It wasn't very long ago that the MMOG category was practically unknown. Indeed, with only a very small selection of titles running, none of which had the number of players we can often find these days on a single server, it was barely a category at all. So, for those of us who remember the original Neverwinter Nights, Air Warrior, The Realm Online et al, many pleasant surprises lay ahead. A lot of them took place between 1997 and 2004. Naturally some particularly stood out.
In case these dates don't ring any bells, the former saw the release of Ultima Online, widely regarded as the first MMOG of the modern age. The latter arguably ushered in the current generation. For the purposes of this article, I'll arbitrarily say that this happened when World of Warcraft launched in November. Looking back at this seven-year period, the top pleasant surprises that took place, at least in my subjective perspective, are as follows, listed chronologically in the order they took place.
UO opens up the modern age
If you're not familiar with the history of MMOGs beyond just the names of seminal releases, you might have the impression that UO was a sure-fire success. It simply wasn't so. During most of its development period, it was seen as quite a gamble. This may be easier to fathom if you consider that, among various other factors, Internet penetration was significantly lower. The obvious target audience, those who played MUDs or even online games of any type, was still tiny, and the viability of a business model that required not just a purchase but also paying a monthly fee was unproven except on a very limited scale.
Publisher EA was hesitant enough to make a decision that continues to benefit us to this day. It set the subscription price at a nice, round $10 per month, an amount that, despite vociferous outcry to the contrary, was pretty affordable, even to students. At the time, I thought it could have been higher. In retrospect, I believe UO would have attracted nearly as large an audience at $15, $20 or possibly even $25. The game would have been far more profitable, and the standard fee we pay today would be at least $20 or $25.
That said, there really wasn't solid evidence to suggest demand was so cost-insensitive. Indeed, for quite some time, until fairly close to launch, it was questionable whether the game would pull in and retain enough players to survive, never mind prosper. So, although EA's pricing decision led to the industry leaving billions of dollars in potential revenue on the table, it was understandable at the time.
We know now, of course, that UO kicked open the door to a new era of gaming. It's included in my list of major surprises because I still remember the time before launch when there were very real doubts, not only from external observers but also from the team, as to whether the title would be commercially viable. Against this backdrop, the degree to which it succeeded was highly unexpected.
Anarchy Online survives and prospers
Announced in mid-2000, AO immediately stood out from the other MMOGs of that time due to its use of a science fiction theme. It doesn't seem so now, but this alone was quite ambitious then since it meant that Funcom's project had no directly comparable forbears to help guide its design and development or to warn of things to avoid. So, the project took a long time. Some reports indicate that preliminary work began as early as 1995. The game launched in June of 2001.
It wasn't ready. Standards and expectations weren't what they are now, but even then, I knew it. So did probably every other participant in the beta. And I believe the team did too. The game was clearly still too buggy. As you'd expect, it was also lacking in polish. But the decision was made to go live anyway. The reason was simple; funding ran out, basically leaving no other choice.
AO is often cited for having had the worst launch ever. While that's a subjective evaluation, no one who experienced it can deny it was awful. There were major issues in multiple areas, from registration and billing to server stability, freezing and more. It was no more than barely playable if you went out into an area by yourself or with a couple of others. But being in any crowded area, such as where missions were handed out, was an exercise in standing there and waiting – anywhere from a few seconds up to a minute or more – for anything to happen. And then, you'd stand and wait again.
Although I didn't go as far as predicting the game would die a quick death, I definitely feared it might. Obviously that didn't happen. The influx of cash from box sales and subscription fees bought Funcom enough time to address AO's issues. By the beginning of 2002, it was arguably as good as its competitors. Indeed, it even won some awards as the best MMOG for that year. And it's still up and running today, not bad at all for a release that was in such dire straits as to seem it might only last a few months.