The Game Archaeologist: Defining the eras of MMORPG history

    
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With MMO history stretching back to the early 1980s (and even before), this genre has accumulated a whole lot of history over the years. Taking a bird’s eye view of this history is interesting, because you can see the outlines of several distinct (and many more muddled) eras that defined certain years.

For a while now, I have wanted to spread out all of MMORPG history before me and organize it by epochs. If one was to categorize the eras of MMOs, where would be those diving lines and what would they be called? While I’m sure each one of us would have our own answer to this, in today’s column I’m going to present my own take on this.

The PLATO era (1972-1979)

Prior to 1980, the closest thing that we saw to a modern MMO was born in the networked PLATO machines used in schools and universities. Popular games like Spacewar, Moria, and Avatar spread through these systems in the late ’70s, giving players a preview of what online gaming could look like. While these PLATO games petered out alongside their technology, it was an interesting foretaste of the future.

The MUD era (1980-1990)

However, the official start for MMORPGs came in 1980 with the debut of Multi-User Dungeon 1 — or MUD1, for short. MUD1 and subsequent text-based MMOs relied more on imagination than visuals, although some like Island of Kesmai utilized ASCII symbols as crude graphical substitutes. While MUDs continued to enjoy success well into the 1990s (especially with the refined DikiMUD codebase), this period was soon to be supplanted by…

The micro-multiplayer era (1991-1996)

With the proliferation of modems and the escalation of online service providers, text games weren’t cutting it any more. Titles like AOL’s Neverwinter Nights, Shadow of Yserbius, and Kingdom of Drakkar caught players’ attention with graphics and the allure of playing with others remotely. There were a whole lot of innovative titles, up to and including Meridian 59, which started to push into truly “massively multiplayer” space.

Not this.

The graphical breakout era (1997-2000)

It was about 1996 and 1997 that the genre took a huge step forward into becoming true MMORPGs. As eastern gamers flocked to titles like Lineage and Nexus, western players became enthralled with Ultima Online’s launch. The sheer popularity of this title prompted a lot of other studios to gear up their own projects, and by the end of the decade, Asheron’s Call and EverQuest joined this blossoming movement.

The experimental era (2001-2004)

Once MMORPGs showed themselves to be potential gold mines for studios, everyone wanted a piece of the action. However, since there wasn’t any one dominant model, every team decided to pursue different courses of development. So for a few years, we saw wildly divergent releases, from Dark Age of Camelot and Star Wars Galaxies to City of Heroes and Phantasy Star Online. Everyone was trying something different, and while some flopped hard, others soared.

The WoW clone era (2004-2009)

World of Warcraft’s release in 2004 far and away eclipsed all other western MMORPG launches with massive subscriber counts and huge revenues. Many MMO projects canceled or radically readjusted their course to copy what Blizzard had done. And so for many years to come, MMOs would be modeled after WoW rather than strike out their own distinct path. This includes titles like Runes of Magic, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online, and many more.

The next generation era (2010-2014)

While WoW’s DNA was still to be found in many MMOs, the next era saw a push for bold, big-budget titles that tried to put their own spin on the genre. Star Wars: The Old Republic focused on choice-driven story, Guild Wars 2 juked away from the standard questing model, Final Fantasy XIV offered class-changing ease, and WildStar attempted to do something with “paths” and exploding sheep. This would be the last time for a while that we saw so many major MMOs arrive on the scene.

The Kickstarter era (2015-2019)

As fewer traditional big-budget MMOs were being made and released, player hunger for new games found an outlet in funding them personally through Kickstarter and the like. Many projects were greenlit by players’ wallets during this time, including Crowfall, Star Citizen, Albion Online, Elite Dangerous, and more. Meanwhile, MMO-adjacent titles such as ARPGs (Path of Exile), looter shooters (Destiny 2), and battle royales (Fortnite) fragmented from the “everything box” to be more specialized.

The emerging era (2020-now)

And that brings us to the current era, which may be too soon to categorize. We’re witnessing several crowdfunded MMOs finally come to market along with the development of new big-budget titles, and there’s more of a willingness to experiment and innovate than we’ve seen in some time. How it’ll shape up… is something we’ll answer in a few years from now.

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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Corey Evans
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Corey Evans

The Next Generation Era shouldn’t exist per the examples you provided.

Saying that SWTOR, FFXIV and Wildstar aren’t WoW clones is a SERIOUS case of missing the forest for staring at the small differences among the trees.

How is FFXIV’s “unique spin” that different from Rift’s or Aion’s?

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Does not check email

Honorable mention for mobile. I do believe desktop dinosaurs as myself will be left behind for the mobile / console players

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JoeCreoterra

“western players became enthralled with Ultima Online’s launch. The sheer popularity of this title prompted a lot of other studios to gear up their own projects, and by the end of the decade, Asheron’s Call and EverQuest joined this blossoming movement.”

