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A Decade in Review

Victor Wachter Posted:
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As we close out 2009, we're not only ending a year, but also the first decade of the twenty-first century. While MMOs had their beginnings in the 1990s, the 2000's (or oh-ohs, as I like to call them) can be looked at as the rise, and possibly fall, of virtual civilization.

In 2000, you had your choice of a fantasy MMORPG (Ultima Online), a fantasy MMORPG (EverQuest), or a fantasy MMORPG (Asheron's Call). If you felt like stepping out and being a bit more indy, you could play a couple of aging pioneer fantasy MMORPGs (The Realm, Meridian 59), a few of the larger fantasy MUDs (Achaea, Dragon Realms) or a fantasy game about furries (Furcadia). In short, there was really only one genre at work, though the gameplay of each game differed vastly from the others.

Prior to their release, both Ultima Online and EverQuest were not projected to be massively successful games. But their success caused publishers to take notice, seeing the profit potential in $10 per month subscriptions. Where only a few developers were bold enough to take these early steps in the 1990s, suddenly MMOs were being announced everywhere, across multiple genres and game types. Suddenly, developers were looking at any type of game they could attach MMO to: MMOFPS, MMORTS, MMO spaceflight sims, MMO racing games, MMO puzzle and casual games were all starting to litter the horizon.

Meanwhile, within the industry, major shakeups were occurring. When Ultima Online developer Origin Systems cancelled a number of titles in development, a number of its employees left the company for new ventures. Raph Koster, among several others, went on to join Sony Online Entertainment's newly opened Austin studio and began work on Star Wars Galaxies. Origin founder Richard Garriott went on to open Destination Games, which was later bought by NCSoft, a company that was enjoying massive success in Korea with Lineage, but had yet to make an impact in the US. Turbine hired Origin's VP of Production Jeff Anderson as their CEO. It was a defining time for MMOs as these three companies would be dominant forces in the industry for the rest of the decade.

Elsewhere, EverQuest leads Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler left SOE to form Sigil Games Online and began development on Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, proclaiming its extension of the original "vision" behind EQ. The highly public online rivalry between Sigil and SOE was fascinating to watch, like a geek's version of Lily Allen vs. Amy Winehouse. Employees bounced between the two companies like pinballs for several years, until the fateful day years later when Sigil employees were all fired in a parking lot.

The first serious competitor to the first generation of MMOs was Anarchy Online, released in 2001. It's one of the most notable games in the field, for several reasons. Most widely known is its launch, which has become an exemplar for bad launches to this day. The game suffered from just about every type of issue an MMO can: gameplay bugs, server instability and billing issues all plagued the first days of its live operation. But to leave its significance at that would be unfair because it also pioneered alternative subscription models, including ad-supported free play, in addition to finally giving us a sci-fi MMO setting to free us from the fantasy bonds. Besides, games like Asheron's Call 2 and Dark and Light managed to repeat many of the same mistakes, taking a little of the "worst launch ever" burden from AO.

Other releases were substantially smoother, but had varying levels of success. While Dark Age of Camelot, released in 2001 had enjoyed early and sustained success, EVE Online, released in 2003, struggled for several years after its launch, only to emerge as one of the most successful currently live MMOs. Star Wars Galaxies was the first licensed MMO and should have been a license to print money, but fell well short of projected subscriptions (but I've already written about that, so I won't recycle words).

Of course, some games from the early part of the decade are no longer with us. Shadowbane, promising the dynamic world and meaningful PvP that early MMO players claimed to crave so much closed this year, having never gained tremendous traction. Others never got to see the light of day, including Mythic's Imperator, two versions of an Ultima Online sequel and SOE's MMORTS Sovereign.

After a few years of releases that largely imitated EverQuest's playstyle, MMOs were starting to be criticized for requiring too much work. The commitment required to truly succeed in an MMO was causing many in the gaming public to feel that they were no longer fun. Min-maxing spreadsheets were almost required to compete in MMOs and the games felt like work.

2004's City of Heroes defied that trend and succeeded. Not only boasting the best character creator in MMOs, but leveling up was fast and easy (especially during the early days of massive wolf-exploiting). Its repeatability didn't come from grinding through requirements to go on an epic raid where you had a slim chance of getting a pair of pants that your class needs. It featured simple missions, but a wide variety of powers to complete those missions. It finally reminded us that playing a game was supposed to be fun.

But if CoH reversed many traditional MMO trends, World of Warcraft, released later that year reinforced them again. WoW didn't especially innovate in any aspect of its gameplay, except for its polish. It featured the same series of "kill 10" quests, "Fed-Ex" quests and "Go Meet Fred" quests as most MMOs had for years, coupled with the grind for PvP and raid gear. But it was a finely tuned experience in every aspect. Today, we can't talk MMOs without talking WoW, and with good reason. It showed that the model could work on a massive scale with millions of customers, but its success has never been repeated.

EverQuest II was also released in 2004. It was SOE's most ambitious game to date, featuring highly advanced graphics and an enormous world. It was one of the first mainstream MMOs to feature a combination of subscription fees and item sales at launch. The game's web portal was the most robust to be seen at that time, with more stats about your characters than any had offered before. But even massive media coverage from its /pizza feature couldn't help it out of the shadow of the WoW juggernaut.

So, 2004 was more than just the half-way point for MMOs. It marked a shift in the way we'd do things for the rest of the decade. Next week, we cover MMOs in the post-WoW world and some thoughts on where we're going. Licensed games, free-to-play, massive launches and dwindling subscriptions are all just waiting for discussion next week.


Victor Wachter