The ever-evolving history of MMORPGs is a fascinating one. Sometimes I almost feel like MMOs are more fun to analyze than they are to play. It’s a complex story that could fill volumes, but for today, let’s just take a look at some of the biggest turning points in the history of MMOs.
The true origin of the MMO genre is debatable. You could trace it all the way back to analogue tabletop RPGs, and perhaps even farther back from there. But the birth of online RPGs likely lies with the Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD.
MUDs were text-based games originally running over small, pre-Internet networks such as those at universities.The term was christened by Roy Trubshaw, a student at the University of Essex. Development of his “Multi-User Dungeon” game was later given over to Richard Bartle, and if you’re active in the MMO community, you’re sure to recognize that name.
When the Internet began to spread, MUDs became more accessible, and eventually served as the inspiration for the first generation of MMORPGs.
Early Graphical MMOs:
Again, we can argue about where exactly the story of graphical online games begins. Meridian 59 is credited by some as the first, while Ultima Online was where the concept began to gain significant popularity. It was the first game to be described with the term “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game.”
This was soon followed by many other graphical MMOs. The most famous would probably be 1999’s EverQuest, which served as an inspiration for many of the games the followed.
WoW and Its Clones:
There is an eternally raging debate over whether World of Warcraft is the best or the worst thing (or perhaps both) that ever happened to the MMO genre. The one thing everyone can agree on is that WoW changed everything.
In the early days, MMOs had achieved a respectable level of success, with playerbases measured in the thousands. But WoW blew all that out of the water. It parlayed the brand recognition of Blizzard Entertainment, more accessible mechanics, reduced grind, and the increasing prevalence of high speed Internet connections into a perfect recipe for success, achieving a previously unimaginable level of popularity.
WoW eventually peaked at around twelve million players worldwide, a population greater than that of some nations. While it’s popularity has shrunken significantly since then, even now it remains more successful and more populous than the large majority of its competition.
The success of WoW created ripple effects throughout the genre. Everyone wanted a bite of that pie, and developers spent years churning out MMO after MMO that sought to emulate World of Warcraft. It was the era of the dreaded WoW clone. But these games often lacked personality, and none of them ever rose to rival the success of the game they so desperately sought to imitate.
The Free to Play Revolution:
For a long time, if you wanted to play an MMORPG, you had to pay a monthly subscription. That’s just how it worked. Oh, sure, there were a few exceptions. Anarchy Online began offering a free to play option back in 2004, and the original Guild Wars was buy to play from its launch in 2005. But those were mostly considered oddball outliers.
Things began to change in a big way when Dungeons and Dragons Online relaunched as a free to play title in 2009. Previously struggling, it saw a huge uptick in both players and revenues, and the world began to take notice.
Before long, big name MMOs were dropping their subscriptions left, right, and center, from Star Wars: The Old Republic, to Lord of the Rings Online, to Aion. At first this was seen as an act of desperation made only by dying games, but as the years went by and subscription games became an ever shrinking minority, it started to just be normal.
Nowadays, subscriptions are the exception rather than the norm, and most new games are free to play or buy to play.
Maturity and Diversification:
That brings us to the modern day. The MMO genre has matured and stabilized. New releases are not so common as they once were, but there is more variety, more creativity. Gone are the days of WoW clones. Nowadays MMOs, MMO lite games, online co-ops, MOBAs, and battle royales all simmer together into a diverse melting pot.
You will often hear people complain that the MMO industry is stagnating. It’s a criticism I myself have made more than once. A full-featured MMORPG is a massive investment of time and money, so developers are understandably risk-adverse, but as a player it can be frustrating to see things move so slowly.
But just because the genre doesn’t evolve as fast as we’d like doesn’t mean that it doesn’t evolve at all. Over the years, there have been some true innovations — new design concepts that changed how top MMO games were played for the better.
