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Last Player: How Games Die

Originally posted on on February 18th 2023

by Marco “eukara” Cawthorne

This sounds like the start of some sort of goodbye message, but it’s far from it. I want to share my perspective of how and why some game communities die. I’ve been part of a few in my lifetime and have collected a few thoughts over the years. The main struggle is being unable to grow the games beyond their initial release, which is needed to fight the software aging over time.

How companies currently fit in

A game, as we most commonly know it, is a commodity of some sort. It can be given away, sure - but there is an exchange of goods happening at any price. A game is a product of creative individuals and sometimes professionals.

Those individuals have a choice, do they stop touching the game, or do they let it rest at some point? Not touching a game ever again is of course something we are all too familar with. The same applied to Quake for some time - up until a certain point. Quake was never at any risk of dying however. I do need to highlight it as a point of comparison for another game much later. Let’s delve deeper into Quake for example:

The game’s shareware came out shortly before the full registered version did - and it was very much left alone for the most part. Patches have merely addressed bugs, technical issues and all sorts of exploits. The game had been unchanged, up until 2021 when Microsoft/Bethesda decided to update the game so they could re-release it on consoles. In that version, several changes were done to the game that alter the presentation, functionality and many more things.

Contrast that with the community, who have been hacking away on their own ports of the game to various platforms since 1999: While there are a few engines that go into wacky directions with their presentation there is always a version you can get that keeps the original look, feel and execution in-tact. And most importantly, they are infinitely more compatible with each other. You can play Quake Rally on pretty much every engine, but the re-release won’t.

Let’s go over some of the facts of the above situation.

The community…

  • …has done more in between 1999 and 2021 than any corporation could ever have done in that short time they took to push out a re-release.
  • …will always have more time. This is a good argument to follow in id’s footsteps and to make the sources to your games available under a free software license.
  • …has done more to keep the integrity of the original release than the legal copyright owners.
  • …has at this point more in common with the original developers, than the current rights holders, since they’ve been working with the game since day 1.

In the case of games like Anachronox, it was even ex-developers who kept the game playable through unofficial patches; since a source code was never released. Once they lost interest, it was over.

If a game is no longer being updated, then the community should be let loose to take over duties of maintaining it.

Hardware is a moving target, but games don’t have to be stuck on any particular platform.

A lot of games die straight on this bit. With no ability to be modded, or updated in any way, you will greatly restrict it’s ability to be enjoyed over time. If you take a game like Half-Life, or even Grand Theft Auto III - none of these games would have any significant discourse if it wasn’t for the modding community having kept them relevant and alive. A game like Half-Life: Deathmatch could have never competed against the likes of Unreal Tournament or Quake III Arena - but Counter-Strike sure did.

Modding can only go so far

Modding can only extend the lifetime of a game on a given platform. Valve was very quick to learn from id software that your game has better chance at staying alive (which affects sales, obviously) if either you update it continously to keep it relevant, or you give the community a compelling reason to do it for you. Plenty of features in the technology of Half-Life were designed with its customizability in mind.

Half-Life didn’t need skeletal animation, a customizable client module for custom HUDs and things, or even colored lighting, to tell the story it needed to tell. It could have just been another Quake engine product on the shelves of stores, shipping on its original date of November 1997 if it had just used the Quake technology as-is. Scripted sequences work even in plain QuakeC - trust me, I’ve done it!

Technology had an appeal to publishers and gamers to some extent, sure - but the real reason was that it would attract the same sort of talented individuals that had joined Valve from the Quake/Doom community. This is also what made Valve different from other licensees of id technology and why other games didn’t have the same modding appeal.

The SDK license was also laid out in a way that Valve could pull the plug on any community operation at any time. There was a contract in place - make Half-Life content be free and we may strike a deal with you if we want. If was ultimately about advantage and not goodwill. When Steam launched in 2003, it was clear that the original purchase of Half-Life on CD would become unsupported. Migrate to the Steam version and you will be fine - but the experience you had previously known is going away and become more controlled.

The community stepped up the work with projects that provide service to the many people that did not want to switch to Steam. However this number of people would slowly but surely start to stagnate as there was simply no feasible way to address all of the needs of aging software and renewed hardware. Half-Life was not open, after all. In the end, the original ‘WON’ era is dead. It’s not actively maintained by anyone, as the only real userbase left is the ‘new’ one for the Steam release.

‘FreeHL’ addresses some of this, and it’s our contribution to the fans of Half-Life that remember the time of the original release. However we do not seek to replace the Steam version and merely continue with our own interpretation of a game we all very much love.

So we’ve found ways of doing this without the source code, but it requires a lot of skill, determination and knowledge of project management to get something like that off the ground. So ultimately, the thing that the lack of source code is preventing, is inevitable given enough determination. What I am saying is that developers should stop wasting peoples time and just make their code free-software after a while so peoples time could be spent on more interesting problems.

