Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

22 August, 2016

How to sunset a game
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 8:59 PM

What does it take to sunset a game? This went from academic MMO exercise a decade ago to pressing issue for today’s mobile games with a strong online component in an increasingly overcrowded market where games don’t necessarily last that long.

So, how do you gracefully close down a game during what is a time fraught with emotional loss for the players?

A modern issue

I got started thinking about this when my friend Daniel Rachels sent me a link to an article about whales in an online game. The article is interesting enough, but not much shocking there. Perhaps the most radical idea there is that whales are still people, just people who really enjoy a game and pay a lot for it. But, it was the bit at the end that got me thinking, talking about how “emotions are mixed among the whales.”

It’s one thing to close down a game that people have been paying for, but another when some of those people have paid many thousands of dollars. And while some may appreciate playing the game while they could, others may not appreciate the feeling that they were renting access to a game for a very high price.

With older roots

So, I’ve been through the sunsetting of a game. Twice, even. One time was when the company shut down the game with no plans to revive it, and another is when I shut down the company that bought that game, relaunched it, and kept it running for nearly a decade. Although the game didn’t close down entirely the second time, it did transition from being a commercial product with dedicated support to a free game with partial support.

The prevailing opinion back in the day was that online games didn’t die. They had die-hard audiences, and smart business sense with a dedicated fanbase meant that you could keep games running forever. But, this proved not to be true for games run by larger companies. Games got shut down, even big audacious games with big names behind them.

So, if this isn’t a new problem, why haven’t we figured out how to do this well yet?

Business realities

Let’s talk cold, hard reality here. Companies need to show a certain return on investment, and insufficient return means that resources dedicated to a game are better put to use supporting other games with higher returns. Translation: games get shut down if they don’t make enough money.

But, when do you shut them down? Ideally as soon as possible, so that the lack of return is not extended any longer than needed. But, if this happens then players become wary and and a new game may not get the critical mass it needs because people are waiting to see if the game is shut down or not. So, in an ironic twist, a game shuts down because players were waiting to see if it shut down before pouring money into it. Still, business reality means that you do want to shut the game down sooner rather than later.

Now, let’s say you’ve decided to shut down a game. When do you announce the shutdown? Again, cold, hard reality means that you probably want to give as little time between announcement and closure as possible. First, some players may buy into the game a little more before the announcement, although some of these players will probably seek refunds. And, games have been refunding purchases for a time before the announcement, so this is probably a lesser concern. The other big issue is the amount of time you have to officially deal with the fuss from the remaining players about closing down the game. Having to manage a community for three months during the closing down process is going to be harder that if you merely have a do so for a month.

And, if the game is under-performing, then sending good money after bad is a poor business decision. Spending a lot of money to make soon-to-be-former customers happy is money wasted in terms of the business. The best you can hope for is to transition your players over to other games you run.

Okay, let’s leave behind the cold reality and look at what humans need.

The human factor

So, what steps can you do to make your players happy and less likely to curse your name? It’s useful to look at the Bartle motivations here.

Achievers want to be recognized for their achievements. The Gamasutra article talks about how some people were continuing to play the game rabidly, trying to achieve as much as they could before the end. A “high score” table on a company webpage is a good way to recognize these players. Have two: a snapshot when the announcement is made, and one made when the game finally closes. People can point to that page as proof of their achievements.

Socializers want to keep in touch with friends. A way to let people get in touch with in-game friends to trade contact information would be great to help them. The bonds that started in the game could continue, and socializers will have fond memories to share of the game. They might even play together in another game in the future! If the in-game chat isn’t robust enough to let people privately share information, then having a web page where people can leave messages for each other would be nice. Or, setting up an official chat channel on Facebook or a chat service like Discord could be a good way to let people talk and keep in touch. Although, this will probably take some community management time to keep people from getting too unruly.

Killers want to dominate others. A system similar to the high score tables might be good here. A page that shows who dominated whom in the last days might be good. Again, something that people can refer to in order to demonstrate their domination would be good. Ideally, you’d already have something like this for killers anyway! You should simply be moving the record to a place where it can be referenced after the game closes.

Explorers, as always, are the oddballs. There’s not much in you can do to remind them of their understanding of the game. I guess the ultimate reward for the explorer would be to open source the game and give them the greatest access possible. Of course, this isn’t always a great idea for games that are still running in other markets or for games that have proprietary content in the source. I suspect that explorers are probably the least perturbed by the game closing down, as they probably weren’t big spenders, anyway. I know part of my explorer fun in mobile games is to figure out how to play the game without having to pour a lot of money into it. :)

While you won’t be able to make everyone happy, I think little things can help make people tolerate the closure of the game better.

What do you think?

What do you think? Have you lived through the closer of a beloved game? What irritated you about the closure (besides not having access to the game anymore)? What helped you get over the closure, assuming you ever did?

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  1. I switched over to the “renting” mentality when I first realized online games could be closed down, or changed drastically. I have a certain gaming budget I spend per month. If I’m playing an MMORPG, it pays for access. Or if not, it pays for Steam games.

    It really didn’t change the experience much at all for me. I was looking back over all the characters I had made in PvP games over the years (to actually make a list for a forum signature), and I found I could remember each one of them, what the experience was like playing them, and even their personalities.

    The memories live on.

    Comment by Simon — 22 August, 2016 @ 10:17 PM

  2. I think the disconnect here is over whether games are “art” or commerce and it’s becoming clear that, culturally, games are moving towards acceptance as “art”. Creators and owners of art are seen as having different responsibilities than creators and owners of commercial products. It varies from society to society but by and large art is perceived as having a form of common ownership outside of the current legal ownership related to its market value. There’s a strong degree to which the current owners are seen as holding the artwork “in trust” for future generations. If you want evidence for that attitude you need look no further than the current ICC Cultural Destruction trial.

    Our children and their children are likely to see their digital heritage as as important as we have seen our physical one. We are in a transitional phase right now but I think the direction of travel is clear. Laws are already being passed or changed, museums are already beginning to collect and curate. In the near future I believe that the operators and rights owners of digital art deemed to be culturally significant will become subject to similar legal requirements and strictures as, for example, the owners of properties currently protected in UK law under the Listed Building Act. You won’t just be able to tear them down and build another on top. You’ll be required to preserve and maintain them. Or, since they are digital, pass them on to someone who can and will.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 23 August, 2016 @ 1:01 AM

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