Perfect Ten: MMO missteps that didn’t have to happen

This isn't how it had to be.

Around the time I started working at Massively-that-was, there was an article that I quite liked talking about how four high-profile MMO failures were not necessary. It was a product of its time, but the point was made that these games didn’t have to wind up in the state they were in. The mistakes that were made were not unexpected problems, but entirely predictable ones that anyone could have seen. Heck, some people did see them and pointed them out, but nothing was changed.

I think about that a lot when I think about other MMOs and online games because there are a lot of titles that, even if not entirely failed, are in states they never needed to be in. These stories are, at the very least, stories of some failures where the failure was not an inevitable end state, nor are they messes that had to be made. The writing was on the wall, the warnings were given, and someone just kept on keeping on and ignored all of the signs. And here we are.


1. Champions Online

I’m starting the list with a game that both broke my heart and had every reason to knock it out of the park. Champions Online was a game developed by veteran staff of Cryptic Studios, the people responsible for City of Heroes originally. It had an established IP, and more to the point, it had the chance to build from the ground up to address CoH’s weaknesses while adding on to its strengths. This was a game that had so much going for it right away, and even the subscription plus costumes for sale (unusual, at the time) wasn’t enough to make it unplayable.

You know what did? Two things. The first was that it managed to make its free power selection as opaque and unintuitive as possible, thus ensuring that players would need multiple respecs… which were sold for money. That’s a problem. But the second problem is that it managed to take the thing people loved the most about CoH with its ad-hoc grouping and wide-open structure and completely abandon it right from the start.

I really don’t know what was being chased after with this design. All right, I have some idea, but I’d like to give Jack Emmert more credit than “let’s make CoH with the endgame focus of World of Warcraft and no guidance for making your characters.” A lot of those problems have been trimmed up now, but the damage was done ages ago. There’s not really any life left in Champions Online; what we see are residual muscle spasms.


2. Star Wars: The Old Republic

Speaking of WoW’s endgame, here’s one of the most egregious offenders I can think of. Star Wars: The Old Republic spent most of its gametime being a pretty good version of a story-based MMO when it launched, enough that its flaws felt like things that could be patched or improved. Then you reached the level cap, you went to Ilum… and the game threw up its hands and told you to start running your dungeons until you could get up to raiding. It was a direct and transparent rip on an existing endgame that bore no resemblance to the game you had been playing up to that point, and it had nothing to recommend it.

You could forgive the fact that the game as a whole was clearly doing its best not to reinvent the wheel, but it was less possible to forgive the game for trying to blatantly copy the wheel when you didn’t come here for that wheel in the first place. By leaning hard on the idea that everyone was just going to be satisfied with droplets of story and the same endgame people had left behind, players were more inclined to leave the entire game behind. Now we have a game flailing for an identity, with the fans who stuck around divided on whether or not the story is worth bothering with any longer.

This didn't work.

3. Darkfall

A recurring theme here is that a lot of these games were designed to support Y when it turned out that players liked X. Instead of celebrating X and making that a major focus, these are titles that doubled down on Y and crippled X. The thought was “now that X is gone, players will learn to love Y;” the reality was “now that X is gone, players will leave.”

Darkfall’s main problem was that it was always a niche title for people who wanted to play open PvP amidst a sea of teleporting ultimate killing machines in heavy armor. This is all it was ever going to be. Then the title went through an ill-advised reboot that reset things into a world that actually had some pretense of game balance, and players were uproariously angry about it. Rolling things back slowly fixed nothing.

The reality might be that this sort of gameplay does not have a sustainable population for reasons that are too complex to go into for this column. But that’s still the X that people were here for. They weren’t interested in the Y of balanced PvP struggles, they wanted that unbalanced PvP nonsense. Asking players to suddenly embrace a totally different game style was never going to pay bigger dividends; it just alienated the people who liked things as they were.

I made all the same mistakes.

4. WildStar

Can you believe that WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online launched at just about the same time? At launch, it seemed like it was pretty clear which one would win out in the end; one of them was bad at pleasing its would-be fans and had numerous issues, while the other was fun to play from the opening moments while dripping with personality. It had housing, it had humor, it had… a raiding endgame that resembled vanilla WoW in the fever dreams of people who really did not remember how simple those raids were very well. And thus it went.