Collective ownership = community

Many societies push the idea of a strong individual that takes credit for the entirety of a project. Elitism, Solipsism are ultimately the death to a lot of game communities. You can totally feel pride in your accomplishments, but there’s quite a few behaviours that I think need to be put to rest forever.

People should work on what they want to work on, how they please to be working on (unless there’s a contract in place). If you don’t like the direction something is taking, you can totally maintain your own personal fork of a project and be responsible for it yourself. Don’t tell someone what you think they should do. You can always ask about someone their perspective, or how they think in regards to your perspective. Listening is a very important process to avoiding duplicate effort as well and should always be practiced.

What we see in a lot of communities however is how camps form, facing different ideologies or alliances to individuals. Some old-timers stick together in one camp, usually complaining about how much they don’t relate to the perspectives of newcomers. You’ll also have newcomers who don’t care to listen to the old-timers with their experiences. It’s not that one side is better than the other, but they do need each other especially to keep the games alive and relevant. The idea of a leader that will dictate how something is done is very silly and gets us nowhere.

One community that is at risk of death, is the Unreal community. You can definitely find plenty of exclusive spaces there, with a lot of ego and elitism. On top of that interest has been waning for those games for other reasons, with playercounts less than the Quake equivalents - and now Epic Games has decided to shut down the servers for all of the Unreal games. Not just the oldest titles, or those with only a multiplayer mode - it is all of them. No longer available for purchase, with no way for the original disc or digital releases to play out of the box. People now have to seek out the patches by OldUnreal, which is a group of people who’ve been licensed by Epic to keep only some of the games alive in an unofficial capacity. No warranties, no expectations and no ability to fork.

This is obviously not the right way to go about this. Teams fall apart, relationships wane and other things can go horribly wrong with handling proprietary source code in a setting like that. If OldUnreal decides to put malware into the binaries, who could tell or prevent it? We’re one scandal, one mistake, or one decision by Epic away for this project to go away.

If anything happens to OldUnreal, the games will slowly die and become even more irrelevant. The answer is to contribute to projects such as ‘UTEngine’. A project like this has infinitely more potential to keep these games alive. If you care about games, I urge you to find ways to support projects like this who re-implement games to work around source code availability issues.

Another example of a game that has been rediscovered by a new generation was Daggerfall. There once was a project titled ‘DaggerXL’ which had the ambitious plans to re-implement Dark Forces, Daggerfall and more into one engine. The developer was originally not interested in sharing their source code. They lost interest many times, put it on hiatus and it was inevitably abandoned after having been succeeded by Daggerfall Unity. In an alternate timeline, if they had allowed other people to contribute, the effort spent on Daggerfall Unity may have been spent on DaggerXL instead. At the very least they changed their stance, made sources available and now in 2023 we do have a native way of playing Dark Forces on alternative operating systems and hardware platforms titled ‘TheForceEngine’ which stems from DaggerXL.

Games like Quake were developed by not just one person. Keeping the games alive can not be done by just one person. If you do not let collective ownership prosper, games don’t have a community. If games have no real community, they will die.

The death

If a game has not enough substance on its own, with no way to extend it or to keep it alive by means of updating its source code… then it will slowly fizzle out and die. Players will go, one by one, and what is left is a ‘forgotten game’ that has to be re-discovered through a new context. Some games, will probably never find that peace.

Some games will forever be doomed by having its mere existence by consolidated to a single sub-forum where posts may happen every few years. With no one around to actively listen, the game is effectively ‘dead’.

When someone goes out and buys Half-Life today, they will not have the same experience that people had back in 1998. It is a different game. There is no ‘Custom game’ menu from which you could discover curated mods. There’s no way to chat with players on, asking what the hottest custom maps are. You are greeted to a minimalist, stripped down version of once was with the Steam release. The old version is dead. Nobody is playing that old version. Not because it was undesirable, but it was impossible to support it.

Most games don’t even have that fate. These days, you’ll seek out a single private Discord of someone that self-proclaims to be the uniter, the authority on how to play a certain game in the year of 20XX. Usually associated with warez and binaries that can’t be screened and usually limited to the platform of the ‘leader’ their choice. This is probably the last possible stop any game might pass. This is it, this it where it can all end. And in the case of some game communities, we’ve reached this point. No more public sites, forums, or networks like PlanetQuake - just private Discord spaces with limited appeal and a whole bunch of personal drama. This is where games go to die.

To summarize

The above perspective is from one mainly concerned with multiplayer PC games, where participation matters greatly. Overall the above stories should provide some general insight in various dynamics that have played out so far. If you want to keep a game alive, you should do so by either publishing the source code under a friendly license or by reimplementing it. There is no time for egos. A lot of duplicate effort or trouble can be avoided by just allowing people to contribute. A project will eventually also be superseded by another one that will allow people to contribute more. Companies should also not be expected to support a game forever, which would be fine if they’d release the sources to their games. Companies are also unable to provide the same quality of service as the community, as evident by the Quake re-release which can never compete against literal decades of community work.

I hope my perspective was informative and interesting.


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