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Welcome to the oldest part of the metaverse

Ultima Online, which just turned 25, offers a lesson in the challenges of building virtual worlds.

February 17, 2023
illustration of a group game characters walking toward us
Arik Roper

Today’s headlines treat the metaverse as a hazy dream yet to be built, but if it’s defined as a network of virtual worlds we can inhabit, its oldest extant corner has been already running for 25 years. It’s a medieval fantasy kingdom created for the online role-playing game Ultima Online—and it has already endured a quarter-century of market competition, economic turmoil, and political strife. So what can this game and its players tell us about creating the virtual worlds of the future?

Ultima Online—UO to its fans—was not the first online fantasy game. As early as 1980, “multi-user dungeons,” known as MUDs, offered text-based role-playing adventures hosted on university computers connected via Arpanet. With the birth of the World Wide Web in 1991, a handful of graphical successors like Kingdom of Drakkar and Neverwinter Nights followed—allowing dozens or hundreds of players at a time to slay monsters together in a shared digital space. In 1996 the “massively multiplayer” genre was born, and titles such as Baram and Meridian 59 attracted tens of thousands of paying subscribers. 

But in 1997, Ultima transformed the industry with a revolutionary ambition: simulating an entire world. Instead of small, static environments that were mainly backdrops for combat, UO offered a vast, dynamic realm where players could interact with almost anything—fruit could be picked off trees, books could be taken off shelves and actually read. Unlike previous games where everyone was a heroic knight or wizard, Ultima realized a whole alternative society—with players taking on the roles of bakers, beggars, blacksmiths, pirates, and politicians. 

Perhaps most important, Ultima let people really live there. In most previous games, players occupied areas while logged in but had no persistent presence while offline. One, Furcadia, let users create customized mini-dimensions that temporarily connected to a shared space. But in UO, whatever things players built remained for others to interact with even when the player who had built them logged off. People could construct permanent cottages or castles anywhere there was open land and decorate them as they pleased. They could also form town governments or just have friends in to socialize over virtual ale and mutton. In short, it promised to be a place

This grand vision reflected the backgrounds of the development team at Origin Systems. Richard Garriott, its founder, had spent nearly two decades producing a series of single-player Ultima games that increasingly emphasized player freedom and complex moral choices. UO’s lead designer, Raph Koster, and most of its key programmers had cut their teeth on text-based MUDs—where the lack of computation-hungry graphics enabled servers to focus on deeper quantitative modeling than other games could attempt. A thriving circle of MUD hobbyists had been experimenting for years with complex simulations of things like agriculture, weather, and herbal medicine. 

Burning to apply such ideas on a massive scale, Koster and his wife, Kristen (also an Origin designer), devised an elaborate resource ecology system that would make Ultima’s game world come alive. Fields would grow grass. Herbivores would eat the grass. Carnivores would hunt the herbivores. Instead of just sitting around waiting to be killed by adventurers, dragons would seek to satisfy something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—first food, then shelter, and finally a lust for shiny treasure. This could foster truly inventive thinking. Rather than killing marauding monsters to protect a peaceful town, players could herd tasty deer into their path. In alpha testing, this worked well, and the team sensed that their careful plans and powerful simulation would give them substantial control over the ebb and flow of game play.  

The public beta test was a rude awakening. An unprecedented 50,000 people paid $5 each for early access to the game—and swarmed over the world like a plague of locusts, killing everything in sight. The rabbits didn’t live long enough to be hunted by wolves, and the dragons were slain long before anyone considered their motivations. It was ecological collapse. And with servers groaning under the weight of AI processes that were going unnoticed anyway, the team reluctantly tore out the whole system. As if to underscore the developers’ loss of control, near the end of the beta a player assassinated the king himself—Richard Garriott’s avatar, Lord British. 

When the full game went live in September ’97, tidal waves of players roamed the kingdom of Britannia, clicking on everything and using game mechanics in ways the Origin programmers had never anticipated. Soon, a group of murderous carpenters observed that wooden furniture could block the movement of other characters. They barricaded the gates of a major city with hundreds of tables and armoires, and ambushed anyone trying to escape. The victims appealed to Origin, but Raph Koster pushed for a solution that leaned harder into simulation. A patch was rushed out that let players solve the problem themselves: axes could now be used to chop up furniture.

