Battle Bards Episode 53: City of Heroes

cohboxIt was the first big superhero MMO, and for at least one Bard, it was the entry point into MMO gaming. Today we’ll be looking at the late, great City of Heroes and its strange, lovable, and often baffling soundtrack, as well as trying to explain to Syl why superheroes are totally cool. Pull on those tights and prepare to soar up, up and away into a score like no other on today’s show!

Episode 53 show notes

  • Intro (featuring “Main Theme” and “Steel Canyon Copper District”)
  • “Freedom Court”
  • “Devil’s Coat Tails”
  • “Argosy Industries”
  • “Freedom Theme”
  • “Going Rogue Theme”
  • “Welcome to Nova Praetoria”
  • “Bloody Bay: Green Nugget”
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Mail from Joseph
  • Outro (“Mission Complete”)

Listen to episode 53 now!

10 things I still miss from City of Heroes

cohAs time marches on, the distance between us and City of Heroes’ closure grows ever-greater. However, the memories linger, and today I felt like making a list of 10 things I still miss about that game.

1. The incredible, flexible character creator

Even though it didn’t have every option on the planet, the character creator allowed players’ creativity to shine through an insane variety of costumes and looks. It was genius when you look back at it: by allowing players an agency not just in their power selection, but their very look, the game got people deeply invested in the theme of their heroes.

I loved that I could make body extreme characters, from tiny pixies to hulking masses to everything in between. I appreciated the monster options, the funny accessories, and the fun of picking out colors.

2. Getting lost in Perez Park

Sure, it’s something I hated, too, but that park and its dense, labyrinthian forest had a unique feel all to itself and was downright intimidating, especially before one got their travel power at 14.

3. New power levels

Was there anything so exciting as dinging a level where you’d get a brand-new power? It seemed unfair that those came further and further apart the higher you went, but still, it was thrilling. I’d spend hours while gaming planning out my next power picks and look forward to each of them arriving.

4. Grouping

I don’t think there was ever an MMO where I grouped as much as I did in City of Heroes. It was simply the most economic way to rake in the XP, and besides, the solo game was rather dull. Heading out with a pack of heroes to blast through instances felt epic and was a good way to show off your costume and powers.

5. Impromptu dance parties

Oh the boombox emote. And the dance emotes. Anytime a group would have to wait for someone to get there, chances are that a dance party would soon break out.

6. Costume contests

Few things brought the community together in droves than a good ol’ fashioned costume contest in Atlas Park. I loved to see the fashion on display and always thought that these community-driven events were a sign of MMO devs doing a system right. I don’t think I ever won one, but I felt that I had a couple outfits that were deserving of an award.

7. The Dark Dark Defender

I almost exclusively played controllers, but the DDD was always tempting me into being a defender. It had a pet (sorta) and so many awesome powers with cool smokey visual effects that I felt epic every time I played one. It was the one defender build that didn’t make me feel that I had to be a healbot or shieldbot but still contribute to the team at large.

8. The sounds

One of City of Heroes’ strengths that was rarely mentioned was its diverse and incredibly memorable array of sound effects, particularly with powers. Could have done without a few of them, like the force bubble whines, but such is life.

9. The sheer fun of super-jump

Everyone had his or her preferred travel power, and while I could apprciate the utility of flight or the economy of super-speed, for me it was always super-jump. It was fast enough to get me around, high enough to traverse vertical spaces, and so exhilerating to activate. WildStar’s low-gravity zones reminds me of it.

10. Paragon City

The main location of City of Heroes was as much of a personality as anything else in the game. It may have been a little bland and non-descript in places, but it cemented itself in my memory as a real place. Every zone had a distinct feel, from the prison to the caves to the run-down King’s Row. It was a cool place to explore — and protect.

City of Heroes and the camping trip

cohRecently I was asking EverQuest players to share some of their memories of the early game and was regaled with several tales of how most of their gameplay involved camping. As EQ vets will be quick to tell you, this wasn’t the mosquito-and-hot dog type of camping, but rather the “plant your butt in one spot while a puller ran out to grab a pack (or a single mob) and bring it back so that you could all collectively beat it up” type of camping.

As I was reading these, I was thinking how much that sounded like the early days of my time in City of Heroes. Rushing through an instance as a group was a sure way to quickly wipe and incur the dreaded XP debt, so instead we’d hang back in a safe room while a trusted tank would zip ahead, round up a bunch of mobs by insulting their mothers, and then lead them back.

So a lot of my time was spent twiddling my thumbs in an otherwise-empty room, breaking out the boombox emote, and anxiously awaiting the time where I could unleash my powers. Sometimes the waiting would be too much, I’d get too impatient, and then I’d commit that cardinal sin of going all alpha strike on the bad guys, getting aggro, and dying. I think everyone couldn’t wait to bust out their powers when the mobs finally arrived.

Maybe that’s not the same kind of camping, but it had that feel to it for me.

It could be cool at times, but often it was visually chaotic. The tank would stack the mobs in a corner, and their and our attacks would all be concentrated in the same place. It would be a bazillion spell effects going off at the time time, creating a visual and audio assault that was pretty much impossible to follow. Most of my attention was focused on the HUD overlay, playing energy management and tabbing between bad guys. I could do it for a while, but after an hour or so I would log out, exhausted from all of the shiny lights and shrieking noises.

There’s stuff I miss about City of Heroes, but also stuff I really do not, and I think that’s to be said about a lot of canceled MMOs.

I do miss the sheer anticipation of even levels, when I’d be treated to a single power point that I could spend on anything I wanted (as long as the power slot was unlocked and I was level-appropriate). Man, was there ever an MMO where a single new skill was such a big treat as it was in City of Heroes? It pained me when I had to “waste” six levels on the two throwaway skills and that one stamina power, because even though it was necessary and pretty much standard, that was a long stretch of no fun new toys.

