City of Titans: I Disbelieve the Illusion

The first fan attempt to recreate City of Heroes / Villains (CoH/V) has launched its Kickstarter and City of Titans (CoT). I’ve actually got no doubt that it will end up being funded on Kickstarter (and I wake up this morning to find out that it has reached its goal with 27 days to go), just that whatever sees the light of day isn’t going to be anywhere near what is being indicated in the Kickstarter pitch by the end of 2015.

It's a picture from the Simpson's episode "Homer Goes to College".

In this post, I will be playing the role of the Crusty Old Dean who loves nothing more than to kill the dreams of those around him. (Image sourced from: FOX Broadcasting)

As much as I hate being the person who hears someone’s dreams only to tell them, “No, that’s never going to happen,” let’s look at why CoT is a case of a lot of ambition that’s going to flounder.

The Budget

Yes, I know that the $320K target is being used to fund the licensing of game development tools as listed in the budget section. It’s still not enough because (all prices in US$):

  • The Unreal Engine goes for $2500 per seat per year or $99 plus 25% of all title revenue. If CoT is spending $70K of their budget on the Unreal Engine, that’s something like 28 seats for one year or 14 seats for two years. It seems that the Unreal Engine option of paying $99 per seat license and then pay the royalty option would have been a better idea, but perhaps the Phoenix Project have spoken to Unreal and they’ve said that this isn’t an option. UPDATE 10 OCT 2013: It’s been pointed out to me that CoT is using the 25% royalty option, which sees Unreal receive 25% of all Kickstarter money past the first $50K – and then all further CoT revenue – moving forward. If CoT had just earned its target of $320K, then they would have owed (25% of $270K =) $67.5K to Unreal. Right now CoT is closer to $380K, so that sees Unreal getting $82.5K from the project.
  • Autodesk’s Maya costs $3675 to buy outright or $1840 for an annual license. 3DS Max, also from Autodesk, costs the same again. CoT wants 24 copies for at least 2 years, so buying outright seems like the better option. That’s about $88k. (I’m assuming that the 24 copies covers both Maya and 3DS rather than 24 copies of each.)
  • ZBrush costs $795 per seat. You need at least 10 licences to get access to the floating network option. It’s not stated how many are needed.
  • Allegorithmic is $149 per license. It’s not stated how many are needed.
  • 8DIO offers “virtual musical instruments” – it’s $6499 for everything they offer, but different package levels are available. Apparently you also need a version of Kontakt, of which the most recent version is $399 per license. It’s not stated how many are needed.
  • Adobe has moved to an annual subscription pricing model that costs $50 a month for both Photoshop and Illustrator, so that’s $600 a year per license, paid up front. Older versions of Illustrator and Photoshop can be found online for somewhere between $300 to $400 per version. It’s not stated how many are needed.
  • The costs for “a tax lawyer, book keeper and legal professional” to be kept on retainer is 1) a very good expense and 2) highly dependent on how much they are used.
  • Purchasing RAM, 3D mice, drawing tablets etc are highly variable expenses. It would be interesting to know how many of the artists on this project will be getting RAM upgrades.
Some secondhand tools at a flea market.

Some money could be saved if some of these tools are bought second hand or from resellers, but recent versions aren’t generally that much cheaper. (Image sourced from: Wikimedia Commons)

Out of the $320K target, $70k is going to taxes and Kickstarter fees, $70k is going to Unreal Engine licenses for 1 to 2 years and about $90k is going to Maya / 3DS costs. This leaves $90K for everything else. That might seem like a lot left, but there still potentially a lot of software left to buy at unspecified quantities (ZBrush, Allegorithmic, 8DIO, etc). And that’s $90K over two years for a project that will compete against titles with multi-million dollar development budgets.

Of particular concern are the products that have annual license fees, especially the Unreal Engine. If CoT elects to buy $2500 seat licenses, they could run out just as CoT is meant to be delivering a beta product (beta in November 2015, according to the Kickstarter). So just as CoT is meant to be running full steam ahead into a beta for backers (if not the general public) they’ll need to be going back to Kickstarter for at least another $70K to renew their Unreal Engine licenses (assuming they don’t find a publisher / investors before then or start selling in-game virtual items, but that raises its own issues). If CoT continues with the $99 per license option, Unreal gets 25% of the title’s revenue (including every extra Kickstarter dollar) from now on, so a quarter of every dollar CoT earns isn’t going into their pocket.

