Ultima Online Revisited: Unmatched Design Masterpiece and Source of Legal Riddles

This summer I happened to be in a distant town at a seaside without a computer capable to run any of the big modern MMORPGs which I play occasionally, such as World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2. I put a bold face on it and, after trying a few classic games at gog.com (which is an exceptional website for a retro gamer), downloaded Ultima Online Enhanced Client.

The fact is that Ultima Online (or ‘UO’ for short) is one of those games which I itched to play 15 years ago, when I first read about it, but did not have technical possibility to play that time, like many other Russian teens. There were times when Internet infrastructure was almost non-existent here as a general rule. What I did is reading absorbedly UO chronicles in Game World Navigator, a Russian game magazine, by Igor Boyko who currently joined jury panel at Gamescom.

Now, after all these years I finally looked at this masterpiece through my own eyes.

History of Ultima Online

UO is conventionally considered to be the first commercially successful graphical MMORPGs. It was released as far back as on September 24, 1997 by Origin Systems.

Richard Garriott, one of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the whole computer game industry, produced the game. The design team also included such a figure as Raph Koster, who was known before UO for his design work in MUDs and is well known beyond computer game industry for his writings on game design and computer games in culture.

From the perspective of the lore, world and a part of basic principles of the mechanics, the team apparently relied on the legacy of eight previous games in the world of Britannia as reflected in the famous Ultima series, including single-player masterpiece of Ultima VII which is also worth trying even today.

The success of UO is reflected in Electronic Arts press-release of August 24, 2006 which states that it is “…the first MMORPG to reach the 100,000 subscriber base, far exceeding that of any game that went before it”. In the first half of 2003 the game is reported to reach its peak of 250,000 of subscribers, the number which gradually declined later balancing at the initial grade.

The quantity of users may not seem as astonishing as 12,000,000 of World of Warcraft players in late 2010, or 27,000,000 League of Legends players (reported in the beginning of this year 2014), but no other game before UO reached the same number of subscribers as UO and critics agree its example stimulated the developers to defy the risk associated with the fact that the success of the game was dependent on the quality of Internet connection of the individual users. Also, with a bit of irony, it may be stated that each modern MUD player knows that as little as around just 20 players are enough to make a virtual word a lively place.

By this date, UO has 8 expansion packs and one ‘booster pack’, which accumulated a lot of additional features, along with 86 free minor updates called ‘publishes’.

At a first glance, it may sound surprising that this world is still alive and well, and furthermore has a remarkably decent community, especially comparing to the communities of the modern major MMORPG titles, which is closely knit and unexpectedly friendly. These facts can be easily explained though by a set of core design decisions which form the grounds of UO.

UO Community Meeting

Community meeting of the Europa server. All new players are welcome. Everyone is free to start game-relevant discussions.

What May Qualify Ultima Online as a Design Masterpiece?

The design of UO, from its basic principles to its details, differs from major modern MMORPG titles so much that a non-prepared player of ‘theme-park’ games such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic will most likely be overwhelmed and lost until he or she comes to understanding of this world which is as ‘sandbox’ as a virtual world with pre-defined sword and sorcery setting could be. This was my case as well despite all of my theoretical knowledge.

It may be asserted that the well-known way of delivering the plot through quests is nothing else than… a major design flaw (sic) of big modern MMORPGs. How this happens in games which follow the World of Warcraft model? Players go through various quests and quest chains. Such quests convey the story, but this is not an actual story of a living world, it is a predetermined story which is supposed to be a story of an individual character. That is how it happens: there are some millions of players who follow the same personal story and furthermore each of them is treated as if he or she is a unique hero. This is something which cannot be explained from the standpoint of lore, and the irony of the situation is just multiplied by modern raiding design. It is an epic experience to defeat Prince Arthas (the Lich King) in an online environment, but could anyone please explain how in the world a unique villain can be killed on a regular basis (e.g. once a week) by several different parties, each defeating him in its own instanced dungeon?

There is a major fiction in such a way of delivering the plot, and it is what UO almost completely expunges. There is a setting, but the plot is actually what is created by actions and interactions of individual players. Yesterday I explored an unknown area and got killed by mobs. Trying to escape, I ran farther into the wilderness where a horde of raptors finally reached me. This made it impossible to reclaim the corpse on my own, and I asked two of other players to help me. However, it took longer than expected to fight the way to my corpse and reclaim them before it decayed with all weapons and armor on it (my items were not ‘insured’ which I recklessly did not do, and you need an item to be ‘insured’ so that you resurrect with it in a safe place). There was also a lot of emotions behind this, as one of the players who tried to help me gifted me with these weapons and armor a few hours ago as a new player. Later in the evening, we told this story to other players during daily players meeting in one of the major cities in-game. Now, all this itself is quite a decent individual story to tell.

