The Game Archaeologist: Anarchy Online, from development to beta

    
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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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_a4

How does SWG compare to AO? Anyone who’s played both can answer that?

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Montjoy Onew

Was there for both. SWG launch hit a bump in the road….AO was a bumpy road!
Still, loved both.

Stefan
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Stefan

AO really is your themepark MMO, mostly based around combat. You have the option to build your own “guild”city but you need fairly deep pockets for that and there is a cost involved in maintaining it, it does allow you to start alien invasions that used to drop fairly good loot, which you could turn into one of the strongest gear out there.

But again very heavy focus on combat also on crafting and equipping gear (what requires a bit of tinkering it could take a week to equip the piece you wanted, hard to explain if you never really played the game)

You could give it a go, the setting is quite nice just do not stay as a neut (neutral)

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Chaos Engine

I started “late” in 2003, with my SWG guild (or “PA”), after we left SWG because we we wanted something like EQ1 or DAoC.

Anyway, even in 2003 half our guild refused to try AO, “utterly outdated graphics” being the most most common reason.
Still, we were around 12 people trying it and for a few weeks I had one of the best times of my MMO life. Unfortunately, people wouldn’t stick around for various reasons and then it kinda became a solo game for me.

I still log in at least every 6-12 months. But usually I don’t stick around for long. I dream of the magic this game one held for me, but there is no way to bring it back.

Stefan
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Stefan

Great read! Started in Rubi Ka much later somewhere around the third expansion Notum Wars and still have fond memories of the game where leveling was while also a long chore (Unless you heckler farmed) it was also an adventure where you took time to get key essential items from dungeons that became level locked.

Their dungeons were also something else not the instanced 5 mans you also had those but they were labyrinths that were open to a larger group of people that were not teamed up, sure you had to wait for spawns but also part of the fun was twinking up characters so they could actually solo them! You actually took the time to slow down your progress that is in stark contrast to games like WoW nowadays where ”Ahead of the curve” is even an achievement. I believe AO was also the first game to create layers and/or instanced content in that sense.

Sadly its complexity makes it also hard to go back to the game and while efforts were made if only effort went into overhauling the user interface and adding more modern day QoL changes but i guess that would not have sit well with those playing today.

Anarchy Online is the reason i keep giving Funcom a chance every time they release something, their MMO’s always had something new and unique about them.

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JamieRmusic

This brings back memories.

Played AO religiously shortly after SL was released. The game required immense patience. Hitting level 220 pre missions took way over a year. Actually 1-211 took me 9 months. Post mission 2011-220 only took two weeks or so 🤣

Also how you could fit level 200 armor on a level 60 twink. Only to go out and demolish everything in sight. The games depth is on par none. No other game has had that same amount of complexity when it comes to thinking in MMOs. 0 hand holding. Items which you have no clue how work has to be tinkered with to figure out. Overwhelming to say the least, but the world felt more alive in many ways due to that fact.

Hopefully this IP gets bought up and remade with current game tech, vision and fidelity. It deserves a new breath of fresh air. There truly aren’t enough SciFi games like this.

Damon Anderson
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Damon Anderson

Thanks, I enjoyed reading this, looking forward to the next part.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Great read. I didnt know many of those things. Cmon, Justin, bring us next part sooner.

I personally missed AO completely during its first years. Havent even heard about it till like 2006-2007. Was too busy with WoW. I love sci-fi and twinking, so this is kind of game I should love playing. But when I finally tried it, it was already too outdated and kinda empty.

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kimowar101

this was my fourth mmo and was there for Launch…. Man 20 years.
One thing I remember about the Launch was trying to get out of the backyard. After deleting 5-6 times I finally got out and thought Man, I’m in over my head here lol.

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Castagere Shaikura

Shadowlands ruined AO so badly. All the weapons and armor were so superior to the stuff people were using. So what you got was everyone running around using the same gear whereas before you had variety. And Rubi Ka became a dead planet because everyone moved to shadowlands.

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Dagget Burmese

AO has a few systems that could be successfully copied by newer MMO’s. It also represents the graduate level of character twinking possible.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Yea, I wish more MMOs had such indepth twinking system

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ogged451

When I think about the ten pages of detailed instructions I wrote in 2006 how to equip all my QL 300 symbs and the weeks of required perk resets … well, maybe too in-depth.