Aug 21, 2007

[Horizons: The MMO That Just.Won't.Die.]

  If you're familiar with the debacle that was the launch of Vanguard (and the subsequent drama-riffic crash and burn of it's developer, Sigil), then the saga of Horizons: Empire of Istaria will sound mighty familiar:

1. Game developer (Artifact Games) promises all kinds of cool, innovative features.
2. CO is an idealist with little clue how to run a company, deal with employees, or actually make significant progress.
3. Original publisher drops the game before it's released.
4. Bugtastic, broken-content, horrible performance, and lack of many advertised features plague the game's release.
5. Bankruptcy of the development studio ensues.
6. Original devs create a 'new' company, Tulga, (*cough*tax shelter*cough*) and maintain the game on minimal life support.

  Only for some reason, Horizons inspires near-religious loyalty among it's (tiny) remaining playerbase. Seriously, it's pretty amazing. I really think only a few hundred people even play this game, but despite the huge grinds, the 90% content-free gameworld, and ridiculously bad game client, these people just keep on keepin' on.

  After about three years of this, Tulga finally got it's lifeline pulled, and some shady ghetto-publisher bought the rights to the game. Things went from bad to worse (my opinion is that EI Interactive is also a tax-shelter joke company like Tulga, but that's neither here nor there). Basically, for the past year, absolutely ZERO has been done to develop or fix the game, aside from keeping the servers plugged in. Even billing no longer works, allowing ex-players to play the game even though they no longer have paying accounts (Not that I'm guilty of that at all... *cough*)

  After a year of THAT, someone apparently has busted out the defibrilator once again; some Tulga employees, under the name 'Virtrium', in cahoots with some of the players themselves, have apparently organized a takeback of their game.

  All I have to say is... holy CRAP. I mean, I know we MMORPGers get attached to our games, but this has to be one of the most obsessive lifesaving efforts I've ever seen.

 Now, I've played Horizons. Despite all the bad reviews, the game had three aspects I heard good things about: flying playable dragons (woohoo!), intricate crafting, and a strong community. In my opinion, the world is also one of the best-crafted ones I've seen, in terms of landscaping and placement of cool landmarks for explorers to stumble upon (one of my favorite MMO pastimes).
  However, the level/crafting grinds are atrocious, unlimited multiclassing means players can get to godmode and never need to play with anyone else, and, like I've said before, 90% of the world isn't even populated with mobs. And the fanbase, being so small, has a lot of unpleasant incestuous drama and clique-ism that all isolated small groups tend to develop after a while.

  In my opinion, it's the presence of free-flight for dragons, and the fact that dragons are playable race in the first place, is what inspires a lot of this rabid fan-loyalty. Never underestimate the power of dragons. =P

  But I have to admit to being really baffled by these latest turns of events. Even as someone who liked the game for the first few months of playing, it reached the point where the grinds, poor game client performance, lack of content, and broken gameplay just didn't make it worth my time or money, dragons or no dragons.

  And yet... the die hard fans and devs of this game just will not give up trying to make Horizons fulfill the potential they see in it, even if it takes years longer than most sane people would tolerate. I don't know whether to be impressed by their passion, or moved to pity by their inability to move on with their lives.

ETA: Horizons: Empire of Istaria has now been renamed Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted.


Daniel said...

I played Hz from early beta 3 to a year and a half after release. It maxed at 35,000 subs, then fell steadily. Grind, dragons made frustrating to reduce their great popularity (truly stupid decision), and to a lesser extent bugginess caused the low to hit 5500 or so. Tulga did add much content, tiers 4 & 5 and some 6 content, new continent, etc. Tutorial was redone, dragons made more playable, and Ancient Rite of Passage was added. Subs -> 10,000, and trial retention to an astounding 58%. Game hit breakeven, and was sold by the VC owner, Chris Baker to a terrible outfitm EI. New owners, Virtrium are small group of developers, NOT Tulga, nor is Tulga's pres. involved.
It has survived because of unique features; dragons of course, multi-classing, and constructing buildings, crafting machines and bridges and mines. Note that the evils evolved to keep pace with the multi-classed players...

Pai said...

Virtrium has ex-Tulga employees, though. And Bowman (while not technically an employee there) is an assistant to them on the terrain system, that I guess they want to tweak now.

Heck, I wish them all the best. If Meridian59 can stick it out as long as it has, I'm sure HZ can make it too, since it obviously has some passionate support.