No Man’s Land: The Fall of Paragon City

In 1999 DC Comics ran a year-long story through the Batman titles called “No Man’s Land”.  In this story Gotham City is struck by a massive earthquake, prompting the federal government to cut off all access to the city and declare that it is no longer part of the United States.  (Which can’t legally be done, but that’s far from the most implausible story element here.)  Batman himself is nowhere to be found (because Bruce Wayne is in Washington D.C. trying to surgically remove the federal government’s head from its ass) and the city is ravaged by gangs led by various members of Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery until his return.  The story was generally considered to be successful and was a major influence on The Dark Knight Rises.

De nobis fabula narratur.  This is now the fate of Paragon City, setting of the online game City of Heroes.  At midnight tonight the game will be shut down, cutting off Paragon City (and its shadowy counterpart the Rogue Isles) from the rest of the world.  Its virtual inhabitants will, metaphorically, be on their own; those of us who once commuted there on a daily basis will in all likelihood never do so again.

By all appearances August 31st, 2012 began as any other day for City‘s developers at Paragon Studios.  In the morning they were posting screenshots and other sneak peaks for the game’s next content update, its 24th in eight years.  In the afternoon, they were locked out of the building and unemployed.  NCSoft, the publishing company that owned Paragon Studios, had decided to shut it down.  While the exact details of the corporate politics behind the decision are not known, it is generally accepted that in response to NCSoft posting a loss for the first time in the company’s history the company chose to throw its least-profitable operation (technically second least but that’s a long story) under a bus to shore up the company’s bottom line through the miracles of creative accounting, or as I like to call it, Enron Math.  The community of players immediately mobilized to protest the decision (which was as effective as you think) and to try to find investors who would buy the game and keep it afloat.  Reportedly groups willing to negotiate for the purchase couldn’t get NCSoft to return their calls.  What is known is that shortly after the shutdown announcement NCSoft released a statement saying that efforts to sell the property had failed, which was really corporate doublespeak for “we’re not gonna sell it, now please shut the hell up already”.    More than one commentator on the game’s forums noted what I had assumed from the moment the announcement was made, that there was no way anyone could possibly pay NCSoft enough for the property to compensate them for the writeoff they were going to claim from shutting it down.  This kind of accounting is responsible for far too many of the world’s problems and really needs to be stopped, but that’s another rant.  I should point out here that per the company’s stockholder reports the game was profitable; it just wasn’t profitable enough to avoid this fate.

I first started playing City back in 2004 during the last phase of its open beta on the recommendation of one of my old EverQuest guildmates.  This was just before World of Warcraft’s launch.  At the time I thought City was cute and charming in its way but lacked staying power and that WoW would be my next MMO.  I subscribed to both games, but I was done with WoW in about three months and stayed with City for eight years.  I even wrote a Note on Facebook explaining “Why I Am Not a World of Warcraft Player” in response to online gaming friends’ requests to join them.  (WoW has since fixed many of the issues that led me to abandon it and with City closing I’ve returned to WoW.)  City wasn’t perfect (and I’ll talk about some of its problems shortly) but it had a lot going for it.  It had (at the time) an engaging storyline, unprecedented flexibility in the graphic design of characters and a lack of the “grind for raids to grind for raids to grind…” mentality that WoW was built on at the time.  Plus I’ve always had a fondness for the superhero setting because of its flexibility.  In a superhero world you can go from investigating shadowy conspiracies to battling alien invaders to hunting Lovecraftian horrors all before lunch.

I’ve a variety of thoughts left on the game; in no particular order….

The Game Failed

There’s a prevailing sentiment in the community that “City didn’t die; it was killed”.  As comforting as that may be to cling to it’s not really true.  Yes, the game was still profitable, but it had failed to grow big enough to avoid being stepped on in this manner.  Both the community and the developers were complacent with the game’s status as a niche product, but niches vanish or get paved over.  There’s an internet catchphrase that gets thrown around occasionally: “go big or go home”.  It’s right.  Non-competitive attitudes are for amateur products.  If you’re going to swim with the sharks, grow teeth.

