While the games of Myst were primarily solo adventures (outside of the brief foray online with Uru) Ultima Online (UO) is a massively multi-player online role-playing game that takes place in the fictional world of Britannia, an immersive environment found online. This narrative takes place not on a CD-ROM, but over the internet and it illustrates some dynamic facets of hypermedia not seen in CD-ROM. It is an immense fantasy world with monsters, animals, people and more. Nightly, thousands of players log on to inhabit this world and go on adventures and quests as mages, healers, fighters and rogues.
In terms of size, UO is one of the largest on-line gaming worlds. Britannia is a massive environment with cities, dungeons, shrines, and lots and lots of wilderness. Unlike Myst, which is a static CD-ROM world, Britannia is a persistent, evolving world. You develop your character over time and you can make yourself a home that stays within the world
Britannia is not as graphically lush as Myst, but the 2-D isometric images are of high quality. As Amy Jo Kim notes:
“The details are meaningful — you can pick up and read that book on the library shelf, or play that game of checkers in the Tavern. The people and creatures are charmingly animated; you hear hoofbeats, and watch as three knights on horseback ride by, their capes flowing in the breeze, followed by a lumbering bear and a bedraggled-looking dog. Sound effects (such as approaching footsteps) and music cues (that accompany meaningful events) are used sparingly yet effectively. A mind-boggling variety of clothing options allows each participating character to develop a truly unique look” (”Ultima Online”).
And on top of all of this, Britannia is a very interactive place. You can build yourself a house, talk with other people, sell goods, train animals, steal, eat food, etc. “There are 27 different types of animals, and 30 types of monsters - and each of these automated creatures has an appropriate set of (beautifully animated) behaviors for reacting to events” (Kim, “Ultima Online”). But as Kim points out, “it’s the power of ‘interactivity in context’ that makes UO feel so alive” (”Ultima Online”). When you do something in Britannia, the environment responds within its conceptual framework. For instance, if you train a bear but you don’t feed him, he might start ignoring you and go looking for food; but he may not be able to find food if the woods have been over hunted by other players (Kim, “Ultima Online”).
Another interesting aspect of the interactivity within Britannia has to do with the persistence of the world itself. Repeated visits are rewarded because as you play and progress, your character gains more abilities and skills and new parts of the world open up for you with these new abilities. And you get to mark your progress through your clothes and accessories. You start off without any clothes, but as you go, you get to be more and more visually impressive and the variations are staggering - you really get to personally tailor your look. So, your progress is displayed for all to see and gives a graphic representation of seniority. Along with skills and clothing, you also gain cash. So, as you play, you learn how to make (or steal) money within Britannia, which allows you to buy things (supplies, houses, clothing). And as you play and get better and richer, you develop a reputation for all to see in where you live and what you wear.
And this environment has inspired community behaviors. Many players care about the social and political climate of Britannia and they take action to try to improve the climate. “A nascent civil government is emerging, and some citizens are organizing themselves into groups that have goals, values and a clearly articulated moral stance” (Kim, “Ultima Online”). But not everybody gets involved on a virtual civic level. There are many players who just want an RPG (role playing game). Others just want to go on hunts, killing other players. Others just want to form online friendships within this environment. It is a testament to UO’s flexible and open-ended environment that all of these perspectives can find a home within Britannia.
This diverse nature makes Britannia an addictive and frustrating place. Kim notes that, “on the one hand, it’s a game — with rules to learn, roles to play and status to track. On the other hand, it’s a virtual world — with complex social, economic and ecological systems that affect the gaming experience of each and every player” (Kim, “Ultima Online”). So, when lots of different people enter this world, “they’ll inevitably find the stress fractures in the complex, interlocking systems — which will force the game designers to patch the systems and rewrite the rules” (”Ultima Online”).
This is part and parcel of an ever-evolving online environment, but Garriot and the UO team made some mistakes. For example, in the interest of “realism,” the in-game communication facilities in UO are badly crippled” (Kim, “Ultima Online”). So, most of the players use ICQ (an application that enables instant messaging) to communicate with each other outside of the game environment (and this allows them to talk while logged onto Britannia).
A particularly social issue that the Britannia community has had to address is player-killing (and violence in general). Interestingly, the community has dealt with player-killing by grouping together into Guilds. And Kim believes that the Guilds are what “Britannian culture, and perhaps on-line culture in general, is really all about” (Kim, “Ultima Online”). “Ultima Online offers many features that facilitate Guilds and Clans, such as being able to dress alike, develop synergistic team-oriented skills and pool resources to purchase and furnish a shared Guild House” (”Ultima Online”). In fact, players liked the Guilds so much, that UO added more features to the game to encourage and facilitate Guilds and their activities. And Kim notes that, “what’s fascinating and important about these bottom-up, self-organizing, member-created groups is what people are learning about how to build and manage an effective distributed team. To form a Guild in UO, people who are geographically scattered must come together, organize themselves, define their shared values and goals and decide how to best move forward to achieve those goals” (”Ultima Online”).
Kim illustrates how, “Ultima Online gives us a tantalizing glimpse of how cyberspace could be. It’s the largest, most complex and most ambitious virtual world yet” (”Ultima Online”). She states that:
“this highly responsive, ever evolving game is triggering that age-old impulse to bond together into groups. You could look at UO, and similar game worlds, as on-line training environments for team-building, places where small, synergistic, geographically-distant teams are learning how to work together effectively and develop the leadership and role-playing skills that are necessary for surviving in an increasingly networked world. As more and more people inhabit cyberspace, multiplayer game worlds like Ultima Online will proliferate — because they offer experiences that people are hungry for, and because their responsive and open-ended nature leverages the basic power and potential of the Internet as a real-time interactive medium” (”Ultima Online”).