Fun Fact: City of Heroes is, to this date, both my first and final MMO. As a kid who'd grown up surrounded by Marvel comics, fixated on Saturday morning cartoons, I'd always fancied being a superhero. Even before City of Heroes was announced, I was excited. Less excited, of course, by the subscription, I wasn't too keen on that, but here was a game that would let me live out my superpowered fantasies and team up with others like me.
I was a little apprehensive, truth be told, both that it wouldn't match up to my expectations, and that I wouldn't necessarily enjoy this new experience, predicated on co-operation with a whole bunch of people I'd never met before, who'd been engaged in the world for weeks before me, who might not be kind to a newcomer. I'd heard tales of veterans in EVE preying on the wide-eyed and innocent, ranging bands of rookies in World of Warcraft found themselves overrun by those who deemed them easy pickings, and I feared the same might befall me.
"It is not like any other MMORPG currently available," Mercedes Lackey, the best-selling fantasy author and avid #SaveCOH spokesperson tells me, only a couple of days after NCsoft followed through on the statement that they issued back in August, and pulled plug on City of Heroes. "The game mechanics favour cooperative play, rather than competitive play. The User Interface is easy and intuitive to use, and does not rely on fast reflexes and the "twitch" control of console games.
"The player base tends to be older and more mature; people who find something they like and stick with it, rather than burning through to the endgame and going on to something new. Because of all this, it is very easy to find a large group of people within the game that become friends and share interests and concerns outside of the game. It is VERY rare to hear things like 'LRN 2 PLY N00B!' in broadcast chat, or to be kicked from a team because one is a beginner and making beginner's mistakes.
"Families can play together with their young children, or their grandparents. My husband and I regularly play with with his father (a retired Army Special Forces Sergeant-Major), who lives 1500 miles away from us, and has a very ill wife who needs constant care, limiting his options for recreation. City of Heroes evolved over time into something much more than a mere game."
I was never so glad to be wrong.
Sadly for me, perhaps, life intervened and I found myself unable to dedicate the time and commitment to the game after three or four months that I had in the first couple of weeks. I went off to university, lost touch with the friends I'd made in Paragon City, cancelled my subscription, forgot the name of my electrically-buffed Blaster hero, and moved on. Before I did, though, I got a taste for a community always willing to help one another out, to look out for one another; a community in constant communication with their virtual providers - right up until the lights went out on November 30th, Paragon Studios had been beavering away on in-game events.
"I felt as if someone had just bombed out my entire town," Lackey says of her immediate reaction to hearing that NCsoft was planning to shut the game down. "I felt as if a bus containing a hundred of my best friends had gone off a cliff. I am not exaggerating. I am still breaking into tears.
"The closest analogy I can make is that it is a city of 100,000 built around a theme park. The residents of the city go off and make their living, and then they come home, and when they come home they go play in the theme park with all the friends and neighbours they have here. That's why it is so special. I think the devs figured some of that out, and did the smart thing--instead of policing it and making up rules, they had very few rules, looked to see what "rides" the residents of the city preferred, and made more of them. And most of all, they took down as many of the barriers that kept people from becoming friends as they could.
"If you took the best parts of Second Life, combined it with the best parts of Facebook, the best parts of IRC, the best parts of MUSHes and MUDs and the best parts of MMORPGs, you would have City of Heroes. It was a 'game' in which you could stand around and RP for hours, run mission after mission, battle in PvP, and if you really wanted to grind, you could do that too. It was a game in which high level people could game with low level people and no one was handicapped.
"And it was a place where we could come, blow off steam, talk, do improv-theater, or whatever else we wanted to with people who became real friends. I mean, real, as in, would send you money, would listen to your problems, would call you at 4 AM because you were feeling bad, would drive 200 miles to babysit your cat because you were in the hospital kind of friends.
"Now do you see what we have lost? They've bulldozed our town, and bussed us away before we could even exchange phone numbers with our now-scattered friends."
