City of Heroes was the first massively multiplayer online game to be based on the concept of superheroes. Previously, MMOs were almost exclusively fantasy — even today, that’s the dominant theme in the game genre — and those that weren’t were all space fiction. City of Heroes invited its players to take part in a world inspired by comic books; not any particular company’s comic books. Just the concept of superheroes in general. It launched in April 2004, seven months before the release of what would become the biggest and best-known MMO, World of Warcraft. CoH never hit WoW’s numbers, but it had a steady fanbase. It celebrated its eighth birthday this year. And later this year, while World of Warcraft celebrates its eighth birthday, fans of City of Heroes shall be attending its funeral.
Last Friday, NCsoft, the company that owns City of Heroes announced that they were shutting down Paragon Studios, the division responsible for development of new content for the game, and shutting down the game itself. November 30th will be the last day that heroes shall fly in Paragon City, the last day that villains skulk in the Rogue Isles. No reason has been given beyond a statement that it just doesn’t fit in with their plans for the future. The announcement from Paragon Studios, fast on the heels of NCsoft’s announcement, asks the fans not to worry about the “how” or “why”, but that’s not really in human nature. We want to know, even though it’s unlikely we shall. Speculation has run that the game may not have been profitable enough, especially since it went to a free-to-play microtransaction-based model, but although NCsoft apparently posted in the red for the first time last quarter, City of Heroes was still in the black. Some have speculated that Cryptic Studios, the company that originally developed the game before selling it to NCsoft (their publisher at the time), were going to deny a renewal of the license for the game engine. Some have speculated about new business partners for NCsoft wanting to trim competition, or of NCsoft wanting to use the assets spent on City of Heroes for newer properties. There’s no real way to know unless they come out and say it, and it doesn’t really matter a whole lot. The bottom line is, this is the end of the line for the world’s first superhero MMO.
It may even be a Nemesis plot. I wouldn’t put it past him at this point.
The one thing I do know is that, as a player and a fan, this leaves a mighty sour taste in my mouth, and taking a look at the official forums, I’m not alone. This came suddenly. Development hadn’t been slowing down on the game; if anything, it had been accelerating. A new content issue had just been announced and released to the beta server for testing. Sweeping changes were being made to the game’s ongoing storylines. There was no indication to the players that the game was on its last legs. And, from the sounds of it, there was no indication to the developers either. Messages posted by the Paragon Studios team to the forums, while polite and thankful to the players, and trying to focus on the positive, indicate that they heard of the shutdown the same day as the players did. Which, no matter how you slice it, is a pretty dickish move on NCsoft’s part. I wish nothing but the best for the Paragon Studios team, who have shown themselves to be class acts the whole time they’ve been developing the game. If I hear that the known team members get hired by or form some other studio and begin developing a new game, I’ll at least be interested in hearing how it turns out. Meanwhile, I have trouble thinking of any reason why I would want to give my support to NCsoft again. Even if they were canceling it to bring about City of Heroes 2 in the next few years, the way they went about it is about the worst form of PR they could have given themselves.I’ve been playing the game, albeit off-and-on, for a long time now. I’ve made a lot of memories in the game. It sounds strange to say that about a video game — I still tend to think of video games as being like Pac-Man, static unchanging things — but City of Heroes had a lot of room for player creativity, it had fun stories to partake in, and it fostered a great community of players. Memories is the word. I have a lot of fondness for the game and always will. Come November 30, the game will go where all memories go, in the past. Even if I find a new game that I enjoy as much, I will only be able to form similar memories; it won’t be the same. So the nostalgia I’m feeling for the game has as much bitter as sweet in it; though I have had tremendous fun with it, there’s the knowledge that many of the things I loved about it I may never experience again. I wasn’t one of the first players. But I wasn’t as far behind as might be expected for somebody who had never been interested in an MMO before. I first heard of the game about the time World of Warcraft came out, in November 2004. At the time I was a member of a forum dedicated to playing Heroclix, and its sister-site, dedicated to comic books. Speaking of great communities, the friends I made on those boards are still among my usual cronies even though the boards have long since shut down. You’ll recognize some of the names in the comments on my blog, and on the blogs I frequent: Alexander Rhoades, Fogs, K26dp, Andrew Gelfman, Spikor, and others. A group of the board members got interested in the game and began playing together. I had to wait; my computer at the time was old and wasn’t capable of running it. But I had a good-paying job, and I had been wanting to upgrade my machine anyway, so I saved my money, and eventually plunked down $3000 on a bleeding-edge machine that (with a few upgrades here and there) I’m still using today. The computer was delivered in February 2005; I had already purchased City of Heroes to install on it and play. Soon after I started playing, I found myself with more free time than I could have asked for in which to play, as my job was suddenly canceled and consolidated into the parent company, without warning. When I called NCsoft’s move dickish, I was speaking from experience. But I had money to tide me over until I found a new job, and had just paid off my car, so spending time in Paragon City was a fine way to spend my time while I looked. Time and again, over the years, when I needed some mindless entertainment while I processed something difficult to deal with, City of Heroes provided me some bad guys to beat up while I worked things out.
