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Curse of the White Wolf:
The Troubled History of World of Darkness Videogames
CCP, makers of EVE Online, have officially cancelled World of Darkness Online, laying off 56 employees of their Atlanta office. While the loss of an MMO based on the World of Darkness tabletop roleplaying games is disappointing, it's not especially surprising. Though CCP did the impossible and struck it big with EVE Online, an MMO that is neither free to play nor World of Warcraft, when it comes to White Wolf, the poor bastards never had a chance.
White Wolf's World of Darkness is a series of interconnected pen and paper roleplaying games. Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse detail a secret war waged in modern times between supernatural creatures, hidden in plain sight from all but the sexiest humans. Think Blade or Underworld, and you're not far off. Much like Shadowrun, the World of Darkness is a setting that takes well worn tropes and combines them in clever ways, resulting in something memorable, and to its fans, greater than the sum of its parts.
But as you'll soon see, videogames based on White Wolf's World of Darkness universe have a way of... going horribly wrong. Whether it's Vampire: The Masquerade or Werewolf: the Apocalypse, these games are either canceled, released as a buggy mess, or drive the gamemakers themselves out of business.
White Wolf games are cursed... with the Curse of the White Wolf!
Werewolf: The Apocalypse (Capcom)
The first videogame based on White Wolf's World of Darkness license was also the first to be cancelled. Capcom of all companies teamed up with White Wolf to work on a Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn game. Announced in 1995, Werewolf: The Apocalypse was to be a top-down action adventure game, similar to Shadowrun for SNES. (If that sounds fantastic, you probably played Shadowrun for SNES.)
Werewolf: The Apocalypse was cancelled for reasons unknown. But this story has a somewhat happy ending, because Capcom is still around churning out sequels (even if the Western developer Capcom Digital Studios is no longer with us). And a few years ago, some emulation enthusiasts released a ROM of the unfinished Werewolf for Sega Saturn.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse (ASC Games)
DreamForge Intertainment was fortunate enough to develop several titles based on popular tabletop games, including two CRPGs based on Dungeons & Dragons' Ravenloft, and Warhammer 40,000: Rites of War. In the late 90s, they tackled White Wolf, announcing Werewolf: The Apocalypse - The Heart of Gaia. It was to be a third person action game, made on the Unreal engine. The player would have assumed the role of Ryan, a lost cub who has began the werewolf transformation, but has yet to fit into the greater werewolf society, which I assume includes werewolf badminton and tea parties.
In 2000, publisher ASC Games closed down. Unable to find another publisher, DreamForge Interactive, developer of ten computer games, went out of business. According to the Unofficial White Wolf Wiki, the game is being rebuilt from scratch by a fan, so, good luck with that.
Vampire: The Masquerade -- Redemption (Activision)
The first White Wolf adaptation based on Vampire: The Masquerade was more successful than the Werewolf titles, in that it was actually released and managed not to drive anyone out of business. Redemption is a CRPG with a story that spans from the medieval Prague to modern times. Critics thought it had potential, but the game suffered from design flaws and was in serious need of patching. Its most distinctive feature never caught on: Players could design modules and run quests with friends online. Two years later, Bioware's Neverwinter Nights would find great success basically doing the same thing. I'd say the idea was ahead of it's time, but Redemption's quest editor was reportedly much harder to dig into. Plus, it's a White Wolf license. (The curse! The currrrse!)
Nihilistic Software would go on to work on StarCraft: Ghost before being removed from that doomed project for mysterious reasons in 2004. Rebranded as nStigate Games and focused on mobile gaming, their last release was a critically panned portable Call of Duty.
Vampire: The Masquerade -- Bloodlines (Activision)
Comprised of key members of the Fallout series, Troika tried their hand at an original setting (Arcanum) and D&D (Temple of Elemental Evil) before tacking the World of Darkness. Bloodlines would be their final game, though possibly their finest.
Bloodlines offered atmospheric horror ripe with consequences, in Troika's trademark Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style. It was built on an early version of the Source engine. Their contract prevented them from releasing their game before Half-Life 2, which shouldn't have been a problem, considering Valve's reputation for rapid-fire Half-Life releases. Bloodlines was eventually unleashed on consumers with so many bugs, it was hard for critics not to notice. (Kieron Gillen of Eurogamer quipped, "Easy to sum up: Game isn't finished.")
