“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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.