Here in the United States, it was about 3 a.m. I had no idea what time it was in Sweden where my friend lived. He didn't care, either. He was drunk and sad and needed a shoulder to cry on, even though that shoulder was across the world. He wanted to die. I didn't want him to die. So, for three hours, I talked to him until he passed out and I could hear him snoring on our voice chat call.
It wasn't the first time I'd talked a member of my guild down from the edge. In movies and cartoons, MMO guild masters, or GMs, are often depicted as a 30-year-old man with a neckbeard living in his mother's basement, living off Mountain Dew and Doritos. They're generally goofy and fit the outdated stereotype of a nerd—yelling at their computer screens, surrounded by two or three monitors and thousands of dollars of gaming equipment. I'm none of those things, but for the last five years I've run a 100-plus member guild in Ultima Online, an MMO I've now been playing for nearly two decades.
I'm a 50-year-old grandmother of five and an award-winning journalist with a respectable job at a local newspaper. My days are spent writing stories about the town I live in, telling people what their local government is up to or who was arrested the night before. My PC is nine years old and runs Windows Vista in the corner of my living room. Nothing about me says "gamer," but every night I sit at my computer, boot up the classic version of Ultima Online, and my second job begins.
A life in Sosaria
Alyssa Schnugg is a journalist at The Oxford Eagle, a Mississippi newspaper. She also plays a lot of Ultima Online.
In 1998, my son was 11 years old and attending an after-school program run by the local police department. The internet was new but becoming a common feature in most homes. One day he came home and asked if I could buy him a new computer game that the police officers showed him and played themselves. After spending $30 on the game and agreeing to a $12 a month subscription fee, my son started playing UO. He spent most of the next year trying to convince me to “make a character."
My experience with games at this point was going to arcades as a teen and playing Tetris, but I had to admit it looked fun. UO wasn't like other games I'd seen. There was no ending, no final monster to beat. You could be a warrior or a mage. You could be a tailor or a blacksmith or a tamer of beasts and drag around big dragons to help slay monsters. You could have a home to decorate.
What really caught my attention was that you didn't play alone. People from all over the world were playing UO. By 1998, it had more than 100,000 subscribers. I caved and made a character called Temptress Lydia. She was to be a great swordswoman. I soon joined a guild and made friends from around the country and beyond.
Being a single mother of three children at the time, I was lonely. UO gave me a social life, allowing me to have adult interaction at home while my babies slept.
The years passed and life happened. My son grew up and went on to play other games. I continued to play UO here and there, with most of my playtime on player-made shards—copies of the original game run on private servers that weren't hosted or sanctioned by the company that owned UO at the time. They were free and allowed me and my friends to explore many new shards. At the time, many of my online UO friends weren't happy with the direction the original UO was going. Player-shards were transient and often didn't live longer than a year, but we would stay until the shard disappeared, and move on to the next. I continued to play on and off for several more years, taking extended breaks here and there.
In December 2012, I was 45 years old and a grandmother of two baby girls (that number has since grown to five grandchildren). My daughter worked nights and I watched the babies. I was single at the time and had recently moved to a new town. I didn't have many friends, and now I needed to be home again in the evenings for my granddaughters.
When an old gaming friend emailed me, telling me about a new player shard called Ultima Online Forever, I thought, what the heck. I downloaded it and started to play again. The shard became popular quickly—it was created to emulate the original UO before it had changed so drastically, and those early days still held a special place in many hearts.
Back then Ultima Online had only one landmass and player vs. player conflicts were a huge part of the game. You could be out killing monsters and be surprised by a "red" player, a murderer, and end up a ghost, your items stolen from your dead body. It added risk to the game, even if it could be brutally frustrating.
In 2000, Origin, Ultima Online's developer, decided to bend to the will of many of their subscribers, and the game world of Sosaria was split into two factions—Trammel and Felucca. In Trammel, you were safe from being player-killed. Without risk, there was little reward. Amazingly, after changing hands a few times, the real UO is still online and still has enough subscribers to keep the game going. But many of us prefer throwback shards like Ultima Online Forever.
