Ultima Online (UO) is a graphical massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), released on September 25 1997, by Origin Systems. It was instrumental to the development of the genre, and is still running today. The game is played online, in a fantasy setting similar to that of the other Ultima games that preceded it.
The success of Ultima Online opened the door for the creation of many new massively multiplayer games. Ultima Online is a fantasy role-playing game set in the Ultima universe. It is online-only and played by thousands of simultaneous users (who pay a monthly fee) on various game servers, also known as shards. It is known for its extensive timing-based player versus player combat system. To maintain order in the online community, there are Game Masters who resolve player disputes, police the shard for terms of service violations, and correct glitches in the game.
Several expansions have been released, but its aging game engine and graphics make it outdated compared to competitive, new massively multiplayer games. This changed with the release of Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn in 2007, which features a new game engine. Since Ultima Online's prime in 2003, the overall subscriber base has seen a steady decline. Subscriber numbers peaked at around 250,000 in July 2003, and to date sit around 135,000 subscribers (approximately 70,000 of whom are Japanese). As of June 2006, Ultima Online held a 1.1% market share of the massively multiplayer online game subscriptions.
Quoting directly from the Electronic Arts press release announcing the Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn expansion, Ultima Online was "the first MMORPG to reach the 100,000 subscriber base, far exceeding that of any game that went before it. Since then, it has added seven expansion packs and dozens of free content updates.
The project started in 1995 and was shown to the public at E3 in 1996. The development cost was much greater than traditional computer games, it relied on people accessing servers with modems. Ultima Online initial features included persistent player housing, skill-based character progression (without levels or classes), crafting and player-drive economy, and unrestricted player-versus-player combat.
Upon release, Ultima Online proved to be very popular, reaching 100,000 paying subscribers within six months of release, despite severe lag problems. Subscriptions continued to grow for several years, reaching a peak of some 250,000 paid accounts. Origin was able to make a great deal of money from the monthly fees required to play Ultima Online and many other companies took note and began development of their own massively multiplayer games. The most successful games after Ultima Online have been EverQuest (released in March 1999), Asheron's Call (released in November 1999), Dark Age of Camelot (released in October 2001), and World of Warcraft (released in November 2004). The Korean massively multiplayer game Lineage was inspired by Ultima Online, as have many other subsequent online games.
Ultima Online continued the tradition of previous Ultima games in many ways, but due to advancing technology and the simple fact that it was Origin's first persistent online game, there were many new game mechanics as well. Partially designed as a social and economic experiment, the game had to account for the widespread player interaction as well as deal with the long history of players feeling as if they were the center of attention, as had been the case in single-player games. New to both the developers and the players, a lot that was planned never happened, and a lot that was unexpected did, and many new game mechanics were put in place to compensate.
Ultima Online has seen many major revisions throughout its history. This includes gameplay revisions, staff changes, technical revamps, porting the backend to Unix, and fundamental design changes. With few earlier MMORPGs to take lesson from, the staff behind Ultima Online was breaking new ground and had to solve complex issues that had never been faced in a commercial game on such a wide scale before. The importance of understanding psychology, social interaction, economy, and other issues became increasingly important as complex social behavior evolved.
Throughout the pre-release development of the game, a well-balanced, realistic economy and social structure was the goal. While not all of the features planned for incorporation made it into the first release, the developers did manage to give almost all of the control to the players in terms of what they could do to each other and the world as a whole. What ensued caused permanent repercussions still faced in the game today.
Another problem throughout Ultima Online's history has been flaws that allowed for cheating. In early years, methods to duplicate items were discovered and many took advantage of this loophole to mass produce gold and items, causing great harm in the games economy and power structure. Even after this method was fixed, other methods were discovered over the years which bypassed server and game mechanics to duplicate items and gold. With the introduction of cross-shard character transfers, massive duplication between worldwide servers started to occur, greatly injuring the game economy.
Ultima Online was sued by former player volunteers ("Counselors") and settled in 2004 without admitting wrongdoing. AOL had their volunteers train customer service personnel it hired, then shut down the volunteer program. Concern over future lawsuits led Microsoft to shut down their volunteer program for Asheron's Call.
Fans of Ultima Online have reverse-engineered the game to produce server emulators of the original Electronic Arts servers. With the modern emulation server software available today, it is possible to customize most aspects of the game and support large numbers of concurrent players on a single server. These "freeshards" are not supported by EA but have been popular among users who prefer a different rule set, or who do not wish to pay the monthly subscription fee.
The original Ultima Online client is 2D and, while it was state of the art when released, it is intended to be used on low-end machines that cannot support the more taxing 3D client. It also presents a crisper, simpler artistic flavor that some people find more attractive than the 3D client. Many of the graphics used are high-resolution versions of graphics used in Ultima VIII.
