Ultima Online, one of the best MMOs ever, turned 19 today and despite being so outdated, few PC games inspire nostalgia quite like Richard 'Lord British' Garriott's first MMO. Unlike most modern MMOs—ignoring of course—Ultima Online is unique because it's the closest thing to a Dungeons and Dragons campaign gone massively multiplayer. It's sometimes bizarre, always hectic, and wonderfully intimate. Without all the modern luxuries of global chat or automated trade systems, players had to interact with each other in ways that gave rise to friendships, rivalries, and devastating betrayals. Oh yeah, Ultima Online was hardcore as hell too. Griefing and player killing were the laws of the land, and death wasn't just a slap on the wrist—you could lose everything.
Today, few people would probably ever want to spend their time playing in such a ruthless game, and later expansions would try and curb players' appetite for tears by discouraging slaughter. But of all the amazing stories spawned from online games, few are as memorable and hilarious as the ones that come from Ultima Online. To celebrate its birthday and the legacy that would shape an entire genre of MMOs, here are just a few of my favorites. They might not be the most sprawling tales, but the strength of Ultima Online was never how 'epic' it could be. Instead, it was all about those little moments that would happen week to week that made the world of Britannia come alive.
Stricken by grief
Nowadays, griefing is viewed as a thing only the most sadistic players would ever engage in, but in Ultima it was a way of life. The strong would prey upon the weak and the clever were constantly devising new ways to part unsuspecting players from their hard-earned items. As NeoGAF user , he and a sticky-fingered friend found out one silly loophole to do that in broad daylight. "Stealing in Ultima was sort of like taking your garbage to the street. Once it's out of your possession it's basically public property. So, if my buddy was stealing from you and setting your items on the ground, I could pick them up from the ground without breaking any sort of law. That way when some good-doer would stroll by and yell [for the] guards, my buddy would be killed, but all of the loot would be in the safety of my backpack, legally. That's what I call teamwork!"
For many players, part of the enduring charm of Ultima is how broken it was. Weird exploits and loopholes existed everywhere, symptoms of an MMO with ambition that continues to dwarf anything else available today. And there was little recourse for exploits that weren't flagrant harassment or game-breakingly buggy. For most, being scammed or griefed meant starting over from scratch and learning never to fall for the same mistake twice. Unfortunately, you can't always see when lady luck's evil twin sister is coming after you.
"One of my friend's brother logged in for the first time in months, and found himself standing inside a large house along a coast," , a member of the AnandTech forums. "This was odd because when he'd logged out months earlier, it was not in a house, it was just in the woods in a clearing. The house had been placed since, and he was put inside of it upon logging back in."
Now, this was clearly a case of Ultima Online's developers not thinking through all of the consequences of what could happen when you built a house somewhere in the world. So did Geosurface's friend do the right thing and quietly let himself out the front door? Of course not.
"We told him to hide, and remain inside. We had him describe the coastline, and I think we got a hold of a screenshot from him. We all spread out and tried to determine where he was." Without the convenience of a world map to determine his location, Geosurface and friends had to do some good ol' fashioned detective work. "We used the type of trees, we used the little bit of coastline he could see, and a couple of hours later, we figured out where he was. He let us into the house, and we looted it clean. We got ahold of the owner's large boat key, and we loaded as much of his stuff onto the deck or into the hold of the boat. Anything we couldn't fit (mostly ore stacks and such) we hauled into the woods and put behind bushes. We wanted the place to be absolutely empty except for a book in the middle of the floor with some insult in it."
But the heist wouldn't be a clean getaway. Just as Geosurface and company were loading the last bit of treasures onto their new boat, the owner used a spell to teleport home. "We quickly raised the gangplank and set sail. He had just enough time to realize what was going on, and that his belongings were being sailed away with on his boat. He got off one at us as we sailed into the high seas," Geosurface wrote. "I know it was mean, but, man, I don't think I have ever laughed for so hard or so long as I was laughing [when] we sailed off…"
The deer hunter
Not all of Ultima Online's best stories have to come at the expense of some poor sap, however. Sometimes, they can highlight the lack of forethought that went into designing certain features—like when NeoGAF user Nairume to command an army of malicious deer.
"Years ago, when I tried the game out, I rolled up a mage and was having a terrible time," Nairume wrote. "I could never get enough funds to keep my spell reagents well-stocked, and I was too weak to really take on most enemies directly in combat. Then I discovered that I met the requirements for the animal taming ability. After initially trying it out on a random chicken and leveling the ability up enough, I felt confident enough to try to tame something out in the wilderness."
