These days, classic and progression MMORPG servers are all the rage. That there’s a demand for these things is a testament to how much an MMO can evolve over time. After enough years, it can almost feel like playing an entirely different game.
But which games have changed the most since their initial launch? Let’s take a look at some of the candidates.
As one of the oldest still-running MMORPGs, Ultima Online has had literal decades to grow and evolve. That’s far too much change to adequately cover here, but one particularly notable event worth mentioning came early in its history: the release of Trammel in the year 2000.
Trammel is the second continent added to the game. It is a perfect mirror of the original, Felucca, but with one crucial difference: Trammel does not allow non-consensual PvP.
This added an entirely new way to experience the game, free from the predations of other players, and it proved wildly popular. All subsequent landmasses added to Ultima Online have followed Trammel’s lead by not allowing open PvP.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
At launch, Star Wars: The Old Republic was pretty much just another WoW clone with a Star Wars skin slapped over top. It took until the game’s third major expansion to change that.
Knights of the Fallen Empire introduced major system changes to make SWTOR less of a standard MMO quest grinder and much more like the single-player RPGs Bioware is known and loved for. The leveling game was adjusted to put the focus on class and planetary stories, allowing players to easily ignore the forgettable side missions that had once bogged the game down.
SWTOR as it exists today is a lot closer to the story-driven MMORPG it was originally advertised as.
Aion’s a long-running game with a lot of big changes under its belt, from a free to play transition to multiple expansions.
But its biggest shift in identity came more recently with the massive Awakened Legacy patch. Awakened Legacy radically changed many game systems, hugely streamlined leveling, and controversially removed many whole zones and dungeons. It was a jarring change that angered many, with some comparing it to the infamous “New Game Enhancements” introduced by Star Wars Galaxies back in the day.
For better or for worse, Aion is now a very different game from what it launched as.
World of Warcraft
This list contains a lot of examples of major reboots that rewrote a game overnight. In World of Warcraft’s case, it’s more a matter of incremental changes piling up over time. Over fifteen years and seven expansions, WoW has grown and evolved so much that very little of the original game remains, at least in an untouched form.
Of course, one can identify points in time where things changed more radically than others. Cataclysm rebuilt the original two continents, leaving virtually no zone untouched. Mists of Pandaria introduced a new talent system, while Legion brought with it sweeping class design changes.
What’s funny is that every once in a while you’ll hear speculation about a possible “World of Warcraft 2,” but really, we’re already playing WoW 2. The game has reinvented itself so much it’s more like a sequel to the original MMO, rather than a continuation.
Final Fantasy XIV
Of course, when it comes to reinventing yourself after launch, no game can quite equal Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. It’s right there in the title, after all.
As it launched, FFXIV was pretty much broken. It was such a mess the developers at Square Enix stopped even charging a subscription fee for a time, too embarrassed to ask for players’ money.
For most companies, this would be the end, but Square Enix had the resources to try again. Final Fantasy was ultimately relaunched as an almost entirely new game, rebuilt from the ground up. This makes it not only one of the biggest examples of an altered game in the MMO world, but also one of the most positive and successful. Whereas in other games change can be controversial or even despised, here almost everyone agrees it was for the best.
The “holy trinity” of tank, healer, and DPS always has been and likely always will be one of the hot button topics of the MMO world. Often, when talking about ways to “fix” the trinity, we discuss removing tanks or healers (or both), but things can also go in the opposite direction. It’s also possible to add more roles beyond the traditional three, and some games have.
Let’s take a look at some other roles MMORPGs could add.
These could easily be separated into two roles, but they’re similar enough in function that I’ll lump them together. A buffer is a character focused on improving the capabilities of their allies by giving them temporary boosts to their stats, while a debuffer does the opposite: weakening enemies by lowering their stats.
Buffers and debuffers were more common in the early days of MMORPGs, but they’ve fallen out of vogue. I understand why; just standing around and throwing out buffs and debuffs isn’t the most exciting gameplay around.
But I think these roles could be designed in such a way that they are compelling. I’m a fan of making buffs and debuffs much stronger, but much shorter in duration. World of Warcraft’s Bloodlust spell and its variants are a great example of a buff that feels exciting to use. For around half a minute, you vastly increase the haste of your entire raid, leading to a massive spike in damage. It’s one of the most exciting abilities to use in the entire game.
