Embark on an epic odyssey through MMORPG history from the early days of MUD games to today's UE5 masterpieces.
The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the MMO: An MMORPG History Lesson
Buckle up readers, we're about to take a deep dive into the origins and evolution of the massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG). It's a genre with 50 years of fascinating development, with its games providing some of the richest exploration, the most engaging social cooperation, the most hilarious exploits, and the most legendary boss fights.
Yet to say MMORPG history has not been smooth sailing is the understatement of the century. Its choppy waters have been riddled by sharks, storms, and whirling vortexes. The MMORPG is a tale of triumph and tragedy, of innovative ideas and failed experiments. So strap on your plate-mail, grab some snacks, and let's take a journey through the rise and fall (and rise again) of the MMO.
The Early Days of MMORPGs (1970's-1990's)
The storied history of the MMORPG begins in the early days of computing, when 3D graphics and high-speed internet were but pipedreams. Borne off the back of tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, text-based adventure games (also known as interactive fiction) allowed players to type in commands and navigate through virtual worlds that relied heavily on the imagination.
Take, for example, the influential but not well-known game Adventure - created in 1975 by Will Crowther and Don Woods. Adventure set the template for later MMORPGs, with a focus on exploration, combat, and character progression.
These games were mostly single player until 1979, when a little game called MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) was developed by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle. MUD (or MUD1) was a ground-breaking text-based adventure game which allowed multiple players to explore a virtual world together. It evolved into a genre of the same name "MUDs", allowing players to inhabit and interact with the same world and with each other.
While other gamers were lost in brain-shattering graphics of Tetris and Space Invaders, MUD players had taken the first step in a genre that wouldn't even have its own name for decades to come.
It wasn't until the late 1980s and early 1990s that MMORPGs started to take on their modern form. One of the first graphical MMORPGs was a largely forgotten game called Habitat, created by Lucasfilm Games (later LucasArts) in 1986. Habitat sadly never got passed its beta, but was an early precursor to Second Life, allowing players to create their own avatars and interact with each other in a virtual world lightyears ahead of its time.
But it was the release of the original Neverwinter Nights in 1991 that really set the stage for modern MMORPGs. Neverwinter Nights is often credited as being the first MMORPG to use a graphics engine, though these "graphics" are so far removed from what we have today that they're barely identifiable. It is also widely considered to be the first MMORPG to introduce many of the features that are now standard in the genre, including character classes, quests, guilds, and dungeon crawling.
Ultima Online and the Birth of the Modern MMORPG (1997-1999)
Fast forward to 1997 and we have the first true MMORPG as we know it today, Origin Systems' Ultima Online. Few games in MMORPG history were as ground-breaking as Ultima Online -- a fantasy game that allowed thousands of players to inhabit the same world and interact with each other in real-time. It introduced many of the features that are now staples of the genre, including crafting, player housing, and a player-driven economy.
But Ultima Online was far from perfect. The game was plagued by bugs, exploits, and a lack of balance, leading to frustration and disillusionment among many players. It also struggled to attract a mainstream audience, with many gamers still sceptical of online gaming at the time. And yet, it is still rightfully revered as one of the most important games in the history of the MMORPG.
Other games of the era that no comprehensive MMORPG history should fail to mention include: The Realm Online, Nexus TK (Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds), Tibia, and Meridian 59 which some consider to be the first truly 3D MMO.
EverQuest and the Rise of 3D MMORPGs (1999-2004)
It wasn't until the release of EverQuest in 1999 that MMORPGs started to truly take off. EverQuest was the first MMORPG to achieve mainstream success, with millions of players logging in to explore its fantasy world.
EverQuest was (and is) a massive game, with hundreds of zones, thousands of quests, and a deep lore that that still captivates players with annual content releases. It introduced raiding, instanced dungeons, and a robust trading system. It also paved the way for other successful MMORPGs, including Final Fantasy XI and Dark Age of Camelot.
