Saturday, July 9, 2016

Memories of Ultima Online

In September of 1997, I considered myself a very lucky person.  I was in my freshman year in college and I quickly fell in love with the high speed internet access available to colleges and universities.  I was looking for a new game to play and Ultima Online was the game I had to play.  I had ordered it and it shipped to my home address, but my mother drove an hour to deliver it to me at college so I would not have to drive home in the middle of the school week to take possession of it.

Starting the Ultima Online Demo on The Second Age CD
In those days, you had to pay full price for the game ($64.95) and an additional monthly subscription fee ($9.95).  I did not buy the Charter Edition (which came with 3 months free), I bought the regular retail edition.  That edition came with the cloth map, the UO pin and rather sparse documentation.  I was puzzled because there was little more than a pair of quick reference cards to tell you how to play this massive game.  Nonetheless, I installed the game on my computer, registered an account, gave my credit card information and began my journey by logging in.  

The Citizens of Occlo plead for the help of a valiant hero
Talk about throwing you in at the deep end.  All the game gave you was an modest ability to adjust your stats and three skills which you could start out with which had higher scores than the other skills.  You spawned with 100 Gold and a few starter possessions and that was it.  I would see players in armor and on horses charge by.  I really could not figure out how to get ahead.  Improving skills seemed impossible, I would continually whack the sparring dummies and not see any real increase in my fighting skills.  The official strategy guides seemed useless.  Combat with animals was usually a losing proposition, when you could find them.  The Official Guide felt pretty useless.  I quickly became discouraged, cancelled my account and threw away the game.  I remember keeping the pewter pin for a while, but I threw it out when one leg of the "U" broke off.

Lend me some sage advice
A year later, the first official expansion to Ultima Online, The Second Age, was released.  For some reason I decided to give the game another chance.  I can't really recall why I decided to take the plunge again.  Maybe I thought they had made the game easier for new players.  Maybe I was bored.  I think I must have been really bored, so in late 1998 I plunged into the world of Britannia again.  This time I stayed in until early 2000.  I remember I discontinued my service sometime before shortly before Renaissance was released in April of 2000.

So I need to fetch him a hammer, where can I find one?
When I returned to the game, things started out just like before.  My female character, named Nemesis, was weak even though I had put my initial skills into tactics and swordsmanship. I had no idea how to make money at first.  However, at some point I figured out that I could loot corpses of orcs and orc captains for items like boots and backpacks.  Even though the price would fluctuate, the NPC tailors would always buy them back for a few GP a piece.  The Orc Camp near Cove supplied me with a steady, if meager, stream of income for quite a while.  Players would go their to improve their stats and kill orcs, and they almost always left the backpacks and boots behind.  There were no monsters with a ranged attack there, so I could usually outrun the orcs, ogres and ettins.

This brings back some less than pleasurable memories
At some point, I discovered that magic was indispensable.  In Ultima Online, in order to cast magic you need a spellbook, a spell inscribed from a scroll and reagents.  The eight reagents could be bought from the NPC magic shops, but not every town had one.  I remember that I had come across someone who was killed in town and was lootable, and I got his reagent bag.  After that I knew that I would need 30-40 of each reagent every time I went out to fight monsters.  Restocking was annoying, since you never found caches of reagents from monsters.  The NPC merchants would eventually restock (usually every hour), but if they did you had to be quick to buy what you needed before someone else did and the price went up.

32gp for a hammer, what a ripoff!
The best spells were heal, cure, fireball, fire field, greater heal, recall, blade spirits, dispel, energy bolt, invisibility, mark, flamestrike, gate travel, energy vortex and resurrection.  Of course, you had to improve your magery skill considerably to even have a chance to cast the high level spells.  You could pay an NPC to train your skills into the low 30s, but to get to 100 it required a lot of practice.  I did not start with a high magery score, but I resolved to become a Grandmaster Mage because magic was vital to getting the most out of the game.

The direct approach, no trading windows here
Magic could be very dangerous to the caster.  I had times where I had to retreat to the safety of a town.  If you had a Marked rune, you could use a Recall spell to teleport to a town.  I am sure my recall spell failed more than once and I was killed.  I would often have to wait around in dungeons for somebody who could cast a Gate Travel spell.  Some spells, like blade spirits and energy vortex, had a mind of their own and could attack players.  In this case, you would turn grey and other players could attack you without consequences.  When this happened to me and I did not trust the inadvertently targeted player, I would have to run and hide.  Some players tried to intentionally get the spell to target them, so I always had a Dispell spell ready to rid myself of the danger.

