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The Soapbox: No game lives forever


The lifespan of a video game is a funny thing. There are some games that have a definite end, yet you'd wish they'd last forever. These games measure life in replayability, run-through length, or multiplayer matches, but they lack permanence and persistence. Still, you can usually dust them off years from now and still have fun with them.

MMOs are a different breed, aren't they? They promise the inverse of the solo game, with a world that goes on, content that keeps flooding in, and the illusion that it will last forever. Yet when the switch is turned off, there's no going back. You can't pick it up 10 years from now and give it another go.

It's why the news that an MMO is closing up shop comes as such a devastating blow to many of us. As MMOs attempt to emulate the persistence of life, so too do they illustrate the finality of death.

The Soapbox No game lives forever
Sunrise, sunset

It's been a terrific year for MMO releases, no doubt, but we've also suffered a fair number of demises during this time as well. Two of the most poignant -- Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes -- fell to the Grim Reaper without any warning or signs of impending doom. One day they're there; the next, gone.

I'm hesitant to draw too many parallels to how we deal with mortality in our actual lives and how we see the limited lifespan of MMOs, but I keep seeing the connections. If you'll allow me to get a little maudlin before attempting to pull this Soapbox out of a downward spiral, let's talk about death for a minute. For the most part, we just don't think about the end of our lives. It's too emotionally and spiritually wearing to be constantly thinking about it, and it can hold us back from actually living. But if we never come to terms with our eventual death, it can be a huge shock to the system when it happens around us. It gives us pause. If it happens to them, you realize, it will happen to me.

OK, enough of the super-serious stuff; now just back to the serious. That shock of facing mortality when you don't think about it is something I've witnessed with MMO closings. Whether sudden or expected, it's never pleasant, and it's never something we as players have been anticipating.

We love anticipating the birth of a game and celebrating the growth of it, but the death? We'd just rather not think about it. Ever.

Perhaps we should, however, if just once in a great while.

The Soapbox No game lives forever
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die

Here's where I keep going back to the illusion of permanence that MMOs and their dev teams' attempt to pull off. The implied promise to players is that if you settle down in this game, your character will exist in it forever. It will live and grow over time and always be there if you take a break and come back at a later point. It's not a hard sell to get us to buy into this illusion because it's something we want to believe. It's a big part of the attraction to MMOs in general.

Then we go and pour hour after hour into these characters, pursuing goals of money, power, and abilities. Even if we're a little shocked at the large number when we type /played, we can justify it by saying that it's a gaming investment. The character is still there and will always be there. That's something that the console jockeys can't claim, right?

But then a server wipe happens and those data are lost. Or the studio goes under, taking the game down with it. Or legal issues make it impossible to keep the whole operation rolling. And as simple as that, the game is no more. Barring a miracle resuscitation, we'll never see it again. It's finality in an industry that's promised us eternal life.

Decades after Space Invaders was hot in the arcades, after Super Mario Bros. was the killer app on consoles, and after Halo fulfilled the lives of frat brothers, they'll still be playable. Retro gaming is huge, particularly when these titles are reintroduced to new platforms. The same won't be said for our genre, however. We won't be able to boot up Tabula Rasa or The Matrix Online in 2025 at a fan convention.

The Soapbox No game lives forever
So how does this change how we play MMOs?

If I'm going to say something with this column, it's this: It's actually helpful to acknowledge that our MMOs will have a sunset date because it helps us to appreciate and play them to their fullest now.

The first thing that the perspective of MMO mortality clarifies is that not every activity or goal in these games are worth the effort. I see so many people put themselves through drudgery and extreme boredom in order to attain a goal that will not last, which is often a false siren's call of satisfaction anyway. Instead of just focusing on what is fun and fulfilling for us, these games tempt us into un-fun activities because of some great reward that ultimately is meaningless. So just don't do them, I say.

So what is meaningful in these persistent games that will one day end? Since you can't take your gear with you into the "aftergame," what is the point? For some, it's just about day-to-day enjoyment. Playing in the moment, as it were. For others, it's accumulating bragging rights and world firsts that may mean more to them than to anyone who hears them.

But I think the most meaningful results of time spent in MMOs are the memories you make and the people you make them with. A game may end, but you retain the stories and the relationships. Those cannot be taken away.

It's why there's been a significant rise of multi-game guilds that are stronger and longer-lasting than any single MMO. The game in question becomes of secondary importance to the bonds of fellowship and the continuation of a cooperative journey. The death of a game may cause ripples among such gamers, but they are sheltered by the knowledge that the most significant element of their experience continues.

This is also why I love being a fan of multiple MMOs instead of throwing all of my eggs into one basket. Not only is it prudent to have a diverse portfolio, but it gives me a big picture perspective that is easy to lose when my entire online life is tied up in a single title.

And even the death of an MMO can cause wonderful and unexpected results, such as the incredible fan movements to save these games or the wealth of player stories that come bubbling forth at the end of every beloved title. While games can't be played after the end, they can be appreciated in retrospect and taught to a new generation that didn't have the chance to try them out. We can still learn from what was attempted and accomplished and bring those lessons to new MMOs.

No game lives forever. The question is, what will you do in the time you have left in yours?

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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