Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

2 March, 2009

Abandoning hope
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:26 AM

Damion pointed out a Kotaku article about Tabula Rasa having a last blowout event. Basically, they’re ending their existence by having a doomsday scenario when the Bane take over.

People are saying it’s kinda neat, but I don’t see it that way. Underneath the bravado, I see it as a sign of people giving up hope. To me, that’s kind of depressing. Given that I’ve been through the shutdown of a game I’ve worked on, I think I have a unique perspective on things.

Back when Near Death Studios bought Meridian 59, people in the MMO side of the industry mostly smiled and nodded their heads. The conventional wisdom became, “MMO games don’t die.” Very few MMOs had actually died by that time, although a few had been shut down; most notably, the old Kesmai games were killed when EA acquired the studio. A lot of the older games still managed to stay around and even have a number of loyal subscribers. It made sense that we’d buy Meridian 59 and relaunch it because these games just don’t die.

Fast forward to 2009, and we see quite a different picture. The first notable game to fall was Earth & Beyond. The game didn’t live up to EA’s expectations, so it was killed. More recently, we’ve seen games killed relatively early in their lives like Asheron’s Call 2 and Auto Assault; the latter game barely made it past its one year anniversary.

The latest victim, shut down on Saturday, is Tabula Rasa (TR). The game has an interesting development history. This was supposed to be Richard Garriott’s triumphant return to MMO development after leaving EA and UO behind. Richard gave a few talks, where he talked about trying to re-capture what made the early Ultima games so awesome: going back to basics, having an interesting theme for the game, and developing a new language that would work with an international audience.

In a later talk, Richard gave a frank assessment in what hurt Tabula Rasa during development. There were too many high-level people at the company, with nobody wanting to step on anyone else’s toes; this meant crap ideas were not identified as the garbage they really were. The project had to be restarted from scratch, which blew the original budget and schedule.

I’m not going to get into details about why TR failed, you can read one perspective from Adam Martin.

The ultimate business problem is that TR just cost too much money to make and needed to be a smash success to have any chance of making that money back. The game was also too high profile for it to survive a mediocre launch. Further, there seems to be some ever enjoyable political reasons for the game’s demise; the new guard often wants to clean out any reminder of the old guard.

So, what about this big ending event and how does it relate? Back when 3DO originally shut down Meridian 59, they gave people free access to the servers, too. Instead of a big event, however, people pretty much just got on and spent a bit of time with each other and the game. Lots of stories were told, and a bunch of the older developers got online as well. I was no longer working at 3DO, but I took the day off from my job and logged on M59. When it came time, the game was shut down and quite a few of us wiped the tears from our misty eyes.

I won’t say that I had plans for buying M59 again that day, but it didn’t really feel like anyone was saying good bye to the game forever. People got together and enjoyed the community one last time. It felt like a wake for the game instead of a funeral, remembering the good times and smiling instead of putting an embalmed body into the ground.

TR’s ending, on the other hand, seems a lot more final. This probably reflects a lot of internal issues, such as the political issues above and the difficulty of separating out TR-specific content from “trade secret” technology that NCSoft uses for multiple games. But I noticed that the focus was on the big event instead of just letting the community come together and enjoy the last few hours of their favorite game. Now, there might be a lot of issues here: maybe TR didn’t form a vibrant community like M59 did over its years. Or, maybe things have changed for everyone. I know the current incarnation of the M59 community is quite different than what the game had in the past; perhaps this is true of most games and not just M59.

So, while the big TR ending event might win them style and PR points, it fills me with a bit of sadness. Can’t games be special to people anymore? Was TR’s community really so weak that they needed a big event to make the ending special? Are online games becoming more disposable from the business, community, and development points of view?

I logged on for the final event in TR, even though my highest character was only level 17. If I had played recently, (I guess the game was skewed to give top-end items for people and I could have gotten to the highest levels easily.) While I enjoyed TR for a few months during the last bits of its life, but I wasn’t part of the community, really. Perhaps they were running the event for people like me, while the true fans were off somewhere throwing back shots of whiskey and laughing about, “Remember when….”

