The Game Archaeologist: Anarchy Online, from development to beta


We all have stories of our very first MMORPG experiences, and the one that I often share is that my initial dip into this genre happened with Anarchy Online. I was intrigued at the scifi angle of this online MMO and already was fond of Funcom due to The Longest Journey, so I took my chances — on the day of the most infamous MMORPG launch of all time.

Suffice to say, it wasn’t a great first impression.

However, I did persist and enjoyed this as my “first” MMO, so I harbor Anarchy Online in my heart as a special title. Thus, I’m excited to go back through its 20-plus years of history this week and next, as we explore Rubi-Ka, Shadowlands (no, not that Shadowlands), and a wonderfully persistent title.

Oslo-based Funcom got its start back in 1993 as a collaboration between several game developers. Initially, the studio focused on developing titles for consoles, including the Genesis and SNES, but it branched out into the PC market with 1999’s hit The Longest Journey. By then, the studio was eying the growing MMORPG market and decided to take a swing in that direction, transitioning from a console developer to one that specialized in the complicated field of online roleplaying games.

In truth, development on Anarchy Online — Funcom’s first MMORPG — began back in 1995 as a backroom project. Even before titles like Ultima Online and EverQuest hit the market, the Oslo developer was channeling resources to building an online world that fit its unique vision.

“The internet was reserved for a small population of “elite” users back then,” Funcom said in a 7th anniversary press release, “and early design documents were even questioning whether the internet had a future. At first Anarchy Online was therefore a small research project, but as history shows it soon turned into a massive and extremely ambitious MMO.”

One of the members of that initial team was Ragnar Tørnquist, the storyteller behind The Longest Journey (and, later, The Secret World). His task on this new project was the most ambitious yet: the creation of a whole new universe. This was because the foundation for Anarchy Online wasn’t a design document but rather a story of humanity settling this strange world and fracturing into different factions.

“We always thought, ‘We can do anything, we can pull anything off,'” Tørnquist said. The initial plan was to saddle Anarchy Online with a narrative lifecycle that would end after four years, offering a beginning, middle, and end of a tale. For the time, people thought this was highly amibitious, not expecting this game to operate as a live service past its first year.

However, not everyone at Funcom initially thought this project was a good idea, with an internal group at the studio calling the Anarchy Online team “insane.”

That dissention didn’t slow the Anarchy Online team down from dreaming up new ideas. Instead of all of the fantasy titles that had long dominated the CRPG and burgeoning MMO field, Funcom decided that it would strike out in a different direction by skewing toward science fiction and taking players to a far-flung alien world known as Rubi-Ka.

This was no small task. As with all up-and-coming MMORPG projects in the 1990s, everyone was pretty much writing the textbook for this kind of game development on the fly. The Anarchy Online team swelled to 70 developers feverishly working to make it all work. By 1999, the studio transitioned into being an independent developer, charting its own course.

“When we first set out to create Anarchy Online we had no true references, nothing to learn from, and this pioneer feeling is something we embraced and cherished,” said original Game Director Gaute Godager.

However, the gaming public was completely unaware that Funcom was grinding away at Anarchy Online until the studio officially announced the title at E3 2000. Almost instantly, hype for Anarchy Online swelled to tremendous proportions, especially considering that it looked close to launch.

Unlike the lengthy alpha and beta periods of today, Anarchy Online’s beta was set a mere two weeks before release. During this short period, 100,000 players helped to stress test the servers and root out bugs. Considering what happened next, it would have been far more beneficial if Funcom had run the beta for months instead of weeks.

Next week: Launch, disaster, and gradual recovery!

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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