City Of Heroes: A View from Atlas Park: Debt and Taxes (and Investment)

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A View from Atlas Park: Debt and Taxes (and Investment)

It’s been often said the only two guarantees in life are death and taxes. This witticism also applies to CoH/V, but given that no-one ever really dies in comics (not even Bucky stayed down) it’s fairer to say that that two things you are certain to come across are debt and taxes.

Debt is obvious – every time your character is defeated post lvl 10 or so, you will rack up a debt score that will absorb about 50% of your experience point gain until you pay it off. You can also choose to pay it off by exemplaring down and earning inf in lower level missions… but this is the less chosen option. For all the griping about debt, it’s actually a very minor penalty for character ‘death’ – it’s been called a temporary experience point debuff and can actually be helpful in slowing down your advancement so you don’t miss content by lvling too quickly. Debt is a fairly friendly system in that it is a light penalty – it’s not like it can level down your character until you pay it off (unlike some older MMOs) and following changes several issues ago it actually doesn’t have that big an impact.

But I may have confused you with the term ‘tax’. Here I’m referring to the supergroup tax, whereby being in supergroup mode (or villain group mode – I’ll call them both ‘SG mode’ to keep things simple) will see you start to sacrifice inf gain for being in SG mode from lvl 25 – 34, and after lvl 34 you will get no influence for being in SG mode. I’ve never seen a dev explanation for the why behind this decision, but it’s been called a tax in that being in SG mode actually costs you inf post lvl 25, while your prestige earning (used by SGs to buy things) is kept consistent.

Neither debt or taxes are guaranteed in CoH/V, but if you play the game in any capacity, you are likely to run into them. Both systems were fine before I9 and I10, but with those releases both systems need at least a bit of a tweak.

Let’s start with debt. Outside of PvP, debt was a pretty easy thing to understand – a mob defeats you, you end up with debt. Easy to understand. But then I10 changed the rules a bit – if you are defeated in a zone currently undergoing invasion, you don’t get debt. Suddenly one of the basic rules of CoH/V is being broken during a special event. Which raises the question: why have debt at all?

It can be argued that a Rikti Invasion is a special event and players should be encouraged as much as possible to take part. I can agree with that, but then what makes other task forces, trials and the like less special that debt should exist in them? Why should players be discouraged from taking part in those pieces of content by the possibility of debt? I really didn’t get the reasoning behind the decision to remove debt from Rikti invasions – the Rikti were easy enough to avoid if you wanted to, or it was pretty easy to find a group and go to town if you wanted to take part. From my experience, one spot in a zone was designated as the meeting place and heroes gathered together en masse, protecting each other, to take on the Rikti. Following such behaviours, I couldn’t really see the need to shelter characters from debt, especially when such tactics were immensely effective in taking down hundreds of Rikti in each invasion.

The SG tax was fine before I9, when there was little to purchase and it was very easy post lvl 35 to earn enough to buy your enhancements from stores and to keep prestige rolling in by flicking in and out of SG mode. However, with I9 and the parts of the Inventions system that costs millions of inf, staying in SG mode post lvl 34 is a huge detriment to any player who wants to craft things.

In this situation, the player must choose between helping their SG and earning no inf or helping themselves and earning no prestige. Such a choose actually starts to unravel the social agreement of an SG and (to keep up the fabric analogy) tears player bonds apart. Given the nature of most MMOs, players will put themselves first, which sees SGs lose out on potential earnings; conversely it is best for SGs to kick all players over lvl 33 out of their organisation and recruit those who can earn prestige and inf at the same time.

Out of these two systems, I strongly think that the SG tax needs to go, pronto. Debt might be some people’s bugbear, but it’s a very mild case of death and one that can actually earn you badges. It means that players who die a lot hopefully have longer to learn how to play CoH/V in such a way they don’t die a lot later on, or that players can slow down how quickly they advance. In CoH/V, there isn’t a lot of problems that come from living in debt.

The SG tax, however, directly hits players and SGs and makes them have to choose between individual progress through income or collective contribution through prestige. Given that the entire tax seems fairly arbitrary anyway, its removal should be strongly considered. Taking out the SG tax will again allow players to earn inf for themselves, thus assisting CoH/V’s economy to grow, while not having to sacrifice their contributions to the building of a better SG base. Although not talked about often anymore, SG bases in CoH/V have a lot of potential – potential that is further reduced by choking the prestige generation abilities of SG members who are now focused on completing their Invention Origin set via the Consignment House.

There was an odd announcement the other day: Cryptic Studios gets a Board of Advisors. There are some quite weighty names on that list, and even if you don’t recognise the names, the bios and companies behind them in that release are pretty interesting stuff.

However, the question is: why? Why does Cryptic need a Board of Advisors?

As I’ve said elsewhere, my take is that Cryptic is looking to (eventually) end up on the stock exchange. They are currently looking for a Chief Financial Officer, for whom having IPO experience would be a plus. If you accept that logic, a further question is: but why become a public company?

The money is one part of it, sure, but I think that the end goal is more about control: I believe that Cryptic wants to control its MMOs from beginning to end. It wants to create them in-house on proprietary engines, to organise their distribution and sales (which is what SMP would allow them to do, despite the SMP website looking like it was designed in 1997), to provide the customer service and to run the servers. They don’t want a publisher getting in the way, diverting resources or making demands. It’s simply easier to do it themselves.

For that, they need money. Although there are a number of ways to get it, going public is the big sexy way of doing it. It’s got an element of risk, sure, but it gives potentially more freedom than relying on venture capitalists or lending institutions. On top of that, technology companies all dream of going IPO.

CoH/V will stay with NCsoft (well, assuming Cryptic doesn’t try to buy out the license from them) and MUO will stay with Marvel / Microsoft (because Microsoft would love a successful MMO, especially on the Xbox360) but the next range of Cryptic games – the ones they only hint at existing – are the ones Cryptic want full control over. It works nicely for companies like CCP and a MMO studio that runs its own games needs a smaller audience to meet its financial goals since it isn’t forking out 30% – 70% of its income straight back to a publisher.

This board of advisors is the first step. They may not, as I first thought, be a board of proto-directors. But Cryptic now have got a number of computer game people who are used to selling off to other companies or the finance behind big deals on their side, and that’s a pretty big indication to me about where they are headed.

The only other option I can think of is that Cryptic have some other big industry organisation with deep pockets who wishes to buy them out, and this announcement of a board of advisors (which, really, did they even need to make?) was a warning shot to that company that they aren’t going to be a simple buy.

We’ll see.

[i] – UnSub [@UnknownSubject] unsub {at} warcry {dot} com 10 August 2007[i]
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