Video games almost always fail to measure up to the hype they generate during development. It's pretty unusual to see one that under-promises and over-delivers. Indeed, relatively few even manage to meet the expectations they promote. To be fair, this isn't entirely one-sided since many of us tend to look at upcoming titles through our rose-colored glasses. Naturally, relative to how we think or hope they'll turn out, some disappoint more than others.
The MMOGs discussed below weren't necessarily the worst ever. Arguably, they weren't even bad. My criterion for picking them was that each ultimately fell far below the peak level of hope I had for it, which was usually at or near the time it was announced. I arbitrarily didn't consider any projects that never made it into live service. Nonetheless, I still had quite a few candidates. The ones I chose are below in chronological order, beginning with the eldest.
SWG leads off this list of titles that never remotely approached fulfilling the huge potential I initially thought each had. Looking back, I probably shouldn't have been so optimistic. However, to put how I felt back then into context, remember that LucasArts and SOE announced their joint endeavor in 2000, at a time when the MMOG category was still a fairly small niche, albeit a growing one. A Star Wars title created by as experienced a team as anyone could hope for seemed like the vehicle to lift the genre to the next level of prominence and popularity.
Unfortunately, this was not to be. SWG never had a realistic chance to become such a breakout endeavor. I think the Field of Dreams-like attitude that was quite widely held within the MMOG design community at the time played a key role. Build a really good game based on an enormously popular IP, and new players would flock into it, thereby swelling the audience for the entire genre.
While this thinking wasn't completely off base, it was the product of starry-eyed optimism. It didn't adequately factor in that the era's prevalent design thinking incorporated barriers to entry that could be rather significant, even for relatively serious single-player gamers. While the ongoing monthly fee was the most obvious, the gameplay tended to be considerably more repetitive and less structured than they were used to. Neither were they accustomed to the kinds of death penalties that were typical at the time.
In retrospect, what disappointed me most about SWG is that it didn't really attempt to step outside the box to address such barriers and to make itself substantially more accessible than its contemporaries. I believe this meant it missed a very sizable opportunity. Had it been less hardcore, I'm convinced it could have been the first MMOG to crack the million subscriber level, nearly a year and a half before World of Warcraft arrived to claim this honor.
Although AoC came along only a handful of years after SWG, I had learned by then to temper my initial optimism about newly announced MMOGs. I no longer became as enthusiastic about games when all I knew was their basic concepts, no matter how appealing they might be. Still, Funcom's project managed to intrigue me more than most before much actual information was actually available.
In this regard, there were two key elements. One was the promise of a truly action-oriented combat system. I didn't jump to the hopeful conclusion that it would be completely revolutionary. Neither do I have anything against hidden dice rolls. Nonetheless, I was still attracted by the thought that AoC might provide a different feel to what we were used to in this critical part of the gameplay. If so, the title could then help to grow the MMOG player base.
The other was the team's decision to make the first part of AoC a single-player experience. This appealed to me on a personal level because of my extensive background with standalone RPGs. In the bigger picture, I was curious to see if this might be a way to introduce the world and to pull newcomers into it more rapidly and effectively than “standard” tutorials and starter areas.
I never though AoC could be a WoW-killer. That said, subscriber count isn't everything. Funcom's offering is on this list because I believe it had far more potential than it was actually able to realize. The combat wasn't generic, but it didn't feel different enough to be completely satisfying in this respect. The solo starter experience worked, but only to a degree. Overall, the game disappointed me because it dashed my hope that it might stand out.
Final Fantasy XIV (2010 version)
In the interest of full disclosure, my hands-on experience with this title was very limited. Since I wasn't assigned to review it, I put in far fewer hours than writing one would have required. But let's be frank; it didn't take much time to see that FFXIV was severely flawed when it launched. In A Realm Reborn, the event that concluded the original version is called The Calamity, which seems rather fitting.
I have no qualms saying that FFXIV shouldn't have been released - not in the state it was. Some observers described it as broken. While I wouldn't go that far, neither would I leap to argue with such evaluations. It simply wasn't a finished game. Sadly, it was more like what I'd expect to see in a middle stage of beta, with perhaps a year or more to fix, adjust and polish before launch.
My feelings regarding the state of development were exacerbated because the title was Square Enix'. FFXIV wasn't a project from a small, inexperienced indie studio working on a shoestring budget that had run out. It came from one of the world's best-known developers and publishers, and used its flagship IP. I simply can't imagine how or why the company decided to launch this title when it clearly wasn't ready. The result was a yawning, enormously disappointing gap between the game we got and what it could / should have been.