Having never played an MMO before, I didn’t know at first what exactly to expect from the players, aside from the group I already knew. I expected them to mostly be jerks, that’s the overall reputation of serious video game players. And that still seems to be the reputation of players of most MMOs. But it wasn’t the case for City of Heroes; sure, I encountered the occasional jackass, but it was relatively rare. It became a recurring trend over the years, expressed time and time again from players coming from other games and communities. “I’m a noob, I don’t know what I’m doing, I just screwed the whole team big-time… and you’re not acting like jerks about it?” The wording of the response varied as much as the query, but the message was always the same: that isn’t the way a hero would act. Even when the game added the ability to play villains, the players remained classy villains.
I may never again see such a good community of bad guys.Part of it may have been the almost non-existent role of player vs. player combat, but I think part of it was because of a basic difference in the mentality of the players regarding their characters. I noticed early on that it was common for a man to be playing a female character, or for a woman to be playing a male character. It seemed just a little odd at first, until I realized what it was. The players weren’t identifying with their characters. Oh, they were fond of them, they were every bit as strongly attached as players of other games. More so, in fact. But it was the attachment of a writer to their creation. They weren’t pretending to be their character (though I’m sure some did); they were playing out their character’s stories. That’s why they didn’t get upset if something went wrong; it wasn’t hurting them, it was just a minor setback for their hero. And because they were creating characters, it made perfect sense that people made characters of all colors, sizes, shapes and sexes. Wonder Woman is every bit as legitimate a hero as Superman, after all. Nobody who wanted to create their own comic book characters wanted to create characters of only one gender, and the game was designed for people who wanted to create their own comic book characters. And boy did it ever cater to the creative crowd. Some games give you only one character, or one per server. City of Heroes gave subscribers 11 character slots each — with more able to be purchased — on 11 servers (later 16). You could have over a hundred characters at your fingertips. And the costume creator allowed you to choose male, female, or huge male characters, of any height from three feet to eight, with hundreds of designs for different costume elements. Unless you were deliberately going for it, it was unlikely any two characters would look alike. And each character could earn multiple costume slots as they leveled; characters in comic books change their looks periodically, so why shouldn’t your game character? With so many possible characters at my disposal, my choices were virtually unlimited. If I wanted to have a mad roboticist who thought he was Nikola Tesla, I could. If I wanted to have a vegetable-rights activist, I could. I designed straightforward heroes, sneaky villains, rakish vigilantes and rogues. I created Maledictus, at right, by attempting to come up with the ugliest character I could without having anything clash. I got more compliments on his design than on any other character.
