The Matrix is one of the biggest franchises in the world, with its universe spanning across film, animation, comics and video games. In 2005, more than a year after the original film trilogy concluded, The Matrix Online promised a new experience for players. The MMORPG was designated as the official continuation of the Matrix story, but a troubled launch would see it struggle to meet high expectations.
JAMES PARKINSON: Hey, it’s James here with a couple of quick updates before we start this episode. Firstly, I have some great news to share. Gameplay is now an award-winning podcast. The show was recently awarded Best Gaming Coverage at the Australian IT Journalism Awards. This was very unexpected for us, given we were up against some huge publications, like Kotaku and IGN, and it’s one of the highest honours for our industry in Australia. So this is really special. And the award is a huge validation for what we’re doing - bringing you highly-quality audio journalism about video games. So thank you for your continued support. Also, this episode is our last for 2021, and we’ll be taking a break in January. We’ll be back with new episodes in February, and we’re excited about taking Gameplay forward in 2022. Okay, on with the show.
[The Matrix film audio clip]
Morpheus: “Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life…”
JAMES PARKINSON: In 1999, The Matrix was one of the biggest films of the year. Starring Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss and Hugo Weaving.
Morpheus: “Do you know what I’m talking about?”
Neo: “The Matrix?”
JAMES PARKINSON: Directed by The Wachowski’s, the Matrix was groundbreaking for many reasons, including its stunt work and visual effects.
Morpheus: “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room.”
JAMES PARKINSON: Over the course of the original trilogy, also consisting of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, the films constructed a world that had never been seen on the screen before.
Morpheus: “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
Neo: “What truth?”
Morpheus: “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”
JAMES PARKINSON: While its sequels weren’t as well received, critically, the franchise remained incredibly popular with its fans, inspiring several spin-off projects that expanded on The Matrix universe. This included The Animatrix short films, comic books, and the video games Enter The Matrix from 2003, and Path of Neo in 2005. Both of these games had direct support from The Wachowski’s, and introduced new characters and plot lines. But a third game was the only one designated as the official continuation of the Matrix story, when the films concluded - The Matrix Online.
JAMES PARKINSON: For most people, the release of Revolutions in November 2003 signalled the end of the series. But The Matrix Online was already well into development. The Wachowski’s, who were also huge gamers, had given their blessing for the story to continue, in the hands of the developers, and the players.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Matrix Online was officially released in March 2005, which for a game based on a film franchise that had ended more than 12 months prior, seems like odd timing. But MxO, as it became known, was just another way to expand on the Matrix story, as the comics and animated short films had done. The Wachowski’s had chosen comic book writer Paul Chadwick to write the story, because he’d previously worked on the official Matrix comics. Chadwick was given freedom to tear things down and make the story his own. The game was first announced way back in May 2002, a full year before Reloaded hit theatres, and it made some big promises about the experience that awaited players.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: So The Matrix Online was a massively multiplayer online role playing game that was really unique, in the sense that it wasn't like the other games that were out at the time, which were like Everquest or - this was before World of Warcraft came out, right? And so a lot of those games didn't really have any player shaping story events. And this game promised in its infancy, to allow the players to shape what was going to happen in the Matrix. And they were basically promising early on that this game was going to allow players to be able to continue that story beyond the three films, and that our actions were actually going to impact that story moving forward. And not only that, but your character, your avatar so to speak, would be immortalised in the continuation of The Matrix story.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: My name is Andrew Ferchland. And I was known by “Spartan” or “Janus”, as my character was in MxO.
JAMES PARKINSON: Like many fans of the series, Andrew got into The Matrix Online right at the beginning.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: I remember watching a promo for The Matrix Online. And I swear, I found it on the like, the special features on a DVD, maybe it was Matrix Reloaded, maybe, it might have been Matrix Revolutions, where they were showing some of the footage from the game early, you know, Alpha stage, obviously.
Matrix Online Trailer: “...and this time the outcome is up to you. The Matrix Online.”
ANDREW FERCHLAND: And I was like, wow, that is so cool. What is this? And of course, you know, this is the early days of the Internet, right? So go online, try to find the website, and just see what was coming down the road. And I was so excited, because I was a pretty big Matrix fan. I mean, it was a very impactful series. Of course, you know, we all have our favourites, right? The first Matrix is the best, I think everyone agrees to that. But that being said, the continued story and evolution of the series, the film series, and then the universe - that hopefully, at the time, it seemed like they were going to continue building with the Matrix Online, was very exciting.
