Free for All: Why MMOs should be kept alive forever

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Free for All: Why MMOs should be kept alive forever
Ryzom screenshot
We generally avoid the topic of emulator servers here at Massively for various reasons. I have different reasons for not discussing them as well, mainly that I do not agree with the use of art (games are art) without the owner's permission, no matter what. I want to get that out of the way now so we can discuss today's topic without filling the comments with emulator links we'll have to delete. And that topic is this: Should we maintain dead or dying MMOs after closure?

I started thinking about this idea because I am currently wrapped up in a project to collect and catalogue every major bookmark of my life until I am "caught up" to about the time I started working at Massively. As part of the project, I am looking to save old pictures, projects and music, especially ones that exist on paper. Paper rots, after all. The project has made me think much more about my long history with MMOs. Should I be concerned that some of the digital versions of myself have or will disappear as games are sunsetted? Should we do something about this? I think we should, but if not emus, then what?

Faxion screenshot
One of my favorite MMOs ever was The Chronicles of Spellborn. The game had a lot of issues; it was a grind, and the developers never had the chance to really mold the game into what it could have been. But its action-based combat and art style remain prime examples of MMO perfection. To me, at least. I also loved the fact that players could make "ugly" characters and could use one weapon the entire time (I used a dagger) and make that weapon more powerful by swapping out slotted gems.

The Chronicles of Spellborn is dead now. The various videos I made and fun I had is nothing but memory. Luckily, I still have screenshots and blog posts about the game, and if I remember correctly, the install files on one of my older PCs. The fact that I was smart enough to save so many screenshots and videos of Spellborn makes me happy. As part of this "digital life" project, I am busily locating old details of my past to fill in gaps in my memory. I've found songs I sang, drawings I drew, and old stories I wrote that I had forgotten about.

As I have sorted through piles of old photos and scanned in hundreds of pieces of art, I realized that the same process could be applied to many of my favorite older MMOs. Some of them, like Ultima Online, are still around. I can still log into my original character, the first MMO character I ever made, and play the game. I can't log into Spellborn, Earth Eternal, or many others, however. Should there be a way? Even though the publishers or rights-holders deemed those titles closure-worthy, is it our right to wander around those lands once more?

I'm not sure about right. We're talking art, here, and I don't think that anyone has the right to take a gallery exhibition with him when he goes home for the night. I wonder, though, if there is a way to keep an MMO open and ready to be played without causing a financial burden on its publisher. Even if the world were left open just for exploration and socializing, wouldn't that be something?

When Glitch closed, an enterprising player posted a helpful thread on the official forums that explained how players could continue to access the cached, Flash-based world of Glitch even though the server was dead. Sure enough, I was able to log into my housing area and walk around, although the world was completely devoid of life. It was very eerie and a bit moving.

Glitch screenshotArenaNet recently announced that it was moving its original title, Guild Wars, over to automation. I read this bit of news and my mouth dropped open. It seems like a brilliant way to keep a game open not just for players of the game but for the future. It's possible that we can have a Guild Wars world to pop into for the next 10, 20... 50 years? Why not? Sure, it will look very primitive even in the near future, but the characters that many Guild Wars players have created are extensions of themselves and can go on "living" forever.

I am reminded of my recent experience re-opening an account for my father-in-law, who passed away years ago. It was slightly chilling to be digging through many of his ancient bits of digital life, but it was also somehow reassuring. Even after we're gone, our children or even great-grandchildren might be able to access a part of us, a part of what made us happy.

Should we ask developers to keep games open forever? Of course we should, but we have to be realistic. Even a small MMO takes cash to maintain. MMO players can be so spiteful about a developer who wants to charge for anything, so asking for donations to keep a server open might be a bit of a stretch. I could only hope that more developers play with the idea. It's selfish to assume that everyone wants the same thing, but I can't see the harm in turning a game into a self-automated museum piece. It would allow players to take their time in cataloging the experience with screenshots and video, and would allow others to see just how far the developer had come.

At the same time, I cannot blame a developer, creator, or artist when she wants to shutter a game and close down a chapter of its history. But the difference between an author writing the last chapter in a beloved series and a developer turning a world off is that we can still experience those written stories from the past much in the same way that everyone else has. When an MMO is closed, it can never be explored in the same way again.

Here's to hoping that more developers follow ArenaNet's lead and find a way to at least keep the doors open. It is a much harder task for smaller or independent publishers, of course, but the AAAs out there might be able to pull it off without a hitch. I'd love to be able to log into my World of Warcraft character in 40 years. Who wouldn't?

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!
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