In-Depth: The Fragile Existence Of Online Worlds

Chris Morris examines the curiously abrupt end of Acclaim's 9Dragons, which stranded 1.5 million U.S. players -- when a game struggles in the high-risk MMO market, the players end up losing out, too.
[Gamasutra's new editor-at-large Chris Morris examines the curiously abrupt end of Acclaim's 9Dragons, which stranded 1.5 million U.S. players -- when a game struggles in the high-risk MMO market, the players end up losing out, too.] Nobody saw the end coming for 9Dragons – especially the players. A post in the game’s Acclaim-operated forums, which went up just hours before the U.S. servers shut down, was the only official notification. A panicky press release from GamersFirst, which had announced just two days prior that it would be assuming North American publishing duties starting in September, followed – urging players to create screenshots of their in-game inventory and characters and save and document their in-game status. For most players, neither provided enough time to react. They learned their game had gone away when they tried to log on and couldn’t, part of a larger shutdown of client-based games operated by Acclaim. The shutdown of 9Dragons was, by any definition, a debacle. It was poorly organized, poorly executed and it punished the people who were most loyal to the game. Nearly 1.5 million people in the U.S. had registered 9Dragons accounts – though the number of active players was certainly much, much lower. All of them were left stranded and fuming by the action – and are still unsure if they’ll ever see their characters again. 9Dragons continues globally (the developer Indy21, is based in Korea, and the game has various licensees in different territories), but the game’s saga in the U.S. market is demonstrative proof that persistent worlds aren’t as, well, persistent, as many people think. The games can disappear at any time – leaving players who have invested (in some cases) hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars with nothing but memories and a bitter taste in their mouth. "Let's be honest here -- who shuts down an MMO server and forum with such short notice?" asked a player who goes by 'itsmyid' on the GamersFirst forums. "Disney is the only company capable of such a dastardly deed. Disney has no emotional attachment to our community. To them, we're nothing more than peons occupying space." For a company that’s in the midst of making a push to become a AAA developer, that’s not the sort of sentiment you want to hear. (Disney recently purchased Playdom, which owned Acclaim, the publisher of 9Dragons in the U.S.) GamersFirst says it’s in the process of working with Disney to find a way to transfer over character data – but has warned players it won’t be an easy process. "Our first and foremost priority is to help recreate your accounts on our platform as expediently as possible," Josh Hong, founder and CEO of GamersFirst, told players in a forum posting. "We’ve already made progress and will be on it like there is no tomorrow. Quite frankly, this process won’t be easy and will require a lot of close collaboration between us and the community." Part of what made the shutdown of 9Dragons so shocking was the lack of warning bells. The in-game item mall never closed down – and an expansion, dubbed "Tibet," had been released just one week prior. (On the now shuttered website of Acclaim, Disney notes that it will refund any purchases for the free-to-play, microtransaction powered game made within the last 30 days of the game.) World of Warcraft players in China experienced something similar last year. When Activision-Blizzard terminated its agreement with The9, the partner shut the game down in China. It was more than two months before the servers went back online with the publisher’s new partner NetEase. Earlier this year, said World of Warcraft had lost about 15 percent of its Chinese users after The9 shut down the game. Typically, the end of a MMO comes with some warning – and there’s good reason for that. It gives players, who are often loyal to a fault when it comes to the games, a chance to say goodbye and a chance to go through the grieving process. It also gives them a chance at closure. The end of The Sims Online, for instance, turned into a block party, with characters shaking their Sim-booty one last time and sitting around a campfire, saying their goodbyes to each other as the final minutes ticked down. For publishers, a long wind-up period is a chance to go out with a bang. The Matrix Online, for example, planned to crush characters at the end (though server glitches spoiled the fun). Asheron’s Call 2 destroyed the world. 9Dragons may have ended with a bang as well – but not the kind that anyone was expecting or wanted to see.

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