Look, let’s make this very easy: Click along to GOG.com and go download Neverwinter Nights Diamond right now unless you’re reading this on December 3rd or later. It’s free as of right now, and it will remain free for another 48 hours. Come back and read the rest of the post after you’re downloading! Seriously, go do that.
Why is this so important to us when it’s not an MMO? Because if you have the slightest experience with MMO history, you know that the online play components of Neverwinter Nights have had an enormous influence on MMOs and their popularity. Heck, there’s some title or another that is an MMO based specifically on this game, although the name escapes us at the moment. Probably starts with an “N.”
And again, it’s free. Actually 100% free-free, especially since it’s on GOG.com. There’s even a helpful post showing off some particularly well-loved mods for the game. Go ahead, download it. You’ll be glad you got it for free later.
I’ll admit that I have a particular fondness for older video game music. I still scour the archives of NES and Genesis libraries for catchy tracks, listen through Amiga and Commodore 64 playlists, and seek out MIDI tunes that trigger memories of great PC adventures. There’s a charm in the simplicity and cruder sound hardware that is, for me, a welcome change of pace from the modern pitch-perfect orchestral scores.
Today we’re going to hop into a musical time machine and travel back to the 1990s to listen to what MMORPGs sounded like back then. The soundtracks, when present, weren’t as pervasive or as (ahem) instrumental to setting the mood, but even back then you could see some passion and skill being poured into the occasional score.
Maybe these won’t all be masterpieces to your ear, but they should provide some insight into what gamers back then heard as they were exploring these magical new MMOs for the first time.
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.
Welcome back to our ongoing exploration of Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt’s book The Video Game Debate. As you can guess, the book itself focuses on games in general, not just MMOs and online games, so I was able to apply today’s chapter on moral panic to recent trending indie RPG Undertale. I’ve argued to educators that not only is there evidence that games can positively affect morals, but that part of Undertale’s charm is that we know we can do bad things yet are emotionally rewarded for acting in a peaceful manner. In fact, the game actively discourages you from committing violence by constantly trying to include you with its cast of characters.
Then someone on Reddit stepped into a conversation and asked, “What about all the griefing in sandbox games”? It’s a great question, and one addressed in this chapter.
Look up on that building! It’s a bird! It’s a gargoyle! It’s… MOP reader Epelesker showing off his hero in Champions Online!
“Unlike a grand majority of people, superheroes were my first foray into the world of MMOs,” Epelesker writes. “I have a lot of fond memories of my experiences with them and… don’t ask about the characters. Nailing down just one is tough enough! Here’s a recent screenshot of one of my longest-running main characters in Champions Online, the size-changing teen hero, Atomac. It might be difficult to tell because of the low viewing angle, but he’s definitely very big right now. As for what he’s doing? He could either be just looking out for the average-height citizens below, or wondering what hijinks his speedster friend, Trailblazer, is up to…”
Computer RPG players in the late ’80s and early ’90s were surely familiar with Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) and its now-famous Gold Box series. The series, so named because of their distinctive gold packaging, ran on a solid engine that helped the company churn out over a dozen titles within a five-year span. From Pool of Radiance to Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, these titles quickly became revered among the gaming community. I personally have very fond memories of playing both Buck Rogers titles, which is probably why I dated very little in high school.
While the Gold Box series has not become as timeless or replayable as late ’90s classics like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout, they definitely had a huge impact on the PC scene and helped elevate the CRPG genre. Following the Gold Box engine, SSI went on to produce another engine that it used for a completely new series set in the D&D campaign setting of Dark Sun. Dark Sun: Shattered Lands (1993) and Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager (1994) were both modest hits, and when it came time for a third game in the series, SSI decided to make the leap to the then-untested realm of online gaming.
Last week, our comments erupted over some game studios’ haphazard use of the term “MMO” — and how that overuse and misuse has possibly tainted the genre, leading other studios to avoid its use altogether. One of the games under fire is Shards Online, a game that borrows heavily from old-school sandboxes but is set up a la Neverwinter Nights to allow players to create their own rulesets and run their own servers, some definitely not “massive” at all.
We spoke with Citadel Studios’ founder and CEO Derek Brinkmann about Shards Online’s place in the broader MMO world.
Massively OP: First, how do you and Citadel define “MMO” in 2015? How does that differ from “MMORPG” and from earlier understandings of the terms? Do you believe your understanding of the terms has changed since Shards Online was first announced?
Citadel’s Derek Brinkmann: I don’t think you can define the term MMO by taking the literal translation of the acronym Massively Multiplayer Online (Game). This would apply to a game that allows thousands of players to interact with each other within the game. If you went purely off of this literal meaning, session based games like Diablo III technically fall into this category since there are thousands of people playing Diablo III and you can interact with any of them by jumping into the same session. And nobody thinks that Diablo III should be considered an MMO.
Here’s a question for you: How much do you really, really have to love a game to pay $6 to $8 an hour to play it? Considering how much we tend to whine about a flat $15/month fee, I’m guessing the answer is, “Only if it made me romantically irresistable and regularly supplied chocolate milkshakes.”
And yet, in 1991 this wasn’t considered a crazy extortionist practice; it was dubbed “being a pioneer.” While online RPGs were nothing new by then, few had tackled the jump from text to graphical games due to the technological limitations, questions over a potential market, and the required funding. It took the efforts of a Superfriends-style team to make this happen with Neverwinter Nights: Stormfront Studios developed the game, TSR provided the Dungeons & Dragons license, SSI published it, and AOL handled the online operations.
And thus six years before Ultima Online and 13 before World of Warcraft came on the scene, what many consider the first true multiplayer graphical RPG went online and helped forge a path that would lead to where we are today. With only a few hundred players per server, Neverwinter Nights may not have been “massively,” but it deserves a spot of honor as one of the key ancestors to the modern MMO.
It might not be an MMO, but we can see the vestiges of MMORPG player-generated content (and more poignantly, Neverwinter Nights) in Wizards of the Coast’s upcoming Sword Coast Legends RPG. The devs demoed the game’s single-player mode last week; this week, we finally get a first look at its multiplayer via a new dungeon crawl video.
The game has our not-so-massive attention primarily because of its dungeonmaster tools; for more detailed debate on that, we direct you to the comments of our most recent podcast, where multiple posters discussed the pros and cons of WotC’s proposed systems. Check out the video below.