From dial-up bulletin boards to augmented reality headsets, online gaming has leveled up a lot since the 1970s. These advances wouldn’t have been possible without hardware breakthroughs and the evolution of the internet itself.
Let’s take a look at the big picture to find out where online games started
-- and where they’re going next.
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Two developers launch the first dial-up bulletin board. Early gaming communities like Seth Robinson’s Legend of the Red Dragon use the bulletin boards for text-based roleplaying games. This same year, Essex University student Roy Trubshaw creates a game called MUD (Multi-User Dungeon). MUD becomes a blanket term to describe multiplayer text-based precursors of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs.)
Neverwinter Nights, a Dungeons & Dragons title, is the first online RPG to make the jump from text-based to graphics-based gameplay. It gains popularity for its rich visual interface and in-game guilds, which organize events for members and gives the game an added social dimension. NWN is the first RPG to encourage player vs. player (PVP) gameplay, allowing gamers to fight one another as well as non-player characters (NPCs.) As with Kesmai, NWN gamers pay an hourly fee to play.
Legends of Kesmai: Island of Kesmai, a turn-based game in the Dungeons and Dragons tradition, becomes one of the first commercial online games. Players pay $12+ per hour of game time due to the high cost of bandwidth. Kesmai’s quests for in-game rewards will heavily influence future MMORPGs like World of Warcraft.
Ultima Online popularizes the open world genre, allowing players to explore an expansive interactive map without constraint of a linear storyline. Ultima also introduces players to a morality system in which their decisions have consequences for character and plot development. Decreasing bandwidth costs allow UO to offer a less expensive monthly subscription option (rather than hourly gameplay) that soon attracts over 100,000 subscriptions. Engadget will one day call the Ultima franchise “the most important game series ever.”
Release of the Sega Dreamcast, the “first internet-ready console.” The Dreamcast includes a preinstalled browser called PlanetWeb, making internet connectivity an integral part of its use. The 2001 release of Phantasy Star Online for Dreamcast brings multiplayer online gaming to the world of consoles, paving the way for titles like Halo and Final Fantasy.
Second Life shows gamers just how immersive and lifelike an RPG can be. Second Life players can own land, marry online, and even become real-life millionaires by offering virtual products or services. Soon, IBM buys ten islands within the game for employee training purposes; embassies have a presence in Second Life, as do various news outlets; avatars perform live music and theater in-game. When legislation on online gambling tightens in 2007, virtual banks in Second Life collapse, affecting the in-game economy. With its chat capabilities, Second Life is both an RPG and an early social network.
Virtual pet site Neopets dazzles young and casual gamers with PvP battles, Flash-powered mini-games, and even educational content. While it’s free to join Neopets, in-game currency and premium content can be purchased with actual money. There’s even a stock market in Neopia where users can buy and sell with Neopoints they earn in minigames and quests.
Gamers encounter the world’s largest free MMORPG, RuneScape. Social media sites don’t exist yet, but RuneScape players can use in-game chat functionality to stay connected with friends and meet new ones. The browser game is cloud-based before most people have ever heard of cloud computing, and its modest system requirements allow it to be played on almost any computer.
World of Warcraft attracts millions of subscribers to become the world’s most popular subscription-based MMORPG and the 4th highest grossing video game of all time. The variety of WoW quests available allow players to level up their character by completing quests rather than by “grinding,” or completing repetitive tasks -- an innovation popular with casual gamers who play less often or for less time. The rested bonus feature, which allows a player to level up more quickly after they haven’t played the game for awhile, encourages casual gamers to return to the game (and continue their paid subscription.) Most of all, WoW becomes notable for raids -- groups of gamers who band together to defeat difficult bosses in a contest that combines tactical strategy, logic puzzles, and teamwork. WoW’s popularity crosses gender, age, and cultural lines, earning it a place in both gaming history and pop culture.
