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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

NCsoft Buying CoH/V: Killing Memes Softly

Posted by UnSub Thursday November 22 2007 at 9:47PM
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I've already written a long piece on the CoH/V forums about how NCsoft buying City of Heroes / Villains' IP is a win for NCsoft, a win for Cryptic and a win for CoH/V players, so I'm not going to recover that ground (well, not much). But I've been going around and reading various forum reactions and reports regarding the purchase and keep seeing a lot of stuff that basically irks me. Various rumours or statements are starting up that have little basis in any kind of reality and should be nailed down before they become memes that can never be shaken (e.g. the 5th Column were taken out of CoH because they were launching the game in Germany!). The rumours of the MUO being cancelled have also fuelled speculation - a lot of which seems to be incorrect.

As always, these are just my personal opinions and I have no insider knowledge.


"Cryptic knew that MUO was going to be cancelled, so they sold CoH/V!"

Unlikely. Positron indicated that the deal for NCsoft to buy CoH/V has been on the table for about six months. It would seem that any issues with MUO have come up more recently than that, so while it may have been a factor, it probably wouldn't have been the deciding one.  

As has been pointed out elsewhere, Cryptic have at least one more secret project that they were internally funding. While the revenue from CoH/V's monthly subs would have been reasonable, it would have been split with NCsoft (since they are the publisher) which may have limited how much Cryptic could do in developing their own MMO. Selling off CoH/V gives Cryptic a large chunk of change to get their secret MMO finalised and out the door. That's probably a greater incentive to sell CoH/V to an attractive and friendly offer than whatever is going on with MUO.


"NCsoft buying CoH/V off Cryptic was inevitable!"

No, it wasn't. If it was so inevitable, there would have been heaps of commentary beforehand that NCsoft was going to buy CoH/V fully among various MMO forums, right? I'm not going to pretend that I read every comment about CoH/V on the internet, but I read in a number of places and I can never remember anyone saying anything about such a sale as even a possibility. Especially in the way it happened i.e. the whole CoH/V dev team jumping ship to a new studio.

NCsoft buying the CoH/V IP is something that, in retrospect, seems obvious, which is why a lot of people seem to be Monday morning quarterbacking and saying how "inevitable" it was. But that doesn't mean it was the only way things could have happened, or that many people actually saw it coming. Any MMO publisher could have bought CoH/V off Cryptic / NCsoft. The situation could have remained as it was, with NCsoft publishing CoH/V and Microsoft publishing MUO while Cryptic develops both. And so on. I was surprised by the news of the sale, but it made sense. I'm not about to pretend I saw it coming.


"Cryptic having both CoH/V and MUO was a conflict of interest!"

Sure, but only if Turbine having D&D Online and LOTRO is a conflict of interest, or if SOE having EQ and EQ2 is a conflict of interest, or if EA Mythic has a conflict of interest in having DAoC and developing WAR, or if any other MMO company that more than one MMO out in any area is a conflict of interest. A superficial reading - that both CoH/V and MUO are superhero MMOs and would compete - may throw up a red flag until you consider that each game aims for different target markets. CoH/V is PC-only and is slanted towards casual MMO players; MUO is PC (Vista OS) and Xbox 360 and will be slanted towards the mass market. There will be some overlap, sure, but the winner at the end of the day in that situation is Cryptic because they get more players from their different games in different markets than they do from having only one game in one market space. 

Internally, I'm sure it was a struggle at Cryptic to keep things separate if only because a lot of the senior people were working together for a long time. Nothing shatters a work relationship like, "I can't tell you what I'm working on and you can't tell me what you are working on". But that's the way chinese walls work in business, where much larger companies than Cryptic conduct projects for competing companies in a similar space. It's likely that NCsoft and Microsoft both wanted the focus to be on their product solely, but the other thing is that Microsoft came in long after NCsoft was there and knew the score. Marvel / Microsoft obviously didn't see a conflict of interest in Cryptic developing MUO alongside CoH/V or else they wouldn't have given Cryptic the project.  


"Cryptic dumped CoH/V because they know CoH/V is DOOOMed in the face of MUO!"

Wrong, because not only did Cryptic sell the CoH/V IP, but the entire CoH/V dev team decided to move to a fully funded new studio courtesy of NCsoft. The initial posts of the CoH/V devs sounds very optimistic as well. So either Cryptic is heartless enough to sacrifice 30 to 40 people (some of whom have been around Cryptic since it pretty much launched) to a game they know will they will crush (or conversely the CoH/V devs are stupid enough to sign on to a doomed MMO) or they are selling CoH/V because they are getting a good deal from NCsoft that also looks good to the CoH/V dev team. 

