In our first part of this series looking back at the stupendous history of City of Heroes, we saw how the idea for this superhero MMORPG germinated from a tech millionaire who took his love for RPGs and comic books into the online world. Cryptic Studios was founded in 2000 with the intent of developing a new type of MMORPG, one with a superhero bent set in an original IP.
While the development period was fraught with difficulty, including a messy design, delays, and the departure of the studio’s co-founder, City of Heroes took shape by 2004 and finally entered into live operation that April to the delight of thousands of fledgling superheroes.
Today we’ll be walking through the next few years of this game’s lifecyle, including its launch, the initial issues, and a serious lawsuit that threatened to kill the game dead.
For the longest time in the early 2000s, MMORPGs scared me off. They looked too obtuse, too grindy, too ugly, and too unapproachable for my tastes. It took a special title to really draw me in with its more casual friendly structure and colorful graphics. In early 2004, I found myself entranced with this superhero MMO that let me be whatever type of caped (or non-caped) crusader I wanted to be. From then on, there was no going back with my interest in these types of games.
I assume that many MMO gamers owe a great debt to City of Heroes for the way that it introduced, encouraged, and excited them about MMOs. It was a new type of online game, one that boasted an unbelievably flexible character creator and invested in the fantasy of playing as a superhero fighting villains all across Paragon City.
Today we’re going to kick off a Game Archaeologist series looking back at City of Heroes. And as with any remarkable superhero, we have to begin with its origin story. Where did it come from? How was it made? Let’s find out!
Most studios would be overjoyed to have pioneered one significant advancement in video game history, but then again, most studios aren’t Kesmai. While it’s not a household name today, it’s reasonable to say that without the heavy lifting and backbreaking coding that this company shouldered in the ’80s and ’90s, the MMO genre would’ve turned out very different indeed.
Previously in this space, we met two enterprising designers named Kelton Flinn and John Taylor who recognized that multiplayer was the name of the future and put their careers on the line to see an idea through to completion. That idea was Island of Kesmai, an ancestor of the modern MMO that used crude ASCII graphics and CompuServe’s network to provide an interactive, cooperative online roleplaying experience. It wasn’t the first MMO, but it was the first one published commercially, and sometimes that makes all the difference.
Flinn and Taylor’s Kesmai didn’t stop with being the first to bring MMOs to the big time, however. Flush with cash and success, Kesmai turned its attention to the next big multiplayer challenge: 3-D graphics and real-time combat. Unlike the fantasy land of Island of Kesmai, this title would take to the skies in aerial dogfighting and prove even more popular than the team’s previous project.
I don’t know if EverQuest holds the crown title for the MMO with the most expansions, but I’m sure it’s among the top three if not at the number one spot on that list. It’s astounding to count them up and realize that two dozen expansions have come out for that game between 2000 and 2017. That averages to a little more than one per year!
Today I want to pay tribute to the 24 expansions of EverQuest by going through them, one by one, and seeing how they grew and enriched the game over the past decade-and-a-half. I would also love to hear testimonies in the comments as to which EverQuest expansion you enjoyed the most!
The release of Raph Koster’s monster book of game essays, Postmortems, was of high interest to Bree and me for different reasons. For her, it was because Koster was a creative driving force behind two of her favorite games, Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. For me, it’d because Koster shares my passion for MMO history and has some unique stories touching on topics that no one has heard before.
So I combed through his collection of essays to see what I could find out on two topics of interest to me: MUDs and the elusive Privateer Online. Chances are that many of you reading have never touched a text-based multi-user dungeon, and none of us save Koster and his coworkers, ever got to even peek at Privateer Online.
Here’s a few quotes that popped out at me, and if you’re interested and have $35 to drop on a Kindle version, you can read Koster’s full collection of essays in Postmortems.
With the recent revelation that Bethesda’s Fallout 76 is going to be an online multiplayer survival game, players who have been hoping for a Fallout MMO finally have something to anticipate. Sure, it’s not a proper MMORPG, but it’s all we could ask for in this day and age, right?
Actually, Fallout 76 isn’t the first time that the Fallout series was heading for online shenanigans, nor is it the closest concept to a pure MMO. Years ago, an attempt was made by the original creators of the Fallout series to bring an online game to the community, but this effort was stymied by Bethesda and a mess of legal issues.
For those who look back at the Interplay era of Fallout with deep fondness, the thought of the canceled Fallout Online project is a sore wound that continues to cause pain whenever prodded. Which is, I guess, what I’ll be doing today as we look at what Fallout Online was going to be — and why it never came to be.
The impact of Myst in 1993 was akin to an atomic bomb going off in the PC gaming world. The leap forward in graphical fidelity (aided by the large storage capacity of a CD-ROM and all of the full-motion video and gorgeous images tucked into it) captured gamers’ imaginations and made this adventure title the best-selling PC game of all time, at least for several years. Brothers Robyn and Rand Miller’s story about a stranger who had to solve puzzles through a good-looking (if deserted) landscape was devilishly difficult, yet that challenge kept players coming back for months and even years.
The Myst franchise surged forward at that point, with several sequels, remakes, and ports selling like hotcakes through the final game’s release in 2005. Yet something interesting happened along the way when an offshoot of the series — Uru: Ages Beyond Myst — evolved into an MMO. With a focus on multiplayer exploration and puzzle-solving instead of non-stop combat, it may be one of the very few MMOs out there that eschews fighting for brainpower.
