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The Social Hub: Getting the Stars to Realign

Column By Christina Gonzalez on March 04, 2013

These days, I’ve been noticing a trend in the gaming press as mobile and free to play games shut down. When Rock Band mobile was shut down, some criticized the fact that people’s DLC purchases were rendered worthless. This is common when games are no longer purchases and instead “licenses”. Yet this is nothing new for MMORPG players.  The recent death of the free to play publisher Outspark brought several games to a sudden end, leaving only Fiesta Online, its most successful game, in the hands of Gamigo. Players that purchased real-money currency from Outspark for any of the other games saw their purchases not refunded, but converted into Gamigo’s currency. If players didn’t like Gamigo’s games, they were plain out of luck. There’s a belief among some that we’re potentially losing works of art due to the rise of online games, but for many gamers, the loss more often amounts more to experiences and opportunities.

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How do we lose games? Throughout video game history, only a few titles truly last in the collective memory. Translate that into multiplayer spaces and we don’t just lose games, we lose the communities that grew around them. We lose entire experiences, the ability to play a favorite game or to recommend it to someone, and share with new friends. It doesn’t usually happen all at once, though a shutdown can make it starker. This can lead to a familiar sense of nostalgia and almost a sense of loss if you’re heavily involved with a game that is shut down or even just one that erodes into a shell of its former self.

It seems even easier and more likely to happen now that digital games are a major portion of the PC market, free to play games proliferate, and mobile apps go for a dollar. Communities are built upon shared experiences, especially in MMORPGs, and with so many feeling this sense of loss, many go through an almost nomadic play through multiple titles over time. While certain games have lasted for many years now, it’s often the case that we find ourselves either pushing ahead anyway and not looking back or caught up in an older title that we still enjoy and make our homes in. This desire for an MMO ‘home’, thus sometimes feels like waiting for the stars to realign.

The MMO is also the first mature game genre to be seen as a service. The use of the word “service” today is a buzzword, like when EA says the next Command & Conquer game will be a “service”.  As services, you don’t own them, and this implies a time limit or a certain transient quality to MMOs. Sure, you could still be a UO player today that has stayed since launch, but the community and the experience overall has shifted even while retaining familiarity.

Obviously, with consoles, you can lose the ability to play your old games, but you can always keep your old consoles. If you have a set of SWG discs, you can’t do anything with them outside of incomplete copyright-flaunting servers. I noticed recently in my Steam library there is an unused, never-activated copy of a dead MMO. I can’t do anything with that now, and yet it remains in my library list. Not that there’s any point.

As to how communities are affected, this has both individual community and overall affect on the players, ourselves. The nature of the beast automatically makes the genre self-limiting due to that pesky need to make money. So these become like time capsules and you come to consider yourself lucky you were there to experience a certain time and place.

You can’t say to your friend “Hey, there’s this great game on the market and I think you should play it. It’s called Tabula Rasa.”  Or “Hey, there’s this awesome game that fits your play-style and love for socializing and deep crafting. It’s called Star Wars Galaxies.” You can still play the Legend of Zelda and it will be the same game from 1987. It’s people that make the most difference in MMOs, even with a limited framework from the devs, and it’s people that can ‘ruin’ things too.

The experience of playing an MMO is definitely not the same two years in versus how it was at launch. Even when we know the games have changed and people have gone, if we find ‘our’ place, then many of us stick it out. If a game doesn’t shut down, the shift that we see over time changes games and communities inevitably. Those experiences are gone forever. For a lot of us who have played multiple games over the years, all we have are memories.

The nature of the games in this genre is that they are inherently going to change and die. It has nothing to do with how much one pays for them each month (if anything) and there really isn’t anything we can do to stop it. We can only look toward something new or play something else, keeping in touch with friends we made in games when we were still wide-eyed and had few choices.

Now, this has taken on a bit of a sad tone, but that’s not wholly intentional. If you’ve read this far, there’s a good chance that you’re familiar with the feeling, and I wanted to ponder the reasons behind it. This particular piece has been more of a reflective journey. The sense of nostalgia is strong among us MMORPG players, probably because our experiences have a natural transience to them, given how much is out of our control. These worlds are for us to play in and engage others in until they don’t exist at all anymore.


Check out Christina's last The Social Hub column:

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