2003: A Look at the Golden Age of Diversity in MMOs

2003: A Look at the Golden Age of Diversity in MMOs

2003 seemed to be both the apex and the end of diversity in MMOs. It was a year when not only were many titles released but each was significantly and uniquely different from the next in many ways. Here’s a list of notable MMOs released that year:

  • Second Life
  • Star Wars Galaxies (SWG)
  • A Tale in the Desert (ATITD)
  • There
  • Puzzle Pirates
  • EVE Online
  • Project Entropia (now Entropia Universe)
  • Shadowbane
  • Horizons (now Istaria)
  • ToonTown

Most of those titles still exist today, and quite a few still have healthy, active communities. Some of today’s MMO enthusiasts would probably call it the “Age of Sandbox,” as many of these titles offered more social tools, more open-ended gameplay and more player-driven content than most modern titles. To a good degree, I agree. Some may also say that some of those games only have a few thousand or so players. In my opinion, an MMO that entertains 5-30k players and makes a profit for eight years straight is a better path than building for 300k, hemorrhaging at 50k and closing up shop after a year.

I think the success of many of these titles is the result of several factors, the three biggest being no predispositions on the part of MMO gamers, a more audience-specific design, and an appropriate balance of the Forgotten Trinity that makes up a virtual world.

No Predisposition as to What an MMO ‘Should Be’ – Asheron’s Call, Ultima Online, Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot paved the initial road for persistent state worlds with rather varied approaches to advancement, game design and community structure. There was no One True Path yet as each was exploring new approaches to creating these incredible new online worlds. An MMO at the time was not measured by the restrictive and unrealistic standard that MMOs today are held to. I want to stress that I’m not speaking about quality, stability and polish as those should be expectations regardless of when or how the product is released.

Over the past 6-8 years, most MMOs have become so similar and followed the same high fantasy, class-restricted, level-based, gear-dependent design and the surrounding common mechanics, that when an MMO deviates from that, the developers have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to sell the new direction or mechanic and why the path was chosen over the tried and true method.

A More Defined Target Audience – These MMOs were not trying to be everything to everyone. Their core audience was obvious to everyone from the start. From ToonTown’s publisher and artwork to Shadowbane’s Play to Crush mantra, the games were clearly being made for specific groups and the advertisement made it clear which groups they were for. They weren’t trying to mix and match unlike playstyles and conflicting communities within a single game world. This allowed the developers to attract a strong core group for their game and to focus current and future development for that audience.

The Forgotten Trinity – MMOs are made up of scripted content (themepark), player-driven content (sandbox) and social content (coffee house). Each exists as part of the virtual world to one degree or another. Most modern MMOs weigh heavily toward one or the other of the first two. Also, most modern MMOs seem to relegate the last one to an IRC-style chat box and a system or need for grouping with other players to kill stuff. In many cases there is more functionality to support social interaction on a modern MMOs forums than there are in or around the game itself.


It seems that an MMO developer that wants to break from the standard design and improve chance at success and longevity would benefit from addressing those three points directly.

1) Don’t call it an MMO. Use any other term but that. In this day and age, simply calling it an online game is definitive enough without pigeon-holing the project.

2) Target your audience. Make sure your players know what they are getting into ahead of time. Build a strong core community that you will be able to cater to. The Kitchen Sink hasn’t really been a successful approach to MMOs, especially when it comes to the whole PvE/PvP thing.

3) Design the social aspect to emulate the ways that people normally interact. Allow the players to create and choose social circles based on something other than chasing rare drops. Mirror how people communicate in real life so they are more comfortable communicating with each other in your online community.


The early pioneers (The Realm, M59, UO, EQ, AC, DAoC) set the stage, but it seems there was a golden age that shortly followed that never really gets the recognition it deserves. The MMOs of 2003 offered a level of diversity and a gamer acceptance of such diverse design that has been absent ever since.  I’m curious to see if history repeats itself on the mobile platform or if there is a wide enough audience that One True Path takes longer to rear its head.