The Game Archaeologist: The Matrix Online

    
45

It’s not every year that a movie comes along that captures the pop culture zeitgeist so powerfully and so quickly as The Matrix did. I recall lugging a few college friends along to see this back in 1999 — having heard only a few sparse details about it beforehand — and coming out of the theater feeling as if we we’d been electrified. The bold mix of science fiction, martial arts, philosophy, action, and leather ensembles became the smash hit of the year, and a franchise was born.

And while we had great hopes that this would be this generation’s Star Wars, The Matrix ultimately proved to be a lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon, impossible to recapture once unleashed. Sequels, animated shorts, video games, comic books — none rose to the height of the original film, and eventually the franchise petered out.

During this period, an odd duck of an MMO was born: The Matrix Online. When you think about it, an online virtual world where people log in and fight against programs was a really short hop from the movie series. MxO, as it was abbreviated, was an audacious game with unique features, story-centric gameplay, and a sci-fi bent in a field of fantasy competitors, and while it only lasted four years, it was enough to make a lasting impression for its community. Today, we’re going to revisit the 1s and 0s of The Matrix Online to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

The story continues…

Instead of simply rehashing the movies by putting players in Neo’s shoes, the dev team decided to continue the story by setting the game in a post-Matrix Revolutions era. When players created characters, it was with the understanding that they were escaping the illusion of the Matrix to begin living the truth.

At this point, all redpills could pursue alliances with one of the game’s three factions: Zion, the Machines, and the Merovingian. Each faction had its own agenda and ideas on how to best handle this brave new world, and the more missions a player ran with one, the lower his reputation would fall with the other two.

As due their status as super-powered humans, players were able to greatly increase their abilities by downloading programs and pursuing specialized classes. Players were also free to experiment with these abilities, as they could be easily swapped out and exchanged for other ones without locking characters into a permanent build.

The Matrix Online boasted two different styles of combat: ranged free-fire (by which players would attack and defend in real time, as in most MMOs) and melee “interlock” (by which two players would be locked together in round-based combat). Just as in the films, everything from kung fu to machine pistols was par for the course.

A rocky start

Given how fixated Matrix fans were with symbolism, they could hardly ignore the bad omens that came during MxO’s launch period. While The Matrix may have been a strong IP back in 1999, Matrix fever had dulled considerably by 2005. To make matters worse, Ubisoft backed out of its deal to co-publish the game with Warner Bros. Interactive, leaving WB on the hook until Sony Online Entertainment scooped up the title from Monolith Productions a few months after launch.

And no matter what we may have wished the game to be, the initial reviews were mixed at best as players had to wade through a myriad of frustrations. These frustrations included buggy combat, a dearth of quest content, glitchy graphics, server lag, an unweildy interface, and low population, all of which contributed to a less-than-stellar reputation. Still, all was not lost — at least, not right away.

Storytime

The greatest hook for the game was that the developers placed a huge emphasis on adding to the films’ tale. Instead of being “B-canon” or an “extended universe” type of deal, The Matrix Online was promoted as an official continuation of the storyline, with input from the creators of the series, and its missions proved more substantial than the petty tasks of most MMO “quests.”

This story was designed to draw players into the game on a daily basis through the use of live events, cinematics, and critical missions. The team even included a group of dedicated virtual actors who would assume the roles of Morpheus, the Oracle and other Matrix celebrities, creating stories in real time for players to experience.

Lead Developer Ben “Rarebit” Chamberlain said that this interaction with players was his favorite part of the game: “I think as a game designer I was very, very fortunate, because there can’t be many designers in the industry who get to go and interact and play the game with their players on a daily basis, at least not in an official story capacity.”

As the team shrunk later on in the game’s lifespan, MxO players stepped up to assume these roles as volunteers. These stories would become one of the most fondly remembered aspect of the game and an interesting experiment with developer-generated live content. And the brunt of the responsibility and drive for keeping MxO going was left to Chamberlain: “In the end I was doing all the writing, mission design, quest design, character design, texture design, live event design and execution, item design, etc. I also had to fix as many bugs as I could that were left in the old designers’ and artists’ work. Basically, I was doing everything that happened with the game that didn’t involve actual programming.”

The end of all things

For many, the fate of The Matrix Online was as inevitable as it was tragic, with the game shuddering to a halt on August 1st, 2009. SOE cited low subscription numbers — as few as 500 remaining players — as the reason it was pulling the plug on MxO, and there’s no doubt that the game struggled to remain profitable in those last months.

By the time this happened, Chamberlain had already left. “When I found out that the game was going to be canceled, I thought I could keep working away at it, making the best of it and all, but then I found my heart had really gone out of it, knowing that the company wanted to end it,” he said. “So I suppose you could say I made the best of that situation by quitting.”

Producer Daniel “Walrus” Myers wrote a bittersweet letter to the community when the announcement came, stating, “Now we’ve seen how far the rabbit hole goes and it’s time to wake up from that dream (or go back to sleep, depending how you look at it). On July 31, 2009, we will be jacking out for the last time… It has been a good run. Where many games have fizzled out before or shortly after launch, by August we will have lived on in our home at SOE for more than four years. To this day, I have never worked with a community as dedicated as The Matrix Online community.”

The final days were marked by ominous eyes in the sky, players being gifted with insanely powerful abilities, and (of course) lots and lots of dancing. When the end came at last, player characters crumpled into tiny balls as a popup box urged them to “Wake up!”

And in that moment, many fans echoed Switch’s last words in the movie: “Not like this… not like this.”

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Jossfan
Guest
Jossfan

Seraphina_Brennan 
I don’t recall for sure.  I think there was some environment damage.  I recall that summoners were unplayable and hackers were op, but I was having too much fun with the guns and fists to care how others were playing.

