Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Reflections on the Closing of City of Heroes, the Cloud, and D&D

(This is what shows on the launcher program now for COH)
So, the MMORPG City of Heroes went offline early Saturday morning, the first time I have experienced something like that, and I thought I would share some thoughts. Relevance to non online gamers? If you like D&D 4 (especially) I get to that a little ways down the page. Also, if you have any interest in a CoH successor, there are efforts underway here and here to create one

Even the Amazing Aluminum Man can't overcome the power of Server Crash!
The situation: CoH launched in 2004, a short time before World of Warcraft launched and blew everything else out of the water. This means that it was a game with a) a smaller population and b) older technology compared to games like The Old Republic. Despite the limitations, it was, by all reports, still profitable.

We managed to crash one of the more popular servers. Twice. 
In the past online games have been shut down but it was fairly widely known by the time that action was taken that the population had dwindled to the point they could longer pay for themselves.I think most people understand that That does not appear to have been the case with this game. The word from the publisher  situation boils down to "it's too small and not worth the hassle".

I like cars, I like computer games, and even I could have told you this was going to fail
This is a terrible state of affairs, especially for a guy who likes to keep old things around and play with them from time to time. Something I like and was willing to pay for has been taken away from me - not because I stopped paying for it, not because I did something wrong, and not because it's being replaced by something newer and better, but because a corporation decided it just wasn't worth the trouble anymore. It's a new sensation and I really do not care for it, but I suspect this will become a more common occurrence for more people in the near future.

Now I work in Corporate America so you're not going to find some slam attack on that here ( plus the villain in this case was Corporate Korea so that wouldn't be right anyway). However, with "in the cloud" being the catchphrase of 2012 this scenario illustrates the dark side of turning things over to an invisible server: what happens when it goes away? I liked City of Heroes, it made money, it was well known in it's industry/genre and held by a good-sized company in that industry and run by a dedicated, passionate staff - then someone in a position of power changed their mind and it goes "poof" with 90 days notice!

Now if we're talking about a simple online storage situation you might just move your files elsewhere, but what if there was less or even no notice? What if a lawsuit was involved and froze the servers? What if it was something a little more complex than simple file storage, like, say, iTunes? What if it was an integral part of a game you play a lot, like 4th edition D&D?

Captain Transylvania awaits the end of the world in Atlas Park
That's the parallel that came to me late Friday night as I sat in front of my computer watching the announcements that the game was shutting down in 30 then 15-then minutes, realizing that I will never be able to play this game in this form, with thousands of players online, again. Unlike this online thing that soaked up a bunch of money, creativity, time, and mental processing cycles, I can go back and play the same AD&D game that I played 30 years ago. Heck, I could get some of the same players! It's the same with Traveller, Champions, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Star Trek and a bunch of others - tabletop games never really end in any final fashion, they just peter out as we move on to to other things. Even if you ended a campaign, burned all your material, and sold off your books, a new round is only an ebay/noble knight/etc  purchase away for almost any game ever printed. I suppose that's our printed version of "the cloud".

More recent games though, are less immortal. I cite 4th Edition D&D as the main example of this trend and it's the most extreme but it's not the only one. There were ways in which 4E was MMO-like but it was not that it went to level 30, used powers with a cooldown-like structure, and had a taunt mechanic - it was that the rules were treated like a MMORPG code-base and were patched with a monthly release schedule that invalidated chunks of printed material dedicated to learning and understanding the game! There are large sections of some books that are not current because of this. Thankfully all of the current mechanics and fluff are included in the character builder and the compendium - but what if that goes away?

The original 4E character builder was a downloadable application that was replaced in 2010 by an online-only version to combat piracy and hacking of the original. The rules compendium is still online only. Ironically enough I decided to start paying for DDI to have access to this stuff about the time CoH announced that it was going away  (and about the time the last 4E books were being published) as I figured $10 a month was reasonable for that kind of support for a game when I was running two campaigns of it regularly. Having multiple CoH accounts dropping off made it a lot easier to justify too since that game went fee-less for the last 3 months.

So as of right now for something I like and find useful for a hobby of mine I am paying a monthly fee for something that is entirely cloud-based, controlled by a single corporation that has already begun working on a replacement version of the thing I like - it's sounding a little familiar. It's popular, by all accounts, but I can only see the numbers going down in the near future. Now one might argue that since there was no replacement for CoH that this is a better situation but contrary to that I think a replacement product almost demands the termination of support for earlier versions of that product. My only hope here is that the new-for-2012 statement by WOTC that they want to support all versions of the game includes the continuation of online support for 4E. If not, well, then what?

I find the character builder program essential for playing 4th Edition. I'm sure there are some out there who play without it but I would bet they are a tiny tiny minority. It is a huge benefit in understanding how characters work, how they are different (both mechanically and fluff-wise) and in just getting the math right. If that becomes unavailable then how would we play? Would we still want to play? I suspect the answer is no.

Assistance is not new - dependence is new
There is another ... the offline character builder. Yes, it was "adapted" to accept information updates by certain resourceful teams and it is just as current as the online builder and not dependent on a real-time internet connection. This is a huge thing now - whereas before it was in large part a reaction to the new approach on WOTC's part it now may become the main way to generate characters if the plug is pulled on 4E DDI support. The rebels will have become the lifeboat.

