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Online Worlds

Entry updated 7 August 2023. Tagged: Game, Theme.

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Any game involving more than one person is played in a kind of Shared World, even if that world only exists until one of the participants has won. Such places gained a greater degree of permanence in Role Playing Games, where the Gamemaster might create an episodic campaign taking years to complete, and in the Play by Mail industry, in which the moderator maintains an independent record of the state of play for as long as the game goes on. The development of computer networks, however, made possible a new form of communal world, one in which physically distant players could participate in the same game in real time, without the delays in communication characteristic of Postal Worlds. Such Online Worlds can be either temporary or persistent, a distinction resembling that made between closed and open Postal Worlds. A temporary world exists just long enough for players to finish a single session of its associated game, while persistent examples are of potentially infinite duration, continuing to grow and develop for as long as their underlying computer programs run.

The first examples of temporary Online Worlds were created on local networks connecting several large mainframes or minicomputers, or on systems which allowed multiple users to connect to the same central machine from separate terminals. These games were typically competitive in nature, allowing players to fight simulated battles in the virtual universe. Early works include a networked 2 player version of Spacewar created in 1969 by Rick Blomme, Maze War (1973) (see First Person Shooters), the prototypal space combat game Spasim (1974) (see Space Sim) and airace (circa 1974 Mainframe) designed by Silas Warner, an aircraft racing game which inspired the networked combat flight simulator Airfight (circa 1974 Mainframe) designed by Kevin Gorey, Brand Fortner. With the exception of Maze War, all of these games were written for PLATO (see Computer Role Playing Games), a US system which offered advanced networking capabilities for the time and was primarily used by students, making it fertile ground for the early development of Online Worlds. Maze War was also notable for the development of a version in 1974 which allowed play across the ARPAnet, the predecessor of the modern internet.

Early commercial Videogames generally did not include networked play, since the requisite technology was rarely available outside an academic environment. Instead, most multiplayer games took an approach similar to that used in Mule (1983), allowing participants to take turns, or let several individuals play on the same machine at the same time by using multiple joysticks or similar devices to communicate with the hardware. Outside university networks, online games were sometimes played through bulletin board systems, computers which provided electronic mail services and discussion forums for members who connected to them using a telephone modem. Such systems often hosted "door games", independently developed Videogames which were launched through a "door" provided by the bulletin board software (see Independent Games). One sf example is Trade Wars 2002 (1991 DOS) designed by Gary Martin, a text-based game influenced by the single player Star Trader (1974) (see Space Sim) and Universe (1984). Trade Wars 2002 allows several players to explore a shared interstellar space influenced by Star Trek and Star Wars and build an empire by trade and conquest, initially by taking turns but in later versions through simultaneous play. While the simulated world is persistent in the sense that it is preserved for as long as an individual game lasts, it is essentially temporary in nature, since every game ends once a winner is declared.

Fully commercial Online Worlds first appeared in the early 1980s on national network services such as the US GEnie and CompuServe and the UK's Micronet, which were in essence much larger versions of the independently run bulletin board systems. One of the methods used by these services to attract customers was to commission proprietary multiplayer games which were only available on their network. One well known example was the World War Two flight simulator Air Warrior (1986 Kesmai; Amiga, AtariST, Mac; 1987 DOS) designed by Kelton Flinn, a GEnie game which could be seen as a much improved version of Airfight. A science-fictional work set in a similarly temporary Online World was the CompuServe based MegaWars (1982 Kesmai, Net), a multiplayer game greatly resembling early Computer Wargames based on Star Trek (see Star Trek Games). Meanwhile, Videogame developers had begun experimenting with games which allowed 2 participants to compete against each other by connecting their computers directly via modem without using a bulletin board or other online service; an early example is the turn-based historical Computer Wargame The Perfect General (1991 White Wolf Productions, DOS; 1992 Amiga) designed by Mark Baldwin. Similar sf works include Metaltech: Battledrome (1995) (see Metaltech) and Wing Commander Armada (1994) (see Wing Commander). This development was greatly popularized by Doom (1993), which offered competitive play by modem and on local networks of the sort that might be found in a contemporary office or laboratory.

