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: 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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The Game Archaeologist: Anarchy Online

“The future in your hands.”

This was Funcom’s promise to gamers in the early days of the 2000s. Even as the MMORPG genre slowly took shape and grew in popularity, game studios were still babes in the woods, feeling out this brave and complex new world without a standard handbook to guide them to success. Every studio desperately hoped that it had the next big hook that would reel in gamers by the thousands, especially Norwegian developer Funcom, which made headlines in 1999 with its highly acclaimed adventure The Longest Journey.

Funcom took one look at the small but expanding MMO market, got together in a group huddle and decided to angle for a science-fiction game rather than a stock fantasy world. And thus, 15 years ago Anarchy Online hit the industry like a sack of interesting but broken features. It certainly wasn’t the stellar debut Funcom desired, yet after a rough start Anarchy Online carved itself out a niche which it’s been riding for some time now.

The year is 29475; the place is Rubi-Ka.

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The Game Archaeologist: Lucasfilm’s Habitat

Some of you reading this may simply never have known a world before the internet existed by virtue of your age. It’s not your fault, but as generational divisions go, this was a biggie. The internet saturates so much of our lives now that it’s even difficult for those of us born prior to the ’90s to remember how we functioned without smartphones, Google searches, and terabytes of cheap entertainment on demand. I think there were video game arcades in the mall or something.

Because of this, some of you will not understand how it felt when technology advanced to the point that people could reach out online and interact with others, first through written communication and later through applications and games. What we take for granted in today’s MMOs — the constant presence of thousands of real humans interacting with us in a virtual space — simply blew the minds of those who first encountered it.

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The Game Archaeologist: Star Wars Galaxies’ NGE

It became one of the most infamous moments in MMO history — and perhaps one of the most misunderstood.

For all that the MMO community references Star Wars Galaxies’ New Game Enhancements (NGE) as a synonym for devs breaking a game with a horrible patch, expansion, or business decision, the actual details of the referenced events have become blurred through time, retellings, and a sort of weird mythology.

It’s been 10 years since the NGE damaged a game’s reputation, embittered players for life, and made the mainstream notice that not all was sunshine and daisies in MMOs. So how did this disaster occur and what was so bad about it?

Well, it happened a long time ago in a studio far, far away…

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The Game Archaeologist: Microsoft’s Mythica

While Microsoft may be the big cheese when it comes to operating systems and worldwide domination, for whatever reason the company has the absolute worst of luck (or worst of decision makers) when it comes to MMOs. Microsoft Game Studios has proven remarkably skittish when it approached the swimming pool of online RPGs, choosing to dip a toe into the water, give a frightened scream, and run away without taking the dive.

True Fantasy Live Online had a bumpy ride with the studio, Marvel Universe Online circled the drain faster than my morning shower, and the less said about its relationship with Vanguard’s development, the better. But there was yet another aborted project that Microsoft jumped into — and then back out of — between 2003 and 2004. In my opinion, out of all of these games it was the one the company should have stuck out to completion.

I remember when Microsoft first announced Mythica, because I thought “This is gonna be cool!” Vikings, Norse mythology, gods made flesh, and a big-name studio funding limitless adventures. In the pre-World of Warcraft era, the field was wide open for a company to come up and rival Sony Online Entertainment for the crown, so why not this one? But… cold water, skittish toes, and another MMO kicked the bucket before it saw the light of its first day.

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The Game Archaeologist: Kingdom of Drakkar

Kingdom of Drakkar, also known as Drakkar or even Kingdom of Drakkar II, is a really odd duck among the annals of MMO history. While being very small potatoes for the industry as a whole throughout its entire lifespan, it is notable for an extraordinary long run (it began in the 1980s, people!) that’s traversed through several format changes and handlers.

I’ve seen Drakkar described, somewhat unkindly, as a “shoddier Ultima Online,” but I think that is a surface judgment that doesn’t take the effort to get to know the game or its legacy. There must be something to this game if it’s been around for three decades, yes? Let’s find out!

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The Game Archaeologist: The Sims Online

The Sims Online was one of the odder entrants into the MMO genre, an online iteration of an immensely popular game franchise that promised deeper social interaction. With Electronic Arts at its back and the Will Wright name affixed to the front, TSO (not to be confused with Cryptic’s STO) had a solid shot at cracking the big time.

It did not. It went over as well like a fish flopping out of water to make a go for it on dry land, eventually realizing that it was both going nowhere and dying slowly. The end result? It stunk.

And yet it was an interesting failed experiment in MMO gaming, especially considering that the concept wasn’t as off-base as we once thought. With social “dress up” games like Second Life and Habbo Hotel that have proved there’s interest in such activities, The Sims Online could be seen as a prophet of the future, mistreated in its own time. Return with us to the days of pixelated 2-D isometric glory, as the I interpret the Simlish of ancient tomes to uncover a forgotten history.

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The Game Archaeologist: The 4th Coming

Over the years that I’ve been writing The Game Archaeologist, I’ve received more than a few requests to cover a game that was completely unknown to me: The 4th Coming. It sounded like one of the lesser MUDs, so I stuck it in the backlog to investigate at some point.

Now that I’ve finally come around to looking into this title, I’ve discovered that The 4th Coming is actually one of the earliest — if not the earliest — online action RPGs, much in the same vein as today’s Path of Exile and Marvel Heroes. It makes sense that someone would seek to capitalize off of the explosive success of 1996’s Diablo, and that someone turned out to be Montreal-based Vircom Interactive.

Despite being one of the scant few ’90s graphical MMO pioneers, The 4th Coming’s legacy has been far outshadowed by its contemporaries and titles that followed. Today we’re going to see if we can’t deliver its due by looking at what this ARPG created.

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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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