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The Game Archaeologist and the Ultima Prize: The Players


Wow! The response to last week's inaugural Game Archaeologist column was phenomenal -- guess we're not the only ones who find MMO history and trips down nostalgia lane captivating stuff! Thanks to everyone who commented, sent in e-mails and (heh HEH) volunteered to be interviewed.

Speaking of which, this week we move past the facts of the matter to the experiences. The Game Archaeologist scoured the globe, mostly between coffee breaks, to find some of the most passionate and learned players of Ultima Online. In the second part of our Ultima Online exploration, we injected a tiny bead of Hobi frog toxin into their systems, freeing their tongues to tell the truth and their limbs to jerk uncontrollably. Just what do Ultima old guard chat about at the club on the weekends?

We extracted the full scoop from Ultima vets Adam "Ferrel" Trzonkowski, Brandon Crowe, "Professor" B.J. Keeton, Jon Craig and JD DMichael. Read on!

The Game Archaeologist: When did you first start playing Ultima Online, and what drew you to the game?

Adam: I originally started UO with its release in '97. I was familiar with the series from Ultima Underworld and was hoping for a similar experience. The whole idea seemed silly. A game like that online? Curiosity drew me in, and once I saw it I was hooked.

B.J.: I started playing UO when The Second Age was released. I was drawn to the game because of its online nature. We loved the idea of a persistent world, so our initial decision was between EverQuest and Ultima Online. We chose UO because of its lower system requirements and skills-based progression rather than rigid classes and levels.

Jon: I started playing on day one of the game's retail release. As far as what drew me to it -- I'm an Ultima fan from back in the single-player days. So, I saw it on the shelf, saw that it was an Ultima game and was online. UO was the first commercial MMO to be on store shelves, so this was all new. And wow... it changed everything in gaming.

JD: I started playing UO when it launched in 1997 after being shown the beta by my brother. When I stood by my brothers desk watching him at a forge in Trinsic and grasped that I was watching other players craft, trade, run around and interact, I was absolutely captivated and changed as a gamer forever.

What's one of your most favorite memories from UO?

Adam: I remember the first time I quit. I had spent a whole day fighting monsters and harvesting. I was running back to the city when I was PK'd right next to the gates. When I got to my corpse everything was gone. I usually didn't carry much but to do a dungeon you had to have your gear! I remember being so furious that I was beyond rage.

My brothers and I started our own "miner's protection union." We made a deal with all of the local miners that if they placed a certain percentage of the ore they mined up in our chest that we would provide them protection. If ever we saw people not giving our share of the ore, then we would have one of us attack them with our PKs and then the other would jump out of the house and kill them. Completely staged, but the miners didn't know this.

Jon: There are just so many. I think one of the biggest has got to be when I hit GM Taming my first time. Taming was (and still is!) probably THE hardest skill to GM in the game. You can't metagame or macro it; you've got to just get out there and tame things.

JD: My single most favorite memory was hunting at a large ratman camp SE of Yew when no less than 20 PKs ported into the area and laid waste to every single player (several dozen) that had been there. It was one of the most epic PvP/PK experiences of my entire gaming career.

What did UO do that made it unique or better than other MMOs?

Brandon: The level-less system and the skills were amazing. It was so fun picking out of about 36 skills if I remember right and customizing your character. Another thing that UO offered that was unique was adrenaline. There is no good reward without risk.

B.J.: UO got one thing right: it felt like a persistent world where one could simply exist. No other MMO has ever been able to get that feel right, though Star Wars Galaxies came close. These days, I don't feel like I'm an active participant in my MMO's world; in Ultima Online, I felt that I had a real place in it.

Jon: Well -- at the time -- existing. It was the first commercially successful MMO, really. As far as now, it's still got quite a bit of unique things. The housing. PvP stealing. Taming.

JD: By and large I believe that UO stood out because it was the "first" for so many people at a time when MMOs weren't even a blip on the radar. It was compelling because the game design was very much living in an "Old West" sort of chaos and discovery.

Because PKing, PvP and Trammel are always brought up in UO discussions, give us your thought on this aspect of the game.

Adam: The ability to PK and completely loot someone's body really ruined the game. The consequences just weren't there to match the real world equivalent so it went unchecked. Sure, you had some white knights, but you had even more black robes. It got old and stale.

Brandon: Currently the only thing you have to risk in modern MMOs is your time. In UO you risked your time, and everything you had on you; lets not even talk about if you happen to have your house key on you and they were able to loot and steal your house! When Trammel came around I wasn't currently playing the game. I did come back a year after Trammel and I'll tell you it wasn't the same game.

B.J.: OMG TRAM SUX! FEL 4EVA! *cough* Sorry about that. Trammel was a great inclusion if one looks solely at subscription numbers. It made the game accessible to many more people. What it also accomplished, unfortunately, was fracturing the community so much that UO essentially became two games in one.

Jon: Hopefully the "classic shard" idea will take off and we'll have a pre-split shard to play on.

When was the last time you logged in to Ultima Online, and what was it like?

Adam: The most recent trip to UO was on I believe the 9th anniversary. I went into the game with excitement and wonder. Within one hour someone had used a trick to cheat me out of my special item (which a GM returned, thankfully).

Brandon: I bought a new UO account a couple years ago probably around 2006-2007. It was so weird logging them into the game; people stared at me like I was a freak and a time traveler. So much had changed; so much that it wasn't the game I remembered at all.

B.J.: The last time I logged into UO was a sore disappointment, and it was sometime in late 2004 after Age of Shadows had been released.

Jon: A couple of months ago. I go back once a year or so. UO is kind of like an old home so I'll never totally quit. It's still a good game.

JD: Officially it has been about 5 years since I activated my UO account. I have poked around some private shards as recently as two months ago though. It was fun to see the world again, but you do tend to be hit rather hard with the understanding that you can never truly "go back."

What's the best change to come to UO over the years? The worst?

Adam: Splitting the worlds was the best thing that could have ever happened to the game.

Brandon: The absolute worst was the introduction of Trammel, which sucked the soul out of the game. The second worst change was when they made leveling certain skills easier and less time consuming.

B.J.: Age of Shadows was by far the worst change to ever come to UO. It tried to capitalize on the item-based nature of DIKU-style MMOs, and completely went against what made UO special. The players and their skill had always been the driving force behind Ultima Online, and AoS made it about the magical items they could find and wear. I would say that probably my favorite change, even if it may not be the technical "best" one, was the Renaissance changes to skill gain.

JD: I personally believe that the addition of player housing serves as both the best and worst change to come to UO. The sense of belonging and ownership really heightened the game experience on a personal level. But the urban sprawl that occurred as a result, with 60% of the landmass covered in houses, was absolutely obscene.

Thank you! Speak of this to no one on pain of punishment!

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