The Death of an MMO Game - Matrix Online, Hellgate: London, Tabula Rasa, and more.

The Death of an MMO Game - Matrix Online, Hellgate: London, Tabula Rasa, and more.
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MMO Games Shut Down

Gamers invest a great deal in the MMO game of their choice. They create lives and immerse themselves in these virtual worlds. They spend hours and days and weeks with this other self. They make friends, they fight and they die in these homes away from home. Whatever they put in is rendered irrelevant in the cold hard light of financial day. The majority of big MMO games are about making money. While it may pain the gamers and the developers, if their game doesn’t turn a big enough profit the plug will be pulled. Their beloved virtual world will be flushed away forever. In this article we take a look at when MMO games die.

The Matrix Online - Trouble with Publishers

The most recent big casualty of our capitalist system was the Matrix Online. If ever a universe seemed a natural fit for an MMO game it had to be the Matrix. It featured people jacking into a virtual world and running amok trying to defeat the system. It provided an obvious appeal for fans of the films and gamers seeking an alternative to fantasy or spaceships. The developers took a different approach but even before release in 2005 the game seemed to be in trouble. Ubisoft shirked their agreement to co-publish, the last two films didn’t do as well as expected at the box office and the MMO game sector was becoming more overcrowded than ever.

Warner Bros. and Sega ended up publishing and after a couple of months Sony Online Entertainment took the operating rights from developer Monolith. The game was set in the virtual Mega City where most of the film is set. Players were divided into Coder, Hacker and Operative classes and there were various opposed factions. The story from the films was continued in the game and unfolded via new missions and chapters. The game was slow to build an audience. It had a strong focus on combat but visually speaking it was far from the prettiest MMO game on the block. It also lacked variety with repetitive missions and it had more than its fair share of bugs.

The Matrix Offline - Story Issues, Less Subscribers Than Expected

the matrix online fight

There were some good things about the game too. It drew on an interesting universe and developed real stories within that world which you could take part in. The combat was fun and the character development choice was relatively open. As the game progressed and the world of the Matrix changed the story development actually became a hindrance to new players because they didn’t understand what was going on. The remaining characters from the films were all ditched quite quickly. Sony also inevitably tried to make their own mark on the game when they took over and not all of the changes were well thought out, to put it nicely.

The Matrix Online struggled to reach 50,000 subscribers and it failed to draw in the huge fanbase of the films. The shut down of the game was announced on the 1st of June and the servers were turned off forever on the 31st July 2009.

Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa Cover

This was a sci-fi MMO game which combined FPS and RPG. It was released back in November of 2007 but by the end of February 2009 it was gone. The game was set in a bleak future for humanity with a war raging between opposing factions of advanced aliens. There were character classes, levelling options, lots of gear to collect and there was a kind of real time combat not to mention plenty of missions and interesting stories. So what went wrong? Well this Tabula Rasa post mortem gives a comprehensive account.

The game actually took over 6 years to develop in the first place. This is often a very bad sign. The entire core design was scrapped at least once and started over from scratch. When a game takes too long to develop it is often because there is a fundamental flaw that can’t be resolved or there are too many people interfering in the development. Too many cooks always spoil the broth. Despite the gargantuan development time the game was released with bugs, it was poorly designed, repetitive, unbalanced and it included exploits which were not fixed fast enough.

It never built a decent level of subscription with estimates suggesting that it may have hovered around the 10,000 mark. The creator Richard Garriott left in late 2008 after an open letter which he later claimed was written by NCsoft to force him out and reduce his stock options. He is currently suing them for $24 million. The game went out with a bang and you can read about it in this article on the Tabula Rasa server shutdown event.

Hellgate: London

Hellgate London

I’ve long bemoaned the lack of a really decent horror MMO game but Hellgate: London was one such attempt…kind of. The game was released in October 2007 and it was a post-apocalyptic hack and slasher set in a ruined London overrun with demons. There was a single player mode with a series of quests and a storyline and there was co-operative PvE and PvP play as well. The game didn’t force grouping but the combat was more RPG than FPS ,and weapons, items and armor were all essential.

The game actually allowed some people to play for free and subscriptions gave access to extra inventory spaces, content, guild creation and a few other bits and pieces that most people decided weren’t worth paying for. They also offered a lifetime subscription though I pity anyone who took it because the developer, Flagship Studios, declared bankruptcy in late 2008. The game actually passed to a Korean company but the US and EU servers were shutdown on the 1st of February 2009.

The complete lack of a LAN play option is also considered a major factor why this game failed. The subscription was also a bit of a joke, as this was not a persistent world and thus there was really no justification for the subscription fee whatsoever. All this fee accomplished was a division of the player base in half, and denial of pretty core features to non-subscribers.


This was an MMORPG which was released in October of 2007 and didn’t last ten months before it was axed. It featured a fantasy environment with players developing skills and acquiring equipment but it focussed fully on PvP. Unfortunately it was shoddy with badly designed repetitive gameplay and an unstable game engine. The fact there was little to do beyond fight and then buy or sell equipment made the demise of Fury somewhat inevitable.

Honorable or Dishonorable Mentions

Sims Online Box

There have been other casualties over the years such as Shadowbane, Asherons Call 2, Myst Online, The Sims Online, Auto Assault, and Motor City Online. There have also been MMO games that didn’t make it through development before being canned. The fact is that developing and releasing a successful MMO game is extremely tough. Even hugely wealthy companies with great development talent can’t necessarily make a MMO game take off. The sad truth for fans is that covering costs or even making a modest profit on these games is not enough for big publishers. They want large profits or they’ll just ditch the game.

Life After Death

Sometimes when the money dries up the developers and community are determined to keep the game alive. For example, Myst Online is set to go open source with the developer Cyan Games appealing to true fans to keep the world alive. It remains to be seen whether this will work but it goes to show that developers are often more concerned with creating worlds for gamers than with turning profits. There are also an awful lot of free MMO games out there which have been developed by passionate people who are striving to create an alternative to the World of Warcraft status quo.

Betting on the Next Casualty

Warhammer Online

The speculation about which MMO game will be next to shut up shop is rabid and constant. Will it be Warhammer Online? Maybe Age of Conan will be next for the chop. Both have failed to live up to expectations and while they have built decent subscriber bases they cost a huge amount to develop so it is unlikely they’ll be considered financial successes. There is time for them yet but with MMO games the laws of positive or negative feedback loops seem to apply.

If an MMO game is perceived to be doing well and the numbers are high then more people are attracted in and you get insane growth like WoW. As soon as an MMO game is perceived to be going down the numbers dwindle and so less people want to play. Before you know it there is no escape from the downward spiral. The actual quality of the game is less important than the confidence people have in it or the reputation it enjoys.