It’s December 1st today. A short while ago, as was announced on August 31, City of Heroes, the first superhero MMO, was shut down. I was playing the game with my friends at the time of the shutdown. One last hurrah for the supergroup. I already gave my eulogy (so to speak) for the game when the announcement was made. But I thought a follow-up would be appropriate now that the game has finally been “sunsetted” as they so quaintly term it.
This time, I thought I’d take a step back and look not at my overall experiences and memories of the game, but my impressions specifically of the game’s twilight period. After all, I’d never been witness to an MMO being shut down before, and I don’t know when I will again.
NCsoft, the owners and publishers of the game, handled the shutdown much like they handled the initial announcement: with a truly mind-boggling lack of grace and class. I already mentioned how the development team, Paragon Studios, had been informed of the shutdown — and thus the loss of their jobs — only a few hours before the players. The devs, at least those who had a public presence (which is most of them, I think), handled this gracefully in their messages to the players. There wasn’t any yelling or blaming of NCsoft, though frankly I wouldn’t have blamed any of the devs if they had said some harsh words. But although I may be reading between the lines a bit, there did seem a strong sense of shock in their initial messages, as if they couldn’t quite figure out what to say. It’s understandable, given that they were so abruptly informed of their jobs going away. They’d been developing new content for the game right up until the announcement. Some of the staff was kept on until the end of the game for maintenance, but my understanding is that several were let go (or in some cases found new employment on their own) beforehand.
The way NCsoft handled the players wasn’t a great deal better. To explain the major issue, it’s necessary to explain a little bit about the game’s subscription model. The game switched to a hybrid free/subscription model in its last few years. You could play for free, but you had a limited number of character slots available. Subscribers had an unlimited number — and many players had dozens of characters — as well as additional content they could play. Players who had been subscribers but who switched to the free model would have their characters locked, and could unlock characters up to the number of characters slots they had been allotted. Further, the “Paragon Market” allowed players (free or subscriber) to purchase in-game items such as new powersets and costume parts for “Paragon Points”, an in-game currency that could be purchased using real money. When the shutdown announcement was made, they immediately stopped all new market transactions. Players could no longer subscribe for any length of time to the game, nor could they buy new Paragon Points for in-game items. A few weeks after the announcement, NCsoft revealed how they would be handling subscribers and free players for the last three months of the game. People who had been subscribed at the time of the shutdown announcement would be subscribed for the remainder of the game. Players who were not subscribed at that time would be free players for the remainder of the game. On the surface, this might almost seem fair — but the timing of things, combined with the fact that you could not subscribe after the announcement, made many of the free players upset. Not all of the free players had always been free players, after all — most probably hadn’t. Many players, who perhaps had let their subscriptions lapse temporarily — be it for months or even just the one day before the announcement — found they were now permanently locked out of the full scope of the game during its final months, through a decision that they were only informed of after it was too late to change.
It’s important to note that any ire I have isn’t over the game ending, exactly. Any MMO can and eventually will be shut down. City of Heroes is far from the first and will be far from the last. I knew it would happen eventually; I even discussed it as a question of longevity with some friends several years ago. No, I understand if a business decision means the game must be canceled. I just think NCsoft handled it in a very inelegant manner.
Paragon Studios, however, continued to get along with the fanbase just fine. Paragon organized special events in the game, triggering the game’s usual seasonal events weeks and months out of season just to give players one last chance to experience them. Players, who were often quite vocal about expressing their anger towards NCsoft, had nothing but kind words for Paragon Studios, the developers who maintained the game. A group of players even organized and threw a farewell dinner for the development team.
Player reaction in the game was, as might be expected, largely negative. People were angry with NCsoft, and mourning the loss of their game. There were several reasons speculated as to why NCsoft was canceling the game, with various degrees of plausibility. The most plausible reason I heard was that although the game was profitable, it wasn’t profitable enough compared to what NCsoft wanted to do with the resources. A little less plausibly, many players said that as NCsoft is based in Korea, where PvP and less narrative games are popular, they may simply not have realized how much bigger City of Heroes was in the western world than their other games; or may simply not have cared. The least plausible theory I saw was that Marvel, who eight years ago had sued Cryptic Studios (the original developer and owner of the game, who sold it to NCsoft, their publisher at the time) for possible copyright infringement (due to the ability to create player characters that looked like Marvel heroes), had found another way to shut the game down since they had lost the case and could not sue again. Suffice to say there are numerous flaws with that theory, starting with “Marvel didn’t lose, they settled out of court”, and moving up from there. NCsoft themselves never gave a reason beyond the game not fitting with their current direction.
