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Empty Worlds

Empty Worlds

Where is Everyone?

Lewis Anderson takes a quick look into the online multiplayer-scape. Is it as barren as he thinks it is?

EA SPAT a quivering globule of bad news shaped phlegm into the gaping mouth of the internet last week with the announcement of the deactivation of over thirty games’ online services. The thirty-ish titles are primarily made up of flagship games series like FIFA and MADDEN which, with the sports titles’ annual cycles of reiterative releases, may not be missed much, but it raises an important point about the length of the modern videogame’s life.

Once upon a time, back when bread was sold unsliced and electricity was delivered in buckets, the life of a videogame was restricted solely by the hardiness of hardware. As long as your N64 and its peripherals were in good condition, you could play Goldeneye to your heart’s content and never lament the loss of any of its features.

A game Castrated

Things are much different now, however. If you fire up your desktop to dive into an online match of The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth you will be sorely disappointed. EA’s grip on the license has expired, the expiration of which sees it tumble from whence it came, back down into the burning lava pools of Mt. Warner Brothers. The license boils merrily in the lava-soup below and in its devouring flames burns the online multiplayer once offered by the Battle for Middle Earth series.

Perhaps this calls to be joyous – at last we’ve reached an era of peace and prosperity that will see no more conflict and strife come to Middle Earth. Perhaps there’ll be no more Elvish graffiti? Maybe discarded jewellery will no longer clog up cave systems. Dare we hope that dwarves will no longer be put in bins, their little arms too short to prise the lids open?

But the real truth is that this means that the multiplayer aspect of the Battle for Middle Earth series is gone forever. All the stats, win/loss ratios and memories you had accumulated are dead, absorbed forever into the online abyss.

Better, But at a Cost

It’s certain that the internet’s emergence introduced superior multiplayer capabilities to videogames. That’s an undisputed fact. But what the internet giveth it can taketh away. Videogames with online multiplayer burn intensely bright for the period of time that the game is supported, but that bright light is quickly extinguished when server-side support is dropped.

Obviously, older games lose functionality as time goes on. To expect games and consoles and the culture of videogames to remain static while every other medium of entertainment has to evolve just to survive would be naïve at best and foolish at worst.

Take the music industry for example. Perhaps this is the easiest example to make, given the controversy surrounding the expectation that customers would upgrade their entire music collection from the physical vinyl to the digital CD. To customers, it became all too apparent that the music they thought they’d bought for good was actually just a license to listen to music on vinyl.

To expect your product to retain the same functionality when an industry only survives by being dynamic is the definition of naïveté. Old things are replaced by new, that’s how the business works – and old gameplay can be found in new games. Can’t play Battle for Middle Earth online anymore? Hell, just go out and buy the new Command & Conquer. You might enjoy it. It’s still an RTS, right?

There’s almost a system of pay to play at work here, perhaps perfectly illustrated by EA’s sports series. Their annual rebirth is almost phoenix-like and would be quite beautiful if it wasn’t so relentless. Gamers feel it necessary to update their FIFAs, their MADDENs, and their NFLs, especially if they want continued online support.


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1 Comment

    I do not agree with your music analogy. We do have a hardware upgrade cycle, which is effectively the same as when music formats change. A closer analogy would involve functionality somehow being retroactively taken out of the mp3 files you bought.

    I think the expectation for long-lasting multiplayer experiences is partly an historical one, and also based on a simple thing such as packaging. Multiplayer games in the past, especially on the PC, have lived well past their sell-by date because of users hosting their own servers, or that they rented. Having a publisher forcing players to use their servers, for several reasons, stopped all that.

    Regarding packaging, it’s not displayed clearly enough on the box of a game that the multiplayer experience may end at any point. It’s there in small text on the back, but it’s hardly prominent. Personally, I would like to see this made much clearer to consumers. We can’t stop EA and the like shutting down servers, but if people are being mislead, then there may be a way to change that.

    I should also add that I like this article, regardless of how I disagree with some of its points. It’s symptomatic of the “games as a product” and “games as a service” dichotomy that’s being crossed at the moment.

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