In Pictures: The 11 most influential online worlds of all time

From MUD to Minecraft, these digital universes have shaped massively multiplayer games and kids' toys.

  • 2. Habitat (Lucasfilm, 1986) Lucasfilm's Habitat was the world's first large-scale attempt at an online community with a graphical interface. The 2D virtual world was available on a beta-test basis from 1986 to 1988 through Quantum Link, a dial-up online service for Commodore 64 users. In 1988, a stripped-down version of Habitat, Club Caribe, took its place. In Habitat, players controlled customizable representations of themselves, which they could see on-screen in a 2D view that resembled early PC adventure games. Avatars could wander a city, visit houses, chat with other players, and buy and sell virtual goods. There was even a virtual in-world newspaper and mail system. Years after Habitat's demise, its creators authored many papers on the design and implementation of the game and the behavior of its player base. Those papers influenced a new generation of online-world designers whose creations began appearing in the mid-1990s. Interestingly, one of Habitat's creators coined the modern usage of the term "avatar" in reference to Habitat. Even history's highest-grossing film owes something to this pioneering online world. Image: Lucasfilm
  • 7. Webkinz World (Ganz, 2005) Around the same time that Club Penguin appeared on the scene, another highly influential online world for children debuted. With Webkinz World, Canadian toy company Ganz linked the world of physical toys to an online world that children could use. Even today, Ganz sells a line of plush animal dolls called Webkinz, each of which comes with a special code that the purchaser can enter into the Webkinz Website. Once a child enters a toy’s code, a representation of the plush animal springs to life online, and the player can pilot the creature through a virtual environment, play games, and even chat with other Webkinz users. Wildly successful, Webkinz spawned so many imitators pursuing toy-Internet integration that it is now hard to buy a kid's toy without some form of online code. Image: Ganz
  • 8. Club Penguin (New Horizon Interactive, 2005) Habbo Hotel's unexpected commercial success led virtual-world developers to target an even younger demographic: preteen kids. Club Penguin is one of the most popular of this newer breed of online worlds for children. Kids gather there to chat, trade virtual items, and play social games together. Most of these worlds are free at first, but they charge a monthly subscription fee for extended features such as the ability to have your own apartment that you can decorate. Predictably, Club Penguin has been widely criticized for teaching consumerism to young kids, but that hasn't stopped dozens of copycat worlds from springing up. Child-entertainment juggernaut Disney acquired Club Penguin in 2007. Image: New Horizon Interactive
  • 11. Minecraft Alpha Multiplayer (Mojang Specifications, 2010) Though Minecraft is a relatively recent game, it has already emerged as a highly influential one. In single-player mode, you can build shelters and explore the monster-filled countryside, but the jewel of Minecraft is its multiplayer functionality, which debuted with Minecraft Alpha in June 2010. Now in beta, Minecraft lets the user host a unique, persistent virtual world that other players can connect to through the Internet. Thousands of public Minecraft servers (and thus, thousands of online worlds) are now online, each possessing its own localized flavor thanks to Mojang's encouragement of custom server modifications that add new features to the game, such as the ability to spawn custom building blocks at will, rather than having to dig them from the ground. Minecraft's influence doesn't stop there. Due to the game's breakout success, other developers around the Web are working feverishly to replicate key elements of Minecraft in their own online worlds. Image: Benj Edwards
  • 6. World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) In the past seven years, World of Warcraft has amassed an astounding 11 million paid user accounts worldwide. The mythos, graphics, and quest system brought those players to the 3D online role-playing game, but the rich virtual world kept them coming back to venture on combat-rich quests with friends, collect rare equipment, and build the stats of their online alter-egos. As history's most successful pay-to-play massively multiplayer online game, WoW has inspired a seemingly endless stream of imitators, competitors, and pretenders to the throne. In that way, WoW is responsible for the creation of more online worlds than most of the worlds in this list. So why isn’t WoW number one on this list? First, because it’s influence is greater as a game than a pure virtual world. And second, because it wouldn’t exist if not for three of the next four entries. Image: Benj Edwards
  • 1. MUD (Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, 1978) In 1978, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle created the world’s first firmly documented multiuser online environment, MUD, at the University of Essex. The first version of MUD (which stood for "Multi-User Dungeon") ran on a DEC PDP-10 mainframe and users connected through terminals hooked to the local university network. Before long the network linked up to ARPAnet; and with Bartle's encouragement, various MUD-like games sprang up around the world. In imitation of the then-popular Zork, MUD began as a multiuser text adventure that focused on exploration and puzzle solving. It soon gained combat and role-playing elements similar to those found in Dungeons and Dragons. All MMO worlds today -- even World of Warcraft -- are spiritual descendants of the first MUD, which started in 1978. You can still play a version of this classic text game at Image: Benj Edwards
  • The Universes We Imagine Since the dawn of the digital computer, sci-fi authors have dreamed of a world that exists solely inside a machine. As technology progressed, it became possible not only to re-create our analog world in computer software, but to include many people, far-flung but connected through a network, in that shared experience. These are online worlds -- worlds in which representations of distant human players inhabit virtual space together, whether in 3D, 2D, or text form. Here’s a look at 11 of the most influential online virtual worlds ever created, ordered from least influential to most.These worlds aren't necessarily the first or the best of their kind, but they've had the most influence on the online worlds that followed.