In 1991, however, the internet (which had previously been restricted to governmental, academic and corporate research bodies) was opened to commercial use. This network rapidly came to dominate online services, helped by the invention of the graphical World Wide Web interface, with existing network providers such as America Online migrating to the new standard and bulletin boards largely disappearing. Quake (1996), the successor to Doom, was released with options allowing users to create their own temporary Online Worlds on the internet and host competitions for other players. This approach proved to be highly popular, and such features have become almost de rigueur in Videogames which are suitable for competitive play, particularly in the First Person Shooter and Real Time Strategy forms. Early examples were exclusively available on personal computers, which could be equipped with the required networking hardware. In the late 1990s games consoles began to be manufactured with similar capabilities; successful console games which allow online play include Unreal Championship (2002) (see Unreal) and Halo 2 (2004) (see Halo: Combat Evolved). Most games set in temporary Online Worlds, whether on mainframe networks, bulletin boards, proprietary online services or the internet, have been competitive in nature, typically revolving around player versus player combat in environments separate to those used in the single player version and disconnected from its plot. While most early examples took the form of a war of all against all, more recent games have often encouraged players to join opposing teams, an approach popularized by Starsiege: Tribes (1998) (see Metaltech). A few works, however, offer cooperative options, in which players work together against a common enemy, often in a modified version of the normal game; sf examples include Doom (1993), Freelancer (2003) and Halo 3 (2007) (see Halo: Combat Evolved).

While temporary Online Worlds have largely served as venues for a new form of competitive sport, with cash prizes awarded to tournament winners in the US and South Korea, their persistent equivalents have developed into genuine otherworlds. Such virtual environments are more easily understood as places to go, with their own geographies, histories and codes of conduct, than they are as games to be won. They have a distinctive history, beginning with MUD (1978-1980 Mainframe; vt MUD1) designed by Roy Trubshaw, Richard Bartle, the first Multi User Dungeon. This game, written at Essex University in the UK, was intended to be a multiplayer version of the mainframe Zork (1977-1979), an early version of which Trubshaw had played under the name of Dungeon (see Adventures). While MUD's interface was similar to that of Zork, however, being based on the use of typed commands and textual descriptions of the simulated world, its gameplay more closely resembled that of a multiplayer Computer Role Playing Game, set in a Sword and Sorcery milieu where players' characters could become more powerful by killing Monsters and plundering their treasure. Many players, however, spent more time socializing with each other or exploring the virtual environment than they did attempting to progress in the game. These three areas of interest have been used by Bartle to characterize the different types of player who inhabit MUD's many descendants; a fourth group, who enjoy dominating other users, can be more problematic for the social dynamics of an Online World. As in a Computer Role Playing Game, MUD's players adopted personas which were formally distinct from their own identities, though (as has also been true in most later examples of the form) only a minority role played personalities which were markedly different to their own. Most of the key features of the form are visible in MUD, including the use of such RPG derived concepts as character class (which largely corresponds to profession, such as soldier or engineer). While most of the game's players were students at Essex University, an experimental connection to the ARPAnet allowed some users to join from the US, prefiguring the internet-based Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games of the late 1990s which made persistent Online Worlds into a global phenomenon.

While the majority of later examples of the form are descended directly from MUD, it is possible to identify several contemporary games which developed independently along similar lines. Avatar (1979 Mainframe) designed by Bruce Maggs, Andrew Shapira, David Sides was a multiplayer Computer Role Playing Game with an epic fantasy theme created on the PLATO network which operated in a persistent world much influenced by the RPG Dungeons and Dragons (1974 Tactical Studies Rules [TSR]) designed by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson. Scepter (1978 Mainframe; 1978 rev vt Milieu, Mainframe; 1983 rev vt The Scepter of Goth, DOS; vt The Scepter and The Phoenix) designed by Alan Klietz, another Dungeons and Dragons influenced fantasy game, became perhaps the first such work to be made commercially available when the 1983 iteration was licenced to early bulletin board operators. Various other commercial games followed, including versions of MUD (in 1984 on the UK's CompuNet online service and, under the name of British Legends, on CompuServe in the US in 1987) and Federation (1988 IBGames, C64) designed by Alan Lenton, a UK Multi User Dungeon which may have been the first persistent Online World with an sf setting (a Space Opera milieu which concentrated on interstellar trading and exploration). Technical restrictions meant that all of these games were entirely text-based with the exception of Avatar, which ran on powerful (and expensive) academic computers. Graphical Multi User Dungeons, which added Isometric or plan view displays to the form, first became commercially available with the release of the somewhat primitive fantasy game Island of Kesmai (1985 Kesmai, DOS, Others) designed by John Taylor, Kelton Flinn on the CompuServe network. The game that made this variant truly popular, however, was Neverwinter Nights (1991 Stormfront Studios, DOS) designed by Don Daglow, a Computer Role Playing Game licenced from the RPG Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1977 TSR) designed by Gary Gygax and set in its high fantasy Forgotten Realms milieu. This game, written for the America Online network, was far more visually pleasing than Island of Kesmai, with well crafted gameplay and a skilfully implemented persistent world. Meanwhile, text-based Multi User Dungeons or MUDs had continued to evolve in academia, where they were free to play. Notable examples include the highly popular Heroic Fantasy combat game AberMUD (1987 Mainframe, Net) designed by Alan Cox in the UK, TinyMUD (1989 Mainframe, Net) designed by James Aspnes, an American effort which was the first in a line of MUDs designed to emphasize role playing and social interaction rather than combat and adventure, and its descendant LambdaMOO (1990 Mainframe, Net) designed by Pavel Curtis, intended to function more as an alternative society than as a game. The political evolution of LambdaMOO's community is described by the journalist Julian Dibbell in My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World (1999). As is true of persistent Online Worlds in general, most of the academic Multi User Dungeons are set in some form of high fantasy world; science fiction is a common alternative.

