The Game Archaeologist: Lineage


If we judged MMOs by their numbers alone — and I’m not suggesting we do so — then the original Lineage would be the crowing rooster strutting about the hen house. It’s also been one of those games that I’ve always intellectually acknowledged was a huge hit for some reason but never gave much attention. I think it’s because, contrary to many western MMOs, Lineage is primarily an Asian phenomenon. That doesn’t mean it should be shunned, of course, but just that it may be difficult to understand when you’re on the outside of it.

So let’s back up the memory truck to September 1998, when a then-fledgling NCsoft rolled out a Diablo-style isometric MMO and struck virtual gold in South Korea. At the time, gaming rooms were becoming a huge thing in the country. A recession had hit, giving people a lot of time with nothing to do, and the government was rapidly expanding the broadband network. In the face of this perfect storm, titles like StarCraft and Lineage became overnight household fixtures — and remained so for decades to come.

Even if you haven’t played Lineage and you don’t know anyone who does, trust me: Millions and millions of players have. As former Senior Producer Chris Mahnken once said, “Lineage keeps going because it’s just plain fun.”

The lovechild of NetHack and comic books

The inspiration for Lineage is two-fold. Story-wise, the game is based on the comic book series of the same name by Shin Il-sook. While the game’s story eventually diverged from its source material, Lineage still honors Il-sook’s work by naming the servers after the book’s characters.

But the game itself was the brainchild of NCsoft founder Tack Jin Kim, who was fascinated with an old-school Rogue-like game called NetHack. “I loved that,” Kim said in 2005, “and my dream was to make a game based on that sort of virtual world — so when I encountered the Internet, I was very excited, because this could be a reality! That’s why I created a company to make online games.”

As we all know well, MMO player statistics are a tricky thing to nail down because of corporate secrecy, shifting definitions, and other variables. But what we can say for certain is that Lineage was a massive, multi-million subscriber hit before World of Warcraft was a twinkle in Blizzard’s eye. The 2-D isometric title crossed one million subscribers by month 15 of its launch and went on to become the very first MMO to gain more than two million subscribers.

Most sources state that the title peaked somewhere north of three million subscribers by 2003, most of whom were in Korea. Even when the game started to show its age, Lineage still had over a million players by 2008. In that year, the Lineage franchise had sold over 43 million copies combined.

But because the phenomenon didn’t spread as NCsoft had hoped, outside of Korea it was just another fantasy MMO, whereas there it was the fantasy MMO. In any case, Lineage proved that MMOs could push past the one-million subscriber mark and stay there for a long time, which was a great indicator of the industry’s potential.

The Asian grinder

The bulk of Lineage’s gameplay was built around PvP between guilds (or “bloodpledges”), and as such, it skewed toward hardcore gameplay. Not only was the combat harsh and unforgiving, but the time required to build up your character’s gear and stats bordered on a full-time career. Yet even so, people flocked to the game and willingly surrendered their free time to the near-endless treadmill of leveling and armor acquisition.

In this, Lineage provided the most public and well-known template for what we now call the Asian grinder, a game in which repetitive action doesn’t supplement other types of gameplay — it is the gameplay. There’s been a lot of backlash against this type of MMO, of course, and players looking to take a new import down a few notches are quick to slap it with the “Asian grinder” label.

Yet despite this, it proved a successful formula, and with huge success come imitators. World of Warcraft wasn’t the only MMO that other companies have tried to replicate in the hopes of recapturing that lightning strike of success. Lineage’s booming popularity resulted in a tidal wave of so-called “Lineage clones” that flooded the market with similar designs, looks and addictive hooks.

When asked about how he felt about these clones, Tack Jin Kim said that it was a compliment of sorts: “When I see Lineage-like products, I think that’s, well, honoring NCsoft — something like that! We are pleased to give other developers some impact, some impressions to help make their games better or more fun.”

Made for a song by a Song

In the pantheon of MMO game developers, Jake Song (Song Jae-kyeong) is somewhere near the top tier. Song was the lead designer and programmer for Lineage and has also worked on Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds, Aion and Tabula Rasa. In 2003, Song left NCsoft to form his own studio called XLGAMES. That studio’s first MMO, ArcheAge, became another smash hit and riled up fans worldwide to play a full-featured fantasy sandbox.

Yet the truth of the matter is that for as great a success as Lineage was globally, it never penetrated the North American market the way NCsoft hoped. Despite NCsoft hiring brothers Robert and Richard Garriott to give the company credence in the US, western gamers shunned the ancient-looking Lineage in favor of newer titles like Guild Wars.

NCSoft’s Young Park recognized the trouble in 2009, but he said the company never could figure out how to pull in a wide audience: “What we realized is that we had a gap between the North American content and the Korean content, and that gap was quite wide.”

The lackluster reception and audience brought about the end of Lineage in North America on June 29th, 2011. NCsoft kept the more popular Lineage II running in the region but returned the original MMO’s focus to Japan and Korea.

The golden goose that kept laying eggs

As Massively OP has covered pretty much every NCsoft quarterly earnings report that has come out, we can say without a doubt that we are always stunned by how much money and revenue share that the original Lineage generates.

By November 2013, Lineage had made a staggering $1.8 billion for NCsoft since its debut in 1998. In fact, the title kept dominating the company’s sales charts until 2017, when the mobile version Lineage M started to pull subscribers and money away from the original. Even so, at the end of 2017, Lineage made nearly as much revenue as Guild Wars 2 in the fourth quarter, which goes to show its staying power.

Apart from financials, Lineage’s legacy lives on in its sequels and spin-offs, including Lineage II, Lineage M, Lineage 2 Revolution, and the upcoming, long-awaited Project TL. So whether or not you’ve ever played it, there’s a good chance that the pathfinding that Lineage did in the late ’90s has impacted your online gaming in the modern era.

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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