About Ultima Online
Ultima Online (UO) is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, or simply MMO) which launched on September 24, 1997. It was developed by Origin Systems as a spin-off — and was meant, in some ways, to be a culmination thereof — of their wildly successful Ultima series of single-player RPGs. And while it can’t claim to be the first graphical MMO, it can rightly claim to be one of the defining titles of the genre, and continues to run to this day.
Richard Garriott had wanted to make a fantasy game in which thousands of players could participate in a single world for several years prior to the launch of Ultima Online. There were a few other games that had attempted this by the time that development began on UO, such as AOL’s Neverwinter Nights (not to be confused with the single-player game of the same name developed some years later by BioWare) and Meridian 59, though the scale of these games was relatively small. Ultima Online was meant to exceed these and other similar offerings both in terms of that scale and in terms of the experience it delivered to players (a fully open-world, sandbox-style game in which one could just as easily opt to play as a humble fisherman or a mighty warrior-adventurer).
Development on UO began in 1995, with a small team comprised of Richard Garriott, Starr Long, Rick Delashmit, and (later) Raph Koster. Koster, in particular, became the game’s public face, and was the most active in terms of engaging the community of Ultima fans through numerous “designer letters” that he published. The project represented a significant investment for Origin Systems and Electronic Arts (EA), in no small part due to the hardware and software infrastructure needed to support thousands of simultaneous connections, persistent game worlds (which came to be called “shards”) and player profiles (and characters), a player-driven in-game economy, and the game’s initially rather notorious open player-versus-player (PvP) combat system. Many more features, most notably the “Artificial Life” engine (which would have essentially made for a fully dynamic, responsive, and adaptive game world, a “virtual ecology” as Starr Long termed it), were cut or never fully implemented.
Indeed, Ultima Online consumed so many development resources at Origin Systems that work was halted on the then-in-development Ultima 9; work on this project would only resume (and then in a rather different form) after Ultima Online’s release.
Ultima Online has seen the release of numerous expansion packs, and even an “Enhanced Client” that, though it presents a view of the game world that is nearly identical to that of game’s original client, is actually based upon the Gamebryo 3D engine. This client was first introduced in 2007, with the Kingdom Reborn expansion pack. Two sequels — Ultima Online 2 and Ultima X: Odyssey — were planned, partially developed, and then cancelled.
With the closure of Origin Systems in 2004, development for Ultima Online was moved to EA’s Redwood Shores campus, and then later transferred again to BioWare Mythic (then Mythic Entertainment) in Fairfax, Virginia. They have moved the game toward a “booster pack” expansion model, offering smaller pieces of what are essentially downloadable content at a (hopefully) more frequent pace rather than large, less-frequent formal expansion packs. Mythic maintains support for both the classic and enhanced game clients, a feat which Jeff Skalski (franchise producer for Ultima at BioWare) admits is a significant challenge.
Ultima Online does not command a huge share of the MMORPG market; its subscriber base is estimated to comprise less than 1% of all subscribed MMO players world-wide. However, its impact and influence on the genre cannot be denied, and it continues to offer — to this day! — a unique online gaming experience and sandbox-style of play that other MMOs have never been able to match.