Perfect Ten: The best MMO debuts by year, 1997-2006

    
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By now, many of you probably know that I’m the curator of the MMO Timeline on my personal blog. On this page, I’ve attempted to catalog the launches, expansions, business model shifts, reboots, platform transitions, and sunsets of MMOs by year. It certainly helps me to get a high-level overview of certain eras of online gaming history as well as to trace the development of certain titles.

For fun, because that’s a lot of what Perfect Ten is about, I wanted to start with the year that MMORPGs really took off and select one title per year over the next two decades that I felt had the best debut and was the most exciting title to launch that year. Some years it’s going to be really easy to pick, while others… man, I am setting myself up for some hate mail, aren’t I?

Let’s turn our time machine back to 1997 and get this show on the road!

1997: Ultima Online

While there were MMOs dating back nearly two decades before this game — and several graphical ones in the 1990s — Ultima Online is really the start of the modern graphical era of MMOs in nearly every way that matters. It was a strong IP that generated a great amount of interest in both the game and developing for the genre itself. So many studios took a look at what this game was doing and wanted to get on board that train. And they did, oh they did.

1998: Lineage

A quiet year as various projects ramped up, 1998 at least had one doozy with Lineage. As successful as Ultima Online was in the west, Lineage twas even more so in the east, becoming the first MMO to break one million and two million subscribers. NCsoft has long since relied on this game as a cash cow, and to this day, it continues to be played by multitudes.

1999: EverQuest

The theme park answer to Ultima Online’s sandbox, EQ broke into the public mainstream as its phenomenon spread among the gaming community. Yes, it was a crude-looking grinder with an incredibly unfriendly game design, but it took 3-D RPG gaming online and relied on the tried-and-true DIKUmud gameplay loop to rope players in.

What the eff

2000: Phantasy Star Online

The MMO industry really needed another year or more to get its up-and-coming projects worthy of retail, so 2000 was pretty much only notable for the launch of the first console MMO with Phantasy Star Online. It made owning a Gamecube pretty cool at the time and made MMOs simple enough so that most anyone could play one without having to devour an acronym dictionary.

2001: Dark Age of Camelot

Plenty of possible contenders for the 2001 nomination, but I’m giving the prize to Dark Age of Camelot for delivering a really solid title with a strong launch — and advancing the industry in an interesting direction with the game’s realm vs. realm setup.

2002: Final Fantasy XI

I’m kind of lukewarm on all of the launches from this year, to be honest. There’s something worthy about many of them but also detractors as well. So I suppose the nod should go to the first Final Fantasy game to jump online, even if its western launch caused some friction with an obtuse subscription setup and putting gamers in the same servers with Japanese players who had been leveling for months.

A long time ago, in a galaxy... oh, you know.

2003: Star Wars Galaxies

By this year, the field had absolutely exploded with titles vying for players’ attention, time, and money. So many great choices this year, including EVE Online and PlanetSide, but Star Wars Galaxies bowled them aside with its juggernaut of an IP, strong developer credentials, and moisture farming.

2004: World of Warcraft

Sorry, City of Heroes, any other year you might have gotten top billing here, but the launch of Blizzard’s insanely hyped MMORPG pushed all other games to the side and created a wake in which copycats would attempt to ride for years to come. If you can listen carefully, you might even hear EverQuest II sobbing quietly over its missed coronation.

2005: Guild Wars

I’m long since past the point of caring about the whole “Guild Wars isn’t an MMO, its developers even said so” argument. When everyone views, treats, and remembers it as such, it just is. And anyway, there really wasn’t much else this year to trumpet anyway, so ArenaNet wins the prize by default with its buy-to-play format and flexible skill building system.

2006: Dungeons and Dragons Online

Another quiet year as the industry was frantically shifting gears to churn out WoW clones, but at least 2006 gave us a uniquely fun title in DDO. Of course, the weird part of this is that DDO wouldn’t really make headlines until three years later when it became the first major western MMO to eschew subscription-only as a business model and embrace free-to-play.

Stay tuned for the second part of this series as we’ll look at 2007-2017!

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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Chosenxeno .

If Rift doesn’t win for it’s year the list is rigged. It is still the single smoothest launch of any MMORPG to date. They even got LFD rolling the same week.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Too bad game itself is bland boring clone of WoW

Zariarn
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Zariarn

To each their own I guess. I found the game much better than wow. It has far better classes, graphics, and combat. But everyone has their own opinion.