Out in the woods, Nairume had free choice over what poor creature would become his thrall. While he could've chosen bears, wolves, or any number of predators to become his pet, he chose something a little more passive. "A deer was the first thing I came across, and it fell under my command really easily. Then, curious to see if I could have more than one pet, I tried to tame another deer. It also fell under my command. So I kept going until I had an army of at least 20 deer following my every command. With my army, I was able to just walk around the wilderness and slaughter high-level ogres and trolls with little effort, allowing me to finally keep a healthy supply of spell reagents, which I would turn around and use on spells that would buff the attack and defense of my deer army."
From lowly mage to elk emperor, Nairume hadn't just found a way to make a living in Britannia, but had happened upon one of the most hilarious exploits I've heard of from Ultima Online's early days. "Eventually, I would continue to build my army until to the point that, one day, I forgot to tell them to wait outside the main city," Nairume said. "Apparently, the server began to massively lag for anybody who was remotely nearby, resulting in the skill being massively nerfed in the following week. Ultima Online was pretty awesome."
Of all the stories I've heard about Ultima Online, this one is my favorite because it highlights the beautiful things that happen when games like MMOs are designed reactively. The developer creates a new feature and players find creative ways to abuse the hell out of it to the detriment of everyone else. You have to imagine Origin Systems, the developer, constantly scrambling to control the monsters they'd unknowingly unleashed on their players.
Murder, everyone wrote
Of course, not everyone in Ultima Online fancied prancing around the woods with their animal friends keeping them company. In fact, a large portion of the playerbase existed only for that fleeting moment of pleasure they felt sinking a blade into your back. While some areas like towns were relatively safe because of the presence of guards, Ultima Online players had a murderous streak that would make Ted Bundy wince.
For some, that meant underneath bridges in cities, teleporting unsuspecting players into PVP zones where they would be slaughtered and robbed. And then there's , who got himself killed by thugs while on an isolated island. Courtesy dictated that players would revive those they killed so as not to leave them as stranded ghosts, but all these murderers did was cut up his body and urinate on it and Jarett needed a guild member to sail out to resurrect him. Oh yeah, and did I mention that, in the early days, players could and parade your body parts around town?
But you can't talk about murder in Ultima Online without mentioning its most famous one. Akin to a presidential assassination, the murder of Richard Garriott's character, Lord British, would become one of the most famous stories ever told in an online game.
The year was 1997 and Ultima Online was early into its beta. In order to better test the servers, Origin Systems invited players to all log in at once, and to entice them, Lord British himself would make a royal appearance to speak a few words. For most, this was an opportunity to meet the fabled creator of the Ultima RPGs, but for Rainz, it was an opportunity to send a message.
"Without conflict and war there is only one side subjugating to another," in an interview weeks after the event. "Lord British has noble desires, but he is the ultimate wielder of tyrannical rule." Apparently even Ultima Online had its own Che Guevaras.
"The servers had just been taken down to prepare for the huge influx of players for the speech Lord British and Lord Blackthorne (played by game director Starr Long) were giving throughout Britannia. When the servers came back up, I strolled through Britain with Helios, my fellow guild member. We headed to Blackthorne's castle where the first speech was being given. [Lord British], Blackthorne, and their jesters were up on a bridge orating to the masses."
Out of range of melee weapons, Rainz couldn't hope to take his shot at Lord British. He explained he wasn't playing his mage character, but did have a high pickpocketing skill, and began setting about the crowd rifling through backpacks looking for a solution and "eventually came upon a fire field scroll."
"I just cast the scroll on the bridge and waited to see what would happen. Either [Lord British] or Blackthorne made the comment 'hehe nice try'—can't recall exactly who. It was a humorous sight and I expected to be struck down by lightning or have some other evil fate befall me."
But that's not what happened at all. While everyone laughed at Rainz feeble attempt to bring down Lord British, Garriott's avatar suddenly collapsed and died in the flames. As was later discovered, after the servers had been reset, Garriott had forgot to turn on the cheat that would grant him and his company invulnerability. As coincidence would have it, they had also despawned the guards in hopes of reducing lag—not only had Rainz killed Britannia's most famed character, no one was around to avenge him.
"After that it was just pure mayhem," Rainz said. "Blackthorne or another force summoned four daemons into the castle and people were dying left and right. I hauled balls out of the region like there was no tomorrow." But for as far as Rainz ran, he couldn't escape the developers at Origin Systems, who struck back by deleting his character and banning him from Ultima Online forever.
There's no doubt that Ultima Online was an often broken, frequently frustrating mess of ideas, but that's also what made it brilliant. There was always some new surprise waiting for you—even if that surprise meant accidentally killing its creator. While many have tried, few MMOs have ever captured and sustained the chaos of living in a world that we can never hope to fully grasp.
Sadly, the glory days of Ultima Online are long over. There's still a left playing and plenty of private servers like that are worth checking out, but the fact is we can never reclaim the magic it had in the late '90s. Even so, it's important to look back and remember. So happy 19th birthday Ultima Online, you big unruly bastard. May the mayhem and thievery you inspired always be remembered.