Thursday, April 25, 2019

If You Squint It Looks The Same

This week's top MMORPG news story was undoubtedly the revelation that a City of Heroes emulator has been running in secret for six years. The story first surfaced on YouTube, when a renegade invitee to the elite club, estimated to comprise around three thousand players, broke ranks to confirm the truth of what had long thought to be no more than a tin-foil hat conspiracy.

PCGamer has an overview of the story, crediting Massively OP for much of the subsequent  investigative work that teased out the detail. MOP itself has been on fire with extended commenary all week, although the frenzy there pales in comparison to the firestorm raging on Reddit.

In the aftermath of the reveal the source code to the game was released, a publicly available server came online then vanished, following supposed legal threats that turned out to be figmentary. Death threats and worse (!) were issued. Meanwhile negotiations apparently continue with NCSoft in the hope of bringing some degree of legality - and sanity - to the situation.

A story that got far less attention was the progress update on the project to bring back Free Realms, SOE's MMORPG for kids, which closed just over five years ago. I was mildly peeved when I spotted the Massively OP post, not because I'm wasn't delighted to see progress being made but because I was in hospital at the time and couldn't respond.

I've been following the Free Realms Sunrise project for a long time. On a scale between the black ops, NDA-protected secrecy of the COH server and the open access, everyone welcome approach of the team behind the magnificent Vanguard Emulator, FRS sits somewhere in the middle.

It's a very professional-looking project. There's a slick website but core communication happens on Discord. Access to the alpha, when it was running, was by invitation only although active participation on the forums allowed sufficiently motivated applicants a way in.

The alpha has now ended but, as the ever-cagey devs explain, "this doesn't mean we're entering beta". Instead they plan to carry on working on bringing the game back to life, while "posting update videos to our YouTube channel on either a weekly or bi-weekly basis".

Based on the one video we've seen so far, huge progress has been made. The game they're showing looks more sophisticated than I remember the real Free Realms ever being. I certainly don't recall seeing any juggling octopuses on any of my sporadic visits.

I liked Free Realms a lot. When it launched in 2009 it marked the start of Sony Online Entertainment's flirtation with the Free to Play business model, a flirtation that went on to become a full-blown love affair.

It was a popular game. In just a year over ten million players had registered to play. By the time John Smedley gave an interview to in 2011 that number had risen to 17 million. The game had just transferred to the PS3 and Smed was bullish about the prospects for Free Realms future: "I don't see any reason why it can't go to 100 million", he said.

When Free Realms sunsetted four years later it wasn't due to lack of interest; it was, as John Smedley said, because kids don't have money and cost a lot to manage: "Kids don't spend well and it's very difficult to run a kids game. Turns out kids do mean stuff to each other a lot.

City of Heroes famously also didn't go under due to lack of players. When NCSoft decided to pull the plug, COH was making money. Just not enough. The subsequent strange, long death of WildStar suggests that NCSoft felt the PR burn from that cold, financial calculation. Whether the scars still tingle enough to keep them from slamming any would-be COH Emulator with a Cease and Desist order remains to be seen.

The recent farrago over secret servers and entitled elites has knocked a huge hole in the City of Heroes Community Boat. Long touted as one of the cuddliest collectives in MMOdom, the shock of what many have been labeling betrayal has started a civil war uglier than anything seen between Heroes and Villians in the game itself.

People do get emotionally distraught over access to MMORPGs they love. Or loved. I'm not at all sure it happens in other gaming genres. It's not rational but love never is.

When an MMORPG closes it can feel as though someone dropped a bomb on your home. That's traumatic enough but imagine learning, years later, the bomb was mostly noise and smoke. Your home is still standing after all, only someone stole your keys and has been living there ever since.

Emulators have existed almost as long as MMORPGs themselves. Given that gamers and the IT community have a huge overlap that's hardly surprising. The will and the skill combine to make bringing dead games a calling for some, a hobby for others and a lifeboat for the rest of us.

As time passes the focus has shifted perceptibibly from "should we?" to "can we?". Emulators operate in a legal shadowland where nothing is certain until tested by the courts. Euphemistically-named "Private Servers" for MMORPGs still running commercially are clearly dancing on a knife-edge, especially if their operators are foolish and greedy enough to try to charge for access. Community projects that seek only to replicate a game deemed too old, unpopular or uncommercial to bother with by its legal owners are on significantly more solid ground.

Not only is there doubt which way a court might lean, there's also the not-insignificant calculation of relative damage to the brand. Is it going to cost more to protect assets that are never going to be used than would be lost by looking the other way and pretending nothing was happening?

Every time an MMORPG sunsets the brand of the company behind the decision takes a hit. In time that wound heals and most people forget. Why remind them by slamming down the oar on the fingers of the few poor saps still clinging to the wreckage? Is "Corporate Bully" really the look you want?

Daybreak, who inherited the blame for any number of SOE's Public Relations disasters from the botched handling of Star Wars Galaxies' NGE onwards, made a brave stab at turning it all around with one, stellar commercial decision early on. Their handling of the popular and successful Classic EverQuest emulator, Project1999 remains a shining beacon guiding other developers along the tricky path to redemption.

