Early History of the Massively Multiplayer Online Game


Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) are virtual persistent worlds that allow hundreds to thousands of players to simultaneous play and be part of the same game world.  All MMOs have the leveling treadmill type of gameplay common to nearly all roleplaying games, however, there are a few core features that are exclusive to persistent worlds such as Player Housing, Crafting with Player Trading of created items (merchants), and of course Player Interaction including combat (PvP).

Few games have been able to implement all the core features with success, but a glance at the history of MMOs shows us who got the closest to the holy grail of a virtual persistent world where player interaction is meaningful, impactful, and gives the player a sense of real ownership that imparts a sense of being virtually home.

The story begins in 1974 on a network called ARPAnet, the digital baby that would grow up to be the internet.

MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons)

Developer: Random Nerds
Publisher: Random Nerds
Runtime: 1974 – Present
Cost: FREE
PvP: Limited
Player Housing: No
Crafting: No


Before the internet there was ARPAnet which only academic and military geeks could access… in this environment the Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) was created. It was the first multiplayer virtual world ever created. Early programmers, would hack all sorts of quests, NPCs, and create areas every day that a handful of people would experience at the same time (10 to 16). Did I mention it was text only, no graphics. You had to use your imagination while typing commands like: go, move, help, exit, look, say, take, drop, inventory, use. Of course, when you typed a command that the computer didn’t understand, you’d get the dreaded “unknown command”.  As simple as this was, MUDs were the inspiration for every known MMO ever created.

Neverwinter Nights – AOL

Developer: SSI
Publisher: TSR and AOL
Runtime: 1991 – 1997
Cost: $12 per HOUR!!!
PvP: Yes
Player Housing: No
Crafting: No


Fast forward to the 1990′s and welcome the early internet as we know it.  The first graphical MMO starts out as the old school Gold Box Dungeons and Dragons games from the 1990′s. It had a chat box and a small graphics area that had a map with pictures of characters and events. When combat occurred, it went full screen zooming into the characters in your party and the enemy. It could handle 50 players initially but eventually scaled up to 500 simultaneous players on the AOL network. What they had first:

  • Player Guilds that hosted player driven events
  • Player versus Player Combat with a ladder system
  • It’s still around now in amateur hobby form

Ultima Online

Developer: Origin
Publisher: Origin | EA
Runtime: 1997 – Present
Cost: $12.99
PvP: Area Limitation
Player Housing: No
Crafting: Yes


Considered the first modern MMO, Ultima Online was the first to have a rich detailed world, full featured graphics and the ability to have thousands of players online at once. It scaled up to tens of thousands by having seperate servers that were clones of the worlds and could not interact.

It already had a rich history inherited from the single player Ultima I to  Ultima VIII games created by Origin lead by Richard Garriott (aka Lord British).

Gameplay was a top-down isomatric view with a point and click move/action interface. When you die, your body drops to the floor and becomes lootable by any players (and some creatures) next to it, and you become a ghost that roams the area in search of either a shrine or an NPC healer to auto-resurrect you. A player can also cast a high level resurrection spell for the same effect. When you come back to life, you have to do the “naked run” back to your body before it gets looted.

Initially they boasted a dynamic ecosystem simulator where NPCs had their own life and desires. For example, a dragon would get hungry, fly around until it found a goat to attack and eat. This would bring the dragon out of its lair searching the countryside where players would see it and either crap their pants while running, or raise their swords to attack and get their asses killed. It was a great idea that was scrapped because of the #1 issue of any game simulation involving humans… the players killed everything that moved on sight. This is not to say there were no creatures to participate in the ecosystem simulation, this is to say that if a player saw a creature… he killed it… so the ecosystem was a silent entity that nobody would see yet spent a ton of server cpu cycles and memory to run.

UO innovated with their Player vs. Player combat system. There were no real rules or restrictions other than, if a guard saw you attack someone, it attacked you. In town a victim could actually call the guards to “teleport” in and protect them from a Player Killer. Player Killers thrived in this environment. Serial Killers roamed the countryside searching for helpless victims to slaughter and loot. Player Killer Guilds formed to seize control of their territory and slaughter all who ventured near, regardless of level. This led to a situation where you basically didn’t want to travel the roads and kept your backpack VERY empty at all times.

