Camping out in Atlas 33

In the struggle to save City of Heroes from extinction, activists (masktivists?) are faced with two challenges: convince NCsoft to keep or sell rather than sunset the game and convince the greater gaming community that it’s worth fighting for. There is already a team working on the first, so I’d like to tackle the second.

The first step is to prove that City of Heroes was making money. Outsiders will leap to the obvious conclusion that the game is being closed because it was unprofitable (most western gamers still believe only “failed” games adopt free-to-play business models in the first place). The trouble is that there’s no smoking gun here for fans; there’s no single, perfect piece of evidence that proves City of Heroes was profitable. As I wrote elsewhere, “concluding that the game was making money is a result of a complicated mish-mosh of basic logic, developer quotes, business sense, insider info, and published reports,” and that isn’t the sort of reasoned argument you can make in 140 characters on Twitter. As a result, we keep asking potential supporters to take our statements on faith. I’m not big on faith, so let’s do better.

Because this isn’t the first time in recent memory that NCsoft has sunsetted a fan-favorite MMO, I’d like to look at Tabula Rasa to establish an understanding of how NCsoft has conducted its properties. For starters, everyone saw the 2009 sunset of Tabula Rasa coming. Massively even called it “inevitable.” Tabula Rasa was not a success. It didn’t sell well. It didn’t retain players. It didn’t justify its sub. Just prior to the shutdown announcement, NCsoft and Richard Garriott parted ways (not at all amicably), but NCsoft claimed the game was doing great (“Triple-A and here to stay”) right up until the day it announced the sunset. Fans did get a few months’ warning to mentally prepare, and some of the team was contracted to stay on to merge the servers, make the game F2P, and put on sunset events.

NCsoft did more than let the game ride out in style; it also gave interviews and explained in detail why the game was being shuttered: Just like Auto Assault before it, Tabula Rasa was losing money, and NCsoft’s decision was all about the bottom line. “When you look at it from a business sense,” NCsoft PR director David Swofford told Massively in 2008, “it was really what we needed to do.” There were multiple fan proposals and campaigns to save the game, but nothing as organized or large as City of Heroes’ effort. Fans were angry, and some, including Massively writers, noted their newfound distrust of NCsoft and distaste for the then-unreleased Aion as a result of Tabula Rasa’s mishandling.

Compare Tabula Rasa’s story to ours. No one saw City of Heroes’ closure coming. It was a complete shock. NCsoft has granted no interviews and has not explained its position at all beyond the single line Community Manager Andy Belford was made to put on the game’s front page: “a realignment of company focus and publishing support.” The entire team was shoved out the door on a minute’s notice. No sunset events were planned.

And though NCsoft was quick to throw Tabula Rasa and Garriott under a bus for underperforming, no one at the company has suggested that City of Heroes was failing, not even once. Dig into the quarterly financial reports to see City of Heroes’ public numbers for yourself. They amount to around $10 million US per year. How much of that is profit is unknown outside of NCsoft (and Paragon, whose staffers are unable to chime in lest they compromise their severance and reputation).

But we needn’t know the precise profit margin to deduce profitability. While I don’t agree with some of his conclusions (I think he grossly overestimates the added cost of the F2P transition and therefore miscalculates ROI), Unsubject’s done the hard work of putting Paragon’s reported revenues into table form. With the exception of the Going Rogue spike in 2010, the graph is actually pretty flat. The game has been pulling in about $2.5 million US per quarter for the last several years. And that’s important because if we learned one thing from Tabula Rasa (and Auto Assault before it), it’s that NCsoft doesn’t throw good money after bad. In order to believe that City of Heroes was losing money before the sunset announcement, you have to believe that City of Heroes has been losing money for the last three years and that NCsoft let that continue and in fact extended Paragon even more capital to develop an expansion and a F2P conversion and a secret new MMO on the side.

Does this sound like the cancel-happy NCsoft you know?

Unsub’s graph also shows that the game wasn’t experiencing growth (what MMO does after 8 years?) and no doubt wasn’t making the same return on investment that a cheap grinder would in Korea. I can’t argue with that. But I would argue that City of Heroes added to NCsoft’s diversity; it was reaping revenue from players who would not normally touch NCsoft’s more Asian-flavored games.

