POSTED: 19 DECEMBER 2005 - 7:30am HST

Asheron: A doomed world

meeting of characters, with musical instruments, in the doomed world of Asheron

Not With a Bang but a Whimper
by Clive Thompson on 19 December 2005 in Wired Magazine

"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!

twilight landscape in the world of Asheron

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," Ripley 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.


POSTED: 25 SEPTEMBER 2005 - 2:30pm HST


WarCraft online world infected

"Night Elves" illustration from website of the "World of WarCraft"

Warcraft Plague Runs Amok
22 September 2005 in Wired Magazine

In a bizarre case of art imitating life, players of the Blizzard Entertainment game World of Warcraft suddenly found themselves dying from a mysteriously rampant plague that ravaged their virtual world.

The plague began innocently enough. Blizzard introduced a new dungeon area in the world, intended to give high-level players a bit of a challenge. But when players reached the boss at the end of the dungeon, they got more than they bargained for -- and unknowingly took a little something back to town to share with their friends. The dungeon boss, called Hakkar the Soulflayer, cast a spell called Corrupted Blood. The powerful spell caused about 280 damage points to anyone it hit, and spread to other members of the attacking party as well. Such powerful spell attacks aren't unusual in the World of Warcraft game world. But what happened next was just plain weird.

When infected adventurers returned to town at the end of their quest, they inadvertently passed along the Corrupted Blood infection to those nearby. In short order, the plague ravaged the population. Soon entire cities fell victim to the artificial disease. And while 280 damage points may be easy for a level-58 Night Elf warrior to contend with, it's enough to kill a lower-level player in seconds.
Game administrators were baffled. As they scrambled to quarantine areas of the game world, the disease quickly spread beyond their control. Partially to blame was the game's "hearthstone" feature, which allows players to essentially teleport from one area to another, and which made it possible for the plague to reach the most distant regions of the map in just minutes.

Eventually the game's administrators came up with a "spell" to cure the plague and managed to distribute it to the players en masse. But the legacy of Corrupted Blood remains. While software viruses are nothing new, Corrupted Blood is unique in that it's the first such infection ever to spread through a virtual environment without being deployed by malicious intent. It was, in a certain sense, naturally occuring in its environment. You might even say it evolved and sought self-propagation, just as any lifeform would do.

In the days since Blizzard eradicated the plague, the company has remained surprisingly quiet about what happened. But you can still find plenty of players willing to talk about it. One 14-year-old Orc told me openly of the incident:

"Humans were dying left and right. We just laughed and laughed."