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Digital apocalypse: living through the death of virtual worlds

end of mmo lead

In the middle of the night on November 30, 2012, Erin Palette's carefully kept world ended. During the last moments, her City of Heroes character Silence Do-Good held a torch aloft in her bright red-gloved left hand as a spiderweb of broken concrete spread out below her equally bright red, knee-high boots. A blue and white unitard, accented by red shoulder pads and a yellow utility belt, completed the outfit the Florida-based Palette chose to wear to the apocalypse. Her friends – Violet Tigress, Betty Ballistic, and Java Juggernaut, a Super Group that called itself the "Buttkickers of the Fantastic" – stood close by in Paragon City's Atlas Park. The foursome had spent the evening battling bad guys, memorably defeating the evil Malta Group and its 30-foot tall robot Kronos Titan, but they returned to a communal space to witness the end.

Others had the same idea. "We hung out in Atlas Park with a whole bunch of other people and, perhaps appropriately, night had fallen in the game," Palette, whose name is a nom de plume that she uses for her blog, says. "This huge assembly of heroes was gathered there, using their powers, emoting, and chatting. We were heroically waiting for the end of the world, waiting for the end of reality. Then, about four minutes after 3AM, they booted us off the servers."

The City of Heroes, already covered by the darkness of night, winked out of existence completely. All that remained for Palette, who had been playing CoH for hours on end since 2004, were the memories and the screen grabs.

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All MMOs must end, eventually

All MMOs must end, eventually

But City of Heroes is not the only massively multiplayer online game (MMO) to shut down recently. Glitch, a quirky one dreamt up by the team responsible for Flickr, called it quits on December 9. Others that failed to gain traction or disappeared for different reasons include Star Wars Galaxies, Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa, Fury, LEGO Universe Online, and dozens more. The very nature of MMOs means most of them will fail. Only a few can reach World of Warcraft status. The demand simply isn't large enough.

"The problem with MMOs is that they take a lot of time to play, so most people cannot play more than one," Jesper Juul, game theorist and author of the forthcoming The Art of Failure, says. "There is a very natural limit to the size of the market. People will keep launching these games in hopes of capturing some of that slice, but most of them are going to fail."

Even if a game does find an audience and manage to turn a profit, there's no guarantee it won't be turned off for political or strategic reasons. NCsoft, the South Korean company that produced City of Heroes, simply decided they no longer wanted to deal with running and administering the game. That angered and upset the dedicated players, but they had little recourse beyond outraged forum posts and a passionate Facebook campaign. Three months after NCsoft’s late August announcement about the impending end, CoH ceased to exist.

The trauma of an end

The trauma of an end

"It's like when you start watching a good TV show. You don't know if it's going to go on for eight years, or if it's going to get cancelled after half a season."

MMOs, understandably but also unavoidably, end. This can be traumatizing. Imagine pouring your time, your money, your creativity, and your energy into something, and then watching it disappear completely. MMOs aren't like traditional games. They can’t be saved or played again. Once the server goes down, an MMO as a player knows it is gone. Frequently, the end comes without warning. "I knew that MMOs ended sometime, but it hadn't occurred to me that most of them end relatively quickly. It's like when you start watching a good TV show. You don't know if it's going to go on for eight years, or if it's going to get cancelled after half a season," Laura Blackwell, a writer for PCWorld and avid Glitch player, says.

A strong, and very real, sense of community develops within the games. Players are not in the same room — and will likely never meet in person — but they do form lasting, important, and viable relationships. Humans are social creatures, with or without physical, in-person interaction. "In a virtual world, you have the ability to make these relationships real. You're engaging physically with a projection. You are interacting with other people, even though you might not know specifically who they are," Dr. Pamela Brown Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, says. "These experiences are very real. The loss of one of these worlds is like the loss of anything you do with a bunch of other people."

Juul agrees. "It's like being expelled from the nation where you grew up. It's the distant homeland that you can't return to," he says. "MMOs are the kind of games that most clearly promise you a world or a home or a place to be. They appear to be very permanent and tangible, these concrete places. At the same time, they can very quickly melt into air. They are the most fragile of all the game forms, too."