For all its faults at launch, TESO redoubled its efforts to improve matters, to make combat more fun and impactful, to add new systems, to make the game more accessible and fun. WildStar, by contrast, was so scared of backing away from the idea that dungeons and raids should be the most hardcore thing ever that by the time they realized no one was having fun, people had already left. Like SWTOR above, a game was made where people didn’t want to play once all of the fun content was exhausted, and the fun content was gone pretty quickly.


5. Pokemon Go

This one had every reason to be an utterly slam dunk, to the point that a lot of people were calling Pokemon Go a slam dunk long before it actually had done the stuff necessary to count as a slam dunk. But it was also one of the many games falling into the trap of telling players what they wanted to do, because Niantic decided that what people really wanted from this franchise were PvP gym battles.

If you just wanted to catch them all? Well, then, you were going to find it harder and harder to catch any of them. And once there was no longer that thrill of catching anything novel, no one was going to drop money on the Pidgey that you already had dozens of times over and didn’t want. But prioritizing that would have meant not chasing gym battles, I guess.

I've been through this content on a horse with no brain.

6. Secret World Legends

If you asked people what the biggest problem with The Secret World was, you’d probably hear a lot of people mentioning awful combat. You would probably not have heard lots of people talking about how its business model was a problem. Secret World Legends addressed that problem by doing both, and then… not updating for an extended period of time, except to add in the Agent system. Which launched without sufficient availability for the eponymous Agents.

The game doesn’t need to be here. The defense people had trotted out was that this was the only way to make new content viable, but increasingly I agree with the theory that it just allowed a clean slate to wipe out lifetime subscribers. The new content that was supposed to materialize hasn’t, and I think most lifetime players would have paid for new content if that was the only way to make it happen. None of this had to happen.

[Since this section was written, Funcom announced the long-promised new update for next month.]

We'll just leave this here, then.

7. Global Agenda

Let’s be real here, SMITE made Hi-Rez Studios a whole lot of money. But Global Agenda never really had a chance, because it launched and continued with such a jumbled focus and unclear business model. It’s not the worst offender, but now it remains available for people as a perpetual museum of something that’s never going to be updated again.

Equally baffling is that when Hi-Rez had some spare money to start updating something again, this game wasn’t on the list.

That which is not dead is Diablo III.

8. Diablo III

The funny thing is that what killed Diablo III isn’t really any one decision. It’s not the real-money auction house, which was a terrible idea that should have died in design but then did die with the first expansion. It’s the fact that Blizzard has displayed that they don’t know what this game actually is. It’s that the game is billed and sold as an always-online title but developed and staggered as a single-player game with a definite lifespan.

Players can’t take it offline, so the game gets maintained like it’s a perpetual title like an MMO. But it really isn’t, and so it kind of languishes without the ability to just end. Adding in the Necromancer seems oddly appropriate, given all of that.

So long.

9. Das Tal / The Exiled

The open PvP thing is always going to have some serious issues, but The Exiled (formerly Das Tal) had a whole lot of passion and not a whole lot of ideas about how to make the game sing. It was like the whole game was built around specific moments that the designers never knew how to completely make happen, and as many times as they tinkered with it that stuff never actually sang.

However, full credit to the designers – they had to move on once it didn’t work out, but the game stayed online and they tried every option they could to keep things running. It didn’t have to end like this, but I respect the sheer vigor of a tiny team doing all that could be done to correct the ship, even if it was too little, too late.

Not like this.

10. Gigantic

A gorgeous and (by all accounts) well-designed MOBA, Gigantic was making hosts of bad decisions long before it reached the point of doom and despair. Originally planning a Windows 10-only launch was itself a bad decision; for a MOBA breaking into a crowded field, you want your audience to be as large as possible, which is the meta-version of “assuming people will just do things.” By the time that changed, a lot of people had already written it off.

But if you want an even bigger meta thought, there’s the fact that all of Gigantic’s art and knowledge and creativity was being leveraged to create something that was, at the end of the day, a clone of something that already had its success, and its successful imitators. Perhaps that’s another lesson to be learned, then, about coming into a crowded field when all you have is a tweak on existing formulas.