Debuffs, meanwhile, could come in the form of secondary affects to attacks. Rather than just slapping a debuff icon on the enemy, you could give them flashy animations and sound effects. It would feel more impactful.
A controller has some common ground with a debuffer, but they’re more specialized. Their purpose is to lock down enemies with stuns, slows, or other crowd control abilities.
The trouble with controllers is that they’re difficult to balance. If their control abilities are too strong, enemies don’t get to fight back at all, and that’s just boring. As with debuffers, I think a good solution here is to keep their abilities short-lived but impactful.
You could also make controllers more reactive — interrupting powerful enemy attacks rather than locking them down entirely.
The role of a puller is to, well, pull. They aggro monsters and pull them back to their group. Done right, it allows people to face enemies in controlled numbers, on their terms, without risking being swarmed by unexpected adds.
There are different factors that determine what makes a good puller. Movement speed to stay ahead of mobs is helpful, as is a way to drop aggro when they bring the mobs back to their team. Being able to survive a hit or two is also pretty important.
Pullers were common in older games like EverQuest. These days, they’re much less common. To be honest, I have a hard time picturing a role for pullers in the more fast-paced games of today, but there may be the occasional throwback title where pullers can once again shine.
Of course, most MMOs have crafting, but very few offer classes entirely devoted to crafting (the late Star Wars Galaxies is the only one that comes to mind for me off the top of my head). It’s usually a side feature rather than a core playstyle, but it doesn’t need to be.
There’s a couple of ways you could make dedicated crafting classes. One is to have them as pure non-combat classes, but to me that doesn’t seem so interesting. I would be more intrigued if someone managed to make crafter an actual combat role. Perhaps they could provide consumables or equipment to their allies mid-battle.
But my favorite idea is to create a game where it’s possible to build fortifications, traps, or turrets on the fly, sort of like Fortnite but in an MMORPG context. That would make for a truly unique playstyle that I think I’d enjoy.
Lately I’ve been exploring Aion’s Awakened Legacy patch. It’s a massive revamp that’s removed huge swaths of content and reworked many aspects of the game. It’s not without its upsides, but many people are understandably upset by such an enormous upheaval.
For those of us with deep roots in the MMO community, this is a familiar situation. Change in MMOs always comes with controversy, especially when it’s dramatic. These games are like second homes, and upsetting the status quo too much is a dangerous proposition for any developer.
The Price of Change
Change is an important part of any MMO. Bugs are fixed, classes are rebalanced, new content is added. All of this is well and good. A game that changes too little feels stale and lifeless. Virtual worlds must grow and evolve with time, or wither and die.
But developers also have to be careful not to go too far to the opposite extreme. Just as MMOs need change to breathe new life into them, they also need permanence and continuity. This is what makes them feel like real places. This what allows them to feel like home.
This, then, is the challenge developers face: They must change just enough, but not too much.
There are no shortage of cautionary tales of the latter. Awakened Legacy is just the latest in a long line of controversial MMO upheavals. Star Wars: Galaxies has been shutdown for years, and the NGE is still a popular subject of discussion across the MMO community.
World of Warcraft players are also all too familiar with the frustration that comes from too much churn. Blizzard has treated each of the last few expansions almost like a reboot of the whole game. New features are introduced with each expansion only to be abandoned before the next, and core class and gameplay mechanics are revamped so often and so dramatically it’s downright dizzying.
One of my main WoW characters is a warlock. I’ve been playing her since Cataclysm, and in that time, the class has changed so much it’s essentially been three different classes: the version that existed in Cataclysm, the version that existed in Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor, and the version that exists now.
Now, I really liked the Pandaria version. The new class it become in Legion is far less compelling. It’s really hampered my ability to enjoy the character, and it’s made me hesitant to become invested in new characters, as well. Why get attached if anything I come to love could be taken away from me on a whim?
And that is how you know when an MMO has become too unstable in its design. If things change too much too often, it becomes hard to invest in anything. People won’t spend weeks leveling a character or grinding for a fancy reward if they fear they could lose all that they’ve accomplished overnight.
That’s a very bad place for a player to be, but it’s worse for a developer. Developers need people to invest their time — and their money — in an MMO on a long-term basis. It’s what makes them sustainable as games, and as businesses. Any designer who ignores this is playing with fire.