I'm not kidding - this was in Dragon in 1983
Even with that, though, time marches on. As I said above, I can pull out the Player's Handbook from 1978, roll up a character, and play in a new campaign. Will I be able to do that with 4E in 10 years? The offline character builder clearly gives a safe window independent of WOTC business decisions, but there are technical issues down the road, namely operating systems - how many of us are running an OS that is more than 10 years old? Windows XP is probably the biggest one but how much longer will it be around? With the trend towards mobile and tablets I expect the pace of change in OS releases to accelerate for a time and at some point it may be harder to find support for classic windows-style programs. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it is something to consider for the long haul. Will the Apprentices be able to play the version of D&D they played at 13 when they are my age the same way that I can now? Hard to say.
So was this
Why does this matter? Well, it may not to a lot of people, but I like to keep and occasionally run old games. In the last two years I've run sessions of Basic D&D, d6 Star Wars and Marvel Super Heroes and come close with DC Heroes, Villains and Vigilantes, and Twilight 2000. None of those is less than 20 years old and if any of them were dependent on a computer program of some kind I don't know that I would have been able to make them work - my Commodore 64 died in a fire years ago. Going slightly more recent, Champions 4th edition has a DOS-based character builder and even getting that to be fully functional has been challenging with current systems. Heck, it comes on a floppy and out of about 10 PC's in the house, only my oldest desktop and oldest laptop even have one of those anymore. Standards change, technology changes, and introducing any technological dependence into a tabletop game puts a clock on that element of the game.
M&M in Hero Lab
Now I've mostly used D&D 4E as the poster child here but other games are stepping down this road too. A lot of people preferred to use character builders with D&D 3E/3.5 and that has continued with Pathfinder - it's a big part of Hero Lab's business. M&M is a big player with Hero Lab as well. The Hero system has its own program for 5th & 6th editions of that game. GURPs 4th edition has one. There's also been a general move towards integration between character builders and various virtual tabletops or online play aids. It's all pretty cool, especially as long as its an extra feature and not central to the game.
ICONS character folio

How do we avoid this potential issue? Well, for one thing lighter rules decrease the need for a character builder and online support. There's a builder for ICONS of all things, but it's mainly handy for instant generation of random characters and producing a nice neat character sheet. Hero Lab has a module for Savage Worlds too, which is another one I don't really see a need for but might be handy for a DM in some way. I saw a post online somewhere wishing that the new Marvel game had a character builder, and they don't really even have rules for that in a traditional sense, why on earth would you need a builder for that game? You just need a blank sheet - "here, fill in whatever you think looks good and send it to your DM"  - it would just be a form-fillable PDF! So the less the game relies on complex interactions between elements like ability scores, skills, feats/advantages, powers, and class features the less you need a builder, and the less likely we are to hit a technological expiration date a decade or so down the road.
The future?

This is not just a factor with tabletop RPG's and MMORPG's. A lot of current Xbox games have a large online component - for every Skyrim you have several Call of Duty's - in 5 years will you be able to go back and play Modern Warfare 3 with your friends? Locally, sure, if you still have the game. Online? I wouldn't count on it, just like the original Xbox was removed from the company's proprietary network, the 360 will drop off too one day. Much like the rest of this discussion, many people won't even notice, but some will.

Well it WAS "Xbox Live Enabled" - not so much anymore
The next big thing? D&D Next - with WOTC having discovered this amazing new revenue stream with DDI I expect it to continue right on into Next. I don't know how it will be integrated into the game exactly but I'm sure there will be everything from a character builder to online tools to adventures available through it. Right now Next looks a lot less complex than 4E so it may be a nice-to-have rather than essential, but it will be interesting to see how it develops, and I will discuss it here as it comes about.

Are these iOS or Android?

I know I've rambled on a lot here, but the end of one hobby kind of spilled over into another hobby and I thought it was worth some discussion. One of the things that kept me out of MMO's for a long time was that I didn't like the idea of spending money on something I didn't own. I eventually moved past that and now I've been hit in the mouth with my own original misgivings - if you don't control it someone can take it away from you. I don't like having my toys taken away for no good reason, so I know I will be more cautious about my level of investment/involvement in these kinds of things. Hopefully it will be handled better in the future.

1 comment:

Barking Alien said...

This is a great post Blacksteel and it says something, purposely or not, about the way we enjoy what we enjoy as RPG game hobbyists.

I was just explaining a little bit about the RPG industry to a friend who is not familiar with gaming. I explained why people but new games. We do it because either a) we want the newest version of the game we already play, b) we are interesting in seeing some innovative take on rule mechanics, a genre or both or c) we are fans and fans are collectors and collectors wants more to collect of the things they like.

There is however, in gaming, a somewhat unique and wonderful 'd'. We want to add new ideas to what we have.

If no one ever publishes another official Star Trek RPG product, I am fine with that. I have everything ever made so far and I love Last Unicorn Games' ICON System, with FASA's game running a close second. These have not stopped functioning now that these games are out of print. No one can take these toys away from me. They are now mine.

If a new Star Trek RPG DID come out tomorrow, I would buy it and read it. If it was better than what I already have, I would play it. If it wasn't, it would be source material to add to what I have.

I have not gotten very vocal about the end of CoH like others have because, frankly, as much as I loved it and as much as it is actually an important part of my past (I am not exaggerating - I spent many, many hours playing it with both my ex-wife when we were still together and my old boss. I made friends on it I've met in real life), I haven't touched it in years. I spent more time on that MMO than any other since but in the end it is an MMO, not a true RPG as I think of them.

And what way is that? The way that means I create and control the content, I say when we play and when we take a break, I decide if rules changes are needed and I make sure the server never goes down.