With The Secret World, Funcom has Mastered the Art of the Buggy MMO Launch

In June of 2001, Norwegian video game developer Funcom released its first massively-multiplayer online game, Anarchy Online. It is considered by many to be the worst buggy MMO launch in the history of the genre. This week sees the release of Funcom's third MMO, and it might be the best buggy MMO launch of all time.

In the days when online fantasy games like Asheron's Call and EverQuest were taking the world by storm, Anarchy Online offered something decidedly different. Instead of elves and dwarves it offered nimble Opifexes and the brutish Atrox. Instead of swords and sorcery players wielded nanotechnology and laser rifles. The game system was as unique as its setting. It was something fresh and new, and the players lined up in droves to play it.

In June of 2001 Anarchy Online went live, and it was horrendously broken. Players couldn't take two steps onto the planet of Rubi-Ka without rubber-banding back in place. The login servers would break. The servers regularly crashed. In the rare times that technical issues weren't a problem, billing issues took over, driving potential players away in droves.

Funcom worked tirelessly to fix the game, and then worked even harder to win back the players that had been put off by the horrid launch experience. They even created the first MMO free trial expressly for that purpose.

Anarchy Online eventually became one of the best MMO games ever released, and the community it fostered, however small, remains one of the most dedicated in the genre.

If only that launch had gone well things could have been so much different. Compelling content is only compelling if players can experience it.

By 2008, MMO players were completely sick of generic fantasy role-playing games. Funcom confirmed this by releasing Age of Conan, an MMO based on the source material for many a rival game.

Age of Conan wasn't a bad game; it just didn't do much to separate itself from the crowd. There were plenty of small bugs at launch, but you didn't hear a lot of complaints because not a lot of people cared enough to bitch about it. Especially where there were much larger issues at hand, like a complete and total lack of end-game content. Funcom figured they had time to patch that stuff in after launch. Speedy players disagreed.

Age of Conan continues to be played to this day, but you hardly ever hear about it, because it's not all that interesting. Working content is wasted on an ultimately uninteresting game.

And so, combining these two lessons, Funcom has launched The Secret World a game riddled with small, non-game-breaking bugs and compelling enough that the players are willing to put up with it.

This weekend, during the head start, I stood with a throng of players around a bizarre mechanical device on the coast of New England, desperately trying to deactivate it as monsters randomly attacked. The device was covered with smaller components; touching them in the correct order would deactivate it.

Only it didn't.

The quest was bugged; it had been since prior to launch, but bugs never kept Funcom from launching a game.

The quest works now, as does the one where you have to collect a woman's ashes that never spawn, or the one where the point you have to click to activate a gate is nearly hidden from view, and the one where the boss fight would randomly break in mid-battle. Many others remain broken, and with players progressing deeper into the game every day, more bugs will surely be uncovered.

But I don't mind. Most of the players don't seem to either. This world is an interesting one, glitches and all, so we'll keep playing around Funcom's construction.

In fact, one might say the glitches and bugs enhance the experience. One quest required me to follow a white raven that was supposed to launch itself into the air upon my approach. It did not. I discovered through general chat that the quest was only bugged in certain instances, and that if I could group with someone in a working instance I could get the job done.

Community interaction through shoddy coding! Brilliant!

And since The Secret World is set in the modern age, one can even use the bugs to their advantage. I have a character on the role-playing server that's role-playing a man that believes he is stuck in an MMO, and when bugs occur he can be quite vocal. The arguments I get into are exquisite.

So congratulations, Funcom! Not only have you launched your greatest buggy MMO yet, you've made at least one player's experience that much better for it.