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: The Wish that wasn't

First of all, "wish" is one of those words that ends up looking dang strange the more you focus on it. Wish, wish, wish, wish. It's just a bunch of meaningless lines and squiggles to me now.

Anyway, what's up for today's topic? We're going to look at another MMO that didn't make it to the starting gate even with some genuine enthusiasm and hype surrounding it, and that game is wrrrshhsish. Wish. That game is Wish.

While memories of this never-launched title have faded with time, Wish is still remembered for two things: a truly audacious feature set that promised the world and an abrupt, bizarre end that seemed to come out of nowhere. What made this MMO so special and why did it die so young? Our very own Game Archaeologist is on the scene with a special report.

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The Game Archaeologist: The sad saga of Stargate Worlds

In 1994, a science-fiction movie called Stargate took the idea of alien portals that allowed people to travel instantaneously across the universe and turned it into a modest success. The notion (and box office gross) was sufficiently interesting enough to be reworked into a hit television series that then became a major franchise.

Stargate SG-1 ran from 1997 to 2007, and was soon spun off into Stargate Infinity (2002-2003), Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009), Stargate Universe (2009-2011), and a pair of direct-to-DVD sequels in 2008. Books, video games, amusement park rides, and even a pinball machine spawned from this series, which by the mid-2000s had a sizable crop of very loyal fans.

So why not an MMORPG? The popularity of the IP would help bolster interest in the game, and the idea of hopping across the galaxy to different planets went hand-in-hand with the virtual world setup of MMOs. In 2006, at the height of Stargate's fame, work began on such a game -- work that would soon enough lead to ruin and heartbreak. This game was Stargate Worlds.

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The Game Archaeologist: Meridian 59

A colony founded through a magical nexus, Meridian 59 had it all going on -- until, that is, the portal to the colony collapsed and it was left to fend for itself. Monsters swarmed over the land, politics split the community into factions, and adventurers were called to rise up and become the heroes that were desperately needed. And all it took was $10.95 a month and an internet connection.

Welcome to 1996 and one of the very first graphical MMOs to hit the scene. Meridian 59 may not have been one of the biggest games in the genre, but it was arguably one of the most important, the John Adams to World of Warcraft's Abraham Lincoln.

While bigger titles have toppled and fallen, Meridian 59 defied the odds to continue to operate even today. This week we're going to look at this fascinating title and how it helped to pioneer the graphical MMO industry back when the world wide web was still a newfangled toy to the public.

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The Game Archaeologist: 1988's Monster

"You're in the middle of a vast hall stretching out of sight to the east and west. Strange shadows play across the high vaulted ceiling. The floor is set with smooth rectangular stones. The walls feel slightly cold to the touch, and damp with condensation. A copper plaque, slightly green with age, is set into one wall."

Old-school gamers are probably quite familiar with text adventure paragraphs such as the one above. Emerging from the '70s, text adventure games offered computer players a way to explore detailed virtual worlds before technology advanced enough to substitute words with graphics. Searching locations, picking up items, solving puzzles, discovering mysteries, and advancing to new areas kept many adventure gamers playing long into the night.

While most adventure games were static and home to only one player at a time, one college student in 1988 decided to change the rules and make a title that would be a living, breathing beast. He called it Monster.

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The Game Archaeologist: Ten strange pre-release facts about World of Warcraft

An endless ocean of words, a tsunami of thoughts, and a riptide of fan devotion has flooded the gaming world about World of Warcraft ever since the title launched to critical and popular acclaim in November 2004. Chances are that most of the people reading this article have played it at one time or the other (and the few that haven't will certainly boast of that fact in the comments below).

But while the explosion of WoW's population, the infamous Corrupted Blood plague, the expansions, the conventions, the pop culture references, and the plunge of its subscriber base over the past year are all well-known and -documented, what I don't hear most people talking about is what the game was like before it launched. Oh, fans were certainly tracking it, especially throughout 2003 and 2004, but how the game began, what factors went into its design, and the drama of its beta program are all receding into distant memory.

Today I want to share with you a list of ten strange, interesting, and illuminating pre-launch facts about World of Warcraft. What was this game like before it took the MMO genre by storm?

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The Game Archaeologist: Perpetual's Star Trek Online

If you're among the legions of Trekkies, then you are almost certainly aware of Cryptic Studios' Star Trek Online. Since early 2010, players have boldly gone where no one has gone before in this MMO that blends spaceship battles, ground combat, and faithful tie-ins to the long-running franchise. Star Trek Online appears to be thriving following a free-to-play adaptation and two expansions, and some see it as the only official continuation of the TV series right now.

But what players encounter in Star Trek Online is not what it originally started out as. You may or may not know that STO began development under Perpetual Entertainment, which handled the game for several years until it went bankrupt and passed the license and art assets to Cryptic.

It's another tantalizing historical "what if?" scenario to think about what this game would look like if Perpetual had taken it to launch and beyond. But what did this version of Star Trek Online look like? Let's investigate.

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The Game Archaeologist: Online gaming service providers of the '80s and '90s

As graphical MMOs took off in the 1990s with the advent of games like Neverwinter Nights, The Realm, and Ultima Online, many of them did so with the help of gaming service providers. It might be hard to imagine today, but back before the web was ubiquitous, people who wanted to go online usually did so through a specific service provider that functioned as both a gatekeeper to the internet and a purveyor of specific games and programs -- some of which were completely exclusive to those companies. Console players might understand these best by thinking of them as similar to how Xbox Live and the PSN operates.

