I’ve always been fascinated by the deaths of virtual worlds, to what happens in the final days before the servers wind down for the last time, and places and communities where people spent countless hours over many years simply cease to be. Admittedly, its a bit of a peculiar – probably somewhat morbid – interest, with most preferring to pay attention to announcements of new titles and upcoming launches, but I’ve always thought that how we face the end of things is as important as how we face beginnings.
In the days before a game goes on sale, there’s all manner of speculation about what it will be like. There are the die-hard fans who buy into the hype, those who are a bit more cynical about a title’s prospects, and of course, the doomsayers who make prophecies of failure, with all three drawing from the tidbits released in reviews, in advertisements, or by those who’ve played an early access or beta version to support their perspective.
In the days immediately after, there’s a frenetic energy as expectations are met, disappointed, exceeded, as streamers give their impressions, and the public weighs in after playing. In MMOs and virtual worlds especially, there’s an air of excitement, with most people fairly optimistic about where a game will go, with many who sign up thinking they will stay for some time. Players play through the content with interest, join up with one another spontaneously for quests, forge friendships and communities, and are generally happy enough.
After the first few months though, things change.
Most people have played the game by then, and so the hype machine dies down, with the focus of the press and the public largely shifting to some fresh new property, to the Next Big Thing ™. Granted, virtual worlds and other properties which have large followings usually manage to continue to draw the interest of players, but large scale attention tends to be pretty rare unless something unusual happens, such as the largest, most destructive battle in the history of online gaming, a game incorporating tech to allow players to search for exo-planets while playing (and get credit for it!), happen to be the most successful of the subscription MMOs out there (World of Warcraft), or have a game that is so underwhelming the game director personally apologizes for it.
Or, of course, if a long-running series comes to an end!
One might remember the hubbub around Mass Effect 3, and how the three endings of the original game were…very unsatisfying for a game that emphasized the importance of player choice. As this graphic from Forbes comparing them demonstrates, no matter what one did, all that really changed was an ending cutscene, with no lingering consequences in future games. There was a huge amount of online rage, given how this betrayed fan expectations and frankly didn’t feel like the culmination of an entire franchise.
Perhaps better received was the ending of the Desmond storyline for the Assassin’s Creed series, which almost felt like a breath of relief, given how the narrative had become increasingly convoluted and esoteric, or the end of Halo 3, which wrapped up the original trilogy dealing with the Flood, ending the crisis while leaving the future open to the player’s imagination.
Less talked about is what happens when a virtual world, even a long-running one, shuts down, just as Club Penguin did on March 29th.
To be fair, the endings usually aren’t exactly glorious affairs.
They’re not multi-million dollar spectacles wrapping up years and years of playtime, given that by the time a MMO shuts down, there isn’t the budget for such a thing, with the team handling it being reduced to a skeleton crew due to cost reasons, with team members jumping ship for other studios or being reassigned to other projects. It takes a lot to get to the point where a MMO has to shut down, the horror story of Hellgate: London being something an outlier, given that one can usually find a way to keep a virtual world profitable for those running it, even if it means cutting the team, consolidating servers, or adding features and content to the game at an ever slower pace until a game is no longer updated at all.
That stagnant state is the so-called “maintenance mode” that many MMOs fall into and linger in for a very long time, before coming to an end, without much fanfare.
As an example, we have the end of Asheron’s Call, which came after seventeen long years, where every player online was simply disconnected in a haze of purple light as the servers shut down for the final time.
The fall of Matrix Online is only slightly more interesting, with every character being “killed” by lightning in the last few minutes, with the game alerting players to “wake up” before it was too late. Granted, it was a nice nod to the original IP, where if you died in the virtual world of the Matrix, you would die in reality, but it still wasn’t much of an end. It was abrupt, and simply cut things off without resolving much of anything.
But that’s the way it usually is.
Worlds – even virtual worlds – usually end not with a bang but a whimper, which makes the few exceptions to this far more memorable than they otherwise should be.
The biggest “bang” of this sort would be the ending of Final Fantasy XIV (1.0 – the version the Square Enix apologized for making). While much about the original game was a massive disappointment, I can’t really fault the way they brought it to an end, as the company dedicated considerable developer effort put into ending the world of Eorzea. There was an entire series of quests – an entire storyline – leading up to the end, culminating in a titanic battle that raged until the game’s final moments, and beautiful cutscene where the world seemed to be quite literally destroyed by Bahamut.
You can see this for yourself in the video below. Note the distorted version of Susan Calloway’s “Answers” playing in the background, as everyone stands together waiting for the end, the same music that plays during the final cutscene in which the everything was destroyed – and yet a new beginning (A Realm Reborn) was promised.
Virtual worlds take on lives of their own. They’re places where people spend hours and hours of time, meeting friends, empowering themselves, exploring a strange new reality, which is why I like to see what happens when they breathe their last. Do they slip away into the shadows with barely a whimper? Do they rage against the dying of the light? Are they slow, wasting deaths after every bit of profitability has been squeezed from them? Are they killed off quickly, strangled before they can realize their potential? Or is their end merely the beginning of something new?
I know which I like most, and I can’t help but wonder: what will it look like when something like World of Warcraft finally comes to an end? After all, World of Warcraft II must be in the works, no?