Can City of Heroes Be Saved?

I was aware of this before the Massively story released, but fans of City of Heroes are attempting to rally to save their game. There’s an online petition (which I signed,) and talk on the City of Heroes forums about “discussions” between Paragon management and both NCSoft and investors, and additional calls to action elsewhere.

Will it work? I don’t hold out much hope, as much as I would like to see City of Heroes survive. NCSoft has dismissed efforts to buy their shuttered games in the past, definitely with AutoAssault and (it is rumored) with Tabula Rasa as well. So NCSoft deciding to keep CoX around through some sort of arrangement would be unprecedented. But then, the closure itself is unprecedented; never before has an MMO this healthy (and the numbers which have come out in the meantime have done nothing but reinforce my opinion on this) been shut down before. City of Heroes may or may not have been profitable, but populations were still strong and people are still playing it, and that population should be able to support its continued existence were it run by a less cutthroat company.

Like I said, I’m not especially hopeful, but to paraphrase Miracle Max, it’s only mostly dead. There are a number of potential solutions that involve keeping CoH around without NCSoft backing off of its closure decision or selling it outright to another company. They could license the game, for example, letting some other group run it and bear the expenses for doing so while keeping a slice of royalties off the top. They could (although I consider this incredibly unlikely) open source or Creative Commons the code, allowing what would be clean and legal private servers to continue operating the game. More creative business types could probably come up with even better and more innovative solutions.

I believe City of Heroes is a game that’s worth saving. But me just saying that doesn’t mean anything, because I personally have no skin in the game, as it were, having supported Champions Online with a lifetime sub instead. So to put my money where my mouth is, I’ll make a pledge. If City of Heroes is saved, by whatever means short of something really unacceptable, I will buy a six month subscription to it. I have no doubt that I will get my money’s worth out of it; it’s a game with many great features and I know I’ll find a welcoming community, one of the best in MMOs.

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MMO Life Expectancy (or, City of Heroes: a Eulogy)

I have castigated NCSoft for cancelling City of Heroes, just as in the past I ripped them for the demise of Tabula Rasa, AutoAssault and Dungeon Runners. This is the post where I am more forgiving. A little.

Maybe City of Heroes was losing money. I might point to Paragon’s 80 or so employees as evidence that there was plenty of room to cut CoX short of cancellation, but we on the outside don’t know with 100% certainty that CoH wasn’t in the red. With another company, one might be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

NCSoft’s vaunted “Truly Free” thing doesn’t appear to be working very well. Aion and Lineage 2 both started bringing in substabtially less revenue under this plan, and now City of Heroes is getting cancelled, so it’s not a stretch to think it wasn’t a success there, either. Paragon’s 80 people must have represented a significant amount of capital tied down, in a market (North America) where NCSoft has historically had a very limp foothold. So from a business standpoint CoX’s cancellation, while disappointing, is not shocking and perhaps even understandable. If the numbers say that the company is better off closing the property down, the company is within its rights to do so.

On the other hand, for the players, an MMO is more than just numbers on a spreadsheet. Sometimes we invest a great deal of time and energy and love into them, over thousands of hours and many years. While I personally feel no emotional attachment to City of Heroes, I can empathize with those who do, whose beloved characters and memorable adventures and hard-fought victories will just vanish into the ether come the end of November.

I encourage those looking for a superhero MMO fix in the wake of City of Heroes’ demise to join me in Champions Online, which, if not quite as full-featured as CoX is, is comparable in many respects and is a decent game in its own right.

