The Daily Grind: What made City of Heroes work so well?

Although City of Heroes is not coming back (I think we all need to come to terms with that), many successors are waiting in the wings with their own vision of how a superhero MMO should be. Valiance Online, City of Titans, and Ship of Heroes all have claimed inspiration from City of Heroes and claim that they will be replicating some elements of what made that title work so well.

But what did work well about City of Heroes? Why did it succeed when Champions Online, a title modeled after it and created by the same studio, failed? Why is City of Heroes so beloved, even years after its demise?

Let’s hash it out today in the comments. Break down City of Heroes for us and see if you can’t put your finger on what made this particular MMO fly high.

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!
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76 Comments on "The Daily Grind: What made City of Heroes work so well?"

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@Texarkana

Warning 1: this is a long post with no “tl:dr” version ( ‘ ;
Warning 2: this is an edited version of an older post from years ago
Warning 3: I am biased in favor of CoX but I will try to be as fair as possible.

I think City of Heroes and City of Villains, collectively known as CoX, is/was the best mmo on the market (although it comes with all the trappings of the mmo genre as well.)
It still has arguably the best customization of character appearance going, breaking down the body into multiple parts that can be mixed and matched with an ever-increasing number of models and 180 colors (as well as color patterns). Your toon is recognizable. By default, for each character you are given 4 costume slots, with the possibility of adding a fifth with salvage (drops) from a Halloween event. You can create totally different costumes as well as change an existing one at a tailor. Lastly, if you join a supergroup and enter supergroup mode, your character can customize how the supergroup colors appear on your costume. Unlike most other MMOs, there is no problem of running into 30 people who look just like you…

It had 14 different classes (Hero: Tanker, scrapper, blaster, controller, defender, plus Hero Epics peacebringer and warshade; Villain: Mastermind, dominator, stalker, corruptor, brute and Villain Epics: Arachnos Widow and Arachnos Soldier). Each non-epic class breaks down into a group of 5-6+ primary power sets and 5-6+ secondary sets making for a ridiculous number of combinations alone. Couple this with the fact that you can further select powers from up to 4 different power pools (that each contains 4 different powers) and an epic power pool set (with 4 different powers) — does this sound like there isn’t that much diversity? Unless you hit upon the truest of min/maxer (basically the fire/kinetics controller), you won’t often see similar builds and even then….

Character creation: http://youtube.com/watch?v=_Ds0MlN2l2Y

Powers are further customized with Enhancement slots, upwards of 6 of them, that can affect damage output, knockback, hold duration, recharge time, etc. With the 9th (nineth!) free issue, inventions were implemented into the game. Inventions, among other things, combine different power enhancements (like accuracy and damage) into a single slot. Furthermore, like other games, you can have sets of enhancements that bestow additional benefits as you acquire more of them.

I say this again and again — combat in CoX was arguably the best, one of the fastest, and most epic in an mmo, short of not being a first person shooter. There was no attack queue, you are absolutely active and engaged. There is collision detection for all objects — tanks really do tank and prevent melee mobs from breaking through the lines, going straight for the squishies. There is a Z-access! In addition to multi-level battles, air battles are not only possible but the norm. As a hero, your toon is designed to be able to take on roughly 3 even-conned mobs….meaning group battles can entail 25+ mobs at once. Of course, where’s the challenge of that you ask? Well, aside from mass numbers, those thugs have lieutenants and bosses ordering them around… they’re stronger and quite capable. Of course, we shouldn’t forget the Villains, Arch Villains and Giant Monsters (the latter most usually takes a raid-size group of players to take down.)

For example (http://youtube.com/watch?v=xFpNMZde-mE)

The AI in the game is pretty decent. Someone (Anofayle? from mmorpg.com) had a great post on it but to summarize: At the lowest levels, you’ll see thugs basically switch between ranged and melee attacks and occasionally flee. Bosses will start using status effects. Eventually, as early as the mid-teens, you’ll encounter mobs like the Tsoo sorcerer who ninja heals his comrades. And then later on you see Sky Raider engineers plunking down shield generators to protect his comrades while duking it out. Incarnate trials have started shaking things up further with various unique status effects that challenge the players to find alternate solutions to combat.