In the mid 1990s, however, improved network infrastructure and the opening of the internet to business traffic made it possible to create commercial Online Worlds on a far larger scale than Neverwinter Nights. These works were referred to as Massively Multiplayer Online Games rather than graphical Multi User Dungeons, despite being exclusively graphical in nature, due to the "massive" numbers of players they could support. While temporary Online Worlds are usually free to play, their maintenance being the responsibility of the players who instantiate them, and games on commercial networks such as GEnie were generally either included in the service or charged for on an hourly basis, Massively Multiplayer Online Games have often been paid for by a monthly subscription. In South Korea, early commercial usage of the internet occurred primarily in cafes instead of private homes, encouraging the formation of a subculture of online Videogame players with access to the latest networking hardware. This set the stage for the first successful attempt at a massively multiplayer persistent Online World, Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds (1996 NEXON, Win) designed by Jake Song, set in a mythic version of ancient Korea. The highly popular pseudo medieval game Lineage (1998 NCSoft, Win; 2002 Mac), also designed by Jake Song in South Korea, is a descendant of Nexus which emphasizes territorial warfare between large groups of players. The game that popularized the form in the West, however, was Ultima Online (1997 Origin Systems, Win) designed by Richard Garriott, Raph Koster, Rick Delashmit, Starr Long, a spinoff from the Ultima series of Heroic Fantasy Computer Role Playing Games. Ultima Online was released with a large and impressively detailed fantasy world, including a simulated economy and ecology and an artificial currency, displayed in an Isometric view. The game allowed players a great deal of freedom, including the ability to attack each other whenever they chose, and a wide range of skills to learn, from forging saleable weapons to alchemy. However, as the number of players rose, rapidly outstripping the designers' original projections, it soon became clear that experience gained with the smaller scale Multi User Dungeons did not necessarily apply to the massively multiplayer form.

While the cities (where combat between players was banned) remained relatively civilized, Ultima Online's countryside rapidly degenerated into anarchic killing fields, plagued by roaming bands of aggressive players who would attack other characters on sight. The effects of this were ameliorated by the automatic resurrection of the dead, but travel between cities nevertheless became extremely difficult. Changes were then made to the system to automatically evaluate the morality of characters' actions towards others, with dangerous individuals tagged as "murderous" on the display, so that they could be identified and hunted by other players and computer controlled characters. However, algorithmic assessments of characters' ethical status proved, in practice, to be highly unreliable, and the problem was eventually resolved by creating a separate version in which players' characters could only attack each other by mutual agreement, a solution used in most subsequent MMORPGs. One memorable example of the general tendency towards mayhem was the assassination of "Lord British" – Garriott's alter ego within the game – by a player during a "royal visit", after the invulnerability normally enjoyed by British had been accidentally deactivated. The carefully engineered fantasy ecology was replaced by an unending supply of dangerous monsters after players effectively caused a mass extinction by killing too many of the original stock of dragons and other exotic beasts. Meanwhile, the sophisticated economic simulation, which continuously modelled supply and demand, proved problematic when player characters produced so many items that prices began to suffer from rapid deflation. This problem was addressed by modifying computer controlled traders so that they would always buy equipment built by players at a "fair price", a change which replaced deflation with rampant inflation. Nevertheless, variants of this approach – in which currency is injected as necessary, rather than there being a constant amount of gold or some equivalent standard of value within the simulated world – have been used in most later examples of the form. Arguably, much of the history of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games has revolved around attempts to resolve the social and psychological issues first seen in Ultima Online.