Any way you slice it, things are different now than when M59 was shut down. But consider, how much of the development reality has shifted to take this into consideration?


  1. I didn’t play TR, so I know nothing of its community. I’ve never been through a shutdown of a MMO.

    However …

    As an outsider, I think the final blow-out event was nice. Perhaps they should have done that sort of thing sooner, as more regular fare. Perhaps it doesn’t happen as much any more, or perhaps it simply doesn’t get the same press, but it doesn’t seem gameco’s do adhoc ingame events anymore. Sure, there’s LotRO’s harvest festivals, and SWG had Life Day, but these don’t have the same personal quality to them. In UO, they’d simply spawn a bunch of mobs to overrun a town and put out the call for everyone to come and defend. Those were fun.

    Also, games can still be special, I think. SWG was (and is) special for many players. The guild I play with, while we cannot agree on one game to play together, still keeps in touch on the old boards.

    That said, I think many newer MMO’s have a much gamier mechanic which, in my not so humble opinion, hinders the formation of deeper social bonds.

    Comment by Tuebit — 2 March, 2009 @ 8:04 AM

  2. Nice description of the difference between how the lights went out for earlier games versus today’s games.

    I can’t help but see this as yet another expression of the difference between the “play in” and “live in” preferences of different gamers.

    The theory goes like this: some people naturally look to MMOGs for their rules-based gameplay. Their focus is on the mechanics of play in a MMOG; their rallying cry is “it’s just a game!” To the extent that they see a MMOG as a place, it’s just a location to “play in.”

    Others see a MMOG for its worldy qualities. They talk about “immersion”; they like having houses and emotes and complex systems to discover over time. The rules-based play of a MMOG is less important to these gamers than that it feel plausible as a place they can pretend to “live in.”

    Where this intersects with shutting down gameworlds is that the latter kind of gamer, who tend to form the deeper and longer-lasting communities within one particular world, were more prominent in the dawn of MMOGs than in today’s gameworlds. More of the few MMOGs there were catered more to the interests of “live in” players than today’s games do.

    Maybe there were always more people who wanted “play in” than live in, and game developers just got better at satisfying the former group. Or maybe game developers started making more “play in” games, creating more of those gamers as kids get old enough to start playing. (I suspect that both processes occurred.)

    Either way, MMOGs shifted from being about “live in” to focusing more on “play in.” Thus, when earlier “live in” games shut down, their players wanted to come together as a community to say goodbye to the world in which they’d lived. Later “play in” games, which focused less on supporting that type of emotional investment in a sense of place, saw a different kind of send-off. For the “play in” gamer, gameplay is gameplay; if one game shuts down, you just find a new game.

    I think this theory not only explains the different feel of turning off a M59 versus a TR, it also puts the “New Gameplay Experience” of Star Wars Galaxies in perspective. If the goodbye for M59 felt like a wake, the NGE seems to have felt to the “live in” players of SWG like a doctor pulling the plug without giving the family members a chance to say their farewells. For the “live in” gamers, the worldiness of pre-NGE SWG, as described in the old Terra Nova thread Order 66, has become a Paradise Lost — it was the last, best expression of a theory of MMOG design that says “live in” is as important as “play in.” Losing that unique place for scratching the “live in” itch generated intensely emotional reactions that some players are still expressing to this day.

    Perhaps if they’d been given a chance to say goodbye — “closure” as we call it today — the gamers who most enjoy the feeling of “living in” a secondary reality would have been able to let go with less drama. They’d have felt more free to look for some new gameworld in which they could put down roots.

    … Come, my friends,
    ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
    Push off, and sitting well in order smite
    The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
    To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
    Of all the western stars, until I die.
    It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
    It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
    And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

    SWG’s dispossessed have never found their Happy Isles, since the MMOG developer gods in our age have elected not to create anything like pre-NGE SWG’s worldiness. But that’s another topic. :)

    The point here is that MMOG sendoffs today may feel different than they once did because games — and the majority gamer type these games attract — have shifted from “live in” to “play in.”

