Forgotten Worlds

Earlier this year a friend and I decided to rent our own DayZ server. After spending a few uninspiring months in the Standalone title we had come to the conclusion that the Mod still reigned supreme, and so I took out a rolling monthly subscription with an online hosting service.

We installed the latest DayZ Epoch files, gave ourselves admin access, and spent a couple of days tweaking the server to give players what we felt would be the best experience possible. We crafted abandoned bases for visiting clans to inhabit and changed some of the landscape to encourage people to head out into the wilderness. We added new scripts for AI squads of survivors and bandits. Essentially, we wanted to recapture that sense of excitment and uncertainty the mod had given us back in 2012, but give it a fresh new vibe for players to engage with.

I think we succeeded. We were proud of what we had achieved; we’d created our own little post-apocalyptic wasteland and we couldn’t wait to see what visiting players would make of it all. We posted the server ID in a select few places online and waited…

And waited…

And waited…

Nobody came. For two weeks we kicked around a deserted Chernarus, teleporting about like two omnipresent digital deities; double checking loot spawns and available vehicles; repositioning buildings and outposts; strategically deploying vital supplies and points of interest along backwater roads and woodland footpaths, in the vain hope that all these assets would be utilised by an influx of curious players that ultimately never arrived. Before long, we came to the conclusion that it’s quite boring being an administrator with nothing to administrate. Our raison d’etre was to serve the players and there weren’t any players.

And so, for varying reasons that we agonised over and speculated upon – server loyalty, player apathy, lack of visibility – we slowly realised that building a community was not something that just happened. It required hard work, dedictation, focus, determination. Eventually, we sat down and agreed on the best way to deal with the situation. We quit.

Fast forward 3 months, and out of the blue I received an invoice from the server rental site we’d been using. I’d forgotten all about the service to be quite honest; the monthly Paypal debit was just another superficial regular payment being deducted from my bank account, wedged inconspicuously between my Amazon Prime membership and my FFXIV subscription (someone remind me to cancel those in the comments, please). It turns out the provider had updated their terms of service and needed a new user agreement completing before they could continue taking my money.

I logged into the account panel on the website and was about to shut down the server, when I suddenly felt the urge to visit Chernarus on last time. I logged into DayZ Commander. There was the server, filtered as always, only now it wasn’t empty. To my complete surprise, and some amazement, it had seven players connected. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Seven players! Where had these players come from? How long had they been there?

I logged into the game immediately and jumped into the Admin Spectator panel, anxious to see what had been happening in this forgotten world that I’d created and abandoned.

I wasn’t disappointed. The players were spread all over the map. A couple of guys had teamed up at the North East Airfield and were raiding the hangars. The rest seemed to be lone survivors dotted throughout the countryside. Some were making use of the prefabricated bases we had constructed; others had chosen a nomadic existence. But everyone was busy; everyone had a purpose; everyone seemed content.

I picked a player at random – one of the lone wolves – and spent some time following his movements. He was fully geared – he’d obviously spent some time on the server. I watched with fervour as he scavenged supplies in Krastonstav near the North West Airstrip. After picking the bones of the town clean, he jumped into his SUV and gunned the engine, heading South West to the Trader city of Klen. After some bartering with the local NPCs, he got back in his car and took the scenic route North to Pobeda Dam – one of the most picturesque places on the map and my personal destination of choice for long term survival.

He parked his SUV strategically in the woodland, hidden in a trench surrounded by a copse of tall evergreens, before strolling down to the water’s edge to do a spot of fishing. By monitoring his loadout on the admin console, I watched as he caught three rainbow trout in quick succession.

He bagged his catch and headed back up the hill on foot. After a few minutes walk through the forest, he emerged into a small clearing, where I saw he had constructed a modest, but comfortable, camp-site. There were two small tents pitched neatly next a camp fire. He kindled some flames from the embers and roasted the trout.

After eating his fill, he stowed what possessions he was carrying in one of the tents, before performing a brief walk around the perimeter of his camp. The sun was setting over the hills to the West, the brightest stars were peppering the sky to the East. It was a beautiful sight – the visual prowess of the Arma II engine never fails to impress on such occasions. The survivor was satisfied that he was alone. He crawled into one of the tents to sleep and promptly disappeared.

I looked at the clock. I’d been watching him intently for forty five minutes. It was fascinating; like some kind of digital Big Brother. When I was sure he’d logged off, I teleported to his camp-site, approaching the tents with some trepidation, before having a brief look through his worldly possessions while he slumbered.

Suddenly it felt quite intrusive – I’d invaded camps before and helped myself to people’s belongings in their absence, but that was as a player and in life or death situations; stealing in order to survive. Now I was worried that I was abusing my powers, recalling some of the horror stories I’d read about mods and admins. I left the camp and walked down to where he had parked the SUV.

It was locked – I remembered seeing a key in his inventory earlier on – and so as a small parting gesture I refuelled the vehicle for him, hoping he wouldn’t notice such a small, random act of kindness in the grand scheme of things.

By nightfall, all of the players had logged off; the server was empty again. But I knew they’d be back.

I shut down DayZ and returned to the account management screen of the hosting website. How could I cancel the service now? These people had probably picked our server specifically because it was quiet. Low population servers usually offer the most immersive DayZ experience, a far cry from the death-match frag-fests of the more popular hosters. Random encounters in the wilderness still got the blood pumping.

It was clear that these players had put a lot time and effort into carving out a small digital life here; it would be like up-ending an ant farm after watching the colony tunnel for weeks, undoing all the the hard work and making them start over.

I decided to keep the server. But it got me thinking. How many other games have suffered that fate: closing down and leaving its fans out in the cold. It always fills me with sadness and a tinge of regret when I read about a classic game that’s had its online services deactivated. The most recent example that comes to mind is Zipper Interactive deactivating it’s SOCOM and MAG servers in January (the original SOCOM on PS2 was where online console gaming started for me, back in 2002.)

In the past I’ve lamented the shut down of servers across a range of games and in some cases, entire formats – Nintendo left a lot disgruntled gamers in its wake earlier this year when it switched off the Wi-Fi Connection Service for Wii and DS.

So with the above in mind, I will be exploring other forgotten worlds over the coming weeks and months, revisiting online games long since abandoned by the mainstream, in the hopes of finding some semblance of communities still striving to keep their favourite titles alive.

NB. If you have any suggestions on titles from yesteryear that you think I should check out, let me know in the comments.

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