Although you can effectively solo any class based on its own capabilities, CoX shines as a group game. Everybody has a job — crowd control, pets, buffers, tankers, damage dealers. When players come together, synergies naturally come about (unless you have a few weenies in the group — can’t stop that after all….) Need another perk? Perhaps it’s the hero mentality, but the community is among the nicest out there and pick up groups (PUG) are EXCEPTIONALLY easy to find. Given the powerset diversity, there’s also no formula to a group (i.e. NO trinity!). Largely any combination can be plugged in (although 8 controllers in a group might be slow going…before level 32)

CoX may have been the first to address the problem of outleveling your friends. They implemented a sidekick/exemplar system that allowed 2 players to pair up, either boosting the existing powers of a lowbie up to his friend’s level or reducing the character level of a player back down to his lowbie friend’s level. This system allows xp to be doled out reasonably well and everyone can still participate. The system was further enhanced (Super-sidekicking!) so that the entire team could scale to the mission holder’s level with rewards scaling as well.

Because of how easy it is to get a PUG, the game was casual friendly. There is raid content at the end, namely the Hamidon encounter, issue 10 also implemented zone-wide conflicts in the form of Rikti alien invasions and the Rikti crash-site encounter. There are also a few dedicated PvP zones including Recluse’s Victory whose graphics changes as control changes hands between villains and heroes. Then, of course, there was the new Incarnate content for level 50s. Otherwise, the game is storyline driven with several missions per story arc per level as well ad-hoc, randomly generated missions (from police scanners and newspapers for heroes and villains respectively.)

Because it’s the superhero genre set in the modern day, it can pull in any storyline without breaking continuity. We have purse snatchers, cultists, mobsters, mad scientists, aliens, supernatural beings, mutants, ninjas, ghost pirates, Bizaaro villains in parallel dimensions – they’re all looking for a piece of the action in Paragon City/”Primal Earth”. The lore is rich, independent, ever-evolving and, at times, thought-provoking with the introduction of the morality system and the ability to change sides from hero to vigilante to rogue to villain (and back). There are both minor and major story arcs, and for those that really dig lore, they’ll be very satisfied with how interconnected the game is (the developers maintain a lore ‘bible’.)

A typical trap of MMO designers is to spend time and resources creating zones and then ushering players through them on to other areas. The downside of this is that it somewhat wastes resources (one and done development), but also fragments the population by separating high level players from lower level ones typically. In CoX, with the exception of the Villian Zone and the Praetorian Zone, the developers created storylines that constantly brought players back into pre-existing zones, thereby mixing up newer and older, higher and lower level players that helped encourage playing together (unless you got the occasional elitist who would scan your badges and then refuse to party with you…)

Technologically-speaking, the game was fairly sophisticated with very nice graphics (not photo realistic though), excellent sound and music, as well as real-world physics rendering (regardless if you have a Phys-X card, software can render everything if you have the cpu.)

The game was heavily supported by the developers and they did interact with community. Cryptic Studios first, then Paragon Studios had opted to release roughly 3 free issues/updates per year (this is/was year 7.25, free issue #20.5 just released…ultimately went to 23 free issues with the 24th in beta for release before shutdown) rather than go the expansion route, with the exception of the City of Villains and Going Rogue games. And these aren’t piddly little updates — Epic character classes have been introduced, new powersets implemented, inventions and the consignment house have been released, new zones and revamps of old zones to keep them fresh as well as new costume parts, bug updates, etc.

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@Texarkana

So, what’s the down side to all of this goodness? Well….

the biggest complaint against CoX is that it is repetitive and grindy. So far as gameplay goes, you can attribute that to any MMO out there — I think it’s a matter of how well you can immerse yourself into any game. There are simply a set number of mission types: patrols, kill x, defeat this mob, retrieve this, talk to him, escort so and so — every game has them but I think the comic-book fan wants a bit more. If you play 5 hours a day, every day, you will burn out the game. Honestly, I don’t see how anyone can do that in any game. I took an extended break (I was a 78 month veteran, the 84 month award just came out) to follow my friends to WoW, but came back for CoV and have thoroughly enjoyed myself since. One last note about repetition is that even though most missions in CoX are instanced, the diversity of maps is quite lacking, particularly cave and warehouse maps. New maps get slipped in with updates but it’s noticeable still.

the second biggest complaint is that PvP hasn’t lived up to expectations (Vajuras of mmorpg.com had posted about this quite a bit). PvP was first introduced with Arena battles as the game was heroes only initially. With the release of CoV, there are 4 dedicated zones for pvp. Supergroup raids don’t really happen that often. Many of the old-timers blame the implementation of PvP (even with arenas) for the nerf bat that has been taken to some of the classes.

