This is a very difficult list to write. There were a lot of games that came before World of Warcraft and far too many that came after. Here is the interesting part: the games that came before World of Warcraft shaped what the MMO genre was. Now that it has been over a decade and game companies are starting to develop on a much more reasonable budget, we are starting to see what made these old games great come to life again in new form.
It's fun to look back at if you want to look back and see what was done before, here is my personal list of the best Pre-WoW MMORPGs. I know, you don't see Asheron's Call here. But I can't say I had much experience with the game, so I'd love it if someone could share their views on AC in the comments. For this article, these are my personal picks and I know they won't be everyone's exact list. For instance... some of you will want to see my number five much higher in the ranking.
5. Star Wars: Galaxies
After the success of Everquest, SOE was able to produce Star Wars Galaxies. The first MMO set in the Star Wars Universe, this was back before Disney drove the Death Star. Galaxies for many was their first introduction into an MMO because of the IP alone. The game was difficult to master and did not apologize for some of its hardcore gameplay. However, it still had the best crafting system in an MMO and one of the top auction markets ever in gaming. Sure the WoW auction house was a big deal, but it all came from the crafting and Galactic Market of Galaxies.
Galaxies also added ship combat and a solid line-up of classes without the fabled Jedi and Sith. It took a lot of work to eventually become a Jedi which many people took for granted in Old Republic, given the Star Wars timeline differences between the games it was understandable at the time. As it stands in 2003, Star Wars: Galaxies absolutely makes our list.
If you played this game, then you got the full taste of PvP death in your mouth. Feel it, like bad medicine? Yes, Shadowbane was a much more independent MMO which took the PvP side of things very seriously. It was also the first game to really make use of player owned cities and towns. Without quests, the game moved everyone into the heavy siege and warfare systems on a very large PvP scale.
Shadowbane goes down as a hardcore MMO which most people in the industry herald as a large influence. Other games have gone on to mimic the systems used in Shadowbane. If you are an old school player like me, and remember those days, you might want to check out Crowfall. The creative team does still exist in this new form and Crowfall aims to bring back those elements that made Shadowbane so much fun.
3. Dark Age of Camelot
Combining PvP with open world sandbox elements, DAOC is still running today. It retains a hardcore fan base and was definitely one of the most popular MMOs to hit the market right after the Everquest years. DAOC had their RvR system which worked wonders for players to do battle and not feel like they would lose everything. It created combat zones between its three faction areas and players fought over the artifacts hidden there. Sounds cool right, even better was the concept of Darkness Falls. As part of an expansion, the game added a dungeon which only one faction could control at a time. However, the players in the dungeon remained. Warfare ensued and the constant flipping of the best area in the game became the reason you woke up at three in the morning to do battle.
DAOC remains alive today and still is one of the best MMOs before World of Warcraft. You have seen its likeness appear in many games such as Guild Wars 2 and others which paid homage to these original systems.
2. Ultima Online
Other will argue that there were MMOs before Ultima, however, I will never forget my first night playing this game. I hunted animals in the forest, found bone armor, and was killed by another player and looted relentlessly. So many of the original Ultima Online team have gone on to build other MMOs. They were the originals and remain strong in our hearts.
Richard Garriott and his crew began what has now lasted twenty years of gaming. It is impossible to not include Ultima on any MMO list. The game was fun, sandbox driven and brutal with its player killer community. Heck, the one time Richard himself came in as Lord British he was horribly murdered by players. Ultima Online is still alive and running today.
Just like the word says, you can quest forever, and that is what players have been doing since 1999. John Smedley and his team at SOE built the original world in which many of us got our start. EverQuest was another unforgiving game. Whether it was competing for rare spawns and waiting hours for loot drops, or grinding through hell levels, you just did it. Why? Because it really was one of a kind. There was nothing else like EverQuest out there and players ate it up.
Many MMO players from this time have grown and had families, all around this game. It really is amazing to see and the game still lives on today. If you watch the Warcraft documentary, you notice that the first few minutes are spent paying homage to Norrath. The reason we have modern MMOs is because of EverQuest. You could even argue that one of the reasons we have better Internet and computers is because of EverQuest. It was that groundbreaking, and we owe more to EQ than we'll probably ever know.