Welcome to a digital world where anything is possible.
Over the past two decades, millions of players have inhabited the virtual world of Britannia inside the Massively Multiplayer Online fantasy PC game, Ultima Online. Released in 1997 by developer Origin Systems and publisher Electronic Arts, Ultima Online is known as the grandfather of MMOs. Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online collects interviews with 35 of the game's players, volunteers, and developers, revealing what they did, where they adventured, and how their lives were shaped, changed, and altered through experiences in Ultima Online's shared virtual world. In a fantasy world of limitless potential, the only thing players seem to enjoy more than playing the game is talking about it, and yet, the true stories behind the avatars have largely gone unpublished for the past twenty years.
Ultima Online is as infamous as it is famous: one of the first graphical MMORPGs that influenced countless followers, but notoriously unfriendly in areas rife with "player-killers." Wes Locher shows that not all was stick-ups and muggings: His foray into the heart of Ultima Online, its community and the real and virtual relationships that existed there, is a noteworthy entry in a growing collection of books dedicated as much to gaming culture and lifestyle as to development. – David L. Craddock, curator, StoryBundle
"I had no idea what to expect from the book Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online by Wes Locher. I've never played Ultima Online, or any Ultima game if I'm being honest. I do, however, love hearing about why massively multiplayer online roleplaying games are so important to the those that play them, and a people's history of the grandfather of all MMORPGs sounded like it would provide that. I wasn't disappointed."– Joesph Langdon / Sidequest
"If UO had any sort of measurable impact or created lasting memories in your life, you owe it to yourself to read this book."– Chris Mayer / Ultima Online Lead Programmer
When I opened my eyes, I was in the small mining village of Minoc, situated in Britannia's northeast region. I was given no direction but knew it was time to venture out and do my civic duty of protecting the world of Sosaria.
Between you and me, I had hefty expectations for myself: I planned to slay demons, help those in need, and I made a silent vow right then and there to protect the realm from all that was evil.
Ready to begin my new life as a righteous mage, I set out on adventure, armed with a spell book, one thousand gold, a sharp knife, and a blank book (in which I could journal my adventures). There was, of course, a catch. In order to cast the spells from my book of power and gain proficiency in my chosen skill, I needed reagents, the ingredients consumed upon each spell's attempt. Unless a stash of these reagents was stuffed inside my journal like some sort of prison contraband, I needed a whole lot more of them, and fast.
This was right about the time I noticed my first critical error. My hometown of Minoc, while stunningly beautiful, was the only city in Britannia without a magic shop.
A quick conversation with some fellow adventurers pointed me to nearby Vesper, a grand city of connected islands that supposedly had the goods I sought. Vesper appeared to be only a short run to the south, and without enough money to purchase a loyal steed, I'd have to leg it there. I tossed the gold coins and journal into my bank box and set out on my first adventure.
Approaching the Minoc city limits, I happened upon a cave wherein a bald, shirtless man was busy slamming the ground with a pickaxe. I watched for a moment as he stashed the recovered ore into the bag of a nearby pack mule.
The man paused his digging, shooting me a nervous look.
"Are you mining?" he asked after a moment, breaking the ice.
"No," I assured him, proudly announcing my unsolicited-yet-noble aspirations. "I'm adventuring to Vesper!"
After another long silence the man spoke again.
"Be careful," he said. "PKs."
Resuming his work once more, the miner hefted the pickaxe into the air, bringing it down into the dirt with a thud.
I didn't know what PKs were, but I also didn't want to come off like a total idiot by asking. Exiting the cave—and the protection of the town's royal guards—I crossed a bridge and found myself alone in the middle of the wilderness. As if my nerves weren't shaky enough, the sun went down, casting the forest ahead into darkness. I took a deep breath and started running.
A glance at my map proved I was making good time to Vesper, but my hackles rose when I heard footsteps moving quickly in my direction. Stopping in the middle of the road, I made an attempt to arm my knife. But before I could wrestle the thing into my sweaty palm, a man on a horse appeared from a dense copse of trees. His dark hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail and his body was covered by a dark gray (and completely unflattering) robe. He nudged his black stallion closer before coming to a stop in front of me. I looked at him, and he at me.
Because first impressions are everything, I greeted him the best way I knew how.
"Hi," I told him, "I'm headed to Vesper."
In response, the man uttered the words, "Corp Por." Still naïve to Britannia and its customs, I naturally assumed he was saluting me in a foreign tongue.
A wave of energy flowed from the mounted man's hands, gliding through the air toward me. Still having trouble equipping my dagger, and unable to defend myself, my world went dark. Much later, I'd find out the words he uttered were the magical incantation for the offensive spell commonly known as an "energy bolt."
Live and learn, I guess.
And that was essentially my first thirty minutes of playing Ultima Online.
My murder occurred in late 1998 on the Lake Superior server. It was a small event in the grand scheme of things. No one called for my vengeance or sought revenge on the murderer. Instead, with my corpse still warm, my assailant turned his horse in the other direction and fled the scene.
The once-colorful landscape had sunken to monochrome and I was forced to wander the world as a ghost. I hovered around my corpse, hoping a fellow adventurer might stroll by to offer assistance. Unfortunately, no one came and my corpse decayed to a pile of bones. With nothing left for me on that wooded path, I continued toward Vesper as a specter.
Crossing a bridge into the city of magic, I was thrilled to have reached my destination. Of course, I was still dead, so my situation hadn't entirely improved.