It’s an oddity, no doubt, and despite it being an incredibly niche title, it has fascinated me enough to pull me into a research rabbit hole. So let’s take a look at Myst Online: Uru Live!
Debuting in 1996, The Realm Online (or, as it is sometimes shortened, The Realm) became one of the first online RPGs to overlay graphics on top of its MUD core. The game’s flat 2-D graphics were simplistic, even for the time, but the novelty of the massively multiplayer environment sparked enough curiosity among players to keep it populated and running for 22 years now.
It’s no secret that The Realm has fallen into near-obscurity, particularly with the current owners performing little in the way of development or promotion. Emerging from the emulator scene, Jordan Neville and a group of fellow IT geeks took it upon themselves to help The Realm experience the rebirth that it sorely needed.
This is coming to a head with June’s re-launch of The Realm Online, a new and improved version of the classic MMORPG that will run in parallel with the older and largely abandoned edition. We sat down with Neville to talk about the challenges and delights of giving The Realm another shot at life — and why you may want to check it out for yourself.
When it comes to notable years in the MMORPG genre’s history, 2008 stands out as one of the most significant. World of Warcraft’s debut onto the scene in 2004 caused an upheaval in ways far too numerous to go into detail here. Suffice to say that its overwhelming popularity drew the attention of game designers who looked at the staggering numbers of players and found themselves envious of the potential to grab a slice of that money pie.
Many projects went into high gear following WoW’s launch, with plenty of them trying to copy the formula and structure that Blizzard established in the hopes of making it at least partially as big as that game. So-called WoW clones began to pepper the market and there was a sense that gamers were ready to move on from World of Warcraft to the next generation of MMOs. In many players’ minds, this would be either 2008’s Age of Conan or Warhammer Online, two big-budget MMOs with strong IPs that carried a lot of the weight of expectation.
Little did anyone realize that 2008 represented a bubble that was about to burst on the industry and the WoW clones that followed — including Warhammer Online. Today, we’re going to take a look at “bears, bears, bears,” the high hopes of Mythic Entertainment, and how WAR became a casaulty on its own battlefield.
You know the story of Roanoke, right? That early American settlement that abruptly went missing with only the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree for later colonists to find? It’s a big mystery that might not be much of a mystery at all, but I’ve always been fascinated with it and other similar tales. There’s just something about an abruptly vanishing thing or people to arrest the imagination.
So what about an entire MMO that one day just went “poof” and vanished into thin air? And what if it had the ironic name of Lost Colony? And what if I were so bored as to scour the internet for clues as to what happened to it? I think you’re going to find out.
Lost Colony came to my attention during a recent trip to Planet Wikipedia, where the natives are interesting if not always fully sourced. I was reading through an article on vaporware when this game caught my eye. An MMO I never heard of that just disappeared? I felt a Scooby Doo mystery coming on!
If all goes well, later this year we will finally be treated to an actual Harry Potter MMORPG in the form of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. While that will be a mobile ARG in the vein of Pokemon Go, it will still be a big step into the online space that MMO fans have been craving for nearly two decades now.
Obviously, Harry Potter continues to be a mammoth franchise for J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., and Electronic Arts, which has handled the video game license over the years. While there have been single-player Harry Potter titles, especially on consoles, no MMORPG emerged even at the height of the IP craze that swallowed up Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer, and more. So why not?
The truth is that Harry Potter Online almost did happen. Its brief existence and development isn’t too well-known, even today, but the wasted potential has always tantalized me with what could have been. Using a time-turner, we will go back to the late 1990s today and peek in on a possible future that came to fruition.
If we judged MMOs by their numbers alone — and I’m not suggesting we do so — then the original Lineage would be the crowing rooster strutting about the hen house. It’s also been one of those games that I’ve always intellectually acknowledged was a huge hit for some reason but never gave much attention. I think it’s because, contrary to many western MMOs, Lineage is primarily an Asian phenomenon. That doesn’t mean it should be shunned, of course, but just that it may be difficult to understand when you’re on the outside of it.
So let’s back up the memory truck to September 1998, when a then-fledgling NCsoft rolled out a Diablo-style isometric MMO and struck virtual gold in South Korea. At the time, gaming rooms were becoming a huge thing in the country. A recession had hit, giving people a lot of time with nothing to do, and the government was rapidly expanding the broadband network. In the face of this perfect storm, titles like StarCraft and Lineage became overnight household fixtures — and remained so for decades to come.
Even if you haven’t played Lineage and you don’t know anyone who does, trust me: Millions and millions of players have. As former Senior Producer Chris Mahnken once said, “Lineage keeps going because it’s just plain fun.”
Once asked what he thought was the most innovative MMO from the last decade, Dr. Richard Bartle, the creator of MUD, gave a succinct answer: “A Tale in the Desert. Note that ‘innovative’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘successful.'”
Right there is the crux of A Tale in the Desert’s unique position in the MMO industry. Instead of storming down a path well-traveled, it took a machete and made its own trail — a trail down which few have followed. It is an “odd duck” of a game, skewing as far away from combat as possible to focus instead on crafting and politics. Even though its focus pegged it as an eternally niche game, the MMO proved that constant fighting isn’t the only thing that can draw an online community together.