When a new MMO is announced today, certain characteristics are automatically assumed. When a certain feature is left out, such as PvP or intensive crafting, the hue and cry begins over how such a feature could be left out. But today's MMOs weren't created in a vacuum. The features that have become predestined standards have changed and evolved over time, with certain games adding something new and different to the genre.
Adventure gaming began with pen-and-paper RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, and eventually those gaming ideas drifted to the computer world and began to pollinate. Electronic adventures began humbly with text-based adventures (Zork) to graphic adventures (King's Quest) to MUDs and finally to MMOs. Many games have had an impact over time and Ten Ton Hammer pauses to examine five MMOs that helped shape the genre we all know and love today.
Ultima Online released in 1997. This game was built upon the fanbase created by the previous eight Ultima games. UO was the first successful MMO to demonstrate that massively multiplayer games could be big business. The number of subscribers peaked at roughly 250,000, which is small by today's standards, but was a big deal back in the late 1990s. Without the financial success of UO, many other MMOs would never have been created.
UO had an additional impact in online gaming, one that many players still seek - open sandbox gaming. UO was the Wild West of MMOs with players being able to act as they please and impact the environment. With players being able to build their own houses as long as an area was able to be built on, player built cities sprang up. I remember people actually quitting their day jobs to sell virtual real estate in UO as the game hit its fever pitch.
A negative aspect of the open sandbox was the incredible amount of griefing that occurred. Players would stalk, kill, and rob other players constantly. I stopped playing very early on for precisely that reason. On a side note, my best friend (a few years before we met) was a well known griefer and was very likely one of those bastards who made my life miserable.
Still, the open sandbox nature of UO still appeals to many gamers today. Who wouldn't want to try out a game where an industrious and wily player managed to assassinate Lord British (Richard Garriott) as he was getting ready to make an in-game speech during the game's beta?
Read onward to see what other games defined the RPG genre.
While Ultima Online led the way, EverQuest brought MMO gaming closer to the mainstream. Released in 1999, EverQuest is notable for building upon the success of UO (reaching over 450,000 subscriptions) and for nurturing raiding as we know it today. EverQuest is still renowned for the size and difficulty of its raids, with some raids requiring 72 players. However, the raiding in EverQuest was dominated by guilds who usually operated on a set schedule of raiding times. If you weren't a member of one of the big boys, then you were usually out of luck.
EverQuest also became notoriously known for how many people became addicted to the game. Dubbed EverCrack by fans and press alike, news stories abounded of players losing jobs and marriages over the game. One such reason lay in the game's open world system. A player needed a rare spawn, but that rare spawn could pop at any point during a specific window. Certain spawns could occur somewhere within an 80 hour period. Since the player or group dishing out the most damage owned the drop, it wasn't uncommon for groups of players to camp a spawn point for days. My griefing friend was also heavily into EverQuest, and I'm still riveted by his tales of spending days staring at the monitor waiting for the spawn to appear.
Dark Age of Camelot
While MMOs always had PvE and a few had some form of PvP, Dark Age of Camelot brought us realm-versus-realm (RvR), also known as world-versus-world (WvW). No longer did gamers have to settle for fights against one or a few opponents; now you could take part in truly epic battles. Players could strive to take and hold keeps and towers in stark contrast to the simple player-versus-player duels of the past. Another forward-thinking aspect of the RvR in DAOC was the fact that there were three factions, which helped balance quite a bit. If one side was getting too powerful, the other two factions could concentrate on knocking them back down.
Released in the same year as DAOC (2001), Anarchy Online brought the use of instancing to the forefront. Love it or hate it, the use of instances in MMOs is here to stay and you can either praise or condemn Anarchy Online for it. Some games are heavily instanced, such as Dungeons and Dragons Online, while others, such as Vanguard, are not. The introduction of instances played an important role in addressing the problems of spawn camping and kill stealing. Critics decry instances as destroying the community aspect of MMOs. Most games straddle the line, having both an open world and instances. Guild Wars 2 is a good example, having the player adventure throughout the open world most of the time but switching to an instance for their character's personal storyline.
City of Heroes
City of Heroes may be drawing the curtain, with servers going dark this Friday (November 30th), but its impact will remain. City of Heroes broke the mold to show that a non-fantasy game could be commercially successful. Up until its release in 2004, most MMOs were fantasy-based, with a smattering of sci-fi thrown in. City of Heroes brought the vivid four-color world of comic book superheroes to online gaming in a big way. Now you could fight like Wolverine, stalk bad guys like Batman, and fly through the sky like Superman. What gamer didn't love that?
Another aspect of City of Heroes that really hit home was their character creator. For years, no other character creation system even remotely came close to providing the same level of customization (until Champions Online). While most MMOs had the appearance of your character change due to the gear you wore, City of Heroes let you create your own unique look at the very beginning, fulfilling one of the most important aspects of any superhero's identity--his costume. No self-respecting hero wants to grind countless dungeons to get a cool looking pair of boots. Spiderman and Superman didn't change their look (I'm not counting Venom!) over time to reflect the latest loot drop.
Like most other products, MMOs build on what came before. Many aspects of online gaming that we consider standard today (instances, realm-versus-realm, raiding), not to mention the fact that MMOs are big business, came from contributions introduced by earlier games. Which aspects are considered positive or negative depends on each individual gamer's point of view, but you cannot deny the impact that the five games listed above had upon our own little slice of gaming heaven.
Which games do you think have been influential in the MMORPG genre? Login, and share your thoughts in the comments below.