The days that immediately followed the announcement saw a painful upheaval occur across Paragon City. "It was madness," says Sarah Lane. "Like an apocalyptic nightmare. The forums were a mess, all of the rules were being broken, everything went a little bit to hell as everyone tried to deal with the news.
"But then you began to see rallying calls, and I'll always remember that first protest." September 8th saw a huge rally take place across 33 replications of Atlas Park as thousands of gamers flooded the servers to take up torches in defiant protest of NCsoft's actions, outside of City Hall. Tony Vasquez and the Titan Network launched a petition that would garner over 21,000 signatures calling for NCsoft to rethink.
“We’ve been saving Paragon City for eight and a half years. It’s time to do it one more time,” Vasquez said, back in early September. His call was answered by the likes of John C. Wright, Neil Gaiman, and Lackey herself. #SaveCOH was born.
"We were at DragonCon when NCSoft made the announcement and threw everyone at Paragon Studios literally out the door," Lackey remembers. "So the first week or so was very difficult as I was trying to put on my “convention face” and be genial and happy with everyone when all the while I was devastated.
"Then I found out that most of the activity to save the game was taking place at the Titan Network, I went there, discovered a solid group of diverse (and may I add, adult and professional) people who were determined not to lose THEIR “town” either. At that point it was either lie down and let some big faceless foreign corporation that made no attempt to understand us—rather like the Vogons—roll over us, or fight back. Lying down was not an option for me."
The Titan Network got organised, they put an emphasis on PR, and they set about making as much noise as possible in a professional and reasoned way. NCsoft were approached numerous times over the weeks that followed, but the publisher remained tight-lipped, releasing a wafer-thin statement that served little but to reinforce the Nov. 30th deadline. The petitioning increased, but the Titan Network turned their efforts further afield and Call to Action were issued. Drives were conducted to capture the game at its best through pictures and video in the final few months. A media initiative was set up to ensure that news sites had as much information as they could handle, with the Network admins urging fans to thank sites for their coverage. Charity fundraisers were rife, they always had been when it came to CoX, the opportunity to be real-life heroes raising thousands of dollars.
Still NCsoft were unmoved and, sure enough, when November 30th rolled around, the publisher let the curtain fall on City of Heroes. "I remember being stood in Atlas Park with my best friend, we'd grown up playing City of Heroes," says Sarah Lane. "There were some desperately trying to bust through missions right up until the last minute. Some were just reminiscing with others. Some were just trying to drink it all in. They started playing music , and I was crying buckets. It just went out, just like that. 'Lost Connection to Mapserver'. In a split-second, my world was shattered."
It only takes a brief glance at some of the threads posted up on the Titan Network forums, a hotbed for heroic action that sprang up in the face of NCsoft's stonewalling, to see that Lane and Lackey's sentiments are widely shared; that after eight long years, to have a virtual world snuffed out has been utterly devastating for many. Scrolling through the forums you'll read how CoX (the shorthand for referring to both City of Heroes and its nefarious companion - City of Villains) gave military veterans returning the Middle East a route back into society.
"To be honest, CoX was my first re-introduction to semi-normal society after I got out of Iraq," writes one such veteran.
"I served for fifteen months as a machine gunner. Aiming at other humans and pulling the trigger was a fact of life. When I got out of Iraq, I was, well, not quite hitting on all eight cylinders, if you know what I mean. Hardly a functioning human being. CoX was easy - I could play it from my barracks room, where I was comfortable. I didn't have to go out in public, where I'd spend more time instinctively scanning for targets and feeling naked for my lack of body armor.
"CoX helped me more than I can effectively articulate as I struggled to make the transition from professional killing machine to human again. Just simply interacting with people through a non-threatening medium where I didn't have to deal with the other glitches, twitches and bugs I had picked up while being shot at in a hostile environment for over a year of my life."
