So here we are, three weeks after the bomb that was dropped on us all. In some ways it seems like just yesterday, in others it seems like years ago. No matter how you look at it, though, we are just shy of a quarter of the way into our time until the date NCsoft has decided is our Doomsday.
For three weeks, we've been employing various strategies to reach out to NCsoft and let them know what our optimal solution is: Allowing the former members of Paragon Studios to acquire City of Heroes and keep the game running. We've sent them letters, capes and masks, and we've contacted their highest levels of management directly. Hopefully you all have e-mailed COHSunset@ncsoft.com in addition and told them to save our city. If you haven't, do! We've gotten published by hundreds of gaming and comic book news sites and blogs, made notice on a few videocasts, gotten over two hours of Internet radio to talk about our situation, and even been broadcast over the radio airwaves.
And they heard us loud and clear. I don't know a lot about what transpired between NCsoft and Paragon Studios, but we know that they at least talked, something that I don't think anyone thought would happen on August 31. For all I know, they may still be talking. I really hope they are.
However, there's no ignoring signs that the talks are either ending or that, even if they're continuing, time is running out. Let's go ahead and get the elephants in the room out in the open:
- Andy "Zwillinger" Belford has posted sunset information regarding players getting refunds.
- Matt "Positron" Miller posted the results of the "Ask Me Anything" thread.
- Cryptic today posted in their "State of the Game" for Star Trek Online the sentence, "We’ve been very lucky to land some great talent from 38 Studios and Paragon Studios." We don't know how many or who, but we're facing something I've been worried about: developer attrition.
- And, of course, there's the usual silence out of NCsoft.
I'm not pointing these things out to discourage people, I'm pointing them to acknowledge that I have been keeping up; I'm not blissfully unaware of the challenges we faced. However, I have to point out a few more things to hopefully mitigate the bad signs people are reading into this stuff:
- On August 31, everyone was pretty sure that that was it, game literally over. Desks were cleared out, good-bye threads were posted and stickied, players started reminiscing, packing up, and getting ready to move on. On September 1, I posted a rallying cry to say, "Not like this." thanks to various coordinated activities from players all, by the night of September 4, we knew that Paragon Studios and NCsoft were in talks. I'm hoping that this goes to show you that even when things look bad, we can't just pack it up. Until the servers go dark, we have to keep trying and even if it comes to that, we'll still keep trying. We've done it before, we can do it again.
- I don't think I've ever stated this formally but if it's not obvious by now, I've given up on the notion that NCsoft might reverse its decision or decide to keep City of Heroes running in some sort of "maintenance mode." To me, no matter what path we go down in the future, this much is clear: The future of City of Heroes is not with NCsoft. I'm noting this importance because as such, sunset activities by NCsoft are to be expected. Your account with NCsoft will be closed, no matter what our future is. The technical infrastructure will be shut down, or possibly sold along with the game, but in all likelihood, the physical servers that run City of Heroes will be shut down or reallocated. Hopefully the user database will be transferred and alternative servers with all of our information stored on them will be brought up in their place and the process will be transparent, but you shouldn't be surprised at any definite signs that NCsoft is shutting down the game. Even if we get our optimal solution, you would still see these posts because NCsoft is shutting down the game.
- Losing some developers is inevitable. I knew this from the start. They're highly qualified, have a proven track record, have a large network of friends and colleagues in the industry who are helping them, and any company that doesn't go out of its way to hire them is either crazy or broke. However, Paragon Studios had 80+ employees. Word on the street is that half or more were working on the Super Secret Project™. That means that to keep City of Heroes running at the pace it was before, we need somewhere in the neighborhood of a maximum of 40. More would be nice, but if you hear of a developer here or an artist there or a writer wherever leaving, please don't assume it's the end of the world. The development team of City of Heroes has gotten by on fifteen developers before. Certain key vacancies would hurt us more than others, and it sure would be nice to have as much of the staff intact as possible, but no one, two, five, ten, or twenty people are so necessary that we couldn't work around these challenges. I wish the developers that have found new jobs well, I really, really do. In their position, you'd better believe that I'd prioritize food on the table over the chance that things might work out with Paragon Studios after all. Some of them have undoubtedly managed to use this as an opportunity for advancement in their field, and I'm really proud that we were part of the experience that helped them make it further. We should be happy for these people--and I genuinely am--not selfishly wanting them all for ourselves.
