Brave new worlds

Since the inception of a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), the birth of the virtual world has taken the internet by storm. From World Of Warcraft to Second Life, they can be about gaming experiences, socialising and even making money. WINDOWS takes a look at some of the best examples of this burgeoning market – while considering their roots and their future.

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By  Derek Francis Published  November 24, 2008

Since the inception of a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), the birth of the virtual world has taken the internet by storm. From World Of Warcraft to Second Life, they can be about gaming experiences, socialising and even making money. WINDOWS takes a look at some of the best examples of this burgeoning market - while considering their roots and their future.

As a concept, virtual worlds have been around for decades in one form or another. We see them in books, in films and as well as other media. But, if we consider a virtual world to be a computer simulated environment in which a number of users can simultaneously inhabit, while interacting with each other, then we'd have to look back at the 1970s, before the Internet as we know it existed.

Arguably the first virtual world based on a graphical interface was derived from a multi-user game called Maze War. Today, it looks pretty rudimentary; at the press of button, players can move forwards, backwards, left or right, navigating their way around a maze. Players were represented by eyeballs and when they encountered another player (also shaped as an eyeball), the first person to pull the trigger scored points.

This innocuous game featured many of the same things modern massively multiplayer online (MMO) games do today - character avatars, first-person 3D perspective, online chat, a level editor and network play. Back in 1977, it was possible to play this on ARPANET, the predecessor to today's Internet.

Another key milestone in virtual worlds again came from the 1970s, with the rising popularity of multi-user dungeons (MUDs). These are text-only incarnations in which players roam the virtual environment, chatting with one another and doing combat to gain experience points and level up.

It has most in common with popular RPG titles, and its lack of a graphical interface meant players' imaginations were key. They would read descriptions of the rooms they enter, including the room's contents and type in text instructions to complete actions.

They do offer something akin to online chat rooms in the fact that text emoticons were commonly used.  You could hug, tickle, poke, slap, pinch and do much more to someone, as a way of being more intimate than a simple text-only conversation.

To see how we got to today's massive online landscape, which is saturated with virtual worlds, there are a number of important titles we need to pay tribute to on the way.

Early MMOS

In 1991, Neverwinter Nights became available on the AOL network, costing players a whopping US $6 per hour to play. Generally considered the first massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) to display graphics, it was based on the very popular Dungeons & Dragons RPG world. It was available to play until 1997 and, at its peak, it amassed 115,000 players.

During the peak evening hours it would host about 2000 simultaneously. While this is small by today's standards, back then it was huge and some observers at the time even suggest that it contributed greatly to AOL's fast-increasing subscriber numbers.

The first graphical 3D MMORPG is often cited as Meridian 59 - released in 1996. It won several awards and helped usher in the flat monthly subscription fee for gamers, as well as other now ubiquitous features such as in-game mail and guild voting systems.

One year later Ultima Online was released in 1997. This was the first to benefit from faster Internet connections, while offering a rich connection to legendary game titles. The Ultima franchise stretches back to 1980 and had seen nine instalments to become one of the best known RPG franchises of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Series creator Richard Garriott even coined the term MMORPG, and this series, more than anything before it, brought the genre to the mass market.

Common features

Many of today's MMO titles were centred around the gaming world. Because of their roots in MUDs and the likes of Ultima Online, many developers chose work on a fantasy setting, loosely following the principles of the older Dungeons & Dragons.

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