Much virtual ink has been spilled over the stagnation of MMOs, but today, let’s salute the leaps forward the genre has had by looking at some of the most influential innovations MMOs have had over the years.
Instancing had more than a few detractors when it first began to appear in MMOs many years ago, and even today, it can still sometimes stir up a certain degree of controversy. People feel it damages the sense of place and the emergent gameplay that separate MMOs from their single-player equivalents.
I have some sympathy for this perspective. I do think that MMOs are often at their best when content takes place in a shared world, with large numbers of players interacting all at once. Most of my best MMO memories are of moments like that — be it battling world bosses during The Secret World’s holiday events or participating in Wyrmrest Accord’s Pride march in World of Warcraft.
Instancing does have a cost in terms of immersion, and too much of it can make a game feel less special than it otherwise would be.
However, it does bring a lot of positive things to the genre, too.
Instancing creates a more controlled environment, allowing for story-telling moments that would be difficult or impossible to replicate in an open world. It allows developers to fine tune encounters around a set number of players and prevent bosses from simply being zerged down by overwhelming numbers.
And while large-scale events are often the source of the genre’s most memorable moments, sometimes more intimate gatherings are welcome, too. Instancing allows smaller groups to enjoy themselves without outside interference.
Ultimately, instancing is just another tool for developers to call upon. It can be misused, but at the end of the day, the more options developers have, the better.
A more recent innovation, phasing performs a similar role to instancing, but it employs a subtler touch.
Different games handle phasing differently, but generally it allows multiple versions of the same environment to exist in the same space. This has a number of applications, but the biggest is to allow the gameworld to change to reflect a player’s actions.
We’re all familiar with how immersion-breaking it can be for the boss you just killed or the army you just defeated to still be hanging around, a reminder of the futility of your actions every time you return to an old zone. It’s something that hammers home the artificiality of the experience.
First introduced in World of Warcraft’s much-acclaimed Wrath of the Lich King expansion, phasing helps solve that by allowing your actions to have a lasting impact. The evil wizard you slew will stay dead. The army you drove off will not return. It allows MMOs to feel more like the evolving worlds they were meant to be. It means allows your accomplishments to truly matter.
Like instancing, phasing has its detractors. It can separate players and sometimes cause bugs or other unfortunate side-effects. However, with good design these issues can be mitigated, and like instancing, it’s another tool in the developer toolkit than can do good when used appropriately.
Honestly, I don’t think the full potential of phasing has yet been realized. There’s a lot more it could do. I’m sure this is another of those things that’s easier said than done, but I would like to see developers find ways to unite players across phases, perhaps by letting people sync phases with their friends. Without the risk of separating the population too much, developers would be much more free to let players shape the game world around them. Your choices and actions could begin to feel truly impactful.
While instances and phasing can serve to separate players, cross-server technology does the opposite, helping to bring people together.
In the olden days, every MMO was spread across many different servers. The technology simply wasn’t there to let everyone inhabit the same virtual space, but this created a lot of problems. If you and your friend rolled characters on different servers and you wanted to play together, one person would have to either reroll and start from scratch or pay for a costly server transfer. Then there was the potential for server populations to crash, in some cases to the point where it became all but impossible to complete multiplayer content.
It was, in short, not a good system. It kept people apart, and it added a lot of inconvenience.
However, as technology has evolved, the stranglehold of traditional servers has weakened. EVE Online was one of the first games to adopt a single server for all of its players, but as the years have gone on, many more games have come on board with some sort of a “mega-server” system, including Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online.
Even games that still use traditional servers are starting to find ways to blur them together. World of Warcraft now allows players to group and complete activities across servers in most cases, though there are some limitations on what cross server groups can do together.
The end result is that MMOs are now much closer to achieving their full potential as a massively social medium.
Open Tapping and Personal Loot
These two features are not one and the same — all open tapping uses personal loot, but not all personal loot involves open tapping — but they’re similar enough in function to lump together. They’re both ways to encourage players to work together, rather than against each other.
