“This is not a game. Or is it?”
Conspiracy theories and paranoia were hot with pop culture in the 1990s, largely thanks to movies like The Net and TV shows like the X-Files, which had the tagline of “I want to believe.” With the rise of the internet during the decade and the fantastic leaps and bounds technology had been making, people were not only experiencing new ways to play games but also growing suspicious that these tools could have a sinister side.
It was into this niche that EA stepped to create an ambitious $20 million project that would fuse massively multiplayer interactivity, the growing variety of technological mediums, and conspiracy theories together. The project was Majestic, an alternate reality game (ARG) that would be the most expensive and highest profile attempt to date. It generated great amounts of interest and publicity, had a promising start, and then flared out hard by the end of 2001.
Considering how ARGs and MMOs have crossed paths since, most recently with The Secret World and Overwatch, I wanted to revisit an attempt to develop a game that would run parallel in many ways with the industry that we love today.
We’re back with our second part of an interview retrospective of Mythic Entertainment’s early online games with CSE’s Mark Jacobs. Last week, we talked about the formation of Mythic, its roster of titles during the 1990s, and how titles like Aliens Online and Silent Death Online helped to push the studio toward its full-fledged development in the MMORPG genre.
Today, Jacobs will take us through a discussion of the challenges awaiting studios trying to make online games in that early era, the communities that formed around Mythic’s titles, and how one MUD called Darkness Falls would be the catalyst that set off Dark Age of Camelot.
When you bring up the name “Mythic Entertainment,” chances are that most gamers are going to immediately think of the studio’s two major MMOs, Warhammer Online and Dark Age of Camelot. Perhaps Imperator Online might come into the conversation, perhaps not. But what is fascinating to me is that Mythic had a lot more than a pair of MMOs under its belt.
Since the formation of the studio in the mid-1990s, Mythic’s team developed well over a dozen titles, many of which featured online multiplayer and other elements that would eventually lead into the company releasing DAoC to widespread acclaim in 2001. I’ve been curious what these older titles were like and how they contributed to the formation of Mythic’s MMOs, and so rather than get all of my information from second-hand sources, I went straight to City State Entertainment’s Mark Jacobs to ask him about games like Aliens Online, Spellbinder, and Darkness Falls. Considering that the man is still working on spiritual successors to the games he was involved with decades ago, I thought it would be great to get his perspective.
There are two things to know about Halloween and MMOs. The first is that just about every online game in the known universe puts on a festival or seasonal promotion of some sort, because devs can’t resist the urge to indulge in a return to their childhoods. The second is that pretty much every said event involves some sort of pumpkin-headed scarecrow, because that is apparently the mascot of the holiday now.
Oh, and one more thing to know? Not every MMO Halloween returns from years past due to the sinister and often premature demise of the game. When an MMO goes down, it takes all of its holidays with it, leaving players with only memories of seasonal activities in those games.
In the interest of preserving the efforts that the developers poured into these events and the fondness that some players had for them, today we’re going to take a tour through six holidays from, ahem, buried MMOs.
It was the mid-’80s, and I was just a kid in love with his family’s IBM PC. Not having a wealth of capital at the time, I relied on hand-me-down copies of software that rolled in from friends and family and probably the Cyber-Mafia. Practically none of the disks came with instructions (or even labels, sometimes), and as such I felt like an explorer uncovering hidden gems as I shoved in 5 1/4″ floppy after 5 1/4″ floppy. Some titles were great fun, some were so obtuse I couldn’t get into them, and some were obviously meant for those older and wiser than I.
One game that fell into the latter category was a brutally difficult RPG that smelt of Dungeons & Dragons — a forbidden experience for me at the time. It was just a field of ASCII characters, jumbled statistics, and instant death awaiting me around every corner. I gave it a few tries but could never progress past the first level, especially when I’d keep running out of arrows, so I gave up.
Then I had my first brush with Rogue, an enormously popular dungeon crawler that straddled the line between the description-heavy RPGs and arcade titles like Gauntlet. Rogue defined the genre when it came out in 1980, spawning dozens of “Roguelikes” that sought to cash in on the craze. Not five years after its release, Rogue got a worthy successor that decided it could bring this addicting style of gameplay to the larval form of the Internet. It was called Island of Kesmai, but you may call it “Sir, yes sir!”
If I were to tell you that there’s a Western MMO out there that’s as old as Ultima Online and yet still has a half-million players, would you believe me? Heck, I wouldn’t believe me even if I came back from the future of having written this article to talk to the past version of me who had yet to start it! But that’s Tibia for you: a weird underdog of an MMO that’s cruised underneath most players’ radars for over a decade and a half.
From its origins as a student project, Tibia jumped in the unexplored waters of the early MMO era and dog paddled for all its worth. This 19-year-old title remains one of the very few active MMOs from the ’90s and one of only a handful that stubbornly stuck to a 2-D graphics format even as 3-D swept the gaming genre. And trust me, those aren’t even the most interesting facts about it!