The game was notoriously punishing and time-consuming, requiring players to spend hours upon hours grinding for XP and loot. It also had a steep learning curve, making the new-player experience seem daunting (a problem many MMORPGs still struggle with). Despite its flaws, however, EverQuest cemented the MMORPG as a viable and profitable genre, paving the way for even more ambitious titles in the years to come.
World of Warcraft and the Golden Age of MMORPGs (2004-2010)
If EverQuest was the first MMORPG to achieve mainstream success, then World of Warcraft was the game that cemented the genre's place in the gaming landscape. Released in 2004 by Blizzard Entertainment, World of Warcraft was a cultural phenomenon that refined the features of all its antecedents while attracting millions of players from all over the world and generating billions of dollars in revenue.
World of Warcraft was a masterclass in game design, offering a vast, immersive world filled with memorable characters, epic storylines, and endless opportunities for exploration and adventure. It introduced many new features to the genre, including streamlined gameplay, casual-friendly mechanics, and a rich, interconnected world that made players feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves.
World of Warcraft also inspired a wave of imitators and competitors, with many companies trying to cash in on the MMORPG craze. Some of these games, such as Guild Wars, Star Wars Galaxies, and Lord of the Rings Online, were successful in their own right, but none could match the popularity or cultural impact of World of Warcraft.
But WoW wasn't without its controversies. Many players felt that the game had become too streamlined and casual-friendly, sacrificing depth and challenge for accessibility. In response, a number of hardcore MMOs emerged in the mid-2000s, including Mortal Online and EVE Online. These games eschewed the mass appeal of WoW in favour of complex systems and deep, engaging gameplay.
The Decline of MMORPGs (2010-2015)
For a time, it seemed like MMORPGs would be the future of gaming. But as the years went by, the genre began to lose its lustre. World of Warcraft's subscriber numbers started to decline, as did the player populations of other major MMORPGs. New releases, such as Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls Online, failed to attract the same level of interest as their predecessors.
There were many reasons for this decline. One was simply the age of the genre. "Modern" MMORPGs had been around for over a decade by this point, and many players were growing tired of the same old mechanics, tropes, and uninspiring graphics. Another was the rise of new gaming trends, such as free-to-play games and MOBAs which drew players away from the traditional MMORPG model.
But perhaps the biggest factor was the sheer difficulty and expense of creating a successful MMORPG. The genre had become so saturated and competitive that it was almost impossible for a new game to break through without massive amounts of time and money invested into development and marketing. Dedicated MMORPG lovers burned off a lot of passion for the genre by supporting crowdfunded MMORPGs that either never materialised, took their money and ran, or are still in development to this day.
The Re-Rise of MMORPGs (2015-Present)
Despite the decline of the MMORPG, the genre has experienced something of a resurgence in recent years. This is due in part to the success of games like Final Fantasy XIV which have managed to find a dedicated player base and remain profitable despite the challenges of the market.
The emergence of new trends and technologies is breathing new life into the genre. While not without their problems, we can see investment is still being poured into the genre with big budget releases with sprawling seamless worlds like Amazon Games' New World and the upcoming Riot MMO.
Recent MMORPG history has seen graphically beautiful games from South Korea like Black Desert Online and Lost Ark (as well as the soon-to-be-released Throne and Liberty) move from their traditional east-Asian player-bases to more global audiences.
The Future of the MMORPG
Somewhere (far) on the horizon, there is also the promise of compelling virtual reality MMORPGs. While Meta's "metaverse" currently looks no more impressive than an MMORPG from a decade ago, should it speed the proliferation of VR technology then there will no doubt be virtual worlds that are enthralling (outside of Facebook's buzzword lovechild).
It seems MMORPG developers are finally starting to experiment more. Whether it's anime MMORPGs like Tower of Fantasy and Blue Protocol or deep survival MMORPGs like Dune: Awakening or ARK 2, most commentators now believe that the future of the MMORPG is looking up.
For a long time, the genre has been paralysed between new ideas that don't quite work and a nostalgia for the golden age of the MMORPG. It's this humble MMORPG historian's opinion that the MMORPGs of tomorrow have a great chance of finding the sweet spot between shiny new features of modern gaming and that particularly beautiful social magic that made us fall in love with the genre.