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2009's Most Interesting Stories, Part One

Shannon Drake Posted:
Editorials 0

Mythic is Gutted.

Speculation was rampant when Mythic Entertainment was absorbed into the body of the all-consuming Electronic Arts. EA's history with MMOs hasn't exactly been sterling and successful, but they also brought a serious budget and promotional campaign to the launch of Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, enough that any game should theoretically get off the ground. And it did seem to be doing well--1.2 million box sales as of September 2008 and 300,000 subscribers as of the end of March 2009--though considering Mark Jacobs' claim that anything less than 500,000 subscribers would be considered a failure, as would having to merge servers, the game obviously didn't meet its projections.

The usual bloodletting occurred throughout the year, with layoffs in January and February, as well as Jacobs' own resignation in June and another round of layoffs in November as EA cleaned house on, well, pretty much everything. Thus the mouthy upstart that launched Dark Age of Camelot becomes another of those EA acquisitions that tend to be benignly (or not-so-benignly) neglected, though Warhammer soldiers on, much depleted, but still hanging in there. For now.

Champions Online Charges for Respecs.

While Champions Online is (or can be) a largely enjoyable game, there was one hint of microtransaction creep that might prove ominous in the future. While Free to Play games usually have all kinds of ways to charge you, from EXP Boosts to shiny new hairstyles, subscription games have largely kept the microtransactions to fluff items like pets and other non-gameplay items. However, when Champions launched, perched right there in with the costumes and emblems and other doodads were in-game respecs (Retcons), which was a bit of a concern for three reasons:

The first was that respecs usually had an in-game cost, rather than a real dollar cost, though defenders were quick to maintain that respecs should be infrequent and quite painful to keep people from constantly changing whatever they were specialized in and stick with a character concept. The second concern was Champions' rather opaque skill system, which requires quite a bit of dabbling to get right (ask me about the three gimped/broken characters perched above my play character!) and figure out what you want to do and what powers are actually worth taking.

The third, and largest, was what happened when the inevitable balancing patches changed your previously awesome character into a pile of nerf blocks? The inevitable happened, in that patches came out and changed everything, Cryptic swore up and down they couldn't give anybody free retcons, no-way no-how, then mysteriously discovered that they could actually give everybody retcons after a significant amount of forum drama. To their credit, retcons regularly come after balancing patches now, but it made for an interesting few days since the question came down to: Do I shell out a bunch of money to fix my broken character, do I soldier on, or do I quit the game?

Tabula Rasa Shuts Down.

Richard Garriott was the creator of the Ultima series, one of the first great RPG series, and owner of a castle from his RPG deeds and "Lord British" days, so things looked bright when he stepped in at NCSoft Austin. And then Tabula Rasa, Garriott's baby and pride and joy (to the point that he even changed his name to General British) went through seven years of development hell and several overhauls, revisions, and changes along the way.

At one point, it featured unicorns, giant spiders, and magic (and screenshot evidence exists here, too!), a far cry from the semi-grim sci-fi game that eventually staggered out the door.

The game did poorly, and, depending on whose account you believe, Garriott resigned with an official letter on the Tabula Rasa site or was shoved out the door as quickly as possible. He went on to become a Rocketman, fleeing/run out of an industry that he helped create, as well as suing NCSoft for potential shenanigans. It's a sad way for one of the old lions of the industry to go out.

Blizzard Provokes A Governmental Crisis.

Ah, China, the golden land where by some accounts everyone plays MMORPGs all the time and companies can't wait to get a slice of millions and millions of Chinese gamers, as well as the revenue they represent. World of Warcraft went to China--since it's everywhere in the known universe--and seemed to be doing well there. But there are some perils even World of Warcraft can't overcome, a lesson that while China may be a potential goldmine for revenues, access to that goldmine is controlled by a government that can pretty much do what it wants, even if sometimes it doesn't know what that is.

Previous clashes have involved Chinese values and internet skeletons, delays of the Wrath of the Lich Kinge expansion and slapfighting with Chinese operator The9, and picking a new service provider, but this year, Blizzard managed to provoke a governmental crisis. November saw the Chinese General Administration of Press and Publication and the Ministry of Culture slapfighting in the press about who had the authority to regulate World of Warcraft. There ain't no drama like WoW Drama and it's even more intense when a multibillion dollar industry is at risk because of it.

However, the big challenge confronting the China goldrushers is simply this: the government, obviously, can turn off the money tap any time it wants. From talking to Chinese developers, they work within a bizarre realm of government restrictions--which explains some of the genre's eccentricity--and the Chinese government takes a dim view of outside companies bringing in corrupting influences, which means whatever they want it to mean at any given moment. So while there may be a vast market to be tapped, one government decree stops the money train, and it could go away at any given time.

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Shannon Drake