Ultimate Ultima

An Internet Game for 9000 Players

Lord British, ruler of Britannia, sat quietly at his throne, wondering if he should go on another tour of his kingdom. The people certainly would want to see their Lord and, gee, wouldn't he love to show off. The satin robe that had arrived last week was all shimmery and soft, and he had yet to display its splendor. Yes, British decided, he would go out and address his subjects.

He arrived at a gathering of Britannia's citizens. Knights, warriors, mages, farmers, bakers, and fishers stood side by side with thieves, killers, and henchmen. When the throng grew large enough, British walked toward the masses. Meanwhile, a lowly thief named Rainz was frantically moving through the crowd. He was looking for something to steal, something he could kill with.

Oblivious to the impending evil, Lord British began his speech. He had no idea that, despite being absolute ruler, he was no longer invincible. Rainz had seized a knight's book of magic, found a spell, and begun reading it aloud. In moments a wall of fire appeared before the Lord and his entourage. "Ah ha ha, you can't kill me!" yelled Lord British. And he walked into the flames.

This is not Dungeons & Dragons or a fantasy fiction novel. Rather, it's Ultima Online, an Internet role playing game, or RPG, that allows real people to travel around in an enormous virtual world and behave even more emotionally than they do in their usual reality. It is a huge advance over well-known RPG titles like Doom, in which single users play against the computer. Ultima, based on earlier games created by Richard Garriott, a/k/a Lord British, is expected to have a minimum of 50,000 users--of whom 5000 to 9000 can play at one time.

The Ultima universe is not only far more populous than most chat rooms and other virtual spaces, it is bigger than many small towns. The game is currently being beta-tested, but will go live at the end of the month. "It has been awaited by the industry as something that might be a watershed," says Seema Choudhury, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Ultima Online is definitely pushing the bounds of the technology."

"I guess you could say it's a game about having a shared experience," says Garriott, whose company is Origin Systems. "Through the Internet vast numbers of people are accessing data without interacting with each other. And that's unneeded. The key element to this game is to provide the players with a sandbox with enough interesting things so they can interact."

Garriott's playground is a fantasy space called Britannia--as its name suggests, it looks just like medieval Europe. The virtual geography is so large that Britannia would take up a football field of monitors if displayed in its entirety. The starter software will be sold for about $50 in major software outlets. Users will then plug into the Net, paying about $10 a month for unlimited play. That's a lot more than other games charge, but less than the monthly bills for other types of virtual sandboxes, like America Online or the Microsoft Network. "Right now, consumers are willing to pay for this type of Net connection versus others, or even along with others," says Jay Kim, of industry analysts Paul Kagan Associates. "And the Ultima market has a 15-year history with its previous single-player RPGs."

Before entering Garriott's sandbox, players choose what they will be-- anything from baker to knight, thief to mage (magician). They can also select clothing, a size and shape, and skin color (orange is an option). Finally, they develop a character. Even though the themes are based on fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons, the dynamic is new. Players are asked to answer a number of questions probing their personality. The game character's abilities (to learn new skills, say) are based on this profile. The game does not so much create an alter ego as an extended ego. You, by some funny process of transcendence, become another. "In most fantasy games the storyline was to kill the evil wizard," says Garriott. "But that's not really you. It's not necessarily your motivation. In Britannia, the character really is you."

Ali Shahrooz was one of 25,000 people beta-testing the game (so far, up to 3000 people have played at a time). He invented Rainz, a game character who wanted nothing more than to kill Lord British. "I don't know, I just thought I could do it," says Shahrooz. "I thought it would be a worthwhile challenge."

The feat should have been impossible, because Garriott had decided that Lord British should be all-powerful. He wrote a set of codes recognizing his extended ego as "invincible." But Rainz/Shahrooz was fortunate enough to strike at a time when the program glitched Garriott's "invincible" code. The thief's fire wall became a mortal threat and the scene turned to mayhem. When it was over, Lord British lay dead on the ground. Daemons had overreacted and slain innocent citizens. Rainz had been killed in the crossfire.

Britannia is a closed economy with limited resources. Its citizens, much like ours, will be competing for basic needs--food, shelter, clothing. They will employ a range of skills, some of them devious, including fighting, thieving, and magic. And therein lies the players' only specific goal--to be all that they can be.

"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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