Bitter Pills, Regardless of Colour: The Fall of The Matrix Online

The use of intellectual properties for MMO titles is an interesting and conflicted area. Ultima Online was the first major MMO to attract player attention, having been built on the long-standing Ultima IP, while World of Warcraft’s strength is partly built off its association with the Warcraft real time strategy franchise. However, just having an popular IP is no guarantee of success – Star Wars Galaxies so under-performed against expectations that the developers tried unsuccessfully to reboot it, while Warhammer Online’s wargaming success did not follow it online.

… which brings us to The Matrix Online – a title that sometimes appears forgotten, with its odd mix of innovative features and buggy, unfinished performance set in one of the first major new geek IP in years.

Chaos Rising group picture

Character customisation was good (Chaos Rising group picture shown), but the future is apparently brown.

The Desert of the Realz, y0

Recapping the history of The Matrix movies is for someone else to do, but the short of it is that it was a major geek intellectual property through the early 2000s that merged superheroes, gunplay, wire-fu martial arts, computer hacking, high-level philosophy and beautiful people into a licence to print money. As such, it made sense when it was announced in May 2002 that Warner Brothers, Monolith Productions and EON Entertainment were getting together to create The Matrix Online.

Apart from being able to play in The Matrix universe, some other key attractions were the promise of an on-going storyline that progressed the world as seen by Matrix creators Andy and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski and live events run by a special in-game team. Both promises held some attraction – MMO worlds typically don’t progress that much so having key IP creators progressing the story (even if someone else is actually writing it) held some promises of quality while having GM-led live events rarely occur in most MMOs due to the costs of running them.

At the helm of MxO for most of its development was Jason Hall, who was head of Monolith Productions before being recruited to Warner Brothers Interactive before WB bought out Monolith. There were clearly plans for MxO to be a major title that WB could generate big dollars from.

Down the Rabbit Hole; Look Out for Myxomatosis

MxO arguably didn’t have the best launch. Originally planned for a November 2004 launch, it was delayed for “further polishing” at least twice until its actual launch (in the US at least) on March 22 2005. By that time the worm had turned – the Matrix sequels had failed to live up to the incredibly high expectations of fans, so interest in the IP was off the boil, while two huge titles in World of Warcraft and Everquest II had both launched in late 2004. Reviews of MxO were mixed, with issues relating to a barren, vacant world and in-game bugs being common criticisms.

Three Agents on fire

Those are some sharp suits that'll get you noticed.

Three months later WB sold MxO to Sony Online Entertainment and got out of the MMO business altogether. SOE got the license to the DC Universe MMO out of the deal, which I’m guessing was the sweetener for saving WB’s face on launching a title that fell flat. MxO had gone from a golden title to MMO pariah.

SOE immediately shrunk the number of servers for MxO and the development team shrunk to match. To all external appearances, it didn’t take SOE long to see that MxO wasn’t going to stage a revival, which resulted in the game being put on life support. That MxO lasted four years (being shut down in July 2009) is likely more a result of SOE’s Station Pass letting small population titles hang on for much longer than they otherwise would and possibly some sort of deal with WB that kept MxO going until the DCUO was closer to launch.

Even the final day of MxO was a bug filled affair, with major bugs and connection issues impacting on player experiences. As ye lived, so shall ye die, I suppose.

I Actually Liked Enter The Matrix

So, what did MxO do right? Players constantly point to the live events and ongoing story as examples of good things that MxO did, but even they were tinged with downsides. Even those on the Live Events Team noted the limitations and problems they had – it is too hard to run an event that includes all interested players, lots of players in one area causes immense server stress – and there were also issues with players screwing up the events through their own actions. A major problem with MxO’s live events was that they were on a fixed path towards a few limited solutions – players rarely had the ability to take things in a new direction since everything had to follow the same script.

The ongoing story aspect was seen as a theoretical positive, with each ‘Chapter’ of story being supported by cinematics. However, story events like the death of major character Morpheus raised negative reactions, as did the declining quality of the story over time (which, to be fair, was partly the result of budget cuts). Players having only limited impact on the storyline meant they didn’t feel engaged in the world, which negated this advantage.

MxO players did cite the community as a strength of the title, but that may be a function of also having a small, dedicated community for a niche game. My my limited play time, I feel the flexibility of MxO’s skill system was fantastic – once you bought a skill, it was yours to use, and it was very easy to put skills in and out of ‘storage’ as you could respec at any phone booth. Fast travel between hardline phone was also a positive, with the discovery and unlocking of a new phone booth being a good exploration experience.

Two MxO characters, hands raised.

Are they dancing? Or fighting? Or dance-fighting?

As for what MxO did wrong… let’s put the bugs, the lack of end-game content, repetitious missions and lack of developer resources to one side. Some people claim that MxO failed because by the time it launched the Matrix IP had cooled following the weak reception of the later films. This isn’t exactly correct – if MxO had been a great game, players would have flocked to it. IP only gets awareness and initial interest in a title; it is up to the gameplay to hold onto the players. However, MxO wasn’t a great game.

Another issue does arise from the use of the Matrix IP, however: the game systems designed to mirror the Matrix combat. Known as the interlock system, characters would go into a one-on-one martial arts-style fight where they could use special abilities. Although an interesting idea, interlock was very repetitious – the same moves repeated in every fight – and quickly became dull. On top of this, interlock was always one-on-one, leaving the player character disadvantaged in two-or-more-on-one encounters if interlock was initiated.

In development Monolith used a character class-based approach in developing their systems, which led to some odd outcomes. The class system of MxO saw Operatives – the gun-firing, kung fu-fighting characters the Matrix was most recognised for – were outmatched by the abilities of Coders and Hackers. And, although MxO allowed for relatively deep sub-classing (plus the flexibility to change your entire character at a hardline phonebox, once you’d bought the necessary skills), the reality was that a limited number of class arrangements were optimal.

Add in a big but fairly lifeless city of dark browns and blacks and you have a fairly ordinary gameplay experience.

Path of Neo Was Fun Too

There are lessons to be learned from MxO, of course. If a developer is going to work with an established IP, they have to ensure that their finished products meets the ‘feel’ of that IP. MxO didn’t do that, with the experience the players wanted to have – martial arts and gunplay – overshadowed by techmagic and other things not consistent with the source… and that’s not mentioning the bugs and unfinished content. Also, if live events are promised, they need to be live events that players feel they can actually contribute to and change, not just show up at. It would be nice to see another MMO take on the flexibility of MxO’s skill system as well. At the end of the day, however, MxO wasn’t good enough to survive. It had some good ideas and tried a few different things, but ultimately it was unable to deliver an experience that kept large numbers of players coming back.

Moving forward, the Matrix IP is probably a spent force for now. Given that WB is making moves back into major game development there is a chance that they will look for an IP to base a MMO on… but it is unlikely to be The Matrix.

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