JAMES PARKINSON: So a quick recap, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen the Matrix films, or maybe you’ve never seen them at all. The Matrix is set in a distant future, where artificial intelligence has seen the rise of self-aware machines. The machines turned against humanity, imprisoning the human race inside a virtual reality system known as the Matrix.
Morpheus: “...the world as it was at the end of the 20th century. It exists now, only as part of a neural interactive simulation that we call The Matrix.”
JAMES PARKINSON: By stimulating human minds through the Matrix simulation, the machines are able to generate enough power to sustain themselves.
Morpheus: “The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120v battery and over 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need.”
JAMES PARKINSON: Yeah, that part never made much sense. But anyway, humans who have been freed from the Matrix are able to come and go from the simulation through the process of “jacking in”. They do this in order to free others, and to defeat sentient programs known as Agents, who act as gatekeepers to the Matrix.
Morpheus: “This is the core, where we broadcast our pirate signal and hack into the Matrix.”
JAMES PARKINSON: The films follow a computer hacker called Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, who is said to be “The One” - the person who is destined to defeat the machines and free humanity.
JAMES PARKINSON: So, there are obviously some parallels between The Matrix and dropping into a game world like an MMO, which made the concept of The Matrix Online such a great fit.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: So you’d launch the game up, and you would pick your character - you could have multiple, if I remember correctly, but for me, I just played the one. And you would pick what you would jack in with. And this is something that was totally different than other MMOs at the time. This game was, you are just a persona, you're just just a character in the game, and you could pick and choose and change and drop your techniques, your abilities, whenever you wanted to. You'd be able to change what your skill set was when you logged in.
Morpheus: “Your appearance now is what we call residual self image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.”
ANDREW FERCHLAND: They called it something Matrix-y, but at the end of the day, it was still pretty much the set-in-stone MMO archetypes, right? You have your mages, you have your rogue types, you have your range types. And then within those, you have different kinds of subsets, right? So you had Kung Fu Master, you had Karate Master, you had Aikido, all three of those martial arts would have different types of moves that would do different things. And you could mix and match them within the builder. So you would load that up at the login screen, pick what you wanted, pick your clothes, and then you would jack in, just like in the movies.
Dozer: “Okay, so what do you need, besides a miracle?”
Neo: “Guns. Lots of guns.”
ANDREW FERCHLAND: And you'd pop in next to a hardline, which was a phone booth that was scattered around the map. So you'd pick which one you wanted to log into. And so once you did that, and you're jacked in, you have this awesome moment where you have all the green code, you know, just dropping over all the buildings, dropping over your character, as you're loading in. And then finally everything would render, and you'd be in the space.
JAMES PARKINSON: An important aspect of MMOs are the communities that are built around them. In the early 2000s, Andrew was playing games like Everquest and Star Wars Galaxies and enjoyed being part of guilds with other players. But his experience playing the game WWII Online, where he was a more active member of its community, inspired him to create a guild of his own. And The Matrix Online was his opportunity to build something from the ground up.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: It was driven by the story, right? And that was a big draw for me in the first place. So if I was going to start a guild, start an organisation, I wanted to do so in a way that would give my organisation, my team, the leverage to have the influence to be able to really not only influence our server, but influence the story of the Matrix itself. And that was a huge pull for me. So that really prompted me to get into player organisations, and to get started early. Because I knew, to have the best success, the most close-knit organisation, you really gotta get in on the ground floor.
