How can I get past my distrust of MMO emulators?

In the year of our good Lord 2020 A.D., there is certainly something to celebrate in the MMO scene: the rise and acceptance of emulators. Rogue servers, as we call them at Massively OP.  There are so, so many of these out there, and while there’s not one for every dead MMO that exists, plenty of these former projects are being preserved with love and care by diehard fans.

Today, you can step back into games like Star Wars Galaxies, The Sims Online, and Earth & Beyond, even though these MMOs have been shuttered for many years now. And not only can you play them again, but you can play them with thriving communities of modern day players. That’s pretty amazing.

All of this gets my approval — I have no ethical or moral qualms about preserving shuttered MMOs — but I’ve also noticed that I am emotionally wary about getting invested in such games. Last year’s revival of City of Heroes, amazing as it was, wasn’t enough to keep me coming back for too long. It wasn’t that I was uninterested (nor am now), but that there are some yellow flags that warn me away.

I feel likewise with Return of Reckoning, the Warhammer Online server that I keep promising myself I’m going to check out. You know, one of these days. Sometime. It still hasn’t happened.

I think it’s a mixture of the following:

  • Distrust of volunteer developers who may not always have the best interests of the players at heart
  • Perceived instability of these projects and their coding and backend tech
  • Concern about long-time commitment to maintaining these games
  • A lack of legal approval

None of these are deal-breakers — I have played City of Heroes, Chronicles of Spellborn, and Star Wars Galaxies emulators — but they do a lot to make me hesitate getting that invested into MMOs that could end up folding overnight if the team doesn’t pay the server bill, dissolves in a fight, or gets slapped with a C&D from the IP owners.

We’ve been waiting over a year now for the City of Heroes Homecoming group to work out a deal with NCsoft for actual ownership or official permission to run these servers, but I’ve getting more doubtful the longer these “talks” continue that it’s actually going to happen. If they did go through, I’ll tell you that it would work a lot in the game’s factor to attract me.

Of course, the project I really want to see happen is a WildStar emulator. I think I’d rather NCsoft sell the game to a company that’d be interested in running it as a legit thing, but I’d be happy if someone managed to jury-rig WildStar up on an Amazon server and let us return to Nexus. I’d still be worried about the state of such an emulator, but… yeah, I’d play in a heartbeat.

City of Heroes: Welcome to Nova Praetoria!

Last week our City of Heroes group assembled once more, this time for adventures in Nova Praetoria. That’s actually an area/expansion that I hadn’t ever encountered in the MMO to date, as it came out when I was on a break from the game.

Unlike the “blueside” content of the Heroes and the “redside” content of the Villains, “goldside” exists in an interesting state of limbo that was a fascinating direction for the game with Going Rogue came out in 2010. Giving players the ability to switch allegiances and explore the more murky grey areas of comic book superheroes provided a much-needed third angle to the title — and one that I don’t see any of the upcoming superhero MMORPGs addressing.

Just getting to Nova Praetoria was a bizarre experience of going through The Underground — a network of sewers and subway tunnels that I had never seen before either. Along the way, I bumped into these grotesque cyborgs that raised all sorts of questions that I had no time to explore. All I knew was that this wasn’t your mama’s Clockwork any longer.

Since I had never been in Nova Praetoria and was only passingly familiar with it from press releases, in my head it was some sort of modern Roman Empire, complete with pillars and columns and coliseums. I guess I was making too many assumptions on the name alone, because the zone — a series of connected islands — is like a cleaned-up Miami. Tropical, high-tech, water, nice beachfront properties, the works.

Again, we weren’t there for a huge tour or backstory, so I’m going to have to do some reading up on all of this later, but I know I’m missing out on a lot. Bree told us during our missions that there were two competing factions (Resistance and Loyalists) in this region and that each had two sides to them (Warden, Crusader, Responsibility, Power), so players had a choice of four groups with which to ally through various choices made during quests. All very interesting.

