The Game Archaeologist: Fallen Earth


I remember back when Fallen Earth first came out, I had some friends who were raving about it and doing everything in their power to drag me kicking and screaming into it. I did a lot of kicking and screaming back then, I realize. But what I first didn’t get soon became a tale of a shy, earnest gamer who fell in love with an MMORPG that gave us a much different world and oh-so-many ways to interact with it.

Fallen Earth was never a bonafide hit in the MMO community, but it certainly achieved a cult status due to its post-apocalyptic setting, it’s wickedly black humor, and its intricate crafting system. Today we’re going to look at the life, death, and possible future revival of one of my favorite online games of all time.

In the past, I’ve talked about Fallout Online, the proposed — but ultimately scuttled — MMORPG that Interplay wanted to make. I have no doubt that if such a game would’ve been released in the 2000s, it would have dominated the post-apocalyptic scene for MMOs. But it didn’t, and into that space slid a few other titles that sought to prospect in an undermined region.

Among those that tried was Icarus Studios’ Fallen Earth. Founded in 2001, Icarus Studios initially set its eye on making an online title set in a completely new IP. Its first game was to be a first-person shooter RPG that would take place in the Grand Canyon of 2156, after the Shiva virus ravaged the world and set into motion a chain of other human-made calamities.

Right from the start, the post-apoc MMO was much different than many other games in the same space. Players had a lot of freedom to develop their character by aligning with one (or more) of the six NPC factions, mix-and-matching different mutated skills, and trying out a variety of contemporary weapons.

Its game world was massive, clocking in at 1,000 square kilometers of desert and forest wasteland — some of it actually modeled on the real Grand Canyon — and populated by 70 towns and their inhabitants. That world felt larger than most due to the fact that there was little in the way of quick travel, with any mounts or vehicles remaining as objects in the game world instead of disappearing into a backpack or skill bar.

One of the most unique systems in the game was its crafting, which progressed in real-time and could be used to make almost all (95% or so) of Fallen Earth’s weapons, ammunition, and vehicles. The game loop of scavenging, juggling inventory space, and crafting while on-the-go proved to be every bit as captivating as the combat and questing. The game even boasted an integrated phone app to handle crafting queues and talk with guildies.

After six years of development, Fallen Earth launched in September 2009 as a subscription MMO. It even had a Steam and Mac client on Day One, which was certainly not the standard back then (or even now). The team was hopeful about the release, saying, “We’ve been working to create a different type of MMO-something gritty and challenging that will give players an exciting and immersive gaming experience.”

However, it was quickly evident that Fallen Earth wasn’t the big initial hit that Icarus had hoped it would be, with the highest player population topping just 17,000. By spring of 2010, the title had already lost Lead Game Designer Lee Hammock to another studio and was forced to make 82 layoffs within Icarus. Still, the game proceeded under the leadership of Wes Platt — until he also got laid off in 2010.

What’s interesting with this MMO is that if you look at its update history, almost all of the patches, events, and expansions (including the post-launch zone of Sector 4) took place between 2009 and 2011. Very little development took place after that.

Icarus ended up closing its doors soon after, but that wasn’t the end for Fallen Earth. GamersFirst swooped in and snapped up the title, publishing it with a free-to-play model in 2011. “Anyone who’s ever played Fallen Earth can tell you that it’s a unique and fun experience,” said developer Marie Croall at the time. “And while the traditional MMO subscription model did get us a great, small hard-core audience, the facts are that we couldn’t get enough players past the cost of the game to populate the world.”

The game limped along with sparse updates (mostly in the early 2010s) until another business shake-up in 2018. It was in May of that year that Little Orbit acquired GamersFirst and all of its MMOs. While the new owners admitted that Fallen Earth’s often buggy and unreliable code was messy, the studio acknowledged that there was something there worth saving. For the next year, the title continued operation while Little Orbit evaluated the state of the game and what needed to be done to bring it up to snuff.

Eventually, the studio decided that Fallen Earth would have to be taken offline indefinitely for a top-to-bottom rebuilding of the title. And so on the game’s 10th anniversary, Fallen Earth went dark… and there it has remained ever since. Little Orbit isn’t doing much with it right now but has assured fans that it hasn’t given up on the project yet. So for fans, there is some hope, although some people think that it’s not realistic that we’ll ever see an operational Fallen Earth ever again.

Me? I’m the one who will hold onto hope until it blossoms true or it is fully extinguished, because this is a game that has potential and deserves another chance.

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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