The Fascinating History of Online Role-Playing Games

, , , ,


Ultima Online

When we think of massive multiplayer online role-playing games — more frequently referred by their acronym, MMORPGs — we think of the biggest: Real-time, beautifully rendered 3D games like World of Warcraft, which has more than 10 million active players and has generated billions of dollars in revenue for owner Activision Blizzard since it launched in late 2004.

MMORPGs are relatively recent phenomenons, made possible through steady advancements in computer hardware, software and networks. The term “MMORPGs” didn’t enter the lexicon until 1997, when Richard Garriott used it to describe the launch of one of the most successful online multiplayer games to date, Ultima Online.

MMORPGs have their roots in early, text-based roleplaying games played by a small number of users on local networks, frequently at universities. Many owe inspiration to offline sources, too: Namely, Dungeons & Dragons, a tabletop game invented in 1974 that involved characters and settings inspired by the work of Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien. Using a set of dice, players sent characters of their own devising on quests and adventures under the direction of a game leader, or “dungeon master.” Over time, characters gain “experience points,” weapons and skills, the objects of many a modern-day MMORPG, Everquest and World of Warcraft included.

Early Prototypes: Text-Based and Simple Graphic Games

The earliest online multiplayer games were called Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs: Text-based or simple graphic adventures that began cropping up in the late 1970s. Most games lacked graphics and thus depended heavily on textual descriptions and players’ imaginations to illustrate characters and environments; players typed in a pre-defined range of actions — like “n” for move north, or “attack” to fight — as they traveled through virtual rooms and completed tasks.

Among the first and best-known of these games was written by Roy Trubshaw in a programming language called MACRO-10. The game, simply called MUD and later licensed to Internet provider CompuServe under the name British Legends, was written on a DEC PDP-10 computer installed at Essex University in the UK in the fall 1978, according to Richard Bartle, who later revised it and assumed the title of co-creator.

MUD was originally “little more than a series of inter-connected locations where you could move and chat,” says Bartle. In later revisions — version three was written in a more memory-efficient language, BCPL, between 1979 and 1980 — it assumed a more complex environment, and Bartle and his colleagues were able to invite more outsiders to play after Essex hooked up its network to ARPANET, a precusor of the modern-day Internet.

Maze War, which was released four years prior to MUD and also ran on ARPANET, was another early online multiplayer game — but as a first-person shooter, it doesn’t technically qualify as an RPG. The game is, however, credited with popularizing first-person 3D perspective, which was copied by many early RPGs and has since become the standard view for many MMORPGs. Maze War was also one of the earliest online games to use graphics and introduce avatars, i.e. representational images for characters.

Other early popular MUDs include Colossal Cave Adventure (sometimes just called Adventure), a text-based game released in 1976; and Island of Kesmai, a graphical, six-player game based on D&D that was built at the University of Virginia in 1980. Others, including Oubliette, Avatar and Moira, ran on the PLATO network. Moira could support up to 15 players in the same game simultaneously.

The issue, as this Yahoo article points out, is that these games weren’t yet “massive.” The graphic ones especially could also be expensive to play: Island of Kesmai, which was one of the first commercial games and profiled in a 1988 episode of Computer Chronicles (above), cost $12 per hour to play through CompuServe. Text-based games were thus more popular because they required less bandwidth and could run on basic personal computers.

Early Commercialization

Pool of Radiance

In 1985, the owners of Dungeons & Dragons began licensing the game to software developers, including Electronic Arts and Sierra. Inspired by growing sales of personal computers and the success of the Ultima game franchise, they also developed their own 13-game commercial series, Gold Box. The first of these, Pool of Radiance, was released in 1988 for Commodore 64, Apple II series and IBM PC-compatible computers. A Macintosh edition was released a year later.

Pool of Radiance was a relatively faithful adaption of D&D. Players could choose between four classes — fighter, cleric, magic user and thief — as they made their way through a virtual town, fighting enemies and ultimately a master “Boss.” Gameplay wasn’t simultaneous: Users made moves on a turn-by-turn basis. By today’s standards, Pool of Radiance‘s graphics were painfully elementary, but at the time they were thought “gorgeous.” A 28-page introductory booklet came with the game — amazing, when you think that most games today don’t necessarily require any sort of instructional manual.

In 1991, the owners of Dungeons & Dragons partnered with AOL and two game developers, Stormfront Studios and Strategic Simulations Inc. (SSI), to create what is considered the first true graphical MMORPG, Neverwinter Nights. It cost $6 per hour to play. By the time it shut down in 1997, the game had 150,000 registered players.

Meanwhile, sales of personal computers were growing — by the end of 1990, some 54 million computers had been installed in American households, according to Collier’s. By comparison, there were just 2 million personal computers in use nine years before. Bandwidth was also becoming less expensive: In the early 1990s, CompuServe dropped its hourly play rate from $12 per hour to $1.95 per hour. By 1995, 3 million people were paying the company for Internet access, making it one of the largest Internet service providers in the U.S.

Going Truly “Massive”

World of Warcraft

The late ’90s saw the rise of the first commercial bestsellers: Ultima Online (UO) which was born out of what was already a very successful computer game franchise from Origin Systems in 1997; Everquest, released by Sony in 1999; and Asheron’s Call, deployed by Microsoft in late 1999.

These games were expensive to make: In 2003, it was estimated that the cost of developing a commercial MMORPG could “easily exceed” $10 million dollars, not including post-release expenses. To cover those costs, developers charged players fees for installation software as well as monthly subscriptions in the range of $10 to $15 per month.

The first decade of 2000 saw the release of several high-profile games similar those released in the ’90s, including Dark Ages of Camelot (2001), Final Fantasy XI (2002), Everquest II (2004), World of Warcraft (2004), Guild Wars (2005), Dungeons & Dragons Online (2006) and Vanguard (2007), the last of which has been something of a commercial disaster for its owner, Sony, and is now available to play for free.

In gameplay and graphic style, these games are remarkably similar, all based on the old D&D model: Players choose characters from a range of races (say, elf or troll), classes (like rogue or priest) and gain experience points and skills by killing monsters in a medieval fantasy environment. Thousands of players are able to play simultaneously on a single server, and are frequently tasked to complete quests in groups as small as two and as large as 80. Although most gameplay involves battles against non-player characters, player-versus-player competition is also popular in many of these games.

The most successful of the games launched to date is World of Warcraft, which has released four software expansions and has more than 10 million players paying between $12.99 and $14.99 per month for access. (By comparison, Everquest, the most popular MMORPG between 2000 and 2004, had around 500,000 subscribers at its peak.) Unlike most other MMORPGs at the time, which were only available on Windows, WoW released editions for Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows to start.

What has made WoW so successful, in my view, is its superior user experience. Before WoW, MMORPG players expected to encounter bugs and crashes frequently, and gameplay was often interrupted by “zoning,” a practice instituted to help ease server lag by dividing up geographical regions into separate zones for interaction. WoW was remarkable for releasing a nearly flawless game from the start in painful contrast to Everquest II, which was released the same month in 2004. It is also much easier to play than Everquest or UO, making it more accessible to casual and younger gamers.

No MMORPG since WoW has been able to overtake it, neither in the volume of players nor in commercial success. That’s especially impressive given the emergence of so many subscription-free games, like Guild Wars, which are underwritten by in-game purchases and advertising. There’s plenty of room for entry into the market, however; talk to a long-time WoW player, and she will likely tell you that she’s bored with the game, but that there are few to none alternatives out there.

Do you play MMORPGs? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Images courtesy of Gamasutra, Wikimedia Commons, Blizzard.

Read more:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.