I’m not sure that you’d call this factually incorrect, but it’s definitely an ambiguous statement. This makes it sound like the development of AC and EQ happened post-UO after seeing the response of players. Meanwhile all three titles were in development at the exact same time, and the original launch date for AC was scheduled for 1997 pre-UO launch… which obviously didn’t happen due to the scope of the project.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Pretty accurate. Im excited for upcoming VR era

Fisty
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Fisty

20 something people in my high school played MUDs well into the 90’s and the scene was still going. Not that I disagree with the timeline, supporting it, but they were popular in weird places long after you’d think. I’m talking hillbilly Appalachia, a whole 3 grades, Freshman to Junior, were logging in and playing a Star Wars MUD, 1997. It was a year into Everquest when the scene died down, but it was the greatest time as a high schooler and I lost many a night level alts and PK’ing people.

I pine for the experimental era that was brought that Kickstarter never has, with all their promises.

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Pandalulz

I didn’t discover MUDs until around 2000, after I was already playing Asheron’s Call. Apparently one of them was hosted from the Unix server at the tech college I went to so a bunch of nerds I hung around with on campus played on it. At that point, I messed around with it as a novelty, never really got into it that much, but that was my entire experience with them. To this day I haven’t been able to remember what that one was called.

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Paragon Lost

Gee thanks Justin! Hrmph! Just call me Plato.(As if I needed help feeling old!) lol
To be more serious, I really think you did a excellent job on nailing the various eras.

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SmiteDoctor

I love this Ken Burns shit, you guys should make more of these types of articles.

I’ve only seen a MUD once, when I was 17 and a Freshman in college, 1996, an older woman in her 20s gave me a night class (learned a lot that night), then in the AM she was on my PC taking advantage of my network connection playing some text based RPG while telling me to STFU when I asked questions or tried to rekindle the night before.

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Paragon Lost

Hey Gemstone III was serious biz! heh.

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SmiteDoctor

No idea what she was playing, but that was a hell of night.

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Paragon Lost

Could have been a number of text based multi-player online rpgs (as we used to refer to them before the term mmorpg came along). :) When you have scrolling text, you truly have to focus or you miss things.

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Bryan Correll

I need to hear Morgan Freeman reading developer e-mails for a full Ken Burns experience.

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Ken from Chicago

“Dearest Martha, spirits are low. Our food supply is almost gone. Tommy was shot. Fortunately the arrow hit him mid-thign. A little lower and the whole party would have mocked him mercilessly. Also knee injuries are stubborn to heal properly from. Even our bard is too melancholy to sing about donating funds to a mutant merceny monster hunter. I fear tis the end. If so, know that my final thoughts will be of you, Martha, and this lock of your hair you secreted amongst my belongings, instead of something useful like salted meats. All my love, your loving husband.”

C:\> SEND LETTER

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Ken from Chicago

Great retrospective. I worked at community colleges in the 90s and PLATO was still working and there were those multiplayer games on the systems.

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Anstalt

Interesting definitions. I’ve thought about this exact thing a lot in the past and came up with four distinct eras, rather than your nine.

1) 1997 – 2004: The Age of Experimentation
Whilst I appreciate that there was a lot of buildup to the first mmorpg, those early MUDs etc were not mmos, so I start the first age with the first mmorpg.

This era was really defined by small teams experimenting with an entirely new genre. Noone really knew what they were doing, so we got all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas. Some of them worked, some didn’t, but it was certainly exciting!

2) 2004-2012: WoW Clones Era
Noone can deny WoWs success, so this era was dominated by WoW and all of it’s clones trying to get a slice of that large themepark market.

3) 2012-2020: The Action Combat Era a.k.a. The Asian Invasion
SWTOR was the last of the WoW clones, since then the genre has been dominated by two things. The first is action combat, which has now largely replaced tab-target style combat in all new games. The second is the withdrawal of western developers from the genre, being replaced by Asian developers who have managed to keep up a steady stream of new releases.

4) 2021 – ????: The Indie Inspiration Era
With the withdrawal of large western developers from the genre, we have reached a point where we are very reliant on indie studios to bring us new games and ideas. Whilst many of these were funded during the previous era, most haven’t come close to releasing yet so this era is only just beginning.

I’ve called this the indie inspiration era because whilst I don’t expect many of them to do commercially well (history is very much against them), I do expect to see some innovative ideas that will inspire the big studios to return to the genre. After all, this is exactly how WoW came into being: Blizz simply stole a bunch of ideas from what came before, then polished it up for the masses. It’s a successful tactic, but is dependant on other people introducing new ideas for you to copy, something that has been missing for a long time.

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Scorp Gang

No offense to MOP staff but this is EXACTLY how I outline it.

Stefan
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Stefan

Phantasy Star Online mentioned but not Anarchy online :o

WoW was both a curse and a blessing if you look back it injected a whole lot of interest and economic means into the genre but it also led to a whole lot of clones. WoW continued to set it self apart over time to being relatively bug free compared to competitors, so much it became a standard somewhat in my opinion.

I really do wonder in today’s online market is there really room for time consuming online experiences that are MMO’s it seems the genre like most of the online scene has moved towards shorter bursts of playing sessions.