Maybe it did always have to be this way. But I don’t think so. It feels like this is what happens when you ignore the signs and let this happen.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at or with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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Everyone mentions Wildstar’s endgame, but I didn’t get anywhere near it before I quit. What drove me away was the pacing.

I felt I couldn’t walk for 30 seconds without having one or more quests thrown at my head, with overlapping notification sounds, NPC shouts, and a barrage of particle effects. I’d try to focus on completing one simple task and in minutes end up with an overflowing journal and inventory. It was less like playing a game than trying to keep track of fifty sugar-addled toddlers at once.

WS has an indelible and original personality. I loved the unique lore, appreciated that the world wasn’t 98% grimdark, and didn’t mind the art style (my personal taste leans LotRO/ESO). But by the time I finished Algoroc I was in a permanent state of sensory overload and felt exhausted after playing.

I expect this constant gameplay draws some people in, but for me it wasn’t fun and surprising — it was relentless and badgering. There never seemed to be any time to breathe and take in the ambience.

Sally Bowls

2) I am not sure I would go with exactly those mistakes, but mistakes were surely made and I am not that motivated to go back down that path. Lots of solo stories, barely a traditional MMO is my hope (but not expectation) for the future.

3) My understanding was that this niche game existed due to European taxpayer grants (they were in Greece.) So when that crisis took down much bigger companies, I am not sure they were going to make it regardless of some perturbations to the game.

4) Yeah. Wildstar 18 months before launch sounded like a great game. The HARDCORE! game at launch was steering towards the iceberg and the crash was inevitable. Two different games, Hardcore raiding and housing, 3 non-Warrior paths, loads of personality, an art style that this audience tended to like (unlike the hardcore who did not.)

6) I so disagree with this one. My biggest disagreement of the list. I think there were two choices for Funcom back then: put TSW into maintenance mode regardless and then choose between making SWL or not (just focus on Conan) Was SWL a lot of content? no. Not do I see why anyone would expect much. Funcom was in probably-not-going-to-make-it intensive care. Spending some on SWL or a lot on SWL was not an option.

8) D3 was one of the top ten largest games. I think I would rather have that revenue than the adoration of social media. With all the piracy, I think I would only make always-on games as the most effective DRM to keep the criminals, i.e. gamers, from stealing my game. Not counting the dodgy D2 trading sites.

10) W10 only was probably a mistake, but it was not as ridiculous as people are making out in hindsight. It was just misjudging Microsoft. And if you are a small company, you are going to have to walk away from a number of users; you can’t be everything to everybody on every platform. I bet at the time the design decision was made, W10-only was a seductive choice, even if it did turn out wrong.


Ahhh, why do you do this to me?!?!? Diablo III is not an MMO! Gigantic is not an MMO! Pokemon GO is not an MMO!

That aside….

SWTOR. The misstep was Bioware assuming that single player mechanics would translate well into a massively multiplayer environment. It’s a mistake most MMO designers seem to make, but Bioware just seemed to make the mistake on a much larger scale than everyone else. I mean right off the bat, they chose an engine that cannot support a large amount of players. It’s technically not even an MMO!

But then you have the primary focus of the game being a single player story. /facepalm. Then you have massive vertical progression, making it really hard for people to play together and destroying the pvp experience for newbies. Not to mention that within a week of hitting endgame, your gear had made 99% of content trivial and pointless, limiting you to 1 or 2 raids. Then you have the complete lack of diversity, killing replay value and longevity.

That’s all then compounded by an endgame that was basically non-existent at launch, then just ridiculously easy for the first two raids. By the time they started adding in some actual challenge to endgame with their 3rd raid, most people had quit. But even then, it was still primarily gear-based and very easy.

Then Ilum. Throughout dev, we’d been promised that PvP would be equally important to PvE. The devs from Mythic were helping to build TOR! Fucking awesome! But wait…..slideshow with more than 30 people in the zone……oh yeh, we’re also not gonna give you renown for killing people, driving everyone back to the warzones.

TOR has been a clusterfuck from start to finish. If it didn’t have the IP, it would have been shut down within the first year.


It is like there was a game jounalism convention where they all agreed “from now on we are to label all multiplayer game as mmo, and then ride off the objections storm untill they give up”
Mmorpg dot com also suddenly started doing it, and if anyone should know…


Hmm. No. You missed on SWTOR. There was a mishap, but it is not the “wheel” you describe.

