Author Archives: Tyler Bro

The Best MMO Settings (That Aren’t Fantasy)

As we’ve discussed before, fantasy MMOs heavily dominate the genre. Even if you’re a fantasy fan, it can start to feel a bit stale after a while. Maybe you want to try something else for a change.

Though they are a minority, there are some solid non-fantasy MMORPGs out there. These are a few of your better options for an MMO with a different sort of setting.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The Dyson Sphere Iokath in Star Wars: The Old Republic

I almost didn’t include SWTOR on the grounds that it is still pretty much fantasy. Little if any of the technology in the Star Wars universe has any connection to real science, and the Force is simply magic by another name.

But it is at least a slightly different flavor of fantasy, even if it’s just a different skin on the same tropes. Sometimes that’s all it takes to change people’s feelings; I’ve known sci-fi fans who love Star Wars while decrying the fantasy genre. So while it may not make rational sense, SWTOR may still feel refreshing to those bored of traditional high fantasy.

WildStar

A space scene in WildStar

WildStar is another game that incorporates a lot of fantasy elements into its sci-fi, alongside a certain Western feel and a strong dose of humor. The end result is an eclectic setting that exists somewhere between World of Warcraft, Firefly, and Bugs Bunny.

If you really want to leave the world of magic and mystery behind, it might not be enough to satisfy you, but it’s definitely not your standard high fantasy, at least, and you can’t deny it has a very unique character. One thing WildStar has never lacked for is personality.

Star Trek Online

A Romulan starship crew in Star Trek Online

Another MMORPG based on a popular science fiction IP, but this one hews much closer to traditional science fiction than does Star Wars. Obviously, if you’re a Star Trek fan, STO is worth a look, but even if you’re not familiar with the source material, it may be worth a try as a welcome departure from the tired fantasy formula used by so many other MMOs.

STO is particularly appealing in this regard because the difference in setting is also reflected in the game mechanics. Whereas SWTOR plays like any other fantasy MMO, Star Trek Online has space combat that feels quite different from anything else in the MMO genre and captures the feel of the shows and movies very well.

Fallen Earth

A promotional screenshot from the post-apocalyptic MMORPG Fallen Earth

But maybe space ships aren’t your thing, either. Perhaps the gritty texture of a post-apocalyptic setting is more your speed. There aren’t as many options on this front as there should be, but one possibility you can consider is the sandbox Fallen Earth.

It’s an older game with a small following, but it can definitely provide a breath of fresh (if radioactive) air for those seeking relief from the endless parade of sword and sorcery.

Destiny/Destiny 2

A promotional image for the MMO shooter Destiny 2

Another strong contender on the sci-fi front are Bungie’s Destiny games, depicting a far future where humanity clings to existence amidst the ruins of Earth’s solar system. It’s got a larger than life feel similar to Star Wars, but hews a bit closer to traditional sci-fi.

They’re also another option for breaking away from traditional MMO gameplay as well as traditional settings. Both versions of Destiny take the form of first person shooters (with some RPG elements) rather than the standard action bar set-up of most MMORPGs.

DC Universe Online

A villain broods over Gotham City in DC Universe Online

It always amazes me that superhero games don’t make up a larger share of the MMO market. Given the power fantasy nature of the genre and the popularity of superheroes in general, it seems like a perfect fit.

Nonetheless, superhero MMORPGs are for some reason a rarity, despite providing arguably the best fit for an MMO of any non-fantasy genre. One of your few good options on this front is DC Universe Online. It captures the comic book feel pretty well, it boasts fantastic combat, and it has maintained a steady level of popularity for many years now, with significant updates still coming on the regular.

Whether you’re a big superhero fan or just want something far away from the realm of Elves and wizards, DCUO is one of the better options.

EVE Online

Exploring deep space in EVE Online

The notoriously convoluted game mechanics and ruthless community of EVE Online are the sort of thing you either love or hate, but one thing it definitely does deserve credit for is being one of the longest running and most successful MMORPGs that isn’t leaning on the crutch of high fantasy.

And unlike many other entries on this list, EVE is also not based on popular IP from elsewhere in the media. Its sci-fi setting of New Eden is entirely original, a wild frontier where aspiring starship pilots can find fame and fortune… or death and ruin.

