Back to index

The copyright situation for this article is unclear. It does not belong to the author of this site. Please see the copyright notice. If you have information about the copyright contact me!

History of Online Games Part III

by Jessica Mulligan

Before we begin with part III, three comments:

1. 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.
Marc Andressen

Marc Andressen, founding father of Netscape Communications.

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.

2. 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.

3. 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 4 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 6 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 4 player 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 2 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!

The singular ground-breaking 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 4 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 an 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.

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 seems 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 a Internet-capable version of Monopoly. Four years later, it is still a top 20 seller.

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 fall through the floor.

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.

Jessica Mulligan has been involved in online games for years and currently writes a column for the Happy Puppy web site called 'Biting the Hand'. This article was originally published at Happy Puppy and she welcomes any and all corrections to the history. (© 1999 by Jessica Mulligan. All Rights Reserved).