Open tapping prevents anyone from “stealing” a kill by rewarding anyone who assists in the kill of a mob. Personal loot, meanwhile, rewards items to each player automatically and impartially, rather than offering a fixed pool of rewards that players must then choose how to distribute.
Guild Wars 2 made systems like this major selling points, and while I’m not the biggest GW2 fan, I do give it major props for helping to propel these concepts into the limelight. These days more and more MMOs are adopting open tapping and personal loot in one form or another, and the old ways seem to be slipping away.
The sooner the better, as far I’m concerned. It never made any sense to have to compete for kills against your own allies, and any long-time MMO player is familiar with the horrors loot drama can unleash.
For all that vertical progression lies at the heart of nearly all RPGs, it comes with some pretty serious downsides, and it has many vocal detractors among the MMO community, including most of the writing staff of this site.
For those of us who want our games to be more like worlds and less like ladders, level scaling is a godsend. By allowing a player’s effective level to match the world around them at all times, it prevents content from ever becoming irrelevant, and vastly expands the options available to us.
It also makes the world feel more real, more immersive, by preventing obviously ridiculous situations like being able to slay a dragon with a single love-tap, and it breaks down social barriers to allow high and low level players to work together without issue.
Back in the day, City of Heroes allowed people of differing levels to work together through the sidekicking system. Later, Guild Wars 2 helped to popularize the idea of global level scaling, and it has since been adopted by Elder Scrolls Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic to great effect. World of Warcraft has dabbled with a very limited implementation of level scaling, but as it’s still possible to out-level most of the game’s content, it ends up feeling like a waste of potential.
Level scaling probably has more detractors than any other feature on this list, as fans of vertical progression find it stifling, but I firmly believe that MMOs are much better with it than without it, and I long for the day when it is the rule and not the exception.
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Those are our picks for the most influential MMO innovations. What do you feel the most positive changes to the genre have been over the years, and what innovations are still left to be made?
The end of the year lends itself to introspection, to looking back. This year I’ve been looking back on my MMO career and reflecting on how things have changed over the years.
I’ve been playing (and writing about) MMOs for a while now. Almost ten years. Now, I know that compared to some of you, that still makes me a relative newcomer, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.
And in that time, my attitude towards games has changed a lot. My experiences in MMOs have shaped who I am as a gamer, and it’s changed how I look at the entire hobby. It’s helped me to enjoy video games more.
Indulge me, if you will, as I engage in some holiday reflection and take stock of just how my time with MMORPGs has changed me as a gamer.
It Ruined Vertical Progression for Me
I think on some level I was always a little less interested in high levels and “phat lewt” than the average gamer. I play games to escape reality — to explore imaginary worlds and immerse myself in rich stories. Making my character more powerful is more a means to that end than something that I found compelling for its own sake.
Still, in the past, I had plenty of excitement for shiny new gear drops or big level dings. That was before I spent years playing MMOs, though.
When you really think about it, vertical progression like this is sort of a lie. You feel like you’re constantly getting better, that you’re evolving into something awesome, but you’re not, really. Content evolves along with you, keeping your relative power level more or less consistent no matter how hard you grind. There’s always a new challenge ahead. Improving your character’s stats isn’t a climb to the top; it’s just a treadmill. You’re always moving, but you’re never getting anywhere.
And nowhere is this more clear than in the realm of MMORPGs.
The persistent nature of MMOs makes vertical progression meaningless. You’re never finished; the integrity of the genre depends on it. The level caps keep getting raised. Today’s best in slot is tomorrow’s vendor trash. None of it means anything.
But it’s an easy way to extend the life of content, so developers just keep pushing us onto the treadmill. For me, this has just led to my becoming incredibly jaded about the whole concept. I have gotten so much sweet loot and heard so many level dings that I’ve lost my taste for the whole concept. I don’t care anymore.
