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Canceled MMOGs: Games We'll Miss Most

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Memories of them sneak up on us. They haunt our dreams and resurface during conversations with our fellow gamers. Tales of our exploits in long-forgotten worlds creep into our minds and color our impressions of our modern adventures, even though the settings and worlds we compare them to no longer exist.

It's happened to any gamer that's been around for more than a couple of years. Perhaps you received a beta invite or got to watch over a friend's shoulder as he played a hot new title he just bought. Somehow, you learned about these promising new MMOGs, tried them, loved them, and then watched in agony as the servers were shut down and the virtual worlds your avatars inhabited suffered cataclysmic destruction.

When the dust settles, all you have left to cherish is the memories you made while toiling away for the next bit of XP, or the next shiny piece of loot. I feel your pain. Today we take a look at some MMOGs of the past that were filled to the brim with potential but were cut off before they had the chance to live up to it. Worlds that may never live again, but live forever in our minds and hearts.

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TABULA RASA

lord britishTabula Rasa was the brain-child of the famous (or infamous?) Richard “Lord British” Garriott and from very early on was intended to be the ultimate genre-defining MMOG against which all future and past titles would be compared. From the beginning stages of the project, all the minds behind Tabula Rasa were hellbent on forging this game into the ultimate end-all, be-all utopia project. To help them meet this goal, NCsoft brought in star developers and designers from across the industry that combined to form an all-star team that hasn't been seen before or since. The combined experience of this team included hundreds of years of game development and design, and more than a dozen blockbuster titles (including Wing Commander, Ultima Online and Lineage).

What could possibly go wrong?

According to a revealing and candid interview with Garriott at GDC in 2006, the team itself and its excess of experience and knowledge was the core defining reason for the pains that Tabula Rasa had been feeling during development up until that point. The phrase “too many chefs, and not enough cooks” was used, implying that each superstar on this dream team of developers had their own unique and infallible notions about the direction and choices that should be made for the project. The disagreements and lack of a unified vision eventually boiled over into a complete restructure of the development team on Tabula Rasa.

In 2003, two years after development began, the game underwent a complete overhaul of personnel and assets:  20% of the original dev team was replaced, 75% of the code had to be re-written, and the art assets were recreated entirely to match the new, more unified game vision.  At the price of two full years of hard work, Garriott and NCsoft gambled that this reboot would get the game back on track to being the major contender they originally hoped it would be.

Burn!

Tabula Rasa finally launched in 2007 after an extensive period of open beta. Despite receiving strong review ratings from most major gaming sites, the population levels of TR's servers never managed to meet the projections needed to keep the project profitable. Many ultimately place blame on the lengthy open beta period, claiming that NCsoft opened the doors to the title too early in its development cycle and turned off potential customers by allowing them to experience a buggy, glitchy and unfinished version of the game that eventually shipped.

The game itself was a marvel, however. It blended real-time shooter action with RPG elements in amazing and seamless ways, making players feel both in control of their environment and yet still able to benefit from the classic stat, gear and skill progression available in other MMOGs. The entire world of Tabula Rasa was also embroiled in an amazing conflict that shifted with player interaction and offered battlefield mechanics to drive the fast-paced action. Many reviewers commented on the pacing and immersion of the world, stating that it caused them to completely forget the fact that they were earning experience and advancing their character – they were simply drawn in by the world, and were fighting for the sake of winning, and not just advancing.

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ncsoft logoIf Tabula Rasa had been a success, it's possible that the entire MMOG genre may have been a very different place today. As it currently stands, we're on the cusp of launching into a new wave of action-driven MMOGs such as TERA Online and DC Universe Online. Had Garriott's dream become a reality, these games would already find themselves behind the curve, as the “click+hotkeys” standard would have been shattered years earlier.

TR didn't only suffer on the development and marketing side however. At the end of its lifespan, it also became embroiled in legal disputes that resulted in Garriott suing NCsoft for $24million due to wrongful termination.

Tabula Rasa just couldn't get a break, I tell ya.



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AUTO ASSAULT

yeeeehaw!Tabula Rasa was not NCsoft's first foray into the cancellation of a high-profile action-driven MMOG. In 2007, they'd put their publishing might behind NetDevil's car-based action MMOG, Auto Assault. The game featured high-octane destruction in a post-apocalyptic future, complete with physics-enabled debris and destructible terrain and buildings.

And it was FUN!

But... it was not deep. In fact, it was about as shallow as an online game could possibly get, and suffered from a serious lack of content. Not to mention grouping difficulties and control issues. Top all this off with an out-of-car experience that felt shoe-horned and kludged together at the last second, and you had yourself a recipe for disaster. A game that would be fun to play for only a few hours. If it was free.

But BOY would you have fun destroying shanty towns and running over pedestrians in those few hours!

questionable indeedUp until Auto Assault, NetDevil had only published one other game of note – the mildly successful niche MMOG, Jumpgate. Many speculated that with the closure and cancellation of AA, the company would soon vanish. NetDevil surprised us all, however, by diversifying instead of shrinking. They soon acquired the rights to a LEGO MMOG (which would become LEGO Universe), and put plans in motion to create a sequel to Jumpgate. It was also not long before they'd acquired the rights to publish a Marvel superhero game (Super Hero Squad Online).