The general direction of MMORPG development since Ultima Online has become notably stylized, concentrating on the creation of artificial universes in which the laws of reality are rewritten to make the experience more enjoyable for the players. Thus, the death of player characters is almost always temporary, with some fictional justification (such as the activation of a clone) being used to explain their resurrection, though the replacement may not retain all of the original's possessions or skills. Behaviours which cause problems within the game are primarily discouraged not by hiring "GMs" (see Gamemasters) to police the simulated society – which is expensive – but by creating worlds in which those behaviours are impossible. So most MMORPGs offer a variety of different versions of the game in which the rules are slightly different, typically allowing players to attack each other whenever they wish in some variants but heavily restricting or banning the practice altogether in others. Similarly, the habit of killing newly created (and thus generally weak and vulnerable) characters to loot their bodies is often deterred by transferring the victims' possessions automatically to their next incarnations rather than leaving them with the corpses. Even games which do not allow variant versions generally splinter their game worlds into "shards", or divergent copies which each support some fraction of the player population. This approach is both technically advantageous and helpful in ensuring that popular areas do not become overcrowded, though games such as EVE Online (2003) prefer to simulate a single galaxy for all their players.

Much effort has been devoted to fostering the growth of communities within virtual worlds. Players are encouraged to join game world organizations, and the available types of character are usually designed to be interdependent. Thus, adventurers may need weapon builders to make their equipment, and effective combat strategies often depend on teams of players who adopt such roles as medic, hand to hand combat specialist and sniper. This latter concept is eventually derived from the complementary character classes used in the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the original pen and paper RPG. Communication between players, whether by keyboard, by headset and microphone or by some other means, is also important; preconstructed physical actions such as dances (in graphical variants) or special symbols (in text-based ones) are used to take the place of body language. While many players concentrate on killing computer controlled monsters, increasing their characters' skills and acquiring wealth and fame (though often only with computer controlled admirers), others see the creation of a separate persona in a virtual world as an opportunity to experiment with their own identities, sexual preferences and gender. Some participants who are interested in improving their status in the game world have proved willing to buy virtual equipment and currency on online auction sites. The appearance of this secondary market means that it is now possible to make a (poor) living from playing MMORPGs, though the game developers often discourage such activities on the grounds that they may diminish the enjoyment of players who are not willing or able to buy simulated loot. While small predesigned missions are often offered to players and new creatures and explorable areas are regularly made available for internet download, persistent worlds do not typically make use of overarching plots or story arcs; their Interactive Narratives are predominantly environmental in nature. Most massively multiplayer games are, like Nexus and Ultima Online, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, direct descendants of the first MUD, but there are exceptions to the rule. PlanetSide (2003 Verant Interactive [VI], Win) designed by Terrence Yee, for example, is an sf massively multiplayer First Person Shooter, in which teams of players from three opposing factions fight over the surface of the planet Auraxis, using characters who gradually improve in ability as they complete more missions. Other forms of Massively Multiplayer Online Game include the Space Sim EVE Online (2003) and the social worlds of The Sims Online (2002 Maxis, Win) designed by Will Wright and Second Life (2003 Linden Research, Win) designed by Philip Rosedale.

Ultima Online was followed by a number of similar games which tried to improve on its design. Where Koster and Garriott's game had attempted a detailed simulation of a fictional reality within which players could make moral choices, EverQuest (1999 VI, Win; 2003 Mac) designed by Brad McQuaid, Steve Clover, Bill Trost took its inspiration from the successful line of combat-oriented fantasy Multi User Dungeons beginning with AberMUD and continuing through DikuMUD (1991 Mainframe, Net) designed by Sebastian Hammer, Tom Madsen, Katja Nyboe, Michael Seifert, Hans Staerfeldt. The game's combination of attractive three-dimensional graphics and a strong emphasis on adventurous gameplay made it highly popular; it rapidly gained more subscribers than Ultima Online. Later examples of the form have almost exclusively used a three-dimensional view. Asheron's Call (1999 Turbine Entertainment, Win) designed by Toby Ragaini, Eri Izawa, Chris Pierson, Chris Foster introduced a number of innovations, most notably an epic fantasy narrative which affected its entire Sword and Sorcery world. However, this concept proved problematic, since players' actions could not make any real difference to the unfolding of the linear plot; story arcs have not been much used in subsequent MMORPG designs. Dark Age of Camelot (2001 Mythic Entertainment, Win) designed by Mark Jacobs focused on player versus player combat, with participants divided into groups corresponding to the three nations of its post-Arthurian world and encouraged to fight in specific areas. Meanwhile, the Norwegian game Anarchy Online (2001) made use of an original and evocative sf setting, as well as introducing dynamically generated missions which gave players a wide selection of tasks to perform.

