City of Heroes / Villains (CoH/V) is the first MMO I thought was worth paying for. I still do, having spent at least 54 months subscribed to it. But 2009 marks a big change for CoH/V and a number of new challenges that are going to test the player base's commitment to the game. Although there have been challenges in the past, 2009 is the first year that a large number of non-fantasy MMO titles are planned for launch, including two superhero MMO titles. NCsoft hasn't had the best of times in terms of MMO profitability, while CoH/V approaches its fifth birthday and could be considered a bit "old" even by MMO standards. Let's look at these challenges in detail:
Increasing Competition (and Not Just DCUO and ChampO)
Although people here mainly talk about DCUO and ChampO as competitors, there are an absolute ton of other MMOs coming out. All Points Bulletin, from the makers of GTA, offers cops vs robbers in a city environment. Stargate Worlds (assuming CME doesn't fall over and die) is a draw for the sci-fi gamer. Fallen Earth might be the indie MMO that could. And so on. Player generated content (planned for release in CoH/V's issue 15 - no ETA indicated at this point) might help keep some players, but there are a lot more options coming on board that CoH/V will be competing with that aren't fantasy MMOs or restrict players to just being space ships.
NCsoft's Gradual Withdrawal from the NA MMO Space
Tabula Rasa burned NCsoft badly. If you look at their upcoming product line, the focus is strongly on Korean gamers with North American gamers a distant second. Aion, Blade and Soul, a ton of smaller themed MMOs are being developed in Korea for Koreans and might be translated for the NA / EU market later on if successful in Korea. The only other important (sorry Exteel and Dungeon Runners) NA-based NCsoft project I'm aware of is Guild Wars 2, which is currently under fairly information-limited development.
Although CoH/V has been successful in the past (to the tune of $100 million in lifetime revenues) it has to maintain this success to maintain a high level of investment. Unfortunately the player subscription trend in CoH/V is negative, meaning it is slowly losing players. The risk here is if CoH/V sees player numbers continue to drop, all of the sweet new investment required to do exciting things with this title will evaporate.
The Cryptic Engine, And Why It Needs Replacing
CoH/V currently runs under the Cryptic Engine v1.0 as far as I know. All the updates for it that Cryptic have been working on (i.e. the Cryptic Engine v2.0) stay at Cryptic and being used in ChampO - I don't think Cryptic would be migrating the latest updates down to CoH/V as a matter of course. Although it is possible for NCsoft NorthCal (CoH/V's developer) to be updating the engine and toolset as they go, that would also seem to be a continual drain on resources for an engine that is no longer receiving full studio support.
Although not a trivial thing, CoH/V needs a newer engine than Cryptic Engine v1.0. Things like DirectX 10 support, increased expandability of toolset functionality and potentially some advantages in development (although no doubt any engine changes will also have some limitations, such being the way of the world) are required to let CoH/V move forward and keep up - or better - with the increasing number of competitors out there.
Some people believe that CoH/V 2 is a certainty. I don't. But a new boxed set, complete with new city and new game engine? That I can believe.
This is one of the key selling points for both DCUO and ChampO. If CoH/V doesn't have this when either of these products launch, it puts CoH/V at a big disadvantage. Although there have been cryptic (you can take the dev out of Cryptic, but you can't take cryptic out of the dev) hints about it, an official announcement on this and some details on the exact nature of customisation is really required before getting all enthusiastic about powers customisation coming to CoH/V.
This isn't a message of DOOOOM. CoH/V has a very loyal player base, so the combination of all of these factors (barring NCsoft shutting down the game) isn't going to kill this title inside of 2009. But these challenges are going to make it difficult to grow, or even to retain the player numbers it has. Without growth there won't be investment. Without investment CoH/V could potentially see the development team return to the days of a dramatically smaller team. And if that happened, it might see some of the existing devs consider moving on to something new, rather than have to scrabble with limited resources.
It'll be interesting to see where CoH/V sits on December 31 2009 - whether it is still the best superhero MMO available on the PC and attracting a growing following, a title that is rapidly losing steam against its younger, flashier opponents, or something else entirely.