Massively Multiplayer games are the holy grail of game development. Though MMOs have been around since at least the 90s with Ultima Online and The Realm Online (and even earlier than that if you consider MUDs), it was World of Warcraft's explosion into the market in 2004 and its millions of subscribers that drove many developers to pursue online gamers. Though that market has changed a bit since World of Warcraft's release, with many games now going with a 'freemium' or 'buy to play' model, the allure remains there for developers to grab a part of that massive market.
But MMO development is a huge, costly undertaking, with games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic costing upwards of $200 million. And those costs only continue to mount during the game's lifetime, from technical costs such as maintaining and upgrading servers, to the costs of developing new content to keep the players active. Developers are taking a gamble with their big budget MMOs that they will draw in and hold the attention of a large player base and make their money back with subscriptions and cash shop items. And sometimes, despite all the hype they work to build, the popularity of the property they are using, and all the promises of 'open worlds' and 'innovative combat' these games fail to take hold, they lead to massive financial losses.
Here are the biggest flops in the history of MMOs and what caused their downfalls.
15 The Matrix Online
Creating an MMO based on the hugely popular Matrix movies seems like a no-brainer. All the work is done for you: deep world lore, martial arts aesthetics, established methods of learning skills (“I know kung fu”), a huge fan following. So when Warner Brothers and Monolith Productions announced The Matrix Online, it felt like a guaranteed hit. Players would get to take on the role of a 'redpill,' a human who formerly lived inside the Matrix but was freed, and now fights using the stylish combination of gunplay and martial arts popularized in the films.
The game was released to average reviews and a lukewarm reception from the players. While there wasn't anything particularly wrong with the game, there was nothing new or interesting enough beyond the setting to keep the players interested. After four years of operation, with subscriber counts down to 500 active players, they finally pulled the plug.
14 Age Of Conan
Set in the world of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories, Age of Conan was a hugely hyped game from Funcom that promised a brutal world, a unique 'real combat' system set in a first person perspective, and mature themes. Over 500,000 copies were sold in the first few months after its release.
Those early players were in for a disappointment, as they found the game incredibly buggy, with many missing zones and broken encounters. There was also a total lack of end-game content to keep players interested and coming back. AoC's subscriber counts plummeted.
Funcom eventually made AoC free-to-play under the title Age of Conan: Unchained and it has since a small resurgence. Still. when compared to the hype surrounding it, you have to wonder how the game would be doing if they had spent a few more months polishing it before release.
13 Hellgate: London
The hype surrounding Hellgate: London was understandable: it was a dungeon crawling online game created by former Blizzard employees who had worked on the Diablo series. Flagship Studios invested everything into this game, getting six different publishers worldwide, spending a massive amount on marketing, and even investing into comics and novels to tie into the game. The gambled on the game's massive success, the only way they were going to make their money back. Oh, and they borrowed money from a bank and put the game up as collateral, that was the level of their confidence.
Unfortunately, the game failed to live up to the hype. It faced mediocre critical reception and player complained about the monotonous quest repetition and underdeveloped combat system. Flagship declared bankruptcy only months after the game's launch and Namco Bandai Games shut down the official servers a year later. This was a particularly big blow to those who bought a lifetime subscription for $150.
This one is technically still chugging along, but the rapid decline of its player base makes it feel like this game is dying a slow death and thus deserves its place on this list. Another title developed by former Blizzard employees, Wildstar made promises to bring back the more' hardcore' aspects of MMOs that were no longer present. Particularly, they marketed themselves to players who enjoyed raiding in the vanilla World of Warcraft who felt as if the expansions had make the game too easy. Plus, it featured a unique, cartoony art style that promised to withstand the rigors of time.
When Wildstar launched, players faced long queue times, unstable serves, and a litany of bugs. Over the coming months, the population began to dwindle, with players complaining about the long quest grind, poor optimization, and lack of non-raiding content at the end game. Wildstar quickly abandoned its subscription model for a free-to-play one, but even that has not stopped its rapid decline as their team has faced layoffs and the PVP servers were shut down for being under-populated.