The worlds can disappear, but there isn’t anything psychologically wrong with mourning their loss. Rutledge believes a grieving period is important, appropriate, and sometimes even necessary. “Those are normal feelings and they should go through the same process anyone does when they miss something. Remember it fondly. Get together and reminisce a little bit. Celebrate the shared experience. Then, find other things to do to replace it."

But first, they have to get over the loss. That takes time, especially when it comes suddenly and unexpectedly.

Cities destroyed

Cities destroyed

On August 31, 2012 NCsoft announced that it would terminate the Paragon Studios development team that created City of Heroes and close the game at the end of November for "strategic reasons." After the initial shock, the community of players flew into overdrive to try to save their beloved game. They launched a @SaveCoH Twitter handle and a Save City of Heroes website, posted a petition on Change.org, and sent non-stop messages on the game's thriving forums. Nothing worked. NCsoft was making a profit on CoH, but it didn't matter: the game was going to end.

The last months of a virtual city had real world implications. "Imagine you have a favorite childhood toy, something that was very important to you growing up. Imagine that you find out that it's been thrown away or burned in a fire. It hits you, or it hit me in a deep emotional place," Palette, who frequently talks about CoH in the present tense even weeks after the shutdown, says. "I should have known it wasn’t going to last forever. It shouldn't affect me like this, but it did because I had a connection with these characters. It's that 'You can't go home again' feeling, like when a playground is replaced by a 7-Eleven."

(Perhaps the game’s faithful players should have anticipated this outcome: NCsoft doesn't have the best reputation within the MMO world. In 2011, the company lost a $28-million lawsuit with Richard Garriott revolving around the end of Tabula Rasa and the termination of the game designer's contact. In part, the “sordid tale of betrayal” involved a goodbye letter preportedly written by Garriott that was actually penned by the company’s executives. NCsoft said he left voluntarily, but the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled he was forced out while he was in quarantine after returning from the International Space Station.)


The players, realizing they couldn't do anything to prevent the end, decided to continue functioning as heroes in the real world as well as the pixelated one. CoH players had a tradition of contributing to IRL charities. The Real World Hero campaign raised nearly $30,000 between 2009 and 2011. In the last month of the game, they raised $1,000 and gave it to the Paragon Studios staff to pay for a bittersweet celebratory dinner. They directed their fury at NCsoft, creating banners that they shared on Facebook and attached at the bottom of blog posts condemning the company. The CoH diehards alternated between anger and sadness, some joking about going through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. But mostly, they simply tried to prepare themselves for a universe that lacked the City of Heroes.

"At first, it was like trying to save the victim, and then it became a matter of mourning. I think it's going to be like this for a long time," Troy Hickman, an Eisner Award-nominated comic book author who played frequently and wrote a CoH story arc, says. "Then, the pain of it will sort of go away and people will reminisce about the good times. Of course, there are going to be people who think it will come back."

It's not going to happen. City of Heroes is, almost certainly, gone. There's a chance it could get sold or resurrected, but that's very slim, and grows smaller by the day. The reality leaves CoHers with two choices: play nothing or find another MMO. The decision comes down to the individual. Hickman thinks he's probably done with online games for now. He spent the last hours of CoH taking screenshots of his 116(!) characters – some of whom may end up in future comics – but sounds content to let his MMO obsession drift away. Palette is experimenting with Champions Online, almost entirely because the superhero game ran some "very classy" eulogy-type posts honoring CoH. They also timed a Double XP weekend to the the end of their former competitor in a smart effort to entice gamers to jump ship.

City of Heroes players are dealing with the loss in their own way, but they are united in one opinion. "I think about the only universal constant is that not only will they never, ever play a game put out by NCSoft, but they are evangelizing. They are spreading the gospel of 'Don't buy from these people. They will just cancel it," Palette says. The heroes, it seems, found one final mission.


Testimonial of novelist Mercedes Lackey:

The players, realizing they couldn't do anything, decided it was like hearing the diagnosis of terminal illness for a friend. I am not exaggerating here. Because of the community aspect of the City games (unique in MMORPGs as far as I have been able to determine), I get most of my social contact via the game. We can play and hang out nightly with my father in law. I have real world friends I met here, people I wrote fanfiction with, to whose homes I have been invited, and who I have had stay with us.

