A tricked-out dune buggy busts through a mural made up of post-apocalyptic imagery and battered road signs in the front of NetDevil's Colorado offices, a lasting reminder of a world that came and went in the blink of an eye.
Traditional video games are timeless. As long as one has the right equipment and their cartridge or disc is in working order, revisiting them is easy enough. Their levels, enemies and challenges live on.
This is not the case with massively multiplayer online games.
Massively multiplayer online games require a substantial investment. The developers spend time and effort creating these games, dedicate resources and manpower to maintaining game servers and supporting players and must continue to develop fresh content to keep players interested.
The players also make an investment in these persistent virtual worlds. Years are spent earning experience points, gathering powerful equipment, and establishing themselves as not merely players, but citizens of a vast virtual community. Money is spent on the game, its expansion packs, and any subscription fee they might incur. There's also the emotional investment, forming bonds with the players they battle beside. day in and day out.
When an MMO closes, all of that disappears.
The End of Auto Assault
The team at Colorado-based developer NetDevil spent four years creating Auto Assault. The game was in operation for 16 months.
The game's concept was solid. In a post-apocalyptic future, humans, mutants and the human-created Biomeks battle across the planet Earth's radiation-ravaged surface in old-world vehicles armed with futuristic weaponry. Who wouldn't want to play a massively multiplayer Mad Max game?
The game attracted players, but not enough to satisfy publisher NCsoft. In August of 2007, Auto Assault's ravaged Earth went silent.
NetDevil's Ryan Seabury was the design director for Auto Assault. While he has his hands full as the producer of the developer's latest MMO, the toy-branded LEGO Universe, the closure of Auto Assault is still a painful memory.
"I won't lie, it hurts like hell still over four years later," Seabury says. "Auto Assault took us over four years to create, and now it's not in service any more. Naturally, if a universe like Auto Assault that you sort of mentally attach to over multiple years suddenly ceases to exist, it's like a part of you dies."
MMO development is a monumental task. A game aims to keep the player entertained for hours or days. An MMO is built to keep players entertained for year, exploring every corner of the world the developers build. The additional time and cost of MMO development is meant to be offset by subscription fees or, in the case of free-to-play titles, in-game item sales.
"A lot of traditional game development is faster paced and much less risky," says Seabury. "If you bomb a one-year project, you can move on to the next one."
NetDevil is not a developer that gives up. Its first title, Jumpgate, is still operational after nine years, though it never achieved the subscriber numbers of Auto Assault. If not for publisher NCsoft, Auto Assault might still be in operation today.
"I can understand though, through a publisher's eyes it may not make sense to continue to operate small scale worlds due to opportunity cost and focus concerns," adds Seabury.
Exiting The Matrix
Long after the credits rolled in the third instalment of the popular science fiction film franchise, players were still jacked into the Matrix via The Matrix Online. Developed by Monolith Productions and published by Sega, The Matrix Online came into being in March of 2005. EverQuest developer Sony Online Entertainment took over operation and development of the game in August of that year.
The plug was pulled on July 31, 2009.
Compared to other major MMO closures, The Matrix Online had a fairly long run.
A longer life doesn't necessarily make a game's termination less painful.
Daniel Myers began working on The Matrix Online as a community manager. By the time the game closed he was a producer. Today he works as a producer for Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming spy MMO, The Agency.
"Shutting down an MMO is rough on the development team," Myers tells me. "These games have long development cycles that then continue for years after a successful launch. How each developer reacts to shutting down a game is personal and very much intertwined with what he or she have gone through in that time. "
Myers recalls the changes he went through over the course of the five years he spent with The Matrix Online. During that time he changed companies once, attended five Sony Fan Faire events, and started working on a second project. On a more personal level he moved three times, lost 20kg (and gained 10 back), quit smoking twice, and added a lot more grey to his beard.
"Through all that, The Matrix Online had been a constant for me."
Myers says The Matrix Online closed because it no longer met the needs of the business as a whole. It wasn't a snap decision. "We proposed different options that were reviewed and seriously considered before the final decision was made. In the end, the overall cost of supporting the game no longer fit the business needs of SOE."
