Ten lessons that other MMO developers must learn from the death of City of Heroes

City of Heroes/Villains

By on November 26, 2012 at 9:50 pm

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.

14 comments (Leave your own)

My little fairy type there in the last photo was a Brute archetype called The Pinky Promise. She was the smallest size your character model could be, wore nothing but pink outfits that belonged on a mallrat, and specialised in punching the shit out of you. She eventually got fairy wings, a change I wasn’t 100% happy with.

Also, the photocopiers were my doing. Credit where credit is due.

 

“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?”

In nearly every game that mission design has been a feature, it has absolutely sucked, the reason being that most users are terrible at video game design (its a specialised job for a reason – its hard to do). Spore for example became beyond pitiful when user missions were introduced.

Design your own missions is in a completely different category to design scenery etc, and definitely shouldnt be lumped together. They definitely shouldnt be a free-for-all.

 
TheOriginalDaniel

“DO have a physics engine”

I don’t think folks realize how insanely difficult physics engines are in the multiplayer world.

Let’s take GTA4′s multiplayer as an example, new hybrid engine with physics driven by NaturalMotions euphoria.
Now because physics is client side not server side that means Your local PC is doing physics calculations for obvious reasons but the more advanced you get the more randomized ragdolls etc will be.
Quote from their site: “every result is unique and interactive”
Think about that, if it’s unique and your local machine is doing the work how the hell could someone online get the exact same result? .. Simple: They don’t.

how about Red Dead: Redemption, You might of noticed that sometimes an angry player kills you and starts filling your corpse with bullets but on your screen he’s 5 feet away from you shooting at the ground as if he where trying to dig to china with bullets.
Same deal with the havok physics engine and that’s why commonly MMO’s have death animations.

Long story short: putting physics into a game = difficult, getting every single player to sync to the same physics so that they all see where dead bodys lie = over 9000 difficulty, Imagine if you killed a guy in PVP you run over to loot his body but a 2nd player sees his body 5feet away from where you see it and runs to loot it but gets there first even though he was further away from the body on your screen.. You can see how that would fuck things over.

 

Nice article, but some of your info is out of date or a little harsh. How much you got when you went F2P depended on how much paid time you had on the account, and you didn’t need that much paid time to unlock masterminds for free (less than 3 years). If you were just short, buying a few points could also fix that.

The unlock of major travel powers came down to level 6 for long time subscribers then level 4 (not sure if this was for everybody or just long time subscribers).

It’s not just the costumes, the ability to make a 1000 character biog for it also created a lot of immersion. This meant you understood why other characters were as they were and created a lot of RP opportunities.

 

theoriginaldaniel:
Let’s take GTA4′s multiplayer as an example, new hybrid engine with physics driven by NaturalMotions euphoria.
Now because physics is client side not server side that means Your local PC is doing physics calculations for obvious reasons but the more advanced you get the more randomized ragdolls etc will be.
Quote from their site: “every result is unique and interactive”
Think about that, if it’s unique and your local machine is doing the work how the hell could someone online get the exact same result? .. Simple: They don’t.

Host client does the calculations for major physics event locations(body placement, clipable objects), client side does all the no-clip and minor things like shells, limb placement etc (which amount to the overwhelming majority of physics effects). It wouldn’t really be particularly hard, the developers just need to consider it worth their time.

Much of what you’re saying is impossible could be solved by simple object location calculations happening serverside (which is what happens without the ragdoll anyway). Of course it’s not going to be viable for a server running 5000 people in an open world… but how often do we actually see that?

Adding physics to a game doesn’t just involve something like an explosion tossing 50 bodies in random directions, even low level physics can make a game extremely charming. I don’t think anyone is arguing that single player quality physics is necessary, but SOMETHING better than what we had in MMO’s more than a decade ago would be nice.

Of course all Tims wishes are at the bottom of my list, I don’t care about graphics, music, voice acting, physics, dynamic events and questlines or any of the “marvels” that the latest batch of MMO’s tout as their shining glory…. I’d settle for a game that has a working chat function, some staggered end game progression, working LFG tool and doesn’t treat me like a moron… AT LAUNCH!!

Course that hasn’t happened in a single title for…. well… EVER, MMO’s have been adding more features as a selling point since Everquest was released and you know what? They all keep failing because the simple criteria I listed are absent in favor of stupid shit.

So yeah, excuse me if I’m not overly enthusiastic about ragdoll physics.