Other misbehavior targeted weaknesses in the game engine itself, which were much harder to fix. Cunning miscreants nested thousands of objects in one place to create “black holes” that crashed the game. Some exploited UO’s lack of a gravity system to float on chairs into rivals’ houses and loot them clean.

Such failures, combined with extreme lag and numerous bugs, sparked widespread player outrage. But a strange thing happened. Instead of just quitting, as most people do when unsatisfied with a product, many stayed and fought for change. That November, a large crowd gathered in the capital, stripped as naked as their hard-coded loincloths would allow, and staged a drunken protest in Lord British’s castle. For Garriott, this level of passion for the game—even in the form of anger—was a remarkable validation. 

Cunning miscreants nested thousands of objects in one place to create “black holes” that crashed the game.

Yet it was quickly dawning on Origin that it was no longer merely a tech company. It was a government. And before long, that government presided over a population of more than 100,000 subscribers—larger than Charleston, South Carolina. Without the civic institutions that exist in real life, like school boards and labor unions, there were no outlets for players to express their wishes and feel heard. So Koster and the team set up “House of Commons” sessions where concerned citizens could chat directly with developers. The lobbying was fierce. Mages wanted spells to be stronger and swords to be weaker. Swordsmen wanted the opposite. There was no way to please everyone—no brilliant technical answer. The only path forward was the hard work of actual governance: communication, compromise, and transparency.

The most urgent policy question was what to do about murder. Garriott’s concept for Ultima Online stressed the freedom to role-play both good and evil, so the game enabled players to attack, rob, and kill each other. But the kingdom had turned into a slaughterhouse, with roving bands of powerful “player killers” butchering anyone who strayed outside the major cities—whose computer-controlled guards were invincible protectors in town but would ignore banditry even one step outside their jurisdiction. Although resurrection was possible, anything characters carried when they died could be stolen. So when curious new subscribers lost everything on their first trip into the woods, many logged off and never returned. 

Again, Koster sought to empower players through richer simulation—establishing a bounty system that let victims put prices on murderers’ heads. Undeterred, the outlaws treated the bounties list as a leaderboard. Several more rule changes followed, including a reputation system that tracked players’ actions and applied penalties to disincentivize killing. Yet players found numerous loopholes to torment each other in ways the software wouldn’t notice. 

A major challenge for the developers was figuring out what was actually happening in the first place.

In 2000, Garriott and Koster both left the company, and with subscriber attrition still severe, Origin opted for a drastic solution. It split the world into two mirror-­image realms—Felucca, where nonconsensual violence remained possible, and Trammel, where player-versus-player combat was strictly opt-in. The move remains bitterly controversial, with critics saying it eliminated the sense of peril that made UO unique. But users voted with their feet and their dollars. Almost immediately, the great majority of Britannians migrated to Trammel. And with players free to choose which experience they wanted, subscriptions swelled to 250,000.

Concurrent with the player-killing epidemic, an economic crisis had also been unfolding. The game’s resource system had initially been a closed loop, with fixed amounts of gold and raw materials available. Servers would generate such goods on assorted trolls, zombies, and lizardmen that would spawn in savage wildlands or deep in foul dungeons. By killing them, adventurers could claim this treasure. Resources that players consumed or gold they spent at AI-run shops would go back into an abstract pool that the server would draw from as new monsters spawned. This system broke down almost immediately, though, as players mindlessly hoarded everything they could get their hands on—preventing fresh treasure from appearing. But when Origin changed its policy and disconnected the loop, monster loot became a firehose of wealth into the economy, and hyperinflation followed. 

Sneak attack
When Ultima Online creator Richard Garriott forgot to reengage his avatar Lord British’s invulnerability setting during the game’s 1997 beta test, a player called Rainz assassinated him with a magic fire spell.
COURTESY OF BROADSWORD/ELECTRONIC ARTS
Mortal peril
Slaying a dragon is a worthy challenge, but the most dangerous foes are other players.
COURTESY OF BROADSWORD/ELECTRONIC ARTS

Holiday party
A large in-game gathering celebrated Christmas in 2002.
COURTESY OF BROADSWORD/ELECTRONIC ARTS
DIY
UO allows players to build fully customized homes, like this 2018 castle by Dot Warner.
COURTESY OF BROADSWORD/ELECTRONIC ARTS

On a new auction site called eBay, players were selling their in-game riches for real money. At first, one US dollar would get you about 200 Britannian gold pieces—making these fantasy coins more valuable than the Italian lira. About a year later, a dollar could buy more than 10,000 pieces of gold. With the market for virtual goods booming, “gold farming” became a big business in the real world, as entrepreneurs in China or Mexico hired locals to grind all day in the game for low wages. 

