Monday, January 18, 2016

When an MMO Ends...

Over the years I have reported on the comings and goings of MMO's. It's a vast world of gaming content out there, and just like your first DS, you eventually stop playing it along with everyone else. Nintendo decides to stop supporting the system and no longer develops new content. It becomes a part of your treasure trove, or a doorstop, or it is sold to a pawn shop/garage sale/becomes trash.

But there are times where you want to pick up that old DS and remember the good times. The chunky unit in your hands with the slow wi-fi response times, but it holds some of your favorite memories of Pokemon and Mario Kart with your friends. We get that nostalgic feel to return to the games and consoles we love. If you're a collector, then no problem. You can fulfill that need fairly easily. For the rest of us, that can be a challenge. Once a system is out of your life, it can be difficult to reclaim it. Even as the number of second hand game sellers grow, once the console is out of production, it's gone. Emulators are at least an alternative for a number of pre-CD games. Not all legal, of course, but it's an option.

With an MMO it's different. Like a console it has a limited life-cycle. If you're fortunate enough, you can get a few years of play time in before the developer cuts the servers. Games like World of Warcraft in terms of lifespan are very rare. For every time you see a company attempt to advertise the next "WoW Killer" you can roll you eyes and assure your panda self that no one is going to take down WoW. The average time an MMO is active seems to hover around the 2 year mark. Some last longer, some do not. But they all contain our memories of happiness and frustration.

Like a game console, once you have decided to end your time and turn it off, there's no going back once the game servers shut down. You can't return to the character you've created so long ago. There is no going back when it all ends.

This post is a reflection on MMO's of the past who have left us, but also what the future of MMO's has to hold, and how do we as gamers move on from the worlds that have been taken away from us.

I never thought of myself as an MMO gamer until I was well into Final Fantasy XI. My time frame varies on this game...it's been either 5 or 7 years of game time. I need to check my bank statements on that to be sure. But to date it's been one of the only MMO's to capture my attention. To this day I still feel a pang of emptiness knowing that I left the game to make room for more time in my adult life to do adult things. I made a lot of real world friends in that game, some I would consider family. Hell I met my boyfriend in FF11, and we're still together. I can't imagine having a better partner in life. He tanks and causes me heart attacks while I heal his ass. It's a good system.

FFXI is also an example of an MMO that can outlive the rest of the field because it's built on a solid foundation of story-telling, immersion, and interactive dynamics that require you to be involved with the people in the world. I keep trying to get into WoW but I can't. I get bored in a month. Every time. With The Old Republic, while it has fantastic stories for the job quests, there is little push to have you actively involved in communicating with other people in the game. You don't have to do a single quest with another living person. Ever. And that lack of human contact makes for a dull experience outside of the story. Even as the game has improved over the years (even the freebe version is still very versatile and allows you access to full story content) and allowed for more customization, it still misses out on the human element.

Even though I no longer play, opting to call it quits after the Wings of the Goddess expansion pack (and the ending still makes me teary eyed - you can not call yourself human if you don't have feels after that), a part of me was still felt the punch when SquareEnix announced that the recent FF11 expansion and update will be it's last. No more new content. No more updates. This is it. They did not announce any server closures. Enough people still play and pay for the game that it isn't necessary, but typically the last expansion call is a signal that the end will come soon.

And that's depressing. I adore my female Elvaan. I managed to pick the race, gender, face, and hair type that is still the rarest of all character players across all servers. I was a special snowflake...in so many ways. I picked Red Mage, arguably the most difficult job to play at the time (it's probably a cake-walk now with all of the changes to the game) for any race. And every job after (Puppetmaster, Black Mage, Dancer, Bard) was specifically designed to make my life a living hell. I liked the challenge, but that should have been a lesson for me to not choose the damage/tank race in the future.

Nuts to that. I'm an elf in FF14 as well. White Mage at that...go me!

I can't imagine how I'm going to feel with the FF11 servers finally go dark. I'm considering paying for a month to log back in and watch the game end, however and whenever that may be.

Seeing it happen with World of Warcraft when they made the huge change to the story line was an interesting experience. Initially there wasn't much happening in the starter cities. You still had your safe zone to level up until you can play with the big kids. Venture outside and the world exploded. Literally. I'm still in awe that Blizzard got away with this and managed to keep their subscriber numbers high.

Spectacular and fanciful endings do happen with MMO's, and they are a special treat to the long time subscribers. When Galaxies went dark, they took all of the years of data of Republic vs. Empire and gave each server a tribute to the side that "won," along with celebrations in cantinas and open dialogues with developers and players. It made those last days special for everyone involved before the final firework was set off and the servers were closed. Though Sony Online Entertainment did something a bit different, only turning off the log-in screen for gamers. If you were still online when that happened, you could keep playing until you left the game. So a number of gamers were in for the long-haul to see how long they could last before their computers gave up. Within 2 weeks, the game was empty.

