One of the things I like to joke about every so often is various myths about the history of MMOs, and a lot of those myths tend to swirl around World of Warcraft for various reasons. Basically no one worth listening to actually believes that it was the first MMORPG (it very definitely wasn’t), but there are people who believe that it was the first MMORPG to allow solo leveling, the first MMORPG to have quest-based gameplay, the first MMORPG to have instanced dungeons, or the first MMORPG to have mod support. None of these things are true. At best some of them are sorta adjacent to true if you filter a lot of definitions very carefully.
But this isn’t unique to WoW by any means. I have, many a time, referred to Ultima Online as the first MMORPG, which is true… only if you refer strictly to the name MMORPG. The question of which game is truly the first MMORPG is a hotly debated one, something that I have known the entire time and have consciously elided. But there is a debate, just like how you can make an hour-long video debating over what counts as the first video game!
This is interesting to me because it doesn’t actually matter.
I want to cut a fine line here because on some level that prior sentence is not true. It’s not a lie, but it is adjacent to one. These things matter intensely to me, not simply from a professional standpoint but because I will gleefully dive down intense rabbit holes based entirely upon minor details. This is just the sort of person I am. If you want to go down the path of researching what qualifies as the first MMORPG, I salute you and encourage you to do so.
When I say it doesn’t matter, that isn’t about whether or not accurate facts are relevant. It is, in fact, important to point out that the history of online video games did not start in 1997 with the launch of Ultima Online, both because Richard Garriott’s ego would probably like to pretend that it did and because it’s just not factually true. This was not the first time that someone thought of putting a shared persistent video game online in some format.
Rather, it doesn’t matter because the emotional truth is more important. If you want to die on the hill that Meridian 59 should count as the first, that’s valid. (It’s still debatable as there were several more games akin to it out before that, but it’s a valid point and a lot of people devoutly believe it.) But even so, the seismic shift that occurred when Ultima Online released still happened just the same.
What’s easy to overlook in a lot of scenarios is that sometimes the literal truth doesn’t actually matter. City of Heroes, Guild Wars, and WoW all released around the same time, and in many senses all three games have very similar design principles. All three make heavy use of instanced areas separate from open hubs, all three are primarily quest-based in their flow, all three use action bars as their primary control mechanism, and so on. These games were not the first games to use any of these elements, but you can see a certain amount of design symmetry. And the reasons for that aren’t some secret insider knowledge but just a shared sense about where design was going.
When these games launched, they were all doing things to distinguish themselves from UO and EverQuest, arguably the biggest (but by no means only) western MMOs at the time. They all made guesses about what players were going to want from the future, as did EverQuest II, Lineage II, and Star Wars Galaxies. Some guesses proved more accurate and popular than others, some went with the grain and others went against it, and to a certain extent none of it mattered because in November 2004 WoW launched and it eclipsed all the rest anyway.
You could argue that CoH launched earlier, had better quests, better combat, and was more novel. The first one is demonstrably and factually true. But it didn’t matter and it still doesn’t matter because what actually happened was that WoW quickly became such a huge hit that it derailed Blizzard and the entire industry, which as a result led to everything from an industry-wide business model shift toward free-to-play to Hiromichi Tanaka getting ousted from a company where he’d worked for nearly 30 years.
And all of the things I said up at the top about WoW not being the first to do many of these things? Also true. Sure, I could make subjective statements about it being the first one to do a lot of these things in a package that a ton of people found fun, or I could argue that its simple-but-pleasing graphics meant that it was low on the system requirements and easy on the eyes compared to a lot of its contemporaries.
But all of that is trying to come up for a reason for why something happened after it undeniably did, and a lot of them are backfilling. Does it really matter why this got over so well? Does it really matter whether it was first or not beyond historical trivia? You can argue that it shouldn’t have been all you want, but the game’s historical success and lengthy decline that still hasn’t brought it anywhere close to “down” are matters of fact. It hit critical mass in a way that was unprecedented, and it made a huge dang impact in the process.
To some degree, we want the first movers to be the one that wins. We want the big success story to be someone who had a brilliant new idea. We like the narrative of Babe Ruth being a monster slugger who single-handedly changed the game of baseball because he played by knocking a ball clean out of the park. That’s way more exciting than the change in eras being brought about in no small part because of rule changes instituted by the first commissioner of baseball, which happened to play really well with Ruth’s style.
Incidentally, if you mostly know about Kenesaw Mountain Landis from Jonathan Coulton’s song about the man, I am sad to report that he was not actually 17 feet tall and he did not have 150 wives.
This is why I say that ultimately, the facts about who’s first don’t really matter. Oh, certainly, it is worth pointing out that these things are not true. All those things I said WoW didn’t do first were things it did not do first. But finding the MMORPG that did do all of that first is an exercise in a lot of debate, fuzzy histories, combing through details about games, and even when you finally settle on which game counts based on your criteria, it doesn’t actually matter because that game isn’t WoW and being first doesn’t change that fact.
UO was the first game that was marketed as an MMORPG, but it was also the start of a new genre of game and a wider profile, even if you can point to games that predate it and argue that these games should, in fact, be counted as the actual first MMORPG. I encourage you to do so if these are rabbit holes that interest you because defining conditions for what counts and figuring out what fits those conditions can be a lot of fun. But it’s never going to change how the actual history played out.