CoX end game was still thin on content. With the exception of the Hamidon encounter, the Rikti Warzone, some PvP in Recluse’s Victory and a few Task Force missions, the introduction of Incarnate content had been very much welcomed but it paled to the likes of WoW which has chains of Raid Level content. Here I think, CoX is more about the journey than the end. There are multiple story arcs that you can’t necessarily see with just one toon (unless you use the flashback system) and the diversity of skillsets (and character design) lend itself to making multiple alts. It’s not a long-term solution for Hard core players and Achievers but it’s a very satisfying one for explorers and casual types.

Many people left after the issue (issue 4) that included “enhancement diversification”. Essentially the developers implemented diminishing returns on enhancements if you slot more than 3 of the same type in a power. You still get a benefit, it’s simply not a straight-line calculation any more. Many people put this on par with the Star Wars Galaxies NGE in terms of radical change to a game and the way the developers thrust it onto the community. If you came in after the fact, you would never know about it and with the Invention system, it is totally mitigated, but some of the old-timers still complain that this happened to the game mechanics and the community.

Lastly, some people need loot and the outwardly visible, eye-popping ways to see how a character evolves. Enhancements for powers have always dropped but that wasn’t deemed enough. With issue 9, the developers introduced salvage drops to create invention enhancements as well as costumeparts that otherwise were inaccessible. As mentioned earlier, you can change the look of your hero/villain at any time by visiting the tailor but it won’t happen because of direct accomplishment. Furthermore, some people need to get the Sword of Slaying that is popular at the moment or else purchase fireball 4 after fireball 1, fireball 2, and fireball 3. In CoX, as you acquire powers, they scale up in effectiveness as you level and use enhancements rather than simply get replaced — that was the design decision made on how your character evolves in the game.

But that’s it, like anything else, you take the bad with the good –For me, I think the good far, far outweighs any of the bad and people looking for a new game ought to give it a try if the genre appeals to them, especially now that it is going free2play. After 7 years, CoX still runs/ran with a healthy population and (even with fanbois padding vanguard and lotro) still ranked in the top 10 games list here at mmorpg.com. It didn’t aspire to WoW numbers; it’s a niche game that won’t appeal to everyone but it’s made many people very happy, even for brief spells. Aside from the dedicated masses like myself, even the people who leave say that for the 1-6 months they played, it was great. Considering the game has a free trial and can be purchased on the cheap (including your first month free), and it’s going free2play, you would be hard pressed to say you did not get value for your time and money.

Conclusion….
So, I still miss City of Heroes. It was a phenomenal and perfect game to me as well as many others. I was fortunate to play it for so long and do so during a time in my life that could afford to do it. It was a tremendous accomplishment by all members of the dev team over the years and they should all be proud of their contributions.

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shroom_king

One thing I don’t think I see mentioned enough in the comments:

There was an incredible abundance of powers and power sets, but what made it work is that each set felt truly unique and powerful in their own ways. The animation and sound design of the game were simply top notch despite the engine limitations. Fire blasts felt impactful with the blazing crackles of your ignited enemies, the impact of a fireball striking a foe, while something like Ice had those rigid, grinding sounds that truly made you feel like you were freezing someone or creating an ice sword in your hand.

That’s just two mind you, there’s so many more I could mention. My personal favorite was the Bane Spider tree of the Arachnos Soldier class. Their attacks had fantastic sound design that truly made you feel powerful, and the attacks were actually strong to match! That’s probably the other biggest thing: You didn’t just feel powerful, you WERE powerful. Too many attacks in modern MMOs are flashy and over designed to the point of ridiculousness despite having the impact of hitting your opponent with a wet noodle (Looking at you FF14). Most of the attack powers in CoH never got to that level and kept up their impact all the way through. Unless you missed. Accuracy was always an issue in the combat for me for some reason. Unless you played Mastermind, which is a class so wonderful that I’m sad I won’t ever be able to play it again.

