The Game Archaeologist: Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds

I confess that I have a particular fascination for MMOs that came into existence in the 1990s. It’s not only the fact that I was oblivious to them at the time (er, wild college days?) but that practically each and every one of them were true pioneers in their own fashion. And while your standard MMO fan might think that there were only three such games in that decade (four, if they are gracious and include Meridian 59), the truth is that there were far more online games at the time, particularly if you looked over to the east.

Today we are going to look at one of the most important MMOs to emerge from that time period, Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds. Its influence was primarily centered in the Korean gaming community while being vastly downplayed in North America. Still, here’s a successful MMO that not only beat Ultima Online out of the door by a year but has since won a Guinness World Record for longevity!

The original Song factory

While Jake Song and his XLGAMES are quite well-known these days, particularly thanks to ArcheAge, back in 1994 he was just another student grinding his way through college. However, his work on a multi-user dungeon caught the eye of Nexon, who hired him on to enter the brand-new field of graphical online RPGs.

The project was Baram, an MMO that would feature a fantasy version of the Korean Three Kingdoms era (not to be confused with China’s Three Kingdoms). Song created a game engine to take his MUD and turn it into a more fully realized world where combat and social spheres would thrive.

In November 1995, Baram’s public beta began and apparently went well enough to usher the title into a live release by the next year. Baram did fine but failed to spark a geek revolution the way that some of its contemporaries would. It has continued to run since 1996, earning it a Guinness World Record for longest-running graphical MMO in 2011. Following its release, Song took his tech and moved on to a new project, the vastly more popular Lineage.

Nexon didn’t give up hope on Baram’s future but instead double-downed on it. The company began work on a North American version called Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds (colloquially known as NexusTK to fans), and it is here our story diverges from Baram’s. For you see, Nexus might have shared a common root with Baram, but it was significantly changed so that the two titles quickly became quite independent of each other, particularly in their feature sets.

Released in North America in 1998, Nexus had a stronger emphasis on a player-run world than Baram. Indeed, this would become one of the defining traits of the title. Like most MMOs of that period, Nexus charged for a monthly sub, although it did provide a free trial up to level 9. It did well enough to keep going, but with only 4,000 subscribers by 2002, Nexus wasn’t exactly competing on the same level as the fancy 3-D showponies.

In 2005, Nexon USA formed a new branch called KRU Interactive to take over several of its small titles, including Dark Ages and Nexus. That same year it raised the free trial from level 9 to 49, taking on more of a freemium approach in an effort to entice players. Nexus also endured two graphic overhauls in the 2000s to keep it from aging faster than it already was.

The anime Ultima Online

Nexus was never in danger of being a visual powerhouse, to be honest. Even in 1996, its SNES-style anime graphics were old (if somewhat adorable). The entire world was a flat 2-D grid on which players would move in exciting directions such as up, down, left, and right. Diagonal? That’s for fancy folk.

Players began as amnesiacs — what else is new in RPGs? — and gradually “discovered” their classes over time. At level 5 a player could pick from one of four basic paths (Mage, Rogue, Warrior, and Poet) and then specialize further at level 50 subpaths like the Geomancer, Spy, and Muse. Interestingly enough, there’s no hard cap on combat progression in the game, as players can grind more stat points even after hitting level 99.

The world of Nexus wasn’t just about killing bunny rabbits for XP. This parallel world Korea had three major kingdoms to explore as well as a sprawling wilderness, and players could choose their allegiance to any of these if they so desired. Clans (guilds), housing, and crafting all offered other options when the bunny slaughter got to be too much.

While Nexus might have been ahead of its time in some respects, in others it’s frozen in an older style. The game lacked such modern accoutrements such as a quest log and radar, and navigating it required good old-fashioned keyboard poking.

All you do to me is talk talk

If there was one thing that set Nexus apart from the pack, other than its early runner status, it was the game’s intricate social structure. Nexus was an MMO in which relationships and social dynamics played just as much a part of the world’s proceedings as any tiff with a dragon.

When Nexus came to NA, the devs wanted to give players more of a say in how the world was run. So in addition to participating in GM-led events, players could vie for political positions and join special organizations that would have an impact in the ongoing storyline.

Subpath organizations invited players to meet other similar fighters and further develop their skills together. However, a player would have to apply for these clubs, meet the qualifications, and agree to the rules in order to be a part of one. The upshot of going through all of this was access to special abilities — usually roleplaying skills — and engaging with the rest of the community in various ways. Subpaths offered players a chance to police griefers, become a judge, or rise to the status of an elder.

The legal system in Nexus was both robust and strict. Players guilty of an offense would be branded (which could bar them from joining player groups) and forced to type out contrite statements over and over again. If you messed up while writing your “I’m sorrys,” then you had to — you guessed it — start from the beginning.

Even with hoops to jump through and penalties to suffer (or perhaps because of them), Nexus’ community developed a tight-knit status that is rarely seen in MMOs these days. If you are one of those people who wistfully wish for a game where you could actually make a name for yourself, be known throughout the community, and help to shape the world, then it seems as though Nexus has been waiting for you.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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