NeoConzell's comment:

City of Heroes servers may be shutting down, but It will still live on forever in our hearts and minds, stand proud not in its passing but its existence for being, from the first day to the last it has been a pleasure. No matter the words stated by others of its being less then its praise, it is our words that stand the test of time, the negativity that falls at the way side forgotten. And when the sunsets the last day, I will salute its fall for I know City of Heroes will rise again,For We are the City of Heroes, and we shall forever be here.

Glitch's glitch

Glitch's glitch

City of Heroes came to an ignominious end, but the final few weeks of Glitch were exactly the opposite. Tiny Speck, the company that ran the proudly weird game and was founded by Flickr's Stewart Butterfield and three colleagues from the photo-sharing site, kept the lines of communication open and honest. "We are really sorry. We failed you. And it is very, very painful: no-one wanted Glitch to succeed more than us. … We know that many of you are hurting too — many of you put enormous efforts into supporting Glitch, supporting the team, proselytizing, encouraging new players and much more. We are, really, truly, genuinely sorry," the small company wrote in an emotional closing note.

From the beginning, Glitch was a long shot to succeed. Although Tiny Speck raised $6.5 million during two rounds of funding in 2009 and 2010 from VCs including Accel Partners and Andreessen Horowitz, the game that boasted few monsters and little fighting but plenty of quirks and character, was only intended to appeal to a certain small subset of the population. "The designs were so cute, but they were also off-kilter and quirky so I didn't feel like I was in a kid's game. There was always that little bit of bite to it," says PCWorld's Blackwell, who wrote an excellent post-mortem.

Butterfield, who was working on an MMO called Game Neverending with his team when they stumbled upon the idea for Flickr more than a decade ago, explained Glitch’s audience more succinctly, telling CNET: "There's not a better way to say [who we're targeting] than people with above average intelligence and sophisticated tastes, in their 20s or early 30s... The intersection of NPR listeners and game players."

Glitch Player, Phantasmagoria:

I feel so sad. I was having such a bad day, and then I saw this. I've been playing Glitch for just a couple of months, but it was such a wonderful outlet for me to escape from the stress in my life. I know how sad the staff are that they you have to shut it down... and I feel so selfish that I'm focusing on how upset I am about this. :( I was looking forward to a long, long time playing this game...

Glitch player, Merry:

And my heart just cracked into a million tiny pieces. There are no words for how much fun and imagination this game has given me. No words. Thank you thank you thank you. Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

In a phone call with The Verge, the founder cited a number of reasons for calling it quits, including early architectural decisions and the difficulty of porting from Flash. Additionally, although the game developed a loyal following, it was not a large enough one to make financial sense to continue. Butterfield and his team made the difficult decision with enough time and flexibility to end Glitch in a "graceful way."

Blackwell, who began playing in August, was crushed along with many of the other members of the community. "I was really sad, really let down. I hadn't seen anything like Glitch. This world is going to end, and there's so much I haven't done in it," she says. The message boards became a coping mechanism, with hundreds of comments and touching eulogies popping up soon after the announcement. While the Tiny Speck staff expected a mix of positive thoughts and "fuck yous,” the actual notes were almost entirely the former. Rutledge suggests that the company's constant stream of contact and focus on communication helped players cope, turning what could have been a bad ending into one that went as smoothly as possible. The honesty and passion earned the respect of the players.

The Glitch players also weren't left empty-handed. Tiny Speck staffers, who spent years and millions of dollars developing a game they loved, worked to make it easy to export characters, to have something to show for the hard work they put into the game. They also attempted to create real world objects that will outlast the virtual game. A book, "The Art of Glitch," reached its IndieGoGo goal of $17,000 in two hours and continues to climb. There are also plans for an official music release.

Butterfield spent the week before the end coping in his own way. Glitch was his baby. "I had to distance myself for the last couple of days," he said when we spoke with three days remaining on the countdown clock. “At first it was quite difficult. I've been burying myself in the administrative stuff that needs to happen. When I do play, I get bombarded by players and it makes me feel super sad. But now that there is 71 hours and 46 minutes left, I'm starting to feel a little bit more urgency."