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 2 March, 2009 @ 11:57 AM

  3. The MMOG industry has been burgeoning for years. It’s gotten to the point where large capital investments are being made. Obviously, in the case of World of Warcraft, it worked. They had an established fan-base to market to and catered as best they could to existing MMOG subscribers.

    The problem is, that you’re still dealing with inexperienced start-up studios. A lot of Richard Garriott’s success can be attributed to good timing. NCsoft relied on his name to sell a product that wasn’t ready to be shipped. I can understand that after six years, anyone would be tired, but they shouldn’t have let it get to that point.

    Asheron’s Call 2 is another case of a game that could not recover from it’s launch. There were a lot of bugs. The beta servers were choked with lag and the game client had horrendous memory leaks. Mind you, most of this was resolved by the time the game shipped it’s first expansion, but by that time it was too late. The damage was done.

    A successful, smooth launch is more important than ever in retaining customers early on. People will flock back to other games they’ve invested in or may be turned away entirely. With the onslaught of forever increasing monotonous tasks you’re forced into to advance, it is easy to turn back to a game you’ve already invested time into.

    I think it is fair to say that the majority of MMOGs are based on the same model. Which, is part of the problem. During my brief stint at Planetwide Games as a GM, I worked on a game called Risk Your Life. Which, fit the build for your average, run-of-the-mill MMOG almost to the t. I’m not sure if it is still running, but that was part of the reason they saw low subsriber numbers. The game wasn’t fresh. It was based on a model than has been re-hashed over and over again. People are weary of change, but once a developer does it right, I think players will embrace it.

    Where this intersects with shutting down gameworlds is that the latter kind of gamer, who tend to form the deeper and longer-lasting communities within one particular world, were more prominent in the dawn of MMOGs than in today’s gameworlds.

    Bart raises a valid point. There has been a large shift in MMOG communities. Part of it is that we’re no longer in an uncharted industry. The technology is commonplace, and there isn’t the same allure to new players in building a community around an online world. The gameplay mechanics have come to dictate how players participate, instead of players forging their own bonds and helping to build the world around them. There is much less focus on the social aspect of the world.

    Comment by Septa Scarabae — 2 March, 2009 @ 2:29 PM

  4. While I do think the “play in” vs. “live in” argument could be made, I don’t think in the particular instance of TR this is the case.

    I don’t mean to be rude to any of the TR staff (I know 1 of them here i Austin) but honestly, was TR around long enough to leave a lasting impression on anyone? Those “good old days” Brian points out from M59 didn’t have time to exist in TR.

    While yes the game was fun, it died for a reason much much much different then M59 and so while I do agree with many of your posts, I think the comparison here is a little unfair.

    If UO, EQ, DaoC, AC, EvE, CoX, SWG, FFXI, L2, WoW, EQ2 or any of the other multitude of first and second generation games had to turn off the lights, I’m sure you would see a huge community out cry and sudden spike in “remember when” posts. I just don’t see how the same amount of attachment could be made to a (late) third generation mmorpg that was released buggy, incomplete, with wonky mechanics and amid two of the largest titles of 2008.


    Comment by hootenja — 2 March, 2009 @ 3:41 PM

  5. I do think the “play in” vs. “live in” argument could be made for specialty niche worlds, such as A Tale in the Desert. The old worlds, such as UO and M59 were by definition niche worlds, while the large worlds of today are not really. A lot more tears would be shed over the closure of an independent neighborhood coffee shop than a local Starbucks outlet; even though the latter is likely to be where far more people get their morning lattes.

    Comment by David Stocker — 2 March, 2009 @ 7:01 PM

  6. Tabula Rasa did not manage to create a world. It also died due to too high expectations.

    UO and M59 are worlds. Even more so than the World of Warcraft. They are still alive.

