Much like the mobile gaming scene, the massive multiplayer online (MMO) genre now has arguably more clones and low-quality titles than standout classics, and it can be difficult for even ground-breaking titles to gain a following, let alone make a profit. That’s what makes games like EVE and Final Fantasy XIV so anomalous; they have huge followings of paying customers in a market dominated by throwaway titles.

It wasn’t always like this though; modern MMOs come from a long line of innovative creations, ranging from the text-based games that ran on the first computer networks in the eighties to the progenitors of the World of Warcraft-style experience. Here’s a quick look at how video games have evolved:

 

MUD1 (1978)

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“” (CC BY 2.0) by Marcin Wichary

Created in tribute to a Zork variant (and borrowing heavily from Infocom’s classic), Multi User Dungeon 1 (or MUD1) was a simple text adventure hosted every night on a machine that served the entire computing needs of Essex University. Its premise was simple; react to written descriptions of events and situations by typing commands. The multiplayer aspect was revolutionary, however.

Micro Adventurer, a magazine that covered MUD1 in September 1984 (and onwards, through to the following March) predicted that multiplayer games like MUD1 would become the “dominating factor” in video games, an observation that seems quite prophetic almost four decades later. Players in MUD1 have spent a good 20,000 hours exploring over that period.

Ultima Online (1997)

Ultima Online is nearly 20 years old – and it’s still in full operation. What makes its continued existence all the more remarkable is the fact that it’s a pay-to-play game, and an expensive one at that, working out at nearly £25 for a three-month subscription. By way of comparison, it’s only £5 less expensive than a modern title like EVE.

Part of the game’s appeal stems from the similarity of its lore to classic fantasy worlds like Dungeons and Dragons (although, with nine games, Richard Garriott’s Ultima series has a substantial canon in its own right) but with a world created by the players. Visitors to the game’s setting of Britannia can build their own houses, for example, and can behave as they wish, even if that means killing other players.

Runescape (2001)

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9naSv1ne_woodcutting_willow” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by nina.svenne

With 200 million accounts on its databases, Jagex’s Runescape is arguably the most influential title in the history of multiplayer. It’s one of the ugliest 3D games ever made – even by 2001 standards – but the amateurish visuals, simple gameplay, and an emphasis on social gaming made it all the more popular.

The fact that Runescape has two entries in the Guinness Book of Records is testament to its enduring popularity. It’s the most updated game ever, with 912 content additions, and has the longest aggregate play session of any MMO, with 443 billion minutes (or 7 billion hours) spent in game by players.

A bit of Runescape trivia here: the rarest and most valuable items in the game are coloured party hats that dropped during the first Christmas event, fifteen years ago. They come in six colours, and they currently trade for 2,147,483,647 coins each. They’re so valuable that players use them as a surrogate for money, much like gold in the real world.

It’s debatable whether an MMO will ever capture the sense of ‘newness’ that drew so many people into the early MMOs but with titles like Albion Online, Lineage Eternal, and Camelot Unchained all due out in 2016 or 2017, the MMO genre is definitely one of the more fertile areas of the video game industry.