One of the things that I love about Massively Overpowered’s readership is how fans often bring games to my attention that I never knew even existed. This is particularly true in the case of older MMOs that died in early development.
Last week in the comments, reader Celestial linked to a trailer of Highlander Online, which has to be the very first time I heard of this game. A Highlander MMO? I thought that was just a thought exercise that players like to bandy about from time to time: “Wouldn’t a Highlander online game be cool? How would it work?”
But believe it or not, one was actually in the making for a while. While it obviously never released, Highlander Online deserves a bit of investigation to see how far it came and what it was aiming for in its design.
Whenever I compile lists or run articles on MMOs that never made it out of the gate, it seems as though talking about it puts people in one of two moods. Either they’re keenly interested (as I am) into these fascinating glimpses of what-could-have-been, or they become depressed and a little sore that I reminded them of the toy they’ll never have.
I don’t mean to prod sore spots with these, I hope you understand. It’s just that part of my job as a game archaeologist is to uncover and document all of these older MMOs, even if they come with a lot of emotional baggage (say, from being killed in development). To the sore folks, I apologize in advance, because this week we’re going to take another video tour, this time to look at MMOs that never launched.
I suppose there will always be a special place in my heart for Lord of the Rings Online
. Not only is it one of my most-played MMOs, but covering Turbine’s
title was my first task when I landed a position at Massively-that-was. For years I played, loved, and wrote about
this incredible vision for Middle-earth, and even today I sporadically return to see how the journey to the heart of Mordor is progressing.
So it’s with keen interest this week that I turn my attention to LOTRO’s lesser-known predecessor: Middle-earth Online. Known to some but not to all, Turbine wasn’t the first MMO studio to take a crack at Tolkien’s license — no, for that we have to travel back to 1998 and revisit Sierra On-Line. It was this company that had a brief but memorable run designing Middle-earth Online, also known as “What if LOTRO had permadeath?”
It’s a fascinating glimpse into an entirely different approach to the IP, and even though it died a fairly early death, it’s important to be remembered. Frodo lives!
As an extremely amateur historian — and an extremely attractive archaeologist — I’ve always been fascinated with the “what ifs” of gaming’s timeline. What if Blizzard had pulled the plug on World of Warcraft during development as it did for Warcraft Adventures? What if Hellgate: London had a lot more time and resources before it launched? What if North America had embraced the free-to-play model much earlier instead of the subscription model? What if Massively was shut down by AOL and reborn as Massively Overpowered thanks to a lot of late nights and a crazy Kickstarter campaign?
Life would’ve been a lot better. Or worse. That’s the problem with counterfactual history: We can make educated guesses, but we’ll never really know. While it’s sad to see MMOs shut down due to underperformance, it’s especially maddening to contemplate MMOs canceled before they even made it to the starting gate.
Today I’m tackling probably one of the most frustrating, painful subjects that still linger amongst potential fans. I’m talking, of course, of True Fantasy Live Online, the game that could’ve shown the true potential of console MMOs. Or, y’know, not.
If you were to think of Sega and MMOs, chances are the only thing that would come to mind is the Phantasy Star Online franchise. While those are great games (even though we’ll probably never see PSO2 in the west!), there was another MMO that Sega dabbled in during the boom years of the online gaming industry.
This game was 10six: a hybrid of real-time strategy and sci-fi shooter, played out over a persistent multiplayer world. While 10six had a very short run initially, it still lives on for the fans who find this mix of gameplay compelling and unique.
Base building and blasting, doesn’t that sound fun? Let’s go back in time to the late ’90s and early 2000s to see what 10six was all about.
When YouTube first became a thing, I dismissed it as a site that was mostly preoccupied with people talking into cameras in an attempt to stoke the fires of their narcissism. And while that certainly still exists, I’ve gradually come around to the sheer usefulness of this video sharing site, particularly for its purpose in archiving historical videos.
And by “historical videos” I mean “game trailers from about 20 years ago that have me wasting hours of my life watching and going, ‘Oh man, I remember that!'” So what does one do when one has blown three hours flipping through MMORPG launch trailers? One justifies that time by organizing some of these into a column. If I’m going to get sucked down into that YouTube rabbit hole, you’re coming with me!
Today, we take a trip to England, but not the England of our timeline. No, this is the England-That-Could-Have-Been, the England of King Arthur, Excalibur and pointy-hatted Vikings. This is the England of fairy tales and legends and blocky 2001-era polygon models. It is the England of three realms constantly jockeying for supremacy and power. It is the England of Dark Age of Camelot.
This country is a pretty awesome place to live, even though the property values are way, way down after the last 18 marauding hordes trampled through the neighborhood. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a model — it still inspires us to break out into song anyway.