“AO’s European launch is imminent. If our good friends in Europe have any sense, they’ll give this game a wide berth, whatever its price. The sooner Funcom closes the lights on the few remaining players in this flaming wreck of a game, the better. Perhaps they can sell the remnants of their tattered code to a real developer and someday we’ll see the game reach its potential. It’s a certainty that Funcom itself can’t pull it off.”
~ from Timothy Burke’s 2001 review of Anarchy Online
“Anarchy Online is now launched, and it is time for a little update on the status of the game. The launch on June 27th has not gone as smoothly as we had expected.”
One of the first MMOs I ever played for any substantial time was Anarchy Online, which I picked up mostly for its scifi theme. At the time, I had a putzy computer with a dialup connection, which didn’t help when I tried to log on and get into the game. It REALLY didn’t help that I stumbled into what would become known as the “worst MMORPG launch of all time”, which meant that nothing worked, and I spent the better part of an hour trying to cross a patch of land and kill a guy without the game bugging, crashing, or dropping me through the world. I unsubbed after that (only to resub for Shadowlands).
If Anarchy Online’s launch is but a vague friend-of-a-friend mention to you, I’d encourage you to take a trip in a wayback machine, and read Something Awful’s beat by beat experience on that most fateful of days. It’s both enlightening, and helpful to keep our current launches in perspective.
So what went wrong with this launch? Just how bad was it, really? Let’s take a trip through the timeline of the disaster:
- June 27, 2001 – Anarchy Online launches in NA and Norway. “The number of subscribers we had at launch were much more than we had anticipated.” (CM Tor Andre)
- June 27, 2001 – According to Wikipedia, “Customers were unable to register to play using the product keys included with their installation discs. Others were accidentally billed for the registration fee twice, although they were never charged for the second bill. The game software would crash repeatedly, according to reports from players. Significant portions of the game world were inaccessible, and the game’s servers were routinely out of service.”
- July 2, 2001 – “Numerous complaints from Anarchy Online customers cited problems with registration and difficulties retrieving patches needed to play the game.” Funcom issues a statement through Gamespot saying that they were hard at work fixing the registration system.
- July 2, 2001 – Funcom announces 35,000 registered accounts created.
- July 3, 2001 – Funcom issues a statement on their website, apologizing for the disaster, and promising that no player would be charged until the mess got fixed.
- August 12, 2001 – Funcom sends out a Post Launch Newsletter, detailing why the launch went so wrong.
- September 21, 2001 – To lure players back, Funcom opens a free one-week trial.
In short, although the Funcom team thought their product was ready for retail, they were up against four major problems that caused this “perfect storm” of a disaster: more players than anticipated, an understaffed customer service department, a borked registration process, and severe technical issues that put the game in a nearly unplayable state for many. Even to this day, the mess of AO’s launch remains a textbook study in what NOT to do for a game launch, although even as recent as this year, MMOs release with many of the same problems, proving that either we just don’t learn from failure, or these games are almost impossible to launch without a hiccup or two.
As for Anarchy Online, the upside is that they proved that even the worst launch in history could be reversed by a dedicated dev team and a quick response to player concerns. While other MMOs have come and gone since then, Anarchy Online is still running, with several expansions and a much-ballyhooed free player program under its belt.