I may never have such unlimited freedom in a game ever again.Of course, such unlimited freedom provided a massive temptation to players who wanted to play as their favorite pre-existing heroes. I’ll admit to a small temptation myself, though I limited myself to a certain public-domain swashbuckler. But it was fairly common to see clones of Superman or Wolverine or Batman wandering around, or Spider-Man even though there wasn’t a power set that really came close to the webslinging wallcrawler. Marvel sued Cryptic Studios (then owners of the game) for trademark infringement, because of the possibility that players could create Marvel characters in the game; they settled out of court, and from that point on, there was a hefty attempt by the moderators to turn any infringing character into a generic one. Many players found that their perfect Wolverine was now bright orange in undecorated spandex and named GenericCharacter000252. Not that this really stopped anybody. Over the years I saw clones of pretty much all the X-Men and Justice League members, Dragon Ball Z characters, the Shadow, the Lone Ranger, you name it. I remember, when 300 was released to theatres, seeing a couple dozen clones of Leonidas standing around Miss Liberty in Atlas Park. And one clone of Achilles from Troy making fun of them all.
They didn’t rest on their laurels when it came to the costume creator, either. New items were added with every content issue. Many were just freely available, especially during the subscription days. When it moved to free-to-play, many of the new items added during an issue were available for a microtransaction. And a few items could be earned in the game, such as the laurel wreath and toga for completing the Valentine’s Day missions. And there were frequently attempts to add even more customization. I remember the fans on the forums crying out for the ability to change the colors of their powers. I remember the dev team saying it couldn’t be done without a massive overhaul of the graphics engine. And I remember when they did it anyway.
I may never again see someone playing a villainous Disney fairy.
I may never again see a dev team decide to prove themselves wrong for the good of the game.What always kept me coming back to the character creator — to the point where actually spending the time to level my characters up sometimes didn’t happen — was that there was always something new to discover, some new design to come up with. Some new way to make use of something. I remember when the dev team announced veteran rewards, for players who had been subscribers for a long time, and special costume pieces being part of that. I remember angel wings and demon wings being part of the rewards, and I remember someone on the forum wondering if the angel wings would get any use — after all, how many different angel characters can you make? I remember the speculation, proven correct, that the wings would be color-tintable like any other costume part. And so I took my angel wings, made them blue and green, and created a character whose DNA was fused with that of a parrot. Even in a game where nearly every character is unique and inventive designs abound, Parrot Man elicited comment where ever he went.
I may never again be asked if I want a cracker while already munching on a doughnut.It could work the other way, too, of course; one of the things my regular play group did was to create the “Zebra Death Squad Troopers”, a group of identical characters distinguished only by their call numbers. Being part of a mook swarm was more fun than it had any right to be.
Of course, all that variety in the costume creator wouldn’t mean much if the rest of the game weren’t up to snuff. But the game featured in-depth stories, missions that actually seemed to matter. Sure, if you were playing all your characters at the same level all the time you would quickly run through the same missions, but if you kept your characters staggered out, the old missions would have time to seem fresh again. And new issues usually brought more storylines to play out. I came into the game just after the 5th Column, a remnant of the Nazis, was ushered out of the game. I remember when they came back. I remember fighting to free Statesman. I remember wondering if Azuria would ever discover deadbolts. I remember the revamp of Faultline and the massive, twisty storyline that took place there. I remember issue 5, and the introduction of Croatoa, a zone I immediately loved. I’ve always liked Halloween, and Croatoa was Halloween town. Ghosts. Witches. Evil gnomes. Pumpkin-headed demons fighting a never-ending battle against deer-like monsters.
I may never again see a zone so perfectly dedicated to a single season yet available year-round.
Croatoa may have had Halloween-y elements, but it existed throughout the year. Nearly all of my heroic characters went through it sooner or later, and I always made a point of visiting it in October.No doubt I’ll be giving it one last farewell this October.
But while Croatoa had a Halloween-like feel, the City of Heroes team made sure to include actual events for holidays as well. Halloween brought trick-or-treating, where the mission doors would sometimes give you special bonuses and would sometimes unleash dangerous monsters on you. Eochai, the Giant Monster the Fir Bolg worshiped in Croatoa, would break loose from that zone and rampage across all the zones of the game. I remember teaming up with other heroes to take down a great pumpkin who rose only from the most insincere pumpkin patches. Later years just kept building on the Halloween horror. The Unseelie Court arrived to wreak havoc. Spirits attempted to take over city zones. A hero or villain who found themselves alone when the zombie apocalypse struck might quickly find themselves taking a dirt nap — at least until they teleported to the hospital. Last year they added a team mission in a haunted house, and it was a blast.
