|On the shutdown of Warhammer Online’s servers, the preservation of games as a medium, and a way forward.|
Warhammer Online…is offline. Yesterday, at 6 PM EST on December 18, 2013, the servers shut down and everyone was kicked out of that world forever. Without a server, the clients on everyone’s machines were capable only of sitting forlornly at a failed login screen. It was over. To quote the blog of Josh Drescher, one of the producers on the game:
That’s sad in a lot of ways, not the least of which being that the hard work that hundreds of developers put into it will vanish, without a meaningful way to ever visit it again. It’s one of the cruel realities of MMORPG development. You can’t just load up your old work years later and show it off to your kids.
As I spend more years in game development, I think more about the evolution and legacy of games. We’re still in our infancy as creators. We’re only 41 years away from Pong. That’s not very long in the history of a medium, relatively speaking: You may think of Metropolis as an early movie, but commercial film theaters had been around for 34 years when it debuted. “Talkies” took longer to emerge than 3D acceleration did. Those early films, even the most primitive or puerile, are important in understanding the path to Skyfall and Lincoln today.
Our medium has been an ephemeral one. Each generation of hardware succeeds the last, and the ability to play back old games is lost even more than it was with old celluloid. Nothing disappears as completely as an online game, where a central server is essential to running the game at all. But for at least part of Warhammer Online, it doesn’t have to be that way. You see, I remember something Josh may have forgotten:
C:\> WAR.exe -singleplayer
In every unreleased, internal-only developer build of the Warhammer client, there was the option to run without a server. As the lead client engineer I spent a good amount of time doing that. There were no login or character selection screens. There were no NPCs or other players. There was no gameplay of any kind. It was just you and the entire world spread out before you. You could fly around like Superman, or teleport anywhere at will. You could watch the sun rise and set over Altdorf, and see the smoke rise from fires forever burning. And you could see the thousands upon thousands of hours of work and craftsmanship that went into creating a world that has now been unplugged.
If the right people at EA choose, they can put out one last build of the game client. There was one switch that said, “If this is a public build, force singleplayer mode OFF”. Change that to “ON”, hit Compile, and release the executable. It won’t have to be released with any art files or a massive download. It can run standalone, pulling assets out of the patch files that the last players will still have sitting on their drives. This won’t compete with any current or future game, because it’s not a game anymore. But it’s a place for the die-hard fans to visit by themselves, to reminisce and remember the times they had there with others. It’s something the hundreds of developers who worked on it will still be able to run for their kids someday. It’s a piece of history for Professors of Game Studies in 2113 to better understand what MMORPGs looked like before the neural implants.
It won’t be WAR; that only exists with other players. But it’s a double-clickable museum exhibiting much of what WAR was, so it won’t be forgotten completely. It’s an effort by all of us, as developers, to preserve a living record as our transient medium is created and destroyed. I can’t do this; I left behind the code when I left EA. But there are people inside EA who can easily make this happen.