For a small segment of the internet population, April 20, 2014, was the end of the world.
I played Avengers Alliance on Facebook back when it was new in 2012, but only for a little while. I returned to it in early March, curious to see if it was even still around, and found the game to be much expanded, with many new characters and features that improved upon it. Clearly, it had continued to be healthy in my nearly two years of absence. I played on Playdom.com this time, which was separate from Facebook, and allowed you to easily friend other players in the local chat rather than spam everyone you know on the internet to try to get them to commit to a game so they can give you free stuff.
I liked it. But you know what they say about all good things.
When the news hit a month ahead of time, it was met with fervent disbelief.
On Playdom.com, the site affected by the news, the chat and message boards alike lit up with panicked theories. “Is this an April Fool’s joke?” a surprising number of players asked, despite the news being more than a week before that most dubious of internet holidays and also not very funny. “It could be!” some agreed, while others rolled their digital eyes at the wishful thinking.
Maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise. At the beginning of March, Disney laid off a quarter of Disney Interactive, and Playdom was most affected. The sharp downward trend in the popularity of social games is the obvious culprit here, and with Playdom operating more than half a dozen, they’d have to be turning around considerable clicks and microtransactions to stay in the black. And with Disney focusing on other interactive pursuits – namely Disney Infinity – Playdom was bound to be subject to these kind of cuts.
But players of Avengers Alliance didn’t want to see their favorite F2P go. The Marvel tie-in, which released just over two years ago, stands out from the social game crowd by having deeper turn-based RPG elements than most of its competitors in that space. Players can recruit from an ever-growing roster of dozens of Marvel characters to go on missions to fight dozens of Marvel villains. Characters level up, can be mildly customized, have alternate costumes – the works. Though it has the usual F2P trappings, like limited energy and various ways to spend real money to get special items (or earn things considerably more quickly), it feels deeper than the usual FarmVille clone or hidden object game that are so pervasive in social games. The closing message’s promise of “more engaging games” sounds empty, considering how engaging most social games are, relatively speaking.
To be fair, the game is still up and running on Facebook, so it isn’t entirely defunct, but player accounts do not carry over between the two sites. Playdom.com’s players preferred the community outside of Facebook. Everyone on the site played the game, so it was easy to find the ever-important in-game friends without harassing random Facebook friends or having to convince anyone to play. The site had a dedicated chat in a sidebar and a forum where players could compare notes on the newest heroes.
The fact that players couldn’t just move to Facebook to continue playing, and that many of them couldn’t fathom that the Facebook instance of the game was faring better than the Playdom.com one, drove many to assume that this decision would be reversed.
Because this is the internet, it didn’t take long for threads to appear on the forums calling for Playdom’s collective head on a pike. Some players were angry that the game was being taken away, especially after what was, at least from the community’s point of view, a lengthy period of poor customer service and disingenuous activities on the part of Playdom.
Though they weren’t the most numerous voices, a segment of the angered players quickly started demanding refunds for the digital goods they’d bought in the game over time. As digital distribution becomes more prevalent, we hear these stories increasingly often: a vendor shuts down, alters, or takes back some paid-for digital “property”. It’s still pretty unclear to a lot of people exactly what it means to purchase something that doesn’t really exist anywhere, while still being an “item” colloquially speaking. More than one forum thread claimed that shutting down the game without giving refunds was illegal.This isn’t the first time Playdom in particular has faced such accusations from upset players. Since Mobsters closed in 2011, a class action suit (at least in name) has been in the works by some players who feel they were essentially robbed of the money they spent on the game, claiming that there was no indication that these purchases were temporary or could be taken away. Of course, to a point, assuming that an online game would exist forever seems a little fallacious. Most often, this is the result of consumers not reading the fine print. The Mobsters suit has not moved forward.
