Welcome, adventurers, to a nostalgic tour through some of the most influential and groundbreaking MMORPGs over the past 30 years! From text-based multi-user dungeons to immersive 3D worlds filled with millions of players, online roleplaying games have come a long way since the early days of dial-up internet. This blog post will highlight 12 classic and pioneering MMORPGs that each brought innovative ideas or technology to the table, shaping the genre we know and love today.
We’ll revisit beloved virtual worlds that captivated gamers’ hearts and imaginations, even if their now-primitive graphics induce more laughs than awe. Reading this may spark fond memories of daring dungeon raids, intense PVP showdowns, and lasting friendships forged with fellow wanderers during simpler times when an MMORPG offered not just entertainment, but whole new dimensions to explore. So gather ‘round the virtual campfire and let your inner adventurer live again!
Meridian 59 (1995)
One of the oldest and most influential MMORPGs is Meridian 59, originally released in 1996, and its servers were up since 1995. Meridian 59 pioneered many gameplay elements and technologies that later became standard in the genre. Developed by Archetype Interactive and published by 3DO, it featured the first 3D graphical world in an online RPG. It also introduced the subscription payment model that most MMORPGs use today. This was later abandoned for a free-to-play subscription model, along with the source code being publicly available.
The original inspiration for Meridian 59 was the 1980s multiplayer fantasy RPG Scepter of Goth. Developers Andrew Kirmse and Chris Kirmse spent many hours playing Scepter in junior high school. Meridian 59 would later incorporate core gameplay elements from Scepter such as levels, spells, killing monsters, and multiplayer fantasy roleplaying. The Kirmses even reused their Scepter character names Zaphod and Zandramas when developing Meridian 59.
With its focus on PvP combat and skill-based progression, Meridian 59 eschewed the level and class systems common in other RPGs of its time. Players improved their characters by using abilities, rather than gaining experience points to “level up.” They weren’t restricted to a single character class either. Instead, they developed different schools of magic and combat skills independently from each other.
The game world itself was notable for its player-driven politics, guild mechanics, and frequent expansions that expanded its scope. Modern MMORPG players would find familiar features like player housing, PvP warfare, guild halls to conquer, and an in-game mailing system.
Though not a huge commercial success, Meridian 59 blazed a trail for future online RPGs with its innovative design. It proved both the viability of 3D graphical MMOs and the subscription business model. The game’s core features and mechanics set the template that later blockbusters like Ultima Online and World of Warcraft would follow and refine for much larger audiences.
Ultima Online (1997)
Ultima Online is a fantasy MMORPG developed by Origin Systems and published by Electronic Arts in 1997. Set in the fictional world of Britannia, players create avatars to explore the land, fight monsters, interact with other players, and progress their character. It pioneered concepts that popularized graphical MMORPGs like persistent worlds, player-driven economy, unrestricted PVP combat, guild systems, and new content via regular expansions.
Key features include open-ended gameplay with minimal structured quests, skills that develop through use, procedurally generated dungeons, extensive crafting system, player housing, reputation system, and sieges. While influenced by MUDs, its graphical world and group combat dynamics attracted over 100,000 subscribers in the first year. Despite initial bugs and controversy over PVP, the living world with emergent player interactions within an Ultima setting was highly innovative.
After the Renaissance expansion split the world into PVP and non-PVP halves, Third Dawn failed to compete graphically with rival EverQuest. Server populations peaked around 250,000 after the Age of Shadows expansion in 2003 before entering a long decline. While early growth relied heavily on Japanese players, the 2004 release of World of Warcraft captured Western audiences. After acquisition by Electronic Arts and then Mythic Entertainment, final expansions focused on new races and naval combat. Current development passed to Broadsword in 2014, which continues seasonal content updates.
With its freeform classless system, player-driven economy and ever-evolving world dynamics, Ultima Online created a influential template for sandbox MMORPGs offering open gameplay. While dated aesthetically today, during its peak popularity Ultima Online set new standards for virtual worlds and retains an active player base over 25 years after launch. Its long commercial lifespan cemented MMORPGs as a viable gaming genre, paving the way for future blockbusters.
