What does SWG have to do with The Anvil of Crom? Admittedly not much, unless you count the fact that AoC was the first of many games I migrated to when taking extended breaks from SWG beginning in 2008. The game's demise did get me to thinking on MMOs as a whole though, and of course Funcom's fantasy title in particular.
While it may seem like an obvious conclusion in some respects, the fact that MMO players are ultimately no more than renters living on borrowed time was a sobering thought.
The Secret World runs over budget. Maybe Unrated slips through the free-to-play cracks and doesn't bring in as many warm and paying bodies as Funcom intended. Maybe Funcom hires SOE's security gurus and some amoral neckbeard collective makes off with thousands of credit card numbers. Maybe, since Conan is a licensed property, some lawyerly B.S. ensues and fans are forced to grab their ankles as a result.
Who knows why, and for purposes of this week's hypothetical, it doesn't even matter. If AoC was going away, though, what would you do? Would you stick it out to the bitter end and try to wring what fun you could out of the time left?
Would you work feverishly on an emulator (assuming you're a talented code monkey, or know someone who is)? Would you start searching for a similar fantasy MMO and begin the migration? Would you spend more time with your family, volunteer at your favorite charity, or dust off a long-forgotten hobby?
I know that some of you would no doubt raise a celebratory glass, the better to cheer the long-hoped for death of a game that somehow wronged you in the past (and hey, the lingering cries of "fail" would actually mean something at that point). For fans of the game though, there's not much that could be done other than the steps I outlined above.
And that's a real shame.
For as much time as we spend on this crazy hobby and the various virtual worlds that it encompasses, almost all of what we do exists solely in our minds past a certain point. Sure we make websites, visit forums, and occasionally even organize real-world meet-ups with folks we've fought alongside in game, but for the most part, what happens in Hyboria stays in Hyboria (and in fleeting pixel form), whether we want it to or not. We are, in most respects, completely powerless and subject to the whims of our digital landlords.
That tier III city that you and your guild spent months grinding nodes and stockpiling materials to build? It's not yours, it's Funcom's, and no amount of virtual sweat will change the fact that it could disappear tomorrow with nothing but a "sorry for your inconvenience" and a handful of screenshots to show for your efforts.
The Brittle Blade armor set you've finally donned after months of hard faction grinding? Yeah, Fraps that puppy because you may or may not have access to it next month.
The cynical among you are probably saying "well duh, of course we don't own any of these pixels, Jef, did you really think we did?" The answer to that is no, I'm fully aware of the various terms of service we all click (and ignore) to get to our games.
I find it curious, though, that most of these games are largely acquisition-driven affairs designed to give tangible feelings of reward for attaining what is essentially meaningless ether. The primary purpose of something like AoC (or EverQuest II, or World of Warcraft, or Runes of Magic, or insert-random-MMO-here) is the collection of skills, abilities, gear, and achievements -- none of which belong to the people who spend years of their lives collecting them.
Has there ever been a more bizarre pastime?
Sure, I know grown men who have rooms in their houses devoted to action figures, and MMO achievement-whoring is markedly similar to the stockpiling of baseball cards, autographs, and any other memorabilia of questionable (and artificially inflated) worth. There's one very relevant difference, though, and that is the fact that none of the MMO stuff exists outside of the ones and zeroes on a company game server. And yet we spend thousands of hours (and dollars) on it just the same.
I guess AoC's uncertain future wouldn't bother me as much if I had some actual control over Hyboria, or failing that, some sort of inkling as to how long the servers were going to be open (but then I suppose the future wouldn't be uncertain and I'd have to go back and rewrite the first part of this sentence).
At the risk of getting too philosophical here, I wonder how many of us would continue to play Age of Conan (or any MMORPG) if we knew when it was going to end. It is going to end, of course, whether it's next week, next year, or next decade, and when it does end, I'll wager there will be people who feel they could have done just a little bit more.
Such is the nature of the carrot chase, and really, life itself, of which MMORPGs are a fascinatingly twisted microcosm.
Looking back over this week's column, I probably strayed a bit off of the usual path in terms of speaking directly to Age of Conan and its various issues. I may even have veered too close to sentimentality for some tastes -- including my own. Occasionally these things are worth thinking about, though, if only to reassure ourselves that there's some purpose in what we're doing, who we're doing it with, and what it all means.
And that's really the most important thing I took away from a week that saw me disheartened by the demise of a game that I stopped playing some time ago (and fretting about what lies ahead for one of the games I'm playing today). As much as I hate to throw around cliches, the future is indeed now, and I've resolved to enjoy what I can, while I can, and not worry so much about the rest. The reason why is simple: Whether its Hyboria or the real world, none of us really knows how long that future is going to last.