There was also a certain sense of denial about the shutdown. Nobody doubted it would happen, but a lot of people tried to find a way to prevent it. The players requested NCsoft to try and sell the game; there was even an attempt by some players to try and generate a fund to purchase it themselves (as the number NCsoft eventually supplied was $80 million, this was unsuccessful; it likely would have been anyway, as NCsoft never gave an indication of wanting to sell the property) There was also talk of a “Plan Z”, if all else failed, in which an independent group would try to program a new game in which as many elements as possible of City of Heroes could be restored. Even putting aside the very daunting task of creating an MMO from scratch, the fact that NCsoft would easily be able to prove in court that it was a derivative work (since that was its stated purpose) would probably put the kibosh on such.
Most players simply accepted the announcement, however begrudgingly, and made the most of their remaining time in the game. I was one of these, though perhaps not playing quite as much as I would have liked to, given that I still wanted to make time for my other interests. It’s interesting playing an MMO when you know it’s going to be going away. You don’t always make the same choices you would otherwise. Items that you held onto for emergency use now find that the definition of emergency has been significantly reduced. Idle time-wasting, such as the hunt for badges (found in the city or earned through defeating enemies, among other methods), goes by the wayside. You start thinking about what you want to achieve in the game, if possible, before it ends. I set my sights on a couple goals — taking one character “full circle” through the different alignments, and taking another all the way to level 50 (my third). I didn’t achieve either; the first goal was certainly doable, but I thought of it a bit too late. The second I simply didn’t have enough time for — I made it from level 23 (where the character was at the time of the announcement) to level 37, and realized that I simply couldn’t get the character all the way to 50 before November 30. At least, not if I wanted to do things the “proper” way; I could have joined some power-leveling group and gotten there in a few days, but that would have meant skipping over the specialized content for the character. Since it was one of the Elite archetypes, and seeing that content was why I wanted to go to level 50 in the first place, I didn’t want to do that. In the end, I made my peace with that, and ultimately did one other thing that I would never have done under ordinary circumstances: I deleted the character.
I did this not out of spite or frustration, but simple pragmatism. I was one of those players “locked out” of the subscription model ($15 a month is something I haven’t been able to justify paying lately, but if I’d had the chance to pay $15 one time to subscribe for the end period, I might have taken it.) As such, I had only 6 total character slots across all the servers. And on the final day of play, November 30, my friends in the group and I hopped between several of our characters having fun hanging out and playing one last time. I deleted my elite character so I could access one of my other characters during that session. Normally deleting a character is anathema to a City of Heroes player — I have dozens of characters, some players have over a hundred — but when they’re all going to be deleted at the end of the day anyway, why not free up the slot to use the character you want to use? I used the freed slot to join the group for our “Zebra Troopers”, a group of identical mooks — it’s more fun than it sounds, and more fun than it has any right to be. I deleted another character to free up my oldest City of Heroes character, running several missions with my friends’ usual characters, and finally switched over to my oldest villain character — since “reformed” into a hero — for the end of the night. We ran some custom architect missions, and we ran a few task forces. I had never run the Imperious Task Force before, and had a great time with it. We were within one minute of finishing the Mender Silos Task Force when the server shut down for good. We’d had some warning — at the ten minute and five minute mark — but we were just barely unable to bring it to a finish in time.
Nevertheless, my last day in Paragon City was also one of my best days. I haven’t always been able to get together with my friends and play — most of my group is on the East Coast, and I’m on the West, and the three hour time difference has a big impact. But with the end coming on a Friday night, everybody was in it until the end. We were in the game for about eight hours. Other players were saying their goodbyes to each other and to the game as a whole on the broadcast chat channels. The community showed up in force; most of the servers were near full capacity, and at least one (Virtue) actually crashed due to the number of people accessing it.
I’m sad to see City of Heroes go. And the odds of my ever playing an NCsoft game again are small at best. But I’m happy with my time with the game, and with the fun I had, and I thank Cryptic Studios and Paragon Studios for creating such a fun world to play in. I’m happy to be able to say that the game, and my group of friends within it, went out not with a whimper, but with a bang.