ANDREW WHITEHEAD visits the graves of games gone by and wonders: "What if...?"
For a lot of people the feeling of playing an MMO with like-minded people is one that has come to define what it means to be a gamer. Generally speaking the most popular MMOs have no real win-state and are driven by personalised avatars living in a persistent world — it’s about being one tiny cog in a much bigger machine and affecting change in the virtual world. And while it’s these things that make MMOs so appealing they are simultaneously why their deaths hit fans so hard.
“I think it’s crazy to shut down an MMO at all,” said Scott Brown, co-founder of the now defunct NetDevil. “You can always scale back support, servers, bandwidth, etc., to a point where the game can make more than it costs to operate and still deliver a great experience for your players. And for the players of that game, why take it away?”
As a developer Scott has seen his fair share of MMOs die with three titles that he worked on getting shut down. Jumpgate, LEGO Universe and Auto Assault were all projects he was a big part of before their death and the now President of END Games Entertainment says that each one of them hurt personally when their plug was finally pulled.
“Jumpgate had run for over 10 years and still had players playing every day,” said Scott. “And LEGO Universe had fantastic revenue and lots of players, maybe not the World of Warcraft numbers like LEGO wanted, but it was a great product that kids loved and made money. It kills me it’s not running to this day. Just this morning my youngest son, who is five, found a LEGO Universe CD and asked to play it, it still hurts to explain to him the game is just not running anymore.”
While a developer like Scott has to let go of these games at some point and move on to new projects it’s the fans who often refuse to give up on what they see as their digital home. Fans who, long after the player base has dwindled down and the official servers have been shut off, still gather as a group of dedicated exiles and refusing to accept that the past has passed.
EVERYBODY’S DOING IT >>
Remember Phantasy Star Online from the Dreamcast? What about Ver.2? Remember how there was a GameCube version called Episodes I & II as well as that strange C.A.R.D. variation? Oh and the PC version called Blue Burst? You may not remember all of them, I didn’t, but there’s an army of Phantasy Star Online fans playing these games right now thanks to the SCHTHACK Private Servers. Operating solely on PayPal donations since 2003 the website has easy to follow instructions on how to connect to their servers as well as moderators that work to keep the cheaters at bay. And it isn’t a unique case.
Considered by many to be the father of the modern MMO, Richard Garriott’s Ultima Online has a thriving private server community who want to preserve the game as it once was, forgoing the newer expansions that upgraded the graphics and altered the core gameplay.
On the other end of the scale is the lesser known Westwood Studios developed MMO from 2002, Earth & Beyond. Shut down in 2004 the fan community continued to work on emulating the game culminating in the creation of a free-for-everyone server that went online only last year.
However, the cult following these games were able to build up over their lifetimes is a luxury other ill-fated games haven’t been able to replicate. Take for instance the role-playing shooter Tabula Rasa, another MMO by Richard Garriott that was born in late 2007 and died in early 2009 with an end of world event that involved the game’s two competing factions destroying each other. The fight bled over to the real world with Garriott successfully suing publisher NCSoft for $24million for damages following his termination. Fans of the game rallied for a short time to keep it alive, but a lack of community support meant no fan servers were ever fully realised despite the game’s positive reception.
More recently 2004’s City of Heroes (and it’s standalone expansion City of Villains) had its official support pulled late last year with publisher NCSoft claiming they had “exhausted all options including the selling of the studio and the rights to the City of Heroes intellectual property” in an open letter to fans. Those same fans created a new proposal to keep the game alive in an official capacity by helping to find a buyer, but if history has proven anything it’s that the chances of a dead MMO coming back to life is extremely slim. Realistically it’s just a matter of time before the fan server community picks up where the publisher left off.
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM >>
When talking about MMOs in any capacity it’s inevitable the conversation will turn to World of Warcraft — and with good reason. Going strong for over eight years it’s the king of the MMOs, with around 10 million subscribers as of the end of 2012, and has garnered significant critical praise since its inception and throughout its numerous expansions. It’s the benchmark all others are judged by and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. But developer Blizzard also holds another record, being the first studio to win a lawsuit against a private server company to the tune of US$83million.
The legalities of any server emulation are murky at best, but a common theme amongst the majority of operators is that they’re doing it for the fans and not as a business. In contrast to this mantra, Scapegaming, who were on the receiving end of Blizzard’s legal bashing, had in excess of US$3million in a PayPal account earned from charging for access to their private servers.
To be clear, the fact that the majority of MMO emulation projects out there are hoping to bring their games back for free doesn’t make them legal, nor does it mean they’re less likely to feel the sharp sting of a publisher’s legal department. That aside it’s clear that the vast majority of these projects are about bringing back something that was lost while uniting a disenfranchised community and not about the money.
“I take it as a huge compliment that something we poured so much of our lives into for years is really appreciated by someone” said Scott Brown speaking about the attempts to bring back Auto Assault. “It’s easy for me to say this of course because I am not the publisher that owns the legal rights to the intellectual property. That is a whole different can of worms.”
INTO THE GARBAGE CHUTE, FLYBOY >>
Of all the intellectual properties to base an MMO on, Star Wars would have to be the safest bet, right? Its enduring popularity and wealth of lore to draw from makes it seem like sure-fire hit. But watching 2011's The Old Republic struggle to keep its head above water proves that in this market there are no guarantees. And while the latest online game based on a galaxy far, far away continues to just get by, its predecessor Star Wars Galaxies stayed alive for over eight years before being switched off on December 15, 2011. But like the fortunate few in the MMO arena, Galaxies had developed its own loyal following, albeit a splintered one after a number of controversial updates.