Indie title Minecraft redefines the xsandbox genre with its laidback, DIY-friendly attitude, allowing players the creative freedom to build with virtual LEGOs on an interactive canvas. Support for third-party mods helps to strengthen the Minecraft community and give players a sense of ownership in the franchise.
Because Minecraft levels are randomly generated, no two worlds are alike. The game offers both an endless “creation” mode and an adventure “survival mode” in which the player must fight off monsters and scavenge for food while building. There’s a nearly endless supply of replay value -- and even educational value. Minecraft is simple enough to attract casual gamers but challenging enough to entertain hardcore players. At a time when other developers debate switching to a freemium model, Minecraft remains successful with a traditional, flat pricing structure.
Do freemium games herald the end of traditional pay-to-play games? Amid reports that mobile gaming revenue will surpass that of console gaming, PlayStation cancels their production of the handheld Vita 2. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 2/3 of American adults own a smartphone in 2015. This fact, coupled with mobile titles’ low cost and simple gameplay, help mobile games capture casual gamers in a way consoles can’t.
The same year industry giant Konami concedes that mobile gaming “is where the future of gaming lies,” World of Warcraft loses 44% of its subscribers in six months -- and digital gaming sales reach a new record of $61 billion.
Halo 2 offers full-featured online gameplay via Xbox Live, a subscription-based service Microsoft launched in 2002. It introduces console gamers to an advanced online multiplayer game with a new “matchmaking” feature to help players form online groups, in-game voice chat, clans, and more. The full-featured online gameplay is a win-win-win for Halo, the Xbox console, and Xbox live. Within 24 hours of the Halo 2 release, the number of players on Xbox Live climbs to 4x the previous record.
League of Legends popularizes the free-to-play model of game monetization in the U.S. by allowing players to choose how much they want to spend -- by selling convenience and customization rather than access. League of Legends and other “freemium” titles will earn millions by charging small fees for in-game content and upgrades, setting the standard for the influx of mobile games to follow. Following LoL’s success, Dungeons & Dragons Online transitions to a free-to-play model.
2009 is also a big year for mobile and social media gaming: it sees the premiere of one of the world’s most popular freemium series to date (Angry Birds) and the heyday of social media-linked FarmVille, whose players outnumber real farmers 60 to 1. Games available on mobile devices and through Facebook appeal to a whole new demographic of casual gamers, many of whom don’t own consoles or play MMORPGs -- but do have mobile phones and Facebook accounts.
Casual gaming giant Popcap (mastermind behind Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies) downsizes its North America office and closes its office in Dublin, citing a need to stay competitive in an increasingly freemium gaming industry. Coincidentally (or not), 2012 is the same year that freemium giant Candy Crush Saga makes its debut. Candy Crush’s concept of charging for extra lives (in addition to powerups) will help parent company King’s value to surpass the Star Wars franchise in 2015 -- despite the fact that about 70% of players never pay a dime.
Virtual reality and augmented reality dominate gaming news outlets, with initial and significant hype surrounding the release of Pokemon Go, a mobile game that uses phones’ location services – and augmented reality tech – to simulate Pokemon encounters in the real world.
The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset is another popular topic, with high-profile gamemakers like Minecraft’s announcing support early on, following Oculus VR’s announcement that the Rift will ship with an Xbox One controller. But controllers may go the way of arcade cabinet games in the near future. Competitor headset MindLeap by MindMaze will reportedly use neural sensors so gamers can control games with their thoughts. Virtual reality tech could make gaming a richer experience than ever before, by placing gamers inside the worlds they’re exploring.
Could virtual reality headsets disrupt the freemium mobile gaming trend? Maybe – and they could bolster console sales, too, if partnerships like the Rift’s with Xbox succeed. (Demand for the Rift has been strong since its Kickstarter days, despite the steep price.) Companies around the world are hedging bets on gamers’ willingness to pay a premium for a more novel, immersive experience. So far, they seem to be winning that bet. Time will tell.