What was the First Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing (MMORPG) Game?
Ultima Online (1997) popularized the MMORPG genre, and it’s creator even coined the term MMORPG, but the first MMORPG was Meridian 59 (1995). Those games would be followed by the popular Everquest (1999) and then brought to the mainstream with World of Warcraft (2004).
This being said, the roots of the MMORPG genre can be traced to RPGs in general, the first 3D games, the “MUD” (Multi-user dungeon) genre, and more.
The history of MMORPGs.
FACT: MMO means Massive Multiplayer Online and RPG means Role Playing Game. We can call all massive online games MMOs when they are role playing games we call them MMORPGs. MMOs and MMORPGs have essentially the same backstory, although you’ll want to check out the history of FPS (First Person Shooter) games for more details on non-RPG based multiplayer games.
The History of MMORPGs
With video game genres it’s near impossible to find a true “first”, but many think of the first MMORPG as Meridian 59 (1995). Prior to Meridian and Ultima Online we can trace the roots of MMORPGs to Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, 3D networked games and Multi-user dungeon games of the 70’s, early forerunners to MMOs like Lucas film’s Habitat (1985), the Ultima series, and in general to the RPG computer games of the 70’s and 80’s.
The history of networked and MUD gaming leading up to MMORPGs.
The First Networked Games
The first game that could be played with other people on an online network was one of the first 3D games Maze War (1974). The 3D gaming genre gave birth to First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, the First Person 3D RPG genre, and the MMORPG genre with Maze War and a string of games leading up to MIDI Maze (1987) which featured a 32 player death match.
Mazewar networking in action.
The Evolution of 3D RPG Games
Games like Maze War almost immediately gave birth to the 3D RPG genre which included the first 3D RPG Akalabeth (summer 1979), Wizardry (1981), to the first Elder Scrolls game The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994), before merging with MUDs and top down RPG games like Ultima to become MMORPGs.
The First MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) Games
While the 3D gaming genre was going from Maze War to MIDI Maze, another genre was emerging in which MMORPGs have their roots “MUDs” (Multi-User Dungeon) games.
MUDs were text-based online role playing games that centered on an online chat. They evolved from games like Zork (1977), although the first MUD was likely Colossal Cave Adventure (1975) one of the first precursors to RPG / adventure games developed by Will Crowther who helped develop the ARPANET (a forerunner of the Internet). Colossal Cave had an “MUD” feature by 1977. In 1978, a game called M.U.D. was created at Essex University by Roy Trubshaw.
The MUD genre continued during the 70’s and 80’s coming to a head with games like Island of Kesmai (1985) a multiplayer MUD / ASCII rouge-like which is considered a forefather of the MMORPG genre.
Original footage of Island of Kesmai.
A Mention for Habitat (The First-ish Graphical MMO)
Habitat (1985 – 1987) by Lucasfilm might actually deserve the title first MMORPG. It was originally supposed to be a peaceful game where you built an “Avatar” and live a “second life” where you simulate hanging out with other people in an online universe.
Lucasfilm drastically underestimated how popular the game would be and ran out of content quickly during Beta testing. They decided to give players swords and the ability to kill each other. The ability to kill other player’s Avatars is something that would show up in Ultima Online. In fact, the first use of the word “Avatar” is in Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985). Since both games were in development at the same time, it’s unclear who used the word “avatar” to describe the player’s character first.
Lucasfilm’s promotional video for Habitat.
Neverwinter Nights (The First Graphical MMORPG-ish)
Habitat never got off the ground, instead, the Quantum Link network it was running on became America Online. AOL’s flagship MMO title Neverwinter Nights (1991) became the first MMORPG to feature a graphical display. Neverwinter Nights mixes D&D gaming, with a graphics display, and a networked multiplayer game. If we can argue Habitat was the first MMO, we can certainly argue that Neverwinter is the first MMORPG (although it lacks many elements of later MMORPGs it included RPG elements, chat, and guilds).
A review of Neverwinter Nights (1991).
From Ultima to Ultima Online
The 3D shooting genre and the MUD genre would both give birth to MMORPGs, but despite these games seeding the network side of things, the non-multiplayer Ultima series is in many regards an equal forerunner of the genre.
We can look at Ultima 6 (1990) and see a very similar art-style to modern MMORPGs and this becomes even truer with Ultima 7 (1992). This is in large part due to Ultima Online becoming the first popular MMORPG.
That said, Meridian 59 debuted before Ultima Online and was somewhat successful in its own right.
Richard Garriott talking about Akalabeth and the history of MMORPGs.
FACT: One of the first 3D Role Playing games was Richard “Lord British” Garriott’s 3D RPG Akalabeth (summer 1979). Richard Garriott also created what was likely the first open world RPG Ultima (1981) and the first popular MMORPG Ultima Online (1997). He also coined the term MMORPG and went to space.
A walk through the Ultima games. This will help you see the impact the series had on video game RPGs including MMORPGs.
The first modern MMORPG Meridian 59 is a first person 3D game resembling a mash-up of the Ultima games, 3D gaming, and MUD all mixed into one. Despite Meridian 59 being the first MMORPG future games like Ultima Online, Everquest, and World of Warcraft would all feature an isometric/third-person perspective.
According to Wikipedia Meridian 59 had a lot of firsts that would be recycled by the MMO genre:
“Guilds had a dynamic voting system for changing leadership, customized sigils that appeared on shields, and guild halls that could be won or lost. There was also in-game bulletin board system (called newsglobes), a personal mail system that both players and NPCs could use to send messages, a political meta-game, and frequent expansions that expanded the world and gameplay options.”
Meridian 59 in action.
FACT: You can play Meridian 59 for free online right now by going to the official website here.
The Rise and Fall(ish) of Ultima Online and a New Internet
Ultima Online launched in alpha in 1996 and fully launched in 1997. Playing off the popularity of the Ultima series and MUDs the series became popular quickly. According to Wikipedia:
“It reached 100,000 paying subscribers within six months of release (far exceeding that of any game before it), despite severe lag problems. Subscriptions continued to grow for several years, reaching a peak of some 250,000 paid accounts. In 1998, the game expanded, and the number of users reached over 100,000 worldwide. In 1999, the game expanded to Japan in January, to Europe in May, and to South Korea in July.”
Ultima Online had some firsts to its name like an artificial life engine (where the games ecology reacted to player decisions) and “worlds” (different servers featuring different environments).
A talk through of Ultima Online Forever (the current playable version of the game).
Beyond Ultima Online
From here the genre booms as the internet becomes more accessible. The two most important games to come after Ultima Online are Everquest (1999) and then World of Warcraft (2004). Each has its own interesting backstory and place in the history of MMORPGs, but that is a story for another day.
Play Ultima Online Today
Ultima Online may have gone through some ebbs and flows, and today the most popular MMORPGs. However, UO never went away. You can play Ultima Online free today by going to the official website. Play Ultima Online Forever free here.