The Game Archaeologist: Super-early versions of MMORPG websites


One of the absolute best things the internet ever generated has been the Internet Wayback Machine. Through this site, snapshots of millions of websites have been taken over the years to preserve them even if they went defunct or changed over time. It’s a massive boon to online historians, including me, who want to revisit older times or look up information that has since been taken offline elsewhere.

For a fun change of pace, today I wanted to take a look at super-early editions of various MMORPG websites to see what they looked like at the start of their journeys. Be warned: There’s a massive amount of nostalgia coming at you with this column, especially if you were around for the start of these titles back in the day.

Middle-earth Online (1998)

The fetal child who would eventually grow and be born as Lord of the Rings Online was officially announced via website back on September 22nd, 1998. While the pictures are broken on the Wayback Machine (as they often are), you can read fascinating glimpses of early development history, such as the making of the Shire and Bree, and see a mention of the 1999 studio move to Seattle that ultimately spelled disaster for the project.

Learn more about this fascinating chapter of Middle-earth history in a previous Game Archaeologist column and as part of the overall LOTRO timeline.

World of Warcraft (2001)

The earliest snapshot of World of Warcraft dates back to September 2001, a little over three years before the game even released. “Rich in legend and filled with adventure, the World of Warcraft awaits,” Blizzard posted. “For the first time, players experience the lands of Azeroth from a new, in-depth perspective. As heroes, they explore familiar battlefields, discover new lands and take on epic quests and challenges in Blizzard’s massively multiplayer, on-line, role-playing game.” Ooh, I got chills.

The website did launch chock-full of content, including screenshot galleries, a FAQ, a lore journal, forums, and gameplay videos. I wish I could go back in time and let all of the visitors know what a wait they’d be in for the game’s launch.

Star Wars Galaxies (2001)

Here’s another blast from the past: The November 2001 edition of Star Wars Galaxies’ website. “Welcome to the official site for Star Wars Galaxies,” SOE posted. “This LucasArts Entertainment Company and Sony Online Entertainment venture is set to launch in 2002 as a series of massively multiplayer online games. Thousands of people will participate in a virtual recreation of the Star Wars universe during the turbulent Galactic Civil War.”

Wait, a “series?” Indeed. In the game’s early FAQ, the team wrote, “We intend on releasing multiple titles under the Star Wars Galaxies line.” The Jedi section of the FAQ is also pretty interesting reading, especially considering what eventually happened with this class.

Guild Wars 2 (2010)

This is a much more recent entry for this list, but still, it’s closer to the beginning of Guild Wars 2’s march toward launch a couple of years later. There’s a lot more consistency in the format and style to what we have today, but it’s still pretty cool to go back and read those old one posts about the “Manifesto,” the Hall of Monuments, and the first trailer reveal back in August 2009.

Ultima Online (1997)

Hoo boy, this one is a trip, not just to an early look at a game, but a whole different era entirely. The Ultima Online site from days of yore contains references to Netscape, 16-bit color SVGA graphics, bulletin boards, and “under construction” notices.

There’s even a reference to the much-touted wildlife system: “Other elements of the game constantly evolve — a functioning virtual ecology drives monsters to roam in search of food if it’s scarce, and world events are inter-related through a closed economic system and limited resources.” That… did not work out as well as they had hoped.

Star Trek Online (2006)

Before there was Cryptic’s Star Trek Online, there was Perpetual’s vision of the game — a vision that can still be glimpsed through this early iteration of the website. I always liked the logo for this version, by the way.

Read MOP’s history of this doomed project and then scour the old website to learn more about STO’s Galaxy-class starships (“the truth is, in order to make this ship into a living, breathing, functioning MMO city, we needed to answer the questions the show didn’t”), space travel (“our design challenge was how to turn the empty space in-between destinations into an environment that is exciting and will capture notion of space exploration”), and combat (“we want players to really feel like they are living out scenes from an episode or movie”).

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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