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Going back to the old school
Before there were MMOs, there were MUDs, or text-based multiplayer RPGs. Actually, there still are - there's a pretty thriving community of MUD players out there still, including some premium options with subscriptions like Gemstone 3 and DragonRealms.
For the young ones out there, a text based game is one that is conducted entirely through text. You receive textual descriptions of the environments, and you input your commands entirely through text. In the dark ages of the internet, when the 14.4 modem was king, these text based games were about the only way to get your multiplayer fix - and they often charged by the minute. Think $14.99 per month is expensive? Gamers back then would sometimes splurge upwards of $1,000 per month on these games. Thankfully, that business model has largely died a horrible death.
The fact that these early games were text-based made them excellent experimentation laboratories for designers eager to try out new ideas. The fact that the audience was hardcore enough to shell out money comparable to that of a mid-range mortgage on the games also meant that they were also largely eager for some serious challenges. Many MUDs included permanent death as a central feature, or at least some kind of limited lives feature. Many allowed you to attack anyone that you wanted at any time and loot their corpse dry.
As you might imagine, this created a very high pressure environment in which each player had to cluster together with friends for protection, and to keep an eye out behind their back to make sure that they weren't about to be "ganked" (ambushed in the gamer tongue).These harsh death penalties and Hobbesian PvP rulesets were strong influences on the development of future MMOs - particularly as many of the lead developers, such as Raph Koster, who later created Ultima Online (released in 1997), had largely made their bones as designers by creating MUDs.
With the advent of graphics came a new audience. Younger people started getting into them, as it's far easier to learn how to control your character with a mouse than to memorize hundreds of text commands. To boot, the new MMOs had much lower fees, and faster modem connections were starting to proliferate. This brought a new generation to these games, and they had new sets of demands that these old-school developers were not really prepared to address - at least until the amount of forum whining became simply too much to ignore.
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Play 2 Crush: Quick Links
Play 2 Crush: 6 - MMO Games Development