Monday, December 2, 2019

Take Five

Five years ago I posted a list entitled "All The MMOs I Have Ever Played (And Then Some) Pt 1". Running alphabetically from Aika to Guild Wars 2, it covered forty-five titles. At the time that represented considerably less than half of all the MMORPGs I'd played in the fifteen years since I bought EverQuest in 1999.

I was planning on a a Pt. 2 and very possibly a Pt. 3. As I remember it, there were more than a hundred and twenty titles on the full list. I can't be sure exactly how many because the file seems to have gone missing. If I did a recount now, going up to the present day, I'm sure it would pass a hundred and fifty.

The reason I'm mentioning it today is that I never did get around to the second, let alone the third and final instalment, a failing I don't intend to repeat with my gloss on PC Gamer's list of twenty-five dead post-WoW titles. Parts One and Two are done. Now for Part Three. (Incidentally, I just noticed that link, which I filched from Paeroka's post, where I originally learned about the piece, goes to the Australian edition of PC Gamer. Curious...).

Telon always looks lived-in. Even untidy.
So, without further padding, let's get to it: the Final Five aka The Ones I Really Played.

 Vanguard: Saga of Heroes

Depending on my mood, this is either my first, second or third favorite MMORPG of all time. The top three hasn't changed in a decade - EverQuest, EverQuest II, Vanguard. The order changes all the time.

The recent sad and unexpected death of Brad McQuaid reminded me yet again how invaluable his contribution to the genre has been. I have a rule of thumb for collective enterprises like gaming, music and film: if I like a whole lot of things and there's a common factor, it's probably not a co-incidence. I may never know exactly what it was that Brad did but whatever it was it worked for me.

Is there any more inspiring sight in MMORPGs than your very own ship?

A vast amount has been written about Vanguard, no little of it by me, so I won't re-hash the details. I'll just say that the first year after launch was one of the best times I've had in MMORPGs and there have been plenty more good times since.

Thanks to the emulator project, which I can't plug too often, those good times didn't end when Smed pulled the plug. I don't blame him or SOE for that; as an obscure division of a less-than mindful multicorp they'd been able to pull off more than their fair share of pro-bono archival preservation but it couldn't go on forever. I have other axes to grind with Smed without blaming him for killing Vanguard.

Having given Brad credit for the worldmaking I should add a caveat, one that may (or, now that he's gone, may not) speak to Pantheon. Vanguard was a somewhat unforgivingly group-based game in the early days, as Pantheon proposes to be. It was only after he'd left, when SOE were trying to remake and remodel the game to fit their portfolio and regain an audience that it began to offer some of the best solo and, especially, duo gameplay in the genre.

Or better yet, two of them. A bug in Vanguard? Surely not!

Although I always loved Vanguard, starting with the open beta, the first time I had a PC capable of playing it, it was that long period in the middle, after the difficulty was toned down and before it was tweaked back up, when it really hit my sweet spot. That was the time when my Disciple felt immortal and we all had a reindeer that flew. I loved it.

Even if the emulator project ever completes and the full game comes back, those golden days are gone forever. Every MMORPG is a river. We have to accept it and move on.

Warhammer: Age of Reckoning

What is it with the colons? No-one ever calls these games by their full names. Why even bother with the subtitle? Presumably, in this case, just so they could use the acronym WAR.

My experience with Warhammer is a curious tale. It has close similarities to my relationship with World of Warcraft, which is both ironic and appropriate given the two games' quantum entanglement.

My second-favorite MMO class of all time (so far). Vanguard's Disciple is #1.

When WoW was generating the biggest buzz the genre ever knew, I barely noticed. From what I've read, excitement over Warhammer fueled a boom in MMO blogging the like of which we can now only dream. I missed that entirely, too.

I was barely aware Warhammer was a thing until long after it wasn't any more. I'm too old to have grown up with Games Workshop although I did run a Warhammer RPG tabletop campaign in the 1980s. It was a good system, if a little over-complicated.

That didn't generate enough affection for the I.P. to grab my attention when the MMORPG was announced. I also can't recall noticing that Mark Jacobs, the driving force behind Dark Age of Camelot, a game with which I have considerable history, not all of it good, was involved. I never even saw the infamous "Bears Bears Bears" video until many years later.

