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Almost three years ago, Origin Systems brought together a team of writers, artists, and computer programmers to build a perfect world of their own, a hyperreal simulation of a country they named Britannia. When it was done, they connected their kingdom to the Internet and invited people to come live there.
Today about 150,000 people log on to the world of Britannia, where they play a deeply immersive game called Ultima. Players from more than 114 countries pay $9.95 a month for the pleasure, and soon their game lives will all change.
In April, Origin will release an eagerly anticipated update called Ultima Online Renaissance, which has twice the virtual landmass of the original. Three other companies are about to issue other versions of the game, which has earned $52 million in subscription revenues alone.
This success is due in large part to Ultima's realism and complexity. Its richness has even given rise to something only fully developed social environments have: crime.
Anybody can create a virtual Eden like Myst, or a slaughterhouse for trigger-happy teens like Quake. What makes Ultima revolutionary is that it's neither heaven nor hell, but mirrors the moral ambiguity of life itself. It's not simply that you can kill another playermany games allow murderbut that you have the freedom to slay an innocent, a noncombatant. It can be profitable to kill, but there are also social consequences to doing so. It's the act of weighing these consequences against the rewards that gives Ultima an ethical dimension not found in other games.
ntering Ultima is like stepping into a Brueghel painting in pulsing Technicolor, with infinite levels of detail that open at a mouse click. The sun sets in the evening and rises again in the morning to brighten a landscape dotted with huts and castles. Makeshift paths cut through foreboding forests. You'll meet characters dressed in purple tunics and silver armour and other outlandish garb. They are busy at work, crafting tools and weapons, baking bread, or just relaxing over mead and wine. Chatter fills the air, as does the crash of battle.
It's easy to get lost here. The average "citizen" spends between 17 and 20 hours a week playing Ultima, and more than half log on every single day. "My girlfriend hates it," writes one typical player. "I think she's going to leave me. She thinks it's not 'social.' " The Ultima newsgroups are filled with complaints from game widows. "I am going to chop up the CD if it doesn't get better soon," writes one despondent wife. "Ultima is in the process of ruining an 8 month marriage."
With that kind of potential for addiction, it's no wonder Ultima is such a fast-growing business. It started as a MUD experience for hardcore gamers, but it's now on the radar of some of the world's largest corporations and is poised to enter the mainstream. Sony spent three years developing an Ultima knockoff, EverQuest, which now has over 200,000 subscribers, and Microsoft has brought out a version of its own. Last November, AOL placed an $81 million bet on Origin's parent company. By 2002, industry analysts say the number of gamers will reach 27 million. But they may not be playing the game as it's done today. For as some of the game designers have discovered, making Ultima attractive to larger audiences requires changing its essence.
Soon after Ultima went online, the designers noticed that 10 percent of players did not come to bake bread. Gamers call it "PKing," or player-killing, and it's the game-world equivalent of serial homicide. Mass murder was never part of the plan, but the designers realized that when you build a virtual society, it breeds virtual crime.
Originally, in the pre-Internet versions of the game, virtue was the point. "I was tired of writing kill-the-wizard stories," recalls the game's creator, Richard Garriott, who lives in a custom-built castle in Austin, Texas. "I started writing ethical parables built into the game's structural core. The Ultima games are stories about your personal ethics."
But when the game moved online it went from being a solo adventure to a social experience, and the crime followed.
The basic social unit is a guild, which is something like a tribe, a labor union, and an amateur softball team rolled into one. There are 21,000 guilds; some are devoted to peaceful pursuits like fishing and mining, but many others track down player-killers. The Guardians of Light, an earnest group that boasts 238 members, pledges itself to "the extermination of evil in the world of Britannia." There are also guilds of assassins. Jihad Gehenna Krangath has two golden rules: "Don't kill guildmates" and "Kill everyone else."
For a new player, the temptation of going to the dark side can be great. Consider the Galads, two friends who joined together under the names Evil Galad and Good Galad. Evil Galad is a teacher in his real life, but the game brings out his disobedient streak. "I went out on a PKing/looting binge for a couple of days," says Evil Galad. "I was making a fortune compared to what I used to get as an 'honorable' player. It didn't take me long to figure out that playing an evil character gives you a huge advantage over the good players."