  • 4. Ultima Online (Origin, 1997) As one of the first massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), Ultima Online launched an industry. The game first caught the public's attention in its beta-testing phases when a clever player named "Rainz" managed to kill the supposedly invincible sovereign Lord British (an incident captured in the screenshot at left). In Ultima Online, players were free to pursue almost any path -- from a combat-based lifestyle to a life as a thief to one as a baker. Over time, UO also provided an influential and important platform for sociological studies of virtual world behavior (especially of unregulated player-on-player violence in the early version of the game) due to its open, free-form user experience that emphasized social and nonviolent trades as much as questing and combat. Its simulated weather system, natural food chain, and economy also attracted quite a bit of media attention in its day. Most importantly, the economic success of UO spawned MMO imitators -- EverQuest, Lineage, Star Wars Galaxies, and everything else that followed. Image: A. Schulze
  • 10. Habbo Hotel (Sulake Corporation, 2000) Habbo Hotel, a cartoonish online world aimed at teenagers, debuted in its native Finland in 2000. Habbo soon expanded into many other countries, reaching the United States in 2004. Originally authored in Macromedia Shockwave (a browser plug-in), Habbo was one of the world's first Web-based virtual worlds -- and one of the first Web worlds to be commercially successful. Habbo became popular with teens because it gave users the ability to customize the appearance of their character, to decorate a virtual apartment, and to chat with friends. With Habbo, Sulake hit on a winning financial formula: the company sold in-world credits for real-world money. Habbo's teenage users then spent the credits on virtual sofas, chairs, and other furniture for their Hotel apartments. This financial model proved wildly successful, and dozens of similar online worlds sprang up in its wake. In many ways, Habbo represented a philosophical shift from online worlds as cyber-utopias to purely commercial properties that focused on inducing users to provide endless micropayments for virtual goods. Image: Benj Edwards
  • 5. ActiveWorlds (Worlds, Inc., 1995) Shortly after the debut of Worlds Chat, Worlds, Inc. also launched ActiveWorlds, the first mainstream 3D online world that allowed users to build structures within the game (players placed prefabricated 3D components like rocks, trees, and house walls created by external tools). Whereas Worlds Chat specialized in graphical chat, ActiveWorlds focused on being a simulation of reality in which you could build your own home and environment. Its in-world economy, physics, and land management system blazed a trail for later worlds like There and Second Life, which owe a huge debt to this pioneering world. ActiveWorlds, though not as popular as it once was, is still around today. Image: Benj Edwards
  • 9. Worlds Chat (Worlds, Inc., 1995) Worlds Chat was the first 3D online world widely available on the Internet, blazing a trail followed in subsequent years by other 3D worlds such as Activeworlds and Second Life. Worlds lacked obvious game elements; instead, it focused on being a rich, graphical online chat system with player-selected avatars and interesting environments to explore. This triggered a golden age of multiuser graphical chat worlds like The Palace, WorldsAway, and Blaxxun 3D that sprang up in the mid-1990s. Image: Bruce Damer
  • 3. Second Life (Linden Lab, 2003) As a virtual world, Second Life picked up where ActiveWorlds left off. It started with a fully realized 3D online world and added a new twist: a robust free-market economy based on the sale of player-made virtual goods (like clothes, house decorations, and cars) and services (like house design). Unlike other worlds, Second Life's currency had weight: users could exchange U.S. dollars for Linden dollars or vice versa. Soon a virtual real-estate boom was in full swing, making a few SL residents rich in the real-world sense. This attracted enormous media attention, which in turn drew big-name corporate interests (such as Sears, IBM, Reebok) vying to own a virtual piece of this daring new online experiment. Second Life's popularity has declined since that peak around 2007, but it persists as one of the most successful and influential virtual worlds ever created. Image: Benj Edwards
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