A View from Atlas Park: Cut Off from the Mainland

I love CoH. It’s the best MMOG I’ve ever played and despite the fact I haven’t been able to get in-game for very long in the past month or two, I’m still happy to keep up my subscription. It seems a pity to me then that none of my friends have heard of it.

Well, that’s a slight lie – they know about CoH because I’ve bored them with stories of it. But since CoH doesn’t have a local release, they really don’t care and are just humouring me before returning to important issues (such as why Ben Sisko of DS9 is the best Starfleet captain). It may surprise some people to know that after around 10 months since release, CoH isn’t widely available outside of North America (although as of today, it launched in Europe).

This is due to NCSoft’s decision to only release CoH in countries where they have officially licensed local servers with local administration rather than forcing players toward a single set of central servers. I can see where they are coming from – there are lots of issues like language and time differences that local servers can better deal with – but I don’t get why players outside of North American and Europe can’t buy CoH online from the PlayNC store.

I’ve tried to find out if this has been the case all along or has only happened recently, but haven’t been able to sufficiently confirm one way or the other. The short of it is that if I wanted to buy CoH today through the official PlayNC store – you can only get a soft copy of it (ie no box or manuals) so no shipping is involved – but live outside of North America / Europe, I can’t.

I’ve tried to do it, just as a test. It appears that if my billing address isn’t within some set areas, a message comes up saying that buying CoH online isn’t supported in my area and provides for me (just to rub salt into the wound) a link to an alleged page with information about North American stores where I might be able to buy CoH. In reality, this link returns me to a main page and doesn’t appear to have any store information on it.

Cryptic / NCSoft certainly doesn’t have to actively push CoH to countries where it isn’t officially selling it, but not having the function to buy the game online from the official store just seems misguided to me for the following reasons:

  1. It reduces the number of new players available to Cryptic / NCSoft. I (as an Australian) had to order it in from the US, firstly because CoH was going to be locally released two months after US release and I wanted it sooner, then because CoH wasn’t going to be released locally at all.

    The last thing Cryptic / NCSoft should want to do is reduce the number of players that can log into CoH. CoH is an award-winning game that is getting a lot of good press and the internet lets people around the world see that, get interested in CoH and maybe check it out. Having an interested player run into an artificial block saying the equivalent of “sorry, you can’t play this game because you live in the wrong country” is stupid, especially when a player should be able to just pay their money and be let in to Paragon City.

    Now, you can point to me as an example of a player who had the game imported from the US through a third-party distributor, which any international player can do. Sure, some players will do this, but I was a CoH fanboi for a long time and really wanted this game. If I simply had a passing interest in CoH, I would have probably looked it over, found out I couldn’t buy it and spent my money elsewhere.

  2. I’ll admit that international players probably don’t make up the bulk of the CoH player population, but is it really a player segment that Cryptic / NCSoft put no value in at all?

  3. Cutting off international players is a stupid thing to do when your competition is willing to welcome them with open arms. World of Warcraft (WoW) is very happy to let us foreigners spend our odd-shaped coins on subscription fees, as are most other, older MMOGs. It could be argued that Blizzard et al have greater resources and experience in establishing a world-wide online infrastructure for their games (and they do), but they certainly don’t make the mistake of cutting potential players out of their game.

    The other thing is that by letting the competition get in there first, Cryptic / NCSoft risk coming second to players and offering the same features. I haven’t played WoW, so I won’t even try to make comparisons between game features. What I will say is that past behaviour seems to indicate that MMOGs often [strike]steal[/strike] [strike]duplicate the best things[/strike] [strike]lift wholesale[/strike] somehow come up with similar features to each other and insert them (with a tweak or two) into their game. First impressions count, and if a player has seen most of what CoH can offer (and grown bored with it) before they even play CoH, it is unlikely they will stick around once they can buy CoH locally.

  4. As a broader issue, recent history is against forcing players to play MMOGs only within their region. Shadowbane had different companies around the world offering their game … when said companies were financially solvent of course. Plus all of these companies depend on the game developer to fix all their technical problems anyway and to help them set up and to pretty much do all of the back-end work anyway – it’s just a mess waiting to happen. Then there is Dark Age of Camelot’s famed lag in implementing patches in Europe as against the “original” US servers. How long is it currently? One month? Three months? Longer?

    Separating the servers out by region is understandable to some degree. Support needs to be able to speak the local language. Perhaps customer service that is on the ground can better serve players by being in the same time zone. It is also probably cheaper to the game developer to license their game out rather than try and provide for the whole world at once. All that said, I just haven’t seen much evidence to believe that players are actually better off if they are forced to play based on regional requirements. Much better that they be able to pick what server they want to play on, with all regional servers added to the official US list.

    Personally, I happen to like playing on the US servers. Having played on local (read: South-East Asian) servers before for other games, I find language can become a barrier if there are open servers, or there are generally smaller numbers of players online due to enforced server restrictions (eg on the basis of language or other racial grounds). Being able to stay on the US servers means that I have to deal with increased lag and time differences, but also means that I have control over how I want to play an online game.

    Plus it just bothers me that online games increasingly get regimented to geographical location. I thought one of the great things about the internet was that it makes the world a smaller place and lets people from all around the world meet in one location. Except when it comes to MMOGs, apparently.

“So what?” most of you are probably thinking, especially if you already live in North America. You’re probably right – such things won’t impact on you that much. But it does impact on the people you play with and it reduces the diversity of playing online. It can be quite enjoyable playing with people from different countries when, in the down times between fighting enemies, you have a discussion you’d never have with another person from the same country. Such moments can really add to the social dynamic of a MMOG.

CoH has also benefited by having an international audience. Sure, we are kept out of all competitions, but that hasn’t stopped non-North American players from contributing things to CoH’s culture, gameplay and forums. I believe that this convergence of players from other countries makes CoH a stronger game with a diverse community than if players were fenced off on the grounds of geography.

Unforunately, without letting new, non-N. American players into those main servers, that diversity is just going to slip away.

[p] – UnSub [email protected] 14 February 2004

You may also like