Games Features

Why a Forgotten, Now-Unplayable MOBA Still Has a Small, Thriving Community

Master X Master only lived for 7 months. Its fans have spent years documenting its existence.
March 30, 2020, 1:04pm
Master X Master cover
Promo art courtesy of NCSOFT

Master X Master was a few years late to the free-to-play MOBA game when it came out in 2017, but it had a bottle full of previously unimaginable, jaunty homemade sauce. The game made a splash onto the MOBA scene due to its unorthodox approach to almost all of the genre’s conventions. Instead of a lobby system where you’d sit in a queue waiting, there was an entire hub world where you could walk around as an in-game avatar version of your favourite character, chat with other players, and groove out to some exclusive tunes on the player-controlled jukebox.

It borrowed mechanics from tag-team fighting games like Marvel vs Capcom and The King of Fighters, letting players select two different characters for a match and tag them in as-needed. No more scrambling over who was playing the tank or support, you could just play both. It was a utopia of choice that meant over 780 options for players, and over hundreds of thousands of possible team combinations each match. The new and evolving meta that came with that, along with the swift moment to moment pace of the matches (which were less than 25 minutes each, due to a countdown timer) gave the game a surreal quality. The gameplay was fun, fast, and flexible in a genre that felt stuck in its ways and afraid of big change.

All of its cool idiosyncrasies weren’t enough to hold it afloat though. Just five months after launch, when the game was in its MOBA infancy, NCSOFT made a blog post announcing that they’d be shutting the servers down within the next two months. And just like that it was gone, Master X Master’s full lifespan was a whopping 7 months.

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“We truly believe that MXM is special, and offered a lot of new ideas to change up the MOBA genre, but in trying to carve out a niche for itself, we failed to connect with players,” the goodbye post read. “We are as heartbroken as you are that we have to say goodbye to it.”

NCSOFT then scrubbed the web clean of almost every mention of the game after closure; the main site and all of its information were removed, and the only real account that’s still live is their YouTube channel. Clicking through their channel of character overviews and behind the scenes videos feels like walking through an abandoned theme park after dark—you’re not supposed to be there, but why wouldn’t you want to explore it?

Normally games that are shutdown have some official record still up today like blog posts, updates, or social media, so it’s odd that NCSOFT would take such an extreme route to distance themselves from Master X Master. They sunset the game, but it wasn’t just turning off the servers, they practically erased it. In their farewell message, they credited the game’s failure to not being able “to connect with players,” but that’s just not true. In reality the game did connect with fans, and somehow connected even deeper after its death.

Today, over two years since the game closed, there is still an active community of Master X Master fans out there. To them, the game never really died. They’ve been posted up in a couple of discord servers and a subreddit with over 2000 members reminiscing about an amazing MOBA that isn’t available. Their community serves as a place to grieve and gush over MXM. NCSOFT tried to obliterate the game, but it lives on through the strong community that these players forged. It’s a place of permanent nostalgia fueled entirely on memories, and the hope that they’ll get another chance at playing the game.

Lorraine was a playable journalist with a giant camera that did damage whenever she took a picture.

Master X Master fans look at other notable multiplayer games that NCSOFT unceremoniously sunset over years for hope. Mainly the eccentric WildStar, and the superhero MMO City of Heroes, games that went awry in their own way but have maintained their dedicated communities since closure. WildStar fans don’t have their game back, but they have each other. Over 25,000 people on their subreddit drawing fanart, making videos, and looking for alternatives every week. In 2012, when City of Heroes fans heard that their game was planned to be shut down, they signed a petition with over 20,000 signatures, pleading for NCSOFT to preserve their massive community. Paragon, the game’s developers, also seemed to be on their side, but the request got denied. Their fan base continued to press on, though, finally getting their game back this past year through private servers utilizing the game’s original source code. While the games never returned to their original form, it’s evident that these communities bounced back. Without an iota of help from NCSOFT they’ve managed to pick up the pieces of what they loved, and make something new: for the people, and by the people.

The MXM community has been doing everything they can to hold onto the wacky joy that was the game, and they’re on a mission to keep that memory alive. The game still has an inescapable thrall that fans immortalize through talking, archiving, creating, organizing, and reminiscing about it. Two of the main players spearheading Master X Master’s conservation and possible revitalization are Delta-47, the group’s head archivist, and Malachi, the group’s head organizer.

Delta-47 spends a lot of his freetime digging up things about MXM that he feels like NCSOFT wants people to forget. He unearthed lost prequel comics full of unseen in-game lore, found a bunch of the game’s old concept art and put it up for public viewing, and he’s been learning how to code in case the game never comes back, and the community has to make their own version. He says he started archiving because the games he loved kept getting shut down, and he was tired of it.

“I started archiving stuff because I hate where the industry is going,” said Delta-47. “Companies can just say ‘Hey, that game isn’t profitable enough anymore, let’s just pull the plug.’ When in reality, there are still people out there who love that game.”

Malachi has been organizing the community since its inception, helping organize tournaments, creating places for pros to teach new players, and getting people talking about the game. He runs the main server and subreddit, spending his time trying to build a community large enough to attract NCSOFT’s attention, and hopefully get them their game back.

“We try to keep it afloat as best as we can because if we don’t, it just fades into oblivion,” says Malachi. “That’s something we want to avoid.”

The motley crew of gamers chat all the time, share esoteric memes about the game’s quirks, and have anniversary events and mock award shows to keep the memory alive. Maybe someday Master X Master will come back, and more people will be able to experience it for all of its exciting chaos, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that people still know it exists. NCSOFT didn’t care about the game at the end of the day, and that prompted the fans to care twice as hard. They still aren’t able to log on, but they’ve managed to chronicle, foster, and maintain a humble home for a game that almost vanished in front of their eyes.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.