Thursday 6 August 2009

The Launch of a MMO – the most important time?

I was quite sad to see the Matrix online being closed down, while I never played the game it is always a shame to see any MMO get cancelled with its player’s months or even years of input into their characters gone completely when the servers close down.

A friend who played the game chatted to me about this and in his opinion the writing was on the wall for the Matrix MMO from launch – surprising for something that lasted so long.

This got me thinking about other MMO launches, are they the most important part of an MMO life cycle. Is having a bad launch with all the word of mouth it creates across the internet one of the main reasons for an MMO failing and can they come back from such a failure. Or does it make no difference having a great launch or not if the MMO is a dud regardless.

I have been involved in a few MMO’s at launch and talked to people I know who have been involved in others.

World of Warcraft

Well I may as well start with the most well known MMO, now as much part of popular culture like Ipods and the Wii. I sunk nearly two years of my life into Warcraft with levelling, pvp and raiding. General consensus seems to be that the game itself is quite smooth and polished but it was not always like this.

As is common with the launch of most MMO’s, World of Warcraft had its share of problems when released in November 2004. This was due to the huge number of people who bought the game along with server instability. The bane of many players online experience also reared its ugly head, periods where players had to wait in queues before playing, as some realms were at their maximum player limit. I don’t mind waiting 10-15 minutes but after I find I have been in a queue for 20+ minutes that’s when I get a little pissy.

Blizzard chose to stop selling copies of the game for a time after the launch to try and tone down the unexpectedly high demand on the servers. With 250,000 copies sold in one day which was huge for the time. The launch on the whole was a success

Mike Morhaime, president of Blizzard Entertainment summed it up “We were all extremely pleased with the success of World of Warcraft on its first day of launch. Once we saw the numbers for the first day, we knew that we had to immediately increase capacity to accommodate the huge numbers of players joining our game”

Warcraft still had issues, I remember all the free time I was given by Blizzard for those issues not allowing me to play but it was pretty small fry in the end.


Sigil's original Vanguard team was composed of many EverQuest developers, including designer Brad McQuaid. Development began in early 2002 but it was not actually released until 2007.

Brad McQuaid admits that the game was released to early and the launch had not gone to plan “Had I had the financial resources, ability to place the product later, etc. I would have given us about 3 more months to get more polish in, more high level content in, and to distance ourselves from the WoW expansion. That said, we knew the launch date for many months before we released. And we made a promise and we stuck to it. I understand why that date was given and why we had to stick to it and I don't blame anyone”

Complaints at the launch of Vanguard ranged from the large numbers of bugs and performance issues which plagued the game as well as a lot of the planned high level content was not included. Players could go 15 minutes walking through a barren lifeless world until you came across some mobs.

In an interview with massively Vanguard producer Thom Terrazas said “I would say bumpy, rocky, just goes to show you if you have a great launch that great things can happen, but if you have a bumpy launch it holds you back a little bit.”

The launch went so badly Brad McQuaids reputation was in tatters, he removed himself from the MMO limelight and only recently seemed to be prepared to offer his side of the story. Vanguard has gone on with Sonly and has seen a great deal improve to the extent that my Warhammer Online guild was really positive about vanguard to the extent some even went back after a short stint in Warhammer.

Age of Conan

Some people thought Age of Conan would be the World of Warcraft killer, most however did not. This was one of several MMO’s given this misleading title, treated like some shinning knight who would slay the big bad Warcraft dragon and steal the Blizzard golden money egg. Certainly it had potential, an adult themed MMO with a PvP theme along with more interaction and great graphics.

The launch of Age of Conan seemed to go quite well, Funcom scaled its server to cope with 600,000 players on day one and with over 800,000 boxes sold they were aiming for 50% retention of 400,000 players to begin with. Things went well to begin with, Tortage got massive praise from players and the outlook was good.

However Age of Conan became a victim of its own early success when players complained about the problems with the game. Over hyped and being released far too early Age of Conan arrived during a massive summertime lull that took place in Warcraft with player’s bored waiting for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion later that year. They dived into Age of Conan but shortly after launch they found key problems.

Firstly the lack of PvP and endgame which in fact was really just a complete lack of any content outside of the early-game quest zone of Tortage. From level 20 onwards players went from the single/multiplayer area of Tortage with the destiny quests to a complete lack of content. Age of Conan also put great stock in its mature setting and the fact it would be a great looking MMO compared to the cartoony look of Warcraft. Now I actually quite like the look of Warcraft but with a DirectX 10 machine with Vista 64 I was quite keen to see how this looked. What we got was Age of Conan launched without full support for DirectX 10 and major memory leaks which spoiled the experience, when I went back for the free return with gamespy it does look gorgeous now but back then it was a major failure on the developers part.

