Original cover art
|Developer(s)||Origin Systems, Electronic Arts|
|Designer(s)||Raph Koster and over 20 more|
|Release date(s)||September 25, 1997|
|Rating(s)||ESRB: T (Teen) (formerly Mature)|
|System requirements||Intel Pentium CPU, 32 MB RAM, DirectX 5, Internet access|
|Input methods||Keyboard, mouse|
Ultima Online (UO) is a graphical massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), released on September 25, 1997, by Origin Systems. It was instrumental to the development of the genre, and is still running today. The game is played online, in a fantasy setting similar to that of the other Ultima games that preceded it.
The success of Ultima Online opened the door for the creation of many new massively multiplayer games. Ultima Online is a fantasy role-playing game set in the Ultima universe. It is online-only and played by thousands of simultaneous users (who pay a monthly fee) on various game servers, also known as shards. It is known for its extensive timing-based player versus player combat system. To maintain order in the online community, there are Game Masters who resolve player disputes, police the shard for terms of service violations, and correct glitches in the game.
Several expansions have been released, but its aging game engine and graphics make it outdated compared to competitive, new massively multiplayer games. The release of Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn in 2007 brought a new game engine which offers a newer visual experience. Since Ultima Online's prime in 2003, the overall subscriber base has seen a steady decline. Subscriber numbers peaked at around 250,000 in July 2003, and to date sit around 135,000 subscribers (approximately 70,000 of whom are Japanese). As of June 2006, Ultima Online held a 1.1% market share of the massively multiplayer online game subscriptions.
Quoting directly from the Electronic Arts press release announcing the Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn expansion, Ultima Online was "The first MMORPG to reach the 100,000 subscriber base, far exceeding that of any game that went before it". Since then, it has added seven expansion packs and dozens of free content updates.
Ultima Online is the product of Richard Garriott's idea for a fantasy game involving several thousand people who can all play in a shared fantasy world. There were a number of prior games that allowed hundreds of people to play at the same time, including The Realm Online, Neverwinter Nights (the AOL version), and Meridian 59; however, Ultima Online was intended to be a significant improvement over the previous games, both graphically and in game mechanics. The initial team was composed of Garriott, Starr Long, Rick Delashmit and, a bit later Raph Koster, who became the lead designer for the project. Koster wrote a number of public "designer letters" and usually went by his nickname of Designer Dragon. Koster drew inspiration from a number of prior online games such as DartMUD.
The project started in 1995 and was shown to the public at E3 in 1996. The development cost was much greater than traditional computer games, it relied on people accessing servers with modems. Ultima Online initial features included persistent player housing, skill-based character progression (without levels or classes), a crafting and player-driven economy, and unrestricted player-versus-player combat.
Upon release, Ultima Online proved to be very popular, reaching 100,000 paying subscribers within six months of release, despite severe lag problems. Subscriptions continued to grow for several years, reaching a peak of some 250,000 paid accounts. Origin was able to make a great deal of money from the monthly fees required to play Ultima Online and many other companies took note and began development of their own massively multiplayer games. The most successful games after Ultima Online have been EverQuest (released in March 1999), Asheron's Call (released in November 1999), Dark Age of Camelot (released in October 2001), Final Fantasy XI (released in May 2002) and World of Warcraft (released in November 2004). The Korean massively multiplayer game Lineage was inspired by Ultima Online, as have many other subsequent online games.
Ultima Online continued the tradition of previous Ultima games in many ways, but due to advancing technology and the simple fact that it was Origin's first persistent online game, there were many new game mechanics as well. Partially designed as a social and economic experiment, the game had to account for the widespread player interaction as well as deal with the long history of players feeling as if they were the center of attention, as had been the case in single-player games. New to both the developers and the players, a lot that was planned never happened, and a lot that was unexpected did, and many new game mechanics were put in place to compensate.
Artificial Life Engine
Starr Long, the game's associate producer, explained in
"Nearly everything in the world, from grass to goblins, has a purpose, and not just as cannon fodder either. The 'virtual ecology' affects nearly every aspect of the game world, from the very small to the very large. If the rabbit population suddenly drops (because some gung-ho adventurer was trying out his new mace) then wolves may have to find different food sources - say, deer. When the deer population drops as a result, the local dragon, unable to find the food he’s accustomed to, may head into a local village and attack. Since all of this happens automatically, it generates numerous adventure possibilities."
However, this feature never went into production. Because of several hurdles and concerns (like performance issues), the whole artificial life idea was considered a boondoggle.
