Gaming History: The Oldest Running MMORPG In The World

John Butler

One of the most popular video game genres in the world, MMORPGs have a gaming history richer than that of virtually every other genre, and the oldest running MMORPG will surprise you.

After delving deep into the archives, I came across an old, old game. And by old, I mean it started a few years before I was born. And while gaming history enthusiasts may think they know what game I reference, it is not, in fact, Kingdoms of Drakkar, albeit, that one is probably the oldest graphical active MMORPG.

The game I found is Gemstone IV, but don't let the IV at the end fool you. That designation is mainly the result of the iterations of the game, all of which essentially remained the same, but due to changes in ownership, mechanics, etc., resulted in the IV title.

Now Gemstone IV is far from your typical MMORPG. Indeed, this little gem is a text-based RPG, a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD). The first iteration of Gemstone(technically Gemstone II) came out back in 1988. The first iteration was purely for testing purposes, and actually debuted in 1987 before Simutronics, the game's eventual developer, actually officially formed. This version was only offered as a demonstration model. Simutronics developed the game, and it was originally played not on the Internet, but rather GEnie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange).

The game itself is entirely text-based, and as a result, the difficulty curve is extremely high at the start. A number of interfaces exist which players use to simplify the mechanics of the game, allowing more click-and-play interaction than the game itself actually allows. A map tool is highly useful. Interestingly enough, scripting is allowed in the game, but AFK scripting is prohibited. The scripting allows players to automate mundane tasks like hunting creatures and crafting, which means reading a book in real life whilst pounding out swords and spears in the blacksmith shop to level up your crafting ability can be quite handy.

The game takes place in the high-fantasy realm of Elanthia. Players interact with each other and the environment, even being able to purchase and decorate homes. I actually had the privilege of attending an official wedding conducted between two characters (and their actual players, my friends) which occurred within a specially created instance of the game. The moderators/devs actually got involved to help make the occasion unique.

Gemstone IV shares the Elanthia setting with another game, DragonRealms. Justin Olivetti of the now sadly defunct website, Massively, described the two with "If you are more into level-based gameplay, then GemStone is probably for you, while DragonRealms skews much more toward a skill-based system. Because of the enormous amount of development time put into these titles, both DragonRealms and GemStone boast a rich array of features including world events and crafting."

There are a number of classes, races, gods, religions, jobs, and more within the game. There are a handful of cross-class abilities for different types. For instance, I once met a warrior who, for kicks and giggles, decided to max out his lesser magic skills since he had already finished with everything else in his class.

Another interesting feature within Gemstone is the culture of the various major cities. Where I usually played, Icemule Trace (Icewind Dale), most of the people were friendly, helpful, and generally out-going. Some of them would even buff up my character for free, and when fighting alligators in the city sewer, that really helped. On the other hand, one of the major primarily human cities was known for requiring payment for any kind of service. Want a buff? Pay. Want a heal? Pay.

In its nearly-30-year history, Gemstone faced one of the horrors of game developers/owners everywhere: a change in rights. Originally, several major mechanics were licensed from Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE), but when that business agreement expired, Simutronics had to scramble to rewrite code, change names, and all the other wonderful tasks required in keeping a game alive when core mechanics are no longer permitted to be used. The period was known by players as "de-ICEing."

Gemstone IV originally featured the typical pay-to-play model so many MMORPGs have used over the years, but finally added in a now more common free-to-play model while still maintaining benefits for those willing to split from their money.

Ever play Gemstone IV? Tell us you thought of it in the comments section below!

[Featured Image by Gemstone IV/Simutronics]