Warhammer was one of the games Mrs Bhagpuss and I tried in our wilderness years, when we'd run out of steam in the old games and there weren't any new ones on the horizon. We ran through a bunch of also-rans and rejects we'd not paid much attention to until we got desperate. WoW was one (actually, the last one, I think. We were that wary of it). Warhammer was another.

These shots are from the emulator. I seem to have lost all my originals.

I'm not sure how long we played Warhammer. My memory wants to say three or four months but I've found that, when I can find actual supporting evidence for this kind of thing, my memory usually underestimates so it was probably more like half a year.

I know we did an awful lot of Battlegrounds, or whatever they were called in WAR. I always found it felt like eating a bag of boiled sweets: delicious at first but eat too many and you end up with a sore mouth and a sick, empty feeling. I found battlegrounds enervating. I always ended up playing too many matches and it made me wrung out and nervy. And yet the next day I'd do it again.

Partly it was because WAR had one of my favorite classes in the entire genre, the Squig Herder. I played mine in Battlegrounds, specifically for the opportunity to blast people off of walls. Sometimes I'd go a whole session without getting a victim lined up just right. That was frustrating. But when it worked it was just about the funnest thing ever. I positively hooted.

The PvE game I liked. It had some depth and the world-making was excellent. The classes and races were varied - so much so I hardly scratched the surface of what was available. I loved the Greenskins. Mostly I played Orcs and Goblins.

Wot? Me, Sarge?

The capital cities, notoriously culled from six to two before launch, were awful, though. Some of the worst I've seen. So was the dismal crafting. The UI wasn't up to much, either and the textures were weirdly gritty. I used to finish a session of Warhammer feeling as though I needed a shower.

Open world RvR, the game's supposed U.S.P., was great when it happened. By the time we played that wasn't very often. Just like in DAOC, I spent a lot more time running around looking for action than I ever did having any.

We never fell out of like with Warhammer. We just ran out of steam and moved on. There's an emulator that's supposed to be fairly well-regarded. I tried it but the spark didn't flare. I'm happy to leave WAR in the past.

Free Realms

Free Realms was always an odd duck. Made at the peak (well, one of the peaks) of SOE's hubris, it was extraordinarily heavily hyped. I remember a series of post-launch press releases lauding ever-increasing take-up figures to confirm the game's runaway success.

Most of my Free Realms shots seem to be M.I.A. too. Not sure how these survived.

It was the first of SOE's free-to-play titles, hence the name, and it heralded the company's transition to a new business model for the entire portfolio. Ironically, despite its undeniable popularity, Free Realms eventually closed because "Kids don’t spend money" (a quote from a Smed interview I am no longer able to find online, although it's referenced in both an MMOGames piece and a reddit thread).

I liked Free Realms. I played a fair bit of it although I don't appear to have posted about it here. I had a character around Level 20 as I recall. I did some crafting, trained a pet, quested quite a bit, explored the world. Played it like a regular MMORPG, really.

The people who really loved Free Realms, though, were the intended age group. I think it's called Middle School in the U.S.  For them it was social media before that became something everyone did. It was the virtual equivalent of the treehouse in the woods, a telephone made out of two tin cans and a length of string. Smed's twelve-year old daughter played it twenty hours a week.

Not a great subject. Some barrels that sparkle. But you should see the ones I didn't use. Or not. Yes, let's not.

You can see the impact it had on peoples' lives from comments on the forums at the emulator website (because of course there's an emulator. There's always an emulator). Or you could, when the forums existed.

The Free Realms emulator project, Free Realms Sunrise, is as odd a duck as the game it plans to revive. The developers run a tighter ship than many official alphas. Access is strictly controlled and they must have a very effective NDA because information never leaks. When they do post progress it's impressive but updates are few and far between. The most recent was back in April.

If the emulator ever comes online for anyone to play I'll definitely dabble. It was never going to be a game I played extensively but it was fun while it lasted. I'd be happy to go round again.


Wildstar is perhaps the classic example of an MMORPG that was less than the sum of its parts. I was reasonably pumped for it during the lead-up to launch. Carbine released some very strong videos and much that I read about the game sounded appealing.

Wildstar looks utterly stunning in screenshots. In game, not so much, I found.

There were warning flags - the ludicrous "twitter" questing and the gleeful focus on hardcore mechanics -  but I took all that with a pinch of salt. When the game finally appeared, though, I wasn't sufficiently interested to buy a copy.