Secret World Legends

The tutorial sequence from the horror MMO Secret World Legends

Surely one of the most inventive settings ever seen in the world of MMORPGs is that of the bizarre and terrifying Secret World, a torch now carried by its rebooted successor, Secret World Legends.

Combining elements of countless real world mythologies and conspiracy theories, Legends is best described as a horror game, but it also draws elements from many other genres, including sci-fi and, yes, fantasy. But even the fantasy elements have a completely different feel from the traditional Tolkien-clone MMO settings.

Unfortunately, Legends carries a lot of baggage related to its messy transition from its predecessor, The Secret World. There was a lot of dishonesty on the part of the developers and a lot of hurt feelings among fans, and so it’s difficult for me to give an unequivocal recommendation to the game as I might have in the past.

Nevertheless, if we’re judging the caliber of settings, neither incarnation of the Secret World can be beat. If it’s not something you’ve experienced before, you have no idea what you’re missing. The originality, the ambiance, and the depth are without equal.


Can MMOs Provide Satisfying Endings?

I’ve been thinking about endings lately. About how and if MMOs can end. I’m not talking about when games shut down — or at least not entirely — but about the stories within MMOs, and whether they can ever be given satisfying conclusions.

The ending of The Secret World's Whispering Tide event

This is a complex topic, so let me explain.

The Rock and the Hard Place

Although MMORPGs are not often thought of as a particularly narrative-driven genre, story is nonetheless a fairly essential part of the MMO experience — or at least the themepark MMO experience, anyway. It’s what steers the direction of the game and gives what we do a sense of purpose.

Even if you’re not the sort of person to delve deeply into lore, most would agree that it’s more interesting to fight the traitor Arthas Menethil atop the Frozen Throne than it is to fight Raid Boss #3.3.12 in a gray box.

So story is important, but MMOs are unusual in that they are meant to be continuous. There isn’t the same beginning, middle, and end structure. That persistence is a large part of what makes MMOs appealing, but it’s a double-edged sword, because it cuts out something terribly important to any good story: the end.

To see how important endings are, look at Mass Effect 3. This is a game almost universally reviled, and that’s purely on the basis of its ending. I vehemently disagree with the criticism of ME3’s ending, actually, but that’s a discussion for elsewhere, and either way it illustrates how much an ending colors people’s perceptions of a story.

The trouble with MMOs is that their entire point is to not end, so the story just forges ahead endlessly. This usually results in one of two things, and neither is desirable.

The first is the game sunsets and shuts down entirely. Since no one plans to lose their job, the developers will be unprepared for this, and the story will either end unfinished or be given an ending that’s far too rushed.

A paladin class story in World of Warcraft

The other is that a game just keeps going on and on, and inevitably, this is going to take a toll on its story-telling. I’m sure we can all think of one or two TV shows that ran for too long and stretched the story past its breaking point. This is no different. A story you love going on forever is one of those things that sounds great until you achieve it, and then you realize that no story can remain compelling forever.

But what can be done? Can MMOs ever truly achieve satisfactory endings?

Saying Goodbye Is Hard

MMOs are, in the end, businesses, and while I do think many developers also care about the artistic side of things, the fact remains that choosing to end a profitable game based purely on artistic integrity is going to be a hard sell, to put it mildly.

Perhaps it is then up to the players to choose their own ending, to simply stop playing whenever they reach what they feel could be a satisfying conclusion to the story. You’d be surprised how many people stopped playing World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King simply because the Lich King’s story was what they cared about, and with it done, they no longer had any investment.

That’s not an ideal solution, though. It can be hard to judge when the right moment to leave is. I know a lot of those people who quit after Wrath missed out on some of WoW’s best story-telling by not playing expansions like Legion and Mists of Pandaria. And it can be hard to make a clean break, especially if you still have friends in the game.

There are some examples of developers delivering true endings to their MMO’s story, but they’re few and far between. The original Guild Wars comes to mind, but it ceased new development largely to make way for its sequel, so I’m not sure that’s really an ending per se.

