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History of MMO Games - Part II

22. October, 2011Tags: History of MMO Games, MMO Blog

History of MMO Games part II

Second part of our "The History of MMO games" series. Last week we went to the very beginning of the story. In this second part, we take a look at Ultima Online and World of Warcraft. MMORPG story continues when you read on.


History of the MMO: The Genre Goes Main Market

In 1981, around the same time as MUD was becoming more and more popular, a game was released for the Apple II that would lay the foundation for the first MMO to truly capture the imagination of a mass audience. The original Ultima, created by Richard Garriot, sold roughly 50,000 copies, and inspired 8 direct sequels and several spin-offs before the series was turned into an MMO in 1997.

In hindsight, Ultima was the perfect series from which to base an MMO. The story spanned thousands of years even before development on Online had begun, characters and races had existed for nearly two decades and, to top it all off, it had a hell of a following as well. While most developers in 1981 were having you explore a maze, picking up objects and avoiding enemies, Garriot created an RPG that has held its following for 30 years.

Ported from system to system, the amount of Ultima releases alone dispel the myth that re-releases and sequels are a modern thing in gaming. The original game alone has received no less than 9 stand-alone releases across 7 different platforms. This doesn’t count its releases as part of a collection.
Despite a long history of online games, the internet hadn’t quite caught up to the point where playing a game online with thousands of other people could be perfect, as this Gamespot review from 1997 attests.

Ultima was the perfect series from which to base an MMO

“Ultima Online is, of course, an Internet-only game, but to date it has done largely a poor job at handling the finicky nature of the Internet. As a result, lag seriously limits the game's enjoyment and, at times, renders the game virtually unplayable. During peak hours (6-12pm), lag is often so bad that your character will be unable to walk more than a few steps without pausing, even if you have relatively speedy Internet access. Simple tasks, such as moving inventory items or talking with other characters, become tedious exercises in frustration, and combat occasionally becomes an uncontrollable nightmare.”
By the year 2000, Ultima Online had over 200,000 subscribers, an amazing achievement considering the above review. But by that point, Ultima was no longer king of the MMO and its place in history would purely be defined by the fact that it got there first.

Guild Wars publishers to be NCsoft secured their place in the MMO world, and in gaming in general, with their release of Lineage in 1998. Less than a year after the release of Ultima Online, Lineage took the world, specifically Korea (there were no American servers until later), by storm. Millions of users in the west, from past and present, mourned the loss of the MMO when the American servers were shut down earlier this year, on June 29th 2011.

In the months before World of Warcraft was released, Lineage was finally knocked off its throne after more than five years at the top by its prequel, Lineage II which, in turn, was overtaken by Blizzard.
In 2001, the lead developer on Lineage, Jake Song, spoke with IGN about why he thought the Korean market was so ‘into’ online gaming and how he thought the genre was evolving.

“In Korea, the market for online worlds emerged early compared to other parts of world except the US. It was almost the same time as the US market. For example Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds went commercial at early 1996. And with the game room phenomena, the market exploded.

“The major portion of players are from game rooms, but broadband access at home is growing very fast also. As they have already experienced the pleasure of high-speed networks at game rooms, they want to play the same games at home. Now broadband vs. modem subscription ratio in Korea is higher than in the US.

“In the early '90s it was hard to get funds for game development and to gather good talent. It was not thought of as a serious business. After the success of Lineage and Nexus, many companies jumped into the market and good talents are coming into the industry. There are over 10 games in commercial service or in public beta stage. And I read in the newspapers that almost a hundred games are now in development.”

Lineage II had two million subscribers in 2005

While Lineage II was successful – two million subscribers in 2005 – it didn’t manage to share the first games mammoth success. The nature of the game, in which you needed to fight monsters for money in order to buy weapons in order to fight monsters for money, didn’t translate well to the west and the press gave it average to fair reviews.

Another success was Everquest, a game that at one point was almost synonymous with the MMO genre. Named Game of the Year by Gamespot in 1999, the Sony backed MMO was perhaps one of the better known examples of online play. Despite the difference in subscribers between this and the original Lineage (some 2 million people at several points), Everquest was definitely more successful in the west. With boxart like something out of Magic: The Gathering and the support of the press, it was a completely different monster.

Everquest was a huge success
Everquest Named Game of the Year by Gamespot in 1999

Over three short years, the difference between Meridian 59 and Everquest, the leaps and bounds forward in the genre was spectacular. Gone were the blocky graphics and the relatively low number of players, replaced by beautiful models and areas to explore that’d make a console gamer ashamed of the near-release PlayStation 2, with millions of potential allies and enemies to play with to boot. Gone was the over-reliance on dial-up and developers started to make games suitable for people with access to broadband.

The MMO was becoming something to be proud of with no better indication of that fact than the amount of licenced games and sequels that began to be announced; Star Wars Galaxies, Middle Earth Online, The Sims, Myst, Warcraft, Magic: The Gathering, Final Fantasy and many others all had either official announcements or rumours circulating that were MMOs in development.

But it was the completely original games that define the early part of the 2000s when it comes to MMOs. Runescape, in particular, had a following that most subscription-based games could only dream of and it had another feather in its bow – it was entirely browser based.

The days of ridiculously high subscription fees and internet connection issues were a thing of the past. There were perhaps hundreds of MMOs in development, with all sorts of subgenres and followings. No longer was it an expensive thing to do, instead the costs of development probably rivalled console games – with a higher return if the game was successful as well.

It was into this that World of Warcraft was announced...

Read the next part in History of MMO Games->

Mat Growcott
© 2011 -

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