Brave New Worlds: The evolution of online RPGs


Jun 13, 2006
Brave New Worlds: The evolution of online RPGs Part 1

The PC gaming landscape is littered with MMORPG titles, from the ground-breaking EverQuest and World of Warcraft to the unique City of Heroes. All of these games share a frighteningly addictive formula and a devoted fanbase. This means that persistent online worlds are big news, and they’re only going to get bigger. So what's in store for the MMORPG world in 2007? Let’s review.

Ever since the first text-based MUDs, modeled after pen and paper games like D&D, appeared on bulletin board systems in the 1980’s, online role-playing games have played an important role in the development of multiplayer gaming and persistent online worlds. From those humble beginnings, MUDs grew and evolved, becoming important meeting places for early internet pioneers and yielding countless variations and themes. At their height in the mid-1990’s, games like Dragon’s Gate, Gemstone III, and DragonRealms involved thousands playing simultaneously in rich, detailed environments full of mystical creatures and fantastic adventures. MUDs are still alive and well, but their text-based nature inherently limits them to a niche market. In an increasingly complex gaming world, truly mass-market appeal would require one more ingredient: graphics.

The transition to graphical online RPGs began with innovative titles like Meridian 59, Asheron’s Call, and most substantially Ultima Online, but the true boom was ushered in by 1999’s landmark EverQuest.

I participated in the closed beta for EverQuest, and even in that early, unfinished stage, it was as engaging and engrossing as games can get, surely a sign of things to come. The game, colloquially known as “EverCrack” due to its highly addictive properties, became the first of a new generation of graphical MUDs, bearing the torch of those that came before it and setting the standard for future games. After dominating the online landscape for years, the role-playing intensive EverQuest and its eventual sequel were largely upstaged by the astoundingly popular, more action-oriented World of Warcraft. With more than 8 million subscribers, WoW has captured the hearts and wallets of many hopelessly obsessed fans, becoming perhaps the most talked-about PC game in history. According to MMOGCHART.COM, which tracks subscriber numbers, WoW has captured a staggering 52.9% of the multiplayer online game market since its 2004 release, with NCsoft’s Lineage II a distant second. If this tells us gamers anything, it’s that whoever can manage to unseat WoW from its frozen throne is set for an enormous payday.

Not that noone is trying, indeed, the success of WoW has inspired a wide assortment of new games trying to duplicate its success, some based on storied franchises and others on original concepts. With the glut of online titles set to be introduced in the next year, the question then becomes, which one is the proverbial “next big thing”? The following pages highlight a few candidates.

Lord Of The Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (Turbine/Midway)

In light of the massive popularity of Peter Jackson’s motion-picture adaptation of the series, perhaps the most interesting of the many candidates is Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. Plans for a “Middle-earth Online” game have been around since Sierra’s initial efforts in 1998. The game has since gone through many incarnations and many developers, but the fine folks at Turbine seem to have finally nailed it down. Staying true to the original concept, and thus avoiding the pitfalls of adapting a movie itself adapted from a book, LOTRO, with its built-in audience (only bolstered by the many fans of the movies) and potentially large-scale appeal, looks like it could turn out to be 2007’s hottest new online property. Personally, I am so in love with the source material that I really can’t see myself “ruining” my illusions by playing out my fantasies in a faux-Middle-earth. Of course, I say all this now, but if the screenshots and the rumors are any indication, I’ll probably be pretty busy for the entire month of April (the game’s open beta period).

The mechanics seem to be well thought out for a game so obviously fraught with dangerous opportunities for nitpicking criticisms and sacrilegious errors. The NDA for the closed beta has only recently been lifted, but no concrete details have emerged about specific parts of the game. Some aspects of the game are questionable, such as the promise that we will meet some of the characters from the books, and the “spawn” points of various races (the game world initially only covers Eriador, which in the books is relatively lightly populated). Of course no judgments can be made without actually playing the game, and overall I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it. One thing I’m wishing for but probably won’t happen is the inclusion of at least some of Howard Shore’s wonderful movie score as in-game music. It will also be interesting to see what, other than the license, sets this game apart from others in the genre. See you in Middle-earth!

