Ultima Online

One of the oldest and most popular online role-playing games of all time is also one of the most infamous. Read up on the past and present of the online world of Britannia.

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Ultima Online
Developer: Origin Systems
Publisher: Origin Systems
Release Date: 9/30/1997
By Andrew Park

Origin Systems' Ultima Online is one of the most influential computer games ever made. It's an online fantasy role-playing game that uses two-dimensional sprites to represent its characters in an isometric overhead perspective as they hunt monsters, take on quests, and interact with other characters. And even though it wasn't the first online multiplayer role-playing game by a long shot, it was the first to popularize the genre. It was an enjoyable game that set many precedents for future games, and it was also a controversial game that drew a great deal of media attention. Ultima Online was first released in 1997, and since then it has been the subject of seemingly never-ending complaints from demanding players, heated message-board debates, and no fewer than two class-action lawsuits.

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Ultima Online was originally intended to be a fantasy realm where thousands of players from all over the world could meet each other through their graphical avatars (their characters) and join forces to take on exciting adventures or lead virtual lives as peaceful merchants and artisans. Ultima Online doesn't feature a hard-coded system of character classes but rather a diverse set of skills so that you can create and develop a character that can, with some practice, become a skilled archer, a powerful wizard, or a prosperous tailor. Even now, Ultima Online subscribers play as sword-slinging adventurers who hunt monsters for fame and treasure or as humble cooks who hunt deer for venison.

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Unfortunately, after its original release, Ultima Online was extremely unstable, and it had a number of problems with latency or lag. In fact, its poor performance was the topic of a class-action lawsuit filed against Origin Systems, in which indignant players claimed that Ultima Online's poor performance and its monthly fees didn't match the features described on the game's box. Since then, Ultima Online has been fixed and tweaked constantly by way of auto-updating patch files that players download from Origin's servers; and over the past four years, Ultima Online's general stability and latency issues have improved considerably.

Though Ultima Online's open-ended character-generation system affords you a great deal of freedom in creating your character, many players choose to create unbalanced "tank-mages" - characters that are proficient in both combat and magic. Unfortunately, Ultima Online's free-for-all player-vs.-player combat system, which originally let any player attack any other player at any point in time, led to a population of "grief players" - powerful player-killer characters who hunt other weaker characters. These grief players would either loot their victims' corpses or simply enjoy the mean-spirited thrill of killing another player's character. Ultima Online has since implemented specific measures - like a character reputation system - that help prevent gratuitous player killing.

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Ultima Online features a well-developed social system that lets players interact with each other, form player guilds, and even build or purchase houses that can be used as meeting places in the game. Ultima Online has also featured a number of in-game social events that have led to great quests; these are often arbitrated by players who have volunteered to be "counselors" - characters that offer help, advice, and information to other players. In exchange for their services, counselors would receive free Ultima Online accounts. Recently, EA repealed the free-account program for counselors, which prompted many volunteers (and ex-volunteers) to file a 2630696class-action lawsuit that claimed that counselors were due compensation for their efforts. One of the most infamous moments in Britannia's history was when Lord British himself, the avatar of Ultima creator Richard Garriott and legendary ruler of Britannia, was himself slain in the game's beta-test phase.

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But in spite of its checkered past, Ultima Online has also changed for the better. The constant patch downloads have not only fixed technical problems in the game but have added a great deal of new content as well. And in 1998, Origin released The Second Age , an expansion that introduced new lands to explore and new monsters to vanquish. And earlier this year, Origin and EA released Ultima Online: Renaissance - a repackaged and republished version of Ultima Online that features many fixes to the original game's problems, including two mirrored worlds, one of which does not allow for free-form player killing. This sort of improvement by continuous additions seemed totally unacceptable at first; the game was buggy and unstable right out of the box, and the fact that the developers patched the game after the fact drew much criticism about the game being rushed to market before it was ready. However, gradual improvement and progression by means of regular patching has not only become accepted, but it has become a standard practice for all online role-playing games. That's because Ultima Online set the precedent for online role-playing games to be more than simply games, but rather online worlds, which are constantly growing and expanding.

In fact, Ultima Online is still going strong. Origin recently announced a third expansion to the game called Third Dawn, which promises to be the most significant update to the game to date. Some of these changes include a brand new 3D-accelerated engine and an entire new continent to explore. We had the chance to sit down with the game's producer, Rick Hall, and talk about the specific changes and additions in Third Dawn.

Q&A with Third Dawn Producer Rick Hall


By GameSpot PC Staff

GameSpot: What are some of the highlights of the new graphics engine in Ultima Online: Third Dawn?

Rick Hall: Ultima Online: Third Dawn will have more than 200 3D character and monster models, more than 700 motion-captured animations for use with a skeletal animation system, a 3D particle system for special effects, and some aesthetic changes to the user interfaces (including an animated, rotatable 3D paper doll).

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GS: Was this engine designed from scratch, and was it designed to be used with Ultima Online?

RH: The engine still contains some original elements from the original Ultima Online client, which had numerous elements that were very solid and that operated well, so there was no need to replace them. However, a great deal of the original client was never designed with 3D graphics in mind, so we had to make some pretty serious modifications or outright replacements.

GS: Can you briefly describe Ilshenar, the new land that's featured in Third Dawn? Where will it be located, how will characters get there, and how does it fit into the Ultima Online story?

