Collecting my thoughts on this one has been difficult. I didn’t really think I’d be so affected by the loss, but we’re talking about something that was, for eight years, there. To have it suddenly not be there any longer is presenting me with extreme cognitive dissonance.
City of Heroes, when it launched in 2004, was maybe the sixth or seventh MMORPG I had tried to play. Forays into Ultima Online, EverQuest, and even Star Wars: Galaxies had proven utterly fruitless for me, my subscription soon expiring due to neglect born of a lack of desire to play.
I’d heard whispers in the gaming press of a new superhero-based MMORPG called City of Heroes, but hadn’t really given it much thought. Then a few features were written on it and the NDAs on the betas lifted and, word had it, the game was really good. I snagged a beta code and tried it for myself. On launch day, a couple of my friends and I went to the local GameStop and bought it, installed it as soon as we each got to our respective homes, picked a server, and then spent hours in the character creator.
That was the element that really separated City of Heroes from the rest. It was a game that had a lot going for it overall, with satisfying combat and, for the time, stellar visuals (they were updated periodically to keep them at least passable), but the crown that City of Heroes wore so proudly was its character creation system, because it was the first in an MMORPG that truly rewarded creativity.
For gamers who’d played Freedom Force, the idea of malleable superheroes in a video game wasn’t itself new, but here was a chance to control your creations in a world that intersected with those of other players, to show off your concept, be it a minor variation on an existing superhero or something as ridiculous as “Reticulated Spline,” my friend’s creation, who was notable for his powers existing purely because he was so delusional that he believed they existed. He was, functionally, just a spines/regeneration scrapper, but his costume and his biography (you could compose a biography for your character, which was viewable by any interested players who might cross your path) really brought the idea home.
My Jewish martial arts/super reflexes scrapper was, perhaps, less inventive, but City of Heroes was also great about letting you play out your unachievable fantasies. You wanted to pretend you could dodge bullets and knock an entire gang of villains off an overpass? City of Heroes was your game. It took tremendous pains to make you feel powerful from the get-go, allowing your hero to readily stomp entire groups of enemies at once, rather than struggling to handle more than one at any given time. Compare this to Final Fantasy XI, in which taking on even one enemy worth your time in experience meant assembling a full group of extremely specialized combatants.
City of Heroes was almost obsessive about shaking up the status quo. No default auto-attack, no gear (just “enhancements” that would permanently increase the efficacy of the power they were attached to and “inspirations,” which provided temporary boosts), and it launched with neither a crafting system nor PvP. Though characters were built around a specific role, such as tanking or dealing ranged damage, their options for specific powers were incredibly diverse. This extended to the “defenders,” the healing class that had no obligation to heal. Many would, instead, have means of preventing a party from taking damage in the first place, which fit far better with the superhero motif.
As the years wore on, City of Heroes saw a villainous expansion (and a “neutral” one), and numerous “issues,” which were released free of charge and served to dramatically improve both the game’s quality of life components (adding capes, adding auras, a hike in the level cap) and even its core gameplay (new power sets, new costumes, new areas). The most significant might have been the Mission Architect, though. This facility allowed players to create not only individual missions, but entire story arcs, complete with plots and dialogue. It’s easy to see how Mercedes Lackey could cite events in the game as having inspired some of her novels.
I’m not going to claim that, through it all, I was actively playing. There was a hiatus in there, to be sure. Even after it went free-to-play, I only logged back on very occasionally, when I’d get an urge to revisit old characters or see what changes the developers had introduced. Despite that, I still racked up over five years worth of paid account time, which is by far the most I’ve ever put into any subscription service to a game.
City of Heroes end, and the dissolution of the studio that had curated it, was announced at the end of August. The shutdown itself was put off until the very end of November. The Justice server switched off for the last time at 3:04AM EST on December 1, 2012. It was met with a classic error, “Lost Connection to Mapserver,” and then the game crashed to desktop. I was able to log back in—the login servers were still running, though they’re down now—and the entirety of the server list, everything from Virtue (the de facto RP server) to the VIP server was showing gray pips, unavailable.
In those last moments, before the server shut down for good, I went to Atlas Park with my friend, where toon after toon gathered to watch the end of their world. So crowded was Atlas Park, as the shutdown drew imminent, that there were at least six instances of the zone, many of them completely full. It was a testament to the strength of the community that had gathered behind City of Heroes, remained loyal to it for so many years, and then, in an instant, it was snuffed out. The servers were halted, the website was pulled, the forums burned to the ground. All that remains of City of Heroes now is a succinct message of parting on the website and the memories of those to whom it was meaningful.
Goodbye, City of Heroes. Paragon Studios. You shall always be missed, never forgotten.
Date: December 7, 2012