September 24, 2021

Dead Online Games And Memories.


Epic Games’ decision to shut down its MOBA Paragon hasn’t been without a chorus of complaints.

Yes, I think chasing Fortnite and jumping on the “Battle Royale” bandwagon is a mistake – jumping on any bandwagon, particularly a new one, is rarely a smart play unless you’ve done your homework. However, the numbers don’t lie – Paragon was bleeding players, whilst Fortnite was seeing an inexorable rise. Games developers and publishers have to make calls like this from time to time – and it’s not always going to be good news for the passionate fan-base left behind.

I do understand how Paragon’s community feels though.

I’ve mentioned it before, some years back, but I was a massive fan of the Richard Garriot sci-fi MMORPG Tabula Rasa. I was there on launch day – nicking the surname “System”, and quickly realised how big a mistake that was as people whispered me for support a lot (whoops!). And I was there the day it died too – a sad, depressing day. NCSoft shut it down – Richard Garriot had effectively abandoned it and the team left behind just had no idea where to take the game, or indeed how they were going to implement new content. Particularly, as I understand, after serious budget cuts. I think deep down, even before the closure was announced, we knew the game itself was floating around in a void-state – suspended in a creative and developmental limbo, and whilst I loved so much about the game and the ambition behind it (mutations were my favourite!) it was a game that needed… more. More talent. More care. More money. And with the exit of Mr. Garriot, I think we were already reaching the conclusion that the game was dead in the water.

It wasn’t the first game to find itself wholly shut down; but it was the first time I realised how fleeting online gaming can be.

Let’s be blunt about this – you will probably be able to play Breath of the Wild in several years time. Single player games, and single-player components, don’t need the expensive online mechanisms that keep the wheels turning indefinitely. These kinds of things can be abandoned, of course – abandonware is a thing and has been a thing for a long time – but they can still be played, and are playable, if you know how to get them running. They’re indefinite objects, perhaps even “art” in a near-permanent way. You can return to a game years or decades later and it’s still there. It’s still as it was. The game it was meant to be, the game they wanted to make – or not, in some instances.

Online games are transient in nature; they’re run as long as there is money and a desire to keep them running and once one of those things starts to run out, the game quickly fades from existence. And it is an almost permanent demise – the server code is just quietly deleted, the games become impossible to play and the playerbase just ceases to exist. It’s a very final execution on the whole; yanking the plug and then just silence.

tabula rasa art
And there are days I still miss this game.

I’ve played many games over the years like this too. Hellgate: London, for example. Hellgate is one of those few examples which got more than one chance to shine; the first time around, arguably poor business choices utterly ruined everything. Flagship Studios had this crazy idea that subscriber content filtered down to the general playerbase on a monthly basis – so most people, since anyone could play for free, just waited around for a while for the paid content to become free. Seems like an obvious problem, and I guess looking back – it was. But eventually the game couldn’t pay for itself under Bandai-Namco, or even EA who I believe bought out the project but never actually re-released it.

The relaunch was under a Korean group called HanbitSoft, who turned it into a free-to-play game. And yes, I went back. And yes, it was every bit as much fun as I remembered it being as well. Sure, the microtransactions were a little excessive in spots but the brunt of the game, the classes and combat and lovely rogue-like mapping – was there, intact. And there was even new content that had been unfinished by Flagship. But it clearly didn’t bring in enough players – the game first went down in 2009, and the relaunch was in 2014. That’s a long time, and I guess it was quietly forgotten with games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV on the market.

I get it. Some games just don’t survive that long. And it sucks.

Epic Games is like any other company though – the bottom line matters, and Paragon as I understand it just lost players. A lot of that is the fault of Epic Games. They certainly never made a good go of it, and made some daft decisions through its short lifespan. But perhaps, like Tabula Rasa and Hellgate: London, it’s a game trying to exist in an arena where there are bigger fish. Two small-ish MMORPG’s trying to muscle in on territory already dominated by World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI (which I do sort of miss)? That’s ambitious. MOBA? Damn, League of Legends would like a word. Also, DOTA. And Heroes of the Storm. And a bunch of other MOBAs.

You could argue Epic Games had a “duty” to carry on; eh, maybe, but there’s nothing sadder in my eyes than a game desperately chasing a lost cause. I thought that about Rift: Planes of Telara. I loved it once. Then things went badly through server mismanagement. Friends and groups got forcibly disbanded and scattered. It’s still going… but as I understand it, significantly less successful than its ever been (not helped recently by a $100 loot crate stunt that backfired). I try to go back from time to time, but I feel… lost. Not because of all the new content, or the friends I lost along the way, but lost because the game just feels alien and lost itself, if that makes sense. Rift is one of those games that I’m almost ashamed to say perhaps should have died already; the long, protracted death throes of a game that was once a genuine World of Warcraft rival just doesn’t feel right. It’s like sometimes remembering that a person whom you once loved is on life support and no-one has deigned to turn it off in years, so they lie there. They’re still the face you remember, it’s still breathing, but there’s no other signs of life.

That’s… really depressing.

tabula rasa CE box
Not as weird a metaphor as you’d think…

I think what I’m saying though is – remember the good times. I think the reason I cherish my memories of Tabula Rasa and Hellgate: London so dearly was because they were brief, passionate flings that didn’t last very long in gaming terms. We had our thing but then tragedy struck, and we parted. I can’t imagine, for example, what it would have been like if NCSoft just kept Tabula Rasa running for an additional 18 months, trying desperately to find a way around things, whilst the whole thing stagnated and got stale and boring. It’s because it was taken from my grasp whilst things were good, fun and fiery that I cling to those times, and the people I met along the way. If I’d walked away because I got bored… well, I probably wouldn’t be looking back with the same rose-tinted nostalgia goggles, I suppose.

Paragon is over, but the community still got to experience it. And those who are passionate about it, I say – cherish those memories. Years down the road, you’ll look back and it will seem so far away and yet also so crystalline. It will give you a warm glow, particularly in times when the games industry seems so determined to be a bit of a douche-canoe. And yes, there may even come times when the suggestion or line of hope is spun that it will return – and you’ll think, “Crowd-fund that crap! I will THROW BUCKETS OF MONEY AT YOU!”. Chances are it will never happen, but for a brief moment you’ll feel that little spark and reminisce of what was, and perhaps even what might have been.

That’s the fate of so many games. And it’s sad, but it’s how things go. Some things die before their time, some things just never seemed destined to live long… and others live an abnormally long life to the point you sometimes just wish they’d go away.

Trust me, sometimes you’re better off with the memories…


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