In his gaming blog today, Brian "Psychochild" Green offers a thoughtful discussion of the difference in "feel" between how the lights went out for earlier games versus today's games, prompted by the termination on Saturday of Tabula Rasa.
In considering Brian's reflections, I can't help but see this difference in feel as yet another expression of the difference between the "play in" and "live in" preferences of gamers.
I've described this theory here before, but to put it another way: some people naturally look to MMOGs for their rules-based gameplay. Their focus is on the mechanics of play in a MMOG; their rallying cry is "it's just a game!" To the extent that they see a MMOG as a place, it's just a location to "play in."
Others see a MMOG for its worldy qualities. They talk about "immersion"; they like having houses and emotes and complex systems to discover over time. The rules-based play of a MMOG is less important to these gamers than that it feel plausible as a place they can pretend to "live in."
Where this intersects with shutting down gameworlds is that the latter kind of gamer, who tend to form the deeper and longer-lasting communities within one particular world, were more prominent in the dawn of MMOGs than in today's gameworlds. More of the few MMOGs there were catered more to the interests of "live in" players than today's games do.
Maybe there were always more people who wanted "play in" than live in, and game developers just got better at satisfying the former group. Or maybe game developers started making more "play in" games, creating more of those gamers as kids get old enough to start playing. (I suspect that both processes occurred.)
Either way, MMOGs shifted from being about "live in" to focusing more on "play in." Thus, when earlier "live in" games shut down, their players wanted to come together as a community to say goodbye to the world in which they'd lived. Later "play in" games, which focused less on supporting that type of emotional investment in a sense of place, saw a different kind of send-off. For the "play in" gamer, gameplay is gameplay; if one game shuts down, you just find a new game.
I think this theory not only explains the different feel of turning off a M59 versus a TR, it also puts the "New Gameplay Experience" of Star Wars Galaxies in perspective. If the goodbye for M59 felt like a wake, the NGE seems to have felt to the "live in" players of SWG like a doctor pulling the plug without giving the family members a chance to say their farewells. For the "live in" gamers, the worldiness of pre-NGE SWG has become a Paradise Lost -- it was the last, best expression of a theory of MMOG design that says "live in" is as important as "play in." Losing that unique place for scratching the "live in" itch generated intensely emotional reactions that some players are still expressing to this day.
Perhaps if they'd been given a chance to say goodbye -- "closure" as we call it today -- the gamers who most enjoy the feeling of "living in" a secondary reality would have been able to let go with less drama. They'd have felt more free to look for some new gameworld in which they could put down roots.
... Come, my friends,SWG's dispossessed have never found their Happy Isles, since the MMOG developer gods in our age have elected not to create anything like pre-NGE SWG's worldiness. But that's another topic. :)
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
The point here is that MMOG sendoffs today may feel different than they once did because games -- and the majority gamer type these games attract -- have shifted from "live in" to "play in."