On the other hand, I repeat my warning to all MMO players: don’t get too attached. Because MMO closure is inevitable. Some day the game that I am attached to will shut down forever, and yours will too. Even if it’s World of Warcraft; some day, those servers will close down and the last remaining players will sadly sign off for the last time. It makes me think that maybe the corporate model isn’t the best or healthiest arrangement for MMOs to operate under, but that’s what we have right now. MMOs have an expiration date

But there are also reasons to think that date might be far ahead in the future, yet. SOE was keeping Vanguard afloat with a player base that literally numbered in the hundreds, and now it’s got something of a new lease on life. EverQuest Online Adventures hung around for nine years on a dead console. EQMac was saved by the benevolent hand of John Smedley after outcry from what could not possibly have been many people. Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot and Anarchy Online probably don’t have large numbers of people playing them, and EVE eked along for years with a very modest subscriber base. MMOs do have a lifespan, but they can also stick around for a long time, if the publisher believes in them.

To NCSoft, MMOs are just a business. Just numbers on a spreadsheet. That’s their prerogative. But we, the players who invest hundreds or thousands of hours and the developers with their arms elbow deep in code and design, know them to be something more than that. I will miss City of Heroes, not because I loved it to pieces as a game, but because I know people who did, and I know what it meant to the hobby as a whole, to the people who played it and the people who made it the great game that it was, on both sides of the screen.

City of Heroes Gets the Headsman’s Axe

I got the news from Massively, but it’s everywhere: NCSoft is sunsetting City of Heroes before the end of the year, folding Paragon Studios and letting go of all staff, due to a "realignment of company focus and publishing support." While City of Heroes has always been a game I respected more than liked, there is no question that it has had a fine and decent run and contributed a great deal to the hobby both when it launched and afterward. Best wishes and speedy re-employemnt to all the fine and talented folks at Paragon who after years in the trenches, as usual, take it in the dumper so some suit can pay himself out a multi-million dollar bonus and buy a new yacht and a couple of rentboys.

As to the closure itself, I am wholly unshocked and even predicted that another high-profile title would fall this year. How I didn’t point to NCSoft’s stable of games as being particularly vulnerable possibilities is something I can’t quite reason out now.

My guess, based on the subtext of NCSoft’s announcement of a second-quarter loss, is that Aion, the company’s internally-developed baby, which took a revenue hit of about 35% over the preceding year despite a switch in most of the world to a f2p model, is tanking steadily and that City of Heroes is taking the hit in the name of tightening the corporate belt.

I don’t have any insider information regarding NCSoft’s finances. However, as a publicly traded company some of it has to be available for public perusal. And NCSoft has a whole took about at 16% hit in revenue over the same period… while at the same time, costs for development of Guild Wars 2 and for marketing the Korean launch of Blade & Soul were being accrued. Plus, in Q1, NCSoft bought $97 million (about two Rifts worth of development,) worth of interest in Korean casual game company Ntreev, leading to a 25% surge in total costs. In a situation like this a company might feel like it has to do something to reassure the shareholders that they have their money under control.

City of Heroes itself brought in just under 1% of the company’s total revenue in Q2, and the guts of what Paragon Studios was bringing in and paying out aren’t available. (As an aside, I note that Lineage 1 is still the company’s financial backbone, bringing in more revenue that both Lineage 2 and Aion combined.) But CoH seemed to many of us (from outside) to be a stable and healthy game. Perhaps not growing even with the f2p change, but not obviously in danger. And yet the NCSoft axe strikes again. Perhaps it wasn’t profitable, but NCSoft has shown in the past that it’s ready to be absolutely ruthless and final about closing titles that are insufficiently profitable. It’s shown no interest, ever, in trying to improve the market position of a title that didn’t do well right out of the gate. One might be inclined to take the f2p transitions of Aion and CoH as those kinds of efforts, but if so, it’s failed both times — Aion made 30% less money the quarter after it went f2p. So much for the “perfect f2p model” that some are touting as superior to those of games like EQ2 or LotRO — which are apparently working better for those titles.

Business is business. But the lesson for gamers should be clear: If you like any of NCSoft’s games, don’t get too attached. That applies to any MMO, really, for which you're dependent on an external publisher to continue providing game services. But especially for NCSoft's titles. Lesson #2 is "don't aspire to work in the video game industry, for it is a dreadful business." Unless you're lucky enough to snag a spot with one of the handful of companies that doesn't pull this kind of shit once a year.