The Game Archaeologist: When dead MMOs come back to life

Hellgate Tokyo
Maybe I'm alone in this, but my jaw just dropped when I came home this past week to see that Massively posted the news that Shadowbane is coming back to life. Granted, it's only going to happen in China, but still, that's pretty incredible. Shadowbane's been in the ground for three years now, and if I had to pick an MMO that deserved resurrection, this particular one would be farthest from my mind (no offense if you liked the game; it's just that there are so many others that are even more worthy).

But how can this not give you hope? Many of us have lost an MMO we loved or at least had a decked-out character populating the character select screen, and the thought of that game coming back against all odds is a goosebump-rising one. It may also smack of justice served, as some MMOs fail not because of faulty gameplay but because of mismanagement by the studio, complex legal wrangling, or bad marketing.

Today let's look at a few examples of dead MMOs that were brought back to life and what this may mean for the future of the industry. Zombie MMOs! Not, you know, MMOs with zombies.

Mythos
Resurrected MMOs

I'm going to start this out with a blunt truth: The examples of a canceled MMO being revived are by far outweighed by the ones that have stayed dead. Apart from Shadowbane, the only recent MMOs I can think of that have defied the odds in this way are Hellgate, Mythos, and All Points Bulletin.

Hellgate: London launched in October 2007 to fans eagerly hoping for a high-tech Diablo clone (this title was, after all, made by many former Diablo developers). The product was anything but as memorable as its role model, and after a little more than a year of struggling to find an audience willing to tolerate its patchwork design, Hellgate closed down when Flagship dissolved in January of 2009. While just about nobody expected Hellgate to ever pop up again, Hanbitsoft snatched it up for a song and released it in both Korea and North America under the title Hellgate: Global.

While Hellgate was heavily responsible for Flagship's demise, the same can't be said for scrappy little Mythos. Mythos was a side-project for the company, a somewhat more lighthearted Diablo with cartoony fantasy skins and addictive mouse-clicking gameplay. While it never made it out of beta on Flagship's watch, Mythos has since seen an unprecedented dual resurrection: Frogster ran Mythos Europe for just a few months in 2011, and then Hanbitsoft took the title for a third go-around (if you count the original beta) as Mythos Global.

By far the most interesting and splashy of the comeback kids is All Points Bulletin. APB was fast on its way to being known as the shortest-lived MMO ever launched, existing only from June to September 2010. If it hadn't been for GamersFirst swooping in for the save, that's probably what would've happened. Instead, All Points Bulletin was rebranded APB: Reloaded, given a lot more development love, and re-introduced to the gaming population.

You'll note that these weren't exactly traditional MMOs, nor were they just powered on from the last save state without severe rejiggering. Resurrection is a picky process and comes with a price, it seems.

APB
But could Game X ever come back?

I guess if Shadowbane is on the table, then all bets are off, right? I always thought it was a shame that these games, with so much development spent on them, were just left to rot on a saved disc somewhere. Even if the support structure was taken away, the code's got to be salvageable, still able to function if called to do so. And when GamersFirst said that it made more sense for the company to simply purchase a fully developed game instead of making one from scratch, it made me look at all these other shelved titles that could offer a cheaper alternative for cost-averse studios.

However, we're wading into deep waters with this topic, depths where dark monstrosities that are beyond our ken lie in wait. I've never been behind the scenes as an MMO studio executive, so I'm not privy to all the legal, financial, and technical issues that would have to be addressed for a shutdown MMO to be revived. However, if it was easy, I'd imagine we'd have seen more of this before now.

Probably the biggest issue is that of ownership of the game. Just because it's closed doesn't mean it's suddenly free for anyone to pick it up and run with it -- that's why emulators are illegal. If Studio B wants to take a shot at running the game, it has to negotiate with Studio A for the rights to it, an issue that's even more complicated if it's not a unique IP but rather is one associated with a franchise.

Of course, the next major consideration is whether the revived game will make any money. If it died because it lacked an audience, that may be a stumbling block to a revival. More power to ChangYou and all, but Shadowbane wasn't exactly tearing up the population charts even when it was free-to-play. MMOs are a business, and if they can't make money, it's not worth the Voodoo curse that will bring them back to life.

Shadowbane
The dead need patrons

When I was on the phone with John Smedley a couple of months ago, I mentioned how much I liked that SOE developed an entire library of games that included those "rescued" from obscurity or financial distress, such as Vanguard and Pirates of the Burning Sea. I asked whether there were any plans to do so in the future, and after some coy murmuring on the topic, Smedley asked what games I thought they should revive.

That gave me pause. It's a tougher question than you'd think.

Tabula Rasa was an obvious pick. It didn't get a fair shake, it had a lot of forward-thinking mechanics, and it might well thrive in this day and age of MMOFPSes. LEGO Universe could probably do well alongside of Free Realms and Clone Wars Adventures if it had SOE's patronage. Lots of people say that Star Wars Galaxies could work if reskinned without the Star Wars trappings, but I'm not buying it (and SOE is hard at work on its next sandbox anyway). In actuality, many of the major MMOs that made it to release are still chugging along, so the pool is either really tiny titles that nobody played in the first place, some serious duds (Faxion Online, anyone?), and some entangled with IPs that would be too costly (The Matrix Online).

Personally, I'd be far more interested in seeing some of these studios picking up the abandoned code of the most promising never-released MMOs, bringing them up to par with today's specs, and giving them a go.

But no matter the game, the power to do it lies with a studio and publisher that has the interest, money, and know-how to handle the revival. I could possibly see SOE being persuaded in this direction if it got its footing, but right now only GamersFirst is showing the gumption to champion these dead (or in Fallen Earth's case, faltering) titles.

Shadowbane triumphant

All of these thoughts and questions are why I'll be watching Shadowbane's resurrection with interest. It may well prove to be a retired race horse trotted out for one last lap in front of an audience unfamiliar with its former glory, but there's a chance that it could inspire other companies to do the same. After all, more MMOs will be shut down; it's only a matter of time. The question is, will anyone be there to pick them back up?

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.