It’s times like these that I remember The Matrix Online.

Back in the day, The Matrix was the shit. Yes, nothing says high quality like fecal matter with a definite article, but the movie lives up to hype. Say what you will about Keanu’s acting, or the apparent plot holes (how does Cypher get into the Matrix, why can’t Agent Smith “hack” more bullets into his gun, etc), the Matrix kicks ass and induces excitement deep in my pyloric valve.

The trouble with success is that it can leave you unprepared for subsequent failure. Four years later, we were watching confused critics struggle with the overlong (and unsatisfying) The Matrix Reloaded. Most of them missed the boat with the first movie, and they were anxious not to seem like out-of-touch old fogeys a second time. The glowing reviews for a mediocre sequel must have struck a chord of “we can do no wrong” in the Wachowskis’ heads, and so they plunged ahead with some very questionable media ventures.

The third, final, and shit awful Matrix movie left a lot plot points unexplained, but that was okay, we were told, because the story would continue with The Matrix Online PC MMO. It probably seemed like genius at the time. You’d play in an interactive world of “red-pilled” humans, with the story of Zion and Machine City and the Merovingian continuing on around you – and you could be an active participant, if you liked. It was going to be the wave of the future,  films and videogames becoming an inseparable braid.

It launched. It flopped. And five years later, it was cancelled. At a time where World of Warcraft had ten million subscribers, TMO’s player base had dwindled to just five hundred active accounts. What went wrong?

1. They got Monolith Productions to create the game. I’ve been playing Monolith games since 1997 (not continuously, there were some bathroom breaks), and I speak with authority when I say they’re the most inconsistent company on earth. Blood is good. Claw is good. Get Medieval is bad. Shogo is bad. Blood II is bad. Gruntz is good. Sanity is bad. No-One Lives Forever is good. Aliens versus Predator 2 is good. No One Lives Forever II is bad. Tron 2.0 is good. Contract JACK is bad. FEAR is good. Condemned is bad. And so on. It’s like someone’s tossing a coin.

2. The Matrix Online, by most accounts, falls into the bad column. I haven’t played it, but people tell me that it’s like a spiritual descendant of the two sequel movies – glossy, superficially well put together, but cold, unfocused, and unengaging. Apparently the game had bugs right until the very end. It’s normal for MMOs to launch with bugs. But TMO still looked like an alpha, right up until someone pulled the plug.

It’s an interesting study in the difference between games and movies. The Matrix Online was a bust, and that marked the last time anyone ever made a videogame based off the Matrix. It seems crazy. The Matrix franchise is tailor made for videogame treatment. Many games now copy the Matrix‘s distinctive visual style by default. But with games, you only get one shot.

Meanwhile, the Wachowski’s are sitting on an ever-growing pile of box office bombs, and yet they’ve received a $175 million budget for their upcoming movie. Hollywood still hasn’t caught up to the fact that The Matrix was a fluke and the Wachowskis will probably never do anything worthwhile ever again.

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