So this article (source) reports about Warhammer Online shutting down it’s servers and closing up shop. It got me into thinking: Can anything really happen to a game that has been shut off? In the growing dependency on servers to host online games, it’s a rather crucial and essential component that not many companies have dared to think about (and only a few have experimented in). The reason I ponder this is because one day, a lot of the great MMO’s are probably going to hit the pay-wall of redundancy and corporate money-hoarding and it would all cease to exist. Or there would eventually be a release that will replace the popular MMO’s now and the old content would be shut off. Have there ever been backup plans to allow people to continue playing the game without the company’s support?
The basis for this pondering is down to one thought in my mind: When you purchase into a game like Skyrim or XCOM (just to pick two randomly out of my collection), you have that game for life, can do what you want and when you want to. And the only limitation is how long your Xbox, PS3 or PC holds out – and if you can repair it when it doesn’t. Online games…they don’t really have that backup. They have the local content, indeed, but they are utterly dependant on the servers the game creators themselves host. And if the game creators decide the game is no longer worthy of having servers accommodate for it, all they have to do is flick a switch and all progress is lost.
All that investment you put into that game can be obliterated within seconds. And that’s an intimidating prospect when it comes to games that you have an interest in. For me, Warhammer Online was one of those that I looked at and was intrigued by, but never had the PC specs to handle it. And now I won’t ever be able to play it because the servers are being turned off. And then this train of thought translates to other games. That level 85 (or 90 now, right) you have in WoW? If Blizzard decided they would work on a sequel to it, would they stop the servers running the old one? There are fan-built servers out there, but if the main game gets replaced, what of those?
And I’ve been talking about PC a lot here, but consoles suffer the same fate even now. Mostly with EA’s bludgeoning of servers across the era of online-enabled sports titles. But even then, one day that’ll happen to older games too in their list – all their games, in their current work ethic, will eventually cease to have servers running. Fable 2 has been extremely troubling to 100% when it came to my turn to do it because their support to the game had ceased and people were then limited to a “fix-all” online patch to help with the chest at the start (which can be buggy at times). But if they ceased completely, that game would then be near-impossible to perfect unless you got lucky online (and you need a lot of luck now).
Some companies are starting to change – EA has put in purchaseable servers in Battlefield 3 which, while I can’t comment on their quality, shows that they are taking steps to at least extend the life of online gaming when it isn’t enough to keep it afloat themselves. If it works out, there may be a patch put out to retrofit that into past Battlefield games at some point, with them simply keeping a server active to maintain stats and records. Low cost to them, players keep their online investment. Win-win. And Minecraft adopted early on the prospect of LAN connections and connecting to dedicated servers, while the Xbox version is simply reliant on the person being online and in-game (though a server option would be nice for the perks).
But it’s not enough. There’s still an entire online gaming market that is looking at commiting ritualistic seppuku to every game released for it at some point at the end of their lives rather than expanding and allowing others to explore the worlds on their own little space in the internet. And in the modern era when game companies’ existence can only linger on a thread for so long before it snaps, all it may take is a little time before a lot of the little online games we’ve come to know and love find themselves only existing in the bottom of our memories and nothing more. Without any backup plan to help keep those who’ve invested their time, money and heart retain more than just memories, that’s all a lot of players who feel the itch of nostalgia can get with these online experiences.
For those of us old enough to remember the games gone by, we have emulators. Will there be something like that for online games in the future, when all traces of them are lost? There was once a game called The Continuum – an online collectible game much in the same vein as tabletop gaming where you would fight against AI opponents or other players in closed environments – and now you would find very scarce traces of it anywhere on the internet. I did enjoy being a part of that community and, now that I want to go back and play it, I honestly wish that there was more than just a Wikipedia page about what it was, because there hasn’t really been a game like it since. But it’s now an example of what a lot of online games are facing, and it’s a troubling thought that I hope will be addressed eventually.