Regardless of what the fine print was several years ago, the fine print on Playdom.com made the terms clear:
Digital Content and Virtual Items
We may make applications, games, software or other digital content available on the Disney Services for you to license for a one-time fee. When purchasing a license to access such material from a Disney Service, charges will be disclosed to you on the Disney Service before you complete the license purchase.
Your purchase of a virtual item or in-game currency is a payment for a limited, non-assignable license to access and use such content or functionality in the Disney Services. Virtual items (including characters and character names) or in-game currency purchased or available to you in the Disney Services can only be used in connection with the Disney Services where you obtained them or where they were developed by you as a result of game play. These items are not redeemable or subject to refund and cannot be traded outside of the Disney Services for money or other items for value. We may modify or discontinue virtual items or in-game currency at any time.
The question of how to treat digital goods has been becoming more and more relevant, whether in conjunction with a social game or another service like iTunes. Though Playdom clearly has itself covered, whether or not this kind of fine print continues to be the acceptable standard remains to be seen. The nature of digital ownership will no doubt only become more important to define as time goes on.
Vitriol aside, it can be hard not to sympathize with players who spent time and money on the game, only to have it taken away by no fault of their own. I think it’s clear that Playdom didn’t do this just to “steal” their customers’ money. Yet, it does seem to be a suspect way to interact with customers, at least if digital items continue to be marketed as a good rather than a service.
What “customer” means in the free to play sphere soon became a secondary point of contention amongst some players. In certain threads the frustration was divided into two camps: those who had spent real money and those who had not. More than a few players called out others for acting entitled about Playdom taking a way a game they paid nothing for in the first place. Semantic debates flared up over whether such players were really customers. Did being subjected to the game’s advertising make one a customer? Or did you actually have to purchase something? (And does it really matter, in the end?)
I don’t envy Playdom the task of letting players down easy. This had to be a no-win scenario for the company.
Petitions started almost immediately. If enough players signed, the thinking went, Playdom would realize how much money they could still make on the Playdom.com instance of Avengers Alliance. The effort was disorganized; several petitions existed separately, essentially calling for the same thing.
Other players attempted a different approach, offering up ideas for payment plans, or taking impromptu polls of who amongst them would still play Avengers Alliance if there was a fee attached. These threads got fairly long, though sometimes they looked like they were as much players arguing over whether the effort was futile or not as they were following their original intent.
Playdom remained silent.
There was something odd about the way Avengers Alliance was technically structured. Not the game itself, but the physical makeup of it, wherever it lived. On Playdom.com, the game continued to shamble on, reportedly because it was the “same game” as the one on Facebook – new content came out at the same time, though each version had its own quirks, and as would soon become a problem, their players and all player data were stored in different databases.
So by the time Captain America: The Winter Soldier released in theaters, players of the Playdom.com iteration knew that the game was winding down for them. They knew that the slew of new items based on the movie, including Cap’s ally Falcon as a playable character, would be almost worthless to bother to earn; they’d lose him soon enough. The same could be said of the continued trickle of new characters associated with special events, like the unique prizes for the PvP tournament that went through March; that in itself was a depressing tale of weathering the game’s most “pay to win” content, obviously, but was also a bug and exploit-laden experience. The forums assured newcomers that this was nothing new; the previous season had been a huge fiasco thanks to – who else? – Deadpool.
The game continued to hurtle along, reminding players that not only was their iteration of it ending, but that their Facebook counterparts were still getting cool stuff from the latest Marvel movies: Falcon, a new Captain America outfit, a new quest line featuring the Winter Soldier, and, in the last days, Rocket Raccoon from the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy. I knew the game relied on players treating it with a collector mentality, and with all the cool heroes to earn, and alternate costumes plumbed from the depths of Marveld0m (and, alternately, added to keep up with current comics), it’s not hard to see why. That part of me that wants to have a full set of things definitely felt a bit disappointed I couldn’t get Falcon, a character I otherwise could take or leave. (A much larger part of me was disappointed that I couldn’t get Rocket Raccoon, because, c’mon, he’s a frickin’ raccoon with a gun. Lots of guns. I am pretty enamored with Rocket Raccoon right now.)
