As the picture became clearer, Origin realized it needed better “gold sinks”—mechanisms to fight inflation by pulling gold out of the UO economy. Taxing the accumulated wealth would cause a revolt of the subscribers. Selling weapons like riches could use up enough gold to solve inflation, but it would create an invincible terminator class and throw the game off balance.
The solution was ingenious: purely cosmetic status symbols. For the price of a small castle, the British elite could buy neon hair dye and impress the common people with a bright green mohawk. These measures, however, were only a band-aid – by 2010, gold was worth 500,000 to the dollar.
So far, competitors like World of Warcraft have lured most UO players away. But while most of its counterparts have gone out of business, Ultima Online has stabilized and maintains a solid core of users—perhaps around 20,000—even a quarter of a century after its debut. What kept them?
Current subscribers say UO’s sense of identity and investment proposition is second to none. Thanks in part to the golden shells and expansion content, it far surpasses even modern titles in costume and housing customization options. As a result, the original aesthetic of the Renaissance fair has morphed into something more whimsical. As you travel the land today, you will see gargoyle men in sunglasses and ninjas in fluorescent armor riding giant spiders. Quaint medieval villages have given way to flashy McMansions. But even if this hectic hustle breaks the verisimilitude for the players, that’s it theirs.
It’s impossible for designers to anticipate all the ways users might break a system.
But the most important factor that sustains a community is the relationships and memories they have built together. Yes, other games have better graphics and flashier features. But where else can a friend who lives several continents away in the offline world drop by for a fishcake and admire a rare painting you stole together during the Clinton administration?
Often these attachments are very personal – quite a few players have built virtual homes with parents or friends who later died in real life, and keeping them alive is a way to feel connected to the people they’ve lost. Some met their real-life spouses during night walks through the dungeons. All in all, Britain has really become a place, and people stay here for all the reasons we value real places.
Nostalgia is so strong that some Ultima diehards have rebuilt the source code and set up free bootleg servers, promoting a “clean” experience that brings back the spirit of the game’s early days. Thousands of former players flocked to them. One fan-made service allows people to play through web browsers. Another project aims to incorporate UO into virtual reality.
As metauniverse technology makes such worlds ever more accessible, it’s easy to imagine that Britain will one day become a sort of pilgrimage site—where the brightest promises of simulated worlds first blossomed and where their most difficult pitfalls were first overcome. Those creating the next generation of these worlds would do well to learn the lessons of Ultima Online.