Voices from Paragon, Part IV – Consequences
12/11/2012 4 Comments
“Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory.”
November 30th is rapidly approaching, and with it the shut-down of City of Heroes. Our on-line home is threatened with annihilation. Our characters are threatened with a situation that has death as the only outcome. More importantly, our community is in danger of dissolution. And yet, still we make noise; still we fight on. It is a virtual certainty that we will not be able to win this conflict; we will not be able to save our City. However, it is also true that it is not possible for us to lose. The only losing move is to not go on fighting, and that mindset is foreign and repulsive to us.
We are heroes. This is what we do. We are also villains. This, also, is what we do.
In 2007, when NCSoft bought out Cryptic’s share of the City of Heroes IP and founded Paragon Studios, the player base largely rejoiced, because it meant that the game would receive the care and attention it deserved, and the developers made it a policy to be extremely open and courteous with the player base, establishing a player-developer relationship unique in the industry. Evidently, we valued this game much more than those who published it.
City of Heroes is not the first game to have been shut down by NCSoft. Auto Assault, Dungeon Runners, Exteel, and Tabula Rasa, are all previous games shut down by this company. In nearly all cases, the cause of the shut-down has been a falling player base, and with it a significant decline in revenue. This makes City of Heroes a unique case, as according to Matt Miller, the Paragon developer formerly known as Positron, City of Heroes is the largest and most active MMO ever to be shut down.
With the impending shut-down of our game, it is necessary to point out that we the players were not the only ones to have been so unjustly treated. The developers went into work on Friday, August 31st, expecting it to be a perfectly normal work day. What they found was the exact opposite – waiting for them when they came in was a studio pink slip. It was not just individual developers who were told they no longer had a role in the development of City of Heroes; it was the entirety of the studio. They found out that the game they had put into a decade of their lives was coming to an end. In short, this was nothing less than a betrayal. In other industries, a fundamental betrayal of one’s customer base is a short-cut to being utterly censured, be it through a boycott, or other means.
Everyone, from the players to the developers, expected City of Heroes to continue, as plans had been laid out for several further expansions years away from development. In other games, the end was patently obvious, as there was a slow dwindling in the population, much too fast to justify preservation of the game. Now, some have made claim that City of Heroes had to have been on life support in order for the actions of NCSoft to make sense, but according to the developers themselves, the game was doing quite well. Certainly well enough to fully finance the development of a second MMO from Paragon. No, this wasn’t a decision to take a game off of life support. This was a decision to euthanize. After all, if money were the issue, it is almost an expected standard that it be admitted as such, after all, that is what NCSoft has done when shutting down earlier games.
In previous cases when NCSoft has shut down a game (which has occurred frequently enough that they are now responsible for the closure of a full third of all MMOs that have gone offline), the company offered a replacement opportunity. Quite curiously, with the closure of City of Heroes, this means that several of those replacement opportunities have been terminated as well. More alarmingly, there has been no offered opportunity to the players of City of Heroes. Even the timing of the announcement is cause for suspicion, as it occurred the Friday of Labour Day weekend just after Guild Wars 2 was released.
Now, I have heard from reliable source that the price tag NCSoft has set for the City of Heroes IP – which may or may not include the actual code, and would certainly not include the studio and its developers, as that has already ceased to exist – is $80 million US. This number is very fascinating, as according to an audit found in NCSoft’s own documents, they internally value their collective IP library, both what is live and no longer active, at much less.
It seems the price they quoted was so that they gave every appearance of being willing to sell the City of Heroes IP without ever actually having the intention of selling. The shrewd investor would find it extremely prudent to ask why this is the case, especially considering that the same source which provided the price tag also clarified that the October 2nd message from NCSoft was a second draft. The first draft would have been issued from Paragon Studios itself. I believe that this is not the first time NCSoft has behaved in this fashion.
It is exceedingly difficult to have any trust or confidence in a company that shows an extreme, almost callous, disregard for its customers. Trust is the absolute baseline for effective customer service and public relations. And as it stands, NCSoft has consistently demonstrated the fact that it cannot be trusted.
Needless to say, NCSoft’s past actions have had significant consequences, and its continuing actions will have consequences of their own. One major consequence that was recently revealed is the fact that under the leadership of editor Jordan Royce, himself a player of City of heroes, the long-running science fiction and gaming magazine Starburst will be instituting a boycott of NCSoft products in protest of the closure. This boycott is total, extending not only from NCSoft’s games, but to advertisements as well. What other consequences lie in waiting?
Now, it is possible that NCSoft expects our opposition to disintegrate after November 30th, as our cause will no longer have its anchoring point. They would be wrong in this conclusion, as the fact that the game is still online allows for a negotiated settlement to take place, in which the game and its IP are handed over to a party that will treat it with the dedication and respect it deserves. After November 30th, when the game is gone, the gloves will come off. To borrow a page from history, after Poland was overrun in the Second World War, they still managed to field one of the largest allied forces in the entire war, and garnered a reputation of being highly effective shock troops.
Given such comparable history, it seems quite probable that the City of Heroes community is a clear and persistent reminder to the game industry that there are standards that need to be kept in regards to community management and public relations. We have, despite repeated measures to clarify our demands, received no significant answer. We care more about knowing the truth about why our game is being shut down and the studio dismantled than we do about keeping the game online. After all, if the IP can be transferred to a more reasonable authority, we would have no real need to continue our campaign.
What further consequences will there be as a result of the current affairs? It is observed that NCSoft’s stock price on the Korean exchange is now down a third from its value on August 31st, and it is also noted that despite the message of October 2nd, there has been unceasing effort to keep pressure on NCSoft. The decision of Starburst is only the most recent consequence, and it is certain that it will not be the last.
Given that Starburst’s circulation is significant, the potential loss of exposure and loss of face that NCSoft stands to experience should not be discounted. I fully suspect that as matters continue, other gaming magazines will note the disgraceful manner in which NCSoft has handled the matter of City of Heroes. Those of us from the western world pride ourselves on directness and clarity, neither of which has been provided by NCSoft, as they have simply left their reasons for terminating City of Heroes as mere buzzwords.
If they have so badly misjudged their understanding of the Western market that they seemingly make nonsensical decisions, why should any of their Western customers trust that they will be dealt with fairly? Given the current condition of the job market in North America, the fact that a company can simply shut down a fully profitable subsidiary and dump the entire staff into unemployment is unsettling. This is doubly so when the parent company consistently refused to provide an explanation, or even communication, with the impacted customer base until more than a month had passed. This begs a very serious question as to whether or not NCSoft understands what constitutes acceptable business practices.
This much is known. NCSoft has demonstrated a clear disrespect to its western customers, and has certainly given numerous reasons as to why it should no longer be trusted. We have seen what happens to companies that are no longer trusted by its customer base. Shortly thereafter, the company begins to be mistrusted by its investors. If NCSoft can betray its own employees, as it did with Paragon Studios, what is to stop it from betraying its own investors?