It might seem a little odd that the one thing to break through my current state of hyper-excitement for the launch of Heavensward and the upcoming free-to-play conversion for WildStar is the shutdown of Infinite Crisis. But it’s also the first piece of news that I’ve actually found kind of worrisome, and I don’t usually get unsettled. Games get shut down, games keep running, launches happen, impacts are overestimated — it happens.
Infinite Crisis was not something I would call one of my main games, or even something I would call one of my games at all. I’ve played it at demo events and that’s about it because I don’t much care for the genre. But even if you share my general ambivalence toward the market, even passing into full-on antipathy, you should be paying attention to this. This is news, it’s important, and there are reasons to care about it even if you normally would have let it pass wholly under your radar.
1. It had every reason to be successful
No game deserves to succeed based on anything other than its own merits; either it’s good enough to stand on its own two metaphorical feet or it isn’t. But Infinite Crisis was a game with a veteran development studio, plenty of talent, and a rock-solid IP. Let’s face it, if you’re going to make a game that boils down to heroes fighting one another, superheroes are a grand place to start. If you consider all of the elements separate from one another, on paper it seems like a license to print money.
I’m not arguing that it had every reason to blow up the genre and be the next huge thing, but it had every reason and everything in place to be successful, not shut down in less than half a year. The fact that this comes without some obvious crisis or misstep means that even though it looked fine on paper, fine wasn’t enough to make it functional.
2. It says uncomfortable things about MOBAs
I’ve written before about the idea that MOBAs, as a whole, don’t have a whole lot of space to breathe. The subgenre is so closely tied to a very specific mod from a very specific game that it takes very little before you’re pushing up against the limits of what genuinely counts as a MOBA. Contrast that with MMOs, which as a genre can easily encompass games from Ultima Online to Star Trek Online to Final Fantasy XIV to Guild Wars and even further outliers.
The result of having less space to play around is that it takes much less to reach a point of complete saturation. There’s less space for games that feel like a reskinned version of the existing market juggernauts (League of Legends and Dota 2) and not a whole lot of extra space to make games that don’t feel that way. This means that all the rush to get in on the bandwagon might have been over before it began.
3. It may presage bad things for Turbine
This was the first new title out of Turbine in a long while, and it was a big deal. And now… it’s dying. If you like Asheron’s Call or Dungeons & Dragons Online or Lord of the Rings Online, this is the point when you should start feeling a little nervous about the fate of the studio because none of those titles is rolling in the money and the company’s big push has just gone up in smoke.
I like Turbine. It employs my friends, it’s produced good games, it shelters good people. But when a high-profile project like this goes under, that does not produce good feelings among corporate overlords. I’m not saying that doom comes for them, but boy is it uncomfortable to consider.
4. The beta cycle and how it’s changed
The crazy thing about Infinite Crisis is that the game was in open beta for a year. A year! And part of me wonders whether the extra time spent refining the game before its official launch wouldn’t have been better served by launching the game instead of letting people get bored with it before it had really started seeing those prime-time lights.
Especially with a game like this, a long beta cycle is increasingly a liability rather than a benefit. The game relied on people getting in, liking the game, and buying stuff early. And as free-to-play becomes a more and more dominant force, I wonder whether we’re going to start seeing a swing back away from tests that go on forever while being functional launches. If so, that means buggier games, so I’m not excited about that.
5. It highlights the importance of community
We all have made countless jokes at this point about the toxic nature of MOBA communities at this point, but I’m pretty sure this is the first one that we’ve seen actually kill a game.
I jest, of course, because the community wasn’t that bad, and this isn’t the first MOBA to go under, but the fact is that community is a big deal with online (and even some offline) games, and one of the reasons that the game never managed to reach critical mass and carry itself along was that lack of a core community. And that ties very heavily into the next point…
6. E-sports wouldn’t save it
I’m not employed at Turbine and I don’t get to attend the strategy meetings there, but there was a definite push to make Infinite Crisis an ideal environment for high-end competition. And that ultimately accomplished… very little. For the record, I think it actually puts feathers in the metaphorical cap of Blizzard’s approach; Blizzard is trying to not let the competitive aspect overshadow the more casual play side of things. Even then, however, it’s locked down the idea that building an ideal competitive game will make your game so appealing to a specific niche that you don’t need to capture the general audience.
7. The game wasn’t bad
We have an image in our heads, as gamers, that failed games are bad games. It makes a sort of superficial sense, and a lot of the high-profile failures I can think of were indeed not good. But there are also games that fail despite being average or actually good, just not good enough. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not thrilled at the idea of living in an environment where only exceptional — or exceptionally lucky — games get to succeed because that’s going to cut out a lot of good games.
It’s not as if Infinite Crisis had staggering technical problems or wasn’t fun to play. It just wasn’t financially successful enough.
8. The human cost
So maybe none of the above bothers you. All right. But there’s always a reason to be sad when a game closes down because it usually means people are out of a job. And this is not a genre that anyone gets into out of a love of making tons of money; it’s a job of passion. That’s unpleasant, whether you liked the game or not, and considering the high turnover in this industry to begin with, I would rather not have to talk about yet more layoffs and designers looking for work.
9. Time to failure is uncomfortable
Before WildStar announced that it was going to transition to free-to-play, a lot of people were speculating that the game was going to just shut right the hell down. That might seem a bit harsh, but shutdowns like this actually aid that perception; instead of seeing a slow launch followed by a gradual ramping up, we get the impression that a game has a shorter and shorter window to make a big impact before it gets thrown in the dumpster.
10. There were people who loved it
This is the last entry, and it’s the thing that bothers me every time a game closes because even if it doesn’t impact me, someone is losing something that mattered. Every game has its dedicated fans, and even if your evaluation was “I don’t care,” that shouldn’t invalidate the fact that some people cared a lot.
Just not enough of them to keep it running.