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: Seven MMOs operating on borrowed time

Most everyone who knows me well will acknowledge that I’m not generally a cynical, dark person. I’m not rooting for games to fail, for the industry to crash, for developers to be banished to the wastelands for their sins, or for the cultural return to Parcheesi. So while you might read the title of today’s piece as rather grim, understand that this is more a public service announcement than a cantankerous gamer dancing on the yet-to-be-dug graves of online RPGs.

Every MMO will die, and some of those much sooner than others. Right now there are seven games that are probably not long for this world, although in this industry you never quite know, do you? But if you have any interest in the following titles, I would recommend getting in to play them now — before it’s too late and you end up posting tear-laden nostalgia pieces on Reddit, wishing for one more day in that world. OK, that might be too grim. I’m not saying that all of these are on the verge of being shut down but that they’re operating on borrowed time and have a very uncertain future.

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The Game Archaeologist: Mythic’s Imperator Online

It is a truly difficult thing to create something completely new and original, especially in storytelling and setting. It’s perhaps impossible in this day and age, as we tell variations on time-worn tales. But what is almost as good of a substitute is to take two elements and put them together to make an interesting new mix — such as science-fiction and ancient Rome.

That was the premise for Mythic Entertainment’s Imperator Online, a fascinating project that was originally to be the follow-up MMO to the studio’s Dark Age of Camelot but instead was cancelled before it ever launched. Even so, players got hooked by the intriguing premise: “What if the Roman Empire never fell, but instead continued on to become a really radical futuristic online roleplaying game setting?”

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The Game Archaeologist: Multiplayer BattleTech

It was the 31st century, where feuding factions decided to settle their differences by throwing multi-ton war robots at each other. It was also 1984, when Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babcock III created a tabletop wargame called BattleTech (originally BattleDroids). This new game allowed players to pit heavily-armed ‘Mechs against each other in a fight to the brutal, laser-singed death.

BattleTech was a hit and spawned a franchise that not only included the tabletop and pen-and-paper roleplaying game but an entire series of video games as well. This is one of those franchises where players are super-duper serious about their hobbies, forming lances and companies with friends that would stick together as they experienced the range of mediums.

In 1987, Weisman and his crew began to build “virtual world centers” where players could get into an oversided arcade pods to play BattleTech against others in the room. This early stab at a 3-D multiplayer title would be but a herald of greater gaming to come.

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The Game Archaeologist: AOL’s Neverwinter Nights

Here’s a question for you: How much do you really, really have to love a game to pay $6 to $8 an hour to play it? Considering how much we tend to whine about a flat $15/month fee, I’m guessing the answer is, “Only if it made me romantically irresistable and regularly supplied chocolate milkshakes.”

And yet, in 1991 this wasn’t considered a crazy extortionist practice; it was dubbed “being a pioneer.” While online RPGs were nothing new by then, few had tackled the jump from text to graphical games due to the technological limitations, questions over a potential market, and the required funding. It took the efforts of a Superfriends-style team to make this happen with Neverwinter Nights: Stormfront Studios developed the game, TSR provided the Dungeons & Dragons license, SSI published it, and AOL handled the online operations.

And thus six years before Ultima Online and 13 before World of Warcraft came on the scene, what many consider the first true multiplayer graphical RPG went online and helped forge a path that would lead to where we are today. With only a few hundred players per server, Neverwinter Nights may not have been “massively,” but it deserves a spot of honor as one of the key ancestors to the modern MMO.

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The Game Archaeologist: What Star Wars Galaxies life was like before the NGE

A decade after Star Wars Galaxies’ “New Game Enhancements” hit the game, controversy, grumbling, and revelations still pop up about the notorious decision to overhaul the entire game. Some maintain that it ruined the game, while others acknowledge that what came after actually ended up being better.

As the 2003 to 2005 pre-NGE era is quickly vanishing into the distant past, I wanted to preserve some of the history of what the game was like before that fateful patch day. To aid in this project, I asked six Star Wars Galaxies veterans to share some of their memories and stories from that time. Here’s what they had to say about what in-game life was like in those first few years.

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The Game Archaeologist: Roleplaying dreams in Underlight

After years of digging into the field of classic MMOs, I know there aren’t too many undiscovered titles that haven’t been brought to my attention (even if I haven’t covered them all yet). But it was a plea on Reddit for a gamer asking for help to remember an older MMO that took place in a “shared dream world” that dredged up a single word: Underlight.

My ears perked up. My eyebrows raised. This… sounded interesting. To the Googlemobile!

I began my usual digging around, piecing together scraps of information that survived from those dark ages of the internet. What these scraps revealed was an MMO that clung to one overriding principle, to roleplay above all else. Even better, it somehow still survives even to this day. So what is Underlight? For that, we’re going to have to go back two decades.

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The Game Archaeologist: Middle-earth Online

Out of all of the MMOs that I’ve played over the years, I must have spent the most time in Lord of the Rings Online’s wonderfully realized vision of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. An early magazine article in 2007 intrigued me with the mention of a “low-fantasy” MMO that skewed more to realism than the cartoony World of Warcraft. By the time the head start period had finished, I was in love with the Shire, Hobbits, and ordering my Lore-master’s raven to peck the eyes out of goblins.

Yet the MMO that I’ve played and enjoyed was a title born in the grave of a previous effort to bring Lord of the Rings to MMOs: Middle-earth Online. 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 with features such as permadeath. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an entirely different approach to the IP, and even though it fizzled out due to a number of factors, I think it’s important it be remembered. Frodo lives!

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The Game Archaeologist: Ten more facts of EverQuest life circa 1999

A couple of weeks ago I shared with you several stories from EverQuest veterans about what life in the game was like back then. Since the EverQuest we have now would be near-unrecognizable to 1999-era players, I felt it was important to preserve these tales for future generations of MMO gamers.

But EverQuest being EverQuest, players couldn’t just stop with a mere handful of accounts! Thus, I saved several of those submitted to share with you today. What were more facts of life that Norrathians had to deal with back then? Find out!

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The Game Archaeologist: Ten facts of EverQuest life circa 1999

MMOs change. We know that, but we also tend to forget it as well. The games that we play today can often be light-years distant from how they used to be when they launched, especially if they’ve been around for well over a decade.

I was never part of the EverQuest scene back in the day (or even now), but I’ve always been fascinated with random tales and tidbits of how the game used to be versus how it is now. With that in mind, I put out a call to player vets who were there back in ’99 to share some of the facts of EQ life. The deluge of stories that I got in return was staggering, and I’m excited to share them with you.

How was the game different? What mechanics and obstacles did players have to deal with that are unheard of today? Check out what those who were on the scene in 1999 had to say!

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