Other source of confusion for a new player which also proceeds from the ‘sandbox’ nature of UO is the fact that you need to set your game goals for yourself at your own. No one will tell you what the ‘end-game’ actually is (in some other games it is raiding or – alternatively – high-level PvP without doubt), because there is a plenty of ways, and some of them could not involve PvM at all. If you like, you can even RP a city beggar all the way, and there is specific ‘begging’ skill for this which can be mastered just as any other. Speaking about other possible example, there are very few games where you can act as a crafter without a bit of combat skills and fighting beforehand, and UO is one of such games.

Now, concerning skills system, UO eschews other major fiction of modern MMORPGs which are often based on experience points and levels model. You improve skills by… practicing them, like in single-player games from The Elder Scrolls series. If you like to increase your ‘swordsmanship’ skill you must fight with the sword. If ‘musicianship’ skill is your priority, be ready to play music instruments a lot. But you cannot kill a few dozens of mobs, get level and skill points to suddenly being able to play a music instrument. This gives an additional level of realism to how the things work in UO. Apparently, such a system is far less predictable to be included at large into big commercial products with more or less foreseeable profit and development plans, and yet this may be the design feature which may reinstate interest in the MMORPGs in nearest future.

A remarkable feature of UO interface could be explained by the fact that it is heavily ‘item-driven’ as opposed to ‘action-driven’ way. For instance, in order to get a skin from an animal corpse, you do not need to use any ‘skinning’ action on it, but to double click on any bladed item you have and select the corpse as your target. Yes, in UO you can skin animals with any bladed item, such as sword, katana or a genuine skinning knife. Afterwards you can cut the skin with scissors into strips and sell them at a price than for the raw skins. Since we are so tired of simplifications which many of the modern MMORPGs offer, these procedures look as adding realism to game and not as an unnecessary routine (of course, they can be automated to certain extent by macroing). Moreover, one of the most noteworthy features of UO is that items you have in your inventory exist not only in your inventory, but in the world itself. It is possible to through items from a backpack to the ground so that anyone else would be able to pick them up. You also have to transfer your items into ‘physical’ possession of a fellow player who has skills to repair them if you like them repaired, so imagine the gameplay aspect of real trust and distrust between people in a virtual world.

The highlighted UO design features exist in the world where you can obtain a basic mount in the first half an hour of playing (because it is normal to have a horse in a fantasy fiction world), buy a small ship and navigate to open sea for fishing manually, purchase a house deed and build your facility in the open world and not in some abstract instanced housing zone, thus making it a part of the whole living world, and do other things which you would normally do as an inhabitant of a fantasy world which affect other players.

All of this gives the unique feeling of an actual virtual world and not of a single-player game with multiplayer features which sadly many of the modern games (except for maybe Guild Wars 2) give. If we speak in more academic manner, it can be said that such an environment is the most beneficial for virtual social reality to emerge. There is no surprise then that the issues of virtual law per se are most apparent in UO than in any other game.

UO Fighting Imps and Hellhounds

Improving skills by fighting imps and hell hounds in Hythloth dungeon. You are free to go anywhere and choose any path you like. See some selected skills on the right.

Legal Riddles of the World of Ultima

So far UO has been discussed as an online game which has several major design features which allow it to be considered as a consistent virtual world. In particular, this includes and circumvention of virtual items in the world which can rarely be seen in modern MMORPGs where items can hardly exist outside of players inventories.

This said, UO has two main ‘facets’ or world replicas – Trammel and Felucca, named after two moons of the fictional world. Trammel is a friendly place where non-consensual PvP is prohibited, while Felucca is a kind of a ‘PvP Realm’ where PvP is allowed even without consent of both parties, as a general rule, outside cities. The difference between the PvP in UO and the kinds of PvP we are accustomed to now lies in two facts. The first one is connected with the model of item circumvention, the second – with the consequence of death in UO which is quite harsh to modern measures, although the death itself is not permanent.

As the items actually exist in the world and not in individual inventories, this means that a single separate item can go from one inventory to another (an allegory that the item is not replicated while the initial version is destroyed, but actually ‘physically’ transferred from one place to the other may be illustrative here). At that PvP in UO includes not only killing players, but also stealing items from them using specific ‘stealing’ skill. As an alternative, due to how the death works in UO, PvP can also take form of looting a players corpse and getting thus the belongings of other player. Please note that there is very few other games which allow players to actually steal items from each other.

And now we come to the most interesting point at the intersection of real and virtual law. Virtual items can be and are traded for real money, whether it is recognized by providers of virtual worlds or remains in a ‘grey area of law’ being banned by terms and conditions of a particular game but still popular among players. What is theoretically possible in Feluccan environment of UO? Apparently, a virtual item which has been bought for a real money, under certain conditions, can be stolen or looted by other player using legitimate game mechanics! The exclamation mark here shows the excitement of a lawyer who is interested in virtual worlds. The reason is how rich of theory the question of stealing an item bought for real money with legitimate in-game means may be. You most likely have already figured out the core question, but let me go into more detail.

