The Game Archaeologist: The Chronicles of Spellborn

Hey! Hey you! Yeah, you the I’m-so-bored-with-all-of-these-MMOs gamer! You’ve been grousing about for years how MMOs never take risks, never innovate, and are merely content to rehash the same-old fantasy tropes that were stale even back when World of Warcraft launched, right? Yes, we at Massively OP saw your poorly spelled Reddit post on that subject, thank you.

Well, what if I were to tell you that there’s an MMO that bucks the clichés? It’s true! Imagine an MMO that exists in a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. Imagine that combat isn’t merely hotbar button mashing but tactics mixed with positioning. Imagine that you can create your character to look any way you want from the onset instead of having to collect certain pieces of gear. Imagine an immersive world that is a delight to the eyes and ears.

Got all that? Want to play it? Well, you can’t. That game was The Chronicles of Spellborn, and since you and pretty much everyone else on the planet ignored it, it tanked in 2010 after less than a year of operation. Yet for its lackluster run, Spellborn has been strongly mourned by those who saw tremendous potential in it and who keep creating internet petitions to bring it back. Because petitions change everything. Today we’re going to take a look back at an MMO that took the path less traveled.

The promise of player freedom

In the mid-2000s, a small group of developers in The Netherlands were disatisfied with the current state of MMOs — and they decided to do something about it. The devs formed Spellborn NV, a studio that was dedicated to the singular purpose of making an online role-playing game that would buck the trends: The Chronicles of Spellborn.

Marketing and PR Manager Marco van Haren said that this project was a revolution against the status quo of fantasy MMOs: “Some of the current MMO conventions were thrown out of the window and replaced by our take on things. The end result is a big NO to Orcs, Elves and useless time sinks, and a big YES for player freedom and the emphasis on player skills.”

With a miniscule budget, an office full of passion, and a mid-size team of around 50 people, The Chronicles of Spellborn took shape. “We wanted to break away from the over used vanilla fantasy setting,” said Lead Game Designer Coen Neessen, “and we were really keen on making the combat more action-oriented and closer to an FPS rather than traditional MMORPGs.”

Even with this unique vision — or perhaps because of it — Spellborn NV had a devil of a time securing publishers who were willing to finance and promote the title. Eventually, Frogster agreed to handle Spellborn in Asia and some of Europe, Mindscape handled publishing for the rest of Europe, and Acclaim stepped in at the last minute to run it in North America.

The struggle to secure both publishers and finances took its toll on development, pushing the team to launch before it was fully ready. The Chronicles of Spellborn released in Europe on November 27, 2008, and in North America on April 23, 2009. North America’s launch was particularly troubled, as Acclaim hampered the subscription model with the unnecessary step of purchasing “Acclaim coins” at various rates to buy game time.

“It was hard for people to figure out just how much the game cost and whether or not they were getting a decent deal,” West Karana blogger Tipa wrote. Penny Arcade even jumped onto the controversial business model with a comic that spoofed the convoluted setup. At least there was a sort of an unlimited free trial that allowed players to progress through the early zone before requiring a sub.

Unfortunately, the rocky launch and janky business model would signal only the start of Spellborn’s troubles.

Survivors of the apocalypse

So what did The Chronicles of Spellborn do differently to elicit such strong testimonies from fans even today? For starters, the game’s setting wasn’t some idyllic generic fantasy country but a post-apocalyptic landscape where survivors lived inside “shards” of their former world a thousand years after the shattering. Between the shards was a magical Deadspell Storm through which intrepid adventurers could travel in order to reach the other remnants of society. Essentially, it was an entire game where you existed underground with nary an open sky in sight.

Players would pick from one of two races and one of three main classes before stepping into the role of a newbie militia member in the city of Hawksmouth. In a cool divergence from the standard, Spellborn allowed players to customize their character’s wardrobe from the get-go, allowing them to keep a certain look while swapping out sigils for stats. From there, they would need to go on quests, discover secrets of the world, and grow through nine sub-classes in order to become true heroes. There was even initial talk about time travel quests to go back to the world prior to the shattering, although those never came to be.

From the start, Spellborn simply looked, sounded, and felt incredibly dissimilar from other fantasy MMOs. Even today, its Unreal Engine 2.5-powered graphics are quite evocative and stylized, with locales that were alien to the Tolkien crowd.

