Managing MMO property rights via the end game?

The sci-fi themed MMOG Tabula Rasa was recently shut down.  I never played it, but the basic premise of the game was that the players played the role of humans joined together to battle an alien race called the Bane.

Once the decision was made to shut the game down, the developers decided to go out with a bang.  A week before the shutdown, a message describing an imminent massive enemy attack was posted to their message board:

We request that all military personnel begin fortifying defenses at every AFS base in preparation for a massive Bane assault. If enemy troop movements are as large as we fear, and the Neph are truly prepared to lead all out war against us, this may be our last stand. Penumbra has been informed of the situation and is standing by on the use of their last resort weapon. We can not afford to be complacent or uncertain, but if it is truly our destiny to be destroyed, we are taking them all with us.

The remaining players joined in this organized event on the last night the game was operating as a kind of a sendoff.  The “last resort weapon” in the game was apparently so powerful that it took down all of the servers in the real world, and the game came to an end.

I thought this was a creative way of folding the real world cessation of the game into the story of the virtual world.  I also found this interesting, though, because of what it suggests about the power of game developers to use game mechanics to alter real-world experiences.

For example, much has been made of the real-world value of virtual property, whether MMOG participants should have a cognizable property right in said property, and whether the providers of MMOGs should be worried about liability for depriving participants of their rights in said property.   However, what if an MMOG provider eliminated the value of the virtual property, not by forcibly depriving the participant of access to the property or the ability to transfer the property, but instead by eliminating the demand for the property?

Here’s my thought experiment:  Say Blizzard wants to shut down WoW (god forbid), and players are threatening suit because they expected to be able to sell their items for real-world currency to other players (we’ll ignore the fact that Blizzard’s EULA for WoW technically doesn’t allow that, since it happens anyway).  Instead of just going and shutting down WoW, Blizzard “tweaks” the balance of the game such that giant groups of elite mobs (translated: lots of really powerful bad guys) roam through normally safe areas, infiltrate capital cities, and camp every graveyard.  In other words, the game becomes “challenging” to the point where it’s impossible to log in without your character being killed almost immediately.

The effect of this seems to be that no one would be interested in playing the game anymore.  Hence, no one would be interested in paying real-world currency for virtual items in the game.  Hence, the real-world value of those items would shrink to nothing.  Hence, Blizzard would no longer have any liability, and could shut down the game without objection.

I think it’s an interesting move because it ignores trying to solve the problem through a legal solution, and instead solves it purely with game mechanics.  It might not be the best PR move for whatever Blizzard was planning on launching to take its place, but maybe it’s a way out nonetheless?

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