In 2005 I had the opportunity to see Jack Emmert, one of City‘s creators and at the time its lead developer, appear at a New York City comic store to promote the recent release of the game’s City of Villains expansion.  (I even won a raffle for a copy of the expansion’s collector’s edition.)  He was taking questions from the audience and one of the first dealt with a then-controversial change to the game called “Enhancement Diversification” that reduced the strength of player-characters.  The questioner wanted to know why it had been done.  Emmert replied (paraphrasing from memory here) “Box sales have been strong but subscriptions are not going up.  We’re not retaining players.  Why not?  The game is too easy, it’s a snoozefest.”  This mirrored the most frequent complaint about City I had seen in various forums and heard from the players of other games.  “ED” was probably not the best way to handle the problem and it had been woefully miscommunicated but something like it was indeed necessary.

Unfortunately the change did give the company something of a bloody nose.  While the number of cancelled subscriptions was nowhere near as large as some forum trolls wanted to believe it did seem to put a damper on any further efforts to fix the game’s difficulty problems.  The impression I got was that the company (either Paragon Studios itself or their corporate masters at NCSoft) became so terrified of losing the players it already had that they weren’t willing to make the changes needed to make the game appealing to more people.  This kind of siege mentality is a recipe for failure, and then it got worse.

Power Overwhelming

The last thing the game needed was to make player-characters even stronger, but that’s exactly what the developers did…twice.

The first big increase came with what was called the “Invention System”.  This system allowed characters to craft gear that would make them even more overpowered than they already were.  A well-built character using Inventions could take on content meant for full eight-man groups without breaking a sweat.  Inventions also added an element of hunting for the rare loot needed to make the best Inventions; this was enough to offend the sensibilities of some players who had near-religious objections to the loot systems commonly found in MMOs but it was never anywhere near as difficult to get what you wanted as it was in those games.  The best items in City dropped commonly enough that they were always available on the game’s market, while you could easily go without ever even seeing some of the best stuff in other games.  Eventually various currency systems were added that would ensure a player would eventually get any rare loot he wanted, even if the Random Number Gods were against him.  Again, though, there’s no evidence that any large number of people quit over “having to grind for loot”.  There’s also no reason to believe making the characters more powerful brought anyone back to the game, either.

But, that was no reason not to head further down the path.  More recently we got the “Incarnate System”, a way for the charactes to develop PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER without the ittybittylivingspace.  Characters with Incarnate powers could blast entire armies of regular foes at once, or massively empower themselves and their allies, or disempower huge swarms of enemies.  This time the damage to play balance was slightly mitigated by the fact that Incarnate powers were confined to the end game, but the “anti-loot” faction was even more incensed because this time the loot needed to create Incarnate powers couldn’t be traded.  You had to do your own grinding this time.  The Incarnate system was also tied to new raid-level encounters, which aggravated people who played City precisely to avoid the “raid mentality”.  A “solo option” for gaining Incarnate powers was eventually added but it was glacially slow compared to the raiding system.

In addition to making the game even more of a snoozefest, the Incarnate system had some rather unwelcome effects on the story.

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

If you mouse around the web you’ll find no shortage of blog articles like this one from City players.  One of the compliments you’ll see fairly often in those articles is thatCity gave its players the opportunity to tell their own stories, in role-playing cliques, in fanfic and even in the game itself through player-created content (more on that later).  What you won’t see nearly as often is praise for the game’s own stories.

It wasn’t like that at first.  The game’s storyline started out as fairly low-key.  The old guard NPC heroes largely didn’t do anything except hand out missions to younger heroes (i.e. the player-characters).  This fit in with what we’d been told about the world; that almost all of its heroes had just been killed fighting off a massive alien invasion.  It was easy to assume the survivors were pretty much retired, either war-weary or perhaps actually too wounded or depowered to go on.  It was this inobtrusiveness of the official storyline that led so many players to concoct their own stories about their characters and the world they lived in.

Unfortunately it didn’t last.  With the release of City of Villains the developers started pushing the storyline to the forefront.  The new villain content was heavily slanted towards the new villain organization Arachnos, which was supposed to be so cool we’d all want our characters to be members of it.  We didn’t.  Not even when the “villain epic archetype” class turned out to be actual “Soldiers of Arachnos”.  The epic hero class were people bonded with energy-being shapeshifting aliens; the villain one was…the redshirts you’d been killing for fifty levels.  This was less than thrilling, as one might imagine.  The game’s lore got more and more intrusive, culminating in the Incarnate system portraying the player-characters as 1970s-era Dungeons and Dragons “munchkins”, willing to do anything to get MOAR POWER.  In this case “anything” meant making a Faustian bargain with an obviously evil and insane entity.  Once the characters started wielding godlike powers the developers tried to make the player-characters the central characters of the storyline but the way the game was structured there was really no way to do that.  You were still doing jobs for other people; the only change was now those people were yes-men and fluffers, constantly praising the player-characters and putting down the NPCs.  It came off as phony as it sounds.

