Later this year, Ultima Online [official site] will turn 18 years old. In the genre of MMOs, that makes the game positively ancient - and it's even more remarkable when you consider that it's still funded via a subscription model.
I’ve never played an Ultima game, much less one that’s nearly my age. I wanted to find out what the game is like to play today as a newcomer, and to ask people why they've continued visiting Britannia for nearly two decades.
Digging into the game's forums, I found myself talking to user "Petra Fyde". Fyde has been playing since October 2000 when she succeeded in bugging one of her sons for a character on his account. Soon after this she got an account with her husband and has been playing ever since.
What does it take to play a 20 year old MMORPG? Petra now spends a lot of time writing guides to help others understand some of the more obtuse systems in the game. She’s one of the biggest advocates for the community, so I asked her what keeps her logging in after all these years:
"I play because I enjoy playing," she writes. "Through the game I have made many, many friends in many different countries and of a wide range of ages. I've never met some of these people, but over the years they have supported me through times of trouble, helped me stay online through computer breakdowns and talked me through computer problems. They have been 'there' for me in a way that neighbours who actually live nearby never have."
I wasn’t sure how different UO could actually be, in spite of its status as one of the first MMORPGs. It turns out that while it definitely felt familiar in places, as its DNA has been passed to those games followed, UO is altogether something stranger. I’ve seen incredible things in the last 10 days with Ultima Online, perhaps more exciting things than I’ve encountered in my first few days with any other MMO.
Creating a character is always one of my favourite parts of picking up a new MMORPG. It’s unfortunate that Ultima Online immediately shows its age by giving you only a smattering of cosmetic options, but I liked the look of every character class.
The Paladin is particularly shiny, and I loved the idea of traversing fantasy Britain as a Samurai. I also wanted to toil away crafting magical weapons as a Blacksmith, the idol of every young adventurer as I handed them the items with which they’d go out and make their fortune. But if I was going to explore Britannia for the first time I didn’t want to be slaving behind an anvil. I discovered the Ninja class preview made it look like I had bone-adamantium claws. It was an easy decision, although maybe the name Wool Verrine was too subtle.
The tutorial was standard fare - collect your items, hit some monsters. I did find a glitch to generate infinite katanas and later trigger a poison gas trap, but I handled it well. With a bag full of rusty katanas and a vague idea of how the combat worked I ventured to the starting city of New Haven.
Approaching the town square I saw a man sat mutely astride a lizard almost as large as the bank he was squatting alongside. Meanwhile a robed mage repeated commands infinitely as particle effects washed off him. Both were idle and neither responded to my greetings. I’d chosen Atlantic, the busiest server with a “medium” population, but the entire town was deserted other than the small crowd of idle players and their giant reptile-king.
I tried to play in standard MMO style by grinding skills and killing monsters, but an eagle ate me and when I logged back in after a break I’d lost my clothes and one of my many swords.
I felt a little put out. I remembered Petra telling me about fighting her first dragon, a pet that broke free of its master and was running loose. She managed to fell the beast using a combination of spamming healing items and running bravely away. I couldn’t even best an eagle. I dusted myself off to try again.
On my next skulk through the forest I noticed it: “A monster looks at you menacingly but does not attack. You would be under attack now if not for your status as a new citizen of Britannia”
Wait, so nothing will attack me?
And that’s how I became an embedded reporter in Ultima Online. Jumping through the
Stargate Moongate to Britain, I found wide expanses of open land. From here, I threw off any concept of trying to better my character and instead focused on touring what the world could throw at me.
I immediately got lost in a hedge-maze filled with terrifying demons, and had to pay a troll a thousand gold to escape. I wandered into an abandoned town, filled with beautiful houses and mannequins standing on street corners. Then I found the house of many Pats: filled with NPCs called Pat. I did most of this while transformed into a rat.
But what keeps players coming back time after time when there are so many different MMOs floating around?
"[Ultima] endures because it is diverse, appealing to many different people with many different play types and makes no demands," says Petra Fyde. "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."
While initially I couldn’t understand the appeal of Ultima, when I decided to shake off the limitations of an early level character and simply explore for myself, I found a game world with a lot to offer. Player created civilisations, unique monsters, and the sheer mystery of the world combine to keep this ancient MMO compelling.
For all the ways in which the genre has improved, Ultima Online remains one of just a few MMOs that let you live an alternative life. That feeling of ownership that Petra Fyde mentions, combined with the diversity on offer, keeps players coming back day after day. Yet it’s a little sad to see the world is slowly fading away. Parts of Britannia feel abandoned, and while there's always life nearby, it still feels lonely.
I don’t know whether my experiences were enough to keep me playing when the 14 day trial is up, especially as $38.99 (£24.75/€34.77) for 3 months feels steep (although there are discounts available for paying in six month installments) and I definitely don’t have the time to devote to learning the myriad of systems. Still, my time in Ultima Online has been, by and large, a positive one. If you've a love of exploring strange fantasy worlds, Britannia is a fine place to visit.