Video games are sort of stuck in a kind of temporal limbo nowadays. Live-service games maximize microtransaction revenue with long-term and frequent content updates, meanwhile the AAA machine never stops churning and the profit and popularity surge of a sequel is tantalizing for large publishers. There was a time, however, when things were different.
No, dear reader, this time we're not going to talk about whether or not gaming was really better in the past; instead we invite you on a stroll down memory lane - but this isn't your regular nostalgia fueled reminisce, as the decade-old games on this list are still going strong today. If any of these titles spark an old memory that you'd love to relive, there's nothing holding you back - and we do suspect a lot of you who played some of these might be actively doing so today.
Before we proceed, you might note the lack of MUDs (multi user dungeons) on the list - this isn't because we don't consider them valid or 'real games' or other nonsense like that, but because including them would feel a bit like cheating. There are tons of them, many of which have been up and running for even longer than the oldest game on this list, and they're also less resource intensive to maintain. If anything, they'd deserve their own article.
With that out of the way, let's jump right into the top longest running games, in no particular order.
The Realm (1996)
Recently (as far as the game's lifespan is concerned) renamed The Realm Online, this was an early experiment into what would evolve to be the modern MMORPG. By some definitions a graphical MUD, Sierra On-Line's proto-MMO was groundbreaking, but soon eclipsed by the more technically advanced Ultima Online and EverQuest just one and three years later, respectively.
Despite being a pioneer in the genre, Sierra soured on The Realm due to the appearance of 3D competitors and offloaded the game to a subsidiary. Since then, ownership and operation of The Realm jumped from company to company. In its current state, The Realm Online is run by Rat Labs, and features a Free-To-Play server which brought active player numbers back up to the peak it reached during its heyday.
Visually simple by modern standards, the 2D MMORPG still has complex gameplay mechanics and features, and practically invented the practice of instancing in multiplayer games. Notorious for the same brand of unforgiving difficulty as many games from this era are known for, poorly created characters and unideal stat distributions could doom your adventure to failure even before you begin.
One of the earliest space shooters, SubSpace has that sort of odd grassroots history that was very much a product of its time - stuff like this just can't happen in the video game industry anymore. Developed in 1995 not as a commercial product but rather as a test project to study latency over the crummy internet connections of the era, it turned out that the game is actually, well, good.
Virgin Interactive picked up that prototype and reworked it into what became SubSpace, another precursor to what MMOs have become today. Despite featuring revolutionary physics simulation and complex multi-faceted gameplay, SubSpace failed to become a commercial success. Nonetheless, the players that did pick it up loved it enough to ensure its longevity.
Even after the official client was discontinued and the servers shut down, custom clients - which even improved on the original's cheat prevention - and fan-run servers kept the game up and running uninterrupted since it was released. Arguably the definitive version, SubSpace Continuum, is available for free on Steam and the security improvements have made it a requirement in almost all popular private servers. It's hard to gauge accurately how many active players SubSpace has across all the fan servers, but you'll definitely have no trouble finding a crowd.
Ultima Online (1997)
One of the straws that broke the camel's back for The Realm, Ultima Online is a top-down isometric MMORPG that's been up and running since 1997. This isn't the kind of "the servers are still running but the game is effectively dead" sort of up and running - there are on-going in-game story events, with the latest update happening as recently as late May this year.
To be fair, few franchises are as utterly genre defining and seminal as Ultima is in the world of fantasy video games, so by virtue of its boundless popularity alone Ultima Online has an easier job at maintaining a playerbase. You can play the MMO for free, and we're willing to bet that any PC capable of opening Chrome for you to read this article has enough juice for it.
UO still maintains a thriving community so it's not like you'll be running around an empty world, and you don't need to worry about being late to the party - fans have managed to set up private servers, so even if EA decides to pull the plug, you can continue your adventures as long as there are enough dedicated players to keep those realms alive.
Final Fantasy 11 (2002)
Final Fantasy 14 is the FF MMORPG most people know and talk about, but its predecessor was the first massively multiplayer game in the series - and is still kicking. The game is still getting new content despite there being another FF MMO on the block, but the two titles offer starkly different experiences and both have enough of an audience to warrant coexistence. A new episodic update series was launched for FFXI back in 2020 with drops still on-going.
It's estimated that the game clocks around 40,000 unique players each day, so it is very much alive. If fans keep things up, you'll have the chance to adventure through Vana'diel for years to come. This level of continued popularity does have a caveat - since there's an audience, the monthly subscription model has been retained unlike how most games on this list switched to a free-to-play setup.
While you can get FFXI on Steam, that version is a sort of starting bundle that you need to purchase, and then buy the subscription on top of it. Meanwhile simply playing via the game client from the official website will get you a one month free trial without an initial purchase.
Few games have had as much of an impact on the genre as EverQuest, which pioneered the full 3D MMORPG format that would become the status quo for these games later on. Predating the colossally popular World of Warcraft by 5 years, the two titans of fantasy MMOs would go on to have a friendly (and not so friendly) rivalry over the years.
EverQuest was a landmark achievement and a revolutionary new approach to playing together with friends in a virtual space that you could explore like in no game before it. It's had its highs and lows over the years; it got a sequel that never even neared the importance and impact of the original; it was supposed to get a spin-off follow-up titled EverQuest Next that got cancelled.
