Funcom took one look at the small but expanding MMO market, got together in a group huddle, and said, "You know what guys? This fantasy thing, it's everywhere. Let's do something different. Let's drill for sci-fi gold. And let's throw in robots, cuddly rodents, randomly generated missions and a bitter rivalry between factions. Geronimo!"* (*Quote fabricated by author.)
And thus, almost a decade ago, Anarchy Online hit the industry like a sack of broken features. It wasn't the stellar debut Funcom desired, but the game endured and went on to carve itself out a workable plot of land. This month, The Game Archaeologist trades in his rugged leather attire for space armor and a high-powered laser rifle. The year is 29475, and the place is Babylon 5. Er, Rubi-Ka.
Sci-fi before it was the cool kid in the class
While we won't go so far as to say that Anarchy Online was the first sci-fi MMO (there's always someone out there who will do his darndest to prove you wrong), it certainly was the first major MMO to branch out in that direction. A couple years after The Matrix and Star Wars Episode 1 injected a healthy dose of sci-fi into the mainstream, Anarchy Online tantalized gamers with the prospect of shooting laser pistols instead of swinging swords.
The setting was a planet named Rubi-Ka, a hotspot of galactic business interests due to a precious metal known as "notum." Omnipotent corporation Omni-Tek swooped in to mine the heck out of the planet, terraformed the surface, and imported a number of colonists (yourself included). However, Omni-Tek found itself butting heads with the Clans (rebel workers), and both groups struggled to figure out the deep mysteries of the planet and its unique resources.
Anarchy Online promised players the moon, with a huge selection of classes (12 at the start, with two more added later), worldwide PvP, dynamically-generated missions, and an ongoing four-year story. It was almost too much, as AO's design reflected the complex, no-hand-holding attitude that other early 2000's MMOs adopted. You could gimp your class without knowing what you did wrong, and often the reprecussions wouldn't be felt until much later in the game. Still, the hype for AO was huge, and over 100,000 players signed up for the beta. By all predictions, AO would be a serious rival to EverQuest.
That is, until the game actually went live. Books, novels, doctoral theses, and two made-for-television movies have been penned on the subject of Anarchy Online's botched launch, but suffice it to say that it was so bad, it became legendary. Whatever could go wrong on launch day, did: the account system wouldn't let players log in, the game would crash constantly, the lag and rubberbanding was horrible, servers went offline without warning, and patches were difficult to download.
It wasn't just the first couple days, either -- Anarchy Online's launch woes extended well into the first month, earning the title a black eye and nasty press that couldn't be spun by Funcom. The company frantically worked to patch up the game as it bled players and gave players two additional free weeks of play as partial compensation. Later that year, Funcom would make another attempt to woo players back with 30 more days of free game time. No matter what, AO's reputation took a serious blow from the start -- although fortunately for Funcom, it wasn't a death blow. In fact, Anarchy Online picked up 150,000 subscribers in its initial year, no small feat for any MMO at the time (or even today!).
In the Game Archaeologist's humble experience, MMOs tend to have a single defining expansion that looms above the rest, and Shadowlands was that for Anarchy Online. Following a smaller "booster" expansion (Notum Wars), Shadowlands provided a completely new leveling experience as players had the option to explore a series of floating islands above Rubi-Ka. Inspired by Dante Alighieri's trip through The Divine Comedy, Shadowlands offered a far more linear journey than players had seen previously.
No matter what, Shadowlands added a stockpile of new content, particularly for character development. The level cap was raised to 220 (yes, I didn't add any extra numbers there), the shade and keeper classes were added, and nifty "perks" were added to the game as a sort of proto-talent tree. Player housing also made its first appearance, and there was much rejoicing.
Anarchy Online put on more expansion weight in the future, although nothing as comprehensive as Shadowlands. Alien Invasion and Lost Eden added player cities, alternate advancement and better PvP, while last year's Legacy of the Xan booster beefed up the endgame considerably with new areas and raids.
Free play, free play, la la la la!
Anarchy Online made history in 2001 by being the first MMO to offer a free trial, which has since become a standard marketing gimmick for most all MMOs. In 2004, Funcom started a one-year free play program that has been renewed on a yearly basis ever since. Anarchy Online's free version offered players the full basic game and Notum Wars, but none of the additional content (such as perks) that came with later expansions.
Free players were labeled "froobs" by the paying population, and while they were tolerated, some subscribers definitely looked at them as second-class citizens (or, hey, plain ol' moochers). The program has been a mega-success, and netted over a million new free players by 2006.
With Age of Conan as its current flagship MMO and several other titles (such as The Secret World) on the way, Funcom has quietly pushed Anarchy Online to the background, citing only that its revenues were "slowly declining" in the first quarter of 2009. Still, the game has life left in it yet; last year's expansion booster showed that development on the title is continuing, and Funcom has plans to swap Anarchy Online's current graphics engine with the same one that's powering Age of Conan.
It's amazing to consider how many sci-fi MMOs have come and gone during Anarchy Online's long run -- Earth & Beyond, The Matrix Online, Tabula Rasa -- and what that says about the support that both fans and Funcom have given to AO. 2011 marks the 10-year anniversary, and we can't wait to see what Funcom has in store.
Tell us your story -- or better yet, show us!
I'm willing to bet that there's a lot of Anarchy Online players in the Massively audience, whether you were there "back in the day" or still play today. Part of the Game Archaeologist's mission is to uncover the stories from those who were there and compile them into a historical record.
So if you'd like to send us your favorite memory from Anarchy Online, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org (100 words maximum, please). Also, we're collecting player screenshots, so dust off those old folders and send in your best pics to the address above! September 2010 is Anarchy Online's month, so let's make it a month to remember.
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at email@example.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.