I can't recall why, exactly. Fortunately, by the time WildStar came along in June 2014 I had a blog so I don't have to rely on memory. It seems I was away on holiday for the actual launch. When I came back I found my feed full of posts about the new hotness.

From my post I see I played the beta (don't remember that at all) but I didn't "have time to play another MMO, at least not enough to make the box+sub cost worthwhile". I concluded the post with a cynical throwaway line that would prove prophetic: "Maybe I'll get a second bite at that cherry with the F2P conversion".

I take a lot of shots with my character as far from the camera as possible. Wildstar loves that.

That conversion came just over a year later on 29 September 2015, by which time I was deep in the Heart of Thorns. I was playing Wildstar in mid-October, but not with much conviction. The Halloween event was on but I wasn't committed: "Shade's Eve will have to fall in line behind Norrath's Nights of the Dead and Tyria's Shadow of the Mad King on my personal holiday calendar."

And that was pretty much where Wildstar always stood for me - behind a whole bunch of games that did much the same thing but quite a lot better. Combat in Wildstar was on the taxing-yet-tedious end of the spectrum, with a lengthy time to kill and a lot of makework jumping about (which I completely ignored, probably extending my TTK even further). Questing was lacklustre. I think there may have been some kind of overarching narrative but if so I forget what it was.

Syp was always a big fan of the housing but I felt that was only because he's never really appreciated the options available in EQII, of which WS's housing always felt like a mediocre copy. At least when Rift copied EQII's housing offer, Trion did a good job of it, in everything other than the monetization, that is. That was outrageous.

Grass you could cut yourself on.

My real problem with Wildstar, though, was something quite unexpected. I found the textures and the soundscape unbearable for more than a short session. It's one of the few games that both made my eyes hurt and left me with a ringing in my ears. Okay, not literally but metaphysically. I found the color palette and the ambient sounds teeth-grittingly jarring after an hour or so. It's strange, because the game looks fantastic in screenshots but as a real-time environment it was painful.

There's an emulator project in the works called NexusForever. I know nothing about it but this video was posted on YouTube just a couple of months ago. Could be awhile before we get to play it, I'm guessing. That's okay. I can wait. Forever, if necessary.


And so we come to the end. Landmark. Aka EQNext/Landmark. If Free Realms was an odd duck, what do we call this one? Howard?

I wish I could say I built that tower but it was a pre-made, something SOE added late on.

As with Vanguard, I've written plenty about Landmark already. The short version is this: I bought the $99.99 Trailblazer Pack for Mrs Bhagpuss's birthday and the $59.99 Explorer version for myself. She really enjoyed playing for a couple of months, which made the purchase considerably better value than some birthday presents I've come up with. Then she stopped and I carried on, after a fashion, until the game finally closed down in 2017.

I have always considered it money very well spent. I never really understood the criticism in terms of value. A lot of people felt burned because they thought they were buying access to EQNext, apparently, to which I can only wonder whether they actually bothered to read what they were signing up for.

As this PC Gamer article clearly explains, and as all the promotional literature I ever saw made very clear, EQNext and Landmark were separate enterprises. Yes, there was that whole thing about stuff you built in Landmark potentially making it into the landscape of EQN, but that was something you did in Landmark. It didn't mean you got to play EQN right away!

Water was wonderful in Landmark. Even in stills you can see the roiling motion of those waves.

I spent an inordinate amount of time building my clifftop Thomas Crowne Affair spy hideaway. Much of that time was spent mining rocks, chopping trees and learning how to use the unintuitive UI and the incalcitrant building tools. It was clear to me from an early stage that even the developers could barely control the tools. The only useful guides I ever read were written by players, some of whom clearly worked in the industry and had more skills than the people being paid to make the game.

As is clear from many of my posts here, I liked Landmark a lot. It was a toy, not a game and it should have stayed that way. It could have been a very good toy indeed.

Unfortunately, Landmark arrived at the zenith (pr should that be nadir?) of SOE's hubristic period. Astonishing, sweeping claims were made, by people who showed little evidence of being able to turn those pipe-dreams into reality. Landmark was going to be a fully-fledged MMO in its own right, we were told. A huge amount of effort was wasted trying to make that happen. It never even came close to succeeding.

Did Landmark really need combat? If it did, it definitely didn't need the kind of combat it got.

