The Game Archaeologist: The care and feeding of older MMOs

When an MMO has reached a certain age and dwindled to a certain player population, what do you do with it? Do you put it out to pasture, nurture it, or put it down?

With some of our older graphical MMOs approaching their 20th anniversaries, the question of what studios should do with aging titles is becoming very important. It's not just important for the games in question but as a precedent to the population of games that will one day become just as old.

Lately we've seen different studios act on this topic in a wide variety of ways, all of which I find fascinating. Some of these games have seen tragic ends, while others may be entering into the enjoyable golden years. If nothing else, it's shown me that there isn't just one set answer for this and that some devs are hoping to do the right thing by their companies and their players.

Guild Wars: Arrested development

Let's begin by going back to last year, when ArenaNet decided that Guild Wars' time had passed and that development on the game should cease in favor of Guild Wars 2. It wasn't any surprise, although plenty of us thought that perhaps Anet would just shut the production down. Instead, the studio automated events and kept the servers on and running for those who perhaps preferred that game world over the sequel.

In switching over to true maintenance mode, a studio has to address a few questions. First, does it own the IP? If it doesn't, then chances aren't good that it's going to be gunning to renew a license for it. Second, how much money will it take to keep the servers on and perhaps pay someone to keep tabs on them? And third, is there a benefit to doing this, either by making money or by retaining community and studio love?

While going into maintenance mode is a blow to player morale (it's not exactly a beacon suggesting that this is a game or studio with a promising future), it's far more preferable to the sad alternative of termination.

Vanguard and the gang: The axe

Once the bastion of tender care for smaller and mistreated MMOs, SOE has certainly shifted its paradigm to focus more on the future and less on what it sees as the dead weight in its library. By the middle of this year, the company will have had shed half of its line-up, including EQMac, EverQuest Online Adventures, Vanguard, and Free Realms.

Part of the dismay on behalf of the playerbase is that SOE has shown sincere love of its games and a willingness to stick up for them. EQMac was originally scheduled to be terminated in 2012 but got a stay of execution for more than a year past that because the studio put the players' feelings before financial profit. But it looks as though that era has passed and a swift end for underperforming MMOs has become the preferable tactic than drawing out the agony.

Nobody likes an ending, and there isn't much to point to as an upside in this, other than perhaps helping a studio to stay afloat by not forcing it to operate games in the red. But as Massively's Jef once wrote, few studios have outright asked players to step it up financially to keep a game running.

Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot: A fresh setting

Depending on how you look at it, the transfer of UO and DAoC to a new studio with former Mythic devs could be seen as a fresh setting or more of the same. I think that it bodes well for both titles, personally. Getting away from Mythic, even if just in name, is a good idea because of Mythic's gradual implosion over the past few years. Sometimes just giving a product a new name and a new coat of paint can boost consumer confidence.

But it's also a positive move because it tells me that there are devs who genuinely care for these titles and want to give them the best possible future. They're not going to explode in growth, but they're also not quite ready to be shoved onto a shelf collecting dust, either. Focusing down to a dedicated team that isn't wasting time on side projects seems like a smart idea when every player subscription dollar counts. The devs are looking at the long-term, not just day-to-day survival, and that definitely can inspire confidence and even excitement from past and current players.

Asheron's Call and Meridian 59: Give it to the fans

While we certainly know that these games are created and owned by the studios, still many of us feel that our favorite games are ours in some respect. This is especially true when it's an MMO that we've played longer than many of the developers on staff.

So here's a radical idea that comes up any time an MMO is announced to be shut down: Why not hand it over to the players to run?

It's not a new idea or one devoid of problems. There are often legal hurdles that must be overcome, not to mention that such a prospect doesn't really benefit the studio in the end. But it's an idea and one that has already impacted our genre.

Meridian 59 almost shut down in 2010 when its parent studio closed, but when the title reverted back to the original creators, they put it up for free and then allowed players to come in and tinker with it as an open source project. Glitch's creators couldn't give away the source code for that game, but they did make all of the art assets available, and players have begun to piece those together to make a FrankenGlitch of a sorts.

But perhaps the most encouraging classic MMO news I've read in a long while was the story from this past week when Turbine announced its plans for Asheron's Call. Instead of shutting it down following studio layoffs, Turbine is making both AC titles free-to-play (for those who had active accounts), keeping the servers on, and even working on allowing players to create and run servers of their own by late 2014.

The comments for this story were overwhelmingly positive in favor of this move. "This is exactly how you do maintenance mode right," one reader said. Wrote another, "Player-run servers have my give-a-damn meter to 11. It's time to learn about Asheron's Call! Never cared a whit about it until this very moment; now it has my very interested attention."

What Turbine might have lost in minimal revenue it could be gaining in much-needed goodwill and respect. The studio took a leadership role in bringing hybrid free-to-play models to revitalize aging subscription games, and now it looks to be leading once again with this.

I hope that other studios take their cue from these MMOs and become more open to involving their playerbases in the continuation of MMOs. Don't kill these games. Don't merely put them in suspended animation. Give them a future by empowering the community to help.

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.