The Game Archaeologist jacks into The Matrix Online: Jamming with Ben 'Rarebit' Chamberlain

When we started into The Matrix Online month last week on The Game Archaeologist, one of the comments caught my eye. Massively reader stealthrider wrote:
Please, please do a tribute to Rarebit. MxO was his baby, and no one took its death worse than he.

He did everything for that game, much of it single-handedly. Everything from playing the canon characters and co-writing the story to fixing hundreds of bugs and even creating a new zone from scratch. Not to mention developing and implementing the story missions, new items, the RP item vendors, and pretty much everything else in
MxO's final couple of years. He even implemented and moderated a player-created minigame as part of the official story.

He retired from game development in the months before
MxO's shutdown. He was that dedicated to this game that he couldn't work on anything else afterward.

He's a god among developers, and he is as sorely missed as the game itself.
I think this sums up how many Matrix Online vets feel about Ben "Rarebit" Chamberlain. So instead of a mere tribute, we drove the MassivelyMobile over to Chamberlain's house (read: send a polite email request), and he graciously said he'd be glad to reminisce with us. So hit that jump to find out the last word on MxO from the dev who held it together!

The Game Archaeologist: Can you introduce yourself to us and explain how you became involved with The Matrix Online? Were you a huge fan of The Matrix or was this just a good job opportunity?

Ben Chamberlain: My name is Ben Chamberlain, aka "Rarebit," and I was a test lead at Monolith Productions. After finishing up on Aliens versus Predator 2, I was assigned to MxO, which had been in pre-production there for a while. So I was the test lead on MxO for maybe a year or two of its development, but eventually the game needed mission designers more than it needed one more tester -- we'd hired a whole in-house test team with its own lead by that time -- so I was able to move from testing to design on the project.

Where does the handle "Rarebit" come from?

When the time came to have a public presence and handle, I was working on MxO, and I was also getting into Winsor McCay's comics, particularly Little Nemo. I came across a Little Nemo panel in which the characters were looking at a message from Morpheus -- the King of Dream Land in Little Nemo -- talking about pressing red or green buttons, which struck me as reminiscent of the Morpheus character in The Matrix, who offered Neo the choice between a red pill and a blue pill.

So that got me thinking about the Matrix in relation to McCay's work. And he'd had an earlier series called Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. Rarebit is a Welsh dish consisting of broiled cheese on toast, but the "rare" and "bit" parts sounded kind of Matrixy to me, so I thought that would work all right. Plus, I like cheese and toast.

What were your responsibilities on the team?

Once I transitioned from test lead to the design side, I was one of two full-time mission designers writing as many missions as we possibly could in the dwindling time remaining before launch.

After launch, the game eventually moved from Monolith to Sony Online Entertainment; a lot of staff weren't kept on, and then more gradually they all left until I ended up being the only remaining designer on the team, so I was pretty much the lead designer by default from that point on.

And our artists and Wachowski-appointed writer, Paul Chadwick, eventually moved on as well, so in the end I was doing all the writing, mission design, quest design, character design, texture design, live event design and execution, item design, etc. I also had to fix as many bugs as I could that were left in the old designers' and artists' work. Basically, I was doing everything that happened with the game that didn't involve actual programming. I also sort of put myself in charge of taking screenshots of the in-game events and posting them as a visual narrative on the game's forum the next day, along with commentary from one of the story characters.

And near the end of my time there, we reached the end of our budget for the story cinematics, so I also tried my hand at producing the animated movie segments that would roll out before each new story chapter.

What did you love most about MxO?

I can't decide between two things, so I'm just going to call it a tie and discuss both of them.

The one that came first was that it was the first time I was really employed in a professional role for my creative abilities. That was very significant for me personally and taught me a great deal. It gave me the confidence to feel like I could go on and make a career out of things like writing and drawing.

The one that came along a bit later -- as I got into running live events with players -- was the interaction with players. I think as a game designer I was very, very fortunate, because there can't be many designers in the industry who get to go and interact and play the game with their players on a daily basis, at least not in an official story capacity. If a game has that aspect to it, it's usually done by specialized a GM staff rather than the game designers themselves. So it was great to get that daily feedback, to see what was working and what wasn't working, to experience something of what the players were doing in the game world, and even to be a constructive part of that with them in the game's storyline events.

When you had time to play, what class and skills did you enjoy the most?

Back in the Monolith days when I was just one of a team of mission writers, I started playing as a Spy, sneaking around and ambushing guards in computer complexes and so forth. That was interesting, although I seemed to be really bad at actually connecting with my cool-looking sneak attacks. I didn't get too far with it, at any rate, because we just got too busy working on the game.

Later, in Live Events, when I would play as Niobe, an Agent, or whatever, I usually had an admin-enhanced loadout with an overpowered mix of pistols and kung fu. So I suppose I'd have to pick Kung Fu Grandmaster, because it had some really spectacular special moves that made for good event screenshots.

Could you talk about the role of the story in the game and what compelled you to pour so much effort into it?