Even something as simple as healing felt badass from animation alone. I haven’t seen many other MMOs that have the character being healed do a little animation. Seeing a character visibly looking relieved as you healed them made all the difference to me. Impact animations seem lost to me in too many MMOs in that they’re either not there, reserved specifically for the smallest minions, or just make the model shake. There’s no sensation comparable to me than hitting one of the major characters in the setting in the face and seeing them get knocked down to the floor.

The combat system was just a wonderful combination of good sound design, effects, and impact that made the game for me. It’s the reason why Champions never filled the void for me, its combat is just so weak by comparison. DCUO to some extent never did either, it felt too restrained by the typical “MMO Weakness” despite what it was trying to go for with its combat system.

And as a final little addition: You never felt like you were second fiddle to the major heroes and villains of the setting by the end. DCUO bothers me immensely in that you’re always just second fiddle to the “Real” heroes and villains of the setting, whereas in CoH and CoV you SURPASSED them at the end of the game. It’s a great immersive feeling to get to that level and actually feel like your progress in the overall game world matters.

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speed_boost_this

For me the compelling force that brought me to and kept me playing for 8 years was the character customization. I’m sick to death of playing Elven Archer #8713. The ludicrious amount of costume, powerset, power, and build customization had my characters truly being *my* characters. Never understood the point of so many other games giving you incredibly detailed face customizations… on top of a generic body/costume, often hidden behind an ugly helmet mandated because its stats were too good not to wear.

This really cannot be stressed enough. With so many customization options, I played through the same content over and over and over again because the gameplay was so different from character to character. I had multiple characters with the Dual Blades attack set, for example, because it played so differently between a DB/SR scrapper, SR/DB Tanker, or DB/Fire Brute. Heck, I had multiple SS/Invuln tankers, the exact same powerset, that played differently from the power choices and IO builds. No game developers are going to keep up with us gamers’ voracious demand for content… but if you give us the fun tools we’ll explore the same old sandbox repeatedly.

Second, my characters felt powerful. I went from CoH to Guild Wars 2 and was it a system shock. The latter would have buffs that lasted 2 seconds and granted a 3% buff. Why even bother? Meanwhile, My rad/rad defender in CoH was bottoming out entire spawns’ tohit, dmg, and res. When you debuffed a mob or buffed a teammate you didn’t need to pull out a calculator to determine if it’d had any impact.

Third, the game didn’t hide everything of value behind a paywall, it didn’t try to nickel and dime you to death. The supermajority of the game was free by the time it went free-to-play, the only stuff that required a sub was stuff only the diehards like me would want anyways, and the diehards were perfectly happy to support our chosen hobby. I fire up Champions Online looking for a CoH replacement and I feel like I walked into a casino lobby – they’re not looking to entertain me, they’re looking to extract every single penny I possess and if I happen to get some entertainment out of it thats a secondary consideration.

Reader

Armsman couldn’t be more wrong. It’s honestly impressive.

If CoH wasn’t ‘that good’ or ‘anything special’, why the hell is no MMO able to replicate the level that it reached? Character customization? Only Champions Online comes close, and it falls short in other areas such as ‘playing a villain’ or ‘the fact that the combat in CO is hot ass’. Being a Superhero MMO? I’ve already covered CO’s problems, and having good combat is about the only thing DCUO does have. I’d love to hear what MMO he plays that has a pet class that plays anything like Mastermind. No, really. I’d fucking love to hear it. Because there isn’t one. Not to mention it being the #1 cause of Altitis; there’s so many ways to level, it was easy to have many characters. Yet another thing almost no other MMO can say, with many of them just shuttling you along one perfectly linear leveling path. Oh, what about the Mission Architect? Please, enlighten me to what MMO you play that has that feature, my man.

