The Sci-Fi MMO: The Past
Fantasy has long since dominated the RPG and MMORPG markets, being the standard setting of role-playing games on paper, on consoles, and on PCs for decades now. But that doesn't mean Science Fiction has to be the second fiddle forever. With big name IPs such as Star Trek and Star Wars on the scene (the latter of which is working on MMO number two), and new games like Fallen Earth and Global Agenda making an impact, Science Fiction is becoming just as prominent as its medieval cousin in the gaming scene.
With that in mind, let's take a look back at the history of the Sci-Fi MMO, its current landscape, and the future that lies before it. For the purpose of this article, I'm only going to delve into the subscription based games and those that have left an indelible impression, unless special consideration is warranted. If I leave a game out, whether through ignorance or intention, feel free to call me out on it on the forums.
The first generation of graphical MMORPGs was bereft of any real Sci-Fi example. A game like Meridian 59 does seem to have the title of a more science fiction based setting, but as fans of the 1996 relic will tell you it was more along the typical swords and sorcery motif. After the original "Big Three" MMOs (Everquest, Asheron's Call, and Ultima Online) which are traditionally considered the catalyst for the online-gaming boom, the second generation brought with it the first truly Science-Fiction offering.
Anarchy Online can lay claim to a lot of firsts in the MMORPG genre, launching in the summer of 2001. Not only was Funcom's game the first to feature a Sci-Fi setting, but it was also the first to offer free-trials and eventually in-game advertising. Though the game was troubled at launch due to a number of stability and account issues that tarnished the public's perception, Anarchy Online is still alive and kicking today and has since maintained a very active subscriber-base. AO paved the way for future Sci-Fi, despite its early troubles, with several gameplay innovations such as mission terminals that offered players dynamically created missions. An additional bit of trivia for Anarchy Online? It was one of the first MMOs offered via digital distribution as well as having a retail box on store shelves.
Later in the same year, NetDevil quietly launched Jumpgate: The Reconstruction Initiative. Sporting a joystick-supported control interface, the original Jumpgate was the first massive online space flight simulator. A precursor to CCP's sleeper hit EVE Online, NetDevil's offering allowed players to pilot their own ship across a galaxy of over 150 sectors making their mark on the universe by mining, manufacturing, trading, and gunning down the ships of NPCs and other players. Never quite a hit, Jumpgate is surprisingly still alive and kicking today with a free trial ready for those who missed the game in its admittedly short-lived heyday. Jumpgate itself might have been a prime example of a niche product, but it had enough of a following to convince NetDevil to begin work on a sequel. But we'll get to that game a little later on.
Before I move on, there is one console game worth mentioning that was actually released before both Jumpgate and Anarchy Online, though some may argue that it's not quite what one would call an MMORPG. Phantasy Star Online released for the Sega Dreamcast in Japan on November 21st, 2000 (and then early 2001 for the North American and European releases). Relying heavily on instancing and randomly-generated dungeons, PSO played similarly to many Roguelikes that PC gamers have been playing online for years. The main difference is that PSO sported a Japanese Anime-infused Science Fiction art style, even if the gameplay was little more than a slight variation from Diablo and other games of that ilk. Still, I suppose it had lasers, guns, lightsabers, and took place partially in space... so we have to call it Sci-Fi, right? I'll let you all debate whether or not it was a true MMO though. I just think it deserved special mention.
I'm going to skip around a bit now, instead of keeping on a straight trajectory through the timeline. Mainly because I want to save the end of "The Past" for the fallen brethren that have been left behind in battle. EVE Online came onto the scene in May of 2003, amid little to no fanfare. Back then no one could have predicted this little Icelandic-made gem would explode into the several hundred-thousand subscriber strong phenomenon it is today. Inspired by the classic PC space-trading game Elite, EVE Online is a perfect example of a developer using Sci-Fi not just as a replacement setting for Fantasy, but as a way to try new and different things in MMO design. Where other games with a Sci-Fi setting have floundered, EVE has flourished.