If all goes well, later this year we will finally be treated to an actual Harry Potter MMORPG in the form of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. While that will be a mobile ARG in the vein of Pokemon Go, it will still be a big step into the online space that MMO fans have been craving for nearly two decades now.
Obviously, Harry Potter continues to be a mammoth franchise for J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., and Electronic Arts, which has handled the video game license over the years. While there have been single-player Harry Potter titles, especially on consoles, no MMORPG emerged even at the height of the IP craze that swallowed up Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer, and more. So why not?
The truth is that Harry Potter Online almost did happen. Its brief existence and development isn’t too well-known, even today, but the wasted potential has always tantalized me with what could have been. Using a time-turner, we will go back to the late 1990s today and peek in on a possible future that came to fruition.
If we judged MMOs by their numbers alone — and I’m not suggesting we do so — then the original Lineage would be the crowing rooster strutting about the hen house. It’s also been one of those games that I’ve always intellectually acknowledged was a huge hit for some reason but never gave much attention. I think it’s because, contrary to many western MMOs, Lineage is primarily an Asian phenomenon. That doesn’t mean it should be shunned, of course, but just that it may be difficult to understand when you’re on the outside of it.
So let’s back up the memory truck to September 1998, when a then-fledgling NCsoft rolled out a Diablo-style isometric MMO and struck virtual gold in South Korea. At the time, gaming rooms were becoming a huge thing in the country. A recession had hit, giving people a lot of time with nothing to do, and the government was rapidly expanding the broadband network. In the face of this perfect storm, titles like StarCraft and Lineage became overnight household fixtures — and remained so for decades to come.
Even if you haven’t played Lineage and you don’t know anyone who does, trust me: Millions and millions of players have. As former Senior Producer Chris Mahnken once said, “Lineage keeps going because it’s just plain fun.”
Once asked what he thought was the most innovative MMO from the last decade, Dr. Richard Bartle, the creator of MUD, gave a succinct answer: “A Tale in the Desert. Note that ‘innovative’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘successful.'”
Right there is the crux of A Tale in the Desert’s unique position in the MMO industry. Instead of storming down a path well-traveled, it took a machete and made its own trail — a trail down which few have followed. It is an “odd duck” of a game, skewing as far away from combat as possible to focus instead on crafting and politics. Even though its focus pegged it as an eternally niche game, the MMO proved that constant fighting isn’t the only thing that can draw an online community together.
War. War never ends. Especially if it was designed and encouraged to wage forever.
One of the most popular computer gaming genres of the late 1990s and early 2000s was real-time strategy (RTS). Players found the combination of resource collecting, base building, and mass combat a heady mix, and titles like Dune 2, the Warcraft series, and the Command and Conquer series did extremely well both as single-player and limited multiplayer titles.
But with the advent of the MMORPG, game developers looked at the RTS and wondered if this genre would do well in a massively multiplayer environment. Well, there was only one way to find out, and that’s where Shattered Galaxy came in.
In 2003, Sony Online Entertainment tried an experiment to reach out to the (then) small-but-growing community of Mac users. The company released EverQuest Macintosh Edition — quickly abbreviated to EQMac — which incorporated the core game and the first four expansions of EverQuest: The Ruins of Kunark, The Scars of Velious, The Shadows of Luclin, and The Planes of Power. Because EQMac was a separate version of the game, SOE segregated Apple players on their own server called Al’Kabor and then, for all intents and purposes, left them alone while the “real” EverQuest continued to expand and advance.
While the population didn’t exactly explode as the progression of time rendered EQMac stuck in a type of video game amber, a singular community of dedicated, helpful players formed. This community soon became proud of their hardcore home. According to many of them, EQMac was the way EverQuest was always meant to be played, frozen in time at the release of one of the game’s best expansions. It was a mark of pride to say that you played on Al’Kabor.
For over 10 years, EQMac quietly and doggedly continued, thanks to this small group of loyal players, SOE President John Smedley’s affection for the title, and one or two devoted devs who helped to maintain the MMO. This is the story of a spin-off game that became a living time capsule.
When you think of MMORPGs, I wouldn’t blame you if your mind stayed rooted firmly in the past decade or so, perhaps taking a brief vacation to 1997 before returning to today’s 3-D polygonal glory. But it’s not like people just woke up in the late 90’s, looked at each other, and said, “Hmm. Online multiplayer RPGs. Let’s make it happen!”
On the contrary, history had been building up to that moment for quite some time. Tabletop RPGs and computer MUDs (multi-user dungeons) were both important ancestors of modern MMOs, just as was a mostly forgotten piece of software lore: the bulletin board system, also known as the BBS.
In layman’s terms, BBSes were like pocket internets — host computers that allowed anyone to dial up and use special programs remotely. While BBSes weren’t (initially) tied together like the world wide web, they featured a lot of the elements that would make the world wide web so popular, such as email, forums, and, yes, online games.
Today’s special Game Archaeologist will take a brief look at the history of the BBS, as well as a couple of its games that could be considered “MORPGs” (the “massively” part would be a while in coming). Dial up, gentle readers, and make your hissing modem noises!
