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The Think Tank: What's your solution to save closing MMOs?

Shawn Schuster

In the spectrum of entertainment, MMOs are still relatively young. When the original MMOs were created in the late '90s, I don't imagine the innovators thought much about what would happen if millions of people got hooked on these games, built solid relationships, put thousands of hours into their characters... and then it all went away. The consequence of that unique situation is a lot more painful than most early developers could have imagined, yet it's happening more frequently.

With the closure of popular MMOs like Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes and more, some players are a bit irritated at the genre as a whole. Not too many other time-investment hobbies can completely go away as quickly as an MMO.

So what does the Massively staff think is the solution? Do we turn to F2P publishers to throw some cash shop Band-Aids on the game and nudge it back into the wild? Do we bypass legal avenues and look at emulators? Is there even such thing as a solution?

The Think Tank What's your solution to save closing MMOs
I believe that it is always up to the artists (or publisher or the group that holds the rights) to do what they want with their art. Even if it makes us angry or sad, it's a right that we should always protect above everything. That means the artist has a right to shut down the art show or music concert, or in this case, video game, without concern for what others think. There was a story being told, and the right says that the story of the game can and should be able to end. A player or group of players has a right as well: the right to hold onto screenshots, memories, or other bits from the world, but they do not have the right to take that art -- that world -- and manipulate it after it's gone. That's not fair. We don't support most censorship, like the alteration of books or movies. This should be no different.

Of course if the publisher or artist allows continuation to happen or doesn't mind it, then players can do whatever they want. I only ask that we allow MMOs to sunset, even if it sucks. That's the natural flow of art.
The Think Tank What's your solution to save closing MMOs
I know that corporations have no legal obligation to preserve game worlds, but I think that a good company has a responsibility to its loyal customers and to the genre itself. Cultural preservation is practically a human instinct -- we preserve ideas, places, objects. Why not virtual spaces? If a company can't afford to keep a virtual world going, the only solution is to sell or donate that world to someone who can and will. Yes, the company created and owns the space, but the players filled it out, and to box it up for eternity is beyond heartless -- it robs everyone of a slice of history.

For affected players, emulators are the only alternative. They're a tricky subject around here because they are illegal, but I won't be losing sleep over the fact that someone is playing a black market game that he'd gladly play legally if given the chance.
The Think Tank What's your solution to save closing MMOs
I'm not really sure there is a solution -- certainly not by the time we hear about it. It's such a heartbreak to get emails or tips from players of games like City of Heroes asking us to talk about different protests or shows of support because in most cases it's not as if the company isn't aware of how passionate the playerbase is. Sometimes (most times) passion isn't enough to sway a business decision. I'd tend to think that companies that are shutting down an MMO should do their best to get the IP into different hands. Certain games aren't closing because of a lack of profit; if one company is looking for other ventures, it seems like better press and less heartbreak all around to find a company that's looking to pick up a title with a standing fan base.
The Think Tank What's your solution to save closing MMOs
I don't know that there is a solution for saving shuttered MMOs. It would depend on the MMO, I guess. Protests and petitions seem like giant wastes of time when you're dealing with the NCsofts and SOEs of the world. My own personal solution has been to become more emotionally disconnected from MMOs than I used to be. The closing of Star Wars Galaxies was a wake-up call to the fact that I'm just a renter in somebody else's building regardless of the time or effort I expend while I'm there. Most of us know this on some level from the start, of course, but that gets shoved to the back of your mind when you're enjoying an endlessly deep game that goes out of its way to generate feelings of player investment and immersion for years at a time.

Another possible solution, provided you're OK with the moral and legal grey areas, is an emulator, which are plentiful and in some cases nearly exact recreations of games (or game versions) that no longer exist. In addition to the legal issues, though, there's also the fact that many of them don't come close to approximating the game's original community.
The Think Tank What's your solution to save closing MMOs
The bottom line is finances: Make the game as profitable as possible to operate. This means that it needs to operate on as lean a budget as can be while still allowing for content development, and it also means that the studio needs to pick the right business model for the title. Being flexible with that model after seeing it in practice wouldn't hurt, either.

Big studios with big budgets may produce big games, but they also expect big bank. It might be that the future of the genre's survival rests on the middle-sized fry that are more agile, more financially flexible, and more able to withstand the inevitable disappointment of not netting five million paying subscribers by month two.
The Think Tank What's your solution to save closing MMOs
The only way to save a dying game is to have it sold to Perfect World. I don't think publishing executives step into shutdown mode lightly, even if it isn't the best decision. And usually by the time that we hear about a game shutting down, it's too late for us to turn that decision around, unfortunately. Therefore, the best thing that we can do is to help sell the IP to another publisher. It worked for the Cryptic titles when that studio was being offed by Atari. And Fallen Earth and APB are still around thanks to GamersFirst. If my favorite MMO were being closed down, I'd definitely protest in the game itself and write email to the publisher, but I would also send letters to companies like Perfect World and GamersFirst to see if they'd be interested in a profitable business opportunity.

If that doesn't work, all we have left are emulators, as others have suggested. Granted, the only emulator experience I've had so far was for Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, and both of those kind of sucked. I looked into supporting an emulator for SWG, but the bottom line is that it is really expensive, and to have a consolidated vision for a game takes as much work and money as having another full-time job. I just can't make that kind of investment.
The Think Tank What's your solution to save closing MMOs
This week's question has me torn. On the one hand, I'm a big proponent of the "they're just games" philosophy, so the sunsetting of an MMO shouldn't be that big of a deal. Just find a new game to play, right? On the other hand, I'm well aware of the deep connection communities form with the games they play, and with the extremely personal nature of MMO gaming in general. Surely the furor over shutting down a game has less to do with the characters/items and more to do with the connections forged through shared experience.

Here's where I think I land on this: MMO makers don't need to support their games forever, nor do they have a responsibility to do so. Game companies are businesses, and if a title becomes unprofitable, it's entirely within the company's right to nix it (unless you plan to pay developers and support staff with the warm feelings of the community). That being said, MMO makers should absolutely provide closure to their players through some sort of community event that marks the occasion. It doesn't have to be big, fancy, or expensive, but it does need to say, "Hey, players, thanks so much for sharing this time with us. We appreciate it."

The simple fact is that these games can't live without players, and those players deserve some thanks when it's time for the game to shuffle off its digital coil.
The Think Tank What's your solution to save closing MMOs
I don't think there's a good answer to this question. I think that protests are the right answer, but not because they'll stop the game you love from closing. I think that protests show companies that players are devoted to a game, and keeping a game around that churns out a profit (even if small) helps avoid bad press. How many articles on Massively alone have been dedicated to the CoH shutdown? If you look at how much bad press that event created for NCsoft, it makes you think twice about closing down your game. Even if the #SaveCoH events didn't pan out, they let every publisher know what the gaming world thinks about destroying online communities.

I personally don't care whether people play an emulated version of a dead game. My only concern is that emulated software for a particular game might not be available, and even if it is, it puts the people running the game at serious legal liability. You might be able to play your favorite game, but you probably won't be able to recreate the community there without attracting an army of lawyers. It might be a dead game, but it's still someone else's intellectual property.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the carest of the carebears, so expect some disagreement! Join Senior Editor Shawn Schuster and the team for a new edition right here every other Thursday.

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