When later asked about the closure of Auto Assault, NetDevil co-founder Scott Brown said, “I would never turn off a game. I would do what I would need to do to make the game support itself, but why turn it off? Especially when there are people that love your game?”  NetDevil attempted to acquire the rights to Auto Assault after its closure, but was unable to come to an agreement with NCsoft.

But it was sure fun while it lasted!  Vrooooooooommmmmmmmm..... **squeel, CRASH!**

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ALL POINTS BULLETIN

In today's world of MMOGs, we really can't talk about cancellations without bringing up RealTime Worlds' All Points Bulletin. It has become perhaps the most shining example of how to overstep yourself in this business, assuming you'd already won the gold medal before the race had been run.

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APB's most shining feature was undeniably the free form avatar customization it offered, which was so robust and limitless that it puts even the critically-acclaimed character creation systems of City of Heroes and Champions Online to shame. Perhaps that made it all so much more infuriating when folks in beta realized that every mechanic and system outside of this customization was complete garbage by comparison.

The game suffered from an incredible lack of content that it seemed ready to accept, putting the onus on the players to engage in PvP conflicts as a form of infinite content. But the PvP engagements themselves had little purpose, as well as being riddled with bugs, glitches and imbalances. The mechanics of driving a car in the game – a core mechanic to the overall gameplay – were cited in nearly every review as being clunky and difficult to control effectively.

apb in actionBut the true downfall of this game, according to the myriad of post-mortem articles that have cropped up in the past few months, came directly from RealTime World's management teams. Some say it was a lack of a solid direction and unified vision, others simply feel the company started acting too big for its britches. Perhaps the most well-respected and thorough examination of APB's difficulties comes to us courtesy of ex-APB employee Luke Halliwell's personal blog (readable here in 3 installments: 1 2 3). To summarize:  It's a classic example of thinking like a big successful multi-million dollar company when they, in fact, weren't. After raising $100 million for the development of APB, “we forgot to tell ourselves that the investment was just a small step towards success, not to be confused with success itself.“

Rumors now circulate that APB may be purchased and re-opened under new management but nothing has yet been confirmed.



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ASHERON'S CALL

turbine logoYour mission Turbine, should you choose to accept it, is to craft a successful next-generation sequel to your successful and wildly popular first-generation MMOG, Asheron's Call.

Oh, and develop and publish both simultaneously while not losing the profitability of either.

And while you're at it, re-acquire the rights and operations of both of these worlds from Microsoft so that you are solely responsible for the financial burden of your success or failure.

ac2 screenshotAs it turns out, Turbine Entertainment was not up to the task at the time. Though they have since established themselves as one of the largest and most successful developers and publishers in the modern MMOG market, they are not without a rocky history.

Calling the launch of Asheron's Call 2 “rough” would be a massive understatement. Both server and client crashes were common, balance issues were drastically out of whack, and players were discovering exploits on a daily basis. The server instability was so rampant that most players found themselves unable to communicate with each other reliably for the four months of live gameplay. And the exploitation of bugs was so widespread that Turbine made an official statement that called for exploiters to not be vilified by other players, and instead claimed that bugs and exploits, if found, were the sole responsibility of the developers and players should not be penalized for benefiting from them.

All of these factors set the tone of the rest of the game's brief tenure in the MMOG field. Massive nerfs become common, swinging the pendulum of balance wide with each patch and causing player outcry with each swing. Among the communities of AC2, fans of original Asheron's Call publicly pulled their support from the sequel and subscription numbers dropped steadily.

In a last-ditch effort to save the title, Turbine pushed forward with publishing an expansion pack for the game in 2005. After retail sales of the expansion failed to revitalize the dwindling player base, a cancellation notice was given just months after the expansion pack was released.

ac2 in action

Jonathan Hanna, Turbine's Director of Public Relations had this to say in an interview after the game's demise: “One of the key lessons that we learned is the customer perception of sequels in the MMO space. They end up splitting your community more so than growing it. So they are counterproductive, unlike sequels in other game genres where they can be really successful.”

I have a feeling that the folks at SOE, publishers and developers of EverQuest and EverQuest 2, may disagree with that statement despite how logical it may sound on the surface.

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Really, what it all comes back to is another quote from NetDevil's Scott Brown: “The reality is that good games just succeed.” Meaning that if a game has failed, it is because it just wasn't good enough.

True though that might be, it's also just as true that a game doesn't have to be the absolute paragon of gaming to be an adored addition to the MMOG landscape. Even for all their lumps, each of the above titles has (or had) a significant fanbase ready to continue paying subscription fees even if they were insufficient to support further content development. And each of those fans now goes about their lives dreaming about the days they will never get to relive, and the worlds they were forced to leave behind.
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