A Timeline of Landmark Events in Online Gaming History

By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief

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On August 23rd, the Internet celebrated its so-called 25th birthday (affectionately referred to as “Internaut Day”). However, various forms of online connectivity–and even the World Wide Web itself–existed prior to that. More specifically, as the timeline below show, there was even rudimentary forms of “online gaming” that existed prior to that dubious August 23rd, 1991 date.

Still, we decided to jump on the hype train of the false birthday anyway by looking back at some of the biggest milestone events in the history of gamers playing games together without having to be in the same room, city, or even country.

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1978

MUD1

Multi-User Dungeon–typically abbreviated as MUD or MUD1–is created, generally considered to be the first concrete example of an “online game” (and definitely the first online RPG). Inspired by the iconic text-based adventure game ZorkMUD tasked players with exploring a unified virtual world, solving puzzles and defeating monsters via text commands. Various ports, remakes, and upgrades to MUD were developed and released into the 90s, most notably the version called British Legends than ran through CompuServe all the way to 1999.

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1985

Island of Kesmai

Island of Kesmai, the first commercially-available online RPG, is released. It was innovative for featuring actual (though very rudimentary) visuals and not just text. It was technically free to play for CompuServe users, but this was at a time when the company was charging hourly rates, and it typically took about 10 seconds for the game to process a single command (the estimated cost “per command” came to about 2 cents).

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1988

Air Warrior II

Kesmai, the developer responsible for the previous title in this timeline, continued to be an innovator in the online gaming space when they released Air Warrior. The air combat simulation game is noteworthy both for being one of the first multiplayer online game with traditional graphics, as well as one of the first non-RPG online games. Air Warrior also revolutionized online gaming in another groundbreaking way: having to pay a fee to play it. The original version, which was available on Atari ST, Amiga, and Mac, cost players a steep $10 per hour to play. The game had two sequels (part 2 is pictured).

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September 1990

mega net

The Sega Meganet service is launched in Japan for use with the Mega Drive, and included one of the first known modems for a dedicated game console. The system could be used to download 24 exclusive games, though some–like FlickyColumns, and Fatal Labyrinth–were eventually given a cartridge release. Only two games actually featured online multiplayer: Tel-Tel Stadium and Tel-Tel Mahjong. Curiously, the service also allowed players to do primitive forms of online banking via the service. Sega Meganet was short-lived, and didn’t come to any other territories until a form of it was launched in Brazil five years later.

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November 1994

XBAND

XBAND, the first dedicated online gaming network for consoles, is launched for the Genesis (the SNES version followed the following year and a Japan-only Saturn version came later). The dial-up service, which had a monthly subscription fee, supported about a dozen games for each system that were mostly a mixture of sports and fighting games. Unfortunately, the XBAND was plagued with issues, from often requiring long-distance phone calls to connect, to the unstable nature of dial-up internet at the time. It was definitely more noteworthy for its role as an early pioneer in online console gaming than a consistently functional device.

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December 1994

DWANGO

Online service DWANGO–Dial-Up Wide-Area Network Game Operation–is launched. It was a dedicated online service for games that didn’t work with–or even need–a traditional internet provider, allowing players to play games like DoomDuke Nukem 3D, and Heretic with other players online even if they didn’t have internet otherwise.

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December 1994

Sega Channel

Sega launches “Sega Channel” in North America (and later, other territories in various incarnations). The monthly subscription service allowed Genesis users to download and play full games (some that were exclusive to the service), demos, and cheat codes. A partnership with TCI and Time-Warner Cable, the Sega Channel was able to utilize coaxial cables to download content, which was much quicker and more reliable than the dial-up internet of the time. The service was also notable for allowing players to download and play games that hadn’t received a retail release in their region, such as it being the only way North American players had access to Mega Man: The Wily Wars.

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April 1995

Satellaview_with_Super_Famicom

Nintendo releases a satellite-based modem peripheral for the Super Famicom called the Satellaview. The Japan-only device is something of a precursor to today’s episodic games, as the service would “broadcast” episodes of games during specific date ranges that the player could only access during those times, having to wait until the next episode was broadcast to continue the game. The Satellaview’s game lineup included a mix of original games and special versions/bonus modes of existing titles like Zelda, Dragon Quest, and Chrono Trigger. The service also allowed access to game art files, music, and digital magazines.

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October 1996

sega netlink

The Sega NetLink attachment is released for the Sega Saturn, allowing players with an existing internet connection to play games online over a 28.8k modem. Outside of Japan, rather than connect to a central server, the device “called” the other player directly, allowing the two to play over the now-connected system. While not the first device to allow console gamers to play games online, it was the first to allow them to use their own internet service provider rather than forcing them to use–and pay for–a separate, dedicated service.

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December 1996

Quake screen

id Software launches QuakeWorld, an update for Quake that improves and streamlines the game’s multiplayer features that is seen as one of the main precursors to modern FPS server systems and matchmaking. The network code in Quake had originally primarily accounted for LAN play, which resulted in performance issues with online play, problems that QuakeWorld addressed.

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September 1997

Ultima Online

Ultima Online is launched, not technically the “first” massively multiplayer online RPG but the first in the way that we know them today. Of its many innovations was its extensive player-vs-player combat system, groundbreaking for a genre that typically focused only on cooperative play. The game was so popular that multiple attempts at sequels were cancelled so that resources could continue to be devoted to the original, which has continued to remain active in some form to this day.

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November 1998

Seganet

The Sega Dreamcast launches as the first game console to ever have a built-in modem. Even in its short life, the Dreamcast managed to have nearly 50 games that featured online support.

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May 2002

FFXI

Final Fantasy XI is released, the first online entry in the long-running Final Fantasy series and the first game to ever feature cross-platform play between console and PC users.

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November 2002

Xbox Live

Microsoft activates their Xbox Live service. As a dedicated platform for online play as well as a digital media delivery service, it is the first service of its kind made available for a console. It would go on to serve as the foundation for all console online services going forward.

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September 2003

Steam

Valve’s Steam platform goes live. Originally conceived as a platform to automatically update games and deliver content more quickly, it eventually grew to be a massive digital distribution system that not only acts as a storefront for game purchases but also provides the user with installation and automatic updating of games on multiple computers, and community features such as friends lists and groups, cloud saving, and in-game voice and chat functionality. Steam currently has over 100 million registered accounts and more than 10,000 games available for purchase.

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So what did we miss? What memories do you have of the dark ages of online gaming? Share in the comments!

 

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3 thoughts on “A Timeline of Landmark Events in Online Gaming History

  1. You can just take final fantasy off the list. Add another entry for the dreamcast or add more. 4×4 evolution was one of the first console pc cross platform title online…

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  2. I found the first half of the article very interesting and if it was your intention to concentrate on the beginnings and foundations of online gaming as we know it today, then that’s perfectly fine. However, your account of what happened from 1998 onwards seems to be fairly thin and gives the impression that almost no any milestones had been achieved over the last 15 years. Personally I’m not so much into online gaming and therefore I cannot pin down what’s misssing exactly, but it would surely be nice to see the last 18 years more fleshed out. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a fair complaint. I guess I was more going for the history, the early stuff that isn’t as well known. Most of us know about the last 10-15 years because it’s fresh in our minds and we all lived through it. But a “timeline” should be more complete, I suppose.

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