The Game Archaeologist: 1998’s Mankind


In the annals of the MMO genre, the massively multiplayer RTS has had perhaps the worst go of any variations on these online games. While super-hot in the 1990s, the RTS fell out of popularity in the 2000s when MMOs were on the rise. Some games that attempted to take a stab at it, such as Shattered Galaxy and Sovereign, never gained the widespread attraction and acceptance that their studios had hoped.

As we look at another early-era MMORTS today, the narrative might seem eerily familiar when compared to those other titles. At best, Mankind boasted a cult appeal for players who couldn’t really get this sort of persistent space RTS fix anywhere else. But seeing as how it’s another of a litany of titles that have largely faded into obscurity, Mankind did not break the “curse” of trying to wield an MMORTS in this day and age.

Still, it’s an interesting project that starts where the vines are rich in grapes and the cheese the most pungent of them all: France!

One ship and a dream to fly by

In 1989, a French developer group came together to start working on various game projects. Among the team were Philippe Ulrich, Rémi Herbulot, and Jean-Martial Lefranc, some of whom came out of Infogrames. The team soon established itself as Cryo Interactive Entertainment, which began to make a name for itself in the ’90s with titles like Dune and Riverworld. Around 1996, three of the studio’s members formed Vibes SA inside Cryo to work on their dream of an MMO.

In December 1998, Mankind released to the public in retail stores, offering a rare early foray into massively multiplayer online real time strategy action. Players would start out with a ship and a dream to establish themselves as a growing empire of money and weapons. This took some time, with the standard RTS loop of gathering resources, building up bases, and pumping out units taking up much of a player’s attention. A good player could wield thousands of ships at a time, creating the possibility for glorious clashes.

The galaxy is your stomping ground

The dev team claimed that there was 900 million planets in the game, although the actual number was a smaller (but no less impressive) 476,000. Most of these could be colonized and harvested, and the more desirable locations and planets were fiercely contended.

When that happened, players’ war machines would clash in glorious combat, each side hoping to gain the upper hand and walk away with better resources. If a player was attacked while offline, Mankind boasted the rather forward-thinking feature of sending him or her a text message to drop everything and get to a computer ASAP.

Initially, players ran most of the content in this 24th century setting, although there was plenty of lore and world building to experience. Mankind was a modest success, boasting around 30,000 active subscribers in 2001 and a player total of 300,000 from its launch through 2008. With seven languages offered and releases in various countries around the world, Mankind had a widespread presence.

Passing the buck

Despite a long list of published games, Cryo (and Vibes SA) went bankrupt in 2002 and was liquidated. Mankind, however, survived thanks to China’s O2 Online Entertainment, which bought up all of the assets and rights. In 2008, the game changed hands again, this time going to France-based Quantex.

“We are proud to be chosen to develop this game due to our expertise, know how and possession of required technologies,” said Quantex at the time. “We will endeavour, through our work, to keep for the players the same freedom and initiative they enjoyed before. We are confident to bring up actual code to an attractive format to satisfy more and more passionate players.”

Quantex attempted to make good on this claim and heavily reworked the game in 2009 with a graphic engine upgrade. There was enough development and interest to keep the game chugging for the next half-decade, but by 2013, development had stagnated and updates stopped coming. In October 2015, the company announced that Mankind’s run would be coming to a close.

“The subscription base is far too low and we can’t pay the outstanding invoices anymore,” Quantex posted in 2015. “While there are still some ongoing discussions with interested and supporters to take over this project the game itself will close anyway. We want to say thank you very much to all fans for all the support during the past 16 years!”

And so Mankind went out with barely a whimper, leaving behind memories for a select few that spent time in this innovative MMORTS in its 16-year run. While its passing is regrettable, that’s a good stretch of live operation for a sub-genre that has historically seen very little success in the MMO space.

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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