We've concluded our inaugural end of the year awards, which featured the best-of-the-best in massively multiplayer online gaming. Read more to find out which title won our Game of the Year!
FIRST PLACE: GUILD WARS 2
Announced in 2007, Guild Wars 2 is the upcoming sequel to ArenaNet's successful Guild Wars series, originally released in 2005. During a time when the subscription-based revenue model was flourishing, Guild Wars was the industry-bucking maverick that helped pave the way for Western free-to-play MMOs (illustrating that quality wasn't only synonymous with subscription-based MMOs).
In the midst of their success, the developers of ArenaNet realized the original Guild Wars had a finite shelf-life; players might stick around for years to come, but they needed more incentive to keep buying expansion packs and new campaigns. Almost three years ago, ArenaNet announced it would begin focusing most of the company's time and resources on Guild Wars 2, rather than material for the original game.
Fans were ecstatic; but as time went on, the developers barely had anything to show their community. "We announced it before we even started working on it," ArenaNet's founder and president Mike O'Brien told ZAM last summer at PAX. "It killed us to have to be developing in the dark, because obviously we're making cool stuff and we want people to see what we're working on. But we wanted to get the game to the point where it really shows what it is."
And that's exactly why Guild Wars 2 was met with such renewed anticipation in 2009, when ArenaNet was finally able to share the first details and media of the upcoming MMO with the public. The official video trailer displayed an exciting new rendition of the IP; the new graphics engine paints the familiar world of Tyria a strikingly-fresh and unique light, featuring amazing detail in everything from landscapes to architecture.
In the past six months, we've also learned a lot about the gameplay in Guild Wars 2. Unlike the original, the sequel allows players to roam a fully-persistent world. Revamped gameplay mechanics and simplified combat systems promise an entirely new game, with five playable races and a much richer storyline than the original.
In October, we heard rumors that the sequel's PvP might incorporate appealing real-time strategy genre elements, and earlier this month, ArenaNet released another video offering a closer look at the MMO's races and environments. We still don't know exactly how close the developers are to post-production, but after almost two years of being left in the dark, fans were grateful for every little detail announced in 2009, and they can't wait to see more in 2010.
SECOND PLACE: THE SECRET WORLD
The Secret World has proved to be one of the most aptly-named MMOs in history; everything about the game's development has been shrouded in secrecy since the idea was hatched by Funcom (developers of Age of Conan, Anarchy Online) in 2005. It wasn't until 2009 that Ragnar Tørnquist, creative director and the original creator of The Secret World IP, finally began to loosen his grip and shed substantial light on the uniquely-styled MMO.
Set in a time and place similar to our own world, the story draws heavily from "New World Order" themes and revolves around three factions; the Templars, the Illuminati and the Dragon. Each faction represents a secret society of characters, all fighting for their own cause and enlightenment in a mysterious world; on the surface, it might look just like ours—but beyond the veil is a darker place, filled with monsters and demons.
Many fans consider it the most-promising "urban fantasy"-themed MMO to date, a genre similar to the Shadowrun or World of Darkness RPGs. The IP was first imagined by Tørnquist as far back as 1997; he later pitched it around under the title "Cabal" until FunCom picked it up years later.
"[…] there really is a world within ours, a secret world, where magic exists, monsters roam and ancient forces are fighting for the dominance of earth," Tørnquist wrote in a press release, explaining his vision for TSW. "It is a world of legendary stories, ageless conflicts and powerful cabals. In this world, even modern cities hide secrets. In this world, players can take part in the greatest conspiracies of our age, and battle the forces of darkness across the world and throughout time."
With the exception of a few survival-horror and martial arts titles, we haven't had the chance to really sink our teeth into a contemporary, urban-fantasy-styled MMO at the same level of TSW, backed with a company like Funcom's resources. It's a new and exciting genre for the MMO community to explore, making TSW one of the brightest-shining stars of 2009.
THIRD PLACE: FINAL FANTASY XIV
There aren't many RPG video game series as widely-successful and beloved as the Final Fantasy IP, so it came as no surprise that despite its quirks—rooting from the series' history as a console game—the franchise was well-received by the MMO community. The cross-platform Final Fantasy XI hit the North American MMO market like a storm, published by Square Enix for the PC in 2003, and eventually the Playstation 2 and Xbox 360 by 2006.
But at E3 2009, Final Fantasy XIV was officially announced for the PC and Playstation 3 (although it was rumored to be in-development much earlier). Since then, Square Enix has released a whirlwind of updates and progress announcements about the upcoming, 14th member of the Final Fantasy legacy. For an MMO that was only officially announced six months ago, the amount of speculation and rumors that fans typically deal with has been uncharacteristically low.
A mere three days after its announcement at E3, ZAM was dissecting a boatload of information from the expo. Legions of Final Fantasy loyalists finally saw a bright spark under the shadow of FFXI's past, reinvigorated by the notion that Square Enix will breathe new life into the MMO version of their storied franchise. The community will have to wait a bit longer to see if its support pays off, but 2009 has given us reason to hope again.
HONORABLE MENTION: JUMPGATE EVOLUTION
Our "Honorable Mention" award for most-anticipated original IP goes to Jumpgate Evolution this year. Still in development, Jumpgate Evolution is the sequel and reboot of the classic Jumpgate MMO from NetDevil, originally published by 3DO in 2001. Jumpgate was one of the first space-action MMOs that succeeded in the sense that it was actually fun to play, drawing inspiration from classic titles like Wing Commander and the Elite series.
Jumpgate Evolution is touted as an accessible sci-fi MMO that will feature the best elements of the classic game, in addition to next-generation PvE and PvP gameplay. The new graphics engine promises to deliver the latest in visual gaming technology, along with an advanced AI that will offer "the feeling of a living, changing universe."
NetDevil promises that the "space exploration" adored by fans in the original will be included in Jumpgate Evolution, offering the player the unique choice of career paths other than the traditional "fighter pilot" class. Originally slated for release in the summer of 2009, the launch was delayed until early 2010. This setback is one of the reasons Jumpgate Evolution is receiving an Honorable Mention from us here at ZAM; its fan community was bursting with anticipation for a summer release, and the delay pumped up fans even more. If you're as anxious to play Jumpgate Evolution as we are, you can sign up for the ongoing beta test at the official website.