In 1999, I learned that Ultima Online was an actual game, not a theoretical project. I had heard the name before, but I had somehow gotten the notion that it was a bit of science fiction. Considering how revolutionary Neverwinter Nights on AOL seemed, just a few years earlier, it was far-fetched to think that we were already living the cyberpunk dream of fully realized virtual fantasy gaming.
What I imagined under the name “Ultima Online” and the reality were rather different, but I would not come to learn that for years. I did not look into it immediately because my friend who told me about it went on to describe it as already broken. She told a story that I have never checked in the past decade: the code throttled how many grand masters there were of each skill by making it harder to advance as more people were advancing that skill. This would reward less common paths, but if 10,000 people were making horseshoes, blacksmith advancement would be very slow. So went her story, “sword” was an obviously popular skill, so improvement there went at a glacial pace, and characters were being slaughtered by chickens and deer as they vainly tried to get their first few points, while the first grand masters ran rampant.
Google was young in those days, and we were not in the habit of verifying what some guy said about online games. More importantly at the time, it seemed perfectly plausible. We all know some poorly implemented systems that spoil grand projects. Heck, it still sounds plausible, doesn’t it? The founding MMOs had experiments that did not always work. If I told you that some obscure MMO (and you know I love to cite obscure crap) had such a newbie-unfriendly system, where you ended up slaughtering 500 bunnies to compete for a limited number of sword-advancement points per server per day, you might just shake your head and mutter something about Korean grind-fests.
The effect was that my group of friends did not rush to UO. (It would be a year before I knew what EQ was, even after seeing it in stores. “Oh look, yet another fantasy CRPG I have never heard of.” Why would I bother picking up the box?) No, some of them joined late in the beta for this exciting new game called Asheron’s Call…
I was hesitant to get started. My 486 computer had a 1 GB hard drive. I played StarCraft, and fully upgraded zerglings attacked once a second. Beyond needing to play on someone else’s computer, I did not expect it to last long. Multiplayer games had a 3-4 month lifespan in our group. I had followed them through three RTSes while sitting out several passing games. (You fall naturally into the late adopter position when you have the worst computer in your group.) By the time Asheron’s Call emerged from one person’s toy to something the group was seriously engaging, they had been in for a couple of months and beta was ending. Surely they were almost burned out, no point in jumping in now. Besides, it had a monthly subscription fee. That was something new, a big commitment, and a potentially meaningful expense in my younger self’s budget.
Soon, it was live and the majority of our group was playing. In less than a month, getting folks together for AoE2 or Brood Wars became difficult. I read the manual. Someone had the official tip book, so I looked through that. (This was back in the day when “game experience may change during online play” was new and paper books on MMOs did not seem idiotic. It was also under the paradigm of “minimal spoilers” instead of “watch a video of every boss fight before entering the dungeon.”)
Wow, this looked like exactly what I was expecting from online D&D. You really run around a world, with monsters and dungeons and towns. You level up and research spells and search for the legendary weapons the lore alludes to. I made a character on a friend’s account, an intentional throwaway to feel the game out (no respecs back in the day) and because I did not expect to be on his account much (or for the game to last long).
I made sure to train unarmed combat. Almost every RPG campaign, if it runs long enough, has a bit where the characters at least temporarily lose all their equipment. I wanted to be ready for that module where you all wake up in a prison cell. I had two or three weapon skills on a mage; the book recommended giving yourself diverse combat options. I had both categories of enchantment buffs, unknowingly starting what would become a long career in support magic.
It was, in retrospect, just about the worst possible starter character. It lacked offensive oomph without tanking ability, its support skills were minimal, and I had no one to support anyway since I borrowed my friend’s account when folks were not playing together. Still, there I was in a virtual world, smacking down monsters with my staff! (Not a euphemism.)
I gained a handful of levels in my first few play sessions. (Not the multi-hour play sessions that have become our norm.) At times it felt slow, lying down between Shreth fights to recover health. Then again, advancement felt rocket fast. Experience points appeared after every single kill, sometimes with bonus points mid-fight, rather than at the end of a pen-and-paper module. D&D campaigns could take years to reach higher levels, most of them ending in the mid-levels, and here I was already several levels along in just hours. Your first Achiever buzz is easy to reach.
Besides, this is how the book suggested that advancement worked. You found an area with monsters that were challenging but not life-threatening, you fought a few, then you rested while your health recovered and they respawned. The ideal Happy Hunting Ground would have enemies that respawned about as quickly as you recovered the health from the last fight. We may not have had a concept of “farming” at the time, but darned well did it, and it was new and exciting. (It was also comforting and familiar, since we had done something familiar in CRPGs like Final Fantasy or Pool of Radiance, seeking random encounters to level.)
We took “spell research” seriously. Asheron’s Call, for those who never played under the original system, had you learn and cast spells by putting components in a spell window (order mattered). There were dozens of components determining the school of the spell, damage or stat type, positive or negative, self or other, etc. There were commonalities you could learn, and once you recognized the animations and magic words, you could reverse-engineer most of a spell’s formula just by watching someone cast it.
Anyway, when the manual said we could discover new spells, we thought we could discover new spells. Not as in new to our character, new to the game. Another term we did not have was “emergent gameplay,” but we were expecting it. Our mental model was that each component added something to a spell, like recipe ingredients or building blocks, and the resulting spell was the product of those inputs. Add a bit more fire component and you got more fire. It was not clear to us that there were set formulas for every spell in the game. We thought we could break new ground instead of uncovering an existing path.
I started a week or two before the first patch, the Sudden Season. At the time, we were scornful. Why add more upper-level content? It is not as though many players were past level 20 or that many would ever get past 30. Have you seen the xp curve at that point? And yet there the developers were, wasting time on the hardcore few, making content hardly anyone would ever see. (Yes, the casual vs. hardcore debate was there from the start.)
If you cannot see how very wrong that line of thought was, consider that my last Asheron’s Call character did not get finish acquiring her basic skills until level 60. And that was far far from the bleeding edge most of a decade ago. And Asheron’s Call has a soft level cap; even when the hard cap was level 126
128, you could keep earning experience points to improve your skills even if you could not learn new ones.
Back then, VN Boards was where it was at, along with Crossroads of Dereth, and our server of Morningthaw had a vibrant community. Rant sites were in their early days before we started calling them “blogs.”