The sad Internet news of this week is that the multiplayer online game/community Glitch will have to shut down next month. The announcement makes it sound like mostly a financial problem (not enough revenue to keep going), with a side order of getting caught between technology curves. They built the desktop client on Flash, which is on its way out now, but the technologies that will replace it are not completely ready yet; meanwhile, Flash is mostly not available at all on “mobile” devices but they didn’t have the engineering manpower to build a whole new client for each such platform.
This is a personal disappointment for me, since I liked the game, but it’s also not the first time I’ve seen an Internet community built around a compelling idea fall apart because the money wasn’t there. Something very similar happened to Metaplace and Faunasphere. It’s not just games; the WELL, paragon of elder days, had to be bought out by its users, and this was only possible because it goes back to elder days and has users who are very, very rich. TV Tropes, timesink par extraordinare and valuable resource for high school English students, is ad-supported so it keeps getting jerked around by Google.
You get the idea: the ecology around the Web is only capable of supporting ideas that bring in the money. It doesn’t really matter how good the idea is on its own terms, or how desirable it is to its audience if that audience isn’t big enough to provide enough money. Kickstarter and the like help with that last bit, but they don’t work for things that need lots of money or a continuous stream of money. Glitch staff quoted a figure of six million U.S. dollars a year to keep the game running, which is comparatively small for a business—thirty-ish people at $100,000/yr, plus however much the servers and the connectivity cost, plus overhead. But one million dollars is extraordinary for a Kickstarter project.
The requirement for a continuous stream of money to keep the servers running also hurts things on the Net that were successful but are now declining. I can still play Super Mario World any time I want; even after the original hardware stops working altogether, there will be emulators. But I can’t go back to Star Wars Galaxies, and I’m not sure if I should believe the website that’s telling me I can still play Uru Live. Again this isn’t just about games; we all remember what happened to Geocities.
Free software helps, but not enough, because it’s not enough to be in possession of all the code and data that you need for a client-server MMO. Some specific person or group has to actually run the server, and now we’re back to that continuous stream of money requirement—most of which will be going to people, not to computrons or tubes. You might not need developers, but you definitely need sysadmins. I was a sysadmin in college, for a tiny little computer lab that almost never had crises at four in the morning, and it was still a shitload of work. For an MMO you also need in-game and out-of-game moderators, which is even more difficult and thankless a gig than sysadminning, and while people do sometimes volunteer to do it for free, often those are exactly the people who should not be doing that job (yeah, I’m looking at you, Reddit).
Is there a solution? I don’t have one. I think it’s more a problem of capitalism than a problem of software architecture.