MMORPGs: A biased history part 1, 1996-2003

Back in 1998 I got my first home PC – I still can’t quite believe I got through my degree on an Amiga, but there you go. Once I’d got it set up, and online, pretty much before I did anything else I got immersed in the time-sapping world of ‘massively multi-player online role playing games’, or MMORPGs (or MMOs).

I’ve had a love-love relationship with them ever since, although in recent times the thrill has gone. Few of my friends still play and where once players stuck to a game for years, now there seems to be much more transience and cynicism; it becomes hard to keep believing in another new community only to see it fade just as fast.

I may return to them (in fact I may do it this afternoon – so fickle), but for now the long affair is over – so what better to do than mull of the good times with a tear in the corner of my eye, while boring anyone in internet-shot to death?

1996 (1998 for me): The Realm

Skye, GrowL and me kickin' some ass. Such realism...

Skye, GrowL and me kickin’ some ass, January 2001. Such realism…

The first game I got into was The Realm, which was already well established by the time I arrived.

None of my friends were interested, as even back then the graphics were terrible, but I found a thriving and friendly community of players and immediately fell in love with the MMO concept.

While it didn’t look the best The Realm managed to pack in a bit of tension on occasion, while having 300 levels to grind through certainly made it a game you had to stick at; and those levels didn’t come easy either – there was none of this, “Well done, you’ve completed the tutorial and are now level 10” nonsense.

I was happy in The Realm for five years and I’m thrilled to see it’s still going strong today. Better still, it has a monthly charge of about £5. Nice to see a game from 1996 can still go with a subs model and only a one-week free trial, while every man and his dog is being forced to go free with in-game micro payments. I really should give the free trial a go…

  • Passed: Meridian 59 (1996)
    As the first real MMO it was very tempting to give this a go instead of The Realm, but it was very much combat oriented – especially PvP, which wasn’t really what I was looking for. The game did die, but it’s back and free to play.
  • Passed: Ultima Online (1997)
    This was the first properly massive multiplayer online game, being the first to reach 100,000 subscribers. I also shied away from UO because of the game’s strong focus on PvP, but it is still going strong today.
  • Tried: Everquest (1999) Unfortunately I was a year into The Realm when EQ came along and was still loving it. EQ’s bog standard fantasy setting and graphics didn’t inspire me enough to move; but I kind of wish it had, as friends had such a great time with it. I did take a look at it later, when I was losing faith with the AO beta (see below), but by then the graphics had gone from uninspiring to laughable and the end game content had become all about raiding (which didn’t interest me).
  • Tried: RuneScape (2001)
    This was a breath of fresh air when it arrived: free to play, browser based and with lots of content. But the first two plus points seemed to attract every 12-year-old numpty on the planet and a short trial ended in frustration. But guess what – it’s still doing really well, with a HTML 5 version released in 2013, and is still free to play.

2001: Anarchy Online

Posing outside Wine, late 2001. I swear that armour was cool back then...

Posing outside Wine, late 2001. I swear that armour was cool back then…

Having turned down many a graphically superior game already, it took the promise of a beautiful and original sci-fi world to finally lure me away.

I got into the late beta testing of Anarchy Online (AO) and, despite the bugs, totally fell in love with the world they’d created.

And ‘bugs’ is really an understatement – the game could barely stand on its own two feet at launch, but many of us saw enough potential to stick around; and if anything this helped us bond as a community. We rather ridiculously wore that ‘we suffered through the pain’ badge with pride, but looking back now I’m glad I did.

Even today (AO is very much alive), while the graphics are clearly dated, the unique world, creatures and mix of ranged and melee, sci-fi and fantasy, still hold it up as an exemplar of what is achievable with the right imagination. Not an elf in sight. I spent a couple of very happy years with AO (you can get a feel for what playing it is like with an old diary of mine here) and it is my second most played MMO (in hours spent). I still revisit on occasion and am still amazed at the awesome complexity of character development.

Unfortunately while the game started out as a fascinating blend of exploration, storytelling, crafting and combat the most vocal part of the community – as always – was the PvP one. Crafting went almost totally by the wayside despite having an amazing system in place, while expansions focused on guild battles and grouping for battles. All I was really left with was a level grind, so I started to look elsewhere.

  • Tried: Dark Age of Camelot (2001)
    Another game that friends went to and that I had a very short dabble with. Again the focus was on PvP which immediately put me off, but worse was the incredible lack of scope; every time I tried to explore I ran into an invisible wall – utterly frustrating compared to the wide open spaces of AO. As for the generic fantasy world…

2002: Asheron’s Call 2

AC2 lugian

Couldn’t find a mudball screenshot 🙁

Some friends in other MMOs had joined the beta of Asheron’s Call 2 and once it went live encouraged me to join them. As I was in an AO rut I decided to check it out.

What I found was a slightly less generic fantasy settings: I got to be a ‘Lugian Raider’, which was a big grey thing that chucked massive balls of mud at people…

But the graphics were nice enough, the gameplay pretty smooth and overall I quite got into it – until my friends left for pastures new shortly afterwards as its lack of deeper content became apparent.

And the game certainly had its problems behind the scenes, with talk of its failure seemingly hanging over it from the beginning. Publishing wrangles between Turbine, Microsoft and Sony were pretty ominous from the start, with US and EU servers being run by different companies – rarely a recipe for happy endings.

