It was a few weeks back that I walked into our family room and saw my 14-year-old son crouched over the iPad with a watch in hand doing something very meticulous and intentional. I paused and asked, “Heya… whatcha doing there?”
He looked up and gave a wry grimace. “I just heard that School of Dragons is shutting down, so I’m taking pictures of all of my dragons before they go away.” Seeing that I was satisfied with the answer, he bent back down and got to work to capture what he could so that he could look back on his pets with fondness the way we might flip through photo albums of our youth.
You’ve probably never heard of this game. It barely registered for me before a couple of years ago when my son — high on the How to Train Your Dragon movies and TV series — asked me if there were any free games in the franchise he could play. We found this one, and his eyes lit up at the thought of being able to raise and train his own stable of flying death lizards. Once we put some restrictions in place — no talking to strangers, and no spending actual money on anything — he was left to it.
Honestly, I had forgotten he’d even played. You know how it is with kids: Their interests wax and wane, so they’ll play a certain game feverishly for a month and then won’t touch it again for the better part of a year, after which they’ll rediscover it. But for my son, School of Dragons was his daily jam. He’d faithfully log in, get whatever free currency there was, and train up the two dragons that the free-to-play format allowed.
And in that, I think he learned a bit of how to navigate such F2P games. After lightly testing my wife’s and my willingness to pay for F2P unlocks and finding our responses along the lines of “Are you kidding me?” the kids of our household have learned to either make do with restrictions or save up their money to buy a no-ads premium game.
Anyway, back to the shutdown. While he wasn’t crying or falling into a well of depression, I could tell that he was pretty bummed about it. Seeing School of Dragons head toward an end date was the first time he’d ever had this experience with a live service video game. It was an opportunity for me to sidle up and go, “Oh yeah, boy, I’ve been there!” Yet as joyful as it is to vicariously live through the excitement of a kid discover the fun of a game, it’s also a bit of a gut punch to empathize with their having to lose that experience forever.
As the day approached, he tried to maximize the amount of time he could get away with playing the game. And since the creators unlocked all of the dragons for every player, he suddenly had this amazing sandbox to revel in… until it was gone. And I’m proud of him because he didn’t sulk or throw a fit. He just sighed, said goodbye to his virtual pals that he took care of for the better part of three years, and let it go.
It was a reminder of how fragile these online worlds are. MMORPGs and their cousins have great strengths and offer unparalleled ongoing adventures, but their existence is far more tenuous than, say, an Atari 2600 game from 1979. We’re still in the infancy stage of online game preservation, and there’s no guarantee that preservation will ever grow up without some serious industry support.
This might be one of the reasons that I really don’t push MMOs on my kids that much. Their favorite games tend to skew more single-player or couch coop, like Minecraft, Animal Crossing, and Zelda. There aren’t any tricky business models to navigate, any online predators to worry about, or any griefers that try to introduce a new layer of profanity to my kids’ vocabulary. They can just play in a bubble, almost, until when (if?) they’re ready and interested in online games.
If there’s a lesson that my son took away from this, I hope that he learned how important it is not to place all of your passion, free time, and sense of progression into something that might go “poof” at any moment.
And for the game industry that seems to have no problem creating games for kids and then cruelly yanking them away without any attempt to preserve those experiences or compensate customers, I hope they learn a very different lesson indeed — one that involves shame and perhaps a downward career slide into something more appropriate for those uncaring suits that see kids as just another monetary vector to be milked.