A Mild-Mannered Reporter: How City of Heroes almost died

A Mild-Mannered Reporter header by A. Fienemann
If it hasn't become clear over the past two and a half years, I really enjoy speculation. I like crazy theories, I like exploring possibilities, I like thought exercises, and so forth. There's some speculation that I find particularly ill-informed or lacking in some fundamental point of logic, but that doesn't mean I don't learn about them first.

Why am I making a point out of this? Because I've developed a theory about the state of City of Heroes, and I want to make it clear before I launch into this somewhat grim theory that I'm basing this entirely on outside observations. I want it to be clear that I could, in fact, be totally wrong, and when I say that City of Heroes nearly committed unintentional suicide a couple of years ago, I don't want that to be seen as some grand behind-the-scenes revelation.

And if it weren't obvious from that line, yes, that's where I'm going. I think Going Rogue nearly gutted City of Heroes and burned the whole game to the ground. And I think everything the game has done since can be directly traced back to that expansion.

When do we get to topple this statue, incidentally?Let's turn the clock back to the time before Going Rogue had launched. I think we can all agree that the general reaction of the playerbase was one of surprise. CoH players had long given up on the idea of getting a new expansion when nothing materialized after City of Villains; it just wasn't in the cards. New content, sure, but a full boxed retail expansion was another story altogether.

One note hit consistently in panels and interviews before the expansion launched was how much freedom NCsoft was giving Paragon Studios. The terms "support" and "freedom" got thrown around a lot. In development, this usually means "we've got no corporate oversight and we get all our expense reports." In other words, the studio had the green light to do whatever it wanted for this expansion, no matter how much budget it took.

Keep in mind that this was happening at a specific time for NCsoft. Tabula Rasa was a memory, Aion had launched not too long before and had failed to gain traction, and Guild Wars 2 remained on the distant horizon. I imagine that somewhere up the chain, someone took a look at spreadsheets had an idea. If new games weren't drawing in a sudden influx of players, maybe revitalizing a well-loved game would do precisely that. So Going Rogue was greenlit and given a whole lot of resources with the distant understanding that it was going to need to make good on that budget.

You can call this cynical, but really, businesses exist to make money. There's nothing inherently wrong with pushing a lot of budget to an older game in the hopes that it can produce a new expansion that brings back old players and ropes in new ones. The ideal scenario was one where Going Rogue launched, tons of people played CoH, and the people at the top made a lot of money. Everybody wins.

This does not seem to be what happened. I don't have access to precise subscriber numbers, but just watching the game seemed to bear out that the game drew some people back and mostly retained its existing subscribers. The expansion sold moderately well, but we didn't hear about it breaking any records. It might have even made money over its initial budget, although without sales figures and the game's budget, it's hard to be sure.

It's also pretty much irrelevant because if you give someone free rein to revitalize the game, you don't want to hear about how the game made back its budget and a little more. You want to hear about how the game exploded into big profits. And I don't think that happened.

When all else fails, strippers.Fast-forward a couple of months later, when right on the eve of a convention panel the news broke that some big names were laid off from Paragon Studios, most prominently Back Alley Brawler. To the best of my knowledge, BABs has never gone on record and talked about what happened when he left, which is good; it's the mark of a professional. But I wouldn't be surprised if suddenly the parent company's attitude became much harsher. Going Rogue was supposed to be a big win for the game, and when that didn't materialize, something had to give.

I think at that point, the game was in a somewhat precarious position. From the perspective of the people writing checks, CoH just wasn't going to justify many new costs. They'd seen what happened when the studio had a blank check, and it didn't break any records. At the same time, the game wasn't at the point that it didn't justify its cost. It wasn't failing. It just wasn't knocking anyone's socks off either.

So the game isn't in a zone where NCsoft can justify killing it. It's also not at a point at which the company can justify big costs for further development. Unless the game starts bringing in influxes of revenue to make up for the cost of development, it's just going to have to sit steady.

That explains why the game went free-to-play (bring in quicker turnaround for new content), why the game has sort of thrown things against the wall to see what sticks, and why the game developed and launched a full endgame system to keep people hooked to the game for an extended period of time: because Going Rogue wasn't the enormous hit that no one really though it would be.

Do I have any proof of all this? Of course not -- just a lot of hearsay, conjecture, and external observation. But it all hangs together coherently, so I can't help but wonder.

Tune in next week when I reveal that it was actually Tyrant on the grassy knoll trying to shoot Oswald. Or maybe I'll sit down and get some new hands-on impressions of new power sets. Or we'll spotlight Nemesis. I'll see what happens. Until then, feel free to leave comments or crazy conspiracy theories in the comments, or mail them to eliot@massively.com.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre unveils his secret identity in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles every Wednesday. Filled with all the news that's fit to analyze and all the muck that's fit to rake, this look at City of Heroes analyzes everything from the game's connection to its four-color roots to the latest changes in the game's mechanics.
This article was originally published on Massively.