Three years is a relatively short time in the crowded MMO-space. While a select few titles have reached that elusive tipping point where players begin to flock to the game in droves, a typical MMO sees its popularity spike within a few months of release and slowly loses players thereafter. But what these "minor" MMOs lack in sheer numbers, they make up for in the devotion of their communities and their developers.
Over their last three years of operation, The Matrix Online has courted a unique type of player and has evolved a novel way of keeping the fan base satisfied and involved. Much of the credit is due to Producer Dan Myers for making sure the game lives up to the community's expectations. Last Saturday marked the three-year anniversary of the first players jacking into the Matrix Online, and it provided a good opportunity for Myers to celebrate the game's successes and reflect on how the game has changed.
Unlike most MMOs, The Matrix Online has primarily been about linear story development rather than providing a sandbox-style environment for unlimited player choice. The game picks up where the movies left off, and the developers are very serious about preserving that continuity while giving players an opportunity to keep the plot moving in new and interesting directions. When I slipped up and mentioned Neo in passing to Myers, he was quick to admonish me.
But just because they're serious about the story doesn't mean they don't find opportunities to have some fun with the community. Last Friday, Myers and crew spent the evening in an in-game club to celebrate the occasion. The event was strictly to blow off steam, and Myers' told me that his avatar, "Walrus," would probably be making liberal use of his GM abilities - including turning player characters into mailboxes. How come that fearsome power didn't make it into the movies?
When the celebration is over, players have Update 59 to look forward to. First and foremost, the Smith Virus will be making another appearance in the game until April 3rd. Destroying a copy of Agent Smith will yield a "Smith fragment" that can be exchanged for a stylish in-game T-shirt. In Update 58, SOE added a new free-for-all PvP zone (or 'construct,' in MxO) for players to explore called Datamine. Update 59 will add a data tap luggable which will increase the amount of resources that players can harvest from data nodes in this zone. It's sure to make the zone that much more lucrative and the competition that much more fierce.
For MxO's playerbase, which is composed of hardcore fans from across the Matrix properties (the original trilogy, the Animatrix, and the official comics), the real reason to keep playing is the Continuing Story, which allows players to actively participate in the ongoing development of the Matrix universe. In Update 59, Chapter 10 of the Matrix story will begin. The overall arc has been written by Game Designer Ben Chamberlain (or "Rarebit" in-game) months in advance, but it's fleshed out by live events put on by the volunteer coalition of players called the Live Event Special Interest Group ("LESIG," for short).
Anyone who's ever waited in anticipation of a patch to go live, only to have it pushed back for weeks or months, knows how difficult it can be for developers to keep a strict schedule when it comes to in-game content updates. But that's exactly what they've achieved in MxO, doling out the story while providing new zones to explore and other modest improvements roughly every six weeks. This isn't a 'set-and-forget' environment that the developers have created, but a vehicle for story creation that takes constant maintenance. That the story continues to develop 5 years after the movies ended proves Myers and the rest of the development team at SOE are up to the task.
It hasn't always been smooth sailing for MxO, however. The game changed hands on three separate occasions within a year of its release, first from Monolith to Warner Brothers and then to its current home at SOE. But Myers is content with how the game has developed to stay in touch with the players' wants and needs. He cites the major combat revision that took place in March of 2006 as one of the biggest accomplishments for the SOE team during his tenure. This quickened the pace of battle and cleaned up the interface to be more intuitive to player, and also added a number of new fighting styles and damage-dealing techniques.
Myers understands that the success of any game rests on whether or not the developers can accommodate the player, and this is a lesson that he's taking with him to his next project, SOE's upcoming spy MMO, The Agency. He says it's extremely important for players to have accessible avenues of communication with the developers, particularly when a game is in beta and is constantly undergoing drastic revisions. Whether it's through LESIG, in-game events, or simply keeping up with the community on their forums, Myers and the rest of the MxO team have this part of the equation figured out.