The MMO Crash of 2008

The year 2008 had to be the worst year for the MMO market. Games like Pirates of the Burning Sea, Tabula Rasa, Hellgate: London, and Age of Conan made their debuts in this year and two of them are still hanging by a string. While Hellgate and Tabula Rasa were released in 2007, I still count them towards the 2008 year, as it was their chance to redeem their selves from poor launches and they were nearly launched in 2008 anyways. However, when one of these MMOs launched is not the question; the question is what the hell happened?


You Got Flagshipped
To start it all off was Hellgate: London. I can talk for ages about this game, listing the many faults found within it, and I still wouldn’t cover all the troubles to it. Here’s a game where you can effectively use in a conversation for the epitome to the definition of “everything went wrong.” No one could have ever predicted that this game was going to bomb on the scale that it did. You had ex-Blizzard guys (some of which were the creative and original minds behind Diablo) getting together to make a game of their genre. But something went wrong. Maybe it was their CEO “following his heart” when it came to juggling with people’s jobs or maybe it was the ridiculous advertising campaign in Korea, or maybe it was just not listening to your beta testers, but I’m willing to bet it was most likely a combination of all of the above. It’s pretty bad when a term known as “flagshipping” is coined out of the endeavors you have taken.

Essentially, Flagship Studios bit off more than they could chew. A few weeks before Hellgate launched, the original staff working on the game was immediately moved over to Mythos, another project that never got to see the day of light. This mainly had to do in part with how Flagship Studios was in the hole shortly after Hellgate launched and flopped, since there was zero incentive to actually subscribe to nonexistent content, and decided to take out a loan to keep the boat afloat for some borrowed time, putting up the intellectual property rights of Hellgate and Mythos as collateral. Eventually they defaulted on the loan and the company went out of business in August 2008. Out of professional courtesy, Namco is holding up the online servers until February 1, 2009, after which the game will indefinitely be dead (HanbitSoft bought the rights to both games but Namco refuses to hand over the American distribution rights for Hellgate).


There Was Nothing “Clean” About This
Tabula Rasa, in a lot of ways, is Hellgate’s ugly twin sister. They released days apart from one another and both had the idea of using a science fiction setting and replacing all weapons with guns. They also put too much on their plate as well, with Richard Garriott offering empty promises that were never delivered. With an unappealing front on nearly all sides of the game, it never picked up, and those that stuck with it started to lose interest when things never got fixed. See what I mean by the ugly sister of Hellgate?

Eventually it busted as well, but this had to do more with Richard Garriott, who in an unprecedented turn-about decided to take a vacation in space for around $30 million. Shortly thereafter the old coot must have popped an aneurysm because he upped and left NCSoft dry in a short goodbye letter. Weeks thereafter NCSoft announced that they were going to stop supporting Tabula Rasa, and the game became free to play on December 23, 2008 while the servers are going to close down on February 28, 2009. See, they’re even closing down in the same month. NCSoft and Richard Garriott, both veterans in their respect of the MMO industry, prove, just like Flagship Studios did, that experience means a load of crock if you’re not going to try and make an effort to fixing broken products.


The Lonely Sea
Having had the opportunity to beta test Pirates of the Burning Sea, it pains me to still see that Flying Lab Software still cannot recover from a failed launch. While the concept of ship fighting was interesting and hadn’t really been fooled around with since Pirates! Gold, the other features to Pirates of the Burning Sea were tacked on and rather undeveloped. Avatar combat was the number one most complained about thing in Pirates and for good reason; a lot of missions required you to enact in avatar combat, which was largely unbalanced.

The problem, however, is that Flying Lab Software did eventually fix the game of its major bugs and glitches and did improve on many weak aspects of the game, but it was too late; the damage had already been done. Here’s where a case of too little too late comes in, reminding us, again, that unfinished games don’t get high marks or keep people around for very long. It became quite apparent, however, when they shut down seven of the eleven servers and are currently trying to offer incentives for people to subscribe and play. Being able to design your own flags and sails is cool, but not cool enough to keep people around for Pirates of the Burning Sea.


Age of Tortage
Age of Conan was perhaps the only other MMO in 2008 to rival the troubles that Hellgate boasted. Funcom, or lovingly dubbed Failcom by critics, also tried tried to bite off more than they could chew. Also being a beta tester for this game, I could immediately get the sense and feeling that it was going to crash and burn at its launch (literally–Age of Conan is known for its many problems with CTDs). Age of Conan boasted the large and extensive world of Hyboria, but with the lack of content and direction to the game outside of the starter area, followed by a myriad of troubles regarding city building and PvP, and you had one of the most ultimate recipes for disaster.

