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MMOs Need More Bastards

Mike Kayatta | 17 Oct 2011 16:00
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When it did come time for you to travel, you'd need to prepare. Common routes between cities were dangerous. Arriving safely in the next town almost always meant making your way through player-controlled thieves and killers waiting in ambush, or charlatan merchants ready to trick you into wasting your hard-sought gold on potions of questionable effect. Wherever you were, surviving in Britannia, requiring you to do more than just master press-button reflexes and pick up a strategy guide. Special attacks and high-level spells gained by the grind never hurt, but real world wits and social skills more often than not decided your character's eventual success or ruin.

Special attacks and high-level spells gained by the grind never hurt, but real world wits and social skills more often than not decided your character's eventual success or ruin.

At first blush, Ultima's concept seems far from novel. After all, Britannia was, at that point, quite similar to the way our own world ticks. If we consider the Middle Ages, we can probably envision real merchants and warriors of that age dealing with similar situations and guidelines. You may even feel as though you've seen these same ideas alive in today's MMO market, but you haven't, not really. The difference is that Ultima Online was a true, player-controlled environment. Each component of it was enacted and catalyzed exclusively by other humans, not artificially intelligent NPCs or predetermined sequences. It was a country of Wild West mentality, governed by thinking, breathing bandits, con artists, and killers playing alongside the living heroes who sought to stop them. Origin Systems exercised little governmental grip over wild Britannia, and its denizens were asked to trade few of their freedoms for security. Initially, the game thrived because of it, earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records just one year after launch as the first MMO to reach 100,000 paid subscribers. Then, only two years later, everything changed.

With rising competition from other popular MMOs such as EverQuest and Asheron's Call, Ultima Online no longer held the monopoly that had fueledits initial boom. Over time, a loud minority of players began to complain when they were inevitably killed, robbed, or bamboozled by others (ironically the same fates often reached by artificial means in other games). Fearful of subscription loss, and ready to appeal to a broader audience, Origin released Renaissance, an aptly named (perhaps frighteningly so) expansion that forever changed the landscape of not only Ultima, but most MMOs that have since followed in its wake.

That was the moment Ultima Online twisted into an MMO we would now consider standard. All player-versus-player activity was immediately relegated to specialized servers and zones, new bartering systems traded realism for value protection, and thieves could no longer practice their trade on others. With its Renaissance release, Origin had ceased to allow players independence, thereby stripping Britannia of its humanity and replacing the game's genuine interactions with inferior artificial counterparts. In doing so, the worlds of Ultima Online quickly grew as stale as their offline RPG brethren, eschewing the great advantage that had initially led to the MMO genre's birth: the simple allowance of free will.

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