Sunday, May 21, 2017

Don't Give Up

Earlier this week, over at Massively OP, Eliot Lefebvre posted a deeply nihilistic piece on the mortality of MMOs. The truism that "every... MMO is going to shut down" doesn't get us very much further than "everyone living is going to die" or "the sun is going to burn out"so I'm not sure quite what demons he was trying to exorcise but he sure sounded angry about something.

Yes, nothing lasts forever. We get that. The world will burn. What we want to know, we never can - until it happens: when?

There's an obvious flaw in the argument that says because "no MMOs...last forever" we must compose ourselves immediately for the inevitable day when the last server closes. The flaw in that line of thinking is that, while our favorite MMO will indeed not last forever, it may very well last longer than we do.

If we revert to observable fact rather than emotional grandstanding, the history of the genre to date suggests that MMOs, by and large, are rarely in imminent danger of closure. Meridian 59 is already in its third decade.  Ultima Online and Lineage will soon follow it, with EverQuest, Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot and the rest of the pack not far behind.

Without question, all of those games have outlived many who once played them. More than fifteen years ago I met people in both EQ and DAOC who were then in their sixties. They may still be playing now, in their seventies and eighties. I know I hope I will be. Whether they, or I, make it that far, it's a certainty not everyone will.

When it comes to fears of mortality it seems to me that a more appropriate concern isn't whether what you love will last long enough for you to enjoy it to the full but at what point you may have to concede that it has more fullness than you'll ever get to experience. You will end, it will go on. You'll never know what happens next.

I had a conversation with someone I work with yesterday about Dr. Who. I'm not a Whovian but I have watched the show for almost all my life. I was five years old when it began and I'm told I saw the first show when it was broadcast in 1963 although I can't remember it.

Dr. Who was cancelled, apparently for good, in 1989, by which time I had been following it, on and off, mostly on, for more than a quarter of a century. At that point I thought, if I thought about it at all, that I'd had all the Dr. Who I was going to get.

I was, of course, entirely mistaken. First there were the legacies. Old shows existed, in fragmented part, on video. There had been novels, audiobooks, movies: fragments a devoted follower might shore against their ruin.

More than a past, though, the show had a present. The rights owners may have deemed it unprofitable or, more likely, a poor fit for their current portfolio, but there were still creatives who felt it could be a good vehicle for their talents and there was, always, an audience willing to encourage them to prove it.

In the decade and a half between the last transmission of the original run and the first episode of the reboot there was a perpetual stream of new content, everything from radio shows to comics. Interest never abated. Eventually the series returned to television, where it has prospered for almost as long as it was absent and shows every sign of continuing to do so.

As Conan Doyle discovered to his irritation, popular creations are hard to kill. What's more, despite the best efforts of lawyers, intellectual property cannot readily be ring-fenced. If a creation is popular enough it will outlive not only its creator but the statute of limitations on its exclusivity.

Many of the great successes of the 18th and 19th Century, all now in the public domain, continue to live a vibrant afterlife, often one more vivid and certainly more varied than they enjoyed while their creators survived. Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Mr Darcy,  Dorian Grey, they all stride confidently onward into the 21st century.

Video-gaming is a younger medium than the novel, movies or even comic books but I see absolutely no reason to believe it won't follow exactly the same trajectory. There will be reboots and remakes and re-imaginings as each generation seeks to rediscover, revisit or re-invent its own past.

The process is self-reflexive, self-perpetuating. Millennials who grew up watching Next Generation or Deep Space 9 take the torch from the Late-Boomers/GenXers who grew up with original Trek. Once momentum builds the train is hard to stop.

Video games in general and MMOs in particular tend to identify less with characters, more with settings or styles. There are relatively few Marios or Lara Crofts and fewer of those seem to make the transition across the generations that we see so often in older media.

When it comes to franchises, though, there seems to be no such reluctance. Eliot chides "Do you like Final Fantasy XIV? It’s going to shut down" but I notice he doesn't make any such claims for the Final Fantasy franchise itself, even though its ultimate demise is as assured as that of all things.

