City of Heroes/Villains (CoX) was my first MMO love, and a game that I poured a ridiculous amount of hours into over the years. The news of its imminent shutdown on November 30 is deeply upsetting to me, not only because I — perhaps foolishly, in the world of superheroes — hoped that it would live forever, but because the good things that the game has brought to the MMO genre still seem criminally under-recognised by developers at large. So, here’s the lessons that we need to take away from CoX — for better and worse.
DO have a character creator that actually means something.
The first thing that anyone notices — and rightly so — about the CoX games is that character creation isn’t just some generic 30-second mindless clicking festival where you choose Face #4 with Hairstyle #8 and call it a day. The CoX character creator is a monstrous beast, a huge, sprawling jigsaw puzzle with literally millions of possible combinations. This is something we need to see more of in other MMO’s: a system that, right from the start, actually makes you feel special and important because you look exactly as awesome as you want to. There’s no waiting for gear or running around looking like every other level-zero scrub. You can be level 50 and still look like an angry, drunk homeless person. Trust me on this.
And you know what? That’s great. That’s great because it imbues your character with real meaning and personality. When you put that sense of character and meaning up against Tabard Wearing Warrior #5,789 from Generic Fantasy MMO, it’s easy to see that the CoX system creates genuine player investment. We need more of this.
DON’T have only one quest line and one tutorial.
And yet, right after its brilliant character creator, comes CoX‘s biggest mistake: for literally years and years, both Heroes and Villains only had one quest line. and a mandatory tutorial section you couldn’t skip. I’ve heard countless times about how many people got turned off from making City of Villains alts, for example, because they’re just sick to death of killing snake people over and over again. This sort of dull repetition kills the game, regardless of how awesome your newly-created character is.
Eventually, Cryptic/Paragon wised up and added some varied quest lines, and allowed you to skip the tutorial. But for many, it was too little, too late.
DO let us fly around the world and feel like a badass.
Despite this, CoX still boasts the best player transports system in any MMO that I’ve ever played, hands-down. As soon as level three you get access to a jetpack which has literally hours and hours of flight time on it, more than enough to get you up to the level 14 when your first major travel power unlocks. Whether you choose super speed, teleporting, Hulk-style enormous leaps (my favourite) or good ol’ flight, CoX did a great job of making you feel like an enormous badass without having to grind and save and grind and save and grind some more just so you could move slightly faster.
None of that drudgery for me, thanks: I want to feel awesome as I soar across the city skyline, and I don’t want to have to wait forever to do it.
DON’T wait too long to go free-to-play.
It took seven years for Paragon to finally take CoX free-to-play, stubbornly holding out for the subscription model in the face of dwindling player numbers. But it’s arguable that this resistance to what is now rapidly becoming the industry standard was the Doomsday to their Superman: with the industry shifting around them and games with different models like Guild Wars moving from strength to strength, Paragon’s slow embrace of change was probably the key factor in their reduced player numbers.
The lesson here for other developers is clear: free to play works. Subscription models — with a few notable exceptions — do not. Even a halfway solution like Guild Wars 2 is going to be more successful than a full-price-game-and-ongoing-fee model.
DO have a physics engine. A real one. It’s worth it.
CoX is one of the few MMOs with a proper physics engine in it — and the difference is astounding. Combat in CoX feels heavy and meaty, like the blows have some proper weight behind them. Wind-up punches smash people into the air, blasts of force throw them off buildings. It makes the vague “scrape away at each other” combat model of many MMOs look boring and stupid.
More than that, the addition of a physics engine boosts the game in other, subtle ways. Exploring the environment becomes a real case of platforming and planning. Bullet casings are tossed around in the eddies as you zip down a corridor. Rubble, spraying from your ground-stomp, bounces off the walls and lands around you. Some of the fiddlier stuff is client-side only of course but it just looks good. We need more of this. It’s worth the cost.
DON’T screw over former paid members when you do go free-to-play.
As somebody who purchased the City of Villains Collectors Edition at full retail price back in the day, the transition to free-to-play left me less than impressed. My main character, a Mastermind class with a sweet personal army of ninja, was locked out to me… because I hadn’t purchased the ability to have Mastermind characters. Yet my (many) alts were available to ‘unlock’ simply because they were non-paid classes.
Without wishing to cause any offence, Paragon, this is really dumb. I’d be fine if you stopped me from making a new character from an archetype available only to Premium players, but locking me out from my already existing level 50, that I’ve poured hundreds of hours and dollars into just because I haven’t spent any money under the “new” system? This is just… no. No, it’s dumb. Don’t do that.
DO let us build and customise our own spaces in your game world.
CoX has a very clever guild system, where your group can build their own superhero or supervillain base. Everybody likes having their own space, but having your own space that you’ve extensively customised makes being part of your group even better and more meaningful. Between the fantastic character creator, and the ability to deck your supergroup base out with whatever you like, CoX really goes above and beyond to let you make it your own.
As for our group, we created a dank sewer and filled it with hundreds of photocopiers. This is how we roll.
DON’T slip a giant penis cannon into a level and think we won’t notice.
You can find this mounted on the roof in one of the early Arachnos bases. I think it speaks for itself.
DO allow user-created content.
Not only does the game let you make your own costume(s) and bases, but you can also design your own missions. And let people play in them. Why isn’t this more of a thing yet? Why are we still waiting on Neverwinter to come along, and having our minds blown at the very concept of an MMO toolset that allows you to create your own content? Why is this even a thing?
Heads-up, developers: people love user-generated content. That, among other reasons, is why Minecraft is so successful and still selling something like a thousand copies a day: because people like to see what other people have made. Especially if they can walk around in it and play with it, and fight against it or blow it up. I know you want to spend your publisher money on a huge world and scripted cut-scenes and a story that — let’s be honest, not many people will really pay attention to — but let’s try something different and give players the keys to the kingdom.
Hell, why do you think people still play the original Neverwinter Nights online? Hint: it’s not for the graphics.
DON’T give up on the superhero genre.
Alright, so DC Universe Online was a bit of a wet fart and Champions Online has dropped so far off most people’s radars that even Daredevil hasn’t heard it breathing in months, but just because CoX is shutting down doesn’t mean that it’s time to can the whole thing. We need more in our genre than swords and sorcery, and comic books are still a market begging to tapped.
It would be a crying shame if the death of CoX was enough to kill any future hope for MMOs, and while Marvel Heroes is yet to appear, its strict “play as your favourite Marvel hero!” mindset isn’t really what superhero MMO should be all about. CoX may have had some flaws, but it had so much heart and soul — if we can get back to what made the game special and trim it down for a modern day audience, I think there’s every reason to believe it can — in the finest tradition of superhero comics — retcon itself back to life.