Ultima Online just turned 25 and offers a lesson in the challenges of building virtual worlds.
Today’s headlines treat the metaverse as a hazy dream yet to be built, but if it’s defined as a network of virtual worlds we can inhabit, its oldest extant corner has been already running for 25 years. It’s a medieval fantasy kingdom created for the online role-playing game Ultima Online—and it has already endured a quarter-century of market competition, economic turmoil, and political strife. So what can this game and its players tell us about creating the virtual worlds of the future?
Ultima Online—UO to its fans—was not the first online fantasy game. As early as 1980, “multi-user dungeons,” known as MUDs, offered text-based role-playing adventures hosted on university computers connected via Arpanet. With the birth of the World Wide Web in 1991, a handful of graphical successors like Kingdom of Drakkar and Neverwinter Nights followed—allowing dozens or hundreds of players at a time to slay monsters together in a shared digital space. In 1996 the “massively multiplayer” genre was born, and titles such as Baram and Meridian 59 attracted tens of thousands of paying subscribers.
But in 1997, Ultima transformed the industry with a revolutionary ambition: simulating an entire world. Instead of small, static environments that were mainly backdrops for combat, UO offered a vast, dynamic realm where players could interact with almost anything—fruit could be picked off trees, books could be taken off shelves and actually read. Unlike previous games where everyone was a heroic knight or wizard, Ultima realized a whole alternative society—with players taking on the roles of bakers, beggars, blacksmiths, pirates, and politicians.
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