The Matrix Online (known to its dedicated player base as "MxO") launched on March 22, 2005, in the US, followed by a European launch on April 15, 2005. The game was originally developed by Monolith and published by Sega and Warner Bros. This changed, however, in August 2005 when the rights were sold to Sony Online Entertainment who then took over all operations. It was the official continuation of the Matrix storyline.
Players assume control of a recently awakened captive of the Matrix, otherwise known as a "redpill." After playing through a series of tutorial missions, the player was then confronted by the leaders of the three opposing factions within the world -- Zionists, Machines and Merovingian -- and was free to explore the world of Mega City.
On July 31st, 2009 the servers shut down. The game ended with everyone being crushed.
Announced on May 22, 2002, during that years E3 conference, The Matrix Online began as a joint venture between Warner Bros, Monolith Productions ( F.E.A.R, Condemned) and EON Entertainment. The original Matrix film, released in 1999, had grossed more than $475 million worldwide and the anticipation for the as of yet unreleased sequels was running high. Fueling the hype for The Matrix Online was the inclusion of the films' creators, Larry and Andy Wachowski, along with producer Joel Silver, who would lend their creative and writing talents to the finished product.
A year would pass and on May 14, 2003, Ubisoft entered the fold and announced their support to distribute and manage the online world of The Matrix Online. It was at this point that it would gain its first release window with Warner Bros stating an ambiguous 2004 release.
Once more, a year would pass in the development of The Matrix Online. On February 24, 2004, Ubisoft bowed out as the publisher, leaving Warner Bros to take up the reigns themselves. Three weeks prior to this announcement, Ubisoft abruptly cancelled their support of another MMORPG effort, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. At this point, there were many doubts as to the future of the online title. Since production began, two new Matrix films were released to theatres, neither of which could capture the popularity of the original hit. The final piece of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, was so poorly received that it is seen as the point where The Matrix lost all appeal as a viable franchise.
It would be another year until The Matrix Online would hit shelves and one more publisher would step up to the plate, but Ubisoft still had one last role to play in this saga. In the DVD extras for The Matrix Revolutions, then-ubi.com vice president of development, Joe Ybarra, could be seen in interviews talking up the release of The Matrix Online. Their publishing deal having already evaporated at this point, Warner Bros had no choice but to rush a second release of the disc without the Ubisoft content.
Enter the "Segaton"
April 29, 2004. Two weeks prior to the upcoming E3 convention, Sega announces a mystery briefing that would, in their words, "shock the world." Sega went on to say that it would be an "explosive announcement" that "[you] won't be able to guess." Instantly, speculation as to what their announcement would be ran wild throughout the gaming community. Everything from Sega reentering the hardware business with a successor to the ill-fated Dreamcast to Shenmue III being exclusive to the Xbox was speculated, dissected and considered. Clearly, everyone had lost their minds and "Segaton" was born.
On May 10, two days prior to their E3 briefing, Sega sent out a press release stating that they had formed a publishing partnership with Warner Bros to handle the distribution of The Matrix Online at retail, along with overseeing the content development and operations of the title. The day before the briefing, pictures taken from the Los Angeles convention center began appearing online, showing banners for The Matrix Online throughout the halls, complete with the Sega logo. This led people to question whether or not the "Segaton" hype was to be believed.
The following morning, on May 12, Sega of America president Hideaki Irie took center stage at their briefing to announce ... a publishing partnership with Warner Bros to handle the distribution of The Matrix Online. This is, of course, the exact same announcement they had made in their press release only two short days ago. Then, Monolith CEO Samantha Ryan joined Irie on stage to give a lengthy demonstration of the game.
The backlash was nearly as instantaneous as the disappointment.
The "Segaton" having been dropped, The Matrix Online was, yet again, another year away from release.
The Beta & Release
While aiming for a November 2004 release, Warner Bros began a closed beta for The Matrix Online in early June. Following the start of the beta was the purchase of developer Monolith on August 12, capping off the two year collaboration between the two companies.
On September 16, Sega and Warner Bros finally announced that The Matrix Online would be cruising past its November 2004 release date and instead, would be launching on January 18, 2005, citing the need to launch in more territories than just the United States. With this announcement came the pre-order incentives which included Beta access beginning on November 18, along with three days of early access come launch and an advanced version of the in-game "Hyperjump" ability.
The January release didn't stick for long as Warner Bros announced on December 13 that they would not be launching as planned and would not elaborate any further on the subject. The true release date for The Matrix Online wouldn't come to light until February of 2008, when the March 22 launch was set in stone.
