There are several video game franchises that have culminated in -- or at least have taken a detour through -- the land of MMOs. For gamers who wanted more and especially did not want to see their journey end, an MMO continuation is a welcome answer that's usually hiding its own problems. But nevermind that; let's march down the halls of history and see the yearbook photos of these franchises when they were young!
Despite being a fairly niche game today, World of Warcraft actually came from a super-popular real-time strategy series that started way back in 1992. Warcraft: Orcs & Humans catapulted Blizzard into the big leagues in 1994, as players learned the joy of inter-racial hatred in a magical land called Azeroth. A year later, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness came out and my free time in college took a huge hit. Who knew that ordering peons around could be so addicting? After an expansion, Blizz fiddled around with the idea of taking the franchise into a new genre with Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans but ultimately got cold feet on the project. We didn't get anything new until 2002, when Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos debuted. Unlike the previous titles, this game was designed with the upcoming MMO in mind and shared development talent and resources.
It's just such a shame that WoW was destined to be the runt of the litter, forever in the shadows of its big brother.
2. Elite: Dangerous
Yes, it's a stupid name, but if you can get past that, then you might be able to see the latest in the line of incredibly popular and severely hardcore space sims. The original 1984 Elite was little more than wireframe starships and trading menus, but its exploration of the stars sparked a ravenous interest among its fans. The big goal was to fight your way to "elite" status, although that was just one of many options to pursue. The game was a hit and was ported to several different computer systems.
Elite was followed by Frontier: Elite II in 1993, which may have been buggy but was notable for its physics system and immense size. Legal spats between the original creators of Elite caused the third title to be released without the moniker as Frontier: First Encounters. This 1995 title was just broken, through and through, and is barely remembered as an Elite title at all. It was only through the crowdfunding efforts of Kickstarter that Elite: Dangerous became a reality, although it remains to be seen whether it will be a true torchbearer to the Elite franchise or end up slumming in the bargain bin box with First Encounters.
No, I wasn't aware that Allods Online was a sequel to anything either. It's actually the third in the Rage of Mages series, although its ancestors were pretty long in the tooth by the time Allods Online came out. Allods: The Seal of Mystery, aka Rage of Mages, was a 1998 isometric RPG that looked a little like a child of Warcraft and Diablo. Allods 2: Master of Souls, aka Rage of Mages 2, came out a year later and rocked our world. It was actually notable for incorporating a multiplayer map editor and multiplayer adventures through an online connection, which fostered a small but dedicated community.
4. The Elder Scrolls Online
I love it whenever I hear someone gush about being such a huge Elder Scrolls fan because chances are this translates to, "I totally loved Skyrim and maybe played a bit of Oblivion back in the day." Even Morrowind has its legions of fans, but how many people do you know that have played -- or can name -- the first two installments in the franchise?
I'll help you out there. The first game in the series was 1994's Arena, an open-world first-person RPG that bombed more than World War II. It didn't completely tank the company, which struggled until it found its footing with 1996's Daggerfall. The franchise we know today, from the in-game guilds to the ability to become werewolves, started to take form here. A CD-ROM dungeon crawler in the same world called Battlespire did so-so in 1997, while an action-adventure spin-off called Redguard fizzled a year later. There were a few mobile games in the mid-2000s, but really it was 2002's Morrowind that finally made the franchise a mainstream hit.
In 1993, the Tales of the Jedi comic book series began a short run in the "Old Republic," an era that took place almost 4,000 years before Luke blew up the Death Star. This miniseries would later prove to be the chosen ground for BioWare when the studio went to create its own Star Wars RPG. 2003's Knights of the Old Republic became a smash hit upon release, racking up many awards and (more importantly) sales. The morality system, the fresh setting, and the engaging storytelling put it among the all-time best CRPGs even to this day. It also prompted a sequel in 2004's The Sith Lords, although this project was farmed off to Obsidian Entertainment and was rushed to completion.
6. Phantasy Star Online
I used to really regret not owning a Sega console because I was missing out on what looked like a cool scifi/fantasy series: Phantasy Star. Of course, I had Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger to keep me occupied on the SNES, so I wasn't crying much.
The first Phantasy Star came out in 1987 on the Sega Master System (the console the NES beat up on the playground), while the next three came out between 1989 and 1995 on the Sega Genesis and Master Drive. It was really Phantasy Star II and III where the series hit its stride, both critically and in popularity, showcasing innovative ideas such as the passage of time, multiple endings, and deep subject matter (at least compared to its contemporaries!).
Ultima is one of the largest and longest-running CRPG series in computer history, spanning all the way back to 1981's Ultima I (or even 1980's Akalabeth, if you want to include that as a prequel). The continuing journeys of the Avatar to the land of Britannia saw the land, story, and people change over time, although many of the characters strangely resisted aging. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985) and Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992) were generally considered the best of the series, including the various spin-offs (such as Ultima Underworld). Ultima IX came out two years after the MMO, which is rare for franchises but not unheard of.
8. Wizardry Online
The MMO that SOE took on and then cast off just as quick came from a franchise that has a larger following in Japan than it does here. It's strange to me that Wizardry was originally made in the US, but no matter. The core party-based CRPG series began in 1981 and enjoyed a strong run right through Wizardry 8 in 2001. There were scads of ports and spin-offs as well, including a SNES game, a few cell phone titles, and some console entries through the 2000s.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (the book) is pretty darn popular in China and has spawned a lot of games, including a series by developer Koei that began in 1985. This series then had its own spin-off in a 1997 PlayStation fighting game called Dynasty Warriors. This spin-off series then figured it had to top its forefathers and produced a healthy line of sequels as well as additional spin-offs (including -- why not? -- a Dynasty Warriors mahjong game and a collaborative effort with Legend of Zelda). Then there's an MMO. Any questions? I know I have plenty.
10. Final Fantasy XI and XIV
I've always found it oddly awesome that the MMOs were acknowledged as part of the big core Final Fantasy series instead of being pushed aside to spinoff status. In any case, what is there to say that isn't common knowledge? Final Fantasy began its legacy in 1987 on the NES, becoming such a gaming dynamo that it's now on number 15 -- and that's not counting all of the spin-offs, movies, cross-overs, and general insane fandom that has emerged since then.
Honorable Mention: The tabletop crowd
While the MMOs I mentioned above largely came from video game series, I didn't want to neglect their brothers-in-arms, the MMOs that emerged from tabletop and pen-and-paper franchises. Dungeons & Dragons has already produced two MMOs (DDO and Neverwinter), Champions gave birth to Champions Online, and Warhammer Fantasy was the fertile ground from which sprang Warhammer Online. For the record, I'd love to see a GURPS MMO already!
Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.