Subsequent Massively Multiplayer Online Games developed in a number of different directions. Early examples were created exclusively for personal computers, which were the only machines used for games capable of connecting to the internet. However, in the twenty-first century games consoles appeared which could go online, making it possible to develop MMORPGs for them, though the lack of keyboards made player communication problematic. The first examples were Phantasy Star Online (2000) (see Phantasy Star) and Final Fantasy XI Online (2002) (see Final Fantasy), both created in Japan as spinoffs from popular series of Console Role Playing Games (see Computer Role Playing Games). Another development was the introduction of free MMORPGs which were supported by advertising or the sale of game world items and abilities to players rather than by a monthly subscription; perhaps the best known of the early Western examples was the high fantasy RuneScape (2001 Jagex, Web, Win) designed by Andrew Gower and developed in the UK. A variety of non fantasy-based games were released in the early 2000s, including the unsuccessful Space Opera Earth & Beyond (2002 Westwood Studios, Win), the Superhero-based City of Heroes (2004) and the Icelandic EVE Online (2003), an unusual design notable for the degree of freedom it offers to its players. Meanwhile, many of the developers of Ultima Online moved on to Star Wars: Galaxies (2003), which showed a similar idealistic concern with the value of community, but proved commercially unsuccessful. A more profitable approach was taken by Guild Wars (2005 ArenaNet, Win) designed by Mike O'Brien, Patrick Wyatt, Jeff Strain, a Sword and Sorcery game which had to be purchased initially but which did not charge a subscription fee. While Star Wars: Galaxies is a direct descendant of Ultima Online, Guild Wars is perhaps best described as an improved version of EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot. Its design concentrated on making combat-based cooperative and competitive play in a high fantasy world as enjoyable as possible; notably, it popularized the idea of creating separate subworlds for every mission performed by a group, an idea previously used in Anarchy Online. Thus, while players can interact freely in towns, as soon as a group begins playing through a prepared storyline or enters the wilderness they are moved into their own private copy of the world, where they can participate in an adventure with their chosen companions without having to deal with potentially unhelpful interlopers. In essence, Guild Wars is more of a game than many of its antecedents, but less of a world.

Other recent games have more closely resembled Guild Wars than Star Wars: Galaxies. By far the most commercially successful is World of Warcraft (2004 Blizzard Entertainment, Mac; 2005 Win) designed by Rob Pardo, Jeff Kaplan, Tom Chilton, set on the same Sword and Sorcery world used for the Real Time Strategy game Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994) (see Computer Wargames). World of Warcraft contains little that is strikingly new, but everything that it does, it does well. Perhaps its most distinctive features are its frequent use of private subworlds in which to play out adventures, as in Guild Wars, the universal availability of predesigned missions intended for both large and small groups of characters, so that players never find themselves at a loss for something interesting to do, and its guarantee that one character will never be allowed to kill another unless both have agreed to the terms of the combat. While the game avoids many of the unfortunate clichés of MMORPG gameplay, such as the sight of characters forming a polite queue while waiting for a monster to appear in a particular spot so that it can be killed, it is not immune to problems. One famous incident is the "Corrupted Blood" plague, an infectious (and lethal) curse which was smuggled out of the jungle troll city to which it was meant to be confined and spread to the general population. The result was a virtual epidemic which infected several simulated cities before it was eliminated by the developers. Nevertheless, the World of Warcraft approach has proved sufficiently successful that most subsequent games have copied most aspects of its design, though not necessarily the darkly cynical humour often apparent in its fiction.

