We're bringing back another blast from the past from our friend Richard Aihoshi. In his column from November 2014, he talked about the "first modern era" of MMOs, namely the seminal games released between 1996-2005. Some of these games are the ones many of us cut our MMO teeth on. It's a fun look back, not only at 2014, but at the ancient days of yore stretching back into the last century. See if his thoughts still hold true today!
There's no absolute consensus as to when the modern MMOG era started. Depending on the frame of reference you favor, it's possible to make a case for various dates. For the purpose of this article, I arbitrarily chose 1996, which is the year Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds launched in Korea and Meridian 59 in North America. This means the titles I selected all entered service between then and 2005.
How to define and evaluate an MMOG's significance is largely if not wholly a matter of personal perspective and opinion. My choices reflect the fact that my interests have always extended beyond individual titles that have gained prominence in North America and Western Europe. In particular, I've been and still am a keen observer of the global industry and market. That said, it's neither right nor wrong to consider other factors and/or to assign them more or less weight than I do. So, while I expect a large majority of readers to disagree with at least some of my selections, I suspect the most frequent reason will be that they have valid but different frames of reference.
Note that my list is presented in chronological order, starting with the eldest. The reason is simple and personal; I'm less inclined than average to think about things in terms of ranking them exactly. That said, if you have a precise top five, I look forward to seeing your choices and why you made them.
Ultima Online (1997)
Origin's pioneering endeavor seems like a pretty obvious pick. Although M59 and various others preceded it, none of them ever succeeded in amassing more than a small niche audience. UO was the title that broke through into an entirely new and much higher stratum of popularity. It quite quickly became the first to reach 100,000 subscribers, kicking open the door to a level no prior offering had even remotely approached.
Ultimately, it peaked at around 250,000. This means it reached a total that many would consider pretty respectable in today's much larger albeit far more segmented market. Notably, this happened in the summer of 2003, nearly six years after launch, offering proof positive - if there were still any lingering doubts by then - that MMOGs could be truly long-term propositions.
Franchise creator Richard Garriott is said to have viewed UO as a social experiment. While I don't recall hearing this phrase directly from his mouth, it certainly does seem like something he would have said. Be that as it may, the game did teach us a significant amount - perhaps more than any other - about how how sizable numbers of people play and relate among themselves online. In the former regard, a case can certainly be made that it's still the definitive example of a sandbox MMOG. In the latter, it broke new ground in the areas of community development and management.
Lineage (aka Lineage The Bloodpledge, 1998)
After designing the aforementioned Nexus, designer Jake Song moved to NCsoft where he then led the team that created an even more significant trailblazer. Lineage soon surpassed the popularity of its predecessor. Unbeknownst to just about everyone in this hemisphere, myself included although I was aware of its existence, it was also poised to become the single most important factor that spurred the emergence of the Korean MMOG market as well as the growth of the development industry there.
While definitive numbers weren't and still aren't available, I have little doubt that within its first two or three years, it became the world's most widely played MMOG, ahead of its major western contemporaries, UO and EverQuest. In this regard, if we apply Blizzard's definition of “subscriber”, that being anyone who paid for time and played at least one minute in a month, Lineage may very well have been the first title to crack the 500,000 level. This isn't hard to believe in light of NCSoft's report that it topped 300,000 concurrent users in 2001.
By then, the game had launched here in North America, where it was never able to gain a substantial following, but was yet to become available in countries such as Japan or China. Accordingly, the player base was basically Korean. Even factoring in regional differences such as computer ownership and the related popularity of PC baangs, Lineage was substantially ahead of the western curve in terms of market penetration. Accordingly, it provided one of the first realistic indications that the MMOG category had the potential to become mainstream.
Final Fantasy XI (2002)
If you gotten the sense that I put a high value on breaking new ground, that's an accurate assessment. As a result, it didn't require a great deal of deliberation for me to pick Square Enix' estimable release. It was, of course, a pioneer in crossing platforms, beginning with the PS2 and PC before adding a third version for the Xbox 360 in 2006. There were and still are questions as to the viability of MMOGs on consoles. However, FFXI led the way in demonstrating that the divide could be bridged successfully, albeit not necessarily to the complete satisfaction of both sides.
That said, while the cross-platform nature of the design was certainly front and center, it wasn't the only reason I had to recognize the game. Another one was its strong art direction. FFXI did a truly exceptional job in terms of creating a world that was not only stylistically distinctive but also where nothing seemed out of place. Everything looked like it belonged there, and the level of attention that presumably went into making this so seemed unprecedented.