The other holidays weren’t neglected, of course. City of Heroes just finished their own homage to “Shark Week” by having “Captain Mako Week”, where the signature villain rampaged across various cities. Valentine’s Day would have heroes and villains teaming up to defend the neutral ground of the Pocket D discotheque. I remember delivering Valentines for in-game characters — usually to the wrong person because it was funnier. And, of course, there was the Winter Event. It would start in December, and go through January. When I joined the game, I just barely missed the first one, but it was back every year thereafter. I remember throwing snowballs and skating across frozen lakes. It seemed only appropriate to bedeck a character in a festive costume. I remember chasing down Christmas presents all over the city. I remember rescuing the world’s ugliest Baby New Year. I remember the Winter Lords.
I may never again see a game pay such determined homage to a real life tradition.
The non-holiday content was full of thrills as well. There was a sprawling storyline with parallel worlds and larger-than-life heroes and villains created by the developers. But these heroes and villains, though something to aspire to, weren’t unachievable figures. The end story for any hero involved fighting the most powerful villains and saving the most powerful heroes. The end story for any villain involved fighting the most powerful heroes and villains. I came into the game before the City of Villains expansion was released. I pre-ordered it, and participated in the beta testing. I remember the fun of discovering new play styles as the villains introduced new character archtypes. I remember the sense of intrigue in the early missions as my villains were to find their place in the organization of Arachnos. I remember the massive brawl that was the end-of-beta party, with developers bringing in their signature heroes to attack all the players’ villains. I remember Manticore asking me if I wanted an enema arrow after ambushing him. I remember the fun of being able to ambush him, and when the expansion went live, I recreated my beta character on a live server. Just as my scrapper Shadowsmite became my first hero to hit the level cap at 50, my stalker Sneakthief became my first villain to do so.
I may never again see an evil giant snowman do the baby elephant walk.
The story was never quite static, either. Many of the missions remained the same, but sometimes the world would change. The Council drove out the 5th Column. Many years later, they came back. The two factions still fight in the streets. Calvin Scott sent heroes on a mission to try and separate the minds of two psychic heroes, his wife Aurora Borealis and Sister Psyche. Eventually the devs decided it was time for his efforts to pay off, and the two were freed. The zone known as Faultline started off as a desolate wasteland; eventually it began to be rebuilt. The Going Rogue expansion, in addition to letting heroes fall and villains redeem themselves, showed the parallel world of Praetoria in a new light, a world of shades of gray under a tyrannical dictatorship. I remember my character Percussionista fighting to liberate the people of Praetoria. I remember my character Stellar Jay fighting to keep them oppressed. I remember Galaxy City, a mainstay of the game from the beginning, being annihilated by a meteor when the game went free-to-play. I remember being surprised to see a character I rescued suddenly appearing in the city where she hadn’t been before; one of the changes in the last few years was the ability to have the game reflect changes made by an individual player’s actions. I remember Statesman, the game’s biggest hero, the personal avatar of the founder of the game, being killed off.
I remember the black market trucks bearing an unmistakeable resemblance to an unquestionable hero.
