Just outta beta

What’s life like in online world that’s about to end? My latest Wired News column

Wired News just published my latest video-game column, and this one is about the end of the world — or at least the end of a world, anyway. Asheron’s Call 2, an online multiplayer game, never accumulated enough customers to become viable, so the game’s creators, Turbine, are going to shut it down in two weeks. My column is about what life is like in a condemned world. It’s online for free here at Wired, and a permanent archived copy is below:

“Anybody out there?” I type, but I already know it’s pointless. There’s nobody anywhere near me. For almost an hour, I’ve been wandering around a desolate plain: Gray clouds scud slowly over rough quartz mountains, while a few birds wheel in the air near mushroom-shaped trees. I never see another living soul. It feels like the end of the world.

And in fact, it is. I’m inside Asheron’s Call 2, an online game that is scheduled to die in two weeks. It never acquired enough players to make it self-sufficient, so the game’s owner — Turbine — is going to do something that only happens rarely in the world of online play: On Dec. 30, it’ll flip the power off on the remaining servers, and an entire world will blink out of existence.

This got me wondering: How do people behave in a world where the end is actually nigh? Sci-fi aficionados, Cold War moviemakers and Christian apocalyptics have mused over this for years, since they’ve assumed that the end of life would have a catalytic effect on the human spirit. In nuclear-war or alien-invasion films like The Day After or War of the Worlds, catastrophic attacks turn America into a landscape of venal looting and family togetherness — our best impulses mixed with our worst.

But after talking to several longtime players of Asheron’s Call 2, I’ve realized the end of a game world is less cataclysmic — and more subtle. The players aren’t dying in real life; they’re just being forced to disband. Their emotional state is thus more like the grief of an indigenous tribe that is being driven off its land by a megacorporation and is losing its way of life. It’s kind of like the villagers at the end of Fiddler on the Roof, forced by the czar to abandon their homes and scatter to the four winds.

“It’s really heart-wrenching. How will you connect with those people you spent every single day with? It’s as though someone suddenly took away all e-mail,” as one player who calls herself “Ellen Ripley” online told me. “Suddenly they seem nameless and ethereal, where once they were as real and important as our families, co-workers and Earth-realm friends.”

Online worlds are, of course, more than just playlands for slaughtering ogres and collecting magic chain mail. They’re social hangouts where players sit around shooting the breeze about their lives, their jobs, their favorite music. “That gives one an odd sense of home. And no one likes to see their homes be demolished,” said Chris Thorn, a 26-year-old player in Arlington, Virginia.

The economy has also tanked. When the announcement first came down, players say, a majority of gamers immediately fled. Previously, you’d log on and find several hundred people online; now you’ll get nine or 10. High-powered character accounts used to sell for as much as $500, but the online auctions have gone silent. That’s partly because, as the end nears, Turbine is tossing out some freebies and giving away more “rare” items, making them less rare. Without a sense of a future, capitalism ends. There’s no demand in a condemned world.

I wanted to see all this for myself. But it turned out to be quite difficult to get into the game, because Turbine has sealed the borders; when I called the company, I was told they are no longer allowing any new accounts. So I had to sneak in — by borrowing the account of an existing user and going in under an assumed identity.

What struck me immediately was how creepy the world had become. “Being in-game is like walking around a ghost town,” I was warned by Amy Gilson, a 31-year-old from Philomath, Oregon. “You can almost see the tumbleweeds pass you by.” Indeed: Since I’d created a brand-new avatar, I was teleported to “Arwic North Outpost,” a newbie area that was gorgeous — Asheron’s Call 2 is a visual treat — but sepulchrally quiet.

To get in character, I gamely tried to level up my character by killing a few monsters. But I couldn’t get past the sense of existential emptiness. At one point, a non-player character assigned me a quest of killing all the burrowing beasts in a nearby canyon, to save her town. I’m like, save the town? Lady, the whole damn world is about to end!

Now as the final days click down, the last denizens of Asheron’s Call 2 are wrestling with a question that historically faces all displaced peoples: Where next? Thorn says many in his guild have emigrated to World of Warcraft, a game that is now so hugely popular — and so overcrowded, with migrants fleeing to other games — that it has become a virtual version of 19th-century America: A hallowed land of opportunity, where everyone can have fresh start.

Those who still linger are trying to collect memories in any way they can. A newly popular pastime is to take nostalgic photographs. “A lot of folks have gone back to take screenshots of points of memory — places where ‘firsts’ took place, like the first time to solo a difficult mob, that kind of thing,” Gilson said. Maybe one day 30 years from now, they’ll pull them out of a virtual shoebox to show their grandkids. You can’t go home again.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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