You kept your backpack empty by storing your stuff in your house. You could buy a deed to a house at any town NPC architect (different sizes and styles), and use the house deed on a empty plot of land to create your house with a door and a key in your backpack. Yes… a key… in your backpack… so when you got slaughtered by a Player Killer or got the key stolen by a Thief, they would spend the next minute to eternity looking for your house to loot. If you were rich, they would bring ALL their friends to help loot.

Did I mention Thief? Yes, there is a pickpocket, hide and stealth skill that gives you the ability to loot backpacks. Hide made you invisible so the player wouldn’t even know what was happening until it was too late… and you would use stealth to walk around hidden so that you could follow the player to his house, walk in and wait for him to leave so you loot him dry.

They even killed the King, Lord British (controlled by Richard Garriott himself), in town while he was giving an in-game speech. Did I mention that Ultima Online was a griefer’s wet dream? Forget FPS spawn camping… there was so many ways to victimize your fellow players in UO… it was glorious.

Of course, with corporate fears that they would lose players over this wild wild west, no rules world of free actions… so they started creating artificial rules and constructs to make the world a safer place for the single player experience (uh… this is an MMO!!!). Undroppable/Stealable house keys, the ability to teleport intruders out of your house, unlootable house chests, etc.

The ultimate slap in the face was when they created a clone of the world that you could portal to in which PvP aggressive interaction was completely disallowed altogether.

I will always have fond memories of the early days of Ultima Online and a measure of sadness at how they compeltely gimped the gameplay to satisfy corporate concerns and single player whiners who just wanted to create a garden in their house and watch it grow forever alone.


Developer: Verant Interactive
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Runtime: 1999 – Present
Cost: $14.95
PvP: Consensual, Area Limitation, Server Limitation
Player Housing: No
Crafting: Yes, Limited


Everquest was the first truly 3D MMO. Beyond that, it had a lot of the same gameplay elements as Ultima Online with a few unique elements:

  • You can group together to collectively tackle a dungeon. In fact, some dungeons require a minimium group size.
  • You can select from a variety of different player races to be.
  • You select your player class (occupation) when you create your character.
  • PvP combat is only allowed on select servers designated as PvP servers.

Everquest is the origin of the stereotypical leveling treadmill game. You exist to collect experience points to gain levels, you collect loot dropped by mobs, but ultimately the only real reason to exist is to level up. There is no player housing, no place to really call your own. With that said, it beat Ultima Online in subscriptions pretty quickly… and it’s also still running.

Asheron’s Call

Developer: Turbine
Publisher: Microsoft
Runtime: 1999 – Present
Cost: $12.95
PvP: Opt-In, Area Limitation, Server Limitation
Player Housing: No
Crafting: Yes


Created by Microsoft and Turbine Entertainment, Asheron’s Call was over 500 square miles of seamless beautiful 3D landscape. Competing directly with Everquest and Ultima Online, it stepped up to the plate with a lot of polish.

Still a leveling treadmill, here are a few things that made it unique beyond its size and beauty:

  • A player allegiance system… basically a multi-level marketing scheme that paid out a percentage of earned experience points from all players that swore allegiance to you.
  • A flag based PvP system that only allowed two people to fight who both turn their PvP flags on.
  • You “bind” your soul to a lifestone scattered all around the world and get respawned there on death.

Asheron’s call was the #3 of the big three MMO’s of the first generation, but again there was no player housing. You had nothing to call home… adrift in a strange, yet beautiful world.

Dark Age of Camelot

Developer:  Mythic Entertainment
Publisher:  Mythic Entertainment
Runtime 2001 – Present
Cost $14.95
PvP Opt-In, Area Limitation, Server Limitation
Player Housing Yes, Trailer Park Style
Crafting Yes


Asheron’s Call combines Arthurian lore, Norse mythology and Irish Celtic legends with a high fantasy. The world is split into realms that war against each other as a mechanism for opt-in PvP restricted to specific zones on the map.

