the game archaeologist

Justin Olivetti is Massively Overpowered’s resident Game Archaeologist; he never lets a good old game stay buried. [Follow this column’s RSS feed]

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!

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Don’t miss The Game Archaeologist’s histories of Asheron’s Call

The impending loss of Asheron’s Call — and Asheron’s Call 2 again — hit the MMORPG community pretty hard when the sunsets were announced yesterday, even though a lot of us saw it coming. The late reveal that WB/Turbine won’t be releasing the servers to the community was salt in the wound… powdered quartz in the vitae, if you will.

We thought those of you feeling all the feels might like a trip down memory lane — thankfully, our very own Game Archaeologist can help. Justin’s penned several long-form pieces over the last year covering the history of the venerable franchise. Enjoy, and remember.

The Game Archaeologist: Asheron’s Call - It's hard being the youngest child -- you get the hand-me-downs, suffer through swirlies by older siblings, and eventually develop such a neurosis that it requires seven different brands of…
The Game Archaeologist: Asheron’s Call 2 - MMO sequels are funny animals. Sequels (along with prequels and "reimaginings") are ingrained into the entertainment industry so deep that it makes sense that MMO studios would follow suit. And…

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The Game Archaeologist: A talk with the man behind EQOA’s revival project

This past week we reported on an ongoing attempt by a small group of faithful EverQuest Online Adventure fans to bring back the MMO on both the PlayStation 2 and PC. The odds are long and the difficulty high, but the passion is there for a game that these players used to enjoy.

Is it possible? Could this console entry in the EverQuest franchise ever see an actual revival, even in emulator form? Stranger things have happened.

Jeremy, one of the leaders behind the EQOA Revival project, reached out to me with a desire to talk about what made this game so special to him and why it deserves a second run nearly a half-decade after it was shut down by SOE. Ever curious what playing a console EverQuest was like? Read on!

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The Game Archaeologist: EA’s Majestic

“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.

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The Game Archaeologist: Mark Jacobs on Mythic’s early online games, part 2

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.

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The Game Archaeologist: Mark Jacobs on Mythic’s early online games, part 1

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.

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The Game Archaeologist: Six Halloween holidays from buried MMOs

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.

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The Game Archaeologist: The Island of Kesmai

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!”

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The Game Archaeologist: The silent world of Tibia

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!

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The Game Archaeologist: Highlander Online

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.

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The Game Archaeologist: Six videos from MMOs that never launched

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.

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The Game Archaeologist: Middle-earth Online

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!

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The Game Archaeologist: True Fantasy Live Online

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.

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