CoH: To Save Or Not to Save?

That is the question, indeed.

I thought I’d said my piece about City of Heroes already and that would be that.

I’ve mourned it, quite a while ago in truth, and in a really roundabout way, tried to explain my personal opinion on why CoH’s core gameplay fundamentals are too dated to enthuse an audience of today.

Still, we’ve had various activist efforts springing up here and there, doing their best to save Paragon City, and lots of blogs keeping the CoH flame of hope alive – Levelcapped, Dragonchasers, Stylish Corpse, Of Course I’ll Play It, and some moderates throwing in their support, like Aardwulf and Syp.

To paraphrase a Massively commenter, grandmoffdaryl for myself, this is my stance:

“I’ve made a personal decision to accept the closure of this game with grace and equanimity, but at the same time, sincerely hope the activist players’ efforts to save the game are successful and wish them all the best.”

My personal contribution to their efforts had mostly been to keep a respectful silence on my blog, in order not to darken their efforts with any more cynicism or negativity, and hope for the best alongside them.

I am that queer representative in the corner that is the opposite of what Tobold jeers at – I did spend money on City of Heroes in 2012 and was bothered to play it (alas, not liking a great deal of the later additions, but I did like some) but I won’t be joining in any letter writing campaigns or petitions as I don’t want to raise false hope for myself.

(Nor am I personally sure that keeping a gradually ailing CoH on life support is a better fate than laying it to rest while there are still enough people to think well of it and mourn. More on this, later.)

But now I can’t shut up when I read a piece like this, The Reason NOT to Save City of Heroes, which grates on me so much that I have to say something. Congratulations, you won, you just trolled me into responding. 🙂

I suppose it’s all for the best, keeping the discussion alive, when it could be forgotten.

Here’s where I agree with Jomu from Just One More Unlock:

I wouldn’t say that accepting the closure of CoH is being one step above a vegetative state, but more about being realistic, being mature and understanding how the real world works.

It’s a response to Chris Smith from Levelcapped, where he indulges in a little hyperbole:

I prefer to think of it this way: “Those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.” Simply throwing up your hands and saying “that’s life” is to acquiesce to living only one step above a vegetative state. You’ll accept whatever people tell you, take whatever life gives you, and won’t utter a whimper of dissent no matter what.

Actually, acceptance is just another kind of equally valid response. Different folks react in different ways, and while I get that this is written in the spirit of a call to arms and action, sitting around insulting folks that respond differently from you may not be the best way to endear them to what you’re trying to convince them to do.

As any of you who have read this blog for a while should know, I like observing sociological phenomenon. Activism is one of those things I find distinctly American (though that is not to say that other cultures have not appropriated it for use.) It veers towards taking an active role and doing stuff, and can go down the slippery slope into extremism. It also takes a strong, charismatic leader doing a lot of work and focusing the masses towards a direction (and I think we see that in TonyV in this case) and a cause around which passionate people can believe in and congregate.

And here’s where I start disagreeing intently with Jomu. City of Heroes is not just a product like a can of beans on a supermarket shelf. (And even that can of beans has a following – just think about what can happen if someone tries to fool around with the taste that people are used to.) MMOs have the emergent property of becoming a virtual world, and a place where a community forms around.

It so happens that one of the most passionate MMO communities ever formed is the City of Heroes community. I don’t know how or why, but it did. Was it because of the superhero setting that make people feel like they can also be heroes in real life? Was it simply because it was the very first to dare to be different and not aim at generic fantasy or sci-fi MMO, but modern day comics? Was it due to the insanely innovative character creator that allowed people to visualize their daydreams, their unpublished characters in their imagination and yes, even their Mary Sues? And in so doing, made them fall in love with the game and the community that formed around it.

It was one of the first MMOs that let the developers of the game post on forum boards, giving, receiving and responding to feedback, and despite a few spectacular controversies and blowups and meltdowns, overall, it built fans and brand loyalty, and likely provided an example to other MMOs that made them realize there was something valuable to be gained by doing this, even if it’s safer to hire a community manager or two or some PR to vet potential thoughtless posts from devs first.

It even attracted celebrities – actors, comic book artists and writers –  that played the game, enjoyed it, and found the community safe enough to share or hint at who they were.

If there is one MMO community that might fight closure successfully, it is definitely the CoH one.

And it is extremely disrespectful of their efforts to tell them all-knowingly that it doesn’t matter. Because to them, it does.

It doesn’t matter to you. That’s fine. Say that.

Can We Save City of Heroes?

Probably not. There are a lot of strikes against it. NCsoft’s track record for slaughtering games is one of them. (Not killing this one would be such an immediate PR boost, they should indeed consider it.)

