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From the Archives: Reflecting on City of Heroes, September 2012

Suzie Ford Posted:
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With all the discussion lately about the possible rebirth of City of Heroes as a "private" server run by former players and fans of the game, we dug through the archives of content surrounding the game to step back in time to the waning days of what many call one of the greatest MMOs of all time. In a piece written in 2012 shortly before the lights went out on CoH servers, Mike Bitton wrote a reflective piece about his time with the game and what it meant over the course of its history. Take a walk back in time with us and then leave us your fondest memories and thoughts about CoH in the comments.

There has been a lot of talk in the last week or so about City of Heroes, probably more than in the past five years combined. With the discovery of a "secret" CoH server that had been running for years and the subsequent release of the server code designed to see more fan servers pop up. The conversation has been spirited across multiple threads (for instance, here, here, here, and here). 

While that conversation about the "rightness" or "wrongness" of so-called private servers is all well and fine, the one thing that I've found missing are the anecdotal stories about why City of Heroes was such an amazing thing. What made it one of "the greatest MMOs of all time"? What caused its demise despite all the folks championing CoH as the best of the best? If it was exactly that, how could it have died?

As I asked myself these questions, I paged through articles from 5+ years to see what our staff had written about CoH and I discovered a reflective piece from Mike Bitton from September 2012, copied below (you can view the original article here). Read it, see a contemporaneous editorial about why Mike believe(d) it was a great game and his firsthand account of logging in during the waning months of CoH's "official" life. Then leave us your thoughts. Tell us your stories. 

Reflecting on City of Heroes - Mike Bitton,  - September 12, 2012

I first jumped into the MMO scene with the launch of Star Wars Galaxies in 2003.  As an over-obsessed Star Wars nerd, SOE and LucasArts reeled me right in, despite the fact I’d resisted playing MMOs for years and scoffed at the notion of paying month-to-month for an online video game. However, it was City of Heroes that really gave me the MMO bug, and I’ve been quite saddened to hear that the game we all knew was sun setting, is going to have its plug pulled on it fairly abruptly. Just in case you haven’t heard, NCSoft recently announced that City of Heroes will shut down this year and Paragon Studios will close along with it.

With Star Wars Galaxies now shut down and City of Heroes set to experience the same fate, two major chapters of my MMO life will be coming to a close.  Gosh, I played City of Heroes for about four to five years. I don’t think there’s an MMO out there that I’ve played for as long. Most players have one of these MMOs and City of Heroes was mine. I still fondly recall receiving a beta invite for the game on my birthday back in 2004. At that point, I was already super hyped up, having watched videos of the game back when it still had free-form power allocation and Cryptic was touting locational damage.

Really try and think back to 2002 or even ahead to 2004 when the game officially launched and consider what MMOs were like at the time. Cryptic Studios was really going against the grain both in gameplay and theme. City of Heroes focused on doing ‘action combat’ before it became a buzzword and players could group up with each other regardless of level and party size due to the way the game’s instanced content and sidekicking system worked. You could fly around, leap across the city, speed through tunnels, all the while tossing fireballs, going super nova, or just smashing some dude into the air with a hammer made entirely of stone. This all from a first-time developer that really fought an uphill battle trying to bring the game to market.

As promising as the game was, City of Heroes simply didn’t resemble anything on the market at the time, both in gameplay and aesthetic, and this made it a huge challenge for the fledgling developer to pitch it to publishers. Fortunately, NCSoft was willing to bet on Cryptic Studios. And to NCSoft’s credit, the publisher doubled-down on the game in recent years, dedicating an entire studio to the development of the game and its IP, and even putting out a new expansion after City of Villains didn’t really do as well as they had hoped. 

Of course, nothing’s perfect. City of Heroes experienced its fair share of controversies. Like any game, these mostly involved massive changes to gameplay systems (Enhancement Diversification, anyone?), but the most frustrating of all was waiting for the developer to add new stuff to the game. Game updates, or “Issues”, as Cryptic (and later Paragon) called them, were often gigantic in size and scope, but came fairly infrequently. This meant players spent a long time waiting for major changes and additions and it made more than a few members in the community a bit stir crazy at times.

Despite any quibbles, City of Heroes has always had a dedicated fan base and I count myself among it. World of Warcraft launched later that year in 2004 and I didn’t even bat an eyelash. After all, WoW wouldn’t allow me the ridiculous level of character customization City of Heroes did and it certainly wasn’t going to let me go supernova on a rooftop and blow 20 enemies down the street in all different directions. There just wasn’t anything like it and it took quite a while for anything else to come even close.  

Fans of the game all have their various reasons for why City of Heroes has captured their attention for as long as it has, but it ultimately comes down to the fact the game provided a very unique experience to MMO fans and has fostered a unique community of its own as a result. That’s why it’s no surprise to me that players have come together around a last ditch attempt to save City of Heroes by petitioning NCSoft. Players even staged an in-game protest at Atlas Park’s City Hall this weekend and really came out in force.

But, I just don’t see it working. These sorts of decisions don’t come lightly – and it’s not as if NCSoft hasn’t given the game a fair shake over the years.

A few months ago I actually had the curiosity to check out City of Heroes’ population. It had been a while since I’d actively played the game and I wanted to see how things were doing after the free-to-play relaunch. What I discovered is that the game was a veritable ghost town on my once super popular server of Virtue. This isn’t exactly scientific, but I logged on during prime time on a Friday or Saturday night and actually checked each and every zone on both Virtue and Freedom to see how many players were around. The low population numbers were really staggering. Sure, a bunch of players were probably battling their way through a variety of instanced content, but I had never seen the game with such a small amount of players around. I even recall logging on one of my villain characters and taking a stroll of Cap au Diable and there wasn’t a single soul in sight, not even at the Black Market.

At this point, I knew the sun was setting on Paragon City, but actually seeing it for myself was a real shock. Still, I felt that Paragon Studios was secretly working on a follow-up to the game. The City of Heroes IP is a strong one and the gameplay concepts were sound. Heck, NCSoft had seemingly invested in the studio and was pumping out updates for the game left and right. To me the writing was on the wall for a superheroic sequel to reinvigorate the IP (Guild Wars 2, anyone?), but now with the plug being pulled so abruptly, perhaps we’ll never know if a sequel was indeed in the works.

I really do hope players’ concerted efforts result in a happy ending for the game – but if it doesn’t, I do want to take this moment to thank all of the amazing people I got to meet in the game over the years for the fun times and great experiences. Well, except for those of you who spec’d into Flurry and insisted on using it on cooldown.  I’d also like to wish the developers at Paragon Studios, who through their continued work on the game left no doubt in my mind that their work was truly a labor of love, the best of luck wherever life takes them from here.

Back to the present....

So there it is -- a piece that reflects a time near the end of CoH's life. What do you remember from that time and the years before? Leave us your best stories. We'd love to hear them. 


Suzie Ford

Suzie is the former Associate Editor and News Manager at MMORPG.com. Follow her on Twitter @MMORPGMom