Monday, April 22, 2024

It's Life, Jim...

Chris Neal at MassivelyOP raised an interesting question ths weekend, when he asked whatever happened to Atlas, the piratical MMO that went into Early Access all the way back in 2018 and never came out the other side. I bought it shortly after it became available and posted some extensive First Impressions (1, 2, 3, and 4.) based on the week I spent there, after which I pretty much never set foot in the game again.

In fact, according to Steam, my total playtime in Atlas comes to less than seven hours. I currently don't even have it installed. I suppose I should probably be annoyed I ever bought it or even blame Wildcard, the developer, for not making good on the gameplay they promised, but I don't.

When I stopped playing after just a week I was optimistic:

"I'm still very happy to have bought and tried it. Atlas's journey has barely begun. It's going to be around for a long time.  If - when - things change, I'll be back to give it another look."

Things did change. A lot. From what I remember, Wildcard were everlastingly messing around with both the premise and the practicalities. But I still never came back.

There were a few reasons for that. For one thing, I'm never wholly comfortable playing pirates. Partly it's the way piracy has been gentrified from a bleak, brutal, amoral reality into a colorful, cheerful, child-friendly fantasy but honestly that happens to everything in MMORPGs, from bears to battles, so why pick on pirates? 

No, mostly it's that pirates are just boring.

I mean, look at them. What do they actually do in games? Sail around in big, wooden boats that are always really hard to steer. Wave cutlasses and fire flintlocks. Wander about the docks in floppy hats with feathers in, looking for work. 

On a good day they sometimes get to go Yar! and swig some rum. It doesn't really cut it in the adventure stakes, compared to flying over snow-capped mountains on a griffon or delving into the depths of a forgotten elven city, buried for aeons under the shifting sands, now does it?

They also seem to be everlastingly wandering along barren, empty beaches, looking for buried treasure that they rarely find. Or carrying crates they never get to open from one forlorn port authority shack to another. If they're lucky they sail across a millpond-flat sea without incident, which is about as exciting as it sounds. If not they have to fight with other pirates ships or naval vessels, which inevitably means going round and round in circles until one of them sinks. Or they have to run from storms, in which they're either shipwrecked or end up stuck in port trying to fix the damage.

Is that fun? I never thought so. I haven't bothered to re-read my First Impressions posts but as far as I recall, what I most liked about Atlas were the parts where you could just be on land doing regular MMORPG stuff, from which I'd have to conclude the pirate theme wasn't really adding much.

But believe it or not, I didn't begin this post intending to re-review Atlas or indulge in a rant about how boring pirates can be. I wanted to address something Chris said towards the end of his piece, namely that the game "looks to have been pushed to the furthest back burner possible". In other words, Atlas has entered maintenance mode.

This loops back around to the controversial topic of game preservation, a horse I am nowhere near done beating to death. Prefacing the previously quoted comment and referring to the people still playing Atlas, Chris says, with admirable nuance, "The fact that it’s still online is probably a benefit to those holdouts."

I do like that "probably". It's a short piece but he manages to make it perfectly clear that the possibility that what Atlas really needs is a decisive and merciful ending can't be ruled out. The game has been in Early Access for more than five years, during which time I seem to recall it being radically revamped and re-promoted at least once, possibly more, without ever arriving at a state anyone cared to call "done".

If it's true the game's owners and developers  have lost interest in it completely, in whose interest does it remain up and running? Does it need to sit there, indefinitely, in a playable condition, regardless of any commercial value, for as long as even one person who bought the imaginary box still retains a fitful interest in logging in?

Wilhelm took Ubisoft to task recently for the cavalier way that company chose to handle a similar issue with its racing game The Crew. Few rational people would defend Ubisoft for anything, and I certainly don't want to give the impression I approve of what they've done, are doing or most likely ever will do, so I have to tread carefully here, but as someone who once paid real money for the Crew I really couldn't care less if they switch the damn servers off. 