It also didn’t help that Asheron’s Call 2 came out while a lot of big name games were in production and getting a lot of buzz, which encouraged many to stay where they were until some of the expected big guns hit the market (see below). It was a time of very stiff competition and AC2 simply didn’t have enough to stand out from the crowd.

The game finally died in 2005 but – you guessed it – is coming back again, along with its predecessor. there will be a one-time fee, after which it’ll be free to play – but you’re going to have to set up the servers yourselves as Turbine will no longer be supporting the games directly. It is hoped this will be up and running in 2015 and if someone gets it stable, it will be pretty tempting to give my mud-slinging arm another work out.

  • Tried: Eve Online (2003)
    There’s no doubt what an amazing achievement EVE Online is, making a truly epic space combat and trading game really come to life, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually any fun for the casual player. This game works best with dedication and skill, but more importantly when you’re putting everything you’ve worked for on the line in ‘winner takes all’ space battles. As a crafter, it was totally not for me!
  • Tried: Star Wars Galaxies (2003)
    I remember the first time I saw screen shots of SWG – it was Star Wars and I couldn’t wait. Even some friend who hadn’t played MMOs before committed to it so I had to give it a go. Unfortunately Sony completely dropped the ball with it – and just when it looked like they’d picked it up, they kicked it over the fence of that neighbour with the rabid dog wandering the garden. It’s hard to believe how much this stank on release, but even harder to understand the choices they made later in completely overhauling it just when they were getting it playable and on-track – it was is if they were trying to get it canned. It was put out of its misery in 2011.

2003: Horizons (now Istaria)

Me, working on my Istaria plot as recently as January 2012

Working on my Istaria plot, January 2012

Despite some stiff competition, I’ve ploughed more hours into the world of Istaria than any other – and I wouldn’t rule out returning either. It was buggy as hell on launch (a common MMO story), and its history was fraught with disaster, but it had the same key ingredient that had hooked me with Anarchy Online: originality.

But this time, not the setting: it is bog standard fantasy world with just a few different races added to the mix. You could be a dwarf or an elf – or a lizard or a cat – but most importantly for many people you could be a dragon. Better still for me, things you did to the landscape actually changed the game. Yeah, Minecraft didn’t invent that concept (and has worse graphics).

You could get together as a community and rebuild a bridge – which would then open up a whole new island for everyone. Or buy a plot of land near a forest and build a saw mill on it, so people could bring local logs to your workshop and craft them into items.

Well, you can now – and that was the theory in the beginning. Unfortunately at launch half the features didn’t work: a group of us spent weeks building a communal building, only to finish it and wait for it to appear – and nothing happening. At that point all of my friends quit – except me. Who can blame them?

I’m glad I stuck with it though, as no other game I’ve played has created such an amazing spirit directly through its own game systems, rather than relying on the players to use their imaginations. In the end the only thing that stopped me playing were protracted takeover wrangles. Servers merged, ownership changed and it looked inevitable it would fold. I got out before having that awful experience of trying to login one day to a blank screen.

But somehow it’s still alive. I did go back and had another couple of happy years progressing my old character again. I’d still be there today, but in the end the high level grind was just too boring and the guild I was in imploded. If I could play a day or two per month for free, or pay per hour, I’d have kept it going – but for the amount I wanted to play I couldn’t justify the cost. Bring on that lottery win!

  • Tried: A tale in the Desert (2003)
    A fully crafting oriented MMO set in ancient Egypt you say? I’m in! Unfortunately it was very basic graphically and simply wasn’t fun enough to stick with. Just crafting is fine, but just grind? That’s too hardcore for me. It does also have a government system, which appeals to many but didn’t do it for me. The current version of the game is A Tale in the Desert 3 – well worth checking out if you like your games without the bloodshed (and don’t need tip-top graphics).
  • Tried: Entropia (2003)
    Now retitled Entropia Universe, this is another game I might revisit if I won the lottery. Entropia stood out because it was pretty much pay to play via in-game purchases rather than monthly fees – common now, but deemed a rip off by most back then. You could eke out a free existence and hope to get a lucky kill (critters all gave a random value of in-game currency, so a lucky hit could give you a massive payout – which could then be ‘cashed out’ for real money). I got bored of the grind pretty quickly, but it looks very good now. Bring on retirement!

2004-2013: In part 2

The things I’ve taken from those early years in MMOs are the friendships I made and communities I was part of. I’ve made real-life friends from those days, some I’ve met in person (hello Ireland, hello Sweden!) as well as others I’m still in contact with on Facebook (hello Scotland, hello America!) who I’m sure I’ll meet up with sooner or later. I’ve made more long-lasting friends from MMOs than I did in three years living in Nottingham…

In part 2 I’ll move onto 2004, which saw the introduction of of a somewhat popular title named World of Warcraft, and later Lord of the Rings Online, amongst others.

Read more: MMORPGs: A biased history part 2, 2004-2013

4 thoughts on “MMORPGs: A biased history part 1, 1996-2003

  1. I still vividly remember staying up to the wee small hours on Horizons to finish that building. I think Jay got the honour of placing the last brick, and…. nothing! Seems funny now but was frustrating back then, I think I filled a few of your buckets with tears 😉

  2. Pingback: MMORPGs: A biased history part 2, 2004-2013 | Go Play Listen

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