How does technology drive the online gaming experience?
We could waste several paragraphs talking about the earliest forms of “online gaming”, which were really WAN / LAN based games mainly played at Universities, but let’s skip ahead to the juicy bits of history. You can read up on the history of host-based gaming using systems like PLATO in the 1970s, and later JANET and ARPANET, and while these do have significant historical value, they were limited to a small handful of people – the home computer hadn’t even really become popular yet, not until the 1980s.
So while we can technically refer to LAN-based games like Empire as the first “online games”, it hardly represents how we think of multiplayer gaming today. For that, we’d need to look at the history of MMORPGs, which is what really drove online gaming.
How MMOs Drove Online Gaming
MMORPGs as we know them were really born out of MUDs (multi-user dungeons), which were text-based RPGs using terminals (think Telnet). They were a bit inspired by fantasy tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons, where players engaged in roleplay and PvP entirely through text – that is, they typed every character action. Basically ‘get sword’, ‘drink potion’, ‘kill goblin’. It was very primitive, yet engaging.
Throughout the 90s, MUDs would achieve some popularity, with larger well-known MUDs having playerbases somewhere in the thousands. But graphical MMOs came along, such as Ultima Online and Everquest, which slowly eroded MUD playerbases. Interesting fact, Ultima Online and similar games were once called “graphical MUDs”, before the term MMORPG was coined.
As a relevant sidenote, online casinos saw a big boom in the late 90s – early 00s as well, though mostly limited to slot games and poker rooms. Nowadays, you can visit a casino online and play highly advanced slot games with 3D graphics, or play live-dealer card games with a VR headset. The online casino game industry is actually worth more than the entire video game industry, though they’re typically not summed together.
Unless you’re a young millennial, you should know the rest of history. Numerous MMORPGs were released in the late 90s and early 2000s, including popular titles like World of Warcraft, Asheron’s Call, Guild Wars, and too many others to name. Everquest reached its peak lifetime sales and active subscriber peak in 2004, with over 3 million game sales and 550,000 active subscribers.
Consoles Go Online
It wasn’t only MMORPGs driving the surge in popularity of online gaming, however, as consoles started experimenting too. The first console to really offer true online gaming was the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, and while the console was a commercial failure, it opened the gates for services such as Xbox Live and PS2 Network Play.
While Xbox Live focused on having a unified online service, Sony’s PS2 relied on game publishers to run third-party servers, while Nintendo held back from introducing online capabilities for their GameCube console.
For a long time, Sony and Microsoft competed not only in who had the best exclusive titles, but in cross-console titles being locked to their respective consoles. This meant that if you owned Call of Duty on Xbox, you couldn’t play with your friend who owned Call of Duty on PlayStation, which added to the deciding factor of which console to buy for many online gamers.
In that time, there was no argument that Xbox Live was a much better online service than what Sony offered on the PS2, but Sony had a much larger roster of exclusive and imported games.
Nintendo and Sony also experimented with bringing online gameplay to handheld consoles, with the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP each having their own version of online gameplay, not to mention that the PSP itself was quite a technologically impressive handheld console with a built-in web browser and a large “homebrew” (modded games) community.
Mobile Enters the Scene
It’s really quite difficult to trace the history of the first online mobile games, though 2010 saw the release of Pocket Legends, the first cross-platform mobile MMORPG available for both Android and iOS. It’s success was relatively short-lived, however, and the developer has focused on other titles over the years.
Fast forward to 2020, and there’s certainly no shortage of mobile MMORPGs and other genres that were once limited to PC and console gaming, bringing mobile out of the “casual gamer” realm and appealing to more hardcore gamers today. Mobile gamers can now enjoy titles like PUBG, Fortnite, Street Fighter IV, and even League of Legends will soon be released on mobile platform in 2020.
Conclusion – The Future
Many say that mobile is the “future of gaming”, due to the tremendous revenue found in in-app purchases, but that doesn’t mean consoles and PC gaming will go extinct. There is a bit of demand for portability, however, which Nintendo realized while developing the Nintendo Switch, intending it to be used as either a handheld console or allowing you to connect it to a TV and used as a traditional living room console.
So there’s really no telling what the future actual holds for exactly how we’ll be playing online games, but if history and modern trends are any indication, there is certainly room for growth in the hybrid handheld/stationary console market, as even Microsoft has toyed with the idea of developing their own handheld console.