11 Auto Assault
Taking inspiration from the Mad Max films, Auto Assault was an MMO where players drove around a post apocalyptic wasteland in customizable vehicles. Developer NetDevil marketed full on vehicular mayhem, with players controlling all kinds of cars, motorcycles, trucks, and even tanks on mission or in three way factional warfare.
While it may have delivered on some of its promises, players found the game lacking in content. Large swaths of the wasteland were dull, repetitive and with very little to do. What there was to do in the game was able to be done alone, discouraging grouping in a genre where that is the entire point. This, combined with high PC requirements and a complicated crafting system, spelled its doom. Auto Assault's servers were shut down just a year after launch.
10 Dark And Light
What happened to MMOs that were still in development when the monster that is World of Warcraft was released? That's the situation that developer NPCube found themselves in with their game Dark and Light, which had been in development since 2002. A game of older sensibilities in the vein of other MMOs like Everquest, it featured a massive open world, the largest of its time.
With the market becoming dominated by WoW and its imitators, D&L's backers pressured NPCube to release the game, which was, to the publisher's own admittance, unfinished. Players got a buggy mess, poor performance, lousy graphics, server instability, and frequent rollbacks, among other problems. Basically, it was a worse case scenario for a game launch. The servers were shut down two years later.
Recently, Snail Games has begun development on a reboot of Dark and Light, soon to be available in Early Access. Whether the reboot will be able to live up to the promises of the original, we shall have to see.
9 Gods And Heroes: Rome Rising
A unique game set in ancient Rome, Gods and Heroes was showered with awards upon its initial demonstrations at E3 in 2006, including MMORPG's Game of the Show Award. The mix of historical and mythological elements, the collectible minion system that allowed players to form their own squads, and gorgeous art got players and critics alike excited.
The game then went through development hell, with the launch of the game delayed for three years as developer Perpetual Entertainment attempted to develop it and Star Trek Online simultaneously. It was then put on indefinite hold until being picked up by Heatwave Interactive years later. By the time they released it, all hype had died out and the game showed its age. Less than a year after launch, the subscription model was dropped, and not long after that the game entered maintenance and never fully returned.
8 Warhammer Online: Age Of Reckoning
Warhammer Online was the result of a team up between Mythic Entertainment, who were behind the popular PVP MMO Dark Age of Camelot, and Games Workshop, the creators of popular Warhammer fantasy setting. The game centered around the setting trademark war, using the Realm versus Realm (RVR) combat system first featured in DAoC. Unlike many others games on this list, Warhammer Online actually released to positive critical reception and performed solidly for the first year of its life, some even believing it could build itself to a true competitor of World of Warcraft.
The game did not maintain its momentum, though, and over the next couple of years the player base drastically shrank. This was primarily due to the game's focus on PVP combat and the RVR system, which players felt was too limited for a game that required a paying subscription. Mythic was working on a free-to-play version of the game, but when their license for the Warhammer property expired, they decided to shut down the game instead of renewing it, only five years after its launch.
7 Motor City Online
This one is going back a bit: Motor City Online was released by EA back in 2001. Originally developed as a Need for Speed title, EA decided to discard all single player elements in favor of a completely online game. It was a very innovative game for its time, featuring roleplaying elements such as leveling from completing tasks, along with a supply and demand economy.
MCO might have been a little too ahead of its time. As with many online games at the time, lag was a considerable issue, which, in a racing game, became a big deal, with cars acting unpredictably and even appearing to teleport at time. Users were also on the fence about paying a subscription fee for a racing game. Eventually, the game was shut down after only two years.
6 APB: All Points Bulletin
Remember those games of cops and robbers you played as a kid? Imagine that on a massive scale and you have an idea of the dream behind APB: All Points Bulletin. It was being developed by David Jones, the mind behind the original Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown, which alone was a cause for hype. The game promised to be something like an online Grand Theft Auto, with players taking part in a constant battle between criminals and law enforcement.
