The history of online gaming is very long and storied, and we could take it all the way back to packet-based LAN games on the earliest versions of personal computers. And while there’s something to be said about how local network games came before online games, we want to keep this brief, and so we’ll fast forward in history to when games truly started going ‘online’, in the sense of the word as we know it.
The Early 80s and MUDs
It was in 1980 that a text-based adventure game known as “MUD”, hosted on the University of Essex local network, became open to guest accounts on JANET, a British academic network. Now, this wasn’t truly the internet, but operated somewhat similarly on a much smaller network, limited to a select number of educational facilities.
In essence, these host-based systems allowed users on the JANET network to access text-based terminals. With a bit of coding, these text-based terminals could become interactive adventure games, or RPG chatrooms, and that’s exactly what happened. MUDs (multi-user dungeons) became popular on these host-based networks, though they typically had hourly resets and other limitations.
The Late 80s – Early 90s
In the later 1980s, personal home computers became a more affordable reality, along with modems that could access BBS (bulletin board systems), and MUDs continued in popularity there. Of course, MUDs had absolutely no graphics to speak of, but they were the first type of games available on what would become the internet, as it’s currently known today.
In 1989, a technology called IP Multicast was developed, which led to game console developer Sega to release Sega Meganet, which was technically the first major push from a console developer for online console gaming.
Unfortunately, it only lasted around a year, and was only released in Japan. It utilizes a peripheral called the Mega Modem, and offered unique game downloads and online competitive play, at a whopping speed of 1200bit/s. To put that into modern perspective, it would take 77 hours to download a 5MB .mp3 file, but of course MP3 hadn’t been invented yet.
The early to mid 1990s was when the possibilities of online gaming really began to shape, but it was still a very awkward time. Console developers like Nintendo, Sega, and Atari continued playing with the idea of online gaming, but the internet was still far too expensive and slow for anything concrete.
PC gaming was a bit of a different story though. In 1991, America Online (AOL) offered the first multiplayer online role-playing game, Neverwinter Nights. The Sierra Network also launched, which hosted simple board games, like chess, checkers, and bridge online.
Dialup Modems, Online FPS and RPG Games
As dialup modems became more popular in the early 90s, so did numerous PC gaming titles such as Warcraft, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. While Wolfenstein 3D is known for catapaulting the first-person shooter genre, Doom is recognized for catapulting the online deathmatch in first-person shooter gaming. Throughout the 90s, numerous other first-person shooters, back then colloquially referred to as “Doom clones” became popular in their own right. This includes titles like Quake, Heretic, Duke Nukem 3D, and numerous others.
It was also during this early 90s period that the concept of online casinos began to take shape. By 1996, there were a total of fifteen online gambling websites available, mostly focused on slots and poker rooms. This doubled to 200 websites by 1997, and the online gambling industry raked in $830 million USD by 1998. Some of the first online progressive slot machines were released, by companies that are still in existence today. Online casinos like Casumo continue to host some of the most classic online slot machines, as well as the latest releases.
Another critically important landmark in online gaming came In the mid-90s, 1996 to be more exact. This is when we saw the rise of the earliest concepts of MMORPGs, with titles like Meridian 59 and Ultima Online. Funnily enough, these were known as “graphical MUDs” in some circles, due to drawing heavy inspiration from the text-based RPGs of years previous.
For the remainder of the 90s, online gaming really began to take off. While Ultima Online was a 2D, sprite-based MMORPG, 1999 saw the release of the first 3D MMORPG, Sony’s Everquest. While many game genres were able to be played online during this period, it was these early MMORPGs that really pushed the envelope, with numerous MMO releases continuing throughout the early 2000s. This includes titles like Anarchy Online and Dark Age of Camelot in 2001, EVE Online in 2003, and World of Warcraft in 2004.
As they say, the rest is history.