2 March, 2009
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?