The Game Archaeologist: Anarchy Online

    
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“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.

Sci-fi before it was the cool kid in the class

While I won’t go so far as to say that Anarchy Online was the first sci-fi MMO, it certainly was the first major MMO to branch out in that direction. A couple years after The Matrix and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace injected a healthy dose of sci-fi into the mainstream, Anarchy Online tantalized gamers with the prospect of going high-tech instead of high fantasy.

When asked why the Funcom team went sci-fi with Anarchy Online, Producer Colin Cragg said, “There are many of us who have always preferred laser guns to swords — this is one of the rare times that the laser gun fans won. I don’t know what sealed the decision at the time.”

The setting was a planet named Rubi-Ka, a hotspot of galactic business interests due to a precious metal known as “notum.” Omnipotent corporation Omni-Tek swooped in to mine the heck out of the planet, terraformed the surface, and imported a number of colonists (including player characters). However, Omni-Tek found itself butting heads with the Clans — rebel workers– with both groups struggling to figure out the deep mysteries of the planet and its unique resources.

Anarchy Online promised players the moon, with a huge selection of classes (12 at the start, with two more added later), worldwide PvP, dynamically-generated missions, and an ongoing four-year story. It was almost too much, as AO’s design reflected the complex, no-hand-holding attitude that other early 2000’s MMOs adopted. You could cripple your class without knowing what you did wrong, often not experiencing the reprecussions until much later in the game. Still, the hype for AO was huge, and over 100,000 players signed up for the beta. By some predictions, AO was positioning itself to be a serious rival to EverQuest.

“The worst launch of all time”

Of course, the best-laid plans fell apart when the game actually went live. Countless words have been penned on the subject of Anarchy Online’s botched launch, which was so bad that it became legendary. Whatever could go wrong on June 27th, 2001, did: The account system wouldn’t let players log in, the game would crash constantly, the lag and rubberbanding was horrible, servers went offline without warning, and patches were difficult to download.

“People love to talk about the bad launch,” Cragg said years later. “I prefer to think on it as a shining example of the level of dedication and love that was put into this game that many of those involved worked through those conditions and remained with the game for many years afterwards. I don’t think you will find many examples of closer-knit groups without looking to combat veterans.”

It wasn’t just the first couple days, either. Anarchy Online’s launch woes extended well into the first month, earning the title a black eye and nasty press that couldn’t be spun by Funcom’s PR team. The company frantically worked to patch up the game as it bled players and gave players two additional free weeks of play as partial compensation. Later that year, Funcom would make another attempt to woo players back with 30 more days of free game time.

Even so, AO’s reputation took a serious blow from the start — although fortunately for Funcom, it wasn’t a death blow. In fact, Anarchy Online picked up 150,000 subscribers in its initial year, no small feat for any MMO at the time.

The expansions

In my humble experience, individual MMOs tend to have a single defining expansion that looms above the rest, and 2003’s Shadowlands was that for Anarchy Online. Following a smaller “booster” expansion (Notum Wars), Shadowlands provided a completely new leveling experience as players had the option to explore a series of floating islands above Rubi-Ka. Inspired by Dante Alighieri’s trip through The Divine Comedy, Shadowlands offered a far more linear journey than players had seen previously.

Theme aside, Shadowlands added a stockpile of new content, particularly for character development. The level cap was raised to 220 (no, I didn’t add any extra numbers there), the Shade and Keeper classes were introduced, and nifty “perks” were added to the game as a sort of proto-talent tree. Player housing also made its first appearance, and there was much rejoicing.

Anarchy Online put on more expansion weight in the future, although nothing as comprehensive as Shadowlands. Alien Invasion (2004) and Lost Eden (2006) added player cities, alternate advancement, and better PvP. The last major addition to Anarchy Online, 2009’s Legacy of the Xan booster pack, beefed up the endgame considerably with new areas and raids.

Free play, free play, la la la la!

Anarchy Online made history in 2001 by being the first MMO to offer a free trial, which has since become a standard marketing gimmick for most all MMOs. In 2004, well before the free-to-play revolution, Funcom introduced a free model for AO that has carried on ever since. This free version offered players the full basic game and Notum Wars but none of the additional content (such as perks) that came with later expansions.

“The decision was of course financially motivated as it was started out in conjunction with the in-game advertising system,” Cragg said. “Free players generated money for Funcom by simply playing the game.”

There was a downside to hopping on board the F2P train before it was trendy. Free players were labeled “froobs” by the paying population, and while they were tolerated, some subscribers definitely looked at them as second-class citizens (or, hey, plain ol’ moochers). No matter what the community thought, the initiative was a success, netting over a million new free players by 2006.

