Perfect Ten: MMOs from the '90s

saved by the bell

The course of MMO history and the developer pioneers who forged a path to online gaming have long fascinated me (so much so that I write an occasional column about it). While we often think of MMOs as modern entertainment barely out of its infancy, the truth is that you can trace the industry back decades to see a fringe group of devs and players striving to make these games a reality.

While the number of MMOs in existence exploded in the early- and mid-2000s (and hasn't stopped growing since), the 1990s are often an overlooked decade that featured more than the one or two games that are usually mentioned in brief history overviews. There were actually far more titles than most assume, even if you dismiss text-based MUDs and the like. Today we're going to run down 10 MMOs that were born during the era of the dot-com revolution, dial-up modems, and the peak of the Simpsons (third through seventh seasons).

1. Neverwinter Nights (1991)

AOL's 1991 game not only took Dungeons & Dragons online but was widely credited as being the first true online graphical MMO. I'm not going to pick nits about this, but it certainly deserves a spot in the history books for being way ahead of the curve in providing an MMO that delivered on visuals as much as actual gameplay. It was quite expensive to play ($8 an hour, which is $13.92 an hour when adjusted for inflation today) and offered only a tiny, mostly static window as a portal to the game world. Players didn't mind; folks flocked to it as they'd never seen anything like it before. Neverwinter Nights ran for seven years during the bulk of the decade before having its plug yanked.

2. Shadow of Yserbius (1991)

Around the same time, players who chose to pony up thick wads of cash for the ImagiNation Network (INN) had the opportunity to dabble in Shadow of Yserbius instead. You best think of this as a lobby-style MMO, where players congregated in a tavern to form groups and then headed out to tackle the game's sole dungeon (the titular volcano). While the online game didn't last long thanks to corporate takeovers, Sierra did create an offline version that solo players could enjoy for years after.

3. The Realm Online (1996)

It may have looked more like a cartoon than a serious MMO, but The Realm made strides forward in bringing graphic virtual worlds to life with roleplay and fantasy combat. It never achieved any great measure of notoriety and success, but the fact that it's still running today says a lot about its staying power and importance in the lives of certain gamers.

4. Meridian 59 (1996)

When graphical e-peens are compared in the MMO genre, Meridian 59 is often credited as having one of the oldest and most authentic reputations for progressing the genre forward. Instead of stiffly animated flat images, this fantasy title lurched forward with 2.5-D fluid visuals. It's survived a couple of studio closures and is currently back online and free for all with players tweaking its source code.

5. Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds (1996)

It's important not to overlook Asia's involvement in MMOs in the '90s because when this region started cranking them out, they drew in numbers like never before. Nexus was one of the first significant Korean titles, developed by a certain Jake Song. Yes, that Jake Song. The game had an intricate social system and ran up record concurrencies within the first couple of years of operation.

6. Ultima Online (1997)

When Ultima Online debuted in 1997, it instantly became the king of the MMO mountain. Drawing from a rich RPG legacy and the hard-working talents of Origin Systems, this sandbox title blew gamers away with the possibilities and options available in an online fantasy realm. Sure, it had problems, not the least of which was the rash of player killing and rampant bugs, but it became the first MMO to garner a truly sizable audience and put this type of game on the radar of both players and the gaming industry.

7. Tibia (1997)

This German MMO had a slow start in the '90s, but the 2000s saw it explode in popularity and function. While everyone else was making client-based subscription MMOs, the team behind Tibia decided to embrace a free-to-play model and put this 2-D isometric game fully inside a browser. Tibia's still going strong today with thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) playing it. Not bad for a game without sound!

8. Lineage (1998)

If Ultima Online was big, Lineage proved that there was no ceiling on this online popularity contest. NCsoft's MMO was a smash hit in Korea, capitalizing off of the country's recent broadband expansion. It was derived from the '80s game NetHack and largely focused on PvP conflicts. Lineage broke the million-player barrier by the early 2000s and to this day remains one of NCsoft's biggest money-makers.

9. EverQuest (1999)

With its (then) attractive 3-D graphics and PvE themepark focus, EverQuest dethroned Ultima Online to become the big man on campus in the west (a status it held until something or other was released in 2004). The widespread appeal of EverQuest helped to legitimize the genre and show that these games could be more than just niche products -- they could be real gold mines. EverQuest eventually shifted to a free-to-play model and recently dinged its 20th expansion.

10. Asheron's Call (1999)

The last member of the "big three" of the first generation of graphical MMOs barely squeaked into the '90s, but it totally counts. Asheron's Call followed EverQuest's direction by providing a 3-D MMO, but it tried its own thing too by creating a skill-based game, a regularly updated story, and a unique allegiance system that bound players together in advancement. Asheron's Call is going free this summer and will offer player-run servers later this year.

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 or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.