But hey, we were there to PARTY, not to join sides! It’s not a City of Heroes group night without a bunch of weirdos assembling to go through the emote list and try to amuse everyone else. Say what you will about this game, but CoH had great dance moves. Not as many as, say, Fallen Earth, but the robot and pop routines were great.

Apparently Nova Praetoria is ruled over by Emperor Cole, who honestly sounds like a great guy. I’ll vote for him, if voting is an option for emperors! Look at how he’s keeping that tentacle alien away!

As for our missions, they were pretty much a series of runs through either spotless stainless steel rooms or a near-endless subway tunnel packed with mobs. One of our teammates had earth control, and we gave him no end of grief for how much his powers kept obscuring, well, everything.

See, this is one of my small but persistent pet peeves about City of Heroes, and that’s the fact that some powersets are simply more obtrusive on the play experience than others. Throwing stalagmites everywhere or making your group all blaze with nonstop fire or giving us those whiny, whiny bubbles may have helped to win the fight — but was it really worth the bother?

This poor dismissed soldier minion ended up collapsing in the most gruesome way possible. All I can imagine are the sounds that his spine made in those final moments.

Anyway, it was a pretty good run — we were all chatty on discord, ended up gelling as a fighting unit, and I got a couple of levels and a new power for my time.

City of Heroes: Worst. Bank Robbers. Ever.

The Massively OP crew — staffers and readers alike — assembled for another adventure in City of Heroes, and my Crash Corpse was right there with them at level 20. Our goal? To slide head-first into villainy and become top-notch bank robbers.

The first step in this ignoble quest was to switch over from blueside to redside. MOP’s Bree walked us through this process, which apparently involves going to a club and then talking to a reality-warping seagull named Null the Gull. I really did not make any of that up.

Our bank robbery quest got off to a fun start, as we started to bash cars and beat up the odd cop for an increase in our time limit. But before we knew it, we were over our head, with mobs washing over us and pounding our group into the ground. With a timer constantly ticking down, that was a problem, and we had a hard time recovering.

When all of us respawned in the mission’s jail, we knew something was very wrong. There were far, far more mobs than this mission should have, and the second we busted down our jail cell doors a virtual flood of Longbow stormed in to kill us. And then camp our corpses. It was ridiculous and impossible and fatal, but it also highly amused us how over the top this was. Obviously, the mission got bugged somehow.

The only way we made it out was that one of our team members quit the group and shot up in levels so that he could smack down the jailers to give us a chance to escape.

With mere minutes left, we made a beeline to the bank, ported stragglers, and charged in yelling various battle cries (“Please don’t kill us!” is a good example of this). We tried. We really did. But the time and the bugs were against us, and it all timed out right as we grabbed the loot and tried to leave the vault.

Oh well. I’ll take a failed mission that gives us a great story and a lot of laughs over a boring successful one.

City of Heroes: Party on, Garth!

As I progress through the solo story arcs in City of Heroes, I am constantly impressed at the little quirks and tricks that the developers used to tell these storybook-like scenes. For example, in one mission, a warehouse was turned into a rave. A bunch of Skulls were partying there, but upon battling them, they decided to turn their weapons against the crowd and cause mass panic. This was both uncomfortably close to some real-life events and instrumental in creating genuine threat.

(At least no innocents died, as far as I could tell)

You like to people watch? I like to people watch, especially in MMOs where people are given wide latitude to create specific looks for the express purpose of showing off. I’m often impressed with the inventiveness on display — and how close some (cos)players get to recreating well-known outfits and figures. On the left, Starcraft Ghost’s Nova. She even had the signature large sniper rifle. Well done.

I gotta say… I really, really hate the speech bubbles in CoH. It’s too bad the developers couldn’t have sprung for comic book-like ovals and the like. These look like the first draft of something that would be made a lot better. Maybe the new owners will try their hand at small improvements like this?