Unsure what to do, I shuffled from the tavern, to a provisioner, and through an empty guildhall, before finally stumbling across a healer's hut. Inside, the priest forgave me of my sins (unless showing good manners toward a murderer was a sin, I couldn't think of any to forgive) and welcomed me back to the land of the living. The world once again filled with color.
Then I finally bought some of those stupid reagents.
Being killed by another player mere minutes after stepping into the world for the first time was an interesting experience. While I imagine these events might cause other players to immediately eject the CD-ROM from their computer and relegate it to drink coaster status, it was an experience I remember fondly.
Not only had I purchased my first Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game, but I'd selected one that had very few rules, an amazing community, and the best sense of risk versus reward I would ever experience in a video game. Connecting to an Ultima Online server was the equivalent of stepping into a medieval Wild West, and I was hooked.
Once I got my bearings, comprehended the game's mechanics and accepted the open sandbox playstyle, Ultima Online (also known as "UO" by players) became a blessing and a curse.
The blessing the game bestowed upon me was its open world wherein I was able to meet new people and experience grand adventure on a scale no other game had previously offered, all from my rural Ohio bedroom.
The first time I logged into UO was in 1998. I was heading into my freshman year of high school and I'd picked up the game shortly after the release of the game's first official expansion The Second Age.
A friend had turned me onto the game knowing I had a penchant for "fantasy stuff." The truth is, I always carried a book wherever I went, using every available opportunity to escape into worlds created by authors such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Robert Jordan. I instantly enjoyed books where protagonists like Frodo Baggins and Rand al'Thor were plucked from their sleepy villages and set on a collision course with destiny, and here was a friend telling me about a virtual world where I could do just that.
While I had no knowledge of the previous Ultima games, that didn't stop me from creating a character with long flowing hair and a perfect Van Dyke goatee—facial hair I could never hope to grow in the real world—and joining the fray.
The friend and I had planned to brave Britannia together, but following the expiration of the game's free trial period, he decided not to stick it out, leaving me forced to adventure on alone.
And adventure, I did.
As the swordsman Darok Arion, I fought for everything that was right, slaying monsters throughout the wilderness in an attempt to make Britannia a safer place.
As the rogue Arsk Rann, I ran with the thieves' guild, pickpocketing my way across cities, selling the "hot" items to the highest bidder.
As the mage Tarsis, I lived a hermetic life in the wilds outside the city of Yew, roleplaying as an undead necromancer (before the necromancy skill was actually added to the game). Those who attacked skeletons in the nearby crypts faced my wrath. Of course, I wasn't all that proficient at player versus player combat, so I spent a lot of time dead. However, it seemed to work for the character's personality.
As the bard Flynn, I traveled from city to city, encouraging players to share their greatest adventures with me. Arriving in the next town, I repeated the best stories I'd heard and collected more. (In retrospect, playing as Flynn probably led to the writing of this book.)
With each of the game's expansions came new opportunities for exploration and socialization, along with plenty of new ways to die. And die I did. Like, a lot.
Shortly after the release of the Age of Shadows expansion in 2003, I packed in my cloak and called it a day, ready for new life experiences that didn't involve sitting in front of a computer screen.
Throughout my five years in Britannia, I met amazing people as I killed powerful monsters in dungeons, helped others learn the ropes of the game, evaded the blades of the warriors I'd stolen from, engaged in brutal warfare, and enjoyed quiet, introspective moments as I explored a vast landscape of green meadows, sandy desert valleys, and snow-covered islands.
Oddly enough, these were the same things which made UO a curse.
With limitless potential and possibilities, it became the online experience by which—even to this day—I compare all others.
While gamers have been offered hundreds of Massively Multiplayer Online games ("MMOs") over the past two decades from amazing and creative game studios around the world, few have ever provided the same feeling of freedom and player agency offered by Ultima Online.
Despite the fact that I haven't even played UO in nearly 15 years, I still think about it regularly. This isn't only because of the professional work I do in the games industry, but because for me, no other MMO has offered a better, more immersive gaming experience.
My mission with this book is not to convince you that Ultima Online is an amazing video game. The fact that you're reading these words is a solid indication that you probably share similar opinions. It's just a game I've never been able to get out of my head.
During the years I played actively, there were many times when I thought about UO even when I wasn't playing it. I was reading websites, following news from those players who achieved celebrity status, or thinking about the next skill I might try to develop.
Once I quit, there were countless times over the ensuing decade where I found myself surfing onto the UO website, if only to make sure the power was still on and the servers were running. Sort of like checking in on an old friend via social media once or twice a year. You don't have any intention of speaking with them, you just want to make sure they're still alive.
As a player I'd always been fascinated by others' stories. Who was the person behind the screen whose avatar was healing me as I tried to solo a poison elemental? Why was this stranger bothering to keep me alive after I'd made such a horrible decision? What did this player do in the game once we went our separate ways? What did they love about the experience we were sharing?
Those are the questions that took me to websites like Amazon where in the past few years I searched for books that examined UO's player base, presenting the stories behind the stories. Not only was I shocked to learn that such a book didn't exist; I would continue to be disappointed with each passing year as my search queries returned results for nothing more than Ultima Online strategy guides.
Then it hit me. What if I wrote the book I wanted to read?
After all, I wasn't the only one having grand adventures within UO. It only felt right that someone should document daring feats, personal tales, and great accomplishments by the game's players, volunteers, and developers—whether they fought against hordes of Player Killers, battled their way through dangerous dungeons, or were simply murdered on their way to the Vesper magic shop.