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: 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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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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