The Iron Marches zone in Guild Wars 2

One other example is Final Fantasy XI, which as I understand it did try to deliver a conclusion to its story before entering maintenance mode. Unfortunately I’ve never played that game, and as an old title with a small community, it’s hard to find a lot of information about it, so I’m not sure exactly how that panned out. Did it wrap up every loose end, or was it simply an end to content updates rather than a true conclusion of the story?

That’s a rare case, too. Square Enix is a very successful company with another popular MMO under its belt. Few have the resources to give a proper send-off to an aging game like that.

The one other option I see is to wrap up the big storyline of a game, then continue with smaller, more minor story quests for so long as the game persists.

There is actually a recent example of this. Lord of the Rings Online was a game whose story had a clear conclusion: the destruction of the One Ring. I honestly thought they’d keep procrastinating about getting to that forever, but now with the recent Mordor expansion, the Ring’s journey has finally ended, yet the game persists, now forging new ground as it deals with the aftermath of the War of the Ring.

This seems like an excellent idea to me, but again I do not play LotRO, so I can’t speak with authority on how well it’s worked out. I like the idea, at least.

I’m not sure this would work for every game, though. World of Warcraft defines itself by being as bombastic and epic as possible. Abandoning major threats for smaller stories of character and culture just wouldn’t quite work there. It may instead be doomed to continue on until it becomes totally ridiculous (some might argue it’s already there).

This is another situation that lacks an easy solution.

How would you give closure to MMO stories, and do you have any examples of it being done well?


Why MMOs Are Good

We spend a lot of time here criticizing MMOs and their community. And that’s not a bad thing. Constructive criticism is crucial for growth, and there are many mistakes and challenges dogging the world of MMORPGs. Those should be criticized.

MMOs are good Black Desert

But there is a danger in becoming too bogged down in the negative. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and appreciate what we have. MMOs have problems, but there’s also a lot about them that’s truly special. We wouldn’t be so passionate about them if that wasn’t the case.

So let’s take a moment to celebrate the things that make MMOs good, the things that no other type of entertainment can offer. The things that always bring us back for more.

Connections

If you’ve been following my articles for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed I take an extremely cynical view of the MMO community as a whole. The phrase “wretched hive of scum and villainy” does come to mind.

But even if the MMO community is a foul place on the macro scale, that doesn’t mean there can’t be positive stories on a more personal level. While toxic players fight gold sellers for most hated player group, guilds, friends and family groups, and other small factions of players are forming and renewing relationships, making connections in the digital space.

Spend any length of time in the world of MMORPGs, and you’ll find stories of people who met their spouses in-game, or who have forged lifelong friendships in MMOs, or reconnected with old friends via gaming. There are those who have used these games to keep in touch with distant family members or friends in foreign countries. Of course, MMOs are good for socializing – it’s arguably the best digital medium for the activity.

Whatever flaws the greater community may have, there is tremendous value in those smaller connections, in the intimate bonds formed between players.

Scale

MMOs are good - Azeroth

MMOs are good at giving us things to do. They’re big. Like really big. While large-scale single-player games like Skyrim and Fallout boast about their huge game worlds and dozens of hours of content, MMOs are sitting in the background like, “That’s cute.”

Even relatively small MMOs tend to rival or outstrip the largest single-player games when it comes to sheer volume of content. Just playing through the story content to level cap can often take weeks, or months. That’s without any grinding or repetition — just playing as you would a single-player title.

And then of course when you do factor in the endgame activities, the number of hours of gameplay available to you balloons even further.

Then you consider larger, older MMOs. Someone new joining World of Warcraft today would probably take at least a year, if not more, of regular play just to experience all of the content that’s currently in the game — again, without resorting to significant grinding or getting into the endgame treadmill. And that’s just one game. There’s also uniquely massive good MMOs like Eve Online, where servers house tens of thousands of players simultaneously on their monolithic servers.

Furthermore, whereas single-player titles are largely static — perhaps with a trickle of DLC that quickly runs dry — MMOs are constantly growing and evolving, with regular infusions of new content for so long as the games operate. Not only are they big, but they’re only getting bigger.

Longevity and Persistence

As I covered earlier this month with the MMOs that died piece, they don’t last forever. That doesn’t mean they aren’t possessed of incredible longevity. EverQuest is approaching its twentieth anniversary. Ultima Online has already passed that milestone. World of Warcraft has been around for over a decade.

