NCsoft, slayer of games

Am I cursed?

It seems as if every game I’ve really fallen in love with in the last few years is being killed off, one by one, even the teeny-tiny ones like Zentia. Go ahead and laugh, but I still feel the loss of Star Wars Galaxies deeply, and my main consolation when it happened last year is that at least I’d have City of Heroes to fall back on and lessen the sting of losing a virtual home. Joke’s on me: City of Heroes has just been handed its pink slip.

The worst part is that SWG and CoH were true innovators in a market filled with washed-up World of Warcraft clones. City of Heroes pioneered mechanics like cosmetic gear, sidekicking, dungeon scaling, and player-generated content in an MMO space that previously had mostly just parroted level-treadmill EverQuest. Even if you agree that CoH’s engine, animations, and character models were starting to age, you can’t deny what the game brought to the genre.

The obvious comparison leaps out at me: It’s widely accepted that Lucasarts raised the IP license fee for Star Wars Galaxies so high that SOE was forced to shut it down, paving the way for SWTOR to reign over the Star Wars MMO kingdom. (Never mind that SWTOR has performed so poorly that it has retained only around a quarter of its subs, instituted massive layoffs, and plans to go F2P to stay competitive.) With Guild Wars 2 less than a week old, we’d be fools not to wonder whether NCsoft is simply culling American-born City of Heroes because it’s not worth the presumably small profit it generated next to giants like GW2 that sell a million copies before launch. (And CoH did make money, if braggadocio about super pack sales is to be believed.) [Update: Several bloggers have pulled profit estimates in the $6-10mil/year range from NCsoft’s legalese, proving it was no WoW, which we already knew, but profit is profit.] [Another update: An apparently reliable internal source confirmed profits were $10mil a year and that VIP subs were sitting pretty at 100k.]

I’m apparently in the minority, but sunsets like these stay my hand when it comes to investing money and time into other F2P games. NCsoft, after all, is known for putting games to the torch when the profit’s too small; Tabula Rasa comes first to mind. I suppose Aion and Guild Wars 1 loyalists ought to start making their final farewells, too. If the revamped MMO lifespan is going to be only a few years, I see no reason to spend lavishly on them in the short term since the short term is all they’re giving me. I’m better off putting that money into a single-player game that no one can take away on a whim.

Frustratingly, the CoH sunset casts a black shadow over Guild Wars 2, which I was enjoying and will review in September, and NCsoft’s WildStar, which tops my very short list of unfinished MMOs that I can’t wait to play. I’m so angry at NCsoft right now that I just don’t even want to look at Guild Wars 2, especially when I know that the company’s already got my money, so my logging out in protest accomplishes absolutely nothing except keep me from a great game I paid for half a year ago. Bad form, NCsoft. Very bad form.

If it’s not a curse, I have to wonder, maybe I’m just old and out of touch. I don’t think that’s it, though I’m sure I can find some spoiled 20-year-old male FPS fan to tell me it’s true. I like weird games, and I love sandboxes, but I also enjoy themeparks like WoW, and I’m just as much a snob about assembly-line F2P imports as the next gamer. I’ve been playing games for a very long time (my first MMO was UO at launch, after all); I read and write about hundreds of titles for a living, and I like that broad perspective. I’m not anyone’s target demographic, and I kinda like it that way.

But I’m not happy about what that perspective is showing me. If this is the new face of the MMO genre — if profitable, creative games like City of Heroes are going to be trampled by knock-offs and single-player travesties, and games like Warhammer Online are going to limp along forever — then maybe I don’t want to be an MMO gamer anymore.

Or maybe I just need to start googling for a CoH emulator.

[Want to help save the City? Join the efforts at Titan Network and sign the petition.]

12 Comments

  1. steve says:

    I played from day one went and played other mmos but none have the customisation for toons that this has and nor will we see an mmo that gives you the possibility of 48toons not like gw2 that only gives you five.
    I am so sad at losing this still brillant mmo and jusr cant beleive that this game is still making a profit.

