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Jul 20, 2004

Comments

1.

There is a certain irony in Dr Castronova's closing comment, since Horizons in it's infancy was planned to be one of the more innovative MMORPG's of it's time. However, the original vision was not to be.

A fairly comprehensive overview of Artifact Entertainment's checkered history can be found here. David Allen went on to form Pharaoh Productions, which shut down a few months ago. David's eulogy for his company is sad, and echoes the comment above - innovation is important.

2.

Is it innovation that they lacked? Or delivery?

City of Heroes is used as our example of innovation, and yet their most notable contribution to the state of the genre was to take out most of game systems people expect (economy, crafting, loot).

I think the salient point is that City of Heroes had a firm, concise vision, and delivered very well on that vision. Horizon's vision was incredibly grand, heavily modified, and it's delivery was rocky. Cryptic underpromised and overdelivered; Artifact did the opposite. (though perhaps due no fault of their own. Their initial vision would have been nigh impossible to realize for an indie studio, let alone overdeliver on.)

Changes in the grand vision shook up Horizon's fanbase prior to launch, and the market is increasingly harsh on rocky launches.

3.

I think you can build success on both points, innovation or delivery. Star Wars Galaxies is in the over 100K players group, in spite of a rocky delivery, but with lots of innovation. Final Fantasy XI is not very innovative, more an EQ with chocobos, but its delivery is spotless.

City of Heroes is such an unexpected success because it has both, innovation and delivery. Sure, its innovation includes throwing out some old paradigms, like crafting and equipment. But I wouldn't define innovation by the list of features. The important change is how the game is played. The innovation in CoH is in the fact that it is the first game that limits downtime to an absolute minimum, and the resulting pace of game play makes it different from any other game.

I only played Horizons for a free trial week, and it didn't score many points on either delivery or innovation. Dragons look different, but play very much like the other character classes. Horizons has some good ideas, like linking all cities with teleportation portals, but that is hardly a revolution of game play. The crafting system is solid, but also only evolutionary. On the delivery front the graphics are uninspiring, and lag is bad. It is the kind of game that can find a couple of thousand fans, but not attract the 100k+ players of the big game. And then it just depends on the cost structure whether the game company can live with those numbers.

I am always a bit wary of the virtual property discussion because of cases like Artifact Entertainment. Real world economics beat virtual world economics, and chapter 11 can end all virtual property claims.

4.

There's apparently also trouble at SOE over delays to the rebalancing of their SWG combat system. Slashdot article here.

5.

After reading the links it looks like bad management all round I did not see either of the major players in David Vs. Jason drama doing a good job.

Bad management usually leads to business failure and Horizons does not seem exempt from that rule.

I suspect the chain of causes looks like this: Bad management leads to incoherent execution of original design leading derivative (safe) design decisions to finish and ship the product.

So I agree that Horizons failed to take off because it lacked differentiation from other games but I think the cause was bad management not a failure by any one designers to come up with original ideas.

6.

Having played the game for a month out of beta, I am not surprised by this turn of events at all.

Some notes that most people don't recognize or know:

a) There "official" (only) forums were hosted by IGN, most commonly known for their (IGN) ability to sell out to the highest bidder on their "McDonalds Fiasco Day" (they redid their ENTIRE layout in McDonalds adds, it was painful to look at). And their forums were awful to boot.

b) Their CS representative posted a total of THREE posts (btw the ONLY person to respond at all) in the first 2 weeks of their opening. Most people (including myself) had a very bad feeling about a company that puts CS on the bottom of their list. They cited some problems with the previous one and the time required to acquire a new one, not an excuse in my book.

c) AWFUL login interface. You had to login through their web page, which was done...ooohhh, about FIVE YEARS AGO with little success. Why in gods name did they think it would work now?

d) Bad graphics engine/lag. There wasn't a top end machine out there that could run the game at medium settings with more than 20 FPS. I am used to low graphics in MMORPGs but this takes the cake. SWG is the only other game I know to do this and it has FAR more interactive modeling/animation and structure. There was no excuse to have such a poorly coded graphics engine, most times you wouldn't even load an NPC until you waited for 30 seconds in the same room, and even then they loaded as a grey polygon model for the next 2 minutes while it tried to load their color skin.

