31 August 2012, the City of Heroes community was rocked by the announcement that the 8 year old MMORPG was cancelled. “Effective immediately, all development on City of Heroes [would] cease”, the servers being shut down on 30 November 2012. City of Heroes, by Paragon Studios, was being ended by NCSoft as part of a “realignment of company focus”.
Several gaming websites covered the story briefly, focusing on fans’ efforts to save the game. Very few sites covered one of the major reasons the fans were protesting, thinking it was just another example of gamers resisting change. The campaign to save City of Heroes has been a largely dignified affair, with players wanting to make their voice heard not that it was unfair to lose their game, but they felt the way the staff had been so summarily fired was just wrong. As players took up the protest over this unfair treatment, bigger news outlets picked up the story and speculated if the use of social media would have any impact on the parent company’s decision to axe the game. I had a chance to ask Matt Miller (aka Positron), the lead developer, what he made of the player community reaction.
“I knew there would be some outcry, but I don’t think anyone expected the type of response it generated. I’ve been in MMOs for almost 10 years, and played them for years before that and I’ve never seen a response like the players of COH put out. Looking back on it, I should have expected it though. I mean most of these players were role-playing Heroes, fighting against things they saw as wrong and unjust, so their real-world response was rather fitting.”
In the same 31 August statement, Andy Belford, the community manager, urged players not to “dwell on the “how” or the “why“, but rather join us in celebrating the legacy of an amazing partnership between the players and the development team”. That’s not hyperbole on his part. City of Heroes is the only MMO in my experience that had such a rich communication between development and players. Matt Miller commented that relationship had come about as a natural evolution, that “CoH had a very lively community before it even launched, so a lot of communication happened between the original developers and the original community. Everyone who came onto the project just saw it as ‘how we did things around here’.”
Aside from the usual channels of petitions, forum threads and emails, players could get their questions answered directly in the weekly ‘Community Coffee Talk’, hosted by a member of the development team. How many other games could boast that?
Perhaps the most telling example of the unusual relationship between CoH’s developers and players comes from the story about Coyote. Players used to meet Coyote as the final contact in the original tutorial missions – he’s now encountered in the new one reassuring civilians but does not give missions. The NPC was named after the first pre-beta message board member, Kiyotee, who passed away shortly after the game’s release (source: Titan Network). The development staff wanted to honour his passing by placing him in the game.
Players were encouraged to contribute ideas and designs to the team in charge of costume parts and that thread on the forum was always busy. Seeing your designs in game being used by other players was a real joy. Another joy was the sheer pleasantness of the community at large. Unlike many congregations of people on the internet, civility was the norm and people tended to use public chats responsibly (of course, after midnight things will lapse into the cheerfully inane). I could speculate that this was just another example of ‘how we did things around here’, but knowing your concerns, suggestions and complaints would be heard by the developers meant a less frustrated and gobby player base in response. No need to shout at the heavens if you know someone will listen in the room.
It wasn’t just about the relationship with the developers either. There has been and still is, perhaps now even more so, a real sense of camaraderie and respect for fellow players. A situation a few years ago comes to mind, when a member of our supergroup’s mother had fallen very ill and so the member was leaving the game so she could care for her. I told the group that if anyone wanted to send get well cards or encouragements to our friend, that I had her contact details and could forward them on to her. A flood of letters and cards arrived on my doorstep within days.
When Mighty Saguaro’s player passed away, his home server – incidentally also mine – held tributes to his memory. There was a real sense of loss and grief and on the day of the news that City of Heroes was closing down, he was remembered in the global channels.
I could not even begin to cover how many charity events the community has taken part in or initiated, nor can I count the amount of events, contests, quizzes and player created wikis like the Titan Network’s and character creators like Mids provided free and to enrich everyone’s gaming experience.
This was the real community of City of Heroes, which contributed to its enduring success for so many years.
You may be able to tell from the way I talk about it that I have played City of Heroes. I have played since 2005 and in 7 years, I’ve found new things to do, new characters to create and evolving missions and stories to get me interested. The beautiful thing about the game was that the ‘hook’ to keep people playing was story, or new power sets becoming available. If you were of the mindset that liked to grind XP, you could do that, or if you were like me and find grinding an anathema, you can just go play some stories with your friends and do some role playing.
One of the most compelling story lines was the VIP episodic content “Who Will Die”, which saw the death of the game’s signature hero, Statesman, and another member of the Freedom Phalanx, Sister Psyche. I asked Matt Miller how the team had come up with such an audacious idea.
“Killing Statesman was an idea that Brian Clayton had ever since starting the studio up, as something to set ourselves apart, but we never had the manpower or time to do such a monumental thing. … That’s when I came up with the “Signature Story Arc” idea, stretch it out over several months to give us time to do it. Of course, with stretching come leaks and we really didn’t want our only surprise to be ‘Pigg Dived’ before we launched it, so I had the idea of killing off two characters instead. So “One will die” became “Who will die?” and then it was a matter of figuring out who else to kill. I think it was Chris “Baryonyx” Behrens who made a compelling case for Sister Psyche. Adding some tragedy into the happiness we left her and Manticore with last and giving Manticore a chance to go full-on Vigilante.”
I think the revelation of the mastermind behind events was the greater surprise, as it ended up being an oft-overlooked, easily missed NPC from the City of Villains side:
“Sean “Dr. Aeon” McCann came up with the ultimate villain. We wanted someone who definitely WOULD and COULD do the deed, but wasn’t an easy guess. Sean’s knowledge of the CoH backstory is second to none; his choice … was perfect.”
Material like this and mission arcs that ranged from neighbourhood problems to inter-dimensional rescues to time shenanigans was what kept players coming back again and again. No one character, unless you monkeyed about with time or switched off your XP (a feature that existed), could do every mission. This meant you could not only pick your costume and powers, but you could choose how your character would act in the city, what issues mattered to them and who they felt was a bigger threat.
City of Heroes boasted two things that made it stand out from other MMOs, the first being the almost infinite variety you could achieve in costume creation. With so many pieces to choose from, there are millions of costume combinations a player could create. This led to so much variety in character origins and personality that in seven years, I never encountered a doppleganger character. Power sets might be the same, but the unique costume gives every hero or villain their individuality.
The second string to the City of Heroes’ bow was the unique sidekick/exemplar system that enabled an epic, Incarnate tier character to take time out from battling the forces of cosmic destruction to show a new level 2 hero how to halt a purse snatching at no expense to either player’s XP gain. The same was true the other way round, an epic, Incarnate tier character can drag a low level character along on their quest to stop a malevolent god of Death from consuming the entire world (which would really ruin everyone’s weekend).
All of this coming together is what made City of Heroes, and its alter-ego, City of Villains, a phenomenal game to play, filled with unique heroes, villains, vigilantes, rogues and none-of-the-aboves. The writing and the missions managed to make you feel like a real superhero or villain, placing you at the heart of your own story that had consequences, losses and victories. The community were always alive with events you could join and things to do. The players enjoyed a privileged relationship with their developers and I hope everyone will retain ties even after 30 November.
“As the end draws closer I ask them to look back on the good times they had, and to keep in touch with their friends in other games. Even if you might not care for a particular MMO that your friends are moving to, I’ve found that having friends to play with makes up for a lot of shortcomings in the game itself. City of Heroes was awesome, and it was a huge part of my life. I am sad to see it go, but have come to realize that nothing in life is “forever”. I look forward to new endeavors and new games to play with my friends.”
– Matt “Positron” Miller