You can never go home again, or at least I believe that’s the saying. I tend to agree, as my home town in NowhereVille Indiana stands as a shining example of the power that ‘getting out’ has on a person’s life. Still, when I do make it ‘home’ — and yes, although I’ve lived in four other states and half a dozen apartments, condos, and houses longer than the days where I spent my youth, my mother’s house on the Tippecanoe is still my home — I can breathe easy like nowhere else in the world. [On a sad note, someone recently related to me that maturity is achieved the day you lose your last parent because you are truly on your own. I’ve luckily not reached that level of independence, and certainly that is why my mother’s house still holds such warmth, because there I’m still the child, and who doesn’t like being the child once in a while?]
Honestly, I could shed tears as I write such profound revelations, as I think about home, three thousand miles from the City of Angels and all the chaos that goes with it, but I won’t. Instead, I want to try to translate that same feeling to another venue, that being the art of the quickly disappearing MMORPG.
Before I can truly begin to talk about the vanishing, however, I suppose I should first discuss life. On the 16th of March, 1999, Sony’s 989 Studios released Everquest and the world of online gaming was never the same. Sure, Ultima Online had been around since 1997, but it never stole gamers’ attention and basked in the world spotlight like Everquest, or ‘Evercrack’ as it was called by many because of its addictive qualities.
This game, eventually wrapped into the Sony Online Entertainment bundle, had hundreds of thousands of registered players by 2004. Somewhat unbelievably, thirteen years later, another expansion for the game appeared this November , but like most games of its kind, the death throes can be a long and lonely road.
My personal MMORPG journey also takes me there and back again, but not with Everquest. Instead, my drug of choice was the LucasArts and SOE blockbuster Star Wars Galaxies. Upon its release on June 26th, 2003, the game was said to have more than 400,000 pre-registered fans, and by 2006 had sold 1,000,000 units worldwide. [Note: at one point Blizzard Entertainment claimed 14 million worldwide users of World of Warcraft, a feat that still blows my mind today.]
I was there in this new Star Wars universe that first day, amid the bugs, the crashes, the patches, and the various strange happenings as thousands of people just like me travelled for the very first time to a galaxy far, far, away as a 3D fully interactive avatar. I well remember slipping out of my marital bed at 2:30 AM to go to my study and play unchecked until server maintenance at 7:30 EST. Once my wife left the house for work at 9:30, it was a dead scramble back to the game until she returned home any time between 6 and 10 PM.
For all of you scoring at home, that is somewhere around 11 hours a day of gaming during the work week, as I didn’t play on weekends. So 55 hours of productive time a week was plugged directly into my computer. Lucky for me, by April 2005 I was done, and walked away… just walked away, but still, that was nearly two years of life invested in pixels.
This is a perfect example of what little self-regulation, ample free time [ah the life of a writer!], depression, and an MMORPG can do to a person. They are devourers of life, and for those years that the game possessed me I shudder to think about how many hours I put into creating a world for myself that somehow seemed more important and so much brighter than the one I lived in.
That world, that ‘home’ if you will, was as real as any you could imagine, and so it is for so many who play these games, whether Asheron’s Call, Vanguard the Saga of Heroes, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Dark Age of Camelot, or any other. To the players, those that invest countless hours building a character their strange new world can be proud of, these games are something far more valuable than digital ones and zeros on a distant server in Arizona.
The act of creation, both by the artists who design the games and the players that utilize draft material to make the mundane magic, becomes a thing of beauty that has to be recognized for the untold investment it requires.
I mean, think about it. If you took everything you were, every spare moment of waking time, imagination, energy, and brain power and focused it on one thing and one thing only for two years, how incredible would that thing be? I often consider my guitar skills, or lack thereof, if I’d utilized my time differently. In February 2003 my wife got me guitar lessons. By November, I’d stopped going to them because I couldn’t sacrifice the hour on a Tuesday to go to the lesson because the game was too important. Now if I’d put every moment of time I vested in SWG into my Yamaha acoustic, what kind of player would I have become? I’m telling you, people at parties would much prefer me channeling my inner Eric Clapton than discussing my max-level Rori-born weaponsmith/pistoleer.
Still you have to wonder if, in some way, what I did in the game somehow relevant in real life? Does it truly matter in the long run? Who can ever truly say, but it is a fact that in December 2011 Star Wars Galaxies shut down for good, so anything I created there is no more. Whatever home I had is gone and there is no more visiting for me. In this case, I simply can’t go home again.
There was a moment, however, in 2008, when I decided it was time to return to the familiar climes of the SWG universe. I downloaded another copy of the game, got a free thirty day trial, and went back to the place I’d called home in those heady days of 2003. Granted, when I left SWG in 2005, it was already faltering, already losing players I’d called friends, and had ‘ghost towns’ that were once populated with a universe of dramatic individuals, but I wasn’t really prepared for what was left three years later.
It was a series of worlds devoid of ‘life’. Instead of being Star Wars, the game had turned into a kind of post-apocalyptic journey, a place where you wander endless ruins without a soul in sight. The feeling of loss was dramatic, and as I moved across incredibly rendered alien landscapes, I would discover homes in the wild that begged the questions ‘Who lived here? What were their dreams? Where are they now?’
This was a mission that became an exercise in archaeology, or even social anthropology. Homes that took countless hours to build, decorate, and place stood like bastions of a wasted future. In some cases these were works of art, and the cost to build them was incredible, yet here they stood abandoned and without anyone left to appreciate the toil that went into their creation.
The same can be said for the worlds themselves, each a shining example to the visions of George Lucas. Endless hours of programmers’ days and concept artists’ nights were consumed to create this vision, and yet one day it would come to an end. All the investment would be sucked away in an electric vacuum when the server was disconnected.
MMOs are and always have been a different breed of game because they are the most organic of all systems. First person shooters come and go, but you don’t build in them, you simply destroy. Halo, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor: they are recyclers of combat and scenario. Madden, NBA Live, and any sport clash are talent machines of button crunching, but once the contest ends, another is born exactly like the first. Solo play RPGs don’t devolve and don’t grow, they simply reset on the save, and Wizardry or Bard’s Tale today is the same as it was in 1984 if I reboot it on my system.
No, only the MMO creates, and in that act of creation, art is born. That is the addiction, the community sense, and yet it seemingly can’t last forever.
But for those who have played these games, and fewer and fewer are being made or maintained today, I salute you for your creativity and the arts you employed to make the world more vibrant than it was when you entered.
So it goes with MMOs, a life cycle fulfilling its purpose over the course of a few years as the collective consciousness of gamers migrate to new platforms. Still, if any of you have ever wondered if what you did was appreciated, I tell you it was, because there have to be others like me who walked the deserted worlds and still marveled at your creations.
Perhaps MMOs are not long for this world, or like most life cycles, there will be a rebirth at some point. But whatever the case, take heart that art was fulfilled, if even just in the screen of your, or my, computer.