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Second Wind: Ultima Online

When I (legally) sold my Ultima Online accounts in 2000 for the hefty sum of $1800, the game was already three years old and being challenged by the likes of EverQuest and Asheron's Call. I thought I was done forever. My guild was eyeing Dark Age of Camelot, and I wanted to cash out and rid myself of the chore of maintaining a dozen grandfathered houses on the dying half of a shard struggling to find its footing in a post-open-PvP ruleset.

I was wrong. A year later I was back in UO with a new account, prowling around Britannia. And the year after that. And every year since, only I never again made the mistake of selling my accounts even when I took extended breaks. It has a special magic that only a handful of MMOs have captured (let alone topped) since, and what it lacks in modern conveniences it often makes up for in unique features.

The granddaddy of MMORPGs and one of the only true sandboxes still standing turns 16 this autumn, having survived EverQuest, World of Warcraft, the internet bubble, EA's blundering, Mythic's takeover, layoffs, price hikes, a recession, and disastrous design shifts. But is it still worth playing?

Let's get the obvious out of the way: Ultima Online doesn't look like a game from 1997; it looks like a game older than 1997. Even when I talked some EQ guildies into trying UO in 1999, the game was already like an alien planet to them because of its isometric view. It hasn't aged poorly so much as been frozen in time. Dev teams starting as early as the Third Dawn expansion attempted to update the client, the graphics, or both, only to be met with extreme resistance by the existing "2-D-forever" playerbase (because nostalgia). I stand among those vets who prefer the upgraded versions of the client. The current "Enhanced Client," the one I played for this column and strongly recommend, is fully moddable and features hotkeys, unit frames, a chat window, scripting, updated character models, and other bits and bobs modern MMOers expect. Yeah yeah, quit laughing. Classic Ultima Online didn't even have /tells. Heck, I remember when they patched in this new thing called guilds.

I'll never quite understand how modern gamers justify snubbing UO for its looks while they're building Minas Tirith in Minecraft and playing Knights of Pen and Paper on their phones, but that's the MMO graphics double-standard for you.

My archer's UI
But I can understand why newcomers to the game in 2013 would be turned off by the gameplay. The latest version of the newbie tutorial is awful. My test character loaded into Old Haven, escorted by an ethereal mage who taught me how to move, how to extract stacks of ham from containers, how to take quests, how to fight, and how to die. (May as well learn to die gracefully now because death is common.) It all takes about five minutes before you're sent to New Haven on your own to wander around and pick up quests from profession trainers that usually amount to "go kill skeletons until your sword skill is 50." It's boring within another five minutes, even for me, and I like the game. I don't honestly know how a newbie would stand it. On the starter isle, you gain no perspective on the scope of the world or the skill systems or the crafting or housing or PvP -- you're just beating zombies with sticks and watching numbers go up. It's old-school grind. You're being taught how to make the grind go, not why you should do it at all.

If I really had to start over, I'd buy a mythic character token and skip the snoozefest. Of course, that would be useless to an actual newcomer, like giving a naked level 90 WoW character to an MMO noob.

Fortunately for me, I have a stable of characters on Atlantic, the largest server: a bard, a treasure hunter, an archer, a macer, a crafter, and a catch-all character who gardens, trawls shipwrecks, and supplies my toons with potions. These aren't classes, mind you; UO has a flexible skill system uncommon among MMOs, such that you pick the skills you want and practice to increase them. The higher they are, the better you are at that skill, and yes, it's grindy, but away from New Haven, you've got much more freedom in how and where you grind. A mage, bard, or crafter can sit inside her house and just push a button all day long, so while it's boring, at least it's quick. A fighter or tamer has his pick of hundreds of dungeons and overland hunting spots, so while it's tedious, at least you'll tour the world. Years ago, the game introduced soulstones, which allow you to move skills between your characters rather than lose them when you want to try something new. Customization is endless.

Ultima Online
When I abandoned the tutorial and logged in my main bard, I was booted outside a house I didn't recognize. Oh no. My house is gone. I knew it would be. I'd let it fall a year or more ago. Players are restricted to just one house per account across all the production ruleset shards, and if you don't pay your subscription for 90 days, your house falls to the ground for your shardmates to loot because all homes are located in the open world and space is limited, thus creating the "ugly urban sprawl" you've probably heard gamers bemoan. Not wanting to keep up my sub, I'd let my last house collapse, but it still hurt to see an ugly log cabin where my former residence used to be (and it reminded me once again how important home ownership is for anchoring people to a game).

