City of Heroes / Villains 2009: Running Twice As Fast To Stay At The Same Place

UPDATE: I’ve repeated /facepalmed myself over getting Cryptic and Paragon Studios mixed up a few times in this article; Cryptic used to develop CoH/V but that is all handled by Paragon Studios now. Hopefully fixed! Also probably should have mentioned that DC Universe Online might launch in 2010, but this is still open to change.

Someone responding to a comment on an old MMORPG post reminded me that I probably should follow up on the progress of City of Heroes / Villains (CoH/V) across 2009. Perhaps it is a bit early – there are still about 2 months to go before the end of the year – but I think we’ve probably seen all the major releases around CoH/V for 2009, so summing up now isn’t completely unwarranted.

What’s New And What’s Coming

First off, I’ll give myself a big pat on the bat for being prescient about a new boxed expansion. And although the Mission Architect box was nice, it wasn’t the one I was thinking about – it is the Going Rogue expansion, which WILL include a graphical update, if not an entire engine upgrade.

Going Rogue updates graphics

New graphics for CoH/V were shown off at 2009's HeroCon.

The graphics update is official, but the engine is still more of a fan pipe dream. Ideally I think that Paragon Studios would love to get a new engine, with all the bells and whistles, but realistically I don’t think the size of the player base would justify a whole heap of back-end changes that players wouldn’t see on the front-end. Especially if they are existing players and are comfortable with the game they have currently and Paragon Studios doesn’t want to risk a new engine breaking / changing stuff that works currently.

What has come out since I wrote in January 2009 has been Issue 14 (Architect; with player created content), Issue 15 (Anniversary; with a new task / strike force for each side and lots of quality of life fixes) and Issue 16 (Power Spectrum; more powerset proliferation and colour customisation). I14 apparently attracted a lot of attention, but I don’t think Paragon Studio’s handling of player abuse of player-created content was particularly good. There have been no clear indications of how many people have hung around if the started in I14. Also: I15 barely had enough content and features to call itself an issue.

One aspect I did focus on was powers customisation. Power (particularly colour) customisation was a long-requested, difficult feature that Paragon Studios put in to directly keep up with competitors, as it did with the huge set of proliferated powers. CoH/V needed it to compete head on with Champions Online. Since that has come in, it has behaved as I expected it to – the intial OMGWOW has faded quickly and it is increasingly part of the background. Lots of work to end up at the same place as another competing title.

Make no mistake though: CoH/V’s future hangs by a Going Rogue thread.

The Competition

Champions Online launched. I’m not sure the dust has cleared enough there to really know what has landed, so I might leave that for another day. However, it is probably fair to say that ChampO didn’t exactly kill CoH/V at launch.

Fallen Earth and Aion also launched. Both have drawn interest (and criticism) from various corners. I don’t know exactly how the launch of these titles impacted on CoH/V’s player base, but it definitely increases competition on some different dimensions.

Star Trek Online has announced a launch for Q1 2010, meaning January – March of that year. CoH/V’s Going Rogue has its launch indicated for Q2 2010, meaning April – June. I think STO’s launch is going to get bumped at least once, which could see it launching head-to-head versus GoRo and that’s a fight GoRo probably won’t win.

On top of that, since the original column Gazillion Entertainment has come out of nowhere with the announcement of a 10 year deal with Marvel Entertainment to release not one but two superhero MMOs – a Super Hero Squad for young audiences and a Marvel MMO for older audiences. Personally I think Gazillion’s plans are overblown and subject to potential implosion – four MMO studios with at least six MMOs are a lot of balls to juggle – but they have certainly muddied the waters.

NCSoft West: Not What It Used To Be

2009 was not a good year to be working at NCsoft West (formerly NCsoft North America and NCsoft Europe). In February NCsoft cut back NCsoft West back through lay-offs and retrenchments, with up to 60 coming out of Europe. Some described it at the end of NCsoft MMO development in Europe. Ex-Origin heads of NCsoft West (the Garriot brothers, Peter Jarvis) were forced out in favour of ArenaNet heads – Jeff Strain (new President of Product Development), Chris Chung (new CEO), Pat Wyatt (new Chief Technical Officer)  and David Reid (new President of Publishing).

