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The Game Archaeologist uncovers Shadowbane: The battle-scarred blogger


I've long since enjoyed doing this column because, to me, it feels like the next best thing to having been there back in the day, playing these games. No one MMO player can occupy all titles at once, so experiences are bound to pass us by. Fortunately, the gamers who were there have long memories and are often more than willing to share a story or two if given half the chance.

After last week's initial foray into our Shadowbane retrospective, I fished around for a hearty veteran of the minotaur wars who was willing to step up and answer a few questions without succumbing to post-traumatic stress disorder. Within a minute, my good friend Grimnir bit into the topic, and I reeled him in as he flopped and gasped for air. At some point, this metaphor got away from me, but no worries. Hit that jump and let's cast our nets down memory river and see what we can dredge up!

The Game Archaeologist: So introduce yourself, your blog, your history with MMOs, and how you got into Shadowbane.

Grimnir: I think the majority of my e-fame comes from my blog back when I wrote about Warhammer Online. Since then, Grimnir has been my name of choice that I carry that around with me between games and on the vast internets. Currently I'm playing RIFT almost exclusively, but I've dabbled in most of the major MMOs since the dawn of time and predated that with a couple of MUDs for which I would occasionally write settings. Ah, the dark ages of communal internet gaming...

Shadowbane scratched my initial itch for vast open-world PvP in a way that had never been scratched. It also piqued my interest in leadership as the prevalence of guilds in the game and a solid core group were paramount to success. It was a turning point for me away from casual, solo play, and it eventually put me into a position where leading a group was second nature and necessary for an enjoyable gameplay session.

Shadowbane screenshot
What sold you on Shadowbane in the first place?

Seventeen factions, realm wars, guild cities, the political system, and a massive sandbox. There was a real sense of meaningful contention compared to pretty much anything else at the time. Dark Age of Camelot had its keeps, but those weren't constructed, funded, crafted, and owned by actual players. People talk about DAoC relics and keeps as points of contention and pride, but it's really something quite deeper when failing to defend your city means it gets burned to the ground and is gone forever. Also, much as I scoff at the notion now that I have a job and plenty of glorious cash, when the game dropped its subscription fee in 2006 it became easier to jump in and really sink my teeth into it.

For those who've never played -- or maybe never heard of -- the game, tell us a little about what it was like.

Shadowbane was not a friendly game to get started in. The PvE had no direction, so most people had to figure out through trial and error where they could go to continue leveling. There were no quests that pointed you in any particular direction. You weren't out to save any princesses or become a hero of the land, either. During the leveling process, if you hadn't found a guild to run around with, the world was either hazardous to roam or pointless. There was a single faction-based city for the unguilded, but there was generally a fair number of PKers who hung around that area ganking.

Now, once you got into a guild, there was much more political intrigue to be had. There were a couple dozen resource mines that you could take over, each generating different resources, which could in turn be used to craft hundreds of different items that you could sell from a guild merchant. A successful guild set-up would consist of a massive fortress city with all the bells and whistles attached, and this would be easy to defend. Merchant cities, on the other hand, would be fairly open for all players to set up shop as a guild merchant that other players could use (guilds collected 20% of the sales in taxes). Then there would be other satellite cities closer to resource nodes or contested areas that would be used as staging grounds for skirmishes.

What class and race was your main? How did it play?

I had a Nephilim Channeler in the Cult of the Scourge guild on the Loreplay server. Nephilim were the winged demon race, so they had natural flight, which was a great advantage for a ranged-AoE nuker. The base Healer class had a variety of heals and buffs that I could toss around when needed. Most of the time I was blowing people up from 50 feet above the ground and supporting party members as needed.

There were also various disciplines that you could take, which were dependent on your race, class, and profession. These were much smaller augmentations to your class that would grant other unique abilties.

Shadowbane screenshot
What is one of your favorite memories from the game?

Some of the best trash talk ever. I mean, people who ran their mouths in this game usually woke up to a Banestone (used to signal and prompt a city siege) in front of their guild halls the next day. You might imagine that this would make people ever so slightly more respectful, but no, it just stirred the pot.

The guild I was involved with had a core of players that managed our forum presence and were really quite good at it. They knew when to flame, when to threaten, and when to back down accordingly. It was the meta-game that made all of the in-game experiences that much more realistic and dramatic. Hearing secondhand about an epic forum trolling session while watching a guild of players prepare for a city siege as the timer was ticking down made up some of the best memories I've had. It's why I love sandbox games. Provide the tools, and players will create better stories than writers could ever dream up. Shadowbane had drama pouring out of its ears.

What was one of the worst parts of Shadowbane?

Easily the graphics and lag. Sometimes trying to play the game was like getting your teeth pulled with the dentist occasionally drilling into your eye for a few seconds. The graphics were five years out of date on release and there were no significant updates to put it on par with other games at the time. It also didn't help that graphics in MMOs then were a couple of years behind single-player games.

The lag was mostly of the rubberbanding variety. Get too many people in one area and the servers would struggle to keep up. This was particularly bad during large siege battles where each side was fielding more than six full groups at a time. I recall at one point the guild leadership negotiating limits to the number of people who could be fielded and spectated at siege events to combat that particular issue. Needless to say, they were rarely honored. Nothing kills an amazing concept like piss-poor performance.

Did you play after the free-to-play switch or the reboot? If so, what were those transitions like?

I rode that F2P wave into the game, and the guild that I joined actually picked me up thinking I was one of their senior officers playing an alt (our names were similar). That actually went on for a week or two until they had me on their Ventrilo server and realized that I wasn't actually trying to trick them.

That being said, there was a fairly large influx of people who made many of the chat channels light up with activity for a few weeks, but it died down again when people realized that this wasn't a World of Warcraft clone and someone was inevitably going to kill them at some point in time.

However, the ranks of quite a few smaller guilds were bolstered long enough for a brushfire of hot guild-on-guild action in the form of roaming PvP and city sieges everywhere. Much territory changed hands during that time, and many of the veteran players returned upon hearing about all of the action. The veteran players, of course, were affected the most by the F2P switch. New blood in the water meant a renewed interest in the game, at least for a little while.

Shadowbane screenshot
In your opinion, why didn't Shadowbane succeed over the long term? What could it have done better?

It is my opinion and belief that Shadowbane died of old age and/or disease. The graphics and engine deteriorated quickly, and the F2P model the team used to leverage in-game ad revenues was doomed for failure from the start. Also, there was a racially charged divide in the game between the Asian and English-speaking players, one that ultimately saw every single English-speaking city razed or captured, essentially driving those players from the game and sealing its fate with the U.S. audience. The actual raw mechanics and vision for the game were excellent, though poorly presented. I think that a Shadowbane 2, using current technologies with that vision, would actually be quite successful, relatively speaking.

What would you say is Shadowbane's legacy to the genre?

Sadly, I'm not sure if it left any lasting marks on the genre. Typically you would look around to see what Shadowbane did best and how other games have picked up on that and moved it along. However, if there was anything to point at, I think it might only be the implementation of F2P failing as hard as it did. Shadowbane was a niche that has since been left unfulfilled. The core gameplay hasn't been used in any games that I know of.

For former Shadowbane players looking for a similar MMO fix, what would you recommend?

Darkfall (if you insist on having a fantasy-themed PvP world to roam around). Or you can go the route of corporations roaming in spaceships under the much more political and economically charged EVE Online. Nothing really captures what Shadowbane was at its core, but a mix of those two games might be close enough.

Thanks for sharing with us! And for the rest of you, 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 memories (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.

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