A Mild-Mannered Reporter: A tale of two shutdowns starring City of Heroes

A few weeks left.
It's been about a year since Star Wars Galaxies was shut down, and for a lot of people that wound is still fresh. For a sadly vocal minority, that wound is so fresh as to provoke a lot of groundless vitriol toward any available target -- but that's not the point. The point is that what happened to that game is happening again, to City of Heroes, and the players are just as powerless to stop it.

Except that it's not the same thing, not really. There are different reasons behind the closure of City of Heroes, different protests, and different player organizing taking place. The result is a scenario that's both a clear parallel to an earlier tragedy and its own unique blend of awful circumstances at the same time.

When we first heard the announcement, fellow City of Heroes player and former Star Wars Galaxies player Brianna Royce asked me if I felt the same way about CoH as I had about SWG. As we talked about it, though, it became clear that there were certain parallels being drawn that just didn't work. So I'm going to talk about what happened to both games, starting with the very significant difference between the two games shutting down.

Despite appearances, not a Jedi.Own or rent

For better or worse (almost certainly worse), Sony Online Entertainment didn't really own Star Wars Galaxies. The company owned the mechanics of it. Lucasarts owned the actual setting, and that meant that any time the people in charge at Lucasarts wanted to pull the plug, they could do so. By contrast, NCsoft owns all of CoH. Therein is the major difference.

I made a post back when SWG was being shut down that centered around the idea that player protests against SOE were kind of pointless. Some people fixated on the "kind of pointless" part and didn't catch the "against SOE" part. Yelling at SOE for shutting the game down would be commensurate to me mailing Melissa Bianco and Matt Miller demanding to know why they're killing CoH.

CoH fans have not been blaming Paragon Studios; they've been blaming NCsoft. If anything, Paragon Studios as a whole has gotten as much goodwill as the game itself. By contrast, blame over who was responsible for the shutdown of SWG ranged from Lucasarts to SOE to the game itself, leaving the community with no actual target for its venting and no way to stage any sort of effective protest.

Not to mention that the decision was much less unilateral. SOE and Lucasarts couldn't negotitate an agreement to keep leasing the IP rights, so the game was shut down. Should SOE have bargained harder? Should Lucasarts have been more generous? Was it in the best interests of either company to do so based on the actual profit from the game? That sounds cold, but profitability does need to be taken into account, because these companies are just collections of people like you or I. If they don't make money, their kids go hungry.

CoH, to the best of our knowledge, was profitable. There were no hidden expenses of license costs to worry about. The most plausible explanation I've heard is that NCsoft's accounting department more or less held Paragon accountable for the development cost on Guild Wars 2 and WildStar, since neither ArenaNet nor Carbine Studios were pulling in profits on those games. While I imagine there's more to it than that, evidence still suggests that the game was profitable before the shutdown process started.

In other words, the two aren't quite comparable when it comes to the underlying reasons or player reactions. That makes a pretty significant difference in how we should react. Astute observers will also note that I've been saying all along that the effort to save the city is a doomed effort, and that there's merit to be found in fighting with an assured defeat on the horizon. My statements about accepting that you've lost is still in full effect.

Yes, the visual pun is intentional.We're still standing

At the same time, there's a very close parallel insofar as these are both profitable games being shut down for reasons other than the usual ones.

Most people don't like the idea that a game isn't making money, but that's an easy concept to accept. Not every game appeals to enough players for it to keep running. We've even had some fairly recent games that launched and never attracted the player numbers needed to keep the population going, and while that's sad it's also comprehensible. Faxion Online might have been a good game, but being good isn't enough if it loses money.

Shutting down a couple of games that are making enough money to justify development costs is much less comprehensible. Instead of having a clear cause for the shutdown, you wind up blindly grasping at potential meanings and hoping that something sticks. Even assuming that the companies in question care for nothing but sheer, unadulterated profits, it's hard to accept that your favorite game will be gone for good without so much as a reason. And "we can't negotiate rights for a profitable game" seems kind of ridiculous at face value.

That's the part that really got to SWG players and still really gets to CoH players. And that's where the parallel is in full effect, because these changes move the shutdowns from being sad but necessary into being outright unfathomable. There's no comprehensible reason in the world for what's happening here, outside of backhanded corporate dealings divorced from context.

That's where my feelings for both completely dovetail. Because while I wasn't an SWG player, I agreed that the game certainly had more life in it. It didn't need to be shut down any more than CoH, and I'm still sad about it even if I wasn't personally affected by the shutdown.

As always, feedback can be left down in the comments or sent along to eliot@massively.com. Next week I will hopefully have weathered the storm of insanity bearing down on my home as of this writing and will be able to discuss the huge lore reveal posted by the Paragon team in the wake of the shutdown.

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.