Since then, NCsoft Korea has tightened its grip on NCsoft West. Chris Chung has been bumped as NCsoft West’s CEO in favour of Jaeho Lee who transitions straight out of NCsoft Korea. The move might have something to do with the way Richard Garriot was turfed that opened the door to legal action – something that was definitely embarrassing for NCsoft – or it might have been due to how NCsoft West was travelling; such things are open to conjecture. Regardless, Chung got demoted. In August, both Reid and Strain left NCsoft West “in unrelated and separate event[s]”. So ArenaNet’s control of NCsoft West was dissembled almost as quickly as it had been created. (Vaguely related note: NCsoft West’s under performing Dungeon Runners is officially cancelled. What is interesting is that this move comes after the new CEO comes in despite DR having a plan and technology to try to remain profitable by going browser-compatible.)

Richard Gariott's Tabula Rasa Logo

The reason for NCsoft West's demise lies somewhere in this picture...

This leaves NCsoft West almost entirely directed by NCsoft Korea. What was NCsoft West’s big launch this year? Aion, the NCsoft Korea-developed title raking in massive dollars in its homeland, transitioned to suit a Western audience. What else has NCsoft West got in development? Guild Wars 2, City of Heroes / Villains and an unnamed MMO being worked on by Carbine Studios; I haven’t included Exteel as it is arguable that it is being ‘developed’. NCsoft Korea has twice as many titles in development, particularly new IPs.

So, what is my point here? Quite simply, it’s that the fate of CoH/V lies in the hands of NCsoft Korea, who already saw the game flop in their home region (link is off about CoH/V’s player numbers in NA / EU since it never exceeded 200k active subscriptions). If GoRo doesn’t see large numbers of players flooding to / back to CoH/V, I don’t see NCsoft Korea having any hesitation in sidelining the game. Paragon Studios has over 50 people employed there and history doesn’t see them allowed to idly hang around if CoH/V isn’t performing. Aion appears to have done okay at launch in the West, which would open the door up for more NCsoft Korea titles to be transitioned into this market – it has to be cheaper translating content and adjusting for cultural differences than building a new MMO from scratch.

However, I also see the potential for NCsoft Korea to start ignoring the entire Western market if they feel the returns aren’t there. Looking at the Q2 2009 Earnings Release, you can see that NCsoft earns only around 11% of its total revenue from NCsoft West. That’s down around 8% year-on-year for the same period. With other markets providing the bulk of revenue, it could be easy to pull the pin on NCsoft West entirely. I don’t think that is going to happen yet, but if Aion can’t a substantial audience or if Guild Wars 2 flops I think the option is on the table. Ultimately this would lead to the gutting of CoH/V because NCsoft doesn’t sell MMOs where it can cancel them outright.

Putting aside the “nuke it from orbit” option, I do see a large risk to Paragon Studios if GoRo doesn’t pull in the numbers they’ve told management it will. All of Paragon Studios’ eggs are in the CoH/V basket, so if it doesn’t come off there is going to be plenty of material to make omelettes with (and also why I suspect Paragon Studios is going to announce a second title in development in 2010).

God That Was Long

Yes, it was. Sorry about that. Here’s a summary in case your eyes glazed over during that:

From my perspective, CoH/V did a lot of work this year just to keep up with competitors and that trend is going to have to keep going in 2010 with the next expansion. I believe that CoH/V’s greatest threat is actually its publisher – NCsoft Korea could easily put CoH/V out to pasture maintenance mode and the dedicated audience would probably make the title more profitable before it gets shut down entirely. If Going Rogue doesn’t see CoH/V’s player base substantively increase, I think it might be a very rough 2010 for Paragon Studios.

5 thoughts on “City of Heroes / Villains 2009: Running Twice As Fast To Stay At The Same Place

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  2. Always interesting to read your observations, UnSub. It’s a good summary of the year. Still, with NCSoft financials due in a couple of weeks, I might have held off on this article. They tend to make their big moves around their quarterly reporting times.

    CoH’s biggest threat? If Champions matures decently, and Cryptic offers a package deal with both CO and STO at a combined price with savings…or if they get to that point with CO STO and NWN in a package.

    • I’m looking forward to seeing NCsoft’s financials, particularly those of CoH/V. I’ve been doing a bit of modelling that those figures are going to add to.

      Regarding CoH/V’s biggest threats from a purely MMO-side, if Cryptic launches STO successfully and ChampO shapes up and Cryptic offers a general pass (and I think a Cryptic Pass is definitely on the table) then that might hit CoH/V a bit. However, the titles I think that are going to have a bigger impact will be DCUO, APB and SWOR. Lacking release dates I don’t know when they’ll hit, but I think they’ll end up sucking away a number of long-term CoH/V players.

      There will be a group of CoH/V players who will subscribe until the servers are switched off – and I might be one of them! – but I think it is going to be increasingly hard for Paragon Studios to hold onto players. DCUO potentially offers the greatest competition since a lot of things they offer appear to be “CoH/V done right”-style features.

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