The MMORTS genre is largely a niche. MMORTSes are impossible to balance, unfriendly to newcomers, and have to be exceedingly complex in order to keep people around for an extended period of time. The modern concept of an MMORTS is far from what it originally was. Whereas most modern MMORTSes are casual affairs that lead to money pits, such as Game of War: Fire Age and Clash of Clans, the original MMORTS was closer to a real-time 4X game on a massive scale. Contrary to popular belief, this genre still does exist, albeit hiding far within its niche, awaiting “next-gen” releases like Avalon Lords.
Largely credited with the founding of the MMORTS genre, Mankind is an online 4X MMORTS originally launched in 1998 by its French developer, Vibes Online Gaming. At its peak, the game was said to have had 200,000 players registered, with the most recent official active player count being 3,000 in 2003. Shortly after, in 2004, the game was bought by O2 Online Entertainment who maintained it until 2008, when it was bought by its current owner, Quantex. The game lives on in the shadows with updates being practically non-existent. Currently, Quantex are working on building a new cross-platform game based on Mankind’s legacy.
Being one of the first MMORTS games, Mankind’s gameplay took place on simple, flat square maps. Both planet surfaces and star systems could be interacted with and construction could take place on both, as well. Players started out with nothing but a construction unit, a starship, and a small amount of credits as they attempted to start building an empire in a “guarded system” before extending out into a larger universe where they would no longer be protected. The game boasted millions of star systems but, due to the small playerbase, they were never opened. Instead, the most recent galaxy to have statistics released claims only 73,251 star systems containing 476,265 planets.
10six and Project Visitor
Also launched in 1998 is Sega’s 10six. The six faction game sets itself apart from others on this list by being a hybrid of an MMORTS and an MMOFPS. While it took place on a set of completely separate square maps, like Mankind, in 10six, you control a single avatar that explores the world on a hoverboard and is able to build structures and shoot enemies alongside its troops. The core of the game was similar to any other RTS and you can be attacked at any time, even if you are offline. The game shut down on May 31, 2002, supposedly due to Sega’s move away from online PC gaming. It was re-opened by fans as Project Visitor and is still running to this day. It was originally a subscription game but it was recently made possible to play for free.
A completely different game from Mankind, Kru Interactive’s Shattered Galaxy launched in 2001, bringing with it real-time tactical gameplay on a large scale. The game takes place on planets that are separated into provinces that can be under the control of any of three factions at any time. Battles for these provinces take place when a member of an opposing faction walks into said province and players fight it out with up to 20 squads, one for each player, of six to twelve units each. As players level up, they unlock the ability to have more units in their squad, as well as purchase a wider variety of units.
Like Mankind, Shattered Galaxy is living in the shadows, a shadow of its former glory, itself. More recently, a Chinese company has developed a new game that brings the game’s legacy into the modern era and expands upon it. There is an English client available, although your latency may be high.
Beyond Protocol and After Protocol
Originally launched in 2008 by Dark Sky Entertainment, Beyond Protocol is notorious for being difficult to learn. The game starts players out on a single planet and sees them growing and expanding their empire until they can finally launch into space. The game is unique from others on this list in that, while you can be attacked while offline, the developers implemented text messaging capabilities in order to give players a minimalistic way to respond to immediate threats. A unique “faction system” encouraged players to help out newer players by speeding up research for both.
Unfortunately, it was not enough, as the learning curve was simply too high to maintain a large enough player base and the game closed in 2011 with the source code released. Fans are now maintaining the game under the name After Protocol, although, unlike Project Visitor, development seems to be non-existent.
Also launched in 2008, Silverlode Interactive wanted to revolutionize the MMORTS genre with SAGA by combining the city building of Stronghold with the battles of Total War. The game, which also had elements of collectible card games, could be played for free from the very beginning with the optional purchase of troop “booster packs,” akin to booster packs for a miniature wargame, supporting the game.
Basic gameplay took place in one of two ways; either at home, building your city, or in an instanced PvE quest or PvP battle. PvE quests are exactly what they sound like, as a player’s army is thrust into an instanced scenario in which they must fight their way through for a reward.
Largely considered pay-to-win due to the grind for booster packs that could be skipped with real money and the inability to purchase certain unit cards on the market, as well as slammed for its heavy use of instancing, making the game’s persistence feel a bit underwhelming, the game was not a huge hit, instead garnering a niche audience that has kept it alive for the past seven years. Despite that, the game will be hitting Steam tomorrow with many changes being made to accommodate those playing for free and the developers hope to see the audience grow with it.
And There Are More Still
These are just a small few of the MMORTSes that have been released over the years. Others, such as Ballerium, Boundless Planet, and Age of Empires Online were not so lucky as to continue staying in service. Others, such as Avalon Lords, Blitzkrieg 3 and The Imperial Realm: Miranda are still in development. The genre is not a large one but, outside of the social money pits that the genre is considered to be today, it is full of innovation. It is unfortunate that they are such a niche. The forever wars that could take place in an MMORTS with a large player base could potentially rival stories told about EvE.