In the grand history of MMORPGs, kids games seem to have it rougher than most. Developers have had a hard time cracking into that market, what with online payments and all, and many of the relatively few kids MMOs that emerged over the last couple of decades have subsequently met their doom. Titles like Toontown Online, Club Penguin, and Free Realms are fading into the past (although we won’t weep too hard, considering that Minecraft, Roblox, and other online games are captivating this demographic).
But out of all of the graphical MMOs that have taken aim at kids, which was the very first to make it to market? Arguably, that would be 1996’s Castle Infinity. This 2-D MMO attracted children with dinosaurs and monsters and gave this youngster community an early introduction to the wider world of online gaming.
It’s pretty weird and obscure, but hey, we deal with “weird” and “obscure” a lot in this space. Let’s take a look!
So ’90s it hurts
Seattle-based Starwave came onto the scene in 1993 thanks to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The studio mainly focused on developing for the then-hot CD-ROM and emerging website development market.
As part of its growing portfolio of projects, Starwave took on the idea of an MMO designed for children. Game designer Russell Ginns spent a year-and-a-half pitching the game to the company. His idea? “Imagine: This is a persistent world where kids are getting together and playing together, online.” While mundane to us today, it was a thrilling and intriguing idea for the time. Enough funding and 25 developers were dedicated to make it happen.
In 1996, Castle Infinity emerged on the scene. Starwave tried hard to get the game into households, with joint promotions and even including coupons for modems (because in the 1990s, not every computer or household had them yet). It would take advantage of the storage and media capacity of the CD-ROM, including original a capella music from the group The Bobs.
“Immersive and exciting”
Castle Infinity saw very modest success, with a peak of around 4,000 subscribers. The idea of the game was that some dinosaurs, fearing extinction 65 billion years ago, hid out in an underground castle as some sort of fallout shelter. They survived, and now thanks to internet access, kids are able to visit them. The game tasked players to help fight back against a monster infestation that’s been taking over the castle.
This kids MMO was fairly ambitious for the time, as it included fully-voiced characters, customizable characters, incentives for helping others, a companion comic book, events, in-game chat, and co-op play. Players would explore the 2-D world and overcome challenges individually and as small groups. The number of players in any given area had to be kept small due to the primitive hardware and latency involved.
“As promised by the premise, I genuinely felt as though I had been transported to another place,” recalled Games Industry’s Kim Belair. “Being in the castle was an immersive and exciting experience. ”
However, Castle Infinity didn’t get off to the best of starts. “Bad marketing, extended downtime, and sloppy leadership” hurt the game during this initial run. By the second year, players routinely encountered unexplained downtime and a stony silence from the studio.
As the ’90s proceeded, Starwave merged with search engine company Infoseek to form Go.com. In 1998, Disney fully bought out this combined company, but Castle Infinity was not part of its grand plan for the future. The Mouse House thought about rebranding it as Castle Hercules, but quickly dropped the idea. The MMO languished in maintenance mode for a couple of years and bounced around from company to company before closing its doors in 2000. All during this, the remaining, extremely loyal players stuck around to the bitter end.
A second (and third) lease on life
When it closed, however, Castle Infinity literally was rescued from the trash. Disney threw the servers out into the dumpsters, but it didn’t count on Castle Infinity player and programmer Kevin Quitt coming along to grab the server and start the game back up under a non-profit organization (there are some that doubt this story’s veracity, but for most, it’s gone down in legend).
“The blow of signing on to see ‘Sorry, we’re closing down until further notice’ hit some of us quite a few times,” recalled developer Greg Kumparak. “That was until we realized that Castle Infinity had been thrown away. I do quite honestly mean thrown away. In a trash can. With a bit of good timing and maybe a liiiiittle bit of fast driving, we got our hands on the server and a large portion of important data.”
Even with a low profile and small user base, the new developers worked on the title and kept it running in its second incarnation. This second run saw a lot of continued development and activity, going all the way to 2008 until Quitt shut it down once more. “I have with great reluctance and many tears, closed the Castle — almost certainly forever,” he posted.
With this group of volunteer developers heading elsewhere, Castle Infinity stayed offline for the better part of three years. Finally, in 2011, another player named Spencer Jerome revived the game with some others and has kept it operating through today. In fact, you can check it out right now thanks to their efforts, although the last update was all the way back in 2014.