Category Archives: MMO Retrospective

How Playing MMOs Changed Me as a Gamer

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.

My oldest MMO character, my rogue, shows off her guild tabard in World of Warcraft

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.

A hunter ranger character in Neverwinter takes a break from the grind

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.

A department store by night in the MMO shooter The Division

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.

My agent explores the planet Alderaan in Star Wars: The Old Republic

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.

No need to take it all so seriously

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.

* * *

What about you? How has playing MMOs changed your attitude toward gaming as a hobby?

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.


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.


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.

Checking up on the WoW Clones of Yesteryear

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.

An Elf character in Lord of the Rings Online

“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.

A landscape in Rift

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.

Fighting mobs as a gunslinger in Aion

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.

Emperor Arcann in Star Wars: The Old Republic

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

Confronting a large mob in 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.

Past History Shows a Rocky Road for Secret World Legends

The blessing and the curse of being an MMO writer is that there’s never any shortage of hot button issues to talk about. Hardly a month seems to go by without some massive controversy exploding within the community.

A seemingly prophetic shot from The Secret World

Right now, the bombshell du jour is Funcom’s decision to “relaunch” The Secret World as a new game, Secret World Legends. It is a massive overhaul and reboot with very little precedent in the MMO world.

Funcom is therefore sailing into uncharted waters, and its fans are therefore understandably anxious about what is to come. Let’s take a look at what this relaunch entails, what we can learn from similar overhauls of other games, and what it might mean for the future.

What’s Happening

Secret World Legends both is and is not a new game, depending on how you look at it.

On the one hand, most of the content is carrying over from The Secret World. There are going to be some small tweaks here or there, but for the most part it’s going to be the same story, the same zones, the same missions, and so forth.

However, many of the core systems of the game are being totally overhauled. The combat has been redesigned from the ground up to be more of an action combat system similar to Elder Scrolls Online and Neverwinter.

The game’s unique progression mechanics are being thrown out in favor of a much more traditional leveling system. Players can still customize their playstyle a bit by choosing what weapons to wield, as abilities are still tied to weapons, but the virtually infinite customization potential of the ability wheel is gone.

Falling through Agartha in The Secret World

It’s also worth noting that players will initially be locked into whatever weapons they chose at the start and will only be unlock more by grinding in-game currency or paying cash. Flexibility seems to be the first casualty of the transition to Legends.

Speaking of cash, the business model will also change. Whereas TSW is buy to play with a DLC-focused business model, Legends will offer all of its content for free while more heavily monetizing progression and convenience.

Finally, existing players will be losing all of their current characters and progress and be required to start over from scratch. They will be able import some of their cosmetics and reserve one character name, as well as have all weapons unlocked by default, but it’s clear that veteran TSW players are losing a tremendous amount in the change.

TSW servers will remain online for now, but it will receive no more content updates and is no longer for sale, so expect it to die off before too long.

It’s hard to predict exactly what effect these changes will have because such a major change is almost unheard of in the MMO world. However, there are a few past events that are at least a little similar, so let’s look at them.

Three Hated Letters


Just by typing those letters, I’ve made a Star Wars Galaxies player somewhere in the world grit their teeth in anger.

A shot from Star Wars Galaxies

If you were to run a competition to find the most controversial decision in MMO history, the so-called “New Game Enhancements” would be the odds-on favorite. Even years afterward, years after Star Wars Galaxies as a whole has shut down, the NGE remains a nearly endless source of debate, frustration, and resentment.

The NGE rewrote nearly every aspect of SWG’s gameplay, resulting in a radically different experience. Entire styles of play and types of abilities were unceremoniously deleted.

And the reaction was not good. People quite understandably were upset to find themselves playing a completely different game from the one they’d initially paid for. It wreaked havoc in the community, and the game was thrown into chaos.

Now, in time, players learned to adjust to the changes. SWG ran for some years after the NGE, and these days you can find more than a few devoted SWG fans who will tell you the NGE made it a better game in the long run.

Still, it’s hard to look too kindly on an event that has become the poster child for MMO blunders, an acronym that has become an epithet to long-time MMO players. And that should make TSW players nervous, because the similarities between the NGE and the transition to Legends are immediately apparent.

Both are radical overhauls of core game systems. Both replace a more freeform skill-based progression system with traditional leveling. Both represent a shift toward a more twitch-based form of combat. Both are leaving players with less choice, not more.

A Realm Reborn

The logo for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

One of the few other examples of an MMO overhaul on this scale is Final Fantasy XIV’s death and return as A Realm Reborn, and unlike the NGE, this is a change that seems to be viewed mostly positively.

I’m sure that somewhere out there someone prefers FFXIV as it existed following its initial launch, but it’s clear that the large majority of players don’t regret the change to A Realm Reborn. That should seem to bode well for Legends, as in some ways it’s closer to A Realm Reborn than the NGE.

However, there are also some key differences.

Firstly, pretty much everyone would agree that FFXIV was broken beyond repair at launch. Even those fans it did have will be happy to tell you that the game was a mess.

By comparison, people who don’t currently play TSW might say the game is in a bad state, whereas the people who actually play it tend to be pretty happy with the state of the game, at least mechanically. You’ll find some resentment over the lack of content updates, but Legends won’t include any new content — at least at launch — so that doesn’t exactly help matters.

In other words, FFXIV had very little to lose, while TSW does. They risk alienating what fans they do have in the hopes of winning over people who’ve already decided the game isn’t for them.