Daybreak didn't just turn a blind eye to P99, they actively engaged with the team behind it, arriving at a mutually acceptable solution which benefitted both parties. It is possible. It can be done.

Whether NCSoft will ever come to such an arrangement with the City of Heroes community remains to be seen. I wouldn't bet on it. I would hope, at least, though, that they have better things to do with their vast resources than pick off minnows in a jar.

I have no particular feeling for City of Heroes, myself. I played it in Beta and found it dull and repetetive. My beta experience convinced me not to buy it when it launched and I pretty much never thought of it again until it closed down.

By most accounts I missed out on a very good MMORPG. It must have changed a lot. Maybe CoH was the exception that proves my "better in beta" rule. If there ever is a stable, reliable emulator, maybe I'll give it a try.

In the meanwhile I'll keep on logging in to the Vanguard Emulator - five years old, developing slowly, utterly wonderful. And waiting on Free Realms Sunrise which will, I predict, be big news when it comes.

We need emulators. The drama, that we can do without.


  1. Huh, I missed the first part of that story, the part about the secret server having been running for six years. Too bad the original YouTube video appears to have been taken down since then.

    I'm not sure it's possible to have emulators without drama. It's part of human nature, and in a private server situation that only gets amplified by having a swathe of people desperate to return to their old home at the mercy of a server owner who is able to dictate the rules without being bound by any laws, customer relationships or even common decency.

    During my time dabbling in Vanilla WoW private servers I heard about:
    - A disgruntled team member running off with a server's code and user data to create a rival server
    - Another team releasing its code and user data into the wild
    - Servers fighting each other by trolling each other's chats and organising DDoS attacks
    - Donations intended for server maintenance being used for personal gain
    - GMs accepting bribes to create gear for people
    - Countless servers opening and closing
    And that's not even an exhaustive list.

    So I can't say I blame the CoH server people for keeping their project a secret. Staying under the radar as much as possible seems to be the best way to survive in that sort of environment.

    I think the people getting super excited now about the code being released, while the whole thing is being reported on major news sites, will find it to be a short-lived joy once they start re-creating their characters on various servers just to see them get shut down again.

    1. When Rubies of Eventide, one of my favorite MMORPGs ever, ceased operating commercially the server code got passed around in some arcane fashion the details of which I have now forgotten. For quite a while there was a quasi-official server running that I used to visit when the mood took me but one day I went to log in and it had vanished. It turned out the person who owned the code had lost patience with the various factions and drama involved in running it so he just switched it off and stashed the hardware and the source code in a cupboard, where as far as I know it remains gathering dust to this day.

      What's most infuriating is that it was such an elderly and small MMO it could probably be run from someone's home PC these days. I wish that code had been released into the wild!

      The Vanguard emu is exemplary, though. The small team had a server up within a few months of the game sunsetting and that server has been online almost continually for almost five years. They're taking their time but the beautiful world is all there to explore and there's a whole lot of low-to-mid level content slowly filling in. I recreated my old character there years ago and he's Level 10 now. They've only wiped once to my knowledge an that was ages ago. I logged in this morning to take screenshots and ended up playing for an hour and a half. There were three people playing when I logged on and two more logged in before I left. I don't knmow if they'll ever get the whole game back as it was but really I don't care - there's enough there to keep me happy now.

  2. It got much better after the beta.
    Then it got worse.
    Then it improved but not so much as it was.
    Then it got a little worse but it was okay because it also got better in other places.
    Then it got a lot better.
    Then it went free and got worse.
    Then it got better again, and things looked up quite a lot.
    Then it was canceled. That was a real low point.
    Things are looking up again.

    1. To be marginally less reductive, City of Heroes (and Villains and Going Rogue) was always rather repetitive. The nature of what you did never changed: Go forth and use your various powersets on flailing physics-enabled NPCs (or PCs, if you're one of those PvP people). The variety came from the number of powersets and the locations you did it in.

      It was always "click a button to shoot colored beam at/punch a gangster", but the colors, animations, and circumstances changed.

      I always equated logging into CoH less to continuing a character story and more to putting a quarter in an arcade machine. You're going to run around a couple of stages engaged in combat and then go do something else.

    2. I think most MMORPGs, if they last long enough, have a journey something like that. The core, defining principle of the genre is perpetual change, which is ironic considering MMORPG players often seem to be among the most change-resistance gamers you could find.

      The more I think about it - and I've been thinking about it a lot these last few months, what with the EQ 20th and WoW Classic on the way - the more striking the disconnect between how MMORPGs work and what MMORPG players claim to want. Mostly it seems they want an endless stream of new content that's fresh and exciting but never changes anything about the way the game plays. That's a big ask that few developers have been able to answer.

      I'm guessing that part of the reason CoH is held in such high esteem by those who played it is because the core gameplay never did change very much, no matter what other big changes happened along the way.

  3. Oh damn, I didn't realize Vanguard's emulator is apparently in a half-playable state! I expected this to go a lot worse than other emulators. I should probably check it out. There might actually be a slim chance for the game to become better in emulation eventually! More content or less janky performance.


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