JAMES PARKINSON: And by ground floor, Andrew means before MxO was even in beta.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: I just made a conscious choice to be as active as I possibly could, on the message boards, to get in there and just see what the pulse of the community was, what did it feel like? What were people talking about? Really just staying active on there, as much as I could. And I thought, “you know what, I'm just gonna start a crew”. They really hadn't flushed out what the clan or guild system was going to be. So a lot of people were thinking that they were going to kind of go down a route of a hovercraft, like, in-lore, right? So you're talking about, you know, Morpheus’ crew, right? You have all these guys who are on one ship. So in my mind it's like, “Okay, so I'm going to start something similar to that effect, and start my own ship, start my own crew”. And from there, it just snowballed. I mean, it just got out of control. I had some folks who I got along with on the message board, and they saw my post in the clan recruitment. I was one of the first ones there. They wanted to join up, and I was like, “Great, well, you're part of the crew, put in your signature”. And one of the guys on there - his name flashed before my eyes - it's 'Wardog', right? I don't know where you are, 'Wardog', these days, but buddy, you helped out tremendously. So 'Wardog' says, “Hey, you know what I can make a website, and I can host TeamSpeak, and I can start a forum”. I was like, “Wow, that's great, I didn't expect anyone to do that”. So without a whole lot of effort, at least initially, we went from really having not a whole lot of groundwork, to having the real beginnings, the real trappings of a viable player organisation.
JAMES PARKINSON: Of course, every guild needs a name, and Andrew’s was The Illuminati. Keeping in mind, this was 2003, and Andrew was 16 years old at the time.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: Honestly, I can't remember why I wanted to call us The Illuminati. I think we just wanted to be a little mysterious and kind of just - I think you know, you hear the name “Illuminati” in the real world and you're like, “Okay”, you roll your eyes at it. But hey, what if that was actually a real organisation? And what if, you know, we actually live in the Matrix, maybe they're a real thing. So we kind of went down that path and started that up and just kept building crews up.
JAMES PARKINSON: The role playing aspect was a big part of what attracted people to the guild, especially at this early stage, when the game wasn’t even playable yet.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: My focus, when I was building the organisation, was community. I wanted to build an organisation that encouraged activity, encouraged creativity, encouraged role play. Now granted, like I said, I didn't go into that, big into role play. But I think all of us at some point, started making stories around our characters, like, actually writing short fiction. So fan fiction, I guess, right? And so the idea was to have many little communities inside of our overall community. And I think it was very successful, I think it really was, we did very well, into the launch of the game, we had a very active community, very happy community. And part of that was also some of the things that we would do while we were waiting. We had our own radio service, or streaming radio at the time, we called it Illuminati Radio. So it was playing all the time. So we'll be listening to that, we had our own TeamSpeak server going. And so we just really did the best we could to pass the time together. And surprisingly, it was incredibly enjoyable. In fact, I've made some lifelong friends out of that organisation. We haven't met in person, but you know, we've known each other for close to 20 years now.
JOANNA NELIUS: Yeah, we role played on the forums. There were also places on our forums to put like fan art, write fan fiction, things like that. But I would also spend a lot of time playing other games with my guild guild mates.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Joanna Nelius, currently the senior electronics editor at Reviewed. But back in the days of The Matrix Online, she was a high school student who didn’t have a computer powerful enough to even run MxO.
JOANNA NELIUS: But that didn't stop me from actually joining the guilds and learning a bunch of different things about the game, while not actually ever playing the game, until recently, because there's an emulator. So my relationship with The Matrix Online is probably very different from the majority of other players out there. I just immersed myself with my guild, and these are still people that I consider my brothers till today.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Matrix Online was developed by Monolith Productions. Ben Chamberlain started on the project as a tester. But he would go on to become a key member of the team.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: And I began on The Matrix Online as the Quality Assurance Lead at Monolith Productions.
