The players inside the world seem just fine with the payment model. Has this old-school approach helped the game last this long? I'm not sure, but during this annual return to Britannia, I found the same great game I do every time I visit.

Ultima Online skills screenshot
The most obvious unique aspect of Ultima Online is its use-based character growth system. Essentially, if a player wants to become better at magic, he or she practices magic and slowly gains skill. If that same player wants to try a trade next, he or she grabs the appropriate tools and starts crafting. It's beautifully simple but leads to truly complicated character-crafting. Oh, sure, many players maintain a posse of alts, each one representing a different expertise or set of abilities. I haven't the patience for most of that, however, and have generally always stuck with one main character. In Ultima Online, my character is a ranged combat expert with a grandmastery of tactics and archery. Grandmaster (100) was once the highest "level" in a particular skill; now, for many skills, it's Legendary (120) if you consume special scrolls. Once all of your skills add up to around 700 (more if your account is very old), you must lower one skill to raise another.

My character is at 705, so for most of the week, I struggled with deciding how to try something new. I've got a few alts to play with, each one named after its own particular skill, like "Shhhh" for a sneaky thief, but I didn't want to spend my time just grinding up healing or magic. I left my character alone but continued to wonder which skill I could turn down to make room. There are three states for skills: turned up to gain, locked, or turned down to lose points. If I wanted to trim some points from my archery skill, I could turn it down and lose points, making room for a gain in another skill. I just couldn't do it, however.

I have a foggy memory of players learning all of the skills in the game, but I was obviously mistaken. That happens with a lot of old games. I was so convinced that players could learn every skill (I still have no idea where I got that idea) that I was excited to log in this week to level some new abilities! Bonnie set me straight during the interview.


So in many ways, Ultima Online is not like any other sandbox. In Ryzom, for example, I can learn every single skill in the game if I take the time (and if the game would stop "re-inventing" itself). Mabinogi offers tons of skills to level with no limits and restrictions, besides perhaps those that come with certain questlines or that depend on other skills to learn. In Glitch, I have officially learned every possible skill minus the brand-new ones that are activated by a quest or achievement. RuneScape gives me all the skills in the world to learn if I want to. Wurm Online basically works the same.

Ultima Online limits a player's skill total, so specialization is key. If the game were released today, would this limited approach still fly with modern-day sandbox fans? I don't know, but it is refreshing to go back to Ultima Online and have some limits on how your character can grow. Many sandboxes can be overwhelming to players. I get overwhelmed all the time simply because I know I will never have enough time to learn it all -- at least not on one character.


"Can Ultima Online last another 15 years? I'd say so. One look at the server list at login shows just how popular it still is, and many of its players have grown up with the title and have no intention of moving on. You know what? I'm jealous of players like that."

Even with these limitations, Ultima Online offers the choice to switch specializations around, sort of like a slowly moving respec. If I really grow tired of archery, I could eventually become a powerful mage. I would lose much of my archery ability in the process, of course. I enjoy this sort of more realistic approach to leveling. If I took off a significant amount of time from my hypothetical real-world geology studies to become an expert on polar bears, I might become rusty in geology in the process. Sure, I can always roll with an alt to avoid any such painful give-and-take, but I prefer to allow my character to morph over the years.

So I spent a lot of time running around attempting to remember how to do things, like resurrecting my dead horse and using certain abilities. I also attended a packed anniversary celebration complete with tailoring, trivia, and combat competitions, after which I ran through a few dungeons. I died a lot of the time during those dungeon runs until I asked my Twitter buddies what I was doing wrong. It seems as though many of the scarier areas of the game have been retooled, so I settled into a smaller, solo dungeon and killed lizardmen for an evening. It was a blast, but I did miss gaining skill.

Can Ultima Online last another 15 years? I'd say so. One look at the server list at login shows just how popular it still is, and many of its players have grown up with the title and have no intention of moving on. You know what? I'm jealous of players like that. I wish I could settle down on some nice server along with my guildmates. This MMO transient lifestyle of mine becomes a little tiring after a while. Well, Ultima Online will always be there for me, at least... just as it was this week, and just as it will be until next year's anniversary.

Next week, I am jumping into Mortal Online, a great big scary sandbox that has everyone talking... but not playing. Call me crazy, but even games that have had rough starts deserve to be looked at, even if it is just for a week. I'll be livestreaming the game on the 1st of October at 5:00 p.m. EDT, right here on out Twitch.tv channel! Check it out!

Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!

This article was originally published on Massively.