Ultima Online

Some of you just tried to log in, didn't you? I don't blame you. I really can't.

For some of you, you heard music. This song in particular.

Ultima Online is how it all started. My downfall at the hands of online RPGs. Sure, I had dabbled in online roleplaying before, haunting chat rooms, trading blow-by-blows in forums, but this was something different, and the scene above was almost exactly what greeted me on that fateful day.

Or, rather, the day after that day.

As with many firsts, it took in distant past - OF THE YEAR 2000. I hauled home a big white box (something games came in, back in those days) for Ultima Online: Renaissance. I easily installed it - it came on a disc, that, of course, had a sexy lady firing a bow at an anatomically impossible angle.

I then waited a whole day to patch the damn thing.

You see, my internet was delivered via an archaic device called a "modem." Modems transmitted information by screeching into a phone line and listening back. We had a "fast" modem, a US Robotics 56k. The 56k there stands for kB (not MB) per second, and it never got to be remotely as fast as that.

We connected via an AOL line to an old junction box in a town with more coyotes than people. Calling it used the telephone line, and we only had one, so nobody could call the house without temporarily borking my connection.

This led to a lot of deaths. And death in Ultima Online was (at the time) a painful experience quite a like the infamous EverQuest Loading, please wait... You had to run around in a robe with 1 hit point and try to grab your stuff while under attack from whatever had killed your fully armed and armored self.

So while my parents were wondering why nobody ever called them, or screaming at me to get off the phone (picking up the phone to check for the horrific annoying shriek of the modem also led to a disconnection and death) I was anxiously figuring a few things out, not just about video games, but about the world.

Possibly the most lasting impact the game had on me was the creation of my most long lived character, one that has resurfaced in almost every game I've played or dungeon mastered or written ever since.

Garrett Granth.

Every game designer in the house just grabbed their temples and shrieked upon viewing that UI.

Garrett Granth came into the world of UO at a point when simply staring at the 2nd edition players guide of Dungeons and Dragons no longer could maintain my interest in an RPG. I didn't play D&D at the time because there was no one to play it with, I lived in the middle of nowhere - a place with abyssal modem speed, if you'll recall. Or, kal ort por if you're a UO player.

As with many people born in Mississippi, Garrett began as an inkling in a teenage mind - what sort of man did I want to be in this sprawling, huge, fantasy world?

First, I had to have a beard. In my high school, beards - facial hair of any kind, really - were verboten, and while I had long done well with huge mutton chops, this was a chance to have what I wanted - a long, chest-length wizard beard.

This was the year 2000. Having a long, chest-length wizard beard was done by precisely no one. Lord of the Rings was still just a book and a cartoon I'd never seen.

Then, long hair. Long hair was something I stuck with for a decade, until biology took it from me. But at the time, it was just an impossible dream - my High School would no more have let you grow shoulder length hair than they would have let you grow a beard, wear an earring (boys only) or be black.

That day at school, instead of studying, I was pouring through the massive (and entirely useless and already outdated) manual. On the way home, I was preoccupied, spending the 20 minute drive worrying with a name.

RPG players know that the character name needs to pack the perfect punch. Mine needed alteration, it needed rhythm. I had a first name - Garrett - cribbed from the venerable Thief series, which I'd enjoyed the year before. "Granth" filled the bill.

Garrett Granth had rich fantasy life all laid out in my head before I even typed his name into the character creation box.

He would be a great wizard, a hermit in a hide tent on the magical isle of Moonglow, surrounded by arcane crystals, scrolls of power, books and potions, dried herbs and puissant reagents, crammed into the small space.

The manual told of towers, keeps, even castles - but what I wanted was something that had been removed from the game even at this point - a tent.

Ultima online doesn't quite have the same sort of character creation system that more modern roleplaying games have. You don't pick a class, or even an archetype or that sort of thing. You pick three skills and then you can get as many as you like later. It's a little like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, except with a nice hard cap of 700 points to fill, no levels, and good incentives to get those skills near to the maximum of 100.

(Dear UO nerds: I know this has changed in modern times. Please stick with me, as it was true when I started playing.)

So to achieve this dream I had to do a few things. Some of these things I thought would be hard. Some, I thought, would be easy. I was to be wrong on all counts.

First challenge: Get the skills. Alchemy, magery, inscription (the better to make those scrolls with). I thought this would be the challenge the game offered, to constantly test my growing skills against the might of my ever-more-complicated foes.

I'd suggest that this was somehow "retro-themed," if it weren't 17 years old.

Second challenge: Get the money. Money would be needed to get the scrolls and the weapons and the tent.

