The beginning of the MMORPG genre can be traced back to text-based Multi-User Dungeons (MUD). The first of which was developed by Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw in 1978. These games were hosted on private servers (usually at a university.) The game play was similar to the tabletop of Dungeons and Dragons by typing in commands players would enter a dungeon, fight monsters, gain experience, or acquire loot.
Similar games were quickly developed on the PLATO system. Though they were quite different both shared some many basic elements. Many MUDs are still active to this day, and the most influential MMORPG designers such as Raph Koster, Brad McQuaid, Mark Jacobs and Damion Schubert began as MUD developers and/or players.
The first commercial MMORPG was Island of Kesmai by Kelton Flinn and Jofn Taylor, which became available to consumers in 1984 with a fee of $12.00 per hour through the CompuServe online service. The first graphical MMORPG was Neverwinter Nights by Don Daglow and Cathryn Mataga which went live on AOL in 1991-1997 Neverwinter Nights cost $6.00 an hour to play. Though during the early 1990’s commercial use of the internet was quite restricted due to the NSFNET use policy.
Following Neverwinter Nights was The Shadow of Yserbius within the Sierra Network (TSN) which ran from 1992-1996. The Sierra Network was another hourly service, but unlike the others it provided an unlimited service for $119.99 a month, until the company was bought by AT&T. Later the NSFNET restrictions were relaxed, traditional game companies and online services began to deploy games on the internet. Access to one whole and unified internet allowed companies to truly accumulate a massive player bases, profit and popularity.
The game that gets credit for popularized this genre of games is Ultima Online, though the modern MMORPG games are credited to Meridian 59. Both games also set the precedent for monthly subscription fees of $10.00 USD, which would later spread to most games in this genre.
Meanwhile, commercial online games were becoming extraordinarily popular in South Korea. Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds, designed by Jake Song, began commercial service in 1996 and eventually gained over one million subscribers. His next game became a even bigger success, Lineage. Lineage reached millions of subscribers in Korea and Taiwan, and gave its developer the strength to gain a foothold in the global field of MMORPG market for the next few years following its release.
Launched in 1999 by verant Interactive and acpquired by Sony Online Entertainment EverQuest drove the fantasty MMORPGs in the Western mainstream. It was the most successful MMORPS in the U.S. for five years with tenexpansions as of 2005. Asheron’s Call launched later in the same year became another big hit. Sometimes (Ultima Online, EverQuest and Asheron’s Call) are called the “Big Three” of the late 1990’s.