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Dana Massey Posted:
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We Give the Game a Second Look - Will You?

Eighteen months ago, Artifact Entertainment launched a highly anticipated MMORPG named Horizons. The team and their one-time publishers Atari anticipated hundreds of thousands of players. At its peak, a number it is no longer even remotely close to, the game hit 37,800. Fast-forward and the original company has since filed for bankruptcy and then re-emerged as Tulga Games. There are only three active servers – one for role-playing, one for regular play and one independently operated European server. The company consists of a mere twenty-seven employees, down from nearly one-hundred at peak. Yet, despite everything, they continue to plow forward and finish the game they started all those years ago. With this in mind, we decided to go back and take a fresh look at Horizons: Empire of Istaria to see where it has come from and, more importantly, where it is going.

Like many good stories, the tale of Horizons began with disaster. First, there was the highly popular, but overly ambitious design they so famously shoved aside in favor of a more plausible, but ultimately less popular vision. Despite these early pre-release hiccups, Horizons under the direction of David Bowman seemed like it still had a chance. They signed with heavyweight publishers Atari and plowed through beta and into release. Then the second disaster struck… launch.

“Our audience overwhelmingly decided it was not ready,” recalls a reminiscent David Bowman in a phone interview last week. Simple graphical and content bugs, terrible client performance, weak servers and a lack of content, plagued the game. Atari and Artifact had estimated hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and despite an initial roar, that never materialized. The game capped out at 37,800 active players.

“We wanted another year of development,” said Bowman. However, that simply was not possible. They could not afford to fund it themselves, nor could they convince their publishers to allow it. It came down to a lack of money, which was born out of a lack of experience. The team had estimated Horizons would cost six million dollars to produce over a two-year cycle. In reality, it cost eighteen million dollars.

The game was not ready, but a lack of funds forced them to push it out the door anyway - hardly a recipe for success. A month after launch, they reached what would be their ceiling in terms of subscribers. Then the layoffs began, followed soon after by bankruptcy. Over the first year of life, Horizons more often made news for its corporate problems then the game itself. Most fans had long ago written it off.

Eventually, the title emerged from bankruptcy in the hands of a “new” owner: Tulga Games. Tulga Games brought new money and new hope to the table, under similar management. The development team was merely a shadow of its former power, but now free of Atari – this change allowed the team to stop making news on the corporate death-rattle front.

Then Horizons fell off the map entirely. Big events like E3 would come and go and no sign of Horizons. Many in the community seemed to forget that the game even existed.

What were they doing over that year? David Bowman had lamented at launch that he wanted another year to finish the game. Over the last year, they had just that. While no one watched, Tulga’s remaining workforce was hard at work. The fixed bugs, pumped in content, re-wrote systems, redesigned servers, and brought the client up to speed. Now, Horizons has a game, one might even go so far as to say a solid game, and they face a new challenge. The current crop of MMORPG gamers does not know what Horizons is, or has an image, which perfectly accurate a year ago, is no longer fair. Still a low budget operation, David hopes to begin a grassroots campaign to raise that level of awareness and convince people to give them a second chance and look at Horizons how they intended it to be. For these reasons, we took a few hours to chat with him and run around the game world.

This begged the question: what has really changed? The list is extensive, but David spoke of three major areas of improvement: combat, performance and the broad category of content.

At launch, players panned the combat system in Horizons as choppy, non-responsive and shallow. They listened and re-wrote the combat system from the ground up. Today, they promise a more fluid, visually pleasing experience. He spoke of players able to juggle dozens of monsters at the same time and the absence of the latency issues that plagued the game originally.

This tied into the second issue: performance. “Our servers are flawless,” proclaimed Bowman. Quite the statement to be issued, but given the effort they put into them – they had better be. David spoke of how most initial MMORPG offerings suffered from the same problems they did in terms of solid server architecture. Over time, they can remedy these issues, but is often too late for the initial product. History is on his side. Companies like Funcom had issues with their initial MMORPG offerings, while a company like Mythic Entertainment had a near flawless launch for their first major MMORPG. The reason being that Mythic built off pre-existing server architecture they had been using for years in their online MUDs. Time heals all wounds, and today Tulga feels they have the foundation laid for the future – wherever that takes them – in terms of base architecture.

They have also rejuvenated their client, although not to the same degree as their servers. I still noted some choppiness and long initial loading times, but generally, it is night and day, as compared to where it was at launch. David ran me through their options in terms of performance settings. There are enough sliders to choke even the best machine. If you walk in and shove everything up to the max – do not expect good performance. They designed the client to scale with machines of the future. Even the beefiest machines typically available will not run Horizons with things like view distance turned to max. After a few tweaks, I had managed to strike a nice balance. The game remained beautiful – something it always had been – and performance solid. This kind of customization to my machine is something too many games often lack.

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Dana Massey