The recent news that Richard Garriott is again thinking of making a fantasy MMO – a return to his gaming roots – got my editor Jonah Falcon thinking, and he then got me thinking.
Thinking about a lost piece of MMO, actually gaming, history – it’s easy to forget now, amidst a sea of popular MMORPGs, just how revolutionary the genre is. It is also easy to forget that the genre didn’t start with World of Warcraft, it didn’t even start with EverQuest. No, MMORPGs started more than a decade a go back in 1997 with Ultima Online and Richard Garriott. iD Software originally pioneered on-line gaming with Doom 2 and then the Quake series, but computer RPGs were slow to follow their action counterparts into phone lines and then onto the still nascent Internet. It was Richard Garriott and his company Origin that moved RPGs onto the Internet with the Ultima Online, a spin-off of his popular Ultima series of computer RPGs, that largely stand as the exemplar for CRPGs even today.
It is hard to grasp today, when we’re all wired into the Internet all the time, through our computers, mobiles, GPS units, etc. How mindblowing the idea of a persistent multiplayer game was back in 1997; there had been other attempts at such a game but not with the graphics and game play that UO was offering. The game won numerous industry awards as well as 8 world records from the Guinness Book of World Records. All these accolades came out of a long series of testing. Origin began the game back in 1995 and the game was first shown at E3 in 1996. Origin invited gamers to join the alpha and beta tests of the game, and droves did. During late beta testing while Origin was stress testing their servers, the unthinkable happened. Near the end of the beta testing, Richard Garriott, as Lord British, began touring the servers with other famous Ultima characters to thank all the testers for their hard work. It was in one of these in-game meetings that a player managed to kill Lord British.
It goes without saying that the creator of the game’s avatar is supposed to be indestructible. In fact, Richard Garriott had always been extra-vigilant in making sure that Lord British could not be killed in any of the Ultima games. Gamers intent on doing the unthinkable have been able to find ways to kill the Immortal Lord British. For example, in Ultima III, the Lord British was invincible to players, but a gamer could get British to chase this character to the docks and there use cannons to kill the Lord! In this case, what happened was a player, who had previously butted heads with Origin over his gameplay, managed to steal a scroll of fire field scroll from a nearby player and use it on Lord British, never thinking he’d be able to kill the the character and then sitting there dumbfounded when he did! The player, “Rainz” re-tells the events in his own words:
The servers had just been taken down to prepare for the huge influx of players for the speech Lord British and Lord Blackthorne were giving throughout Britannia. When the servers came back up, I strolled through Britain with Helios, my fellow guild member. We headed to Blackthorne’s castle where the first speech was being given. LB, Blackthorne, and their jesters were up on a bridge orating to the masses. Unfortunately I wasn’t playing my mage character, so casting spells from a spellbook was out of the question. Luckily my character was a good thief who had high “stealing” skill. I desperately searched the backpacks of those around me and eventually came upon a fire field scroll. After that it was pretty simple, I just cast the scroll on the bridge and waited to see what would happen. Either LB or Blackthorne made the comment “hehe nice try”, can’t recall exactly who. It was a humorous sight and I expected to be struck down by lightning or have some other evil fate befall me. Instead I heard a loud death grunt as British slumped to his death. After that it was just pure mayhem, Blackthorne or another force summoned 4 daemons into the castle and people were dying left and right.
According to Origin and Richard Garriott, the incident was simply own of human error. After a server crash Garriott had simply forgotten to set his invulnerability flag on when he logged on to the server. “Rainz” was shortly banned after the event from the beta though Origin stated that it was not for assassination of Lord British, but rather previous complaints from other gamers who’d had been the victim of an exploit “Rainz” had found, and failed to report to Origin. The event made headlines in industry magazines and made “Rainz” a hero amongst on-line gamers!
Ultima Online went on to great success reaching over 100,000 paid subscriptions in six months and reached over 250,000 paid users before Everquest and Asheron’s Call began stealing users from the game. The game is still around, home to a small but rabid fanbase. UO recently was overhauled from the ground up and has a “newer” look while still retaining its 2d gameplay. EA currently markets it as an MMORPG for those with low-end PCs.