The Game Archaeologist: The Chronicles of Spellborn

    
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Hey! Hey you! Yeah, you the I’m-so-bored-with-all-of-these-MMOs gamer! You’ve been grousing about for years how MMOs never take risks, never innovate, and are merely content to rehash the same-old fantasy tropes that were stale even when World of Warcraft launched, right? Yes, we at Massively OP saw your poorly spelled Reddit post on that subject, thank you.

Well, what if I were to tell you that there’s an MMO that bucks the clichés? It’s true! Imagine an MMO that exists in a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. Imagine that combat isn’t merely hotbar button mashing but tactics mixed with positioning. Imagine that you can create your character to look any way you want from the onset instead of having to collect certain pieces of gear. Imagine an immersive world that is a delight to the eyes and ears.

Got all that? Want to play it? Well, you can’t. That game was The Chronicles of Spellborn, and since you and pretty much everyone else on the planet ignored it, it tanked in 2010 after less than a year of operation. Yet for its lackluster run, Spellborn has been strongly mourned by those who saw tremendous potential in it and who keep creating internet petitions to bring it back. Because petitions change everything. Today we’re going to take a look back at an MMO that took the path less traveled.

The promise of player freedom

In the mid-2000s, a small group of developers in Denmark were disatisfied with the current state of MMOs — and they decided to do something about it. The devs formed Spellborn NV, a studio that was dedicated to the singular purpose of making an online role-playing game that would buck the trends: The Chronicles of Spellborn.

Marketing and PR Manager Marco van Haren said that this project was a revolution against the status quo of fantasy MMOs: “Some of the current MMO conventions were thrown out of the window and replaced by our take on things. The end result is a big NO to Orcs, Elves and useless time sinks, and a big YES for player freedom and the emphasis on player skills.”

With a miniscule budget, an office full of passion, and a mid-size team of around 50 people, The Chronicles of Spellborn took shape. “We wanted to break away from the over used vanilla fantasy setting,” said Lead Game Designer Coen Neessen in 2010, “and we were really keen on making the combat more action-oriented and closer to an FPS rather than traditional MMORPGs.”

Even with this unique vision — or perhaps because of it — Spellborn NV had a devil of a time securing publishers who were willing to finance and promote the title. Eventually, Frogster agreed to handle Spellborn in Asia and some of Europe, Mindscape handled publishing for the rest of Europe, and Acclaim stepped in at the last minute to run it in North America.

The struggle to secure both publishers and finances took its toll on development, prompting the team to launch before it was fully ready. The Chronicles of Spellborn released in Europe on November 27, 2008, and in North America on April 23, 2009. North America’s launch was particularly troubled, as Acclaim hampered the subscription model with the unnecessary step of purchasing “Acclaim coins” at various rates to buy game time.

“It was hard for people to figure out just how much the game cost and whether or not they were getting a decent deal,” West Karana blogger Tipa wrote. Penny Arcade even jumped onto the controversial business model with a comic that spoofed the convoluted setup. At least there was a sort of unlimited free trial that allowed players to progress through the early zone before requiring a sub.

Unfortunately, the rocky launch and twisted business model would signal only the start of Spellborn’s troubles.

Survivors of the apocalypse

So what did The Chronicles of Spellborn do differently to elicit such strong testimonies from fans even today? For starters, the game’s setting wasn’t some idyllic generic fantasy country but a post-apocalyptic landscape where survivors lived inside “shards” of their former world a thousand years after the shattering. Between the shards was a magical Deadspell Storm through which intrepid adventurers could travel in order to reach the other remnants of society. Essentially, it was an entire game where you existed underground with nary an open sky in sight.

Players would pick from one of two races and one of three main classes before stepping into the role of a newbie militia member in the city of Hawksmouth. In a cool divergence from the standard, Spellborn allowed players to customize their character’s wardrobe from the get-go, allowing them to keep a certain look while swapping out sigils for stats. From there, they would need to go on quests, discover secrets of the world, and grow through nine sub-classes in order to become true heroes. There was even initial talk about time travel quests to go back to the world prior to the shattering, although those never came to be.

From the start, Spellborn simply looked, sounded, and felt incredibly dissimilar from other fantasy MMOs. Even compared to today’s titles, its Unreal Engine 2.5-powered graphics are quite evocative and stylized, with locales that were alien to the Tolkien crowd.

Perhaps the most controversial and unique aspect of the game was its combat system. Instead of the standard hotbar and tab-target fights, Spellborn used a skill deck to construct a “rotating hotbar” in which only (up to) five of a player’s skills were available at any one time. To both set up and use the hotbar properly required a bit of a learning curve, as it was possible to find yourself without moves in the middle of the game’s reticule combat. Adding to the controversy was Spellborn’s higher-than-average difficulty setting where fights would last longer than players encountered in other MMOs.