Even assuming that the CoT beta isn’t delayed – which it will be, because MMOs are hard and the Kickstarter pitch mentions that they project is behind where they expected it to be - it looks like this project is going to have to crowdfund itself at least once more before delivering on its intentions. Potential backers will be very interested to see what two years and $300K+ have delivered before funding this title a second time.

The Team

A class photo with a lot of people in it.

Having a large team is great, but someone has to keep them managed and on target. As volunteers, the majority can only work part-time in an industry where 60+ hour work weeks are considered standard. (Image sourced from: Flickr)

In short, CoT has a team of volunteers without a lot of game development experience between them. Over 100 volunteers are involved, with most of their miscellaneous skill sets not divulged. From what I’ve seen on various forums, a lot of people offered to write in-game lore or submit character art (for instance, on the Titan Network forums there are about four times the number of posts in Lore than any other Phoenix Project topic, with current discussions now moved to private forums), which is nice, but this doesn’t create 3D character models, animate them and put them in a 3D rendered-and-textured world, or program NPC AI, or do a whole heap of things that are required to get a MMO working.

The use of volunteers over a two year-plus project is a substantial resource risk. Volunteers are doing something out of engagement with the concept, which is great, but they are doing it alongside whatever is happening with the rest of their lives. Working on CoT comes alongside work, study, relationships and whatever else happens in someone’s life and this is likely to change over a 24 month period.

If key development staff have to drop out because their paid work gets too busy, or because they have started studying and no longer have the time to get involved, it is going to leave big project holes. ‘Bus insurance’ sounds great now, but will it still be there in 12 months time when someone has to step in and unravel a whole heap of issues they would have dealt with differently?

My best wishes to whoever is trying to manage such a large group of volunteers, especially after you’ve given them RAM and software licenses. You’ll have to keep those volunteers happy and motivated to deliver on the tasks you require of them without the benefit of offering them a regular pay cheque. In some cases you’ll even need to try to recover project resources after volunteers don’t deliver what they said they would, or move away from CoT after not liking where the project is headed when key decisions are made.

Lots and lots of documents.

Documentation is dull and boring and time consuming, but when code passes through a dozen different hands over a 24 month period, it’s the only way to know what code is meant to do. ()

Accurate documentation is also going to be important in terms of programming, so that as code is transferred from volunteer to volunteer there is some indication of what it should be doing. Even CoH suffered from this issue, most publicly when it was revealed that Taunt didn’t function anything like its documentation said it should. Enforcing some kind of documentation standards across a team of part-time programmers isn’t going to be an enjoyable experience, if it can be done at all.

There have been MMOs made by small teams – Golemizer was made by one person, Love was another title with a one-man development team – but to reach release certain things often considered MMO standards weren’t included due to these limited resources. CoT hasn’t indicated that they are going to cut those corners through dropping graphics quality or through procedural world generation – in fact, their general approach appears to make CoH, but better – so it appears most things are going to require extensive hand crafting (or at least substantial manual touch-ups). That requires a lot of human hours to deliver on – something that volunteers may have good intentions to deliver, only to be mugged by reality.

The Scope

As I said above, CoT appears to be aiming to be CoH, but better, plus at least partial inclusion of CoV-style villain content from launch. CoT aims to avoid the problems that CoH was perceived to have while still keeping the spirit of that game. It’s a huge ask. Right now everything is blue sky thinking and painted with a broad brush. That’s exciting.

Two people use a telescope to look to the heavens.

Setting your scope for the stars is great, but taking the money means that people will expect you to deliver. (Image sourced from: HowStuffWorks)

The problem that will arise is when some of this scope receives more detail and changes – and a lot about CoT is prefaced with “subject to change” – because 1) it doesn’t work as intended or 2) there isn’t the resources to deliver on it. CoH went through a project re-scoping in January / February 2003 before launch when the open powers system was changed to a more fixed progression powers system. This was because the open powers system, which sounded great on paper, ended up either gimping or overpowering characters. A fixed progression powers system meant that player characters didn’t as large a gap in their performance (and even then CoH at launch still had some massively overpowered characters).

