Long before THQ collapsed and Disney's shutdown of Warren Spector's Junction Point Studios, game developers were shocked by NCsoft's apparent sudden shutdown of City of Heroes developer Paragon Studios.
To outsiders, the Aug. 31 closure seemingly came out of nowhere, affecting 80 employees -- many of whom were just as surprised as the rest of the gaming world. But had history zigged instead of zagged, Paragon could still be around today. In fact, say Paragon veterans, up until the last minute, it looked like the company was facing a much different fate.
Paragon management -- including general manager/co-founder Brian Clayton, director of product development Destin Bales, and director of business and marketing Ross Borden -- actively negotiated with NCsoft to buy back the studio, which would have resulted in both the employees retaining their jobs and keeping City of Heroes alive for its core, but dedicated, fan base.
The deal looked like it would go through -- but at the last minute, roadblocks arose that scuttled the negotiations, sealing the studio's fate.
"It was very much a surprise," says Matt Miller, former lead designer at Paragon, who had been brought in on the buyout plan. "We all were really working as if things were going to work out. ... It was business as usual right up until the last day."
NCsoft, in a statement, said the decision to close Paragon and shut down City of Heroes was not an easy one, but ultimately, the company felt the action was best for its customers.
"We looked to sell the franchise multiple times, however, we were unsuccessful in finding a suitable partner that we thought would support City of Heroes' fans in a manner they were accustomed to for years to come," the company said. "Closing a studio and sunsetting a beloved franchise is never an easy thing to do for the publisher, the developer or the fans. This was not an easy decision to make. We truly thank our fans for their years of support and we hope they understand the difficult position we were in when making the final decision."
The sad saga of Paragon actually starts a couple of months before the doors were closed. Clayton, Bales, and Borden were told things were not looking good for the studio. NCsoft management was planning some changes and they were ordered to begin planning for the end of City of Heroes.
Paragon, which started as NCsoft NorCal, was given caretaker duties for the game when the publisher bought the property from creator Cryptic Studios. Though the game launched in 2004, it still had an active community, which Paragon supported with regular updates -- and even move the game to a free-to-play model in 2011. (Miller says the game was more profitable as free-to-play than it was in the pay-to-play model.)
The developers, arguably, loved the game more than the fans -- and that passion led them to look for alternatives to a shutdown.
"Those guys ... really loved what the studio was doing and they really felt that the game still had legs," says Miller. "So they actively sought another publisher to purchase Paragon Studios from NCsoft. ... Suffice it to say that eventually the talks broke down. The buyer wasn't going to buy and NCsoft wasn't looking to sell. So, plan B, which I always thought was a great plan from the beginning was the management buyout."