My friend Gordon was obsessed with film when we were in high school. He even taught himself German so he could watch “the best cinema ever made” (no, I’m not kidding). Naturally, he went on to study film, as anyone that obsessed does, and is currently “working in the industry” (read: making money) as well as teaching. Good for him!
Anyway, a while back, when he was a passionate college student (as opposed to a passionate college graduate) he brought this interesting problem to my attention. There are hundreds of films that degrade into nothingness every year. The chemicals used to create the film, plus the actual material that the film is capture on, begin to decay, particularly when not kept in perfect conditions. Computer folks are totally aware of this problem - we know that anything magnetic, such as old floppy disks or even standard hard drives, have a definite shelf life. Even optical discs (CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays) do not last forever. The safe way to backup data is combining redundancy with off-site backups (read: “the cloud”).
The film archival issue is something that Martin Scorsese (a possible mentor of Gordon, I never asked) has taken to heart. He’s been working for years to preserve these old films so they don’t disappear. Why is this important? Well, part of it is simply our cultural history - it’s what the entire film industry was built upon. But the films that are potentially lost are not just old unknowns - some of the pivotal works of the 20th century are at risk. One could argue that we have all of those captured on DVD, but that’s almost equivalent to saying that we took a picture of the Mona Lisa, so therefore the actual painting is unnecessary. Almost.
I didn’t log on this morning to rant about films, however. The folks that are obsessed with the preservation movement have decent momentum and funding at the moment. I am concerned about an entirely different problem: the disappearance of MMOs.
I’ve been thinking about this problem for years - actually, ever since the Imagination Network (INN / TSN) shut down. One of the first graphical MMOs was there - Yserbius. This basic dungeon crawler was captivating and a glimpse, if small and blocky, of what the future held. Then the system shut down: the Internet came along and crushed it. And Yserbius was gone. More recently, Lego Universe met a similar fate. The game was out for roughly a year and then disappeared, presumably forever.
There are a couple of major problems with the death of MMOs - one is the selfish idea that the game can never be truly experienced again without the mass of people. In the case of Yserbius, that’s totally fine - the game had gone on long enough. There were other games, like Everquest, that needed to be played. Lego Universe, however, was still a baby when the servers were shut down. There was story that there will never be told properly. But this is mainly a gamer’s complaint - the truth is that games fail all the time, as do consoles. No one really bemoans the death of the Virtual Boy anymore.
The second major problem with MMO closings is that as opposed to other games, MMOs generally cannot be played without an official server - meaning that once it’s dead, it’s dead (unless you hack, break laws, etc). The work that goes into creating an MMO is then lost to the public, and MMOs tend to be the largest scale and most detailed games that exist. Think about it - hundreds of artists have worked on World of Warcraft to make every detail perfect from every angle. They know that players will crawl over every inch, so every structure, every threat, every mountain needs to be perfect. If you play a modern MMO, you’ll notice that the buildings tend to have an unbelievable level of detail. All of that hard work is lost when an MMO is no longer playable. That represents hundreds of hours of labor from skilled 3D artists, designers, and coders. But that’s just a small group comparatively...
The real issue does not affect every MMO - only a handful of current ones and likely all of the future ones. Games of the future allow users to have a greater level of control, so much so that the users define the environment. In Lego Universe, this control was limited to a personal plot of land, but imagine when games like Minecraft merge with the most popular MMOs. Every piece of land will be alterable. Every castle, fortress, town, city, everything(!) will be made by the users. Sure, the game designs will curate an experience, but there will be enough openness to the system that everyone will have a hand in creating the world. And that is a beautiful concept.
I’m going to ignore all of the problems that occur as a result of a completely open architecture. I know that some of those problems have already been solved by pioneers in the space, like Second Life. Instead, I would like to focus on the creative force of thousands of people banding together with a single goal in mind - and being given the tools that allow them to shape their imagination. This MMO isn’t a fantasy, it’s an eventuality. Minecraft (obviously an obsession of mine) is a clear example of what “could” be, and in some ways of what “will” be.
I know I’ve ranted a bit in this post, it’s my natural tendency when I’m a little excited about an idea. So here’s the idea: Let’s create a single place for all of the abandoned MMOs. We need to start now, so we don’t lose the server codes or interest. Perhaps each of the “worlds” can exist in a single “galaxy” that the players can navigate through. Or perhaps they can stitch together, so one can travel from Ultima Online into Everquest into Everquest 2 and into Lego Universe. These worlds shouldn’t be lost in time! And if we join them all together, there will likely be enough players to keep the worlds feeling alive like they once were, or as they meant to be.
Let me leave you with a thought: I played World of Warcraft years and years ago. I even started up again after a long hiatus. I know that the game has changed significantly since I was there, so please correct me in the comments if I am wrong. What would happen if the world changed slightly for every user that visited? What if every user impacted the quests, or left a trail? What if you could see every step that had been made throughout the land and the mountains bore the wear of the mounts that conquered them? When I was young, I played Oregon Trail from a 5.25 floppy disk at school. Everyone that had died left a goofy saying on their gravestone and all of the gravestones stayed forever on that disk. The disk was a memorial of past experiences and a motivation for future ones. Preserved memories seem to do that and in the end can be absolutely worthwhile.