A Very Brief History of MMOs

A video from Namaste.

I really want to see the whole chart that is the background for the video.

I also want to ask somebody to defend their assertion that MMOs started with that particular game.

But I am an Island of Kesmai partisan, so probably have unfair, unrealistic, or outdated criteria.

With which game do you think they really started?

24 thoughts on “A Very Brief History of MMOs

  1. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    I work with Namaste, but I didn’t make the video. I did help “categorize” the different games, though. The decision to make Meridian 59 at the beginning there was not something I demanded. In the past, I’ve been quite vocal about there definitely being a history of games before the current era, even before Meridian 59. I realize that some people might point and yell about bias given my history with M59, though.

    However, one can pretty easily make the case that M59 was one of the first games you could recognize as a “modern” MMO. It had 3D elements (even if the engine wasn’t fully 3D), pioneered the monthly subscription business model (for better or for worse, even though the game abandoned it later), and was available on the open internet rather than primarily as part of a closed network. Compare this to IoK (or later LoK), where they were on proprietary networks (CompuServe and AoL) and used an older hourly business model. But, don’t take my word for it: Mark Jacobs said in a keynote at the Austin Conference that M59 was an important transition between the older games and modern MMOs. Given Mythic had developed games prior to M59, I think that’s a fairly unbiased source for the importance of the game.

    Ultimately, it’s a question of where you want to split the hair. We chose to point out what we thought was important especially in the perspective of how MMOs have evolved over time. It just so happens in that context that M59 is a pioneer.

    And, yes, we’ll make the full chart available soon. It is a very cool. :)


  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Brian – I didn’t imagine you demanded it, but M59 as the choice of a starting point and knowing you work with Namaste had to at least lead to a Colbert-esque raising of an eyebrow.

    I’ve already harassed whoever runs the Storybricks Twitter account about the chart. I look forward to it.


  3. bhagpuss

    Ok, all the other music on there is from the actual game soundtrack so far as I can tell, so…

    Did the original Meridian 59 really feature Cockney Rebel’s “Mr Soft”? If so, it must not only have been the first MMO but by orders of magnitude the coolest.

    On the other hand if, as I suspect, M59 didn’t have a 1970s glam-rock soundtrack, why on earth did Namaste pick Steve and the lads to back that clip?

    I’d also love to see a full version of that chartt. It reminds me of the old Pete Frame Rock Family Trees.


  4. SynCaine

    Pretty sad that after SWG, all games highlighted after are just pallet-swaps. I’m sure there is a good “pink slime, green slime, red slime” joke to be made there.


  5. Gina Cirelli

    @SynCaine Not to be an ass, but I had no clue what you were talking about until you mentioned colors. The word you were looking for is “palette”. At first I thought you were talking about loading docks or something.

    And yes, I do agree with you about all the games looking very similar. Perhaps that is just a result of where our technology is and there needs to be a big jump in it before we see anything different?


  6. Talarian

    I’m curious about the timeline involved around Meridian 59 and The Realm. The chart in the video has Meridian before the Realm, but Wikipedia states The Realm was launched March of 1995, before Meridian 59, but of course it’s also set as “Citation Needed”, but the Wikipedia article ALSO states the Release Date of The Realm was 1996 with no further details.


  7. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Spinks – Essex MUD/MUD1 was my first gut reaction as well. But I thought about it some and applied a bit of additional criteria that I thought was really needed to get to the MMO title.

    The key one for me ended up being a graphical representation of the world, the idea being that the jump from text-only to graphics was a huge accessibility gap to bridge on the way to “massive” in the acronym MMO. IoK had rogue-like graphics, but you could see yourself, and other people, within the world. There were pseudo-physical manifestations of people and beast and what not in the world there on your screen (without having to type “look” and read). I knew a number of people who could not fathom a text-based game but immediately grasped the whole “Hey, that little @ is me!”

    Of course, that distinction is completely arbitrary on my part and I put it forth as opinion, and not a very strongly held opinion at that.


  8. Gorbag

    I first played the Realm in the fall of 1996, while a freshman in college. I’d completely forgotten about it until now; thanks for the reminder! If I remember correctly I played a free pseudo-beta version, giving credence to the 1996 starting date. Killing rats until you’d leveled high enough to risk taking on wolves… how far we’ve come, and how little has changed, really boggles the mind.


