The life cycle of a game isn’t easy to predict. Some start strong and burn out quickly, others endure for years before slowly fading away. Some crash and burn on day one while others are kept alive by players, modders, and community creators long after they might have otherwise slipped away.
A few games, however, have lived on for decades, kept alive not just by passionate fans but by developers who have never thrown in the towel or dusted off their hands and said “done.” These games have, against all odds, managed to withstand the test of time. They’re still being worked on after 20 and even 30 years, and all of them have had updates in 2018. We’ve focused on games from the 80s and 90s with interesting histories, but this is hardly a complete list (shout out to Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, and plenty of other games from 1999-2001 that are still running).
Here are the oldest PC games that are still being maintained today.
Released: July 1987 | Latest update: April 27, 2018
Trace NetHack allll the way back, and it’s actually an evolution of Hack, circa 1984, itself a derivation of 1980’s Rogue. In 1987, a developer named Mike Stephenson wrote his own expanded version of Hack and released it under a new name: NetHack. This major update to the nascent roguelike added a bunch of new classes like Samurai, Valkyrie, and Priest, very basic IBM graphics support, the Excalibur, and much more. You can read old USENET discussions and actually see the origins of NetHack as they played out online in 1987, which is pretty incredible.
More incredible is that the latest update to this game was released in April 2018, and there’s no sign it will be the last one. The latest release is 3.6.1 and comes hot on the heels of 2015’s 3.6.0. Seriously though: prior to that, the last release was in 2003! Because NetHack is a game built so heavily around random generation, it doesn’t really need updates to remain interesting and playable. There’s no RPG-esque dialogue to get tired of and no need for new quests, like the MUDs on this list.
Still, there were a couple very important additions in 3.6.1:
- Blinded hero or monster who eats a nurse corpse will have blindness cured
- Allow taming monkeys and apes with bananas
The best place to play NetHack today is on the server nethack.alt.org, which maintains leaderboards, lets you spectate other active players, and encounter the “bones” of other failed adventurers in your own dungeons. They usually have some pretty good loot—just watch out for the monster that killed them, which will be lurking on the same floor, too.
Released: 1988 | Latest update: June 15, 2018
GemStone IV sounds like a sequel, but it’s really just the latest iteration of a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) that’s been running since 1988, making it, as far as we can tell, the oldest living MMORPG. And it’s seemingly still going strong, with frequent updates adding new stories and places to adventure. Most games this old are community-developed, community-hosted passion projects, but GemStone IV is a remarkable exception, with a dev team still backing it up. While you can sign up for a free trial, GemStone IV has a $15 per month subscription fee and a microtransaction store to boot. You can also pay for a “premium” subscription, which costs $25 on top of the standard fee, and nets you some extra stuff.
To put that in perspective, if you’ve been playing GemStone since 1988, you’d have spent about $9,000 by now (ignoring the nuance of inflation and subscription cost changes over the past 30 years). You could also be playing as a character older than most videogames. So that’s pretty cool.
Kingdom of Drakkar
Released: 1989 | Latest update: June 15, 2018
Like most of the oldest living games, Kingdom of Drakkar started life in text. What’s less common is that it eventually transformed into a graphical RPG, taking the form it lives in today. Drakkar actually grew out of an even earlier game, the 1984 MUD Realm, but has existed under the Drakkar name since 1989. It absolutely looks like a precursor to Ultima Online, and was playable over Compuserve in the late 80s/early 90s when Ultima was still a single-player RPG series.
Drakkar’s creator Brad Lineberger claims they coined the term “massively multiplayer” at MPG-Net, an early 90s web platform that hosted Drakkar and other online RPGs. The game’s rights changed hands several times before Lineberger bought it back in the early 2000s. Remarkably, he still works on the game to this day, potentially making Kingdom of Drakkar the oldest living game still run by its original creator. You can download and play it for free.
