In 1997, Origin Systems launched an ambitious project called Ultima Online (UO for short). UO is a massive-multiplayer roleplaying game (MMORPG or MMO), which is an intimidating mouthful that refers to a computer game that is played in a shared setting with thousands of other players.
Among those playing the game at launch were three friends who had adopted the character names Joshua Rowan, Robert the Red, and Sir Lancelot. They formed a guild that they called The Golden Knights, Guardians of the Way, and set themselves the task of defending a chokepoint called The Crossroads against other players who had taken on the roles of killers and thieves.
Shortly after launch, one of Joshua’s real-life friends expressed an interest in the game, and soon created a character on the same server as the Golden Knights; Ursula. Her husband at the time, watching over her shoulder, soon got an account and created a character of his own; Thorin Ironbeard. That’s me.
My hammer-slinging blacksmith did manage a few victories as a Golden Knight, but my primary focus was on mining and crafting armor and weapons for the guild. Ursula, however, formulated other ambitions. She proposed building a tavern, a place for the Golden Knights and friends to get together after a day of fighting, kick off our greaves and just enjoy some down time.
So while the rest of us went off and fought murderers, hunted monsters, sweated over a hot forge or followed other paths, Ursula created The Golden Brew.
And she sat in that building, and waited… for hours, for days, for weeks, for months, for people to show up.
They did. Slowly. At first it was the Golden Knights and allies. But it was also people who just happened to wander past. In more than one instance, it was a thief or murderer intent on an easy score, who instead found a different way to play the game. And then it was people who had heard about us, from people who had heard about us…
One night, Ursula, Kita Talith and myself were relaxing and chatting about real life, and we discovered that we had all been involved in theatre. One thing lead to another, and soon we were wondering about how we might stage a play inside the game. That was the birth of the Golden Brew Players. And while Ursula had almost single-handedly grown the Golden Brew into a major institution, the Players took it to a whole new level.
The Brew and the Players captured the imagination of not only other residents, but also of the in-game staff and eventually the designers of the game. Richard Garriott, who created the Ultima Series, came to two of our plays and bestowed awards upon Joshua and Kita. The in-game staff provided special landscaping and decorations for the tavern. Kita was interviewed for the New York Times. We ended up being mentioned in books, seminars, theses and academic symposiums as a shining example of virtual community-building.
Time moved on, as time is wont to do. Ursula and I split up in real life; Kita and I became romantically involved. I banked the coals of my forge and closed up the doors, deciding it was time to explore the other MMO games that had sprung up in the intervening years. And explore I did; Dark Age of Camelot, Second Life, Everquest II, Star Wars Galaxies, World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, City of Heroes… others, many others.
But I never connected like I did in UO. Even when I hooked up with former members of the Golden Knights in other games, there was something missing. I was doing what I always did in UO, for the most part, which was largely wandering about on my own, finding whatever passed for a crafting system and making gear for myself and other players.
And at the end of the day, I’d log off. There was no down time. There was no kicking back around a fireplace and swapping stories while Ursula passed around Inga’s latest culinary experiments. There were ‘friends’ — people who wanted to group with me, wanted me to make them armor, wanted just to idly chat — but there were no FRIENDS, nobody I would trust with my back in a heated fight because it just wouldn’t occur to me NOT to trust them.
Ultima Online is dated. It’s a 12-year-old game based on 12-year-old technology, and the most recent attempt to get the graphics up to modern standards was a failure (I desperately hope they’re working behind the scenes to address that, but I have my doubts).
But no game since has succeeded in recapturing the sense of community of UO, as represented by The Golden Brew and The Golden Brew Players. There is still life in this old game. There are still lessons to be learned from it. And there are still adventures awaiting.
Come see for yourselves. Tell ’em Thorin sent ye.