The announcement was a shock.
Just a few hours before, the team from developer Paragon Studios had been posting new screenshots of the upcoming Tech Knight costume set. They didn’t see this coming either. It was the Friday before Labor Day Weekend, and NCsoft, the game’s publisher, had decided that City of Heroes no longer fit in their MMORPG portfolio. Their business strategy was elsewhere. The entire studio, 80 hard-working developers, were to be laid off. The game itself would shut down for good.
I was sad for the rest of the day. It was hard to explain that sadness to family, or friends who didn’t play the game. I’ve played City of Heroes since its initial release. Though my playing has occasionally lapsed in frequency, I have never unsubscribed. I have found City of Heroes, through all its expansions, updates, nerfs and restructurings, to be one amazing game. In many ways, it was always ahead of its time. And it was one way I had of catching up with lots of old friends who enjoyed the game as much as I did.
The game did go Free to Play last year, which for some is a sign of trouble. But it never seemed like a game in its death throes in spite of the change in revenue stream. City of Heroes had been selling ala carte costume packs for some time prior and the changeover seemed gradual. It seemed like the business model, with optional VIP subscription, would work fine. And for all accounts, it did work fine, if, perhaps not as fine as NCsoft wanted.
Not long after the free-to-play conversion, my husband and I made paired characters on the VIP-only server. I chose one of the newer power sets, Dual Pistols, and a healing secondary, to help out his sword-focused brawler. We started charging our way through new content, stuff we hadn’t seen from the game’s newest focused expansions. On August 30, I had just bought a new costume slot, so my pistol-packing girl could have some new fashion options. We were sorting out our plan of attack on the Night Ward, content we hadn’t yet explored.
Less than 24 hours later, I texted home, saying I just found a depressing way for us to save $15 a month.
I logged into the game that night. I took a walk through places I’d loved. I took lots, and lots of pictures. I watched the chat channel go on and on. Why was this happening? Who was to blame? Could anything be done? There was already a petition circulating. The first indication I had about it was when I saw the hero Ascendant, himself a bit of a meme among players, chatting about it with his agent.
The sunset date was announced as November 30. I asked my husband if he still wanted to do all that content. He said, maybe later, but for now he was a bit too sad to log in and face it. Some of my other friends were sympathetic, chatting away about how much they would miss the game. Others said I may as well go ahead and bail out for Guild Wars 2. I’ve heard the hype, but I’m not sure if I can do that. It seems like that game, in a very real way, killed the game I loved. Even if Guild Wars 2 was fantastic, it’d be too hard to let go of that emotion and enjoy it. It’s hard to know right now if I can ever love an MMO again, knowing that I’ll have my heart broken. Sure, I’ve seen the sunset of other games: I played Tabula Rasa, and The Matrix Online. But those games were not this one.
While I was logging on characters just to reminisce, someone mentioned on the Looking for Team chat channel that they had never done a Task Force. For the unfamiliar, these are long, story-form mission chains, linked together that require a team of heroes to complete. Apparently, the player I was chatting had just recently subscribed: poor timing. She said her character had a beef with the arch villain the Clockwork King. So, we organized a Synapse Task Force immediately to take him on. We then proceeded to have a rolling good time for the rest of the evening, with other strangers, playing the MMORPG with some of the best grouping and team-building tools in the entire world.
My home server is Virtue, where I have nearly a full stable of characters, hero and villain alike. There was a protest held there, on the stairs of Atlas Park. I logged in for a while, with my level 50 Defender, and stood among the others in my tights and cape. Everyone held torches aloft in protest. More Atlas Parks kept building up, until there were 33 instances of the zone. When I was booted from the server on accident, there was a long queue to get back in.
Log into the game today, and there is still an Atlas Park 33 on Virtue. Those determined to save the city have taken shifts playing there, not leaving so they can keep that small part of the city alive, as long as possible. Perhaps until the end.
The relief efforts have been emotionally involving for all. The petition has been gathering signatures since Day One, and racking up thousands. People from all over the internet have come to show support and love for a game that has one of the nicest, most dedicated communities on the internet. Protest art and videos have been created, the media, notified.
Believe me, I love the idea of saving City of Heroes. I signed the petition. I’ll spread the word, and I’ll do whatever can be done. But when others are hopeful, I’m skeptical. NCSoft seemed uninterested in selling the property. It had already laid everyone off. The business of games is a harsh one, based often less on emotion than cold calculation. All MMORPGs will someday have to face that day when the servers shut down. Heroes die. Worlds collapse.
My Supergroup on Virtue was a roleplay-lite club. We didn’t engage in heavy drama, but when we regularly played, we would have colorful in-character banter as we beat down the baddies. My most storied character on the game is a mutant lizard: a perfect design, I thought, for the Regeneration defensive power set. I modeled her a little after “troubled young adult” type mutants like in the X-Men: though she was green and had scales, she had a longing to have a normal human life. She didn’t talk about it much. My plan, which never came to fruition, was to use City of Heroes’ ability to create player-generated content to express this. A Story Architect mission about my hero being kidnapped by the bad guys because of her desire for a normal life, is still half-completed on my hard drive.
I decided now was an okay time.
So, I jumped into the costume creator, and made her a new body: something ordinary, and normal, maybe a little pretty in a quirky way. She went out to the club: Pocket D, the neutral heroes and villains roleplaying bar. The bar itself exists outside of time, in the game lore, hovering like the Restaurant at the End of the World in swirls of shapeless light and color.
If the world does end on November 30, that’s where my main hero, Jayde, will still be. Watching the sunset of one faded world, as the world around her fades. Wondering if all those battles with baddies were really worth it, if the world itself could not truly be saved.
However, if the relief efforts really bear fruit, she’ll be more than happy to take up the mask and fight again.