 

Some of your don’t examples have been wrong for years.

First tutorials. They were made skippable in Issue 2, end of August 2004. This was before CoV came out. Badge collectors still did them to get the badge that’s only available in them. When the F2P version was released, the old tutorials were dropped in favor of a new common tutorial for CoH/CoV but the Going Rogue expansion still had it’s own tutorial.

As for quest lines, I grant you that in the beginning CoV had only a single quest line. CoV suffered from swinging the pendulum to far the other way from CoH (blue side) which had an abundance of zones and quest lines and contacts beyond the first few missions which were based on your character’s “origin” (mutant, tech, science, natural, magic). In CoH you could unlock 5 contacts, one tied to each origin, every 5 levels who would provide you with missions. There was so much content in the blue side that the developers finally listen to players who wanted to experience all the content and introduced a means to shut off XP.

Travel. Yes for the longest time you really didn’t experience the joy of flying, super jumping or other “travel” powers until level 14. They did however have a special class of missions where the reward for completing them were a flight pack and super jump pack which you could get as early as level 6 for flight and level 10 for jump. As mrminotaur said, they later added a subscriber reward of unlocking the travel powers at level 6 (if you had subscribed for 5 years) and F2P unlocked them at level 4 for everyone.

But there is a downside to having these powers early in my opinion and that is it makes a lot of the flavor of the various zones moot since you are simply above it all. All the various street gangs causing mischief become pointless. You miss out on the various touches the developers did to make each zone unique, you lose the feel that you are in a city.

But the one thing the travel powers did do that so many MMOs don’t have is the feeling of speed. I could spend 5 minutes jogging across a zone or 30 seconds to fly, super speed, teleport or super jump across it. Even the “jog” of a level 2 character in CoH was faster than the run in WoW. That’s the one thing which will drive me crazy in whatever MMO I go to next.

The move to F2P wasn’t a smooth one. On one hand they wanted to reward older players for their loyalty, unlocking Masterminds and Controlers for example if you had subscribed for 39 months under the old system. On the other hand if you allow returning players who subscribed for only a brief time full access to all their older characters and look (the locking of IO enhancements was another sore point for returning players who simply wanted to play for free) isn’t a sustainable business model. You could unlock Masterminds for a relatively small one time fee ($15) or buy proxy currency or simply subscribe until you earn enough “tokens” to unlock the reward level where you get them for free even as a F2P player. The system wasn’t perfect and it might have been a problem for Paragon/NCSoft with long time players who, because their longevity had unlocked all the rewards, could stop subscribing and still enjoy the vast majority of the game.

And a point that’s often missed, this was a game about heroes (and villains) not just superheroes. Just like the comics everyone wasn’t a bunch of spandex clad, cape wearing (No Capes!) perfect specimens of the human form. You could have a pirate, ninja, robot, time traveler, werecritter, alien, soldier, 30′s noir (aka The Shadow), cyborg, elf, dwarf, fairy, knight, angle, demon, well you get the idea. Lets see if you can make a mutant cyborg in your generic fantasy MMO or a magic using pixie with butterfly wings in your space MMO. Here all were welcome. You weren’t pigeonholed into a fixed genre. You were only limited by your imagination and the parts in the character creator.

 

This is SWTOR in 12 months, you heard it here.

 

mrminotaur:
Nice article, but some of your info is out of date or a little harsh. How much you got when you went F2P depended on how much paid time you had on the account, and you didn’t need that much paid time to unlock masterminds for free (less than 3 years). If you were just short, buying a few points could also fix that.

Saying “You only needed less than 3 years of paid time to unlock x” is still super dumb! I’d poured probably 200 hours into that character and the fact I had to pay to unlock it despite my past history of payment is really silly.

mrminotaur: The unlock of major travel powers came down to level 6 for long time subscribers then level 4 (not sure if this was for everybody or just long time subscribers).

That’s good to know! I haven’t actually made any new characters since Freedom so I wasn’t aware of this :)

mrminotaur: It’s not just the costumes, the ability to make a 1000 character biog for it also created a lot of immersion. This meant you understood why other characters were as they were and created a lot of RP opportunities.

Absolutely agreed, love reading people’s backstories and blogs. The best times.

 

fatherxmas: Some of your don’t examples have been wrong for years.

