"There's not a week that goes by I don't miss City of Heroes," Microsoft's Kevin Perry told GamesIndustry International at the Game Developers Conference last month. "It felt like an untimely death of a friend, a 'taken from us so soon' sort of thing."
But the Microsoft executive producer responsible for handling the company's "legacy IP" like Age of Empires and Flight isn't (just) expressing grief over a fallen friend. He's making a point about how developers on even the most successful of titles need to plan for the day when the plug will be pulled.
While Perry said that NCsoft handled the City of Heroes shutdown just fine, he added that the increasing popularity of the games-as-a-service approach is setting developers up for a litany of headaches on legal, technical, game design, and community management fronts when it eventually comes time to pull the plug on these games. What happens when you turn the in-game store off? How will it be communicated to players when the servers go dark? What do you do for the player who just dropped $100 on in-game consumables the day before the shutdown announcement?
"Those are all questions you need to have thought out ahead of time, because you don't often get as much time to turn off as you'd like," Perry said. "Sometimes the business just isn't working, people go bankrupt, and you just have to shut things off. You could always just pull the plug on the servers, in theory, but even that will cause some significant [problems] sometimes."
Perry has had to put a good deal of thought into this issue. After all, he's been in charge of Age of Empires Online, Microsoft's free-to-play installment in the popular PC strategy series, launched in August of 2011 and set for closure on July 1 of this year. Perry believes the team has handled the shutdown in the fairest way possible. In January of 2013, they announced an end to active development on the game. Last August, they announced the shutdown date, simultaneously shutting off the in-game store and cutting off new registrations, but allowing existing players to enjoy the game for another 11 months before losing access to the game forever. In the months since, Perry says he's seen players go through the full five stages of grief.
"You can do a tremendous amount of damage to your brand, your company, and the industry at that point, because people feel they're getting burned."
"A lot of anger, a lot of denial. A lot of resignation and so on," Perry said. "No one's happy when that happens, of course. But we have very good community management and let the players grieve openly."
Perry's experience with Age of Empires Online also has him pushing Microsoft to make developers address the eventual closure of such games in their original greenlighting process. There's no better people to determine the best way to shut the servers down than the engineers who put it together, he said, and the odds of those engineers still being with the company and in a position to help whenever the game goes offline are awfully slim. It's an important consideration, Perry said, because a botched closure can burn all kinds of bridges.
"You can do a tremendous amount of damage to your brand, your company, and the industry at that point, because people feel they're getting burned," Perry said. "And obviously the whole free-to-play space itself is a difficult emotional aspect to a lot of the players resenting how they feel game makers are taking advantage of them already."
Beyond the immediate logistical and community relations issues, there are longer term concerns about how an industry built on games-as-a-service will preserve its history.
"When we turn Age of Empires Online off, it's gone," Perry said. "And that's a sadness to me, not just because I worked on it, but because there are people who derive significant emotional fun out of it. I'm not even talking about the money part here. It just can't be played after this. It's just going to be another one on my list of games I helped make and won't be able to play again."
In the 20 years since he's entered the industry, Perry said awareness of the need for preservation has increased significantly, even if most of the actual work on that front has been limited to museums and academics instead of the companies making this history in the first place.
"It's a hard business case to make," Perry admits. "There's not a business there. So it's the sort of thing where a museum may be the right pathway, or an educational institution might be the right pathway to do so. It's getting better, but it's not where it needs to be."
However, Perry's work with Microsoft's legacy IP points to a way for the industry to be mindful of its past while still seeking profits.
"I view it as not forgetting our history--which is something we tend to do since we eat our young in this industry anyway--and providing a good gauge for those IP going forward."
"Legacy is an interesting word because there are those who would view it as dormant, but I've done a good bit of business and made a lot of people happy with those dormant IPs in the last couple years," Perry said. "Legacy is a way of saying that they're not dormant, I think. Because there are a number of IPs we own that are dormant, that we don't have any active roles devoted to them. But there are a number of strong IPs that we do have that can bear some additional weight. And hopefully, we can do even more business with them in the future."
The Age of Empires has been one such weight-bearing IP. Beyond the free-to-play Age of Empires Online game, Microsoft also released Age of Empires II: HD Edition on Steam last year, a higher resolution version of the then-14-year-old game that featured all the bells and whistles of Valve's online game service. Towards the end of the year, the company followed that up with the release of an original expansion pack, The Forgotten. Perry sees the practice as upkeep, a modest investment in time and resources to ensure the brand stays fresh, relevant, and available.
"I view it as not forgetting our history--which is something we tend to do since we eat our young in this industry anyway--and providing a good gauge for those IP going forward," Perry said.
Because even though Perry acknowledges that new IP is the lifeblood of the industry, he believes there's plenty of value stored away in fondly remembered brands that gives them a leg up when it comes time for a reboot.
"Attention is the most important thing in the game industry today," Perry said. "It's so busy, so noisy out there. Mobile aside, even on the PC, and even on the consoles with their walled gardens, discoverability is an issue. And a good brand will open those doors for you."