e) Promises made, not kept. A LOT of inovation and design went through with this game and quite a bit was promised in beta or told there was so much more to be shown upon release but they wanted to keep it secret. NONE of this secret stuff ever appeared, the bugs and promises made never appeared and they made not even 1 small jump in performance or enhancement from beta to release.

f) Lack of variety. Everyone was the same in the game, litteraly. You could solo the same things, needed the same armor types generally and did the same amount of damage. Sure there were small discrepecies but not enough to see a big difference. The monsters were also LARGELY lacking in variety. You could kill maggots, beetles and zombies from level 1 to 100. Wow, that sounds like fun. I think overall there were about 10 or so monster types, just different names tagged on them or a different color applied to their skin (not even enhances on the model) to make them appear different or higher level.

Overall, this has to be the most pathetic excuse for a GAME (not just a MMO) I've ever played in my life. Rubies of Eventide had a better chance at surviving than these people ever did. I'm honestly glad their game never made it big, hopefully they won't ever try again and others will learn from this mistake.

7.

There is an entire tragic soap opera behind the goings on of Artifact Entertainment and horizons. There was an extremely informative article posted here: http://www.gamemethod.com/archive/394.php but for the moment at least it appears to be unavailable.

Horizons, the original vision, promised to be extremely innovative and attracted a sizeable dedicated following based on the concepts presented. They started out doing a remarkable job of listenening to what the community said and discussing features and mechanics as they worked on the design of the game.

Then, for reasons that were unclear at the time, they completely shut off the communication and went behind closed doors for quite a while. Many of the fans quickly returned when the doors were opened once more and were suprised and dissappointed by the turn things had taken while the developers were secluded.

What was left was a skeleton of the original vision with the number of races cut dramatically as well as the good vs evil factionalized world and pvp. Dragons and some aspects of the crafting system were about all that remained.

It is no suprise that having presented a grand, highly attractive vision that the poorly implemented derivative that was actually delivered left alot of the fans feeling cheated. This was only made worse by the lack of communication during the beta and after launch.

Despite all of the technical failures that can be listed I think that the greatest factor in the games demise is management. James Jones and David Bowman succesfully usurped control of the company and the game from David Allen and proceeded to undermine the product presumably to squeeze out as many dollars as possible before it would inevitably go belly up.

8.

BM wrote:Despite all of the technical failures that can be listed I think that the greatest factor in the games demise is management. James Jones and David Bowman succesfully usurped control of the company and the game from David Allen and proceeded to undermine the product presumably to squeeze out as many dollars as possible before it would inevitably go belly up.


Uh, what? David Allen acted like a child during the entire Horizon's drama. He was the company founder. He was the CEO. The failure is his and lies at his feet.

The guy had no business as an entrepreneur.

9.

I seriously question whether Horizons' lack of innovation was anywhere near the top of the long, LONG list of reasons why Artifact is circling the bowl.

Note also that this comes less than a month after David Bowman announced major layoffs.

Know who I feel sorriest for in all this? Jeremy "Utildayael" Dixon. Someone give that guy another chance. His only failing was being willing to join up with such a mess under the incredibly naive presumption that he could make things better.

10.

I am very disappointed that promissing wild and unrealistic features constitutes "Innovation". There is no innovation in saying: "We'll have these 5000 things!" The innovation comes when you actually manage to implement those 5000 things.

BM> "What was left was a skeleton of the original vision with the number of races cut dramatically"

I'm equally perplexed at the tendency for number of races, classes, or skills, being considered a good thing.

Artifact's problem is they didn't strip their original goals down far enough. Their plans made SWG look like a joke, and yet despite huge funding, SWG is accused of only delivering shallowly across the board. If Artifact threw out every race *but* dragons, and concentrated on building a Dragon Only game, I suspect they'd be in a much happier position.