And there are people in all of those games who have been playing from the beginning.

MMOs are good Coruscant SWTOR

By comparison, even if you’re the sort of person who likes to replay games many times, most single-player games aren’t likely to last you more than a few months at best. The difference in longevity between the two categories is night and day.

This has value beyond the obvious, beyond the raw number of hours of play you’re going to get out of an MMO. Being able to play a single game for years fosters a sense of history, a sense of belonging, that’s impossible to replicate any other way.

My oldest video game character is my rogue in World of Warcraft. She’s old enough now that if she were a real person, she would have just started third grade. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. When I created my rogue, my life was completely different from how it is now, but she remains, virtually unchanged after all this time. She’s become one of the few permanent fixtures of my life, and playing her feels like visiting an old friend.

Similarly, logging into a game you’ve played for a long time can feel like coming home. This, for me, is one of the greatest appeals of MMOs. The social element has never been a perfect fit for me, but I love imaginary worlds, and whereas single-player games only let me be a tourist in their settings, MMOs let me set down roots. MMOs are good at providing a permanent virtual world to feel at home.

That’s something I truly love.

Value

One can also look to more practical concerns. If you’re worried about keeping a budget, MMOs provide one of the most cost-effective forms of entertainment around.

Think about it. Going to see a movie will usually cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $15, and that will only keep you entertained for at most two to three hours.

MMOs are good World of Warcraft

That same $15 can buy you a month of subscription to an MMO, which can potentially provide dozens of hours of entertainment.

And that’s with a pay to play game. When you consider the current prevalence of free to play MMOS and buy to play titles, the potential for entertainment on the cheap becomes virtually infinite. MMOs are good options for the cheaper or poorer players, especially combined with their quantity of content. You can get hundreds of hours of gameplay for just a minimal box price, or even for nothing at all.

Yes, you may be held back in some ways if you never give in to micro-transactions, but take it from a longtime MMO player who’s had some lean times in his life: You’d be amazed how far you can get without paying a cent, even in games with relatively restrictive business models. Even the greediest games will still usually offer most content and rewards to free players; it just might take a little extra effort.

The “I Was There” Factor

If there’s one thing that no other genre of game can replicate — not even smaller scale online games — it’s the ability to say, “I was there.”

Every once in a while, something will happen in an MMO that those present will never forget. Some huge in-game event that will be forever famous… or infamous. Sometimes it’s something carefully scripted by developers. Sometimes it’s something orchestrated by the players. Sometimes it’s a total accident. But it’s always unforgettable.

You know the kind of events I mean. The assassination of Lord British. The opening of Ahn’Qiraj. The corrupted blood pandemic. The fall of Lion’s Arch. World War Bee.

If you’ve never experienced a moment like this, there’s no way to adequately describe what it’s like, but if you’ve played MMOs for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced at least one, and you know how special it is to be able to say, “I was there.”

For me, my favorite took place during the first anniversary celebration of The Secret World. I happened to find myself in the same zone as a streamer who was interviewing the game’s director at the time, Joel Bylos. When the anniversary world boss for that zone spawned, Joel used his GM powers to blow his avatar up to Godzilla size and join players in beating the tar out of the boss.

MMOs are good the secret world

He then danced Gangnam Style for a few moments before vanishing without a trace.

It was equal parts epic and hilarious, and it’s a memory I will always treasure.

Oh, and that streamer? We’re still friends to this day.

That’s my favorite, but I have other “I was there” moments from across my MMO career. I was there when the Legion hit Westfall. I was there when Bacon Squad took the fight to the Karka. I was there when Gaia’s chosen drove back the Whispering Tide.

We all have our own moments, our own stories. That’s what the scale and the unpredictability of MMOs offer, what no other genre of game can replicate: The chance to be a part of virtual history, the chance to experience once in a lifetime moments that will never come again.

The chance to say, “I was there.”

What’s Your Reason?

We all have different feelings on different mechanics, but there’s no denying that MMOs are good and well. Some might play MMOs for the social connections. For me, it’s about the opportunity to fully inhabit a virtual world and bear witness to its history as it unfolds.

