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The proliferation of MMOGs

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 2, 2005
(Issue 2348, Whole House Makeover)

A few years ago, Massively Multiplayer Online Games, or MMOGs, were crowned the Next Big Thing. They were going to reinvent the way humans interact for recreation, raise the bar for immersive gaming environments – and possibly reinvent the Internet.

And while MMOGs have become fabulously big business, the truth is that there may be so many of them that are so different that any of the above-predicted effects can't help but become diluted.

We're into the late second or maybe even third generation of MMOGs, at least of the modern, graphics-based variety. Earlier hits like Asheron's Call and Everquest are being elbowed aside by up-and-comers including World of Warcraft, Sims, Lineage II and Final Fantasy XI.

But that's just the current crop of popular games – and by popular, we're talking hundreds of thousands of subscribers. There are literally dozens of smaller niche games with tens of thousands of subscribers.

There are, in fact, so many of these MMOGs that even the gaming magazines have a difficult time keeping up with them.

The premise

Multiplayer gaming goes back to the very first game ever written, a primitive version of Pong hacked together from an oscilloscope and analog computer by Brookhaven National Laboratory researcher William A. Higinbotham for an open house in 1958. It was a two-person game, not so different from what Mattel and Nolan Bushnell would separately spring on the world a decade and a half later.

The idea of having many people in a game together started coming together in the late 1970s, as computer enthusiasts with access to university mainframes (students and grad students mostly) began creating text-based multi-user dungeons, or MUDs. These Dungeons & Dragons-type games were, like D&D itself, hugely influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books.

As the personal computer became more and more entrenched in the home, and more and more users got modems hooked up to their home computers, local dial-up bullet board systems, or BBSs, began offering turn-based multiplayer games – titles like Barren Realms Elite and TradeWars2002 were hugely popular among BBS members. Some of these games even allowed multiple BBSs to share a common user database, so you could be playing BRE against folks around the world – since it was turn-based, and you could only have one turn each day. (Many, perhaps most, BBSs were networked with other BBSs via a once- or twice-a-day automatic dial-out to the next node on the network to upload and download e-mail, game data files, etc. FidoNet was the most popular of these networks.)

So by the time the Internet was made public in the early 1990s, there was already a large user base numbering in the low millions of folks familiar with the concept of multiplayer online gaming.

The promise

When the modern '386-based IBM clones came out, with their ability to utilize powerful graphics cards, the possibility of a graphics-based multiplayer online game was born. Even before the 'Net was made public, some of the dial-up online services like CompuServe and GEnie were offering online multiplayer gaming. CompuServe had an early combat flight sim where you could dogfight other players 24 hours a day.

As the Amiga, Atari and other competitors to the Intel-based PCs began to fall by the wayside, and the Intel PC became the de facto standard for home computing (with the Mac still around to keep Microsoft and Intel from getting too lazy), the economics of large subscriber-based games became more encouraging, too.

And so by the late 1990s, there were both early MMOGs and the theorists who predicted that MMOGs would replace movies, music and TV as the entertainment medium of choice; that human beings would no longer organize themselves by physical geography in cities and states, but by interests and values in virtual online clans. That the pervasive nature of the Internet and the graphical realism of modern computers would combine to allow us to finally escape the confines of our physical lives.

The reality

Here we are, some five years into the new millenium, and while MMOGs are more popular than ever, much of the hype as died down – with several reasons all likely contributors to the new sobriety about MMOGs.

First is that even online, human nature is somewhat less than 100 percent altruistic. Most of the MMOGs allowed you to accumulate virtual wealth – a nice house, weapons upgrades, cool clothes, magical powers. And in nearly MMOG, some players figured out shortcuts – cheats, if you will.

And so instead of the fantasies of online utopia, many MMOG subscribers found themselves once again in a highly hierarchical culture – one that tended to reward the first inhabitants to the point that latter arrivals could almost never catch up in status or toys.

It got to the point that online auction house eBay found itself inundated with all kinds of virtual goods being auctioned off – sometimes entire accounts if it wasn't possible to trade items in a particular MMOG.

So vanity, narcissism and other ills of the real world proved to be dismayingly present in the virtual worlds of MMOGs as well – dampening the breathless hype that once surrounded them.

The future

If MMOGs are no longer seen as an immediate utopian alternative to our imperfect world, they do remain good business. Nearly every issue of the various monthly gaming mags has a cover announcement of a new inside scoop of the next big MMOG.

And with the growth of residential broadband use and the increasing graphical capabilities of both Macs and PCs, perhaps we will see a "killer app" MMOG that does reshape the entertainment landscape.

Until then, MMOGs are providing a lucrative outlets for game publishers and a nice bit of escape for the rest of us.