History of Online Multiplayer Games Quick Jump / Table of Contents
It’s estimated that the online gaming industry is currently worth over $33 billion dollars. And by 2020, it’s expected that there will be over 57 million online console gamers. However, even though it’s easy to see the success of online gaming, we hardly ever discuss it’s humble beginnings.
Believe it or not, the history of online multiplayer games starts long before the internet even existed. In fact, we can trace their roots as far back as the 1960s–to a time in which mainframe was considered to be cutting edge technology, and the computer was mainly used for commercial and academic purposes. Let’s take a look at where this type of gaming came from as well as where it’s headed.
In the early 60s, online games weren’t nearly as mainstream as they are today. They were considered more of a novelty–passed around by computer technicians and programmers at large companies and research institutions. One of the most popular of them was Spacewar. This two-player game featured a fight between two spaceships as a central star exerted gravitational force upon both of them.
As the game was copied to several minicomputers of academic institutions, it would become the first to make it outside of a research institute. In fact, the game had been recreated so much that Alan Kay, an early computer scientist, was quoted as saying that “the game of Spacewar blossoms spontaneously wherever there is a graphics display connected to a computer.”
Despite its popularity among an academic crowd, it was still largely unknown by the general public. This could have had something to do with the cost of a computer at that time. During this era, minicomputers were priced at a steep $120,000–monitor not included. Only 55 of these units were ever sold. And this all but crushed the creators’ dreams of monetizing the game.
However, in the mid-’60s the game would find a new champion in Bill Pitts, a student at Stanford University. After breaking into a building, he stumbled upon the location of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Project. He was able to convince the project lead to allow him to use the computer after hours and eventually became so fascinated that he stopped going to class and spent most of his time playing Spacewar. During one of his sessions, while playing against his friend Hugh Tuck, the two talked about how the game could be very successful if it were coin-operated. But both understood that the price would present significant barriers. That is, until the early ’70s.
By 1971 Pitts had graduated and become a computer programmer. And when he learned that the price of the newest computer was $14,000, he and Tuck decided that it would be worth building a coin-operated video game prototype. Pitts and Tuck purchased the latest computer and began work.
Once finished, Pitts and Tuck renamed the game Galaxy Game as there was an anti-war sentiment during the early 70s. However, it was similar to the original Spacewar. The game involved two spaceships called “needle” and “wedge.” Each was controlled by a player, and each attempted to shoot each other while they maneuvered in a star’s gravity well. The two-player arcade game was priced at 10 cents per play. Players could also choose to play 3 for 25 cents. The match’s winner won a free game.
As was predicted, Pitts and Tuck’s idea was a success–sort of. The machine attracted large groups of people. In fact, at one point they attached a second monitor to their machine so that people could see the game more easily. However, even though the interest was up, the game wasn’t financially profitable to Pitts and Tuck. At this point, they’d invested $60,000 into the prototype, and the 10 cents per play charge hardly covered their expenses. Even though the prototype wasn’t a commercial success, it helped to pave the way for Empire I, a game that allowed players to compete on separate screens.
Up until this point, multiplayer modes were limited to a single screen. Also, players could only play against the computer. However, by the end of the 1970s, this would change. In 1973, John Daleske at the University of Illinois released Empire I, a turn-based game that was created for up to eight players. Empire I was created on the PLATO network, a computer-based teaching system. This system was revolutionary because it allowed players to interact with each other on different terminals.
Students started to notice the potential and began to create simple programs called Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs. These were multiplayer, real-time virtual worlds. In most cases, they were text-based. MUDs combined role-playing, player versus player, hack and slash, interactive fiction, and online chat. Players had the ability to view or read descriptions of other players, non-player character, objects, rooms, and actions that were being performed in the virtual world. The players would interact with each other by typing commands.
Typically, the object of MUDs was to explore fantasy worlds, slay monsters, go on adventures, and complete quests. In fact, many of these them were patterned after the Dungeons & Dragons, dice-rolling game.
The Island of Kesmai
MUDs started to evolve and became more complicated. In 1984, Multi-Access Dungeon, or MAD, was created. It was the first global massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. And by 1985, The Island of Kesmai was released. This was considered to be the first commercial online role-playing game.
The Island of Kesmai players would log in, create a character, and then enter the chat room. After this, the player could enter the virtual world. This was a turn-based game, similar to Dungeons and Dragons and the players moved in tiles on a grid with short commands. They could receive rewards by performing quests. In fact, this type of game progression would be one of the first questing systems that would eventually pave the way for other MMORPGs such as the ever-popular World of Warcraft.
