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Ultima Online Column: Ten MMOs and Their Place In History

By Jon Wood on November 18, 2009

There are currently, as of the writing of this list, 397 active MMORPGs on our game list ranging in launch date from 1996 all the way to today. As with anything, there is a history to our genre, with certain games leaving their mark, for better or worse on the games that come after them.

In this week's list, I wanted to take a look at ten MMOs that have left their mark on the industry either through being the first to do something important, changing the way that the genre has evolved and the way that it is perceived.

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#10 The Sims Online

When The Sims Online was first announced, it caused a great deal of excitement throughout the video game industry. The game that had become a phenomenon both inside gaming circles and in the world beyond, was going to be available to play online. No longer would players be restricted to interacting with their own creations and NPCs. Instead, they would be doing what the game itself simulates: interacting with other people. The IP alone, a popular video game franchise that was at the height of its popularity, should have meant success for the game.

The reality of the situation, however, was quite different. The end result of The Sims Online was that players found it underwhelming. It somehow failed to capture the elements of the original IP that made the game a best-seller and Will Wright a household name.

While the game actually managed to eek out a nearly six year existence, going through a branding change (briefly known as EA-Land), to finally be canned for good on August 1st, 2008, The Sims Online is widely viewed as one of the industry's big failures, made even more impactful on the genre as a whole by showing the MMO world that a strong IP alone is not enough to carry a game to success.

#9 Toontown Online

From the folks at Disney Interactive, it's easy for the more hardcore among MMO gamers to scoff and simply stroll by a title like Toontown Online when walking down the Memory Lane of the genre's history. What can be more difficult to remember are the doors that were opened by this game that were eventually walked through by games like Wizard 101, Free Realms, Fusion Fall and others that followed behind it.

Toontown Online introduced us all to the idea of MMOs for kids. Replacing the often brutal combat of most MMOs with comic gags, restricting chat to make it kid friendly and kid safe and generally creating an atmosphere that allowed parents to feel comfortable letting their young children spend time in an online world.

By popularizing the idea of children's MMORPGs, Disney Interactive was able to expand the audience for MMOs and push away from the often ultra-violent, fantasy setting reputation that had built up since the first MMOs were introduced in 1996.<

#8 EVE Online

When EVE Online debuted back in 2003, it did so with somewhere around 50,000 subscribers. Today, the space-based sandbox MMORPG boasts over 300,000 total subscribers.

While there are some who would scoff at those numbers and point to games like World of Warcraft and its 11 million subscribers as a true measure of success, calling EVE Online's comparatively meager 300,000 a failure, the players and developers of the game would beg to differ.

Regardless of what the future might hold for this game and its franchise, it has solidified its place in the MMO history books by defying the trend in MMO subscribers, especially for an independent project. Generally speaking, the number of subscribers that any given MMORPG sports is at or near its peak soon after launch. From there, it's a question of retention, with the scale fluctuating slightly throughout the life of the game but generally trending in the downward direction.

With EVE Online, the opposite has been true. Each year, the game has grown in population (paid subscribers) from the year before so that six years after its launch, it is still a thriving MMO in a very difficult and competitive market.

#7 City of Heroes

For years, the MMORPGs were looked at as an extension of the fantasy-based RPG genre. In other words, any MMO worth its salt would include swords, elves, dragons and a host of other familiar conventions.

Eventually, the preconceptions surrounding MMOs slackened, and science fiction found its way in. it was a logical leap, with sci-fi and fantasy often lumped together in genre classification anyway. Then, along came Cryptic Studios and NCsoft back in April of 2004 with a new and some would say risky proposition in the form of City of Heroes, the genre's first superhero MMO.

The idea must have caught on because not only has City of Heroes grown to support a companion game, City of Villains, but at least two new titles in the form of Champions Online and the upcoming DC Universe Online have come up to help round out this genre to allow superheroes to take their place as staples in the MMO world right up there with ships and swords.

City of Heroes

#6 Darkfall

One of the most controversial MMOs ever launched, Darkfall did something that many thought impossible: It rose from the dead. Like the proverbial phoenix, the game rose from what many thought was long dead ashes.

The 2009 launch of Aventurine's game surprised many MMO followers, developers, players and journalists alike who, after eight years of announced development and an extensive media blackout lasting years, had dismissed the game as vaporware.

Whether you like the game, or hate the game, it is difficult to argue its place in the history of MMOs as what might possibly be its biggest surprise.

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The List
Sometimes less than serious, in this space, we look back at the genre's history and far into the future to bring you a new list each week. Our countdowns are written by assorted members of the MMORPG.com Staff.
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