He did, playing over the next three days as his character Stoot Barfield, a one-eyed, long-haired monster in a sharp plaid business suit. On the night of December 9, the creative team gathered in their Vancouver office with “a fine selection of mezcals and whiskeys for everyone, and some fancy desserts.” They entered the stunning virtual world of their own design for one final time. In the last moments, a Glitchen named DeliciousCake said, "What a beautiful dream this was." And she was right. But all dreams must end at some point. Soon after her words, the servers went quiet. Glitch players around the world looked into the nothingness. Butterfield and his crew went out for drinks.

In a galaxy far, far away

In a galaxy far, far away

"It was a confused mess, but it was really, really ambitious."

If the end of Glitch went smoothly from a company-player relations perspective and the final weeks of City of Heroes couldn't have gone much worse, the final days of Star Wars Galaxies fell somewhere in the middle. The game, launched in the early 2000s, was remarkably forward-thinking and totally flawed from the beginning. It gained a following, boasting more than 300,000 subscribers but slowly lost players and cachet, and never recovered after World of Warcraft debuted in 2004. Sony Online Entertainment tried to tweak SWG but never satisfactorily. It had a legion of supporters and many more who had trouble figuring out what to do. "I have fine memories of SWG. It was a confused mess, but it was really, really ambitious," said video game journalist Alex Meer who wrote a touching post about the game's final moments, says.

In the summer of 2011, SOE announced it would end the game on December 15 to make way for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Some fans pushed back, but the decision was made. "SWG was played and loved by millions of gamers around the world who were an integral part of what made this game such a success from both a gameplay and community perspective. An MMO game like SWG is truly made by its community," Michele Sturdivant-Cagle, senior director of global communications for Sony Online Entertainment, emailed to the Verge. (None of the executives responsible for the decision were available to comment.)

The final minutes passed with many of the characters gathered in Mos Eisley, shooting off guns and fireworks. Moderators turned off some of the more complicated graphics engines to keep the game moving smoothly. The irony of the overly ambitious game failing up to the very end wasn't lost on the assorted characters as the last few moments ticked away.

This is what it's like when worlds collide

This is what it's like when worlds collide

"It's a blissful little moment of shared community and happiness. It's very hard to drop the curtain for the final time."

All worlds – real or virtual – end. When virtual ones do, it hurts in the same way as it would when a physical one does. And that makes sense, as MMOs become “real” for players, especially the hardcore ones who dedicate time and money. "The fact is the more attached you get to something, the more painful it's going to be. But that's life," Juul says.

It’s impressive and important that players can become so involved with in-game communities. While some outsiders might think growing attached to a virtual character or community of gamers a player will never meet in person is strange, concerning, or an indication of poor social skills, Rutledge disagrees. "It's reaffirming of the human condition that we can connect, engage, enjoy, and feel sad to lose that [bonding]. It's great evidence that we can have these kinds of connections across all these kinds of media," she says.

In late November, while Butterfield, Blackwell, and the rest of the Glitch crew were still creating connections, players in City of Heroes were preparing for the MMO’s sad, emotional conclusion. "It's like the end of a play when the actors keep coming on for a final bow. No one quite wants to end that experience. It's a blissful little moment of shared community and happiness. It's very hard to drop the curtain for the final time," Meer says.

Palette's Silence Do-Good – red, white, and blue outfit and all – ran a few final missions, helping her friends reach the game’s level 50 cap. Hickman, meanwhile, signed on as the "Troy Hickman" avatar he created to attend in-game events. The CoH developers erected a in-game statute of Cyrus Thompson, a superhero in the IRL comics Hickman wrote, and he headed there.

"Every time one of my characters ran by the statue, I would stop and salute. I was really honored," he says. "During the last half hour of the game, I went to the statue. I stood in front of it and had a moment. Another guy came up to me and asked if I was actually Troy Hickman. I said, 'Yes, or as Troy Hickman as I could be at 2:30 in the morning.' He stood there with me because that's was he was planning to do as well."

The end of CoH was scheduled for 3AM sharp, but the servers took a few extra minutes to shut down. Hickman and his new virtual friend, the one he would never have met were it not for a few final, random choices made during the dying moments of a world consisting of zeros and ones, "just stood there, waiting for the end, which was kind of cool and also sad. It was like waiting for the Mayan calendar to run out." Then, somewhere between four and six minutes past the hour, the faraway servers turned off for good. Another world was gone, but not forgotten.

The Verge
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