Perfect Ten: MMOs that aimed at the future… and missed

    
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The Grand Magistrix has power over time.

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.

Into the sunset.

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.

We'll just leave this here, then.

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.

Seriously? Huh.

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.

Less than radical, really.

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.

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 justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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Ben Stone

Also I like the option of in game voice if its done well. For randoms outside my guild I don’t really feel like doing the whole ‘here’s our discord details’ thing. Its easier just to turn on in-game voice.

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Ben Stone

I think Everquest 2 takes the cake for this one, where Sony assumed that single processor speeds would keep increasing and put all the strain on the CPU, and totally misjudged the move to multi-cores and fancy GPUs.

The game has remained pretty poorly optimised for its entire life.

Developers – make your games with room to expand, but don’t rely on future tech to make it look good. It needs to look good now.

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mysecretid

The big problem that Champions Online had at launch had to do with the tone of the game.

Basically it played like a superhero game designed by people whose strongest idea of the superhero genre came from the campy Adam West Batman TV show.

Initially, the game felt very “cartoony” and camp — and there was always an air of the ridiculous, and of farce, running through the writing.

As City of Heroes and the Marvel movies and the DC TV shows have demonstrated, fantastical genres always tread on the very razor’s edge of suspension of disbelief, so it’s important to treat the subject matter essentially seriously, because as soon as you allow mockery or self-mockery into the mix, the whole thing is suddenly revealed as ridiculous, and any audience engagement beyond comedy collapses.

The Deadpool movies are an unique exception because the character of Deadpool is something of a meta-narrator (who even talks to the audience) and something of a madman. As such, the world around him can continue to take itself seriously, even while Deadpool (and the audience) do not.

Much of the worst camp comedy has been downplayed or cut from the Champions Online game since its launch. The last time I looked in, the newer game content had moved away from camp and farce entirely.

But for those of us who came to Champions Online hoping to find City of Heroes 2.0 from Cryptic, the tone-shift between the two game was a literal game-breaker.

My take anyway,

Cheers,

harbinger_kyleran
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harbinger_kyleran

Runes of Magic was a decent WOW clone but F2P was a misnomer. Never before or since have I run into a MMORPG with a more blatant P2W cash shop that was both expensive and mandatory, even for end game PVE.

Monthly rentals of inventory space and mounts with no option to buy at a fixed price even.

Left a really bad taste for anything called F2P.

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Jack Pipsam

I’d argue that integrated voice chat helped DDO immensely.
It was the reason I got my first computer microphone.

Line
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Line

What about Vanguard and a few others that expected processors to become faster and faster, instead of going multi cores?

That was such a terrible idea to hope for brute force to fix hideous optimization and plain badly coded games.

In the list, it’s not even necessarily bad decisions, sometimes the market is more complicated and volatile than expected.
Take superheroes, Marvel movies are craaazy popular, but comics are drowning in a swamp somewhere; very far from Europe and Asia apparently.
It’s much more than just “superheroes” that made the MCU successful, as DC can attest.

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Ben Stone

That was EQ2, not Vanguard. Vanguard was just a processing mess with no real excuse.

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Robert Mann

Voice chat is left as it is because… well, imagine that you have to either mute and miss it all, or listen to the raging moronic drivel of world chat as people troll. Yeah, there’s a reason nobody cares much about integrated voice chat at the moment.

Now, IF we had a real-life enforcement change, with consequences for those who display such behavior that made it rare, and IF there was no global or regional chat, but only local, THEN voice chat in a game as a thing might work well enough. I’m still not certain I care, as local area text would still be fine.

It isn’t so much that voice chat was the problem, but rather that the problems with voice chat were never solved. That is a miss in it’s own way, just a little different than what was stated in the article.

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Legend Of Vinny T

CO wasn’t “far too early”, especially when it launched five years after City of Heroes. Don’t look at 2009, look at 2012.

– The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises made superheroes the dominant force at the box office. Cryptic should have been ready for gamers seeking a taste of that experience in an MMO.

– NCSoft lost their damn minds and went scorched earth on CoH and Paragon Studios rather than fix any management issues they thought they had. If Cryptic were ready for those MCU and Nolan Batman fans, they would have been ready for a sudden influx of Paragon City refugees as well.

– Cryptic horribly overcommitted to NW’s upcoming launch and STO’s first major expansion, leaving a skeleton crew to keep CO one notch above maintenance mode. They were ready for nothing, and by the time they formed Cryptic North to salvage things, all those incoming players had already turned around and left.

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Roger Christie

Yeah, CO wasn’t too early, it was just not very good. Especially when held up next to CoH.

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Bryan Correll

Yeah, timing isn’t everything. Look at Marvel Heroes. When it launched the MCU already had seven films out and is still running strong.

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Crowe

Roger nails it. I remember trying it out during beta/launch and thinking “this pretty much sucks. why would anyone play this instead of CoH?” And then I went back to CoH.

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Bruno Brito

Most of the games in this list died because of incompetence.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Soooo much correlation != causation in this article. Sub models have been failing due to bad games. Give me value and I will spend. Disrespect my time or intelligence and watch those funds dry right up.

A la carte games haven’t done themselves many favors either. Players are getting wise to predatory business practices and walking away.

Line
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Line

But good sub games died too.
Hell, WoW bled subs when it was good (and when it was bad too, but the market itself fell off cliff in general).

Predatory business practices are not getting shunned by players, it’s the complete opposite.
The worst ones like Fifa prosper like never before; and obviously the mobile industry is a billion times worse than any MMO game, and it’s literally hundreds of times bigger than the entire MMO genre population combined.

Economic models change, and it has nothing to do with quality.

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MassivelyMacD

” Give me value and I will spend.” Yep, but not on a regular basis when my life has changed so I cannot predict whether I will be able to make use of it or not.
I will spend WHEN I can play, not SO THAT I can play.

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Slaasher

I hear this argument a lot but for me (despite me age and other responsibilities), give me a game that is fun and engaging and the $15/ month I spend on it is still way less than any other form of entertainment that I take part in.

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Rheem Octuris

No mention of EverQuest II’s graphical future-proofing gone wrong.

Also the in-game voice chat in said title was actually quite good, a lot of guilds used it regularly. As is OverWatch’s.