When Landmark closed just three years after that hundred dollar pre-alpha buy-in I did feel it was a shame. The "game" was never going to get much further but it was still a lot of fun for what it was. The fact, though, was that almost no-one was interested any more.

For all the outpourings of anger when it ended, the servers had been all but empty for a long time. The map was littered with abandoned building projects, many of them quite astounding in scale, detail and brio. It is a minor tragedy that all that work was lost but that's what happens when you build castles in the sand.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the talents and skill sets of many of its players, there's no Landmark emulator. There doesn't really need to be one. There are plenty of building apps and games, after all, and it was probably always easier to teach yourself 3D modelling from scratch than to learn to use Landmark's tools.

Anyway, I'm very happy with my memories, my posts and my screenshots. I don't need to spend any more evenings trying to line up bricks -just- so. I appreciate having my life back.

I guess I could draw a comparison there with the whole MMORPG genre. Best not go there...


  1. There is a variety of lessons learned from this list. I think Warhammer and Vanguard were both trying to do too much at launch, trying to cover all bases while failing to do anything so well as to make the games and their issues worthwhile.

    WildStar was playing both the "hardcore" card and the "any kind of different must be better" card without a lot of real reflection on what that meant. Also, they were going against the trend, along with ESO, trying to be subscription only in a world where almost every competitor had some sort of free to play option. Hubris all around.

    Landmark was the lesson that early access is essentially your launch, so when you do "go live" there won't be any fresh surge of people. Also, if you gouge your founders for $99 and then given people who show up later a substantial discount, there will be resentment.

    And I guess the Free Realms lesson came from Smed, which was "don't make games for kids." Odd, that one, but I guess he had to deal with it so he probably knows something. Still, Club Penguin and ToonTown seemed to thrive on the kids market, so who knows?

    1. How did Club Penguin and Toontown monetize, though? I know we sold Club Penguin books in the bookshop where I work. I think they had quite an extensive line in merch. Toontown was back before we really had microtransactions - did it have a sub? I know I played it but that could have been in beta.

      Free Realms was reliant on microtransactions, which presumably rely on some kind of credit card at some point. Or an in-store purchased funny money card. Either way, not the ideal for an audience of under-teens. Then again, they sell Roblox cards in my local supermarket...

      Maybe SOE were just poor at coming up with stuff tweens wanted to buy. Or too good at making MMOs that were perfectly playable without spending anything. They seemed to specialize in that. Wizard 101 never gave away the farm with their F2P model. You got the starting zones but after that you had to sub or buy zone by zone. That seems to have worked for Kingsisle.

      I think I'd come down on the side of Smed not having much of a clue on how to make money. Look at all those triple SC sales and allowing people to buy the expansions with Station Cash. I think Big Sony signed the cheques for so long back when no-one in the home office even remembered they had an MMO division in the States that SOE kind of forgot about the big picture and thought they were there to make games people would enjoy playing...

    2. I don't recall how ToonTown Online made money, but Club Penguin had a subscription that unlocked a bunch of features. The famed "velvet rope," if we want to get back to Smed quotes. It seemed to work, too. Club Penguin went away not due to lack of fans, but because some Disney read in an in-flight magazine that mobile was the future and they needed to ditch all that web based PC stuff.

      My career has often been jolted by senior execs reading bland, next wave editorials in the first class club at the airport, after which they decide to come back and change something not because they have a plan but because this is what "real" or "modern" companies do.

      There was definitely a time when SOE was under the PlayStation people that they were making their quarterly revenue numbers by goosing Station Cash sales with those bonuses without any thought for the long term consequences.

    3. As far as I know Toontown Online didn't ever make money directly. It was in a unique position, being a Disney game, in that it was considered a success as long as it was attracting kids to the Disney brand and harvesting their parents' personal information. (I think there was a monthly sub, but I can't remember for sure. If so, it wasn't much.) My suspicion is that Toowntown's death had as much to do with legal concerns around small kids (although Disney handled this quite well) as it did with its profitability. There's an article out there by the developers about how hard it is to keep bad things from happening to small kids in-game without human moderation: apparently rearranging furniture in one's house to make pictures became a big deal…

    4. That's interesting - the other reason Smed gave for Free Realms not being as profitable as they'd hoped was "kids are mean to each other". I believe SOE had some real Customer Service issues with it, more so than their other MMOs, which is saying something.


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