There’s also the fact that A Realm Reborn was truly a new game, with fresh content for longtime players. As previously noted, Legends will have mostly the same content as TSW, so veteran players are just going to be slogging through the same stuff they’ve already done, just to catch up to where they were.

A town by night in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

There’s also a sharp difference in how the transitions have been handled. Square Enix were quick to admit their error with the poor state of FFXIV’s initial incarnation. They even went so far as to make the game free to play — truly free to play — while they worked on improving it.

Meanwhile, Funcom sprang the relaunch as Legends on players more or less out of the blue, despite several months of implying that new content for TSW was in the pipeline. They were happy to continue taking players’ money all while planning to abandon the game. They’re still charging for subscriptions and cash shop purchases.

The Big, Terrible Picture

The upshot here for Funcom is that games have tended to survive their major reboots, but the good news seems to end there.

The fact is that this is still for the most part uncharted territory. Game reboots on this scale are very rare, and none are an exactly perfect analogy for Secret World Legends. However, it does seem to hew closer to the negatives associated with such reboots — poor or dishonest communication, upending life for veteran players — than the positives, like fresh content.

Let’s not forget that FFXIV and SWG are both games from popular franchises, which gave them a lot of built-in publicity and fan support. Legends has no such luxury of name recognition.

The end result is a fairly grim picture for fans of The Secret World. We’re looking at a change that seems like more of an NGE than a Realm Reborn. We’re looking at a game that was the definition of a cult classic — with a small but fiercely loyal fanbase — tossing its fans aside to chase a market that may not be interested in what is still ultimately a five year-old game with a bleak, difficult to understand setting.

A shot from The Secret World

Already rifts are forming in the community. The lines are being drawn between those who want to support Funcom no matter what, and those who feel betrayed by the abandonment of TSW in favour of Legends. People are fleeing TSW in droves, and whether they’ll be back when Legends launches is an open question.

Even in the most optimistic scenario — that Legends becomes a bigger success than TSW was and goes on to many more years of operation with lots of new content — it seems all but impossible for Legends to escape unscarred. The community will be divided. There will be resentment. There will be losses in the transition.

And that’s the optimistic outlook. The pessimistic outlook goes without saying.

For fans of The Secret World, dark days are truly coming.

MMO Retrospective: Shadowbane

Shadowbane MMO Retrospective

Back in 2003 I thought that Shadowbane was going to do for free for all PvP MMOs what Dark Age of Camelot did for faction PvP. Other than nasty bugs, poorly optimized code, and some serious server issues Shadowbane delivered exactly what I wanted at the time. That may seem like I’m being sarcastic, but I was honestly able to look past the technical issues for such a unique experience. I wasn’t alone with that sentiment either. A not-insignificant number of players with similar interests joined me in heralding Shadowbane’s launch. This was finally an MMORPG where players could shape the world.

True Freedom

The vast majority of cities were in fact owned by guilds, which were in turn run by players. It was they who decided the layouts and buildings of their settlement, not game developers. Sure, there was PvE in the form of generic monsters to kill, but that content only served as a appetizer to the main course. Maxing your characters level wasn’t the goal in Shadowbane, maxing your nation’s territory was. In fact, maxing your characters was actually pretty difficult. Shadowbane used a soft cap system where players’ powers would plateau well before the actual hard cap level. It allows players to continue progressing without developing insurmountable advantages over more casual players.

The combat itself was nothing particularly revolutionary. Standard hotbar combat, really. What was cool was that instead of designing abilities around PVE encounters with taunts, and heals, and damage aggro, the classes in Shadowbane were designed around player warfare. Some classes preferred open battlegrounds, some preferred sieges. To exemplify how specialized roles were in Shadowbane there was a even a class focused around destroying walls. No catapult? No problem. Just send in “Frank the Wall Killer”!

For the most part, playing Shadowbane felt like you were constantly stockpiling arms for an upcoming historic war. And really war was exactly what the playerbase wanted. We were players who read epic fantasy novels, imagined battles with hundreds or thousands of participants, and wanted nothing more and then to take part in it. The thing is, when the wars actually came, everything seemed to fall apart.

Shadowbane’s Demise

This was where Shadowbane’s technical issues really started to ruin the experience. Players would find their town under siege and unable to even log in to defend it. Computers and internet connections would strain to keep up with all of the data being processed from nearby players’ actions. It dampened the entire experience (putting it lightly). In hindsight that shouldn’t have been too surprising. Even with relatively stable code, we’re just now getting to the point where servers can handle the massive load of such large battles. Technical issues weren’t the only thing that spelled doom for Shadowbane though.

In fact it was the very freedom of player rule that would make it so unappetizing. You see, eventually every server got to the point where one nation essentially ruled over all. As was inevitable in a game almost purely about war, the majority of guilds would eventually watch their cities and their allies cities topple to the ground. As much as building a city from scratch with fellow friends motivated players, losing it demoralized with a strength ten times greater.

Those with the will to fight back and reclaim their homeland eventually saw the futility of their ways. Not only would stopping a now even stronger foe be impossible without a major political shift in the rival nation’s members, but there simply wasn’t much else to see when a group “won”. Everything in Shadowbane was built around war, but all wars must come to an end. When the dust settled there wasn’t much of a game left to be had. Having seen basically all there was to do, it was no wonder that players were left without any reason to stick around.