Like Hellgate, Age of Conan never truly improved. It released content patches, but the game was still plagued by the many flaws of the core game that still existed. It’s troubling to try and understand the thought process to purposely making female avatars weaker than the male avatars, but then it all comes together when you look at the full scope of Age of Conan and you found that you were looking at a miserable pile of lies. In September 2008 Funcom announced server merges, and just last month laid off 70% of the North American staff. To quote a friend: “…Mostly their Customer Support and QA sections [were laid off], meaning that the game should continue to function exactly as it did before.” Of course, Funcom continues to deny that this has any affect on Age of Conan. Yeah, where have I heard that before?


Recap and Recrap
So now we know what happened, but how about why this happened? Was it essentially that there was just too many MMOs trying to make it in the MMO market in the wrong time frame? Or perhaps the economy had its hand in this fiasco as well? And what about the power hitter of them all, WoW; is there no more room for MMOs because of it? The answer to all such questions is no. Hell no, in fact. If an apologist fan (or Bill Roper) of any of these games tries to blame the previous as to why these games never became a success then they clearly have a few screws loose. No, these games failed because their developers let it happen.

New Is Cool–If You Do It Right

One thing these four MMOs had in common is that they all tried to do something new for the market. Hellgate tried its hand at FPS combat, Tabula Rasa had the battlegrounds, Pirates had ship combat, and Age of Conan had city building. These are, essentially, the main points to those games (sans Conan, which failed on all fronts) and were the advertised features. The problem, however, is that while most of the games did good in these new endeavors, they failed to successfully implement them when it came to the rest of the game. Ironically the new features that were supposed to make the games critical successes was one of the main reasons why they failed.

Beta Testers–Use Em’ Or Lose Em’

Another thing these four MMOs had in common is that they all had beta testing periods. Some of them were extensive while some of them…well, not so much. However, there was a testing phase to be had. Now, traditionally, a testing phase is when you bring outsiders to view the progress of the game so far to help report bugs and problems and provide feedback on the game overall. Now, I beta tested three of the four games that I touched on in this article, and from personal experience I can say that little, if nothing, was actually considered by the developers from beta testing feedback. The worst offender of them all is a toss up between Hellgate and Conan, though I will have to say Conan was a total war zone in the following weeks to launch with every other thread full of curses and insults. In effect, this is what a beta tester actually has to do in order to be noticed, and it’s disgusting. Why bring in beta testers if you’re not even going to listen to them and the game has already been shipped?

“Patch And Go” Is Not A Motto To Live By

Again, a common flaw these four shared is that the developers thought they could launch the game in its beta state and then fix it in the coming months when content patches came along. The only problem is that these are MMOs; people are paying monthly subscriptions to play a game, but they’re expecting it to work as well. By the time a developer is actually finally able to bring the game up to par, the vast majority of the launch players have already left and canceled their subscriptions, and no matter what a developer might say, the damage has been done. People are not going to pay to test games.

Gamers Are People Too

If an MMO developer views their subscribers as dollar signs, then there is going to be a communication barrier when it comes to player feedback in the coming days after the launch and the months after from the loyal fans. You keep ignoring them or mistreating them and it will come back to bite you in the ass. Some of those people are the only reason why the game is still alive. Flagship Studios is the biggest offender of them all when it was found out that the community manager was actively banning critics posting constructive criticism off the forums. Hell, the Hellgate forums were private from viewing until I brought it up in a thread.

And while developers should take into consideration that gamers are people, fellow gamers should also take that into consideration too. Another major problem with Hellgate is that the die-hard fans were quick to insult to a degrading level new players that came to the forums and complained about the game, essentially telling them to leave. Chances are they did just that. Keep in mind when you think you are helping out the game or the developers when you do things like that you are, most likely, hurting them. A company is not going to continue game support for 12 angry fanboys.


The Grass Is Greener In Azeroth
While 2008 was essentially a bad year for starter MMOs, there was one MMO that managed to succeed. Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning seemed to pull itself into a niche and is beginning to shape up well in stabilizing itself. While the road seemed rocky at first with the cutting of content right before launch, Mythic Entertainment’s promises are actually shaping up and turning out to hold true. In other news, Turbine released Mines of Moria, expansion to Lord of the Rings Online, Blizzard released Wrath of the Lich King, expansion to World of Warcraft, and Sony Online Entertainment released The Shadow Odyssey, expansion to Everquest II. Let’s not forget Eve’s every-half-year content patches too.

But, in retrospect, that’s all that there really is to talk about when it comes to the MMO market. Sure, there’s City of Heroes, there’s Final Fantasy XI, there’s Anarchy Online, there’s Star Wars Galaxies, but these are old and tired MMOs whose novelty dates are starting to expire and whose creators are already moving on to new games. Lord of the Rings Online proved to be the new kid on the block in 2007 and Warhammer Online is shaping up to be the new kid on the block in 2008. What will be in store for us in 2009? Hopefully not MMO developers trying get-rich-quick schemes, that’s for sure, or else we’ll be getting a repeat of 2008 soon enough.

Originally written on: January 2009

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About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

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