Instead, it’s other rewards I seek. I still like getting new gear appearances, as building outfits helps me establish my characters’ identities. I also enjoy unlocking new abilities for the same reason. Horizontal progression, in other words. Give me more options, give me new ways to express myself in-game, not just another +3% to DPS that will be invalidated next patch.
I still have some taste for vertical progression in single-player games. It works better there because eventually you reach the point where you’re done. It’s less of a treadmill. And with less concerns about balance, single-player games can also be more dramatic in their rewards, as opposed to, again, just +3% DPS.
Still, even there, loot and levels entice me far less than they used to, and increasingly I’m finding it refreshing when games don’t have any vertical progression at all.
Most of the ways MMOs have affected my gaming are positive, but this one’s a bit more of a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, it’s been very freeing. I no longer feel pressured to keep on par with other players, or to be the best. I don’t have to spend months grinding for the best gear. I’m happy with gear that’s merely good enough. For me, games have become much less like work and much more like, well, games.
On the other hand, I do find it frustrating to see how much developers and players still fixate on vertical progression now that I realize how pointless it is. This medium could be capable of so much more.
It Helped Me Focus on What I Like
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: MMOs are really big.
That is, of course, sort of the whole point. And for the most part it’s a good thing. We flock to MMORPGs because they offer us a breadth and depth that no other form of entertainment can.
But it can also get overwhelming. If you try to do everything there is to do in a single MMORPG, you’ll probably end up running yourself ragged and burning out. If you play multiple MMOs, doing everything is going to be pretty much impossible, at least until scientists invent a pill that replaces sleep.
It is therefore best to focus. Find the gameplay you enjoy most, figure out what your goals are, and focus on that. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t worry if you’re behind or ahead of the curve. Don’t try to keep up with the virtual Joneses. Just find what gives you joy and immerse yourself in that.
Early on in my MMO career, I felt very compelled to experience everything a game has to offer, and to play it the “right” way, but nowadays I’ve let go of a lot of that. I’m still mastering the art of saying no, but for the most part I’m much better able to focus only on playing in whatever way I enjoy the most.
For example, in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I pretty much only play solo story content. I’ve tried group content and PvP in that game, but I don’t think Bioware is very good at designing either of those things, and I don’t generally enjoy them, so I stopped. I focus only on the part of the game that actually entertains me.
And the same attitude guides me throughout my gaming. I have sunk hundreds of hours into World of Warcraft, but I’ve never done a single pet battle. I played The Secret World heavily for five years and never once did any of its raids.
When it comes to single-player games, I can still be a bit of a completionist — it’s easier with a clear finish line in sight — but instead I’ve learned to better focus what games I buy. I’ve become much better at ignoring hype and trends. I’ve learned to focus on the games I know (or can safely bet) that I will enjoy.
I Learned Not to Sweat the Small Stuff
Let me tell you a story.
A few years back, World of Warcraft launched a new pet in its cash shop, the Guardian Cub. They’d been selling vanity pets for a while at this point, but the Cub was special. It could be traded, meaning players could sell it to each other for gold. This made it a form of legalized gold-selling, a sort of precursor to today’s WoW Token.
Reaction to the decision was swift and negative. Before, Blizzard had only sold vanity items, but this allowed people to directly purchase an in-game advantage.
And I was right there on the front lines, posting my angry comments on the official forums. I joined the chorus screaming, “Pay to win!”
But the feedback went ignored, and the Guardian Cub launched. And you know what happened?
Pretty much nothing.
I was angry for a few weeks, but nothing whatsoever changed in my experience of the game, so eventually I forgot all about the Cub.
And this encapsulates almost every experience I’ve ever had with MMO monetization. I have a knee-jerk negative reaction, but then it fails to significantly impact me, and I move on with my life.
And after so many years of this, I’m finally starting to realize how little all of this matters. I’m no longer concerning myself with lockboxes or “pay to win.” And I’m enjoying games so much more as a result.