People who log into an MMO after some time away should feel like they’re coming home. It should be a recognizable experience, where things feel familiar and you know where to find everything. Done right, MMOs make perfect comfort food gaming.
MMOs should experience change — sometimes dramatic, even shocking change — but it should never reach the point where the world or one’s characters feel totally unrecognizable. That breaks the sense of place and permanence that makes the genre work.
One of my favourite scientific mysteries is the debate over what constitutes death. You might think that’s a simple question to answer, but it’s not. People can be revived after their hearts stop, if too much time hasn’t passed. Even after the brain dies, some biological processes continue for some time, making death much less a hard line and more of a continuum.
In the same way, it’s a lot harder than you’d think to define at what point an MMORPG can be considered a “dead” game. There is never any shortage of people willing to claim that any and every game is dead or dying, after all. If you want a creative way to commit suicide, try taking a drink every time someone on a forum claims WoW is dying, and enjoy your liver failure.
But for every person declaring a game dead, there’s usually at least one or two still playing it, so can it really be dead?
Let’s see if we can determine when, in fact, an MMO actually dies.
A lot of times when someone says a game is dead or dying, really what they mean is that it’s in decline. Player numbers are down, and patches are becoming smaller or less frequent.
That this is considered to qualify as “dead” really proves nothing but how hyperbolic some members of the community can be, even before we consider the fact that in many “dying” games the extent of the decline tends to be greatly exaggerated. No one likes a content gap, but it doesn’t a dying game make.
Even in cases where the decline is real, I think we can safely declare that it doesn’t mean a game is dead. No product stays at the peak of its success forever, and a certain degree of decline is not cause for panic.
At the end of its life-cycle, an MMO reaches the stage known as maintenance mode. No further development is planned; if patches come at all, they’ll only be minor bug fixes or other maintenance tasks.
This is where things get a bit more debatable. A large part of what makes MMOs special is that they are living, evolving games that grow with time. When you cut that off, it ceases to function as an MMO in a very fundamental way.
It also does the playerbase no favors. Maintenance mode ensures that few if any new players will join, and even loyal veterans are likely to start drifting away.
Still, games can continue operating in maintenance mode for many years. Just ask players of the original Guild Wars. And if people are still playing and having fun, is that truly a dead game?
For those who aren’t Chicken Littles proclaiming death upon a game at the slightest sign of trouble, the most obvious time to declare a game dead is when it officially closes. The servers go dark, characters people have sunk potentially hundreds of hours into are lost to the aether, mournful blog posts are shared across cyberspace, and loyal players are left to find a new digital home.
A closed game seems pretty conclusively dead. Certainly the former players will go into mourning.
And yet, even then, death is not always truly death. Formerly closed games sometimes return, perhaps under new publishers, though these resurrections tend to be short-lived. See the rollercoaster life cycle of Hellgate: London.
Even failing an official resurrection, MMOs can still cheat death following closure. This is the world of emulators, wherein passionate fans salvage old code to run private servers of their favourite games.
The poster child for this phenomenon has to be Star Wars Galaxies, a game whose intensely passionate fanbase has kept its memory alive through a thriving emulator community.
This, more than anything else, illustrates what a nebulous concept the idea of a “dead” game is. SWG fits the bill of a dead game better than most anything, having been officially shuttered for many years and being far beyond the hope of any growth or further development. And yet there are plenty of people playing it right now, as you read this.
And again, if people are playing it, can you truly say it’s dead?
So if even an official closure doesn’t always mean the end of an MMO, what is true death for an online game?
I would say that a game is only truly and irrevocably dead when it has been erased beyond any hope of revival. When its assets have been utterly expunged from the digital world, and its fanbase has vanished or diminished beyond recognition.
And in the age of the Internet, that’s spectacularly hard to do. Not impossible, of course — just ask the players of that Korean MMO that was deleted from existence a few years back — but given how hard it is to ever fully erase anything from the Internet, the odds of any MMORPG being killed beyond any hope of revival are surprisingly slim.
And that makes all the hand-wringing over “dying” games seem all that much more silly. If you listened to the commentariat, you would be left with the impression that MMOs are fragile things, rarely surviving past their initial launch and under constant threat of disappearing, but the exact opposite is true. MMOs are, by and large, incredibly resilient, and extremely difficult to truly kill.
