The end of everything
You probably think online worlds shut down because no one's playing. Actually that's rarely true. Often, when servers finally wink out, there's a thriving community patiently waiting for the end and making sad faces at the sky. Most recently it was PlayStation Home, a game that no-one apparently played but which still managed to have millions of inhabitants waiting out their own personal apocalypse on the last day.
In some cases (like Home) it's sad in a heartbreaking way - just a bunch of friends, waiting for the thing that brought them together to disappear into the void. In other cases, spectacular fictional armageddons are arranged as a send off. And, sometimes, it's like the last guy out just switched off a bunch of computers. Let's take a look at how some digital worlds saw the end of days, and who was there to witness it.
Star Wars Galaxies (2003-2011)
Coming in a close second for saddest end ever after Home is Galaxies, with its almost torturous use of the 'sad Star Wars music' as that lady and her droid watched fireworks heralding the end. One thing this game managed that few MMOs ever achieve was the ability to declare a 'winner' with each server stating a final breakdown of numbers for Rebel and Empire players. (Back in the day, PC Gamer finished on a final count of Imperials 28%, Rebels 72%, likely a fair representation of the scores overall. GO REBELS!)
So the good guys won, even if the game lost. The final hours saw the MMO throw out all sorts of entertainment for players, with massive fights all over the place, including one on the forest moon of Endor to recreate the final battle from Return of the Jedi. There were also an assortment of oddball enemies to fight that, at one point, included a giant Ewok called the Megawok. The Force ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi even popped up to see everybody off.
A bizarre browser-based social MMO... thing, Glitch is probably best known for briefly having Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi on its design team. Even the people who liked it admitted it was weird, but despite its oddball charms and cult status not enough played it to keep it alive. Glitch did at least look after its fans as it gasped its last, refunding purchases, giving players all the in-game currency they could spend, and reactivating popular rare items for them to play with one last time.
It also worked the closure into the world, with the 'Forehorsemen' appearing in game, crying "The end is neigh!". Player greetings changed from 'hi' to 'bye' on the last day and god-like giants also appeared to talk to the players. Everything finally ended to the tune of 'Goodnight, Groddle', a popular in-game lullaby written by one of the players.
Final Fantasy 14 Online (2010-2012)
No, not the Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn that everyone currently loves. The first version launched on PC and had so many troubles that Square-Enix launched an in-game cataclysm to wipe the world clean for a new start. It also replaced most of the key developers. There's reason for that 'Reborn' bit.
The short version of the reason behind this is that the game sucked. There was almost consistent negative feedback from beta through to launch, so Square-Enix salted the earth and started over. That involved something called the Seventh Umbral Era, a fictional apocalypse using the game's lore to end everything without breaking character. Bahamut got loose, everyone had a big fight, and it all ended with players looking at a giant angry red ball in the sky. That ball, actually a moon, eventually crashed into the planet and triggered a trailer for the new game. On message to the end.
Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (2008-2013)
Despite great reviews and plenty of players, Warhammer Online somehow never quite managed to make enough money. Although what finally did for it was that famous slayer of worlds: expired licensing agreements. The game was based on Games Workshop's Warhammer table top RPG, and when the deal ended, so did the world.
The game ultimately met an orderly closure, with the inhabitants following the 'lets get everyone in one place' style of send off. In the final few months, the developer stopped charging to play, and introduced some new NPCs to engineer one last big clash between the forces of Order and Chaos.
Tabula Rasa (2007-2009)
Despite relatively good reviews, it was a "lower than expected in-game population" that ultimately did for this one, two years after launch. There was also the bizarre situation where Ultima creator and co-designer Richard Garriott was booted from the project while in quarantine after returning from space. Not a joke, that happened. He took the publisher to court claiming his 'resignation' was faked, and the game fell apart not long after.
Tabula Rasa at least had a pretty good end-game set up though, playing on its original 'last stand against an alien invasion' plot. To finish, they just let the aliens win. In the build up to the final server shutdown, the developers increased the alien activity so that players were slowly forced back, losing planets and locations to the encroaching invasion. The last few hours saw everyone mounting a final stand on Earth before a 10 second count down ended the world.
City of Heroes (2004-2012)
Another NCSoft apocalypse, with the publisher shutting studio Paragon and canning its MMO. Players tried to save the game: they protested, they rallied, and, weirdly, at one point bought the developers dinner to say thank you. Most prominently they gathered everyone in one place - an in-game location called Atlus Park - to show support for the closing studio and game.
It wasn't enough, and Heroes still died, with 'standing around a bit' becoming a theme. There were no fireworks or spectacular events at the end (rumour has it many of the devs worked for free to keep it running). Just servers clogged with lurid heroes waiting it out at city hall. The sad irony in some cases, however, was that the huge turnout of players meant several servers collapsed and some missed the final moments as they frantically tried to log in.
Famously referred to as 'PlayStation's most successful failure', Home had the confusing status of being the game everyone believed no-one played, which also having millions of subscribers. At its peak there were 19 million active accounts (although the term 'active' was likely pushed to its limits), and yet if you ask most people around they'd be surprised it was still a thing.
That said, for most of its seven year life it was a busy place for those who cared, and the game made a lot of money for people selling pretend clothes and fake furniture. There are a few studios out there that more or less made a living from Home and nothing else. But despite all that cash floating around, it was still down to Sony to develop and maintain it, and clearly bringing it over to PS4 wasn't a popular option. Home was finally gone on March 31st. You might not have played it, or cared, but watching that last stuttering frame as people danced and said goodbye to soon-to-be obliterated virtual friends, it was hard not to feel a little sad.