It’s not just about monetization schemes, either. MMOs have a great way of putting everything in perspective. Spend a few days wrestling with an uncooperative MMO server, and suddenly a few animation hiccups in Mass Effect: Andromeda don’t seem like such a big deal.
That’s not to say that you can’t criticize things. I’m a firm believer in the value of constructive criticism, and I can still be quite vocal when I have a problem with something in a game.
But it’s important to keep it all in perspective. Ask yourself how much something is really affecting you, and don’t let small things ruin your fun. There’s so much negativity in the community, and it’s so easy to get lost to cynicism, but really, there’s never been a better time to be a gamer than right now. We have so much to be grateful for. Don’t let the little things rob you of the joy of what’s out there.
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What about you? How has playing MMOs changed your attitude toward gaming as a hobby?
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
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.
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
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
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
Star 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.
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 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.
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.
When World of Warcraft achieved a heretofore unknown level of success for an MMORPG, everyone and their monkey wanted a piece of the action. As a result, the MMO industry experienced a long stretch where nearly every big name release sought to copy most of the core mechanics of Blizzard’s juggernaut.
“WoW clones,” they were dubbed, and while fans often rankle when the term is applied to their favorite game, more often than not the shoe fits. Sure, most of them had some special twist to the formula that they shouted from the rooftops in an attempt to stand out, but at their core they embodied the same core formula. Tab target combat, copious but simple quests, and an endgame focused on instanced PvE.
The years passed, and eventually the procession of new WoW clones slowed down. Nowadays MMOs aren’t as afraid to forge their own paths. But most of the bigger WoW clones are still chugging along. Now that the fad is passed, it may be interesting to look at how these games have fared over the years, and whether they’ve stuck to their WoW clone guns or started to establish identities of their own.
I don’t know about you, but personally, when I hear “WoW clone,” Rift is always the first game that comes to mind.
Nearly everything about Rift, from its game mechanics to its setting, seemed copied directly from World of Warcraft, and all this was thrown into a starker light by the masterfully if unintentionally ironic “We’re not in Azeroth anymore” marketing campaign.
Its soul system, which allows you to essentially build your own class, and dynamic events gave it a bit of a twist, but in the end it still looked like a game that had been separated from WoW at birth.
But I should not be too harsh to Rift. What it lacks in originality it usually makes up for with polish. I have always found Rift to have incredibly solid mechanics and an almost overwhelming amount of content. If you’re going to do a WoW clone, this is the way to do it.
And for quite a while Rift’s reputation in the community reflected this. I remember a long period of time during which Rift seemed to be something of a golden child in the MMORPG community, earning acclaim even from those who did not play it.
These days opinion has soured somewhat, but I suspect this probably has as much to do with the lingering fallout over ArcheAge as anything Rift has done. It’s had some stumbles — notably the most recent expansion, Starfall Prophecy, has had some uncharacteristic issues with quality control — but for the most part it still seems to be the same game it’s always been.
Indeed, Rift has been nothing if not consistent over the years. Like most WoW clones, it had to undergo a free to play transition, but for the most part it’s stuck to its guns.
Aion has always been a little more creative than some other WoW clones. Its surreal setting is a refreshing change of pace from the standard Tolkien-inspired high fantasy, its endgame places a much greater emphasis on factional PvP, and it integrates flight directly into its combat… at least in some parts of the game.
However, it’s not done much to shake up its original formula or further differentiate itself from the pack since its launch. Its added plenty of new content, but it hasn’t done much to change the core of the game experience.
Like most WoW clones, it eventually dropped its mandatory subscription in favor of a free to play model, but that’s probably the biggest change it’s undergone.
Aion is one of those strange games that never seems to get much attention within the community and yet seems to be quite successful all the same. It’s still getting significant updates on a fairly regular basis despite being relatively long in the teeth these days.