Troika tried to return to its post-apocalyptic roots, but after the dismal sales of Bloodlines (72,000 copies, around $3.4 million) they were unable to find a publisher. After laying off most of their staff, the founders spent their final days releasing Bloodlines patches before shutting down the company in 2005. And while it's gained a considerable following over the years, even diehard fans recommend you don't play Bloodlines without applying a fan-made bugfix to address its considerable flaws.
Hunter: The Reckoning trilogy (Interplay Entertainment / Vivendi)
High Voltage Software's co-op action RPGs were done in the style of Gauntlet and those twin-stick shooters elbowing for room on PSN and XBLA. Reviewers damned Reckoning with the sort of faint "7/10" praise that used to bury a console game, but it must have sold enough to warrant two sequels on PS2 and Xbox. The strangest thing about these games, aside from the fact that High Voltage survived making them, is how quickly they were forgotten.
So how did High Voltage manage to finish not one, but three White Wolf games without going out of business? Well, Hunter: The Reckoning is sort of the black sheep of the White Wolf family. It's recommended for players new to the World of Darkness. Perhaps by basing their game on a lesser known property, High Voltage were able to avoid the curse. (Sort of like how most of the people who love The Shawshank Redemption would be horrified to learn it's based on a book by Stephen King.)
Lesson learned: It's possible to finish a White Wolf game without fan-patches or bankruptcy, you just have to keep your head down and hope no one notices.
World of Darkness Online (CCP)
CCP, makers of EVE Online, merged with White Wolf in 2006, seemingly just to get their hands on the World of Darkness license. They immediately announced World of Darkness Online, an MMO based on Vampire: The Masquerade. The game would focus on politics and player interactions, and was set to launch in four to five years.
That was eight years ago.
Production began early 2009. Two years later, CCP announced they had to "reevaluate our internal goals." The World of Darkness Online team was reduced. CCP switched focus back to EVE Online and its spinoff, the free to play console first-person shooter Dust 512. But the company assured everyone that World of Darkness Online would live on, and it would "revolutionize the industry."
Least you think I'm picking on them, it's important to note that a World of Darkness MMO made by CCP has some serious potential. EVE Online is arguably the most successful post-World of Warcraft MMO not to settle for being some free to play WOW clone. If anyone could have combined vampires, political intrigue and monthly subscription fees, it's CCP.
By 2013, the game was late, but sounded promising enough. Players were told to expect a single, seamless world, filled with huge cities. There'd be crafting, but a player-controlled Vampires would never get their hands dirty personally knitting socks and bras. (My dream of owning a vampire sweatshop would soon be fulfilled!) Last but not least, Executive Producer Chris McDonough assured everyone that CCP had already banned the names Edward and Bella.
Sadly, in December 2013, CCP once again "reevaluated" World of Darkness Online, something that perhaps they should have done before merging with White Wolf in the first place. On Monday, April 14th, CCP put the final nail in the coffin.
The Curse of the White Wolf had claimed its last victim.
CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Petursson said in a press release, "We dreamed of a game that would transport you completely into the sweeping fantasy of World of Darkness, but had to admit that our efforts were falling regretfully short. One day I hope we will make it up to you."
It sounds to me like he still dreams of making the perfect White Wolf videogame. But personally, I wouldn't bother. Adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons have ranged from undisputed classics like Baldur's Gate 2 to embarrassments like Descent to Undermountain. Shadowrun videogames have enjoyed a cult following since the mid-90s, and surprise success via Kickstarter. But to this day, games based on White Wolf have yet to produce a single success story.
White Wolf adaptations are the SNL Movies of the game industry. Actually, it's worse than that. At least SNL had Wayne's World to justify losing money on every ill-advised skit-turned-movie that would follow. After twenty years, the best World of Darkness has to show for itself is Bloodlines, a title that made less than $3.5 million, drove its developers out of business, and probably shouldn't be played without significant fan modifications.
But hey, with a success story like that, who wouldn't hope lightning could strike twice?
— Zeus (Email the Bucket Bros)
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