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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

5 Big MMOs that were cancelled before they ever saw the light of day

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MMOs are the riskiest games to develop. They require tens of millions of dollars, teams of hundreds, and years of development time. And that’s just to get the damn thing to launch. Once it’s out there, you’re going to have to endlessly feed players more features, dungeons, and activities just to keep them interested. And even then, it’ll never be enough. It’s a tough biz, so it’s no wonder that a lot of MMOs never make it to release.

Like any cancelled game, a lot of these MMOs die in the darkness, never even announced to the public. But quite a few were cancelled years into development, despite a lot of buzz from would-be players. Hell, some even made it as far as open beta before going belly up. In the wake of Amazon Game Studios’ Lord of the Rings MMO being cancelled over a dispute with Chinese mega publisher Tencent, we decided to take a look back at some of the most high-profile and fascinating MMO cancellations of all time.

EverQuest Next

Developer: Daybreak Games
Year it was cancelled: 2016

The ambition: EverQuest Next wanted to be the next major evolution of MMOs. It would take the Norrath that players were familiar with and reimagine it as a dynamically-generated, voxel-based sandbox where you could build anything and reshape the world to your desires. It was going to be the Minecraft of MMOs—but with all the questing, dungeons, and adventuring you’d come to expect from EverQuest.

Why it was cancelled: EverQuest Next was simply too ambitious, and Daybreak Games couldn’t make everything work. One of the biggest issues, game director Holly Longdale said in a 2019 interview, was the technical challenge of making a massively multiplayer game in a completely customizable sandbox. “There was not enough computational power” to support a game that ambitious, Longdale said. And what progress Daybreak Games had made just wasn’t very fun. And, fundamentally, Next was beginning to lose its EverQuest identity, so the team scrapped it.

Would it have been good? Probably not. Look, an MMO Minecraft sounds amazing, but there are so many enormous obstacles to overcome from a design standpoint when you stick a few thousand strangers in a fully customizable world. How do you decide what and where people can build or destroy? How do you build any kind of scripted quests or adventures in a world that is so pliable? How do you stop trolls from just ruining everything? Solving those problems would have taken more money, tech, and innovation than I think Daybreak was able to pull off. 

Project Copernicus 

Developer: 38 Studios
Year it was cancelled: 2012ish

The ambition: Who knows. Baseball superstar Curt Schilling was obsessed with MMOs like World of Warcraft and decided to funnel 50 million of his own savings into making one. He brought on top-tier talent like comic artist Todd McFarlane and novelist R.A. Salvatore, but no one ever really knew what the hell Project Copernicus was supposed to be outside of having action-RPG combat.

Why it was cancelled: To be clear, Project Copernicus was never officially cancelled. 38 Studios spent seven years trying to develop the MMO and, to help cover the enormous loans the company had taken from different investors, including $75 million from the state of Rhode Island, it needed to make some serious money.

Seeing an opportunity to expand the universe of Copernicus, 38 Studios created a singleplayer RPG called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning that was set in the same universe. The hope was that Amalur and its planned sequel would keep the studio afloat long enough to finish Copernicus. But even though Amalur was reviewed positively, it sold about 2 million copies shy of what 38 Studios needed to survive. Not long after in 2012, 38 Studios began defaulting on loan payments to Rhode Island’s state government and the studio had to lay off its 400-person staff. The whole situation was such a mess that the FBI and SEC even got involved.

Eventually the rights to Kingdoms of Amalur and Project Copernicus’ few remaining assets were auctioned off to THQ to help cover 38 Studios’ remaining debt. Kingdoms of Amalur even got a remaster, though it’s almost certain that Project Copernicus will stay dead.

Would it have been good? It really could have been. Though reports from different studio insiders are conflicting, many developers on the project assert what they did have was pretty fun. And Kingdoms of Amalur itself has a rockin’ combat system that would’ve been cool in an MMO setting. 

World of Darkness 

Developer: CCP Games
Year it was cancelled: 2014

The ambition: World of Darkness was going to take the beloved tabletop universe behind Vampire: The Masquerade and turn it into a giant social sandbox reminiscent of CCP Games’ other big MMO, EVE Online. Players could become vampires, join clans, and rise through their faction’s ranks to even become princes and rule over entire cities. The emphasis here was on social interactions and unstructured play—a great big, blood-soaked sandbox full of scheming, betrayal, and, y’know, vampire stuff.