Age of Conan does seem to have recovered somewhat from its poor launch, to the extent that it has recovered enough that people doe not think it will close down anytime soon and some players are returning. The game has been improved and new content added to flesh out the zones after Tortage, however much good will was lost and Age of Conan probably will never raise itself to join the MMO A list due to its reputation from the launch no matter how much it improves.

Warhammer Online

I am a major Warhammer fan and love the fluff Games workshop has put together over 25 years, which is why I put major hopes on this being the next MMO I took real interest in after Warcraft.

Mythic did a great job with the launch; I never experienced a server crash but I did have some lag spikes that sent you back to the character selection screen. With starting areas full of players, I was able to always get groups for the various Public Quests and scenarios popped up quickly whenever I wanted to play one.

However this popularity led to servers being backlogged with huge queues. This was a no-win situation for Mythic because if they stuck with just the existing servers, people would whine about queues at launch. So Mythic went ahead and opened more servers for the one-month crowd and so then eventually had to deal with empty servers which Mythic was forced to close. Not the greatest of PR when Mark Jacobs before launch said if they had to close servers it would be a failure.

The general consensus however was Warhammer had a fairly good launch; the main issue came up a week or two afterwards when people started to complain about the polish of the game or the lack thereof.

The game just felt rushed, it seemed Mythic were trying to get the game out before Wrath of the Lich King which came two months later rather than playing a long term plan. Maybe if Mythic had delayed the game until after Christmas giving them more time to polish the game as well as allow Wrath of the Lich King fever to die down.

Not including 4 capitol cities and 4 classes (which were added in later but was sold as an update, not adding in originally promised content) and after the first tier it felt that there wasn't enough to do apart from wait for scenarios to pop up. Michael Hartman at Bright Hub has a good article on the issues behind Warhammer Online not fulfilling its potential. Suffice to say the 750,000 subscribers soon dropped off to 300,000 and Warhammer didn’t deliver on its potential or the hype around it.

Signs seem to suggest Warhammer is like Age of Conan massively improved, the Land of the dead content was added and all the cut classes were reintroduced with well run live events. Still with Mythic being merged with Bioware it is obvious that the cream of the Mythic talent who worked on Warhammer online will now be working on the Starwars old republic MMO. Warhammer will continue on but I don't expect any far reaching changes to Warhammer or major content outside of an expansion with EA now putting itself firmly behind Starwars. Just goes to show a great launch does not make up for the game not being finished.

The Matrix

Sadly this MMO has finally closed down; it suffered from a very dodgy launch as well as its association with Matrix Reloaded and Revolution, regardless of their massive budgets, they just killed the hype from the first film and made it hard for the MMO to make any impact. If that was not enough for fans of the movies, a 16-month gap between the final film and the launch of the MMO put many people off.

The Matrix introduced “Bullet Time” to peoples vocabulary and the special effects were way ahead of its time and made up for the silly mumbo jumbo dialogue/plot as well as Keanu Reeves wooden acting - a man might be ever so slightly surprised to find out that the whole world is a lie and is actually a computer simulation designed to keep humans enslaved as big car batteries but oh no not our Keanu with his slightly confused/constipated look for the whole movie.

On paper it seemed a winner being set inside a computer simulation with bullet time and small crews taking on agents. The live events team which were like dungeon masters interacting in game with players as film characters like Morpheus also seemed a great idea. Combined with the fact Warner Bros allowed everything that happened in the game to be canon so it was actual lore for the Matrix universe after the films.

A work colleague was a massive fan of the Matrix and was a long term player of the MMO, in his opinion the games launch was a failure for 3 reasons.

1. The time between the last film and the MMO was far to long for people to retain interest
2. Four months of beta testing for the game was not long enough and beta testers told everyone that it wasn’t ready when it launched.
3. Launch issues damaged the games reputation, again the word of mouth put people off with the usual disconnects and lag causing disruption and anger. Players exploiting also became an issue, especially when the developer’s heavy handed approach of capping experience to combat this hurt all players, not just the exploiters.

Monolith sold the game to Sony within 3 months of launch, who restructured and laid off most of the development team and most importantly the live events team which removed one of the key appeals of the game. It is surprising that the game lasted as long as it did, Sony may not put much money or manpower into the game but the game was always fighting an uphill battle to keep going, mostly due to the poor development and launch crippling the game from the outset and only the efforts of those developers left kept it going as long as it did. In the final stages only one developer was left working upon the game and his efforts I hope have not gone unnoticed.

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