The final day of The Matrix Online beta is not only notable for the being the first time the Live Events Team would interact with players, but also notorious amongst MMO's for it's apocalyptic end. Players were greeted with a red sky filled with eyes staring down upon them as the three faction leaders, Morpheus (who was killed at one point during the event), Agent Gray and the Merovingian gathered players for various purposes. Seraph, The Oracle's protector from the Matrix films, for example, made an appearance to take on all challengers in sparring contests.
Towards the end of the day, the Machines began altering the billboards throughout Mega City and relaying cryptic messages directly to players such as "time is running out," and "Accept death with grace", "Humans ruin everything". Agents were dispatched throughout the city to kill players and carried with them a fire virus that not only set players on fire, but would transfer the flame to anyone in their proximity. Finally, the beta ended with the Machines shutting down the Matrix, physically crushing all remaining characters in-game much like one would an aluminum can. While the end of beta event drew high praise from various communities, the events of the day were officially retconned by Monolith the day the game launched, causing tension amongst those in the roleplaying community who had used the dramatic events of the day to develop their personal stories.
Sales at launch were extremely poor as the NPD Group recorded only 43,000 units sold through the month of April. Reviews for the game were mostly mixed with writers praising the title for its Live Events and community support, but slamming it for its amount of bugs, poor performance and lack of variety, resulting in an all-time Metacritic score of 69.
"The way in which the mission system generates experience and information rewards has been changed."
On April 18, 2005, Monolith issued patch 7.341 in response to an exploit with the mission system that allowed players to repeat the same mission multiple times in a row, despite it already being completed. The game would then issue full experience to the player for each time the mission is "repeated," despite no actions on the players part. Once discovered, this exploit made it extremely easy for players to reach the level cap and created a huge influx of high level characters.
The patch, however, did not fix this exploit. Instead, it offered a near 80% global nerf on both the experience and Information (the currency of the game) obtained within the game. For example, were a player to defeat an enemy that gave 100 experience and 10 information, after the patch it would produce roughly 20 experience and 2 Information. The backlash was immediate, as it punished those who played fair and, at the same time, made it so the only way to gain a decent amount of experience was to use the very exploit that caused the problem in the first place!
One week later, Monolith would issue a reversal on Patch 7.341, but the damage had already been done. A mass exodus of players had hit the Matrix.
On June 17, 2005, Warner Bros announced that they would be exiting the online gaming business and sold all rights to The Matrix Online to Sony Online Entertainment. This followed the poor reviews, sales and subscription numbers of the title, leading Warner Bros to lay off all but what has been described as a "skeleton crew" to continue development of the game. Sony would later roll The Matrix Online into it's Station Access program, offering it alongside many of their other MMO titles ( Everquest II and Vanguard, for example) for one subscription price.
Following this deal, Sony announced that The Matrix Online servers would be downsized from the initial nine servers available to a more manageable three. For such a low population, stretching the already small user base across nine servers made little sense. The merge was finalized in August 2005, leaving the three servers that existed until the game's shutdown.
The game features a unique class system in that you are never tied to a single set of abilities as you could easily reconfigure your character's "loadout" (set of abilities) for whatever the situation requires. Players could change their loadout by going to one of the "hardlines" (telephone booths) around Mega City, providing they have the abilities created by the "Coder" class. This makes the game very flexible in that you are never tied to a single set of abilities.
Despite this flexibility the game still follows three classic archetypes, Operative, Hacker and Coder. These are similar to the Warrior, Mage and Crafter classes, respectively, in other MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft. The three classes are then divided into subclasses, such as Spy (more commonly known as a Rogue) in the Operative tree. All together there are currently 21 different classes.
There are two types of combat in The Matrix Online: "Interlock" and "Free-fire." Interlock wasthe system utilized for all close combat such as martial arts, while free-fire was used as a means of long-ranged combat with weapons such as throwing knives and rifles, or hacker skills.
In interlock combat, two players are pitted against each other in a series of rounds with rolls determining who is the winner. Between each roll players much choose between their basic attacks (fast, strong, throw and defend) and any special attacks currently in their loadout. While the action in interlock is turn-based, everything within The Matrix Online still exists in real time, meaning that enemies (both players and NPC's) may still attack those engaged in interlock combat using free-fire.
Free-fire was mainly used by gun-wielding characters or those of the hacker class as it was the only form of long-range combat. Unlike interlock, free-fire was more traditional in the sense that a player was only limited by the speed or DPS (damage per second) of their weapons or abilities.