What’s your reason? What is it that keeps you coming back to MMOs?


Five MMOs That Died Young

The sad reality is that MMOs aren’t forever. Someone has to pay to keep the servers online, and as the years advance and revenues dwindle, it can become harder for companies to justify the expense. Even sadder are the MMOs that died too young. While it’s unrealistic to expect MMOs and MMORPGs to last forever, there’s often a lot of potential that gets left on the table with canceled or dead MMOs.

For fans, it’s always sad to see a game go. They are cut down before their time, their players left adrift to dream of what might have been. Today, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most unique and beloved MMORPGs to have met a premature end.

The Matrix Online

MMOs that Died - Matrix Online

If ever there was a perfect setting for an MMORPG, it is the Matrix. A virtual world about a virtual world — it only makes sense. Its release came only two years after the Matrix trilogy ended. It was therefore surprising that it joined the ranks of MMOs that died in 2009, after only four years of existence. The creators of the Matrix films, the Wachowskis, even gave their blessing to declare The Matrix Online the official continuation of the story that began in the movies.

Players were able to join one of three factions — the human rebels of Zion, the machines who control the Matrix, or the renegades of the Merovingian — and new story content, tailored to each faction, was delivered on a regular basis.

Matrix Online had more to offer than a great setting, too. It also boasted a unique combat system based on both real time “free fire” and close-quarters combat in slowed down bullet time. The class system was quite flexible as well, with the three main classes being augmented by numerous sub-classes for a variety of roles.

But despite the strength of its setting and its many interesting ideas, The Matrix Online was not a runaway success. The population, never huge, dwindled over the years, and the game’s production values took a nosedive. The story began to take some very questionable turns, further souring opinion of the game.

Ultimately, the population bled down to just a few hundred people, and in 2009, after just four years of operation, The Matrix Online shut down for good. There was a final in-game event in an attempt to provide some closure to the story, but even that was a buggy mess, preventing many people from fully appreciating it.

The Matrix Online now stands as one of the greatest examples of wasted potential in the MMO space.

Landmark

MMOs that Died - Landmark

Voxel-based building sandbox Landmark was another game with a strange and tormented history. Originally, it was developed as a building tool for the much hyped EverQuest: Next. It proved so popular with its own developers that it was then spun-off as its own game, launching into early access.

It languished in early access for a very long time, and even when it finally did launch for real, it was often plagued by polish issues and stability problems.

Nonetheless, it was a game with a lot to offer. While there are other building games out there, none have ever been quite like Landmark. Its unusually high graphical fidelity and extremely easy to use toolset allowed most anyone to make true works of art.

Conventional wisdom says that if you give players the tools to make their own content, the large majority of it will be terrible, but Landmark disproved that as a lie. Nearly every build in Landmark was beautiful or fascinating, and every log-in brought new wonders to explore.

But it was not to last. Daybreak put little effort into advertising the game after its initial early access launch, and worse, when EverQuest: Next was cancelled, the greater gaming community chose to take its frustrations out on Landmark, review bombing it and generally taking every opportunity to sully its name. Daybreak seems to be more associated now with old MMORPGs and MMOs that died more than releasing anything new or of note.

Under-supported by its own developer and unfairly persecuted by the community at large, Landmark failed to find a strong enough audience, and shut down less than a year after its official launch, taking with all the amazing creations of its players.

The Secret World

MMOs that Died - The Secret World

Unlike the other games on this list, it is still possible for at least some people to play The Secret World (without the aid of an emulator). But if it’s not yet entirely dead, it is at least mostly dead.

With the launch of its reboot, Secret World Legends, it is no longer possible to purchase or otherwise create a new account for TSW, so only those who were already players can still access it. All plans for future content have also been scrapped, and the game’s population has cratered. It now seems only a matter time before the servers are shut down altogether.

And that is a terrible loss for the world of online gaming, as over its five years of life TSW proved itself one of the most unique MMORPGs ever made. Its writing was impeccable, its modern setting was darkly fascinating, its missions were challenging, and its build system put an almost unheard of level of power in the hands of the player.

