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The MMO golden years: I was there

16-bit to online virtual worlds in the blink of an eye.

So, today’s the day that Star Wars Galaxies turns 20 years old. That’s quite a milestone. When it comes to these sorts of anniversaries it always seems to put things into perspective. It’s wild to think of yourself as having played a game for that span of time. To consider all the ways that both yourself and the world around you have changed while that one game has been a constant in your life.

I wish I could say I was there on the launch day of Star Wars Galaxies, but I wasn’t. In fact, it wasn’t until 2006 that I started playing the game. So technically it has only been a constant in my life for around 17 years. Pfft, child’s play.

Regardless, it’s still the defining MMO of my life (I suspect most people reading this have one of their own), and so the occasion has gotten me a little bit nostalgic. I could recount second-hand tales of the game’s launch day woes, but rather I wanted to spend a little bit of time recalling the early 2000s and the era of peak MMO hype.

I was born on the cusp of the 90s in working-class Britain. For reasons either relating to finances or just general disinterest, neither of my parents were particularly tech-savvy. I didn’t grow up surrounded by games, yet somehow, they became a defining element of my youth.

The first games console to find its way into our home was a Sega Mega Drive, and within a few months we also ended up with a Super Nintendo. Both were second-hand, a little banged up, and bundled with a scattershot assortment of about a dozen games that included classics like Sonic, Street Fighter II, and Super Metroid as well as forgotten oddities like Bubsy and Street Racer.

By this time, I knew that the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation had already been released so it must’ve been at least 1997. As such, video games just didn’t really exist for the first 7 or so years of my life.

Being a console generation behind meant that what games I had I was stuck with. I lived (still live) in a relatively small town. We had one dedicated games shop, Electronics Boutique, and other than a very small selection of second-hand SNES and Sega games (mostly sports titles which I had no interest in whatsoever), the shelves were stocked with current generation games.

It wasn’t long before I got a Nintendo 64, and then a PlayStation, and then a Gameboy Color and so on. All this time I never even considered PC as a viable gaming platform. I knew there were games for computers, but the whole idea of owning a PC seemed so out of reach, and the games so serious and adult, that it seemed totally detached from the idea of ‘games’ that I had in my head.

We got our first family PC around about 2001. It was a Windows 98 machine, had a horizontal case, and was stained that yellowy beige colour which was once so ubiquitous with gadgetry. It was, naturally, second-hand and already wildly outdated. It was also complete and utter magic.

I had been on computers before in school. The first time I touched a keyboard I wrote a paragraph about Power Rangers in Microsoft Word. We used educational software and messed around in Paint. But I had never been on the internet.

The first website I ever went on was the official site for Score Entertainment’s Dragon Ball Z Collectible Card Game. I’d brought a pack of these cards from a short-lived independent import/retro games shop which had recently opened in town, and I wanted to know what other sets were out there. I was totally blown away by the concept of being able to look up all this information on games and anime from around the world.

This computer was way too crappy to play anything close to that which I was playing on my Nintendo 64, but it was only another couple of years before we got a new Windows XP PC, and that started to open my eyes a little bit.

I still wasn’t sold on PC games themselves, but I discovered modding, emulators, and roms and along with that I got involved in a lot of online forums. Around the same time, MSN Messenger started to become a big thing and everyone at school would get straight home and log on every evening to spread gossip.

I don’t remember exactly what my first online game was, but I played a handful in quick succession. The ones that stick out in my mind are Jedi Knight Academy and Counter-Strike 1.6 on PC, and Star Wars Battlefront II on Xbox Live. This must’ve been around 2005, and while online multiplayer impressed me, I just wasn’t into competitive games and never got hooked on any of them.

It wasn’t long after this that I started dipping into a few MMOs. Some browser MMOs, Silkroad Online, MapleStory, and the Korean version of Digimon Battle Online are ones I can remember, but basically, I’d try out anything I could find which was free. I brought Guild Wars not long after launch but wasn’t pulled in by its generic fantasy setting.

‘Proper’ MMOs were, I thought, off the table because of the monthly subscription costs, but after spending a few days in the Star Wars Galaxies 14-day trial I just had to beg my parents for their credit card details. In every respect it offered so much more than all of those games I had played before it, and those first experiences of chatting and dancing with other players in the Tansarii Point Station cantina had the most profound effect on my isolated teenage self.

It felt like the culmination of what games could hope to achieve and, in some ways, looking back now, it was.

Oh, sure there have been plenty more innovations over the years, but it still feels like those first commercial virtual worlds were the last major revolution in the medium.

Not all games are MMOs in the same way that all films became sound and colour, but the impact of the genre and the experiences it promised (if not always delivered) have shaped the entire industry over the past 20 years.

There isn’t much wonder in MMOs these days. Certainly nothing compared to those early days, and it’s no great revelation that when people bemoan their inability to find an MMO that holds their interest these days – “nothing compares to [insert person’s first MMO here]” – it’s really that sense of wonder they’re missing more than the game itself (and try as you might there’s nothing you can do to recapture it).

Boy was it something to experience first hand though. To grow up, and in the space of less than a decade, experience the move from 2D to 3D games, text messaging to online chat, couch co-op to massively multiplayer online virtual worlds, and all the other innovations along the way.

When talking about the history of MMOs you’ll hear a lot about MUDs, and games like Habitat and Neverwinter Nights and Meridian 59. Obviously, they have their place in the history books and must have been incredible experiences for those who were a little more on the cutting edge of technology and got to experience them first-hand.

I’d hazard a bet however that – minus the specifics – vast swathes of the MMO community share a somewhat similar story to mine. How lucky we were.

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