A 640x480 resolution screen can get crowded really quickly, there were no Glass Swords in the real game
Eventually, by frequent playing, making tons of mistakes and dying not infrequently, I managed to get decent mage and also possess very decent melee fighting skills.  I was so proud when I acquired a magery skill of 60 and cast all the spells allowing me to enter the City of Wind.  I felt like I was really becoming successful at playing this game, my first Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game.

I could have used a few more Glass Swords back in the day
At some point, I was able to go into the dungeons.  Some dungeons, like Destard, were exclusively for highly skilled players.  Destard was the lair of dragons, including the most difficult creature of all to defeat, the Elder Dragon.  I do not believe you would be lucky to survive in a solo melee with a drake, never mind a dragon, even as a Grandmaster warrior with the best armor.  Fortunately, the pathfinding in UO was pathetic and it was easy to trap monsters behind V-shaped trees and shrub or stalactite formations.  Another popular area was the third level of Shame.  There was an area in Shame that would often produce elementals.  You could get into this area by a bridge and spawn Energy Vortexes that would sit on top of a pillar and yet still attack the elemental underneath.  That was always worth the risks.  But if you went to a level or area of a dungeon that was not frequented by players, you risked being trapped and killed by hordes of rats and slimes.

For such a powerful monster, its loot is pretty meager
The Second Age added two new towns and two new monster-heavy areas in a new area called The Lost Lands. These areas helped spread around the players and I was on the crowded Pacific shard. There were also a couple of dungeons that looked like they were designed in five minutes, and most were in areas so remote that I never bothered to visit them. I should have used the Atlantic shard based on my geographical real-world location, but for some reason I wound up on Pacific. I remember quite specifically that the terrain was very uneven, which made it impossible to place houses in the Lost Lands. It also was very laggy on the Pentium 200MMX computer I started out with when I was playing UO. I later built a Celeron 300A overclocked to 450MHz and the uneven terrain was no longer a problem. The game ran decently even connecting via a dial-up modem, which I had to suffer through during school vacations. Still I felt that the new areas were a bit lackluster.
UO used MIDI music, and I remember that it sounded pretty good on a Sound Blaster Live! using the 4MB soundfont.  Unfortunately, the music engine was neglected and often the same pieces would play over and over again.  I was years from learning about the superiority of the Roland Sound Canvas for playing back these MIDI songs.  The SC-55 makes the MIDI sound far superior than by playing the music through the patches.

Prior to the Renaissance expansion, player killing was a fact of life in UO.  The towns were safe, if someone became aggressive or thiefly, you could macro a shout for the guards and they would kill the offending player. Outside the towns, you could encounter a murderer (who had his name in red) or a group of PKs.  I would almost never fight these guys, they knew all the ins and outs of PvP and I did not.  If I was in a dungeon I would not want to risk all the loot and my equipment, so I would recall.  A couple of times I would get killed, but it never retarded my progress for long.

Dying could be very costly.  You could loose skills when you died, the longer you stayed dead as a ghost, the more likely you were to loose skills.  Unfortunately, if you were killed on a dungeon on an island, as with Dungeons Deceit and Hythloth, you could be waiting a long time as a ghost until someone cast gate travel or took pity and cast resurrection on you.  You also lost fame, but not karma.  More importantly, once you returned to your corpse, your inventory would likely be totally gone.  Even though looting a non-gray player turned you gray, many people did it if they thought they could get away with it.  I did it too, and paid the price once or twice. All that expensive armor forged with the colored ore would be enjoyed by someone else.

At some point, I became friendly with another player.  I was sufficiently wealthy at the time to afford to buy a house deed, but when I bought the deed I could find nowhere to place a new house.  You could only place a house or a castle on perfectly flat land without any obstructions.  Unfortunately, the qualifying land was limited and there were more restrictions on newer houses than older houses.  By the time I sufficiently successful, I could find no place to put a house.  I refused to spend real money to buy a house on ebay.  This player was extraordinary generous, he gave me the key to a one-room house, which made it my house.

Even though this house had but a single room, to me it was a palace.  My house was totally safe from anyone and anything.  I learned how to use a third-party program to automate repetitive actions in the game.  I used this to continually cast flamestrike spells against an inanimate object.  I would leave the game and the program running overnight and by morning I would see a few extra points in my magery.  Even though this was a violation of the game's Terms of Service, I was able to eventually obtain my most coveted goal of Grandmaster Mage.

By the end of my time I was able to kill Daemons, Liches and even the occasional Elder Dragon.  Unfortunately, only the player who gets the last hit in gets the reputation reward for killing a monster.  There were times where I was a little too aggressive in killing an Elder Dragon and robbed a kill from another more deserving player.  I lost a friend that way.