Oh! And here is something cool/embarrassing/silly. The Homecoming team named one of their temporary test servers after yours truly. Don’t know why, since I didn’t really do anything to bring this game back or get this organized, but I’m honored all the same. It’s my weird 15 seconds of internet fame.

City of Heroes: A Massively OP production

Mark this as a record for Massively OP: This is, to my knowledge, the first time we ever had this many staff members show up to play — and stream — an MMO together. Our eight-person crew had been planning for the better part of a week to do a livestream of the resurrected City of Heroes, and last Wednesday we did just that.

It’s always tricky coordinating that many people’s schedules, not to mention the fact that a few of the team were completely new to the game itself. Yet it went off almost without a hitch, up to and including functioning as a team during missions. Sure, if we were really professional we would have had a solid tank and a dedicated healer, but we made it work with our slapdash combination of archetypes and powersets.

Of course, before the mayhem and carnage could begin, there was a bit of waiting to do — and whenever there’s waiting in City of Heroes, there are IMPROMPTU DANCE PARTIES. Plop that boombox down and get FUNKY, my friends. Nothing like people in skintight spandex spasming in an approximation of dance moves.

We ran Death from Below once, which I could do sleeping now. At least with the chatter I felt engaged in the group, if not the mission. Past that, we took on a couple of door missions through the time-honored office and warehouse maps. Bree jacked up the difficulty on the first one and threw in the Tsoo as enemies, which meant that we were dealing with some nasty crowd control almost all the way through.

There were… a lot of deaths. And I was quickly reminded of two City of Heroes staples that I hadn’t quite encountered in this return yet. The first was that when everyone’s firing off abilities — friend and foe alike — and there are all of these buffs and debuffs going, the screen turns into this horrid mess of special effects that makes it practically impossible to really see and understand what’s going on.

The second reminder was how fleeing to elevators was a tried-and-true tactic to avoiding party wipes. Get in over your head or pull too many mobs? Get thine buttocks to a lift, stat! This is kind of a snap judgment call that requires at least one eye on the battlefield and one on the team’s health meters to see if there’s a good shot for victory or a wipe.

All in all, it was a hoot of a time, and if you’re interested, you can watch the full 90-minute livestream on our channel.

City of Heroes: Masterminding a new approach

World, meet Pain Jetson. Pain Jetson, meet the world.

So after rolling up a couple of City of Heroes characters for random mindless grouping action, I felt like I wanted to actually experience the story of the game from start to finish. It’s something I had never done when it was live, and if we’re only given a finite time with these emulators, it’s up there on my bucket list to witness. Therefore I created Pain, a Bots/Rad Mastermind who has the perfect package for me: a swarm of killer robots and all sorts of radiation superpowers.

I even gave her a cool retro scifi look which ended up very close to what I envisioned. Not wholly original, mind you, but I was pleased with the result.

This is certainly a much different approach than I’ve ever taken with City of Heroes, which is slightly funny to me, because it’s the *standard* approach of most MMOs. I guess that is a testament to the fun and ease of grouping in this game.

But there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in these story arcs, and I kept finding myself really surprised at the quality of writing and the clever little quest twists the devs included. Here I am going undercover as… a demon? I guess? My robot really should have horns on to fit in.

This’ll be the new Pain Jetson poster art.

Mastermind has to be one of my all-time favorite MMORPG pet classes. It’s kind of insane that the devs decided that it’d be cool to give us so many pets, but you know what? It turned out really fun, too. Since the story progression means a much slower leveling experience, I’m only level 10 and therefore limited to just two bots, but even so, I like having Huey and Louey joining me for my adventures.

Demonic supernatural rituals? NOT IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD!

Another neat touch is that I was able to customize my MM’s pulse rifle to be retro scifi as well — and her jet pack even animates when I’m flying!

If I could have one wish with doing the game this way, it would be to have the NPCs voiced. Reading the relatively tiny text gives me a headache, and a lot of this would be so much more effective if done by competent voice actors.

