Free for All: Thoughts on SOE's mass MMO sunset

Free Realms screenshot
Sony Online Entertainment recently announced the upcoming closure of not one or two but four of its titles. Those titles are Free Realms, Clone Wars Adventures, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, and Wizardry Online. The announcement hit most of us pretty hard, even those who weren't active or interested players. Four titles just feels much more like a move of desperation than one or even two games. And for players like yours truly, MMOs like Free Realms and especially Vanguard hold a very special place in our hearts.

Having said that, I will never wager solely on perception. It's my guess that SOE does indeed know what it is doing and that some of this is due to licensing issues, new games from similar developers, or an attempt to streamline an already fat lineup in order to get ready for one or two massive new titles. In other words, there is no conspiracy. It's most likely that this decision was due to boring old business.

I decided to break down what each game meant to me in the hopes that the confessional will get me ready for the upcoming sunsets. Here's to hoping.

Vanguard screenshot
First, we'll talk about Wizardry Online. I have a feeling that what I am about to say reflects what many of my readers feel: The game was just too... odd to enjoy. It promised permadeath, hardcore dungeons, puzzles, and the chance to participate in mean old open PvP. Massively's Mike Foster didn't care much for it, and I have to back him up. I found the game to be a too confusing -- at least at first -- to make it worth my time. I tend to pass up an MMO if it doesn't feel right in the hopes that I'll come back to it at a later time, and I'm hoping to get at least some time in Wizardry Online to test my initial findings.

Of all of the MMOs that are being cut, Wizardry Online is the least surprising. I think the fact that it looked and handled like an older Japanese title turned off many Western gamers. It felt needlessly complicated while at the same time small in scope. I'll bet that the permadeath aspect of the game didn't turn off as many players as you might think. Instead, the game's oddness did it in. It also seemed more like a single-player game with an optional lobby than anything, and really, that's exactly what it was.

I cut my MMO-writer teeth on two MMOs, Ryzom and Vanguard, even though I started playing MMOs in 1999. I started a podcast for Ryzom in early 2007 and took over the Vanguard podcast in November of the same year. Along with my long-time blog, Vanguard was the game that got me involved in the incredible world of MMO coverage. Thanks to Vanguard, I am the gamer dork that I am today; I learned how to make videos, how to interview developers, write fanfiction, and roleplay because of the game. Heck, I've been a member of SOE's community council for years now and even wrote my own rules of immersion, all thanks to Vanguard.

Free Realms screenshot
But Vanguard has had its chance and fair run. Seven years is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a game that was so wracked with controversy. Vanguard was given more than just one chance to live. Its faithful community deserves a lot of the credit for keeping the flame lit, even while developer teams changed and development practically ground to a halt.

This is why Free Realms' imminent closure breaks my heart even more. It had four years of life but tried something so new and wonderful -- introducing sandbox gameplay to tweens -- that its closure might send the message that young players do not care for more advanced gaming. It's very possible that the youth of today simply do not want to take the time to make the decisions required for a sandbox, that once any linear content is exhausted, they become very bored. It's also possible that running an MMO for children provides more of a challenge than an adult title.

Wizardy Online screenshot
During a recent Reddit AMAA, John Smedley, President of SOE said, "No. No more kid's games. Kids don't spend well and it's very difficult to run a kids game. Turns out kids do mean stuff to each other a lot." Spend an evening in Free Realms, Wizard101, or Habbo Hotel and you'll see what he means. Tweens are hardcore. It's a bit surprising that we discuss MMO games with the presumption that they are for adults, when many outside of the hobby would consider gaming to be mainly for younger people.

I think the key to his statement is "Kids don't spend well." If Free Realms were making more money than any other SOE title, it would not be closing down, tween drama or not. On top of that, it's not as though adult players are nice to each other all of the time. I'd say that some of the largest stories on Massively have been about how incredibly mean adults can be to each other. At least children don't have the ability to actually carry out a threat made to another player!

Clone Wars Adventures is not a surprising closure because it follows what Smedley said about Free Realms. It's also possible that its IP license (now controlled by Disney, which is putting an end to the Clone Wars Adventures animated series) makes the closure an eventual necessity. As SOE discovered once already, anything with the Star Wars IP attached to it flirts with fickle corporate danger.

Vanguard screenshot
My biggest fear is that developers see SOE's attempt at making kid's MMOs as evidence that it's something not worth doing. Free Reams and Clone Wars Adventures are both really neat, if not unconventional, MMORPGs. They both looked amazing and didn't insult younger player's intelligence. Perhaps they should have both been much, much simpler?

In the end, I hate hearing about any MMO's closure. It helped that Linda Carlson, SOE's Director of Global Relations, recently said on her Facebook page that that no employees would be laid off in this sweep. Play these titles while you still can. Grab a bunch of screenshots and video clips. Trust me, a decade, from now you will look back, scratch your head and wonder, "Why are such awesome games not around anymore?"

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to beau@massively.com!
This article was originally published on Massively.