Perhaps the most controversial and unique aspect of the game was its combat system. Instead of the standard hotbar and tab-target fights, Spellborn used a skill deck to construct a “rotating hotbar” in which only (up to) five of a player’s skills were available at any one time. To both set up and use the hotbar properly required a bit of a learning curve, as it was possible to find yourself without moves in the middle of the game’s reticule combat. Adding to the controversy was Spellborn’s higher-than-average difficulty setting where fights would last longer than players encountered in other MMOs.

Another odd element of the game was how it divvied up experience. You got standard experience for finishing quests that went toward skills and levels, but combat also netted Personal Experience Points (PEP). PEP contributed to a persistent buff. Rise up in PEP levels, and your character would fight better. However, die once, and you’d lose an entire PEP level, decreasing your potency.

Abandoned to rot

As cool as Spellborn sounded on paper and much as it was revered by some portions of its playerbase, let’s be honest here: It had a lackluster launch and failed to catch on with the larger MMO community. It wasn’t an instant bomb, as it did garner some very nice reviews, but the title’s unique slant, higher difficulty level, bad launch decisions, and a lack of strong marketing wounded it deeply.

Two months after Spellborn released in North America, developer Spellborn NV announced that it was bankrupt. Acclaim stepped in to promise that the subscription title would be redeveloped as a free-to-play title, saying, “The development is planned to carry into 2010 and will include several enhancements and changes to the current game.”

The Chronicles of Spellborn dropped its subscription and went completely free in August 2009, allowing players to enjoy the game while Acclaim and Frogster worked on what was now being dubbed “Spellborn Version Two.” While this gave hope to players for a future, it would be the last positive word that they would hear on the subject.

The publishers of Spellborn went quiet in the successive months, a period of uncertainty that was shattered when the MMO was abruptly shuttered in Japan during March 2010. Frogster followed this move by closing the title in the rest of Asia that June.

With the development team bankrupt and MIA, Spellborn was left to rot in the US. Acclaim silently abandoned its promise to convert the title to F2P, electing instead to merely keep the servers on while the website fell apart. By the summer, players could barely log into the game, as client downloads didn’t work from the main site and passwords often required resetting for each and every session.

Spellborn became a money sink that no company wanted. Acclaim sold the rights to Playdom, which promptly turned around and sold it to Disney. Frantic players tried to contact all three companies to see if there was anyone in charge who could help, but they were met with silence. That silence was broken to announce that the game would be shut down at the start of September, and after a false shutdown in mid-August, it went offline by the end of August 2010. Since then, all previously involved companies have been quiet on the game and no attempts by players to petition it back into existence have met with any success.

The end of the end of a world

It’s hard to argue that The Chronicles of Spellborn was a flawless masterpiece, but its proponents have championed it as an incredible effort despite its imperfections. Lead Content Designer Vincent Leeuw admitted that Spellborn was simply too ambitious with not enough resources to back those dreams up: “[It] tried to innovate on too many fronts at the same time.”

Could it come back? There’s a lot to say in favor of such a notion. Spellborn was beloved, it was unique, and it had immense potential. The thought of a resurrection makes one think that it would be sure cheaper than creating a new MMO from scratch, although serious improvements would have to be made. I would play it. Would you?

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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21 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: The Chronicles of Spellborn"

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NooneImportant

It’s not the same as a playable game, but if you want to just roam around the world again to reminisce about its charming atmospheres, you can find a sandbox on spellborn.org.

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Christopher Pierce

I really liked this game. But it had so many technical difficulties that were mostly the result of the business problems it had that prevented it from taking off.

The combat was super fun, and I remember just being excited to explore the world.

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John Kiser

Really wish they had stuck it out with this game longer than they did. It had some promise and while it needed to be fleshed out more it could of done better long term really.

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Byórðæįr

I think I have the assets some where but if Disney got the rights are part of the attempt at a merger they would no longer own it since once the sec classified the playdom purchase as a hostile take over attempt via insider trader the merger was reset, meaning it never happened, both companies were left with what they started with, and employees that were hired by either company during that time were considered to have by hired by a third party. I was working working for volt so they did not admit how much they were paying me. Volt hired me and I was a volt employee not a Disney employee but as a stake holder with a voting shares I was an employee of Disney. The issue was likely that the spell born beta client had unencrypted assets in the files and likely as new developers they had no idea how to fight back against unethical people.

That said there were some major issues with the network code even in the beta. It might be easier to buy IP from who every bought the assets of playdom’s chapter six filing. But as antitrust case it really might not be worth the fight to try and get them but simply try and create another steam punk game.