Oh! So regarding the above screenshot, this was another pleasant surprise: Every once in a while, we’re given actual choices in the quests. Not sure if any of them actually hold any consequences, but even if it’s just window dressing, it’s still very welcome. Getting the option to arrest or kill a disgraced contact who has caused the death of others is an interesting roleplay decision indeed.

One of the story arcs had me joining a lower tier superhero team that included all sorts of rather funny members. My favorite is Dillo here, some sort of rock alien who speaks in near gibberish. I cherish every time we converse.

Anyway, I’ve gone through all of the Atlas Park missions and have made significant headway into Kings Row. I’m still flabbergasted that I’m actually playing in Kings Row in 2019, because I still haven’t gotten over how wonderfully strange this all is, but I’m not complaining either!

City of Heroes: Yeti Yesterday reborn

It was only after a few days of play in City of Heroes did I realize that the server that I had been on — Halcyon — was designated to become a European server after some shard moves. That would not be great for me in terms of ping and other players to be with, so without much fanfare, I rerolled on the Torchbearer server.

And since I was rerolling, I figured it was time to remake one of my favorite characters from Ye Olde Dayz, an Illusion/Dark Controller named Yeti Yesterday. In fact, when I poured back through my City of Heroes posts on Bio Break (which date back to 2008), I see that I used this name/character a lot.

My vision for her was the ultimate 80s girl, so I spent wayyyy too much time looking over all of the options to find the most 80s-looking options available. I think I did good by the hairstyle and headband, and the leg warmers and shiny sleeveless puffy jacket pulled the outfit together. I even gave her a sparkles aura to summon the spirit of Jem (as I am totally outrageous).

Probably the main reason that I always gravitated to this combination of powersets is that it offered — at least on blueside — the most pets of any class. Illusion had a few situational pets, while Dark Miasma brings out a pet in its final tier. I can’t recall actually ever GETTING to that final tier back in the day, but it’s possible that it did happen.

Anyway, I’m very pleased to have returned to this because so many of my memories of playing this game are with Illusion controllers. I remember back when City of Heroes first launched and I poured over the manual trying to figure out which powersets I’d be choosing when I got home that day. There were many tempting choices, but the unique slant of illusion — thematically and functionally — won out. And I never regretted that.

I had forgotten how much fun it was to blind enemies and see them grab their heads as light shone in their faces. Being able to lock bad guys down so that they don’t hurt your team felt much more powerful than just slinging damage their way, and this kind of group crowd control is sadly fading into the past in MMO history.

I am a little mystified over the lack of supergroups and supergroup recruitment — I still haven’t figured out if this is something these servers lack right now or if nobody really cares about forming these. Again, looking back over my posts from when the game was operational back in the day, I saw a repeated refrain that my inability to find a good supergroup hindered my long-term viability.

In any case, I try to be friendly with the teams that I join, and I’m really getting a kick out of the different outfits that others create. My son even got into the fun, creating his own winged lizard Spike/Invulnerable Scrapper. I mean, if you were a 10-year-old boy, what would you make? Fire Dolly up there? Maybe you would, I dunno.

City of Heroes: DDDelightful return

Ever since City of Heroes came back via the emulation scene, I’ve been waiting for an opportune time to jump back into this old favorite MMO. There’s still a very real possibility that NCsoft is willing to deal or make some sort of legal concession to legitimize these servers, so I was holding off to see if that would develop and if there’d be one more stable server in the end than the others.

But as we continue to wait on that front, it does appear that the Homecoming emulator is doing an admirable job gathering together the community and being the focal point of new and returning heroes. Every time I check, there’s around 6,000 people jumping into this game on the various servers, and that’s not insignificant. So why not me? Why not me indeed.

