No Man’s Sky is one of the most highly anticipated new MMORPGs. It will promise to put players into a near-infinite universe with never before seen planets, animals, and environments. It will also give the player the ability to interact and have an impact on the game universe itself. There is a lot of hype and a lot of hope for No Man’s Sky as being the next leap forward in the MMORPG genre, but it is not the first, nor will it be the last in a long list of massive multiplayer online role-playing games.
A Text-Based Past
In all fairness, maybe the distinction of the first multiplayer role-playing game should go to Dungeons and Dragons. First published in 1974 this pen and paper role-playing game helped set the standard and the preferred genre for many MMORPGs to come. It is no coincidence that most MMOs use the fantasy setting and a system of experience and leveling in their gameplay. Most of those early programmers were spending their off time rolling D20’s like a dungeon boss. So maybe it is only natural that they took the IRL experience they loved and tried to insert it into the virtual world where they worked. The initial results were mixed at best.
It is hard to pin down the first official MMO, but a lot of people tend to point to a small 1978 game called British Legends, which -given the time period- sounds more like a David Bowie album, but you should probably do your best to disassociate it from Ziggy Stardust as much Destiny should be disassociated from Paul McCartney –despite what they have tried. British Legends was also not the first online game. Maze War created in 1974 predates the first MMO, but Maze War is considered the first first-person shooter, and that may be another article altogether. Originally, British Legends was simply called MUD or Multi-User Dungeon. The name was changed because MUD eventually became the descriptor for the genre itself.
Multi-user dungeons were not much more than various locations connected by chat windows. Text-based gaming was all those old machines could handle, as they did not yet have the memory or capacity for graphical representations. All movements, actions, and even magic missiles had to be done through a series of keys. “N” to move to the north, “S” to swing a sword, etc. The other problem was that these games were not “massive” by any stretch of the imagination. Moira which was developed in the 80’s could support up to 15 players on one connection and at the time that was seen as an astounding feat of programming.
Paying for Quality
Things started to get truly weird in the 80’s, and we’re not talking simply about parachute pants and that one time MTV played a music video. Graphics were slowly creeping into the MUD genre, but mostly things just got expensive. Games like 1985’s Island of Kesmai were among the first commercially available MUDs, as previous games were basically just small programs shared around college campuses like MIT or among small groups of hardcore computer geeks. Remember that most people back in the 70’s and even 80’s had no idea that the Internet even existed, let alone how to access it to play crude text-based typing games. However, with the materialism of the 80’s, a few people apparently thought, “Yeah we can sell this.” So games like Island of Kesmai hit the shelves and forced players to dish out 12 dollars an hour to play, -and you thought your monthly subscription to World of Warcraft was too steep.
The first graphical interface was introduced in 1988 with Club Caribe, produced by none other than Lucasarts. Originally called Habitat, the game was not a role-playing dungeon crawler so much as it was the forerunner for Second Life, and every online interaction that eventually leads to a meeting with Chris Hanson. The concept was basically an online chat room with visual avatars interacting in -what we can only assume- was a seethe virtual night club, and because Lucas was involved it probably involved a lot of out-of-place toy endorsements and uncomfortably racial-stereotyped alien monsters.
The first real graphical MUD was 1991’s Neverwinter Nights. It was co-developed by Dungeons and Dragons and AOL, and it only cost a meager 6 dollars an hour to play. In the beginning each server could hold up to 50 players at a time, but that was increased to 500 by 1995. The game also started a lot of the tropes you see today in MMOs, most notably the formation of player guilds, which accounted for the games popularity. By the time the Neverwinter Nights servers shutdown in 1997 the game had more than 150,000 people playing it. That was an unheard of number for players for old-time MUDs.
The Big Three
The age of MMORPG was born with the creation of Ultima Online. By the end of 1990 almost 54 million people owned home computers, and by 1995 3 million of them were paying for Internet access. CompuServe and other service companies lowered their hourly rates down from 12 dollars to $1.95 per hour of use, and the Internet was starting to enter the collective cultural conscience with names like AOL -mostly because they kept sending people a ridiculous number of CD’s for “10 Free Hours.” Times were a-changing and it was onto this stage that Ultima Online stepped.
1997’s Ultima Online coined the term MMORPG as it was the first game to reach widespread popularity -including with may future members of The NYRD staff. Ultima was not the first MMO to give players a 3D avatar, but it was one of the smoothest running games of the time. It also introduced some ideas that would not be replicated for years, such as allowing players to buy property, customizing clothes with dyes, and even a player-crafted economy. The game was far from perfect but it jump-started the genre like none before. Suddenly, walking around in a virtual world with hundreds of people as a wizard or warrior was not just possible but terrifying. -Seriously, the world was open PvP and if you left the sanctuary of town you had to run or risk getting ganked by some high-level jerk of a rogue, not that we’re bitter-
EverQuest and Asheron’s Call were both released in 1999 and along with Ultima have been honored as “The Big Three.” EverQuest, in particular, if often cited as bringing MMO’s to the western mainstream. Unlike the MUDs of the past, these games charged only 10 or 15 dollars a month to play, but they cost upwards of 10 million dollars to develop. In today’s multi-billion dollar gaming industry that may not seem like a lot, but in the 90’s that kind of production cost was unheard of and a huge gamble. EverQuest did not have as many player customization options as Ultima, but it was a lot more graphically impressive and the streamlined leveling system did a lot to set the standard for most future MMORPGs, including World of Warcraft.
No Man’s Future
World of Warcraft, incidentally, is still the most successful MMORPG to date, with more than a 10 current million players and 100 million over its lifetime, but it is not the only one. Nowadays, MMOs are big business and you can find one for everything from Star Trek to Star Wars, DC to Marvel, Lord of the Rings to Dungeons and Dragons. The market is only growing, which is surprising considering that one of the latest trend is Free-to-Play.
Starting in the 2000’s a lot of MMOs transitioned to free-to-play, particularly Champions Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online, as a way to draw in more players. Though many initially saw this as a last ditch effort to save flagging games it turned out to be a wise investment strategy. Players who play games for free were more willing to use IRL money to purchase perks or swag for their characters, using micro-transactions to buy everything from impressive looking mounts to new starships. Even World of Warcraft jumped on the band-wagon, allowing players to play for free with restricted access and limited levels. Currently, many MMO’s use the idea of allowing players a “free taste” before tempting them to buy the full game or other in-game purchasable items. Even console are getting into act with games like Destiny reaching unprecedented levels of users.
Right now the sky is literally the limit for MMOs, as new innovations continue to drive the genre foward, including goal-less and quest-less gaming, such as in Day Z. The point of these games is that there is no point. Players are given a sand-box world with certain abilities and physics-based restrictions, but the game experience is entirely up to the player, leaving people free to explore, kill, and even get into some of the weirdest experiences you could ever possibly imagine. No Man’s Sky will be built along this premise, except that it will take place in a near limitless universe, a place so big it may be possible to never see another human player throughout your entire gaming experience. It will be one of the first systems to use a mathematically created and randomized universe, rather than a developer crafted environment, for the player to explore. In other words, not even the developers themselves have seen everything this game has to offer.
We are excited for what the future will bring. Though we at The NYRD have doubts that MMOs will ever turn into something as all consuming as the Oasis system from Ready Player One, or as immersive as anything in Tron, we do think that there is a very real possibility that in the future most people will have normal second or third identities in these virtual universes, like the one one being created by No Man’s Sky. To think this all began with a few lines of text on a screen.
So do you want to go on an adventure (Y?/N?)…