13 – means you want protection but can not pay anyone
11 – means you want protection and can pay the valid creditors
06 – means you never intend to pay any of the debts

For example the difference between playdom filing chp six and vindi put toys r us into chapter 11 suggesting they have found a way to pay off the debts they have in the usa, while playdom does not exist anymore. Once they filed that appealing any of the cases is pointless.

So what did it have? I remember starting with the mirror then riding ship to fighting and basically using two or three powers instead of twenty thirty where some would power up to working. The card mechanic is red hearing to cover a powers cool down system. It added randomness but you could setup decks that let you basically use three powers for every fight.

So start a startup on kickstarter saying if you get enough money you will attempt to make it if not don’t charge anyone, set the amount to ten times the costs you can figure out. The game was fun but the story that was in the game was not well know the the players so creating a new story is simply as recruiting a writer with published books you like the story of. Writing it yourself is going to make you cry until you have published before. You get to points in every story when you create conflict and you either have one more important so that when the story goes in that character favor the bad guy was not who your fans were cheering on. You may fail spectacularly or become wealthy beyond your dreams but even if you only create a fun game, you won’t spend time asking what if I had done something different. A word of warning I doubt I would back such a project because like I told davis years ago without the foundation of plan you will run into a wall, with plan you can find a way past the walls you run into if you work hard enough. Wanting is meanless without hard work. Then he said the funniest thing, he said he thought he had to apologize to his dad.

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Tiresias

That which is lost must be found!

This game was truly on the way to being a masterpiece, but it was so different from World of Warcraft — which was all any publishers cared about at the time — that it was unable to secure the resources necessary for proper development and marketing. Unfortunately, MMOs need heavy marketing just due to their nature, and the nearly-complete lack of it sank the game.

Those were some dark days for MMOs, and the industry is still recovering. WoW clones were a dime a dozen, with everyone trying to grab a piece of Blizzard’s pie without understanding that you can’t out-Blizzard Blizzard itself.

Beyond marketing, what TCoS lacked was the resources to iterate and refine on their game, which had a very solid core. Time-to-kill enemies was a little long, unnecessarily slowing down a game that was focused on lore and exploration well before Guild Wars 2 had anything to show. The rotating combat deck was innovative but super-complicated for many people to understand; the game needed a better introduction to it along with tutorials.

I can’t help but think that things would have turned out better in this modern era of crowdfunding. By the time the team went public with their efforts they already had all of the lore and core concepts fleshed out, and they even had a few shards ready to show (in videos, not playable). They had realistic goals and a clearly defined vision. I don’t think it would have made a bazillion dollars on Kickstarter like Star Citizen did, but I can’t help but feel that it would have been more than enough.

Someone really needs to pick up this IP and do SOMETHING with it. ANYTHING.

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Sylkesh

Thanks for the reminiscence Justin. Unfortunately, it reopened an old scar. I played a demo of this game at Gamescom, when it was still in development. The demo was enjoyable and full of new features. So, I ended up waiting for its launch impatiently.
But when launch arrived, it was obvious that this game was never going to make it. I didn’t even bother to buy it. But even today, I still remember the many promises and the hype after playing the short demo, and I miss this MMO somehow :/ :/ Strange as I have no regret for any other “dead at birth” MMOs except for this one. :O

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socontrariwise

I only remember playing a demo at Gamescom while Will Wright was giving a talk for Spore (I got a signed set card from him … it must be somewhere) and there was the guy who promoted Warhammer online with shouting WAAAAARG.
What year might that have been? Must been quite a while by now. I’ve a ridiculous memory for anything and everything – except numbers.

The demo left me very put off. I really liked the looks and atmosphere and that still stands out for me and I mourn it. But the combat was utterly dull back then. I recall the bar with the 5 slots and you could turn it like a slot machine. I got the “kill 10 rats” quest type (it was some kind of boar though I believe, odd meadow/forest like area outside a small village or camp) and while I managed to kill the boars it was intensely boring. I feel that demo alone hurt the game SO much it was suicide.

Edit: Ah, that was Gamescon 2007. Man 10 year, time really flies.

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Sylkesh

2007 ??? Yes, you’re right :D 10 years already ? :O :O

elveone
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elveone

TCOS is the best MMORPG I’ve ever played and if they bring it back I would be there in a flash. It is kind of hard to describe what the game was as it did some very unique things that are not in any other game even today but in addition to the amazing combat and the elaborate wardrobe system the game had one more thing that is still missing from MMORPGs today – it was an adventure game where you had to think to solve the quests and where your choices mattered as to what content you experienced.