    But developers aim at the AAA cash cow. And regularly manage to fail at that.

    Comment by Longasc — 3 March, 2009 @ 4:32 AM

  7. The (game)world is ending? Sweet!

    [...] blame Brian Green’s blog for this one He wrote yesterday about the event that Tabula Rasa held as part of its shutdown, and [...]

    Pingback by Epic Frontiers Dev Blog — 3 March, 2009 @ 10:51 AM

  8. Brian,

    I understand where you’re coming from, but I think there is another way to look at what happened, and an opportunity to come up with how to reconcile the TR-style shutdown with the M59-style shutdown you describe.

    Comment by Ted Southard — 3 March, 2009 @ 10:56 AM

  9. I won’t pretend to be an apologist but I do think WoW has a fairly strong core community which is the building blocks for a successful world. It also has longevity on it’s side (not of course not as long as M59 and UO) but nearly 5 years is still an accomplishment. Same could be said for EQ2, FFXI and L2 – all games with strong, lasting communities.

    UO and M59 are only of interest still because they were first, not necessarily that they created a more livable world (though the argument could be made). This hearkens back to my original comment, memories come from time spent in game – not the livability of it’s world. The more time, the more memories. The stronger the community, the easier to share those memories. I think this is where we are confusing the issues.

    As a community the mmorpg’ers have many memories of Ragnorok. It wasn’t a great game, but it was around for relatively long time. Conversely not many have memories from Earth & Beyond or Asheron’s Call 2 though the games were more memorable than a F2P mmo (Rag was F2P for many years while in beta). So..

    - TR wasn’t given enough time to create a large vault of memories for it’s gamers.
    - TR though it did have a community, didn’t have as strong of one to foster an outcry of “remember when” posts.
    Hence, this live event was the perfect way for a (lets be honest) unmemorable game, to be memorable.

    (On aside note, I’m not in the industry but I don’t think developers are chasing that golden WoW egg. I think in WoW they saw a system that work and people have fun playing. Emphasis in “fun”!! WoW is a fun game though not what everyone is looking for in an mmo. I’d like to give developers a little more credit.)

    Comment by D^t — 3 March, 2009 @ 3:25 PM

  10. I think it’s important to clarify that the point isn’t the lack of nostalgia surrounding TR’s closing, rather the change in attitudes. As I said in my post, people used to believe these games were effectively immortal. The reality is not living up to that belief.

    I never expected a 1-year-old TR community to have the same reaction as the then-5-year-old community around M59 had. I found it interesting that the TR dev team decided to go with a bit event. This shows that they wanted to put a sense of finality into it, understanding that the gaem will probably never resurface to see the light of day. Again, I think the comparison between a wake and a funeral is appropriate there, and I think there are deeper issues here than just the relative ages of the games.

    Nobody has really pointed out that these games aren’t immortal anymore. I felt I was in a unique position to do just that.

    Comment by Psychochild — 3 March, 2009 @ 4:38 PM

  11. I’m sorry about misunderstanding your post Brian. I read the question “Can’t any of these games be special to people anymore?” and felt defensive about most of the past and present mmo’s I’d played. At that point I began reaching for a counter argument to quell doubt in the gaming community. ^^

    Abstracting away the world from the game for a moment, yes I do agree TR is an interesting case study in handling an IP. An M59 2010, or Asheron’s Call …3? could possibly be created but TR is, for virtual worlds sake, dead. I wonder if this finality from the remaining developers is vindictive of what they thought of Lord British jumping ship at such a late stage, or maybe even the IP as a whole? Could it possibly be a secret warning to other would be developers? =X


    Comment by D^t — 4 March, 2009 @ 1:32 AM

  12. The End of an MMO

    [...] Abandoning Hope [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 4 March, 2009 @ 11:22 AM

  13. I haven’t jumped back in to defend or expand on my “live in”/”play in” thesis — this isn’t the place for that — but I would like to comment briefly on D^t’s suggestion that longevity is more of a factor than worldiness in promoting the kind of community that invests in an online game.