There were other problems with the storytelling as well.  Continuity errors abounded; the game’s lead designer eventually posted a blog entry basically admitting that continuity was being thrown under a bus.  A lot of it fell prey to what I call “just a bunch of stuff that happened”: there were no themes or morals involved, just a stream of punching bad guys in the face and blowing things up.  When the developers did try to do something more meaningful it often came out in a variety of broken ways.

 Through A Mirror Hysterically

The game’s first content update (or “issue” as they were called) included a set of missions set in what was then called the “Praetorian Universe”.  This was a fairly typical mirror or “goatee” parallel world where the heroes were all villains.  Goatee universes are pretty much a cringe-worthy cliche, but this was a small part of the game and could be tolerated as a one-off gag.

Flash forward to 2010 and issue 18, the issue that marked the release of the game’s second retail expansion Going Rogue (ill-timed to roughly coincide with an unrelated book by that name).  This expansion introduced the long-requested ability to change sides from hero to villain and back again.  That alone was problematic as it turned the game into an example of Punch Clock Villainy.  The issue also introduced a revised and retconned Praetorian Universe, now called “Praetoria”, that was supposed to “shave off the goatees” and demonstrate moral ambiguity.  It did nothing of the sort.  It made the villains even more heinous than ever and gave us a “Resistance” that wasn’t much better.  At one point the leader of the Resistance asks the player to stop renegade Resistance members from blowing up a hospital not because that would be a horrible act of terrorism but because the player is working undercover and failing to stop the bombing would expose him.  On the other side of the coin, we were supposed to believe that the goatee versions of the regular heroes had set up this police state in an effort to protect the world from annihilation and it was supposed to be debatable as to whether they’d “gone too far”.  Except everything the government of Praetoria did was taken right out of Despotism 101, down to putting mind-control drugs in the water and establishing a literal Thought Police.  The “Seer Network” was made up of human telepaths with cybernetics stuck in their heads to turn them into sensors for a giant computer system scanning the population for seditious thoughts.  Needless to say this was not voluntary.  The process not only removed any trace of free will but even awareness; at one point the player releases a Seer who had been taken at age 15 and is now 30.  She freaks out when she sees how old she is.  We also find that the emperor’s daughter was running drugs that give superpowers to another terrorist faction just so the State would have tangible enemies to fight, and all the usual trappings of police states: disappeared persons, police corruption, editing history, etc.  Despite the efforts of a handful of players on the forums the idea that there was anything “morally ambiguous” in the Praetoria content was pretty laughable.  It was instead a great example of the “Crapsaccharine World” trope and Darkness Induced Audience Apathy as most players failed to connect with Praetoria at all.

Praetoria introduced some mechanical problems as well.  The developers were already having trouble providing content for both heroes and villains.  The aforementioned mishandling of the villain content had resulted in fewer players creating villain characters so by the time issue 18 rolled around most of the new content was “co-op” involving heroes and villains teaming up.  This invariably meant villains having to help the heroes save the world “for the greater good”, because, after all, you can’t conquer the world if someone else destroys it, etc.  You can go to that well once; after that it gets old fast.  The result was even fewer villain characters being created; on many servers “red side” was a ghost town.  Praetoria kicked the player out at level 20 (out of a cap of 50), forcing the player to journey to the game’s primary world and choose to be a hero or villain…but the storyline was left open and that meant one way or another more Praetorian content was needed.  The developers had added a third wick to a candle that already had two.  The Incarnate system was heavily wedded to Praetoria but that wasn’t much of a solution.  For one thing, the Incarnate content was problematic, as previously discussed, and for another the Incarnate content was set at the end game.  This exacerbated the Praetorian problem as there was now a thirty-level gap in its storyline.  The developers pushed out two more expansions for Praetoria then shot the setting in the head in issue 23.  Had it been published issue 24 would have contained some “epilogue” story arcs showing that Praetoria was effectively destroyed.

City did have a system that could have helped with content generation, but unfortunately that had problems too.