Of course, from a purely personal perspective, it's very much a moot point. I liked the Crew, what very little I ever saw of it, but it holds what I think may be a unique position among every game I have ever bought in that it's the only one where I literally and without any exaggeration could not get past the Tutorial.

I found the car so impossible to control I couldn't pass the game's very lenient safety check to be allowed to drive freely on the open road. All I ever saw of the world was the introduction and the first few cut scenes. I suppose it's possible I might feel more miffed about the news that I won't be able to play the game I bought in the future if I'd actually ever been able to play it in the past.

On balance, though, I think I had my chance. I bought the Crew nine years ago. I posted about it once. That I wasn't good enough at driving games to get any more use out of it is on me but even if I'd been a first-rate imaginary racer, I can't but feel nine years free access would have allowed me to get my money's worth. 

If we accept for the moment, nonetheless, that the general feeling is that online games should have persistence beyond their natural, commercial life, it does raise a very curious conundrum concerning what quality of life we consider worthwhile. Might there be some conflict between the concerns expressed whenever an online game becomes wholly unavailable and the somewhat similar expressions of dismay that greet a game going into maintenance mode?

Getting back to Atlas, if, as Chris's article suggests, some current players are quite satisfied with how much there is to do in the game right now, why is it a problem if Wildcard stops updating it? True, in this particular instance there is that pesky "Early Access" tag but if we accept, as I believe we should, that any game that's started charging money is de facto "Live", then what we have here is nothing more than a game that has aged out to the point where it no longer justifies further development.

It seems to me that the issues are very different. There's a strong argument towards putting online games into a similar bracket as DVDs or books, where an initial purchase entitles you to indefinite use. The only substantive difference is that online games require someone else to host them for you and in that respect it may be that developers hold some moral responsibility to ensure continuity or provide a local alternative.

But no-one is suggesting that, when you buy a book, the author or publisher has an obligation to keep adding new chapters so you don't have read the same ones over and over. If games are going to be "preserved", either for current users or future generations, it's going to be in an as-is format, most likely based on a snapshot of the game at the time it ceased development. No-one, surely, is suggesting they also need to receive updates, complete with new content, deep into the future?

On that logic, there shouldn't be a problem with games entering "maintenance mode". Effectively, that is game preservation, isn't it? We ought to be delighted when we hear an MMORPG has gone into maintenance. It means the game has reached its final, finished, fixed state and can safely be archived for the pleasure of generations yet to come. 

And yet, for some reason, usually we're not. The mere hint that a game might be ceasing to add new content always indicates the end. It leads to an exodus of current players and an embargo on newcomers. No-one wants to play a dead game.

I don't know. I just feel there's some sort of logical inconsistency here, if not an outright paradox. Maybe someone can explain in the comments why Game Preservation is good but Maintenance Mode is bad. 

In the specific case of Atlas, when I read the speculation that development on the game might have ground to a permanent halt, I did actually find myself thinking, perversely, that now might be the time to go back and have another look. After all, if anything, it was the knowledge that Wildcard were likely to keep fiddling with the thing that put me off playing much in the first place. 

There's a lot to be said for the quiet life. In games, too.


  1. On the Internet, everyone is a troll. I was somewhere the other day reading about how a single player, offline game (I can't even remember which one) was "dead" and I just couldn't figure out what that even meant. Like the idea was you shouldn't play a single player game unless a lot of other people were somewhere playing it?

    I'm not much bothered my game preservation either. Like it's a noble cause and all, but if these folks who want some kind of "laws" put in place to force companies to maintain a game forever, or re-code it to work offline, just seems like a terrible idea to me. Think how many smaller/indie devs would just stop adding online components, knowing if they did so they'd be committed to maintaining them forever, or building a dual system for offline and online modes, when they struggle as much as they do to get one or the other built.

    1. I think the legislation idea is a non-starter if only because it's almost bound to be so far down any government's list of priorities that even if it was theoretically something they might countenance they'd never find the time to do anything about it. It's much more likely some developers will take steps to preserve their own legacies, which is already happening to some degree. In the end, though, time will move on and solve the problem for everyone as it always does.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide