The Game Archaeologist uncovers Shadowbane: The highlights

Way back when I used to haunt the corridors of Gamestop and not shun the place due to its stinky evil, I remember being enticed with these fancy-pantsy "MMORPG" boxes when I'd see them on the shelf. I must have picked up Shadowbane a dozen or so times to check out the blurbs on the back, mentally weighing whether or not this would be the one to introduce me to online gaming, but ultimately it was not to be.

It's probably for the best, considering that Shadowbane was primarily PvP and I'm a PvE guy at heart. Plus, the title never really took off the way that publisher Ubisoft had hoped, spending most of its six years of operation lurking in the background of the MMO industry instead of sharing the spotlight.

But still, six years! That's far longer than any of the titles we've been talking about these past couple months, and considering that Shadowbane won last week's poll to become this month's topic, there are obviously strong feelings lurking among you. What did Shadowbane try to do differently, how did it stay alive as long as it did, and what was its downfall? Hit the jump to find out!

It was part of the early days of MMO experimentation

Created by former MUD developers, Shadowbane wasn't bound by the constrictions of the current market. On the contrary, in 2002 studios were experimenting all over the place trying to find the right formula for mass appeal. A malleable world and open PvP seemed as good a prospect as any, and development on Shadowbane came to a head when it launched in March 2003.

From the get-go, Shadowbane didn't look like anything else on the market. Instead of having a structured PvE (EverQuest) or PvP (Dark Age of Camelot) focus, the dev team opted to put more tools and controls in the hands of players to make their own mayhem. Shadowbane eschewed most PvE content in favor of building a dynamic world where guilds and empires would struggle for supremacy.

The thought here was to make an ever-changing game where the players created a vast majority of the content, i.e. a sandbox. Actions made by players and guilds could and often did have a lasting impact on the game world itself, including modifying terrain and ordering guards to patrol certain paths.

It opened the field for player cities

Once players chose one of the game's 12 races and four initial starting professions, they were set loose to level as fast as they could in order to join in on the PvP content. After a certain level, players could no longer retreat to the safety of the default cities, but were encouraged to find a guild to join. If the player was lucky, the guild would already have a headquarters to retreat to after a long day of adventuring.

The developers likened Shadowbane to an MMO with real-time strategy elements, most notably in the creation and maintenance of guild cities. Villages were built from scratch and players could fill them with defenses, merchants and structures. No city was safe for too long, as the game's unrestricted PvP system allowed for sieges to occur just about anywhere.

It encouraged political struggles

Because the game revolved around player-made cities, it stood to reason that they should be player-run as well. Ergo, Shadowbane included a political system that allowed gamers to be elected to office.

Associate Producer Louis Lamarche hoped that these political struggles would be as or more compelling than anything gamers had seen in MMOs to date, as he told GameZone: "The game system not only promotes conflict, but for the first time will foster true political maneuvering between player communities."

It was a dual-platform MMO

While it's not a major thing, it's important to note that Shadowbane shipped with both Mac and PC versions. Seeing as how even today the Apple market is woefully undersupported by most MMO studios, it's heartening to see that this dev team cared enough back in 2003 to make that a priority.

It had two expansions

Two expansions, Rise of Chaos and Throne of Oblivion, were released in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Rise of Chaos introduced a new character race, a pair of new classes, and additional areas, but took a drubbing by reviewers. Likewise, Throne of Oblivion was seen as adding "more of the same," and not worth the additional cost that the studio demanded. In other MMOs, these would have probably been free content updates, and the expansions were included in the standard package by 2006.

It went free-to-play before it was the cool "in thing" to do

While we often point to Dungeons and Dragons Online as the prime example of a subscription-based MMO adopting a free-to-play (or hybrid) model, the truth is that titles like Anarchy Online and Shadowbane did so long before then.

Despite scoring generally favorable reviews, it was obvious that Shadowbane wasn't going to tear up the charts following its 2003 release. At the time of launch, critics cited issues with the interface, lag, poor tutorial and lackluster graphics, although they did praise the game's fun factor, fast pace, and innovative systems. The overall package wasn't enough to draw in hundreds of thousands of players -- never mind millions -- and the title quickly sank into obscurity.

The population problem was partially solved when the game went free-to-play in March of 2006. Instead of forking over a monthly subscription, by 2007 players were subjected to in-game ads that played at the beginning and end of every game session, as well as on certain character deaths.

It hit the reset button

Shadowbane is notable for doing something that few MMOs have ever dared to do after a game's gone live: It hit the reset button to start everything all over. This happened in early 2008 with Patch 22, as the devs declared that the game needed a fresh start to wipe out unbalanced items and bring all of the players on to the same world map (prior to that, there were a few different versions of the game world in existence).

"It would be best for the longevity of the game to reset all server and character data and start from scratch," the dev team wrote, and that was that.

It stayed alive two more months than it should've

Ultimately, a poor population and dwindling revenue meant that Shadowbane had to shut its doors. Initially, the date of execution was set for May 1st, 2009, but the players rose up and sent in a mighty petition that changed Ubisoft's mind -- sort of. Instead of closing up shop in May, the company decided to give players a two-month reprieve, moving Shadowbane's final day to July 1st.

It passed down a legacy of open-world PvP to future MMOs

While most people can agree that Shadowbane was ultimately the case of good intentions coupled with poor execution, it can certainly be seen as a champion of open-world, sandbox PvP for its time. As modern titles like Darkfall and Prime seek to continue this vision, these games perhaps owe a debt of thanks to Shadowbane for its willingness to step out onto the field and try something different, even if it was only for a short time.

What are your Shadowbane memories?

As always, we want to hear your personal, first-hand experiences with these games, which is why I'm calling out all former Shadowbane vets to submit their favorite memory (100 words maximum, please) and screenshots to for use 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 or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.