So I spent my first few nights in-game hunting for a new house spot, not an easy task on Atlantic, which remains overcrowded (other servers seldom rise above "low population," by comparison, and most have large house plots to spare). But I did find one, a good one near the Shrine of Honor, and so I took a few more days customizing every tile from the ground up, decorating it, and filling it up with the loot I'd stashed on all my characters for my eventual return. Home. It might be isometric and stylized, but even today, few MMOs offer this level of housing personalization.

Ultima Online - Bonus points if you can find my house :D
What's next after nesting? Shopping, of course. Ultima Online is a game about stuff. It's the kind of game in which you can enter a player-built museum and actually see objects you've never seen before, some of them literally one-of-a-kind. Every time I return, I find that the wee dev team has added a zillion new objects to loot tables and dungeons and crafting skills. So I wandered around all the cities and roads where players have built vendor malls and put their items up for sale, not just to scope out new loot but to get a feel for the economy. It's not good. Gold, the game's currency, has continued to inflate at wild rates, and more vendors than ever stand empty, their owners having stepped away from the game temporarily.

Ultima Online (Pinco's UI, custom-modded for EC)
UO's crafting system was once its heart and soul. You can still play a pure crafter with nothing but crafting skills, but it's a mature game and a mature economy. There's insatiable demand for materials, so miners and lumberjacks will never go hungry. There's demand for consumables, so a newbie could make easy money selling potions and arrows. And there's demand for elite gear. But there's little demand for anything else, especially when everyone has his own crafter mule to make most necessities and when populations continue to fall. A sandbox needs an economy, and an economy needs people.

Judging on the elite armor and weapons for sale, I can see powercreep has continued at a disappointing pace, as bizarre as powercreep in a sandbox sounds. UO started as a game with very simple loot, item decay, and full looting in PvP. Gear meant very little; you wore crafted or low-end magic stuff out to fight in case you were murdered by a fellow citizen and stripped of your belongings. When the Age of Shadows expansion launched in 2003, it replaced the existing gear system with a Diablo-esque loot system featuring dropped artifact wearables, dozens of visible stats, and an insurance system that guaranteed you'd rarely lose loot from your corpse. No dev team since has resisted the allure of raising those stats ever higher on dropped, crafted, enhanced, imbued, refined, and reforged gear in successive content releases, shifting the balance of power between looters and crafters from year to year and thoroughly confusing everyone without a STEM degree. Joked one player,
Why stop with Enhancing, Imbuing, Reforging, and Refining? They should add Improving, Spiffing, Refracting, Adjusting, Tweaking, and Twerking too, each with one or two hundred random items and math problems to solve. Just keep piling on crap until the system collapses under its own weight and we all end up in GM-crafted armor again because no one knows what's good anymore.
As in most themeparks that raise their level caps with content updates, players returning to UO after time away will find their gear outclassed and the gameworld buffed to meet the new standards, as I discovered when I ported into a few old world "newbie" dungeons only to find them populated with mobs far more dangerous than those I remembered. Enter the deaths I mentioned earlier, and those on a character whose skills I "finished" years ago. The game's combat feels dicey and precipitous in a way it once did not, even though my skill as a gamer has improved tremendously since I first entered Britannia. As characters have increased in power, the mobs have been boosted to match, though the AI hasn't. "Challenge" too often means "this mob will one-hit you if it reaches you." You don't really have time to think or react in most fights with mobs worth fighting, so players resort to bizarre builds and jousting and cheese tactics with pets and bard skills and poison-resist flower petals. Someone entering the game from before 2003 would find the meta essentially unrecognizable and frankly hardcore. Leave your flourbag forts and corp pors back in 1997, folks.

Demon Isle
Admittedly, once I retrofitted my characters' skills and gear to the new meta, I had a much better time dungeon-diving. But I think it's worth pointing out that one of the best parts of old MMOs -- the fact that they think nothing of layering in major game systems like pirate ships and bard masteries and city elections, years after launch -- is also one of the most hostile to both new and returning players. Then again, do we really want it to be exactly the same each time we come back? Isn't relearning the game half the fun?