Theoretically, if we recognize transactions with virtual items as valid transactions, this would mean that the ‘buyer’ obtained a kind of right from the ‘seller’. There is actually a variety of ways of how this can be explained from the real law perspective, and they depend on jurisdiction and approach within a jurisdiction. For instance, virtual objects may be interpreted as objects of copyright (e.g. part of the code and/or images) to which the users have limited licenses. In such a case, when one user sells a virtual item to the other, what actually happens is a change of a party to the license agreement with the game provider for a fee (such a change is called and/or translated into English differently from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, for example UK law speaks about it as the ‘novation’, while customary translation for a Russian equivalent is the ‘assignment’). It can be said that one user sells to other user the right to be a party to such an agreement. This model is used, for instance, by Wizards of the Coast in Magic: The Gathering Online which recognizes transactions with the players to enable card trading. Alternative approaches to the nature of such transactions may imply that virtual property is a subset of property in general, and therefore trading virtual property is nearly the same as trading real property. In other words, players ‘own’ swords in a virtual worlds in the same way as they own legitimately purchased real life items. This approach, at the first glance, has major flaws, as it is strongly against interests of virtual worlds providers who reasonably would not want to reimburse virtual property value players in case company fails and the world ceases to exist.

Still, let us assume that there is a kind of value (whether it is right or property) transferred when a transaction is made outside a game for real money. The validity of such a transaction may be debated from the standpoint of civil law (as the term applies in continental systems) or contract law (as the term applies in anglo-saxon systems), but in any case, from economic standpoint there is some value in virtual items.

Now let us turn from real life civil or contract law to real life criminal law. In many jurisdictions criminal law usually differs from civil or contract law by the fact that it is less scrupulous about theory of rights and titles in objects and rather operates in terms of economic harm. For instance, in accordance with the Russian Criminal Code, theft is constituted by covert misappropriation of other’s effects, and the ‘effects’ category includes not only tangible property, but also proprietary rights. Rights under copyright license would be considered as such ‘proprietary rights’ in Russia. Then, if a person manages to misappropriate such rights in a secret manner, this would constitute a theft with the effect of grounds for criminal prosecution.

Here we come to a culmination of the legal riddle: in UO Feluccan PvP environment it is technically possible to secretly misappropriate other’s effects (for instance, if we interpret a right of a player in his or her item as a right under limited license given by a game provider) by… legitimate in-game means which is the ‘stealing’ skill allowed technically and by the game rules in the PvP facet of the virtual world. What if the virtual item was purchased from other player for real money? This would mean that an act of stealing has been committed in respect of the player both under real law and game rules, but while it is legitimate in the latter case, it is illegal (and really illegal) in the former case!

Is it possible to get into a real life jail while stealing property in a virtual world? At a first glance, no. However, this most likely would be a reasonable practical answer (considering that terms of service ban selling of virtual items, and stealing is a part of game rules), while as far as it comes to legal theory, it is not such an easy task to provide the argumentation. I would say that this is quite a riddle which has not yet been officially addressed in detail at large (although there have already been some cases in various jurisdictions with contradicting approaches to the issue), but which may be reinstated in future depending on how virtual worlds will develop.

The legal riddle of virtual stealing has been given such an attention because it is one of the most distinctive features of UO as far as we consider this aspect. However, UO, as any other online game, shares at least one more legal riddle, and it is connected with griefing – a practice of harassing other players in-game in a way which is formally legitimate under the game rules. A common example would be continuing player-killing at the point of respawn. However, UO has so many ways of harassing other players in formally legitimate ways: blocking players paths, forced teleportation, finally the same stealing.

There are even rumors about a situation where experienced ill-minded players lured newbies into an island from where it was impossible to escape without external help, and forced them to procure natural resources (such as lumber or ore) to gain the ‘right’ to leave the island. It is reasonable that many jurisdictions have the rule that claims deriving from participation in games cannot be submitted to a court or other authority, but the riddle is that it is not always clear where the thin line between playing and preventing others from enjoying the paid service actually lies.

Addressing these issues is a good exercise for any lawyer who would like to improve his or her understanding of the ‘Magic Circle’ test suggested by Bejamin Duranske in ‘Virtual Law’ book to provide a standard for courts so that they can separate ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ claims.

UO Giving Items to Blacksmith

In order to repair items you must handle them to a player with blacksmith skills. A great degree of trust is needed as such a blacksmith could easily run with your belongings.


UO is still an unmatched design masterpiece among fantasy MMORPGs (even despite its graphics which many may find outdated) which gives a player an unprecedented freedom to forge own fate in a ‘sandbox’ virtual world. As a natural result, UO still can be seen as a social experiment and model which can give a rise to many discussions relevant to law and social studies. Definitely, it is worth trying.

  One thought on “Ultima Online Revisited: Unmatched Design Masterpiece and Source of Legal Riddles

  1. August 9, 2014 at 18:45

    Vladislav, thank you for a very professional and entertaining story. The same – never played UO but read a lot 🙂 should try now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • August 9, 2014 at 19:09

      Demid, thank you! I will be happy to help as much as I can at Europa shard. 🙂


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