A Mild-Mannered Reporter: How superheroes died and why it's good

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|01.16.13

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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: How superheroes died and why it's good
I really need to settle on a header instead of randomly pulling old ones.  Thoughts, oh handful of readers who look at the alt text?
2012 was probably the worst year ever for fans of superheroes in the MMO space. The best months of the year were just kind of there, and then the biggest game in the genre unexpectedly closed. Unpacking what caused the City of Heroes closure is something that's ongoing to the moment, and I'd be remiss to not talk about the recent anonymous claims that City of Heroes was profitable up to its closure combined with a denial that... isn't, really.

At the same time, I'm a firm believer in the idea that bad things can have positive outcomes. So I think that for all the bad that happened in 2012, we might be looking at 2013 as a banner year for superheroes. Not that it's certain by any means, but between last year's media and the current state of affairs, there's space for some awesome possibilities. And a lot of screwups, too, but isn't that always the case?

I still dearly want this armor.Studios and games

Before I go on and look longingly to the future, let's talk about the past year. Specifically, let's talk about the anonymous source that's claiming City of Heroes was profitable when it shut down. While anonymous sources are always difficult to trust, the fact that NCsoft issued a response and didn't specifically refute any of the claims made by this anonymous source makes it seem pretty honest to me. If these were baseless claims, wouldn't they be addressed directly?

Instead, NCsoft's response was the definition of evasive. Lincoln Davis claimed in the statement that Paragon Studios (the studio, not CoH the game) was not profitable and that NCsoft was unable to find a buyer that it deemed likely to run the game in the fashion fans expected. Both of these are non-answers that actively contribute to a few theories that have been bouncing around for a while now.

First of all, there's the theory that Paragon Studios was essentially the write-off studio, that costs associated with Guild Wars 2 and WildStar were essentially being funneled down and earmarked on another studio's balance in addition to the second unannounced MMO that Paragon was working on. The fact that Davis makes it clear that Paragon Studios itself was the unprofitable part gives this theory new legs. I'm obviously fond of Carbine Studios, but it's a studio that has released a grand total of zero games ever, and ArenaNet wasn't raking in money from the original Guild Wars as the sequel's design time dragged on. Someone has to take the fall, right?

And the second statement tacitly confirms another suspicion: that NCsoft had potential buyers but dismissed them out of hand. I don't think I'm alone in saying that "online with different management" beats the game's current state of "dead" no matter how bad that new management might be. Most likely NCsoft simply didn't want to have another company making money off of the project, especially as the company knew the game was profitable beforehand. When the inflated price tag didn't scare anyone off, the company just came up with a reason not to sell and closed the door.

It's an understandable set of tactics from a business standpoint, but it's still pretty reprehensible. Feel free to join me in a moment of scowling anger and impotent rage.

(Massively contacted Davis for clarification on these points. Our questions went unanswered.)

Man, Gotham cops get a sweet whip.Tomorrow might be bright

Last year was kind of big for superheroes in the movie industry. For those of you who missed it, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises both entered theaters to massive critical acclaim and financial success, with the latter finishing off a trilogy expertly and the former pulling together characters from a dozen different films into a single story that worked with uncanny grace. We've had several years of good superhero films (with the occasional misstep and the occasional surprising standout) and last year capped off that trend beautifully.

That's only a small part of why this year might be the best year to be a fan of the superhero MMORPG. The other reason is that CoH is gone.

I'm not cheering over the game's demise, obviously. But it exerted a palpable force over the entire genre, especially when DC Universe Online and Champions Online both failed to pull a large player base away from it when they launched. The oldest entry in the subgenre was still the 1000-pound gorilla, and it was already far smaller than the much larger gorillas around it. Why make another game in that vein?

Now? Now things are changing a little. I know that Champions Online saw a major population upswing, and the game's team has time to work and expand to meet the sudden influx. I'd expect that DC Universe Online saw new blood as well. That's without touching upon the upcoming Marvel Heroes or the two projects both looking to rise from the ashes of CoH's untimely demise, and the prospect for more on the horizon...

What I'm getting at here is that these "revival" projects give me hope for the future. That we might see a new interest in the genre as a whole.

They may very well evaporate in a few months. I'm being realistic here; making an MMO is a really hard job, and not everyone is cut out for it. It's the sort of thing that might very well be harder than the team working on it thinks it is. But if it works, we could see something you don't see a whole lot: a new game fueled by love for a departed one that's informed but not beholden to what's come before.

We lost a lot with CoH, but I think people are realizing just how much they lost and moving into better things. That's pretty awesome.

Feedback is welcome in the comments below or via mail to eliot@massively.com. Next week, I'm going to talk about villains and whether or not playing one is integral to the superhero genre as a whole.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre spent years in City of Heroes before the world-shattering event that destroyed his home world. But he remains as intrepid as ever, traveling to other superheroic games and dispensing his unique brand of justice... or lack thereof.
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