The most obvious unique aspect of Ultima Online is its use-based character growth system. Essentially, if a player wants to become better at magic, he or she practices magic and slowly gains skill. If that same player wants to try a trade next, he or she grabs the appropriate tools and starts crafting. It's beautifully simple but leads to truly complicated character-crafting. Oh, sure, many players maintain a posse of alts, each one representing a different expertise or set of abilities. I haven't the patience for most of that, however, and have generally always stuck with one main character. In Ultima Online, my character is a ranged combat expert with a grandmastery of tactics and archery. Grandmaster (100) was once the highest "level" in a particular skill; now, for many skills, it's Legendary (120) if you consume special scrolls. Once all of your skills add up to around 700 (more if your account is very old), you must lower one skill to raise another.
My character is at 705, so for most of the week, I struggled with deciding how to try something new. I've got a few alts to play with, each one named after its own particular skill, like "Shhhh" for a sneaky thief, but I didn't want to spend my time just grinding up healing or magic. I left my character alone but continued to wonder which skill I could turn down to make room. There are three states for skills: turned up to gain, locked, or turned down to lose points. If I wanted to trim some points from my archery skill, I could turn it down and lose points, making room for a gain in another skill. I just couldn't do it, however.
I have a foggy memory of players learning all of the skills in the game, but I was obviously mistaken. That happens with a lot of old games. I was so convinced that players could learn every skill (I still have no idea where I got that idea) that I was excited to log in this week to level some new abilities! Bonnie set me straight during the interview.
Ultima Online limits a player's skill total, so specialization is key. If the game were released today, would this limited approach still fly with modern-day sandbox fans? I don't know, but it is refreshing to go back to Ultima Online and have some limits on how your character can grow. Many sandboxes can be overwhelming to players. I get overwhelmed all the time simply because I know I will never have enough time to learn it all -- at least not on one character.