Ephemeral Existence: Picking up the Pieces of City of Heroes

I wrote an article on Medium Difficulty that got featured on the Penny Arcade Report! Check it out!

CoH Statesman

Creating a game is like creating a universe. Not only does the world have to be fabricated out of nothing, so does the world’s inhabitants, its lore, its economy, and society. The developers are like the gods of that universe, and the players fill it with their life. So when inevitably the powers that be have to pull the plug on that world, the simple gesture of shutting off the servers has an apocalyptic impact on the people who built and populated that place.

MMOs are unique in that once the developers stop supporting the game, the game simply ceases to exist in a playable form. For the vast majority of gaming history, old games are generally curated and kept around in some form or another. Even if the technology becomes outdated, it’s a simple matter of plugging in that old PC or console to play the classics. Services like Good Old Games are even letting players enjoy classic titles on modern PCs.

Not so with the massively multiplayer. Once the game is done, it lives on only in pictures, video, and the memories of the players who spent hundreds of hours of their lives in that world. Barring a miraculous reboot of the game or a bootleg server, that world is lost to gamers of future generations.

As of November 30, 2012, gaming historians added City of Heroes, one of the longest running MMOs, to the list of lost gaming experiences.

Developed in 2004 by Cryptic Studios, City of Heroes broke ground by introducing a new setting in the massively multiplayer field, a world full of superheroes, breaking away from the popular Tolkien-esque fantasy setting. It was also remarkable for having what remains as one of the most robust character creation engines in any game.

After being sold to publisher NC Soft in 2007 (with the development team remaining under the new name Paragon Studios), after 24 free expansions, 2 massive add-ons that introduces new alignments (City of Villains and Going Rogue), and after a recent shift to a free-to-play model with City of Heroes: Freedom, the game is no more. News of the shutdown broke in September, and the development team seemed as shocked as any of their fans that the ride was over.

Game designer Melissa Bianco, known as “War Witch” on the CoH message boards, was with City of Heroes since the start, working with Cryptic as early as 2002. Her position at Cryptic was Lead Development Producer. In a post-CoH interview, she recalled the day she and the other devs received the bad news.

“On the day the studio shut down, Brian Clayton, our general manager, gathered us all in a room and tried to explain it to us,” Bianco said. “But as Brian sat before us in the kitchen of Paragon Studios, thinking he’d get through it, then tearing up and breaking down, I just kept thinking of a quote from Field of Dreams. ‘This is the toughest job a manager has… but the organization has decided to make a change…’”

A World Within Worlds

City of Heroes is certainly not the first MMO to be discontinued. Game shutdowns usually create a buzz when they happen, bringing back nostalgic former players who want to witness the death of a universe. When Star Wars: Galaxies was shuttered, devout players gave heartfelt, misty-eyed farewells, remembrances, and angry rants on YouTube.

Not all MMOs are equally long-lived. While some are shut down after just a few short years, other have sustained a small, dedicated following of players over a decade after the original release. In the notable case of The Realm Online, Sierra’s early foray into graphical MMO, the game is still played over 17 years after its initial release. It’s been sold to other companies twice since the 1995 launch, and is now run by Norseman Games. In spite of the now ancient-looking sprites and MIDI music, the game’s user base is enthusiastic enough that they even pay a monthly fee in an age when most modern MMOs are adopting the free-to-play model.

Many factors contribute to the game’s longevity, chief among them being that it can be played reliably on a dial-up modem, and that it requires very little upkeep by today’s game standards. Comparatively, something like City of Heroes requires moderators to be constantly rebalancing and debugging.

Super Fans

Among the most fervent supporters of the game, few have invested more in the game that Eric Sutton, known in the game as “Snow Globe.” In an interview a month prior to the shutdown, Sutton discussed his interest in City of Heroes, not just as a diversion, but as a community.

“I’ve been a subscriber since June 10, 2005 without a break since,” Sutton said. Since then he’d created around 140 different characters, 20 of them at the level cap. He conservatively estimated he’d “spent more than 10,000 hours in game, likely much more. On average about twenty or so hours a week, sometimes more, but often less.” Including time spent on the forums and supplementary websites, Sutton couldn’t begin to guess the total amount of time.

Sutton helped build up the City of Heroes community over the years, and in some rough spots of life, the community served as a sort of support group in return.

“I’d like to think my participation over the years helped build that community. Having that community helped when I found out that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in March. Thankfully the doctors are pretty sure they had all the cancer out, and at this point she is finished with chemotherapy with a month’s worth of radiation treatments left to go. I had hoped to have the community here until everything was over, but that isn’t going to happen.”

Since the September announcement, Sutton had begun his withdrawal from the game world. He stopped leveling his characters, and began logging in mostly to talk with friends. He’s since moved on to other MMOs, buying a lifetime subscription to The Secret World. He said he’s also looking forward to Hawken and Elder Scrolls Online.

The End of Days

Some MMOs had enough advance notice of their closure to create world-ending events, to give players one final hurrah to the game they invested so much of their time and money in. Tabula Rasa’s final days brought together all U.S. servers into one huge collective server. On the last day, the Bane, antagonists here controlled by the Tabula Rasa staff, gradually began taking over the major planets in the game, eventually forcing a final standoff on Earth.

