The first “real” MMO

This morning I read a post by Dusty Monk where he described the forces that were working to push the Halo MMO toward “WoW in Space”:

For me personally, this was probably one of the most conflicting parts of working on Titan.  Don’t get me wrong — I’d wanted to work on an MMO for as long as long as I’ve been in games, and this was the dream game of a lifetime.  But while there were a few of us that had played MMO’s before WoW, by far and large, as the team grew, most of the people on the team had never played a single MMO before WoW.  This led to a dilemma that the entire team struggled with throughout the lifetime of the project.  And it’s a dilemma I think every team out there that’s designing an MMO today has to struggle with,  and the actual point of this post, which I’m only just now actually getting around to:

 How much do you copy the genre leader?

Dusty’s actual question is a good one, but that isn’t what really caught my eye.  You see, while we were building Pirates of the Burning Sea we had a similar dynamic to our team.  World of Warcraft came out two years after we started, so nobody had played it. Instead we had one designer who figured that the MMO genre started with EverQuest where most of the rest of us pegged that event at some earlier game. This guy refused to acknowledge Ultima Online as a “real” MMO despite its hundreds of thousands of subscribers and massive success. He thought even less of the games that came before it: The Realm, Meridian 59, and the thousands of MUDs.

For my part, I saw Ultima Online as a logical next step from the MUDs I played in college in the early 90s. I was pretty far gone into a couple of TinyMUCKs back then.  (I just checked and I do, in fact, still have my wiz bit on PegasusMuck.) When called on to date the start of the MMO I usually give two answers: UO was the first commercial success. MUDs (starting with MUD1, I guess) were the origin of the design genre. To me the distinction is important because of all the ways that MUDs break when your playerbase is counted in the tens of thousands instead of hundreds. UO was really the first game to deal with that kind of scale in the design, so it was the first “real” MMO.

It shouldn’t surprise me that there are people working on MMOs today that consider World of Warcraft the first real example of this kind of game.  It has thirty or fourty times the number of subscribers that EverQuest had at its peak. That increase changed the dynamics of the game just as much as the previous 30-40x jump made EverQuest and Ultima Online different from the games that preceeded them.  My only fear is that this will drive more companies into direct competition with WoW (and the $40 million plus games that are intended to compete with it) instead of toward building a nice tidy business aimed at a niche of 100,000 to 300,000 players who are craving something different.

What is your answer when you are trying to come up with the first real MMO?


4 Responses to “The first “real” MMO”

  1. Raul Aliaga thought on :

    I think it needs to be separated in two possible outcomes, depending on what your trying to accomplish with the answer.
    If you want to draw a line for the genre, you can start with MUDs, because they had all the key components of the development decisions related to and MMO, and they can be considered “massive” (relative to the amount of web users at the time). It’s useful to consider them to get development decisions in context beyond the last hit.
    If your goal is to have a massively online crossmedia success, then that’s your (possibly useful) definition of MMO, and the answer is WoW. Many people started to hear about MMOs with it, because it’s been on other media, and it drawed the attention to the social implications of online gaming, among other things. So if the goal it’s to reach that amount of attention from people, there are some insights about the whole process of having an MMO service -PR, marketing, development decisions related to them- that must be take into account, and the people from Blizzard seems to get it right.

    Oh, and by the way: I tried to post this comment on the gamasutra blogs section, but when the “submit comment” button is pressed: “Firefox can’t find the server at blogs.” which is annoying considering I commented other post to check it out :(

  2. Matthew Weigel wrote on :

    I started off in MUDs in junior high, and came close to dropping out of high school playing 3kingdoms (can I do links here? I wasn’t even a wizard or anything. I watched my friends get really excited about UO and EQ, but in part because of the monthly fees and my age, I didn’t really know anyone playing them.

    Part of me wants to be snarky and say that the first real MMO was Usenet. Another part of me wants to be SERIOUS and say the first real MMO was Usenet. But being more industry-specific, I’m pretty happy calling MUD1 the first real MMO. Since then, it seems they’ve simply been following Moore’s Law, and the latest “game changer” is even more game-changingish than the last game changer in very much the same way.

    Follow the exponential curve backward, and I think MUD1 was the first most game-changingest game changer.

  3. Ben Sizer thought on :

    My answer is similar to Raul’s, in that I think it depends what context you’re asking about.

    If we’re talking purely in terms of game design, then the first MMO was MUD1, although arguably the DIKU MUD codebase bears far closer resemblance to modern MMO mechanics.
    If we’re talking in technical terms, I’d say UO, as it was the first to push through the (admittedly nebulous) barrier from ‘online graphical game’ to ‘massive online graphical game’. There were definitely design changes there too, but I would say they were more subtle.

    And in social or cultural terms, there’s no doubt that everything changed after WoW. Its popularity means it shapes expectations among players and non-players in a way previous online games didn’t.

    Most importantly though, I think any designer who doesn’t look back beyond WoW, not just to UO, but to various MUDs, is missing out on a wealth of knowledge and experience.

  4. Rich Bryant wrote on :


    That was the first to truly encompass “massive”.

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