It was the mid-’80s, and I was just a kid in love with his family’s IBM PC. Not having a wealth of capital at the time, I relied on hand-me-down copies of software that rolled in from friends and family and probably the Cyber-Mafia. Practically none of the disks came with instructions (or even labels, sometimes), and as such I felt like an explorer uncovering hidden gems as I shoved in 5 1/4″ floppy after 5 1/4″ floppy. Some titles were great fun, some were so obtuse I couldn’t get into them, and some were obviously meant for those older and wiser than I.
One game that fell into the latter category was a brutally difficult RPG that smelt of Dungeons & Dragons — a forbidden experience for me at the time. It was just a field of ASCII characters, jumbled statistics, and instant death awaiting me around every corner. I gave it a few tries but could never progress past the first level, especially when I’d keep running out of arrows, so I gave up.
Then I had my first brush with Rogue, an enormously popular dungeon crawler that straddled the line between the description-heavy RPGs and arcade titles like Gauntlet. Rogue defined the genre when it came out in 1980, spawning dozens of “Roguelikes” that sought to cash in on the craze. Not five years after its release, Rogue got a worthy successor that decided it could bring this addicting style of gameplay to the larval form of the Internet. It was called Island of Kesmai, but you may call it “Sir, yes sir!”
As graphical MMOs took off in the 1990s with the advent of games like Neverwinter Nights, The Realm, and Ultima Online, many of them did so with the help of gaming service providers. It might be hard to imagine today, but back before the web was ubiquitous, people who wanted to go online usually did so through a specific service provider that functioned as both a gatekeeper to the internet and a purveyor of specific games and programs — some of which were completely exclusive to those companies. Console players might understand these best by thinking of them as similar to how Xbox Live and the PSN operates.
Thus, if you wanted to access, say, The Shadow of Yserbius in the early ’90s, your only recourse was to sign up for Sierra On-Line and pay a monthly membership fee (as well as a possible additional game fee) to that provider. Slow speeds, primitive (or no) graphics, and hourly costs were the norm and made it difficult for these services to gain mainstream traction.
Over the span of a decade-and-a-half, these companies jostled for supremacy and customers, even as their whole existence was eventually rendered moot by the reshaping of the online culture and the loosening of internet restrictions concerning for-profit ventures. By the 2000s, PC service providers had largely disappeared, leaving most MMOs to be accessed by specific clients. Today we’re going to blitz through a list of some of the big names of these gaming service providers and the online titles that they used to draw in fans.
It was the 31st century, where feuding factions decided to settle their differences by throwing multi-ton war robots at each other. It was also 1984, when Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babcock III created a tabletop wargame called BattleTech (originally BattleDroids). This new game allowed players to pit heavily-armed ‘Mechs against each other in a fight to the brutal, laser-singed death.
BattleTech was a hit and spawned a franchise that not only included the tabletop and pen-and-paper roleplaying game but an entire series of video games as well. This is one of those franchises where players are super-duper serious about their hobbies, forming lances and companies with friends that would stick together as they experienced the range of mediums.
In 1987, Weisman and his crew began to build “virtual world centers” where players could get into an oversided arcade pods to play BattleTech against others in the room. This early stab at a 3-D multiplayer title would be but a herald of greater gaming to come.