I think that when I close my eyes at night, sometimes I can still clearly see Generic Confusing Office Layout #1207, Generic Ugly Cave System #811, and Generic Warehouse That Does Not Meet OSHA STandards #45. It’ll never truly be gone as long as we can be partially traumatized by the past.

Save City of Heroes campaign labors on

It’s been about a month since the announcement of City of Heroes’ closure, and the movement to save the game has reached a critical juncture.  It’s hard to maintain momentum for big movements like this over a long period of time, because we’re oh-so-easily distracted and there are all of these games and expansions coming out.  Plus, it’s critical because after a month of protests and other general activist activities, we haven’t heard peep one from NCsoft that the company is wavering in its decision.  Finally, we know at least some of the Paragon devs have left to join Cryptic and Star Trek Online, so even if NCsoft relented today, the studio and game wouldn’t be in the same shape it was a month ago.

One of the leaders of the movement has admitted partial defeat, saying that he can’t see a future where NCsoft agrees to restore the game/studio or at least keep it alive on maintenance mode.  Instead of hoping for some sort of decision reversal, he’s hoping that the company will be open to selling CoH off.  SOE?  GamersFirst?  Perfect World Entertainment?  gPotato?  Nexon?  All of those leap to mind when it comes to multiple MMOs and companies willing to take on orphaned titles.  I won’t pretend to have any deep insight into this, however.  Nexon is in bed with NCsoft, so whether that’s an impossibility or a slight in-house reshuffling is unknown to me.

There’s always the even slighter possibility that City of Heroes gets shuttered in November and then picked up at a later date to be restarted, a la APB.

I’m wondering how much any of this movement to save City of Heroes has surprised or impacted NCsoft.  It’s hard to put a human face to a corporation, especially an overseas one that coldly and dispassionately pressed the cancel button on this title.  It’s certainly not been a PR boon to them, and perhaps they thought that any disgruntlement would just blow over quickly instead of sparking into a full-fledged rally the way it has.  Maybe NCsoft anticipated all this and more, but made the decision and steeled itself against the backlash.  Really, there’s little pressure other than giving the company bad publicity that players can do.  NCsoft already wasn’t mourning the financial loss or loyalty loss of these customers, so the leverage is all on their side.

Eliot from Massively thinks that the movement needs to go further and pull out the harsh language. “There’s a certain revolutionary spirit necessary for an effective protest,” he writes.  “I’m not entirely certain that we’ve got that.”

But perhaps don’t count City of Heroes’ capes out just yet.  The rally was a huge success and there are two more months left.  The players posted this really well-done (and I’m not just saying that because I’m in it) video recently about the movement, and I’m impressed all over the place with it:

Can City of Heroes be saved?

It’s a phenomenon as predictable as Old Faithful: Whenever a significant MMO (or, heck, TV series) has its ending announced, the fans come out in force to try to save it.  Sometimes these efforts bear fruit: Jericho got a second season and Star Trek a third because of fan efforts, while EQMac and… um… hm.  Some other MMO that I can’t think of got a stay of execution.  Actually, in terms of MMOs, these protests don’t seem to work as well, usually because there’s a lot of licensing, staffing, and financial issues at play behind the scenes.

But let’s turn our attention to City of Heroes anyway, which is the target of a major fan effort to save the title before its November closure.  From the fan’s perspective, it makes sense: The game was making money, it still had a healthy population, and it deserves to keep operating (at least until one of those first two factors changes).  We all love seeing this sort of thing, because it’s inspiring and brings out the best of the community.  Plus, sometimes it’s great to see that the power of organized fans can indeed change a company’s mind and remind them that there are people at the end of those dollar signs.

Inspiring, yes.  I’m totally on board with the idea — I’d love to see City of Heroes be saved.  It’s premature to cancel it, and I think that the reasoning behind NCsoft’s decision doesn’t have anything to do with the title specifically so much as losses elsewhere in the company.  But the question on the table is can it be saved?  Are we all just spinning our wheels and making noise in a futile attempt to speak to corporate suits that don’t care to listen to us anyway?

Paragon Studios is on the fans’ side, of course, but that doesn’t count for that much since the devs and team are looking, if not already accepting, jobs elsewhere.  We got word that there are “discussions” taking place regarding the title, which is just a smidge more than no hope at all, but it sort of feels like grasping at straws to think that NCsoft will suddenly have a change of heart.  Sometimes the decisions are made despite what the fans want — see Star Wars Galaxies.  I know that SOE would’ve loved to have kept that running, because it did make money, had a good amount of players, and was a nice feather in the cap of the studio.  But sometimes the big shots make the call and there’s little that a studio can do to change that.  I’m not saying that CoH is in the same exact situation, but it does feel similar.

But even if the odds seem long, what harm is there in trying?  One of the things that make our hobby so special is how attached we get to our game worlds and how much they end up meaning to us.  Seeing the City of Heroes’ fan base rise up in an attempt to do everything in their power to save this title is something we can all identify with, even if CoH isn’t our game.  As one of the leaders of the effort to save the game wrote, “We are heroes.  This is what we do.”  The game treated the players so well over the years, now it’s the players’ turn to rally around the game.

Maybe it won’t work, and November will be a sad time for many.  But, what the heck, fight on.  Give NCsoft a pause, at least, and a reason to question its corporate ruthlessness.  And if City of Heroes does get a reprieve, even if it’s just to remain on maintenance mode for the remainder of its life, I’ll be right there cheering along with the rest.