Mitochon
Guest
Mitochon

Oh…MxO…
There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t miss this game. For all its faults [none of which were that bad] it is still my favourite MMO, and still my favourite MMO combat *sigh* I miss you most of all, Aikido throw.
Brilliant community  I met some amazing people in my years playing, some of which are still friends now.
I will forever curse SOE for what they did with this game.

Maybe one day the emu will be up and running properly :)

Seraphina_Brennan
Guest
Seraphina_Brennan

Jossfan Seraphina_Brennan Oh man, the doors! Yeah… good times. And so many shot up apartments with so many bullet holes in them. I almost forgot that bullet holes lasted a bit too, didn’t they?

Jossfan
Guest
Jossfan

Seraphina_Brennan Yes.  The only MMO I’ve ever consistently role played in.

Remember doors?  Most MMOs have abandoned them except as trigger points to start instances, but MXO had them in the world.  We actually kicked in the doors of all those apartments we shot up.  And of course they closed by themselves so the poor database didn’t have to remember the “open/closed” state of the thousands of doors on every server.

Seraphina_Brennan
Guest
Seraphina_Brennan

Oh Matrix Online… how I loved you so, so much.
I still look at MxO as one of my best experiences in online gaming. And it wasn’t because the game itself was good — everything Justin said about it was dead on. 

But the events, the passion of Rarebit, Aether, et al., and the community was what made the game amazing. When you logged in, sure, you could run missions to pass the time. But it was so much better to find friends and talk about “current events” in the game in-character, because like 75% of the people playing were roleplayers. (It was so easy to roleplay, really. All you had to do was be yourself and mention a few Matrix terms, lol.) You could catch friends at a bar and ponder philosophy or plan your take down of one of the in-game bosses.
And, even better, the major events were all conducted live. The world changed, clues were left, puzzles were solved, and factions worked against one another both via PvP and via politics. I don’t know how many times I was bickering with Zionists like Fenshire or striking deals with the beautifully cunning Symmetric, or just talking with everyone else in the community. Those were just two people amongst the awesome.
Gah… I should stop… gonna keep gushing. But seriously though, it was a good time, and will probably be unrepeatable. (As much as I’d like for a new game to tackle the style that eventually came out from MxO.)

Seraphina_Brennan
Guest
Seraphina_Brennan

crawlkill *cough* Elevators *cough* :)

Jossfan
Guest
Jossfan

I loved the paired animations and the paired emotes in this game.  You could actually hug and shake hands without poseballs.  The paired fighting animations were so good that I even enjoyed grinding for crafting mats; when I got tired of one set of combat animations, I’d swap to a different build and keep going. So many MMOs have been created in the years since, but no one has recreated MXO’s paired animations, in or out of combat.

Manic Velocity
Guest
Manic Velocity

MxO got me into MMOs.  The game itself wasn’t all that great.  I didn’t realize it back then, not having experienced other MMOs, but MxO really was legitimately broken.  Several bugs, imbalances and exploits that existed throughout the game’s lifespan.  

But the community, for the most part, made it worth it.  It was a small enough pool of players that everyone pretty much knew everyone.  It was like living in a small town made up of colorful weirdos and cyberpunks.

All that said, I was actually kind of glad when MxO was shut down.  It was barely limping along for the better part of two years as features and staff were continuously being cut.  It hurt to see the game in such a state.  It needed to be put out of its misery, but the final send-off was something I will always remember fondly.

Rayko
Guest
Rayko

I  miss MXO

PhoenixDfire
Guest
PhoenixDfire

Ah. MXO.

The game that got me into MMOs in the first place. Still got the disks, the t-shirt and the Jacket (!). As a fan of the first film and a Meh on the second two, it was right up my street instead of fighting fairies and demons. It had several things going for it, The turn based combat was a little buggy in its animation but it worked and the first time you got a bullet time kick in interlock, that was very ‘Matrixy’. I loved the hyperjump, the Mega city was fantastic environment. The ability to re-spec your character on the fly. (Don’t like being a tank, then reload you upgrades and become a healer)

If the Story events weren’t running,  you were left with the  mission grid. That was a real killer, It was just Ben ‘Rarebit’ Chamberlain who ran those events by himself and it was a phenomenal achievement he managed to get out what he did, It was the lack of support and content from SOE that really killed that game. No advertising, No promotion. No support for Rarebit. MXO was treated like the red headed step child of the SOE family.  They’re claim it was only 500 hundred subscribers was debatable. They never included players in that number that had bought the Multi-pack subscription to allow people access to more than one SOE game and played SOE as part of that package.

Ben left when they said they were going to close the game and because there was no new story content, the player numbers declined until the alleged ‘500’ excuse was used to shut it down, even through it had already been decided.

The community was fantastic, they tried everything to get people to notice the game. They Ran Rp events, Promotion videos. When the game was announced for closure, some people (with more money then scese IMHO) tried to even tried to buy the game from SOE and WB (to which came a firm reply of ‘No-Chance’). I’ve always been of the opinion that the only reason that SOE took on MXO was so that they could get DCUO licence later on.

I always wonder what would have happened if the game would have been allowed to go free to play like D&D online. That was the first failing game that was saved by the ‘freemium’ model, even SWTOR had to run to that model in the end.  I do remember a bit of trolling from the SWG community when MXO was taken off line, so I had no sympathy for the SWG trolls  when that game when dark but at least there are some decent emulators for SWG. Despite the best efforts of the community, there’s not one a fully function one. The MXO source code is probably in a dumpster somewhere, otherwise someone could have bought it when SOE when to daybreak.

So MXO, it had flaws, it had bugs, it was missing some crucial functionality. But I still miss it.