But it always struggled financially due to poor marketing, a steep learning curve, and its mature subject matter. The reboot as Legends was a final attempt to reverse the game’s fortune’s, but I have my doubts over whether Legends can do any better than its predecessor, and even if it does, a lot of what made the original TSW special has been lost in the transition. Many may view Secret World Legends as simply a F2P Secret World, but I assure you that The Secret World’s time is past and thus, belongs in the ranks of MMOs that died too young.

Adding insult to injury is the dishonest way the entire transition has been handled. For months, fans were told that new content for TSW was in production, when all along the plan was to abandon the game in favor of the reboot.

City of Heroes

MMOs that Died - City of Heroes

The closure of City of Heroes in 2012 sent shockwaves through the entire MMO community. It may not have quite been a household name, but it had always been well-regarded and respectably successful, and its sudden end was a sobering reminder of just how uncertain the future of any MMO can be.

Over its eight years of life, the superhero MMO built up a modest but very tightly knit community and developed a uniformly positive reputation within the greater MMORPG space. Critics praised it, its players were passionate, and even those who didn’t actively play largely held City of Heroes in high regard. In a community infamous for negativity, CoH managed to emerge largely unscathed.

That made it truly shocking when publisher NCsoft decided to close the game. Even finances shed little light on the decision, as all indications are that CoH remained profitable, even if only modestly so, until the end.

For fans, it was a betrayal, and for many it permanently poisoned the reputation of NCsoft. Even for those who did not play, it was a stark wake-up call on just how capricious the world of online gaming can be. If a game as well-regarded as City of Heroes wasn’t safe, what is?

In a cruel irony, many City of Heroes players chose The Secret World as their new home, only to be uprooted yet again a few short years later.

The love for City of Heroes has spawned many crowdfunded spiritual successors, such as Valiance Online and City of Titans, but it remains to be seen which, if any, will survive to become completed games.

Star Wars Galaxies

MMOs that Died - Star Wars GalaxiesStar Wars Galaxies could almost be seen as the poster child for MMOs that died too young. I think for a lot of people it was the game that woke up them to the possibility that MMOs could end suddenly.

Much digital ink has already been spilled on the saga of SWG, so you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with it. It was certainly not without its difficulties, as large-scale overhauls known as the “Combat Upgrade” and “New Game Enhancements” caused intense, divisive controversies within its community.

Despite this, SWG remains an incredibly beloved title for many people, and is often held up as the paragon of good sandbox design, a game that offered the freedom to explore many different playstyles and still be a valuable part of the greater online community.

Still, it wasn’t enough to save the game. Star Wars Galaxies shut down with a final in-game event in 2011 after eight years. A clear answer on what exactly lead to SWG’s demise is difficult to come by, but it was likely due to the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Old Republic and the competition for players that would have arisen between the two games.

Still, many years after its end, SWG remains a popular topic of discussion among the community, with a vocal if displaced fanbase. The continued love for SWG has spawned many emulator projects, so there is still an option out there to play it… or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Enjoy Them While You Can

If there’s a lesson to take from all this, it’s that you can never know for sure what the future will hold for your MMO of choice. So enjoy them while you can. MMOs slowly lose players to new games or simply time and their MMO deaths are inevitable. So my advice – don’t sweat the small stuff, and appreciate them for what they are, because one day you won’t have the chance.

Unless you play World of Warcraft. That thing will be around forever.


The Strange Saga of Dark and Light

Often times the stories behind MMOs are at least as interesting as the games themselves. It’s one of the most fun things of writing about them. One of the most interesting stories in recent memory is that of the long and difficult road tread by Dark and Light, the ambitious MMORPG turned fantasy survival sandbox.

Join me as I explore the unique and tortured history of this game.

In the Beginning…

The original Dark and Light MMORPG, circa 2006

The original version of Dark and Light was developed by a company called NPCube. One of the most surprising things I learned while researching this article is that NPCube was based in Réunion, a place I had never even heard of. It turns out to be a small island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar, and a territory of France. This means it’s part of the European Union despite being nowhere near Europe.

That doesn’t really impact on the story of Dark and Light the game, but it does add an extra texture to this already strange story.

