For my part, I saw Ultima Online as a logical next step from the MUDs I played in college in the early 90s. I was pretty far gone into a couple of TinyMUCKs back then. (I just checked and I do, in fact, still have my wiz bit on PegasusMuck.) When called on to date the start of the MMO I usually give two answers: UO was the first commercial success.
"For me personally, this was probably one of the most conflicting parts of working on Titan. Don’t get me wrong — I’d wanted to work on an MMO for as long as long as I’ve been in games, and this was the dream game of a lifetime. But while there were a few of us that had played MMO’s before WoW, by far and large, as the team grew, most of the people on the team had never played a single MMO before WoW. This led to a dilemma that the entire team struggled with throughout the lifetime of the project. And it’s a dilemma I think every team out there that’s designing an MMO today has to struggle with, and the actual point of this post, which I’m only just now actually getting around to: How much do you copy the genre leader?
Dusty's actual question is a good one, but that isn't what really caught my eye. You see, while we were building Pirates of the Burning Sea we had a similar dynamic to our team. World of Warcraft came out two years after we started, so nobody had played it.
Instead we had one designer who figured that the MMO genre started with EverQuest where most of the rest of us pegged that event at some earlier game. This guy refused to acknowledge Ultima Online as a "real" MMO despite its hundreds of thousands of subscribers and massive success. He thought even less of the games that came before it: The Realm, Meridian 59, and the thousands of MUDs.
MUDs (starting with MUD1, I guess) were the origin of the design genre. To me the distinction is important because of all the ways that MUDs break when your playerbase is counted in the tens of thousands instead of hundreds. UO was really the first game to deal with that kind of scale in the design, so it was the first "real" MMO.
It shouldn't surprise me that there are people working on MMOs today that consider World of Warcraft the first real example of this kind of game. It has thirty or fourty times the number of subscribers that EverQuest had at its peak.
That increase changed the dynamics of the game just as much as the previous 30-40x jump made EverQuest and Ultima Online different from the games that preceeded them. My only fear is that this will drive more companies into direct competition with WoW (and the $40 million plus games that are intended to compete with it) instead of toward building a nice tidy business aimed at a niche of 100,000 to 300,000 players who are craving something different.