A Mild-Mannered Reporter: The rocky road ahead for city revivals

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|02.20.13

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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: The rocky road ahead for city revivals
Sometimes there's no better header.
I can't currently talk about The Phoenix Project or Heroes & Villains in great detail because neither game is actually a thing just yet. They're both products of the best parts of City of Heroes fandom, of players deciding that if the game was going to shut down, they were not going to go gently into that good night. No, they were going to just make a new game that keeps all of the feel and winds up better besides. Rather than decrying what happened, they're building something new.

This is a good thing, and the thought of having a new game in the same vein as the lost one makes me happy for understandable reasons. But at the moment, it's just that -- a thought.

Both projects have big goals, and I don't fault either of them for lack of ambition. Nonetheless, I wonder whether either will wind up coming to fruition. The fact of the matter is that making an MMO is really hard, even more so when you're working in a genre with several pitfalls, and ambition alone does not make a game.

"When you start learning about the process, it's a wonder that any of these MMO things work at all."

Virtual studios and long-term development

Missing Worlds Media and Plan Z Virtual Studio, to the best of my knowledge, are both working as virtual studios based upon a volunteer workforce at the moment. That's reasonable. Both studios are formed with very specific goals from communities full of passionate people, and if I were a programmer, I would certainly see the appeal in throwing my hat into the ring for a little while at least. The trouble here is that volunteer work lasts as long as the worker wants to provide it and consists of the work that can be fit around paying jobs.

Am I implying that these people aren't really dedicated? Of course not. I think that anyone who volunteered to make a new home for CoH refugees will be elbow-deep in code until there's a working game to play, or at least a reasonable approximation. But the problem is that a finished MMO is neither. It's just the first step in a long road filled with updates.

That's not even getting into the fact that these games will need to have servers running, mods running around, and sites maintained. We're talking small indie outfits; obviously it's ridiculous to expect the sort of standards you see from major companies, but these pieces still need to be in place. That means sooner or later these studios need to start moving from being volunteer organizations to being functional companies.

Shifting gears like that isn't necessarily easy. Suddenly you go from having a hobby that eats up a bunch of your time to a job, one that may very well be your primary job. And the passion that gets people to create a game to fill a gap does not instantly translate to being effective at running a company.

It's some great concept art, but concept art is not a game.Making an MMO is really hard

Really, making a video game is hard. Even if you're using a suite of tools designed to make it as easy as possible, making games is difficult. It becomes exponentially more difficult when you're working from scratch, and it becomes downright insane when you decide to make a game that can be played by thousands of people all over the world.

MMOs have a lot of moving parts, not the least of which is server software that can often be fickle and capricious as you try to get things working. You're really writing two entirely separate programs that need to work together for a single game. You've also got a huge volume of writing to undertake, a lot of necessary art assets, balance, game mechanics, and so on and so forth. When you start learning about the process, it's a wonder that any of these MMO things work at all.

Normally, studios have the motivation of "we need to get this working if we want to eat solid food for the next week." That serves as a powerful bulwark against the inclination to throw the whole project away and just forget about it. Neither of the projects has that motivating factor at the moment; it's a balance of irritation on one hand and continued love of CoH on the other.

Obligation is stronger than love in this sense. You'll force your way through miserable work longer than you'll force your way through miserable projects based on affection.

None of these issues is really a major problem now, of course; we're talking about nascent projects, after all. And I have no doubt that the people in charge have a lot of passion for what they're doing or they wouldn't have started in the first place. But I do wonder about what we might see in several months when the work stops being the interesting high-concept portion and starts being the tedious slog through necessary coding and writing.

Abandon some hope, but not all

I'll be honest and say that the bitter cynic in me expects we will not see these projects come to fruition. At the same time, I usually only indulge my cynicism when I'm hoping to be proven demonstrably wrong, and with just a little luck, this will be one of those times.

Passion is a poor substitute for a job, but it also can get quite a lot accomplished, and we are at a point where a group of passionate people could indeed leverage a dream into an actual long-term studio. It's starting from very humble roots, but the fact that we have two projects going at all is indicative of how hard people are willing to work for an ideal.

And hey, losing causes have never dissuaded these fans before.

Feedback is welcome down below in the comments or by mail to eliot@massively.com, as in previous months. Next week, let's take a look at the big developments in the current big titles.

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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