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Four MMOs That Died Pre-Launch

Richard Aihoshi Posted:
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Middle-earth (later re-named Middle-earth Online)

Way back in 1998, when it was still quite easy to be aware of just about every project within the entire MMORPG category, Sierra announced it was making one based on Tolkien's famed IP, which was arguably the most appealing one that could be licensed. This was hugely exciting. If I were putting together a wish list of possible franchises, the only other contender for the top spot would have been Star Wars.

Although I don't know how or why the decision came about, one disappointing element quickly came to light. The setting would have limited connections to either the books or the events they chronicled. Instead, the game would take place a number of generations after the event that marks the beginning of the Fourth Age, the departure of Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel et al for Valinor. So, players wouldn't be able to take part in the War of the Ring, not even peripherally since Sauron's defeat and the destruction of the One Ring would already have happened.

The single most memorable element in MEO was one that continues to be highly controversial every time it comes up, permanent death. Relative to the far smaller size of the MMOG player base back then, it may have been even more contentious. How teams communicated with fans was very different from what we see today, so there was a degree of openness to the lengthy, heated discussion that I wouldn't expect to see now. Ultimately, while the planned implementation was modified, but the feature wasn't completely removed. 

Various other design ideas also elicited diverse reactions. One was limiting the number or proportion of Elven player characters. This would reflect the race's low numbers in the books. I wasn't overly keen on this, at least partly because I wanted to play one. Neither would magic abound; also reflecting the lore, it would be uncommon and thus very special. Another highly intriguing concept put forward was a psychology model whereby characters could become scared, irritated, bored, etc. This meant you might not always have complete control. It would also be possible to play by taking control of a monster. Overall, MEO was to be quite sandbox-like, probably to help mitigate the amount of content that the team would have to create and provide.

Unfortunately, it wasn't long before the proverbial writing was on the wall. In 1996, Sierra had been purchased by a company called CUC that turned out to be on the shady side and on pretty shaky ground financially. In early 1999, this led to a corporate restructuring that included most team members being forced to choose between relocating from Yosemite CA to Bellevue WA or being laid off. Most of the leads moved, but the game may already have been doomed. Around this time, the decision was made to switch from 2D to 3D. Obviously, this meant discarding a lot of work. It also adding the major task of creating a new engine as well as other complications. 

In retrospect, although MEO had the IP to grow the genre to the next level, the game's concept was too complex and its timing was premature. Even if development, launch and ongoing operation had gone well, the market just wasn't ready for the perfect storm that was WoW. In 1998 however, this was not yet apparent, so for an all too brief while, it was at least possible to dream about adventuring in the future of Tolkien's world.

Ultima Online 2 (later re-named Ultima Worlds Online: Origin)

After UO went live in 1997, it wasn't very long before at least some people started to wonder about either a follow-up or a direct sequel, especially considering that unlike its major contemporaries, it was 2D. So, when UO2 was announced in the fall of 1999, it wasn't much of a surprise. EQ had launched six months earlier and was doing very well. AC was almost ready. No one thought EA and Origin would sit on their hands for long. I did find one thing hard to believe, that the new offering might enter service by the end of 2000.

Obviously UO2 would use 3D graphics. All the visuals I ever saw were top-notch for their time. The setting was an alternate timeline version of Sosaria, one that had been shaped by cataclysmic disasters and an industrial revolution. As a result, the world combined fantasy with a substantial dose of steampunk. The concept seemed truly cool, so I was very keen to see how well the team could pull it off.

I can't claim I was thrilled by the revelation that there would only be three playable races, the techno-warrior Jukas, magically inclined Meer and good old humans. On the other hand, I did very much favor the team's stated intention to address what was arguably UO's most contentious element, player-killing. Indeed, the plan was to go very much in the other direction by disabling PvP except in certain designated locations like arenas. This was alright with me since I've always tended toward PvE.

Group play was to be emphasized, partly by making it very difficult for a single character to master a wide enough range of skills to solo effectively. Instead, the designers were aiming to create a game that would encourage forming parties of up to 20 or even 30. I was eager to see if this could be done without feeling too forced. Unfortunately, the project was killed before I ever got the chance.

The plug was pulled in March of 2001, a few months after the original (and IMO unrealistic) target launch date. EA said it was done in order to provide more support to UO, which was still going strong. I believe this was only one of the reasons. I think the project was simply late, over budget and still some time from being ready to launch. It's also possible that some of the corporate executives feared it would cannibalize too many subscribers from its predecessor without taking enough away from EQ and AC.

Whatever EA's full reasoning may have been, by the time it killed UO2, that may well have been the best decision. I still feel, however, that the project was highly intriguing at the conceptual level. Inadequate implementation was its downfall. It's always especially unfortunate when this happens.

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Richard Aihoshi

Richard Aihoshi / Richard Aihoshi has been writing about the MMOG industry since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. He has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.