JAMES PARKINSON: Monolith were making the game under license from Warner Bros. But WB ended up acquiring the company in the middle of closed beta testing in August of 2004. MxO was one of Monolith’s biggest games to date, with a budget to match. It was a very ambitious project.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: They went off and hired, as the Lead Designer and the Secondary Designer, of course, two guys, Toby Ragaini and Adam Bormann who had backgrounds in online games, I think, I assumed - I'm pretty sure they did. Because they would talk in this vocabulary of things that you know about online games, that was all new to me. So there were definitely these sort of big ideas about, you know, what you could do with an online game, and they wanted to do something different. And so one of the big things was the combat system.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: So they had two different types of combat in the game. They had free range combat - I'm pretty sure that's not what it's called, but that's pretty much what we called it - and then you had interlock combat
JAMES PARKINSON: Officially, it was called free-fire combat, but same thing.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: Now free range, it's just like any other game, you know, you have for instance, if I shoot at you with a gun, and you have a high bullet resistance, or whatever they called it at the time, then you would dodge the bullet, I couldn't hit you. So if you have like a Level 55 player, Level 50 player, a Level 1 guy shoots at him, he's just gonna dodge all day, it's never gonna touch him. That's that's kind of how that worked. And then you had Interlock, which was I'm going to get into combat with you, and we're going to put up our skills and our abilities against one another in a sort of scripted - I think they use motion capture as well - like, a truly one-on-one duel. Like the Matrix films, like you remember the first Matrix when Neo fought Agent Smith in the subway? It was like that every time, which was so cool. They did such a good job with that. Now, was it always balanced? No. Was there things that were overpowered? Yes. But the actual combat system itself was really well done.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: That was a big selling point of the game, but it was also probably, you know, it was very different than your typical MMOs. So that would have been perhaps a challenge for players to get their heads around. Another big difference was just the type of world it was. It wasn't, you know, a big, sprawling landscape. Instead, you were all in this big city. And when you took a mission, for instance, it did not just spawn you into sort of a separate, completely separate dimension that wasn't connected. You were actually inside, and you would go inside the buildings that would unlock, you know, you would unlock a certain floor in a building, and then conduct your mission and beating people up and looting things and stuff, all inside that building that was in, you know, this neighborhood in the city, and in the downtown. And so it was all - it was a very different type of world. And that, of course, had its own significant challenges, in terms of just how do you make that? And how do you have servers that can handle the load of, you know, perhaps 1000s of players packing into one building downtown or something, you know. So it was pretty challenging, technically, I think. Fortunately, they did get some pretty smart guys as the engineers, and they just about pulled that off. But it was a very different style. Just even the server architecture was this completely different thing. It was based on, like biological algorithms meant to simulate, you know, cellular structures, and all this sort of highfalutin stuff. So it was pretty crazy.
JAMES PARKINSON: Ensuring a game runs smoothly is challenging under normal circumstances, but for an online game - particularly an MMO - there’s a whole other layer of complexity that can cause problems.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: So there's all kinds of pieces going, you know, technical pieces moving in the background to make the game work that can be very tricky to debug. Like one of the early things that our internal test team was working on, I know, was just churning through just a huge quantity of animations. Because the combat animations in the game were all captured from actual motion capture, you have the ping pong balls taped onto martial arts, actual martial arts specialists, who were recorded and their movements captured all that stuff. So there’s just thousands and thousands of animations, they were chopped up and, and had to be able to assemble on the fly into, you know, these cool Matrix style, Kung Fu gun sequences. And so that was just a huge task for the testing team and the animation team, to be able to churn through all that stuff. I mean, you're talking about millions of possible combinations of these animations, stuff like that. There's, there's all kinds of again, there was a very complicated world and so just for the world designers to be able to load the world they had designed into the level editor, so that they could move things around and make sure everything was working and put things together was a huge, you know. It would run the strongest computers we could get to the ground. So there were all these sorts of challenges for different parts of the team.
JAMES PARKINSON: After months of waiting, players were finally given a chance to jack into the Matrix with the closed beta. Andrew’s Illuminati guild had been steadily growing as anticipation for the game increased.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: We probably reached close to five or six hundred people. So we were really just active. That was our active group.
JAMES PARKINSON: Players were impressed with the unique approach that The Matrix Online was taking, but there were still bugs that needed to be fixed.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: We were really unhappy with launch. And that's kind of an understatement. I mean, we played through the closed beta. And we were like, “Hey, guys, this is not ready”. I mean, it's crashing all the time, and it was scary, for something that you spent so much time building a community for, and then you play the closed beta, and you go, “This is going to be rough”. And they say, “Well launch day is here”, like, well, “You guys probably should push launch”. And then they launch it anyway.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: Which honestly, you can't even blame the developers for. Because I mean, they changed publishers, like, not even before beta. So it was a troubled launch, really, and a lot of us who were in the closed beta, who were so passionate about the game, you know, turning in bug reports constantly, dealing with all the crashes and character wipes and everything. You know, we were saying, “Hey, it's just not ready”.
JAMES PARKINSON: Ubisoft was set to co-publish The Matrix Online with Warner Bros. when they suddenly backed out of the arrangement in February 2004, which wasn’t great timing, and the game’s launch was delayed on more than one occasion. Sega would eventually take Ubisoft’s place, but just three months after the game’s 2005 launch, Warner Bros. sold the rights for the game to Sony Online Entertainment. MxO was Warner Bros. first project in the world of video games, and with fewer than 50,000 active players at launch, it wasn’t considered economically viable.