Tibia is a 2D medieval fantasy MMORPG developed by German studio CipSoft and released in 1997. One of the longest running and pioneers of the genre, over 250,000 players logged in during its 2007 peak. The open sandbox world has basic graphics but extensive lands, lore, quests, and magical combat across four classes - Knight, Paladin, Sorcerer, and Druid.
Key elements include dangerous full loot PVP almost everywhere initially, forcing teamwork, text parser-based interaction with NPCs, free targeting and area effect spells, skill progression from use, high death penalties, and houses for roleplaying. Early reputation for difficulty came from unrestricted PKing and XP loss. Updates gradually reduced risks while expanding the world tenfold.
The complex “skull” mechanic now limits PKing on some server rulesets. Carefully balancing classes, limited resources, and penalties nurtures politics around territory control. Subscription plans offer cosmetics and convenience. Revenue supports regular content expansions.
While dated visually, focus on community persistence and exploration within a fantasy world pioneered design concepts that influenced sandbox MMORPGs for decades. Unique textures like text parsers in a graphical game world opened new directions. Shareware roots prioritized tight gameplay over presentation. Regional fansites and volunteer positions nurture dedicated players that carried Tibia’s ecosystem beyond most its ’90s peers.
Today it retains appeal among fans of old school mechanics looking for deeper interactions. The automated anti-cheating system and moderation protect server economies. Major twice-yearly updates continue advancing the living world. Two decades since launch as a hobby project, Tibia persists by iterating on its niche without alienating loyal fans.
The 4th Coming (1998)
- Image via Steam
The 4th Coming (T4C) is a fantasy MMORPG originally created in 1998 by developer Vircom Interactive. Set in the medieval world of Althea, the game centers around an impending event cryptically referred to as the “4th Coming.” Players create human characters, distribute attributes, and increase levels and skills to complete quests and battle enemies.
Released initially as a Windows PC game, T4C employs classic MMORPG systems like magic weapons, elemental magic spells, crafting, and partying with other players. Its classless system allows flexible character building through leveling choices. While graphics and interfaces were primitive even for its time, the game garnered over 500,000 registered players by 2002.
After operation rights were sold to the French company Pole SARL in 2003, Vircom founder Marc Frega eventually reacquired the game under his new studio Dialsoft in 2006. Dialsoft continues developing T4C to this day alongside licensing server hosting to third parties. Players can still experience the original game or play on servers with custom content additions.
Staying true to its initial 1998 release, The 4th Coming represents an early evolution of Western fantasy MMORPGs prior to World of Warcraft’s domination of the genre. Its gritty, open-ended adventure harkens back to the early days of virtual world-building and roleplaying.
EverQuest is a 3D fantasy MMORPG developed by Verant Interactive and published in 1999 by Sony Online Entertainment. Set in the fictional world of Norrath, players create avatars from races like humans, elves, dwarves, and ogres that adventure across a landscape of over 500 zones. Characters fall into archetypal classes like Warriors and Wizards which determine special abilities. Core gameplay focuses on banding into parties to defeat enemies, gain experience and equipment, and complete quests. PvP combat is restricted to specified zones and servers.
Key features that popularized EverQuest include a 3D engine with strong graphics, immersive backstory and environments, challenging group combat requiring defined party roles, ability to socialize with other players, and addictive progression via levels and gear that could take months. While influenced by text MUDs, EverQuest took graphical MMORPGs mainstream. Despite issues like grinding and sparse quest content, its sales eclipsed competitor Ultima Online within a year.
After 4 expansions that raised the level cap and added new continents, the Planes of Power expansion introduced a hub zone for easy teleportation around world. Subsequent releases became smaller in scope but more frequent as EverQuest faced rising competition. EverQuest pioneered concepts like raiding top-tier zones, instancing dungeons, and selling expansions digitally. It received significant critical acclaim, including 1999 Game of the Year from GameSpot, and Hall of Fame awards. EverQuest hit over 500,000 subscribers by 2003 before going free-to-play in 2012 to halt declining users. It continues receiving regular content updates and retains a small but active fan base decades after initial launch. With its long-term success, EverQuest popularized subscription MMORPGs and profoundly impacted the online gaming industry.
Neopets is a virtual pet website launched in 1999 that allows users to care for digital pets called “Neopets” and explore the fantasy world of Neopia. Users can earn virtual currency called Neopoints to purchase items for their Neopets or invest in the virtual Neopian Stock Market. The site featured immersive advertising, integrating sponsors like McDonald’s into games and content.