Clone? I don’t think so. WoW doesn’t have random zone evens and invasions (RIFTS/invasions). WoW doesn’t have multiclass systems with 336 possible class combinations. RIFTs graphics are much better and a lot less tooney. They only thing they share is that they’re both a tab targeting MMORPG.

If you seriously want to see a WoW clone, go play Allods or Alganon. Those are true clones.

Vaeris
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Vaeris

No Asheron’s Call love (1999). That hurts, lol! I suppose the only thing that was going to win that year won. I’d say the game that made significant monthly content updates, changing seasonal weather, world landscape altering events, and hyper active dev involvement with players was certainly a close second.

Zariarn
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Zariarn

Everquest dominated Asheron’s Call hands down. No contest.

Vaeris
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Vaeris

To each their own.

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Armsman

I’m sorry but as someone who remember’s WoW’s actual launch, I have to say:

If you’re going with WoW because of what it ultimately became – okay, it should be on the list. If you’re talking actual smooth and successful launch – sorry, it shouldn’t be anywhere on that list. The first month was nightmarish to the point Blizzard GAVE a moth credit to everyone who went through it, and WoW;s first 6 months were pretty rocky.

It wasn’t until Blizzard took the game out of stores for a time (to focus of fixing the major issues they had in keeping the game servers playable for the subscribers they had; and they added more endgame raid content too, and then put the game back in stores <— That WoW 'took off' to become the subscription juggernaut it was for quite some time.

But WoW's actual launch itself was pretty piss poor for a majority of it's initial subscribers at the start.

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Raph Koster

WoW’s launch period literally doubled the size of the Western market in the space of a few months. In fact, its growth on the first NIGHT was enough that I was able to forecast it hitting a million players (while at SOE, friends at Blizzard shared their reg numbers every few hours that night).

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

I remember WoW’s launch being messy but very much playable and not even as bad as the launched of every MMO I’d played to that point. And I say this as someone whose entire guild ultimately switched servers to get away from queues! But I don’t think Justin was judging the quality of the launch itself.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Day 1 player here. Launch wasnt as bad as you say. There were long queues on most popular servers, some crashes. But we played it daily np.
Besides, for 2004 problematic launches were a norm for all MMOs.

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Castagere Shaikura

Yeah i remember those long queues. They were really bad but the game was hot at the time.

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Matt Redding

I was a closed alpha/beta tester for WoW though I didn’t stay with it at launch. I clearly remember the launch. WoW’s launch was MASSIVELY successful. The subscriber numbers blew up bigger every day. They thought maybe 50% of the people who bought Warcraft 3 would buy it, it was more like 250-500% of those numbers within just the first few days. It created a frenzy that lead people to subscribe just to see what the hype was about. There were banners in Best Buy. People were running into stores and stripping shelves bare of the boxed copies. Yeah it was uniquely successful and there’s a reason why every MMO since then looks at it with the delusion its some kind of achievable benchmark.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

My guesses for the 2007-2016 list:

2007 – LOTRO
2008 – Warhammer Online
2009 – Runes of Magic / Hello Kitty Online (tie)
2010 – Star Trek Online
2011 – SWTOR
2012 – GW2
2013 – FFXIV
2014 – ESO
2015 – Skyforge… I guess… was there anything else?
2016 – Black Desert Online [US/EU]

flyingltj
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flyingltj

The only thing Runes of Magic was ever “best” at was washing their association with online gold sellers clean from public records.

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Castagere Shaikura

Runes of magic had bad memory leaks. The game would crash all the time.

Veldan
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Patreon Donor
Veldan

Bleh, if we’re comparing launch games, RIFT > SWTOR by far imo

Edit: also, if looking at Western launch date, Aion launched in 2009 and easily defeats the two you listed imo

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Wilhelm Arcturus

For actual game play over time, I prefer Rift over SWTOR. But SWTOR had a very strong launch, peaking with something like 2 million subscribers. I may have cancelled my SWTOR pre-order after having played the beta, but I have to give it the nod over Rift for launch.

For 2009 I put those in as a bit of a troll. I actually think Syp is going to pick FreeRealms, but we’ll see. Though, I will say, in defense of Runes of Magic, at the time it was a pretty big deal because it was an Asian MMO company attempting to publish a game tuned to Western habits (quests rather than just mob grinding for advancement) and was somewhat unique in being designed from day one to be a free to play MMO when most free to play games were there because they failed as subscription MMOs and had to change course.