JAMES PARKINSON: This meant the Monolith development team was shifted across to Sony - or at least the lucky ones who didn’t lose their jobs through the acquisition.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: Well, that was a pretty big change. I mean, and yeah, you're right, it was really fast. I wasn't sure exactly what the timeline was, but it was pretty fast. I mean, Warner, they were no dummies, and you know, they had people who were able to see that it hadn't hit the numbers they wanted or something, I suppose. There was also a bit of a feeling with Warner that maybe they didn't quite feel like they had the kind of expertise that could have turned things around, you know? Because MMOs were not a thing they had done a lot of. So it's actually probably pretty lucky that they did find a buyer in SOE, I guess. So it was a big deal for us. Because, you know, Sony agreed to buy the game, but they only agreed to keep on a third of the team, basically. But yeah, so a lot of people were being let go from Monolith. And some of these people had been there for years. It did sort of take the move and getting into the new building, and getting into a new environment, to be able to feel like, “Okay, now we can try to make something out of this”. Which is not to say that people weren’t still doing their jobs. Of course, they were. But you know, it was tough. It was really tough to have that many people just not through their own fault, for the most part, be out of work all of a sudden. And then, you know, how can you kind of try to say something comforting to them when you're the jerk who didn't get let go, you know? So yeah, it's definitely pretty weird.
JAMES PARKINSON: After the break, MxO’s life after launch, and how it continued the Matrix story. That’s next on Gameplay.
JAMES PARKINSON: With Sony taking the reins of The Matrix Online, only around 20 to 30 employees who worked on the game were retained from Monolith Productions. Ben Chamberlain was fortunate to be one of them. Prior to the sale, he’d moved on from lead tester to become a mission designer. As the game entered its post-launch phase, he took on greater responsibility of the Matrix story.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: By the time I got there, it was fairly smooth. And you as long as you could sort of type in complete sentences and check boxes, and you could sort of keep track of which AI should appear where, and in what missions and so forth, it was fairly straightforward. But it was kind of fun. It was really the first time I had been paid to do writing, even in this sort of cut up, chopped up way. But you were essentially just writing little stories. I mean, so we were working from an outline that was written by Paul Chadwick and sort of breaking the story down into discrete chunks that would form - I don't know what our original schedule was - eventually it was every six weeks, a new sort of sub chapter of the story would unfold. And we would present that through a series of five missions or so. So, you know, you got to write in the voice of these different Matrix characters. We were essentially writing little short stories, they were already never fitting into a story, an overall story arc that had been written by Paul Chadwick. So somebody else was sort of doing the big story, and you just got to concentrate on little stories of your own. And because, you know, it was sort of all hands on deck to get content generated, there wasn't too much oversight. So we actually had probably more freedom than we should have had to just make up our own little stories in the game. So you know, it was a good, actually a pretty good climate, a good environment for a new writer, I think.
JAMES PARKINSON: Ben actually got the chance to work alongside Paul Chadwick at one point, and some of his writing was even run past the Wachowski’s themselves.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: Well, I mean, you didn't want to screw things up. I mean, at least I didn't, and I don't think any other people I worked with did. You know, you wanted to remain faithful to the movies and the things that people loved about the movies. And then you wanted to be able to, I mean, it was your job to be able to essentially understand what was cool about the Matrix, and somehow be able to take this, you know, new story and fit it into what was cool about the Matrix. So it felt Matrix-ey, but still moved into a story that had not been seen in The Matrix films. So it was challenging in that sense. And then eventually Paul sort of moved away from the project. So I essentially had to take over, even just the big story picture writing. Although that didn't lead to a fun point where he - I gave him a story outline for what I would do, you know, beyond where his story took us to. And he seemed to think it was okay. And so he ran it by the Wachowski’s. He was the one who could contact the Wachowski’s. And so I guess they actually read it or skimmed it or something. Well, no, they did read it, because they only had one thing in the story that they wanted me to tweak. Or they said, “Don't do that”, you know. Essentially, because they wrote back, and centred, all capital letters, like, you know, scriptwriter style. And he showed me the email they sent. And I was like, “Okay, that seems like something that movie directors would write.
