The Game Archaeologist: Defining the eras of MMORPG history


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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