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Five Most Interesting MMOs of 2009

Jon Wood Posted:
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A few weeks ago, I took a look into the future to see what the top games of 2012 might be. This week, I thought I’d ground myself firmly in the present and take a look at the five most interesting MMOs to launch this year, at least so far. In order to qualify for consideration, a game need only have launched some time between the 1st of January 2009 and today.

So far this year, we’ve had a grand total of 27 MMO launches. They have spanned the genre, from hardcore to children’s titles, subscription and item shop (and in at least one case, both), sports to fantasy. Of all of them, I’ve narrowed it down to five games that I have found, for one reason or another, interesting.

To be clear, this not a ranking of best or top MMO launches, but rather a list of launches that caught my eye for any number of reasons, good or bad.

Hope you enjoy:

#5 The Chronicles of Spellborn

Since its original announcement, The Chronicles of Spellborn picked up fans and followers with its promises of a new MMORPG experience, one that was not only more “hardcore” in terms of the game’s PvP system, but also one that would revolutionize the way that combat was handled in MMOs.

First, all combat in Spellborn was to be twitch based, meaning that you had to aim and fire everything from sword swing to arrows. If you missed your opponent, you missed. It was that simple. Second, and perhaps more of an innovation, was the game’s skill deck. The skill deck was supposed to add a whole new layer of strategy to MMO combat as players placed their abilities tactically into their deck, which rotated with every attack, bringing up a whole new set of abilities. It was of interest and enough to catch the eye or critics and players alike.

Then, the launch came… at least for European players. The game launched first for Herman, Austrian and Swiss players on November 27th of 2008, and for the rest of Europe the next week.

“But Jon,” you ask in horror at the obvious mistake I must have made here, “how can this game be on your list of games launched in 2009?” Well, my good doubter, that’s because the game launched in Europe ONLY in 2008. The full launch wasn’t completed until April of 2009 when the game made its appearance on the North American stage. Like it or lump it, I’m in North America, so NA release is the one I’m most concerned with. Sue me.

It is at least partially for this reason that I find Spellborn’s launch of interest. I thought that what appeared to be a little territory battle between Frogster in Europe and Acclaim in North America really did a disservice to the game in general. A staggered launch, especially one as drawn out as Spellborn’s is bound to lose favor with the last group to get the game, especially if early reviews of the first release are lackluster.

There were a few other elements of the game that I found enough interest in to merit its place on the list. The art style, for one, was and still is like nothing that the MMO world has ever seen before. Dubbed by the developers the “Spellborn Style,” the look always struck me as an attempt to be surrealistically realistic, with exaggerated angles and characters.

The second thing that I found of interest was Acclaim’s decision to open the game up to players for free, at least in a limited area of the game. It’s an intriguing version of a trial that allows players to get their feet wet in the game, with no commitments and none of the time limits that you get with a standard MMO trial. It’s not the first time it was done, but it was noteworthy.

In any case, the unfortunate truth is that after about a half a year of existence, the game just isn’t doing as well as many, myself included, thought that it would. The development company behind the game, Spellborn NV, went bankrupt in June and Acclaim announced that they were going to re-develop the game to include microtransactions, a process that should be finished sometime in 2010.

#4 Runes of Magic

When I first saw Runes of Magic at a game convention in Germany, I thought that there was something different about it. Up until I saw this game, I had a certain image in my head about what a game developed for microtransactions should actually look like. I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that when I thought of F2P, all I could picture were games with anime-style graphics and poorly localized dialogue. I know that’s a gross stereotype and that there were certainly games out there that didn’t fit that mould, but nonetheless, that was my perception. When I walked into my first demo for RoM, I saw a nice-looking game that looked like a real competitor to its AAA P2P counterparts.

That’s what I find so personally interesting about Runewaker’s contribution to the MMO world, its ability to make a F2P doubter like myself sit up and take real notice of the model for more classic fantasy MMOs.

The game transitioned smoothly from a beta product to launch on March 19th, 2009. When MMORPG.com’s Sean Bulger got a chance to review it in May, he felt that the game was an exception to the rule (see: stereotype) for F2P games.

In discussions with the developers throughout production and into launch, it seems as though Frogster, the company tasked to localize the game for the Western market, has taken careful pains to do the localization properly. They want to bring not just the language, but the concepts and other content more in line with what players over here expect.

Also of interest was the way that Bulger describes the game at the end of his 7.7 review:

“Runes of Magic is probably the most middle-ground, average game I have ever played. It seems for everything that they do right in the game, there's some niggling problem that brings it down. Yet, at the same time, for every fault I find, I can find something else that can make up for it.”

“…for a free to play game, what it brings to the table is far beyond what you normally see from those types of games. Frogster claims that they've hit one million registered users in North American and Europe, and I can understand why.”

#3 Champions Online

As a long time fan of Cryptic Studios’ first foray into the world of MMOs with the groundbreaking City of Heroes franchise, any game that the studio put out as a follow-up would have garnered my interest. My interest was further piqued when I read that this follow up would come in the form of a game based in the vast Marvel universe. Of course, history records what happened there: Partners Microsoft and Marvel pulled the plug on the project, and Cryptic picked up a fairly obscure pen and paper IP in Champions to continue the game.

I’m not going to try to go into the reasons that the original deal fell through, so much as I am going to concentrate on what I think was a fascinating decision on the part of the studio to tie their newly liberated superhero MMO to an IP. The reasons could range anywhere from the brass at Cryptic were long-time fans of the franchise and jumped at the chance to acquire it, to the idea that those same folks thought their second super-hero MMO needed an IP to help differentiate it from its predecessor which by then the company had sold off to NCsoft. In any case, such a move was bound to raise eyebrows, and it did.

As we began to learn more and more about Champions Online, we saw that the game was going to employ a visual style that was designed to hearken back to its comic book roots. I’m not saying it was a bad choice, but it sure didn’t work for the folks who made that first Hulk movie… In any case, stylistically, the game is very different from City of Heroes. This was something that Cryptic absolutely needed to do. What was once their game is now their competition.

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Jon Wood