I remember the “smaller” stories as well, the ones that didn’t change things for the world of the game, but still told definite stories for my characters. I remember my heroes being run ragged trying to stop the Freakalympics. I remember my villains having to do the most petty of evils for Westin Phipps; I may never steal schoolbooks for a villain again. There were a variety of personalities in the allies of both heroes and villains; my villains will never share a maniacal laugh with Vernon von Grun again. I remember my heroes protecting the Omega Team memorial to earn their capes. I remember everything turning out to be a Nemesis plot.If anything, that might be what personally bothers me most about the impending shutdown. There will be some memories of my characters achievements, of my play experiences, I won’t get to have because they won’t happen. By having level 50 characters, I earned access to the four Epic Archtypes. But I never got around to creating a character of the fourth type. I may not have time to find out what it’s like to play a Crab Spider. And my existing Epic AT characters are a ways away from level 50 yet. I don’t know how their stories end. There is custom content for Peacebringers, Warshades, Spiders, and Widows. I haven’t had the time to see it all. I suppose that’s inevitable in any game, but it would have been nice to see how the story ended for these characters. Don’t get me wrong, though; I still plan on seeing how far I can take some of them, though as a free player my character slots are not as open as they used to be, and I don’t know if they plan on opening it all up as subscriptions become, well, irrelevant. The game had its sense of humor as well. One quickly got the sense that the devs were fans as much as the players were. There were little in-jokes and references to different comic book characters; never anything that would quite get them into legal trouble, but little nods and winks that comic book fans would recognize. I remember Dr. Strangefate insisting that he was a simple surgeon “and nothing more”, repeatedly. I remember running missions for Tony Kord, an amalgam of Iron Man and Blue Beetle’s civilian identities. Every hero city zone had a pair of detectives who would give out random missions; these detectives were always oblique references to television shows and movies about cops, from Magnum P.I. to Bullitt. Those random missions had a humorous tone more often than not, as well. I remember rescuing Philo from station U52 after station manager George reported him missing. I remember recovering a gem called the Blue Oyster from a cult. I remember the Circle of Thorns trying to figure out how to warp time; it was just a step to the left and a jump to the right.
I may never again be told that the use of unnecessary violence has been approved.Missions varied in scope and feel. Some were funny. Some were tragic. Some were small, simple things, practically a milk run across the city. Some were epic in scope, sending a hero across parallel worlds. Timed missions made everything seem like a race. Mayhem missions allowed a villain to literally tear a city block apart.
The graphics of the game were always something special to look at. When they were introduced, they were leagues beyond anything I had seen before. And though eventually those graphics would be outpaced, the game would not be. The development team gradually overhauled the graphics. People with higher end graphics cards could access the new “ultra mode” graphics that raised City of Heroes back to being on par with the current generation of games. Mirrors gained reflections. Water gained refraction. The whole world gained shadows that moved in real time as the sun passed over the city.I remember, when my graphics card died and I installed a new one, marveling at the difference in the game. Zones which had always looked good before now looked unbelievably beautiful. There had always been some good looking zones in the game — Croatoa, as mentioned before, Eden, Founder’s Falls — but the graphical improvements took them to the next level. The new zones in Praetoria, designed with those improvements in mind, looked even better. And then the development team started improving some of the older zones, raising the quality of starting zone Atlas Park, and turning the creepy but murky Dark Astoria into an all-out horror show. I only had a small amount of time to explore the new Dark Astoria — it’s a subscription only zone and I haven’t had the money to devote to the game lately — but I was very impressed (and more than a little creeped out) by what I saw. The villain designs didn’t remain stagnant either. It’s one of the most laudable things about Paragon Studios as a development team — if something wasn’t good enough, or had become “not good enough” through the passage of time, they updated it. The Rikti started off just deformed aliens; with the Rikti invasion they gained elaborate body armor. The Circle of Thorns had, for years, been faceless mooks in plain cloth robes. After a graphical update, they were still faceless but their robes were anything but plain, with fancy thorn patterns all over the cloth. I suspect that given enough time, any enemy group that didn’t seem up to par would have gotten upgraded, and the costume creator selections improved as well. There was never a sense that the development team was just phoning it in or coasting on their successes. But more than all the changes, all the great graphics, all the hoopla around events and new releases… I remember the game being just plain fun. Sure, the combat wasn’t particularly deep or anything like that; few games are. But it had that simple addictive quality that so well serves MMOs. I remember having Shadowsmite charge in against three red-level bosses — characters defined as being more than a match for one hero of their own level, three levels above him — and coming out the winner. I remember wondering if he was a match for a Giant Monster, and learning that no, he wasn’t, but it sure was fun making a go of it. I remember Mad Lord Nikola leading a horde of robots through a mayhem mission, utterly obliterating everything in sight. I remember laughing with delight when I discovered the synergy between the oil slick arrow and the fire arrow, turning a Defender — typically a reactive character type — into a devastating offensive weapon. I remember soaring through the sky and admiring the scenery below. I remember the sheer joy of super-leaping from rooftop to rooftop. I remember everything going by in a blur at super speed. I remember struggling to get the knack of the teleport power set. I remember collecting salvage and that small thrill that came when it was finally possible to combine it into an invention. I remember hunting for badges and beating up ludicrous numbers of minions for them.
