Hindsight is 20/20. Unless you’re blind in one eye from nostalgia, in which case hindsight is 0/20. In any case, you understand that it’s easy to look back upon MMO history and announce where things went wrong and how those mistakes could have been avoided or corrected. We have the luxury of time and perspective with these things.
Yet it is also an enjoyable exercise to play the occasional edition of Alternative Gaming History. It’s the activity where you start with “What if…” and then go on from there to imagine different possibilities and outcomes. Today I want to engage with that by looking back at 10 launched MMORPGs that failed for different reasons and imagine how they could have succeeded if they had more love, time, talent, and money to back up their endeavors.
You might (or might not) remember Wild West Online as the MMO that came out of nowhere, launched way too soon, had a critical identity crisis, and lacked certain core options and features (such as, you know, female characters). Currently the title is all but dead, with a population in the single digits and a supposed relaunch on the way.
Obviously, this title was developed and pushed out the door far too quickly and didn’t know what it wanted to be. Yet I hold to the notion that an open world western MMO could be a big success if done right. WWO might have had a chance with a much longer gestation period, a deeper focus on PvE, and ovaries. I know that I was hoping against hope that this game would be somewhat playable instead of the mess we all knew it was going to be.
The right idea at the wrong time, done in the wrong way, and in the wrong engine: This is the legacy that is TSO. Creating a social MMO with a robust housing system from one of the most popular PC game franchises of all time is a pretty smart idea. The problem was that The Sims Online looked dated from the get-go compared to the 3-D graphics of The Sims 2, it had no semi-autonomous characters, and it lacked compelling progression. With better graphics and a deeper look at the core design and gameplay loop, TSO could have been a smash hit with long legs. It still could, if EA would consider taking the series back in this direction!
Unlike a lot of other titles on this list, Champions is still running and presumably will be for a while yet to come. Even so, it’s hard to argue with the notion that the game failed to live up to its pedigree and potential. This was especially evident when City of Heroes shut down and those refugees didn’t swarm en masse to Cryptic’s follow-up superhero MMO.
What could have made Champs a success? A better free-to-play model that would allow anyone to build a character they wanted, for starters. Can we agree that this archetype stuff is nonsense? The pace of combat was a sticking point for others, especially with so many powers that were hard to sort out and use properly. I would say that ultimately this game needed a really good coating of polish and didn’t get enough of it, and that hurt it in the long run.
We’ve been over this one many times, because the downfall of WildStar has been the topic of many gamer’s discussion in the past few years. In short, Carbine should have had a more unified and consistent direction, ditched the “get hardcore, cupcake!” attitude to focus more on casual play, and embraced free-to-play from the start. What’s painful is that there’s so much left in this game that really did work, and work well, but when the ship has a giant hole in its hull, it’s going to sink no matter how pretty the insides.
If you look at MMOs over the past two decades, you’ll start to notice that a disproportionate number of scifi titles were canceled compared to fantasy. Scifi simply has a more difficult time gaining a wide audience, and Firefall — pretty and actiony though it was — felt the sting of this association. Plus, it really didn’t help that it initially aimed for a PvP market and then abruptly pivoted to PvE when that wasn’t working out. In another universe, Firefall would have had better leadership, no bus, and a PvE design from Day One to see success.
6. Tabula Rasa
We can point a lot of fingers — rightly, even — at NCsoft for this fiasco, but if we are all being honest, Tabula Rasa was pretty hobbled by the time it released anyway. The project did a complete ground-up redesign along the way and didn’t have much of a vision or a hook on which to capture the imagination of players. Even the name was pretty… vague for a war across the stars.
Richard Garriott spent a lot of player capital with this one, and those flocking to it hoping to see Ultima Online 2 or some other great masterpiece were left confused. It just wasn’t that good of a game. It was adequate in an era where it had to be magnificent. Either the team should have stuck with the first iteration or gone with a third, is what I’m saying.
I… I hardly know what to say with this one. Heck, we hardly knew what this game was supposed to be, mostly due to Daybreak’s spectacular mishandling of it and the collapse of EverQuest Next. Yet Landmark could have worked with a better combat system and a way to make and market this game as a player-created space that was ever-evolving. Perhaps Daybreak needed to have more faith and put more effort into this game after the end of EQN to really get it going. I am sure there are players out there who would have loved to have seen that happen.
We’ve certainly learned that it’s not always the best idea to make and operate a sequel to an MMO that you’re already running. You’re cannibalizing your audience and fracturing your community, and no one wants that. But AC2 might have worked if it was tied together, somehow, to AC1 rather than separated from it. What if players could time travel between eras and take characters between both games? What if there were story arcs that spanned both AC1 and 2? It would have made AC2 a fundamentally different game, but it might have given that sequel a fighting chance.
9. Free Realms
We’re just dithering in the pool of Daybreak’s cast-offs, aren’t we? John Smedley said that Free Realms was notoriously difficult to monetize due to its primary audience being children with no credit cards. Yet I think that games like Roblox and Wizard101 would disagree here. Perhaps if Free Realms was marketed more as a family MMO and given kids more ability to create their own content then the dollars would have poured in.
This is an odd game to end the list, but I thought it served as a good example of how console MMOs need to expand beyond just one platform in order to survive. EQOA wasn’t ever going to be a blockbuster, but if it had come out on more than just the PS2, it might have grown a healthier audience and prompted the studio to take it to the next generation of consoles instead of leaving it to die on outdated hardware.