  2. sean says:

    You are not entirely correct in saying that profit is profit. Unsubject over at Vicarious Existence has a very good post up explaining with CoH’s profit is not enough – companies at looking for Return on Investment (ROI) over ‘just’ profit: if NCSoft can put the capital invested in CoH to *more* profitable use somewhere else, they would be quite literally negligent not to do so.

    I’ve just finished telling my students that killing business units with low growth rates and low market share is an abolute necessity for a business – and CoH fully satisfies those criteria. It’s tough for us as players, but from the publisher’s perspective, it’s the lowest of low-hanging fruit. You have, however, posed the obvious question that nevertheless no-one wants to address: Did GW2 kill CoH? The answer has to be ‘of course it did’. GW2: rapidly increasing market share and profitability; CoH: profitability and market share only going downhill. Re-assigning the capital invested in CoH to GW2, in the light of GW2’s successful launch, really is a straightforward business decision.

    What does that mean for AIon and GW1? GW1 is probably finished as well, to be honest. In fact, I was under the impression it had already been cancelled? I guess not. Aion in Europe has been handed off to another publisher; Aion in Korea continues to be an NCSoft flagship – so Aion will continue, and Aion NA will /most likely/ continue under NCSoft custodianship.

    NCSoft is almost unique amongst publishers of (Western) MMOs in their ruthless business logic – but as Unsubject points out, they are so big (ie, they are so enormously big in Korea) that their outside-Korea operations are just small beer, of which CoH was the smallest beer.

    • Bree says:

      While you are not wrong that capital assigned to CoH could see a higher ROI assigned elsewhere, the game was running on a relatively small staff and had relatively low overhead — we’re not talking GW2 levels of R&D and investment. It was a “done game.” Nuking the game and team is not going to be some miracle injection of capital for ArenaNet, and in fact, I don’t think GW2 directly had anything to do with the decision.

      Since this rant was dashed off right after the announcement, I’ve had a lot more time to read and think and discuss and adjust my opinion. Personally, as I’ve said on the rally stream and today’s podcast, I think the decision had a lot more to do with a desire to make the company appear to be cutting costs by laying off overseas workers in order to shore up NCsoft’s bad quarter (which itself was a result of GW2 and B&S R&D and a bad quarter for Aion). Cutting an IP that was popular only in the west is the safe thing to do, and by next quarter, the real losses taken by these cuts (since it was netting profit) will be drowned out by B&S and GW2 profits because both games will have launched on paper by then.

      There’s been not even the tiniest whisper that Guild Wars 1 will close, just FYI. We’d be all over that. But it’s worth pointing out that GW1 was lower-hanging fruit as it brought in even less money than City of Heroes, so it’s fair to say that NCsoft wasn’t blindly chopping from that tree.

      • Bree says:

        I should also add that I very much understand the ‘business’ angle here. A year and a half ago, I sat on a roundtable podcast for Massively discussing whether old games ought to be let go. I actually took the devil’s advocate role for debate’s sake and argued in favor of letting them go, taking the corporate side of the issue and bringing up all the points I’ve seen here and elsewhere. But ultimately, I disagreed with it. In the end, the one thing that’s hard to put a value number on is goodwill, and NCsoft has lost a lot of goodwill from CoH players, even those who’d long left, and other western gamers who are now eyeing the company with distrust. Keeping a small but profitable game around might hurt your ROI, but letting it go might hurt you more. That’s precisely why other corporations (like SOE and even EA) make such an effort to keep small and old games around.

        Here’s that podcast if you’re curious:
        http://massively.joystiq.com/2011/02/09/massively-speaking-episode-134/

  3. Indy says:

    I don’t you’re being unreasonable. If you are in the minority, I suspect it’s because the majority of MMO players (essentially the casual WoW players) don’t follow general game news or know what’s going on with other games. We ought to carefully consider decisions to invest time or money in a game, and now NCSoft is giving itself a reputation that disinclines me to trust them.

