the game archaeologist

Justin Olivetti is Massively Overpowered’s resident Game Archaeologist; he never lets a good old game stay buried. [Follow this column’s RSS feed]

The Game Archaeologist: Shattered Galaxy

War. War never ends. Especially if it was designed and encouraged to wage forever.

One of the most popular computer gaming genres of the late 1990s and early 2000s was real-time strategy (RTS). Players found the combination of resource collecting, base building, and mass combat a heady mix, and titles like Dune 2, the Warcraft series, and the Command and Conquer series did extremely well both as single-player and limited multiplayer titles.

But with the advent of the MMORPG, game developers looked at the RTS and wondered if this genre would do well in a massively multiplayer environment. Well, there was only one way to find out, and that’s where Shattered Galaxy came in.

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The Game Archaeologist: EverQuest Mac

In 2003, Sony Online Entertainment tried an experiment to reach out to the (then) small-but-growing community of Mac users. The company released EverQuest Macintosh Edition — quickly abbreviated to EQMac — which incorporated the core game and the first four expansions of EverQuest: The Ruins of Kunark, The Scars of Velious, The Shadows of Luclin, and The Planes of Power. Because EQMac was a separate version of the game, SOE segregated Apple players on their own server called Al’Kabor and then, for all intents and purposes, left them alone while the “real” EverQuest continued to expand and advance.

While the population didn’t exactly explode as the progression of time rendered EQMac stuck in a type of video game amber, a singular community of dedicated, helpful players formed. This community soon became proud of their hardcore home. According to many of them, EQMac was the way EverQuest was always meant to be played, frozen in time at the release of one of the game’s best expansions. It was a mark of pride to say that you played on Al’Kabor.

For over 10 years, EQMac quietly and doggedly continued, thanks to this small group of loyal players, SOE President John Smedley’s affection for the title, and one or two devoted devs who helped to maintain the MMO. This is the story of a spin-off game that became a living time capsule.

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The Game Archaeologist: BBS door games

When you think of MMORPGs, I wouldn’t blame you if your mind stayed rooted firmly in the past decade or so, perhaps taking a brief vacation to 1997 before returning to today’s 3-D polygonal glory. But it’s not like people just woke up in the late 90’s, looked at each other, and said, “Hmm. Online multiplayer RPGs. Let’s make it happen!”

On the contrary, history had been building up to that moment for quite some time. Tabletop RPGs and computer MUDs (multi-user dungeons) were both important ancestors of modern MMOs, just as was a mostly forgotten piece of software lore: the bulletin board system, also known as the BBS.

In layman’s terms, BBSes were like pocket internets — host computers that allowed anyone to dial up and use special programs remotely. While BBSes weren’t (initially) tied together like the world wide web, they featured a lot of the elements that would make the world wide web so popular, such as email, forums, and, yes, online games.

Today’s special Game Archaeologist will take a brief look at the history of the BBS, as well as a couple of its games that could be considered “MORPGs” (the “massively” part would be a while in coming). Dial up, gentle readers, and make your hissing modem noises!

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The Game Archaeologist: Fallen Age

Imagine that one day you wake up, stumble to your computer, and check in on the morning news. Among the various tidbits is a rather surprising notice of a brand-new MMORPG that is not only in the works, but is on the verge of beta testing right the heck now. Would that be enough of a shock to wipe away any vestiges of sleep and generate immediate interest in this title?

For some players during a very short period in 2001, it definitely was.

The game in question is Fallen Age, an isometric MMO that made headlines by announcing its presence in one breath and imminent beta testing in the next. However, Netamin Communication’s game couldn’t quite live up to that promise, and by the end of the year, it had vanished almost as quickly as it arrived. So what was this game and what exactly happened?

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The Game Archaeologist: Neocron

It’s the distant future. The high-tech battle armor you wear sharply contrasts with the ruins of civilization that you traverse. You spot an enemy and raise your pulse rifle, firing off shots as you strafe to cover. Technology hasn’t solved the issue of war; it’s just raised the body count.

