Part One: What were they *thinking*??!?
Today, let's learn from failure.
Specifically, let's look at some of the most spectacular MMORPG flameouts, and try to find some common cause between them. Warning: This is a two part article. This is the fun part, where I go into great detail about where everyone screwed up and we can all laugh nervously.
Ultima Online: A Well Crafted Simulation Of The Result Of Man's Best Intentions
Being one of the first MMOs, Ultima Online had the luxury of launching with a community best called "dystopian." Intended to be a fantasy simulation where you could wander the land, killing bears and skinning them to make your own armor and selling the meat to happy farmers, thanks to its somewhat... utopian ideals of allowing players the freedom to do whatever they wanted, UO swiftly became a gangland simulation where you could brave the crowds of pickpockets and suicide bombers at the bank, and then run as quickly as you could past the gauntlet of hidden bandits to your home in the woods, where you would then be beheaded with a halberd while frantically fishing in your backpack for your keys, at which point your slayer would chop you into parts, make a small campfire on the spot, and then eat you.
Surprisingly, UO actually thrived despite all of this. The players not in roving gangs demanded a "PK switch", or the ability to tell the game that no, I would not like to be raped senseless immediately upon logging in. This was a fairly standard feature of MUDs (UO's immediate precursors), but the UO design team held firm. Until competition arrived in the form of Everquest, which had among its announced features, the ability to do your banking without fear of thieves and/or explosions. In response, UO announced that they would open Trammel, a gangland-free switch... er, mirror... er, FACET. Yes, facet, where players could be free from most of the obvious thuggery. This was roundly despised by every right-thinking UO player and was a horrible mistake, as shown by this chart that showed that subscriber numbers held steady in its wake... OK, next subject!
Everquest: Men Of The Cloth, Ninjas Of Norrath
Meanwhile, Everquest was busy blazing new trails in man's inhumanity to man, through the mechanism of "the rare drop". Specifically, Everquest designers wanted to ensure that the most powerful items would be mysterious and awe-inspiring by their very rarity, so that someone who possessed one would be a legend on their server. They did so by assigning these items properties that were requirements on raids, such as mana-free resurrection. Thus, to qualify for high-level raiding, priests in Everquest had to obtain an item that the designers made so insanely difficult to acquire that the intention was that most people would give up rather than go through the hell that would be required to obtain them. Specifically, at one point: you would have to kill a dragon (a raid-level boss). Which only spawned 2 to 6 days after a server restarted. And, of course, by you, I mean, your entire guild. Your entire guild then has to wait for a triggered spawn, keeping the area clear of adds in the meantime. For 72 hours. No. I'm not kidding. SEVENTY. TWO. HOURS. At which point, the quest mob spawns, and then you kill him. At which point - thanks to how Everquest's looting worked - anyone nearby could loot the corpse for the quest item. ANYONE.
After you waited THREE DAYS STRAIGHT for a VIDEO GAME MONSTER to appear.
I am not making any of this up.
SOE (then named Verant) eventually changed the quest into something approaching sanity, possibly due to a fear of frustrated sleep-deprived ninja-looted clerics having access to firearms. And when your quest change makes the BBC News, it's a possible sign of a design failure.
Dark Age Of Camelot: That Sinking Feeling
Dark Age of Camelot gained many of it's initial 250,000 subscribers from players who looked at the requirements for the above quest and said "Nuh UH." At which point - specifically, the Trials of Atlantis expansion - the DAOC designers looked at each other and said "You know what this game is missing? Insane Everquest-style epic quests for items that totally imbalance PvP! Also, let's put them all underwater in case players don't get frustrated enough." At which point many of DAOC's players looked at each other and said "Nuh UH."
Shadowbane's launch is a textbook example of how to foul up a launch eagerly awaited by a rabid community as quickly as humanly possible through the means of poorly written code. In a player-vs-player game that focused on getting as many people as possible to fight massive battles, if too many people were in one place, the game would crash with a cryptic "SB.EXE error". Other causes of SB.EXE errors included network instability, server instability, general instability, phases of the moon, and something you did you know what you did don't lie. SB.EXE quickly became shorthand in the PvP MMO community for "Oh god, no." Shadowbane eventually fixed their technical issues, possibly through the expedient of quickly no longer having enough players for server instability to be an issue any more.