Today when you talk about video games, nearly everyone knows what an MMO is, and most have tried one at some point, whether they ended up liking them or not. It’s hard to imagine that the term was only coined about 18 years ago.
On December 15, 1995, the game Meridian 59 was released in beta. It would take almost a year before the official commercial release, published by a company called 3DO. Meridian 59 was the first game that would fit into today’s genre of MMO. Its developers originally called it a Massively Multi-Player Role-Playing Game, or an MMPRPG. About the same time, a game called The Realm Online appeared, and a year later Ultima Online. Ultima Online would cement the idea of the MMO in the hearts and minds of gamers.
But let’s take the “way back” machine a little further. Those early MMOs were built off (and commonly lumped with) what people referred to as graphical MUDs. MUDs were Multi-User Dungeons and traditionally they were text based, but as computers improved, developers started including graphical elements in their games. Some of the more famous of these were Island of Kesmai (1985), Habitat (1986), and Neverwinter Nights (1991).
These MUDs were created by developers that wanted to fuse digital games with the popular pen and paper games of the time. Many of the most successful MUDs were based on modules from Dungeons and Dragons. Developers built digital versions of the rich role-playing campaigns they enjoyed on paper.
One of these games was called Sojourn (1993), set in the Forgotten Realms of Dungeons and Dragons. At its height, there would be over 400 players online at once in the game, making it hugely popular. (For comparison, games like World of Warcraft and World of Tanks have reported over a million concurrent users in the last few years.) One of these Sojourn players, a programmer by the name of Brad McQuaid, would take what he loved from MUDs and go on to help create EverQuest.
EverQuest first launched in March of 1999 and became an instant success. In less than a year it had overtaken its competitors in subscription sales, and continued to grow. Nearly 15 years later there have been 20 expansions to the original game, various offshoot games, and even novels (and graphic novels) set in the EverQuest universe.
Now there is a new generation of MMOs, improving on the genre just like the first MMOs improved on the graphical MUDs. The EverQuest world is set to evolve, and EverQuest Next is promising to become the future of MMOs. But is that future actually linked to the past?
When MUDs were first created, they were designed to be digital versions of pen and paper campaigns. The limited computing power and game engines crippled these games. While they may have been new and exciting at the time, they were still nothing compared to the power of a player’s imagination. Pen and paper gaming lived on alongside digital gaming.
The worlds of the “next gen” MMO are more vast, more detailed, and more alive than ever before. The AI of the games is as close to an intelligent Game Master as developers can get. The MMO genre is slowly closing the distance between the rich settings in our imaginations, and what we can experience on a computer screen.
So as we celebrate the amazing future of online gaming, let’s also give a nod to the character sheet and our set of polyhedral dice. Pen and paper games can still teach us a lot about what makes a great online game, about how to create a living world, and about a campaign that never ends.
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