It was released to poor reviews, made all the worse by a controversy regarding a review embargo which forbid any games journalist from publishing a review until a week after the game's launch. It never took off and was shut down a year after its launch. The game would be purchased by Reloaded Productions who would relaunch it as a free-to-play game under the title APB: Reloaded.
5 Star Wars Galaxies
Few game titles can cause as many feelings of nostalgia and sorrow as Star Wars Galaxies. Running for a total of eight years, it is the longest lived MMO on this list (barring those that are still running) but that entire time was filled with a struggle to find itself. It had never been a very populated game, but it did have a very loyal base of players who celebrated its uniqueness. It was a game about being a citizen of the Star Wars universe and it spawned three highly acclaimed expansions during its first two years.
Then came the four and final expansion, and along with it a game overhaul known as the New Game Enhancements, which removed from the game its more unique professions while simplifying many other systems. So many players protested the expansion that Sony eventually had to start offering refunds. The mass exodus of players that followed left many of the major player town deserted.
4 Halo MMO
This is the only game on this list not to be officially released, but with an estimated $90 million development cost, it has earned its place here. Codenamed “Titan” (like another famous MMO project that was canceled), it was designed with the intention of competing with World of Warcraft. The game would have largely copied WoW's model, adding a few unique features such as a cover system and public quests.
Ensemble Studios was also working on Halo Wars at the time and ended up canceling the MMO to focus all their resources on that. As the studio was disbanded immediately following Halo Wars' release, the MMO and all the resources those $90 million was spent on seem permanently lost.
3 Vanguard: Saga Of Heroes
In terms of hype, few games could compete with Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Being helmed by several of the creators of the original Everquest, one of the genre's defining titles, Vanguard was meant to be a reimagining of what made Everquest great while also bringing the genre to a modern audience. It was to feature 19 races, 20 classes, a diplomacy system and quest-lines, an intricate crafting system, boat travel, and more.
Then the publishing deal with Microsoft fell through and SOE took over and forced the game's launch six months early. Players were put into an unfinished world that was packed full of bugs that made the game nearly unplayable. It received GameSpy's “Biggest Disappointment” award for 2007. Eventually, the bugs were fixed, but the damage had already been done. Even going free-to-play five years later couldn't save the game and it was shut down in 2014.
2 Final Fantasy XIV
Many MMOs fail. It is the nature of the business. But few fail so bad that their developers become so afraid of it permanently damaging their brand that they create an entirely new game . That is more or less the case with Final Fantasy XIV.
Square Enix is no stranger to MMOs, so when they announced a follow-up to the popular Final Fantasy XI, it was met with optimism by the community. They discussed features like being able to change your class at will by changing weapons, separate classes and quests for crafting and combat, and a world in which exploration was paramount.
Players received a world that seemed mostly empty and with very little for them to do besides grind. The levequests used for leveling were restricted per day, combat was slow, the UI was clunky, and the whole game felt dated. The game was so poorly received that Square Enix didn't charge subscriptions for months and eventually overhauled the entire game from the ground up, re-releasing it as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. They even had an event to close out the original game, in which the world faced an apocalyptic event. Fitting.
1 Tabula Rasa
Richard Garriot is a legend in the MMO community. He literally coined the term “MMO” during his work on Ultimate Online. So when he decided he was going to create a new MMORPG, people flocked to be a part of it. Tabula Rasa was a unique take on the MMO genre that was part RPG, part shooter, and featured flexible character creation and fast based combat. Perhaps most interesting, instead of static environments populated by infinitely respawning enemies, it used active warzones with dynamic frontlines that the players could help push back.
Like many other games on this list, Tabula Rasa was the victim of a poor launch, with many of the systems bugged and the game's weapons horribly unbalanced. Garriot intended to move forward with his vision and he might have succeeded if given the chance, but his growing conflict with publisher NCsoft grew to a boil when they forced Garriot out of the picture … while he was busy promoting the game in space! Instead of trying to fix the problems with the game or changing business models, NCsoft chose to shut the game down less than two years after launch.