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This PC Gamer article looks back at the history of MMOs and lists some of the more influential games of the massive multiplayer variety we've had a chance to play over the years. Apart from a chronological list of influential titles, a few of the prematurely shuttered MMOs also get a honorary mention, along with some of the early multiplayer games that paved the way for the MMOs of today.
So sit back, relax, and prepare to reminisce about the olden times where rideable llamas roamed free and Neverwinter Nights was not a BioWare game:
1997: Ultima Online
The grandfather of modern MMOs, Richard Garriott’s quest to take his popular Ultima series online was initially met with disinterest by publishers. Before Ultima Online, the closest thing to a modern MMO was text-based multi-user dungeons (MUDs). But Garriott’s vision ended up being so successful it kickstarted a genre. You could be anything you wanted. Some were warriors, some were thieves, and some just wanted to be a merchant.
What made Ultima Online so memorable was the way it inspired a sense of community. Without the luxuries of global chat, players had to interact with one another directly. They could steal, cheat, and kill one another. Over time, reputations were formed and the virtual culture of Britannia gave shape to player-made heroes, villains, and everyone caught in between.
Best moment: One player took it upon himself to do the unthinkable and assassinate Richard Garriott’s own character during a royal speech.
Conceived by John Smedley, Everquest is heavily inspired by its creator’s passion for MUDs. Gorgeous 3D graphics brought the high fantasy world of Norrath to life in ways that Ultima Online’s 2D sprites never could. Though SOE originally had modest expectations for Everquest, it quickly became the most popular MMO of the ’90s, releasing an unprecedented 22 expansion packs.
If Ultima Online started the genre, Everquest refined it. Featuring 16 different races and classes, it digs deep into fantasy’s roots to let players be anything from frog necromancers to ogre shamans. Many of Everquest’s ideas, like grouping with dozens of players to kill tough raid bosses, would become archetypes of the genre.
Everquest was unflinchingly difficult and obtuse, however. Unlike today’s MMOs, quests required patience and persistence. Very little was ever explained, and worse, death meant losing valuable equipment and experience points. Yet, in a somewhat beautiful analogy of the human spirit, it was exactly that brutal atmosphere that motivated people to invest years of their lives exploring Norrath.
Everquest was one of the first MMOs to popularise grinding – the act of repeatedly killing monsters for experience points. At the time, grinding seemed exciting. It forced you to play with strangers in order to kill tough monsters, and was the only real method to level up your character. By existing in such a harsh world, Everquest inspired strong relationships forged not by the joy of surviving, but of growing together.
Best races: Everquest’s races remain some of the most inventive, even by today’s MMO standards. Players can be anything from humanoid tigers to tree frogs, ensuring the world is full of exotic characters to meet and play with.
2004: World of Warcraft
Of all the MMOs on this list, none have had the impact that World of Warcraft has. As much of a pop culture phenomenon as it is a videogame, Warcraft’s absurd success transformed the genre and steered it away from innovation towards shameless imitation in hopes of recreating that success. If Blizzard could translate the Warcraft series of RTS games into an MMO, why couldn’t other developers find success doing the same?
The reason is that Blizzard put two decades of MMO innovations into a single game. Other MMOs may be better at specific aspects, such as PVP, but as a whole package, nothing comes close. World of Warcraft made the genre accessible to anyone by eliminating much of the tedium of older MMOs. For the first time, players could log in, quickly run a dungeon or two, and feel like they accomplished something.
While World of Warcraft is so palatable even your grandparents could enjoy it, the water wings it places on every player also removes a sense of tension and adventure captured by older MMOs.
Best expansion: Wrapping up the story of Arthas, Wrath of the Lich King was a turning point in World of Warcraft’s history. It introduced significantly more interesting quests, a gorgeous zone to explore, and some of the best raids Blizzard has ever made.
2012: Guild Wars 2
The Guild Wars series loves tossing players into an arena and making them kill one another. This formula was perfected in Guild Wars 2, which employs highly mobile combat to make fights more exciting and dynamic than what is typically seen in MMOs. Instead of standing still and trading blows, players dodge away from attacks and position for counters. In Guild Wars 2, your reflexes are as effective as your gear.
While PVP remains a strong draw, Guild Wars 2 is notable for making improvements to questing, setting a new bar for the genre. Levels are scaled to match the zone, allowing higher level players to play alongside lower-level friends. Innovative quest design allows players to work together without forming groups—adding a sense of sociability to Guild Wars 2’s world.
Best mode: Following Dark Age of Camelot, Guild Wars 2 features much-improved PVP that pits three servers against one another in all-out siege warfare.
The most important MMOS that were shuttered too soon.
Star Wars Galaxies
Before it was gutted by a series of updates so unpopular that they effectively killed the game, Star Wars Galaxies featured a rich sandbox world where players could be anything from soldiers to the dancers who entertained them at a bar. With a player-driven economy and nuanced class system putting it years ahead of its time, Star Wars Galaxies’ closure still remains a sore spot for many of its devoted fans.
City of Heroes
Held hostage by their sword and sorcery roots, City of Heroes swooped in to save the MMO genre with a fresh take on comic book heroism. Bolstered by a character creator that let you customise everything from your hero’s cape to their underpants, City of Heroes survived by slapping a fresh coat of paint over unoriginal ideas. Despite protests by adoring fans, publisher NCSoft made everyone hang up their capes in 2012.
Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
Taking lessons learned from Dark Age of Camelot, Mythic Entertainment turned the Warhammer universe into the greatest PVP MMO ever conceived. Age of Reckoning pulled no punches as players clashed in epic, nonstop battles. Sadly, the audience for a PVP MMO wasn’t large enough to match Warhammer Online’s development costs.