Killing your game the right way

Head of Microsoft's legacy IP studio says shutting down games-as-a-service without a plan can hurt the brand, the company, and the entire industry

"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."

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Latest comments (7)

Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve5 years ago
Not naming names, but there are some companies which should really pay attention to the message here. IPs are incredibly valuable if treated right, and the 'Age of X' franchise is a shining example of one that has been handled very well by Microsoft and is still making money for them today. There are quite a few companies out there that seek short term gains by milking an IP till it's dry and then ensuring no gamer will ever touch it again.
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Axel Cushing Freelance Writer 5 years ago
Probably one of the great tragedies of MMOs, particularly the really good ones, is that it's not just the IP that goes away, it's the communities and the players. There's this assumption that no matter what, the entire player base will come back if "the sequel" is announced. Sometimes, it just doesn't turn out that way.

I suppose it's always a surprise for me, not just as a player but as a guy who covers games, when I hear about long term MMOs closing and communities going dissolving. City of Heroes was definitely one that had been around for a while. What I suppose is most perplexing to me, especially when you're talking about things like preservation and what not, is why MMO companies don't follow the example of guys like John Carmack and open source their no-longer functioning engines. Put it under a GPL or MIT license, throw the sucker on GitHub, and let the community have a crack at it. From a purely business perspective, yes, you can say that the company isn't making any money that way, but how much money are they making with a dead MMO engine once they turn the lights off? For a company that runs a successful MMO for more than a few years, they'll have at least broken even on the development costs of the engine with paid subs and value-added purchases, monstrosities like SWTOR notwithstanding. You could argue that if people are running post-shutdown servers, then they won't have any incentive to join up when "the sequel" comes around. Such a point assumes that the developers are incapable of producing a game that match or exceed the experience of the original, and assumes that the community never wants anything new ever again. You know what happens when you assume.

Yes, the diehards will probably run their own servers in a scenario like that. Let'em. Yes, the company won't make any sales on subscriptions. So? The fans running the servers don't have to, and probably won't, either. Yes, it will never be as "massive" as the original game. That's a good thing! Let the sheep and the goats separate themselves. The trolls will find servers they can grief on, the hardcore raiders will have their favorites, the casuals will have their hangouts, and so on. So what if some fan in Sheboygan writes up a cool new storyline and event arc for a fan-run City of Heroes server? People have been doing that for decades since pen-and-paper RPGs have come out, and not even Hasbro is so grasping as to demand people fork over the cash or rights to player-developed adventures and campaigns being run using their "engines" in the form of Dungeons & Dragons. The adventures can continue, if the companies who make MMOs are willing to let them go.
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Andreia Quinta Photographer, Studio52 London5 years ago
Amazing post Axel. I myself will feel a big loss when WoW shuts down since I've been playing it with close friends since 2004. I realize WoW might not be a stellar example since it's loved as much as it is hated, but I have a big attachment to it probably because I started when it was small, truly entertaining and had a helpful community
Entire micro & macro communities were created revolving around it and to think it will all dissipate one day saddens me. I've actually met real - capital F - friends in this virtual environment, and it's always hard to try and transport these communities and small groups of friends to a sequel or something similar to what that group first started of.
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Show all comments (7)
Andrew Watson Tools Programmer 5 years ago
At least WoW has plenty of private servers so people can continue playing whenever it eventually shuts down.
I do really agree with Axel though -- why don't more companies give out stuff from their old games so communities can continue supporting them? You don't have to do anything fancy with it, just zip it up and post it somewhere. Fanbases are fantastic at making sense of stuff like that
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Brendan Sinclair North American Editor, GamesIndustry.biz5 years ago
One thing Kevin talked about but didn't find its way into this article is that while it would be ideal for developers to just release their dying game to the fans and let them carry it forward, many of them can't because their titles rely on middleware, and they don't have the right to freely distribute that. And judging from the Epic Unreal Engine 4 EULA, there are also concerns when releasing source code that patent trolls will look through it to find something to sue over. In most cases, I think companies just don't think it's worth the potential hassle to open their games up. (And on top of that, if someone is still playing your old MMO, they're probably not signing up or spending much time in your new MMO. Why compete with yourself for players' time?)

EDIT: I'm not saying these are great reasons to drop a dedicated fanbase like a bad habit; just that they might be some reasons that companies often do.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Brendan Sinclair on 4th April 2014 2:27pm

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Axel Cushing Freelance Writer 5 years ago
The middleware issue is a wrinkle, but it's one that could be ironed out if the middleware vendors are smart about it. Gin up an "express" edition runtime package that can be downloaded and installed, the bare minimum needed to make a given MMO function, kick it out the door for low or no cost, and watch the love flow in. If you're the sort of fan who's setting up a fan server in the first place, $20 for a package straight from the source is a rounding error when it comes to the maintenance and bandwidth costs of running your own server over the long term. If nothing else, the middleware guys now have access to a whole new market which they may have initially figured wasn't worth exploring. A million people download the RTP on the first day, it's a pretty significant indicator of interest.

The patent troll problem is thornier, though it could be rather abruptly settled here in the next few months (least in the US). I'm not a big fan of software patents as a whole, and the existence of patent trolls is probably the most obnoxious proof of how fundamentally unsound the idea is. Copyrights in software, I can understand, though with the advent of the Creative Commons licenses, even that's not quite as troublesome as it used to be. Even so, a smart enough legal team should be able to figure out a way to mostly satisfy everybody involved.

As far as companies not thinking it's worth the hassle or worrying about "competing against themselves," there's those pesky assumptions again. The assumption that the fans will come back for "the sequel." Worse, the assumption that you need those fans to come back for "the sequel" to be successful. If a fan server has a population of 100 people, yeah, that's 100 people not playing your game 6 hours a day every day. But that's also 100 people who might still be playing at least a couple days a week. There are so many MMOs out now, and so many of them are either going F2P or shutting down entirely, that you cannot expect WoW numbers. These days, even Blizzard can't expect those numbers anymore. Better lower numbers of consistent (not necessarily constant) players than populations spiking and dying off.
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Lance Winter Senior Game Designer, Splash Damage5 years ago
I loved playing Age of Empires Online, and was sad to see it not be the financial success that Microsoft was after.

Glad that its sunset period is being carried out in a graceful manner. Totally agree that maintaining goodwill from players is incredibly important, not just for each particular brand, but for perception of the companies involved too.

Still think AoE:O created something pretty interesting, and that many of those ideas will filter down into new games further down the line.
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