The problem was that the all-encompassing vision (ie: player communication involves agreeing with every suggestion) clashed against the harsh economic realities. I think it is unfair to say that they released too soon to squeeze every dollar possible. I think they released so soon in order to make *some* recovery. No doubt they hope that they can buy enough time to bootstrap themselves into a successful game. Both Anarchy Online and WW2O seem to be still running despite very shaky starts, so this strategy isn't all that unreasonable.

- Brask Mumei

11.

David Allen raving like a looney on message boards about how Horizons was going to have X, Y, and Z features isn't evidence that Artifact had a "vision," and that they just needed to "tone it down."

What was never clear was what you might call a "motivational core," or in other words, what the game was going to be about. Creating neat characters with a bunch of races and running around in the world, occasionally fighting and maybe crafting some, too -- that's all well and good, but games are not just random sets of features that sound good on a message board.

Unless someone can quote me where David Allen explained in detail what Horizons players were supposed to do in the game with their dragon character and in-game "family" and allegiance to your favorite god and blah blah blah, save all this crap about how their grand Vision [tm] was just stymied by a lack of cash flow.

As far as I'm concerned, David Allen was an expert in game promotion simply because he was never obligated to explain how all his ideas were supposed to fit together. Now he has an eternal excuse; because his game was wrested away from him by some big bad money men who never let his dream grow to fruition.

Gimme a break. Here's a couple seminal interviews with Allen offered as examples of what I mean.

http://pc.ign.com/articles/078/078870p1.html?fromint=1

http://www.rpgplanet.com/features/interviews/horizons/

12.

I agree with Weasel. I think City of Heroes shows very clearly that you don't necessarily have to have innovation in the sense of pushing the envelope of design features, or pushing beyond the core limitations of classic MMOG design. You just have to have a good theme and be mindful of the "fun" equation.

SWG is not over 100k because of its innovations. It's over 100k because it's Star Wars. That's it. I would say that a very small minority of SWG's playerbase is there because they regard it as innovative. Moreover, its grasping for what the developers regarded as innovation has a lot to do with why it is possibly the single most screwed up MMOG in the history of the genre in terms of functionalities large and small. I think it's not unreasonable to suppose that had the game been as functionally playable as CoH with a tenth of the innovation, SWG might be ahead of even Everquest in its playerbase.

Horizons was a dog from the outset from virtually every standpoint. Lack of innovation in mechanics, lack of innovation in theme, lack of anything at all that might attract customers. I think the interesting thing about Horizons is not that Artifact has gone Chapter 11--the interesting question to ask is, "Why did anyone play in first place, and who stuck with it to the end?" And I mean that not at all snarkily or insincerely--I think that's an authentically interesting academic question about the MMOGs which have much smaller playerbases. When it comes to something like A Tale in the Desert, it's not hard to understand why the people who are there are there; when it comes to Horizons or Asheron's Call 2, it's a much more interesting question.

13.

Well, I was there from late beta to the end, so I'll take a shot at the last question. Some people stayed for the usual MMOG reasons - they didn't want to give up their investment in their character, or they didn't want to leave their friends (my reason). But the only reason specific to the game I saw people staying for was the housing. Even with so few people still playing, all the plots were still taken. The interiors weren't finished or functional, but the exteriors combined with the backdrop scenery made for the prettiest housing I've ever seen in a MMOG. Have you ever wanted to build a cottage in a pristine mountain valley? Horizons did the external part of that better than either of the other MMOGs I've seen (UO and DAoC-Hibernia).

Incidentally, I think Horizons was more innovative than it is being given credit for. (Not that it was hugely innovative but it attempted the kind of incremental improvements that are all I expect in a commercial MMOG.) The lesson I take from Horizons' failure is: make sure your game works and works without lag, particularly the combat. City of Heroes is one of the best MMO's in this regard. If, on the other hand, City of Heroes had as much combat lag as Horizons, City of Heroes would have a small and declining population too, and all the other features of the game would be moot.

I do see all of Horizons' distinctive features that appealed to me being taken up by other games. For example, defending your housing from mobs is going into Anarchy Online's next expansion, while EQ2 will have consignors and a world quest to unlock a player race (frogloks) at launch.

14.

thanks for the info !

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