With the recent awareness of mutiplayer online games into the campaign cycle, a new awareness of this $12 billion dollar market has appeared in the general public. While some games are more focused on children, such as Wizard 101 and Club Penguin, others are more adult-oriented, such as Eve Online and World of Warcraft. Not as many titles in this market are safe for a child while still entertaining for an adult. The games which are “family friendly,” such as Free Realms, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and City of Heroes, become long-term cash cows for the companies which run them, with games like Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot being over a decade old. Once developed, these games can be maintained for a modest cost, and bring in steady revenue long-term.
However, a disturbing trend has started to appear on the horizon, headed by the Korean company NCSoft. Over the past few years, they have taken titles off the market not for failing to turn a profit, but because of their failure to meet the company vision. Normally when a product no longer meets some strategic goal, the owning company will sell it off, such as when Crowd Control Productions took over Eve Online from the original publisher, Simon & Schuster Interactive, or they will put the game into a long-term low-cost maintenance mode, such as Everquest. Actual shutdowns are incredibly rare, due to both the negative press as well as the long-term profit potential. Of the large (over 100,000 subscribers) online multi-player games shut down, the overwhelming majority were NC Soft titles. Attempts to purchase the games from them have ended in failure, with investment groups rebuffed and multi-million dollar offers ignored while they used the shutdown to push markets into new directions.
With the company’s recent announcement to shut down the incredibly popular City of Heroes game, the company made an even more disturbing move. Despite the game’s long-term viability and multi-million dollar current profit, the shutdown reason given in a company announcement was that it “no longer fits with our long term goals for the company.” To replace it in the company’s lineup, NC Soft is going to “introduce Western gamers to Asian martial arts fantasy with Blade and Soul.”
A quick comparison finds a serious issue with this. While City of Heroes was family friendly and able to be enjoyed by children as well as their parents thanks to its integrated profanity filter, active prevention of questionable user content, and the ability for players to work as a team together for the same goal, Blade and Soul is not a family friendly title in the least. Blade and Soul is instead a focus on mature, adult entertainment, with a heavy focus on bloody violence, sexy outfits, and eye candy.
You can compare for yourself. Here we have a trailer for City of Heroes from last year, showing its focus on teamwork, comic-book heroics, and stylized combat with the anatomical correctness of a Barbie doll:
And then we have the Blade and Soul trailer, focusing more on flashy visuals, stylized gory combat, and under-dressed female characters with full anatomical correctness on display:
There is nothing wrong with an adult oriented online game, and there are plenty of them on the market. But offering an adult-oriented game as a replacement for a family friendly title in their market lineup is a very disturbing precedent. As it is now, the number of family friendly titles are limited, and eliminating one of the largest and most successful of those titles for the gaming equivalent of a Victoria’s Secret catalog bodes poorly for the future. If the company can successfully show that such a transition is profitable, it would encourage other companies to do the same thing. Corporations can be just as guilty of following trends as anything else, as demonstrated by the market’s embrace of previous NCSoft trends.
This could expand into other media outlets as well. Just because a product is making money, that alone will not save it from the axe if a corporate trend of “sex sells, kill the family stuff” becomes the norm. As NCSoft has successfully lead the way to other trends in online gaming, such as microtransactions, customer-driven content, and character customization, there is a good possibility of this happening. The decision was parodied in one cartoon by player Turjan and is reprinted with permission here:
If NCSoft wishes to focus itself on a more mature audience, that is its prerogative, but it needs to find a way to prevent reducing the number of family friendly titles in the market. The ideal solution from an investment standpoint would be to sell the title off entirely, license it to a new holder, or to fork off a new company to handle family friendly ware, partitioning it away from the main company. Instead, they released a statement claiming that they had “exhausted all options including the selling of the studio and the rights to the City of Heroes intellectual property, but in the end, efforts to do so were not successful.” Within short order, two different investment groups (speaking while protected by anonymity) claimed that NCSoft had refused to even discuss a sale, and ignored any and all offers. A company which engages in this kind of behavior is not a good steward of its shareholders’ investment. A child who begins playing with a game from a company will move on to that company’s more mature titles when they grow up. Look at how large Electronic Arts and Sony Online Entertainment are, offering cradle-to-grave title options. A move like this is a sign of corporate weakness, and blatantly lying about its motivations while claiming that they were unable to find a buyer for the property when they refused to even meet with at least two interested parties is demonstrating an underlying issue in the company boardroom which could spread among media companies.
In the modern world, there is not enough family-friendly entertainment as it is. While movies such as Shrek and The Avengers as well as books such as The Hunger Games do cross generational gaps, a concerted effort by the multi-billion dollar entertainment company could undermine this. It was not too many years ago when the very thought of a cartoon nominated for the Academy Award for best picture was unheard of, but it happened with Pixar’s Up. The embrace of family friendly entertainment has been a huge boon for the industry as a whole, and a trend to shut this down would be a detriment to us all.