The most important MMOs of the first modern decade
Part one of the most important MMO of the modern decade.
Ultima Online (1997)
Origin's pioneering endeavor seems like a pretty obvious pick. Although M59 and various others preceded it, none of them ever succeeded in amassing more than a small niche audience. UO was the title that broke through into an entirely new and much higher stratum of popularity. It quite quickly became the first to reach 100,000 subscribers, kicking open the door to a level no prior offering had even remotely approached.
Ultimately, it peaked at around 250,000. This means it reached a total that many would consider pretty respectable in today's much larger albeit far more segmented market. Notably, this happened in the summer of 2003, nearly six years after launch, offering proof positive - if there were still any lingering doubts by then - that MMOGs could be truly long-term propositions.
Franchise creator Richard Garriott is said to have viewed UO as a social experiment. While I don't recall hearing this phrase directly from his mouth, it certainly does seem like something he would have said. Be that as it may, the game did teach us a significant amount - perhaps more than any other - about how how sizable numbers of people play and relate among themselves online.
After designing Nexus, designer Jake Song moved to NCsoft where he then led the team that created an even more significant trailblazer. Lineage soon surpassed the popularity of its predecessor. Unbeknownst to just about everyone in this hemisphere, was aware of its existence.
While definitive numbers weren't and still aren't available, I have little doubt that within its first two or three years, it became the world's most widely played MMOG, ahead of its major western contemporaries, UO and EverQuest. In this regard, if we apply Blizzard's definition of “subscriber”, that being anyone who paid for time and played at least one minute in a month, Lineage may very well have been the first title to crack the 500,000 level. This isn't hard to believe in light of NCSoft's report that it topped 300,000 concurrent users in 2001.
By then, the game had launched in North America, where it was never able to gain a substantial following, but was yet to become available in countries such as Japan or China. Accordingly, the player base was basically Korean. Even factoring in regional differences such as computer ownership and the related popularity of PC baangs, Lineage was substantially ahead of the western curve in terms of market penetration. Accordingly, it provided one of the first realistic indications that the MMOG category had the potential to become mainstream.