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A quick look back at Microsoft's canceled plans to publish a Marvel Comics MMO game

marvel comics

Earlier this week, there was a surprise announcement in the game industry. After over 10 years of being "dead", the superhero MMO City of Heroes is officially back, sort of. A fan-run and funded server, City of Heroes Homecoming, had received an official license from the game's owner NCSOFT to not only continue operations but also add new content to the game.

This is huge news for the many fans of the game that launched in 2004, but got shut down by NCSOFT in 2012. However, many people might have forgotten that the game had some legal issues early in its run. They were caused by none other than Marvel Comics.

city of heroes

In November 2004, not long after the game launched, Marvel Comics (several years before Disney bought it) filed a lawsuit against City of Heroes' original developer Cryptic Studios, and NCSOFT. As Games Developer reported at the time, the problem was not with the game itself, but with its character creator. Cryptic had made a character generation system that was, at that time, one of the most customizable ever made for any video game.

Marvel's lawsuit claimed the City of Heroes character generator was too customizable. It stated the game's players could make characters that not only looked the same as Marvel's superhero characters, but also played in the game much like they would in Marvel's comics. The characters could even be named in the game as their Marvel counterparts.

Cryptic Studios and NCSOFT stated that Marvel's lawsuit was without merit. In March 2005, the case went to federal court. At that time Cryptic and NCSOFT tried to argue that if Marvel was successful in this lawsuit against the City of Heroes' character creator, then they should also file a lawsuit against the creators of the pencil or other creative tools. Gamesindustry.biz reported that the judge in the case dismissed several of Marvel's claims in the lawsuit, including one that Cryptic and NCSOFT directly violated Marvel's trademarks.

In December 2005, NCSOFT announced that it and Cryptic Studios had reached a settlement with Marvel in this case. While the specific terms of the settlement were not disclosed NCSOFT did state that the character generator in City of Heroes would not have to be altered.

Not only did Cryptic and Marvel make nice, but less than a year later, the two companies decided to actually work together. In September 2006, Microsoft announced it would publish a Marvel MMO game, Marvel Universe Online, developed by Cryptic for both the Xbox 360 and Windows Vista PCs, with cross-play support planned for both platforms.

GamesIndustry.biz posted the news, with quotes from Frank Pape, senior director of business development for Microsoft Game Studios:

The vision behind the alliance of Microsoft Game Studios, Cryptic Studios and Marvel is to expand the MMO genre and create an epic gaming experience exclusively for Xbox 360 and Windows Vista gamers to experience together online.

Cryptic Studios is widely respected for their established track record of innovation and understanding of the MMO space, and they are a perfect fit for the creation of the best possible experience in Marvel Universe Online.

In 2007, Cryptic Studios sold off its interest in City of Heroes completely to NCSOFT to be an independent studio. NCSOFT formed its own in-house team, Paragon Studios, to continue the development of City of Heroes.

After over a year of no new updates on the development of Marvel Universe Online, Shane Kim, then the head of Microsoft Games Studios, confirmed that the game had been canceled. In an interview with MTV Multiplayer, Kim was a bit vague as to what happened with its development. He said that part of the reason was the business models for MMO games were changing. Kim stated:

When we first entered into the development and agreement of the development of ‘Marvel Universe Online,’ we thought we would create another subscription-based MMO. And if you really look at the data there’s basically one that’s successful and everything else wouldn’t meet our level or definition of commercial success. And then you have to look [and say]: ‘Can we change the business model for that? Is that really viable given how far we are in development? And so forth. Does Marvel want to do that?’ There’s a whole bunch of factors.

Kim hinted that even if the business models for the game could have changed, it might not be enough to make it successful, adding, "At the end of the day, all of those combined for us to say, look, it’s probably in the interest of both parties for us not to continue."

champions online

Obviously, Cryptic Studios had put a lot of development time into Marvel Universe Online, and they didn't want to have that work go to waste. Just a few weeks after Kim confirmed that Marvel Universe Online had been canceled, Cryptic announced it had bought the rights to the Champions superhero pen and paper RPG from Hero Games and would develop an MMO based on it, called Champions Online. The game launched in September 2009, and is still live today.

Meanwhile, the quest to make a successful Marvel Comics-based MMO continued . . . but that's a story for another day.

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