Why it was cancelled: CCP Games just couldn’t commit to World of Darkness. Five years into its development, the MMO was still in pre-production because staff had been laid off and what few remained were often pulled from the project for months at a time to help out with EVE Online. This went on for seven years with barely any progress being made on the game itself. Features were continually being abandoned and rebooted from scratch and after seven years of no real progress—which is widely chalked up to management issues—CCP Games finally scrapped the project and sold off the license to Paradox Interactive.

Would it have been good? I’m a sucker for sandbox MMOs so I want to say yes. The ideas behind the MMO sounded genuinely great, and early previews were positive. But even if it did make it to release, CCP Games’ reluctance to commit the resources and staff needed to finish World of Darkness probably would have made it severely under-baked. 

Stargate Worlds 

Developer: Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment
Year it was cancelled: 2010

The ambition: Turn the hit film and TV franchise Stargate into an MMO where players explore different planets to meet and trade with local alien populations and go on big adventures. But what made Stargate Worlds sound so cool was its emphasis on ranged tactical combat and a class system where players could play as non-combatants like archaeologists. Stargate Worlds also wanted to tie into the TV show, with quests and live events based on whatever was happening in latest episodes.

Why it was cancelled: For the most part, Stargate Worlds was coming together rather nicely and even had a closed beta test at one point. But everything fell apart during the 2007 economic recession. Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment (CME) allegedly stopped paying certain employees, which eventually led to a lawsuit. Then drama erupted between CME and MGM, the company that owns the Stargate license. Shortly after, corporate drama within CME saw the company tear itself apart as employees, executives, and other companies battled over Stargate Worlds’ assets. Lawsuits would endure for years after, but Stargate Worlds was already long dead.

Would it have been good? I really think it would have. Being tied into such an expansive universe like Stargate would have meant a near-endless horizon for new updates, and Stargate World’s tactical ranged combat looked extremely cool and altogether different from other MMOs at the time. 


Developer: Blizzard
Year it was cancelled: 2013

The ambition: Considering Blizzard is responsible for the definitive MMO, Titan (which was just a codename) had big shoes to fill. It was supposed to be a next-gen MMO shooter set on a distant future Earth where different clandestine factions fight for control of its remaining resources. But because Blizzard never officially announced the darn thing we never learned much more than that. All we really know was that it was class-based, there was a big skill tree, and gameplay somehow split between doing mundane jobs during the day while battling enemies at night. Y’know, like Sailor Moon.

Why it was cancelled: After seven years of development, Titan just wasn’t leading to something that felt fun or distinctive, and its scope was way too big. Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan, who worked on the project, said its skill tree system was overcomplicated and overpowered, while ex-president Mike Morhaime explained that the game had a split personality that really made it feel like two separate games. Despite having some of Blizzard’s best MMO people on the project at one point, Titan just wasn’t distinctive or innovative enough and Blizzard feared it wouldn’t last in the ultra-competitive MMO market. So it killed the project and took its few ideas that did work, like class-based shooting, and turned them into what became the enormously successful Overwatch. Good move.

Would it have been good? Absolutely not. If Blizzard’s best people spent seven years trying to bring Titan to life and still weren’t convinced that it was going to be something special, I’m inclined to take their word for it. MMOs need a sturdy foundation to build on over time, and Titan’s sounded like it had a few too many cracks. 

Other fascinating MMOs that were cancelled 

Spyro’s Kingdom eventually became Skylanders, the mega-popular toys to life adventure game. But before that happened, Helios Interactive had pitched an MMO set in a gritty future where Spyro is a fully grown adult. Helios even made a playable demo of the pitch, which included features like a customizable lair.

Huxley was an ambitious MMOFPS that wanted to combine the twitchy combat of Unreal with World of Warcraft. A lot of its ideas can be found in games like Destiny 2 and The Division 2. Players would hang out in hubs, buying gear and forming parties, and then go off to fight either in instanced PvE dungeons or in big PvP battles across a variety of game modes. Huxley went into open beta in Korea in 2010, but it never made it to a full release. The whole project was suddenly canned and servers were taken offline without much explanation.

Ultima Worlds Online: Origin was supposed to be a sequel to the hugely influential Ultima Online. The biggest change would be a jump from a 2D isometric perspective to full 3D. In 2001, though, EA was scared that UWO:O would cannibalize subscriptions from Ultima Online, which was still going strong, and canned the project. 

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