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