But that doesn’t matter when you have as abysmal a quarter as NCsoft reported earlier in August. NCsoft’s operating profit for the quarter was in the red for the first time in a long time, and the company’s been struggling all year. Why? Marketing costs for Blade & Soul’s June launch in Korea, the purchase of Ntreev, Aion’s ailing cash shop, and ‘one-off severance pay,’ apparently the result of another large staff layoff (likely related to the Ntreev buyout). In other words, NCsoft was starting to look weak, and in order to convince shareholders of its health, it decided to lay off Paragon — 80 foreigners, along with their unannounced secret project and low-growth game, whose IP didn’t play outside of the US anyway. While the company stands to lose a small relative amount of money in lost profit and additional severance, those losses will likely be swallowed up next quarter when Blade & Soul’s and Guild Wars 2’s sales put the company above water once again. And in the meantime, NCsoft appears to be Taking Action and drawing down in a region that, again, doesn’t trust the company and isn’t overwhelmingly interested in its Korean imports anyway.

I don’t disagree that City of Heroes was the right game to cancel under those conditions. It was the low-hanging fruit; handing 80 foreigners and a superhero game pink slips was the easy, obvious choice for NCsoft executives. I also think the timing and conduct of the sunset announcement were calculated. NCsoft chose the week of Guild Wars 2’s launch very deliberately to encourage migration, and the company’s uncharacteristic PR silence and lack of sunset support suggests we’ve been marooned and left to die quietly and alone. I think NCsoft hoped the media and players would be too preoccupied with GW2 to care much about City of Heroes, and I think that was an error born of cultural misunderstanding, as was announcing the layoffs on the first day of PAX Prime. Americans love an underdog, and they especially love an underdog that’s been mistreated as NCsoft is mistreating its former customers and employees. This is the biggest AAA to sunset, and it’s shaping up to be the most disgracefully handled one, too.

Still, I don’t think anyone expects or even wishes for NCsoft to reverse course and keep the game around. I wouldn’t trust NCsoft even if it did; it would only cancel the game again next time R&D costs for its next local action-combat grinder made for another bad quarter. As Justin and I argued on the podcast, the best case scenario is that Paragon Studios or another entity is allowed to purchase the game outright from NCsoft. Some bloggers don’t think it will happen. Precedent doesn’t run in our favor. There were efforts by third parties to purchase each of NCsoft’s closed games, including Auto Assault, whose own dev studio was denied the chance to save it.

But I still think there’s hope, primarily because the City of Heroes community is backing petitions and fundraisers and rallies in a way no game has seen before, including Star Wars Galaxies. The Paragon team appears to be working with NCsoft to facilitate negotiations of some sort. NCsoft would be selling off a turnkey game it no longer wants to fuss with and generating truckloads of goodwill as it shifts its focus to Guild Wars 2 and Blade & Soul’s western release. It would be a financial and PR win all around for a company that’s still hoping to launch Blade & Soul and WildStar in the States.

That’s the “because money” angle, but winning that argument isn’t enough. Players have taken up a few rallying cries to involve the broader MMO community and convince outsiders to care.

Some fans, like Metaverse, have argued that the community is the special and noteworthy part of City of Heroes. Indeed, several Massively commenters have flocked to our coverage to remind us that the movement is hoping to save the community even above the game. But Meta’s article unintentionally provoked the opposite of a warm, fuzzy feeling in me. The community that Meta describes isn’t one I personally recognize or belong to. I play the game regularly, but I don’t know the people she mentions, nor do I hob-nob with the “forum cartel” that snubs other players on the official boards. Meta inadvertently reminded me that the CoH “community” also boasts cliquish folks who routinely put down “freemium” players as freeloaders and organize vote-down campaigns to manipulate the AE standings. Her article was meant to be heartwarming, but all it did was drive home that I am an outsider in a community that isn’t as rosy as the one she knows.

Like JustOneMoreUnlock, I also “raise my eyebrow at [the] constant argument” that CoH’s community “is better than any other game’s community” because I likewise am “quite sure people playing in other ‘communties’ wouldn’t agree.” I don’t want us to fall into that trap. I fear that appeals to sub-sets and in-groups within and without the community are not inclusive, and I wonder whether others feel that they are not welcome as activists. I feel a part of the greater City community, the one made up of everyone who ever worked on or played the game and anyone willing to fight for it now. That is, frankly, the only community here that matters in the end. The in-groups will find new homes, games where weddings and births and yes, even funerals, are equally commonplace. But the wider community of people who thought it would be fun to play a superhero will disperse among the extant games.

