Know Your Genres: MMOs

Just what do we really mean when we talk about “game genres,” anyway? Sure, you’ve probably seen that “fans of the genre will enjoy this” phrase in umpteen game reviews, but the truth is that the most durable game genres have walked some long, ever-evolving, and very interesting roads over the past several decades. In this series, Xbox Wire’s editorial team will break down exactly what shaped your favorite genres, why they’re so timelessly awesome, and where they’re headed – while providing you with some expert advice on the past and modern classics that you should check out!

This time, we’re heading into the dungeon… but we’re not going alone! Nope, we’ve got friends we haven’t actually ever met in person. But that’s perfectly fine, because we’re all after the same thing: glory, adoration, and epic loot in an MMO!

The massively multiplayer online game (usually a role-playing game, but increasingly tackling a diverse array of subgenres), has impacted gaming on a worldwide scale over the past two decades, and we’ll take a look at the long, winding path it’s taken to get there – and the various revenue streams that have also defined the genre in that time frame.

The Past
Sure, RPGs can certainly claim direct descent from Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s 1974 innovation of geekdom that brought questing around a coffee table to the masses. But MMOs might have an even greater claim as the true heir to pen-and-paper role-playing sessions. After all, what’s closer to an all-night quest to tackle an Umber Hulk than when you finally get off work and it’s time to slay the dragon in an MMO? So much of the massively multiplayer experience focuses on creating a fantasy character and forming a team to take out a big, bad enemy, which was always at the heart of any D&D adventure.

The other major game type that ties all MMOs together is the MUD: the multi-user dungeon, which brought text-based D&D-style adventuring to computers – mostly for university students and faculty lucky enough to have access to early network systems. In fact, the MUD was invented at Essex University in the United Kingdom in 1978, and the genre remained popular – relatively speaking, of course, given the still-tiny number of overall online users – well into the 1980s and ’90s.

As the Internet gained mainstream availability and acceptance in the mid-’90s, we finally saw the birth of the first commercially available massively multiplayer online games. Archetype Interactive’s Meridian 59 was first out of the starting gate in 1996, and its tag line of “The Internet Quest Begins” was quite literal – it was the first true MMO available to a wide audience, thanks to 3DO CEO Trip Hawkins, who was prescient enough to see the potential of the genre, as he outright purchased Archetype Interactive.

There’s some debate as to whether Meridian 59 actually holds the claim as the first “real” MMO, however, since Sierra Online’s The Realm Online and Nexon’s Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds also launched around the same time – but both of those games were important innovators in their own right. The Realm Online delivered turn-based MMO gameplay, while Kingdom of the Winds kickstarted the genre in Asia, where it would become spectacularly huge over the next two decades.

There’s no debate as to the first MMO to hit it big, though. That would come in 1997, with Origin Systems’ Ultima Online. It made sense that Ultima would be the first MMO to set itself apart, considering the RPG incarnation of the franchise had always forged its own path with its freeform gameplay – if you had enough guts, after all, you could stroll right up to the king and challenge him. Now, Ultima creator Richard Garriott brought his seminal fantasy world to the MMO realm, and it was a perfect fit. Here, players themselves would fill the roles of Ultima’s denizens – sometimes too well, as “player-killing” became a serious issue inside the game’s world, with various gangs and vigilante groups facing off against each other. In fact, Garriott’s in-game avatar, Lord British, was unceremoniously murdered in a beta test just a month before Ultima Online’s release, hinting at the Wild West mentality that would define the early days of MMOs.

In 1999, Sony Online Entertainment’s EverQuest brought a safer, more streamlined MMO experience to players, particularly when it came to providing them with actual quests and tasks throughout the game’s countless realms. EverQuest, which has seen an astounding 21 expansions since its initial release, reached mainstream consciousness in 2001 when two Major League Baseball players had a public, tongue-in-cheek spat over the game. Pitcher Curt Schilling of the Arizona Diamondbacks – who would later help make an RPG of his own after he retired from baseball with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning – saw Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Doug Glanville hit two home runs off him in a game that year. Glanville said that the home runs were “payback” for when Schilling left Glanville’s dwarven paladin to perish in-game when the two were Phillies teammates.