Ultima Online has seen many major revisions throughout its history. This includes gameplay revisions, staff changes, technical revamps, porting the backend to Unix, and fundamental design changes. With few earlier MMORPGs to take lesson from, the staff behind Ultima Online was breaking new ground and had to solve complex issues that had never been faced in a commercial game on such a wide scale before. The importance of understanding psychology, social interaction, economy, and other issues became increasingly important as complex social behavior evolved.
Throughout the pre-release development of the game, a well-balanced, realistic economy and social structure was the goal. While not all of the features planned for incorporation made it into the first release, the developers did manage to give almost all of the control to the players in terms of what they could do to each other and the world as a whole. What ensued caused permanent repercussions still faced in the game today.
Another problem throughout Ultima Online's history has been flaws that allowed for cheating. In early years, methods to duplicate items were discovered and many took advantage of this loophole to mass produce gold and items, causing great harm in the game's economy and power structure. Even after this method was fixed, other methods were discovered over the years which bypassed server and game mechanics to duplicate items and gold. With the introduction of cross-shard character transfers, massive duplication between worldwide servers started to occur, greatly injuring the game economy.
Ultima Online was sued by former player volunteers ("Counselors") and settled in 2004 without admitting wrongdoing. AOL had their volunteers train customer service personnel it hired, then shut down the volunteer program. Concern over future lawsuits led Microsoft to shut down their volunteer program for Asheron's Call.
Throughout Ultima Online's long history, there have been many releases of the game, both on store shelves and online. Several sequels were in development but canceled, and expansions have been released regularly.
Two sequels were planned by Electronic Arts, but both were canceled during development so that more focus could be spent on the original game.
Expansions have been released regularly, all of which add new content in the form of landmass, art, quests, items, or game mechanics.
Ultima Online has had several special releases which were not expansions, but came with boxed or in-game extras.
Fans of Ultima Online have reverse-engineered the game to produce server emulators of the original Electronic Arts servers. With the modern emulation server software available today, it is possible to customize most aspects of the game and support large numbers of concurrent players on a single server. These "freeshards" are not supported by EA but have been popular among users who prefer a different rule set, who do not wish to pay the monthly subscription fee, or who want to play the game how it was during a specific era.
Electronic Arts provides the standard clients with which players are allowed to connect to the Ultima Online servers, though some third-party clients have also been made.
The original Ultima Online client is 2D and, while it was state of the art when released, it is intended to be used on low-end machines that cannot support the more taxing 3D client. It also presents a crisper, simpler artistic flavor that some people find more attractive than the 3D client. Many of the graphics used are high-resolution versions of graphics used in Ultima VIII.
The 3D client was originally released as a part of the Ultima Online: Third Dawn expansion, but has received poor reviews from both veteran and new players alike due to a large number of performance issues (especially memory leaks early on) and what many see as sub-par graphics. An update to the 3D client was made on January 30, 2006 when characters and creatures from the game were scaled down to smaller sizes.
As of early May/Late April 2007, the Third Dawn client is no longer supported by Electronic Arts, and focus has been shifted to the Kingdom Reborn client. Electronic Arts Ultima Online servers will no longer allow the Third Dawn client to connect.
Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn was announced in August 2006 and was released August 27, 2007. The new client, according to the Ultima Online team at Electronic Arts, is being created for the purpose of modernizing the game's look, making it easy to add new content without backsliding through outdated and outmoded art, while maintaining the niche market as an MMORPG that can be run on lower-end computers. Electronic Arts has referred to the Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn client as "2.5d," meaning that it was written in 3d and then effectively backslid into 2d to make it, in theory, easier for lower-end computers to run. The client is available as a free download for current players of the game.
Statements made by Electronic Arts originally stated that the Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn client would replace the long-standing Ultima Online client. However, at the first of several Electronic Arts-sponsored players' conventions referred to as "UO Town Meetings," in Atlanta, Electronic Arts representatives suggested that the two clients would exist side-by-side until about 80% of the players had switched over to the new client.
A modified version of the Kingdom Reborn client, renamed the "Enhanced Client," is being introduced as part of the Stygian Abyss expansion. Changes include enhanced macro abilities, a more configurable interface, changes to the mapping system, and graphical changes. The enhanced graphics of the Kingdom Reborn client have been retired in favor of lower resolution "legacy" graphics that more closely resemble the legacy 2D client. This graphic set is based on the Third Dawn client and was previously available in the Kingdom Reborn client as optional "legacy" graphics.