Suddenly backers will face that the game they thought they were backing isn’t the game that they will be receiving. In CoH’s case, players hadn’t paid for the game when the announcement hit. With CoT, the money will already have been paid if they backed the project. (If you want an example of how Kickstarter backers can rightly or wrongly bring the drama, Kickstarted MMO Greed Monger offers an example.)

Dog Whistles

One big question I asked myself in looking at this project was if so many backers would have come on board without the CoH name being used so prominently. If a group of 100+ volunteers had stood up and said, “We’re going to make a superhero MMO” and kept CoH’s history out of it, would people be willing to collectively throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at it?

I don’t think so. CoH’s baggage is contributing a lot to CoT. That’s a blessing right now for crowdsourcing funding, but it means a certain expectation has also been set.

I also get the feeling that some people are supporting CoT to prove NCsoft wrong about shutting down CoH. CoT is the underdog and on the slim chance it succeeds it will make the people who back it feel great about taking that chance while also showing up how “wrong” a big publisher was. Anger is a great motivator in getting someone to back your cause and CoT certainly appears to be tapping into that, but getting funded is a long, long way from delivering CoH’s spiritual successor.

History Lesson

Let’s go back to look at CoH’s development. Back in 2000, Cryptic Studios was formed by Bruce Rogers, Michael Lewis, Rick Dakan, Jack Emmert, Matt Harvey and Cameron Petty to create City of Heroes. Lewis reportedly invested US$2.5m of his own money to develop CoH, while Cryptic also received another US$4.5m from NCsoft in development loans starting from 2002. (Rumours I’ve heard indicate that CoH’s final development budget was around US$12m-$14m, which is still a low figure when it comes to AAA MMO development. Former lead developer Jack Emmert says that CoH cost around US$10m to develop.) At launch Cryptic had over 30 employed staff, which ignores the number of support staff that NCsoft provided in terms of customer service, marketing and other related duties.

Cryptic's original, old logo.

I still prefer Cryptic’s old logo. (Image sourced from: Wikipedia)

During CoH’s development the project almost failed; Lewis had to fire his friend, and original lead developer, Rick Dakan and replace him with Jack Emmert. The initial founders of Cryptic had technical and game development (pen-and-paper and video game) experience prior to starting Cryptic, were able to hire other specialists into the company, and even then struggled to launch CoH, suffering a launch delay before the title released in 2004.

Since then we’ve had Champions Online and DC Universe Online launch enter the superhero MMO space. Both titles have been backed by experienced MMO development teams and both, despite having the lessons of CoH/V available to them, have gone off and made their own mistakes that have seen a lot of criticism thrown their way.

MMOs are complex enterprises that are hard to balance – there’s a reason that the MMO history is full of stories of experienced teams launching titles that flop hard. There are so many moving parts and so many different people involved that mistakes – lot of mistakes – get made. Choices are made around gameplay that turn off certain player types. Sometimes the hard work of people has to be thrown out and started again. People were fired – from CoH, from ChampO, from DCUO – because that’s what was deemed best for the future advancement of the title.

Which is ultimately why I see CoT as a venture doomed to failure versus its current intent. It is attempting to recreate a version of CoH (and arguably large chunks of CoV as well) with less than 5% of that project’s launch capital. In lieu of a full-time team with experience and hired specialisations, it has a large group of volunteers who have some spare time available. Where CoH took four years to release in its initial state, CoT says it can get the job done in two (with its development so far being the testing and selection of toolsets). And the hard development decisions are yet to come, where the people leading the project say, “We’re going in this direction!” and a group of volunteers says, “No, you’re wrong and we’re not following you any more”, or quietly just disappear.

CoT puts forward an incredibly attractive fantasy: that CoH can live again and be even better than it was before. I’m sorry, but that isn’t going to happen, not like this. It’s great to have platitudes – “We are heroes. This is what we do.” – but it is going to be a lot harder to deliver on what has been promised, especially now it has been funded with other people’s’ money.

6 thoughts on “City of Titans: I Disbelieve the Illusion

  1. If I am reading this correctly, they ARE using the royalty option on the Unreal engine. The $70K is because Unreal counts the Kickstarter proceeds as revenue and gets a cut. Given the track record on Kickstarters, that may be the only royalty money Unreal is ever going to see on this project, so I guess I can see Unreal’s point. The bigger problem is that presumably they’re looking at similar fees for any future crowdfunding offerings.

