The ever-evolving history of MMORPGs is a fascinating one. Sometimes I almost feel like MMOs are more fun to analyze than they are to play. It’s a complex story that could fill volumes, but for today, let’s just take a look at some of the biggest turning points in the history of MMOs.
The true origin of the MMO genre is debatable. You could trace it all the way back to analogue tabletop RPGs, and perhaps even farther back from there. But the birth of online RPGs likely lies with the Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD.
MUDs were text-based games originally running over small, pre-Internet networks such as those at universities.The term was christened by Roy Trubshaw, a student at the University of Essex. Development of his “Multi-User Dungeon” game was later given over to Richard Bartle, and if you’re active in the MMO community, you’re sure to recognize that name.
When the Internet began to spread, MUDs became more accessible, and eventually served as the inspiration for the first generation of MMORPGs.
Early Graphical MMOs:
Again, we can argue about where exactly the story of graphical online games begins. Meridian 59 is credited by some as the first, while Ultima Online was where the concept began to gain significant popularity. It was the first game to be described with the term “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game.”
This was soon followed by many other graphical MMOs. The most famous would probably be 1999’s EverQuest, which served as an inspiration for many of the games the followed.
WoW and Its Clones:
There is an eternally raging debate over whether World of Warcraft is the best or the worst thing (or perhaps both) that ever happened to the MMO genre. The one thing everyone can agree on is that WoW changed everything.
In the early days, MMOs had achieved a respectable level of success, with playerbases measured in the thousands. But WoW blew all that out of the water. It parlayed the brand recognition of Blizzard Entertainment, more accessible mechanics, reduced grind, and the increasing prevalence of high speed Internet connections into a perfect recipe for success, achieving a previously unimaginable level of popularity.
WoW eventually peaked at around twelve million players worldwide, a population greater than that of some nations. While it’s popularity has shrunken significantly since then, even now it remains more successful and more populous than the large majority of its competition.
The success of WoW created ripple effects throughout the genre. Everyone wanted a bite of that pie, and developers spent years churning out MMO after MMO that sought to emulate World of Warcraft. It was the era of the dreaded WoW clone. But these games often lacked personality, and none of them ever rose to rival the success of the game they so desperately sought to imitate.
The Free to Play Revolution:
For a long time, if you wanted to play an MMORPG, you had to pay a monthly subscription. That’s just how it worked. Oh, sure, there were a few exceptions. Anarchy Online began offering a free to play option back in 2004, and the original Guild Wars was buy to play from its launch in 2005. But those were mostly considered oddball outliers.
Things began to change in a big way when Dungeons and Dragons Online relaunched as a free to play title in 2009. Previously struggling, it saw a huge uptick in both players and revenues, and the world began to take notice.
Before long, big name MMOs were dropping their subscriptions left, right, and center, from Star Wars: The Old Republic, to Lord of the Rings Online, to Aion. At first this was seen as an act of desperation made only by dying games, but as the years went by and subscription games became an ever shrinking minority, it started to just be normal.
Nowadays, subscriptions are the exception rather than the norm, and most new games are free to play or buy to play.
Maturity and Diversification:
That brings us to the modern day. The MMO genre has matured and stabilized. New releases are not so common as they once were, but there is more variety, more creativity. Gone are the days of WoW clones. Nowadays MMOs, MMO lite games, online co-ops, MOBAs, and battle royales all simmer together into a diverse melting pot.
In this writer’s opinion, the future is bright.