from the be-the-hero dept
You will hopefully recall a few posts we had previously written about Blizzard pointing its considerable legal guns at fan-run World of Warcraft servers. In 2016, and again in 2018, Blizzard issued takedown notices and legal threats for two fan-run servers that were running the “vanilla” version of WoW that came out way back in 2004. With the nostalgia fad in full swing, fans of the game were interested in going back to its roots. Blizzard does not offer any vanilla experience of this sort, so fans of the game got together and offered one for themselves. Blizzard got both instances shut down.
But in those cases, Blizzard argued that the vanilla product competed with the current iteration of the game. What if there had been no current iteration? What if World of Warcraft had simply shut down, with Blizzard no longer offering any way to play any version of it?
Well, that’s exactly the situation NCSoft finds itself navigating, as it recently came to light that a smallish group of enthusiasts for MMO City of Heroes had been hosting a server for the game that had been completely shut down in 2012. Perhaps the most surprising part of the story is that the folks running the server kept it private and mostly secret for something like six years. Perhaps the least surprising part of the story is that, when word eventually got out about it, pretty much everyone went into full freak out mode.
Word of the secret City of Heroes server—run by a group calling themselves the Secret Cabal of Reverse Engineers, or SCORE for short—first got out last week thanks to a now-deleted video by a player named Destroyer Stroyer. For six years, the video said, a few thousand die-hard City of Heroes fanatics had been able to keep playing the beloved game despite its official shutdown, thanks to the server. Blowback was immediate and fierce. The City of Heroes subreddit exploded with threads from players who felt like they’d been “lied to,” who felt that they should have been informed so they could have suited up once again as their bitterly mourned superhero alter egos and gotten back into the game. SCORE programmer Leandro Pardini told MMO-focused site MassivelyOP that he and others had been so hush-hush about the server because they’d seen NCSoft issue cease-and-desist orders to similar projects for games like Tabula Rasa, and they didn’t want to risk it. Following the video, however, the City of Heroes private server team decided to release their server code to the public so that other people could also reverse-engineer their own servers.
It would have been a tidy ending to a messy situation, but it was not to be: Yesterday, the public server’s moderators shut it down due to legal concerns. Operating a server entails replicating NCSoft’s copyrighted game code without permission, which flew under the radar when the server was secret and private, but would have caught the eye of lawyers if it were open to the public.
So, because NCSoft has gone the legal route with fan-stuff in the past, the operators of this fan-run server went public and then panicked, pulling everything offline. All over copyright concerns for a game that is no longer publicly available. Whatever this is promoting, it sure seems not to be promoting the progress of anything at all. Instead, this is exactly the kind of chill on the public access to the arts that too often serves as the antithetical output of copyright enforcement.
Adding to the confusion in all of this, however, was the about-face SCORE did shortly afterwards.
A few hours later, however, the team did a 180 and came to the conclusion that there was no imminent legal action coming after all. Innocuous chalked it up to “some fuckups that lead to mass server panic,” which partly stemmed from their own “inexperience.” The team then claimed to be working on getting another public server up. 24 hours later, they’ve yet to make any more announcements.
And so now the server is backup. Why? Well, it seems that some CoH fansites that have splintered off into wanting to create their own public fan-servers have been in discussions with NCSoft and there is a sense that the legal action so feared may not be coming.
The Titan Network, a long-running group of City Of Heroes fan sites, now claims to be “in talks” with NCSoft about a community-run server. “Things are looking positive, so stay strong,” said ParagonWiki head Tony V on Twitter. “We don’t have a timeline right now, but we’ll provide more updates as soon as we can.”
And what really needs to be hammered home here is the opportunity that NCSoft has in all of this to come out as a PR hero. Considering this is all about a game that has not officially been on the market since 2012, it’s virtually impossible for NCSoft to claim any real harm here. The company has shut down a product, refusing to sell it, while someone else has filled that demand because they are fans of it.
Nothing precludes NCSoft from figuring out a way to be awesome and human and let this go forward. Options for doing so abound. All that remains to be seen is if some official arrangement can be inked that makes NCSoft the hero of its own story.