PlanetSide 2? Nope — this is Neocron, the quite-forgettable MMOFPS from the way-back era. I like to call it “that game with the most regrettable cover art in the history of video games,” but that isn’t quite as snappy.

Going into this article, I have to admit that I previously knew absolutely nothing about Neocron other than the fact that it was a sci-fi MMO that vaguely reminded me of Anarchy Online. Oh, also the fact that nobody I know or perhaps ever will know played it. Was it just a myth? A practical joke to make us believe in an MMO phantom? Only sifting through layers of dust and grime would produce results, so I rolled up my sleeves and started digging.

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The ultimate guide to The Game Archaeologist’s MMO archives

When we moved over here to Massively Overpowered, some of us transplanted our long-running columns to the new space. I perhaps felt most devastated that I was going to lose all of the Game Archaeologist articles that I had painstakingly researched over the years. So my mission with this space became two-fold: to rescue and update my older columns while continuing to add more articles to this series on classic MMOs and proto-MMOs.

I’ve been pleased with the results so far because TGA is a series that I really don’t want to see vanish. As MMORPG fans, we should consider it important to remember and learn about these older titles and to expand our knowledge past the more popular and well-known games of yesteryear.

Now that we have quite a catalogue of Game Archaeologist columns, I thought it would be helpful to end the year by gifting this handy guide to you that organizes and compiles our continuing look at the history of the genre. Enjoy!

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The Game Archaeologist: Revisiting the first three months of World of Warcraft

Were you there?

Many of us were. Many weren’t. Either way, November 23rd, 2004 was a watershed date for the MMORPG industry and one watched and experienced by millions of gamers. It was on this day 13 years ago that Blizzard finally transitioned World of Warcraft from beta testing to live operation, ushering in an age of Azeroth, DKP minus, murlocs, and Leeroy Jenkins.

I was there, both at the end of beta and the start of launch. As time had made a mockery of my memories, I can only remember brief bits: The server downtime, the rise of the phenomenon, making footprints in Coldridge Valley with my Dwarf Hunter, and pretty much shoving every other game to the background for the next year or so.

I thought it might be worth the effort of dusting off the cobwebs of my — and your — memories by revisiting the first three months of World of Warcraft’s live operation, taking us from November 2004 through January 2005. What happened during this time? How did Blizzard respond to the floodgates of players pouring into this game? How different was it from what we play now? Let’s reminisce together!

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The Game Archaeologist: Vanguard Saga of Heroes

The significance of Vanguard’s development, release, long-running drama, second chance, and eventual closure should be of great interest not just to game historians but to everyone who plays MMOs, period. What happened with this game caused a huge fallout in the industry, and we are still feeling some of its effects even today.

As our own Bree once put it in her blog, “Vanguard’s implosion was a big deal at the time and marked the beginning of the post-World of Warcraft destruction of the industry that hobbled Age of Conan and Warhammer Online a few years later.”

While the crash and burn of Vanguard was a very well-known tale several years ago, I’m wondering if today there might be many who are quite unfamiliar with what happened to this unassuming title back around 2007. Let me put on my old fogey glasses and we shall begin!

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The Game Archaeologist: Disney’s Toontown Online

The use of the word “toon” to describe MMORPG characters is a contentious one, with fans divided over its annoyance or acceptance. But when it came to one MMORPG, it was nothing but proper terminology to call all characters just this.

Toontown Online was one of those “kiddie MMOs” that you probably ignored unless you happen to fall within its demographical clutches back in the day. While it lasted for about a decade, the game’s operation would be notable for its repeated transformation and uncertain status.

With a silly, cartoon-like look and theme, this MMO attempted to bring a levity to a genre that was often marinating in deep fantasy lore and statistical theorycrafting. But when you wanted to eschew dragon fighting for slapstick pie throwing, there was no better game out there. Let’s take a look!

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The Game Archaeologist: Ultima Worlds Online Origin

While the heady days of Ultima Online’s dominant position over the industry are long gone, the MMORPG continues to operate and expand, and many players have fond memories of the unique experience that game offered. In fact, some titles like Legends of Aria and (obviously) Shroud of the Avatar are doing their best to claim the unofficial title of “Ultima Online spiritual successor” in the hopes of reuniting veteran MMO players with the special qualities that made this game great.