At its peak popularity in the mid-2000s, Neopets had over 30 million monthly users. However, the site struggled to maintain relevance and traffic declined after its purchase by JumpStart in 2014. technical issues and long content droughts during JumpStart’s ownership disenchanted fans. In 2023, Neopets was bought out by its management team as part of the newly-independent World of Neopia, Inc., which aims to revitalize the site.
Neopets allows players to customize their Neopets’ colors and species, build them homes, battle other players, and earn trophies. The site also contains quests, contests, multiplayer games, and a player economy. An in-game world map with themed areas houses shops, attractions, and activities tied to site lore. Players contribute content through the Neopian Times newspaper and creative submissions.
While praised for teaching kids coding and money management skills, Neopets has faced criticism for exposing children to gambling through luck-based games. It also popularized “immersive advertising” directed at young audiences. Nonetheless, Neopets demonstrated innovative monetization and site mechanics that influenced social virtual worlds. Its distinct culture and pet simulation gameplay inspired nostalgia among millennials.
Estimating to have been launched in September of 2001, RaceWarKingdoms is a complex text-based MMORPG that was one of the earliest to take advantage of the free-to-play & pay-to-win model. This game continues to remain online, receiving regular updates, monthly tournaments with cash prizes, and a silly promotional swimsuit competition to encourage sharing in forums. During the Pandemic
A key feature is obtaining kingdoms by settling unoccupied land. Veteran players maintain multiple kingdoms, called plexes, to generate interest gold from deposited amounts. Kingdoms also enable attacking other players’ territories.
Skills range from 0 to 125, increasing randomly rather than through a progress bar. Advancement chance relates to the percentage of experience allocated to skills. Players train one skill at a time but can reach proficiency in multiple categories. Improvement becomes increasingly difficult at higher levels.
Quests provide special items through visiting specific locations, NPC interactions, or defeating particular monsters. While premium items can be purchased, all quest rewards are obtainable through regular play.
While RWK pioneered the text-based MMORPG genre, it’s playerbase are mostly people coming back for nostalgia. Nonetheless, it remains a unique relic of early browser-based gaming innovation.
Runescape | Runescape Classic (2001)
- Image via the Runescape Wiki
RuneScape does not follow a linear storyline; rather, players set their own goals and objectives. One major activity is training skills. There are over 27 skills ranging from combat abilities to crafting trades. As players gain experience points, their skill levels increase, unlocking new abilities and rewards. Higher skill levels allow crafting better items or defeating stronger monsters. Reaching the maximum level in a skill earns the player a skillcape symbolizing mastery.
Quests provide another goal for players. These challenge the player with various tasks and puzzles, often requiring certain skill levels or combat abilities to complete. Quests reward the player with gold, unique items, new areas to explore, and more. Over 200 quests exist, grouped into categories based on requirements and difficulty.
Combat plays a prominent role, being essential to complete many quests and defeat monsters across the world. RuneScape features melee, magic, ranged combat styles with strengths and weaknesses in a “combat triangle.” Players can customize their preferred combat approach. Defeating monsters allows players to collect raw materials to craft into usable items and equipment. The riskier monster locations and group boss fights offer greater rewards.
RuneScape appeals to players who enjoy both an immersive roleplaying experience and showing dedication towards maxing out their skills and achievements. Its vast array of activities, from complex questlines to relaxing social activities, allows each player to choose their own path. The lack of linear structure inspires creativity in pursuing self-directed goals rather than following a set storyline.
Diablo 1 (1997) | Devilution X | Diablo 2 (2000)
The Diablo franchise sits somewhere between Action RPG to MMORPG due to the focus more on reptitive hacking & slashing over traditional MMO values. Nonetheless, its impact left footprints on the MMO industry even if it’s technically an outsider.
Set in the dark fantasy world of Sanctuary, the game has players battle through procedurally generated dungeons and ultimately descend into Hell itself to face the demonic Lord of Terror, Diablo. Players can choose between three character classes - Warrior, Rogue, and Sorcerer - each with unique attributes and skills, but all capable of using similar spells and equipment.
