Richard Garriott is one of the most well-known personalities in the video game industry, and one of the last of its pioneers still in the business. Ultima, the revolutionary series of role-playing games he designed, and Origin Systems Inc., the company he co-founded in 1983, are inextricably linked to the history of videogames.
This is their story.
Andrea Contato's retrospective on Richard "Lord British" Garriott's Ultima series of RPGs continues, treating Ultima fans and newcomers alike to the most comprehensive history of this groundbreaking RPG series yet written. – David L. Craddock
"The amazing thing about Through the Moongate is that [the book] will still find ways to surprise you. It really cannot be understated just how much research Andrea Contato did…"– Kenneth Kully – Ultima Codex
"This book is great for those needing detail on Origin. The detail is amazing."– Amazon Review
"Contato has produced a true labour of love in these two volumes. If you're a fan of Ultima, Wing Commander, or just retro gaming in general, this is a must-read."– Goodreads Review
"An enjoyable and nostalgic read."– Amazon Review
Undoubtedly, the most spectacular, unexpected, (and emotionally painful for Garriott) death of Lord British took place in Ultima Online in the final stages of the beta, one month before the release of the game.
On August 8th, 1997, all UO beta testers were invited to log on simultaneously prior to the game's official launch and take part in the release celebrations. It was also a stress test intending to see just how much load the servers could tolerate. In just over a month, on September 23rd, the servers would be shut down and restarted for the official launch on the next day.
For the occasion, Lord British and Lord Blackthorn would attend the event, introducing themselves to the public first at Castle British and then at Castle Blackthorn. The sovereign of Britannia, controlled directly by Richard Garriot from his office, would address the public with a few words before the scheduled restart of the servers at the end of the stress test.
From an internal development journal: "HEAR YE! HEAR YE! Tonight being a propitious eve for such a journey, Lords British and Blackthorn shall make their periodic visit to the eight great cities of this land we call Britannia! Their journeys shall be assisted by the magickal powers of the Mage's Council, and they shall travel through the ether. Upon arrival in each city, they shall each give short speeches. It is expected that a truly powerful spell may be used so that some remarks may be heard in all the land. This commenceth at 9pm Central time, in the fair city of Britain, where entertainment shall be provided by Chuckles and Heckles, jesters to the Court."
The player response to the invitation was tremendous and several witnesses later recalled that the performance of the servers, taxed by the large concentration of players around the capital of Britannia, was much less than stellar. Some players, being far away, had to embark on a long walk to reach the capital city and, once inside, took several minutes to reach Lord British's castle.
The developers, however, had anticipated the performance hit and had countermeasures in mind to relieve the servers of part of their workload. In particular, a drastic measure to handle the greatest loads involved the GM staff removing all NPCs (or at least those from the capital). This detail would later prove to be very important.
The tour of the two nobles was not without surprises from the beginning. Besides the connection problems, many players had prepared to do something special to surprise Garriott. In Moonglow, for example, when British and Blackthorn began their speech, everyone present took part in the previously mentioned mass mooning, though that would not be the biggest surprise of the evening.
Among the many players who had set off for Britain were two members of the Ravens of Fate guild: Rainz and Helios. Rainz was the new moniker of the previously mentioned Aquaman, who had already distinguished himself during the early stages of testing by massacring players until stopped by an angry mob.
The Ravens of Fate was a group of players whose official purpose was to maintain the balance of power within the world of Britannia. Like the cities of Serpent Isle in the Black Gate sequel, this guild theoretically opposed the power of the Britannian monarch. However, Rainz and Helios arrived in Britain shortly before the start of Lord British's speech and decided to avoid the largest gathering of players–and the associated lag–by heading for Lord Blackthorn's castle, where fewer characters were waiting for the final leg of the royal procession.
When they reached the entrance, the two found the portcullis raised and were able to enter the garden with a handful of other players. Garriott's in-game alter ego was ready to start the conversation from an elevated position near a parapet. Next to him stood Lord Blackthorn, controlled by Starr Long, and the two court jesters: Chuckles (though not led by Chuck Bueche, who had long left the company) and Heckles.
In consideration of server performance, the game masters decided to remove all the guards and Rainz immediately took advantage of it by putting his thieving skills to work. He rummaged through the pockets of several players without worrying about the numerous failures which resulted in public messages visible to all. Some complained while others, both because of the lag and their respect of the two VIPs, watched helplessly. Eventually, even Lord British felt compelled to intervene and asked those present to stop stealing.
After numerous failed attempts, Rainz managed to peek into an adventurer's backpack and discovered something irresistible: a scroll for the "fire field" spell. He took possession of it immediately and used it to create a wall of fire right under Lords Blackthorn and British's feet. In previous appearances, attempts had already been made to hit Lord British with offensive spells. So much so that Mental4, administrator of ultima.scorched.com, had asked his readers that same afternoon with surprising acumen: "Could players please call a truce on any grudges or guild wars during the ceremonies, and as tempting as it may be, don't pick your neighbor's pocket or cast Mind Blast on Lord British. Thanks in advance."
Rainz did not expect to succeed in his attempt to hurt, much less to kill, Lord British, knowing that he was certain to be protected by some trick as had been demonstrated with previous attempts. Believing that death would come quickly, perhaps in the form of a lightning bolt or other arcane form of Lord British's righteous wrath, he prepared himself for the inevitable as he watched the unexpected evolution of events unfold.
Lord Blackthorn, unharmed by the spell, chose to mock Rainz's assassination attempt by theatrically remaining motionless in the fire and verbally berating him.
