Retro Corner: A Brief History of the MMO

With multi-million selling games like World of Warcraft and Aion there can be no debate, Massively Multiplayer Gaming has become the eight hundred pound gorilla of the gaming world. In recent years the genre's rise to prominence has been nothing short of meteoric, so much so in fact, that many people don't realize just how long and varied the history of the genre is. 

This could be in part due to just how convoluted its history has become. With some genres, first person shooters for example, there is a fairly simple and well defined path that the genre has traveled along, from Maze War to Wolfenstien 3D, then to DooM and so on. This is not the case with MMORPGs, refinements and changes in technology have made its history somewhat harder to trace. Thankfully, however, the history of this genre is more than interesting enough to warrant a good hard look at its path to glory.

Text_BoxmmoThe history of the MMORPG begins with a game very few may expect, a game that had neither a multiplayer mode nor nearly any form of combat what so ever. That game is Zork. Before the existence of today's beautifully modeled MMORPG worlds, online adventuring was confined to the world of text. In fact, in the early eighties if you wanted to explore an online world filled with other players and creatures to battle, you had only one option: MUD. For those of you who may not be familiar with the game, MUD was a simple online Multi User Dungeon designed by a fellow named Roy Trubshaw. A text based dungeon crawl hosted on a single computer that users from around the world could access by using a simple telnet client. The game, for lack of a better term, was created out of a desire to see a dungeon crawling game made in the image of the then iconic Zork. It seems unlikely that anyone could have foreseen just how popular this method of gaming would become, with several text based MUDs and MUD variants still being played today.

Having proven the gaming public's desire for online role playing, it was only a matter of time before someone began work on a graphic variation of this new genre. This is where the story begins to get a little murky. Even by 1986 the world of online role play had begun to divide. A small handful of true MUDs had begun to use simple graphics in order to add to the gameplay experience. LucasFilms however, was able to release what may have been the very first true virtual world, Habitat. Even given the benefit of hindsight, there is a certain amount of debate as to which of these two genres serves as the more direct predecessor to today's MMORPG. Personally, I believe the matter is less open to conjecture. Despite MUD's earlier impact on multiplayer gaming, profound as it may have been, it is relatively clear that the next step for the genre was taken in LucasFilm's Habitat.

Habitat was a massive step forward in the world of online gaming and a clear predecessor to today's MMORPG's open environments; taking the idea of a free form role play environment to a level that may not ever have been fully realized again. The game was designed to be a world in which users could role play as they saw fit. Avatars could be robbed, killed and everything else you would expect but what made the game truly unique was the near complete lack of rules governing gameplay. The world was completely user defined and character's interactions were governed only by the actual gamers behind them. It stepped beyond the mere hack and slash world of MUDs and combined them with the more social role playing aspects of MUSHing (a purely role playing based MUD variant) and graphical interface. Though Habitat may have ultimately contributed more to the Virtual World genre it also provided new concepts and ideas for online avatar gaming as a whole. It gave developers fresh inspiration for Online Role playing in a way that the addition of simple graphics to an otherwise unaltered MUD experience simply did not.

 

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Only a few short years after Habitat (or Club Caribe) went live, Stormfront Studios released a game known as Neverwinter Nights. It was a true merger of graphical role playing and Dungeons and Dragons based rules of combat. Though it was run over AOL, in many ways the game is the first example of what we have come to know as a MMORPG. It featured a very well balanced, well thought out combat system and hosted tournaments for player versus player combat. The game also benefited greatly from the introduction of guilds and guild wars, adding a more social and team based element to the game. Though the game's overall popularity may have been hampered somewhat by what was in 1991 an outlandish hourly fee ($8.00) it developed a strong and very dedicated user base. Through its six year run it proved to the gaming industry as a whole that there was a public interest in massively multiplayer role playing. More importantly, it proved that there was a very pretty penny to be earned by providing it.

The stage was set for Legends of Future Past. Released in 1992 it remains a remarkable part of the genre's history for numerous reasons. The two most important innovations however were the game's crafting system and its use of paid staff as administrators. In recent years, there have been several articles written on the psychological tactics used to ensure a player will continue playing an online role playing game. One of the most frequently mentioned aspects has been the manner in which players gain experience and skills. More specifically, players will continue playing if for no other reason than to grind out new skills, discover new weapons and to meet a series of short term goals. Legends of Future past was quite possibly the first game to truly implement this sort of system, by allowing players to develop skill in various fields and collect raw materials in order to craft new weapons and items, giving the player a series of attainable goals. The game also made brilliant use of paid "Game Masters" who could not only arbitrate the world in general, but also provide new and varied quests and events for players, adding a whole new level of replay value. The game was also playable over the internet for a greatly reduced cost in comparison to early entries into the genre, allowing the game's business model to run on a broader base of players, which in turn also creates a grander game world in which players are more likely to stay. In many ways, Legends of Future Past may be the first of the modern MMORPGs.

 

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Despite all of these advancements and achievements, in the early nineties massively multiplayer online role playing was still somewhat of a fringe culture. Many of the games in the genre had been released by less than major players in the gaming industry. The marketing of the games was often somewhat overlooked, so much so that many gamers were not even aware this style of gaming existed. By 1996, however, all of that was going to change; the big boys had taken notice. Within three years Ultima Online, EverQuest and Ahseron's Call would launch in North America amid massive marketing campaigns, bringing the entire genre into the public eye. While this was happening in North America, in the east Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds, a game that would later boast a subscriber base of million user, was sweeping South Korea. The incredible popularity and addictive nature of these games earned attention not only from the gaming media, but from the mainstream media as well which in turn only served to increase the genre's exposure to potential players not previously involved in gaming.

After the success of these titles, the genre's rise in popularity has been nothing short of astounding. Even Nexus's once shocking million user subscriber base has been made laughable by World of Warcraft's over twelve and a half million users, users who have not only purchased the game but continue to pay a monthly fee. The genre has brought success to the gaming industry in a way never before seen and looking over the list of MMORPGs still yet to be released, it seems unlikely that this new genre will do anything but continue to grow. It will be interesting to see the ways in which this incredible new business model manages to effect the gaming industry in general, as it most certainly can be expected to do so. The pay to play model has already begun to spread through other genres, though in a greatly toned down form. Such as EA Sport's system to allow only the first owner of a sports title to use all online features free of charge. Business model aside, it will also be interesting to see how the massive profits possible in this genre will help drive technological advancement in a general sense. To see how it may serve to improve technologies that can be shared shared amongst all types of gaming, such as graphics engines and code optimization. To see what sort of ripples this rock may send through the pond.