YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN … OR CAN YOU?
For more than 20 years, millions of players have lived, loved, and lost in the medieval fantasy world of Britannia within the video game Ultima Online. Originally released in 1997 by developer Origin Systems and publisher Electronic Arts, Ultima Online is widely considered to be the grandfather of Massively Multiplayer Online games.
This second volume of the Braving Britannia series collects interviews with 30 more of the game's players as they share treasured memories of slaughtering the weak, protecting the innocent, founding successful roleplaying communities, meeting future spouses, bonding with family and friends, decorating expansive castles, or just causing trouble for everyone around them.
Meanwhile, the author returns to Ultima Online for the first time in more than 15 years, hoping to discover whether the game is as special as he remembers it, or if his feelings are merely rooted in nostalgia.
It's time to brave Britannia. Again.
Wes Locher has a gift from writing analytic yet personal accounts of games and creators. Braving Britannia: Tales of Melancholy, Malice, and Peril in Ultima Online is his second account of the groundbreaking RPG, from the perspective of an author who returns to the persistent world yet again to chronicle the stories of those who dwell there. – David L. Craddock
"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 / Former Lead Programmer, Ultima Online
"If you want on-the-ground insights into the formation of the first large scale MMO community of Ultima Online, Braving Britannia is where you'll find the real story! I was there for some of it, but I learned a lot from this book."– Gordon Walton / Former Executive Producer, Ultima Online
"The author has done it again with this great look at the best computer game ever made: Ultima Online. Interviewing many current and former players, Wes examines what made Ultima Online a great game and keeps players coming back for more… even 23 years later."– Reader Review
While many players interviewed over the course of these books played Ultima Online for decades—Lee Sale of Alberta, Canada, only partook in the MMO for a year. Though Sale's time with the game was brief, it left an indelible mark.
Sale became a gamer at the proud age of three when his father brought home a Nintendo Entertainment System with copies of Super Mario Bros. and Final Fantasy in tow. Fascinated by the digital worlds he found inside the drab gray cartridges, Sale hungered for more. As he grew older, he craved more depth, more story, and bigger worlds to explore. After experiencing Chrono Trigger on SNES in 1995, Sale subsisted strictly on the latest RPGs. Any game that offered an epic journey, plot twists, and god-like monsters quickly found its way into his possession.
Heavily into computers as well, Sale was fascinated by the internet. He spent 1998 fiendishly researching whatever random interest spoke to him, visiting Flash-heavy fansites littered with clipart and animated GIFs.
"We had just gotten our first high-speed modem—downloading a whopping 75 kilobytes per second—and I was always fascinated by the internet in general," Sale remembered. "I'd spend my evenings deep diving through GeoCities websites with my always-handy Netscape Navigator. And of course, I was part of the AltaVista gang."
It was during one of these fateful deep dives that the middle schooler stumbled onto a kernel of information that caused all of the synapses in his brain to fire at once.
"One night, while digging through the archives of Angelfire fansites I saw mention of a 'massively multiplayer' game," he said. "That was the first time I heard the acronym 'MMO,' and I was intrigued. From there I clicked the link to UO.com and my teenage nerd brain was blown. You can play with thousands of other people?!
"The fact that someone said: 'let's have thousands of people in the same massive world without loading screens' was like discovering alien technology."
The groundbreaking world of Ultima Online was everything Sale wanted out of a video game: the journey, the twists, the monsters … and best of all, he'd be able to share the experience with total strangers.
"The game was an astounding $70," Sale said. "I'd have to endure two months of chores for my parents to fork over the money. In the meantime, I spent my evenings reading the FAQ on the official website. I'm sure I had it memorized. I would literally fantasize about UO every night, and play out scenes in my mind about the adventures I would go on."
While Sale's body physically completed chores around the house, his subconscious was already in Britannia, living a life of adventure. During all that theoretical playing, Sale came up with plenty of ideas for how to improve the game.
"The most embarrassing thing I did during that time was email the UO staff weekly about my ideas for future additions to the game," Sale said. "I hadn't even played it yet! I still wonder about the poor staff member that had to endure some child rambling about a game they hadn't even seen in action."
With his chores completed and a stack of cash burning a hole in his pocket, Sale headed to the nearest electronics store to pick up his copy of Ultima Online. Finally, Sale could navigate a world, which until that moment, he'd only seen in his dreams. Upon stepping foot in Britannia, Sale looked around … and found himself completely underwhelmed.
"I'd built up such a grand image in my mind that nothing could actually live up to that level of hype," he remembered. "Keep in mind, I'd never seen any actual gameplay. I had developed my version of the game in my mind, with very little to reference.
"I had no idea what I was doing. None of us did. This was before the days where you could just Google any part of any game and get an instant guide. In my first days of UO, I ventured out into the world all wide-eyed and full of adventure, to have my dreams quickly destroyed by other players. So, my playstyle became a lot more 'safe.' I would typically mine ore, chop trees, and take up crafting in the comfort of guard-protected areas."
What Sale didn't realize was that out of the game's 10 servers available in 1998, he'd chosen one of the most frenzied shards to call home.
"I discovered years later that Great Lakes was one of the most populated servers, which peaked at around 1,900 players," Sale said. "It was an absolutely chaotic amount for the world size, which is probably what made it the best.
"There was always something insane happening around every corner. The lag at the Britain bank was unbearable. The massive crowds forced players and rivals into tight quarters, causing brawls and territory wars. You would never leave your character idle for long because a thief would pickpocket your gold and valuables."
Bored with the bustle of Britain, Sale consulted the cloth map that came with the game and routed a path south to Trinsic. It would be part exploratory mission, part vacation.