The 3D client was originally released as a part of the Ultima Online: Third Dawn expansion, but has received poor reviews from both veteran and new players alike due to a large number of performance issues (especially memory leaks early on) and what many see as sub-par graphics. An update to the 3D client was made on January 30 2006 when characters and creatures from the game were scaled down to smaller sizes.
As of early May/Late April 2007, the Third Dawn client is no longer supported by Electronic Arts, and focus has been shifted to the Kingdom Reborn client. Electronic Arts Ultima Online servers will no longer allow the Third Dawn client to connect.
Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn was announced in August 2006 and was released August 27, 2007. The new client, according to the Ultima Online team at Electronic Arts, is being created for the purpose of modernizing the game's look, making it easy to add new content without backsliding through outdated and outmoded art, while maintaining the niche market as an MMORPG that can be run on lower-end computers. Electronic Arts has referred to the Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn client as "2.5d," meaning that it was written in 3d and then effectively backslid into 2d to make it, in theory, easier for lower-end computers to run.
The recommended specs are: Windows XP or Windows Vista, CPU: Intel Pentium III 1000 MHz or AMD Athlon 1000 MHz, RAM: 512 MB or more, Video: 64 MB 3D graphics card with Hardware Transform and Lighting, such as NVIDIA GeForce 3 class card or above, hard drive: 6.0 GB available space. The client is available as a free download for current players of the game.
Statements made by Electronic Arts originally stated that the Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn client would replace the long-standing Ultima Online client. However, at the first of several Electronic Arts-sponsored players' conventions referred to as "UO Town Meetings," in Atlanta, Electronic Arts representatives suggested that the two clients would exist side-by-side until about 80% of the players had switched over to the new client.
September 1997 was the last day of the original beta test. The beta ended with a bang, as players were treated to an "end of the world" scenario with Shadowlords, demons, and other evil creatures slaughtering every character in sight. Ultima Online opened its doors to the public. In 1998, the game expanded, and the number of users reached over 100,000 worldwide. In 1999, the game expands to Japan in January, to Europe in May, and to South Korea in July.
In the game expands to Australia. Lord British disappears. Rumors fly on the wind about the disappearance of the King. Some claim he was abducted by mongbats, while others insist that it was the work of more malevolent forces. In February, a massive army of undead laid siege to the once peaceful city of Trinsic. Due to the overwhelming odds, the dark army managed to conquer the city under the leadership of Juo'nar and the Dark Mistress Minax. All hope seemed to be lost, but noble Britannians from all over rallied together and reclaimed the city from the clutches of evil! In May, Ultima Online's second expansion marked the beginning of a new era in Britannia. With the splitting of the lands into the facets of Trammel and Felucca, players could choose their geography based on their play style. November 2000 marked the UO World Faire. Players from all over met and mingled in Austin, TX at Ultima Online's first official fanfest.
Ultima Online's third expansion occurred in March 2001, introducing the new land of Ilshenar, new beasts and monsters, and an entirely new way to view the game. Online Worlds FanFest. Ultima Online's second official fanfest, Online Worlds FanFest, was held in Austin, TX in January 2002. Players were able to meet the Developers behind the game, as well as special guest speaker Todd McFarlane. February 2002 marked Lord Blackthorn's Revenge. Ultima Online's fourth expansion brought players into a world under siege, replete with more than 30 new and exotic characters created by none other than Spawn (comics) creator Todd McFarlane. However, in May, Royal Knight of Britannia, leads the fight against Blackthorn and Exodus. He would be slain in June 2003.
Ultima Online's fifth expansion in was the most aggressive yet, offering players the ability to custom design their homes, the Paladin and Necromancer professions, a new land called Malas, and 13 new combat moves. In March 2003 Ultima Online reached 250,000 subscribers. Lord British returns in September 2003, the same month as the game's 6th anniversary.
Ultima Online: Samurai Empire launched in November 2004. Samurai Empire is a Japanese-themed expansion, offering two new professions, the Ninja and the Samurai, as well as new Japanese-themed housing tile sets. New lands, the Tokuno Islands, were added, with the cities being styled after ancient Japanese cities. Ultima Online: Mondain's Legacy was then launched in August 2005. This is the first time Ultima Online allows for more than one player race, as Elves are added. The quest system received a major upgrade, as did the crafting system. Spellweaving was added to the skills. Many new dungeons were added to existing areas. This expansion was also the first that was only available online (offline versions on CDs could be ordered).
In June 2006, Electronic Arts announced that PunkBuster will be integrated into Ultima Online. This marks the first time PunkBuster will be used with an MMORPG to help curb cheating/exploiting. However, this was never integrated into the game, and in November 2006, Electronic Arts announces that the integration of PunkBuster will be put on an indefinite hold. In August of that year Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn was announced. This was the first major overhaul of the client and artwork systems since Ultima Online: Third Dawn. Unlike Third Dawn, all 9,000+ pieces of existing artwork/graphics in-game will have new versions created for the new client.