JAMES PARKINSON: The story would unfold through missions and live events. The story missions were updated regularly and allowed you to progress through the narrative, either solo or with your guild members. The live events also drove the story but many involved larger objectives that often pitted the game’s different factions against each other. You could play as one of three different organisations; the Zionists, the Machinists or the Merovingian. And the larger events were where the game shined, bringing together the whole community. There were events like Race to Find The One, where factions competed to gather fragments of Neo’s residual self image. Another event, Hunt for Morpheus, was one of the most impactful narratives, and the most controversial. Here’s Andrew Ferchland.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: So it kind of started to splinter off into these different human factions and how they were interacting with player factions, that you as a player could be in as well. And you were running missions for any of these three sides, and just working through the story in that respect. But where it kind of goes from here is, Morpheus gets killed. Spoiler alert, it's been a long time guys, but Morpheus dies from someone called the Assassin. The Assassin is this guy who is made up of flies. And he's essentially, he's a program, just like a lot of the other things in the Matrix. And so one of the first major events in the game was actually hunting down this assassin and killing him.
JAMES PARKINSON: The death of Morpheus, who was played by Lawrence Fishburne in the original trilogy, was one of the earlier story beats around the launch of the game, and it was a big shock for fans of the series. Fortunately for Ben, these major plot points had already been set in motion by Paul Chadwick.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: So Paul started things off with a bang. And I know that that story decision took a lot of flack from some players, who of course didn't like having Morpheus get killed off. So by the time I was more the one having to make the story decisions myself, you know, the big shocks, in terms of deviating from the movies, had already happened.
JAMES PARKINSON: And that worked in Ben’s favour. He was able to put his own mark on the Matrix universe, without a lot of blowback, and he established a relationship with the Matrix Online community. Ben and another mission designer, Andy Seavy would sometimes drop into the game, assuming the role of major characters, and take part in live events with players.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: I was eventually doing these daily live events, where I would jack into the Matrix as some story character. And very often I would have this team, this live events, special interest group, or LESIG, as the abbreviation went. They would very often help me with these daily events of, you know, role playing on servers. And running some group of players who we managed to find or organise, you know, some kind of daily little adventure. And it was really those, those daily, little adventures that we ran with players and, you know, very earnest role playing, and then players who have no idea of role playing and are just there to do silly dances, and, and tell one liners and stuff. And so it was just that kind of daily adventures with players was really where the fun stories were to me.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: Sometimes there were developers who were running around as Agents, and they were essentially souped up characters. And sometimes they would be acting in the game - most time you wouldn't be able to fight them, they were just there to kind of move the story along.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: But at the same time, there were in-game live events, which were honestly the coolest parts of the game for me. A developer would play as Ghost or a developer plays as Nairobi, or a developer would play as the Merovingian. And they would do in-game text, they would talk, sometimes you would even be able to find them randomly, not in an in-game event, they were just in the game as those characters and you’d get to hang out and chat with them, which was probably the coolest instances, because it was really kind of a one-on-one interaction with these characters - super cool. And then you have the larger events, of course, which is everyone's there, and everyone's spamming the chat. And of course, it's a PvP server, so everyone's murdering each other, at the same time all the events trying to happen. So that was always a good time.
JAMES PARKINSON: For a game that showed so much promise, The Matrix Online never quite lived up to its high expectations. It hit its peak during those first few months after launch, before many players began to shift their attention elsewhere.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: I know that the community really dropped off after I'd say after the Morpheus event, into some of the Neo events. Once they got rid of the scripted cutscenes, and they went to a comic book type cutscene, I noticed a big drop off and community activity. A lot of our folks were starting to play other games. As interesting and as engaged as we were going into, it did peter out pretty quick.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: We got to a place where our character builds were, there was nothing else to add, you weren't able to - we were completely maxed out in every capacity. There was no end game, so to speak. The end game was the story. And they really didn't push, they didn't push the level cap up. They didn't entice us to stay with what was coming. And so because of that, it just didn't, there was nowhere else to go, right? So if you play other MMOs, like, you know, World of Warcraft, they just added an expansion every year or so, where they increase the level cap and new gear drops. They didn't really do that with this. And so the stories would come and you'd get to see the story elements - “Okay, that's cool”. You'd run the missions and, like, “That's cool, too”. But then that was it, until the next story element dropped. And so for those of us who played religiously and had the gear to show for it, you can only kill people in Morrell Central for so long before you were tired of doing it.