It rather puts the antagonistic comments that have dotted coverage of the #SaveCOH campaign, asking why all the fuss for some thing that's "just a game", to shame. The addictive qualities of MMOs are widely known, and regularly parodied, but what of those for whom gaming is much more than a pastime? "I grimace every time someone turns around and says 'but it's just a game'," long-time COH-fan Jake Hearn emailed in to say. Paralysed from the waist down since, Jake's experience of CoX has been of something much more than "just a game". "It's been a home for me really," he told us. "But one where I can do extraordinary things. I play with my cousins on the other side of the world. I play with friends from school. I've made friends from America, from Australia, from all over Europe. To them, I'm not just a kid in a wheelchair, I'm a guy who can shoot fireballs from his hands. It's been such a valuable part of my life. That's not to say it's been my life, but it's been a place of recreation, of escape, it's helped me forge relationships and restore confidence that I can carry with me every day."
And he's less than impressed with NCsoft. "It makes no sense to me," he says. "But then what does a suit in Korea care about a disabled guy from Manchester?"
Lackey is not exactly full of praise for the Korean publisher, either. "If anything, I have developed a deep and abiding contempt for NCSoft," she tells me. "Their attitude seems to be 'shut up, sit down, and play what we give you' without any consideration for what the players want. We were insulated from that because the Paragon Studios staff and Game Masters were so outstanding in every way. Now we are seeing what the real NCSoft looks like.
"As for the players keeping the game alive, first of all, you must be aware that there was a stonewall, concerted effort on the part of NCSoft to prevent anything like a sale. There were two venture capitalists, one of whom has a game company, operating out of the Titan boards, whose efforts to contact NCSoft about a sale were ignored entirely. There was an effort by Paragon Studios to buy themselves back that was also shut down. And NCSoft’s position at that time was 'all efforts to sell the game have been exhausted' which in itself is a lie, because they completely ignored two of the three efforts that I know of, and probably treated the Paragon Studios effort with the same contempt."
Much of the anger seems to have stemmed from the fact that City of Heroes didn't look like a game that was in trouble. There were no licensing issues as there had been with Star Wars: Galaxies, and the game was still turning a profit, unlike some of NCsoft's previous failures.
"City of Heroes was still profitable, with all servers still up and running," says Lackey. "They were putting out new issues every three months; I24 was about to go live, I25 was in the coding stage and I26 in the planning and preliminary art stage. Paragon Studios was developing a second, non-CoH game and could have gone on half staff if all NCSoft wanted to do was save money and just run CoH.
"In the hands of the skilled developers, the old game engine was made to do things no one every believed it could. Furthermore, when I visited Paragon Studios about 3 years ago, plans were going forward for a City of Heroes 2, based on a new graphics engine. It was NCSoft that cancelled that, despite great player anticipation.
"And, again, as the West gets older, we are attracted to those things that made us happy when we were young. Just as an example, you can see how popular movie remakes are, and the revival of nostalgic toys. Everquest is still alive, as is Ultima Online. In fact, the number of old games that are still holding a steady customer base far outnumbers those that were cancelled. The only reason Star Wars Galaxies was cancelled was because the license was lost."
It doesn't seem to make sense, and NCsoft have given up nothing to explain their actions aside from foggy buzzwords such as "company realignment" and strategic decisions". We asked their European representatives if it would be possible to speak to someone in order to ask a few questions and also present the publishers' side of things, however "no one is available for comment on City of Heroes". It's been that way for three months.
In the face of such apparent apathy from NCsoft, the campaigners have turned elsewhere for solutions. The Titan Network is now, understandably, in slight disarray. as suggestions on how to move forward inevitably cause divisions. Champions Online and Star Trek Online have both taken CoX refugees in, especially after it emerged that Cryptic had snapped up a few of the ex-Paragon Studios devs. But, some have found the idea of jumping ship a little too dauting or indeed abhorrent, and a number of fans have begun the process to see their community fully ressurected. The Pheonix Project and Heroes & Villains are the two main development undertakings that have arisen from the ashes of NCsoft's decision; both still assembling teams, claiming resources from a Network divided, confused, and tired.
