While what are now called MMORPGs may have seemed a promising field in the beginning, it was really already in peril from the time NSFNET restrictions were relaxed. American RPGs had been solely the sphere of Electronics Arts, Activision, SSI, Origin, and soon New World Computing from the year 1985. While it may have seemed other companies sometimes made RPGs, in fact a brief investigation shows these were generally affiliates of Electronic Arts or Activision or simply companies they owned, or sometimes on contract they would have games made, such as that by Interplay in '85. For instance Infocom, as it were, published the licensed RPG Battletech in '88, but in fact they had been bought by Activision in the previous year for 7.5 million dollars. Interstel that made Scavengers of the Mutant World in '88 was also an affiliate of Electronic Arts. By the year 1996 Origin had been bought, in '92, for 37 million dollars by Electronic Arts, and New World Computing in '96 by 3DO for 10 million dollars. In this kind of market, what would be the fate of these new, promising online RPGs?
Not a good one, I fear. Both 3DO and Electronic Arts meant to release an online version of the franchises they bought, Ultima Online and Might & Magic Online. The second was never released. The first was released in 1997. This had been preceded by Meridian 59, by a studio named Archetype, which 3DO promptly bought in the same year. In this same year Sony's 989 Studios (named Verant Interactive for Everquests release, then absorbed into Sony the next year) began development on Everquest. Microsoft also made a contract with Turbine that year, who was making Asheron's Call. Sierra Online also released The Realm Online in '96. And SSI was not absent either, releasing an MMO with their AD&D license, Dark Sun Online. So leading the way into this new world of graphical online RPGs were Sierra, 3DO, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, SSI, and Sony. Well this was nothing new. But it is important to illustrate that while text MUDs began humbly, often made by lone persons who made no money at all from them, graphical MUDs such as these immediately drew the largest companies in America and by '96 were large commercial investments for most. At the time it was good, but what would it hold for the future?
Note also the person Jake Song. He made the online RPG Nexus in '96, and by '98 had already made another. Short-sighted? Or are we deluded who thought much would come of these graphical online RPGs? Sure they were growing....
In '98, only one year after its release, Electronic Arts made an expansion pack for Ultima Online. More games, more expansion packs, &c. But let me provide a more detailed analysis of the faults of online RPGs that eventually undid them.
1) They were highly commercial from the beginning. There was never a low key period in graphical online RPGs. That had only been the priviledge of text MUDs.
2) The main concern for all these companies was money. Not bad for a few years, but 3DO shut down Meridian 59 in 2000, in which year the fledgling RPG Everquest had already released its first expansion (maybe in response to the many demands from the new recruits to online RPGs they had attracted, whose attitude is still visible on Google Groups. A typical post might be, "I will leave this game if they do not release an expansion". They were a very crude audience they had attracted.) Ultima Online completely changed in this year too. No more Mr. Koster designing the expansion pack, I note, for what this means. As the marketing division of EA in 1987 had given Escudero 5 weeks to change the theme of his completed game from Norse to Oriental, I do not imagine they were much better 13 years later.
3) Loss of touch with good game design. So here in the only the fifth year of MMOs the original is already gone, and Ultima Online is irrevocably changed. The new leader is Everquest, yes Everquest that had been called on newsgroups "hack and slash", and that removed PvP altogether. Traditional PvP became extinct. Dark Age of Camelot brought something like it back in 2001, but there was no looting any more, and no attacking people on same faction. Shadowbane almost dared to have equipment looting in 2003, but changed their minds in the end. What early games had done without much thought, was now nearly impossible. How was this so?
4) The games were far too popular. Although Everquest had no partnership with Pizza Hut till 2005, when World of Warcraft aired its first Coca Cola commercial in China, the people coming into these games were ignorant, very much so. Good, for a while--the virtual worlds were filling up with players, of all kinds, and that is what a virtual world is about. But what happens then?
5) Too many young players. Yes games will always have young players, but without any barriers to entry it gets ugly fast. Problem with young players--their future is uncertain, they have no principles, they jump from one game to next, their opinions are easily changed, they are very accepting of change.
6) Companies treated online games like any other. Big mistake. It never comes back when you have replaced it. There is no way I think this could have been averted.
7) Inexplicable inability of games to coexist peacefully. Why did Meridian 59 shut down in 2000? Why did Ultima Online change completely in 2000? I have no answer for this, except to assume it is some combination of the above, or some kind of mental deficiency of the companies or players. How can you make a good online RPG and people not appreciate it? I could understand if they were selling toys, but these were serious worlds, ones that could entertain you for years and years. What kind of people were playing these games?
8) Endless change after endless change and complete loss of trust in companies. Unlike all other games, even text MUDs in general, MMOs changed often and changed fast. Although many older MMOs are still run today, few have reason to believe that they are anything like they were. The change of a game like Everquest was dizzying. It was in utter overdrive. In two years they had completely changed their interface. They had charged headlong into mudflation with their first expansion, though I have no doubt they were counseled against it by people that had played MUDs. They were releasing an expansion every single year. In five years the "sequel" was released, but the game had become distasteful in the previous year or two. World of Warcraft was even worse. The game was released in November 2004 and practically overhauled in January 2007, a little over two years.