With The Matrix: Online they went into kooky territory and gave their users an experience they would never forget. The game managed to last roughly 4 years before the studio behind the product put an end to the dwindling gamers. But instead of a celebration, it was an apocalypse. Another "glitch" in the Matrix occurs and player characters (PC) were sent scrambling to survive. People were randomly given weapons that caused instant death to other PC's. Characters were not allowed to respawn. Your PC's death became permanent. Any remaining players might have stumbled upon an in-game electrical storm that would twist and contort your character, followed by horrific screams and then silence. With a modem beep later your character is dead and the machines have won. It's weird. It's creepy. It's symbolic and oddly appropriate for The Matrix.

On the opposite end of the spectrum you have games that just abruptly end without a proper conclusion for your years of hard work. City of Heroes and City of Villains is one such case. The developer did announce that the games would be ending months beforehand, but it was an odd situation. The studio behind the series closed suddenly. The website was up and down constantly. The forums were deleted. It was as if the company were wiping the slate clean and removing all history of CoH. An anomaly to be certain as CoH was still turning a decent profit. While fans rallied to try and get a proper ending for their game, with the studio closed, it wasn't going to happen. The game servers were shut down without a second glance.

All Points Bulletin did a similar thing, probably one of the shortest MMO's in history. Within 3 months the game went under. It was a good concept. A really good one. But it needed a ton of polishing and refinement. The studio was under too much pressure by EA to release it sooner rather then later (hmm...you'd think EA would have learned their lesson and not do the same thing to The Old Republic). There were a lot of glitches, a lot of game play issues, lack of proper player balancing, and too much repetition with quests. It could have been a great GTA Online before there was a GTA Online. But anyone who was a fan was not going to get a happy ending. Since APB's end, there's been discussion about reviving the game a number of times, but all too no avail.

As MMO's come and go, so do the players. Even in long-running games, you can find spots in the world that are empty. It has a weird, calming effect. But there is still love for those games that players want to see a conclusion to their years spent leveling up their characters. That is first and foremost what I believe gamers want most: a resolution. You can't cut off the MMO servers and not expect a backlash. The only exception to this would be The Old Republic only because once the primary story ends for your character there's little else to do - though I appreciate Bioware trying to add new content that requires player interaction. At least that's my argument. I find myself bored after the job story. Even with the few gamers still playing your title, there are the former players like us who feel slighted when you don't provide a proper ending. And you can pull a Matrix if you want to. We will still accept that as a conclusion versus shutting down the servers on a time/date and calling it quits. It also assures you potential customers for any future games you may develop. Hint, hint.

For us gamers, it can be a challenge to move on when an MMO ends. I don't even want to think about what will happen to the WoW fans when that monster comes to it's conclusion. With a number of us, it's a matter of simply telling ourselves that enough is enough. We stop playing. When we are there as the game ends, that can be a rough transition. We are seeing one phase of our life literally stopping and we have to continue living after that. It can be tough. What seems to work best for my cohorts was picking up another game, a new hobby, or sometimes taking a break from gaming for a few months entirely while they reflect. It can be an emotionally jarring experience. You invest so much of your time into this character, made new friends, and participated in a unique experience . You have memories that will last a life-time. So it can be a challenge to overcome that emptiness when the MMO ends. Find someone to talk to about it. It's not silly and it's not childish, I promise you. Think of it like an athlete who has known baseball all his/her life and can no longer play one day due to life circumstances. They are not brushed off for their feelings about the game, and neither are you.

I haven't been through an "end game" moment with an MMO. I've quit before that's happened, but I can understand and respect the feelings of gamers who are involved. Which is why I don't dismiss it when someone shows remorse or is upset that their game world has been taken away from them. It's okay to have those feelings. You will find a way to continue. That I can promise you.

For the future of MMO's it's difficult to say where exactly that will lead. I like the premise of games like Defiance that integrate multiple forms of media to create a story. Even though the show was recently cancelled, the game will live on and continue to explore the post-apocalyptic landscape of San Fransisco after an alien invasion.

And yet traditional MMO's can still prove to be a power-hours. Final Fantasy XIV is a shining example of everything wrong and then made right about MMO's. If developers take their time they can create a product that will last well beyond its shelf-life.

I see the upcoming MMO's as a testament to the endurance of the genre. Between RPG's, MOBA's and everything in between, MMO's are not dying out. They will be here to stay. The interaction between players and depths of story-telling set the top tier games from the rest. That aspect of MMO's will never die.

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