In spite of all the dying and the split-second combat, the game feels safer than ever. Gear insurance is a large part of that; at worst, your defeats will cost you a few thousand gold. Housing, which once was the source of much griefing and thievery, is now completely secure until the day your building falls from neglect. Though Ultima Online began as an open-PvP sandbox, it was reset by 2000's Renaissance expansion, which created a no-PvP copy of the original landmass and tacked one to the other. Given the choice, most players preferred no-PvP Trammel to PvP Felucca, and the old world slowly died out, though I know Felucca PvP, faction PvP, and hardcore-ruleset shard Siege Perilous still keep the veteran wolves occupied.

Though I'm still seeing the best solo farming spots claimed around the clock, grouping has become more a fact of life in UO than ever. Most major encounters introduced in the last five to 10 years are designed with large (for UO) groups in mind, and I don't mean the formless Mage Tower crawls and guild zergs through Despise of yesteryear. Organized guilds can control specific spawns and dominate prices on the shard. And there's no LFG tool, so if you want to play the ever-moving endgame, you'll need to make friends and join a guild, which is harder than it sounds in modern UO. The implementation of a proper guild chat actually butchered what was left of local chat. You'll still see people "banksitting" -- that is, hanging out at banks, going through their loot, people-watching and strutting around -- but no one's talking openly, least of all in local chat, which normally floats up over a character's head to be seen by anyone nearby. The towns are full of people but eerily silent. Player merchants hardly even advertise their wares; they just drop runes to their vendors on the bank floor.

Luna Bank. Dead silent.
No, to see people chatting, you must attend an auction or a shard-wide event. Like its MUD ancestors, UO to this day employs event game masters to conduct roleplay plots and events on each shard. Atlantic's (incredibly impressive) event moderator even maintains a website to inform players when and where interesting things will be happening. Currently on my shard, a fellow is roleplaying an authoritarian governor and the city of Britain is in turmoil, complete with torches and pitchforks (no, really, the bank was covered in torches this morning). Years ago, the game made headlines by blowing up an NPC city, Magincia, and allowing players to resettle the island. And Lord Blackthorn, not Lord British, is king of the realm right now. Live events are among the no-brainer game features that just make me shake my head at the modern MMO industry. Look, guys, if creaky old Ultima Online can pay game masters to run custom events, the rest of you can too. No more excuses.

Of course, I don't know how Mythic is managing to pay those GMs. The last major expansion was in 2009; a sailing-themed booster launched in 2010. The game is now $13 monthly (unless you sub six months at a time), up from $10 monthly at launch. The cash shop (yes, UO double-dips) provides expensive and extravagant items, from advanced character tokens ($20-$25) and anniversary collections ($16) to housing tilesets ($10) and decorations like garden beds ($20). While the game got a beautiful new Mythic website last year, the front page emits a worrisome (and inaccurate) "only one person works here" vibe, and that one person appears to run herself ragged, even offering game help via her personal email address, which is a nice homey touch you don't see from most games. Still, a producer's letter after the latest round of EA layoffs in April assured players of the game's safety and promised new cash-shop items, a vendor search feature, a holiday shard, and next year, the completion of yet another take on high-res art. The game's team might be scaled back, but it doesn't actually seem to be in trouble, and old-school players are unwaveringly loyal.

Modern MMORPG gamers will continue to snub Ultima Online until the day it closes down, which will probably be long after their favorite games have thrown in the towel. (Heck, the reason I last left UO was that Glitch was cheaper and offered most of the same sandboxy things, and look where that ended up.) I can't recommend UO to the short-attention-span crowd, and I don't truly expect anyone to suddenly pick it up and say, "At last, the game I've been waiting for!" It's simultaneously too much and not enough for today's gamer. It's old, and it suffers most of the problems every old MMO suffers: too few people working on it, too many complicated systems to keep track of, a slowly shrinking playerbase, and an impossibly tangled economy. Gamers now accustomed to snack-sized questing treadmills simply lack the imagination or the time required to thrive in a game like this.

But as MMO gamers, we are indebted to UO. If your game uses the word shard for server, thank UO. If you like player-run economies and housing, you owe them to UO. If you crave GM-run events, you have but to look to UO. Heck, UO even pioneered public questing before anyone thought to call it that. It wasn't just the first full MMORPG; it was also a brilliant game in its day that has struggled successfully to redefine itself to stay alive in an ever-changing genre. The "old things suck" snobs can scoff all they want, but feature for feature, UO surpasses far too many modern games to be ignored.

I might never stay forever, but I know I'll be back -- and this time, I'm keeping my house.

MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions can change with them. That's why we're here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or third) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? That's what we're here to find out as Massively gets its Second Wind!