Let’s be honest. Most of today’s successful MMOs are basically the same. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but that probably includes the one you’ve been playing for years as well. Now, before you send your max-level goblin berserker to hunt me down and change my mind with a mace-to-brain high-five, let me be a bit more clear. I’m not talking about the revolutionary epic armor sets or the groundbreaking numpad combat systems that people use to distinguish these games from one another. I’m talking about the pervading rule set that governs them, the core philosophy that defines them. MMOs today don’t give players the free will they once did. They just don’t.

MMOs today don’t give players the free will they once did. They just don’t.

To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, you’d have to travel pretty far back in the genre’s timeline, back to the day when this funny idea of persistent-world gaming was first reaching the mainstream. The day we’re looking for is September 24th, 1997, the release date of Origin System’s Ultima Online, one of the world’s earliest fully graphical MMOs.

By today’s standards, the world that Ultima‘s earliest adopters discovered would be almost unrecognizable. The game wasn’t exactly quest-driven, meaning if you decided to collect ten of a monster’s internal body parts for your inventory, there was no one wearing a question mark hat to pay you for them. That isn’t to say the game was vacuous, however. Britannia, the game’s ubiquitous supercontinent, was filled with things to do; it just focused more on the society its players created than pre-scripted sequences its developers created. Ultima Online was a large, empty cardboard box, and its subscribers were imaginative children who decided what it would become at playtime.

As a player, most of your time in game was divided between civilized, lightly regulated towns, and the wild, free-for-all forests and waters that separated them. If you were new, weak, or otherwise cautious, you’d spend your time in the cityscapes, the only pockets of law on the continent. Start a fight, pick a pocket, or do anything untoward within town borders and the guards would use the pointy end of their halberds to give you a very bad day. It was, of course, up to you to enlist help, however. Unless you typed “Guards!” (the land’s proverbial 9-1-1), they wouldn’t come, leaving you the choice of whether state justice needed to be meted publically, or if you’d be more entertained personally fending off an attack or reasoning with a thief.

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.

I know what you’re thinking that game you play has tons of free will, but what you need to remember is that true free will includes evil as well as good. In one respect, players want to be given absolute autonomy, living a fully customizable, unrestricted virtual life that caters to the whims of their character’s actions and decisions. This makes sense; how better to feel immersed than to have your role-playing experience unbridled? Yet, somewhat conversely, those same players become agitated when another player’s free will begins to encroach upon their own.

To be fun, online game worlds need to be free, and not just for the righteous, but for the morally questionable as well.

“I was having a great time playing your game while I was doing well,” I imagine a player writing to his or her favorite developer, “until some other guy stepped out from behind a bush and killed me with a spell (sooo cheap). Please change things so that he can no longer kill me, so that I can never lose my stuff when I die, and so that my class works better against his in the future.” What complaints such as these fail to account for is that much of the fun in gaming comes from the conflict and risk that naturally grows from perilous game worlds. What are you truly achieving if you’re kept perpetually safe, slowly gaining material items while playing through what can only be honestly defined as a consequence-free environment? At that point, you may as well be playing FarmVille.

The first three years of Ultima Online were special because they allowed us to experience humanity, from its most selfless to its most base, without catering to those who don’t understand that suppressing a player’s ability to experience failure also suppresses their ability to experience success. To be fun, online game worlds need to be free, and not just for the righteous, but for the morally questionable as well.

I know it sounds odd defending a player’s right to give others a bad time (likely the same reason it eventually lost out to the utopian online game worlds in which we dwell today) but don’t get me wrong, as a player I’m neither the senseless griefer nor the masochistic victim. I simply appreciate genuine conflict, something that I know is best bred from an actual, thinking mind, not an NPC or artificially intelligent baddie. Agent Smith may have said it best when discussing MMO design with Neo: “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program.”

It’s a true shame that games such as the original Ultima Online fail to exist in today’s comparatively stagnant market, but perhaps someday we’ll be fortunate enough to witness a resurrection of those bold standards of realism it once championed. Until then, we’ll have to make do with the worlds now created for us, those that continue to trade reality for the illusion of it.

Mike Kayatta is a Britannian expatriate Tank Mage who never voted for Lord Britain to begin with. He is a news contributor here at The Escapist.

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