NPCube began development of Dark and Light in 2002. It was envisioned as an ambitious sandbox MMORPG of impressive scale. Its biggest selling point was its massive game world, one of the largest ever seen at fifteen thousand square miles.

It also gave players a wealth of options on who they could be and how to play. It featured no less than twelve playable races and fourteen classes. Progression focused on more than just fighting, as players earned separate experience points for combat, crafting, and social gameplay.

However, Dark and Light struggled to live up to this ambition. It languished in beta testing until investors, hoping to finally see some return for their money, pressured it into launch in 2006.

Reception was not good. The game was obviously unfinished, with poor graphics, incomplete features, and numerous bugs.

Dark and Light’s publisher, Farlan Entertainment, went into damage control mode. They acknowledged that the game had been released too soon and began work on improvements to the game, especially the oft-criticized graphics. To this end they signed a deal with the Chinese company Snail Games, who would provide assistance in getting Dark and Light up to snuff.

Along the way, Dark and Light adopted a hybrid free-to-play model, but first impressions are lasting impressions, and it continued to struggle.

To make matters worse, in 2007 another company, VWORLD LLC, sued NPCube, alleging they had used some of VWORLD’s technology in the development of Dark and Light without permission. This led to a countersuit from NPCube, who claimed that their reputation had been unfairly damaged by VWORLD.

After a lengthy legal battle, courts ruled in favor of VWORLD, dismissing NPCube’s lawsuit and finding that they had, in fact, used VWORLD’s technology. They were required to pay €50,000 in damages to VWORLD.

Panned by reviewers, rejected by players, and crippled by the lawsuit, Dark and Light the MMORPG met its end in 2008, with the servers shutting down for good.

Rebirth

The new Dark and Light survival sandbox

For most games, the story would end there, but Dark and Light is not most games. Around that time, Snail Games fully acquired the rights to the game.

For eight years, Dark and Light was little heard from, but then, in 2016, Snail Games suddenly announced a total reboot of it with a new game engine, altered lore, and revamped gameplay. Early this year, it released into early access.

Dark and Light is now little recognizable from its original concept. Instead of a full MMORPG, it is now a survival sandbox featuring both official and private servers. The original twelve playable races has been trimmed down to just three. The class system has been throw out entirely and replaced with skill-based progression where a single character can, in theory, eventually learn everything.

You can almost see this is a metaphor for the trajectory of online gaming as a whole. In 2006, MMORPGs were all the rage. Now MMOs are not as trendy, and all the focus is on survival sandboxes, and Dark Light has changed accordingly.

I do find it strange Snail bothered to resurrect the Dark and Light name at all, actually. I don’t get the impression there was a huge Dark and Light fanbase to tap into. If you’re going to change so much, from the game engine to the fundamental genre, why not just make a new game altogether?

But maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there’s something unique and special about the Dark and Light setting that was worth carrying forward.

There is also something of a beautiful irony to the fact that the original Dark and Light failed because it launched unfinished, and now its reboot has launched into early access. Much of the same kind of problems that doomed its forebear now afflict the new Dark and Light, but now we live in a time where bugs and unfinished features are no longer considered disqualifying.

Maybe the original Dark and Light was just ahead of its time.

It is, as I have said, a very strange story. And we must remember that it is not over yet. The life of Dark and Light’s reboot has only just begun. The developers are hoping it can introduce the survival sandbox genre to fans of more traditional high fantasy MMOs. Perhaps they will succeed and Dark and Light will overcome its troubled past to become a great success.

Or perhaps it will be just another game to languish eternally in early access and eventually slide into obscurity and oblivion once again.

We’ll see.


Time to Move on from the Bartle Types?

If you’ve spent any time at all in the MMO community, you’re probably familiar with the Bartle taxonomy of players types, designed by influential developer Richard Bartle. Created in the days of multi-user dungeons (MUDs), it divides players into four broad categories and is viewed by many as the gold standard for understanding player motivation in online gaming.

A diagram of Bartle's player types

However, at least as it applies to MMORPGs, I think the Bartle types are a flawed model, ultimately too simplistic to accurately define the complex motivations of human beings. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Bartle himself, but of the way his model is used (and abused) by many players and journalists within the community, as well as the flaws of trying to fit players into narrow boxes in the first place.