I remember waiting patiently to snipe an enemy for a distance. I remember charging in to wipe out a group of mooks. I remember maniacally going after Sappers to take them out before they could take my hero out. I remember hunting for what felt like hours to find a mission objective, or that one last villain who has somehow found a hidey-hole in the warehouse. I remember praising and cursing the complexity of Oranbega all in the same breath. I remember getting lost in Perez Park every. Single. Time.I remember arrows and lasers, fireballs and ice swords, sonic cries and nuclear blasts. I remember my gravity controller, Chaomancer, throwing everything including, yes, the actual kitchen sink, at enemies. I remember the Family Capos throwing it back. I remember wondering how the Tsoo sorcerers could teleport through walls when my characters couldn’t. I remember barely verbal Trolls and hilariously demented Freaks. I remember going, hunting, killing Skulls. I remember feeling like my character was invincible. I remember feeling like my character’s enemy was invincible. I remember loading up on inspirations and wearing them down anyway. And I remember the community. I remember my friends who introduced me to the game. I remember teaming up with them, late nights — later for them, on the east coast — running mission after mission. I remember task forces that seemed like they would never end, and not wanting them to. I remember working as a team to bring down an Arch-Villain while firing jokes back and forth in the chat channel. I remember pick-up groups with people I didn’t know from Adam. I remember always feeling just a little concerned about how it would go, and I remember it almost always working out just fine. I remember costume contests under the statue of Atlas. I remember being parts of zone-wide assemblies trying to bring down monsters.
I may never again team up to defeat a giant octopus, or a 50 foot pumpkin, or a walking pile of scrap.
I remember the fun. That’s what remains, at the end of it all. NCsoft may prevent me from continuing to have fun with their game, but they can’t take away the fun I’ve already had. City of Heroes provided me with hours of enjoyment. I’m sad to see it go, but I’m glad for the time I had playing around in the game. I’m glad Cryptic Studios created it; I’m glad Paragon Studios maintained it. I don’t think I would have enjoyed any other MMO quite the way I did City of Heroes.
The plans for the game as it prepares to shut down are still up in the air, as far as anybody in the general public knows. The shutdown announcement said that announcements would be coming to say what will be happening with the game before the shutdown. Will the servers be opened fully for all players subscribed or not? I don’t know. It would be nice, at least for the free players, but I can see the subscribed players being a little annoyed, and let’s face it, as regularly paying customers they have quite a lot to be annoyed at already. Will there be a big end-of-game event on the servers? If Paragon Studios isn’t forced out before the shutdown comes, I would expect so. It’s the sort of thing they’d like to do. Will the character creator be released as a standalone product? Probably not, but people like to hope. There’s already a push to save the game; I wish them luck, but I think it would take more luck than they’re going to get. There was no indication that NCsoft had been trying to sell the property, only that they decided to shut it down.
I don’t know what I might do with my game-playing time when the servers shut down. Maybe I’ll finally check out Champions Online. Or maybe I’ll have Shadowsmite head over to DC Universe Online to see if Superman needs a hand. Or I might just let it be. Between the movies and the books and the blogging, I have plenty of things to take up my time now. I don’t necessarily need to replace City of Heroes with anything. I can even create my characters using my 3D graphics program if I want, though it wouldn’t replicate the game play. But whatever happens, I’ve had my fair share of fun with the game. I’m sorry to see it go. But I’m glad that it was here for the time that it was.
I will never again see Jack-in-Irons’ fat butt run across all creation.
Somehow I’ll miss that, too.