By the 1990s, the advances that were being made in online games were revolutionary. This was especially the case when it came to DOOM, a first-person shooter game that featured mind-blowing 3D graphics and had a deathmatch that allowed players to hook into a LAN and play with each other. DOOM is considered to be the pioneer of networked multiplayer gaming.
In the game of DOOM, players controlled a space marine through several levels that were set in military bases in Hell and on Mars. In order to complete a level, players had to traverse through the area to reach the exit room. During their journey, they fought undead humans and demons while managing their health, ammunition supplies, and armor. Enemies could show up in large groups and respawn upon death.
While the game featured a single-player mode, there were also two multiplayer modes which could be played over local network “cooperatives.” During these modes, two to four people teamed up. However, when it reached the “deathmatch,” the players would then play against each other. DOOM’s online multiplayer mode was made available in 1994, a year after DOOM was initially released. Other first-person shooter products began to pop up thereafter.
In 1996, GT Interactive released a first-shooter game called Quake. This game is considered to be the predecessor of DOOM as it was built upon the same gameplay and technology. DOOM had played a big role in popularizing multiplayer deathmatches, but Quake added several multiplayer options. And with each update, the online multiplayer mode became increasingly more popular. Quake eventually released QuakeSpy. This software made it easier to find and play against others online.
In Quake’s multiplayer mode, players could connect their computer to a server where they could play against each other. Whenever a player died in this mode, they could respawn but would lose the items that they had previously collected. However, after some time, the items would respawn and could be collected again. Multiplayer Quake is one of the first games considered to be an electronic sport.
By the late 90s, MMORPGs were taking off. In 1997, Ultima Online was released. This was the first game to reach over 100,000 subscribers. It was also the first game that allowed players to interact with others in the same virtual world freely. Ultima Online was designed as somewhat of an economic and social experiment. It wanted to ensure that the player could interact with others as well as still feel as if they were the center of attention, as was the case in single-player games.
By the 2000s, people had LAN parties. These were gatherings in which players with compatible consoles or computers connected to a local area network using a switch or router so that they could play a multiplayer game. The early 2000s saw the release of Diablo.
Initially, Diablo was designed to be a turn-based game. However, Blizard North eventually took an interest in it and insisted that it be developed as a real-time, multiplayer game. Diablo allowed up to four players. Players could either be aggressive towards other players or play co-operatively with them. They could connect by modem, Battle.net, IPX network, or directly. Though the game first debuted in 1997, it returned in 2000 to PC Data’s top 20 for the U.S., selling over 260,020 copies that year. What followed were other popular games such as Halo and Call of Duty.
World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft was the U.S.’s third best-selling computer game between 2000 and 2006. It’s also considered to be the world’s most popular MMORPG attracting nearly 10 million players by 2009. The game was released by Blizzard Entertainment in 2004.
World of Warcraft requires the completion of quests. Quests are typically rewarded with items, experience points, and in-game money. As a character becomes more developed, he starts to gain skills and talents, which requires the player to define the abilities of the character. While characters can be played on their own, players also have the option of grouping with others in order to tackle the more challenging quests. In fact, most end-game challenges in World of Warcraft have been designed so that they can only be won if completed in teams.
Currently, one of the most popular products marketed to the online gaming community is Fortnite. Fortnite Battle Royale was launched in December of 2018. Fortnite Battle Royale gives each player access to their own island on which they may construct buildings as well as add additional objects. Players can invite their friends to the island. Epic has organized competitions centered around Fortnite Battle Royale, such as its $30 million World Cup tournament that took place in July of 2019.
The Future of Online Gaming
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the future of online gaming: those who feel that the industry will remain the same for a while and those who believe that there is a new era on the horizon. Specifically, those who believe in a new era feel that online gaming will begin to incorporate more virtual reality-based technology. So not only will you be able to play on your friend’s team, but you’ll feel as if you’re standing right next to them.
As you can see, the history of online multiplayer games is extensive. Gaming has come a long way. It’s left the walls of research institutions, become affordable to the everyday consumer, and has made room for multiplayer modes.
There are several options available to the gaming community, so it’s not surprising that so many people spend such a large amount of their time online. Products such as Fornite, League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, HearthStone, Minecraft, DOTA 2, Apex Legends, The Division 2, Splatoon 2 are proof that there’s more to come. With each passing day, the multiplayer online gaming world continues to evolve.
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