So at this point, I feel like we can't really afford to keep chasing our optimal solution to the exclusion of all else. I haven't given up on the possibility of Paragon Studios acquiring City of Heroes, and we'll continue working toward that goal. However, we're going to have to start exploring other paths.
The way I see it, there are three main paths we can go down. Fortunately, not all of them are mutually exclusive. Each has advantages and each has disadvantages. Some people have been avidly pushing us down one path while others have been diligently pushing us down others. I'm sure that there will probably be some disagreement over the best way to go, and I swear to you on everything I hold dear that I do hear you. I might not pipe up much to say so, but if so, it's because I've been swamped and deluged from a thousand different directions. Sometimes, I might disagree with you. If so, please don't take it personally. I wish I had all of the answers and could see a clear and obvious path through the minefield we are navigating, but that's not the case. I'm simply doing the best that I can.
So that having been said, I think there are three main options that we need to start moving on:
• Acquiring City of Heroes ourselves/Write a "Spiritual Successor" to City of Heroes: (Possibly even based on CoH IP acquired from NCsoft.) I've seen these options tossed about a lot. I'm grouping them together because the basic results of this path are the same: raise a buttload of money, hire some developers (perhaps even former Paragon Studios staff), get whatever we can from NCsoft, and run the puppy as a new studio.
This option is expensive. Even with a crowd funding effort, I just don't think we could get into the ballpark it would take to succeed. However, with some backing, it just might. So here's what I'm going to do on this front. For this option, I have set up a special e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are an investor interested in financially backing City of Heroes--either via direct negotiations with NCsoft or by forming a new studio and rolling our own, send me and e-mail to that address. Be forewarned, however, that I'm not looking for people who can throw hundreds or even thousands at it; that would be done via crowd funding. I'm talking about at least six figures. I'm not saying that you have to pony it up now; we'd obviously write a business plan and iron out the project plan before holding our hand out, and could probably even use your help in the process. I just need to start putting feelers out for people who would be interested in backing such a project. And yes, I'd have skin in the game also. I wouldn't ask you for that type of investment without having my own financial neck on the line.
If you are one of these investors or you personally know one of these investors who may have expressed interest, drop me an e-mail there with who is interested and what you're interested in (e.g. "Buying City of Heroes from NCsoft," "writing a new game"). Please don't send me e-mails saying stuff like, "You should ask Bill Gates, he might want to invest!"; I need at least a little due diligence before I go chasing down leads.
• Another Studio: I've seen a lot of calls to try to get an alternate studio to acquire City of Heroes from NCsoft. Some people have already started sending e-mails and otherwise reaching out to those studios. I'd love for a knight in shining armor to come and rescue us. Personally, I think that the accounting books of Paragon Studios shows that the game is most definitely a worthwhile property to have, and while its profitability may have been too little to justify being in NCsoft's long term plans, a lot of smaller studios would kill for that kind of steady income. Still, there are some major downsides to this plan, too.
The biggest downside I see to this is that I'm genuinely worried what would happen if another studio acquired City of Heroes. Some (*cough...* SOE), I'm convinced would be only acquiring it to deliberately make sure it is D-E-A-D and not end up in the hands of someone else that would compete directly against them. Even if a studio did acquire City of Heroes for benevolent purposes, I just don't think a lot of people understand how hard it would be to take over software like City of Heroes. Our servers and code base now are the result of years of fine-tuning and tweaking. You can't just plop it on another system and expect it all to work right out of the box. It would be a semi-major development and administrative effort to just get the thing up and running consistently. It would probably be a looooong time before we saw anything like an issue update.
A second downside I see to this is that I'm just not sure that any other studio is going to diligently pursue getting City of Heroes. Unless they've been paying very close attention over the years, it's really easy to get into the trap of thinking that it's an 8.5-year-old game, probably a bit long in the tooth, constrained by technology of 2004, probably not profitable if NCsoft is shutting it down, yadda yadda yadda. Keep in mind that I don't believe these things, it's just the matter-of-fact knee-jerk reaction that people have when you say, "Hey, want to buy City of Heroes?"
Acknowledging these downsides, I still don't want to sell ourselves short. There is a chance that there might be a studio out there genuinely interested in acquiring City of Heroes and developing it further. If so, then I'd like to help you as much as I can. Of course, then you run into my limitations. I'm not a corporate negotiator, and I don't really have any solid contacts at NCsoft. Like anyone else, I could look them up on the phone book, but realistically, any studio that is seriously interested in acquiring City of Heroes would probably have more and better resources available to reach out to NCsoft that I do.
