The Tragic Impermanence of Multiplayer Games

“We will never be here again.” — Homer

Imagine your favourite book, or movie. One that changed your life, one that you enjoy so much that you read it or watch it over and over. Now, imagine that same book, or film — and with every passing year, you are more and more restricted on when and how you can read it. Instead of being able to enjoy it whenever you like, you are restricted to the hours of 8:00pm to 10:00pm, once per month. Then you can only enjoy it once every couple of months. Then, maybe once per year. Until finally, you can never read it, or watch it ever again.

Maybe, if you’re lucky, it was an incredibly popular book by a famous author, or it was a film that defined an era. And so, it gets a remake, or a rerelease in a new format. But if it wasn’t popular enough, it continues to fade into memory until the keepers of those memories become memories themselves.

This is the reality of the games medium, a reality best illustrated by the ephemeral nature of multiplayer games.

Starsiege: Tribes (Dynamix, 1998) Credit: Mobygames.com

In March 1998, Dynamix released Starsiege: Tribes, at the height of the PC Gaming Golden Age. Tribes was a revolutionary shooter, and was immensely popular. In fact, it’s influence on modern gaming is tremendously underappreciated. In the late nineties, the PC gaming market was dominated by shooters, like Quake II, and strategy games, like Total Annihilation and Age of Empires. Dynamix combined these two genres. A sprawling battlefield with bases, vehicles and dozens of troops working together to conquer the enemy. As the player, you were one of those soldiers.

The battles were huge, bigger than any other game on the market. It was a style of multiplayer that would go on to be popularised by several better-known objective-based shooters like the Battlefield series.

Tribes was followed by an exceptional sequel in 2001, but industry trends were beginning to shift. By the time Tribes: Vengeance was released in 2004, the games industry had changed and the frantic nature of the Tribes series didn’t manage to capture an audience.

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This number of players is a rare sight in Tribes these days. Credit: Mobygames.com

Tribes and Tribes 2 survived many more years, but with the eventual collapse of Dynamix and parent studio Sierra, game servers soon followed. Players could no longer find other matches by using the in-game server browser and had to rely on various third-party applications. Many of these applications either had a paywall, deterring potential customers, or were freeware and received inconsistent developer support (and often went defunct).

The games were eventually acquired and released for free by Hi-Rez Studios, in order to promote their ill-fated reboot of the series. Enterprising fans even put their efforts to updating both games to work on modern computers, and today anyone can download and play these classics. However, apart from a handful of servers and a smattering of die-hard players (who are all very good after so many years of practice), the online world of Tribes and Tribes 2 is little more than a faint spectre of what once was.

This is the sad reality of the games industry — as technology changes and evolves, the games of the past lose their relevance. If you are even able to find a retailer for one of these old games, there are frequently technical issues in playing them on modern hardware. The effect is even more pronounced for multiplayer games, where there is simply no financial incentive to pay for and operate a game server that is only servicing a couple of hundred (or even a few dozen) players, who already will face difficulties with network stability due to their sparse distribution around the globe.

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The beloved Disc-Launcher. Credit: Mobygames.com

Tribes is one of the lucky ones. It was a popular series in its day, and it received a little bump in popularity with the freeware release. The game was easily modified to redirect its server queries to a new address so that players can continue to find games, and the freeware release also meant that distributors and players would not be subject to legal action. But frequently, this isn’t the case.

The games industry is constantly evolving and is greatly beholden to trends, so I’m not sure that it’s possible to prevent this cycle. But the issue is only exacerbated by studios who, in their aggressive control over their IPs, refuse to release their games as free or open-source until they have drained every last drop of interest and money from them.

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WildStar (Carbine Studios, 2014). Credit: Mobygames.com

It isn’t always the case that greedy developers are trying to squeeze every last penny out of a game, however. Sometimes, a game just doesn’t do well. WildStar was a reasonably popular MMO in the vein of World of Warcraft, and had a dedicated fanbase, but the game simply wasn’t successful enough to warrant the financial outlay in keeping the game running. Publisher NCSoft shut down the developer Carbine Studios, and began winding down the game, which closed on 28 November 2018. As an MMO that requires dedicated servers to connect to, it is now not possible to play WildStar.

Some dedicated fans of the game are currently in the process of building a server emulator, but server emulators are often buggy, and require the dedication of people who are essentially working for free. On top of that, they are in breach of the various user agreements that players sign, so even though NCSoft is no longer supporting the game or making money from it in any capacity, they own the IP, and could take legal action against any private server at any time.

The games industry needs legislation to ensure that games aren’t allowed to disappear into legal black holes. I’m not sure exactly how legislation would look, but I imagine something along the lines of: if a game isn’t meeting a certain income threshold per year, then the developer is required to release it as open-source. For MMOs, if a studio pulls support and shuts the game down, then they should also make it open-source, and provide all the official tools required to run a server.

Maybe it won’t save those games from fading into history, but it might keep them alive for a little while longer. At the very least, it will ensure that they will at least be kept alive in their purest form for historical purposes, thanks to the efforts of The Internet Archive. Our digital history is just as important as books, film or any other medium, and as society becomes increasingly digitised, it will become even more so. Games are a critical part of this digital history, as they tell the story of us in that moment of time. They give context to history through their artistic expression, their narratives, and the stories of their players. We must not allow them to be forgotten.

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At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...

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