There was much wailing and rending of garments when Daybreak Games cut the rope on EQNext but it would be a brave and most likely foolish commentator who'd take that commercial decision to signal the end of EverQuest as a commercial entity. Franchises measure their lifespans not in decades but in centuries; myths in millennia.

Commerciality is anyway only a part of it. Yes, when MMOs cease to make money for their owners they will be ended. As NCSoft so inelegantly demonstrated with City of Heroes, even making a profit isn't always enough to keep the lights on.

Life isn't all about making money, though, and neither is running an MMO. Sometimes MMOs carry on even though you can't imagine how they could. Alganon is still running. So is The Hammers End. Sometimes they become community projects and grow.

Even if there's no official afterlife, when the money stops coming in it doesn't mean the games just disappear. Leaving aside the ever-growing hinterland of Let's Plays and other love-letters from the past to the future, from the sanctioned to the forbidden to the apparently overlooked there's a whole shadow world out there, where lost MMOs live on in more than just memory.

It may be orders of magnitude more difficult to create fan-made MMOs than fan fiction but it's not so hard there aren't people doing it. And just as tribute bands can not only pull a crowd but eventually become legitimized by osmosis so the emulator may eventually become the new original.

It's true, as Eliot says, that "your favorite MMO is going to die". It dies every day. The World of Warcraft you play tonight isn't the WoW you played last month, last year, last decade. If what you seek is stasis then you're ever out of luck and, really, what were you doing looking here in the first place?

It's also very sadly true that not all MMOs attain the critical mass required to sustain a life beyond their immediate commercial end... or so I was about to suggest.

I lack faith. The universe chides me.

Searching my memory for a long-forgotten MMO to use as an example I hit on Crowns of Power. I googled it to be sure I'd remembered the name correctly. I had. Almost unbelievably it's back.

Read the story explaining how this supposedly unloved, unlamented, scarcely noticed MMO failed to go quietly into the night. It exemplifies everything I've been struggling to express. I thought I had more to say but after that I don't think there's anything I can add.


  1. When I was younger, this was a much more scary thing to me. Let me tell a quick story. Back in 2003, a game called Horizons: Empire of Istaria was launched. I really loved what I found there, especially the crafting and the chance to play a flying dragon as a character!

    But then, the game started having financial problems. I'm talking bankruptcy and selling the company type trouble. I can't remember what year it was, but it was fairly early in the development cycle. When your beloved MMO is going bottom up, it's a scary thing. Suddenly you're faced with the question of: what if I wake up tomorrow and everything I worked for is gone?

    Younger me decided that the game was probably dooooomed (I'd never been through something like this before with an MMO), so rather than blow time and money and grow further attachments to a game that was going to disappear, it was better to cut ties. This made sense. There were a lot of people who did the same... but there were a lot of people who stuck by the game.

    And you know what? The game STILL exists, though under a different name: Istaria. I have gone back and put time and sub money into Horizons since then, though I don't still play now. But I sorta regret bailing out on the game, because though it did have some rocky development time, I'll never know what might have been if I, and other people who left had stuck it out to support it.

    One thing that playing various MMOs for so long has taught me... there will always be something new around the corner to experience. I've learned to treat MMOs as fun, and my tastes in entertainment can and do change as I get older. Sure, I love FFXIV and I'd be sad if it shut down. But the truth is, the memories and experiences are the most important things I take away from the game.

    There are many games I don't play anymore (UO, LOTRO, EQ2, Horizons, etc). Sometimes I revisit them if that's possible, and I still have screenshots and fond stories to tell. I've learned how to be at peace with that.

    1. Istaria is the game the "community projects" link above refers back to, or rather it goes to a post I wrote about Istaria a couple of years ago. I played Horizons in beta and bought it at launch even though I knew it was nearly unplayable. I think we lasted a couple of weeks. I've actually played it a lot more as Istaria, although still not all that often. I checked the website and it seems to be trucking along. I should log in again and see how it's going. It was fairly busy last time I visited.