So here's how I plan on progressing on this front. If you know someone within the management chain of an alternate studio, someone who could actually make a decision like that, and you want me to talk to them, and pitch why they should be interested in acquiring City of Heroes, let me know. Unfortunately, sending me messages like, "Hey, you should call X!" doesn't help much, because not personally being in the gaming industry, I wouldn't even know where to start in calling X. Instead, I'm going to hit this ball back in your court--you, the community. You reach out to studios you think might be interested in the game. You extol its virtues, you convince them it's worthwhile. I'll post a thread sometime tomorrow where we can track efforts on this front so that we're not all, for example, deluging Valve with "Save us!" messages.
• Reverse Engineering: I'm listing this one last because while it's not the hardest option, it's the one with arguably the most pitfalls. There are three pieces to this job: the client, the server, and the communication API between the two. We've had great success reverse engineering the client, as evidenced by our Sentinel and Sentinel+ utilities. We've also made extremely positive progress in reverse engineering the communication protocols; in fact, much better than I had even expected. The server is the tough nut to crack because we don't have direct access to it. However, if we know the communication protocols that the client uses to communicate with it, writing a drop-in replacement to replicate significant functionality shouldn't be that hard. (And by "that hard," I don't mean relative to my skill level; I mean relative to the brains that are smarter than me working on it.)
There are two major downsides to reverse engineering. One is the legalities of the issue. Keep in mind that my legal experience is watching a few episodes of Law & Order and participating in a mock trial in eighth grade. What follows should be given exactly as much weight as those qualifications convey. I'm pretty sure the reverse engineering the server is perfectly legal. However, if you interpret the terms of the City of Heroes license strictly, once NCsoft shuts down the game, they are effectively revoking your license to use the client and you're supposed to delete it off your computer. Realistically, people will have to keep the client installed or otherwise illegally distribute it to continue playing. For obvious reasons, we can't encourage that. Also, even thought we can technically reproduce the server, we don't have the rights to the IP for the game--the stories, characters, landmarks, place names, etc. Sure, we could put a server out there, but if we do, you won't be defending Paragon City, gathering in Atlas Park, talking to Ms. Liberty, etc.
The second major downside is that I seriously doubt we'd be running a public server for people to log into. Much more likely, we would distribute our server for people to run their own private shards. To be blunt, how fun would that be, really? You might effectively have your own private Architect Entertainment, but would you want to play on someone else's shard when they can just hit a button and insta-make themselves a full-decked out level 50? Or more to the point, insta-kill you? As I'm sure the QA testers can tell you, having your own private Paragon Playground sounds like nirvana, but realistically, the novelty wears off very quickly. Also, if everyone is running their own private servers, that would very dramatically change the nature of our community, quite possibly (probably?) to the point where it kills it off.
Nevertheless, I want this to be an option for us to explore, so our hackers and coders are still busily toiling away at this effort. Even if another option comes through for us, it never hurts to understand these things more in-depth so that we can continue providing valuable third-party tools to expand your enjoyment of the game.
If you're wondering what you can do to help, the answer is not much, unless you have some pretty low-level hacking skills, doing things like breaking encryption and such. If you do have these skills, please contact Codewalker, as he is heading up the reverse engineering effort.
So that's it, what we're going to be chasing down. It's not an exhaustive list of everything we've pondered, and some of the items may be tweaked or changed as we go long. I'll post more details and information as I can, but I feel it's really important for you all know that that our enthusiasm isn't just fizzling out, that we are actively continue pursuing saving City of Heroes in some form or another. Again, I want to emphasize that we are not giving up on our optimal solution. If an announcement is made next week that they've come to an agreement and Paragon Studios is going to be running City of Heroes, believe me when I say no one would be happier than me and I'll be more than happy to wind down any alternatives we've been working on. I'm still trying to keep my ear as close to the rail as I can and look for any opportunities that we have to nail this thing down.
Am I a bit disappointed that things haven't gone 100% our way so far? Yeah, a bit. But with dedication and determination, I know that we will succeed. And challenges only make that success sweeter. This isn't our endgame, we're only just moving out of our opening plays.
Feel free to constructively discuss below, and I'll try to open up threads on the various options presented above sometime tomorrow.
Original post at the Titan Network Forums.