All three forms of combat (martial arts, weapons and hacker abilities) may be used in interlock, but only weapons and hacker abilities may be used in free-fire mode.
Live Events Team & LESIG
The "Live Events Team" (also known as LET) was a vital part of the overall experience and one of its most unique features under Monolith's operation of the title. As The Matrix Online was intended to continue the story of the film trilogy, LET presented the story directly to the players, in-game, through various forms of interactive fiction and roleplay.
The Live Events Team arranged in-game events for players to take part in, altered the state of gameplay and assumed the role of many notable characters including Morpheus and The Architect, in order to interact with other players. It was not uncommon for LET to pit players of rival factions against one another in various states of player versus player combat, regardless of whether their server was labeled as such.
Thorough in their research, some would argue that LET went as far as to stalk their potential targets, often utilizing key facts about various, player-controlled characters pulled from message boards, roleplay blogs and other aspects of The Matrix Online community. For the most part, this practice was not only accepted, but embraced by the roleplay community as it greatly enhanced the immersiveness of the in-game experience.
With the transition from Monolith to Sony Online Entertainment went the Live Events Team as the program was largely disbanded and both the scale and frequency of events plummeted as a result, but was picked up by the community team known as the "Live Events Special Interest Group. "
In December 2005, a small number of players were accepted into a group called the "Live Events Special Interest Group," or LESIG, for short. LESIG was made up of members of the community that had an affinity for roleplaying, Matrix lore and player created events. This group was selected from applications that were originally sent in for a "LESIG" that was meant to give feedback on the Live Events being ran by LET. As there was no longer an official team for Live Events, LESIG quickly helped Sony Online Entertainment put on official events that had certain significant Matrix characters making appearances or leading the events. This group was led by lead game designer Ben Chamberlain, otherwise known as "Rarebit" within the community.
LESIG members would volunteer to be "Organization Liaisons" to the several organizations in the game (Merovingian, Zion, Machine, Followers of Cypher and Followers of Neo), totalling to at least one liaison per organization, per server. These liaisons would be the point of contact and the face for their organization within the game and a filter between the players and the developers of the game. LESIG members would interact with players within and outside of the game while planning at least one event for their organization, per server, per month. LESIG members did not, however, play story characters such as Morpheus, Niobe, Seraph etc. LESIG members were only allowed to create their own players from scratch (with the freedom to develop the story background, personality, look and name) and had limited abilities within the game.
The Matrix Online community was one that was heavily invested in the act of roleplay, more so than other MMO populations. Most of this was due to the emphasis placed on the evolving storyline within the game and how the Live Events Team acts it out with players. Typically, the ones are most committed to their roleplay.
The game also features a variety of tools and locations to better assist players in immersing themselves within the world. The emote system was fairly elaborate in that it's not limited to single player actions like in other MMO titles. Two-player emotes are possible and, with both players consent, two characters could hake hands, kiss, slap one another and bump fists amongst many other animations. In addition to the emotes are moods that, when activated, alter the idle and movement animations of the character, allowing players to better convey their emotions while in a state of roleplay.
As the entirety of Mega City was explorable, there exists a variety of different locations for players to utilize including rundown apartments, high rise office spaces, bars, clubs and so forth. The latter of which became an extremely important social setting early on in The Matrix Online as many players took up the role of club DJs, setting up online radio stations and arranging in-game parties at the various clubs within the city.
Streaming broadcasts quickly became an important asset to The Matrix Online community early on, culminating with launch of Radio Free Zion (or RFZ for short) in February, 2005. Featuring a variety of music and live hosts twenty-four hours a day, RFZ was an entirely player run radio station that helped organize some of the most successful events within the game. Radio Free Zion played an important role during the end of beta event, taking reports from players, relaying vital information to those listening as well as reporting live from key scenes for those unable to attend.
The developers at Monolith quickly embraced this burgeoning community and on March 28, 2005, a mere three days after the US launch, implemented a streaming media player directly into The Matrix Online. The player, which required the latest version of Windows Media Player, allowed users to listen to MP3 files from their computer on top of inputting and saving the URL's of streaming audio sources.
To end the game, an event was planned in which all players online at the time would be crushed, much like with the beta. However, due to a server glitch, large amounts of players were disconnected before the crushing. The whole event deteriorated into a massive mess, as all players were given high level powers, and PvP devolved into players killing each other often with one hit. The game became very unplayable, as the framerate suffered from the advanced powers, and what was planned to be a last hurrah for the game, turned into a farce that summed up many of the problems that plagued the game since inception.