Teleportation, the last battle, and the Creator talks: How the world ends inside an online game

Three years ago, I wrote a piece about how people behave in a world that’s about to end. The world in question was Asheron’s Call 2 — one of those online-world games like World of Warcraft that hadn’t gotten enough subscribers to survive, so the developers were pulling the plug and turning the world off. As you can read here, it was a rather spooky and sad experience: Long-time players were mostly quietly mourning the imminent poofing of a place they’d long come to love. (I later learned about the concept of solsastalgia — the homesickness one feels not when one moves away, but when one’s home environment vanishes before one’s eyes — and realized this is precisely what the players were experiencing.)

Asheron’s Call 2 was the one of the first really big modern MMO worlds to shut down, so when the world actually came to an end, not much happened: The logged-in players got a perfunctory note from the developers, and then they were booted offline. But now that economic hard times are here, more online worlds are dying, and here’s the interesting thing: They’re realizing that they owe it to their long-time players to make it into a sort of event. Game designers are realizing that ending their world in a dramatically satisfying way is actually a very interesting logistical, ludogical, and emotional trick. In essence, we’re slowly seeing the emergence of eschatology as a design challenge.

Exhibit A is the Tabula Rasa, an online world that shut down in on Feb 28, 2009. Chris Remo of GameSetWatch wrote a terrific report of the end here — during which the designers engineered one last massive apocalyptic battle. The problem? So many players got wind of the impending badass finale that the servers slowed down under the load. So, much as you might expect in a real-world eschatalogical event, you got trippy time distortions, teleportation, and direct communications from the actual Creator.

A few choice snippets:

Some players tried to predict what exactly would happen when the event began, and where it might be focused. Some seemed to want closure, frantically attempting to obtain the final pieces of certain equipment sets or to finish uncovering all areas of the world.

Some thanked the developers for their continued support of the game until the final days; others cursed NCsoft for a perceived botched publishing job; many did both. A few stayed in character, attempting to rise to the occasion. “Men and women of the AFS, it has been an honor serving with you,” offered Nebalain.

By the afternoon, the West Coast server Hydra was the last server standing. As more and more of its citizenry logged on for the last hurrah, and foreign players from dead servers poured in to squeeze a few more hours out of the game, it became increasingly congested, buggy, and lag-ridden.

The intended scenario was indeed playing out not just in the game and the fiction but as a metagame: the active duty population swelled as humanity prepared to make its final stand, while the very world itself strained under the considerable weight and struggled to keep itself together …

Then, hundreds of players all over the world began being involuntarily teleported to an extraction location connected to the “Last Stand” area on Earth — a small string of camps in Manhattan serving as the final holdout against the invasion … The GMs reciprocated with server-wide missives: “ADMIN MESSAGE: As the clock ticks down, we’d like to take one last moment to thank everyone for playing. It’s been a fantastic ride, and we’re happy you stuck with us for the last year.” … Similar back-and-forth exchanges followed, with the GMs even breaking out that most classic of old internet chestnuts. “ADMIN MESSAGE: ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US,” declared the server.

If you want to see more, here are a bunch of screenshots, and some videos of Tabula Rasa for the last five minutes until it ended.

Sometimes I wish the folks who made the Left Behind game would do a game that is straightforwardly based on the narrative of Revelations — which is, of course, one of the original design documents for the end of the world. Or maybe make a game out f the final moments of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, which fried my tiny brain when I read it as a child.

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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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