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Bhagpuss Bhagpuss

I think you’re really overselling it, Justin. I only played the endless free trial but I did everything there was to do in that and never found any reason to pay to see what came next. There may not have been elves and orcs but the setting looked fairly generic Northern European fantasy as far as I recall. The graphics were decent but nothing particularly special. Compared to, say, Ryzom, they seemed more standard than stylized.

The main problem for me though was the systems. The quasi-FPS combat was unintuitive and awkward while the tabard/sigil gear system seemed to remove two of the key features of the MMORPG genre – changing your look and gearing up.

I could never really see why some people were so positive about the game while it was around but it definitely did have a fanbase that loved it. I wish it had been better handled so that those people could have enjoyed it for longer. I can’t say it’s an MMO I miss myself, though.

finyar
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finyar

The game and especially the combat system were way ahead of their time and the world had a very unique feel to it. I really miss it.

Solaris
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Solaris

I really wanted CoS to be a great MMO. The game had it’s merits, but in the end…

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Robert Mann

Depends. Is it just another combat centric MMO release that has slightly different environments and a wardrobe function that you don’t have to fill out, alongside some other twists? If so, then why bother.

If they innovate beyond that, make a really solid effort toward a story that doesn’t feel like it was written by the lower end of writers on a fanfic website, and/or otherwise break the mold, maybe. But just a different twist on the same old things in an MMO (outside of storytelling being extremely strong) isn’t going to interest me at all. Storytelling alone won’t do it either.

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Jack Kerras

If you want a multiplayer game with RPG stuff that’s not combat-centric, you’re probably gonna have to look into… like… MUSHes, and stuff.

Beyond the Fire was fantastic back in its day, with GMs watching roleplay unfold between folks, acting as storytellers, and allowing players to recommend others for stat bumps and similar advancement while making calls on the same themselves. That sort of environment, where it’s all about really getting into character and socializing/acting/being that person more than grinding for rep and XP, you’re just not going to find in honest-to-goodness MMORPGs. Text-based is about as good as you can get.

I love that kinda shit, it was super interesting, buuuut it’s really not something that would have an interested playerbase capable of keeping up MMO servers, developers, et al.

edit, ‘cuz I’m dumb: Also, although Spellborn was mainly combat-centric like most other MMOs, their whole combat setup was very interesting. It never really resonated with me, but the cycling toolbar and the multiple ‘decks’ you’d spin between were pretty fucking cool, and very customizable, if memory servers. It’s been a loooong time. I knew one of the devs. We didn’t keep in touch, but he’s a neat guy. :)

Lenn_Len
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Lenn_Len

Spellborn NV is a Dutch developer, not Danish.
And yes, the game was quite unique. It had massive potential.

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Oleg Chebeneev

> The thought of a resurrection makes one think that it would be sure cheaper than creating a new MMO from scratch, although serious improvements would have to be made. I would play it. Would you?

I wont. Because I already did in closed beta. It was actually one of my most anticipated games when I grew tired of WoW and wanted something new. Game promised crazy unique combat with high skill cap which was exactly what I was seeking. I wanted to do PvP, i wanted combat system that allowed me to improve over long period of time and dominate weaker players. Also Howling trailer that is posted below got me hyped big time.

But in the end even with cool setting and stylish graphics, it was disappointment. Combat was very clunky and just poorly implemented. This rotating hotbar thing appeared to be failed experiment. Also from speaking to other players I learned that there was almost no high end content and barely any mid level content. Combine it with the fact that almost noone played it and I just gave up.

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Austin Alexander

*Cries all the tears in my body*. There is no game I miss more than Spellborn, especially with the fact that it’s lifespan was so short compared to most. It was such a great an unique game. Of course it has some issues, or it likely wouldn’t have failed, but it had such a unique concept and combat, and just overall a great foundation to build on. It just needed a bit more time in the oven. I still hold out a thin string of hope that someone will come along and resurrect it. Here’s hoping this wonderful article contributes for that. thank you for this lovely tribute.

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Cindy M

I still wear their t-shirt. ; ; It did have a lot of promise, unfortunately the launch was lackluster and it spiraled downwards fast. I did really enjoy the aesthetics though.

dixa
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dixa

this games marketing team introduced me to Within Temptation when they hired the band to make this music video.

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Veldan

Yeah, it made me a WT fan too, at least for a while (I can’t say I like Hydra).

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Cindy M

Oh yes! I’ve loved their music since.

wpDiscuz