Alternate Reality
The history of massively multiplayer online games.
By Steven L. Kent | Sept. 23, 2003

  • MMO: Massively Multiplayer Online
  • MMOG: Massively Multiplayer Online Game
  • MMOPW: Massively Multiplayer Online Persistent World
  • MMORPG: Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Game

A friendly gathering of players in Dark Age of Camelot.
Until somebody standardizes the acronyms referring to games such as EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, and Dark Age of Camelot, the history of this, the fastest growing sector of gaming, will remain fodder for debate.

There seems to be general agreement that MMOGs (for the sake of this article, we will call them "massively multiplayer online games") grew out of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons). In 1978, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle completed MUD1, which ran on a PDP-10. (For a closer look at the genesis of the original MUD, check out our Smartest Moments In Gaming History: #19 or this interview with the creators. Raph Koster's impressive website also contains some background on what happened next.)

The Elements of MMOG

All of the elements of MMOGs existed by the late eighties, but they did not exist in a single product. For example, in 1985, Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar of LucasFilm, created a virtual online world called Habitat that Commodore 64 users could access through QuantumLink. "The first graphical online virtual world that supported lots of players at once -- more than 16 -- was Habitat, and that was the mid-eighties," says Raph Koster, the chief creative officer at Sony Online Entertainment.

"This was created before there was a LucasArts. It ended up seeing commercial launch primarily in Japan, where it became fairly popular."

By the late eighties, companies such as Sierra Online had persistent worlds that they maintained on their own proprietary networks. Services such as Sierra Online's Sierra Network (later known as the Imagination Network) and GEnie offered multiplayer graphical games such as Yserbius and Air Warrior, but these games were not technically on the Internet -- you logged on to proprietary networks to play. They also had a very different business model than the flat fees we expect today:

"Those services, the precursors to AOL, became the place where these games found their market," says Koster. "They brought in crazy amounts of money because they were on hourly or per-minute fees. The first graphical one was on QuantumLink. That was Rabbitjack's Casino. It was a casino game.

"But after that, Air Warrior came along. ... At the time, 16-player was a big deal. So, if you had a multiplayer game that exceeded 16, you might as well call it massive."

Playing games on proprietary servers was a major step toward modern MMOGs, but it was not the same thing. The first MMOG to be played on the Internet was an impressive little number called Meridian 59...

Meridian 59

If there is a game that qualifies as the Neanderthal game (Neanderthal being the spot in human evolution in which Homo sapiens were indisputably human) in MMOG evolution, it's Meridian 59, which was released in 1996. Originally developed by an outside firm, Meridian 59 was the first game to incorporate large numbers of players in a single world, a persistent world, and many of the other identifying elements of MMOGs. Like many experimental games, it was not corporate sponsored, and was created under unusual circumstances.

The concept for Meridian 59 did not begin with 3DO. A small company called Archetype Interactive conceived the game. "It was a major effort," says Koster, who had developed a name in the MUD creation world and turned down an offer to work on Meridian 59. "For a long time, work on Meridian 59 was distributed over the Internet. People worked remotely. It was a grassroots effort that made good."

In many ways, 3DO was the perfect fit for such a pioneering effort. Trip Hawkins, a highly-evangelistic co-founder of Electronic Arts, created 3DO as a games technology company. His company created the 3DO hardware platform, which it licensed to Panasonic, Goldstar, and other manufacturers in an effort to reshape the games business.

By 1996, however, with Sony, Sega, and Nintendo dominating the console market, Hawkins turned his attention to new paradigms. Looking for a way to bring his Might & Magic franchise to the Internet, Hawkins bought and published Meridian 59.

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