Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

Dawntide Postmortem

Late last week, Working As Intended announced that it had ceased all development on Dawntide. Citing “unexpected financial difficulties,” the game has been put on hiatus until new investors are found. This marks the end of several years of development and of an open beta period that has extended almost as long.

Dawntide was ambitious. The developer’s aim was to create a sandbox-style MMO in the vein of the legendary Ultima Online – no small task. It would have included features such as player housing and towns and eschewed levels in favour of an entirely skill-based system. It’s the type of experience curmudgeonly old gamers have long pined for, and it was an exceptionally exciting premise on paper.

Historically I’ve held a soft spot for indie MMOs. I was one of Shadowbane’s biggest cheerleaders and I held a candle for Wish Online much longer than was prudent. However, years of premature cancellations and unplayable releases have left me jaded with the whole indie MMO scene (an attitude fully evidenced in my Pathfinder Online article).

Shadowbane was a bigger disappointment than when I found out Santa wasn't real

The fact is, I’ve considered Dawntide’s cancellation inevitable for over a year now. And yes, it has been cancelled. As exciting as it would be to see a Kickstarter project or an eccentric Markus Persson type swoop down and save another indie game, Dawntide lacks the prestige to lure this type of investor. Hiatus is simply a public relations euphemism for cancelled, and to be honest I’m not shedding any tears for the online game’s demise.

As exciting as the premise was on paper, it floundered in execution. Dawntide’s shortcomings can’t be forgiven as the charming foibles of an indie game – it was just plain bad. The graphics were crude, the combat clunky, and the world sterile and haphazardly constructed. It felt like an MMO released 10 years ago. There was nothing in the beta that compelled me to continue playing, and none of Working As Intended’s promises for major game overhauls ever came to fruition.

Dawntide’s failure is an example of a developer not living within its means. Developing and sustaining an MMO is not cheap, and Dawntide’s proposed features would make even a mainstream developer wince. Working As Intended – eyes clouded by daydream ambition – never evaluated the scope of their project realistically. The result was a game encumbered by dozens of half-realized mechanics and endemic instability. Corners were cut to compensate for the skeleton budget, and it bled through in every element of the game.

It ain't pretty

There are a number of questions an indie developer needs to ask itself before foraying into the MMO market. Can we afford reliable servers? Do we have a robust enough art team? Can we release updates and bug fixes at a satisfying pace? And, perhaps the most important question of all, is it even a good a idea for us to make an MMO? If Working As Intended had shelved Dawntide and instead focused on developing several smaller titles, in time they may have garnered the fanbase, investors, and industry clout necessary to make their MMO pipe dream a reality. Instead they learned the hard way that the answer to all the aforementioned questions is “no.”

My criticism of Dawntide may seem unduly serrated, but this criticism serves a higher purpose. It’s a plea to indie MMO developers to be more self-ware. Ambition is a meritable quality, but ambition is worthless unless reined back by pragmatism. In the end, I’m rooting for developers like Working as Intended, but I’m tired of seeing projects like Dawntide end up in the trash heap.

1 Comment

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  • Heh, thanks for this. I remember when I was younger, I read about Dawntide in a game informer like magazine. I thought it sounded absolutely awesome and eagarly watched it’s progression. Unfortunately, I never was able to figure out how to get into the beta so I only got to know it from videos and my mind filled the gaps. Now as I begin my foray into programming, I’ve learned from other’s mistakes and downfalls. One day, I hope to create a game like Dawntide, or oldschool RuneScape or some kind of fun game like that, but I can appreciate the long road it will take to get to that point. Still, it’s fun to remember the past and what could have been.

By Mathew
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer