I wouldn’t label myself as a MMO tourist so much as a MMO sampler. I rarely just up and leave my current game of choice the second a new title comes out, but I have been known to try recently released games on the side with a healthy pinch of cynicism — and escaped a few with the scars to prove it. Here are six MMOs that I considered “botched” in some way after my brief time in game:
1. The Sims Online
A lesson that should be sorely accepted at this point in game development: a sure thing will often be anything but. Take, for example, The Sims Online. Best selling game of all time, etc, etc, and a sure shoo-in for a massively multiplayer experience. Yet they tanked this title in so many creative ways — and I should know, as I played the beta up to the day of release.
For one thing, the Sims is a single-player title and didn’t lend itself easily to a multiplayer world — where you end up controlling one character as your avatar instead of overseeing numerous peoples. For another, it used the aging Sims engine (2D), which made it look and feel archaic compared to The Sims 2, which launched shortly afterwards. But above all that was the lack of anything substantial to do. It was essentially a giant chat room where you occasionally built a house or did one of four activities that would net you money. People would sit and grind skills for obscenely long periods of time, during which they did nothing themselves, just to be able to make more money. In the end, the game dissolved into a pre-Second Life virtual whorehouse of escort services and questionable social associations. Hooray.
2. Anarchy Online
You know how games journalists talk about the Anarchy Online launch in hushed, anguished tones as if it was the online equal to the Hindenburg disaster? I didn’t just read about it — I was there, baby. Day one. Bought the box, set up my account, logged in (via dial-up, natch), and proceeded to witness one of the absolute worst MMO launches of all time. Everything was bugged and lagged to hell and back — my recollection of the two days I spent trying to do anything in the starter zones were slideshow after slideshow of me eventually dying to a critter I couldn’t fight.
A while later, when the Shadowlands expansion released and Funcom managed to salvage a decent game, I signed up once again for a four-month stint. But not without the scars. No. Not without them.
3. Final Fantasy XI
“I was just killed. By a sheep,” I whined to my girlfriend over the phone. “BY. A. SHEEP.” Yes, this was the legacy that FFXI would hand down to me: being kicked in the family jewels by a farm animal too dumb to drink out of moving water.
In many ways, I consider this the last of the old school hard-for-the-sake-of-being-hard MMOs that were as far from user friendly as could be. Nevermind that the Japanese release for FFXI happened far before the US launch (ensuring that all NA players were far behind their overseas counterparts); nevermind that Square created the most brutal, incomprehensible account creation process (that took literally hours to set up, patch and launch); nevermind that you couldn’t choose your server to play with certain friends at the start; nevermind that you could lose levels (a la EverQuest) by dying — this was a game that rewarded me for stepping a foot outside of the city gates by trouncing me with a big white fluffy ewe of doom.
I couldn’t uninstall it fast enough.
4. Tabula Rasa
Tabula Rasa’s demise is being kicked all over the internet, as varying commentators are giving their expert analysis of why it failed. From the perspective of a guy that tried the game for a good month in late 2007, it’s pretty obvious to me: it was a half-baked game full of good intentions, sloppy design and mind-bogglingly poor choices.
Why have a scifi game take place on a planet that looks pretty much like every fantasy setting we’ve done to death in fantasy MMOs? Why ask us to hunt down all these Logos things when each class only needs a small portion of them for their skills to work? Why use skills at all, since a bulk of the combat is just holding down the mouse button to fire, and occasionally using a healing kit? Why give me nausea with your herky-jerky FPS view?
It’s not that I can bag on it 100% — TR looked decent, had fast-paced combat that never really let up, and the “ethical parables” had great potential for storytelling. I guess that’s all moot, tho.
5. Pirates of the Burning Sea
First impressions count. Let me repeat that for all of the thousands of imaginary MMO devs who hang on my every word: first impressions count.
I don’t care how much potential your massively PvP, pirate-based title holds, the robust economy or whatnot. When I log in and get a cheesy tutorial with clumsy animations, lackluster graphics and no excitement to speak of, all the potential in the world isn’t going to keep me from throwing holy water on my computer tower, curling up in a fetal ball and wishing for simpler, halcyon days.
6. Hellgate London
I actually feel embarrassed how excited I was for Hellgate — it was another “sure thing” (makers of Diablo, post-apocalyptic setting, tons of skills, unlimited replayability) that promised the world and delivered broken dreams upon launch. I even strongly considered the lifetime subscription (thankfully, I did not spring for it), which would have burned me considerably for the lack of subscriber content and the game’s demise soon to follow.
It wasn’t a horrible game, it just wasn’t horribly interesting. Skills and skill trees needed major reworking (players had accurately predicted this severe flaw in the beta phase, which Flagship ignored), the levels didn’t have enough visual variety to justify just how often you’d be running through them, and the “personality” of the game was simultaneously off-kilter and drab (they cut down a lot of the more erratic personalities pre-launch). As a single-player action-RPG, it was passable enough, but I hardly ever felt the urge to team up, and the highly instanced world made me feel cut off from the “massively multiplayer” part of the title. About the only thing I did enjoy was gathering zombie robot parts for a little pet on the first week during their Halloween event.
Bonus: Magic the Gathering Online
Magic Online (or MTGO) isn’t a MMORPG — more of a massively multiplayer collectible card game. Yet I’ve been harboring a lot of resentment toward this title I needed to lance, so here goes.
I liked Magic, as a card game. It was a little too expensive (to put it mildly) and got far too complex (same), but this was the grand-daddy of CCGs and for a good reason. It seems that the idea of an online version of Magic where you could buy/collect/trade cards that had the same monetary worth as their paper counterparts would be an easy way for Wizards of the Coast to make a quick buck. I never wanted to haunt my local comic store to play against unbathed twitchy nerds — but the idea of being able to play online whenever I liked was quite appealing.
If you’re even half informed as to the development history of Magic Online, then you’ll back me when I say that just when you thought there’d be no more ways for this game to shoot itself in the foot, they’d go and surprise you again and again and again. It was, frankly, a mess from launch to present, with particular spikes of idiocy that included Chuck’s Virtual Party (a huge event celebrating the stability of a new version of the game, which promptly crashed the game like a toddler going at it with a ball-peen hammer) and the semi-recent version 3.0, which is actually a severe step BACK in the functionality of this title and almost universally derided by players.
Wizards has proved that they can’t get their crap together, instead providing toadies who whine publically about how hard it is to develop and code a CCG online as far more complex MMORPGs and other online CCGs made a mockery of their failure. I still have $50 worth of tickets floating around in MTGO, but I can’t foresee a future that would tempt me enough to ever log back in.