"I am far more concerned with the fact that these projects are both going to be going on for years and that people will lose interest when there is nothing concrete out of them," says Lackey when I ask her if she thinks the factionalism, as opposed to the unity exhibited throughout the #SaveCOH campaign, will cause problems going forward.
"That, and being tired of spending every non-working moment essentially working on a second job that doesn’t even pay you anything is going to make people drop out of the projects before anything gets a chance to come to fruition. Don’t forget, even with a full game studio behind it, The Secret World took over five years from concept to rollout, and these folks are just gamers working in their spare time.
"I hope that one or both succeed, and I hope people are not expecting anything out of either group for YEARS. Although there are a lot more off-the-shelf tools for making games these days, there is still a lot of art, design, and programming work that has to be done, and all of it will have to be done by people who are working in their spare time. I don’t expect to see anything solid from either group for at least three years. So, ask me in three years."
Of course, that doesn't mean she's just going to lie down now that the servers have been switched off. Even as the candle of hope flickered out, #SaveCOH were doing what NCsoft had allegedly failed to do: find a buyer.
"You must bear in mind that we are by no means done yet," she states. "Ammon Johns, the highly respected UK Internet Marketing Specialist, a UK journalist, a UK Senior IT Tech and I happened across a post on one of the boards about trying to interest Disney in buying and supporting the game, and the more we thought about it—insane as the idea is—the more it started to make sense. It’s really a very natural fit. The Marvel game that Disney has forces you to play as a Marvel character—it does not allow you to make your own superhero. The one that is in development is strictly an Arena-style PvP game. Both are on the Diablo engine which favours competitive play rather than cooperative play.
"COH would allow Disney full market saturation of the adult superhero genre, literally covering every aspect of play, from those who just like to stand around and RP, to very robust team AND solo PvE, to Arena-style PvP. We have pages and pages of testimonials from parents that play with their kids, and grandparents who play with their grandchildren.
"We put together 31 single spaced pages of pitch, and if I go on any more about it, I’ll have to reiterate all 31 pages. But we did try to brainstorm every possible objection Disney could have and counter it, and display all of the advantages Disney would have if they acquired the game.
"We are currently debating our next 'target' if Disney shows no interest. But remember, we are not pitching the game, to which we have no rights. We are pitching the idea of buying the game. We have contact information in the package for who to get hold of if Disney is interested. Disney moves slowly and deliberately, so we want to give them plenty of time before we go fishing for anyone new."
It seems a strange idea at first, the notion of a community stranded and lost making presentations to other parties without owning the rights. It's a long shot, to be sure, but this is essentially thousands of evicted virtual tenets lobbying an estate agent to buy out the nefarious landowner who threw them out and razed their homes to the ground. Given all that City of Heroes was, all that its community did, and the resolutely opaque nature of NCsoft's decision-making, it's easy to understand not only the sense of injustice that Lackey speaks of (she calls the closure "unethical"), but also why this MMO's closure has caused such a stir throughout the industry.
"I can understand that even gamers don't "get it" if they have never experienced the kind of community we had," Lackey tells me. "And when they get angry in the face of my refusal to accept that it was 'just a game', all I can say--which is both a curse, and a wish--is 'I hope you never have to go through what I am going through now.' A kindly wish, because I would never want anyone to go through this kind of bereavement. And a curse, because if they never do--then they will never have experienced what something like this can give to them and do for them, and I feel very sorry for them.
"As for those who sort of "get it," and say 'Well even Camelot didn't last forever,' I have a simple reply: 'Why not?' Look at Disney Corporation. Walt had dreams, and he made the reality, and he surrounded himself with more creative people who could make more dreams. And he passed the torch on to them. And they brought in others like them. And Disney evolved and continued to flourish, and flourishes to this very day, and will flourish as long as they keep evolving and bringing in creative people.
"There is no reason why City of Heroes or any other game couldn't do the same thing. None. Barriers only exist because people decide they do."
Thanks to Mercedes Lackey, Lauren O'Neill, Sarah Lane, Jake Hearn, TonyV and the Titan Network.