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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sosarian Rogue

It's time to wrap up 90's week and I can't think of a better way of doing it than with Ultima Online.

Everyone has their favorite game world. It's a special place, and it isn't special because of the game mechanics or anything you can express in words. Your favorite game world is a place that you know, without a doubt, means more to you than anyone else. You don't enjoy this world. You don't like it. You love it.

And I loved Sosaria.

Back in '97 Origin released what they coined a grand social experiment. Ultima Online was a virtual fantasy world where thousands of players came together and interacted with one another. Nothing like it had been done before, and if you ask any UO fan, nothing like it has been done since.

Want to be a warrior? Sure, go ahead. Hunt some orcs.
Want to be a bandit? Sure, go ahead. Hunt some players.
Want to be a baker? Sure, go ahead. Bake a pie.
Want to be a bandit baker? Sure, go ahead. Bake some people pie (Or at least you could. Cannibalism was removed pretty early on in the game's life).

This odd, open-ended design gave players the tools they needed to create their own virtual lives and adventures that simply couldn't happen in a scripted environment.

What we're talking about here is Nerd Eden.

Ultima Online had dragons AND llamas.

Ultima Online had a libertarian design philosophy. As a citizen of Sosaria, you were free to approach the game in any way you felt comfortable with. The catch is that your freedom might come at the expense of another player's comforts.

Remember that we're talking about a wildly open-ended game where anonymous players are free to do whatever they want, including indulging in their darker sides. If you were ever unsure about whether people are inherently good or evil, just one day in Sosaria would teach you a very hard lesson.

The real Sosaria.

There's a reason why putting the game experience entirely in the hands of the players has never been attempted on the same scale since Ultima Online. For every thriving player-run community, treasure hunter guild and devoted fisherman who role-plays with a heavy Elizabethan accent, there were about a thousand roving bands of player-killers. AKA griefers. AKA assclowns.

The popularity of PKing had it's own snowball effect, too. I remember docile players confessing to me that they PKed someone, just to see what it was like, just because PKing was part of Sosarian culture and if you didn't try it you weren't experiencing the proper game. Ultima Online was definitely a grand social experiment, just like the developers said.

And the results were horrifying.

But the funny thing is, despite how often I was randomly murdered in Sosaria I would just end up loving it more. All those deaths? Just proof that Sosaria is the geek equivalent of the Wild West. A PKer might be the embodiment of empty morals but he's also a symbol of untethered freedom.

So what did I, personally, do in Sosaria? Damn near everything.

And, looking back, you know what I enjoyed most? Being a dirty, scuzzy pickpocket.

That's me, on the right.

It was a total high. I could give two shits about skewering another player on a spear or hacking down a group of hapless adventurers, but I loved stealing from them. It was dangerous. It was thrilling. At any moment my hunt for a few coins could shift into a chase with me running for my life.

I stuck to urban areas when practicing my trade. Stealing wasn't the black-and-white, kill-or-be-killed nonsense of combat. It was a big, fuzzy grey area of morality and stealing was a very small part of the experience. In essence, it was a social game that I played with the general populace, and not really against them. I wasn't out to upset anyone, just to challenge them and myself.
Maybe, at one point, my social game involves a bit of conversation. At another point, some eavesdropping. Later, some stealing.

Right here is where the adrenaline really hits you.

For those who've never tried it, stealing is the least lucrative profession in Sosaria. Even begging (yes, that's a skill in UO) is more profitable than an average day of pickpocketing. You're lucky if you can rob an adventurer of an uncooked fish-cake (and you'd be amazed how angry someone can get when you steal a piece of insignificant garbage from them).

The rules for stealing (like all rules in UO) were extremely complicated, but a basic concept you need to understand is the judicial system of Sosaria's towns and cities. You see, within the boundaries of civilization players are almost entirely protected from harm by the city watch; computer-controlled characters wielding halberds who walk around aimlessly until a crime is committed and someone yells for the guards.


Once the call goes out the guards don't walk over to the crime. They don't run to the crime. No. They teleport right next to you and chop off your head.

It happens fast, too. In fact, if you're playing on a 56k modem, you're dead before you even see the halberd swing at your neck.

So there's the irony for you:
For a libertarian design, Sosaria's civilizations epitomized draconic rule. No court. No trial. Just a violent execution, right in the street, so everyone around can see what happens when they mess with the law.

And I loved it all. Did I mention that?

I think that the greatest value of interactive entertainment is when it engages you for real, and teaches you things for real. It is what made the Ultima series great. - Raph Koster, Lead Designer of Ultima Online

Hey, Raph. You're right, but the dragons and llamas helped.


  1. Ah, UO. How I loved thee. Justin, awesome article. You brought back a lot of memories, especially when you mentioned people PKing just to try it out.

    Man, I missed PKing. Another game like UO in it's prime will sadly never come out again. It was a definite thrill ride. The only thing I liked more than PKing was looting dead bodies.

    <3 UO

  2. Great pics. I remember well the thrill of digging through the endless satchel and trapped-chest maze to find the sweet stack of black pearl. dtp

  3. Remember how, when you were snooping, you could only move the items around for about a second, until the ping caught up with you? Well, I had some marks that would leave death robes and garbage on top of their loot bags, so you had to frantically remove everything and double-click the bag before all the items snapped back into place.

    One guy used about (I'm not kidding) ten death robes on top of his loot bag. He just stood there and laughed at me while I desperately tried to rob him.

  4. I really like these drawings!

    I have a map of Sosaria on the wall here, BTW.

  5. I think Pathfinder Online (currently in a Kickstarter until Jan. 14 2013) may provide such experiences again. It's taking inspiration from UO and EVE.


  6. Those goblin animations alone are worth the price of admission.

    And yeah, PFO's feature list is fantastic. Thanks for pointing this out.