Moving on...

Hero’s Journey (Simutronics)

Hero’s Journey has turned out to be a fitting name for one of the most unique, and one of the most delayed, MMORPGs expected to be released this year. The genesis of this game, of course, lies in the previous MUDs from St. Charles (near St. Louis) based Simutronics, one of the original commercial developers of massively multiplayer RPGs. Founded in 1987, the company is well known in online circles as the developer of several innovative online titles, especially for its still popular text-based online RPGs, Gemstone IV (the evolution of GemStone III) and DragonRealms. As a huge DragonRealms devotee, I have fond memories of many late nights spent with in-game companions, chatting away about this and that, hunting blood wolves and rock trolls, and traveling to distant parts of Elanthia.

I spent my entire sop----re year of high school on this game, and I think it seriously knocked me down a level in terms of college choice, but playing DragonRealms in my formative years was one of the most rewarding, enriching experiences of my life. The detailed writing, complex character development, and engaging combat system elevated the traditional MUD experience into something of an art form. That’s why, when I first heard about Hero’s Journey in an IRC discussion in 1998, I was so excited that I started dreaming up characters and places I would visit, the glorious battles I would fight, and the wonderful in-game events that I would eagerly participate in. Who knew I would have to wait this long. I’m almost a completely different person than I was back then, but strangely my enthusiasm for the game has not diminished. Although it remains to be seen if it was worth the wait, Hero’s Journey will nonetheless be an interesting experience for die-hard role-playing fans. Simutronics traditional emphasis on role-playing, in-game events, and GM interaction combined with HJ’s innovative questing system (called the “Journey System”) might prove to be a killer combination. It is also an open question as to where Simutronics’ unique design approach fits in the grand scheme of the MMORPG arena. Many that I have spoken to or read opinions from believe that Hero’s Journey is destined to be a niche product, relegated to the second-class of graphical MUDs because most players tend to favor more fast-paced, action-heavy games. On the other hand, just as many fans believe that the market will welcome a deep and complex game that offers more than just cookie-cutter combat and simplistic character development. Whatever the case, of all the games coming out this year, I am most looking forward to (finally) playing Hero’s Journey.

And finally...

Star Trek Online (Perpetual Entertainment)

Switching genres brings us to one of the more intriguing concepts to come along in a while. Hot on the heels (well not really) of the moderately successful Star Wars: Galaxies, Star Trek Online promises a place in the fascinating, well-developed Star Trek universe. Players choose a race and a specialization, based on those shown in the series, beginning the game as cadets fresh out of Starfleet Academy. They are then assigned to a starship which is populated by other characters where they are free to explore and live out their lives galloping across the galaxy. Sounds fun right? Beyond the obvious appeal of a game like this, the first question that comes to mind is how this will all work out in practical terms. It sounds interesting in theory, but the devil is in the details. Who gets to go on away missions? Who gets to give orders? How does one advance in rank in a sufficiently expedient manner? It will be interesting to see how (and if) these things are implemented properly and how STO will get everyone to play nice. Traditional fantasy RPGs have a built-in advancement system based on individualistic goals, but adhering to the dynamics of the Star Trek universe where players must constantly works as a team may be a difficult task. If developer Perpetual Entertainment can pull it off, the game may live long and prosper, and for now I remain (very) cautiously optimistic. The game is slated for a Q1 2008 release, but the open beta is tentatively scheduled for later this year. Make it so, Perpetual.

These are just three of the many massively multiplayer online games coming out this year. Watch out for extensive coverage of these and other games here on the PC Gaming section of Monsters and Critics. Make sure to check back often for previews and reviews of all of the games mentioned. Until then, happy gaming.
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