Another odd element of the game was how it divvied up experience. You got standard experience for finishing quests that went toward skills and levels, but combat also netted Personal Experience Points (PEP). PEP contributed to a persistent buff. Rise up in PEP levels, and your character would fight better. However, die once, and you’d lose an entire PEP level, decreasing your potency.

Abandoned to rot

As cool as Spellborn sounded on paper and much as it was revered by some portions of its playerbase, let’s be honest here: It had a string of lackluster launches and failed to catch on with the larger MMO community. It wasn’t an instant bomb, as it did garner some very nice reviews, but the title’s unique slant, higher difficulty level, bad launch decisions, and a lack of strong marketing wounded it deeply.

Two months after Spellborn released in North America, developer Spellborn NV announced that it was bankrupt. Acclaim stepped in to promise that the subscription title would be redeveloped as a free-to-play title: “The development is planned to carry into 2010 and will include several enhancements and changes to the current game.”

The Chronicles of Spellborn dropped its subscription and went completely free in August 2009, allowing players to enjoy the game while Acclaim and Frogster worked on what was now being dubbed “Spellborn Version Two.” While this gave hope to players for a future, it would be the last positive word that they would hear on the subject.

The publishers of Spellborn went quiet in the successive months, a period of uncertainty that was shattered when the MMO was abruptly shuttered in Japan during March 2010. Frogster followed this move by closing the title in the rest of Asia that June.

With the development team bankrupt and MIA, Spellborn was left to rot in the US. Acclaim silently abandoned its promise to convert the title to F2P, electing instead to merely keep the servers on while the website fell apart. By the summer, players could barely log into the game, as client downloads didn’t work from the main site and passwords often required resetting for each and every session.

Spellborn became a money sink that no company wanted. Acclaim sold the rights to Playdom, which promptly turned around and sold it to Disney. Frantic players tried to contact all three companies to see if there was anyone in charge who could help, but they were met with silence. That silence was broken to announce that the game would be shut down at the start of September, and after a false shutdown in mid-August, it went offline by the end of August 2010. Since then, all previously involved companies have been quiet on the game and no attempts by players to petition it back into existence have met with any success.

The end of the end of a world

It’s hard to argue that The Chronicles of Spellborn was a flawless masterpiece, but its proponents have championed it as an incredible effort despite its imperfections. Lead Content Designer Vincent Leeuw admitted that Spellborn was simply too ambitious with not enough resources to back those dreams up: “[It] tried to innovate on too many fronts at the same time.”

Could it come back? There’s a lot to say in favor of such a notion. Spellborn was beloved, it was unique, and it had immense potential. The thought of a resurrection makes one think that it would be sure cheaper than creating a new MMO from scratch, although serious improvements would have to be made. I would play it. Would you?

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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Pietro Cristofoli

I would. I miss this game.

Reader
Desiggn Freek

Chronicles of Spellborn captured my imagination like no other MMO. I just loved everything about it.

It was gorgeous, filled with incredible lore and vibe. And the combat was just awesome; the enemy AI was so vastly superior to any other MMO out there at the time. Mobs would actually KITE YOU. they used skills like players would. The class skills were very interesting too – and synergized well. Testing different skill decks was endless fun.

And the music… oh that music!! ethereal and wonderful and pure magic
I could keep on gushing about how fucking much i was obsessed with this game.

And yes, I supported it with my money. Today, with an in-game cosmetic shop (AS MUCH AS I HATE THEM) it would thrive.

kjempff
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kjempff

I tried it in alpha or beta or something. Didn’t leave enough of an impression that I can remember anything about the game, other than my character looked like a dna crossing experiment gone wrong.

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Brown Jenkin

Weirdly I was super into this game before launch, I’m not sure what else was going on around the time it eventually launched but I ended up not even trying it :/ wish I had!

Alyn
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Alyn

the game looked promising, back then

PerfectStorm85
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PerfectStorm85

Some people are re-launching the game. They are very close to release it to the public, and already have a closed beta running with a server. If you never had the chance to play this game, or you want to bring back these nostalgic feelings, then feel free to join.

They can be found at discord, and at spellborn.org

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Oleg Chebeneev

Good to know, thanks

hurbster
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hurbster

Erm, those screenshots do look a bit generic to me.

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Kickstarter Donor
Dezmo

I really enjoyed this when it was out. It was so different. Shame it got abandoned.

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Hikari Kenzaki

Any fantasy game while City of Heroes was live? Yeah, that was never going to happen for me.

Though this is one of those games that gave us the early “F2P is a death sentence” paranoia.

Reader
Anstalt

Unfortunately I never played it. It was released when LotRO was still doing well and also around the same time as WAR. For me, Warhammer is a much bigger draw than an unknown IP and I couldn’t wait to finally play a well done orc!

I do remember quite a few PvPers of the time recommending the game due to it’s combat. I watched quite a few videos of it back thene and whilst it didn’t appeal to me (I still loved tab-target and tons of skills), looking back it does seem to be the only action combat system that has ever offered depth! That is something modern developers could learn from as I wont touch an MMO unless it has a deep combat system and none of the current action combat games have achieved that.