I figured that until whatever happens in the future happens, I’d limit myself for now to just one character played casually to get my footing. There wasn’t even a question of what that character would be, as I was a huge fan of the Dark/Dark Defender back in the day. So please give a warm Bio Break welcome to Lights Out!

After setting up my options and getting the controls and chat windows the way I liked them, then came the question of… what to do next? You see, the last time I seriously played City of Heroes, it was probably 2006. Or 2007? In any case, I hadn’t been around much for the free-to-play/Paragon Studios era for various reasons, and so this more new incarnation of the game is a little bit unknown to me. Plus, given the distance of time between when I had last regularly played, I had a lot of catching up to do.

For example, City of Heroes doesn’t throw exclamation points and obvious quest chains at you from the get-go. I wandered around aimlessly for a while, beating up random street thugs before vaguely recalling the idea of contacts and door missions. I rung up a contact — free teleport right to him, that was nice — and ran a pretty standard solo instance.

But City of Heroes was never about being by yourself — the game was always more fun in groups. So I turned to the Looking for Group channel, and saw that pretty much everyone was gathering together for DFB, or Death from Below. I guess this is an Issue 21 sewer mission that offers a very good rate of XP gain for minimal risk, which is why the community has flocked to it. Never underestimate MMO players from taking the easiest road possible for power leveling.

It was the only group game in town, and really, if DFB was the only functional combat part of the game, I’d still be obscenely happy to be playing COH again. So this past weekend I ran this repeatedly with several groups, getting to know the rhythms of my class and group combat all over again. I also had mild PTSD flashbacks to the barrage of sound and light that vomits all over the place during these fights.

Inspirations? Enhancements? I remember those! Inventions? Er… I think they started to come out when I played? Badges, temporary powers… ahh, this is the good stuff.

DFB did rocket me up from level 3 to 16 within a few runs, and I appreciated that I could grab flight and some other essential grouping powers quickly. Instead of fighting, I spent my time in groups tossing out debuffs on the enemies and heals and buffs on our team. That’s the Defender playstyle that I liked.

However, it did make me crave a more varied experience, because I don’t think I could run this one trial forever without eventually losing interest in this game. I’m starting a search for supergroups that are devoted to more traditional door mission experiences, so hopefully I’ll find a more permanent home among likeminded players. And then?

And then, the alts begin.

Looking forward to playing City of Heroes again

Last week’s bizarre story involving a long-dead MMORPG, a super-secret server, and a community that found itself suddenly divided ended in a strange but uplifting win for City of Heroes fans. After discovering that there had been a gated emulator running underground for six or so years and being rather upset about it, the COH community suddenly found itself gifted with a treasure they never thought they’d see: the source code.

Long, long story short, this means that with a lot of work and knowhow, it’s now possible for anyone in the world with this code to create a City of Heroes emulator and start operating it. Short of NCsoft opening the game back up for fans, this is the best result that could’ve happened for fans. There’s now the very real — and previously unthinkable — possibility that they might get to go back to their game in the future.

I mean, who really knows. I have no idea how workable all of this is, but when the news of the code release happened on Thursday, you could almost visibly see hope coming back to fans who have been carrying a torch for this game since 2012.

It’s truly interesting and has me contemplating a notion that was previously only a thought experiment: What would it be like to go back to City of Heroes again?

I’m not the biggest emulator player, but I do support their efforts to preserve what I see as “abandonware” by studios. And I certainly want these games carried into the future for myself and future generations of players. City of Heroes was my first real MMO love, and I can only imagine what it’d be like to log into a proper running version of the game and not just Paragon Chat.

I suppose it would be surreal, almost as if no time had passed since the game’s closing. When you play something for that long, you get so familiar with its design that every sight, sound, control, and feature is immediately recalled from long-term storage and put right back into the forefront of the mind.

It would also be pretty exciting to see the community rush back to old stomping grounds. I’m sure there would be plenty of new and curious faces too, especially in the era of WoW Classic. It would certainly be An Event for the month it launched.