"I didn't realize that items stored in your bank box were universally accessible no matter which city you were in," Sale explained. "Before setting out on my grand adventure, I packed up all my belongings and gold and set forth.
"You can probably see where this is going."
Halfway to Trinsic, Sale crossed a narrow bridge and came to a sudden halt when an invisible force blocked his path. Sale successfully pushed through the hidden barricade after several attempts but found himself blocked once again, just steps away from the other end of the bridge.
"I was having significantly more trouble clearing the second barrier, and that was the point," Sale said. "Suddenly, the invisible wall revealed itself to be an ominous-looking player mounted on a horse who was using their hiding skill and steed to cleverly block the path. Very innocently, I asked if he could be so kind to move out of the way, to which he replied, 'In Flam Grav.'"
As a wall of fire spell erupted across the bridge, Sale turned and ran back the way he came. The first invisible wall also revealed itself to be a mounted player. Another wall of fire left the bridge fully involved and Sale with nowhere to hide.
"After returning to my body and finding every single item I owned seized, I continued my depressing walk to Trinsic," he said. "Arriving at my location, I did the only thing my teenage brain knew how to do: run into a crowd and express myself in all caps followed by dozens of exclamations points.
"Some people consoled me, while others laughed, but most just ignored my angry rants. Except one, another PK, who simply stated that, 'PKs aren't so bad, once you get to know us.'"
Sale's enjoyment of the game increased when his real-world friend, Alan, joined him in Britannia, and the two completed the same rites of passage as all players who'd come before them—seek danger, get in over your head, attempt to retreat, die horribly. And while Sale didn't necessarily have an endgame in mind for his character, he'd penciled in a short term goal on his to-do list. He wanted to become a Britannian homeowner.
"During my adventures I'd see these player-owned houses scattered among the overworld," he said. "My main goal quickly became to buy a house of my own. As my confidence grew, I'd try anything to make some easy gold, which led to many creative and hilarious ventures."
Those ventures included Sale running around the woods north of Britain where air elementals and gargoyles often roamed in search of fresh meat. Grabbing the attention of a handful of monsters, Sale ran toward any nearby players he could find, the beasts in hot pursuit.
While Sale didn't have much money, other players did.
"I'd dive into the crowd yelling, 'Help!' and then use my grandmaster hiding skill to disappear," he said. "My hope was that the brave-yet-foolish players would die in battle. I would then lure the monster away just enough that I could run back around and do a drive-by looting of the corpse before the victim came back to retrieve their items. This method rarely worked, though. Players were a little smarter than I gave them credit for.
"At one point Alan and I even tried setting out attractive items in a row leading to the monster spawns in hopes of luring players into a trap, which has got to be the most Looney Tunes method of all time. Unsurprisingly, it never worked."
Procuring the 44,000 gold pieces he needed to build his dream home through other means, Sale exchanged the coins with the local architect for a housing deed. The purchase was simple, but finding a place to build a home in the treacherous wilderness could be an adventure all its own.
Deed in hand, Sale and Alan left Britain and noticed a small clearing just outside the guard zone.
"I double-clicked on the deed, placed the home, and the structure suddenly materialized in front of me," Sale said. "That was the peak of my pre-teen life."
Sale and Alan spent an afternoon excitedly filling the home with the Britannian equivalent of dorm room essentials. When Sale got up for a bathroom break, he let Alan take over his avatar to finish decorating. But when Sale returned to the computer he couldn't help but notice that in his absence, something had gone horribly awry.
"I returned about 90 seconds later to find my character dead, the house key stolen, and the home looted," Sale laughed. "Awesome."
In those fateful 90 seconds, a passerby by the name of "WiCkEd" had spotted Delita inside the home and barged in with a flurry of sword pokes.
"At this point, Ultima Online hadn't created a proper housing system for changing locks, or banning players from your home," Sale explained. "I was shit out of luck. Suspecting that WiCkEd would return to my home in search of more loot, I kept the house empty for over a month. After the fear subsided, I began adding more furnishings and was relieved to find that my greatest enemy never returned. Eventually, UO developers allowed you to change the locks on your house and all was well again.
"WiCkEd, if you're reading this, I haven't forgotten about you."
Over the course of the next six months, two more of Sale's real-world friends entered Britannia, but the trio's paths rarely crossed, with each content to seek out their own experiences.
"What's interesting about that is we all played the game in our own time and in our own way, and then we'd swap stories throughout the week," Sale said. "We were all part of different guilds, had different playstyles, and went on different adventures."
Like most teenage players of the time, Sale used UO as an escape. Having emotionally distant parents, Sale suffered from social anxieties in the real world, but in Britannia, those barriers disappeared.
"UO turned out to be a creative and emotional outlet," he explained. "I could learn and play with other people and develop my confidence in a new way. It wasn't the cure, but it was a small step in the right direction. While I didn't have confidence in myself, I had confidence in my team of characters in Britannia. Perhaps that little bit of anonymity in a new world gave me the boost to start talking to new people."
Sale filled his play sessions with crafting and monster stabbing, but he often thought back to his experience of getting blocked and killed by PKs on the way to Trinsic. He just couldn't shake the feeling that killing other players, or stealing items from another adventurer's pack might somehow be kind of … fun.
Navigating back to the character selection screen, Sale built a fearsome thief-slash-Player Killer that would surely be feared and respected. This character's name would be … Hippie Boy.
"I wish I could tap into my 14-year-old brain and discover why I named my character Hippie Boy," Sale laughed. "I would love to know why I thought: 'Hippie Boy … that perfectly describes a thieving and mass murdering asshole!'"