It's been a rollercoaster ride over these past two months bringing the maddening -- and fascinating -- topics of "what if?" MMOs to light. We've covered a wide range of promising titles that were cut down before their release, from True Fantasy Live Online to Mythica, and we've only scratched the surface. Unfortunately, the process of MMO development is rarely smooth and casualties can and do occur, which is why we now pay homage to these fallen games.
While I'd love nothing more than to continue this series, I also feel that it's time to return to our normal format starting next week. So today marks the last "what if?" for now, and I've picked a mind-boggler of a game, one that not only frustrates us with its potential but one that asks a "what if?" question of its own.
I'm talking about Imperator Online, the MMO from Mythic Entertainment that dared to ask "What if the Roman Empire never fell, but instead continued on to become a really radical futuristic online role-playing game setting?"
A peace of a thousand years
In 2002, Mythic was riding high off of its release of the previous year's Dark Age of Camelot, which had already crossed the 200,000 subscriber mark. The PvP fantasy title hit it big with gamers and gave the studio a large amount of credibility in the community. So it's understandable that expectations were high when the company announced its second MMO, Imperator Online, in June of that year.
Promising a "radical departure" from the current crop of MMOs, Imperator went to the stars while other games toiled in the dirt with swords and sorcery. The concept was that this would be an alternate history game wherein the Roman Empire never fell as it did in our timeline. Instead, the Romans (and other ancient civilizations like the Mayans) grew in power and technology to the point where they expanded their empire to the cosmos. Thus, the Roman Respublica was born, and the citizens enjoyed thousands of years of peace under the rule of this civilization.
But peace makes for lousy MMO settings, so when the players enter the game, the Republic is under attack internally and externally. Players would have taken on the role of a fresh recruit going through the military's Academy, only to find themselves plunged into a surprise war with the invading Mayans. Grab a weapon and start firing, soldier!
"The foundation I've laid for Imperator can be summarized in one phrase: 'The experience defines the player,'" Mythic president Mark Jacobs said in the company's initial release. Unlike DAoC, Imperator was designed to be PvE from top-to-bottom, centered around the individual experience of each gamer.
Imperator was to be Mythic's counter-programming to the then-in-development Star Wars Galaxies. Sci-fi was thought to be just as promising as fantasy back then, although only Anarchy Online had made any headway into the MMO market at that point. It's quaintly amusing to see Mythic fingering SOE as the huge dominant MMO force when Blizzard was quietly waiting in the wings.
From what screenshots and videos we have, Imperator was shaping up to be a good-looking game, even though it was merely using an improved version of the Gamebryo technology that powered Dark Age of Camelot.
MMO boot camp
While Imperator wasn't looking to completely rewrite the PvE playbook, Mythic certainly intended it to be a good leap beyond what the current crowd had seen.
Aside from your standard humans, players could pick one of three other interesting variants: artificial lifeform (who were smarter), the Ingenii (who were more talented), and the Tigris (who were tougher).
Characters weren't bound to strict class structures in Imperator, but a little bit of the "class-based" column A and a little bit of the "skill-based" column B in structure. Players could draw upon one of four archetypes: a melee trooper, a ranged fighter, a support/healer class, and a "weird" type that's "messing around, truly, with the quantum forces" yet was not meant to be a wizard in space. As for skills, the more time you spent using a particular ability, the better you'd get at it.
It's hard to know exactly how this would've turned out, but Jacobs was certainly enthusiastic about it: "Players will be able to choose where they want to focus most of their attention, but they'll also be able to get skills and abilities that are not necessarily tied to wherever their main allegiance lies."
Missions were delivered straight to players through their HUDs instead of requiring the players to go looking for Mr. Exclamation Mark and his sidekick, NPC Standing Under It. Special missions termed "life events" were to provide you with a significant way to shape and influence your character's growth, although the choice of one path over another would have been nail-biting. The pulse rifle-toting action should have been fast and furious, although still a few steps back from true real-time combat.
While most of the combat was to be strictly PvE against the Mayan foes, Mythic did have plans for a limited form of consensual PvP within the game.
Imperator enjoyed a couple years in the pre-release spotlight, particularly at E3 in 2003 and 2004. The launch year was promoted as "MMV" -- or "2005" to those of us who flunked out of Roman Numerals 101, and then later pushed to a 2006 release. Yet as all of these "what if?" articles end, so do we close our story with the cancellation of the title.
On July 13, 2005, Mythic announced that it was suspending production of Imperator indefinitely and reshuffling personnel around to help out with DAoC and the recently-announced Warhammer Online. "This was the most difficult decision that we have ever had to make. However, our tremendous success with Dark Age of Camelot set the standard for Mythic of releasing nothing less than triple-A games, and Imperator was simply not meeting that standard," Jacobs said in the press statement.
So what if? What if Mythic stuck with Imperator and released it? It's understandable that the company wanted to get behind the much larger Warhammer IP and reallocate resources for the project, but in hindsight Imperator could've hit a need for a successful scifi action MMO in the fantasy-saturated genre. Then again, looking at how poorly Tabula Rasa fared, it might have died an early death anyway.
I'll leave you with some alpha gameplay footage of Imperator and a poll about next month's subject for retro love!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.