And so The Matrix Online had to close. According to Myers it was hard on the development team, but not as hard as it could have been. Working at Sony Online Entertainment, the company behind EverQuest, EverQuest 2, Free Realms, Star Wars Galaxies and several other MMO titles, most of the team found positions with other projects in the company.
The drawn-out nature of The Matrix Online's closure also meant the developers got to send the game off with a bang. "The one thing I think all development teams want is to make whatever time is left memorable for their players," explains Myers.
"For the final few months we reactivated old accounts and made all accounts free just so everyone who wanted to celebrate The Matrix Online could join in. We turned on all the events we'd used over the last five years and bumped everyone's characters way past the level cap. One of the programmers was even triple-boxing for the entire final week just so he could fire off events on all three servers."
The spectacular end of The Matrix Online was a testament to the passion and dedication Myers and his team felt towards the game and its players.
"When a game has been a constant in your life for that long, it's hard to accept that it's gone," admits Myers. "There are still days that I wish I could log in and see the Megacity again. I don't know that will ever completely stop. I kind of hope it doesn't."
The Five Stages of MMO Player Grief
Even the least popular massively multiplayer game earns a strong community of stalwart supporters. After all of the naysayers half left the servers, an MMO audience is distilled down to the players most passionate about the virtual world they inhabit. They pay for the privilege of existing there, and when the servers go down, they are the ones hurt the most.
Developers do what they can to compensate players for their loss. Sony Online Entertainment gave The Matrix Online players that grand send-off. NCsoft gave Auto Assault players parting gifts, including the chance to take part in Tabula Rasa, an MMO that ended up closing in 15 months.
"For the players we had, they were very passionate about the world and fiction, so of course they were very upset," says NetDevil's Ryan Seabury about the players that stayed with Auto Assault to the bitter end. "I suspect if we could find a way to revive it today, there would still be a small audience for it."
Sony Online Entertainment's Daniel Myers compares the process that players go through when an MMO closes to the Kübler-Ross model, commonly known as the five stages of grief. I've outlined them here with Myer's comments.
- Denial: "Some couldn't believe that we wouldn't find a way to continue supporting the game."
- Anger: "Plenty of players were angry over the decision and how we reached that point."
- Bargaining: "Lots of offers of support came through just to keep a live service going."
- Depression: "There was a lot of sadness that the world they'd spent so much time in was going away."
- Acceptance: "And, finally, accepting that The Matrix Online was going to shut its doors and we could have such a good send-off for it."
Myers says his team saw all of those reactions, to varying degrees, though not everyone goes through all the stages, and certainly not everyone reaches acceptance.
Some fans simply refuse to let their games die. That certainly is the case with Earth & Beyond.
A science fiction MMO published by Electronic Arts, Earth & Beyond was the last game developed by Westwood Studios, the creators of beloved real-time strategy series Command & Conquer. Launched in September of 2002, the game survived for two years before EA brought it down in September of 2004.
Yet you can play Earth & Beyond today, thanks to the efforts of the Earth & Beyond Emulator Project, a group of fans dedicated to keeping the game alive. Working on nothing but donations, the team has spent four years getting the emulator up and running.
To create an MMO as the employee of a game developer is one thing. To spend four years bringing one back from the dead simply to recapture the joy of playing goes above and beyond.
Lessons Learned and Memories Made
NetDevi's Seabury started working on LEGO Universe right after Auto Assault shipped. He was committed to success. "In the first meeting I had with my original team, I told them all flat out, 'If we don't make this a success, I'm switching careers.'"
Today, Seabury says the sting of a shutdown is soul-crushing for a developer. But he credits the many months working on the failed Auto Assault as "invaluable time spent learning".
Seabury takes the lessons learned from the closure of Auto Assault and applies them to LEGO Universe, making it a stronger title, just as Myers experience with The Matrix Online will help him and his team in making The Agency a compelling experience for players.
And what of the players?
The pain of loss softens over time, and there are plenty of massively multiplayer online worlds for them to explore. They move on and maybe one day someone in whatever world they settle in will bring up Auto Assault or The Matrix Online, and those pleasant memories will bubble to the surface.
While the closing of an MMO is painful for both creators and players, it isn't the end of the world.