I honestly cannot stop thinking about Chronicles of Elyria. Not in the sense of surprise, mind you; this was pretty much one of the two endpoints I had always envisioned for the title, and the other one isn’t much more more positive. No, in my case it’s a simultaneous sense of being baffled that it all went on this long and the sheer chutzpah involved in continually putting the project forth over the past several years as a real thing that was very definitely happening.
Today, I want to actually take a look back at the course of the game through history and take a general examination of how the title morphed and changed over time. As with anything that never really saw the light of day, there’s no doubt going to be some omissions, some things that I missed or just weren’t clear except from chats I was not a part of. The forces that bred and control me regret this error. But we’re not trying to lay out a definitive history; we’re trying to look at the roadmap and the key landmarks along the way that were and should have been gigantic red flags.
We’re starting here because this is where the game’s Kickstarter started, and… uh, well, right away there are signs that something is amiss. The Kickstarter’s stated goal was $900,000, which in terms of developing an MMO is a bit like announcing that you want to buy a car for $15.45 and some pocket lint. (Remember, Crowfall asked for a million dollars and outright explained how it was ever going to make an MMO with such a small up-front investment.) You could also, you know, buy your way into royalty with a $10,000 pledge, something that four people on the Kickstarter page actually did.
The actual language on the page is vague about whether the intended development costs were going to be funded by the Kickstarter or that was just for investor demos; later statements claimed the latter. It’s also worth noting that along the way the team hooked up with SpatialOS for the game’s ultimate release. Put a pin in that one.
Needless to say, the Kickstarter funded just fine. The team then talked up plans for three separate pre-game versions of the game, one of them an offline experience, one a text-based MUD, and the other a web game. That should have already been a sign when the development was pointing toward making other games instead of this very ambitious one. It was also notable when, as the developers were planning to launch a web store in October, the team mentioned that it was seeking another $3 million in funding and called the Kickstarter early seed money, also noting that more crowdfunding meant less needed from investors.
Some of this was clarified a bit in our subsequent interview with Jeromy Walsh. However, Walsh also claimed that yes, this additional funding would be enough to get the game out the door. There were a lot of development blogs, but this was most of the financial side of things.
At the start of 2017, the developers were still talking about the planned trinity of pre-launch games. The title also had a pre-alpha on display at PAX East, which I got to play around with personally. It was all right. Maybe not great, but it seemed functional and decent. Put a pin in that, too.
In May, Soulbound Studios decided to run a Kickstarter anniversary sale, which… well, it went over fine at that point. After all, the game had only been in actively funded development for about a year at that point, so no one was going to be miffed about how long it was taking compared to projections. Plus, as mentioned, they’d been at PAX East showing off! Everything was fine.
The game had another demo on hand for PAX West, this time all about jousting. It also buffed up its prices on packages a bit in October, but even that was pretty much not a red flag at this point; based on what we had seen and the forward motion, it all had the appearance of a game that was approaching a more playable state. There were also some limits on the number of monarchs available after those packages kept selling, but even that felt… iterative, not apocalyptic.
And then the lovely day came when it was announced that the game was moving into friends and family alpha testing, along with shopping around for a publisher. That part was already a surprise, since it had been kind of implied that there wouldn’t be a publisher; Walsh seemed to be frustrated with publishers not being on board for the vision of the game as it was stated. There was also talk about how to deal with people who were skeptical about the project, which in and of itself seemed like a bad sign for how things were going…
Right smack-dab in the start of 2018, we got our first bit of obvious bad news when CoE split from SpatialOS altogether. While there were a lot of stated justifications, what seems like the most salient point in hindsight was the admission that based on the scope of the game, SpatialOS would just cost too much money. Since a lot of the game thus far had been built with that system in place, it meant… well, lots of what had been done would need to be redone, if not scrapped outright.
Not even a full week later, it was confirmed that layoffs had taken place, on the stated grounds that the team had nearly doubled over 2017 but further investment and/or publishers hadn’t yet come in to make that size sustainable. There were rumors that the people still working on the game had seen their salaries slashed as well.
What didn’t stop this year were development blogs, frequently taking on a more combative tone and talking about things like how other MMO gear systems were “silly” (which, to be fair, they are) and so on. Nevertheless, in May it was announced that the pre-alpha phase was still coming soon. Then, in August, the Searing Plague community experience started up and gosh that is not a good look for anything right now, let’s leave that there and move on.
Following all these delays and bad news, we ultimately voted on the title as having the stormiest future at the end of 2018.
On January 2nd, Jeromy Walsh tweeted this:
@MassivelyOP I heartfelt thank you for the "Stormiest Future" Award. Coincidentally, not more than a month ago I met with the team here at @SoulboundStudio to celebrate how stormy 2019 is going to be. But you made one mistake – we ARE the storm.
— Jeromy Walsh (@JeromyWalsh) January 3, 2019
Now, as we’ve said many times by now, that that faux-ward is one we give without malice or condescension; we genuinely want MMOs to release, be good, and be loved by fans, and pointing out messes-in-progress helps our readers. And let’s be real here, seeing your title marked as having a stormy future isn’t going to feel great for anyone. But a tweet like that would be hard to back up for any studio.
So land selection was slated to start on April 29th. It then got delayed due to technical issues. Keep in mind that, as mentioned, none of this was an actual playable alpha or pre-alpha or anything. In fact, by this point I can’t find any sign that there had been a playable version of the game outside of potential friends and family testing past 2017. The delay ultimately lasted until August, and when some pre-alpha footage surfaced in September it looked… well, much worse than what had been shown off at the conventions in 2017.
Later that month, the game kicked off another fundraising drive. In October, it was revealed that all told, the game had managed to raise $7.7 million from fundraising over time. Then in November it started selling you lockboxes for account items for the game at $75 a pop. Oh, and then it planned to auction off unbought land, only for that to hit more technical problems.
There were definitely still development blogs and such over the year, but it seems pretty clear that in 2019, if the game was not already terminal, it was flailing on life support.
The year opened up with a nice, refreshing glass of stolen photobashed stock art being part of the game’s concept art. Pretty much no one was willing to let this go. We also finally got more gameplay footage, and it looked… like a not substantially changed version of the 2017 PAX East demo, but with rougher models.
The land auction finally started again on March 12th, and in context, that makes me just plain angry. Less than two weeks later, it was announced that development was shutting down and the game wasn’t happening, and quite frankly there is no conceivable scenario wherein people didn’t know on March 12th what was going to happen on March 25th. That makes the land auction moving forward feel like nothing more than a cheap last-minute cash grab.
So what went so wrong? Obviously, we can’t be sure, but it seems pretty clear looking back on all of this that money was running low or running out altogether by 2018. Ditching SpatialOS seemed like a way to save money, but it also meant that all the work that had been done over the year and a half up to that point had to be re-done with a smaller staff and less money… and by that point the cash flow situation hadn’t improved at all. Combine that with an unwillingness to compromise in order to get a functional product out the door, and development flailed along for two more years on a promise that the parts that were already gone proved that this would eventually come together.
I’m not sure if there are really lessons to be gleaned here that haven’t already been discussed. It’s sad to see any MMO fail, but looking back over the last four years of the development on this one, I’d say the roadmap gave more than enough hints about the detours and dead-ends all along the way.