The Game Archaeologist: Deadlands Legends, the western MMO that never saw the light of day

The Game Archaeologist: Deadlands Legends, the western MMO that never saw the light of day

The saying goes that there is nothing new under the sun. So while you probably can’t write an original setting that’s never been seen before, the next best thing is to take two established settings and slam them together to create a tantalizing mash-up.

This is what game developer Shane Hensley thought in 1996, when his company Pinnacle Entertainment published a hybrid horror-western RPG called Deadlands. The pen-and-paper setting was a huge hit with gamers, throwing players into a much wilder west where cowboys and natives fought against supernatural horrors like zombies and monsters that were spreading across the land.

Deadlands sold like hotcakes, eventually coming to many different pen-and-paper systems. It’s setting was so delicious that an MMORPG set in its universe was proposed. That got a lot of immediate attention when it was first announced, but as quickly as the weird west blew into town, it blew away. What happened?

To follow the now-faint trail of the Deadlands MMO, we must flip back the calendar to 2005. Cryptic’s City of Heroes proved successful, and the studio greenlit a standalone expansion called City of Villains. Tapped to write the story of the darker side of the game was Hensley, who had come aboard the studio a year before. But instead of sticking with Cryptic after Villains launched, Hensley struck out once again in 2007 for a different studio: Superstition.

While you may never have heard of Superstition Studios, you might be aware of its parent company, which was Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment. CME formed back in 2005 with the initial desire to make Stargate Worlds. However, once it got flush with investor cash, the studio’s leadership sought to quickly expand the company into four studios. Superstition ended up being the studio that was tapped to take the Deadlands franchise and turn it into an MMORPG.

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And who would be better to head up the project than a guy who not only created Deadlands but spent a couple of years working on an MMO? Hensley quickly said yes to the project and dug into adapting his pen-and-paper world into an online title.

In late 2007, Hensley brought on board “a small team of very talented individuals” to form Superstition. Initially, the studio did not announce its project, but did release a press statement that said that it was working on a “genre-themed MMORPG games with a built in fan base.”

Around 2009, Superstition was openly talking about Deadlands Legends — and even posting a couple of videos. In one of them, Hensley wrote, “This was an attempt to move away from the cartoon/WoW-style MMO we first attempted with Deadlands, and into a shooter-style ‘QuestPS.’ This is a single character, a few buildings, and a ton of ghoul enemies we made in about a week.”

Hensley posted another video after the game’s closure in 2010 that showed a two-player PvP map that took place in what looked like a western version of hell.

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From what little we ever saw of Deadlands Legends, it looked like a pretty awesome premise. The alternate history western setting was unique in the genre, and the ability to pick gunslingers, shamans, and lawmen as some of the classes fit perfectly with MMO design.

Of course, we all know how the sordid tale of how Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment eventually collapsed in 2010 under a pile of failed promises, legal drama, scams, and general bankruptcy. And when CME went, so did all of its subsidiaries, including Superstition. That spelled the end of the Deadlands effort, leaving fans with a regrettable “what if?” that will never be resolved.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.

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