Imagine that one day you wake up, stumble to your computer, and check in on the morning news. Among the various tidbits is a rather surprising notice of a brand-new MMORPG that is not only in the works, but is on the verge of beta testing right the heck now. Would that be enough of a shock to wipe away any vestiges of sleep and generate immediate interest in this title?
For some players during a very short period in 2001, it definitely was.
The game in question is Fallen Age, an isometric MMO that made headlines by announcing its presence in one breath and imminent beta testing in the next. However, Netamin Communication’s game couldn’t quite live up to that promise, and by the end of the year, it had vanished almost as quickly as it arrived. So what was this game and what exactly happened?
It’s the distant future. The high-tech battle armor you wear sharply contrasts with the ruins of civilization that you traverse. You spot an enemy and raise your pulse rifle, firing off shots as you strafe to cover. Technology hasn’t solved the issue of war; it’s just raised the body count.
PlanetSide 2? Nope — this is Neocron, the quite-forgettable MMOFPS from the way-back era. I like to call it “that game with the most regrettable cover art in the history of video games,” but that isn’t quite as snappy.
Going into this article, I have to admit that I previously knew absolutely nothing about Neocron other than the fact that it was a sci-fi MMO that vaguely reminded me of Anarchy Online. Oh, also the fact that nobody I know or perhaps ever will know played it. Was it just a myth? A practical joke to make us believe in an MMO phantom? Only sifting through layers of dust and grime would produce results, so I rolled up my sleeves and started digging.
When we moved over here to Massively Overpowered, some of us transplanted our long-running columns to the new space. I perhaps felt most devastated that I was going to lose all of the Game Archaeologist articles that I had painstakingly researched over the years. So my mission with this space became two-fold: to rescue and update my older columns while continuing to add more articles to this series on classic MMOs and proto-MMOs.
I’ve been pleased with the results so far because TGA is a series that I really don’t want to see vanish. As MMORPG fans, we should consider it important to remember and learn about these older titles and to expand our knowledge past the more popular and well-known games of yesteryear.
Now that we have quite a catalogue of Game Archaeologist columns, I thought it would be helpful to end the year by gifting this handy guide to you that organizes and compiles our continuing look at the history of the genre. Enjoy!
Were you there?
Many of us were. Many weren’t. Either way, November 23rd, 2004 was a watershed date for the MMORPG industry and one watched and experienced by millions of gamers. It was on this day 13 years ago that Blizzard finally transitioned World of Warcraft from beta testing to live operation, ushering in an age of Azeroth, DKP minus, murlocs, and Leeroy Jenkins.
I was there, both at the end of beta and the start of launch. As time had made a mockery of my memories, I can only remember brief bits: The server downtime, the rise of the phenomenon, making footprints in Coldridge Valley with my Dwarf Hunter, and pretty much shoving every other game to the background for the next year or so.
I thought it might be worth the effort of dusting off the cobwebs of my — and your — memories by revisiting the first three months of World of Warcraft’s live operation, taking us from November 2004 through January 2005. What happened during this time? How did Blizzard respond to the floodgates of players pouring into this game? How different was it from what we play now? Let’s reminisce together!
The significance of Vanguard’s development, release, long-running drama, second chance, and eventual closure should be of great interest not just to game historians but to everyone who plays MMOs, period. What happened with this game caused a huge fallout in the industry, and we are still feeling some of its effects even today.
As our own Bree once put it in her blog, “Vanguard’s implosion was a big deal at the time and marked the beginning of the post-World of Warcraft destruction of the industry that hobbled Age of Conan and Warhammer Online a few years later.”
While the crash and burn of Vanguard was a very well-known tale several years ago, I’m wondering if today there might be many who are quite unfamiliar with what happened to this unassuming title back around 2007. Let me put on my old fogey glasses and we shall begin!
The use of the word “toon” to describe MMORPG characters is a contentious one, with fans divided over its annoyance or acceptance. But when it came to one MMORPG, it was nothing but proper terminology to call all characters just this.
Toontown Online was one of those “kiddie MMOs” that you probably ignored unless you happen to fall within its demographical clutches back in the day. While it lasted for about a decade, the game’s operation would be notable for its repeated transformation and uncertain status.
With a silly, cartoon-like look and theme, this MMO attempted to bring a levity to a genre that was often marinating in deep fantasy lore and statistical theorycrafting. But when you wanted to eschew dragon fighting for slapstick pie throwing, there was no better game out there. Let’s take a look!
While the heady days of Ultima Online’s dominant position over the industry are long gone, the MMORPG continues to operate and expand, and many players have fond memories of the unique experience that game offered. In fact, some titles like Legends of Aria and (obviously) Shroud of the Avatar are doing their best to claim the unofficial title of “Ultima Online spiritual successor” in the hopes of reuniting veteran MMO players with the special qualities that made this game great.
These aren’t the first games to try to grasp the holy grail of an Ultima Online sequel. There were actually two such projects that went into heavy production in the late 1990s and early 2000s — both ending with premature cancellation and frustration on the part of developers and fans.
The second of these, Ultima X Odyssey, I covered a while back. Today, we’re going to take a look at the first MMO that attempted to mix the Ultima Online formula with a few new twists. Ultima Worlds Online Origin might not be as well-known (or as well-titled), but its history is just as fascinating as UXO’s.