    Not only that, but be careful with single player games, too. While recently I reinstalled and played a bit of some games I have from ten+ years ago (Dungeon Siege, SimCity 3000, Total Annihilation, Civilization III) publishers have been pushing always-on DRM that puts you just as much at their mercy maintaining authentication servers as any MMO. I can play Diablo 2 if my internet goes out… but not D3, which is one reason I haven’t bought it.

  4. […] personally argued that the game should live on because of its unique and pioneering game design, especially […]

  5. […] notes some memories about the UK CoH community. Bree thinks about how this will affect how she plays MMOs  in the future, and how she feels about GW2 now. […]

  6. Darsch says:

    I think you really should check out Pathfinder Online. It is fantasy based, but its shaping up to remind me of PreNGE star wars galaxies with a little bit of COH thrown in. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1675907842/pathfinder-online-a-fantasy-sandbox-mmo
    is the link to their kick-starter for the game, has lots of good info on it. also https://goblinworks.com/blog/index.html#20121130 is the blog about the fine details of the game, is very extensive and you should read all of it, i think you will find not everything is gloomy out there in the mmo world. We may never have another COH or SWG, And as much as i love SWTOR i do not see it surviving EA’s mismanagement now that it has gone free to play. lets face it free to play equals crap and soon to die unless it starts out that way.

    • Bree says:

      Pathfinder is definitely on my radar (if http://massively.joystiq.com/tag/pathfinder-online is my radar… hehe). It’s extremely ambitious, maybe a little too ambitious, and personally I’m not on the Kickstarter bandwagon, but I’m certainly willing to pay for a functional game (just not reams of design docs and hopes, which is what most of the Kickstarter sandbox MMOs are running on right now (Malu, Reopulation, Greed Monger, etc.).

      I definitely don’t agree that free-to-play equal crap and that hybrid games are doomed. There are just too many games that have gone F2P and are still doing well. Of the three recent cancelations that affected me personally, one never went F2P, one started F2P, and one went F2P only recently and continued to make equivalent money. Aion, LotRO, DDO, STO, CO, TOR, EQ, EQII, DCUO, VG, APB, AoC… these are all MMOs that went F2P well after launch and are still going. I wouldn’t call them crap or soon to die. I don’t say this just to be pedantic; I think it’s important not to use F2P as an easy excuse for failure because it means we stop looking for the real factors that cause MMOs to die or be killed off.

      • Darsch says:

        let me adjust what I meant by free to play is crap and soon to die, I really should have stated things differently, from my experiences most subscription based games I have played that turn free to play typically very quickly go down the toilet, that being said I actually loved how COH had their F2P model set up. I do believe the best thing LotRO ever did was go F2P.

        On a side note, I wish i had read the sidebar before i posted the pathfinder online stuff, of course the Editor-in-Chief of Massively is aware of it, haha.

        • Bree says:

          Haha no worries. I agree that CoH’s cash shop was really good. I mean, it has its annoyances (lockboxes), but I was willing to put up with those with the constant stream of new powersets. I think F2P finally gave the team the chance to see (and then deliver) the specific things people were willing to pay for.

          I think there are probably two different types of MMOs that go F2P: the kind that are already in trouble, and the kind that are doing OK but are trying to head off trouble. Some of both groups are going to fail in spite of F2P, and I know the tendency is to blame it on the F2P itself. I’m glad you clarified what you meant!

  7. chewy says:

    i fill the same way u do bree. the mmo games i play are all shutting down or dumbing the game down to appeal to the younger crowd of gamers i have recently found a mmo game i am relay excited for it is a sandbox hope u like the game as much as me. it is not out and is still in development with a lunch date estimated about 2014-2015. the name of this game is Embers of Caerus

Leave a Comment