A Question of Persistence

When I began writing out this article, I had several false-starts talking about issues of value and "real-world" financial gunk... all basically revolving around the question "what are we getting for our money?"  I'm mostly past all that now.  I still hold fairly solidly to the notion that I'm getting entertainment for my cash that I would have likely spent somewhere else. I choose to drop some bucks into a couple online games every month instead of likely spending that same money on a movie night here/there, or something of that sort.

The perceived value, dollar-for-dollar, actually seems rather decent when I consider the amount of time I can spend playing versus something like a night at the movies.  Nine dollars per movie these days ($7 for a matinee... wha??) and I get a couple hours of distraction.   I can drop $15 into an online game and get a few 2-3 hour sessions or more in every week if I want to.. not that I've had time lately for that.  Not bad value if I think about it per gaming session -- a buck per hour or less, maybe?  I don't want to do math here, so I won't.

Well, we've heard all this griping before.  "I can buy a single game for $49 or so and I OWN it!!"  Yeah, I know.  I'll get a lot of playtime out of Battlefield 2 and Lord knows, I still play Starsiege Tribes on occasion!  And don't even get me started on how much value I've extracted from Quake III Arena!  Then there's the fantabulous Elder Scrolls games and Balder's Gate, Planescape: Torment, Neverwinter Nights... sheesh.  This list will go on longer than anyone will care to read, so I'll stop. 

Why, then, am I paying $15 every month just for the privelege of logging in to a game that I already spent $50 on?  How about another angle: I buy a game based on recommendations and anticipation from articles and such, only to have the whole game change drastically right under my virtual mount's hooves??  Think about some of this: complete changes to core gameplay mechanics; the dreaded "nerfing" of this or that, which sometimes has drastic effects on gaming styles as players adjust; destruction of entire cities in the name of storyline, but done more as a population management scheme??  (...well, that one was actually really freakin' sweet, in my opinion.  It didn't really change gameplay, but just moved people around a bit... it also really enhanced the concept of how malleable that world was.  So I liked that one.)

 The fact is, even though you've bought the game, you only get to play it in whatever state the company and its "live team" choose to leave it in... and sometimes, it all comes to a point where you just don't get to play it anymore.. ever.  (In the case of a whole game shutting down completely... *poof!*)

Finally, I get to my real point... one of the features I value most in these games is persistence.  I build up characters in an online world that is changing and growing along with me (hopefully.)  Most things stay put, but there are a lot of additions to the environment, new items introduced, places to explore, new people coming in (again, hopefully) and all that fun stuff that marks a good online game.

What happens when the game gets shut down after a few years?  (Again with the *poof!*)

Oh yeah... suddenly, all the benefits of my beloved persistence are rendered moot as the servers are shut down and sold off for scrap.  This has happened a lot over the years and sometimes it's barely a blip in the grand view of "massively multiplayer" news.  Sometimes it's the publisher that decides to kill the game and the developer gets hold of it to try salvaging it and keeping it running... other times the game just dies.

I'm focusing my energy right now on what happens when a game looks to be thriving and then, "suddenly", the feeding tube is removed.  I'm now speaking directly at two games that I had a connection to, but I'm only pointing at them because they caused me to write this article... Earth and Beyond (Electronic Arts - link is to an old preview) and Asheron's Call 2 (Turbine).  Both had vibrant, if small, communities of loyal players who invested years into their respective games.  They are now both shut down (well, AC2 will be shutting down in December, but it's officially been stamped as discontinued.)

 The gripe:  AC2 is shutting down mere months after releasing a brand new retail expansion(!!)  That's burly.  Lots of folks are quite pissed at buying in to the new content, after waiting an extended (and re-extended) period of time without monthly content updates... certainly Turbine had an idea that they might not be able to keep the game running before they sold the expansion, right?  I'm sure they hoped the expansion would sell well and bring new players in, but the message it sent to the loyal players was "we're committed to this game and here's the expansion to prove it!"  To close the game down so soon after the expansion went live really feels wrong.  I'm going to end my direct comments on this particular subject, since I don't have too many facts (and don't have time to dig.)  The fact is, there are a lot of examples very similar to this and it just raises some more red flags for the MMOG industry.

The point of that mess (sorry for the rant) is to focus on the investment a player can put into a game, only to have it get removed from their lives with nothing left to show for it.  Sure, this is like a movie that you watch or a concert you go to see (assuming you don't snag a bootleg of either event to watch again later)... you pay a bunch of cash, see the event, and hope you remember it good, 'cause that's all you get.   However, we're not used to that experience with video games.  I'm used to being able to load up a saved game years later and run through my favorite levels again at will.  Not so with a MassMOG.

Well, this post is getting away from me and I don't want to go back through it again to peel off more fat.  Sorry.  The big point here is just to reflect a bit on what my money gets me for these games and whether I'm willing to keep paying it.  I would LOVE to play Asheron's Call 1 again, but I'm not currently willing to commit $15 (or whatever) a month to start over again... AFTER I played the damn game for 1.5 years and had a few characters with all their stuff!!  It really does piss me off that I put that much time and money into a game that I had absolutely no access to the day after my subscription expired.  And to throw salt on the wounds, they delete my characters after maybe 6 months or so, so I can't just decide to drop back into the game a couple years later and play for a month or two!... ARGH!!  This is a big issue for almost all the games out there, so I don't mean to pick on Turbine here.  I really liked AC1 for a long time, so it's a perfect example for me.

To shine one last light on why this all matters to me, aside from the ranting... what the hell am I going to do with my World of Warcraft account when I grow tired of playing it?  When more new games come out that I really want to play, I'll have to decide to invest something like $100 into them to see if I like them.. then hundreds more to play for an extended time.  


I don't like how I have to decide which game (or couple games, if I'm lucky,) I get to play, to the exclusion of other games.  I really wanted to play Star Wars Galaxies more, but decided not to keep paying $15 on it... I'll want to play Auto Assault, but I don't know if I want it enough to keep paying $15 monthly for it...  I'm STILL hugely jonesing for Asheron's Call 1, but I don't want to play it for a couple months and then just delete the account if I don't really get back into it!  There are a ton of other games coming out, too...

 Yuck, again.

Finally, I'll just say what I could have said quicker, a long while back...  I'd VERY GLADLY pay $50 for many of these games if I could just play them when/where I pleased.. IF I knew I could pick up/set down the games at will.  Honestly, if I knew a character would be saved indefinitely in an MMOG, I'd probably still sign up, knowing my investment wouldn't be lost.

This doesn't cover the shutting-down of whole games, but if I could quit a game and come back later with all my loot intact, I'd really try more of these games... and I'd see far more value in the service fees I paid.

Shit... I really have to stop typing now.  Hope this didn't drag on too long.  If you're still reading, feel free to comment on this mess. (I'm really busy right now, so I may not reply right away.)