The Game Archaeologist: Origin stories of modern MMO studios

The Game Archaeologist Origin stories of modern MMO studios

A good origin story always captivates me, especially when it gives me a new perspective on something I've come to appreciate over the years. I love looking back at actors' first few films or hearing about how, say, Atari and Microsoft got their start.

With MMO studios, these origin stories abound and are equally fascinating to me. For example, who would've known that the makers of a couple of SNES titles would one day be running the largest MMO in the world? Or what if few gaming hobbyists in the '80s hadn't created MUDs and then gone on to revolutionize online PvP play?

Today we're going to go back to the very beginning of several modern MMO studios to see when and how they came into being. Who knows... it might change how you see them forever.

The Game Archaeologist Origin stories of modern MMO studios

Before Orcs & Humans, before dancing naked on mailboxes, before even being called "Blizzard," this studio was known as Silicon & Synapse. It was founded in 1991 by a trio of recent college graduates who went straight to work... doing game ports and remakes. S&S's first project was RPM Racing for the SNES, a remake of a 1985 Commodore 64 title. Other early titles included The Lost Vikings and Rock 'n Roll Racing.

It wasn't until 1994 that the studio went through a major transition, becoming Blizzard Entertainment and releasing the very first of its Warcraft games. Fun fact: The studio almost called itself Chaos Studios until it realized that there was a naming conflict with another firm.

The Game Archaeologist Origin stories of modern MMO studios

Just as Voltron was assembled from several components, so too did Mythic Entertainment come to life by the joined efforts of several groups. Initially it was the combination of two studios -- Adventures Unlimited Software Inc. and Interesting Systems, Inc. -- both of which had folks who'd worked on MUDs in the 1980s. Mark Jacobs' Aradath and ISI's Darkness Falls would both provide the inspiration for Dark Age of Camelot later on. These companies heavily utilized early online content providers such as GEnie and AOL to hawk their wares.

When Mythic formed in 1995, it went on to work on a wide variety of mostly-forgotten projects from the '90s, such as ID4 Online (did you know that even existed? I didn't.) and Splatterball. It wasn't until 2001's DAoC that the company hit it big and became a household name to gamers.

The Game Archaeologist Origin stories of modern MMO studios

BioWare's start in the industry is a much simpler tale, although it's interesting in that it began as the hobby of several successful medical doctors. Every doctor has a hobby, I suppose, and Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip's hobby was gaming. The trio created BioWare (translated from Greek, "from the chemist, stuff") in 1995 out of their own pocket and went to work on their first game: Ewoks of the New Republic.

Nah, just foolin'. BioWare's debut title was 1996's Shattered Steel, a MechWarrior clone that did well enough for the studio to survive and then begin working on the doctors' true passion, RPGs. When BioWare came out with Baldur's Gate two years later, the studio had found its niche and never looked back.

Why do we never hear about Yip? It's because this third doctor decided to leave the company in 1997 to return to medicine.

The Game Archaeologist Origin stories of modern MMO studios

In 1989, two amateur programmers created a company called MicroGenesis and began work on a little RPG known as WarWizard. The developers were Brad McQuaid and Steve Clover, and their project was interesting enough to catch the eye of a Sony executive named John Smedley. Smedley previously created a game (QIX) for the Apple IIe, then ran his own game studio called Knight Technologies.

Smedley was tasked by Sony to investigate the potential of online gaming. He and his growing team were dropped into the newly created Verant Interactive (later Sony Online Entertainment) to deal with the development of a 3-D MMO called... well, you know what it's called.

The Game Archaeologist Origin stories of modern MMO studios

Funcom first got my attention with its stellar 1999 adventure game The Longest Journey. It turns out that the studio had been hard at work through most of the '90s, however, mostly working on small-bit console titles.

Funcom formed in 1993 and went to work on various console games, including Samurai Showdown (Mega-CD), Disney's Pocahontas (Genesis), Winter Gold (SNES), and Speed Freaks (PlayStation). Hitting it big with TLJ allowed it to venture into MMO development, shifting the studio over to a new focus that dominated ever since.

We'll stop there and perhaps do a sequel to this column another day! In the meantime, did any of you play any of the earlier titles mentioned above?

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.