Rediscovering Ultima Online’s Lost Gameplay Mechanics

Back in the 90s, Ultima Online was the defining MMORPG and a sign of good things to come in the genre. However no game has quite divided gamers like UO did with it’s original ruleset back in 1998 – there’s even a wikipedia page dedicated solely to Criticism of Ultima Online.

Subsequently in 1999, Everquest came along, and presumably armed with customer surveys from a portion of UO’s raging populace, began to take MMORPGs in a different direction. Things were never quite the same again for UO. So what happened to the original gameplay mechanics.. and more importantly what have we lost with them?

Before I go any further please excuse my white neon hair in the screenshot above, and yes those are phoenix armor gloves, I also had the helmet and chestpiece before having them stolen, but that’s another story – such is the world of Ultima Online!

UPDATE (16th July 2014): Lord British himself (Richard Garriott) liked this article and shared it with his development team for Shroud of the Avatar. Yep, this article must be good! You better read it!

The Original Vision

The original vision of Richard Garriott, Starr Long and Raph Koster at Origin was to create a world, not just a game, a world with its own moral ambiguities and complexities. And they did just that.

Going back to 1998 when The Second Age (the first expansion pack) was released – and when I began to play – you couldn’t walk around town without either being disrobed of your possessions or scammed out of your hard-earned gold. When you finally did make that big step outside of town you were often paralyzed and murdered by another, and admittedly much better, player. And dying in Ultima Online was difficult to take in those days, not only would you lose many hours of hard work but you were often left with an expensive Internet bill.

Luckily for me I was empowered. Before playing I had read the UO marketing blurb in magazines, it had mentioned something along the lines of “Start your own weapons shop, run a tavern or simply be a writer!”. This really opened my mind to all sorts of in-game activity I could partake in. I didn’t care if I was killed a few times along the way to setting up my own shop, in fact, that was sort of the whole point of it!

Even when you had finally saved up enough gold for a house, if you did not have adequate security for that property by using an elaborate sequence of in-game methods to protect your goods, thieves could (and would) find a way in to take your valuables. Something akin to forgetting to turn on the security alarm or locking your windows before leaving your house in the real world. That this system worked for both the house owners and house looters is a great testament to UO’s successful world design.

An example of poor player shop security. While the tables placed in front of the character block intruders from progressing further into the house to steal loot from the chests, there is a gap between the far table and the window (highlighted by the red circle) which they can easily slip through (especially if stealthed).

A potential intruder waits for the home owner to unlock the door. Note how the character highlighted appears grey, this means he does not appear on the opponent’s screen. Only a spell like Wis Quas would reveal such a player (as you can see in the log) or by using the Detect Hidden skill.

This sort of activity was difficult to take for some players though as it took imagination and persistance to succeed, and as the game became more mainstream, many ordinary players who perhaps did not play as often were unable to defend the land from evil ones.

Reflecting on the situation, Raph Koster considered it a failure of the game’s design. The UO development team did not put in enough tools that the virtual society could use to defeat the murderers and anti-social griefers. But was that really the real reason? Or was it just a problem with the mainstream audience and society in general? I wonder. But just writing about the complexities of this world makes me want to go back and experience it again.. and so I did!

Ultima Online 2018

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