Net, net, the mishap was that Bioware did not have a significant end game. There was no wheel. The devs themselves have admitted that they miscalculated the amount of time players took to cap and therefore were not prepared when a large influx of player were left with nothing but one buggy Operation to run at end game.

So, what happened? A chain reaction. More and more players capped. More and more players ran around the fleet with nothing to do, and more and more players become dissatisfied and left the game. It was two months after launch, two freaking months, before there was some relief with additional content but by this time, the floodgates could not be completely closed as the Lemming effect continued.

The reason this happened? EA’s purchase of Bioware. In an instant, the time table for launch was an accelerating brick wall, the vision for the game was thrown out the window, and layoffs occurred. Yup, a re-org and a layoffs at the most critical time in the games life. It was a perfect shitshow.

The game survived and the players the stayed benefited in the long run, but the vision with regard to what the game was to deliver on an ongoing basis, disappeared. The maturity of what endgame was supposed to be, including ongoing individual class stories, was never realized.

Yup a mishap. But it wasn’t the same old, same old. The games ultimate goals were changed and therefore never achieved.

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I agree D3 made misteps, but its made bucketloads of money and is far from dead.

I am interested to see what the Diablo game they have in development is tho – they’ve made a ton of hires and nothing has been announced. D4 or an MMO i guess.

David Goodman

I think D3 would do much better and compare more favorably to Path of Exile if Blizzard actually updated it. Rolling “seasons” are something that should be interlaced with new content, not the sole and only focus.

I like the gameplay loop abd the classes and the setting. For a single play through, I even like the story. (Very little holds my attention through multiple plays though(. But… something. Anything. Please. With your product.

The necromancer class was…okay. Fun. But when you get past that, youre back to nothing new.

Guess if its not WoW or an esport, Blizzard isn’t interested. They do those well. Diablo? Not so much. And poor, poor Starcraft.


I have no opinion or care about most of these games, but as for no 8..

The funny thing is that what killed Diablo III isn’t really any one decision. It’s not the real-money auction house, which was a terrible idea that should have died in design but then did die with the first expansion. It’s the fact that Blizzard has displayed that they don’t know what this game actually is

With you so far, but your conclusion for failure is just .. well more or less the complete opposite; being online and evolving is the only thing that keeps the game alive.

What happened to Diablo3 is that it took a continuos loop in the current Blizzard tumbler, that slowly standardized and normalized all game mechanics to the point of utter blandness.
Now it is just a linear boring grind. One of the worst moves was of course personal loot instead of RNG and trading, and dynamic level scaling is also a killer of games.

You can’t make a sequel to a game in a successful genre and then remove all the things that makes players play those games.. you can evolve it and change some systems but if you remove the core.. Math of Exile stayed true to the core of arpg, and therefore it is a superior game.

Sales numbers doesn’t say if a game is good/successful, only a relative calculation of potential numbers, relative marketing/developer powers and userbase etc could say something about that, and in that light Diablo3 is a failure because it could have been much more had it not been ruined.

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Legend Of Vinny T

I often wonder how Champions Online would have turned out if Cryptic didn’t have to switch lore mid-development after Marvel backed out of the project. I’ll bet a bunch of endgame content based on major Marvel villains got binned, not to mention the supporting stories along the leveling path. All we were left with for years was the Nemesis Confrontation team lair. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if it took them six years or so to write a Mechanon story because they had to avoid any similarity to an Ultron plot from the Marvel days. (Oh, who am I kidding. It took six years because Cryptic committed to Perpetual’s original deadline for STO, shipped it incomplete, then started Neverwinter while still back-filling STO’s missing content. It’s missteps that didn’t have to happen all the way down.)


heh the only game I play from the list is pokemon go. I think it’s a pretty good game for what it is.
And I’m really looking forward to play their Harry Dotter game.

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Diablo 3 would have been considered a larger success if the little indie that could, Path of Exile, had never been created. I don’t think the creative team at Blizzard had the will to keep up. They certainly have the talent – but in this case lacked motivation imho.

But it is still a raging success.

As for the rest – I don’t really care about the past any longer. I’m ready for an upstart to take WoW’s crown as a complete game most people are energized by. I do not think that game is possible in the current climate.