Much of this can probably be attributed to its popularity in South Korea, where it has long been one of the more popular MMOs on the market. But it must also have a decent number of fans in the West, or it wouldn’t still be running over here. You may not hear much from Aion players, but clearly they exist.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
SW:TOR has had a more turbulent lifespan than most WoW clones, and that makes it perhaps the most interesting case to study.
Despite or perhaps because of massive pre-launch hype, Bioware’s first and only entry into the MMO field had a pretty rough reception post-launch. The phrase “TORtanic” became a favorite of the ever-hyperbolic comment section. Lack of endgame content and oppressively generic gameplay significantly damaged the game.
This eventually led to a conversion toward one of the industry’s more restrictive free to play models. It proved economically successful but severely damaged SW:TOR’s reputation within the community, a stain that lingers to this day.
SW:TOR continued to struggle with direction for a time. It had sold itself on a greater commitment to story than any other MMO, but it had never achieved the level of success necessary to fund continued development of unique story for all eight classes. It tried to strike the balance between an endgame-driven WoW clone and a story-driven RPG and never entirely satisfied either side of the equation.
This changed with the game-changing Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion in late 2015. KotFE redesigned much of the core game systems, implementing global level-scaling and greatly streamlining the leveling process. The net result of these changes was an experience with a much greater emphasis on story. While Bioware still couldn’t manage to continue the unique class stories, KotFE’s new content did feature more and better story content than previous expansions.
This makes SW:TOR arguably the only WoW clone to shake off its lineage of aping Blizzard and establish a clear identity of its own. It’s now less of an MMO and much closer to Bioware’s single-player titles, but there is something to be said for focusing on what you’re good at.
And the gamble seems to have paid off. Knights of the Fallen Empire seems to have heralded something of a renaissance for the game, and by all reports SW:TOR is doing very well. It is a bit hard to say how much of this is due to how the game has changed and how much is simply due to the greater hype around Star Wars in general caused by the new films, but at the very least, KotFE’s changes don’t appear to have hurt it any.
Lord of the Rings Online
In contrast to SW:TOR, LotRO has been pretty consistent in sticking to traditional designs. Its one major change came when it joined the ranks of free to play MMOs in late 2010. For a time, it seemed to be giving up on raiding, but now raids are once again on the menu.
LotRO’s popularity has dwindled somewhat over the years, but it maintains a very devoted core playerbase, and most would highlight its community as one of the more tight-knit in the MMO space, with a strong role-playing contingent and frequent player-run events.
Until recently, Lord of the Rings Online seemed to be heading down a dark road, coming to a head with its developer, Turbine, giving up on MMOs altogether, but the development team has now struck out on their own as Standing Stone Games, and the future for LotRO now seems cautiously optimistic, with a new expansion centered around Mordor on the way.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
I was hesitant to include FFXIV in this list. Not because it’s not a WoW clone — it absolutely is — but because it’s a more recent game and thus doesn’t quite fit in with the explosion of WoW clones that produced many of the above titles.
Interestingly, though, it’s probably one of the most successful WoW clones to date. By all reports it’s one of the more successful MMOs period, with a strong playerbase and an incredible frequency of content updates. It’s even managed to hang onto its subscription-based business model so far.
This despite the fact it’s no more original than Rift or any number of others. One could attribute FFXIV’s success to its obvious polish and quality, but even then it’s not so far ahead of the competition. Perhaps it’s simply the strength of the Final Fantasy brand, but it’s an interesting aberration all the same.
Unfortunately it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from all this. There aren’t a lot of clear patterns to be seen.
The one thing that can be said with certainty is that none of these games have matched World of Warcraft’s success, but given that many of them rival WoW in quality (and may even surpass it in some specific areas), it’s hard to say that’s the result of any failing on their part. Perhaps WoW was simply a fluke of timing that cannot ever be replicated.
As a gamer, I wish that more games had taken SW:TOR’s path and established firm identities for themselves, but I can’t know whether or not they would have been more successful if they had.