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The Game Archaeologist and the Ultima Prize: The History


Welcome to the first madcap adventure of The Game Archaeologist! In this column, we'll be looking back at some of the MMORPGs that may not get the spotlight these days, but deserve our respect and attention due to their place in MMO history. Together, we'll don our explorer gear, jump back in time, dust off forgotten treasures and look at the titles that helped build an online empire.

Each month, we'll embark on a voyage through a particular MMO of yesteryear in a three-part series. The first part will examine the history of the game and its place in the genre, the second part will feature interviews with current and past players of the game, and the third part will witness The Game Archaeologist himself checking out the title as it stands today (if the MMO is still up and running, that is).

For our first column, we'll salute one of the greatest grandfathers of the modern MMO: Ultima Online. Crack your whip and dive into the Stygian Abyss with us!

"Despite the time I have spent on the game and the good times I've had, the game has serious flaws that make it unlikely to survive into the near future." (Colin Glassey, September 1998)

Party Like It's 1997

In 1997, the term "MMORPG" was all but unknown, as was the genre. As technology and game design timidly stepped out onto the frontier of online gaming, developers itching to bring role-playing games to the masses quickly discovered that there were no set rules. Despite MUDs and a few fledgling MMOs on the market, nothing had hit the big-time, and nobody had an idea of how to construct an RPG that thousands of people could simultaneously romp around inside.

This all changed when Ultima Online hit the market -- a scrappy isometric 2D fantasy title that broke the meager boundaries of players and popularity that came before it. Despite being an incredibly hardcore game -- especially in its initial incarnation -- Ultima Online became the first MMO to reach the 100,000 subscriber mark, proving that MMOs could be serious business. The title would go on to sell over a million copies.

For the modern MMO player, Ultima Online in 1997 would be almost completely different than what we're used to today. For one thing, the title featured free-for-all PvP with full corpse looting -- a controversial feature that only recently started to return in games such as Darkfall. For another, there were no "classes" or "levels" in the way we now know them. In UO, players could focus on increasing any skill they chose simply by using the skill over and over again, allowing them to create a highly customized character build.

If anything, Ultima Online was ambitious as all get out. The developers planned to have a shifting ecosystem that would adapt and change based on the population (or lack thereof) of creatures as players killed them -- a feature that never made it into the game, but demonstrates the enormous vision of the project. Crafting, housing and social tools were given a lot of focus, for better and for worse (as the sprawling housing tracts across the game world would attest), striving to hit the well-rounded nature of a role-playing game instead of the combat-centric focus we see today.

"LB is dead!!!"

Ultima Online became infamous even prior to launch, as a player named "Rainz" managed to accomplish the impossible: during beta, Rainz used a fire field scroll to kill Lord British, the supposedly-invincible character played by series founder Richard Garriott (yes, Mr. Tabula Rasa-to-astronaut). Rainz got banned from the game, but became a MMO celebrity in that moment.

Trammel: The Word That Sparked a Geek Riot

Oddly enough, not everyone particularly liked being ganged up on and savaged by other player characters, which is why 2000's Trammel came as a welcome relief to many. Essentially, the world of UO was split into two versions: Felucca (non-consensual PvP allowed) and Trammel (non-consensual PvP denied). While loads of players flocked to Trammel out of a desire to experience the game beyond a corpse simulator, the decision to implement this feature became a sore point of debate between those who appreciated the choice, and those who felt that it watered down or took something away from Ultima Online's hardcore nature. Even to this day, to mention "Trammel" in certain online circles is a prelude to a flame war.

Floundering Sequels

While we're hanging awards around Ultima Online's neck, we'd be remiss not to add this one: MMO to Prompt the Most Failed Sequels. As UO became a modest-sized hit, there were (understandable) concerns about its longevity, especially as 3D MMOs became the norm. In 1999, Origin Systems announced that they were working on a sequel -- Ultima Worlds Online: Origin (or, as most people called it, UO2). This sequel would've brought the series into glorious 3D, with an advanced steampunk world, but alas, it was not to be. EA didn't want UO2 to compete with UO for subscribers, and yanked support of the project (in the process laying off a ton of people).

But history loves to repeat itself, especially in game circles, and they soon started with another sequel -- Ultima X: Odyssey. While this title was to be a sequel to both UO and the Ultima series, it was to be done without the guiding hand of Richard Garriott, who had since moved on to other projects. Due to come out shortly before World of Warcraft hit the scene, EA once again pulled the plug, and this time for a lamer reason, as they tried to move the entire development team cross-country and became frustrated when they didn't want to go.

Ultima Online Forever

Even though the 3D MMORPG revolution raged on and UO's sequels bit the dust, the flagship title continued to endure throughout the new decade. Eight expansions were released from 1998-2009, and the care and management of the game would fall to Mythic Entertainment (under the EA umbrella).

UO would also see a couple highly-publicized shots in the arm. The first was in 2002, when comic book creator/toy designer Todd McFarlane was brought on board to help with characters and creatures for the Lord Blackthorn's Revenge expansion. Later on in 2007, "Kingdom Reborn" delivered a much-needed graphics and UI overhaul to clean up the look of the game.

Today, UO seems to be in no danger of going away any time soon. Following the release of its most current expansion, The Stygian Abyss, UO devs claimed that the title still had a sizable playerbase, with 27 servers operating. The fact that Ultima Online has held its ground in the face of more modern MMOs, weathered changes to the dev team, engine and parent company, and continues to expand and grow in scope gives this title respectability of the likes many other MMOs crave.

Next Week On The Game Archaeologist...

We want to hear from both past UO players -- preferably ones who were there at the game's launch -- and current players. What made the game so special for you? What were your favorite memories? If you'd like to be part of an interview for next week's column, send an e-mail to justin -at- massively -dot- com with the subject line "Ultima Online Interview" and we'll get back to you!

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