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.

If someone asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!

No matter how similar MMOs may be to each other, each one needs a hook that devs and marketers can dangle to capture the imaginations of gamers. Whether it be a fourth pillar, dynamic events, “bears bears bears,” or little glowy exclamation marks over questgivers’ heads, there’s got to be something that a game studio can point to and say “We’re doing this different and/or better than everyone else.” With Mythica, the hook was “Make the players gods.”

Actually, in the game concept you weren’t a god yet; you were merely applying to the Norse pantheon of gods to become one. Sort of like pledging for frat week, only with bigger spanking paddles. As the game began, you assumed the role of a dead guy or gal — yup, you read that right — who discovers that you are one of the immortal heroes of legend and might as well shoot for godhood while in the neighborhood. In Norse mythology, this meant only one thing: battles, and lots of them. Sounds perfect for an MMO, eh? It helped that as a god-in-training, your powers would automatically be far above the standard rat’s arsenal.

Microsoft announced Mythica on April 25th, 2003, promising that this would be the title that successfully merged the best of single-player and multiplayer RPGs into one righteous package. Executive producer Matt Wilson uttered words that many MMO devs have repeated in various ways ever since:

Mythica is a delicate balance between a massively multiplayer game with mechanics, depth, and socialization expected by veteran online gamers, as well as the intimacy and self-determination of a single-player adventure. In our game, players truly feel like they’re center stage in their own adventure.”

For a private realm, call 1-900-MYTHICA

Microsoft’s claim that it could sate both the single-player and multiplayer crowds came from the development of what it called “private realms technology.” It’s a little fuzzy how this would’ve worked out in practice, but the idea sounded a little like what we know as “phasing” today. Each day, players would get to choose whether they wanted to adventure in an open world setting or in personalized realms that would change the game according to their deeds.

In private realms, what you or your small group of friends did would have a lasting impact on the game world — as long as you were in that version of the game, that is. It was meant to foster each player’s sense of individual accomplishment and heroism, although it’s unclear how cutting the game into two distinct halves would’ve worked over the long term.

Studio manager Adam Waalkes was of the opinion that this would be the best of both worlds: “When playing Mythica, players will feel like genuine Norse heroes on a personalized journey unique to them. Through Mythica, Microsoft Game Studios will revitalize the massively multiplayer genre by putting the focus where it belongs: on gameplay.”

The Mythica hype grew big enough to even draw the interest of Hollywood, which made some noise about possibly optioning a movie from the franchise. Kind of odd considering that the game had yet to be fully made, but there you go.

The one-two punch

I was hardly the only person who was enthralled by the prospect of Mythica, as a fan base quickly formed for the title. Unfortunately, its run as an MMO-in-development would go from exciting reveal to D.O.A. in less than a year.

The first blow against the title was from a rival MMO company, Mythic Entertainment, which sued Microsoft for name infringement in December of 2003 (guess there goes my plans to make World of Warcrafta). The companies eventually settled and Microsoft agreed not to use “Mythica” or any variation thereof in the future.

But names? Names are changed all the time — no biggie, right? While I’d agree with that, it may have soured Microsoft on the project as it “reevaluated” its MMO lineup in early 2004. No matter how promising Mythica looked to fans, the accountants landed the second and final blow by determining that the project was simply too big of a financial risk for the company.

The message that Mythica was cancelled came down from the top in February 2004, months before True Fantasy Live Online would receive a similar death warrant. Chris Lye (later of ArenaNet) was one of the mouthpieces that the company used to deliver the news when he said, “Microsoft Game Studios looked at the portfolio of current and future MMORPG projects and decided that, rather than spreading ourselves over multiple MMORPG projects, it was better to streamline the catalog.”

Streamline it did, all the way down to nothing. But we can keep the memories of Mythica alive by speculating what may have been. What if Microsoft followed through and Mythica made it to launch in 2004? Like any other title that year, it would’ve come up against WoW and had to deal with living in the shadow of that phenomenon. However, let’s not forget that Microsoft had deep pockets and a (then) strong desire to make a name for itself in the MMO industry. Mythica may not have been the super smash hit of 2004, but it certainly could have been a strong contender for the second-biggest title of the year.

As it is, Mythica is but an interesting and faded footnote in an industry that’s long since passed its remains by. However, some of its concepts — of player godhood, personal servers, NPC followers — are emerging in more recent titles, so maybe one or two developers were intrigued enough to remember Mythica’s concept. Or maybe it’s just a fun coincidence.

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.
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