First tutorials.They were made skippable in Issue 2, end of August 2004.This was before CoV came out.Badge collectors still did them to get the badge that’s only available in them.When the F2P version was released, the old tutorials were dropped in favor of a new common tutorial for CoH/CoV but the Going Rogue expansion still had it’s own tutorial.

Skippable in 2004? They were still mandatory in 2005 when I first jumped in, I wasn’t offered the choice to skip them until literally years later, maybe in 2009?

fatherxmas: As for quest lines, I grant you that in the beginning CoV had only a single quest line.CoV suffered from swinging the pendulum to far the other way from CoH (blue side) which had an abundance of zones and quest lines and contacts beyond the first few missions which were based on your character’s “origin” (mutant, tech, science, natural, magic).In CoH you could unlock 5 contacts, one tied to each origin, every 5 levels who would provide you with missions.There was so much content in the blue side that the developers finally listen to players who wanted to experience all the content and introduced a means to shut off XP.

Yeah, CoH always seemed to get much more love than CoV. This is true.

fatherxmas: Travel.Yes for the longest time you really didn’t experience the joy of flying, super jumping or other “travel” powers until level 14.They did however have a special class of missions where the reward for completing them were a flight pack and super jump pack which you could get as early as level 6 for flight and level 10 for jump.As mrminotaur said, they later added a subscriber reward of unlocking the travel powers at level 6 (if you had subscribed for 5 years) and F2P unlocked them at level 4 for everyone.

I do mention the jet packs (well, flight packs) in the article! But yes, as I said above, I never made any new alts in Freedom so I never experienced this. It is good to know!

fatherxmas: But there is a downside to having these powers early in my opinion and that is it makes a lot of the flavor of the various zones moot since you are simply above it all.All the various street gangs causing mischief become pointless.You miss out on the various touches the developers did to make each zone unique, you lose the feel that you are in a city.

I sort of agree, it’s true. But the overall feel it adds to the game is totally worth it.

fatherxmas: But the one thing the travel powers did do that so many MMOs don’t have is the feeling of speed.I could spend 5 minutes jogging across a zone or 30 seconds to fly, super speed, teleport or super jump across it.Even the “jog” of a level 2 character in CoH was faster than the run in WoW.That’s the one thing which will drive me crazy in whatever MMO I go to next.

Yeah, absolutely. Every other MMO I’ve played since then has felt tame and slow by comparison. It’s really frustrating.

fatherxmas: No Capes!

Screw capes!

 

Playing in Firefall beta atm, have to agree Jetpacks are kickass. Verical worlds that are open to explore are still a novelty and shouldnt be.

 

I am going to miss Richard Cheddarman
http://www.legalwarfare.com/downloads/cheddarman.jpg

also super strength upper cuts with all KB/KU buffs on. Man I loved the physics in that game. Made me hate every MMO since if they lacked that.

PS: you forgot to mention the sidekick/lackey system – EVERY game that lets you level up and team with friends should have this.

 

auld: Playing in Firefall beta atm, have to agree Jetpacks are kickass. Verical worlds that are open to explore are still a novelty and shouldnt be.

Perhaps, worlds would have to be VERY well designed though. I noticed in WoW that the instant everyone had a flying mount, the area design ceased to matter, the game became all about skipping as much as you could using flight and I think the majority of people stopped experiencing the world as it was meant to be.

The problem is that either immersion is ruined or the fast travel just becomes a part of it all and it isn’t special. I miss actually TRAVELING through a world, when you restrict a game to ground mounts then you force people to be a part of the world, and IMO that’s a good thing.

 

nekosan: I miss actually TRAVELING through a world, when you restrict a game to ground mounts then you force people to be a part of the world, and IMO that’s a good thing.

I think this is mostly just a problem because games are rarely designed with flight in mind. CoX did this to some extent and had some amazing vertical areas to enjoy, but it did still fall flat in this area a bit.

If a game was actually designed around verticality, it’d be not an issue at all.

 

Great article, Tim! Just like you I’ve played CoH for many years, and I agree it’s a terrible shame that a game that introduced such great features is getting killed off – for a while NCSoft even mentioned CoH when they were explaining their automatic level scaling system, and how it was based on CoH’s sidekicking.

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.

Did you assign all your Paragon Points? Once you filled up Tier 4 of the Paragon rewards Masterminds and all the other special classes should’ve become unlocked (since you mentioned having spent hundreds of dollars on the game I find it hard to believe you wouldn’t have enough points to get to Tier 4 =/ ).

 
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