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The Beatnik Box

Examining the concepts behind "meaningful play."

Author: Beatnik59

How Free to Play Dies: The Case of City of Heroes

Posted by Beatnik59 Tuesday September 18 2012 at 8:51PM
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It has been three weeks since the announcement by NCSoft that they would be closing City of Heroes.  Much of the initial hype surrounding this closure is dying down.  Those who are committing to playing the game through are playing.  Those who are committed to saving the game are still active in the effort.  Unless something happens, the game will end at some point, most likely towards the end of the year.

To those who are not emotionally invested in City of Heroes, I can understand that you might not care about the closure announcement.  It is not your game.  But I do think that the closure of City of Heroes is important for you to consider.  After all, how would you know if your game was closing tomorrow?

The reason why the City of Heroes closure is important is because there was nothing to suggest on the 30th of August that the game wouldn't continue as usual on the 31st of August.  The game was profitable, earning $800,000 a month over expenses.  New content additions were about to be published.  Developers were excited and active.  New character options in the item store were offered just a week before.

As a result, people bought items in the item store on the 30th of August, because they wanted to enjoy them for a long time.  People cancelled their subscriptions on the 30th of August, because they thought they would come back in the winter.  People also renewed their subscription on the 30th of August, because they wanted to enjoy the game and be a part of its future.

Little did anyone know that the 30th of August would be the last chance any one of them would ever have to make these decisions.  And little did any of them know, on the 30th of August, that they were playing a dead service and paying for items on a dead service.

City of Heroes was killed by a board room full of consultants in Seattle.  When the decision was made is not known, but within the first few daylight hours of August 31st, cash transactions were taken offline in the item store, subscriptions became unavailable, the forthcoming publish was scuttled, and Paragon Studios was closed.  This was followed by an announcement, the only official announcement and the only announcement we've heard so far, telling the players about the decision, telling players that the subscription options were not available, telling players that their time to buy item store items has already passed, and that they should expect the game to be taken offline within months.

And three weeks later, nothing has changed.

I predict that this is how games will die in the future: with little warning, with drastic upheaval, and with little concern.  The days of the "graceful sunset" are over, because the games aren't monetized in a way that will allow them to age gracefully.  No longer are players going to get the telltale signs that a game is fading: the development slowdown, the server merges, the forewarning.  Instead, games will be killed while they are still healthy and pumped full of development dollars, because this is the only way the new monetization schemes can work.

The reason is simple: nobody wants to pump money in a cash store for a dying game.  People impulse buy from a cash store when they are under the impression that everything is alright.  Cash stores and tiered account structures work when players aren't bothered by grave questions, like "how long is this service going to last?"  You buy the XP booster because it's no big deal.  You buy the costume piece because you want to wear it when you choose.

But when the days of a game are numbered, I can't help but believe that people start to think--really think--about the value of the things they buy, and the calculation seldom works in the publisher's favor.  When the health of the game is in question, players cannot help but see the truth about the nature of the MMO business model: that the things we enjoy will be taken away.  The things we enjoy and purchase will, at a time not of our choosing, cease to exist for reasons wholly unrelated from our enjoyment or willingness to pay.  At the point when this becomes painfully clear, every purchase decision becomes a "big deal," and--perhaps--a vain waste of money that could go towards something more substantial, like casino tokens at a local riverboat.

I draw the analogy to the casinos for a reason.  There is something rather suspect about how this industry makes its money, selling you a basketball only to take it away in the middle of the night.  When the publishers come to take their basketball away from us is anyone's guess.  But if the experience of City of Heroes is any indication, they'll come without warning, for any reason they see fit.