In an even more macabre apocalypse, The Matrix Online simultaneously killed all player characters before forcing them to log out. Players were greeted by a terrifying system message, “Wake up,” seconds before they were violently “crushed” into small jumbles of polygons, complete with a cacophony of player screams.

As morbid as they tend to be, world ending events do give players some closure to the world they populated and filled with their ideas and actions. Every player takes some sense of ownership of an MMO after playing in it for long enough, so the ending event serves as a sort of wake to the initial announcement of the game’s death.

City of Heroes did not have the opportunity to create a game shuttering event. Out of a team of 80 developers, only a few remained to run the game’s community and manage the shutdown. There was not enough time or manpower to engineer a climactic final battle.

Bianco said there were plans to make “an explosive end of the world event with giant robots and aliens, where the Freedom Phalanx could team up with the players for one last time. “Unfortunately, by the time the events took place, most of us had already lost our ‘dev access’ and anything that would have happened would have had to be implemented by current NC Soft employees.”

While a proper ending may have been out of the question, players were treated to a nostalgia trip when the game’s alien menace, the Rikti, return to invade Paragon City. Just as the game’s beta ended with the Rikti attempting to conquer Earth, so did the final weeks mirror that with another Rikti invasion. In the beta, players fought to narrowly defend against flying saucers, at times being pushed back to their respawn points before they could turn the tide in their favor. This time, the tone of the invasion was decidedly less triumphant.

Characters gathered in the game’s starting hub, Atlas Park, in the game’s final moments, shouting obscenities at the game’s publishers, bidding friends farewell, and generally freaking out about the imminent erasure of the characters they’d invested so much of their time into. Periodically, a Rikti warship would bomb one of the zones, but went mostly ignored by players with other things on their mind. Most players stayed right until the last moment, when the game’s final message, “LOST CONNECTION TO MAPSERVER,” appeared in bold letters.

“The NCsoft GM team did great with what they had to work with,” Bianco said. “I respect them. A lot of them were die-hard COH players just like us, but they didn’t know the ins and outs of the game like the Paragon team did, and they still had to maintain all of the other NCsoft games at the same time. I think they did the best they could given the constraints they were under.”

Paragon Studios

Dreams Unrealized

The employees of Paragon Studios were informed of the closing the same day they were let go by parent company NC Soft.

News of the Paragon Studios closure came as a surprise to the developers, who had begun brainstorming and developing content for another five free updates. Each of the updates, referred to officially as “issues” in the graphic novel sense, substantially changed to world, adding new zones, enemies, costumes, powers, and character archetypes. The game was on its 23rd issue iteration at the time of closure. Matt Miller, in an Ask Me Anything interview, commented that content was planned up to issue 28, revolving largely around heroes and villains teaming up to take on an enormous alien menace called The Battalion.

In City of Heroes’ final playable state, the groundwork is visible for future updates. Incarnate powers, a high-level reward tree for the most dedicated players, shows spaces where more abilities would have been implemented, had it been fully realized. It remained as a symbol of Paragon Studios’ sudden loss, blindsided by the closure announcement.

Unwavering Support

Some fans take solace in the fact that other MMOs have risen from their own graves, giving the tiniest glimmer of hope. Square Enix is currently organizing a relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV, which took a lashing from fans and critics alike during its first run. In the remarkable case of the Grand Theft Auto-styled persistent multiplayer shooter, APB, original developer Realtime Worlds shut down the game after less than three months from its launch date, only to sell the rights to Gamersfirst, who relaunched the game with a free-to-play model.

While the switch to free-to-play didn’t save City of Heroes, the fanbase continued fighting to save it, against impossible odds, in a truly heroic fashion. The people who were saving Paragon City for years were tasked with saving it for real.

Dedicated fans organized a “Save CoH” movement to try and convince the game’s owners at NC Soft to reverse the decision, or at least to attempt to sell the game assets to another studio. In one particularly touching act of philanthropy, a group of fans raised enough money to buy lunch for the entire Paragon development team.
The player cries for a stay of execution were heard, and unfortunately, dismissed in an official NC Soft response. But Paragon Studios, at least, were floored by the efforts of fans to keep CoH alive.

“I can’t even begin tell you how amazing our fans have been. You never think, during your day-to-day development life, that you’re making a positive impact on life,” Bianco said. “I read our forums, I saw the tweets, the comments on the Facebook page, the social media campaigns, the hard work, the support. There aren’t any words to really describe how it makes me feel, because it’s almost too overwhelming to explain.”

“We always said that City of Heroes players were the best community in the gaming (even when they were giving us grief!) but when we saw 33 instances of Atlas Park during the player-organized Unity Rally, and all of the campaigns and support to keep the game alive, I felt like I hadn’t done enough for them. I was so humbled. And even though the game has been shut down, our players are STILL going on, they just won’t give up!”

Paragon Studios lead designer Matt Miller, better known to players as Positron, eulogized CoH on his blog the morning of the final day.

“Tomorrow we will all wake up on a planet that no longer has a Paragon City to visit. This is a sad thing, it’s ok to be sad about it. I applaud the time and efforts you heroes (and villains) put into trying to #SaveCoH, and I do wish that those efforts had worked. But let’s all keep our chins up and our pride intact. We (the devs and the players) together made something amazing, and the world will be at a loss without it.”

Further Reading: Heroes at The End of The World: Living in The Final Days of City of Heroes (Medium Difficulty)

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