The Game Archaeologist: Highlander Online


One of the things that I love about Massively Overpowered’s readership is how fans often bring games to my attention that I never knew even existed. This is particularly true in the case of older MMOs that died in early development.

Last week in the comments, reader Celestial linked to a trailer of Highlander Online, which has to be the very first time I heard of this game. A Highlander MMO? I thought that was just a thought exercise that players like to bandy about from time to time: “Wouldn’t a Highlander online game be cool? How would it work?”

But believe it or not, one was actually in the making for a while. While it obviously never released, Highlander Online deserves a bit of investigation to see how far it came and what it was aiming for in its design.

There can only be one

For the uninitiated, the Highlander franchise started back in 1986 with the cult hit film of the same name. It centered around a Scottish highlander named Connor MacLeod who was born in the 16th century and eventually discovered that he was one of a group of immortals. Instead of living together peacefully, these immortals would seek each other out across the globe and attempt to behead each other with swords. The immortals grew more powerful when they did this, and apparently the last one standing would get ultimate knowledge or somesuch.

If you never knew where the phrase “There can only be one!” came from, now you are enlightened. The series was helped by the appearance of Sean Connery and became (in)famous for its bizarrely bad second film.

Grown adults fighting with swords in the 20th century was captivating enough to warrant more films, a TV series, cartoon, books, comics, and a possible upcoming reboot. Always have to have a reboot, right?

While perhaps not the most popular or well-known sci-fi franchise out there, the following was significantly big enough to warrant development of an MMORPG set in the same universe. Enter Highlander Online (or sometimes, Highlander: The Gathering).

Decapitation online

In August of 2000, French studio Kalisto Entertainment announced that it had signed a deal with the owners of the Highlander franchise to develop an MMORPG. The initial press release boasted of the franchise’s popularity in “amateur webrings” (look it up) and merchandise sales, while saying that the game would fit in with the movies.

“We aim to offer the huge base of net-surfer community fans of the immortal warriors epic a highly interactive gaming experience, in which they will experience new exciting emotions in the Highlander legend,” Online Director Henri Magalon said at the time.

Kalisto was founded in 1990 and grew to become a developer of “interactive entertainment software” for various platforms. At its height, the company employed 250 people, including the team assigned to work on Highlander Online. It was perhaps best-known for producing a Pac-Man title for the SNES, The Fifth Element movie game, and the Nightmare Creatures series. When the internet bubble swelled in the late ’90s, the company triggered its IPO and grew with the financial influx.

From what we know from the concept art and brief mentions of the game, Highlander Online would have spanned the globe (as the art featured some places such as Paris and museums), and focused on both swordplay in a 3-D environment and roleplay.

One of the most difficult design elements was how to deal with player character who were immortal — yet could die forever if beheaded. In 2003, Contractor Michael Tresca mentioned how hard of a problem this was to solve.

“A year ago, I was privileged to work as a contractor on Kalisto Entertainment’s Highlander Online (the company has since gone under, so don’t wait up for it). If you think the [Star Wars Galaxies] Jedi problem is tough, try working with a fiction where the most salient fiction point is permadeath! It took a great deal of careful thought on the team’s part to come up with an answer that does not tread on the fiction, while still allowing players to maintain their societal bonds.”

Down with the ship

Very little is known about the development of Highlander Online from 2000 to 2002. Kalisto was oddly silent about the game following its initial announcement, surfacing in February 2002 to show off a video with character customization.

Bubbles usually burst, and when the internet one did, Kalisto found its stock floundering and had to borrow heavily. Word was that the company had “large internal difficulties” leading to poor planning. Instead of being a great opportunity to be made by a stable company, Highlander Online was more like a Hail Mary pass to keep the studio afloat. It wasn’t enough, and with the game nowhere near ready to release (and pull in revenue), Kaliso liquidated in 2002.

The game’s art director, who later moved on to Ubisoft, mentioned how Highlander Online was one of his projects that “were not released before the ship went down.”

With the project dead and Kalisto gone, the rights to the Highlander video game franchise were signed over to SCi Entertainment in 2004. Unfortunately, this studio didn’t appear interested in working on an MMO, and thus the dream of Highlander Online died.

Back to you, dear reader

Since this vision of Highlander Online was fated to never see the light of day, we return to the thought exercise. What would such a game be like? How could it be made in this day and age? Would it have enough of a following to be anything but an extremely niche title? I’ll leave that up to you!

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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