Imagine a situation where you’ve been playing a game for a few years now. Perhaps there have been times when you’ve played almost every day and other times when you’ve barely logged on for months on end. Maybe you bought the game on release for full price, or perhaps it was a ‘free-to-play’ model in which you’ve invested a fair bit of money to get cool skins for your characters. Then imagine that one day, the publisher announces that the game is no longer being supported and the servers will be going down.
I think that especially for those of us who play PC games, this is a common experience, the sting of which we can still feel years down the line. I’m a bit of a football fanatic and I still mourn the death of Football Manager Live, a death made all the more frustrating by the fact that it didn’t need to die.
To give some contrast to this, take a look at Blizzard’s classic real-time strategy RPG ‘Warcraft 3.’ This game was released in 2002 with an expansion added in 2003, yet even today the game continues to receive patches and updates. They recognize that the title still has an active community and that while nobody out there expects Blizzard to continue providing server support, the tools with which to set up your own servers and host your own games means that a mutual respect between studio and fan is maintained.
Now look at the 2009 PC game Battleforge, a similar classic fantasy strategy game with a twist….all units are summoned into the game using cards from the player’s hand. The game had everything going for it. It was backed by industry giants EA, it was the first PC game to make use of the shiny new ‘Direct X 11’ and by 2013 it had received three popular expansion decks to boost the number of cards available to players. Furthermore, while players could take their decks online to challenge friends in head-to-head combat, there was also an elaborate and extensive single-player campaign, as well as various co-operative campaign modes. Unfortunately for Battleforge, on October 31st 2013 the game was shut down permanently. All players were encouraged to spend their in-game currency before this date and since then the game has been entirely dead. But the question I’d like to ask is, did the game die of natural causes or was it murdered or at the very least, unnecessarily euthanized?
I’m not going to argue about EA’s financial statistics, because I don’t have them, but many would be quick to point out that there is no reason for a game like Battleforge to be totally unplayable. Before it went into its free-to-play model, Battleforge was sold on a disk. The entirety of the game’s files were installed onto the player’s hard drive, including all of the cards. Many of the people who supported this game, those who perhaps paid full price for it on release, as well as continually investing real life money in it are now completely incapable of playing even the base game. Why? How difficult would it have been to patch in a quick offline mode? If Blizzard are anything to go by then the answer would seem to be ‘not very difficult at all.’
This phenomenon is not an isolated one. Last month alone, EA permanently killed off four titles. Battlefield Play4Free, Battlefield Heroes, FIFA World and Need for Speed World are all now unplayable. For games like Battlefield Heroes in particular, this is such a shame as private server hosting for multiplayer shooters has been a staple of PC gaming for as long as I can remember. You can still play Quake and Doom, why can’t you still play Battlefield Heroes?
My personal frustration with this issue runs deeper than a selfish desire to play old games on demand. One of the things I love most about this little hobby of ours is that it exists in an age when nothing has to disappear. Everything can be archived and I find it amazing that I can load up a web page and play ZX Spectrum games in my browser or download an MS DOS emulator and play the PC games of the early ‘80s, games which were released before I was even born. That technology exists because people care about maintaining those experiences for the next generation of players so much that they’re willing to work for free, in their spare time, just to make it happen. So when a publisher like EA makes that labour of love impossible I can’t help but view it as a slap in the face to the very people they’re supposed to be serving.
We love the games we play, otherwise we wouldn’t play them. When a game ceases to be monetarily viable for a publisher to maintain, by all means shut down the servers. But I’m imploring every studio and publisher out there who is listening. Please don’t let your games die for no reason. Good or bad, popular or obscure, they still have value as long as someone out there wants to play them.