  9. Kelly 'Ophelea' Heckman

    The requirements to make it onto the chart:
    1. It had to be graphical
    2. It had to hold at least 250 people on a server
    3. It had to have launched in the US
    4. It could not be currently “in beta”

    And I actually didn’t have WoW on the original. It really does look quite vanilla. As to why I picked what I did – I had to cover 15 years in 75 seconds, hit touchstones of development in DESIGN and the years had to progress. Why? Because I wanted to :) Most touchstones in design are in the early years so it was rather difficult to make the game progress.

    This is a great chart that yes, is inspired by the Pete Frame Rock Family Trees and open to video interpretation by anyone. It was fun to make perhaps we’ll do more videos if time allows.


  10. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Kelly – Oh, now you’ve done it. You’ve laid out your criteria before obsessive gamers. Somebody is going to come along now and point out that Neverwinter Nights on AOL met all of your criteria before M59 launched. I’m betting on SynCaine.

    Wait, did I say that out loud?

    Anyway, a great chart regardless of how much we nit-pick! Excellent work! I look forward to stealing it… erm… seeing it! Yeah!


  11. Kelly 'Ophelea' Heckman

    Yeah, I knew about NWN (and Pyschochild didn’t know I was making this graphic or video, it was a surprise gift for our CEO)…. but I looked at previous arguments and made a judgement call.

    Let the flame wars begin!


  12. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    A few random comments:

    EQ1 is on the bottom, in the “High Fantasy” category.

    The launch date of The Realm has always been in contention. As I understand it, some people have tried to use the date of the beta to get a few more “firsts”.

    As I said before, it all depends on how you want to split the hair on what belongs on a chart. You need to draw a line somewhere, and Kelly’s criteria is a fair one, IMNSHO.


  13. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Brian – I think Wizardling meant to point out that EQ1 was not highlighted in the video, to which Kelly already replied. I would be greatly surprised if it wasn’t on the actual chart, something that I will confirm when I see a version I can read. :)

    Also, to me, “hair splitting” implies the logical fallacy of trivial objections, where you bring up inconsequential items to try and debunk somebody’s contention, which is probably just me being dogmatic, but thus am I wired. Here I do not think there is any solid, agreed upon definition of MMO, so it is up for debate… which is one of those things I just like to do. (Though blog comment threads are never very conducive for such discussions.)

    I was very happy that Kelly shared her criteria with us so we could compare. My own measure was 100 players, but I have an obsessive need to make sure Kesmai gets recognized, a bias I freely admit.

    Edit: Ah, here is the link to the chart for which I have been looking.


  14. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Got called away and hit “post” too soon.

    bhagpuss wrote:
    Did the original Meridian 59 really feature Cockney Rebel’s “Mr Soft”? If so, it must not only have been the first MMO but by orders of magnitude the coolest.

    That’s the original M59 music. Not sure if it was inspired (*cough*) by the song “Mr. Soft”, though. Too funny as nobody ever pointed that out before.

    Wilhelm Arcturus wrote:
    I think Wizardling meant to point out that EQ1 was not highlighted in the video, to which Kelly already replied.

    Ah! ‘K. There’s a lot of info in there, so stuff gets lost. I also thought maybe Wizardling looked in the larger “Fantasy” section instead of “High Fantasy”.

    to me, “hair splitting” implies the logical fallacy of trivial objections, where you bring up inconsequential items to try and debunk somebody’s contention…

    Well, I have been having variations on this conversation for about 10 years, so I guess perhaps I’m not as patient as others are. Sometimes it does feel like splitting a hair deciding where to draw the line. You’re right, there’s no commonly accepted definition, so it sometimes does feel arbitrary when discussing the little details.

    But, hey, discussion is often enlightening as long as it doesn’t become dogmatic.


  15. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Kelly – Heh, when I saw “two missing titles” I said to myself “Oh, she means Auto Assault and Free Realms.” I guess those are for later.

    Auto Assault was the first title I went looking for on the big chart, as I wanted to see if it got stuck in Sci-Fi or Post-Apoc. Heh.

    The real, readable chart is wonderful by the way. Thanks for your hard work!


  16. Kelly 'Ophelea' Heckman

    Auto Assault we argued over and it’s going in Racing because the genres are gameplay not setting. Calling them “Driving MMOs” sounded bad so we just called them racing.

    Shadowbane is in Mythology. DCUO wasn’t exactly missing – we had the space for it but just forgot to place it.

    And Free Realms – I have no idea what happened there.

    Sony is my bane.


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