Feature: Saving the Worlds

I’ve never played City of Heroes. If I’m going to be honest I’ve not played many MMOs at all. I’ve done the odd trial and occasional beta test here and there, but no game has ever persuaded me that it will be more rewarding than a good old fashioned single player RPG. What I have to admire though, are the communities that have sprung up around Everquest, Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings Online and more, groups of people not only united by a love of a particular game, but by the commitment to make it live, to put the multiplayer into the MMO.

Members of the City of Heroes community are currently doing all that and more. After spending eight years repeatedly saving Paragon City from spandex-clad villainy, they’re now trying to save it from being shut down by publishers NCsoft (whose executives may or may not be spandex-clad also). On 30th November the servers will be turned off and developer Paragon Studios will be closed. NCsoft are ‘realigning’ the company’s focus and City of Heroes doesn’t have a place in the new order.

We Can be Heroes

There probably isn’t a single MMO community that wouldn’t come out swinging against such a threat, but the manner in which some City of Heroes players have tried to rescue their game is commendable and maybe even a little bit inspiring. Since the announcement of the closure at the end of August, members of Titan Network (the community at the forefront of the effort) have done the usual petitions and so on, but have also sent capes and masks to NCsoft, raised money to buy a dinner for the developers and conducted a 5,000 player protest march through locations in-game.

The march makes for impressive Youtube viewing (even if all the players aren’t actually there at once – there’s only so much a single server can take) but there’s also a lucidity to the protest and an acceptance that they may well be fighting a losing battle. It’s been made clear on the Titan Network forums that they can’t feasibly fight for the maintenance of the status quo; NCsoft will not be persuaded to let City of Heroes carry on as it has done.

Instead, three clear options have been tabled: raise money and purchase the game from NCsoft, then run it through a whole new studio; persuade another studio to come to the rescue and take up development where Paragon left it; or reverse engineer the client, server and the communication between the two. Each option has a major chunk of financial, legal and practical problems. Keeping the game going beyond the cut-off point is a formidable challenge, but good luck to anyone bold enough, clever enough and passionate enough to try.

The End of All Things

There’s one fairly grim undercurrent that runs through any such MMO rescue effort. It was the same for Star Wars Galaxies and it’ll be the same when World of Warcraft finally expires. To run a game, you need the code and a machine to run it on. To run an MMO you need both of these things, plus one vital ingredient: a constant will to keep it going. There always has to be a server running somewhere and enough players to make it a world rather than a ghost town. At some point, that will is going to waver. In the end, all MMOs will die.

It’s a strange thing to think about. I might not have played a great deal of them myself, but it’s abundantly clear that many players make just as great an emotional investment in their worlds, characters and guilds as I do in my favourite solo games, or like anyone else would do with their favourite films, songs and books. What would you do if someone just took those things away? Goodbye to The Beatles’ back catalogue. Goodbye to every episode of Doctor Who. Goodbye to the whole of Shakespeare (yes, that would be a bad thing).

Changes short of a shutdown can also cause a strange sense of loss. When Cataclysm came out and Blizzard deliberately rebuilt several parts of Azeroth, I remember reading articles where long-time players waxed lyrical about the disappearance of certain parts of Westfall or the Barrens and how the landscape would never quite be the same again. Whilst writing this, I had to quickly remind myself about the names of certain World of Warcraft zones, and I suddenly realised something: those Wikis dealing with pre-Cataclysm geography and quests aren’t useful online guides any more. They’re history books.


One of the great dreams of MMOs has been true persistence, the creation of a world that doesn’t revolve around one player but around hundreds of them, or even none, where things change and alter irrevocably. This often clashes with the need to create a stable, profitable game. It’s long been considered the done thing to allow players to redistribute their skill points for a cost so that the learning curve isn’t so brutal. During development of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the developers famously ditched the possibility for players to permanently kill off their companion characters after testers either took the decision too lightly and demanded a reversal or bumped off their best buddies by accident.

Some games buck the trend: World of Warcraft has always been a theme park MMO, but the decision to permanently alter the world in Cataclysm was a bold one, and EVE Online developers have frequently expressed masochistic glee when watching players deliberately destroy the game’s economy. The most meaningful example of persistence though, comes at the very end, the point that City of Heroes finds itself at. All things come to an end – if you don’t want them to, you’d best be up for a challenge.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tim.prickett1 Tim Prickett

    The true end-point of this effort is to make CoH viable enough to warrant a CoH 2 game engine upgrade. Not all games end, given a chance, they evolve.

    • Jeremy Thackray

      I understand that the CoH 2 possibility ties in to the option to purchase the rights from NCsoft, which would be the perfect result. I agree with you as well that MMOs can evolve when hit by problems and I really hope that CoH manages this, but I do still think that in the end it will stop. I’m not talking about the short-term here, CoH and something massive like WoW could go on for decades through fan efforts even if the developers stopped supporting it, but its not like a single player game.
      Having a solo game is like having a CD or a DVD; as long as you have the equipment to play it on, it’s the same experience that someone else would have had 30 years ago. An MMO is more like a continuous live gig. You might still have the code after people have stopped playing, but it’s not the same thing. Walking round a completely empty Azeroth could still be kind of amazing though.

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