The Issues Of An Ever Evolving MMO Universe (Part 1/3) - The History of MMORPGs

While the definition is still up to debate (that's for another article), MMORPGs offer players the ability to evolve through open worlds with thousands (or hundreds?) of other participants, in a universe created from scratch where they more or less have an impact. And like with the real world, the univers of MMOs is evolving with the times, offering subscribers (or not), new content and new challenges, sometimes even changing the very face of the world in which they are held.
For those of you that are not familiar with it, a while back, the Nostalrius case brought up a rather thorny issue: the archives in the world of MMOs. When it comes to regular single player games, there is nothing easier. Take the CD, or the cartridge, put it into your console and voila, you can experience/re-experience the game as it was released, with a few exceptions, of course. With an MMO, however, in most cases, it is impossible to replay the game that you purchased, the latter being greatly changed over the years.
Back to Nostalrius, it was basically a World of Warcraft private server allowing users to enjoy the game as it was in 2005. Nostalrius was eventually shut down, and Blizzard has always remained deaf to the demands of users asking them to create Vanilla servers.
Another more recent example would be ArcheAge. Most would agree that the game was at its best during the Alpha testing phase, up until the time around the release of Auroria. It was a great game with amazing potential that received a number of unwanted changes. Of course, not all the updates were bad, and a lot of the aspects of the game were improved these last couple of years. But most would love having the possibility to play the game as it was at the time of its release.
So a question arises: when buying an MMO, should we accept that it changes, even if the features and policies that convinced us to purchase it are altered drastically? Should we accept that after a few years, or even a few months, the game no longer looks like the product that appealed to you at the time?
A complicated issue, since the archiving process in MMO games seems to be an impasse.
This series of article will focus on these issues, and potential solutions. But before that, we will focus on the types of changes MMO’s went through, for better and for worse. Indeed, before tackling the archiving problems in MMOs, it is necessary to make a small summary of the history of the genre. Contrary to belief, the MMO genre is almost as old as the video game industry itself. Some developers have indeed had the early dream of uniting a large number players in a virtual world. Developers that were in most cases inspired by the world of role-playing games, where players gather around a table to work together in the same world.
We can identify four major periods in the history of MMOs. Periods related to the success of some games, but also to the evolution of the Internet. Note that these periods are nothing official, since I set them arbitrarily for these articles.
Archaic Era
The first games, or rather software, which can be considered the first step towards MMO’s are the multi-user dungeon, or MUD, playable in the late 70’s. As the name suggests, the MUD met various players in a textual universe (no graphics at the time). These were followed by a more ambitious successor, the multi access dungeon (MAD). This French creation of the 80’s did not use the Internet as we know it, but the BITNET protocol. Players could work together to complete quests, even if they were not in the same place. A miracle at the time.
But the game considered the first real commercial MMORPG in history is none other than Neverwinter Nights. No, not that of 2002, but the 1991 one developed by AOL. First graphical MMO, it offered players the possibility to immerse themselves fully in a 2D world, with other adventurers. As a true precursor, Neverwinter Nights did not use the Internet (still nonexistent for the general public), but the phone lines. A financial windfall for AOL that was paid 6 dollars an hour by players. Neverwinter Nights will be closed in 1997.
Other MMO’s made similar timid appearances in the early 90s, such as as Dark Sun Online: Crimson Sands, also run by AOL. Nevertheless, the appearance of the public internet net in the mid 90’s changes the market. The developers see it as an opportunity to connect thousands of players simultaneously. A dream that could take shape. But creating an MMO is more complex than it seems, since the connections speeds are still not optimal. One person, Richard Garriott, will seize this chance by endorsing a saga already well established in the world.
Classical Era
Richard Garriott, the developer behind the Ultima saga, sees this as a golden opportunity to further develop the franchise’s universe, which exists since 1981. With his company, Origin Systems, he created the first real popular MMO, Ultima Online. A coherent 2D universe in which thousands of players can simultaneously connect to collaborate and compete. The game was an immediate success and other studios are interested in following in its footsteps. This is the beginning of what we will call (arbitrarily) the classical era. Note that Ultima Online, having seen 9 major extensions so far, is still played today, 19 years after its release.
The success of Ultima, the democratization of the Internet and the emergence of ADSL allows other MMORPG’s to emerge. A shovelful of fantasy worlds are born with more or less success.
Among these successes, we can mention the legendary Everquest (1999), followed by a second episode in 2004. Asheron's Call (published by Microsoft) was released in 1999 and features a gigantic world. In 2001 comes the fabulous Dark Age of Camelot, which takes place in a world full of Arthurian legends. Impossible to avoid mentioning Anarchy Online, which abandoned the fantasy genre for pure SF, on a huge planet full of life. Some known licenses are also entitled to their MMO like Star Wars Galaxies that can be classified as one of the good ones, or even the abominable Matrix Online.