Third challenge: Get the tent.

Get the skills, then you get the money, then you get the tent. It was a sort of fantasy-land Scarface (Maybe: I confess now that I have never seen Scarface) that I had built in my head. People would come from around this fantastical realm to buy my potions, my fine scrolls, beating a path to the door of my tent on the darkly whimsical island of Moonglow, in some untrammeled spot in the "newly expanded housing" provided by the expansion I was buying into.

The skill I was really buying? Managing disappointment. 


Which is not pictured here. Nor are the skills I wanted to develop. There's a metaphor there, kids.

In a very realistic twist, getting the skills was fairly easy and getting the money was not. You didn't have to pay some underpaid adjunct professor a life-ruining fortune in order to get these skills, you just had to go out and DO. You do the things, and the numbers get higher.

I got the numbers high while earning gold coins. Back in those days, gold was a little harder to come by, UO had mostly recovered from the economic crashes of the item duplication and bandage-bug days, but gold farmers and macro-controlled harvesting mules sucked every last resource out of the world just about the same time as I got started playing - the addition of the PvP free world meant that you could no longer go about slaughtering them and looting their cloth-and-ingot laden bodies. Killing unaccompanied macro-playing mules are my only PvP victories in UO.

Those of you interested in what the hell all that meant should go read the absolutely fascinating investigation of virtual economics, "Play Money" by the old tyme UO player Markee Dragon, who was quite the legendary figure in my days of UO - and on my shard, even!

So after fighting endless monsters at the Moonglow graveyard, I went to the House Store (only slightly less realistic than surviving death as a robed ghost) with my hard-earned 30 thousand gold coins to buy a tent. In retrospect, it would have been quite an expensive tent.

Alas, the tent had been removed from the game. There was a similarly small and humble abode, so I took that instead, and began wandering Moonglow for a spot to place it.

Anyone who has played Ultima Online for a bit is already chuckling to themselves. The house purchase price is an absurd notion. They might as well be free. What you're really paying for is the land to put one on.

Every spot in UO where you can place a house, someone has placed a house. The same spot where you could place your 30 thousand gold coin house can also host a 3 story tower that sells for 2 or 3 million gold.

Guess which one is in the spot you want.

I checked around, getting my first experiences with the wonders of ICQ and IRC chatting technology, all while running up an astounding bill for time spent on AOL (ask your parents) and the phone (also, ask your parents) - bills I had to pay, forking over the money from my summer job (ask your parents, or maybe grandparents) or selling corn (ask your USDA).

There was not a single spot to place a house in all of Ultima Online. People were waiting, camping, for old spots to decay, hiding in remote mountains, crouching near dragons and volcanoes waiting for the digital "condemned" sign to be put up, and springing into action heroically - not by slaying a dragon or pushing a vile priest into the volcano, but by throwing yet another house onto the unwanted spot.

It was at this low point that Ultima Online, like a cult leader sensing a crisis of the faith, changed tactics. I was about to quit the game entirely when I began running with a guild, a group of like-minded roleplayers who had set out to tell tales, cast spells, and fight dragons.

And that we did. Our guild, Guardians of Lore, set out to write books - you could write a book in this game, copy books, sell books, collect books in libraries for people to read. This is something I have never seen in any RPG since. I wrote books, and people paid me for them.

This was a concept that was intriguing to me. I'd always enjoyed writing, but never really considered myself to be any good at it, but yet, here I was, getting paid money (not real money, but something that you could trade for real money) to write words in a book!

All through college, with my always-on T1 line, I played UO. I played UO about as much as I played Baldur's Gate. I hung out in ICQ and IRC chat rooms. I played with these friends, who were much older than I, through divorces and deaths, custody battles and complaints of old age. A guildmate recommended that I date a dancer, and later, I married one.

Eventually, I was pushed out into the real world, and didn't have the internet. The Guardians of Lore scattered, the tower crumbled. I came back from time to time to the world of Sosaria, but never did stay for long. The game, on it's own, is not fun. It is a platform for hanging out with people in a peculiar setting. But it does that better than most games with more graphics, more dimensions, more game world and game play.

UO mattered to me like no game does now. I'm not the kind of guy who can care like that about a game or about my fellow players. I became like Garrett, because Garrett was someone I became as an 18 year old with a head full of fanciful ideas. I played for four years, and as college ended, I discovered that now, I had long hair, I had a beard, I was drinking too much, I was smart and frivolous, I was writing constantly. The only difference between me and Garrett Granth was that I was never magic, and never got paid in gold coins.


Even in this bit of fantasy-fulfillment of a game, I live in a dilapidated shack in the woods near the water.