Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at The Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.
This week's edition—about the apocalypse of an online video game—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.
A few months before the end of the world, everyone was saying their goodbyes.
The world that was ending was The Sims Online, a Web-based version of The Sims. Even though The Sims was one of the most popular computer games ever made, the massive multiplayer online version released in December 2002 did not do well.
Despite rebranding the game as EA-Land, sales did not improve, and EA Games decided to pull the plug in 2008.
EA-Land was not a normal video game. There were no monsters, there was no killing, and although it had some competitive elements, for many players the point was just socializing.
It was just a place to get together, chat, and meet strangers. It was a nice place. It was intimate.
And it was slated for virtual apocalypse.
Most games are easy to archive. For a game like Pac-Man, all you need to do is preserve the cartridge and the console. But the heart of EA-Land was the community of people using it. If you only saved the computer coding and opened it up years later, all you’d have is an empty world.
Enter Henry Lowood, an archival researcher at Stanford University and head of a project called How They Got Game, which chronicles and preserves what happens inside of digital games and simulations. He wanted to capture the social relationships that would be lost when EA-Land went dark.
Lowood studied the final moments of EA-Land. It was like standing on the deck of the Titanic.
When EA Games pulled the plug on the server, bits and pieces of the world started disappearing. The environment began to disintegrate. The texture on the trees flickered. All the people froze and blinked out of existence.
The last thing they saw was a blue pop-up window: “Network Error—Lost server connection,” as you can see at the end of the video below.
This story was a collaboration with Robert Ashley, host of the podcast A Life Well Wasted.
99% Invisible is distributed by PRX.