In May 1996, Ultima Online: Shattered Legacy is shown at the 1996 E3 Expo. Then, in August 1997, Lord British had an unfortunate accident. While giving a speech to a bright-eyed Britannian crowd, the King was engulfed in flames and spent some time in the realm of the dead. He was killed by Rainz, who was later banned from the game for reasons unrelated to the killing. Later, with the aid of his companions, he was revived and finished his speech, much to the delight of those in attendance.
September 1997 was the last day of the original beta test. The beta ended with a bang, as players were treated to an "end of the world" scenario with Shadowlords, demons, and other evil creatures slaughtering every character in sight. Ultima Online opened its doors to the public. In 1998, the game expanded, and the number of users reached over 100,000 worldwide. In 1999, the game expanded to Japan in January, to Europe in May, and to South Korea in July.
In 2000 the game expands to Australia. Lord British disappears. Rumors fly on the wind about the disappearance of the King. Some claim he was abducted by mongbats, while others insist that it was the work of more malevolent forces. In February, a massive army of undead laid siege to the once peaceful city of Trinsic. Due to the overwhelming odds, the dark army managed to conquer the city under the leadership of Juo'nar and the Dark Mistress Minax. All hope seemed to be lost, but noble Britannians from all over rallied together and reclaimed the city from the clutches of evil! In May, Ultima Online's second expansion marked the beginning of a new era in Britannia. With the splitting of the lands into the facets of Trammel and Felucca, players could choose their geography based on their play style. November 2000 marked the UO World Faire. Players from all over met and mingled in Austin, TX at Ultima Online's first official fanfest.
Ultima Online's third expansion occurred in March 2001, introducing the new land of Ilshenar, new beasts and monsters, and an entirely new way to view the game. Online Worlds FanFest. Ultima Online's second official fanfest, Online Worlds FanFest, was held in Austin, TX in January 2002. Players were able to meet the Developers behind the game, as well as special guest speaker Todd McFarlane. February 2002 marked Lord Blackthorn's Revenge. Ultima Online's fourth expansion brought players into a world under siege, replete with more than 30 new and exotic characters created by none other than Spawn (comics) creator Todd McFarlane. However, in May, Royal Knight of Britannia, leads the fight against Blackthorn and Exodus. He would be slain in June 2003.
Ultima Online's fifth expansion in 2003 was the most aggressive yet, offering players the ability to custom design their homes, the Paladin and Necromancer professions, a new land called Malas, and 13 new combat moves. In March 2003 Ultima Online reached 250,000 subscribers. Lord British returns in September 2003, the same month as the game's 6th anniversary.
Ultima Online: Samurai Empire launched in November 2004. Samurai Empire is a Japanese-themed expansion, offering two new professions, the Ninja and the Samurai, as well as new Japanese-themed housing tile sets. New lands, the Tokuno Islands, were added, with the cities being styled after ancient Japanese cities. Ultima Online: Mondain's Legacy was then launched in August 2005. This is the first time Ultima Online allows for more than one player race, as Elves are added. The quest system received a major upgrade, as did the crafting system. Spellweaving was added to the skills. Many new dungeons were added to existing areas. This expansion was also the first that was only available online (offline versions on CDs could be ordered).
In June 2006, Electronic Arts announced that PunkBuster will be integrated into Ultima Online. This marks the first time PunkBuster will be used with an MMORPG to help curb cheating/exploiting. However, this was never integrated into the game, and in November 2006, Electronic Arts announces that the integration of PunkBuster will be put on an indefinite hold. In August of that year Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn was announced. This was the first major overhaul of the client and artwork systems since Ultima Online: Third Dawn.
Ultima Online's success resulted in Guinness World Records awarding the game 8 world records in the Guinness World Records: Gamer's Edition 2008. These records include "First MMORPG to Reach 100,000 Players", "Longest Running MMORPG", and "First and Only Person to Kill Lord British", which was done by a player named Rainz during a server reset which turned off his invulnerability.
|Portal: MMOs||Ultima Online at
|Release date||September 30, 1997|
|Age rating(s)||ESRB: T (formerly Mature)|
|System requirements||Intel Pentium CPU, 32 MB RAM, DirectX 5, Internet access|
|Credits | Soundtrack | Codes | Walkthrough|
One of the first mainstream games of its genre, Ultima Online was a MMORPG which changed drastically over its long lifetime. Although not all changes were for the best (or popular) it provided a useful insight in to what can and can't work in such a game.
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