The history of MMORPGs - Where it all began

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Release Date: 07/12/2012


Console shooters had their derby match at the start of November, when Battlefield 3 challenged reigning champ Modern Warfare 3 for the hearts and minds of virtual soldiers across the world. On December 20th, a similar clash will take place, with stakes that are arguably even higher.

That's when the Lucas-approved, Bioware-developed online role-player Star Wars: The Old Republic launches, offering the first serious challenge to World of Warcraft's dominance. And given that World of Warcraft has a population more than twice the size of Norway, and turns around enough money each year to dwarf most real world nations, it's territory worth fighting over.

But where did massively multiplayer online role-playing games (or MMORPGs) come from?

To answer that question you need to jump back to Essex University in 1978. It was here that two students, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, first took the early Dungeons & Dragons-inspired adventure games and adapted them to allow multiple players at the same time. They called their creation MUD, or Multi-User Dungeon.


The game remained very much part of the academic and computer science subculture, until the mid 1980s, when commercial publishers made their first efforts at packaging the idea of playing online in a way normal game consumers at home could understand. One of the first pioneers, appropriately enough, was a Commodore 64 virtual world called Habitat, developed by LucasArts.

The internet was still a basic and clunky thing, however, so these were little more than tentative toes dipped into online waters. It wasn't until 1991 that games we'd now recognise as offering true graphical online multiplayer experiences really took off.

First off the blocks was Neverwinter Nights, an official Dungeons & Dragons game hosted by the rapidly expanding AOL internet service provider. It was crude by today's standards, with a basic 3D view in a small window and text inputs, but it was a genuine virtual world populated by other players. Other adventure game specialists, such as Sierra, quickly followed suit and released their own spins on the formula.

Final Fantasy XI on PC and Xbox 360 at GAME

In 1995, internet speeds were given a boost and data traffic restrictions lifted in the US, allowing this embryonic genre to really evolve. Meridian 59 was technically the first MMO game to take advantage of the technological freedoms, but it was the 1997 game, Ultima Online, that popularised the genre. Not only did it offer rich, varied gameplay, it boasted a colourful top-down game world to explore. It was Ultima's creator, Richard Garriott, who claims the honour of coining the term MMORPG.

As player numbers rose, and with them the chance to make serious money from subscriptions, more recognisable names joined the fray. SONY's Everquest debuted in 1999, with full 3D graphics. Sega, meanwhile, brought MMO games to consoles, with the Dreamcast title Phantasy Star Online. Square's legendary Final Fantasy went online-only for its eleventh entry in 2003. Online role-playing was fast becoming one of the most popular game genres around, and just needed one final kick to boot it into the mainstream consciousness.

World of Warcraft on PC at GAME

Cue World of Warcraft. Released in 2004, this spin-off from Blizzard's fantasy themed real-time strategy series brought a speed and immediacy that previous titles, still clinging to the paper-and-dice role-playing roots and point-and-click adventure elements, had lacked. World of Warcraft was fast and satisfying, character classes were well defined, and progression brought more and more impressive powers and weapons into play. It had the depth and immersion of a true RPG, but the instant gratification of an action game. Needless to say, the realm of Azeroth was quickly filled with addicted fans.

Since then, many have tried to topple Blizzard's billion-dollar behemoth from its MMORPG throne. Some manage to tempt a few subscribers away, but most eventually return, lured back by the vibrant community and regular world-changing updates.

World of Warcraft has never faced a rival like Star Wars though. There are millions of fans around the world, who have long dreamed of fighting, working or just living in that galaxy far, far away and The Old Republic allows them to do just that. Will that be enough to cause a mass emigration from the realms of Warcraft? Who knows - either way, it's going to be fun finding out.

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