A couple of years ago James at Grognardia published a post about the different ages of Dungeons & Dragons. I was rereading it the other day when it got me thinking about how this same classification system could be applied to MMO’s. The great deal of discussion lately about the direction of the industry, the many posts questioning whether or not MMO’s have peaked, and posts asking whether or not WoW should just keel over and die, all point to the fact that we are at the cusp of moving from one age to another in the life of MMO’s. But which age are we entering into?

Using James’ original post as a template for these ideas, (I hope he doesn’t mind), lets have a look at the world of MMO’s and where they might be heading.

Prehistory (1986 – 1998)

Beginning with Rogue and Dungeon and moving on to games such as Neverwinter Nights, these early examples of online roleplaying games with multiple players were basic in the extreme, but were the genesis for what we take for granted today. Ultima Online was released in 1997 and was the first step in the genre gaining mainstream popularity.

The Golden Age (1999 – 2007)

With the release of Everquest in 1999 the genre entered a new and exciting period which would bring us to games such as Vanguard, Star Wars Galaxies and ultimately culminate in World of Warcraft. These games were designed by gamers themselves, and were primarily of a sandbox nature, with an emphasis on community and working together in order to achieve goals. Real world PvP was also a feature, with gigantic battles resulting in strategic points throughout the various worlds. For me the high water mark would be with the release of the Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft, an expansion which was the culmination of the raiding game, but which also sowed the seeds for the eventual demise of the genre.

The Silver Age (2007 – 2011)

The introduction of Badges of Justice in The Burning Crusade would be the beginning of an era which depended more and more on giving players rewards to stay in the game rather than the game itself being the attraction. With other MMO releases such as Warhammer and Age of Conan, we saw games released solely for the expressed intention of being “WoW Killers”. The world building and social aspect of the games began to take a back foot to content based gaming, where developers had to continually release new content in order to keep players interest.

I consider myself very fortunate to have played D&D during its golden age. While I also played MMO’s in their golden age the problem is that, unlike D&D, one can never go back and play those games. Virtual worlds are by their nature constantly changing, so one can not visit the past. But one can learn much by comparing the past with current reality, and when we compare Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft some striking similarities emerge. (Why compare these two? For the simple fact that they both have dominated their respective fields by a clear margin).

In its heyday D&D was the clear leader of its field. While many other games attempted to usurp D&D’s virtual monopoly, or at least poach some its countless players, when one looks back at the golden age of tabletop RPG’s one does not immediately think of Tunnels & Trolls. But not only was D&D huge in RPG circles, it also had a broad impact on the general culture of the time. Players ran the gauntlet of 60 Minutes and the Catholic Church, as well as most concerned parents groups of the time. With such exposure and success came the interest of big business, and commercial interests came to override those of the people who had invented and played the games in the first place. Money is a hell of a drug. D&D still exists to this day, but its present incarnation is a far cry from what the creators originally envisaged. Which is no real issue, as one can still pick up the original rules and get a game going. MMO’s however, tend to just get switched off.

For me however, the most interesting aspect is the number of people who played D&D at the height of its popularity compared with the amount of players today. A straight comparison shows a huge decline in player numbers; so where did all those players go? It seems reasonable to assume that many of them happened to play the game due to both its exposure and its social impact at the time. D&D is now looked upon as some quaint hobby of bygone years, up there with model aeroplanes and valve radios. The automatic assumption nowadays is that WoW’s 11 million players will gravitate to the next big MMO. But if we are to learn anything from history we might do well to consider the fact that the vast majority of those players will simply cease to play these types of games. We can only guess what the Bronze and Dark Ages have in store for us, but my hope is that the accountants and business executives hop quickly onto some other bandwagon, leaving us to toddle along in peaceful pleasure of games that are once again made for gamers.