Other fans appeal to our romance for the past and portray City of Heroes as a doomed piece of art. Markovia argues that “the world of Paragon City is a vast work of participatory art, something absolutely unique and irreplaceable . . . a glimpse into a particular corner of our collective psyche, a resource historians hundreds of years from now might relish -– if it still exists.” Oh, Markovia knew right how to sock it to me as a historian. I weep when museums are bombed in wars. Watching a historical artifact be destroyed slowly, right before my eyes, is devastating. And yet, that’s not really why I’m fighting either. Games have been lost before, and games will be lost again. Star Wars Galaxies offered, I’d argue, equal cultural value because Star Wars, just like comic books, has injected itself into our collective pop culture. As with Star Wars Galaxies, we’ve had months’ worth of warning, and we can document and screenshot and generate our own historical record so that what we’ve made and played will not truly be forgotten should the hypothetical cultural historian of 2112 want a glimpse inside our psyches. After all, it’s not as if we really expect the game to be around then, either. The game needn’t live on to be studied any more than does a dead language.

I’ve personally argued that the game deserves rescue on because of its unique and pioneering game design, especially elements like cosmetic gear, sidekicking, dungeon scaling, and player-generated content. But that’s the design critic and game journalism point of view. Even I must admit that those game mechanics will survive in the MMOs that have since borrowed them, and many players don’t care a fig for some of the game’s design anyway. I’d like to see the Incarnate system and cottage rule punished severely myself. The game’s not perfect, and to say it should be saved on those grounds is disingenuous.

We don’t need to have the best game to deserve to keep it. It doesn’t have to be the best community. It doesn’t have to have unique game design. It doesn’t have to be a historical monument. It doesn’t have to make the most money. Everyone has a different reason for playing the game, so everyone will naturally have a different reason for joining the cause to keep it around, whether you’ve just signed the petition or you plan to camp out in Atlas 33 for the next three months. We don’t need to exaggerate or resort to hyperbole. City of Heroes is worth saving because we love it and because it deserved better than a hasty sunset with no warning and no explanation.

And that’s enough.


  1. @BigAngry says:

    Thanks for writing this, Bree. I’m really happy that someone with your stature in the video game media is advocating for saving COH.

    I met some of the best friends I’ve ever had through COH, I’ve had some of the most fun I’ve had in my video game playing career in COH… it, and Paragon Studios, deserves better than to get the Old Yeller treatment with absolutely no reason or warning. I want this game to be around for longer so more people can see how fun it really is. For more people to see the vision of Matt Miller and Melissa Bianco and the rich, deep lore they’ve created. I want to be able to see the Moon Base in issue 28 that was confirmed in the “Loregasm” post on the COH forums, where the devs answered all the questions about the COH Lore that people had asked.

    It’s… it’s just really a shame, a damn shame, that NCsoft decided to sunset the game, but as much of a punch in the gut that is, there’s still this tiny voice in the back of my head saying “It might get saved” — mind you, I have to keep my expectations down, but it’s still there. If the planets align and the end of the virtual world is saved by some real life heroes, I will be ecstatic, but if not… well, I’m going to keep in touch with every single one of my COH friends and virtually hug them extra tight.

  2. Jennifer Jerlstrom says:

    Thank you very much for writing about my favorite game. I appreciate it.

    Out of dozens of online games, City of Heroes is the only one where I have not felt my age. (I turn 50 in November.) City of Heroes is the only online game where I have not had to tell anyone that really, I am old enough to be his mother. I have never felt a need to spank someone, or slap someone. For that alone, the game is worth saving.

  3. I wish I could write half as well as you… reading this has me close to tears, while still allowing me the hope that maybe, just maybe, our beloved city of Paragon will be saved from it’s darkest hour.

    Is City Of Heroes the BEST superhero game that we have seen? Maybe. I certainly know that it was/is the one that worked best for me.

  4. Rageycat says:

    I really appreciate this article. There are plenty of not perfect things about City of Heroes, but it draws me in. Having done a mission more times then I can count(talking about the les sinteresting ones), I still go do it. Sometimes I just fly around and explore. I didn’t stay VIP for the nifty boosts, I stayed to support the game with what I could. Anyways, thanks for your effort BREE.

  5. UnSubject says:

    Thanks for the links.

    I may have overestimated F2P conversion costs, but I also see that CoH/V went from rarely releasing powersets because they were too costly and time intensive to releasing a whole bunch of sets very quickly, along with other content. So costs would have gone up, at least for a time.

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