I started playing on Ultima Online Forever just five days after launch, and many of my former gaming buddies joined me. We formed a guild, The Free City of Trinsic. I took on the role as GM without really understanding the job at the time, and for a guild our size, it really is a full-time job.
The life of a guildmaster
A couple nights a week, I play very little and instead spend time reaching out to players who want to join the guild, answering their questions and explain my expectations from guild members—no killing, stealing or griefing of any fellow guildie; be respectful; and have fun. I keep a Google spreadsheet of all members, their Discord names and when they joined. I plan events for the guild, from group hunts to tournaments to in-game social gatherings.
I'm a mother, doctor, therapist and friend. I've had members tell me things in confidence that they've never told anyone else. I've have members who struggle with depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. I've had female members who deal with sexual harassment by male players. I've had husbands ask me how to save their marriage. I usually tell them to stop playing so much UO.
I've had members send me flowers when I was sick and cookies at Christmas time. When one member was sick, others sent him money to help pay medical bills.
I deal with members fighting and drama—oh my, the drama gamers can whip up. I've seen marriages bloom from relationships that started in the game and I've seen marriages fall apart. I've sat in voice chat trying to comfort a man who lost two sons to suicide in the same year.
My guild members are fathers, mothers, grandparents and in a few cases, college students who started playing Ultima Online Forever because they remembered their fathers playing it when they were young. We have members who are IT techs, doctors, lawyers and pizza delivery drivers. Some live in the U.S. Others live in the Philippines, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Russia, and France.
At least once a week, I hear the chime of Discord going off in the middle of the night from a member needing to have a character guilded, asking a question about whether being a bard is profitable, or simply saying hello.
One night, a member had an argument with a guildmate and at 3 a.m., I heard rapid bleeps coming from Discord. I read the messages, got out of bed and lectured the guild on respecting the fact that some people had jobs and needed rest and to handle their issues like adults. I was jokingly called “Mama Skye” for quite some time afterward.
A new role playing guild called The Knights started playing on UOF a couple of years ago and for some reason decided my character should be Queen, and every time I see them in game I’m called “Your Majesty” or “My Queen.” I still blush a little.
I wake up each morning and before I check email, I check Discord and tell everyone good morning. I then go to work and continue to chat with my guild members throughout the day. I come home, and by 7 p.m., I’m back on the game, working my second job. Recently, the creator of Ultima Online, Richard Garriott, visited UOF and I found myself in the game, side-by-side slaying monsters with the man who made the game that has made such a profound impact on my life.
My grandchildren sometimes sit with me and watch me play. The 7-year-old can now move my character around the screen using the mouse and often likes to chat in-game with my members, and I can’t deny it makes me smile each time.
Despite the fact that Ultima Online is a game, it’s sometimes led to tears. I lost a friend of 10 years, a real life friend, a best friend, because of an argument about a decision I made in-game. There are times I choose my guild over life outside of the computer. I’ve canceled social engagements because we’ve had a guild event planned for that night. I’ve called out sick when I wound up staying up too late dealing with a member or just having too much fun. I do it because I enjoy it, and because I’ve made a commitment to 100-plus people and I take that seriously.
Ultima Online has been an important part of my life for almost 20 years now. It gave me and my son something to connect with during his teenage years, when most parents would give their right arm to have something in common with their teen. We would attend Renaissance fairs and compare things we saw to items in game and feel, for just a few hours, like we were living UO.
My two daughters played a bit as well, but never to the extent my son and I did. They still refer to UO as "that game," as many spouses still do. But they get it. My son and I still play together at times, even though he jumps around from game to game as they come out.
The future of Ultima Online Forever is unknown. The shard could come down today or it could keep going for another five years. I've been thinking of retiring as GM, but no one seems to want the job. I get why. There are days I wonder why I do it. I have no real answer, other than it's something I love to do and more so, I love the friendships I've made. It gives me a place to escape for a couple of hours after a long day.
In UO, I'm forever young and beautiful. My name is Skye Wolfbane and I'm governor of The Free City of Trinsic. But age and experience have helped me be a successful GM. Patience is the number one job requirement. So as long as UOF is online and my guild has citizens depending on their GM, I'll continue to work my second job. I just hope my future nursing home has decent internet.