When the Vanguard servers power down for the last time on July 31 2014 the game will join an ever-growing list of online games you can no longer play and virtual worlds you can no longer visit. Exactly how that will play out remains to be seen. When the time comes some, like City of Heroes, have had to be dragged into the darkness, fighting all the way, while others, like Warhammer, slipped quietly away with little more than a respectful bow of the head.
Every week it seems Massively announces the closure of another MMO, usually some title from the vast gaming factories of the East, the name of which we recognize only vaguely if at all. Unplayed, unloved, unknown in the West, if these "sunsettings", to use the in-vogue management doublespeak, have any resonance in the West it's only to shore up the entrenched positions of the troops in the forever war between F2P and Subscription.
Perhaps ironically, it took the closure of Vanguard to make me think about this from a perspective beyond that of an invested player. Vanguard is far from the first MMO to close about which I have strong personal feelings or whose closure has emotional meaning. Endless Ages, Rubies of Eventide, NeoSteam, none of them forgotten, all of them missed. Still, it was only with the announcement that Vanguard is to end that it finally occurred to me that these closures represent something more than a simple denial of access for current and quondam players.
When it comes to new media and popular culture, institutions, both state and corporate, tend to be slow to adopt a suitable historical perspective. The BBC did not institute a corporate policy for archiving programs until 1978, more than fifty years after the first radio broadcast. In all that time it seems no-one believed that generations as yet unborn would be interested in such ephemera of the past. The tape itself was often considered more valuable than what was recorded on it. Tapes, once broadcast, would be wiped clean of content and re-used. Even by the 1960s, when the human race was approaching its apogee of accomplishment in the moon landings, even the importance of retaining something so crucial to the socio-historic record apparently passed BBC executives by.
In recent years recognition of this implicit and institutionalized cultural vandalism has grown, resulting in several drives to recover recordings, most of them technically illicit, from enthusiasts and hobbyists; a late and shame-faced attempt to correct a cardinal, some might say criminal, oversight that most now agree never should have happened. Still, the gaps remain manifold, the record incomplete.
Similar tales play out across many of the arts. Despite legislation requiring the mandatory deposit at the Library of Congress of a copy of every movie ever made since 1909, most silent movies and as many as half of all films from the beginning of the talkies until the start of the 1950s no longer exist. The legislation required they should be deposited but not that they should be kept. So they weren't.
Video games stand in a relatively happy position in relation to this sorry litany of thoughtlessness although not by dint of any greater wisdom or foresight among the gaming companies. The digital nature of games simply means that, at least in theory, every extant copy is equivalent to an original master and bytes are far easier to store than books, tapes or canisters of celluloid. Counter to that, of course, there are the issues of ever-changing hardware, operating systems and recording media, which may produce some significant challenges in getting the pictures onto a screen even when the ones and zeroes have been carefully preserved.
Such challenges, however, are meat and drink to academic institutions, museums and archivists the world over. The worry is not that the content will become inaccessible to our successors but that it will not be there to be accessed in the first place. As we move into the online age with entertainment of all kinds offered routinely and, increasingly, exclusively only through downloads and streams, along with the convenience this affords producers there must come an increased responsibility on them to consider their role not only as content providers but as custodians.
Vanguard, City of Heroes, Shadowbane, Auto Assault and all the rest may have been commissioned and completed as commercial products. As art goes, their status has not been, and may never be, high. Nevertheless, they do have standing as cultural artifacts, as documents of their time and as popular art. If we believe, as many of us do, and as the history of each preceding wave of new art-forms demands we should, that video games will, over time, come to share the same importance in the culture as books, cinema, radio, television and even comics then it is incumbent on us not to allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated.
As players, hobbyists and aficionados we can play our part by keeping such records as we are able, our screenshots, videos and recollections, while ensuring access to them through the various portals of the net. We can also keep safe our own digital copies in the hope that one day, like mammoths brought back to life from deep-frozen DNA, they may be seen in the world again.
The responsibility for safekeeping of the core code, the true resurrection key, however, lies squarely with those companies and individuals acting unilaterally to cause these worlds to cease to be. They may never have another commercial release (although Asheron's Call 2 suggests that in this field of endeavor nothing is impossible) but future generations of art historians, sociologists, culturati of all stripes, will thank those who acted with foresight and curse the memory of those who did not.
So, let's hope for corporate wisdom or at least a self-interested concern for the long-term reputation of the brand. Or, failing that, a few mavericks with a sense of history, a social conscience and keys to the office.