Another inflation source was “duping”—exploits that tricked the servers into duplicating items. Origin did its best to patch the bugs and delete dupes, but enough got into circulation to keep gold prices in free fall. When some customer service “Game Masters” were found to be corruptly colluding with players, live producer Rich Vogel stood up an internal affairs unit to watch the watchers.

A major challenge for the developers was figuring out what was actually happening in the first place. Real-world governments need enormous bureaucracies to gather information about their economies. One might guess this wouldn’t be an issue in virtual worlds, where everything is literally made out of information. But it is. At launch, most player wealth statistics were buried inaccessibly in the binary of the server backup files. Without comprehensive gold metrics, Raph Koster resorted to tracking inflation via eBay prices. It took many frantic months to build analytics tools and integrate them into dashboards that could inform decision-making.

As the picture clarified, Origin realized it needed better “gold sinks”—mechanisms to fight inflation by pulling gold out of UO’s economy. Taxing hoarded wealth would have caused a subscriber revolt. Selling rich characters godlike weapons might have sucked up enough gold to solve inflation, but it would’ve created a class of invincible terminators and wrecked game balance. 

The solution was ingenious: purely cosmetic status symbols. For the price of a small castle, Britannia’s elite could buy neon hair dye and impress commoners with a violently green mohawk. These measures, though, offered only a Band-Aid—by 2010, gold was at 500,000 per dollar.

By this time, competitors like World of Warcraft had lured away a majority ofUO’s players. But while most of its peers have shut down, Ultima Online has stabilized and maintains a sturdy core of users—perhaps around 20,000—even a quarter-century after its debut. What’s kept them? 

Current subscribers say the sense of identity and investment UO offers is unrivaled. Thanks in part to gold sinks and expansion content, it far surpasses even contemporary titles in options for customizing costumes and housing. As a result, the game’s original Renaissance-fair aesthetic has drifted to something weirder. Traveling the land today, you’ll see gargoyle-­men wearing sunglasses, and ninjas in fluorescent armor riding giant spiders. Quaint medieval villages have given way to tracts of garish McMansions. But even if this riotous mishmash breaks the verisimilitude for players, it’s all theirs

It is impossible for designers to foresee all the ways users can break a system.

Yet the greatest factor keeping the community alive is the relationships and memories they’ve built together. Yes, other games have better graphics and flashier features. But where else can a friend who lives continents away in the offline world drop over for reaper fish pie and admire the rare painting you pilfered together during the Clinton administration? 

Often, these attachments are intensely personal—quite a few players had built virtual homes with parents or friends who later died in real life, and maintaining them is a way to feel connected to people they’ve lost. Some met their real-life spouses on late-night dungeon crawls. In sum, Britannia has truly become a place, and people stay for all the reasons we cherish real-world places. 

The nostalgia is so strong that some Ultima diehards have reverse-engineered the source code and set up free bootleg servers touting a “pure” experience that recaptures the spirit of the game’s early days. Thousands of former players have flocked to them. One fan-made service lets people play via web browsers. Another project aims to incorporate UO into virtual reality. 

As metaverse technologies make such worlds ever more accessible, it’s easy to imagine Britannia someday being a sort of pilgrimage site—where the brightest promise of simulated worlds first flowered, and where their toughest pitfalls were first overcome. Those building the next generation of those worlds would do well to learn the lessons of Ultima Online. 

For one, as Origin discovered, it is impossible for designers to foresee all the ways users can break a system—keeping things running is an endless war that requires flexible improvisation. Giving people more freedom makes this task even harder, but it also promotes the sense of investment that lets them put down roots.

Further, when users inhabit a virtual world, their relationship with its creators is fundamentally political. It is tempting to believe that the community’s problems can be solved with innovative engineering alone, but no clever algorithm can avert the need for wise governance. Just as in real-world policy, citizens respond to incentives, and antisocial behavior is hard to curb without unintended consequences.

Ultimately, it is human connections that sustain these worlds, not technological bells and whistles. It takes humility for developers to recognize that the content they produce is not the core of the experience. So when those pilgrims arrive in Britannia, we should expect that many of its founding citizens will still be there to welcome them. 

John-Clark Levin is an author and journalist at the intersection of technology, security, and policy. 

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