The future is a weird place. It’s similar to the present, but it has a very different outlook on the world, and it wants what it wants. More importantly, it’s something you have to plan for when you start developing an MMO; you’re not really making a game for this year, you’re making a game for the environment when it launches in five years or whatever. And you can only guess at what it looks like.
Sometimes, people guess wrong.
The titles listed below were all games aiming at the future, one that made sense when they started development and took solid aim at something that the team thought was going to be big. Unfortunately, they also shot at the future and missed. Sometimes they aimed at the wrong target, sometimes they landed too soon, but all of them planned for the future and did not actually turn out to be planning for the right future.
1. City of Steam and no client download
You may or may not remember City of Steam, but it had an interesting premise even before you get to its “gimmick.” Yes, the whole schtick here was that the game was playable through your browser thanks to Unity and the copious powers of modern computers. No bothering with a client download, just log in and go! What could go wrong?
Several things, really, but I think part of what went wrong was the assumption that downloading a client was going to be an impediment to playing games. It turned out that what put most people off of MMOs wasn’t downloads so much as subscription fees and account signups, and especially when you have Steam to just load everything it’s not really all that hard to convince someone to download the title. So that particular estimation didn’t really help the title.
2. Every game with integrated voice chat
Ugh, this one stuck around for so long, and it’s kind of a sister trope to the above. World of Warcraft made a big deal of its own integrated voice chat when it was developed, I recall Cryptic making a big deal of its own integration, and there were at least a few other games I have since forgotten proudly announcing that now you don’t have to download some other voice chat program like Teamspeak or Ventrilo! Isn’t that much better?
Actually, it turns out that Teamspeak and Ventrilo are just kind of awful and Discord sort of ate their lunch. Voice chat is more common for consoles, but voice chat is also hard-coded into most consoles these days, so the appeal of built-in voice chat has kind of gone nowhere. Ah, well.
3. Champions Online and superheroes
Here’s a case of a title aiming perfectly at the future zeitgeist and landing far too early. Champions Online released in 2009. It had its issues, but I’m willing to bet that those issues would have been greatly reduced if it had released, say, three years later when everyone thought The Avengers was the coolest thing ever. It released when superheroes were a thing, yes, but it was actually something of a lull compared to the crop of films over the past six years.
Remember, just because you guess the future correctly doesn’t mean anything if you release too early for it to matter. Just look at the Newton.
4. Global Agenda and the shooter MMO style
The sad thing about Global Agenda is that on paper, it has a lot of the same stuff that Warframe does, and we all know how well Warframe is doing. So I honestly group this into the same category as Champions Online; it’s not that the game was bad or that it didn’t predict what people would enjoy, but it predicted it too early.
Of course, who even knows if anyone will remember Global Agenda at all in the future. I no longer have any idea what’s going on with Hi-Rez Studios and its whole subsidiary thing.
5. WildStar and the subs-but-not-really model
Give Carbine some credit, because the studio correctly predicted that a model wherein you could buy subscription time for in-game money would work. But not so much credit, because it worked for World of Warcraft, not WildStar. This felt like a compromise model to fix the known problem that free-to-play was the wave of the future while still trying to whisper “but subscriptions will work for us.”
Then again, maybe it could have worked if the game hadn’t had so many issues it looked like an old-style comic book store. We’ll never know now.
6. Hellgate: London and the online offline game
Hey, look what’s back in the news again! Hellgate: London had an oddly prescient idea of a game that was both a single-player offline game and a big sprawling multiplayer game; it just had no idea how to pull that off in terms of business models, server support, game development, or anything else. And so it got flubbed badly.
Now, however, we have both Grand Theft Auto Online and Diablo III to serve as examples of how this particular sort of style can work. And we have Hellgate shambling back to life every couple of years. That part isn’t related to guessing wrong about the future; it’s just weird.
7. Runes of Magic and big-budget free-to-play
I remember that when I first started working in this field, Runes of Magic was the first of a hip new vanguard of big-budget free-to-play titles that gave you everything you’d see in big MMO productions but for free. That was going to be the wave of the future. And, in its defense, the developers were entirely right about that being the future; they just didn’t guess that the real change was going to be every title being free-to-play.
That… will kind of kill you right out of the gate if your selling point is “Blizzard-like quality, but we’re free” and suddenly everyone else is also free. It wasn’t an error of timing or even a failure to guess the future correctly, just being a little too late to get a critical mass before everything changed.
8. Aion and East/West co-design
Back when Aion was still fresh and new, one of its big points of advertising was that this was a game to marry both Korean design sensibilities with American design approaches. It would be a game that merged the DNA of both styles and produced the perfect game for a worldwide audience!
And we did get a game that merged design sensibilities and enjoys popularity in both Eastern locales and Western ones. It’s Final Fantasy XIV. Aion… did not manage to pull that off, and has had a number of other issues that have not really relented. It does not appear to have been the wave of the future.
9. Albion Online and mobile-only
This is one of my favorite bits. See, the developers of Albion Online were absolutely certain that everything was going to be mobile, the game was developed for mobile, and its mobile nature was a big selling point. Unfortunately, this was another case of aiming at the wrong target; it turned out that both Albion’s playerbase and gaming as a whole did not feature a complete shift to mobile.
But the developers noticed that in time and pulled back. The game is out now, and it’s doing all right for itself without the stigma of having been planned as a mobile title. Yes, it predicted the future incorrectly, but the future-facing gimmick of the title wasn’t all it had; when that turned out to be wrong, there was the opportunity to course-correct.
10. Radical Heights and the future where people wanted to play Radical Heights
All right, you could argue that this was a bad guess about the present, but I’ll go ahead and categorize it as a bad guess about the very immediate future. Before, you know, there was no future to guess about.