The Game Archaeologist traces his Lineage: The highlights

If we judged MMOs by their numbers alone -- and I'm not suggesting we do so -- then Lineage would be the crowing rooster strutting about the hen house. It's also been one of those games that I've always intellectually acknowledged was a huge hit for some reason, but I never gave it much attention. I think it's because, contrary to many of the "big name" games we cover here, Lineage was and always will be an Asian phenomenon. That doesn't mean it should be shunned, of course, but just that it may be difficult to understand when you're on the outside of it.

So let's back up the memory truck to September 1998, when a then-fledgling NCsoft rolled out a Diablo-esque isometric MMO and struck virtual gold in South Korea. At the time, gaming rooms were becoming a huge thing in the country; a recession had hit (giving people a lot of time with nothing to do), and the government was rapidly expanding the broadband network. In the face of this perfect storm, titles like StarCraft and Lineage became overnight household fixtures -- and the country hasn't looked back.

Even if you haven't played Lineage and you don't know anyone who does, trust me: There are a lot of people playing this 13-year-old title, to the tune of millions and millions. As former Senior Producer Chris Mahnken said, "Lineage keeps going because it's just plain fun."

This month we'll be looking back at the incredible legacy that Lineage has given the industry, starting with an overview of the highlights of these past 13 years. Hit the jump and mind the gap!

Lineage is the lovechild of NetHack and comic books

The inspiration for Lineage is two-fold. Story-wise, the game is based on the comic book series of the same name by Shin Il-sook. While the game's story eventually diverged from its source material, Lineage still honors Il-sook's work by naming the servers after the book's characters.

But the game itself was the brainchild of NCsoft founder Tack Jin Kim, who was fascinated with an old-school Rogue-like game called NetHack. "I loved that," Kim said, "and my dream was to make a game based on that sort of virtual world -- so when I encountered the Internet, I was very excited, because this could be a reality! That's why I created a company to make online games."

Lineage was a monster hit well before World of Warcraft

As we all know well, MMO player statistics are a tricky thing to nail down because of corporate secrecy, shifting definitions, and other variables. But what we can say for certain is that Lineage was a massive, multi-million subscriber hit before World of Warcraft was a twinkle in Blizzard's eye. In fact, it was the very first MMO to gain more than two million subscribers.

Most sources state that the title peaked somewhere north of three million subscribers by 2003, most of whom were in Korea. Even when the game started to show its age, Lineage still pulled in a respectable one-million-plus in 2008. By that year, the Lineage franchise had sold over 43 million copies.

But because the phenomenon didn't spread as NCsoft had hoped, outside of Korea it was just another fantasy MMO, whereas there it was the fantasy MMO. In any case, Lineage proved that MMOs could push past the one-million subscriber mark and stay there for a long time, which was a great indicator of the industry's future.

Lineage established the popularity of the so-called "Asian grinder"

The bulk of Lineage's gameplay was built around PvP between guilds (or "bloodpledges"), and as such, it skewed toward hardcore gameplay. Not only was the combat harsh and unforgiving, but the time required to build up your character's gear and stats bordered on a full-time career. Yet even so, people flocked to the game and willingly surrendered their free time to the near-endless treadmill of leveling and armor acquisition.

In this, Lineage provided the most public and well-known template for what we now call the Asian grinder, a game in which repetitive action doesn't supplement other types of gameplay -- it is the gameplay. There's been a lot of backlast against this type of MMO, of course, and players looking to take a new import down a few notches are quick to slap it with the "Asian grinder" label.

Yet despite this, it proved a successful formula, and with huge success come imitators...

It spawned a legion of "Lineage clones"

Hate the phrase "WoW clone?" Me too. But WoW isn't the only MMO that other companies have tried to replicate in search of a second miraculous bolt of lightning. Lineage's rise to glory resulted in a tidal wave of so-called "Lineage clones" that flooded the market with similar designs, looks and addictive hooks.

When asked about how he felt about these clones, Tack Jin Kim said it was a compliment of sorts: "When I see Lineage-like products, I think that's, well, honouring NCsoft -- something like that! We are pleased to give other developers some impact, some impressions to help make their games better or more fun."

It's one of NCsoft's most reliable money-makers

Yup, we're back to numbers again, and I'll make this short in case you're having match class flashbacks. Year after year after year, Lineage is cited as one of NCsoft's key sources of income. And we're not just talking "2002" here, but 2011. Lineage is the ideal money machine that will continue to rake in the profits for the forseeable future.

It's still expanding

I love it when older titles are not only still running but expanding as well. Last year the Lineage team added two new classes: the Illusionist and Dragon Knight. A few years back, NCsoft made some noise about upgrading the game's graphics, although this project's appeared to have run out of steam.

Lineage's designer is one of the most celebrated MMO devs in the world

If you don't know who Jake Song (Song Jae-kyeong) is, then shame on you. Really. For shame. We're going to send the paddle police over to your house within the hour.

In the pantheon of MMO game developers, Song is somewhere near the top tier. Song was the lead designer and programmer for Lineage and has also worked on Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds, Aion and Tabula Rasa. In 2003, Song left NCsoft to form his own studio, XL Games. That studio's first MMO, ArcheAge, is the reason Massively's Jef has taken to skipping down the halls in glee instead of strutting in a manly manner as he is known to do.

Lineage never really caught on in the US

I feel bad ending on a down note, but the truth of the matter is that for as great a success as Lineage is, it never penetrated the North American market the way NCsoft hoped. Despite NCsoft's hiring brothers Robert and Richard Garriott to give the company credence in the U.S., gamers shunned the ancient-looking Lineage in favor of newer titles like Guild Wars and Aion.

NCSoft's Young Park recognized the trouble in 2009, but the company never could figure out how to pull in a wide audience: "What we realized is that we had a gap between the North American content and the Korean content, and that gap was quite wide."

This brings us to the end of Lineage -- at least in North America, as NCsoft is pulling the plug on local servers while keeping the game operating in the much more profitable region of Asia. So even as we celebrate Lineage month here on The Game Archaeologist, we're also bidding it farewell when the NA servers are closed on June 29th.

What's your story?

As usual, we're collecting any and all player stories to share in a future column! Send in your favorite Lineage memory to justin@massively.com (100 words maximum, please) along with any screenshots you've saved!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.