Nevertheless, this type of experience was somewhat restricted a small number of players. At the time, buying a game THEN pay a monthly fee discouraged many consumers who wondered why they had pay several times to enjoy a game. In addition, the Internet connection is not an obvious thing in every home in the late 90s and making people grasp the fact that a game required an online connectivity was not easy for developers.
Then one day in November 2004 (in the US), a game changed the situation. A game that redefined the concept of online gaming. A game so popular that it allowed the MMO stage to evolve from niche playing, to goldmine. This game, you guessed it, is World of Warcraft.
WoW Era
We will not go back on it, but World of Warcraft has been a revolution in the world of MMOs. Love it or not, you have to agree that it was a turning point in this genre that was once very discreet. With over 12 million players in its Golden Age (2011), it brought MMOs in popular culture. And of course, the success of Blizzard MMO has whetted the appetite of the competition.
World of Warcraft had created a new mold, a new way of understanding the MMO genre that had been declining in other games over and over again. But besides being an exceptional game, WoW has come at the right time, a period when ADSL was democratized, where the Heroic Fantasy was fashionable (thank you Lord of the Rings), and especially by exploiting a saga that was already known and recognized by players.
We can not count the number of “WoW-killer” projects emerged in the years following the launch of World of Warcraft. A shovelful of projects more or less ambitious that wished to resume the success formula and attempt to dethrone it. But the conclusion is clear: in 12 years of existence, World of Warcraft has never had to worry about its throne. Even today, at a time where the MMO subscription system is part of prehistory, the game still has over 5 million players.
Here is a list of games that have attempted to dethrone World of Warcraft:
  • The Lord of the Rings Online (2007)
  • Age of Conan (2008)
  • Aion (2009)
  • D&D Online (2006)
  • Rift (2011)
  • DC Universe Online (2011)
  • Star Wars The Old Republic (2011)
  • Warhammer Online (2008)
Of course, all games are not to be put in the same basket, far from it. If we were to retain only the real “WoW-killers”, this list would be made up only Warhammer Online. At the time of its development, Warhammer was THE game made to tickle the gigantic Blizzard. There is no doubt that this one game was developed with the main purpose of taking WoW’s playerbase and making it its own. Basically, Warhammer Online placed its bet on taking up the formula WoW improving it. And above all, Warhammer was based (like WoW) on a known universe that shared a number of similarities with Blizzard’s game.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Warhammer had its release date (September 2008) set a month before the release of WoW’s Wrath of the Lich King extension. But in the end, the fight of the century that we expected did not occur. Warhammer Online was released in haste, and a lot of the promises made were not in the final game. If this mistake was subsequently corrected, it was too late, Wrath of the Lich King had already cemented WoW’s place on the throne. The game continued for a few years, eventually closing its doors in 2013.
There is a shovelful of other examples, but the pattern is always the same: WoW is still in the first place. Hard to find an end to the WoW era, but in this case, we'll arbitrarily link it to a specific event: the transition to free-to-play of Star Wars The Old Republic (released in late 2011). The game, featuring one of the best licenses, and focusing on history and offering a galaxy to explore, also failed at repeating WoW’s success. At the end of its life and with barely any subscribers left, SWTOR was rescued by an event: the transition to a free to play mode.
Modern Era
With developers tired of trying, and failing, to dethrone WoW, and especially following the logic of the market, the MMO genre has evolved and in 2016, only a few games offer the archaic system of monthly subscriptions. After SWTOR, other games have attempted the coup, as The Elder Scrolls Online or even Wildstar, but all eventually had to switch to free-to-play or buy-to-play, using cash shops to monetize themselves.
The MMORPG market, while very diversified today, does not really have titles that stand out. Moreover, the games involving the most players are not necessarily MMORPG’s. The trend is in eSports and games like League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Dota 2 or Hearthstone are at the center of the stage. Everything moves faster today, and few players want to invest heart and soul in the same game.
By analyzing the thing, it should be noted that the basic formula (gameplay) does not seem to evolve in the world of MMOs since World of Warcraft. Some games, like Black Desert, tried to completely reinvent the formula. However, none has yet managed to repeat the feat of the Blizzard game by giving a new impetus to the genre. By leaving out the RPG aspect, however, the MMO genre is still experiencing success. For example, impossible not to mention the mobile games (Clash of Clans, for example, because yes, it is a massively multiplayer game), which bring together millions of players every day. Pokemon GO is also opening new paths for the MMO genre with augmented reality as its focus.
And this brings us to the end our look into the past of MMOs. The next articles will be more focused on the archiving issues in MMOs, and how they could (potentially?) be fixed.







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