Gameplay involves tactical combat, questing, and acquiring randomized loot dropped from enemies. Known for its grim atmosphere, randomization ensuring replayability, and pioneering online multiplayer support through Battle.net, Diablo popularized the action RPG subgenre and spawned several acclaimed sequels over the past 25 years. Its lasting influence on loot-driven dungeon crawlers and innovative use of randomization make Diablo a landmark game in RPG history.
Diablo utilizes a peer-to-peer connection scheme that is still usable on Battle.net to this day. The Devilution X open source backend allows has its own multiplayer connectivity.
Diablo 2’s multiplayer function still works as intended on either Open Realms, Battle.net and Direct IP connections. It should be mentioned that the Battle.net community is fragmented since the launch of its remastered edition.
Underlight is a fantasy multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) developed by Lyra Studios and launched in March 1998. Currently managed by KoiWare, Underlight operates on a free-to-play model with optional purchasable content. As a first-person graphical MUD, Underlight combines text-based gameplay with graphical environments. Players explore a dreamworld divided into interconnected rooms across multiple planes, each plane providing a distinct theme and challenges.
Character progression focuses on four archetypes - Gatekeepers specialize in melee combat, Dreamseers in ranged magic, Soulmasters in support and healing, and Fatesenders in status effects. Characters gain experience points through defeating monsters and completing player-assigned tasks. They also increase their skills through usage. Progression at certain milestones is gated behind completing lessons from veteran players acting as teachers.
Notably, Underlight lacks non-player character quest givers - instead, its open-ended roleplay is driven entirely by players. The most powerful monsters are also player-controlled. Players can join factions focused around competing ideologies tied to the game’s eight houses. These houses open and shift control as player conflicts and events unfold.
Death carries penalties of experience loss, item drops, and temporary ghost transformation. Permanent “kills” are possible but extremely rare and difficult. Underlight’s setting builds a shared dreamworld consciousness called the City of Dreams, enveloped by chaotic nightmares. Players hail from more mundane “shards” of a plane called Cloudsbreak. The City’s evolving narrative directly stems from conflicts between factional player houses vying for control amidst the spreading Chaos.
Dark Ages (1999)
Dark Ages is a fantasy MMORPG set in the mythical land of Temuair, loosely inspired by Celtic mythology. Originally launched by Nexon and now operated by KRU Interactive, the game has a rich backstory about the lost civilization of Hy-brasyl and an ongoing battle between the gods of light and darkness. Players create a character from one of five main classes - Warrior, Monk, Rogue, Priest, or Wizard - that can later upgrade to advanced classes like Gladiator and Druid. Characters gain levels through combat and quests, allocating points to improve stats like Strength, Dexterity, and Wisdom that allow learning new skills and spells.
A major focus is PvE group combat in hunting grounds and three PvP arenas. Characters join parties to take down monsters and bosses using class-specific abilities. Equipment like weapons, shields, and magic staves can be crafted and enchanted to boost stats. An in-depth religion system allows players to worship different gods, rise through the temple ranks as an Acolyte or Priest, and earn favors and pet companions. Dark Ages also features a political system where players can take on roles like Guard, Demagogue, and Judge to make laws, hold trials, and govern the in-game towns. Contests reward top artistic and literary works submitted by players with nobility titles that confer special powers like removing troublesome players.
With deep lore, community-driven politics, class progression, questing, and combat, Dark Ages provides an immersive medieval fantasy experience.
What an epic quest down memory lane! From text parsers to isometric pixels to fully 3D worlds, we’ve seen the genre progress leaps and bounds technically while retaining that magical sense of exploration and camaraderie. Modern conveniences like easy travel and automated finders sacrifice some old-school charm for quality of life. Yet at their cores, today’s titans like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV owe their DNA to these pioneering ancestors. Their lineage speaks to how MMORPGs can create living, breathing second homes.
Hopefully you’ve discovered some new old gems or rekindled nostalgia for titles that shaped your childhood. If so, pay it forward by sharing them with a new generation of would-be heroes! While we can’t rewind time, groups of players keep many of these fantasy realms alive through active servers or spiritual successors. So set your hearthstone, rest your avatar’s feet by a virtual campfire, and stay tuned for wherever this incredible journey takes us next! The real adventures lie ahead.