Vague Patch Notes: The three kinds of sunset in the MMO space

aw hell

Not all sunsets are the same, no matter how much you may like a given game. This is one of the things that tends to be hard to understand. Maintenance modes, too. There is a world of difference between the state of affairs with Guild Wars – a title that entered maintenance mode after years of development and still gets fixes and improvements if people can find the time – and Heroes of the Storm. And that doesn’t get talked about all that often.

There is not, of course, an actual taxonomic breakdown of these sorts of things. But at least in my mind there are three broad categories that sunsets and/or maintenance modes can be categorized within, even when you consider games like Final Fantasy XI that seem to regard “maintenance mode” in a way that most other games do not. So let’s talk about these categories, from the best of the batch to the absolute worst.

Not scary any more.

All good things must come to an end

Sometimes, the closure or maintenance mode of a game feels like the natural conclusion. As much as we may want for our favorite games to go on forever, the world keeps turning and eventually there’s a point where money is not coming in at a rate to keep supporting new updates. Guild Wars is going to keep running as long as possible, but it is functionally a finished game; you can just go back to it whenever you want.

Now, this is still sad in much the same way that a beloved show ending after a dozen seasons of high quality is sad. You enjoyed this thing, and you wanted more of it. But it doesn’t feel like a tragic situation. Ultimately, the goals that were outlined at the start were achieved by the ending. You feel sad to wave goodbye to a dear friend, but you don’t feel like said friend got robbed of a longer time.

That’s not to say that this sort of sunset is fine and there’s nothing to be sad about here. If Ultima Online is still alive and getting updates, there’s good reason to want your favorite older game to be similarly alive and updating. But technology, revenue, and the simple reality of things still has to be considered. FFXI has the most active maintenance mode I’ve ever seen, but eventually the last of its ancient PlayStation 2 dev kits will die, and I don’t know if there’s really the budget to find a way to keep the game updating after that happens.

So you feel with this sort of sunset like you are waving goodbye, but in good spirits. It’s sad without being a tragedy. It’s a loss without a victim. All good things must, indeed, come to an end. Even if you don’t want them to.


Someone screwed up big time (repeatedly)

A part of me sort of has sympathy for Heroes of the Storm, I suppose. Sure, it’s just another copy of the mod that League of Legends copied to insane financial success, but it’s made by the people who made the game that got modded in the first place. And yeah, that’s like saying that your new game is by the architects who made a room someone else decorated really well, but there’s a certain sense of “why shouldn’t we get a slice of this?”

But then it was basically constantly propped up as a pillar of esports, a field that has slowly revealed itself to be a gigantic bubble propped up by investor money and no actual returns, and the slow-motion deflation there revealed that there was no animating element behind the game beyond “we want this money too.”

Some games in this category shut down quickly and some take a while, but in all cases the general sense is that the people making decisions about the game kept making bad decisions. WildStar had numerous opportunities to get its act together, but it kept insisting that #hardcore was the path to success and changed its tune only once everyone had decided to just stop paying attention to it. Radical Heights was a hasty cash grab meant to stave off financial apocalypse by turning out the fastest possible product to capitalize on the battle royale boom, which was actually the Fortnite boom that no one else even touched.

This category is also far more sad. You’re left with a sense of what could have been. These are games mismanaged by the people in charge, often games with some cool ideas in there that nobody is ever going to get to see. There’s the overwhelming sense that people just made wrong choices and then kept making wrong choices and ultimately the whole thing collapsed, but it’s not like the right choices weren’t demonstrable.

Of course, sometimes those wrong choices are the basic premise of the game, but it still feels like a swing and a miss.

I'm purely decorative!

Just show us the knife in your back

City of Heroes was making money and doing well by its players, but NCsoft had better financial incentive to kill it and Paragon Studios instead of investing further. So the game shut down, and a lot of people are justifiably still really angry about this. It wasn’t axed for lack of players or lack of returns, just axed the exact moment that it provided more benefit to the immediate bottom line via that axing.

While the previous category was about games where it’s sad to see them go but the fault of the people who could have prevented it, this is about games where the cause of death has little or nothing to do with the people who were building and maintaining the game. This is the realm of corporate shenanigans, backroom deals, rights disputes, and other things killing a game regardless of how well it may be designed, supported, and populated.

I don’t count Kickstarter failures (which are usually down to running out of money) here much of the time because those are more often games that had conceptual problems and fall under the prior category. But games where a studio was working hard on a Kickstarted project and then got dropped unexpectedly by their publisher when they didn’t see immediate returns? Or when the original developers got forced out by backroom dealings and rights disputes? Oh yeah. Those qualify big time.

Some of these games may not be games that you like or play or want to engage with. That’s fine and valid. But even if you think the underlying game is bad, these are sunsets (or in at least one case near-sunsets) that aren’t actually about the underlying game. They’re about bad actors wholly removed from design figuring out a way to manipulate and sabotage without actual regard for quality. And it’s pretty gross when you put it like that.

Here, it’s not like a game ran its course or even kept making the wrong decisions. It made the right decisions – or at least right enough decisions – but someone else ran up and tripped it. That’s the sort of thing that’s worth being angry about because it is not a case of a game ultimately succeeding or failing on its own merits.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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