    What causes longevity? What makes someone stick around in a MMOG for five or more years? I think the reason is unlikely to be just the gameplay mechanics when any motivated player can burn through a game’s content much faster than a small group of developers can create it. Clans/guilds are a kind of community of players, but while they’re bound to each other, they’re not bound tightly to a particular game. If the rules of a game change enough, or if some shiny new MMOG comes along, entire clans/guilds have been known to pack up and switch to a different game. These gamers go where the gameplay they want can be found.

    Other players — the ones whom I suggest naturally see MMOGs (especially MMORPGs) as worlds to “live in” — may be less obviously bound to each other as well-defined groups of players. But individually each of these gamers is more tightly bound to a particular gameworld. They tend to stay with one game for years because they they invest emotionally in it as a place, as a second home, and leaving one’s home is hard because it requires cutting emotional ties. Part of that feeling like a home is generated by the other people who are there and the emergent norms and traditions they create, but that’s an aspect of “worldiness” along with simulation-depth, storytelling/lore, and presentation.

    If Ragnarok wasn’t a great game, why did people stick around? Why is worldiness, the feeling that a game is recognizable as a distinctive place, not a valid alternative explanation for the longevity of some players there?

    I don’t disagree that “the more time, the more memories.” What I’m asking is why some gamers are willing to stay with one game long enough to make those memories while others are more easily pushed or pulled into a different game. I suspect that those who stay until the bitter end are less likely to be the kinds of gamers who focus on rules-based gameplay for their fun, who look for a game to “play in.” Based on the player behaviors I’ve seen, I’ve come to think that the long-term players of a MMOG are more likely to be those who invest emotionally in that game as a unique place, as a world, and who want to continue to “live in” that world.

    I’m not asserting that this “live in”/”play in” notion must be the only acceptable explanation for why the endings of M59 and TR might have felt different (as well as for the SWG/NGE exodus). There are probably multiple useful ways of explaining the apparent differences — I’m just suggesting that “live in”/”play in” might be one such model.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 4 March, 2009 @ 11:53 AM

  14. This Is How The World Ends

    [...] “Psychochild” Green has a more bittersweet view. So, while the big TR ending event might win them style and PR points, it fills me with a bit of [...]

    Pingback by Broken Toys — 4 March, 2009 @ 12:31 PM

  15. Well said Bart! I love the argument for “live in vs. play in” styles of games as I, like many who care enough to post on mmo blogs, research better ways of designing ect… would rather “live in” a game world than mealy play in one.

    I don’t want to derail Brian’s original point again (I’m sorry Brian ><), but Bart do you believe gamers who merely play a mmorpg don’t create as strong of memories as those who live in one? Originally when I read your post, I would of said yes to this question, but thinking back over many friends who only played WoW for arena competitively (the very definition of play in), they still have that emotional tie back to WoW that defies logic.

    I’m wondering if this is more if a outlier example or if they “lived in” a meta game of WoW, namely the competitive arena sub community, which explains their fond memories of times not to long ago? If the latter is the case, may we have stummbled onto a new reason to fully develop mini (and meta) games in mmorpgs? ^^ LoL


    Comment by D^t — 4 March, 2009 @ 1:37 PM

  16. Your Only Limits are Your Imagination…

    [...] ending. One of the larger posts on this topic (and one of Tesh’s inspiration for his post) is from Brian “Psychochild” Green. While Tesh argues that yes, they should for various reasons, and Psychild wonders whether [...]

    Pingback by iMMOvation — 4 March, 2009 @ 2:57 PM

  17. D^t wrote:
    I don’t want to derail Brian’s original point again (I’m sorry Brian >< )

    I don’t see it as a derailing, rather as an interesting discussion that is very much related to the questions I pose.