Released: 1989 | Latest update: March 26, 2018
Genesis is a MUD and fantasy role-playing text adventure. Stretching way back to 1989, before the internet was widely used (or even widely known), Genesis was created by a small team at a university in Sweden. Over the years the in-game world of Genesis grew (like the internet itself) from a single landmass to a massive ocean dotted with continents and smaller islands, including some that let you explore locations from other fantasy worlds like Middle-earth and Forgotten Realms. There are over sixty different guilds to join, and those guilds have occasionally fought major wars with one another. By the time World of Warcraft arrived to introduce the MMORPG to a massive audience, Genesis had already been around for fifteen years.
This is a small sample size, but I jumped into Genesis the other day for about a half-hour, and ran into several other players in just the tutorial zone, so not only is Genesis still getting regular updates but it’s also still attracting new players. It’s a snap to get started: visit the site, click Play Now, and create a character and password. There’s nothing to download: it runs in your browser and there’s a Chrome extension, too.
Released: 1992 | Latest update: July 4, 2018
UnReal World is a rougelike RPG set in a procedurally generated world based on Finland in the late Iron Age. Players engage in open-ended wilderness survival, crafting, fishing, trapping, hunting, cooking, trading, and can even build their own cabin in the woods: features fairly common in survival games today but completely unheard of 25 years ago. Originally, UnReal World was based in high fantasy, with elves and orcs, but over time it’s become more grounded in history, though there are still mystical elements to it.
UnReal World been steadily updated since its release in 1992: version 1.0 was written in Turbo Pascal before being rewritten in C, it made the move from DOS to Windows, it slowly became a fully graphical game, and it even made its way to Steam in 2016. You can read a comprehensive history of UnReal World, year by year, on its official site. You can buy it on Steam or download it here to play (and if you enjoy the free version, consider donating to the developer).
Released: 1997 | Latest update: June 27, 2018
Ultima Online has a storied history, beginning with perhaps the greatest moment in PC gaming ever (and a Guinness World Record to boot): the assassination of producer Richard Garriott’s avatar, the nigh-invulnerable Lord British, during a beta stress test in 1997. The fantasy MMO with a player-driven economy and a heavy focus on PvP drew in more than 100,000 players by 1998 (another Guinness World Record), and over 20 years later it’s still being updated with new content and expansions. There’s still a small but active community playing on a daily basis.
Its grand ambitions and complex systems allowed for a lot of exploits and griefing by players, particular when it came to murder and theft, though its expansions added zones where players can’t kill one another and did a lot to discourage griefing. There’s still great nostalgia for those early, brutal days of back-stabbing and skullduggery, the likes of which have never quite been matched.
Released: March 31, 1998 | Latest update: April 12, 2018
Sure, StarCraft is a spring chicken by this list’s standards, but look at what stands out. It’s not an MMO. It’s not a text-based MUD. It’s not built around procedural generation. It’s an RTS, a game that still gets competitive play in Korea, and a game that has a big-budget sequel that’s much younger and prettier. Most games would’ve long ago been put out to pasture. But Blizzard isn’t most developers, and StarCraft isn’t most games.
StarCraft has been patched four times in 2018 and had more than a dozen patches in 2017. There have been bug fixes, improvements to network latency, and more—the kind of stuff you’d expect for a living online game in released in the past few years. StarCraft just happens to be 20 years old, and it’s still spry.
Released: 1999 | Latest update: April 23, 2018
Utopia is a text-based fantasy strategy game where the multiplayer matches, known as Ages, take place over a period of 10-12 real-time weeks. Players manage a province in a kingdom, build it up with farms and guilds, train a military, and vote for a monarch from among the players in their neighbor provinces. Kingdoms war with other kingdoms, and at the end of the Age the largest kingdom wins, the match ends, and the game resets.
Typically, each new Age brings about some changes and updates—its 77th Age begins this July, promising some new tweaks—plus feedback on the changes from Utopia’s community which consists of around 3,300 players. Game updates aren’t the only things that have changed Utopia over the years: its ownership has changed as well. A two-man team called Muga Gaming LLC acquired it last year from Jolt Online Gaming, which had bought Utopia from its creator, Mehul Patel, in 2008. Utopia runs in your browser, and you can enlist right here.