The idea that Playdom could just make that collection go away, for hundreds of players, just felt wrong to many of them. They’d put effort into their collections, as earning new heroes took a lot of time, good fortune, and, often, money. Somehow, this is not a problem that had ever occurred to me with digital collections. I never took to them the way I did to their “real” counterparts: I’d always rather collect a trading card game that’s actually printed than a digital one, which loses what I feel is a certain critical tactility; despite the fact that they are quickly becoming a storage problem, my comics collection is mostly analog; I eschew convenience for the physical thing. I didn’t play Avengers Alliance long enough to be too attached to what I’d earned – I hadn’t earned much – but to consider one of my own collections just vanishing by no fault of my own is…troubling.
Players, of course, accused Playdom of a certain amount of malice here, that they were shutting down the Playdom.com version of the game for the sole purpose of making its players repurchase everything on Facebook (where they’d also be subjected to more ads and a generally less-good play experience). This is sensationalist, of course. I’m sure Playdom hopes that some of those players would do just that, but they didn’t pull the plug on one version of their game just to troll their players, paying and otherwise.
Then the scramble to escape began.
From the beginning, a few threads popped up on the forums that went like, “What are you going to do with your last month?” They appeared to be the minority, these players who both wanted to talk on the forums and pretty quickly accepted that this decision was not going to be overturned by any amount of griping on a message board. Soon, though, they – along with the calls for refunds, the accusations of theft, the anger, the pleading – were drowned under a deluge of threads asking for help getting a Facebook transfer.
At first, players were under the impression this was impossible: whether that was something Playdom said or something players just assumed, I don’t know. But within a few weeks of the announcement, Playdom started accepting Facebook transfer requests, shifting some amount of a player’s information and digital purchases to the Facebook platform. The transfer was far from perfect; players who transferred would lose nearly everything, only starting with a bit extra gold (the in-game real money currency), but even the level-capped, three-dozen hero, tech-tree-nearly-finished players would have to otherwise start from square one. This baffled a lot of people. It kind of baffled me, why two iterations of the game would be stored in such a way as to be so separate. I don’t think Playdom should have necessarily planned for the contingency of shutting down one site while keeping the other, but if the architecture of each game’s player data was so different, that must have necessitated rebuilding parts of the game to accommodate.
Playdom didn’t explain further. They didn’t have to, I suppose, though a lot of players were frustrated with what appeared to be the equivalent of leaving a hastily-scrawled note on the fridge and never coming back. Players flocked to get Facebook transfers, or at least that’s what it felt like, to look at the forums; dozens of threads about getting help started popping up, largely because of the internet’s propensity to not read anything it doesn’t have to or do even a cursory search of the site they are on. The transfer process was hacked-together at best, requiring players to submit a support ticket, and then eventually maybe it happened, which implies Playdom must have had people dedicated to moving accounts manually, to some degree. Some players had the extremely helpful recommendation of submitting up to two dozen identical tickets, like it was a lottery, and I’m sure this made Playdom’s job much simpler. The transfers also caused a certain schism in the community, as only players who had bought some amount of stuff with real money would get transferred, and the free players, in some cases, felt they were essentially being punished for not purchasing things. This led to at least one thread debating whether or not the free players were acting entitled.
And then things just ended. On the ascribed day, going to the Avengers Alliance URL would just get you redirected to Playdom.com’s front page, where the handful of games still running there were still on offer. This has been said before, and about games that were a bigger deal (and actually ceased to exist, rather than just ceased to exist on one platform), but somehow I was expecting more of an end. But one day the game just wasn’t there.
For me, I stopped playing very shortly after the announcement, though I did check-in on the forums periodically to observe the apocalypse. But now, I have to wonder about the players for whom this was a more constant habit, just cut-off. There must be some feeling that their world, their personal corner of it, has changed.