These aren’t the first games to try to grasp the holy grail of an Ultima Online sequel. There were actually two such projects that went into heavy production in the late 1990s and early 2000s — both ending with premature cancellation and frustration on the part of developers and fans.

The second of these, Ultima X Odyssey, I covered a while back. Today, we’re going to take a look at the first MMO that attempted to mix the Ultima Online formula with a few new twists. Ultima Worlds Online Origin might not be as well-known (or as well-titled), but its history is just as fascinating as UXO’s.

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The Game Archaeologist: The Chronicles of Spellborn

Hey! Hey you! Yeah, you the I’m-so-bored-with-all-of-these-MMOs gamer! You’ve been grousing about for years how MMOs never take risks, never innovate, and are merely content to rehash the same-old fantasy tropes that were stale even back when World of Warcraft launched, right? Yes, we at Massively OP saw your poorly spelled Reddit post on that subject, thank you.

Well, what if I were to tell you that there’s an MMO that bucks the clichés? It’s true! Imagine an MMO that exists in a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. Imagine that combat isn’t merely hotbar button mashing but tactics mixed with positioning. Imagine that you can create your character to look any way you want from the onset instead of having to collect certain pieces of gear. Imagine an immersive world that is a delight to the eyes and ears.

Got all that? Want to play it? Well, you can’t. That game was The Chronicles of Spellborn, and since you and pretty much everyone else on the planet ignored it, it tanked in 2010 after less than a year of operation. Yet for its lackluster run, Spellborn has been strongly mourned by those who saw tremendous potential in it and who keep creating internet petitions to bring it back. Because petitions change everything. Today we’re going to take a look back at an MMO that took the path less traveled.

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The Game Archaeologist: Climax’s Warhammer Online

Let’s begin with a little personal history. Back in 2008, I decided to get into the blogging scene by jumping on board the latest MMO hotness — in this case, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. As I was growing increasingly tired of World of Warcraft, WAR seemed to offer a refreshing alternative: a darker world full of brutal PvP and awesome new ideas. So I joined the elite ranks of bloggers (hey, stop laughing so hard) and spent the better part of two years jawing about Mythic’s latest fantasy project.

And while Warhammer Online was, in my opinion, a solid product, it certainly failed to live up to the extremely high expectations held by both the development team and the players. No matter how it turned out, I really enjoyed talking about WAR, especially in the days leading up to its launch.

As with other IP-related MMOs like Star Trek Online and Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online had its roots with another company and another vision. It’s a “what if?” tale that’s tantalizing to consider — an entirely different studio, Climax Online, creating a much darker version of Warhammer.

So what if Climax had brought its version of Warhammer Online to bear? Would it have eclipsed Mythic’s vision or been its own animal? Hit the jump and let’s dive into the pages of ancient history!

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The Game Archaeologist: Furcadia

Let’s face it: There isn’t really a huge pool of MMORPGs from the 1990s to explore in this column. By now I have done most of them, including some of the more obscure titles. Yet there has always been this one game that I have shied away from covering, even though it (a) was an actual MMO from the ’90s and (b) is still operating even today. And that game is, of course, Furcadia.

So why my reluctance? To be honest, I suppose it was my reluctance to tackle anything in the “furry” fandom without knowing how to handle it. I don’t quite get the fascination with wanting to pretend to be an animal, and some of the expressions that I’ve seen in the news and online from this community have made me uncomfortable. Thus I kept away because I was worried that a piece that I wrote on Furcadia would devolve into a nonstop stream of jokes to cover that personal disquiet.

But I’ve tiptoed around this MMO long enough, and I have come to realize that there is virtue in earnestly trying to understand a subculture that is outside of my bubble, even if I don’t end up appreciating or liking it. Casting off preconceptions and simple snark, let us take a look at this unique title and see what it has to offer for the larger genre.

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