A book can gather dust on a shelf for decades, a film survives even if it tanks at the box office. But an online video game has a finite lifespan. It costs money to keep servers running, and a steady stream of content is needed to attract new players and keep old ones engaged. Online games must be played continuously, otherwise they die.
The mortality rate for Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) – in which hundreds or thousands of players inhabit a single world – is particularly high. In the late 2000s, after the staggering success of World of Warcraft, other studios wanted a piece of the MMO pie. The market became oversaturated, and many failed to thrive, eventually shutting down and disappearing altogether. There were simply not enough players to go round.
More often than not, MMOs die slowly. A drop-off in new content accompanies a decline in players, which in turn makes allocating development time to the game less worthwhile. The snake eats its own tail, the cycle continuing until only the most devoted fans remain and the game is stagnant.
Such is the fate of The Secret World. Released in 2012, the game’s horror-inspired setting was its main draw. Players were embroiled in a shadowy world of the paranormal, of secret societies and urban legends. Unique investigative missions required you to scour the environment for tiny details; anything from street names to manhole covers could be a clue in a mystery that spanned multiple continents. Now, with no major update since 2018, it appears the mystery leads nowhere.
While The Secret World “is dying and not dead”, as player C. Facer puts it, a dearth of new stories has decimated its population. “It’s a sad feeling of loss as we watch fewer and fewer people turn up for events or just to hang out in Agartha, the main hub,” he says. Though seasonal events at Halloween and Christmas draw moderate numbers, “these are repeats of events we had in previous years: it’s simply a cycle that ticks through once a year at this point.”
Being alone in a world meant for many is an odd experience. Areas and architecture, designed to house a multitude, seem far too large. Monsters stand dutifully in place, inactive, until you show up to kill them. Dungeons go unraided, treasure unlooted. It’s in the starting zones, designed as busy and bold locations to wow new players as they set out, that the absence of people is most noticeable.
The Secret World opens in the fictional New England coastal town of Kingsmouth, where a mysterious fog has caused the deaths of many inhabitants. “It used to be that anytime you went there you could see new players starting their first investigations and veteran players calmly standing around showing off their crazy costumes and shepherding friends through their first steps,” Facer says. “Now it really is a ghost town. It adds to the atmosphere but it is also a very lonely feeling.”
Abandoned locations are a staple of horror, and abandoned games can create similar sensations. Adam Pype was inspired by the idea of isolation, the fact that “there was something inherently spooky about being in an environment specifically designed to be with multiple people” when he created No Players Online, a short horror game set within an old, disused shooter from the PS1 era.
As you wander its empty map, playing “capture the flag” by yourself, the words “looking for players” hang on screen, an ominous portent of what is to come. Naturally, No Players Online has a dark secret: you are not as alone as you think. However, it is the game’s central premise, rather than the specifics of its plot, that truly resonates.
“When we launched the game we got loads of people talking about their personal experiences of going onto old servers and thinking something was off, being creeped out by it,” Pype explains. “I was really surprised by how familiar it was for people.”
Discarded places can be unnerving, but we are also drawn to them. According to Andrew Lloyd, an urban explorer, “abandoned buildings are fascinating because they exist in this weird middle-space: almost forgotten, but not completely gone. It’s a rare and eerie experience, imagining everything that went on there, to explore and appreciate the space one final time before it disappears for good.”
“Daarin”, who considers himself a tourist of dying MMOs, seeks to do the same thing within video games. Initially he was searching for a new game to get lost in, but nothing satisfied him, and soon the journey became the destination. Now, instead of playing, he looks for snapshots, highlights of games that most have left behind. He considers what makes them tick, envisioning how it would be to spend years within them, as MMO players so often do.
“You wouldn’t believe how many games there are once you start digging: hundreds of MMOs,” Daarin says. “I’ve played games where I haven’t seen a single player for hours. It doesn’t always feel lonely; sometimes it feels like I own the world, like I’m the most powerful one there.”
The encounters that do occur are all the more impactful for their scarcity. “I’m not sure how to explain it, maybe like meeting a weird stranger in your dream. You share your stories with each other for a bit and move on with your life.”
Daarin feels he is preserving an art form by viewing maps, costumes, characters, all lovingly designed and then cast aside. “There are so many of these games that will get lost in the digital world, the only records about them will be in a few online articles. So I want to have at least a tiny bit of a taste of them, just a peek.”
Another glimpse into abandoned game worlds can be found on the subreddit r/MinecraftDatamining. Members use special programmes to dig beneath the surface of shut-down Minecraft servers – each one a player-made world of its own – and discover their secrets.
One tool analyses books, signs, anything textual written by players, resulting in some fascinating cross-sections of communities. Among storage chest labels and disturbing fan-fiction lies something far more poignant: traces of connections formed within the game. One book holds a secret declaration of love: “Have you ever had the type of people where you meet them and you just click?”; another wishes happy birthday to a player and hopes for “many more years of friendship”; a series of signs tell of the search for a companion lost between servers.
They are a reminder that online games are more than just art. The places within them may be fictional, but they’re also where thousands of real people gather and interact. Exploring an empty game, you can almost sense the memories that were made there, some subtle remnant left behind, like a footprint or a ghost.
Of course, this only heightens the tragedy when the game vanishes. Facer has no illusions about the future of The Secret World.
“Eventually, there’s not going to be enough people to justify it being kept alive,” he laments. “We’re going to lose this incredible game,”