Multiplayer games can’t live forever. New games come along, and so do new consoles and hardware. Attentions wane, players dwindle and the cost of running servers outweighs the benefit of keeping gamers happy.
It’s hard to believe, but even a multiplayer-only smash hit like this week’s Titanfall will eventually turn to virtual dust as players abandon their mechs and smart pistols for the Next Big Thing.
Just the other week, Nintendo announced plans to yank the plug on its Wi-Fi service for Wii and DS games, meaning you’ve only got a few more weeks to enjoy the likes of Mario Kart Wii and Super Smash Bros Brawl online.
It doesn’t have to be this way though. Turbine, the studio behind long-running massively multiplayer online fantasy RPG Asheron’s Call, announced plans to shutter the 15 year-old game, and to do so in style. This won’t be a repeat of City of Heroes’ abrupt closure - whose last day in the virtual world had an almost funereal atmosphere - or Microsoft’s prolonged attempt to shut down Halo 2, which saw players desperately leaving their consoles powered on for days on end to keep the servers alive.
Instead they're working on a gradual winding down leading to something much better for fans - why can’t more studios follow these tips?
A phased withdrawal
Turbine aren’t just yanking out the plug on Asheron’s Call and clocking off for the day. Instead, the studio is entering maintenance mode, so that players will be able to carry on questing. If any glitches appear or security issues crop up, they’ll get right on them, but just don’t expect any big new expansions and new features/
“We intend to fix critical bugs and continue maintenance and support on the game,” says Asheron’s Call producer Severlin. “While there is always a chance we will put out a small update if time permits, players should have the expectation that updates will be limited to maintenance, bug fixes, and perhaps balance iterations.”
End on a positive note
It’s a PR tactic worthy of any politician: when there’s bad news, change the conversation. Why just pull the plug on a much-loved game when you can out the news alongside a bumper update. This month’s update to the world of Dereth may have been the last to provide new features, but it was a bumper one considering the game is now a decade and a half old: included in the March 4 update is a new Coliseum arena to test your metal in, as well as a smart option to provide for endless replayability. Described as a “system designed for [the] most dedicated players”, this simply allows you to relinquish all your experience and start anew with your once maxed out character.
Make it free forever
Asheron’s Call still costs $10 to download, and $12.95 per month after the first month to play - and it’s a testament to the game’s charming quality that despite its lo-fi graphics and age players are still willing to stump up to explore. But in exchange for stepping away from the universe they’ve created, Turbine are planning to give fans the ultimate freebie as a thank you: free access to Asheron’s Call forever more.
“Our long term plan is to make the game free to all active accounts,” explains Severlin. “We are working on a date in the not-to-distant future where all active accounts will be able to play the game for free.” Can you imagine Blizzard doing the same for World of Warcraft? Make a mental note for when the time comes please guys.
Embrace player-run servers
We’ve seen defunct multiplayer online games live on before through fan-backed servers, maintained and paid for by the community. Sega’s Phantasy Star Online is a prime example of the phenomenon: the Dreamcast is long dead, but the game is still going out there. But that happened with or without Sega’s consent. What is unusual though is that Turbine are setting out to pass over the baton to fans.
“We have been working within the company to start an initiative sometime near the end of the year to allow players to run their own Asheron’s Call servers,” Severlin says. And with homebrew servers comes the chance for Asheron’s Call to rise from the ashes like a phoenix. “If that works out we can look into releasing tools and data files that would allow players to modify game data and create alternate content for their own Asheron’s Call games.”
A happy retirement
Massachusetts based Turbine have run Asheron’s Call for years, but they’re not throwing in the towel - they’re stepping out and allowing the show to go on. In fact, they don’t see it as a closure at all. “Let me reiterate that we have no plans to close Asheron’s Call. We plan to keep the game open and the servers running,” says Severlin. “We love the Asheron’s Call games and we want them to live forever.”
And this masterplan might just allow the game to. Grab your paragon weapon, it’s time to go out questing again. Will we still be playing the game when Titanfall 2030 rolls around? That’s up to the fans, but either way, here’s hoping more studios use this as a blueprint between now and then.
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