The Game Archaeologist: SEGA’s Dragon’s Dream, the first console and cross-platform MMO

    
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When most people are asked to think back upon the first console to attempt an online RPG experience, the name that most likely pops up is Phantasy Star Online. SEGA’s 2000 entry on the Dreamcast became an instant hit, spawning other ports, new versions, and a couple of sequels.

Yet Phantasy Star Online wasn’t SEGA’s first attempt at bringing an MMO-like title to market. To uncover this story, we jump back a few years and a console generation to the SEGA Saturn, where Dragon’s Dream allowed remote adventurers to play together on consoles for the first time.

Now if you had a SEGA Saturn back in the day and are scratching your head why you never heard of this game, that’s because this was a Japan-only title — and it was kind of difficult to access anyway.

Developed jointly by SEGA and Fujitsu, Dragon’s Dream emerged onto the scene with a beta in summer of 1997 before launching that December. The title had a short run, expanding to a Windows client in 1998 before shutting down entirely on October 1st, 1999.

Apart from being an online RPG where up to four players could band together to go dungeon delving, Dragon’s Dream set itself apart by offering the game client for absolutely free for those who sent a request for it (the game wasn’t available in stores).

Totally free? Well, of course there was a catch. Players had to buy and install both a special modem and keyboard for the console, not to mention pay for a monthly account and minute-by-minute access. Yes, this was back when online games charged by the hour or minute, and that could get stupid expensive pretty fast. Press called Dragon’s Dream a “billing nightmare.”

Even when the company reduced the per-minute cost of playing, it still racked up some impressive bills for hardcore gamers. Think about how much time you’ve sunk into your MMOs this past month, and then consider how much money you’d be out if you were charged a dime per minute.

Yet the novelty of online gaming and persistent progression was enough to convince some players to overcome these hurdles. Those who did so discovered a lobby-like overworld with various functional buildings and uniquely generated dungeons for parties below. In many ways, it functioned as Shadow of Yserbius did on the PC a few years earlier.

Dragon’s Dream further distinguished itself with its setup. The game had one server that handled cross-platform play (another first!) between the Saturn and PC. Yet players could select one of two worlds on that server: One populated by humans and one by demons.

No matter where a player chose to call home, he or she could pick from one of eight races, including a slime-based one. Also, you could be a newt (cue Monty Python joke). Past that, there were five classes from which to occupy.

The dev team did have plans for multiple parties to be able to go into the same dungeons, but that feature never came to be.

Ultimately, the barriers to entry and the newness of online console gaming kept most players away from Dragon’s Dream, leading to the closure of the game in ’99. It wasn’t all a waste, however, as SEGA would take many lessons that it learned during Dragon’s Dream’s development and operation for its next project, Phantasy Star Online.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to 2004! 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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Louie

This was a really interesting read. It’s kind of bonkers how ahead of its time a lot of Sega hardware was (for better and worse), especially the Dreamcast with its internet connectivity and available DLC for a few games.