‘Perfect’ is arbitrary, but it was, infact, the best. This isn’t fucking melodrama or nostalgia. Paragon Studios made a fucking fun game and SOMEHOW, no MMO to come after it has matched the lightning they captured in a bottle. If it was a bad game, then that just reflects poorly on all the other MMOs that have come out over a decade after it, which somehow can’t even reach that standard.

It’s not ‘perfect’, but it’s ‘the best’. NCSoft’s other games can’t match what it had. The ‘top MMOs’ can’t match what it had (and there’s some overlap there, as GW2 is both one of the top 3 MMOs in the west as well as an NCSoft property).

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Denice J. Cook

The class system was also much more flexible and varied than people who didn’t play CoX ever realized. It not only offered class types like crowd controllers, debuffers, etc. which few other MMOs would even begin to tackle today, but most classes had sub-class abilities, end-game extra abilities, and general power pool added ability lines you could tack on besides. I should know; my main Brute (tank, villain-side) was also a healer, rezzer and buffer through the Medicine power pool. :P Many’s the time she would ground stomp, knock down a ring of multiple mobs, then lean over and heal a team mate before she started swinging again. There was also a lot of variation within each class (Dark/Dark Defenders could “corridor crowd control” besides healing, rezzing, buffing and doing support damage, etc.).

CoX was also one of the earliest MMOs I can recall that had character power scaling up or down for PvP zones– instituted along with faction PvP when that went in to help protect lowbies against high-level griefers.

Besides all that, and its stellar sidekicking system which has been copied by many other MMOs since, it attracted and held one of the most mature, all-around-nice player bases of any MMO I’ve played (and that’s most of them at one point or another).

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Armsman

Um, if you take off the rose colored glasses, CoH did work any better or worse than any other MMO. Hell up until the official closure announcement, the forums were full of people decrying certain Dev decisions, etc, like ANY OTHER MMO.

After the sunset was anounced all the hard core players suddenly closed ranks and started the idea that CoH was the ‘perfect’ MMO, and sunsetting it was a crime. <— That attitude has only grown withing certain circles over the years and has attained ridiculous proportions.

And truth be told I liked the game (Had 3 Hero mains and 2 Villain mains back in the day) – but overall CoH was no better or worse then anything else in the MMORPG market; and it unfortunately reached a point where it's parent company (who was know for NOT giving underperforming MMOs much time to rebound) sunsetted it.

Overall, I felt it's Dev team was somewhat complacent and in a rut where they were no longer really looking at the MMO market or innovating much with the game (and the fact again, that they were being suddenly extolled at the time of the sunset announcement as genious Devs was ridiculous too.)

Add to that the last expansion CoH rolled out was VERY LATE compared to the original date announced; and didn't even launch with all it's listed features (they were added and some changed as they were rolled out) just shows how 'well' this Dev team actually worked.

Again, I liked the game, but come on; the post sunset reputation it has is ludicrous.

Reader

Your wrongness suits you.

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Dennis Heffernan

I’ll blow the dust off my blog and link the article I wrote at the game’s shutdown.

No Man’s Land: The Fall of Paragon City

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Joe Seabreeze

It was a game designed to make you want to group because the classes were fun to play together. As soon as games started making classes that could do a little bit of everything is when the genre started to collapse. Too many whiny gamers demanding easy solo play was part of the problem. Talk about taking the “mm” out of mmorpg. Now look where we are. Nothing worth playing for years lol! Mmo devs should just become single player open world rpg devs. At least it would be respectable.

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Mark Mealman

Fantastic grouping and mission system.

hurbster
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hurbster

Couldn’t get into it, found it a bit dull.

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Sray

CoH made players players feel powerful early, and then continued throughout the entire experience.

The developers of CoH understood the core of the superhero fantasy is that it’s a power fantasy, and fulfilled that. If you’re throwing 5000 hitpoints at a player, does it matter if it’s as a single enemy or 15? A single enemy feels like a slog, but 15 makes you feel like you’re a god, even if actually takes a bit longer to take them all down. Combined with a mentality towards encouraging grouping (“many hands make light work”) that is the opposite of today’s school of thought on the subject (“misery loves company”), and you end up with a game that made players feel actually heroic main characters, as opposed to the supporting characters in an NPC’s storyline.