The Game Archaeologist: World War II Online

ww2 online
The 1990s saw the rise of flight simulators that thrived on detailed, complicated controls and handling. Such games threw out accessibility and casual-friendliness for stark-raving realism, and a certain subset of gamers really thrived on them. I tried my hand at a couple and found myself breathing rapidly when pouring through keyboard charts and doing basic algebra just to get a plane off of the ground. Not for me, I said then.

I don't think there's ever stopped being absurdly complex video games that aim for immersion through detailed realism, even though that appeals to only the fringe of the fringe. Some people have their gaming standards set exactly that high and no lower, and some devs refuse to water down their visions just to sell more box units. For these people, Cornered Rat Software (CRS) created World War II Online, an overly ambitious MMOFPS that stumbled out of the gate in 2001 but has gamely soldiered on since then. Over a decade now an epic war has been raging for control over a continent, and it's been up to the fiercely loyal fans to keep the fight going.

Today we're going to take a look at the guts 'n' glory of this project to both praise its complexity and curse it for the same thing. If nothing else, it was a game that could only have arisen from the early landscape of 3-D MMOs, and for that it warrants our attention.

Losing the battle at the start of a war

When video game studio iMagic Online (WarBirds) tried to force its team to relocate in 1999, several members said, "Forget that!" and decided to start their own company and play by their own rules. That marked the beginning of Playnet and its online game studio subsidiary Cornered Rat Software. Their first project? Oh, just to recreate World War II on a massive scale and allow people to engage in it online.

It was something that just hadn't been done at all up to that point, and yet the team went ahead with it without any evidence that there was a market for such a thing. The ambition and scope was there to make a realistic battlefield simulator, but the time wasn't. Without adequate testing and enough development time, the project was forced out of the door prematurely. The name of the studio tells you just how the team felt during this time.

Coinciding with the anniversary of D-Day, World War II Online: Blitzkrieg launched on June 6th, 2001... and promptly crashed and burned. In the annals of MMO launch history, WWII Online goes down as one of the absolute worst. For starters, the increased connection speed for the launch version was never turned on, and day one players were required to download a then-mammoth 70 MB patch on dial-up modems. It got worse from there: Only 1,200 players could log onto servers meant for 10 times that, lag was everywhere, crashes were the only consistent feature, and the graphics were abysmal.

CRS was forced to split the game's population across multiple servers as it struggled to get a handle on the tech issues. For months the studio didn't even charge its players a subscription because of how horrible the problems were. By the end of the year, Playnet was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and laying off developers just to stay alive.

Think of all the things we learned for the people who are still alive

Oddly enough, while this disastrous situation should have killed the studio and game outright, it did not. Playnet and WWII Online gamely endured, defying cancellation month after month. Over time, the game slowly stabilized as fixes were patched in and the players were migrated to the single server that the devs originally intended. In 2002, WWII Online became one of the first MMOs to get its own Mac client as well.

Boasting a small but fiercely loyal playerbase of a little above 10,000 players, WWII Online delivered an experience that could be found nowhere else. It was the world's first MMOFPS with an absurdly large scale map of Europe over which player combatants could fight as either the Allies or Axis. Giant campaigns played out in real time, pushing the lines of conflict back and forth across the map.

But the real feather in WWII Online's cap was its unrelenting approach to realism. This wasn't an arcade shooter a la Battlefield 1942 but a detailed simulation that thought of everything. Well, practically everything. To simply fire a rifle took three keystrokes (raise, aim, fire); to drive a tank took considerably more know-how. The sheer scope of commands and information made for a steep learning curve that played right into the wargaming mentality but scared other gamers away altogether.

WWII Online featured not just infantry combat but an intricate combined arms approach to warfare. That meant a player could fight on foot, then hop in a tank, then fly a plane, and then be on a ship -- all within the same map and in the same war. No matter what players fought with and against, all of it had damage models, ballistics mapping, and accurate physics far beyond what was included in most single-player games, never mind MMOs.

It was a game that required a player to devote serious time to learning and mastering its complexity. "[WWII Online] isn't a game; it's a hobby. People invest time in it as much as an avid golfer does in his game," said Playnet President Jim Mesteller.

Even a dedication to realism had its practical limits in the online gaming space. Friendly fire was yanked from the game early on due to its griefing potential, and certain Nazi and SS symbols weren't included at all.

For players willing to learn and get past the crude graphics, there was a level of immersion in World War II Online that simply couldn't be found elsewhere. Battles could be long and epic or short and terrifying. Every day brought a different saga to the PvP battlefield.

Time marches on

The war wasn't a stagnant affair in this virtual Europe. Over the next decade-plus, CRS continually updated the game and slowly advanced the timeline. For example, in 2011 for the game's 10th anniversary, American forces finally landed on the continent.

Patches and Yankees weren't the only changes to come to the game. In 2006, the game was repackaged as a new box product under the name World War II Online: Battleground Europe and effectively relaunched. That same year Playnet began talks to bring the game to China as well.

While there is much to be commended in the tenacity and ambition of CRS, I've been made aware that there are unsavory aspects to the company. Not only do the developers feel free to casually fling words like "rape" around, but the studio has a reputation for responding poorly to criticism and dissent.

On the positive side, a limited free-to-play business model replaced the long-standing trial in WWII Online a couple of years back in an attempt to draw in new players. Another initiative to become more inclusive is represented by the team's effort to improve the game's tutorials.

Modern World War II Online has turned to two modern trends in an attempt to stay relevant. The first is its inclusion in the Steam Greenlight program, preparing the game for an eventual release on the virtual platform. Even more recently, CRS turned to Indiegogo to crowdfund the next client and content update for the title (succeeding nicely, I might add).

It's as unlikely an MMO as there ever was, dodging death and proving that even the most niche-of-the-niche can have staying power.

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.