As with all too many other aspects of our lives, it can be temptingly easy to apply either binary or at least not highly differentiated thinking within the context of the MMO category. So, for instance, we tend to regard a game as either good or bad, or if we choose to add a third grouping, as mediocre. However, with a bit of reflection, I suspect many readers can name elements you remember from titles that weren't very well-received overall. Here are some of mine.
Push missions in Earth & Beyond
The last release from Westwood, which was closed by parent EA in 2002, E&B actually out-lived the storied studio by about 18 months even though it was only in service for two years. A space combat MMORPG at heart, it was set in a future where humanity had split into three factions. Decades after a devastating war that ended without a victor, relations among them remained uneasy due to their underlying differences. The Progen were genetically engineered and warlike, the Jenquai were spiritually-oriented explorers, and the Terrans were traders.
Each player commanded a highly customizable starship. Any vessel could be given its own unique paint job, and of course, it was also possible to upgrade its weapons, engines, shields and auxiliary devices. Another notable element was the incorporation of experience gained from combat, exploration and trade. The game also had monthly updates that drove the storyline within an evolving universe.
That said, what stands out most in my memory is push missions. Until E&B introduced this feature, I can only recall receiving tasks in what is still very much the most common way, by going to visit some form of quest giver, be it an NPC or a terminal. Westwood's team came up with a new way. At seemingly random times while out flying around in space, you'd receive a message that, when opened, would offer you an assignment. You had some time to do so in case you were busy fighting at that moment, or you could ignore it, in which case it would eventually disappear.
I'm not going to argue that this was a genre-changing innovation. Obviously, it wasn't. Nonetheless, this seemingly simple element is one I still remember. As best I can explain it, the main reason is that it showed a bit of creativity in an area where the status quo then has endured to this day. Push missions weren't critical to the design or the play of E&B. But they did represent a form of thinking outside the box, which is something I wanted to see more of then, and still do now
The quirky tone of Dungeon Runners
Launched with little fanfare in mid-2008, Dungeon Runners was developed by NCsoft. Often described as an action MMORPG, it was built upon relatively fast-paced action that took place within a heavily instanced world. The game only offered three base character archetypes, albeit with an open skill system, and no choice other than playing as a human. It was free to play from the start, with no gated content. An optional subscription-like package was available for $5 a month. The title was closed in early 2010. The stated reason was that it was unprofitable.
Although I can't speak to NCsoft's actual intentions, I tend to regard Dungeon Runners as an attempt to benefit from the way the MMOG audience was changing. Then as now, the main engine of growth was more design thinking that catered to a broader spectrum of users than just the hardcores. The game wasn't completely casual by any means, but it did seem less daunting than most if you chose to play less often than every day. This might help to explain various things - mechanics with a gentle learning curve, the decision not to require an initial purchase, the easily affordable cost of the monthly package, the very soloable nature gameplay, and more.
It may be a stretch, but it's also not impossible that opting to target the mid-core segment factored into the decision to give Dungeon Runners its unusual, offbeat tone. The comparison isn't completely apt by any means, but for me, the film Inglorious Basterds comes to mind. I simply can't think of another war movie I've seen that left me with a similar overall feeling.
For me, NCsoft's release evoked an analogous reaction. It felt different. Essentially, it didn't seem to take itself too seriously. Instead, it was distinctively lighthearted, incorporating a good deal of humor and satire, frequently poking fun at familiar game and MMOG cliches. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, Dungeon Runners didn't carry this over to its art direction, which was largely unremarkable. Accordingly, the title looked quite like many others. In the end, probably for various reasons, it failed to find enough of an audience. That said, I'm not likely to forget the way in which it stood apart.