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Column #1: The Past

Nathan Knaack Posted:
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Outside the Box: A Weekly Column by Nathan Knaack

EDITOR'S NOTE: Every Monday, Nathan will file an article in a column we're calling "Outside the Box". For the first three weeks, Nathan is going to look at the past, the present and the future of MMORPGs. Today we kick things off with the past.

The Past: Dungeons and Dragons to Meridian 59 – Pencil and Paper to the Internet

It’s not difficult to trace the birth of the MMORPG back to its ancestors, but instead of diluting this essay with an array of links, I’ll go over it one more time. The great granddaddy of all RPGs is, of course, Dungeons and Dragons. Originally conceived as a tabletop medieval war game, not unlike what Warhammer is today, they (Gary Gygax and his partner, Dave Arneson) found that the game was much more enjoyable when they controlled individual characters instead of entire squads, battalions, and armies. It was more interesting to follow the battles and adventures of a single person, like the main character of a novel. Additionally, they discovered that battlefields weren’t the only place that a hero could shine; taking a cue from Greek, Roman, Norse, Native American, African and Asian epics, the classical hero actually did most of his legendary work in dungeons, mountaintops, or throne rooms. Heroes didn’t just conquer opposing armies and lead troops; they slew dragons, rescued damsels in distress, and challenged villains to duels. This is the birth of what we have come to know as the RPG character, which is the most essential, core piece of the role-playing game. To play a role, you must have a character. I’m not talking about having a strength score, a laundry list of weapons, and the words “armor class” jotted down somewhere on eraser-worn loose-leaf paper; that’s just math and logistics. A character is a personality, a set of mannerisms, and a moral code. It’s the rollercoaster of history, the voice you use to portray him or her, and all of the motivations that steer his or her decisions. It’s everything about the role you’re playing that’s not written down on paper.

Another important foundation that Dungeons and Dragons gave us was the perpetuation of the story, the revolutionary idea that the game doesn’t end after you slay the villain, rescue the princess, and find the treasure. Next week, you’d be back in your friend’s basement around the gaming table, battling the next villain or traveling to the next dungeon. Maybe you were searching for something, maybe something was chasing you, or maybe some adventure had found you somehow. With the story moving on from session to session, you began to accrue a lengthy portfolio of tales. This was one of the best parts about Dungeons and Dragons, for while a discussion about a movie was limited to what happened in that movie alone, a nostalgic conversation about a particular D&D character could span an entire lifetime of victories, defeats, mysteries, narrow escapes, and fantastic encounters. Just like millions of other D&D veterans, I could easily fill a few days just sitting back and sharing the exploits of a few of my favorite characters. In fact, there have been times where some of my regular groups has gathered to play a game, but instead spent an entire four or five hour session just telling (and in many cases, re-telling) stories of previous adventures.

If there was a problem with Dungeons and Dragons, it was only that people couldn’t play as often as they wanted to. Part of the reason for this was the requirement that one of the players had to run the game, playing the part of the Dungeon Master (known in various other games as the Game Master, referee, storyteller, etc). Some people were born for this task, having the intellectual capacity, creativity, and management skills to maintain and entertain a group of people week after week. However, sometimes groups were wanting of a good DM, and sometimes the DM would just want to just play instead of running the game. It’s comparable to hockey, actually; you could have twenty guys all wanting to play, but if you don’t have at least one person who wants or is willing to be the goalie for each team, you don’t have a real game. What do you do when your DM gets sick of running the game or you just don’t know anyone who desires or is able to fill the position? Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), computers, networks, and finally the Internet offered the RPG community a solution.

It all began with the original dial-up BBSs, or bulletin board systems. One person would set up their computer with a host program, and then other people could dial in, connect, and interact in an environment together, but rarely simultaneously. Most often, this was limited to one person at a time logged on, but even then, RPGs flourished. People would play turn-based fantasy and science fiction games where they updated their character with a daily allotment of “moves,” “turns,” or progress they could make every 24 hours. Great examples of these included Usurper and Tradewars. A lot of this article’s readers might be too young to remember such games, but let me tell you, back in the day, they were the cat’s pajamas.

As good as BBSs were for perpetuating the lineage of the gaming hobby, the MMORPG industry is at a point now where it has become obvious that they were the first step towards the RPG selling its soul to computers. When it no longer required a Dungeon Master, the RPG turned into something methodical, something mathematical and entirely logistical. It had characters, but not character. Things looked and even felt the same for a while; you were still a medieval warrior with a sword and a shield, and you were on a “quest,” but there was no storyline. You still slew dragons and found treasure, but it was hollow somehow. It wasn’t about chasing down a villain, rescuing the king’s daughter, or finding out what was over that next hill; it was about calculating the best way to deal damage, getting the most powerful equipment available in the game, and reaching the highest level as fast as possible. A Dungeons and Dragons game always had friendly competition, but with hundreds of potential combatants and no Dungeon Master to weave a storyline, the focus shifted from playing a character to a grand-scale math competition. Before the community could find a solution to this disillusionment and disconnection from what RPGs had originally given us, technology advanced and the problems compounded.

That’s about when we were introduced to MUDs, or multi-user dungeons. Instead of one or two people at a time connecting to a BBS, they could now connect en masse (around 50-100 at a time, plus or minus a few depending on the quality of the host’s hardware) to a shared, text-based environment. The role of the Dungeon Master was supposedly replaced by the developer (often called “wizards” back then), who created and added to the physical side of the MUD. Developers added rooms, monsters, objects, and factions, but rarely did anything with a plot, the original duty of the DM. They weren’t storytellers, they were programmers. By adding more users to a shared world but still not giving them any story to work with, competition entered a new era. The game was entirely about who was the highest level, if you had gotten the best sword available yet, and if your attributes and skills were stacked in the best possible combination. Additionally, the advanced technology still had limitations. Basically, just about all there was to do in the original BBSs and MUDs was fight. Now, as focused as Dungeons and Dragons was on combat rules, the very nature of the RPG not only allowed for, but often required non-combat activity. You had to journey to distant places, concerning yourself with means of travel, provisions, and navigation. You had to interact with NPCs (non-player characters portrayed by the DM) often to glean information, barter for goods, avoid unwanted confrontations, or woo romantic interests. In MUDs and BBSs, all travel was near instantaneous (less than 30 seconds to cross the known world), and all you did was fight, trade, and heal. Barely anyone actually role-played a character beyond, “let’s go kill that,” “I’ll sell you this for 1000 gold,” or “I need healing!” It was still a game, but not a role-playing game.

In September of 1996, a new version of the MUD was released, but with one key difference: Meridian 59 outgrew the text-based environment and added visuals. What began as a craft of the imagination had gone through a gentle puberty in the world of text and emerged into a realm of new possibilities. You no longer had to read line by line to follow what was happening or sit for a minute and digest a few paragraphs to figure out where you were; it was all there in bright colors with animated avatars. This also marks the first point at which the RPG expanded its range of appeal to include people who hadn’t previously experienced Dungeons and Dragons. Sure, people unfamiliar with RPGs had joined BBSs and MUDs in the past, but never on such a scale as a fully visual multiplayer environment attracted them. For a while, Meridian 59 was cutting edge, riding the crest of the wave in the evolution of the MMORPG. But it was only a matter of time before a bigger, more capable company with a pre-established name in the video game industry took the graphical MUD concept to the next level.

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Nathan Knaack