The Game Archaeologist: Steve Nichols' The Realm Online debriefing, part 1

The Game Archaeologist Steve Nichols debriefs The Realm Online, part 1

It's been called one of "the internet's forgotten games," and yet there are those who will never forget the impact that The Realm Online had in their gaming lives. For some gamers in the mid-'90s, it was the very first taste of a graphical MMO. Though it was little more than two-dimensional cartoon graphics added to the then-standard MUD setup, The Realm Online nevertheless helped to forge a path to the brave new world of MMOs.

The Realm, as it was originally called, was a project of Sierra On-Line. Development on the title began in late 1995, with a 1996 beta and launch following soon after. As with other early graphical MMOs, Sierra had little experience or comparisons to draw from while making The Realm but somehow made it work anyway. The resulting game featured a strong emphasis on roleplay, trade, and turn-based combat, although a robust questing experience this was not.

Sierra On-Line never fully got behind The Realm, eventually selling it off to Codemasters in the early 2000s, which then turned around and handed off the title to its current operator, Norseman Games. To date, it's one of the longest continuously operating graphical MMOs in existence and can still be enjoyed by today's gamers.

We reached out to one of the lead developers on The Realm Online, Stephen Nichols, who agreed to an interview on the condition that we give him a very big horn in a tent. Just kidding; the horn is from his private stock. Let's get to it!

The Game Archaeologist Steve Nichols debriefs The Realm Online, part 1

The Game Archaeologist: Can you take us on a quick journey through your personal history as a player and developer leading up to your assignment on The Realm?

Stephen Nichols: Sure! I've been making video games professionally for over 20 years now. I became addicted to games at an early age. I was addicted to playing them as well as tinkering with them to understand how they worked. My professional focus is programming and game design.

I started out in the game industry at the age of 17 and started working for Sierra On-Line on my 18th birthday. My first projects at Sierra were working on The Sierra Network (TSN). I made several minigames and whatnot for that budding pre-internet service. It was fun! After working on TSN for a while, I decided to make an arcade game engine in my spare time. I sold it to the company and started working on some games using it. As is all too common in game development, we couldn't decide which project to work on. So, I worked on a Leisure Suit Larry arcade game (awesome!) and a political satire game (not so awesome). Because of political pressures, neither one of those games was completed... so I stopped pursuing them.

During this time, one of my coworkers at TSN splintered off from the main group and started working on a prototype for The Realm. He built a small team and started creating this unassuming game. The team was in need of a skilled developer. And since I was available, I got involved.

How did The Realm come to be? What were some of the key design decisions from the get-go?

The Realm was initially the brainchild of David Slayback, a long-time developer at Sierra On-Line. He was involved with TSN from the very beginning. As such, he had a lot of experience making online games. He had this idea for a 2-D multiplayer adventure game called The Realm. He sold this idea to upper management and got some resources to get it started. Ken Williams was a big fan of The Realm and our work, so that made things easy for us. Ultimately, the goal was to bring adventure-game fun to multiple players at one time. As the initial vision holder, he wanted the game to be easy to use and very social. This led us to focus our efforts on character customization and interface. Simple gameplay, deep character customization options, and easy chat were the core design principles.

Why was the side-view cartoony graphic style chosen over, say, a Ultima Online-style isometric view?

We picked the side-view style because that's what our game engine supported. We used a modified version of SCI (Sierra's Creative Interpreter) to create The Realm. It was the same engine used to make all of the existing adventure games, so we made The Realm in a similar style. We picked the cartoony art direction for two reasons: The artwork was highly compressible, and our artists could make it rapidly. Remember, this was the day of 28k modems. Download sizes were a huge deal! We didn't get into the store for several years, so our only method of distribution was digital download. Every kilobyte counted!

The Game Archaeologist Steve Nichols debriefs The Realm Online, part 1

What were some of the lessons you learned during the game's early development?

The first lesson I learned while building The Realm is that making MMO games is incredibly difficult. We were having to solve all kinds of problems that hadn't been solved before. Just the dynamic nature of the world alone made the game's complexity increase by an order of magnitude. I leveled up my technical skills on this game quite a bit. It's easier today than it was 15 years ago, but it's still really, really hard. If you ever wonder why MMO games are announced and then fizzle, this is why.

" If you can't afford to have someone babysit your economy, then you shouldn't allow trading gold."

The second lesson I learned is that building a working game economy is really challenging. No matter what you do, players will figure out some way to game your system, break it, and get rich quick. MMO economies are really micro versions of the real world. When not properly managed (due to lack of resources, skills, etc.) this can ruin your game. Inflation is a game-killer! If you can't afford to have someone babysit your economy, then you shouldn't allow trading gold... period.

The third and most important lesson I learned is how to work with players properly. I learned that players really want to interact with developers on a personal level. Being transparent with players, letting them know what you're doing, and involving them in decisions is a key part of building a strong game community. I carry that lesson into every game I work on.

How difficult was it to work around the technical limitations of the era?

This actually wasn't that big an issue. That MMO development is incredibly complex is as true today as it was 15 years ago. But that's not so much because of technology limits. As game developers, we learn to work within our limitations early in our careers or we perish. We simply build our solutions in a way that works well with the technology that we have. The biggest limitation technically was actually convincing management to spend money to build the required infrastructure to host the game. That was really expensive back then. Sticker shock was our biggest hurdle.

I've read from a player that the early community was somewhat chaotic and difficult to control (in regard to griefing). How did your team handle this?

Well, funnily enough, we built systems into the game that actually encouraged griefing. That's why it was so out of control. For example, every player was given a house to store items in and meet folks for private chat. Well, the door was password-protected. This allowed you to share your password with your friends so they could let themselves in. Good idea, right? Who knew that people would hack each other players' passwords and steal all their items?

Here's another example. We had a nice pickpocket skill that you could use to steal money and items from other players. We liked the idea of folks being able to play the thief. Well, it turns out that many folks just don't like this idea. They get really angry when their hard-earned stuff is stolen. So, as you can see, we built this griefing ability right into the game. And those are just two examples.

We tried several solutions. At one point we had a magistrate NPC that would jail players based on their griefing behavior. Whenever offending players would come to town, the magistrate would teleport to them and send them to jail. While in jail, the players couldn't chat or do anything fun at all. We thought this would be a deterrent to griefing. It turns out that it was an attractant! It encouraged the anti-social players to compete with each other for longer sentences. Deep down, I think we knew that would happen. But in any case, it didn't solve the problem.

Ultimately we ended up removing the offending features and closing off options for griefing. This made the game more palatable to folks, but it also dumbed things down a lot too. Ah well, there's the shining example of business concerns competing with game design choices.

Stay tuned for part two of this interview!

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 or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.