I’ll never forget where I was when I heard that Lord British had been killed.
The character, Ultima creator Richard Garriott’s alter-ego and in-game avatar, burned to a crisp during a beta test of Ultima Online on August 9th, 1997. The game officially launched a month and a half later, twenty years ago today, and I loved it in a way that has kept me from loving any massively multiplayer RPG released since. It might not look like much now, but back then it looked like the future and I could only imagine the kind of worlds I’d be building an alternate online life in twenty years down the line. I can still only imagine them because the spirit of Ultima Online, at least what it meant to me, seemed to wither on the vine.
Trammel was my favourite place. Until the Renaissance expansion which brought it into existence, I’d been playing in Felucca, which was a den of thieves and killers. The new land, Trammel, mirrored Felucca geographically but it was an altogether different place in terms of social niceties. Simply put, players couldn’t kill one another unless they’d agreed to do so. That lent the world a chivalric sense and made Ultima a place of virtue, as I felt it should be, where combat was more likely to take the form of a polite (if fatal) duel rather than a brutal assault.
I built a house and I met people who became friends. In World of Warcraft, The Secret World and Guild Wars, the only other MMOs I’ve spent more than a few hours with, I levelled up and quested and killed all manner of monsters. In Ultima Online, I existed. It shaped my notion of what an online world should be, in the same way that Ultima VII shaped my notion of what an RPG world should. Fundamentally, I wanted the ordinary to sit side by side with the extraordinary, which meant that buying a house (not quite as fantastical a concept in 1997 as in 2017) was as exciting as hunting monsters.
The appeal is summarised beautifully by player Petra Fyde in our 2015 revisit and retrospective:
“[Ultima] endures because it is diverse, appealing to many different people with many different play types and makes no demands. Basically you do what you want, when you want, if you want. You don’t have to commit to hours online while undertaking a ‘raid’. You can log in for 10 minutes and still feel you’ve achieved something. It endures because players have ‘ownership’ of property, they have houses which they have built and furnished, they ‘live’ in UO. There’s a sense of presence here.”
You should also read about Alec’s adventures as UO’s worst ninja.
And where was I when I heard that Lord British had been killed? I was online, at a friend’s house, hardly able to believe that the creator of a game could be killed by a player within that game. It was science fiction. It was also the result of a rebooted server, oversights on the developer end and problems with lag, but I can’t remember being so immediately sold on the idea of a game as when I heard that Lord British had been assassinated during a public address.
Twenty years later, I still wish I’d been right there in the world to see it happen.