Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Layoffs Hit NCSoft : not really a big surprise

One of the stories going around in the gaming press this week is NCSoft's plan to reorgnanize some departments, which will result in some layoffs. One of the first comments I caught on Kotaku came from a person who linked NCSoft's problems to the recession caused by Liberal Democrats.

The problem is, even if the liberal democrats hadn't screwed up the mortgage system and forced banks to lend money to people who simply couldn't pay it back on the basis of racial equality, the events that triggered the current recession, I doubt that NCSoft would be in a different position today. NCSoft, as a publisher, has a reputation for taking risks with their games that most other publishers and developers shy from. A very good case in point is City of Heroes. CoH is not a typical MMORPG, and it's heavy basis in the comic book genre caught a lot of flack from comic book purists who decried the lack of a Marvel or DC license. However, CoH caught on and has a dedicated fan base. Guild Wars is another game where NCSoft took a risk, in that they dropped the standard monthly fee. Guild Wars is free-to-play once you buy it, but you buy pretty much everything at full retail cost. Guild Wars caught on though, and is a staple in the NCSoft Lineup.

Then there were games like eXteel and Dungeon Runners where NCSoft took risks with micro-payments supporting Free-to-play games.

However, for each success and break-even NCSoft has, they also have games that just don't catch on. Auto Assault is one example. It was a fun game, but NetDevil just couldn't get everything together to make the game worth playing.

Then there is Tabula Rasa. The game promised so much, but when Richard Garriot left for his trip into space, the development team left in charge took the grand vision of Tabula Rasa, found the nearest window, and chunked the grand vision. What was at one point a counterpart to City of Heroes, an Epic RPG with a focus on team-action and team-balance, turned into a Solo / PvP slugfest. The development team just didn't get what made Tabula Rasa special, and in trying to appeal to a wider market, appealed to a lower market and chased away many of the gamers willing to pay for Tabula Rasa.

Part of these development mistakes can be blamed on poor management. Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa could have been successes if the developers had simply focused on a single goal, but they weren't.

While I still think that Tabula Rasa can be salvaged, It's doubtful that NCSoft has the financial room to keep Tabula Rasa up while it's retooled to appeal to the market that praised and lavished attention on it during the closed beta's.

The failure of a game though is a calculated risk. Not everything is going to work out as intended, and sometimes things not working out result in bad events. For NCSoft, they took risks with multiple games, attempting to field a wide range of titles, and some of those risks turned sour. That's life, that's business, that is reality.

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