    I was only marginally aware of this project, but looking at the page with 26 days remaining I’m staggered by the number of $1000+ pledges. Assuming those pledges are legitimate, that is a whole bunch of people with really large investments compared to any other form of MMO entertainment.

    It’s going to be interesting to see which set of $1000+ Kickstarter backers is going to be more public – this title, which is being developed by volunteers and therefore likely to have problems keeping things under wraps, or Camelot Unchained with their aggressive early access sales (a year or more pre-launch) to Kickstarter backers. In both cases, there are going to be people who have spent (word “invested” deliberately stricken out here) the equivalent of a lifetime subscription into a product years pre-launch who may be finding out significantly before release that they are going to be disappointed. Both could get ugly.

    • I’ve re-looked at the Kickstarter and I belive you are right – that Unreal will be taking 25% royalties out of this project if things go as planned. That’s a very long-term tax on the project. Despite the longer-term pitfalls, it might be better for the project to pay the $2500 license and keep that extra money!

      CoH/V’s community has a lot of people who feel wronged by the title’s closure, and this is a way of dealing with that. Which is why some people are throwing so much money at the project. It’s an emotional purchase. But it will be interesting to see how much backers actually pay and if their ‘default rate’ is higher than the usual 2% – 5% seen in other video game Kickstarters.

      Having spent a lot of time on CoH/V’s forums, it could get quite ugly at times. Given that a lot of people backing this project believe it is going to deliver something close to CoH as a result, I am expecting fractures to start appearing when things aren’t delivered on something approaching a schedule. Plus CoT hasn’t yet started to make unpopular decisions (e.g. no PvP until post-launch), which could whip up the community given the scope of what’s been promised. With Camelot United at least that team has some development experience to fall back on (although that certainly won’t save them from backer attacks) and hopefully have been slightly more realistic in their project scoping.

      And then there are other Kickstarter-funded MMOs like Embers of Caerus and Greed Monger, which already have had some angry backer comments thrown their way.

  2. Yeah, I wish the project the best, but I know a lot of teams that have bit off more than they can chew when it comes to game development. Having a hundred volunteers is great, until most of them leave when the “real work” starts. (I’ve had a ton of experiences like this, where people were eager to work on games until they realized exactly how much work goes into something they thought would be fun.)

    I’ve love to be proven wrong, though. The world definitely needs more enthusiastic people making great MMOs. It’s just a lot of work, especially if you don’t have the experience to know “where the bodies are buried”, as a friend of mine put it.

    • If CoT comes off – fantastic. I’ll certainly give it a shot and see what it is like.

      But I also remember my own experiences in trying to create small mods where I’d do my part (which would take longer than expected, because I was working full time) and then find that the other people involved in the project hadn’t done their’s, or felt they didn’t really like the idea any more, or had just got a new partner and didn’t have the time they thought they would, etc etc. Ideas are easy; delivery is the hard part. And MMOs – as you know better than most – are probably the most complex type of video games to try to deliver on.

      Add to that $400K+ of other peoples’ money (of which Unreal is getting nearly a quarter!) and I see a near certainty that this project is going to end up in a large flaming pile of angst and recrimination.

  3. I don’t wish them the best. I wish they had had the sense to leave it alone until someone more capable – someone who might actually have a chance to succeed – came along to run the project. When I first saw this Kickstarter page and its outrageously, impossibly tiny goal, I burst out laughing. But I’m no longer amused. Why? Because I realized that people are never going to give any other project like this a chance once they see what a spectacular failure CoT turns out to be. In effect, CoT will prove to be the final nail in the CoH coffin. Watching people in denial make a situation worse by acting completely irrationally — it’s painful, and it pisses me off.

    • I’m highly doubtful they’ll manage to pull off anything like the updates offered. Ideas are easy to come up with, but it’s the execution that counts.

      Plus the idea that Unreal will be getting such a huge chunk of the money they earn from both the Kickstarter and in perpetuity is a huge potential millstone for the project on top of all other difficulties.

      I agree that the next CoH-related Kickstarter is going to find it much tougher going since people have already given big to this project. CoT may end up poisoning that well.

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