The argument that closing down the servers of this game in order to reallocate resources to a newer, better game is just bunk, though. The servers of CoH aren’t going to be given to GW2 or whatever. NCsoft is a publisher of games, they sponsor separate companies that are developers of games. They certainly are not going to reallocate the staff of Paragon Studios to other games in their development stable (unless it so happens that the staff in question applies for a job with one of those game studios and is accepted,) they are closing the studio down. Kaput, no more jobs.

The only resource they are reallocating is cash.

To other projects, which are all but certainly not going to be a superhero MMO, not a CoH2, so from where is this mystical new superhero game going to emerge? Let the sidekicks step up to the plate, you say? CO and DCUO? Don’t make me laugh. There’s a reason CoH clung on to its market share despite being the oldest game on the block. It’s unabashedly still the best of the three.

The real problem, imo, is the overall market and mindshare of a superhero-themed MMO. It’s not… great. From an outside perspective, dressing up in brightly colored spandex and fighting crime has certain… connotations. I used to think that way until I actually tried the game and realized, hey, this character creator is so powerful, it goes beyond that, and also realized that I did appreciate a more grimdark style of comics and enjoyed making antiheroes and villains. But it’s a hard sell. Just check out various troll comments about CoH closing down to see a mean outsider’s perspective and that should give one an idea of the uphill fight.

The other problem, in my opinion anyway, is the age of the game. Which shows in both its design and its engine, though the graphical update does make it look much better. When the fundamental gameplay involves reading walls of text without any voice-overs and entering instances with a limited number of maps and tilesets to cycle from and fighting equally spaced, equally sized clumps of mobs until you get to the end and rinse and repeat, with an exponentially large xp curve till max level, players run very quickly into boredom from repetition.

Especially in the wake of all the action combat MMOs lately, which makes CoH combat feel slow and laggardly, especially at low levels without good slotting or sufficient skills. The “wait till level X” argument is not cutting it any more when there are too many MMOs to choose from.

If you cannot get new blood into the game, the game is doomed. It’s going to die a slow painful death from entropy, and Unsub’s graphs of CoH revenues pretty much indicate that’s how CoH has been going lately. Still profitable, but not by much, and steadily dropping.

Not for lack of effort, certainly. They’ve tried an expansion, Going Rogue, they’ve introduced raids to keep the “I want an endgame” folks happy, they’ve made it F2P and added a cash shop.

Here’s another reason why I’m leery about keeping the game alive. At what point is this struggle for cash and sufficient revenue going to turn the game we loved into something unrecognizable?

What if the monthly sub becomes $25 a month, or $50, or $100? What if every new costume and powerset and zone and story arc had to be paid for? What if we had those real world ads on all the city’s banner space again? What if lots of lockboxes start dropping that you need to buy keys with real money just so that you can be on par with everybody else? What if the cash shop starts selling power for dollar signs? What if the game turns into a hamster wheel grind to repeat the same things to get better rewards that make you go up a tier so that you qualify for a hamster wheel on a more rarefied level? (Oops. Too late.)

How many would stay and play, and how many would decide the game is no longer for them and leave? And just how tragically deserted would Paragon City’s streets get, before the end?

Should We Try to Save It?

Why not?

It couldn’t hurt.

The ideal would be if some investor or company feeds money into it, keeps Paragon Studios around, and does huge revival efforts on it to fix the fundamental gameplay issues. Making combat faster and more fluid and varying the spawn sizes in the missions would probably be enough. Doing nice things for the superhero base system and mission architect would allow player content to also help dev content along. And as long as the devs kept working on episodic lore-based content releases, the game would probably keep on chugging.

Far smaller games keep on chugging.

Perhaps it would also be fine to stop all development work, just leave the lights on and one server around as a museum piece to posterity and let it accrue that small group of ol’ faithful, “fossil” players that all games (even MUDs) will acquire, and leave it free for those interested in a piece of MMO history to wander in and out as the spirit takes them. It’s certainly got content enough to last quite a while. (The question is, just how costly would that be, in terms of servers, bandwidth and IP rights? And would anyone or enough pay for it?)

Convincing NCsoft to let go of it though, might be considerably more difficult. Talks are in progress, they say, so let us keep our fingers crossed. Bombard them with polite letters, if you like, sign all the petitions, if that’s your thing, make all the noise possible (just do nothing rude or counter-productive) to let the world know that the game’s community will certainly not go gently into the good night, at least, not without a heroic fight.

This community, as I said before, is certainly passionate enough.

Who knows, a miracle could happen.

(You’ll forgive me if I don’t want to hope too much. I have this crusty pessimistic outer core of a cynic that protects my soft, eternal optimist insides. I’ve come to terms with my own relationship with CoH. But I’ll be cheering you on from where I sit, and growling some at the naysayers who have nothing invested in this. Just remember: they could come for your game one day.)