Amid all the turbulence, EQ1 persisted. It persists even today, with the latest expansion having been released in 2020. Over its 22 year lifespan, EQ1 received 27 full expansions, and with its maintained popularity you can bet that the latest won't be its last either.
Anarchy Online (2001)
Anarchy Online is a unique entry on this list for multiple reasons, most of which revolve around its impressive list of 'firsts'. Many sources claim it to be the first true sci-fi MMORPG and we couldn't really find anything to refute that, and it is also the first game to have implemented in-game advertising as a method to generate revenue while allowing players to enjoy it free of charge - speaking of, it was also the first paid MMO with a free trial system.
Other than pioneering a number of features and systems that have become status quo in the world of MMOs, Anarchy is also unique in the sense that since it was launched in 2001, it has not changed developers or owners - it's been operated, without interruption, by the same team since day one. Many other games here have switched owners or now rely on fans to survive, so this is a pretty impressive feat.
Anarchy is also unique in the fact that it got a pretty extensive visual overhaul. Twice - once in 2008 and again in 2015. This means that, while still obviously dated in terms of graphical fidelity, Anarchy Online doesn't look as ancient as some of the other titles on the list. Available via Steam or its own launcher, you can play Anarchy Online for free and jump straight into a well populated game world.
Tibia is something of a halfway point between The Realm and Ultima Online, being entirely 2D but viewed from a top-down isometric point of view like UO rather than The Realm's sort of "stage perspective". It joins Anarchy Online in the club of classic MMOs that have never switched developers, with CipSoft still at the helm.
The visual simplicity of Tibia shouldn't fool you, as this is a properly, fully fledged MMORPG with all the complex gameplay systems and deep progression that have made the genre such a staple in the games industry for decades. PvP, raids, guild halls, an unforgiving level grind - Tibia has it all.
A fun aspect of Tibia is that there is no level cap - theoretically you can keep on dinging for all eternity, and the developers sometimes got cheeky with this too. In 2005, a door was added to the game that only level 999 players could open, which first happened in 2016, over a whole decade later. Naturally what players found on the other side was underwhelming, but after 11 years practically everything would have been. Nonetheless, the game is still supported with content updates every six months or so, and maintains a healthy player base - it's free to play, but you can upgrade to a paid status for bonuses.
RuneScape exists in the same brainspace as EverQuest does, as far as most MMORPG veterans are concerned, as they were released in proximity to each other and shared a lot of features and characteristics. Both had an immense impact on the early era of true MMORPGs after graphical MUDs started to get phased out, offering players a fully 3D fantasy world to explore.
An interesting thing to note about RuneScape is that the 'classical' game most people fondly remember was actually RuneScape 2 - the initial release was a graphical MUD with some 2D elements, but that got a major overhaul after the game became a hit. The current, modern version of RuneScape is technically "RuneScape 3" (here numbers do not denote sequels in a series but eras in the game's development), though RuneScape 2 is playable for free as Old School RuneScape - and has a larger playerbase than the modern version.
Developed literally in a basement, RuneScape spents its initial period after release being run from the home of the Gower brothers who created it. They probably never dreamt of the level of genre-defining cultural zeitgeist success the passion project would achieve, but here we are today, still playing it. You never really quit RuneScape - you just take breaks.
Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds (1996)
Known as Baram in its native South Korea, Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds was released in the west only 2 years after launching domestically and garnering enough praise to convince Nexon that it has a shot elsewhere too - and it was a hell of a shot, with the 2D manhwa style MMORPG still having a healthy playerbase.
Based on a fantasy abstraction of historical Korea from the three-kingdoms period, Nexus featured uniquely deep community features at the time of its release, and subverted the RPG "holy trinity" of the Warrior, Rogue and Mage by adding a fourth main class, the Poet, alongside several advanced progression options.
NexusTK, as it has come to be known commonly, also features player housing that you can customize and has a player-run in-game political system complete with judiciary and education roles fulfilled by the players themselves. NexusTK has a notoriously bureaucratic guild-creation process - just 19 have been founded since it launched in 1996. You can take a swing at it yourself, as the game is still running and active.
Counter-Strike 1.6 (1999/2000)
Not a lot of non-MMOs boast the kind of longevity needed to get on a list like this, and other than SubSpace only the classic and eternal Counter-Strike made the cut. First released as a Half-Life mod in 1999, then as a separate release after Valve hired the creators the next year, Counter-Strike 1.6 is a uniquely influential and trend-setting FPS game that continues to dominate despite the existence of its more modern and hip younger brother, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
CS 1.6 is the kind of cultural mainstay that was a household term before Call of Duty ever achieved that level of mainstream popularity. Weekend LAN parties, shoddy dorm room tournaments, trying to get it installed on library and school computers off your friend's pendrive - anyone who was old enough to game at 1.6's height will have memories like these.
The tradition of the match-ending 1v1 knife fight. Knowing de_dust better than the layout of your own home. All of these ubiquitous, classic elements of gamer culture persist today through Counter-Strike's thriving community that just won't let the game die. GG.
As is always the case with any list-base article, there's certainly some eligible games we might have missed - there are no doubt other titles out there with a decades old history and dedicated fanbase that build priceless memories in these old virtual worlds that are, despite the odds, still up and running. This is the kind of stuff that makes gaming special; the memories and friends we made along the way.