With the release of Ultima Online and The Realm, the amazing world of MUDs was made graphical and brought to the mainstream. Following closely behind, similar games, like EverQuest, started using cutting edge 3D technology to further bring these worlds alive. While these were simply graphical versions of games that have been played online for decades, their accessability to the general public cause them to be known as the first generation of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. (MMORPG)
As is often the case with first-generation products, while being an amazing technological accomplishment, hindsight shows them as also being incredibly shallow. They are basically 'one trick ponies.' For example, choosing variety over style, Ultima Online (UO) went with reduced graphics, but a greater feature set. Everquest (EQ), however went the opposite direction and had excellent graphics for the time, but trimmed down it's feature set to almost nothing. Those were the trade-offs of the day.
Using those games as starting points, several other game developers joined the fray to design the next stage in the evolution of computer gaming. Having no set boundaries or constituents, this 'Second Generation' of MMORPG is a loosely bound collections of diverse products. Each pursued it's own path, graciously testing design and concepts for those who will follow. Asheron's Call tested limited player government (allegiances) and a pseudo skill-based advancement system. World War 2 Online pushed the limits of realistic situations, physics, and game play. Anarchy Online is pioneering real-time generated locations and content, along with PvP and class dependencies. There are still some upcoming games that will test other ideas. Dark Age of Camelot is focusing on social game play, and pre-defined territorial combat. ShadowBane has decided to emphasize the combat strategies and tactics and simulate medieval war.
Carefully watching, and immensely grateful to these development 'Beta Testers' are the 3rd Generation MMORPGs. A short list of these are Atriarch, Horizons, Star Wars Galaxies, not to mention the follow-ups to existing games such as Asheron's Call 2, and Everquest 2. These games will attempt to create the full experience: Excellent 3D computer worlds, Deep and engrossing storylines and world histories, Multi-faceted and intricate game play including Social, Political, Commercial, and Combat related aspects, Dynamic and player driven content.