JAMES PARKINSON: None of this was the fault of the developers though. The move to Sony and the mismanaged launch didn’t get things off to a great start, and with such a small team left to work on additional content, MxO was never really given the chance it deserved. For Ben Chamberlain though, it didn’t change his dedication and passion for the project.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: I definitely took it to heart and I just felt like, “Well, you know, I want this game to be good, and I'm gonna do what I can to make it good”. So you know, I spent a lot of time working on the thing. And yeah, I don't know. I mean, at some point, you’re either punching the clock, or you're really trying to make something that people can enjoy. And that's what I wanted to do. So you know, the game industry, if you're really trying to make a game that people will enjoy, it's tough, it's hard work.
JAMES PARKINSON: Eventually, Ben was the only full time employee remaining on the project. But he made the most of that time.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: I had kind of two things I could do for a long time, which was making missions, and eventually, I was the one who had to do all the missions to continue the story forward, and then doing these little live events every day with players. And those are kind of the two mechanisms I was able to use, to try to make the game feel like it was continuing. And, you know, the toughest part of that was that, especially with the daily events, you could only reach so many players. Because, again, you know, you're jacking into a specific server at a certain time. And there's only going to be so many players who were there and paying attention and interested in playing along with you. So, you know, that was tough. And eventually, as I was able to learn how to do more things in that game, I realised that “well, okay, there are things we can do, we can create an archive of all the previous missions that we have all created for the story, so players will have access to that”. Because, again, these missions, which are supposed to be carrying the story forward, they would come for six weeks, and then be replaced by the next set of five missions. And so new players wouldn't necessarily have a history of knowing what had gone down. And it was just a huge batch of content, I mean, the game needed content, and it was just being disposed of. So we eventually were able to wrangle it so that players could access those old missions. And so that was at least some chunk of permanent content that could keep people you know, having stuff to do. And then I realised that I could sort of do these quest-type of systems that, you know, could be played repeatedly, could last longer than the regular mission system would allow. All that stuff took a lot of work. So I had to make a deliberate choice to not do the daily little events with players anymore, because that was taking up a lot of time and just say, “Okay, well, I can make these quests that everybody can do, and that will be permanent content for the game”.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Matrix Online lasted for four years. Towards the end, Ben learned about its impending demise and decided to quit.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: I had left some months before that I, you know, they finally told me - our part-time producer called me into his office or whatever, his cubicle, I remember and said, “You know, we're going to have to shut the game down at such and such a date”. And I, of course, had known that this would be coming at some point. And I even then thought I would, you know, be able to keep working on the game. And for however many months were left. But I just - somewhat to my surprise - I found it that I just couldn't, I just couldn't do it anymore. You know, just knowing that I was trying to make this this permanent quest content and stuff that people could enjoy, but it was only going to be in the game, for you know, however many months - I think it was five or six months left, maybe four, I don't know, before the whole game was shut down. It was just gone. I mean, it's not like a regular game, you know? So that was depressing. And I just, after a couple days of struggling with that, and trying to keep working on it, I just realised I had to give my notice and leave. So yeah, I was gone some months before that.
JAMES PARKINSON: At the time of the shutdown, MxO had fewer than 500 active players. But the community was still strong enough to give Ben a proper send off before he left. He jacked back into the Matrix one last time with players throwing him an in-game farewell party. When the time came to shut down MxO though, Ben couldn’t bring himself to be part of it.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: I really don't know, it was weird, but I felt like I couldn't be there, I couldn't just watch it be shut down you know. It was depressing to me.
JAMES PARKINSON: On July 31st, 2009, The Matrix Online was officially shut down for good.
JAMES PARKINSON: MxO is one of those short lived games that makes you wonder about what could have been. The Matrix was a huge franchise, and as far as games based on films go, it had a lot going for it.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: Only thing I can really say is, it was a very special game, I'm very grateful that we had the opportunity to play it. I wish it was supported by the studios a little bit better. The people who had worked on it were incredibly passionate. None of us in the community were upset at the developers, we just knew it was kind of an unfair situation all around.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: If things worked out a little bit differently. If Warner Bros. didn't hand off the title to Sony, there's so many things that could have happened better. I think it probably could have carried on a lot longer. But it just didn't work out that way.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Matrix Online wasn’t the first live service game to be shut down and it won’t be the last, but they are often outlived by their communities.
