The Game Archaeologist: Steve Nichols' The Realm Online debriefing, part 2

The Game Archaeologist Steve Nichols debriefs The Realm, part 2

This week we continue our interview with Steve Nichols, one of the original lead developers on The Realm Online. After his work on this pioneering title, Nichols expanded his MMO resume with projects such as the never-seen Middle-earth Online (MEO), the seminal Freelancer, the PvP-centric Shadowbane, and the cult classic Dungeon Runners. These days, Nichols is with Retired Astronaut Collective, continuing to create games for all of us nutty players to enjoy.

In this riveting conclusion to our talk on The Realm Online, Nichols discusses the difficulties of the game's promotions, lessons learned from his time on the project, and the sundry secrets of hanky-panky in this early MMO.

The Game Archaeologist Steve Nichols debriefs The Realm, part 2

The Game Archaeologist: Why do you think Sierra On-Line never promoted or distributed the title in any significant way?

Steve Nichols: You know, I've asked myself this question a lot. And I think I have a good answer. Sierra On-line pioneered online gaming with its TSN service (which later became the ImagiNation Network). And as the old saying goes, the pioneer gets the arrows in his back. Sierra took on huge losses with TSN. It was never profitable.

As such, The Realm took on a sort of stigma in the company because it was an online game. In management's eyes, online equaled fat losses. Ken Williams really liked the project, so we never got canceled (at least not until after he left the company). But we could never get traction within the business for promotion and distribution. That's the biggest reason. Secondarily, I don't think the marketing and sales department had any idea how to sell MMOs to retailers. So there really was no incentive or ability within the organization to get the game out there.

What's your favorite behind-the-scenes story from working on the project?

I have so many fun moments I could draw from. My favorite, though, is the fallout from going from version 2.x of The Realm to version 3.x. This was a major upgrade. We swore to the existing players that we wouldn't wipe their characters. Well, once we migrated all the players, we found out that we did indeed have to do a limited character wipe. The reasoning for this was because of a technical oversight on my part.

Oh my god, I've never been so embarrassed about a mistake before or since. Anyway, this naturally infuriated the players (and rightly so). I was online with the players trying to console them and explaining the situation. There were huge outpourings of outrage. In the heat of the moment, I shared my office phone number with the players online. I invited them to call me and talk about what happened and see how I could help individual players.

Well, I thought I shared my office phone number. In fact, at first, I typed the wrong number. Some poor local bastard started getting inundated with angry callers. We made it up to this poor guy, but man, can you imagine? Once I realized that, I fixed the number so the calls could actually come to me. I took call after call, enduring hours of chastising and upset. The call that stands out in my mind the most was one during which a parent was berating me while I could hear the child crying the background. It was horrifying!

This is my favorite story because it reminds me of the importance of serving the players. These are real people here that care about your game and how your choices and actions impact them. It deeply affected me and my attitude toward players ever since.

What was your biggest mistake and your biggest success?

The biggest mistake I made was creating shoddy customer service tools early in the history of the game. These tools allowed the CS folks (i.e., one lady) to manually edit the database. Well, imagine my chagrin when this poor lady accidentally erased all of the characters one day! Yeah, that really happened. We restored them all and recovered, but that was a really terrible mistake. You know what I did next? I made real customer service tools that stopped that from being possible. It was like the Wild West back then!

The biggest success, in my mind, is how we touched so many people on a personal level. I've gotten many emails from old Realm players who tell me how this unassuming game changed their lives in some way. They seek me out and go out of their way to tell me how they became a game developer because of me and this game or how they got married to someone they met in the game. Going to player gatherings and seeing meeting them firsthand is a really great experience. Yeah, the biggest success was creating a game where people built an enduring community. It's wonderful!

The Game Archaeologist Steve Nichols debriefs The Realm, part 2

What personal lessons did you take from your time working on The Realm to your future projects -- and even today?

Here are the top five lessons learned while making The Realm that I carry with me today:

1. Customers are people with feelings. They are not disposable. Treat them like gold and involve interested ones in the game development process.

2. Managing game economies is hard. Don't do it unless you have the resources to do it right.

3. Game design and business interests are oftentimes incompatible. I've learned quite a bit about "upward" management of executives in order to keep things running smoothly.

4. No matter how hard you work on your game, the company will likely fire you or shut the project down at some point. It's an inevitability. Expect it and plan for it.

5. Small teams working on small games are so much more fun and satisfying than big teams working on big games.

How does it make you feel to know that The Realm is still chugging along after over 15 years of operation?

I have two competing feelings on this. On the one hand, I'm extremely proud that I was able to build a product that has lived for 15 years -- 15 freaking years! It's a great feeling.

On the other hand, I'm a bit disappointed that the current owners of the game haven't done much with it. I think the game still has potential for growth and success today that is unrealized. It's not my game anymore, but it still stings to see it slowly dwindling.

What would you say is The Realm's greatest legacy to the MMO genre?

It feels a bit pompous to say that The Realm has left any legacy. But if I had to pick something, I'd say it was the ability to stand naked in your own private home with someone else. Well, almost naked... you can strip down to your underpants. I feel that we were one of the first MMOs to provide a nice environment for cyber-sex. And that's nothing to sneeze at!

Indeed. Thank you for your time and memories!

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.