Finally, Spellborn NV said they were trying to break away from the typical high fantasy setting by going post-apoc. It is my firm opinion that as of yet, we haven’t had an MMO set in a good (western) high-fantasy world. There have been a few eastern MMOs that have achieved great things in a high fantasy world (though I didn’t like the mechanics, the worlds were undeniably awesome) but nothing from the west.

For some reason in the west, our developers seem to think we either want highly stylised, childish high fantasy (WoW, WAR, Wildstar etc), dark and generic high fantasy (e.g. RIFT) or low fantasy (lotro, darkfall etc). Where is my bright and colourful high fantasy?!?!? Where are my crazy races, floating cities, trees a mile high, underwater cities and beautiful vistas? Why can’t I have bright and colourful high fantasy? Does it have to be aimed at children, or aimed at people who like hanging out in depressing locations?

butterpanda888
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butterpanda888

How was WAR childish? And how is Rift dark? And the things you asked for are all in WoW. WoW is humorous for sure, but I wouldn’t say childish.

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Cinaminson

It’s probably the graphics style. Cause ya know, stylized is “childish” and realistic is “dark”.

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Anstalt

As cinaminson says below, its the art style combined with the tone of the game.

The art style is extremely stylised in WAR, very cartoony. Combined with the tone of the game it seemed very squarely aimed at male teens. If you compare the source material to the game this becomes even more apparent: actual warhammer is very dark and mature.

As for RIFT, im just going off every single screenshot and video I’ve ever seen for the game as I’ve never played it myself (because the IP didnt appeal). Everything I’ve ever seen for RIFT showed very dark, bleak landscapes, often with weather effects or darkness obscuring the screen. Maybe the actual game is a lot better, idk, the dark setting combined with generic fantasy put me off even trying.

As for WoW, again, this is mostly the cartoon art style and character design. I understand it was originally done for performance reasons but everything still seemed very clean and aimed at the teen market / early 20s market. Its simply impossible for me to look at a game with dopey orcs and panda bears and not think its aimed at a young crowd.

What I’m asking for is something like FFXIV, but instead of eastern high fantasy, give us western high fantasy. FFXIV is very bright and colourful with some amazingly fantastical creatures. It’s a pleasure seeing whats out there. We have no equivalent in the west.

butterpanda888
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butterpanda888

I wouldn’t judge a game without playing it. Rift may be pretty generic but it is pretty high fantasy. There’s a wizard school, a fairy maze, a sea kingdom and so much more. (and yes there are dark parts too, but that doesn’t make it a dark game). It can actually be whimsical at times.

Also, yes, WAR is not as dark as the source material, but that doesn’t make it childish. Burning villages, massacres, chaos mutants, chaos demons, butchering beasts, barbarians, bloody battles, and the ever-present, looming darkness, aren’t for kids.

And you do know that something aimed at 20-year-olds means it isn’t aimed at kids. What part of the Burning Legion, or the Scourge, or the Forsaken, the Iron Horde, etc. are for kids. Slavery, Undead Abominations, War, Demons, the Apocalypse, and more aren’t for kids.

And FFXIV is just as childish, if not more childish, than these other games.

FFXIV is very bright and colorful with some amazingly fantastical creatures. So is WoW.

Where are my crazy races, floating cities, trees a mile high, underwater cities and beautiful vistas? In WoW.

Also, have you tried GW2?

It seems like you just don’t like the western games and so you are writing them off as inadequate.

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Anstalt

On the contrary, Western games are pretty much the only ones I do like! I’m just bored to death with the aesthetics of them.

Also, when I say childish, I mean anything aimed at children, i.e 18 and under. A game can still include murder, death, slavery etc and be aimed at children, in fact it’s generally a major selling point.

My primary issue with childish aesthetics (i.e. cartoon style or over-stylysed) and childish tone (i.e. overly simplified stories) is that I simply cannot connect with the material or my characters. I don’t care about anything happening within the gameworld except for my own actions and interactions with other real people.

With dark/realistic settings, my issue is that I just don’t want to spend any time there! Its depressing, not inspiring. When I enter a new zone and see a wasteland, I’m not excited to explore it, I’m just hoping I can get through it quickly and that the next zone is better.

GW2 did indeed look great, I really liked the aesthetics of that game. It still seemed a bit childish to me but not too bad. Reason I didn’t play were the mechanics, they didn’t appeal at all. I’m looking for deep combat mechanics but GW2 seemed shallow as fuck, far too spammy for my liking.

What I’m looking for is a game with the maturity of LotRO but much higher fantasy and much brighter colours. Something truly exciting to explore with interesting and unique locations and creatures.

butterpanda888
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butterpanda888

While I don’t agree that death, murder, and slavery is a selling point for a game aimed at children, I can understand and even appreciate what you are getting at after reading that last paragraph (for me it was what put your whole point into perspective).