      There are a handful of MMOs whose loss I would have some difficulty adjusting to - EQ, EQ2 and GW2 mostly - but the demise of Vanguard was a watershed moment for me. That was disturbingly disturbing, if you see what I mean, but I did manage to come to terms with it - and then the emu project appeared and I've been able to revisit whenever I want, which I never expected.

      What that taught me was neither to expect MMOs to go on forever or to vanish inexorably into oblivion. It taught me that you can't expect to manage the future, you just have to wait until it becomes the present and then try to manage that.

  2. I'm generally a pretty big fan of Eliot's writing, but that whole article was bizarre, and I don't understand what he was hoping to achieve.

    The gist seems to have been you shouldn't be upset if your favourite game shuts down because it's inevitable anyway, but that's terrible logic by any measure. I don't think anyone has been labouring under the false impression MMOs are forever. Indeed, people seem all too eager to pronounce death on any game that has even the slightest stumble.

    People don't mourn MMOs because they thought they'd last forever. People mourn MMOs because they've lost something important to them. Knowing that the end is inevitable one day doesn't change that. Any mentally sound adult is aware that every person will die one day, but that doesn't stop us mourning the deaths of our loved ones.

    And that's without even factoring in the reality that, as you rightly point out, MMOs are in fact fairly hard to kill.

    1. I thought it was a particularly strange post, which is why I ended up counter-posting. I realize it was a "soapbox" piece and therefore intended to generate controversy but even so...

      I didn't get into the whole "is it tough love or just lack of empathy" aspect but you are absolutely right to highlight that as well. It reminded me of that cliche reaction you sometimes hear when someone's pet dies and someone else says "It was just a cat - you can buy another one".

  3. Perhaps Eliot should stop digging in the dirt of this wasteland of MMOs so he can give us the whole story.

    *hat tip*

    1. Heh! That's too cryptic for me to decode. I feel like I missed a memo.

    2. All right, I'll bite.

      Don't Give Up, co-sung by Peter Gabriel ("Digging in the Dirt" - song) and Kate Bush ("The Whole Story" - album) to the tune of T. S. Eliot (Lefebvre)'s Wasteland (wherein fragments are shored against our ruins).

      The references made me smile a happy smile.

    3. Oh that's brilliant! I apologize for making you explain but I was on completely the wrong track - I thought you knew something I didn't about what was going on in Mr Lefebvre's life that might have explained why he wrote the piece when all the time you were riffing on what I'd written myself!

      I'd feel silly for misunderstanding but I feel more pleased you enjoyed the references in the first place.

  4. Shutting down isn't my worry. Most MMOs evolve beyond my love and never regain it back. Ultima Online still remains, but it is a far cry from the game I played and loved decades ago. There is a finite nature to MMOs that we should all respect, even as they chug along into infinity.

    1. A few commenters on the MOP post made that point but it doesn't really jibe with my own experience. On balance I tend to feel that most MMOs continually improve. Given the choice I'd certainly play the current iterations of EQ or EQ2 over the originals, for example.

      More importantly, I believe that players who do stick with an MMO even when changes happen that they don't find to their personal liking are rewarded richly over time with a deep sense of belonging, which players who choose to leave when things don't go their way never get to experience. It's like a relationship - you don't get what you want all the time but the longer it lasts the more you appreciate what it is that you are getting out of it. I guess that analogy works for the people who decide the relationship has run its course or has irretrievably broken down, too, which is why you see so many bitter exes on forums.

  5. Honestly, Eliot just seems like Massively's Appointed Curmudgeon most days. Bree appointed him, in case you were going to ask. I don't take any of his grumpiness too seriously. Maybe he gets tired of reading and writing about people's fear that their favorite games will go under, or already have done so. Maybe there was something unfortunate in his cereal the morning he wrote that article.

    1. I used to enjoy his posts on FFXI/XIV. They were generally upbeat and cheerful. Not so much any more. Apart from Syp there's not really a writer left at MOP whose writing I actively look forward to reading. I do appreciate the news coverage though.

  6. Beautiful post Bhag, I agree completely. :)


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