But me? What would I do? I don’t know. If the server looked stable and populated enough, I’d be more than a tourist — I’d settle in. Make up a fun new roster of heroes. Blog about it. Join up with some friends and check out content that I never got to see, as I primarily only played during the first three years.

It’s not a sure thing that this will happen, but with the sheer passion and drive that this community has shown — especially considering all of the City of Heroes spin-offs and spiritual successors in the making — then I bet it will. And if not, well, there’s always SEGS and Paragon Chat to hold on to the glory days while we hope that Ship of Heroes, City of Titans, or Valiance Online makes something of itself.

Update: Events were moving pretty quickly this past week, and this pre-written post became partially invalidated when, a day after the source code was released, players already had a fully functioning test server up and running. I didn’t really want to scrap this post — the core is still valid — but it’s fascinating to see how rapidly this all has developed. There’s been a real and strong hunger to get City of Heroes back, and the second the community saw its chance, it took it.

Am I playing on it? I’ll talk about that another day. I think we have a lot of moving parts that haven’t quite settled down into stability, and so I want to hold back on that discussion for now. Let’s just say that I’m very, very glad to see this game resurrected, even as a rogue server.

City of Heroes’ progeny: Ship of Heroes

Let’s finish our quick tour of the three City of Heroes spiritual successors currently in development by checking out Ship of Heroes.

This MMO arrived late to the party, announcing itself in late 2016, which was two to three years after the other projects began. It also seemed a bit like a goof: a superhero MMO that was set on a massive spaceship that just so happened to contain an earthlike city inside of it for some reason? I’m still not convinced about the need for a city-ship if you’re zipping across the galaxy and exploring other planets; it always felt like the team wanted two different things and was working too hard to make them both happen. Superheroes and Star Trek? Hm. It took some getting used to.

And can I mention how much I dislike both the title — which seems bland and derivative — and the MS Word Art-style font that the team chose for its logo? That looks incredibly ’90s.

Probably the biggest mistake that this rookie MMO development team made was pushing for a Kickstarter campaign before generating a critical mass of support and truly conveying its vision. The campaign sought $400,000 but quickly canceled after a few days when only $35,000 or so came in. It was apparent that it wasn’t going to fund and that there wasn’t some sort of huge groundswell for this game.

That all said, Ship of Heroes navigated a few rough opening months and acquitted itself with regular blog posts, a development timeline with milestones that it’s been meeting, actual gameplay, some limited alpha tests, and a very full-featured website.

What has impressed me that, rookie or not, this dev team is passionate, hard-working, and taking this MMO project very seriously. Initially the members came off as “We love City of Heroes so much and we’re going to make a sequel happen if we keep loving it so much!” Now I have to give respect to the work that’s been put into the game.

It still has a long, long way to go. It’s only seen limited testing on various systems (combat, raid, etc.), and I thought that there was supposed to be some sort of public character creator released by now, but maybe I’m mis-remembering that. But Ship of Heroes most likely stands the best chance right now to release first and bowl over the competition with its design, feature sets, and vision.

I’m still a mixed bag on whether I think I’ll like this game or not. The visuals are still a work-in-progress and are decent, but not that good yet. Characters still look plasticy to me, and the pristine sci-fi city lacks a certain personality and lived-in quality that I’d like to see.

Still, I’m impressed with the progress and desperate enough for a good superhero MMO that I’ll take this gladly if it’s the only game that comes out in this genre. I think the team needs to hire an artist or two to add some more personality, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a front person who had a better promotional voice and experience with publicity. Ship of Heroes has a real shot here, and I’m happy that the Kickstarter failure didn’t tank it.

Past this, the other two announced projects — the long-dormant Redside and the largely ignored Heroes and Villains — don’t look viable. There’s also the question of City of Heroes emulators (Paragon Chat, SEGS), but those aren’t legal or endorsed, and I don’t put a lot of stock in their future.