I'd fully agree with the DOOOOOM sentiment if only a few devs had moved across. If, say,  Positron (Matt Miller) had stayed behind, there would be questions worth asking. But, to the best of my knowledge, every single CoH/V dev elected to join on to NCsoft NorCal. I bet all of these people want to stay employed, so they wouldn't be making the move if they didn't see a future in the "City of..." franchise. Given Cryptic's current non-CoH/V projects, I'm sure the people who wanted to stay could have been slotted in somewhere else if they wanted to stay. Since the money from the sale seems earmarked for Cryptic's non-MUO projects then I'm sure that internal resources are still required.

The flipside - that the CoH/V devs are abandoning Cryptic because MUO is going to sink it - also doesn't hold up much to scrutiny. If MUO does get cancelled, the most likely outcome is that Microsoft / Marvel gets to keep the work they paid for and Cryptic keeps its toolsets and the experience from developing the project to that point. Without seeing the contract, I'll never know, but it's unlikely that Cryptic would sign a contract where they could be penalised if Microsoft pulled the plug on MUO. The worst that would happen (assuming no contractual shenanigans) would be that Cryptic would be without a major IP for their next MMO title and free to develop what they wanted for their next title. Also, if things were that bad, I would have suspected more than just the CoH/V team (plus one) would have made the jump to the now-recruiting NCsoft NorCal.

The way I read between the lines on the PR releases, NCsoft made a very good offer to Cryptic for CoH/V and a very good offer to the CoH/V devs. NCsoft wants CoH/V to grow. They are throwing resources at CoH/V that it may never have seen the like of, with the offer to double or even triple the development staff. Cryptic can't offer the same resources - they are stretched between CoH/V, MUO and their sekret projekt(s). Selling CoH/V sees Cryptic get a lot of money and the ability to narrow their focus (which, on a side note, has to make Microsoft / Marvel very, very happy). Moving to NCsoft NorCal gives the CoH/V team the chance to take the game where they've always wanted. Win / win.

Cryptic may be heartless, but I don't see any evidence of it. For instance, NCsoft gets to license Cryptic's engine technologies for future games and keep CoH/V using it. If Cryptic wanted to be mean about it, they could have kneecapped the development of CoH/V for the next six months by refusing that license and forcing the CoH/V team to develop such things from scratch. That they didn't says volumes about the nature of the transaction between Cryptic and NCsoft.


"Any MMO that gets bought out is DOOOOMed!"

I admit that history hasn't been too good here for MMOs that get bought out after publication. SOE buys out a MMO and then puts it out to Station Pass pasture for a long, slow death. EA buys a MMO studio to cancel its output. But NCsoft is a bit of a different creature and has even given complete turkeys of MMOs (hello, Auto Assault!) plenty of time to try to come good.

The big exception to the "buy out" rule is EVE Online. What is little remembered is that Simon & Schuster Interactive originally published EVE and came pretty close to cancelling it. CCP managed to convince SSI to sell the rights to them and create a very successful MMO (also the MMO most likely to cause a real-life war between players) as a result. NCsoft NorCal is about as close it it gets to CoH/V buying itself from Cryptic, so they've got a better chance of making it work than any SOE Station Pass-filler or EA sacrificial lamb.


"With Statesman (Jack Emmert) gone, CoH/V can roll-back ED and GDN!"

Lots of wishful thinking here. There are some players who believe CoH at launch, with some characters capable of herding every map by themselves at no risk and where dumpster diving (i.e. jumping into a dumpster to force those herded enemies to fight you a few at a time) was a valid tactic, was the best of times. These people are deluded and / or never played any sub-optimal AT powerset combination. Even today, CoH/V is hardly a perfectly balanced game, but the changes made since launch have made the game a lot better and evened the power differential out. ED and GDN (which I won't go into in detail, but Enhancement Diversification and Global Defence Nerf were nerfs that could dramatically alter how a character in CoH/V could function) are in the game to stay.

NCsoft NorCal (who I'll now call 'NC^2' since I'm sick of typing out the long name) may roll back some small things or make some cosmetic changes, but I can't see them electing to roll back changes that have been in the game longer than they haven't. Unless players are willing to sit back and accept something like six months of rebalancing of old content (with no new content added, because they'd have to rebalance that too) in order to have ED / GDN removed - which they aren't - then the people expecting such a change are only going to be disappointed.

Also, what is often forgotten is that Positron was right there behind Statesman when ED / GDN was introduced. Statesman didn't develop, program and implement the changes all by himself.

There - that's six  things that hopefully never come up again (or, when they inevitably do, I have a cut'n'paste for them).