My memories are a little hazy whether I actually joined a guild or not.  I believe I did for a short time, but the guild was not very active and soon disbanded.  I was never very socially involved in UO, but the official guild halls always seemed to be empty.  Many town areas also seemed to be unused.  People often only came into a town for four reasons, to use the bank, to logout safely at an inn, to become resurrected or to buy and sell to the NPCs.  There was little roleplaying and no official quests to go on during this time.

Finally, I had it made.  I had a house, a Grandmaster Magery title and at some point I would become a Glorious Lady, the highest reputation in the game.  I had achieved the pinnacle of character development at the height of the game's popularity.  Unfortunately, the "Lady" part of my reputation could easily vanish by dying, so eventually I was very uneasy about venturing out into the dungeons or monster lairs.  I never really had interest in crafting skills or taming skills, they were boring and felt too much like work.  I may have stuck around a little longer had I known that UO would join EverQuest and make PvP optional, but I believed I had done everything I really wanted to do with the game.

But before I would make my final exit, I decided to make a little $$ off my efforts.  I had accumulated a large amount of gold, over 600,000 gold pieces.  I auctioned it off on ebay and made about $100 real dollars.  I cannot remember if I auctioned my house off, but since it was a gift I felt uncomfortable doing that.  But for years afterward it always made for a good story how I sold virtual gold for real cash.

Ultima Online has been in continuous existence for nineteen years.  The "classic" 2D client is still being maintained and is still an easy way for players with lower end systems to play the game.  The current classic client is at 7.0.50.  The system requirements are incredibly modest for a game still supported in 2016 :  My 1999 Dream System exceeds all of these requirements.  I wonder whether those requirements are still realistic with all the patches, publishes and updates.

If you want to go back and try to experience the game as it was, there is a free-to-play player shard that emulates The Second Age era.  Unfortunately, the client used is, which is far, far beyond the original T2A clients.  T2A clients run from 1.25.35b to 1.26.4j.  Pre T2A retail clients ran from 1.25.10-1.25.35.  The full (not the upgrade) T2A retail CD has an Ultima Online demo that can give you a taste of the game which is guaranteed to run on Windows 9x.  The demo is limited to a quest in the town of Occlo.  You can obtain the CD image from here :  You must install the full game to the hard drive, then install the demo.  I have included screenshots of the demo quest above.  As of now, it is the only way I know of to be able to enjoy the game as I played it.  


  1. My experience with Ultima Online in the late nineties mirrors your own, though I was much younger and probably became frustrated less easily. It also helped that several friends and I managed to get accounts at the same time, so I usually had someone to play alongside. Good times.

    I occasionally dip my toe back into Ultima Online via a different Second Age shard. I skipped magic entirely and wound up with a Grandmaster Tailor, much the same as I used to play years ago. As expected though, no one on the shard is interested in suits of leather armor, so I pretty much just wander around, soaking in the nostalgia.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. It's amazing to see how many of us played this game and enjoyed it on such a deep level. It made such a strong impression on anyone who played it during it's early years and throughout it's peak...

    So many memories, so many good times... I played on the Atlantic Shard. I'm sure many will remember using Goodmans Rune Library, a shrine to him still exists on the Atlantic shard now in the rune library, a statue in his place for someone who left us too early in the real world.

    "Frank Campbell, better known as Lord Goodman in UO, was beloved for the construction of a large (and often moving) libary that held a massive variety of player-written books and teleport runes to places all over the world. After Goodman passed away in 2005, players decided to not only keep his rune library operating but turn the top floor into a shrine in his honor. Goodman's Rune Library currently is located near Zento on the Atlantic shard.

    Goodman's Rune Library is the legacy of Frank Campbell aka Lord Goodman who established his library on the shores of Magincia Beach. First on the facet of Felucca and later on the same beach in Trammel. Various locations over the years included branches in the Player Cities of Wintermoor & Dalriada, a Castle in Trammel, Luna and finally the deep Forest of Malas.

    Goodman (real name Frank Campbell) was a player on the Atlantic shard who made a name for himself by running the best rune library around. Years after his real life passing, people continue to gather every August commemorating his life and accomplishments at the Magincia beach where his original library once stood."

    I just want to add... No game will ever come close to replicating the experience and memories we all shared. It will always remain in our hearts, in our minds and the stories we share between each other...

    I long for a day I could return to Britannia... If they are ever able to transfer our minds into computers, you'll be able to find me on Atlantic, somewhere in the woods of Skara Brae, practicing PvP around my tower with friends.

  3. Check out still in development but due out in mid-late 2019.