MMORPGs is a relatively new genre that has burst into popularity thanks to the advances in internet technology, allowing players to connect from across the world.
However, interestingly, we can trace the genre’s roots as far back as 1974 with the title Mazeware. Those games weren’t strictly MMORPG (keyword being massive); they were as Multi-User Dungeons that worked on a subscription model that’d be laughable by today’s standards-a whopping $12 an hour.
Internet was a luxury back then, I suppose, so it makes sense that everything related to it was that expensive. The first true MMORPG was released in 1991, boasting 100,000 players at its peak, Neverwinter Nights.
The game cost the players $6 an hour to play and was unfortunately closed due to disagreement with their “network provider” AOL (yeah, remember them?). Thus began the era of retro MMORPGs, a genre looking to experiment full of new possibilities and innovations.
MMORPGs have grown since then; we’ve come from hourly subscription models to genuinely free to play titles that offer microtransactions for cosmetics, from multi-user dungeons to servers hosting over one thousand players battling on the same field.
It’s always interesting to see how successful games influence their genres, such as Resident Evil 4 and its over-the-shoulder camera that’s become a staple of the genre.
Let’s look at some of the retro MMORPGs that influenced the genre, and we can still enjoy them today.
1. Asheron’s Call
Asheron’s Call is a title developed by Turbine Entertainment, released in 1999, and one of the first MMORPGs to be released. However, it quickly lost its players to the newer MMORPGs coming out (namely WoW).
Still, it held its own for 17 years before Turbine shut the servers down officially in 2017, despite the best efforts of the community to keep their beloved game alive.
The game features the earliest traces of the crafting gameplay mechanic, allowing players to imbue their equipment with special buffs and even had monthly updates and events with an episodic storyline and new quests to go with it.
It’s a shame to see that the game closed its servers; however, if you’re looking to play the game, you’re not all out of luck.
A large chunk of the community was so die-hard about the game they attempted to buy the IP from the publishers when the game announced closure.
However, this loyalty didn’t entirely go in vain. The game can still be enjoyed on private servers hosting up to 700 players and connected using various Asheron’s Call emulators.
The community has been kind and thoughtful enough to set up discord servers to help out any newbies with the setup, more information can be found here.
Speaking of retro MMORPGs, did you know that the classic RuneScape was initially supposed to be a text-based MUD?
As development progressed, it went from being text-based to graphical and by the time the beta came out in 2001, the game had taken shape as an MMORPG, but the developers Jagex didn’t stop there, improving on the game and releasing RuneScape 2 in 2004. Today players can enjoy RuneScape 3, released in 2013.
RuneScape was the first MMORPG I ever tried like many others; it allowed a free-to-play experience, and subscription was optional (if you were okay with limited content).
The game allowed players to explore the world at their own pace and had many social activities that allowed players to come together and interact.
It was a magical time when social network sites weren’t popular; this was a great way to meet people from across the globe.
Everquest is a title developed by Verant Interactive and released in 1999 and is arguably the greatest MMORPG to exist; hell, it’s one of the best games ever.
The game is over two decades old and is still thriving with an active player base and developers releasing regular updates.
Everquest has had over 25 expansions since its release and continued to thrive as juggernauts like WoW came to take over the scene.
Interestingly, like RuneScape, Everquest was initially an MDU that later grew into an MMORPG. In hindsight, the gameplay is very much like MMORPGs today, but then again, this was one of the first to set the standards.
In any case, EverQuest is one of the grand-daddys of MMORPG, and it’s fascinating to see the game still officially supported and alive.
4. Dark Age of Camelot
Dark Age of Camelot is one of the earliest 3D MMORPGs developed by Mythic Entertainment and released in 2004. Fascinatingly the game had breached Neverwinter Nights all-time peak within a week, no doubt due to its shiny graphics and 3D world.
In addition, the game was lauded for its PvP mechanics that pitted the players across the three realms in a fight against each other for various effects that would buff stats for all realm’s players holding it.
Essentially critics received it well because the game didn’t just attempt to copy EverQuest but brought its ideas to the table.
Dark Age of Camelot is still alive and kicking and has had many updates over the years streamlining the experience while keeping the core gameplay loop of the realm vs realm battles still intact. Each realm has a unique storyline and character race, but they fall under the same archetype found in other MMORPGs for balancing purposes.
In addition, there’s no room for experimentation when it comes to upgrade paths. Instead, players are encouraged to join a guild offering better rewards and advantages in PvP/E combat while fulfilling their rather strict role on the field (Tank, Mage etc.).
The game can still be enjoyed and is officially supported. It’s a fascinating peek into the past and roots of the MMORPG genre.
5. Ultima Online
Speaking of peeks into the past, Ultima Online is a 1997 title developed by Origin Systems. The game more or less was the first experiment with the genre as developers tried to figure out the social mechanics of the game and how each player can feel like the center of attention in a non-single-player game.
The game focused primarily on PvP combat and could be enjoyed in various worlds with different rulesets and aesthetics. One such world was Trammel that was an easy-going server where PvP had to be consensual.
Unlike this relaxing gameplay, Felucca was the same world but filled with dead trees and grim aesthetics; it featured much harsher rules, and PvP could be initiated by one party.
The game is one of the oldest MMORPGs still around, and the IP has traded hands four times over two decades, with the latest publisher, Broadsword Era announcing the game to be free-to-play in 2018.
6. Star Wars Galaxies
Star Wars has been a popular IP for the MMORPG genre, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the 2003 title Star Wars Galaxies is one of the best-reviewed MMORPGs.
Although servers were closed in 2011 with the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic (another great MMORPG), players can still enjoy the game on private servers that host the game to this day.
The game was praised for its 3D graphics and realistic looking character models, and movie references. But, the game faced criticism later in its lifespan for its complexity, and the last update overhauled the game mechanics to the extent that it was unrecognizable by the players.
In addition, the much-awaited (at the time) combat upgrade introduced cooldown timers that didn’t allow players to perform actions until a specific time passed, making grind even more tedious.
Thankfully, the beauty of emulation and a loyal community has allowed the game to thrive and maintain a version before the many corporate-greed fueled decisions that ruined the game.
In 2004 SWGEmu project was launched that served to make a playable version of the game with all content up to patch 14.1, fast-forward to 2020, and the project is nearing its completion.
If you’re a fan of Star Wars or just curious about old games, I recommend using SWGEmu to enjoy the game in all its glory, or should I say former glory.
Retro games are a great way to understand how far games have come. It’s like any other media that thrives on creativity, a bunch of people throwing ideas at the boards and seeing what sticks; EverQuest spawned a ton of clones that couldn’t quite capture the magic.
However, WoW did manage to overtake it and is considered the blueprint of modern days MMOs. Sooner than later, another MMORPG might come to revolutionize the genre, but it’s essential to know where the genre is coming from to know where it’s headed.
While we’ve evolved from hourly subscriptions to having one-time free or completely free experiences, seeing what happens gameplay-wise to the genre will be more exciting.
Perhaps a title that will free us from the tedious grind and pump out a massive amount of meaningful quests and content. A little too optimistic? I agree.