While World of Warcraft currently dominates the market, alternative types of MMORPG are still released; one interesting example is the now defunct sf game Tabula Rasa (2007), which emphasized the resolution of moral dramas. Other works aimed at a mass market include Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011), the successor to Star Wars: Galaxies, and Funcom's forthcoming occult conspiracy game The Secret World. Most experimental designs, however, are now launched as small scale Multi User Dungeons rather than as (extremely expensive) MMORPGs. Interesting commercial examples include the graphical A Tale In The Desert (2003 eGenesis, Lin, Mac, Win) designed by Andrew Tepper, an independently produced game set in Ancient Egypt which is largely focused on social interaction (see Independent Games), and various text-based games created by the US developer Skotos. These latter works are classic Multi User Dungeons distinguished by the presence of individuals who serve a similar purpose to that of the Gamemaster in a pen and paper RPG, helping to shape the development of the ongoing narrative; examples include Castle Marrach (2001 Skotos, Web), set in a faerie citadel which shares something with Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, and the science-fictional The Lazarus Project (2007 Skotos, Web) designed by Michael Zerbo, which concentrates on the search for immortality on a colony planet. Skotos' games also allow players to significantly alter the world their characters live in, an element present in many academic Multi User Dungeons but little seen in commercial MMORPGs, perhaps because it is far easier for players to build textual descriptions than graphical models. This mutability may itself be helpful in the creation of an involving narrative. Most commercial Massively Multiplayer Online Games, by contrast, concentrate on accurately simulating an essentially unchanging world, in which the same stories can be enacted again and again. MMORPGs have also begun to appear in the written genre, notably in Charles Stross's Halting State (2007) and Neal Stephenson's REAMDE (2011).

In the late 2000s two (often linked) phenomena became increasingly important in Western Online Worlds: social games and free play. The former is a term used to refer to games played on "social networks", websites – of which Facebook is currently the best known – which concentrate on facilitating relationships between individuals. Social games are thus always online games, though the worlds in which they are played can be temporary (as for the many such works based on traditional Board Games, such as Scrabble) or persistent (the approach taken by such games as the iconic farming simulation FarmVille [2009 Zynga, Social; 2010 iOS]). Many of these works are reminiscent of the "door games" seen on bulletin board systems (see above), especially in their support for players who want to participate in the same game at different times. Most of them make use of the social network's systems to link the gameplay to players' existing relationships, for example by ensuring that their online friends are their neighbours in the game; the exceptions are typically works that simply use the social network as a platform on which to deliver a conventional single-player game. A common characteristic of the form is that its members are initially free to play, with income generated by the sale of virtual goods which make the game easier or more rewarding. While many players are enthusiastic about this approach – especially those who intend never to actually buy any items – it is not universally appreciated; notably, some participants resent the inevitable loss of goods if (and when) the game world in which they exist becomes unprofitable and is shut down. Regardless of the virtues or vices of their sales strategy, the vast majority of these works are of little science-fictional interest; their fictions are generally simple, and in any case are typically set in realities which are essentially contemporary, fairy tale fantasies, or entirely abstract. Exceptions include Evil Genius: WMD (see Evil Genius) and Global Resistance (see Resistance: Fall of Man).

While selling virtual items to players of games which are initially free was always the dominant business model for social games, it has also become much more common amongst MMORPG developers. This approach was initially popular in South Korea and China, and subsequently spread into the West through such games as RuneScape (see above); in the early 2010s it has become the most common way of funding massively multiplayer games. Typically the most popular works will still charge a monthly subscription, but games which have become less fashionable, or which cater to a more casual group of players, will be free, with their expenses paid for by the sale of imaginary goods (such as a better engine for a player's virtual starship, or a more attractive uniform for their game world persona). Well known science-fictional examples include Champions Online (see Champions) and Star Trek Online (see Star Trek Games). Sometimes, as in the current version of World of Warcraft, the early stages of play are free, but after that a subscription is required. This approach to the funding of MMORPGs can invert developers' relationships with their customers, transforming them from guardians of fair play – responsible for ensuring that all participants have an equal chance by preventing the sale of powerful game weapons and devices on online auction sites – to suppliers of those exact items, selling virtual power to those willing and able to pay for it.

Both temporary and persistent Online Worlds remain highly successful commercially, and appear likely to become better known in the mass market. The persistent form seems of particular science-fictional interest, since – as with the social simulation school of Toy Games – it incarnates a traditional sf dream, that of the virtual world which can seem more real than reality. It is interesting, however, to consider the differences between the conception and the creation. While most visions of such worlds have depended on Virtual Reality, this has proved to be of little relevance to actual Online Worlds. The emotional significance of playing a fictional character in another world, adopting the role of a secondary persona which can be more capable than its creator and perhaps express hidden facets of their personality, is, it seems, more important than the visual accuracy of the simulation. [NT]

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