Sega’s Dreamcast was ahead of its time in so many ways, and while the open world of Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue gets a lot of credit for that, it’s easy to forget that the ill-fated system also brought us the first console-based MMO: 2001’s Phantasy Star Online, which moved the beloved sci-fi-fantasy RPG online – even through the Dreamcast’s 56k modem, the series built a fanatical base of players that still swears by the game to this day.

At the turn of the 21st century, most MMOs were based around monthly subscriptions that earned publishers a steady revenue stream to keep each virtual world going, but one game bucked the trend in 2001: Jagex Games Studio’s RuneScape, which allowed players to experience the browser-based in-game world at no cost – if they were willing to put up with an advertising banner. It was a small move, but RuneScape’s free-to-play model would lay the groundwork for the genre in the following years.

The Present
Over its first decade of existence, the MMO had gradually, organically built a loyal audience. And, then, in late 2004, Blizzard completely obliterated the path of the genre with World of Warcraft, which brought the developer’s popular Warcraft universe into the massively multiplayer realm.

A few years earlier, EverQuest had greatly improved the pacing and content seen in the genre, but World of Warcraft delivered a revolution that nobody could have predicted. Until that point, MMOs had been defined by a particular type of niche player. Now, gamers of every stripe were diving deep into Blizzard’s world – and calling in sick or even quitting their jobs to play on a full-time basis.

After World of Warcraft, one phrase came to dominate the genre: “WoW-killer.” Not because anyone actually managed to do it, of course – or even come close, for that matter – but because publishers and media latched on to any potential rivalry that might knock the 800-pound gorilla down a peg.

That’s not to say that there weren’t any worthwhile releases post-World of Warcraft, but the landscape had definitely changed. ArenaNet’s Guild Wars put the focus on player-versus-player encounters, separating itself from the MMO pack in a substantial way. Nexon’s MapleStory, with its cute visuals and sidescrolling interface, followed RuneScape’s free-to-play lead in 2005… but also opened up the MMO genre to a much more diverse set of players who didn’t necessarily embrace the bare-chested fantasy that’s come to define so much of the genre.

Meanwhile, a few licensed properties built sizable audiences of their own. In 2007, Turbine’s The Lord of the Rings Online allowed players to explore J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world under the watchful eye of Aragorn and other familiar faces seen in the books and Peter Jackson’s films, while Cryptic Studios’ Star Trek Online, released in 2010, brought the sci-fi rivalry of Vulcans, Ferengi, and Klingons to MMO players. And there have been not one but two epic MMOs set in that familiar galaxy far, far away: 2003’s Star Wars Galaxies and Star Wars: The Old Republic, released in 2011.

But perhaps the biggest move post-World of Warcraft was made by Dungeons & Dragons Online, which originally launched in 2006 but became the first mainstream North American game to go free-to-play in 2009. Other high-profile names, including The Lord of the Rings Online, Funcom’s Age of Conan, and Trion’s Rift quickly adopted this model and turned their fortunes around, heralding a new era for the MMO. Now, free-to-play is often the rule, not the exception.

The Future
In recent years, publishers and developers have focused less on taking out World of Warcraft and more on forging their own path – a development that can only mean good things for the genre going forward.

Bungie’s Destiny – as cross-genre a game as we’ve ever seen – is most certainly an MMO, and it’s taken the concept in exciting new directions with its shooting-based focus. Destiny: The Taken King has raised the game to new heights, with an outstanding new raid that puts the focus on teamwork.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has revitalized the venerable Japanese RPG’s MMO fortunes, while EverQuest Next – which has been in development for the last half-decade – promises to revolutionize one of the genre’s biggest names.

Perhaps the most exciting element, however, is the fact that the MMO is now spreading out in so many innovating directions. Daybreak Games’ H1Z1, for example, is bringing the zombie apocalypse to the massively multiplayer universe. And as the genre moves into its third decade, it’s clear it’s now less about the revenue stream and more about the innovation inside these amazing, sprawling game worlds – and that’s awesome news for both players and developers.