Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An Online Galaxy Goes Far, Far Away

Recently LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment announced they’re terminating the Star Wars Galaxies MMORPG in December 2011, as they prepare to release a new MMORPG based not in the “classic” era of Star Wars many older fans love, but in the more recently released “Old Republic” settings of the prequels currently popular among a younger crowd (and either loved or despised among older Star Wars fans, myself included).

I usually don’t talk about digital gaming here, especially “massive, mulit-player online roleplaying game” (henceforth referenced as MMORPG); but given some past missives on “dead” games, I thought this appropriate. This post isn’t meant as an “I told you so!” rant (thought at times I’m sure it might seem that way), but more as an example of how analog roleplaying games differ from their digital counterparts that use the internet as the common playing venue.

Full Disclosure: I worked for five years in the 1990s on West End Games’ classic Star Wars roleplaying game using the D6 System mechanics. I’m a huge fan of the original films, but saw and really don’t care much for the prequels (for insightful if crude and humorous analysis of the prequels’ infinite failings, please see Red Letter Media’s NSFW reviews). I also don’t play MMORPGs; a friend let me try World of Warcraft once, and I regained my senses several hours later experiencing missing time. I don’t have that kind of time, no matter how much I enjoy the gaming universe (and I’ll admit to being sorely tempted to try the Lord of the Rings and Battlestar Galactica online games except that I can’t justify the time suck). I don’t have time to play computer games anymore, though when I did, I enjoyed ancient yet classic LucasArts titles like the original X-Wing and Dark Forces titles. I don’t have much of a working knowledge of MMORPGs, especially the basic technical aspects (such as “Can one play the game without the online interface?”).

Unlike paper and pencil roleplaying games, once an online game like an MMORPG goes away, it’s gone; players can no longer enjoy the gaming experience without all the online components (and arguably the other players in the community) being restored. Granted, a MMORPG gives players access to a vast scope of fellow players, computer-tracked stats and advancement, and numerous locations to explore, all portrayed in stunning computer-generated graphics -- that’s a great deal of the allure and enjoyment -- but it’s a shared platform, and once the online interface disappears, the gaming experience disappears. It’s like when the neighborhood Dungeon Master, who owns all the books necessary for play, and files away everyone’s character sheets and notes, moves away and takes all the gaming materials with him. Since the game elements and interface are shared on the internet by the game’s owner, when the owner decides to discontinue it, for whatever reason (contracts are up, releasing a newer game, whatever), it disappears; players who loved the game must give it up and look elsewhere for their gaming experience.

When I worked for West End Games we often referred to the Star Wars intellectual property as George Lucas’ sandbox or playground, filled with wonderful toys we could play with using our imagination; but we always understood it was Lucas’ sandbox, we’d have to abide by his rules when playing there, and at any time we might be asked to leave because he decided to let new kids play there or shut it down entirely. That’s the price one pays for playing with someone else’s intellectual property. At West End we understood it from the publisher’s perspective, knowing the players would always have the physical books as springboards for their imaginations and their roleplaying game campaigns. Lucas asked the game publishers, not the gaming fans, to step out of the sandbox. Now LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment are asking all their players to leave the sandbox after having paid for the gaming experience and invested their time playing it and enhancing other’s gaming experiences.

My limited understanding of the MMORPG workings leads me to believe that players of Star Wars Galaxies will lose their game altogether. This seems to mirror the developing paradigm of digital games in our increasingly common internet-based society. In a world where everyone seems more connected through their internet service, cell phones, and tablet devices, we’re more removed from physical existence and more immersed in a virtual reality. Physical game components (“analog” games) are becoming as obsolete as physically gathering around a table with friends to play a game. Instead people enter the virtual online world to play with virtual pieces and boards, things that don’t take up space on shelves in their living rooms, though they still cost money. But when these disappear from the shared internet spaces, players can no longer create the satisfying game experience they’ve enjoyed…they give up their old game and move on to pay for the next new thing, a model corporations use to create new demand, increase sales, and boost profits. When a publisher decides to discontinue the online gaming venue and components, it kills the game for everyone. Sure, the numbers of subscribing players might be too low to profitably continue developing new materials, but the players who enjoy that gaming experience still exist. Companies pander to the majority willing to pay subscriptions for new games and abandon loyal users who still want to play the “old” games.

Nobody’s going to force all the Star Wars roleplaying, card, or miniatures gamers to return all their gaming materials to Lucasfilm because it decided to pull a particular license from a publisher or discontinue a game. They’re ours to enjoy in our own way, with our own imaginations around our own kitchen tables or in our favorite local gaming stores. That’s the difference between analog and digital games in our communal internet age; physical has a greater degree of permanence, virtual does not.