The Game Archaeologist: Tanarus, Sony Online Entertainment’s first online game


While EverQuest is perhaps thought of as Sony Online Entertainment’s first online game, the truth of history tells us differently. Just as how Mythic Entertainment pumped out several other online titles prior to Dark Age of Camelot, SOE had a run at online multiplayer before Norrath.

And instead of this virtual world being populated by Elves and kobolds, SOE’s first game molded itself after the heavy armor and military vehicle craze of the 1990s. Enter Tanarus, a first-person tank shooter that didn’t exactly become the shot heard ’round the world.

The genesis for MMOs like EverQuest and PlanetSide began back in 1996, when John Smedley, Brad McQuaid, and others formed an internal company (which eventually became Verant Interactive, later folded into Sony Online Entertainment) to start working on an online fantasy graphical MUD. However, two years before EverQuest’s 1999 launch, a spearate dev team in the same studio pushed out a 3-D online tank shooter to mild success.

Tanarus, originally called Armorgeddon before a prior trademark forced a name change, ran a beta for a good part of 1996 and 1997 before releasing in December 1997 with a $19.95 price tag and $9.95 monthly subscription fee. Reportedly, there was a shareware version of the game available that offered one preset tank and a shareware-specific map on which to fight.

While the chunky polygons and barebones world of Tanarus wasn’t much to look at, the novelty of online multiplayer and the ability to pick and customize a tank helped to offset the lackluster visuals. Players then would jump into maps where up to 20 players (divided into four teams) would duke it out in real-time virtual space. Competitive PvP gamers found a lot to love in the heated matches where tanks would be blown up, bases captured, and capture-the-flag enjoyed.

While there weren’t any set objectives in matches and no persistence and progression of the players’ tanks, Tanarus did offer a ranking system based on points. Players went from newbies on day one all the way up to generals when they earned 300 million points.

While the reviews were kind and the concept was fairly novel, following in the footsteps of MazeWar and Air Warrior, Tanarus didn’t make much of a splash when it arrived. This was attributed to Sony’s lack of marketing, which mostly was left to word-of-mouth. Even the game’s devs turned their attention to the EverQuest project, leaving Tanarus as a prototype of sorts that helped them work out some online tech.

When SOE started up its multiple-game Station Pass subscription, Tanarus was rolled into the package alongside other small titles like Infantry and Cosmic Rift.

What’s surprising to me is how long Tanarus lasted under SOE’s operation. Remember, this was back when the studio was making and actively supporting games, so even small fry such as this title had a good chance of sticking it out. Ultimately, Tanarus’ lifespan stretched from December 1997 to June 2010, a good run for a very creaky title.

Since then, Tanarus has decayed in the public consciousness. There was a brief hope in 2015 that SOE was going to revive the title, but what actually happened is that the company took the server and transformed it into a drink dispenser. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to 2004! 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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