Operation Mary Sue

In 2009, issue 14 brought us the Mission Architect system.  This gave players the opportunity to create their own missions which could then be published and shared with others.  These missions would not be considered part of the game’s canon; officially they were programs for something akin to Star Trek‘s holodeck published by the in-game corporation “Architect Entertainment”.  More cognitive dissonance crept into the storyline here as for some unfathomable and never-explained reason Architect Entertainment was publicly known to be a collaborative effort between two known villainous entities.  The vast majority of players just ignored the backstory as usual.

It should go without saying that there was a lot of enthusiasm amongst the players when MA was first announced.  That enthusiasm began to be tempered when the developers revealed that MA missions would have pretty much the same rewards as regular ones.  It seemed everyone but the developers realized there was no way such a system would avoid being abused like a co-ed at a frat party after two or three Roofie Coladas.  They pressed on, though, and the system was released…

…and was instantly used as an insanely-powerful tool for rapid leveling.  Evidently the developers thought there would be some “acceptable” level of that, but hadn’t realized that people could get newly-created characters to the level cap in about an hour.  The lead developer posted a massive hissy-fit threatening swift and merciless retaliation, up to and including the deletion of offending characters.  That was recanted less than 24 hours later.  Some small steps were made to curb the worst excesses; this meant it now took four or five hours to level-cap a newbie.  The use of the system for storytelling was effectively eclipsed by its use for power leveling.

It didn’t help that finding a good story arc to play could be daunting.  The interface was terrible.  The search mechanism was nearly useless; about the only way to find anything was if you already knew the arc’s ID number.  There was a 1-5 star rating system but that was gamed mercilessly by people trying to keep their arcs rated high.  I and others began reviewing arcs on the forums, which was a big help to people who actually used the forums (estimated at maybe 5% of the player base).  Between the prevailing belief that the MA system was only good for power leveling and people having had their fill of Sturgeon’s Law use of the system for playing actual story arcs fell off quickly.  Then, sometime in 2011, the system’s text filter for weeding out obscenities and blatant copyright violations was quietly changed.  It was vastly expanded to the point where the vast majority of story arcs were flagged as invalid.  (The “farm” arcs used for power leveling were, of course, unaffected.)  The developers were slow to recognize the problem and even slower to do anything about it.  Disgusted, many of the arc authors and system’s unofficial supporters, myself included, simply gave up on it.  Five of my six arcs had been made unplayable by the filter.  The sixth, ironically, was filled with references to the old TV show Gargoyles.  When the shutdown announcement was made I went back and got four of my arcs working again; the fifth was going to require too much work.  The filter was objecting to some of my enemy groups, specifically the “Spikey Haired Cannibal Mutants” and “LOLCat Girls’.  This was probably due to the use of the words “mutant” and “cat”…yes, the filter reacted to substrings…due to those words being part of names of mainstream supers.  In another ironic turn the filter did not object to the part of the arc that lampooned Twilight.  I guess even automated text filters have some taste.

So Why Stay?

Which is probably the question you’re asking by now.  It certainly sounds like the game had a lot of problems.  Well, it did, but really, what doesn’t?

If you look around the web at the articles like this one, I think you’ll see that most people stayed with City not for what it was, but for what could be made of it and what it had the potential to be.  We liked being able to make our own characters and tell our own stories, even if we had to ignore the official ones to do it.  We liked being able to team with anyone and being able to play at our own pace.  We liked building our secret bases and designing our costumes (and not having to wear “whatever gives the most plusses”, ending up looking like an explosion in a junk factory).  We adopted the parts of the setting that were good and set aside the ones that were bad.  We liked being able to soar through the skies or leap tall buildings at a single bound from practically the start of our careers and not near the end of them.  We liked the enemy factions we loved to hate.

There was a lot to like, even if you had to overlook a few things to do it.  There was always hope that the game would transcend its flaws and become something greater…until now; now in just a few hours the game becomes nothing.  Some are holding out hope that the game will be sold after it is shut down but I don’t see that happening.  There’s also talk of creating a “spiritual successor” but I doubt anything will come of that either.  City of Heroes will now pass into the west; sic transit gloria mundi.

As for NCSoft, I’m done with them.  I can accept that business decisions need to be made for business reasons but this shutdown didn’t have to happen and it definitely didn’t have to be done the way it was.  They’ve gotten a bad reputation in the business for shutting down games; I’m not buying into another one of their products only to have it pulled out from under me with scant notice.

Dennis Heffernan

No one of consequence.

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