Players have been experiencing graphical MMOs for nearly two decades now, but before we get into those -- a preface.
The MUD, or Multi-User-Dungeon, is where it all began. The first MUDs were all text, accepting commands and responding with descriptions (along with possible directions the player could travel) in the style of text adventure games like Zork.
The first MUD was developed by Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw at Essex University in 1978. Thousands of others followed over the years, and many of them are still operating today. You can even still play Bartle and Trubshaw's original MUD at its website.
It's important to acknowledge these text games in any discussion about the history of MMOs. After all, EverQuest is basically DikuMUD in fancy clothing!
After MUDs dominated the online role-playing scene in the 80s, the 90s saw the birth of the "graphical MUD" -- another precursor to the Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game. These games weren't quite massive by today's standards, but they were graphical, persistent worlds in which players fought monsters and socialized.
The first of these games, Neverwinter Nights, launched in 1991. This top-down, 2D dungeon-crawler shared its Forgotten Realms D&D setting with 2002's popular 3D game, but not much else. It was available only to America Online subscribers, and was developed by multiple prestigious teams. At launch, the game cost a whopping 6 US dollars to play per an hour; that's nearly $10 in today's money!
A year after AOL unveiled Neverwinter Nights, Sierra On-line launched The Shadow of Yserbius. The game was a cult hit on the historical ImagiNation Network service (which was first called The Sierra Network), and had turn-based combat somewhat reminiscent of single-player RPGs like Might and Magic. The game's development was led by Electronic Arts alum Joe Ybarra, who now heads up Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment. Yserbius was later purchased by AOL, which eventually shut both it and Neverwinter Nights down.
Neither NWN nor Yserbius managed widespread popularity, but they pushed the genre forward into a new era, and paved the way for future successes.
Today, the MMO genre is even bigger in Asia than it is in North America or Europe. Many of the most colossal Asian MMO hits have come from companies in the small but financially and technologically formidable country of South Korea. A Korean company called Nexon pioneered in the Asian MMO frontier in 1996 with a game called Baramue Nara, on which the North American game Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds was closely based.
Nexus was (and is) a 2D game with an Anime-like art style and a Korean mythology motif. Players can level up to level 99, but they don't stop gaining experience; they can trade post-level-cap experience for specific attribute boosts. Players can also assume significant community roles ranging from judges to guides.
Nexus administrators began to use a strategy of sharing the hosting load between several servers -- something which is essential in today's huge MMORPGs. Nexus even set a record for simultaneous-logged-in-users in a single world at just over 12,000 in 1999. Think of it as the first EVE Online in that regard, if you want!
In 1995, The 3DO company began a public beta test of Meridian 59 -- the first 3D online RPG. 25,000 players signed up for the beta, and the game launched in 1996. Meridian 59 differed greatly from games that came before it or since.
The game is played in a first-person perspective, and the graphics engine closely resembles that of Doom, with pseudo-3D environments made up of blocky polygons and populated by 2D sprite characters. Combat is mostly hack & slash, but the game features a wide array of spells split between several spell schools.
The game is particularly known for its mostly-unrestricted PvP combat. Guilds and factions fight one another over territory and tokens. Meridian 59 is skill based, and has no character levels. Players gain hit points by defeating monsters, but skill and spell proficiency increase with each use. Mana is acquired by discovering "mana nodes" hidden in the game world.
3DO operated ten server worlds -- including one with special PvP rules -- before shutting the game down in 2000 after it lost many of its players to much more advanced competitors like Ultima Online and EverQuest. Shortly thereafter, two former 3DO employees -- Rob Ellis and Brian Green -- formed a company called Near Death Studios and purchased the game from 3DO, relaunching it in 2002 with an updated graphics engine. It still operates under the Near Death Studios banner today.
Sierra On-line's The Realm was released on December 31, 1996 -- shortly after Meridian 59. It can best be described as a MUD with a King's Quest-like, point-and-click interface. The game was initially headed by Ken Williams, husband of legendary game designer Roberta Williams and co-creator of King's Quest.
Players of The Realm own houses, fight monsters in turn-based combat to gain character levels, and attend social events. The game was simpler and more accessible than many of its contemporaries, and Sierra boasted of more than 25,000 subscribers. But in recent years, The Realm's subscriber base has sharply declined.
The game has changed hands twice. It was handed from Sierra to Codemasters, and Codemasters handed it to the current operators -- Norseman Games. Unfortunately, The Realm is only barely supported today.
Richard Garriott, the renowned creator of the explosively successful Ultima series of computer RPGs, had a passion for an idea: a Britannia (the world of Ultima) inhabited simultaneously by thousands of RPG fans.
Garriott, Starr Long, Raph Koster, and other designers made that idea a reality with Ultima Online, which was released by Origin Systems on September 25, 1997. UO was a smash hit; it was the first MMO to attract subscribers by the hundreds of thousands instead of the tens of thousands. It's still going today, and has seen seven expansion packs over the years.
The game is played in an isometric -- or bird's eye -- perspective, is skill-based rather than level-based, and features player-built communities, a wide range of trade skills, and brutal player vs. player combat.
The designers of UO broke new ground in dozens of ways, but they didn't have a large back catalog of previous successes to look to for dos and don'ts. For that reason, UO is arguably a work of flawed genius. Origin had to find ways to deal with unanticipated forms of griefing and player-killing, technical problems, and even urban over-development!
Still, UO almost single-handedly opened the door to a future full of successful MMOs -- for the West, at least.
In 1998, California-based Lyra Studios launched Underlight, a game that was truly unique. Underlight placed its emphasis on role-playing and social interactions, in contrast to the combat focus of most MMORPGs. In fact, in-character role-playing was dictated by the terms of service and enforced by Lyra.
Underlight was played in 3D in the first-person-perspective, and was set in a strange dream-world, in which various organizations (composed entirely of players, as the game had no NPCs) cooperated or competed. At the game's peak, 15,000 players inhabited its unusual world.
Story and role-playing driven MMORPGs are unusual. Underlight had things in common with some of the less-conventional families of MUDs from the text era, such as talkers or MUSHes.
Underlight was shut down in early 2007, but passionate members of its community have put together a sequel of their own, titled Underlight: Shades of Truth.
Remember Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds? One of its designers -- Jake Song -- eventually left Nexon to work for NCsoft, another South Korean game development company. Song headed up the development of Lineage, which launched in South Korea in 1998. Lineage achieved a kind of success that was unheard of in the North American or European markets until 2004's World of Warcraft. NCsoft proudly reported subscriber numbers in the millions.
The game utilizes a 2D interface very similar to that of Ultima Online. However, the gameplay is quite different. Lineage has a traditional, level-based character advancement system, but it becomes especially interesting when players join together in blood pledges to capture and maintain strongholds in PvP combat.
Neither Lineage nor any of NCsoft's other major titles have been smash hits in the United States or Europe, but to this day, no pay-to-play MMORPG has done a better job of absorbing the time and money of Koreans.
That wraps up part one of our visual journey through MMORPG history. Check back next week when we look at the games that changed the genre from a curiosity into a phenomenon, and that defined the MMO as we know it today.
Sit tight; the truly massive games are still to come!