The Game Archaeologist: The rebirth of The Realm Online


Debuting in 1996, The Realm Online (or, as it is sometimes shortened, The Realm) became one of the first online RPGs to overlay graphics on top of its MUD core. The game’s flat 2-D graphics were simplistic, even for the time, but the novelty of the massively multiplayer environment sparked enough curiosity among players to keep it populated and running for 22 years now.

It’s no secret that The Realm has fallen into near-obscurity, particularly with the current owners performing little in the way of development or promotion. Emerging from the emulator scene, Jordan Neville and a group of fellow IT geeks took it upon themselves to help The Realm experience the rebirth that it sorely needed.

This is coming to a head with June’s re-launch of The Realm Online, a new and improved version of the classic MMORPG that will run in parallel with the older and largely abandoned edition. We sat down with Neville to talk about the challenges and delights of giving The Realm another shot at life — and why you may want to check it out for yourself.

Massively OP: Can you introduce yourself and your team, and your team’s experience with game development?

Jordan Neville: My name is Jordan and I’m part of Rat Labs LLC who acquired the rights to develop and maintain The Realm Online! Our team is a rag-tag group of passionate IT professionals with deep roots in The Realm. We officially met during the early days of the MistWalkers private realm server just over a year ago. I would say none of us have formal game development experience, however we do have extensive software development experience.

So what’s been going on with The Realm that’s necessitated a “reboot” by your team?

The Realm is a unique game. The loyalty and passion of players completely surprised us we launched the Mist Walkers private server. The server gained a lot of popularity and that eventually led to us engaging in conversations with Norseman Games to acquire the license.

From our perspective, this is an entirely passion-driven project. All of us have such fond memories of The Realm, so having a chance to put our spin on it and bring it to a new audience of gamers is a tantalizing opportunity. We hit a point on the Mist Walkers private server where we were investing a tremendous amount of our free time to keep pumping new content into the game, as well as running events and fixing bugs. I think we all knew that The Realm was uniquely positioned from an artistic and gameplay perspective to be ported to a new generation of players but without an official license or reboot it would be difficult to justify the time and energy to see that vision through.

Have you had any contact with Stephen Nichols or know anything about his proposed project to reboot the game?

Stephen is, of course, a legend in The Realm community. We have nothing but the utmost respect for his efforts in the past. Unfortunately, we haven’t had any contact with him and have no information on his spiritual successor project.

How did your team get the blessing to go ahead with a licensed reboot?

The game was historically run by Norseman Games, which is who we acquired a license from. They are a family-owned company who had a passion for The Realm as well. In September 2017, one of the family members got ill and unfortunately passed away.

Although we were technically running a private server illegally (without license) during that time, we felt compelled to help out. We discovered that the Norseman family had started a GoFundMe to help them through this transition.

It made sense at the time to set up some reward structure for players in exchange for donations: they would receive cosmetic items. The GoFundMe took off and eventually raised over $2500. It was never our intention to use this as a means to engage in conversations at the time, but this inevitably opened up the lines of communication between us and Norseman Games.

Why is The Realm so special to you? Why is it worth all of this effort to reboot it?

Every member of our team would share a slightly different version but it all comes back to Nostalgia for us. There will always be memories of the “first ever MMORPG” and the amazing interactions we had with other people. At the time, the vastness and interconnectedness of the world was brand new. But, at its core it is a charming game with a timeless Sierra-esque art style and surprisingly solid mechanics. It has an undeniably magnetic presence to anyone who has played it before, and it’s a solid foundation to build on.

For us, it’s about sharing the world of The Realm Online with as many people as possible. We love this game and we know others will too!

How will the relaunched version be different than the one we’ve had for a couple decades now?

The vision is to keep the soul of the game intact but change the core mechanics to keep it fresh and up to date with modern standards:

  • A complete redesign of melee and spell damage calculations helps break existing stale meta builds
  • Redone itemization to provide a more linear and diverse progression
  • New and existing dungeons redesigned for a more consistent leveling experience
  • Allowing characters to “prestige” and reset back to level one to go through the journey all over again

There’s so much more we have done, and so much left to do! We are always grateful for player feedback and they have been crucial thus far to get us to this stage.

Is the old version being shut down or fully abandoned?

The old version is not being shut down and is being maintained and hosted in parallel. The nostalgic factor of The Realm is huge and shutting down over 20 years of history would be a travesty to ourselves and to the players! Although development is primarily happening on the new server, we have already fixed many bugs on the legacy server and are adding smaller content patches.

Our vision for the legacy server is to be as true to the source material as possible.

Will current players of The Realm be able to transfer their characters over to the rebooted server?

The rebooted server is a fresh start. Although we offer name reservations to ensure you can carry forward your *identity*, no characters, items or anything else will carry over to the new server.

Are there technical limitations that you’re hitting that’s keeping your team from implementing features and content?

Absolutely! We’ve done a lot with the code that we have. Unfortunately the client is built in a 16-bit engine without an easy upgrade path. This has caused a lot of pain for the players and us equally.

This summer we will shift focus to redeveloping the client from scratch in a brand new engine. This is to help us add new features and also expand the reach that the game has currently. After that, we don’t anticipate any technical hurdles.

How is your team ensuring finances to support the project?

This is a passion-driven project. Rat Labs LLC are all IT professionals so we deal with all the development, maintenance, and hosting costs ourselves. Additionally, we have strong volunteer staff to help keep the game running smoothly and to run in game events. This keeps the costs relatively low, at least for now.

What do you enjoy doing in The Realm when you log in to play?

When I log into my GM character, I love engaging with the community and posing hypothetical game design. Some of our best content has come through open communication! When I’m playing on my regular characters I’m usually dungeon crawling looking for that prized loot. The entire staff are player first and foremost, so we love being in game fighting alongside with everyone!

What is the most popular content among the community?

As for popular content, there has been a lot of additions — so it would be difficult to pick one out. We’ve added new dungeons and one of them, called The Foundry, was especially popular. We’ve tried hard to break mindless grinding in the same dungeon over and over, so seeing diversity in dungeon and open world hunting is one of our health metrics. When players aren’t hunting, I can guarantee they are embracing their inner “townie” in East Leinster.

Is this project strictly for previous and current fans of The Realm, or do you anticipate that this will reach out to modern MMO gamers?

It’s driven by the existing and current players — for sure. Our vision is to bring The Realm to new platforms and to a new audience. We believe that The Realm has a solid core that all players will love.

What is your advice for those who have never played The Realm and are trying to figure out how to get into this game?

Talk to the community. We are a friendly bunch and I’m sure you will find players are happy to help you. If you need information check out our site, and if you need help or want to talk, swing by our Discord!

Thanks for your time, Jordan, and good luck with the project!

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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