Garriott's reaction was much more instinctive. Knowing the danger of the spell, he stepped back to avoid the deadly flames. However, he quickly realized that he was no longer visible to the public, who had come out in large numbers. Thus, thinking he was invulnerable to any kind of attack anyway, Richard stepped forward again, ready to say something memorable.
He didn't finish his message in time.
Rainz's spell ran its course and it killed Lord British, whose corpse fell to the ground. Whatever poignant phrase Garriott was about to say turned into the classic ghostly line of deceased Ultima Online players: "OooOoo." His death message floated above the crowd as the astonished onlookers slowly began to realize what had just occurred before their eyes.
The following moments were pure chaos and there are many different versions of what happened next, exacerbated by the lag that distorted the order of events, as seen in the monitors of those present. Some players saw the death of Lord British in almost real time, but their reaction was recorded and shown to others with a hefty delay. Some players had the presence of mind to capture the historic scene using screenshots. In one of them, you can see Lord British becoming invisible for a moment, perhaps in an attempt to hide what had just happened.
Finding his avatar dead, Richard could not interact with the world and could no longer speak to the public. A staff member, probably Starr Long, quickly intervened and resurrected Lord British, who appeared for a few moments wearing the default resurrection garb, a light gray shroud that was notoriously called "the newbie robe." In the following moment, Richard's alter ego disappeared again, either toggled invisible or teleported elsewhere.
Lord Blackthorn, left alone on the stage in the company of only the jester, Heckles, stood for a few moments to contemplate the audience and then summoned four demons who began to massacre all those present. Some attempted to fight a wholly unequal battle while others simply ran away. The lagging server, however, further overloaded by the riot that had broken out, strongly hindered the attempts of both those who had decided to fight and those who attempted to flee.
Many players, thousands according to Garriott, were killed in the few moments before the server shutdown and, not being able to interact with others anymore, had to slowly and laboriously get to a healer in order to resurrect. Thus, finding themselves removed from the main event moments before the server shutdown, they found the whole ordeal to be rather disappointing and protested loudly in the following days. So much so that it warranted an official response from the UO staff.
The event was recalled and retold several times by Richard, though with different and discordant details each time.
In an interview with Morgan Ramsay for Online Gamers at Work, Garriott remembered that he was alone in his office and that the staff had used the game chat to coordinate. His death had therefore excluded him from the rest of the staff who, independently, had decided that the murderer should be punished. Unable to immediately trace the identity of the attacker, it was decided simply to kill everyone present.
The slaughter of players, therefore, had started without Richard's authorization and he declared that he did not take part in it. As the massacre proceeded, it became increasingly brutal. The staff, after summoning demons, started throwing chains of lightning at the players and then moved on to the direct killing using GM super powers.
A few years later, in his book, Explore/Create, the version changed slightly: immediately after the killing of Lord British, the staff realized that the automatic reboot of the servers would take place within five minutes, which was not enough time to check the logs and verify the identity of who had cast the deadly spell. Therefore, someone had the idea to punish everyone.
"So there really was only one thing to do: kill them all. It's amazing how quickly the cloak of civilization can disappear. The word spread verbally throughout the office: Let us unleash hell! My staff summoned demons and devils and dragons and all of the nightmarish creatures of the game and they cast spells and created dark clouds and lightning that struck and killed people. The gamemasters have special powers, and once they realized I had been killed, they were able to almost instantly resurrect Lord British. And I gleefully joined in the revelry; kill me, will you! Be gone, mortals! It was a slaughter of the thousands of players in the courtyard. It definitely was not the noble ending we had intended."
The story, however, was not finished with the massacre of the players, innocent or guilty as they may have been.
The royal assassin was ultimately identified and his account blocked. Rumor spread quickly and several players protested strongly, even threatening to stop participating in the beta. The QA team issued an official statement in which they explained that Lord British, after one of the server resets, had lost his invulnerability and Richard, who had forgotten to apply it again at the next restart, had mistakenly assumed that he was still protected from any magical or physical attack. The communiqué also made clear that the removal of Rainz was not due to the killing of Lord British. In fact, the staff congratulated him warmly for the regicide, apparently. However, the ban was due to a previous exploitation of bugs to obtain an unfair advantage over the hundreds of players Rainz had slaughtered with a different avatar.
Rainz's response came quickly. He'd suddenly become famous and was interviewed by Paul Bannister for Online Gaming Review where he told that he had not fallen victim to the reprisal at the castle: "Blackthorne or another force summoned four daemons into the castle and people were dying left and right. I hauled balls out of the region like there was no tomorrow." Regarding the ban, Rainz declared that he didn't use bugs and exploits and refuted the QA team's accusation, explaining that he had been contacted previously by staff members about his PK conduct as Aquaman, which the staff judged as inappropriate. With Aquaman's subsequent deletion, Rainz believed he had regulated his behavior, adapting it to the staff's requests, but the killing of Lord British was apparently seen as the last act of the affair and led to his definitive removal.
Interestingly, the indiscriminate killing of players by GMs had happened before the incident with Rainz. On the last day of Ultima Online's alpha, on May 20th, 1996, Lords British and Blackthorn made half a dozen ogres appear among a group of testers who had gathered to celebrate the closure of the servers. The massacre that followed was the first documented case of what, regicides aside, would become a tradition in Ultima Online.
The death of Lord British marked a fundamental point for online video games, fixing itself in the minds of those present and, above all, those who learned of the regicide through newsgroups, forums, and word of mouth. So much so that in 2008, Professor Megan Winget of the University of Texas, said that many people described the event as a crucial moment in their lives!
The "Lord British Postulate" was jokingly coined a few years later, which can be summed up as: if an entity exists in an MMOPRG as a living creature, someone, somewhere, will try to kill it.