Back in September 1997 Origin wrote history when they released Ultima Online. Looking back I have many a fond memory of my time in Britannia. My Ultima Online Public Beta Test CD came a long way via ground mail from Texas all the way to Germany. It was the first true MMORPG ever (not counting Meridian 59) and being an Ultima fan I was quite excited when I held that disc in my hands. I had already started playing online via battle.net when Diablo was released in 1996 and before that I spent some time “mudding” in a German MUD called “Morgengrauen” which is still up and running after 15 years. Never underestimate the imaginative power unleashed by a MUD! Visual effects isn’t everything and yet even though UO had no spiffy 3D graphics it was and still is enchanting in its very own way.
When UO came out and our little band of adventurers from Tristam made Chesapeake their new virtual home. Soon we erected our two-story house behind Empath Abbey (you can still visit it there today) and we had many great adventures together online. I vividly remember how we once stole Lord Blackthorn’s gold right out of the cupboard in his bedroom and how Lord British himself caught us red handed. Lord British was wondering what we were doing in Lord Blackthorn’s bedroom, let alone how we got there in the first place (say “teleport”). There were heaps of gold lying about us which we simply could not carry anymore and Lord British was amused about the fact that his friend was being robbed. He inspected the cupboard, turned to us and then something totally unexpected happened: he laughed and let us go with all the gold. Months later we met them both on the road to Empath Abbey, something you do not see happen at all in other online games these days: suddenly you meet the project director and the producer of the game in the very game.
UO Royalty on the road. Lord Blackthorn (Starr Long) and Lord British (Richard Garriot).
Yes, exciting times we had. Hardly anyone knew what Meridian 59 was but everyone in the RPG scene jumped on Battle.net in 1996 and explored Britannia in 1997 and everyone complained about all sorts of things, above all about lag, grief players and about hackers. During all those years, in my time as guild master, beta tester and especially as advocate in Asheron’s Call I experienced countless cases of what I came to call social game stoppers and lag was not necessarily one of them. In fact, most of the time it was either exploits of game mechanics that lead to unfair advantages or players harassing others and thus spoiling the fun for them to such an extent that they actually stop playing. When boredom sets in, players often stop playing unless the game offers a strong social component that compensates for its repetitive, mindless game play. When there is nothing left to do (“end content”) then you stop playing at some point hence the term “end content” is a bit absurd as online games do not have any “end” per se.
Aren’t we all eager to see the next generation of MMORPGs where the player actually can truly interact with the virtual world of his/her choosing? And that means interaction beyond the killing of “stuff/time” for experience points, rewards or levels.
Will we ever get our “brave new virtual world” without lag, harassment, grief playing and with all the fun we can imagine? I don’t know about “brave” but we will certainly get “new virtual worlds” to toy with and it will be lots of fun, too. Making these worlds perfect is impossible, making them better, more fun, prettier, faster, more interesting, less tedious and above all healthier is a daunting task and I have my own ideas and concepts how this seemingly insoluble task can be achieved. Next generation games, here I come!