New look, same old game

Going into its second decade, Anarchy Online took on the role of the grizzled veteran MMO that knew its place and was content to coast during its glory years. The game arrived on Steam a few years ago, boosting its population, and merged its two active servers into one.

Probably the most interesting development in the game was a long-promised graphical overhaul that would help to modernize the look of Rubi-Ka somewhat. After many delays and much talk, the update went into the game this past summer.

With Funcom in turmoil these days, Anarchy Online’s fate seems tied to whether or not the studio will endure. If so, here’s hoping that we’ll be celebrating AO’s 20th birthday in 2021!

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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themindstream
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themindstream

phdchef themindstream It’s been long enough that I wouldn’t trust my memory with any accuracy, I never got into the Subway at all though, I think by that point i was desperate for any progress that wasn’t the mission terminal (I have a fairly low tolerance for grinding). I did try poking around the overworld not really knowing what I was doing. I also don’t think I got any questions to any questions (not that I would have known then what to ask); I do remember more acutely that some years later when I tried out Eve Online, I got to the part in the tutorial where it has you type in the chat box and I was shocked to get multiple friendly answers back.

phdchef
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phdchef

Polyanna Yeah the way Funcom built AO over the years is almost like a small team of people doing it out of a garage in response to a core group of players’ input. They inadvertently created one of the longest-lasting MMORPGs of all time.

phdchef
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phdchef

I played AO for over 10 years, initially as a froob. While I’ve also played other MMORPGs like WoW, CoH, and even Order and Chaos, AO is the only one that kept pulling me back. It’s one of the deepest and most rewarding MMORPGs out there, despite Funcom’s best effort at bungling the game with its “coming soon(tm)” promises.

phdchef
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phdchef

themindstream I’m guessing that you tried to solo the game from the get go a la World of Warcraft. I tried AO soon after its F2P model started and became a paid player 7 months later and remain a paid player to this day.

Why did you get “infuriated” with level-locked instances? It’s the game’s way of telling you to move on–there’s nothing else you can do in that instance. Did you bother to ask where to go after Subway?

themindstream
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themindstream

I tried out AO soon after it went to the free model. It was probably my first modern MMO…and I lasted maybe a week. It’s probably the game that had me thinking for the longest time that MMOs weren’t for me. It was big and pretty but there was a lot of empty space. No one talked. The random mission system quickly tuned out to be mind-numbing, a series of fill in the blank “go to alley x, enter series of samey-looking-corridor y and kill samey-looking w and z” with little rhyme or reason to it. The gear you got as a low level character made no secret of how crappy it was (hint: you might not want to put adjectives in the item name rubbing this in) and the economy was such that upgrades were out of reach as well as confusing. And as someone who puts a lot of value in exploring, I got infuriated with the level lock on some areas (I think it was the subway or sewer or whatever of the neutral hub city).

So, am kind of surprised it’s still running. I would probably have run into a similar reaction with other MMOs of that era though. (Also, I want Funcom to stay solvent long enough for me to at least get a good way into The Secret World.)

duane99
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duane99

Mohoc LeConchRepublic  Does the Unreal Engine count?  Now in Beta!

Kataq
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Kataq

JakeDunnegan tobascodagama Yeah teleporting was great until you teamed up with *that* fixer that got scared and team gridded everyone out near the end of a mission instance. Oh how I laughed… ;)

JakeDunnegan
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JakeDunnegan

tobascodagama *Shadowrun – not Shadow World. Duhhhh.

JakeDunnegan
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JakeDunnegan

tobascodagama That’s the tip of the iceberg. Probably the most impacting were instanced zones. Mission terminals. I’m pretty sure there was no zoning in the open world, though it’s been so long, I don’t remember. Sure seemed as big and as open as any game out today! (I remember FINALLY getting a ship that could fly.. oh, another pioneering thing, I believe.. I think they beat WoW to the punch on that one by years.) And holy crap, you could fly high (as the person below points out).
They also gave special teleport skills to certain classes (that’s not unique, per say, but was still a seriously cool effect.) I think it owed a lot to Shadow World, which is making its own comeback these days. :)

CastagereShaikura
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CastagereShaikura

Serrenity CastagereShaikura Seeing those huge Alien ships hoovering in the sky was epic. But in those early day’s around the relaunch which was called Anarchy Online the second edition was the real peak of the game. I still have my copy of it. The CD booklet and map of Rubi-Ka.