[MUD-Dev] History of Online Gaming, part III

Koster Koster
Mon Nov 8 09:43:44 New Zealand Daylight Time 1999


By Jessica Mulligan, posted at http://www.happypuppy.com/columns/bth/

Happy 30th Birthday, Online Games--Part III
Before we begin with part III, three comments: 


An addition: Troy Dawson wrote in and reminded me that the venerable Empire
appeared on mainframes in the mid-to-late 1970s. His quote from a USEnet
post: 
Peter S. Langston did indeed write the original code based on a board game
they'd been playing at Reed College. He started writing the original version
of Empire in about 1972, and it was playable not long after. I personally
played Empire at the Rand Corporation (now RAND) in the mid-1970s; certainly
by 1978, but probably earlier. 

However, the earliest historical note I could find mentioned only Walter
Bright's 1978 DEC-10 version, which was the one modified Mark Baldwin for
the PC and released in 1988 as Empire: Wargame of the Century" by the
now-defunct Interstel. It is perfectly believable, however, that Langston
wrote an earlier version and that Bright was the first to copyright a
version and the name. Anyone with info concerning this, please drop me a
line. 


BBS and DOOR Games: Reader Andrew McConachie wrote in to ask why these games
weren't included in this timeline. Good question. The brief answer is,
limited space in the column and because I haven't finished my research on
them. Most of these games fell off the face of the earth between 1993 and
1996. They also probably deserve a column all by themselves. 

You'll note I only run the timeline through the end of 1997, with the
release of Ultima Online. I intend to finish out 1998 and 1999 sometime in
February or March, after we see the results from Asheron's Call on the Zone.

Now, on with the show: 

1993: The Year of Incubation
DARPA-Net is now increasingly known to the public as the internet. It has
become open to commercial enterprises, even though the great majority of the
users are still government employees, contractors, university students,
instructors and researchers. Small local companies, many of which used to
provide one to 16 line BBSes, are now becoming Internet Service Providers,
as well. By the end of 1993, there may be as many as four million Internet
users; no one is really keeping a count at this point, because few people
really care. The press starts to pick up on the phenomena and starts to talk
up the internet. 

The World Wide Web, an innovation by Tim Berners-Lee of CERN, is still a
text-based toy for students and interested researchers. However, some
university students, including some unknown geek named Marc Andressen, are
trying to change all that with a graphic interface named MOSAIC. 

The online services are still pretty much unaware of the internet as a
commercial opportunity. Their subscribers can't access the internet via the
service and the overall subscriber numbers are still pretty small - maybe
six million or so active subscribers. By the end of the year, with internet
use beginning to skyrocket, they will all start paying very close attention.


In mid-1993, Prodigy goes from flat rate to hourly charges of about $3 an
hour, causing a huge customer backlash. Smelling blood, AOL and then GEnie
lower their rates to $3, too and the price war begins. As usual, CompuServe
chooses to ignore the price war. This is the first in a line of major errors
that will end up with them being owned by AOL in four years. 

In the computer game industry, the trend is in modem and LAN connectivity to
allow two players to compete against each other. Isolated instances
occasionally allow four players to participate. More and more games are
shipped to retail with modem code built in. 

For the most part, 1993 is a pretty dull year for massively multiplayer
games on the online services. Simutronics formally released CyberStrike on
Genie, Red Baron and Shadow of Yserbius, and RPG, picked up steam on INN and
MPG-Net started to add some small games to complement their RPG, Drakkar.
The price drop to an average $3 an hour did do wonders for use of games on
GEnie and AOL; usage of most games rose to between 1.5 and two times what it
was before. 

With all the above taken together as a whole, however, 1993 was the
watershed year for multiplayer gaming. The groundwork and infrastructure was
laid for explosion to come. And, man, did it come! 

1994
The singular groundbreaking title this year is Doom from id Software. Other
great titles were released this year (including Warcraft by Blizzard, which
will slowly build the real-time strategy niche into a large one, too) and
the actual publication date of Doom was December 10, 1993, but who cares?
This is the game that put first-person shooters on the map and virtually
created a brand new section of the computer games industry. Most appealing
was the addition of LAN code to allow four players to connect and happily
frag each other. Both Doom and Doom II are showered with just about every
game and technical achievement award in existence. 

Late in the year, the guys at id will start hearing a new refrain: "Please
add TCP/IP so we can play this across the internet!" After Doom II is
released in October, they begin to oblige. They also start pondering an
interesting thought: What if we built internet connectivity in our next
game? 

Jim Clark, who made Silicon Graphics a billion dollar company, has recruited
Andressen and pals to form Netscape and make the MOSAIC code into something
more useful for viewing the World Wide Web. The first version of Netscape
Navigator is released late in the year and is an immediate smash success.
The web is now somewhat useful for even relatively unsophisticated computer
users. 

Traditional media companies are starting to get the idea that online gaming
is going to be big someday. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp buys ace multiplayer
game developer Kesmai Corporation for an unknown price. AT&T buys INN from
Sierra Online for an estimated $50 million. 

1995
By this time, AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy all offer some internet content to
their subscribers. This consists mostly of access to USEnet newsgroups,
gopher and, oh yeah, something called the World Wide Web. Main result: AOL's
unsophisticated customers head out onto the newsgroups and get soundly
slaughtered for violating every posting protocol on the internet. 

Id begins openly testing Quake, an improved version of Doom with some
internet server and play capability built in. It's like giving heroin to an
addict; gamers want more, and id gives it to them. This open testing process
proves to be a PR bonanza; this isn't building buzz, it's building demand
for a product into a homicidal frenzy. 

Everyone and his grandmother seem to be developing an FPS or RTS game.
Clones of Doom and Warcraft are being published on nearly a monthly basis.
Descent and Command and Conquer build large audiences of their own. 

By some estimates, over 300 text-based MUDs are now available on the
internet, almost all of them free of charge. 

Gemstone III goes live on AOL late in the year and immediately builds a
following. It is soon followed by several Kesmai games, including perennial
favorite Air Warrior. 

Hasbro and Westwood release an internet-capable version of Monopoly. Four
years later, it is still a top 20 seller. 

1996
Quake is formally released and the boys from id have changed the world
again. In almost no time at all, Quake servers start appearing all over the
world. On some nights, over 80,000 people will be fragging each other in
10,000+ simultaneous game sessions. 

After getting a taste, players want more. Lots more. By the end of the year,
about 20 titles will have internet connectivity in some form or another.
Three years later, at the end of 1999, Microsoft's Gaming Zone alone will
offer 118 Internet-playable titles. 

At the Electronic Entertainment Exposition in May, Origin Systems
demonstrates an early pre-Alpha test version of a little game called Ultima
Online. It excites some modest interest. 

AOL buys INN from AT&T for about 20 percent of what AT&T paid Sierra Online
for it a couple years previously, proving once again that AT&T couldn't
market immortality if it had an exclusive. 

In December, AOL switches from an hourly to charge to a flat rate of $19.95
a month, which proves to be so popular it gives new meaning to the phrase,
"Can't get there from here." The pricing also includes access to the
massively multiplayer games on the service; players rejoice as AOL's margin
falls through the floor. 

1997
Origin releases Ultima Online for play across the internet. Despite massive
problems with bugs and lag, the game has over 50,000 paying customers within
three months. The game proves there is a large audience of gamers waiting
for MMRPGs. 

The Modern Era of Online Gaming begins. 



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