The Basics

Just in case you aren’t familiar with the Bartle taxonomy, let’s do a quick run-down of what it is.

Bartle’s theory divides MUD players into four categories: achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers.

Achievers are about winning, earning high scores, and generally proving their mastery over the game. They want to earn points, gear, and anything else that can give them prestige.

Explorers are about, well, exploring. This means both physically exploring the game world, as well as tinkering with game systems to learn their ins and outs.

Socializers are most interested in interacting with other players and making friends. The game systems come secondary to the bonds they form with fellow players.

Killers seek to impose their will on other players. They enjoy PvP combat, griefing, trolling, and domination by any means at their disposal.

If you’d like to learn more, you can read Bartle’s original paper on the matter.

There is also the so-called “Bartle test,” which you can take to determine your Bartle type. It’s worth noting this test wasn’t actually developed by Bartle himself, but it’s still often talked about at the same time as his original theorem and is often used by players to determine their personal player type.

Let’s talk about that test.

A Case Study

Exploring in Guild Wars 2

I don’t want to make this all about me, but I think I’m a great example of the flaws in this model, at least as applied to MMOs.

I’ve taken the Bartle test a few times over the years. It usually pegs me as an explorer, but I don’t think that’s a very accurate label for me.

I can enjoy exploring MMOs, but it’s definitely not my focus. It’s usually something that I do when I’m bored and don’t have anything better to do in-game. My favourite style of content in MMOs is linear story, which is just about the exact opposite of what the archetypal explorer is supposed to be into.

When it comes to the more abstract style of exploring — understanding game systems — it used to appeal to me more, but these days it’s not something I get a lot of joy from. I like to know what I’m doing, but I’m not the sort of person who has to tinker with every little thing.

In preparation for this article, I took the test again, and this time it pegged me as a socializer, with a 73% match to explorer’s 60%. That’s even more baffling.

I’m one of the most anti-social MMO players around. I haven’t belonged to a guild in years, and I generally prefer to play alone. I’m happy to make small talk with a PUG or perhaps participate in general chat, but I never seek out interaction with other players for its own sake. If I’m grouped with other people, it’s only ever as a means to an end.

So the test is way off where I’m concerned. Maybe it’s just a flaw in the test, but really, what archetype should I belong to? I like structured play and clear goals, which is an achiever trait, but I’ve never had any desire to be the best or show off my mastery, so that doesn’t really fit, either. And I actively avoid conflict with other players, so I’m definitely not a killer, either.

The fact is I don’t fit into any of Bartle’s types. And I very much doubt I’m alone in this.

A Flawed Concept

A villain character in DC Universe Online

It’s worth remembering that the Bartle types were created to define players of MUDs only. Yes, MUDs can be viewed as the ancestors of MMOs, but there’s still quite a lot of difference between a text-based simulation and a modern graphical MMORPG. And Bartle himself has said that the model may be incomplete for non-MUD games and perhaps should not be applied to them (it’s also worth noting he’s since expanded the original model to eight players types).

So even the model’s creator seems to feel it’s a bit outdated, at least as it relates to modern MMOs, and yet we still have many players and commentators treating it as gospel. I’m not really sure why, save that personality typing seems to appeal to a lot of people in general, even when it’s based on shaky science, or no science at all. People still put their faith in astrological signs, after all.

Really, though, the only people who should be thinking about player types are developers. There’s no value in laymen like you and me trying to define the archetypes of MMO players. We don’t have the expertise to do so properly, and even if we did, what would we do with the information? Why is being able to say “I like this because I’m an explorer” viewed as more valuable than “I like this because it’s fun”?

And even for developers, I think it would be dangerous to put too much weight on abstract player types, even if they could find an accurate model for such. People are complex creatures, and you can’t just boil us down to shallow archetypes.

A lot of principles of good game design are universal, after all. Do you think the ancients who invented Chess were worried about how it would appeal to different archetypes of people? No, they just made a game with good mechanics, and it’s remained a popular pass time for centuries. Perhaps Bartle type classification is adding too much science to what should be a more artistic pursuit?

People are individuals. We shouldn’t be trying to over-simplify them into such narrow categories.