Veldan
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Veldan

About SWTOR: Yes, but that was anticipation and hype rather than the game itself. I was part of the “strong” launch, I preordered shortly before (I did not play beta) and played the free month that came with the package. I canceled my sub before the first payment hit though, and I know many did the same.

RIFT may not have been as big but it was a quality game at launch, and people stayed for longer than a month. Also I remember there was a huge amount of extra servers opened over the course of launch, so population numbers can’t have been bad, even if it didn’t have an SWTOR level of hype.

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Bryan Correll

Predictions for the rest of the list:
2007 – LOTRO (This one’s probably a lock. After all, Justin is the regular LOTRO writer and the competition is sparse)
2008 – Age of Conan (though Warhammer or even Wizard 101 wouldn’t surprise me.)
2009 – Hello Kitty Online
2010 – Star Trek Online
2011 – SWTOR (Tough call with Rift and DCUO among the competition.)
2012 – GW2 with a chance of TSW.
2013 – Scarlet Blade (Western release.) Or maybe FF14. Yeah, probably FF14.
2014 – ESO
2015 – Er…pass.
2016 – BDO
2017 – Um. See 2015.

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McGuffn

when’s Warhammer Online? APB? FF14? Those are the classic launches.

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ghostlight

Thanks Justin, an informative and enjoyable read, especially since the only game on the list I’ve played is Guild Wars, and that was long after its 2005 release.

I seem to recall a story back in the day about an actual marriage occurring between two players who met in Everquest. Wonder if they are still together?

Also, I recall a story from Star Wars Galaxies relayed to me by a coworker where supposedly a Sith guild cleared out some Republic enclaves, and were rewarded with one of the devs entering the game as Darth Vader to give them a military pass in review. :-) I’m really sorry I never played that one.

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Raph Koster

There have been countless weddings in EQ, and in fact in all the MMOs.

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ghostlight

Not saying otherwise, only that I recall the MSM (and by that I mean not just game journos) giving the particular one I was thinking of a lot of press back in the day, like it was some strange new thing in the world.

Surprised you commented on that rather than the SWG incident, which I kind of think is actually more interesting.

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Raph Koster

I almost did, but Massively literally just ran an article about devs coming into the game to play Darth Vader just a few hours ago :) http://massivelyop.com/2018/06/27/hyperspace-beacon-memorable-moments-in-star-wars-galaxies-the-original-star-wars-mmorpg/ … So it felt duplicative!

SWG had a team that was devoted to helping roleplay events, just like UO did.

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nobleeinherjar

I still remember the day FFXI launched in the West. After waiting for so long, I couldn’t wait for school to end that day. All so I could come home and .. let the game update over night. And then I had to wait until the end of the next school day before I could finally play. (Wow, I’m sure glad I went into that game solo. I forgot you couldn’t even pick your server back then. Yeesh.)

UpayaBlossom
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UpayaBlossom

My god do I feel old.

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Sarblade

I would have added City of Heroes instead of D&D. I remember there was a lot of hype for it.

SWG is still the best game in this list, even better than Eve. Too bad the Emu do not have Space Combat, while for some reasons I cannot log-in on SWG Legends. I really need a space game right now. :(

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Oleg Chebeneev

Justin mentioned it in 2014 year when it was released

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Bryan Correll

Well, 2004. I’m sure that was just a typo. And even though I personally liked it more it would be hard to justify ranking CoH as the best in the same year WoW hit the market.
Edit: The “me too” years following the success of WoW are likely to be a lot more contentious give the spike in titles released when everyone was trying to grab a piece of that sweet MMO pie.

Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

I agree – COH was iconic, a better game, and in my top two MMOs ever – but I’d still have to say that WoW had the better debut in the genre. CoH didn’t get truly great for a few years after either.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

I am going to put in a word for Auto Assault for 2006, at least if we’re going to use “exciting” as our measure. There was a lot of excited discussion about it at the time. Meanwhile, DDO was feeling the pain of having a “no solo play” warning on their box back then. That made me put the box back on the shelf at Fry’s, something a lot of other people did as well. Also, there wasn’t even a dragon in the game at launch. It took months before it could even be called Dungeons & Dragon Online.

Then there is 2001, where I might suggest RuneScape as an alternative to DAoC. It brought browser based into a game play into a market that previously required a full client.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Id say Anarchy Online is a bigger competitor to DaoC then Runescape. Old version of Runescape could hardly compete with big MMOs

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Raph Koster

I think I’d give the nod to Runescape too. For that matter, I think I would give the nod in 2000 to Habbo Hotel.