Firstly, lets not start off by confusing our terminology.
MMO is not a contraction of MMORPG. MMO stands for Massive/Massively, Multi/Multi-player, Online...It is a stem term that requires an affix in the form of a preffix or suffix in order to be anything more then a generalization and an umbrella term. Though there are many sub genre we ar talking about the MMORPG in specific
Where an MMORPG sets itself apart is in the acronym (Massive Multi-player Online Role Playing Game). In an MMORPG the player takes on a role that they play out (usually an anacronistic or high fantasy role that is played out through a storyline). This lends itself to the institutions of character customization and development, questing, item creation and a lot of other things that other games don't have to have to still be just MMO's.
This also lends itself to taking the player for the sake of storyline into an alternate dimesion, time/place (High fantasy worlds loosely based on real world historical, present, and futuristic paralels). But, in any case it puts the player in a role, that they play through along side many other players, in a content rich and expansive world.
So, with this in mind...
What was the first MMORPG?
Well By our modern definition the First MMORPG, the first game (or series of games rather) that had all the elements of what defines an MMORPG, lacking only the scale on which MMORPG's are done was the MUD, which stands for Multi-User Dungeon. These arrived on the scene in the mid 1970's to late 80's. They started as largely text based roleplaying over precursors to our modern internet. they varied in their level of graphical capabilities and displays, but on the whole were largely 2d and low bit/low colors (when they did occur as a graphical game. Some of the earliest graphical versions even used ascci as apposed to real images to create their visuals.
Slowly, these began to evolve (as did the internet) and by the mid to late 90's there were several fully graphical MUD's. And given their expansion with size, content and player base they began to be called MORPG's.
Then came a point In the history that has been heavily debated upon....
Even though Neverwinter Nights (lauhching in 1991) could possibly be considered the first true MMORPG. Ultima Online (Launching 1997) is largely pointed to as the first MMORPG. And this is likely because it's creator Richard Garriott coined the phrase for the game. Since NeverWinter Nights no longer existed after July of 1997... And Ultima Online released in september of that year as a (arguably) more advanced game...
The argument is that the term MMORPG and it's conditions can't be applied to a game that wasn't around when they were established, and especially for a game which may not have quite fit the definition. This is a fair argument as the phrase was coined to describe how Ultima Online was decidedly different to begin with.
It seems pretty easy to Say that Ultima Online was the First MMORPG at this point...At the very least it is not completely unfair to drop Never winter nights from contending. The problem is that a game called Tibia came out in January of 1997 (months before ultima). Tibia fit the definition of an MMORPG from launch.
And like Ultima Online continues to run relatively unchaged to this day (though both have advanced their content and graphical quality...even if only slightly). And, one could argue that since Ultima online was an adaption of earlier offline games and emerged as an MMORPG, where-as tibia was encarnated from the start as one (albiet before the phrase was coined) that Tibia may infact be the first true MMORPG.
If we can agree that Never Winter Nights can be fairly dropped from the race we'releft with two contenders...which came out first and fits the bill.
which coined the phrase to define itself and of course having set the definition for itself, fits it.
But which deserves the title of first?
Well, let me ask you something else...why do you think I ended the title of this blog post with question mark :P
I didn't mention a lot of noteable games, events and people in this blog post. I put in what I felt was most relevant and to the point as I am not attempting to do something as grand as writing a novel. I left out a lot of what some articles had to say on the basis of them being incorrect according to their own sourcing and citations...I did do plenty of research, cross referencing, and drafts of this article with complete re-writes and feel what I have said to be crediable. However, if any would like to check my sources I am providing them here:
Basic historical overview of MMORPG's And related MUD's -
(from this article I read articles on alll relevent links to the point of my blog post)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgYuJczGv8o (and related subsequent videos by the same channle)
http://www.tibia.com/news/?subtopic=latestnews (you goto really dig to find the relevent points here).
Ultima Online History:
http://uo.com/ (again you really ened to dig to find information here)