JOANNA NELIUS: You know, we were just kind of like a big family. So once I got my feet wet and really started to get to know people, you know, without even knowing their real names or seeing their faces, you know, it became a safe place for me to go to on the internet.
JAMES PARKINSON: Remember, Joanna Nelius never got the opportunity to even play MxO during its peak. But her guild allowed Joanna to embrace her love of the Matrix universe, regardless.
JOANNA NELIUS: A few of my old guild mates have told me that they could have, like, sworn on their graves that I did play the Matrix Online with them. Because I was always there in the forums, posting on multiple threads, multiple times a day. I was chatting with them in TeamSpeak, you know, just shooting the breeze, things like that. So I immersed myself so much in the community that today, fifteen plus years later, some of my old guild mates that still believe that I actually played the game with them, because I was always there.
JOANNA NELIUS: But it never bothered me to the point where I was angry that I, you know, felt like I was missing out or things like that. Because, again, everybody was so great about rehashing what happened on the forums and everything else. So it, you know, do I wish that the emulator today was, as the game was back then, absolutely. Because I did get to do the emulation a few years ago. But it's just totally, you know, empty and void of people. And it's a virtual abandoned ghost town. And it's kind of creepy and cool at the same time. But it was at least that moment, like fifteen years later, was a special moment that I got to share with some of my old guild guild mates. And when they finally realised, like, no, “that's the first time I've ever played it”. So I never felt a sense of longing.
JAMES PARKINSON: While capturing the experience as it once was isn’t possible, the Matrix Online emulator is still keeping the game alive in some way, especially for those who didn’t get to play it the first time around. With a new Matrix movie on the way though, fans are petitioning Warner Bros. to bring MxO back. I’d say that’s probably a long shot, but with the franchise seeing a revival in cinemas, an entirely new game set in the Matrix universe might not be out of the question. It’s unlikely we’d see another MMO but the recent Unreal Engine 5 demo, The Matrix Awakens, certainly has fans dreaming about jumping back in.
JAMES PARKINSON: When a fourth film was announced, The Matrix Resurrections, questions arose about the direction its story might take. Fans began diving back into The Matrix Online story for clues on how Resurrections may unfold, and just how much of its plot, if any, will be included. MxO was an official continuation of the story, and many people consider it to be canon. But with Lana Wachowski back in the directors chair, it could go any number of ways. For a start, Keanu Reeves is back as Neo - despite the character being killed off in Revolutions. And it seems as though Morpheus isn’t really dead either.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: How is that going to play into Matrix 4? As a filmmaker myself, I'm pretty sure they're just going to throw that right out and just do whatever they want to do. And I totally get that, I understand that. And I think that it's probably gonna be best for the storyline itself to continue on kind of fresh. Because no one's going to have any idea, except for us diehard fans, what the Matrix Online is or what the story was in it. But yeah, I think the future is bright for wherever they decide to take the series.
JAMES PARKINSON: After leaving Sony, Ben Chamberlain moved on from the games industry. But he says the experience allowed him to work on his creative writing skills. These days, he creates a webcomic, combining writing with his passion for drawing.
BEN CHAMBERLAIN: You, like I said, it had a big impact. And it sort of made me realise that I could do things, I could tell stories, and I enjoy telling stories. You know, without having worked on the game, I don't know if I ever would have realised that and would have tried to do some sort of storytelling type of thing.
JAMES PARKINSON: And for Andrew, while the Matrix Online never reached its full potential, his guild was something he’ll always be proud of.
ANDREW FERCHLAND: The community was something special that I have not found anywhere since. People truly cared about the IP, people truly cared about their part, their story in the IP. But it was a big family, it was a big happy family. We were all there for the right reasons I think.
JAMES PARKINSON: A big thanks to Andrew Ferchland, Ben Chamberlain and Joanna Nelius. If you want to learn more about The Matrix Online story or even check out the emulator and jack into the Matrix yourself, you’d find the relevant links in the episode description in your podcast app, or on our website, gameplay.co
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, and our artwork is by Keegan Sanford. Additional music from Epidemic Sound and Breakmaster Cylinder.
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