Your character has the option of seven races are offered for each of the three realms which means there are 21 possible character types. One more interesting fact is that they have specialized servers fully dedicated to PvP, Coop, and Roleplaying.

When it comes to player housing, DAoC gets an A for effort but an F for implementation.  They decided to dedicate an entire land area to player housing… and only player housing.  So they basically made a giant trailer park world inclusive of rent.   Major fail, but it’s the thought that counts, right?  Wrong… One does not simply implement player housing half assed.

Ultima Online is the only MMO so far that did player housing correctly, right out of the starting gate. They ruined it later on… but at least they initially got it right.

Anarchy Online

Developer:  Funcom
Publisher:  Funcom
Runtime 2001 – Present
Cost $14.95 (or Freemium)
PvP Yes, Open with City Based Area Limitations
Player Housing No
Crafting No


Anarchy Online is the first Science Fiction themed MMO.  It is a huge and beautiful world where PvP is the norm but only outside of cities.  It went to a freemium subscription using in-game ad placement for real life goods/services (*coughUSNavycough*).

That’s about all the good I can say about it because it’s a huge and barren world dedicated to the stereotypical leveling treadmill.  You kill things, you gain experience, you level up.  There’s no player housing, there’s no crafting system… there’s just targets and levels.


Developer:  Wolfpack Studios
Publisher:  Ubisoft
Runtime 2003 – 2009
Cost $12.99 (switched to Free Ad-based)
PvP YES, The main point of the game
Player Housing YES, The main point of the game
Crafting Yes, NPC Proxy Crafting


Yes.  Yes.  That is the one word that most describes the essense of Shadowbane.  Yes.

Shadowbane got a lot of key core elements right:

  • They had a Massive seamless world that you did not have to stop to load zones or any transitions.
  • The world was dynamic and deformable.  This means you can change the game world itself; morphing terrain, building and destroying buildings and fortifications, and setting up patrol paths for player-hired AI combatants.  The world was minecraft before mincraft!
  • When you talk about player housing done right, this is it.  It up the player to build whatever structure they want wherever they wanted.  It was also up to the player to protect said house from other players who want to destroy it.   People, this is originally why humans created villages and cities… to protect their terrirtory and structure from griefers like Ghangis Khan and Hitler.
  • Instead of crafting, you hire an NPC of your own to craft whatever you tell it to.  Of course the NPC has a level and gained xp like a player so they can craft better things with time.  This basically makes it so you can always be an active participant in the world instead of doing repetitive tasks.  On the other hand, some people like crafting as their primary method of gameplay… so this is sad news for them.

It was natural, it allowed completely open and free game play without many artificial rules or constructs.  You, the player, ACTUALLY OWNED THIS WORLD.

This is what an MMO is supposed to be.

They had dark fantasy character classes, some of them original creations.   Siege Warfare, Player-Government, it basically was built to let you take control of it, making it yours.

 So why did it fail and close down in 2009?

It was ahead of it’s time and most likely underfunded.  The technical requirements to run the servers were profound, and they didn’t give it the hardware it needed to run smoothly.  So it glitched and it lagged… and they weren’t able to keep the player based because it was technically hard to have fun in a glitched lagged game.

I shed a tear and tip my beer at what Shadowbane was and could have been.  Shadowbane definitely wins the award for doing things right.  It then gets a big kick in the ass for not fixing the technical issues fast enough to retain the player base, not marketing the player base back in, and then giving up.


I know I didn’t include World of Warcraft here because I can’t stop sobbing and weeping like a 12 year old girl over Shadowbane.   Seriously though, WoW is most certainly a modern MMO,  no… it is THE modern MMO.  We know it’s currently the champion even if it fails at the fundamentals that make an MMO worthwhile beyond the leveling treadmill (Player Housing, Open Gameplay [PvP], and Dynamic Worlds).

Ultima Online really started the genre in a very real (and commercially mainstream) way.  Shadowbane was the last of the beginning, and certainly the only one to get it right if not for technical difficulties.

This is only the beginning.  Expect my next few articles about Modern MMOs and what the future should bring.

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