The Game Archaeologist: Wing Commander Online and Privateer Online
In late 2012, former Wing Commander developer-slash-movie director Chris Roberts emerged from a decade of obscurity to ask for help to fund his vision of a massive, engaging space sim for a modern audience. Fans opened up their wallets and started pouring unprecedented amounts of money into the project, which Roberts called Star Citizen.
I don't have to explain to you the subsequent rise of this $138M+ budget title, the vast expansion of its scope, the debate over its viability, and the fanatical following that fans have for this "under construction" sim. Even if it can't be Wing Commander in name, gamers reasoned as they plunked down their money, it could be the Wing Commander MMO in spirit.
Interestingly enough, there was another, older effort made to bring the well-known franchise to the MMO table back in the late '90s. A pair of projects, Wing Commander Online and Privateer Online, promised the thrills of the hit space saga with the expanse of the online gaming world. What happened and why aren't we playing one of these games today? Find out on this exciting episode of The Game Archaeologist!
To dig into this interesting "what if?" scenario, we're going to start at the beginning: 1983. It was this year that Origin Systems, Inc., was founded by a few guys, including some dude named Richard Garriott. The studio was anchored around the hit Ultima franchise, although it soon branched out and started making great games all over the place.
One of these titles was a space sim-slash-arcade shooter that featured valiant humans fighting among the stars against the oppressive Kilrathi empire. Chris Roberts and his team struck gaming gold with Wing Commander in 1990, kicking off a flurry of expansions, sequels, and spin-offs that took this franchise to the top of the charts in that decade.
Electronic Arts acquired the studio in 1992 after Origin suffered a severe financial crisis. The studio stayed afloat, and a few years later EA gave Origin the go-ahead to develop one of the first big MMOs: Ultima Online. After seeing the strong reaction and rabid following by the gaming community, EA decreed that online gaming would be the focus of Origin from there on out. It made a certain sense to build an MMO off of a hit franchise, so if Ultima Online could launch off of the Ultima games, why couldn't Wing Commander do the same?
It's almost breathtaking to think about what might have been. With Ultima Online's popularity giving Origin's namebrand a boost, the team had permission to build two MMOs out of its space sim franchise. Work began on Wing Commander Online and Privateer Online (Privateer being a spinoff of Wing Commander set in the same universe that offered more freeform options). Players who caught wind of these projects couldn't stop salivating at the thought of piloting their own fighter or freighter through the galaxy and making a name for themselves. Even the lack of Chris Roberts (who left the studio in 1996) didn't seem to dampen spirits.
What exists of these two titles today in action is hard to find: a blurb in Origin Systems' history, some concept art, and a few screenshots. Out of the two, Privateer Online seems to have gotten the most attention and push from EA. I'll admit that it's not 100% clear whether these were two separate titles, a name variation (such as Wing Commander Online: Privateer), or a continuation of the same project under a name change. The problem here is that several sources mention them as separate projects, while other sources ignore WCO altogether. As I've seen the titles listed as discontinued on separate dates, I'm going to go with the "two projects" angle.
Raph Koster (SWG, Crowfall) recalled the origin of Privateer Online, saying that it was initially a 2-D MMO concept he came up with called Star Settlers that focused on interstellar colonization and exploration. This got changed when he pitched it to EA's execs:
First exec comment was “Hate the name. And we have a powerful science fiction IP in-house! This should be in the Wing Commander universe. Maybe Privateer.”
This of course blew up a huge portion of the design. There’s a lot of lore in the WC universe. Star Settlers worked in part because it literally handed galactic history over to the players.
Second exec comment was “This is a Wing Commander game! It’s got to have space combat. And be in 3-D.”
That blew up most of the rest of the design. And the whole starting premise of “have something to ship within a year” that was the start of the entire project.
An executive summary announcing Privateer Online was incredibly optimistic: "With Wing Commander lifetime sales (as of March '98) selling two-to-one over the Ultima series, we can expect even greater subscription numbers than Ultima Online. Also, with the already crowding fantasy RPG online genre, Privateer stands alone in the sci-fi genre providing Origin with many new types of customers. With all that said, Privateer, with the strong universe backing and proven Wing Commander history, proves to be the most extensive, entertaining and encompassing space-based online community in gaming history. PERIOD."
The design philosophy behind Privateer Online paints the picture of a community-oriented space sim that wasn't just about combat. "Privateer will be more than just a game," the team wrote. "It is a human interaction experience."
That said, these games were to have a lot of space fights, an enormous economy, numerous guilds and factions to rank up in, peaceful methods of progression, AI wingmen, customizable ships, gambling, a stock market, GM events, and 60 star systems to explore.
The design document (download) for Privateer Online showed that the team had ambitious goals to roll out huge updates, double the size of the universe, and create a second, superior version of the game (Privateer Online 2) within a couple of years.
"The resultant team never jelled entirely, and the design suffered from that a lot," Koster wrote in 2014. "We ended up producing a ridiculously ambitious design bible that was lavishly illustrated, and a prototype. Lots of stuff was overcomplicated. In hindsight, that’s kind of classic Origin, actually."
The black void of the cosmos
By all accounts, both titles' development windows were fairly limited. Shortly after getting the go-ahead to work on these space MMOs, EA decided that Ultima Online 2 was where it was at. The publisher ordered Wing Commander Online to be shuttered, with that team reassigned to UO2. Meanwhile, Privateer Online's crew was shifted over to Verant to work on Star Wars Galaxies. The UO2 team wasn't happy at all and quit within six months, dealing a mortal wound to that sequel, while elements of Privateer Online (such as fractal terrain) were incorporated into SWG's design.
It turns out that EA's eyes were bigger than its stomach as far as MMOs were concerned. It's as if the publisher made a bold decision to stride into online space, then had a severe moment of doubt and buyer's remorse. Quick as a cat, EA yanked the plug on several projects in 2000, including Ultima Worlds Online, Ultima X Odyssey, and Privateer Online. Privateer Online was deemed too similar to another title that EA was making, Earth and Beyond, which lived (for a time) while its brother-in-arms was jettisoned through the corporate airlock.
In the end, Origin Systems went out with a whimper, hardly the just rewards of a studio that gave gamers terrific experiences for over two decades. EA shut it down in 2004, leaving but memories and a few experienced developers shooting off on their own trajectories.
"When Origin was shut down there was a big bonfire party. Copies of the Privateer Online [design bible], along with those from many other Origin projects that never saw the light of day, were used to fuel the flames," Koster recalled.
Maybe Wing Commander/Privateer Online would've been a rough ride with little more than promise. Maybe it would've let gamers down by lacking a strong narrative, struggling through technological limitations, or failing to gain an audience willing to embrace a space MMO. After all, it's not as if Earth and Beyond did much for EA a few years later.
Maybe it's for the best that Roberts stepped away from game development for a decade and refueled his passion for an online space sim. Maybe the best chapter of this story is yet to come.