The details of these updates are too numerous to detail, but the basic story is that the game that died in 2011 was not the same game that launched back in mid-2003. The first major change came in the form of the Combat Upgrade in April 2005 which allowed for more involved fighting for combat professions, while the more controversial New Game Experience upgrade released in November 2005 simplified the game in many ways but also made the hard to obtain Jedi class available from the beginning. In short the empire was divided and remains so even today as two separate projects with different ideologies continue to work on bringing back Galaxies as they see fit.
Project SWG is an ongoing effort to bring the MMO back to life for fans of the New Game Experience version while SWGEmu is all about reawakening the original pre-Combat Upgrade edition.
“I’m a huge Star Wars fan, played pretty much every Star Wars game out there so as soon as I had a stable internet connection I started playing,” said Vladimir Djolovic, Lead Moderator of the SWGEmu forums and just one of the 35 active staff members working on getting a Galaxies server back up and running. “It was, and still is, the best MMO role-playing game out there, nothing has even come close so far.”
Compared to a lot of other MMO revival projects SWGEmu has a pretty strong following of people hoping to bring this adventure back to life. But there’s still a lot of work that needs doing as every line of code being used for this Galaxies server emulator is being written from scratch. In fact the SWGEmu site claims that Sony Online Entertainment has “lost the code entirely” for their own official servers.
“[We want] to develop and maintain a community code base of a vanilla release of a Star Wars Galaxies Server, circa Publish 14.1 for use of anyone who wishes to use it,” said Vladimir.”[The aim is to] deploy a server (Sun Crusher) that embraces [the original game], yet builds upon it, and strives to show the community a server which has the potential that we all believed Star Wars Galaxies had, but never got the chance to show during its short life span. Most important of all, is to bring back to life the game which people grew to love with such a passion.”
TOUGH (BLUE) PILL TO SWALLOW >>
Galaxies isn’t the only MMO based on a popular franchise to fade away over the last few years. On July 31, 2009, Sony Online Entertainment shut down the The Matrix Online servers as a group of the game’s remaining supporters looked on while their digital adventure came to a close.
“Personally, I knew the end was coming sooner or later,” said Jason Schrag, community moderator for several The Matrix Online websites. “Once [lead game designer Ben “Rarebit” Chamberlain] left, that was the death knell. From there more and more people jumped ship and my buddy list went from heavily populated throughout any time of day to barren. Before the ending announcement, I’d be lucky to see two or three people online at any given time.”
In an attempt to give the game a proper farewell an in-game event was scheduled for the final hours, but nothing went according to plan and thanks to overloaded servers the ending was more of a buggy mess than a touching swan song.
“It was a crappy, laggy party where everyone crammed into Club Hel,” said Jason, “which is an area that could only be accessed by running a certain mission for the Merovingian that the developers ported everyone into. And people were given free items like beta gear and not much else. It was anti-climactic and disappointing.”
Jason wasn’t alone; overall a lot of fans had a similar experience. While some did manage to see the final pop-up dialogue window that simply read “WAKE UP!” a lot of other fans were left without a proper goodbye or any real finality.
“I wasn’t really sure what to think of it at first,” said Josh Parsons, another dedicated fan who was there at the end, “it took a night before it finally sunk in and I felt pretty depressed about it. Between the massive amounts of lag, special effects constantly going off and lack of story closure, the final event was a joke.”
Despite the winding down of the support and the bitter ending that followed Rajko Stojadinovic, yet another long-time fan of The Matrix Online, was already working on a plan to resurrect the game after that infamous end-of-life e-mail from Sony Online Entertainment hit his inbox.
“That’s when I knew that if this game was to have a life after that,” said Rajko “I had to invest some hard work in its last days, before it’s too late."
Two days before the servers shut down Rajko had setup a proxy so that other members could capture packets of their in game actions to be analysed later on, which soon amounted to several gigabytes of data from numerous individual users which then formed the basis for the first version of the emulator.
Now the Lead Developer on The Matrix Online emulation project, Rajko has spent a good chunk of his free-time working on bringing the game back for his fellows fans — but even now there’s still a long way to go.
“Just a few days after the shutdown event, I was able to use packet-replaying with proper encryption applied to get a stock avatar into the world and exploring,” explains Rajko. “The forum members were ecstatic, but since for any more progress to be made required tons of work they quickly left after having nothing to do — other than running.”
And that’s the problem — recreating a rudimentary server from packet data is no mean feat in itself but doing it with limited resources and manpower for a game that wasn’t on most people’s radar for years means there’s still a ton of work to be done.
“Unfortunately, I am currently the sole developer on this project,” said Rajko. “Since The Matrix Online shutdown, some other members tried to contribute, but apparently, the combination ‘skilled programmer/cracker’ plus ‘has free time’ plus ‘willing to work for free’ plus ‘fan of The Matrix Online’ is a very rare one.”
THE LONG ROAD BACK >>
With so many roadblocks in the way it’s hard to not ask the question: is this even possible? There are a lot of fan severs running out there, so there is proof it can be done, but it’s easy to underestimate just how hard recreating a persistent virtual world actually is.
“It’s pretty tough to do,” said Scott Brown, “but it’s easier if the MMO is still live so you can try things and see how they compare to the actual game. I used to think nobody could pull this off until I saw the Ultima Online reverse engineered game and it was nearly perfect.”
“We had a player, who happened to be an amazing programmer, come work for us because he was so mad Auto Assault got shut down that he wanted to go help us make sure it never happened again.”
While the idea of this never happening again is perhaps a little ambitious it’s easy to see why MMOs can become so special for groups of gamers and why even the small ones can make such a big impact. It’s about more than just the game itself, it’s finding a place to belong. For many these are more than mere games: they are communities.
“Fans find their home in these games,” said Scott. “Some games hit a bigger market than others but for the people who love the game and enjoy the players they meet in that game it’s home.”