Working As Intended: The MMOs we lost in 2014

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about how Vanguard's early stumbles foreshadowed the changing MMORPG industry. In January 2007, when Vanguard lurched its way to launch, the genre was barely a decade old; it was booming, and it had never suffered hardship on a massive scale. In the west, we'd seen only three "major" MMOs sunset (Motor City Online, Earth and Beyond, and Asheron's Call 2), and only one MMO, Anarchy Online, had "gone F2P," though we hadn't yet thought to call it yet because it was such a rare and new thing. In fact, it wasn't until 2008's first big wave of AAA, post-World of Warcraft MMOs launched and mostly flopped that MMORPG players gave much thought to the future of the genre and how WoW had reshaped (and possibly broken) it. Maybe not even then.

Here in 2015, sunsets are commonplace, and the vast majority of modern MMOs have adopted some sort of subscriptionless model. Last year, we lost more than a dozen MMOs, including Vanguard itself, all of them wiped from the face of the earth (at least until someone decides to resurrect them), and several more under development were canceled, leading to concern among industry watchers like those of us who pen for Massively. Let's try to get some perspective and revisit the MMOs we lost in 2014.

SOE's Order 66

Last January, SOE took an axe to its stable of MMOs, simultaneously shattering its reputation as the studio that kept small games going out of love for the genre and the players. Free Realms, Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures, Wizardry Online, and Vanguard were the four MMOs that SOE executed in 2014. While you might be unsurprised to hear that Wizardry Online, with its pseudo-permadeath and hardcore vibe, was doomed, Vanguard was a bit of a shock to old-school sandbox fans, since SOE had spent considerable effort outfitting the languishing title for a free-to-play model in 2012. And while the clock was probably ticking on CWA's Star Wars license, Free Realms, at least by the numbers, had done quite well for itself, boasting over 20 million players back in 2011. "Kids don't spend well and it's very difficult to run a kids game," SOE's John Smedley told Reddit by way of explaining the closure. "Turns out kids do mean stuff to each other a lot."

EA's purge

SOE wasn't the only classic publisher to devastate fans last year; EA also purged its roster, disbanding a post-Warhammer Online Mythic Entertainment month by month and sending its core employees and games to spin-off Broadsword Entertainment, which now runs classic Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot semi-independently. Not all of the studio's games fared so well; Ultima Forever turned out to be not very forever after all when it closed down last August, and Lord of Ultima closed in May, sealing Mythic's fate. EA even announced the closure of its fledgling MOBA Dawngate in November; its sun will formally set this February.

Rusty Hearts rusts out

Perfect World Entertainment is a controversial studio because of its F2P business models, but like SOE, it was also not a company known for giving games the boot. In fact, supporters usually point to its "rescue" of Cryptic Studios' games when Atari cut them loose. But that didn't stop PWE from shuttering the oddball episodic action-combat MMO Rusty Hearts back in September. I'd like to say it went out with a bang, but it was more like a whimper compared to the drama from communities in sunsetted games like City of Heroes and Star Wars Galaxies. Still, it probably raised red flags for players of some of PWE's other small, neglected titles that might be at risk.

Big IPs are not enough

If you thought that a famous IP makes a strong MMO, you'd be oh so very wrong. We lost three such titles last year, though admittedly each was far out on the fringes of the MMO space. Age of Empires Online was Microsoft's attempt to cash in on that franchise in the online space; it gave up in July. Disney nuked online dogfighter Star Wars Attack Squadrons after a brief beta back in May in order to "focus on other Star Wars game experiences." And Doctor Who Worlds in Time, perhaps the most MMO-like of this trio, ended its browser career in June. Worlds in Time's developer, Three Rings, still maintains Puzzle Pirates and Spiral Knights.

And a bunch of games you've never heard of

Every year sees a spate of low-budget foreign imports abandon the western market, and 2014 was no different. Anime-inspired Lunia's western publisher pulled the plug on the game last January. Korea's Legend of Silkroad celebrated New Year's eve by locking its doors and throwing away the keys. And Legend of Edda? Well, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that GamesCampus killed the game last January, claiming that it was financially unsupportable thanks to hacking, bugs, and RMT (yikes -- name a western dev that would admit that). That wasn't even the first time the game had closed; it went offline in 2011 and 2012 for an overhaul. The good news is that JC Planet picked the game back up and rereleased it as a global edition last September. Now if only someone would do that for Zentia.

Dead before their time, literally

Some of the biggest blows to the industry last year came not in the form of sunsets but cancellations -- in this case, MMOs and pseudo-MMOs that hadn't even released or been judged unworthy before they were canned. Transformers Universe, a MOBA and one of several foundered Jagex projects, began its multi-month shutdown last December. After its acquisition of White Wolf Publishing, Inc. in 2006, CCP spent seven and a half years at work on a vampire-flavored World of Darkness sandbox MMO, only to cancel it abruptly in April 2014, laying off 56 employees and committing itself to the EVE Online universe. And let us not forget the long-rumored Project Titan MMO, which Blizzard canceled last autumn because it "wasn't fun" and which was then retooled as online shooter Overwatch, which presumably is fun. Titan's dismissal might be the most worrisome, since it's not every day that the king of the MMO market decides that market is too brutal.

Farewell to those we lost

In the span of a single year just a few years ago, four MMOs that I played regularly, including two of my all-time favorite MMORPGs, closed down, which was a devastating blow to my love for the genre and my interaction with it. I can only empathize with those players who lost their online homes and characters last year. Every one of these games, however underpopulated or inconsequential, contributed to the MMO genre. Say your farewells, hang on to your memories, and remember that sometimes games really do get a second life.

The MMORPG genre might be "working as intended," but that doesn't mean it can't be so much more. Join Massively Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce every other Friday in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.