Sunday, January 26, 2014

Against The Fall Of Night: Vanguard

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.


  1. I've definitely always felt that being an MMO blogger has something of being a wannabe historian about it. With MMOs, even if you can preserve the code of the game for later, nothing will quite compare to experiencing the game at a particular time while it's populated by a particular community, so recording those experiences can say a lot about a game to future readers. As a WoW player for example, going back and reading Tobold's early archives about the game is already very interesting and enlightening, and those writings are about events that happened less than ten years ago...

  2. I couldn't agree more. In an age where re-releasing your games on newer platforms is common-place for a lot of console gaming companies, it's a bit odd seeing MMORPGs killed off entirely. Even if a game doesn't see a re-release, it is almost always possible to go back and find a copy or run it on an emulator.

    MMORPGs though, they just fade away forever. That's a huge issue for me because This genre typically builds on its past entries in pretty significant ways. There are a lot of things newer MMOs and new MMO players could learn from Vanguard, but I am afraid they'll have to do that through videos, screenshots, and the musings of bloggers like ourselves.

    I do wish companies would release the code openly, for amateur designers to play around with on emulated servers. At the very least, come up with a business plan where you can rent/sell a license to interested people to maintain themselves.

    Otherwise, it just seems like a waste!

  3. I always feel sad when another virtual world that many creative people spent years detailing and building just disappears without a trace. I agree it seems such a waste that there is no way to preserve these games once their time is done -- I'm not sure why code is not given freely once an MMO dies, since it's not like they will be making any money off of it anyway (as far as I know it's all just tossed into the garbage can).

  4. As a professional librarian and also as someone who assisted a writer who wrote about 19th century comic opera I echo your sentiments.

    It seems tragic that such games should be walled off forever. The tragedy is not so much that a niche or cult game closes, it's also the loss of the player creativity that existed within that environment that is shut down forever. It's crazy that it's easier to recreate the experience of 16th century theatre than culture we produced less than a decade ago.

    I'm very sorry for you and the other fans of the games that will be closed.

  5. Lovely pictures. I do hope they hold onto VG, what I wish for was to really let the community have at it, maybe we could end up with an emulated server... That isn't going to happen, we can dream, right? I'm working on taking photos and videos as I can, over the next six months. I think Vanguard is quite unique and hope to preserve what memories I can, digitally :)

    That is something I never thought of though, preserving games, they are an art in themselves. It would be wonderful if we had something similar.

  6. Yeah, I think few people would be surprised that I agree with you. As a game designer, it's frustrating when you just can't get your hands on some part of shared history. I'm a fan of game emulation mostly because I appreciate being able to go play older games that I either played when I was young and didn't have my current appreciation, or games I never even encountered and likely never will under normal circumstances.

    MMOs are strange. We've lost some games, and I'm keenly aware of the loss. I would love to play more of the orginal AOL Neverwinter Nights, but I have to make due with second-hand stories instead. On the other hand, I remember Raph saying after I bought Meridian 59, "Of course, because MMOs never really die." But, we see now that they do die. It's also a bit frustrating that people who go out of their way to preserve games are basically doing it at their own peril. In some ways, I feel that I'm not taken very seriously by some other MMO developers because I poured so much into preserving just the one game rather than taking the "normal" career path and working on the shiny newer games.

    At any rate, I'd like to see more games preserved. I'm glad to see Meridian 59 go open source, even if I really haven't been involved with it since I closed down Near Death Studios. I guess we'll see if there's more of that sort of enlightened self-interest in preserving games.

  7. Thanks for all the great comments. In one sense it will always be impossible to preserve or archive MMOs - the essential experience of engaging with them as living, changing worlds can only happen while they are both online and sufficiently populated. Open source and emulation can extend that experience, though, and the more companies that enable and endorse those options when they no longer feel they can run the servers themselves the better.

    There are many aspects of MMOs that can and really should be treated as cultural heritage and history, though, even when no-one can play them any more. The music, the art assets, the item databases, the lore, NPC dialog, quest and story arcs... We might think no-one would be interested in fifty or a hundred years time but we'd be wrong, just like those BBC executives were wrong when they thought no-one would want to watch Peter Cook and Dudley Moore again after "Not Only But Also" had been shown a couple of times on broadcast television.

  8. Great post - I love when a post intersects with real life. Games are a part of our lives and history, and should remain so. I *love* that you can play old games, even old dos ones with dosbox and its too bad that the code and server systems are so complex. You know that someone would share the cost to keep a world up - but companies are trying to protect the code itself from being used in other games. The "problem" with our art is that there is a perceived cash value in the code it is created from, and/or a fear that if people are playing it "For free" they may not pay and play a newer title. Limited time and all of that.

    Either way, thanks for the great post!


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