    I’m not sure I wholly agree with Bart’s “live in”/”play in” idea, but it’s certainly been interesting to consider. Perhaps instead of considering about the game itself, perhaps it’s the community that shares these attributes? M59′s community felt more of a “live in” type for several reasons: they were early adopters in a fascinating medium, they were aggregated into smaller servers to form smaller and tighter communities, they had years to get used to the game and meet other people, etc. Not all of these are related to the game, and not all of these are completely necessary; I’m sure a game with larger communities might form a “live in” feeling as well if the other attributes are strong enough.

    Some other things to consider.

    Comment by Psychochild — 4 March, 2009 @ 3:02 PM

  18. D^t wrote:
    Bart do you believe gamers who merely play a mmorpg don’t create as strong of memories as those who live in one?

    The way I’ve come to think of it is not so much a question of strength of memories as of the types of memories created. Who we are, how we naturally see the world, tends to act like a filter that defines our perceptions, and those form the bases of our memories.

    In the context of MMOGs, my impression (translation: this isn’t based on hard, Nick Yee-quality data, so it should treated accordingly) is that the “play in” gamers definitely can have very strong memories of play experiences. The difference is that these gamers will tend to remember things they did or got — events, actions, gameplay, great victories, funny total party wipes, achievements, trophies — while the strongest memories of the typical “live in” gamer will be of things they saw or felt — moments alone on a mountaintop at dawn, in-game weddings, the appearance of a favorite character and his/her attire, notebooks full of lore, the view seen for years from a favorite character’s house.

    What I hope comes through in that description is that do/have (“play in”) gameplay experiences in MMORPGs, while equally strong, are less directly connected to a specific game than know/feel (“live in”) gameplay experiences. To the extent that today’s MMORPGs copy significant gameplay elements from each other (in particular the class/level character advancement model and the tank/DPS/support+aggro role-based combat model), the “play in” gamer can move with relative ease from one game to another. There’ll be some specifics to learn, but the fundamentals are similar enough that the “play in” gamer can feel confident that they’ll be able to dominate the new game in short order, adding to their store of do/have memories.

    The “live in” gamer, on the other hand, is closely tied to a specific gameworld. If they stick around at all after trying a game, it’s because they’re naturally inclined to invest emotionally in a place, and because there was something about that particular world that resonated with them. It might be the appearance and sounds of that gameworld, or a relatively deep system to explore (SWG’s crafting is a good example of this), or the unique lore of the IP on which a MMORPG is based, or friends who are there exclusively, or even the feel of the overall social landscape, but in any case it will be something that can’t be found in some other game. Their past know/feel memories, and the ones they hope to enjoy in the future, will be firmly set in that particular game.

    So from all this (thanks for letting me take your initial observation and go nuts with it, Brian ;), it’s not surprising that anyone can go to a large MMORPG and, if they stay long enough, collect some strong memories from their interactions there. The question is what kind of memories they’re likely to be — memories of action, or memories of belonging.

    And the differences between those two types of perception, to finally loop back to the original point, seems to me to be a reasonable lens (among several) for understanding how a difference in the perceived game-y/world-y ratio of a MMOG — which conditions the type of gamer it attracts initially and retains over time — can produce a difference in the kind of people who are there when that gameworld ends, and how they choose to say goodbye to it.

    So to address Brian’s last point, I would agree that it’s the players who determine the “feel” of a gameworld, and thus the feel of the sendoff. But it’s the features of a game, especially when it launches and as it’s marketed, that determine the kinds of players who are attracted to that gameworld and who can be retained by that gameworld over the long term.

    The design of a gameworld from its start appears to matter at its end.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 5 March, 2009 @ 12:05 PM

  19. Your Only Limits are Your Imagination…

    [...] ending. One of the larger posts on this topic (and one of Tesh’s inspiration for his post) is from Brian “Psychochild” Green. While Tesh argues that yes, they should for various reasons, and Psychild wonders whether [...]

    Pingback by Digital Lemonade Studios — 7 April, 2010 @ 10:44 PM

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