The game was designed to have a central, ongoing story from the get-go, so by the time the game ended up in my lap, story-manipulating tools were by far the most powerful things I had to work with and we were already firmly committed to a regular chapter release schedule that was constantly moving the story ahead.

The game didn't have the sort of generic fetch quests, kill quests, exploration quests, raids, and so forth that a lot of MMOs have. Instead, we had the mission system, which was completely story-driven. As a player, you worked for a certain group or individuals in the storyline, running around the virtual city doing their dirty work as your hovercraft operator narrated as you went. So basically the gameplay (when I took over), aside from our fun-but-unstructured PvP, was almost completely wrapped around following either the main storyline or some of the small static storylines you'd encounter as you explored the city, and that's what I tried to run with.

What was your personal favorite story that you crafted for the game?

This is a tough one to answer, because aside from little one-off quests and mission arcs found around the city and its offshoots, I was generating a dozen or so storyline missions every six weeks and running a live event with players every single day -- usually one that tied in with one of the storyline missions that had become available to players that week. That's a lot of stories!

One that springs to mind was leaving it up to players to decide the fate of Zion's Commander Lock, who was stranded in the wreckage of the command complex when the Machines finally wiped out the city. That outcome was finally decided by a five-way hovercraft battle using a sort of board game simulation one of our players had devised, all run through in-game chat!

The stories that really stick out for me are the ones that happened through interaction with players during events, particularly those when I kind of snuck into the game world, found an isolated player or two, ambushed them with one or two of the game's story characters, and went off and had an adventure with them, often as a major part of the main storyline -- whether the players realized it or not.

Did the players ever surprise you with their own contributions to the continuing storyline?

Oh, yeah. I mean, very early on I had to give up trying to predict what players would do, because there was always something someone would come up with that wasn't in the script the way you'd written it. Not to mention that we had a group of players we'd enlisted to help design and run the live events, and so a lot of the time I'd be going into the game to help make their ideas happen.

And in the Live Events, of course, even if it was a central storyline event and I knew what I needed to have happen -- a certain speech, or some character getting captured or killed, or whatever -- you could never predict exactly what players would do, how they would respond, who would succeed or in what way, or who would crash the party unexpectedly.

Although some of the action-oriented players hated them, some of the most profound changes came out of player reactions in meetings with their organization leaders (played by me).

MxO is well-known for its rocky history -- a dwindling development team, being juggled between companies, and a shrinking playerbase that led to cancellation. What was it like working behind the scenes while trying to make the best of this situation?

Well, when I found out that the game was going to be canceled, I thought I could keep working away at it, making the best of it and all, but then I found my heart had really gone out of it, knowing that the company wanted to end it. So I suppose you could say I made the best of that situation by quitting.

I wrapped up the things I was working on as best I could and bowed out. And I was amazed that some of the players actually threw a farewell party for me in the game, which was a very emotional and humbling experience, but at the same time a very positive one.

In the several years before that when I was pretty much the lone designer trying to generate content for an MMO, it was a lot of long hours and technical limitations and all that, but I was energized by the creative freedom I had and the positive reactions I saw from players when something went right. I knew there was a lot of stuff I couldn't do for the game that it really could have used, but I just tried to keep my head down, keep working, and make the most of the resources I had available. In a way it really simplified planning, because I knew exactly what I could do and couldn't do, as opposed to working on a full game development team where you always have to try to press for feature support. My toolset was more or less set in stone, and it was simply a matter of doing the best I could with it.

What is one of your favorite memories of working on this team?

One that springs to mind was one of the last major team live events we were able to pull off in which players had to finish off really powerful Assassin characters on each server. The Assassin had some pretty spectacular abilities, and it was fun to have the team come in after hours for the event, kick back a few, and have fun giving the players a good fight -- lots of yelling around from cubicles, and I was rushing around keeping track of how all our people playing Assassins were doing.

Your departure from SOE also marked the end of your career in the games industry. Was this a result of MxO directly or a choice to go in a new direction? What have you been up to since then?

I'd certainly learned from MxO and the previous games I'd worked on at Monolith that the game industry is a tough one; it can be a lot of long hours, technical issues, and no guarantee of success. But I'd also learned from the opportunity I had on MxO that I could write a story when I had to and even draw some of it (such as my work near the end on some small cinematics). So I figured I'd give that a go on my own, and ever since I left MxO I've gone into developing my own webcomics, which is also a very challenging industry, but at least I get to call all the shots. My work can be found at my site, smbhax.com.

In your opinion, what was MxO's greatest legacy? What could future MMOs learn from its features and approach?

Player interaction with people playing main characters in actual storyline events is probably going to be MxO's main legacy, at least in terms of positive things for which people remember it.

If future MMOs learn anything from it, I suppose it will be not to do it that way -- not as one of your primary means of providing content, anyway. And I suppose that sounds negative, but you know, at least someone gave it a good try.

Thank you for taking the time to share! And for the rest of you MxO fans, send in your favorite memories to justin@massively.com so that we can share them in a future column!

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 justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.