That doesn’t make it less upsetting when a game you love begins to decline or even closes, but it’s something to keep in mind. If you worry for the future of your favorite game or wonder whether it’s worth investing in a new title if it’s not topping the charts, always remember just how hard it is for an MMO to truly die.
MMORPG players are, by nature, an unusually devoted bunch. You have to be to sink hundreds or thousands of hours into a single game. But one thing I’ve noticed over the years is that some games’ communities are a bit more dedicated than most. They’re communities that will stick with a game through content gaps or major design blunders, or communities that grow so close they feel more like families.
Lord of the Rings Online
When people talk about MMOs with good communities — especially good role-play communities — one of the first names that always comes up is Lord of the Rings Online. I haven’t spent much time in LotRO myself, but I’ve seen the praises of its community being sung high and low.
While the online world is awash in tales of toxicity and harassment, LotRO players are mostly known for being polite, mature, and helpful.
This is most evident in the famed player-run events held in LotRO, which allow players to show off both their commitment to the game and their community spirit. Most famous of these is “Weatherstock,” an actual in-game music festival where player bands perform for crowds of fans.
A good community doesn’t just happen. It’s something that has to be built and maintained, and that’s something that LotRO players seem to understand well. They care about their game and its community enough to go that extra mile.
EVE Online is one of the most notoriously difficult to pick up MMOs on the market. Most people who try it don’t last more than an hour or two. A lot of people (myself included) never even make it out of the tutorial.
Those who survive the initial learning curve do so because they have an intense passion for the game, its deep mechanics, and its cutthroat politics. EVE players are dedicated because their game simply won’t accept any less.
It’s that passion, combined with the game’s anarchic emergent gameplay, that allows the EVE community to generate more headlines than perhaps any other MMO’s players. It seems like almost every other month we get a new story of a major heist, or a brutal gank with a cost equivalent to thousands of real world dollars, or an hours-long battle involving thousands of players. One need look no further than the infamous World War Bee to see what the EVE community is capable of.
The EVE community is not always the friendliest bunch, nor the most trustworthy, but their passion and their dedication cannot be denied.
Star Wars Galaxies
How do you know if someone was a Star Wars Galaxies player? Don’t worry; they’ll tell you.
I kid, but it is a fact that to this day you can find no shortage of SWG players happy to sing the praises of what is often considered one of the greatest sandbox MMOs of all time. Galaxies players survived two of the biggest controversies in MMO history — the “Combat Upgrade” and “New Game Enhancements” — and continue to keep the memory of the game alive even years after its closure with countless think pieces and nostalgic blog posts, and a thriving emulator community.
If that’s not true dedication, I don’t know what is.
City of Heroes
Another dead game whose memory endures thanks to an incredibly passionate fanbase.
With a strong role-play community and little competition from other superhero MMOs, City of Heroes boasted one of the most tightly knit playerbases in the MMO world when it was alive, and even now that it’s dead, that community endures, albeit in a diminished fashion.
For proof of this, one need look no further than the bevy of crowdfunded “spiritual successors” to City of Heroes that are in development: City of Titans, Ship of Heroes, Valiance Online…
For those who need their City of Heroes fix in a more immediate form, there’s also Paragon Chat. While not a full emulator, it does allow former CoH players to reconnect via a minimalist recreation of the game that includes some of the environments and the ability to chat with other players, though not actual gameplay.
Secret World Legends
The original Secret World was a game renowned for having one of the most warm and mature online communities around. Having been an avid TSW player myself, I always felt that such stories were a tad exaggerated — we still had our share of trolls and elitists — but certainly TSW’s community was a cut above the average.
And I certainly can’t deny that they were also among the most fanatically devoted. I shudder to imagine how many hours of sleep I’ve lost delving into novel-length theory threads on the old lore forums.
Most communities would not have survived the upheaval Funcom handed down when it rebooted the game as Secret World Legends, and indeed, much harm was done to the playerbase. Many refused to give up years of progress by jumping over to the new game — myself included.
But many did make the change, and those that did surely deserve to be viewed as some of the most devoted players in all of online gaming. No one else would have the patience to endure being made to start over from scratch.
I don’t know if the TSW/SWL community is necessarily the most friendly nor the most dedicated, of all time, but it is the one that felt most like home to me, and thus it will always hold a special place in my heart.
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.