Thus, if you wanted to access, say, The Shadow of Yserbius in the early '90s, your only recourse was to sign up for Sierra On-Line and pay a monthly membership fee (as well as a possible additional game fee) to that provider. Slow speeds, primitive (or no) graphics, and hourly costs were the norm and made it difficult for these services to gain mainstream traction.

Over the span of a decade-and-a-half, these companies jostled for supremacy and customers, even as their whole existence was eventually rendered moot by the reshaping of the online culture and the loosening of internet restrictions concerning for-profit ventures. By the 2000s, PC service providers had largely disappeared, leaving most MMOs to be accessed by specific clients. Today we're going to blitz through a list of some of the big names of these gaming service providers and the online titles that they used to draw in fans.

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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 yet these types of games -- with their ever-growing nature and heavy involvement with loyal playerbases -- are not always conducive to such projects. More often than not, a sequel to an online game becomes its predecessor's main competition, which is not a desirable outcome for the studio.

Perhaps back in the early 2000s, studios simply didn't know better. There's good evidence that the typical "hit video games need a sequel" mindset ran rampant across the industry, from the multiple attempts at Ultima Online 2 to the release of the don't-call-it-a-sequel sequel of EverQuest II. Perhaps developers didn't realize that MMO players didn't necessarily want to be uprooted and moved to a new game every few years.

While sequels, spin-offs and remakes are still present, the genre learned a hard lesson with Asheron's Call 2: Fallen Kings in the first half of the decade. Asheron's Call was a minor success for Microsoft and Turbine, and a sequel -- with vastly improved graphics and deeper gameplay -- seemed like a logical next step. Unfortunately, it was a Greek tragedy in the making, destined for a short but memorable life in our world.

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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 horse tranquilizers to make it through the day. Not that I would actually know, being an oldest child and all. But I suppose it would be a hard-knock life.

In effect, Asheron's Call was the youngest of the three MMO siblings that comprised the first major graphical MMO generation. Ultima Online, the big brother, had prestige and legacy behind it, while middle child EverQuest quickly became the most popular at school. And then there was Asheron's Call, poking its head on the scene in late 1999 as a cooperative project between developer Turbine and publisher Microsoft. While AC never got the recognition of Ultima Online nor the numbers of EverQuest, this scrappy title became a cult favorite and endures even to this day, albeit in maintenance mode.

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The Game Archaeologist: Shadowbane

Way back when I used to haunt the corridors of Gamestop and had yet to shun the place due to its stinky evil, I remember being enticed with these fancy-pantsy "MMORPG" boxes when I'd see them on the shelf. I must have picked up Shadowbane a dozen or so times to check out the blurbs on the back, mentally weighing whether or not this would be the one to introduce me to online gaming, but ultimately it was not to be.

It's probably for the best, considering that Shadowbane was primarily PvP and I'm a PvE guy at heart. Plus, the title never really took off the way that publisher Ubisoft had hoped, spending most of its six years of operation lurking in the background of the MMO industry instead of sharing the spotlight.

But still, six years! That's not the worst run we've ever seen from an MMO. Considering that its creator has gone on to make Crowfall with some of the same ideas, it's as timely as ever to take a look back at Shadowbane and what it brought to the table.

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The Game Archaeologist: Seed

Seed is a game that I thought I must have dreamed up at some point. Do you ever have that happen? For years I had a vague recollection of reading an article about some sort of cooperative sci-fi MMO that was in development, but I couldn't remember the name or even verify if it was real.

Well, it was real, although considering how short that Danish game studio Runestone's Seed was on the market, I could be forgiven for not knowing much about it.

Seed was an MMO that attempted to break away from the combat-centric design that dominated (and still does) the industry. Instead, it looked to other avenues -- crafting, politics, exploration, socializing -- to fill the combat void and create a compelling experience. It was, at the very least, an interesting experiment and a shame that it didn't run for more than a few months. Let's take a look at what made this MMO take the road less traveled!

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The Game Archaeologist: Dark Sun Online

Computer RPG players in the late '80s and early '90s were surely familiar with Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) and its now-famous Gold Box series. The series, so named because of their distinctive gold packaging, ran on a solid engine that helped the company churn out over a dozen titles within a five-year span. From Pool of Radiance to Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, these titles quickly became revered among the gaming community. I personally have very fond memories of playing both Buck Rogers titles, which is probably why I dated very little in high school.

While the Gold Box series has not become as timeless or replayable as late '90s classics like Baldur's Gate and Fallout, they definitely had a huge impact on the PC scene and helped elevate the CRPG genre. Following the Gold Box engine, SSI went on to produce another engine that it used for a completely new series set in the D&D campaign setting of Dark Sun. Dark Sun: Shattered Lands (1993) and Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager (1994) were both modest hits, and when it came time for a third game in the series, SSI decided to make the leap to the then-untested realm of online gaming.

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The Game Archaeologist: The assassination of Lord British

At the end of August 2015, the fledgling Shroud of the Avatar community gathered together for a massive PvP fight. This wasn't to be a normal battle, however, as Lord British (Richard Garriott's in-game avatar) waded into the fray and was the focus of a fierce fight to see who could kill him. Down he went in the end, prompting cheers from the participants -- not because they hated him but because it was a reprise of one of the most famous moments of MMO history.

A little over 18 years before that Shroud of the Avatar gathering, a similar group of beta players had congregated in the Ultima Online beta for a stress test. In the crowd lurked a would-be assassin who had a dastardly plan: to attack and kill the most revered figure in the Ultima franchise in front of a live audience.

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