Ultimate Ultima

An Internet Game for 9000 Players

"When Ultima comes out, my plan is to take over an island economy," says Jason Merrell, a beta tester. "I want to corner the market on an item, like bows, and run that monopoly. Retire rich, you know." Merrell played everything from animal tamer to bowier (maker of bows) in the beta test and was able to purchase a ship with the money he made. "Bowiering was a great industry," he says. "Everyone wants them."

Other beta players report that the social interaction is what makes the game unique. In the world of PC games, high-end 64-bit platforms, and arcades, social interaction isn't a norm. "But that's why it's such a fabulous game," says tester Bob Perez. "Here you have groups that work together. You wouldn't last very long by yourself." Ultima was designed with this in mind. Every character has a specific skill, whether it be fighting or farming, but not any one character can develop all of them--you need to band with other characters who can exploit different talents.

"What's cool is that you can go on adventures with so many different types of people," says Tim Martin, who's new to online gaming. Indeed, Ultima hopes to be more democratic than many other RPGs--newbies and otaku (hardcore) players will have equal chance to survive. In other RPGs, the up-all-night players gain a certain elite status and powers in return for the hours they put in. Ultima has a more inclusive politics--something the Net desperately needs if it wants to thrive.

Ultima claims to be a breakthrough in gaming, and for once that seems to be more than just hype. Its use of the Net is the first to approximate the cyberpunk visions of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson--the graphics-intense interface and sense of geography engender a more authentic virtual community than the cursory relationships found in chat rooms, or even the heady text-based wordplay in MUDs and MOOs. Cyberspace may not yet have arrived--but it's a giant step closer.

Within minutes of his shocking "death," Lord British was revived by Garriott, his all-powerful creator. Rainz was not so lucky; he remained a ghost. His human avatar, Shahrooz, was subsequently banned from the beta test--but not, Garriott insists, for his assassination of Lord British. He says Shahrooz had been exploiting other bugs in the program and not reporting them.

"I can understand why they banned me," says Shahrooz. "But I like the game. The possibilities are endless. I'll definitely play it when it comes out. The only thing is, I've already killed Lord British. I'll have to find a new purpose."

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