RH: Ilshenar is a newly discovered, totally separate facet on the shard. The landmass is very different from Trammel's and Felucca's. As far as how characters will reach the new land mass, that's actually an issue that's still under design, so we're not quite prepared to commit to anything about that right now. And I hate to sound like a cold-war spy, but we're not ready to release the fictional context yet either. That would be kind of like giving away the end to the book before you read it.

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GS: What are some of the notable landmarks on Ilshenar?

RH: There are three deserted cities in Ilshehar, as well as numerous other points of interest for all levels of characters. These range from a ruined rat-man village (for lower level characters), all the way up to high-level adventure areas that will test even the most experienced Ultima Online players. There are also some graphically interesting areas, such as the lava waterfalls, the spider forest, and a number of huge mosaics, which can really be seen only on the radar screens.

GS: Is the environment designed mostly for experienced characters, or will it offer challenges for all types of players?

RH: It's geared more toward veteran players, but there are some small sections that can accommodate low- to mid-level players.

GS: What are some of the new creatures that inhabit Ilshenar? Without spoiling too much, can you talk about some of the new treasures and other rewards contained in this new land?

RH: I hate to dodge questions, but the details about new monsters and items in Third Dawn is something we're keeping closely under wraps right now... so I guess I'm going to dodge the question whether I want to or not.

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GS: Third Dawn will reportedly feature "improved music and sound effects." Can you elaborate on the work that's going into the new sound effects and music?

RH: Well, first of all, since we have a new landmass, we needed some new music to go with the different areas. So we went ahead and had some composed. Along the way, we remixed some of the old pieces to make them work a little better. As for the sound effects, we weren't completely satisfied with the sound quality of a lot of them. We wanted to redo the sound effects in such a way that players could still recognize creatures by their sound, but the effects would just be higher quality. Of course, in some instances, we did go ahead and completely redo them. In all, roughly 65 percent of the sound effects in the game have been modified or replaced.

GS: How, if at all, will the technical enhancements in Third Dawn work retroactively with the rest of Ultima Online? Will the enhanced effects apply only to the new land in the expansion, or will they enhance the entire Ultima Online experience?

RH: Third Dawn is actually going to be a new, separate client. This means that when someone upgrades to Third Dawn, they still have everything they had with the original Ultima Online (including their characters and all of their possessions), but they can now see it all in 3D. But the 3D players will still be able to see and interact with their friends who don't upgrade. Everybody will exist in the same space, with the same skills, characters, and possessions they always had. The Third Dawn players will just see the world from a new perspective, so to speak. One other major difference, though, will be that the players who don't upgrade won't be able to get to the new land mass. And since the new monsters exist only in Ilshenar, then obviously 2D players won't encounter them either.

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GS: How do you think Third Dawn will be received by players? Is your primary intent to attract new players, to keep existing players interested in the game, or something else?

RH: If the recent World Faire is any indication, the players will receive Third Dawn very well. We got an extremely positive response from the players, and what we showed them was still just an alpha. As far as the primary intent of Third Dawn, we hope to accomplish both goals. The updated aesthetic for Third Dawn should help to attract new players who wouldn't normally have gone in for the older graphical style of Ultima Online. But for the veteran Ultima Online players, Third Dawn offers something else: expandability. The old Ultima Online client didn't allow us to patch new art, objects, monsters, special effects, sounds, etc. to the game. Third Dawn solves that problem, and that will be a welcome enhancement indeed to veteran Ultima Online players.

GS: You've said that Ultima Online players will have the option to participate in the Third Dawn public beta test. When do you intend for this beta-testing period to begin, and how long do you think it will run for?

RH: We're getting ready to send out the alpha CDs sometime in the next two weeks to the people who attended the World Faire. Within a few weeks after that, we'll be starting the beta test program. How long will the beta test period last? Until we have a good, polished, quality client.

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GS: How do you think Ultima Online: Third Dawn will compete against current and forthcoming online RPGs? What's the biggest thing that sets Third Dawn apart from all the rest?

RH: Keep in mind that Third Dawn is ultimately still Ultima Online. We're seriously upgrading the client, but it's still the same game that is already extremely popular. We expect Third Dawn to help Ultima Online continue to remain competitive for a long time to come. And the biggest thing that sets Third Dawn apart from the rest is the whole third-person socialization aspect. Ultima Online isn't just about killing monsters and collecting treasure. Sure, that's a fun part of the game. But Ultima Online is more about building virtual communities. It's about establishing friendships and establishing your own virtual neighborhoods. That's really very different from other games.

GS: How does Third Dawn tie in with the forthcoming sequel, Ultima Worlds Online: Origin? Are the developers who are working on Third Dawn involved in the other project as well?

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RH: These are two completely separate projects. The Third Dawn team is working very closely with the Ultima Online Live team, obviously, but Ultima Worlds Online: Origin is a completely different game, with its own look, its own game play mechanics, and its own personality. Ultima Worlds Online: Origin looks like it's going to be an absolutely incredible product, but it's intentionally targeting its own unique play experience, which will be different from Ultima Online.

GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Ultima Online: Third Dawn?

RH: The big point I think that we need to get across to people is that OSI is making a statement with Third Dawn. And that statement is that we're committed to continuing to provide our subscribers with a quality product, which will have constantly improving features and dynamic content for a long time to come.

GS: Thanks, Rick.

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